Defending God’s existence and wanting God to exist

July 31, 2012

Philosopher and Christian apologist Jeff Cook argues that the way most Christians do apologetics is wrong. He watched a recent debate between apologist William Lane Craig and new atheist Sam Harris. According to Cook, Craig won on points—hands down—but Harris won on style. Craig’s God seemed perfectly reasonable to believe in, but Harris wondered aloud why anyone would want to.

According to Cook, this wanting, this desire to believe in God, should be the focus of apologetics going forward. He’s even written a book about it. I look forward to Cook’s writing more about this over at Scot McKnight’s blog. He had a new post about it yesterday.

I’m sure I agree with Cook’s main thesis. This is a line of thought that our era’s best (although unofficial) apologist, N.T. Wright, uses in the first chapter (or so) of his book Simply Christian. Why is it that we have such a strong desire to see justice done? Why do love, relationships, and beauty seem so meaningful? Why do we seem programmed to crave a spiritual life?

Of course, evolutionary biologists have their creative and speculative just-so explanations, which are, to say the least, simplistic. Evolution, after all, implies no ought. It doesn’t describe what ought to be; it merely describes what is. There’s no moral content to it whatsoever. Anyone who’s tasted deeply of life can’t be satisfied for very long with scientific explanations—even if he believes that these are the only explanations possible. At best, he resigns himself to them: “I wish things were different, but they are what they are. What you see is quite literally what you get.”

But what if there were a God? That would solve the problem of the ought-ness of human life. Suddenly, justice, goodness, love, and beauty actually possess deep meaning, as our intuition already screams loudly that they do.

By all means, wishing doesn’t make it so. But start with the wish… start with the desire. I’m all for that.

But don’t abandon reason, either. I have great respect for William Lane Craig. There is no argument against God that he isn’t equipped to handle. No one is going to out-argue him or surprise him with an argument he hasn’t already considered. If it’s reason you want, it’s reason you get from Craig. I’m very glad that he’s out there making the case, unafraid to take on all comers. I have benefitted greatly from his website on several occasions. But he’s never going to win on style. He’s a bit of a stiff. He seems humor-impaired. But he is also kind, respectful, and always fights fair. Those darn Christians! Isn’t that the way they often are?

59 Responses to “Defending God’s existence and wanting God to exist”


  1. “But what if there were a God? That would solve the problem of the ought-ness of human life.”

    What problem?

    Some people have a desire for an ought-ness that exists outside humanity.

    Others do not have a desire for that.

    There’s no problem. It’s just that some people have a desire.

    “Suddenly, justice, goodness, love, and beauty actually possess deep meaning, as our intuition already screams loudly that they do.”

    I agree.

    All those things possess deep meaning…to me. And if they happen to possess deep meaning to you, we can start a discussion and try to get along. 🙂

    “No one is going to out-argue him or surprise him with an argument he hasn’t already considered. If it’s reason you want, it’s reason you get from Craig.”

    100% disagree, but you are welcome to your opinion.

    “But he is also kind, respectful, and always fights fair. Those darn Christians! Isn’t that the way they often are?”

    No.

    At least not the ones I would refer to as ‘darn’.

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I like the argument as to “ought-ness.” In fact, I liked it enough to pass it on to my favorite Philosophy professor, Dr. James Edwards from Furman (now retired), whom I believe I have asked you to pray for that he might be saved (or, if I haven’t, I do now!). Thanks!

  3. brentwhite Says:

    We’ve been through this many times, NotAScientist, but just to clarify our differences of opinion, let me offer this: When you heard about the shootings two weeks ago in Aurora, there was, I’m sure, something deep within you that felt repulsed, disgusted—because I’m sure you’re a quite decent human being, just like most of us. There was something within you that said, “This is WRONG! This person should NOT have done this, and should not be permitted to get away with this.”

    But then, I hope, the rational part of your brain interceded and said, “No, no, no… There is no wrong. There is no good. There is no justice. Whatever I feel is just an accident of unthinking forces. So I have no foundation beyond my own aesthetic sensibility for condemning his actions.”

    I’m afraid that the vast majority of people—not merely “some” people—would disagree with you.


    • “there was, I’m sure, something deep within you that felt repulsed, disgusted”

      I don’t know what you mean by ‘deep within me’.

      I had feelings of pity and sadness, and I’m relatively sure I know where they came from. Empathy, which evolved in most mammals but was adapted by our sapient great ape ancestors into ethics and morals.

