Friday, April 8, 2011

A Deconstruction of Moral Deconstructionism

"In a world without god, everything is meaningless!"

"There's no objective morality without god!"

How many times have you heard this apologetic? It seems like the only thing standing between the world as we know it today and the fall of Christianity. Sure, there are a lot of other bad apologetics, but this is one of --- if not THE --- *most* prevalent, most popular, most relied-upon arguments in all of Christian apologetics (matched only, perhaps, by Pascal's Wager, nothing if not a close second). If you press a Christian apologist long enough on any other subject, whether it's a professional with a fancy book career or just an annoying random drive-by evangelist, the argument *will* eventually return to this claim: "Without god, there is no consistently objective way to determine what is 'moral.'" And on that basis they will say that an atheist cannot have a true system of moral beliefs, ergo, religion is necessary.

I'm going to use as my source today a book by Mr. Sam Harris, called "The Moral Landscape," because I find it has a nearly perfect dissection of this idea. First off, we must define "morality" as understood by both parties.

The dictionary definition of "moral," according to my edition of Miriam-Webster, is as follows:

1.Relating to, dealing with, or capable of making the distinction between right and wrong in conduct;
2. relating to, serving to teach, or in accordance with, the principles of right and wrong;
3. good or right in conduct or character; sometimes specifically, virtuous in sexual conduct;
4. designating support, etc. that involves approval and sympathy without action;
5. being virtually such because of its effect on thoughts, attitudes, etc., or because of its general results (a "moral" victory);
6. based on strong probability (a "moral" certainty);
7. (law) based on general observation of people, on analogy, etc. rather than on what is demonstrable ("moral" evidence);

1. a moral implication or moral lesson taught by a fable, event, etc.;
2. the conclusion of a fable or story containing a moral lesson;
3. (pl.) principles, standards, or habits with respect to right or wrong in conduct; ethics, sometimes specifically standards of sexual behavior.

Now as you may notice, citing this definition merely passes the buck, as it is obvious what I mean by "morality" so long as the general principles of "right and wrong" are understood. By which I mean that we are now forced to define "right" and "wrong." To spare you more dictionary quotations, I will quote something more interesting instead: Mr. Harris' argument from page 15 of the hardcover edition of The Moral Landscape:

"For my hold, I think one need only grant two points: (1) some people have better lives than others, and (2) these differences relate, in some lawful and not entirely arbitrary way, to states of the human brain and to states of the world."

Which can also be phrased as such: any definition of "good" or "bad" in terms of judging the quality of a person's life must necessarily correlate with some real quality about the world; this is the only way it can make effective prescriptions for human behavior. The Christian apologist feels this way, as well, even if he or she doesn't realize it --- the authoritative stance on morality asserted by the Bible and Christian theology in general still ultimately relies upon these same utilitarian arguments; the difference between theistic morality and secular morality is merely that we have differing ideas about what those facts about the world are; as Mr. Harris mentions several times throughout his book, whether or not we believe in the idea that there is a supernatural entity that can magnify or diminish our suffering after we die (and by a magnitude that makes our current worldly suffering seem ultimately inconsequential) will have some effect on whether or not we perceive it as a wise decision to ignore or worship this entity. My claim here today is that even if such a being *were* to exist, we would still rely upon the same principle arguments we currently use to establish secular, non-religious morality, to establish the practicality of following or opposing such a deity. Which is to say, in simpler terms, that god's existence (or nonexistence) is completely irrelevant to the actual, substantial nature of morality. Morality, seen in this light, is more of a science than a "revealed law" --- not a final objective law, but a model-based interpretation of reality, which can be studied and improved scientifically. To approximate the inside jacket of The Moral Landscape, this view puts morality on the scale of a scientific discipline such as physics or mathematics, and so as there can be no "Muslim mathematics" or "Christian physics," nor can there be such a thing as "Christian morality" or "Muslim" morality.

We'll save the details of that for another time; for now, this analogy will do. In proper scientific fields such as physics and mathematics, we don't deal in objective knowledge or "absolute truth." We deal in what is known as a model: a systematic view of the world based on observation, and confirmed by experimentation. The "laws" of mathematics, as we understand them, are not magic things which exist independently and "hold up math;" they are reflections of our observations of patterns in the behavior of things in the universe, expressed as models within our minds --- "pictures" that we "draw" in our minds of the universe as we see it. These "models" don't literally exist any more than the picture currently serving as your desktop background "exists" on your harddrive --- it does exist, but as data being interpreted by a system. There is not an actual picture lying somewhere on your hard drive that can be literally picked up and observed with your bare hands and eyes. Every observation you and I make, every thought we have, is ultimately expressed in the form of such a model --- a view of the world that we use to make judgments both big and small.

With that said; I'd like to return to the first two sentences of this post: "In a world without god, everything is meaningless! There's no objective morality without god!"

