What Happens When Historical Ignorance Meets Absurd Logic?

In reference to my last post on Hart’s book, when speaking of the failures of the Church in the past or even present, there is one remaining factor here that needs to be addressed. Let’s put aside for the moment that much of the criticism atheists bring in these areas are faulty simply due to historical ignorance. More importantly, to criticize the Church one has to adopt an ethical/moral vocabulary and framework. Most modern westerners adopt a moral vocabulary that is, whether they realize it or not, drawn from the Biblical well and mined from Gospel ore. In other words, if the argument is that what the Church believes about morality is true, and the criticism is that the Church has/is not living up to that morality, then, yes, guilty on all counts and such is a valid criticism and one will find just such a critique within the Church itself. We have a word for the recognition of our faults and attempts to face them: Repentance.

However, if the materialist/atheist tells us he believes all morality to be only subjective different choices with no ultimate meaning or grounding—just pure acts of will—only different, then one must ask why in the world he would even care what the Church did or did not do. After all if good and evil change with time and culture, then clearly the majority during the early modern period, both secular and religious, thought witchcraft to be evil and thus acted accordingly. The atheist should not fault them or label it “intolerant;” he should simply note they made different choices and labeled certain practices as evil, whereas we moderns have made other choices and labels. Since there is nothing inherently good or evil, these choices are all on the same plane, none higher or lower, all equal, just different. According to this view we may decide to burn witches again one day if a majority decided to label such behavior as “evil” and it would be evil only because it was thus labeled. In other words, he tells us, murder is not evil; we have simply labeled a certain act with a word–our labeling is what makes the act evil–not the act. The act is simply a choice, a decision, a matter of will–it is neither here nor there, good nor evil, it simply is.

Why work up a lather then because someone made a different choice of no true difference, fundamentally, than any other? Why get all flustered because people label things differently? It is pointless to speak of “intolerance” when one lacks a philosophical framework or vocabulary for even asserting what should be “tolerable” or “intolerable.” Is it too obvious to note how the air goes out of the balloon when one tells us he believes the universe to be a pointless accident with no meaning, populated by matter in motion, organisms who are also pointless accidents, but, by the way, I think such is (whatever such might be) “intolerant?”

Here is how the atheist/materialist proceeds: “I don’t believe in your moral views, in fact I think all such assertions (mine included!) to be subjective illusory projections based in pure will or nothing, but I will now with righteous indignation use that very moral vocabulary to berate you for what I believe ultimately makes no difference whatsoever.” One can hardly imagine a less serious or absurd criticism.

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8 Responses to What Happens When Historical Ignorance Meets Absurd Logic?

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Thank you for a very clear post, laying out your view of morals.

    Imagine a three-layer cake, with the top layer our explicit moral sentiments embodied in law, custom, etc. Holding up this visible layer is something else, and beneath that is the ultimate reality of moral truth. The materialist / humanist / atheist would say that there is no bottom layer, and the middle layer is our inborn sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair, as extensively cultivated by parental training, arts, politics, philosophy, religion, etc.

    You would say that the middle layer is religion and the bottom layer is the object of religion- the absolute truth of the universe, as communicated (rather confusedly, one would have to say) in the scriptures of various traditions and the wisdom of the theologians of all places and ages. How to tell the difference between these models of the moral layer cake?

    The way to tell the difference is to either show that there is an absolute set of morals out there independent of humanity, or to show that humans have inborn moral natures that find their way into all our moral projects, religion included. I think the evidence hands-down favors the latter. The scriptures are nothing but human products, as far as any evidence has shown. They are painfully contradictory, ever-evolving, and ridden with errors of forgery, mistranslation, and so forth. Nowhere is there an E=MC*2 to show that their divine inspiration was anything other than the concerns of the people of that day, (replete with what to eat, whom to have sex with, and how to wield and suffer the wielding of power), cast into poetry, myth, and law, only to be replaced by the next people to come along with similar core motivations, though other superficial concerns and traditions of meeting them.

    On the other hand, it has long been clear, and increasingly in scientific terms, that humans have a common moral code inborn which we cast up into our rules for living. Organize our sex lives? How about marriage? Don’t want to suffer or be killed? Outlaw cruelty and killing. It’s not rocket science, and requires no extraterrestrial intelligence. Nor does it require the charade of “hidden” higher powers and absolute laws.