      There is no justice outside ourselves…so we darn well better create as much as we can if we desire it.

      “Whatever I feel is just an accident of unthinking forces.”

      Sorry, but this isn’t rational or scientific.

      “I’m afraid that the vast majority of people—not merely “some” people—would disagree with you.”

      When truth is determined by popularity, get back to me.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Of course truth isn’t determined by popularity, but you were the one downplaying our strong human desire for justice. By the way, if there’s no justice “outside of ourselves,” there is no justice.


  4. “but you were the one downplaying our strong human desire for justice.”

    No. I was just pointing out that it’s only a desire, not a ‘problem’.

    “By the way, if there’s not justice “outside of ourselves,” there is no justice.”

    Sure there is. Of course, I don’t think what you consider to be ‘justice’ would be just even if it existed, so we might have to agree to disagree.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I believe the shooting in Colorado was wrong. I think we can both agree on that, right? Except you don’t believe that there is such a thing as wrong—at least that isn’t merely the byproduct of evolution. It doesn’t matter how evolution imparted empathy to you, you’ve already agreed with me that evolution imparts no “ought.” The way things are are not the way things ought to be.


      • “Except you don’t believe that there is such a thing as wrong”

        Yes I do.

        Except it took a long, hard time to come up with why its wrong. I didn’t take the easy way out and say ‘it’s wrong because god said so!’.

        This is a difficult subject that requires rational thought and discussion. Not the simplistic ‘might makes right’ of Biblical morality.

        “you’ve already agreed with me that evolution imparts no “ought.” ”

        No, evolution doesn’t. I do. And most people (for various reasons) happen to agree with me. Which is lucky, and why we have things like laws and governments and police.

        “The way things are are not the way things ought to be.”

        Which is why I do all in my power to change things to how they ought to be.

        If I’m wrong in how I think things ‘ought’ to be, then I welcome evidence and rational discussion to change my mind.

  5. brentwhite Says:

    Who said anything about the Bible? But look at you… getting on your high horse about the Bible. That very nearly proves the point of my post. With that, you may have the last word, my friend. Thanks for reading.


    • “Who said anything about the Bible? ”

      Are you saying you don’t believe morality comes from the Bible?

      Good.

      “That very nearly proves the point of my post.”

      Your post seems to be about believers wanting there to be a god. Don’t see how that has anything to do with my comments about the Bible, but okay.

      “With that, you may have the last word, my friend.”

      You haven’t really responded to any of my points.

      But if you want to end the conversation, that’s your choice.

      • brentwhite Says:

        OK, one more. My concern is that we’re just rehashing arguments from the past couple of years. Go back and read what we’ve written before. It’s the same.

        But, no, the Church doesn’t teach that morality comes from the Bible. Morality comes from God, who, by all means, reveals himself, in large part, through the Bible. But you don’t need to believe in the truth or falsity of the Bible in order to see that unless there is a God of some kind—some transcendent reality beyond the realm of time and space—then there is no foundation whatsoever for these issues about which you obviously care passionately.

        If I read you right, you’re saying that there is a foundation—which begins and ends with you. But you agree with me that there is no one or no thing to judge between the morality of the Bible and your (more enlightened?) morality. Yet you certainly have strong feelings that you know what “ought” to be. Why? What is the basis? You agree that there is no basis outside of yourself—and, after all, truth isn’t determined by popularity contests.

        If I’m reading you right, you’re unbothered by this lack of an objective foundation for morality, because of your personal, subjective foundation. Can I humbly suggest that any foundation that can be utterly destroyed by two little words is hardly a firm foundation. And those two words are, “I disagree.” By your own logic, what scientifically justifiable response could you offer to these two words? If I’m the one holding the guns, driving the tanks, and dropping the bombs, too bad for you. And don’t sit on your high horse and tell me that I’m wrong and you’re right. I disagree!

        You say there’s no problem with this. I say there is. If there’s anything else to say, please let me know. Have I not fairly represented our differences?


  6. “But you agree with me that there is no one or no thing to judge between the morality of the Bible and your (more enlightened?) morality. ”

    No.

    We have the ability to examine things rationally and logically.

    “Why? What is the basis?”

    Somewhat selfish self-preservation. I’m much more likely to survive and flourish in a world where most people survive and flourish and we encourage that.

