Monday, November 25, 2013

Is Morality Objective?

gavelMartin Luther King Jr. once said, “The first principle of value that we need to rediscover is this: that all reality hinges on moral foundations. In other words, that this is a moral universe, and that there are moral laws of the universe just as abiding as the physical laws.(1)” He helped build the Civil Rights movement upon these moral laws: whites are not superior to blacks and discrimination based upon skin color is wrong. Dr. King believed that morality was objective: it was wrong to oppress non-whites regardless of both the government’s position on the issue and the opinion of millions of Americans.
Now, most of us agree with Dr. King about the equal treatment of human beings. That goes without saying. But committing to the idea of objective morality? That’s another story. I’d like to argue that we all believe morality is objective, even if we don’t think we do. To say that morality is objective is to say that there are some moral facts about the world. Facts, by definition, are true regardless of whether or not people agree with them. An action can be wrong even if those who perform that action believe it to be right. Let’s start with this question: Are there any facts, at all? Certainly!
Arithmetic:
  • 2+2=4
  • 1+1=2
  • 7 is greater in quantity than 4
Geometry:
  • In a right triangle, the square of the 1st leg plus the square of the 2nd leg is equal to the square of the hypotenuse: a^2 + b^2 = c^2\!\,
  • A square has 4 equal sides and 4 right angles.
Logic:
  • X cannot be non-X at the same time and in the same sense (Law of Non-Contradiction).
  • A ball cannot be both green all over and red all over.
  • A bachelor is unmarried.
It’s clear that there are facts. Facts are objectively true, by definition. Their truth does not depend on our agreement with them. People disagree with facts all the time. I live in NYC. We have no shortage of crazy people on the subway claiming that the human race is being subtly infiltrated by aliens, or that the moon is actually a giant WMD put in place by the Russian government. Do their wacky theories nullify the fact that the moon is a real, cosmic entity? Of course not. Facts are facts. They are judgment-independent. Now, the next question to ask is whether or not there are moral facts. It seems that the answer is, yes. There are some moral facts that hold true regardless of whether or not we agree with them. Let’s take this, for example:
Philosopher Michael Ruse says, “The man who says that it is morally acceptable to rape little children is just as mistaken as the man who says, 2+2=5.”(2)
Is it wrong to rape children? If the answer is ‘Yes’, then morality is objective because ‘wrongness’ can only be determined when measured against some independent standard. Saying that child rape is a moral act is not the same as saying that vanilla is a tasty flavor of ice cream. Choosing vanilla over rocky-road is a matter of preference whereas the issue of child rape is a matter of ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness.’ But in order for there to be ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness,’ there needs to be an objective standard. This means that the child rapist is wrong, even though he may sincerely believe that he is right. Because morality is objective, we are justified in saying that the child rapist is wrong. If morality is not objective, then there is no basis for labeling actions as wrong (or right). At most, even the worst behaviors could only be considered socially disadvantageous or acting out of fashion.
What evidence is there for objective morality?
I believe that the best evidence for objective morality comes from our moral experience. We know that raping children is wrong. It’s not just socially inconvenient or out of fashion, it is really wrong. How do we know? In the same way we know all metaphysical truths: We just know.
1. We know that the external world is real.
We are not in a matrix, we are not all in a dream, and we are not brains in a vat being stimulated by a crazy scientist creating the illusion of our external world.
2. We know that the past is real.
The world was not created 2 minutes ago and given the appearance of billions of years of age. I was not created 30 seconds ago and implanted with 21 years’ worth of memories.
These truths are unlearned and self-evident. We cannot test them. They simply exist. And the same goes with moral facts. There is no scientific evidence for the truth of the statement “Raping children is wrong,” but it is true, nonetheless. We are justified in trusting our moral experience in the absence of contrary evidence. Why should we distrust our moral intuition if there is no evidence to the contrary? And if we choose to distrust our intuition with regard to morality, then what makes us think that our intuition about these other metaphysical truths is correct?
Maybe we are living in the matrix. Who knows?