    So, you say:
    “Why work up a lather then because someone made a different choice of no true difference, fundamentally, than any other? Why get all flustered because people label things differently? It is pointless to speak of “intolerance” when one lacks a philosophical framework or vocabulary for even asserting what should be “tolerable” or “intolerable.””

    Just because morals are staked on our mutual negotiation of subjective needs, desires, and views does not mean that they are not important. Indeed, our subjective needs, desires, and views are the only things that <>are<> important (to us, as subjective beings). If we as a society negotiate a way of being and labeling ourselves as highly civilized that includes not torturing our enemies, it is going to be shameful (subjectively) if a small coterie of powerful people throw this agreement to the winds.

    Likewise, insofar as we think our current age is morally advanced, (perhaps because it accords better than past ages with ideals that express our inborn wants and needs, such as for prosperity, security, and fair rules for all), we can look back in history to judge how well or poorly those past ages compare. Was torture common practice? Why was that a bad thing? Obviously it is only a bad practice if you take individual suffering seriously. And you would do so if you were raised in a secure, prosperous, and fair-dealing society that allowed such arts to flourish as the novel with its exquisite insights into the pains, joys, and ultimately the significance, of individual subjective existence.

    Intolerance is another path of dehumanization- that the wants, desires, and needs of group X are less important than a dogmatic position or one’s own group interests. Some intolerance is needed to serve clear purposes (the criminal code, etc), but establishing those purposes takes work (the political work of civic negotiation)- work that theology has never done well and can never do effectively, since its premise is not (at least ostensibly) the needs and desires of people, but an imaginary absolute law for which there is no evidence other than what the divines tell us and write down.

    All we are saying as secularists is that the shamanic transaction of robing our common moral conceptions in high-flown gods and myths, suitably dramatized and officered by flamboyantly dressed clerics, is quite unnecessary to an advanced moral society with a modicum of psychological insight.

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  2. Darrell says:

    “The way to tell the difference is to either show that there is an absolute set of morals out there independent of humanity, or to show that humans have inborn moral natures that find their way into all our moral projects, religion included. I think the evidence hands-down favors the latter.”

    “On the other hand, it has long been clear, and increasingly in scientific terms, that humans have a common moral code inborn which we cast up into our rules for living.”

    Well, God’s existence is the “absolute set of morals out there independent of humanity…” but putting that aside and the rest of your prejudicial assertions about areas, like Scripture, which you know little about, your entire argument runs aground on the two statements above. You are simply giving the label “moral” to something ethereal and abstract about humans which is really saying nothing more than they have the ability to act. We could label this quality “moral” or we could label it “amoral;” how would we know unless we presuppose which is which or we presuppose such a category to begin with? You have explained nothing and started with a host of presuppositions. The observation that humans in all times and all cultures have thought certain actions “good” and certain actions “evil”—not because those actions were labeled thus but rather because the action itself (murder for instance) required a name that would communicate an inherent quality to the action itself, so that it was not the naming in a subjective manner, in itself, but the naming of an objective recognition that such-an-such was evil which was key—should rather be evidence for something rooted outside ourselves.

    That we can recognize “good” and “evil” is better explained by the Christian narrative of creation in God’s image by a God whose very being is the ground of goodness/morality than it is by postulating that a meaningless, amoral, pointless universe somehow spit up meaningless, pointless, but miraculously moral organisms. That doesn’t even follow or make sense. You are stuck with trying to explain the greater miracle. Why would we have an innate, inborn, sense of something that doesn’t exist or even mean anything in this universe? In a materialistic, accidental, purposeless universe there are only actions—there is only matter in motion; you first have to explain why we would have this innate and inborn sense of something completely without provision or meaning in the very universe to which we belong.

    This “innate” or “inborn” mysterious thing you speak of sounds a lot like a soul, spirit, or sense of the divine. If it is something that escapes your empirical boundaries and means of detection, then you are no more justified (by your own logic) in believing it to be true than other such beliefs you feel fall into the same category. In fact, you have already admitted that this whole area is nothing more than a “useful illusion.”

    Further, in your view any majority could name any action whatever they wanted and that action would then become “good” or “evil” simply depending upon the label they chose. Your view, following Nietzsche, is what many believe created the very environment for the great genocides of the 20th Century to occur. That alone should give you pause. Your view provides the philosophical framework and grounding for a “might makes right” mentality.