    “and, after all, truth isn’t determined by popularity contests. ”

    No, it’s not. But morality isn’t about truth. Not in the same way as “if I drop a ball it will fall to the ground”.

    “Can I humbly suggest that any foundation that can be utterly destroyed by two little words is hardly a firm foundation. And those two words are, “I disagree.””

    It won’t be destroyed by those words. It just means you don’t share them.

    And if you don’t agree with me, either we discover that we can live together peacefully despite our differences, we have a rational discussion until one of us changes our opinion, or we go to war.

    Which is pretty much how history has operated. I lean towards the first two options, as opposed to the third. But you might disagree.

    “If I’m the one with one holding the guns, driving the tanks, and dropping the bombs, too bad for you.”

    Too bad for me, yes.

    And too bad that you don’t have a monopoly on guns, tanks and bombs. And if you go around shooting and bombing people, you’ll eventually be shot and bombed back.

    If you want that to happen, then by all means shoot and bomb me. If you don’t want that to happen, maybe you shouldn’t shoot people.

    And thus…morality is born without appealing to a deity. All you need is “I want to live”, and morality flows pretty easily from there.

    “Have I not fairly represented our differences?”

    No, you haven’t.

    Your problem is that you think you know the reasons for my positions, but are incorrect. I’m not sure the reason why you’re wrong, as I try to keep telling you what I actually believe and why. Perhaps your presuppositions don’t allow you to accept what I actually say? I don’t know.

    • brentwhite Says:

      “I’m much more likely to survive and flourish in a world where most people survive and flourish and we encourage that.”

      Name a single war that was fought in which both sides to the conflict didn’t also believe this innocuous truism! The U.S. decided in 1945 to intentionally kill hundreds of thousands of non-combatants because, by doing so, we believed that we would save more lives than we would kill. It was in the interest of human flourishing that we killed hundreds of thousands.

      One side is as justified in saying that they’re right as the other. Every tyrant, dictator, or autocrat justifies what he does by recourse to the same grand principle: we must in this case harm the few in order to save the many—because by doing so, more people will survive and flourish.

      Everyone says, “I want to live.” That’s where the trouble starts! Because other people, in their equally strong desire to live, interfere with one another. And people get killed as a result. And there’s no sense talking about right or wrong when people die as a result—because both sides are adhering to selfish self-preservation.


      • “Name a single war that was fought in which both sides to the conflict didn’t also believe this innocuous truism.”

        I’m sure they did.

        I never said that humans were perfect.

        “One side is as justified in saying that they’re right as the other.”

        They can be. If it comes to war, then at least one side is clearly wrong. (Sometimes both sides are.) If we encourage them to talk and try and understand each other, then there will be less war.

        “Every tyrant, dictator, or autocrat justifies what he does by recourse to the same grand principle: we must in this case harm the few in order to save the many—because by doing so, more people will survive and flourish. ”

        Yes they do.

        I trust my concept of morality more than theirs because mine doesn’t constitute harming anyone else.

        Again…people aren’t perfect, and I never claimed they were.

        “Because other people, in their equally strong desire to live, interfere with one another.”

        I know. Clearly we need to be better at teaching our children ethics.

        “And there’s no sense talking about right or wrong when people die—because both sides are adhering to selfish self-preservation.”

        No, they aren’t.

        They’re adhering to short-term self preservation.

        And they’re probably laboring under the delusion that other people aren’t actually people. Which is why we still have countries.

        I believe that all humans are people, regardless of country, and plan to share that with my children and as many people as I can. Because when you recognize someone else as a person, it becomes much harder to want to kill them.

      • brentwhite Says:

        “I trust my concept of morality more than theirs because mine doesn’t constitute harming anyone else.”

        Well sure it doesn’t—now. I apologize if you’re a survivor of genocide or something, and please disregard these words, but, if you’re like me, you’ve lived a very comfortable existence in which your version of morality has never been seriously tested. Can you imagine being in a life-threatening situation in which you make a choice between your life and another? What moral recourse would you have? What does selfish selfishness tell you to do.

        I like, “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. And I will repay.” Because in my worldview evil things happen that need to be repaid. Justice will be done. This is part of our Christian hope. This is far more satisfying to me than Western liberal platitudes.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      “Not,” I can’t approach Brent’s level of argument, but I thought I would put my two cents in. Before you can even get to the issue of morality, you have to get to how you can have an opinion on that subject in the first place. If you go “back to the beginning,” your branch of scientists (natural evolutionists) say that all that is results from chance natural events over eons of time. But you just can’t get to the human mind (the “thinker” which has the opinions on subjects such as morality) from hydrogen atoms interacting with each other in a chance fashion. (If you say those interactions happen according to laws, why is that? Why would chance ever eventuate in immutable, complex, and frankly marvelously ORDERED laws to control everything?)