1. Martin Luther King Jr. in Peter Holloran, A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. (New York: Warner Books, 2000), p. 10.
2. Michael Ruse, Darwinism Defended (London: Addison-Wesley, 1982), p. 275.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

5 Common Objections to the Moral Argument

The Moral Argument for the existence of God has been graced with a long tradition of defense from theistic (and atheistic!) philosophers and thinkers throughout the history of Western thought…and a long tradition of misunderstandings and objections by even some of the most brilliant minds. To be fair, the argument is not always as intuitive as theists like to think it is. Essentially, the moral argument seeks to infer God as the best explanation for the objective moral facts about the universe. 
One of the more popular formulations is as follows:

  1. Objective morality cannot exist unless God exists.
  2. Objective morality exists.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
There are a host of common objections that are usually blown in the direction of this argument, but for the sake of brevity, I will only deal with five.

1. “But I’m a moral person and I don’t believe in God. Are you saying that atheists can’t be moral?”

The moral argument has nothing to do with belief in God. No proponent of the moral argument has ever argued that an individual cannot be moral unless they hold belief in God. Rather, the argument deals with grounding, or substantiating, objective morality. If God does not exist, then there can be no basis for objective morality. Sure, atheists can be moral. In fact, I know several atheists who are more moral than some theists! The issue of belief is not pertinent to the argument. The argument simply highlights the fact that there must be a basis– some kind of standard–that is outside of ourselves, in order for there to be objective morality. This objection makes a category error of confusing a question of moral ontology (Is there a moral reality?) with moral epistemology (How do we come to know or believe in the moral reality?).

2. “But what if you needed to lie in order to save someone’s life? It seems that morality is not absolute as you say it is.”

We’re not talking about absolute morality here. There is an important difference  between  absolute  and objective. Absolutism requires that something will, or must, always be the case. Objectivity simply means ‘mind-independent’ or ‘judgement-independent’. When I argue for objective morality, I’m not arguing that it is always the case that lying or killing are wrong; the moral argument does not defend absolute morality. Rather, it contends that there is a standard of morality that transcends human opinions, judgments, biases, and proclivities. Let’s suppose that some nation today decreed that everyone of its homosexual citizens would be tortured to death simply for being homosexual; it would still be the case that, ‘It is wrong to torture homosexuals to death simply for being homosexual’.

The statement, ’It is wrong to torture homosexuals to death simply for being homosexual’ is true, regardless of whether or not anyone believes it to be true. This is what is meant byobjective.

3. ‘Where’s your evidence for objective morality? I won’t believe in anything unless I have evidence for it.’

Well in that case, you shouldn’t believe that I exist. You shouldn’t believe that your parents gave birth to you. You shouldn’t believe that your closest loved ones are real, actual persons who matter and have feelings. You shouldn’t believe that the external world around you is actually there. After all, how do you know that you are not a brain in a vat being electrically stimulated by a crazy scientist who wants you to think that all of this is real? You could be in the matrix, for all you know (take the blue pill)! How do you know that you weren’t created a couple minutes ago and implanted with memories of your entire past life? How could you possibly prove otherwise?

See where this is going? Denying the existence of something on the basis of, ‘I will not believe unless I have evidence for it’ leaves you with solipsism. We believe in the reality of the external world on the basis of our experience of the external world, and we are justified in believing that the external world is real unless we had good evidence to think otherwise. There is no way to prove (empirically or otherwise) that the external world is real, or that the past wasn’t created 2 minutes ago with the appearance of age, and yet we all believe these to be true and are justified in doing so. In the absence of defeating evidence, we are justified in trusting our experience of the external world. In the same way, I think we can know that objective morality exists on the basis of our moral experience. We have access to moral facts about the universe through our moral intuition. Unless we have good reason to distrust our moral experience, we are justified in accepting the reality of the objective moral framework that it presents us with.

4. ‘If morality is objective, then why do some cultures practice female genital mutilation, cannibalism, infanticide, and other atrocities which we, in the West, deem unacceptable?’

There can be two responses given here:

The first response is that even though not all cultures share the exact same moral facts, most embrace the same, underlying moral values. For example, there are certain tribes that practice senicide (authorized killing of the elderly) due to their belief that everyone in the afterlife will continue living on in the same body that they died with. Thus, in order to ensure that those in the afterlife are capable of hunting, swimming, building houses, etc., the elderly are killed before they become too old to take care of themselves. This act is done with the well-being of the elderly in mind. The moral value that we hold in the West- ”The elderly are valuable and must be taken care of”- is also accepted by these tribes, even though their facts are slightly (well, maybe more than slightly) off.