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  3. Burk Braun says:

    “Well, God’s existence is the “absolute set of morals out there independent of humanity””

    This is begging a major question. You have said that reason can not lead one to god, and I heartily agree. Asserting faith alone may be soothing to you, but does not belong in an argument.

    “The observation that humans in all times and all cultures have thought certain actions “good” and certain actions “evil”—not because those actions were labeled thus but rather because the action itself (murder for instance) required a name that would communicate an inherent quality to the action itself, so that it was not the naming in a subjective manner, in itself, but the naming of an objective recognition that such-an-such was evil which was key—should rather be evidence for something rooted outside ourselves.”

    You are tying yourself in knots here, and why? For the simple reason that you are unwilling to say the obvious- that “good” labels actions we subjectively believe are good. Whether it is wearing long beards, or killing infidels, or feeding the hungry, we relentlessly and instantly judge all actions subjectively, and label them accordingly.

    Suppose Moses had said: “Kill your father and mother, and all your closest relations”. Would people have followed that? Probably not- they would have revolted, for the very simple reason that we are the subjective judges of morals, not the other way around. It may be handy to have them in written form from time to time, but they come from us and following them is up to us.

    “You are stuck with trying to explain the greater miracle. Why would we have an innate, inborn, sense of something that doesn’t exist or even mean anything in this universe?”

    Here you accept that morals are subjective- that we, with out inborn sense of moral judge them, rather than they us. Very well.

    Now on to the question of whence they arise. The evolutionary process which, as you agree, led to our creation, also led to our inborn senses and behaviors- to morals, in short. That is why we exist on a knife’s edge of good and bad, of love and hate. Whether you have time or patience for such complexity, humans have all these impulses, and our current success as a species has depended on both vast amounts of cooperation as well as on wars and killing.

    There we are, and it does little good to indulge in fantasies of an all-good and all-powerful creator who nevertheless decided to exile humanity from paradise, kill it off almost entirely later on, to toy with Job in the most disgusting manner, and let evil run rampant in the world up to the present day. This is not an explanation.

    “Your view, following Nietzsche, is what many believe created the very environment for the great genocides of the 20th Century to occur. .. Your view provides the philosophical framework and grounding for a “might makes right” mentality.”

    Ah, yes- the genocide card. Not a peep about the genocides of the old testament, or the countless genocides of unrecorded history that swept less fit humans from the earth. What my view generates is a “whatever we want makes right mentality”, and most people, most of the time, want peace and prosperity. It is only when we allow minorities to propagandize, and then coerce, majorities into ideologically absurd systems that we end up with the bad results you point to. I would recommend you < HREF="http://www.amazon.com/Persian-Night-under-Khomeinist-Revolution/dp/1594032408" REL="nofollow">read about Iran<>, which, thanks to theologians of the highest water now enjoys a fascist state.

    In the end, faith in one’s fellow man is the ground of moral systems, not faith in the beyond, the hereafter, in heavenly fathers, hidden Imams, the clergy, or Marxist dialecticians.

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  4. Darrell says:

    “Well, God’s existence is the “absolute set of morals out there independent of humanity””

    “This is begging a major question. You have said that reason can not lead one to god, and I heartily agree. Asserting faith alone may be soothing to you, but does not belong in an argument.”

    I recognize I am making a faith assertion. It is you who continually begs the question in this area by asserting, in faith, that God does not exist. I am not begging the question because I know it is only by faith that one can believe or disbelieve and I also don’t oppose faith to reason like you do. However, your entire argument that morality is subjective is based upon your faith belief that God does not exist. I see the faith aspect to my argument, you see it in everyone’s but your own.

    “The observation that humans in all times and all cultures have thought certain actions “good” and certain actions “evil”—not because those actions were labeled thus but rather because the action itself (murder for instance) required a name that would communicate an inherent quality to the action itself, so that it was not the naming in a subjective manner, in itself, but the naming of an objective recognition that such-an-such was evil which was key—should rather be evidence for something rooted outside ourselves.”

    “You are tying yourself in knots here, and why? For the simple reason that you are unwilling to say the obvious- that “good” labels actions we subjectively believe are good. Whether it is wearing long beards, or killing infidels, or feeding the hungry, we relentlessly and instantly judge all actions subjectively, and label them accordingly.”

    “Suppose Moses had said: “Kill your father and mother, and all your closest relations”. Would people have followed that? Probably not- they would have revolted, for the very simple reason that we are the subjective judges of morals, not the other way around. It may be handy to have them in written form from time to time, but they come from us and following them is up to us.”