      But even leaving aside the insurmountable hurdles requirng massive “magic” jumps of phenomenal complexity and variety to get to minds, we still have the question about where the concept of “ought-ness” could come from with a wholly “naturalistic” mind (if that even makes sense, which it actually doesn’t). You say that this sense of “ought-ness” is actually a “social compact” between people who want to survive. But why doesn’t that simply result in people saying, “You know, if you want to survive, here is what you need to be doing.” As you say, people can argue about that and come up with “laws” that hopefully better reach such a result, reasoning “logically.” However, this does not explain the feeling that people actually have. They don’t say, “You know, that limits survivability.” They speak in terms of morality. And that is true even if there is some “calculus” that says “more people nonetheless survive” which is contrary to what people think “ought” to be done (as I think Brent points out in an intervening comment).

      Take slavery. People don’t oppose that because they think such a society is less likely to result in optimal survival of the species. They oppose slavery because it is morally wrong! It’s an outrage! You even say something of the same in your comment back to Brent, also intervening: “Because when you recognize someone else as a person, it becomes much harder to want to kill them.” You think there is some fundamental value in treating people “as a person.” Not because of survival. Instead, because that is how things “ought” to be.


      • “say that all that is results from chance natural events over eons of time. ”

        No they don’t. They say that chance plays a part in it. But chance is not all it is.

        ” But you just can’t get to the human mind (the “thinker” which has the opinions on subjects such as morality) from hydrogen atoms interacting with each other in a chance fashion. ”

        No scientist suggests that you can.

        You don’t seem to understand evolution, and perhaps science. So you might not want to base your arguments on what ‘science says’.

        “If you say those interactions happen according to laws, why is that? ”

        Because a ‘law’, scientifically, is a description we give to how the universe works. It isn’t a law in the way you’re implying.

        Again, you don’t understand the science.

        “But why doesn’t that simply result in people saying, “You know, if you want to survive, here is what you need to be doing.””

        It does result in that.

        A lot of times, people are wrong.

        ” They oppose slavery because it is morally wrong!”

        Why is it?

        Rationally, it is because such a society that uses slavery is less likely to result in optimal survival of the species.

        Emotionally, and irrationally, people don’t want to be slaves.

        Nice how the emotional and rational matches up sometimes.

        That being said, how do you know that slavery is an outrage and immoral? Nothing in the Bible (if you get your morals from there, and perhaps you don’t) says slavery is wrong. In fact, it tells you how to go about doing it.

        “You think there is some fundamental value in treating people “as a person.” Not because of survival.”

        Yes, because of survival.

        If everyone thought of me as a person, as much a person as they themselves are, then the chances of them killing or harming me goes down IMMENSELY!

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        You make some good points, but I don’t think you get to where you need to go. My point about slavery was that people don’t argue over whether it helps society survive better (and why would you care whether it does or not, so long as YOU do, under a survival of the fittest genesis?). People just think it is wrong to treat other people that way. That was the abolitionists’ theme. Whether or not the Bible takes a stance on that is irrelevant to your position. (In fact, you seem to take the Bible to task for being “wrong,” as though the Bible was “immoral.”)

        How do you know whether people are more likely to stay alive as a total population if slavery is stopped versus if it is not? You just don’t think people should be treated that way. That is what people actually argue about. Where does THAT type of argument come from, under your view? (I don’t mean, do you think more people will survive–why don’t people argue about “survival” instead of “what’s right and wrong” in a moral sense? That’s the real issue under “ought-ness.”)

        (As to your suggestion about my ignorance of science, I imagine I have just as much a background of study in that field as you do–“NotAScientist.” But that is not the primary point on the table, even though in fact under no understanding of actual “natural laws” could you get from hydrogen atoms to “minds.”)


  7. “but, if you’re like me, you’ve lived a very comfortable existence in which your version of morality has never been seriously tested.”

    What does that mean, ‘tested’?

    My morality is tested all the time. I have yet to kill anyone, and I have never harmed anyone physically since I was under the age of 10.