The second response is that some cultures do, in fact, practice certain things that are straight up morally abominable. Cultures that practice infanticide, female circumcision, widow burning, child prostitution, etc. are practicing acts that are repulsive and morally abhorrent. When a man decides to have his 6-year old daughter circumcised or sold into prostitution, that is not a cultural or traditional difference that we should respect and uphold, rather these are atrocities that need to be advocated against and ended. The existence of  multiple moral codes does not negate the existence of objective morality. Are we to condone slavery and segregation since they were once allowed under our country’s moral code? Of course not. We condemn those actions, and rightly so.

Take the example of Nazi Germany: the Nazi ideology consented to the slaughter of millions, but their actions were wrong despite them thinking that they were right. Tim Keller summarizes this point succintly:
The Nazis who exterminated Jews may have claimed that they didn’t feel it was immoral at all. We don’t care. We don’t care if they sincerely felt they were doing a service to humanity. They ought not to have done it. We do not only have moral feelings, but we also have an ineradicable belief that moral standards exist, outside of us, by which our internal moral feelings are evaluated.
Simply because a society practices acts that are contrary to what is moral does not mean that all moral codes are equal. Moral disagreements do not nullify moral truths.

5. ‘But God carried out many atrocities in the Old Testament. He ordered the genocide of the Canaanites.’

For starters, this isn’t really an objection to the moral argument. It does not attack either premise of the argument. It is irrelevant, but let’s entertain this objection for a second. By making a judgement on God’s actions and deeming them immoral, the objector is appealing to a standard of morality that holds true outside of him/herself and transcends barriers of culture, context, time period, and social norms. By doing this, he/she affirms the existence of objective morality! But if the skeptic wants to affirm objective morality after throwing God out the window, then there needs to be an alternate explanation for its basis. If not God, then what is it? The burden is now on the skeptic to provide a naturalistic explanation for the objective moral framework.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Gospel of John (Visual Bible)

The Gospel of John is the fourth of the canonical Gospels. This 2003 film version is a word-for-word adaptation from the Good News Bible.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Are We Ready to Deny Objective Morality? 3 Implications of Doing So...

The idea that we’re living in a culture of relativism seems to be uncontested and accepted without question. Post-modernists and relativists assume that we've progressed past the rigid constraints of ‘truth’, ‘falsity’, ‘reason’, and other oppressive concepts that actually undergird the fabric of rationality in the universe. However, I’m not convinced that we are truly living in a relativistic society—we still express outrage at moral injustices. This gives me hope that the West acknowledges some moral truths and is unwilling to deny objective morality. We are not ready to collapse into moral relativism because doing so would result in consequences that are simply impossible to live with.

If we deny objective morality:

1. Moral Judgments are Unjustified

When you get rid of objective morality, you get rid of moral facts. When you get rid of moral facts, you get rid of your right to say that an action is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ because ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’ only make sense in light of a standard that exists outside of ourselves.

‘Rape is wrong!’

‘Executing gays is wrong!’

‘Female genital mutilation is wrong!’

These are true statements. They are not simply expressions of our subjective likes and dislikes. When a man rapes a woman, he is not merely acting contrary to our sensibilities, he is breaking a moral rule that holds true regardless of our opinions and judgments. But if we say that there is no objective morality, we obliterate our grounds for saying that anything is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Morality becomes reduced to ‘I like that’ or ‘I dislike that’. You like vanilla but I like chocolate. It makes no sense to say that vanilla is objectively better than chocolate because ice cream is a matter of preference. In the same way, when we deny objective morality we can only say things like, ‘I dislike rape’. Our likes and dislikes cannot bear the weight of providing justification for moral judgments. Who are you to enforce your preferences on others?

2. Social Reformation is Impossible

Social Reformation can only happen when a society improves its morals. When slavery was outlawed in the US, moral progress took place. When a nation outlaws the execution of gays, that is moral progress. When a nation outlaws human trafficking and child prostitution, that is social reformation. We use the terms ‘progress’ and 'improvement' to denote an upgrade in the moral status of a society. ‘Progress’ entails betterment. But ‘progress’ is only meaningful when we are appealing to a standard; otherwise, why not call these simply social ‘changes’? Yes, changes are taking places in these societies, but what makes these changes better? We call them reformations because wrong actions that were once accepted and endorsed by societies, have now become outlawed. But again, we are appealing to ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. And we can't do that if morality is simply a human or social construct.