Is that really true?

I have no doubt that some people believe this is true. That in itself is not odd (wrong, maybe, but not odd). What is odd to me is that Christian apologists speak to secular-minded scientists as though we should feel the same way. They expect us to simply cave and throw out two thousand-plus years of moral evolution and development, because "our moral ideas don't exist as literal, ultimate, final truth about the universe." But think about that for a minute. What is the fundamental difference between morality *with* god, and morality *without* god?

Ultimately, our view (our "model") of morality is based on a combination of our observations and our innate, sometimes unconscious or instinctual, expectations of what the world should be like, regardless of what those specific expectations may be. If someone believes that it is moral to justify dying to defend some particular principle, then it is because that person believes that a world where that principle is regarded highly is a better world than a world where it is not, to the extent that they would rather give up their life than live in a world where this principle is not acknowledged --- they believe that a world without them, but with this principle intact, is ultimately better than a world with them, but without this principle. This is a secular concern, though; on the other hand, if someone believes that it is moral to justify dying for a particular deity, then it is because they believe that either they, or someone whose fate concerns them in some way, will be ultimately better off for it.

What is the common unifying factor in both of these examples?

They both take into consideration the concern of welfare for some party. In the case of dying for a secular ideal, it is concern for other people's well-being here on earth, with no concern for any possible life after death. In the case of dying for a deity, it is *still* done out of concern for one's well-being, just on a different scope --- taking into account the belief in a life after death, as well as the possibility of suffering in this life. The suffering of dying in this world is weighed against the suffering anticipated in the afterlife, and it is decided that suffering finitely for now is "better" than suffering infinitely later. This is decided based entirely on fundamental principles which can be applied in a secular world --- specifically, the idea that decisions can be made with concern for oneself or another's well-being, on some scope or another.

So if this reasoning can be used to justify moral decisions with respect to the afterlife, why can it not also be used to justify moral decisions with respect to a secular life, with no anticipated continuation of life after death? Pascal's Wager itself is based in the exact same fundamental principles used to determine secular morality --- that one can decide what to do based on the consequences of actions, and not based on some intrinsic quality of the action being prescribed. This is the utmost form of irony, I think.

With all this considered....what would you say if you were a physicist, trying to explain to someone the finer details of quantum probability amplitudes, and the person you were explaining it to just kept sticking his or her fingers in their ears and saying, "la la la, I can't hear you!" Would that make your "beliefs" about physics "arbitrary," because there's nothing you can say to make the other person see things the way you do? Does that mean there is no model of a physical understanding of the universe which can be confirmed via experiment? Or does it mean that you are dealing with someone who refuses to understand?

Now you know how I feel when I'm trying to explain my model for morality to someone, and they just keep repeating, "but that's so arbitrary, without god!" The fact that we make moral judgments based on observations about reality does not make morality "arbitrary," any more than physics or math become arbitrary when faced with people who don't want to (or can't) understand them.

In the interest of wrapping this up, I want to return once more to the original quote: "In a world without god, everything is meaningless!" Reconsider this statement in light of the idea of a scientific model, and of human subjectivity and flaw; this statement affirms absolute certain knowledge about the universe. Thus, it is not a statement that a scientist will be able to accept; a scientist works from subjective models and attempts to universalize them amongst other humans through communicable data and experiment. In order to believe that there is "no meaning to life without god," one would have to know, definitively, that it is true. As long as there are facts about the universe which are unknown, then it is possible that, in making such a statement as "there is no meaning," we are fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of meaning. We are positively affirming a negative, something which normally cannot be done in science --- you cannot prove definitively that something does not exist, because as long as you admit that there is *something* you don't know, there is a possibility that what you say cannot be found does, in fact, reside in one of those unknown areas. This is another great form of irony --- for it is this exact same reasoning that leads many Christians to conclude that atheists "cannot prove that god doesn't exist," because "atheists don't know everything!" Which we freely acknowledge, of course, as it is not our aim to "prove that god does not exist," nor to make any representation that we "know everything."

So how about it, Christian apologists --- do you know everything?

You may say, "No, but God knows everything." In which case I have to ask, do you know everything about god? If the answer is "no," then is it maybe possible that you (or any given religious authorities) are mistaken about the nature of god?

As long as there exists the possibility that we are mistaken about anything, then it is impossible to make absolute knowledge claims. The scientific method is designed to work around this fact --- it allows us to deal not in "absolute knowledge" which is fundamentally flawed, but in observable and communicable models about the universe which are naturally subjective but which are universalizable via experimentation and communicable evidence. Whether it's morality or physics and mathematics, that's the best we humans have got. So you can either take it or leave it....but keep in mind that even if you choose to leave it, it's still there, and it still works for other people. We will not be bound by your ignorance of our own very human limitations.

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