    “Can you imagine being in a life-threatening situation in which you make a choice between your life and another?”

    You’re comparing immediate self defense, or the immediate defense of another person against bodily harm, with genocide?

    Sorry, but my morality doesn’t allow for such a huge and absurd ‘slippery slope’.

    “What does selfish selfishness tell you to do. ”

    Stop the person trying to harm me or others with as little harm as possible. Sometimes, that results in harming or even killing someone in self defense. Which is horrible, but it happens, and my morality allows for that, and only that.

    “I like, “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. And I will repay.””

    Then I’m glad I live nowhere near you, quite frankly.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Um, congratulations on not killing or physically harming anyone. I think my last fistfight was sixth grade. So… the practical consequences of our different moral systems aren’t so different.

      No, I’m not comparing self-defense to genocide. Don’t be silly. I was using hyperbole. If your moral outlook survived—I don’t know—Bosnia 1998, then I would cede to you the moral high ground. I still wouldn’t agree with you, but you would have at least paid for the privilege of holding such views.

      What offends you? That evil exists or that God will repay it? Either way, you should be happy to have me live near you because I don’t believe that “vengeance is mine, sayeth Brent.”

  8. brentwhite Says:

    Tom makes a good point about the moral intuition that we (non-psychopathic) human beings all share. Where does that come from? And why does it shout so loudly compared to that tiny voice of cool-headed rationality, which tells us (I’m paraphrasing), “I need to minimize harm to others because that will thereby maximize my opportunities for personal survival”—a voice that speaks so faintly, by the way, that all of human history testifies to how badly we’ve misunderstood its message. Thank God we began getting it right around 1750 or so. Oh, wait… forget the God part. We haven’t even discussed the human desire to express gratitude to a deity!

    I’m sure you’ll share with us some highly speculative, scientifically un-proveable, just-so explanation about evolution encoding our moral intuition within us for thus-and-so reasons. (And you know this because…?)

    But here’s one objection: If everyone got this utilitarian “morality” wrong before the Enlightenment (which is where I’m placing your present worldview), then that would suggest a very, very poor correspondence between our pronounced sense of right and wrong and the evolutionary imperative for survival. The two would actually seem to have little in common. And that being the case, we still have to answer Tom’s question: “Where did our sense of right and wrong come from, and why is it so strong within us?”

    • brentwhite Says:

      By the way, to your point about Tom’s not understanding evolution, I don’t think it’s fair for you to say, “You don’t understand this topic,” unless you’re willing to tell us what exactly we don’t understand. We will all flourish by understanding one another better, right?


  9. “What offends you? That evil exists or that God will repay it? ”

    The concept of infinite punishment for finite crimes.

    And the absurdity of some ‘crimes’ as defined by different religions.

    “you should be happy to have me live near you because I don’t believe that “vengeance is mine, sayeth Brent.””

    Until you believe that your god wants you to smite the heathens.

    “(and why would you care whether it does or not, so long as YOU do, under a survival of the fittest genesis?”

    Tom…because ‘survival of the fittest’ is about the species, not individuals.

    “In fact, you seem to take the Bible to task for being “wrong,” as though the Bible was “immoral.””

    That’s because a great deal of the lessons taught in the Bible are immoral.

    “How do you know whether people are more likely to stay alive as a total population if slavery is stopped versus if it is not?”

    Data on the number of slaves killed when slavery was in effect.

    “Tom makes a good point about the moral intuition that we (non-psychopathic) human beings all share. Where does that come from?”

    Evolved empathy and the desire to survive.

    ““I need to minimize harm to others because that will thereby maximize my opportunities for personal survival”—a voice that speaks so faintly”

    it doesn’t speak faintly. It’s just that there is a constantly changing definition of the word ‘others’.

    To our nomadic ancestors, ‘others’ were only family members.

    To Hitler, ‘others’ were only those he defined as ‘aryans’.

    To me, ‘others’ is everyone.

    “If everyone got this utilitarian “morality” wrong before the Enlightenment ”

    People didn’t get it wrong. They just believed that their morals only applied to people who they defined as ‘people’. Which is a group of a sinking size the farther you look back.

    • brentwhite Says:

      To be clear, are you saying that “not harming others,” however you define “others,” is a universal (more or less) value that evolution has bestowed upon the human race? Because that’s what it sounds like you’re saying. I think you’re getting ahead. You really want there to be an “ought,” don’t you?


