Monday, 11 August 2014

Milestones On The Road To Christianity

Around the age of 20 I found myself struggling with some fairly deep philosophical questions. The most important was this: assuming (as I did) naturalism is true, then what should I do?

It seemed clear to me then (and still does) that if naturalism is true, the is-ought problem is insurmountable. There can be no objective moral truths or goals. The best we can do is identify commonly held moral values and pursue them. Unfortunately --- if honesty is one of those values --- we cannot tell others that their behavior is, in any objective sense, wrong. For example, we observe that Hitler's moral opinions are different from ours, but we could not claim that our moral opinions are intrinsically more valid. All we could do is wage war against him and hope our side prevails. Might makes right.

That doesn't make naturalism incoherent, but it opens a chasm between what naturalists can really believe about moral statements and the way almost everyone uses them in practice. The more die-hard naturalists are prone to say things like "naturalism is true, and therefore everyone should ... (stop believing in God, etc)" without respecting the limitation that the consequent ought-statements are subjective opinions, not objectively rational facts. It's really very difficult to be a proper moral relativist through-and-through!

Making this all much more difficult was my awareness of being able to reshape my own moral opinions. The evolutionary-psychology approach of "these are the values imbued by my primate brain; work them out" seems totally inadequate when the rational part of my brain can give priority to any subset of values (or none) and use that as justification for rewriting the others. Given a real choice between being a hero and a monster, on what grounds can one make that decision? It seemed a bit narrow-minded to reject monstrosity simply because it was less popular.

This all made me very dissatisfied with naturalism as a worldview. If it's true, but is powerless to say how one should live --- indeed, denies that there can be any definitive guidance how to live --- it's inadequate. Like a scientific theory that lacks predictive power, whether it's true or not, one has to keep looking for more.

(OK, I was a weird kid, but everyone thinks about this, right?)


  1. What is behind you on the road? Didn't you come from a Christian family?

    able to reshape


    1. Thanks. I should have proofread it properly...

      I did not come from a Christian family. I didn't know any Christians until I arrived at university. My only contact with church had been at weddings and funerals and I had found it a bizarre experience ... so much so that I didn't go to a single church service until I was already committed to Christ.

  2. Interestingly at around the same age (and probably at the same location :) ) I was going through a similar series of thoughts. However I did come to, I suspect, a different conclusion.

    How should one live with no external guidance? As you said, it's like a scientific theory, but I think it does have predictive power. At that point in time I concluded that utilitarianism works, but only if you have access to *all* the variables, and an incredible amount of computing power. (which we don't). So we make up rules of thumb. And check them, and discard them when they don't work. And to save time (and bloodshed) we check on what people did in the past, and did it work for them?

    Hitler might have been defeated by bigger numbers, but history also shows us that any group that works to eliminate diversity and rule through fear as his did is not sustainable and will eat itself if left alone, causing far more loss than the apparent short term gains. Turns out diversity is *necessary* for solving problems and addressing challenges internal to society as well as external.

    I'm late for work so I gotta stop here, but I really should write stuff up at some point :)

    1. Utilitarianism is fine but I don't think it solves the dilemma I described here. Assigning equal value to each person is an arbitrary moral decision of the sort that naturalism cannot justify (and one can easily argue it's not even an obvious decision). And deciding what constitutes the "greatest amount of good" pretty much dumps you straight back into the hardest problems of ethics: how do we decide what is good?

  3. In my opinion "And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them." (Luke 6:31) continues to be true if Naturalism is true.

  4. You're not a fan of ethical naturalism?

  5. Morality is natural. It's instinctual.

    As we became more social as a species, certain rules came about on their own. The human that just kills other humans outright doesn't get to stay in the group and finds themselves at an evolutionary disadvantage - they have less potential mates. As such, the humans that weren't naturally inclined to not murder were slowly weeded out - still natural selection.

    The same goes for our basis of all morality.

    You speak of an absolute truth to morality, but there is none. The bible's morality includes forcing a woman to marry her rapist, the price of selling your daughter into marriage, incest, genocide... a lot of bad stuff that people today wouldn't agree with.