    I am not tying myself in knots at all. I am trying to get you to follow your own logic to its own conclusion. The simple fact is that the great majority of people in all times and cultures have felt that “good” and “evil” were objective recognitions inherent in certain commissions/omissions and not subjective preferences. And if Moses would have commanded what you suggest, the people would have had an objective source outside their minds and wills, one of the Ten Commandments, “honor your father and mother,” to disobey his command. In your view however, if a majority had decided to label the act of parricide as “good” then such would be good and why should we judge? Beyond that, again you are simply basing all this on your disbelieve in God and begging the question.

    “You are stuck with trying to explain the greater miracle. Why would we have an innate, inborn, sense of something that doesn’t exist or even mean anything in this universe?”

    “Here you accept that morals are subjective- that we, with out inborn sense of moral judge them, rather than they us. Very well.”

    I accept no such thing; I’m pointing out that such would be a complete miracle (one I’m not gullible enough to believe) given your premises. So, do you believe other miracles or is this the only one?

    “Now on to the question of whence they arise. The evolutionary process which, as you agree, led to our creation, also led to our inborn senses and behaviors- to morals, in short.”

    I’ve never said evolutionary processes led to our creation. I’ve said evolution has been a part of the process after the creation of all things. You are getting ahead of yourself here. How does a blind, meaningless, and amoral evolutionary process that can only adapt for survival produce a “moral” sense? And, how do we know to even call it that? What if it’s an amoral sense? For all you know, given your premise, maybe it’s moral to drown kittens and puppies.

    “That is why we exist on a knife’s edge of good and bad, of love and hate. Whether you have time or patience for such complexity, humans have all these impulses, and our current success as a species has depended on both vast amounts of cooperation as well as on wars and killing.”

    Again, you get ahead of yourself. How can we know what is “good” or “bad” “love” or “hate” when you have said the label and our consensus are the only criteria? In reality you are simply saying we exist on the knife edge of different actions and how they are labeled is ultimately meaningless. How is that a knife edge? It is more like a really dull butter knife edge.

    Here is your great rallying cry: “I’m really really upset because other people have labeled things differently!” Good luck with that.

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  5. Burk Braun says:

    “I recognize I am making a faith assertion. … However, your entire argument that morality is subjective is based upon your faith belief that God does not exist. I see the faith aspect to my argument, you see it in everyone’s but your own.”

    Let me get this straight- you recognize that god is not apparent except by faith, and then you pile yet more ontology upon this bent reed, saying that not only does god possibly exist (I think), but it is also responsible for all morals. How absurd is that? How about dealing with reality for a minute?

    “The simple fact is that the great majority of people in all times and cultures have felt that “good” and “evil” were objective recognitions inherent in certain commissions/omissions and not subjective preferences.”

    Notice the word “felt” here? Doesn’t that sort of give the game away?

    “How does a blind, meaningless, and amoral evolutionary process that can only adapt for survival produce a “moral” sense?”

    Ah- now this is a very good question. Needless to say, I do not have time to go into it in detail, but quite simply, competition between animals has reached, in humans, stunning levels of complexity, where great gobs of cooperation and similar behavior are strongly beneficial. The academic literature in the field is finding ever more basic Darwinian reasons for us to have strongly cooperative as well as monitoring/gossiping/punishing skills to succeed in the groups that we are absolutely dependent on. Which is to say, a highly developed sense of morals. One example discussion is < HREF="http://www.abc.net.au/science/descent/trans1c.htm" REL="nofollow">here<>, but I am sure you can come up with better and more recent ones.

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  6. Darrell says:

    “I recognize I am making a faith assertion. … However, your entire argument that morality is subjective is based upon your faith belief that God does not exist. I see the faith aspect to my argument, you see it in everyone’s but your own.”

    “Let me get this straight- you recognize that god is not apparent except by faith, and then you pile yet more ontology upon this bent reed, saying that not only does god possibly exist (I think), but it is also responsible for all morals. How absurd is that? How about dealing with reality for a minute?”

    Like I said, I don’t oppose reason to faith like you do. Your view of faith is a complete straw-man. I have told you over and over that both the theist and the atheist hold their view of God by faith. Faith is not “possibly” in the context of this conversation. Again, Eagleton had it exactly right:

    “All reasoning is conducted within the ambit of some sort of faith, attraction, inclination, orientation, predisposition, or prior commitment.” Meaning, value and truth are not “reducible to the facts themselves, in the sense of being ineluctably motivated by a bare account of them.” Which is to say that there is no such thing as a bare account of them.”