      • The definition of ‘others’ has nothing to do with evolution, or anything bestowed by evolution.

        Humans began as nomadic mammals. This led to a clear definition of ‘in-group’ versus ‘out-group’. And it ‘evolved’ culturally from there.

        There’s an ‘ought’ if you have the same goal I have…surviving and flourishing. If you don’t share that goal, there is no ought.

      • brentwhite Says:

        That helps. “Surviving and flourishing” isn’t a universal goal shared by people in general. It is merely your goal, which you hope others share. If they don’t, and they harm you, they haven’t done “wrong” in any meaningful sense, except that they disagree with you.


  10. “It is merely your goal, which you hope others share.”

    I hope…but can also tell through observation that the majority of people share it or have a similar one.

    “If they don’t, and they harm you, they haven’t done “wrong” in any meaningful sense”

    Sure they have.

    In a meaningful sense to me. And, luckily, a meaningful sense to the police.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      “Not,” I thought of another couple of examples of things people feel very strongly about as “right” or “wrong” in a moral sense that nonetheless cannnot be justified with a “preservation of the species” motif. Homosexual marriages. The “liberals” claim, very heatedly, that this is a “human right,” and it is wrong of “Christians” or others to oppose it. Obviously having homosexual marriages is not conducive to preservation of the species, yet multitudes of people (including many non-homosexuals, so it is not simply a “good for me” motivation) rant and rave about the “rightness” of those who advocate for or against this “right.”

      Second, abortion on demand. Once again we are told that this is a “woman’s right.” But abortions do not help preserve the species. Aside from possible special instances like rape or life of the mother, abortions tend to deplete preservation of the race. Yet many who oppose such abortions are villified as being “wrong.”

      What gives with these two examples?


      • ” Obviously having homosexual marriages is not conducive to preservation of the species,”

        It also doesn’t harm the preservation of the species. Unless everyone in the world turned gay. Which is silly.

        “Second, abortion on demand. Once again we are told that this is a “woman’s right.” ”

        I don’t know of anyone who believes this to be a woman’s right.

        Abortion, when medically necessary or early enough, is a woman’s right.

        “But abortions do not help preserve the species.”

        Sure they do. Overpopulation kills.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Not, I am sure I am not following you here. Tell me again how the sense of “ought” to allow people to get married as homosexuals is justified by preservation of oneself or the species? Assuming as you say that such marriages do no harm, where does the “ought” or “ought not” come from? It comes from a sense of “morality,” not any “preservation.” This proves that people have “ought” mentalities that cannot be explained on the basis of evolution’s “survival” motive. It is just “morally wrong” to oppose such marriages, we are told.

        As for abortion, first, you might note that abortions have been around for a lot longer time than any “over-population” concerns have been. Second, unlike the possibility in China where abortions are mandated, in America, which became the “bastion” of abortion “rights,” we don’t have an over-population problem. That aside, and more importantly, once again the “rhetoric” does not bear out your interpretation of motive. “It’s my RIGHT to do as I will with my body,” we are told. Regardless of any “population” issue. What about the RIGHT of the potential person to live? People cry out for that competing RIGHT as well. Why? Has nothing to do with “preservation of the species” as the actual motive of the “people shouting.” People just believe some actions are “right” in a moral sense, which has no evoultionary explanation.

        What about pornography? Don’t people oppose that “morally”? Where is the self-preservation or species preservation motive for that strongly held “OUGHT NOT” posture? I am sure that if I put my mind to it, I could come up with others as well, but you should see my point here.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Like you, Tom, I can’t see how the decision to have an abortion would be of any moral consequence whatsoever to Not’s way of thinking. The decision doesn’t impact “my” personal survival in any way. It doesn’t harm anyone else. It harms the baby, of course, but its not like the child can do anything to get revenge. It doesn’t prevent me from having future children, so it has no impact on my future happiness. Oddly enough, people do feel VERY STRONGLY about the rightness or wrongness of abortion.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Indeed, aborting a child might even facilitate my survival because then I don’t have to worry about having another mouth to feed.

        Again, Not said yesterday that we don’t go around dropping bombs on people, even if doing so would seem to help our personal survival, because of the fear of reprisal (just as the Japanese launched a nuclear attack against us after WWII… Oh, never mind). But again… We don’t face the fear of reprisal with fetuses, do we?


  11. “Tell me again how the sense of “ought” to allow people to get married as homosexuals is justified by preservation of oneself or the species?”