    Even in the christian ranks, there are differences in morality, coming from the same book. And thats only counting christianity - you have to also consider the other 3500+ Gods we've created over the millennia... and the 100s of variations on each religion as it separates into sects.

    Morality is never objective - regardless of what you perceive as its source.

    A population's morality is rarely dependant on the religion of the time, either... more often than not, its the other way around. Relgious texts are written in the tone of the morality of the time, man creates gods in his own image, and has since the beginning.

    Lastly, a question I pose christians - not to be hateful, but to understand their sense of morality.

    In the bible, God has killed millions. If you believe the bible, he flooded the earth and killed every man, woman, child, unborn child, and land animal save for a few on a boat. He burned 2 cities to the ground, including every man woman, child and unborn child. He sent bears to kill children who made fun of a bald man. Is this a god that you honestly see as just and moral? If he were real, do you find him worth of worship?

    1. What is this "just and moral" that you speak of?

    2. Joshua, apart from your attacks on Christianity I think you've just restated the problems I outlined in my post. For example, you say "humans that weren't naturally inclined to not murder were slowly weeded out"; the the fourth paragraph of my post describes why I feel that such assumptions, true or not, are unhelpful.

      In answer to your final questions, I say that God, as creator and judge (not to mention resurrector) of all of us, has a license to take lives that we do not.

      I grant that moral law is expressed in the Bible in a way that's contextualized to the culture and needs of the time. However, it also diverges from the culture, often a lot. For example, the Old Testament proscribes human sacrifice, explicitly in opposition to the culture of Israel's neighbours. The New Testament teaches equality across gender, race and class, which was unheard of at that time.

  6. Not sure I understand this post at all.
    But if it's about the meaning of life and the meaning of the world, then I think it's all meaningless. My existence and my work is meaningless.
    Nevertheless, I couldn't resist commenting here.

  7. Sure if you presuppose the existence of gods then they can define all kinds of rules. I don't think making a universe gives them the right to say what's moral though.

    Have you seen the movie movie Collision? It's a documentary of Hitchens (atheist) and Douglas Wilson (Pastor) and they spent most of the time respectfully talking about morality

  8. Sounds to me to be very similar to certain types of mathematical problems, like the Four Color Theorem, that we can't solve logically (with basic rules and axioms), but that we can solve computationally (given sufficient computational power, and the ability to construct a series of computational steps that will validate or invalidate the theorem).

    The Is-Ought problem can't really be solved logically, and so you used that as a reason to discount Naturalism. However it does seem like it would be solvable computationally, as that's pretty much how everyone goes about it in the real world.

    For all intents and purposes, all the rules and laws that we live by (religious or otherwise) are just a collection of partially solved computations, and we accept that those results are close enough to work with for our purposes (eg: we don't need Einsteinian physics when Newtonian physics is fine for our everyday life). Religions just put up an extra bit of dressing around their results to claim special authority to decide who's right when there's a conflict in the output.

  9. > The most important was this: assuming (as I did) naturalism is true, then what should I do?

    I'm skeptical that you can even define what the word "should" means in that sentence.

  10. I have been both a teenager in a discussion with other teenagers about how can you have morals without some kind of external rule (such as from the Christian Bible), and been the 'adult' in the room when teenagers have had the same discussion, so I think plenty of people think about this.

    I personally believe in naturalism, and so I have thought a bit about what kinds of morality makes sense, even if tho' I believe there is no absolute standard I can use. I think the golden rule ("And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them." (Luke 6:31) ) makes sense as a guide. I think that the concept of social contract or political contract can help, since we can then use laws that society have agreed to as a guide for our own morality. I believe that if I want Truth, or Love, or Justice it is up to me to work for them and create them. If we want Truth, or Love, or Justice it is up to us to work for them and create them.

    Lastly, I am mortal. If I only care about myself, and only work to help myself, then when I die, what I care about and worked for dies. If I care for others, and work to help others, then when I die, some of what I care about and worked for continues.