    This would include reasoning about whether or not God exists. This process is reality.

    “The simple fact is that the great majority of people in all times and cultures have felt that “good” and “evil” were objective recognitions inherent in certain commissions/omissions and not subjective preferences.”

    “Notice the word “felt” here? Doesn’t that sort of give the game away?”

    Notice the literal wooden ear? Wow. Okay, change the word to “believed.” Better? No? I guess most people and most cultures in all times and places were wrong and you are right.

    “How does a blind, meaningless, and amoral evolutionary process that can only adapt for survival produce a “moral” sense?”

    “Ah- now this is a very good question. Needless to say, I do not have time to go into it in detail, but quite simply, competition between animals has reached, in humans, stunning levels of complexity, where great gobs of cooperation and similar behavior are strongly beneficial. The academic literature in the field is finding ever more basic Darwinian reasons for us to have strongly cooperative as well as monitoring/gossiping/punishing skills to succeed in the groups that we are absolutely dependent on. Which is to say, a highly developed sense of morals. One example discussion is here, but I am sure you can come up with better and more recent ones.”

    This is gobs and gobs of nonsense. It is much more reasonable to believe that people are complex, strongly cooperative, and use social skills in self-sacrificial and altruistic ways because they have been created as moral, spiritual, beings by a God who is the ground of all those characteristics. What the Darwinist observes could also be a result of creation in God’s image.

    Regardless, you miss the point. You say this all leads to a “highly developed sense of morals,” so again you are presupposing something called “moral” when all you have really just told us is that evolution and Darwinian reasons have found that people act and make choices. Afterward, we label one action “moral” and another “immoral” but each is on the same plane or scale of meaning, which is to say, none, in your scheme; or rather, the meaning could be anything. You have accounted for actions/non-actions but not morality.

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  7. Burkhard says:

    It should come as no surprise that most people like saying that what they think is good and right is so absolutely. This is a grab for power, not a statement of fact.

    You can tell because there is no evident external fact to appeal to. If most people agree with you, then good and right are all the more absolute for being obvious. If most people do not agree, then they are benighted, not in the vanguard of the proletariat, or not properly captivated by theological argument, etc.

    You yourself ultimately couch moral justifications in the proper and this-world metric of suffering. Genocide is bad because it involves a great deal of suffering. For all the theological palaver, if god told you to kill the rest of humanity, (not an uncommon request, as history and scripture tells us), you would shrink from doing so not because you know anything better about absolute goodness and badness, but because you recoil from suffering, both instinctively and by cultural training.

    Suicide bombers. from what I hear, require huge amounts of theological and psychological counter-training to overcome their natural reticence and tendency to self-preservation. But with an absolutist ideology, anything is possible!

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  8. Darrell says:

    “You yourself ultimately couch moral justifications in the proper and this-world metric of suffering. Genocide is bad because it involves a great deal of suffering. For all the theological palaver, if god told you to kill the rest of humanity, (not an uncommon request, as history and scripture tells us), you would shrink from doing so not because you know anything better about absolute goodness and badness, but because you recoil from suffering, both instinctively and by cultural training.”

    However, the people who committed the genocide did not think it was bad. If one is dealing out the suffering to others and in otherwise relative ease, why is he to be concerned? If through the secular/materialistic/Darwinist philosophical and psychological “counter-training” they are able to overcome their “reticence” from centuries of Christian moral teaching to be able to build ovens and gas chambers or gulags and mass graves, why is it “wrong” when they now have a philosophical grounding for their actions—namely that “good” and “evil” are simply whatever we say they are?

    “Suicide bombers. from what I hear, require huge amounts of theological and psychological counter-training to overcome their natural reticence and tendency to self-preservation. But with an absolutist ideology, anything is possible!”

    You are absolutely correct. Or, wait, is such a statement contradictory in your system? In fact, is everything you’ve asserted thus far true only for you and for today? Because that sure carries a lot of weight with people. Anyway, you are right—when the atheistic/scientific/materialism of the Soviets and other secular states of the 20th Century unleashed their absolute ideology, of which a significant part was that no action/non-action is inherently “good” or “evil,” or the same view you have, upon the world the results were corpses stacked like cord wood, mass graves, and literally millions of lives lost. Anything truly is possible with such a view. Unfortunately.

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