3. The Problem of Evil Disappears

Lastly, the Problem of Evil hinges on the existence of evil. Raping women, executing gays, and forcing children into prostitution are moral evils. Thus, when we get rid of ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’ we disavow the Problem of Evil as meaningless for the problem only makes sense if there really are such things as good and evil—right and wrong. If evil is simply a social construct subject to the predilections and preferences of individuals, then we cannot speak meaningfully about injustices and evils because they don't really exist. There is no more Problem of Evil.

There's much more that can be said about what would be lost if we give up the idea of objective morality but it seems that, at least for now, despite our relativistic proclivities in Western society, we do understand that there really are right and wrong actions--certain things really are moral or immoral. And for that, we should be grateful.

N. T. Wright: What Is the Gospel?

Jesus taught his followers many things, especially in the realm of ethics (see Matthew 5-7 for examples). However, the core of his message concerned the coming of the Kingdom of God, made possible through his death on the cross and verified by his resurrection from the dead.

Here's N. T. Wright on the message of the Gospel:

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Inner Life of the Cell

The process of life arising naturally from non-life is called "abiogenesis." From the fourth century BC through the nineteenth century AD, some scientists and philosophers believed that certain forms of life arise spontaneously (e.g., that maggots arise from decaying meat). This theory, called "Spontaneous Generation," was decisively refuted in a series of experiments by Louis Pasteur (and others). 

Nevertheless, many scientists became convinced that, under certain conditions, a living cell can arise from nonliving molecules. However, this view only became popular because scientists believed (incorrectly) that living cells were relatively simple structures (little blobs of protoplasm). The following video shows how unimaginably mistaken this assumption was:


Of course, most biologists continue to believe that life arose from non-life. But this simply shows how reluctant people are to give up established theories (even when those theories only became established because of false assumptions).

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Introduction to Cosmic Fine-Tuning

In order for you to be reading this post right now, the fundamental structure of the universe has to be finely-tuned for intelligent life. The forces, principles, and constants of physics, certain physical quantities, the ratios between the masses of atomic particles, and the properties of elements and compounds have to be just right, or you wouldn’t be here.

Here's a short introduction to the fine-tuning of the cosmos:

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

William Dembski: Intelligent Design, the Design Argument, and Special Creation

There is no small amount of confusion concerning the terms "Intelligent Design," "Design Argument," and "Special Creation." Indeed, while some critics use the terms interchangeably (or assume that someone who defends one of these views must be defending all of them), the positions are quite different in what they purport to show.

Intelligent Design is the argument that certain features of our world are best explained by appealing to intelligence, even though the identity of the designing intelligence remains open. (Contrary to the claims of many atheists, David Hume was an advocate of Intelligent Design.) The Design Argument is the argument that certain features of our world are best explained by appealing to God as designer. Special Creation is the claim that God created the world in a particular way (usually in some way that lines up with the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis).

In this video, William Dembski defines Intelligent Design and contrasts his position with the Design Argument and Special Creation.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Science and the Book of Genesis

Among Christians, there are several views of how God created the world and life (most commonly, Young Earth Creation, Old Earth Creation, and Theistic Evolution). Not surprisingly, there are also several interpretations of the Book of Genesis.

In the following video, a group of Christian scholars (including Alister McGrath, John Polkinghorne, and N. T. Wright) argue that Genesis should be interpreted as a response to various creation myths common when the book was written.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Fred Hoyle, Carbon, and Cosmological Fine-Tuning

Life as we know it requires carbon. But carbon is somewhat miraculous, given the precise features of the cosmos necessary for its existence.

In this video, theoretical physicist John Polkinghorne describes the search for the origins of carbon in our universe, and how the discovery led astronomer Fred Hoyle to reject chance as an explanation for cosmological fine-tuning. Hoyle eventually wrote:
A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question. (Fred Hoyle, "The Universe: Past and Present Reflections")

Friday, November 1, 2013

Mike Licona: The A, B, Cs . . . Ds, and Es of Defending the Gospels

In this lecture, Historical Jesus scholar Michael Licona addresses the five major objections to the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels: Authorship, Bias, Contradictions, Dating, and Eyewitness Testimony.