    Preventing a group of people from doing something that will make them happy and not harm anyone could potentially lead to someone preventing me from a similar action.

    “What about the RIGHT of the potential person to live? ”

    As over 50% of fertilized eggs are naturally aborted by a woman’s body, that right clearly doesn’t exist unless we enforce it.

    “People cry out for that competing RIGHT as well. Why? ”

    Because their religion tells them to.

    ” Don’t people oppose that “morally”?”

    I think you’re confused.

    I get my morality from looking at harm and benefit and survival. Not everyone does that. Humanity as a whole has mostly done that…but in many ways have added on things that are superfluous. Which is where religion comes in.

    “The decision doesn’t impact “my” personal survival in any way.”

    Unless you’re getting an abortion because you’ll die if you don’t.

    • brentwhite Says:

      “The decision doesn’t impact “my” personal survival in any way.”

      What fraction of one percent is that? In the vast majority of cases, abortion is of no moral consequence, right? Face it. Yet many people feel strongly about it in all cases. Somehow, this is your faint voice of rationality again, whose message is getting badly garbled time and time again.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Not, now I think you are inadvertently agreeing with me. You say, “Because their religion tells them to.” In other words, they are motivated by something other than the evoluitionary motif. How is it under evolutionary theory that people become motivated to hold to “OUGHTS” and “OUGHT NOTS” on some basis other than survival or not–such as religion? You also agree that people have “added on things that are superfluous.” Why have they done that, if all “OUGTHS” and “OUGHT NOTS” people scream about come from “survival” rationales? The answer and fact is that in likely the majority of the time people have the sense of “OUGHT” and “OUGHT NOT” based on something such as being for or against some RELIGION. As you say: “Which is where religion comes in.” Precisely. Religion (and anti-religion) primarily provides the source of “OUGHTS” and “OUGHT NOTS,” not some evolutionary “survival” motivation. So, we are back to Brent’s point that evolution simply cannot explain “OUGHTS”, so there must be some other source.

  12. Morbert Says:

    It’s important to be clear about what the theory of evolution says about altruistic behaviour.

    Altruism is not a means to an end. While such behaviour has certainly been selected by nature, the instinct itself is not motivated by a desire to survive. This is why we do not say things like “You know, if you want to survive, here is what you need to be doing.”, to answer Tom’s earlier question. Instead, we have a deep, hard-wired, (but by no means immutable) disposition towards compassion and fairness that has been selected by nature to survive.

    Hence, desires for fairness and compassion, and fundamental moral conduct, are consistent with atheism.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Morbert, I appreciate the clarification. However, you don’t explain where this “deep, hard-wired disposition” comes from. Evolution has to explain the genesis, not simply the “survivability.” Also, I think it is fair to note that your “by no means immutable” is a fair understatement. Look at all the murderers, despots, liars, thieves, wife-and-child abusers, child molesters, rapists, etc., that have dominated the pages of human history (and today’s newspaper). So I don’t think you can realistically justify “ought-ness” under Brent’s formulation by way of falling back on some “deep, hard-wired disposition” of unknown origin.

      • Morbert Says:

        Oh it doesn’t justify anything. That is another important point. We use evolution to explain why we have specific ideas about what ought to be, not to determine what ought to be. My only intention is to make clear that there is no axiological argument against atheism.

        As for the genesis of altruism, that is merely a change in behavioural pattern. In nature, we see plenty of examples of rudimentary altruism, and we can use them, along with genetic studies, to better understand how our altruism might have evolved.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Morbert, you say: “We use evolution to explain why we have specific ideas about what ought to be, not to determine what ought to be.” But my primary point was, you have NOT explained why we have specific ideas about “OUGHT-NESS.”

        Your reference to animal behavior misses the point. Do you think animals actually go through some “thought process” whereby they say, “It is morally right for me to do this, but it would be morally wrong for me to do something else”? There is no evidence that they cogitate or debate any “issues” about morality.

        And if you argue that they do, well then, why do those animals have such ideas? You just move the mystery back a step and still do not explain the origin of ‘OUGHT-NESS”; i.e., people have points of debate about the propriety of conduct IN GENERAL which have nothing to do with evolutionary motifs or apparent genesis, as I already pointed out to NotAScientist. Why is that? Christianity gives a cogent answer, and evolution does not.

      • Morbert Says:

        Your question tacitly assumes selfish behaviour and individualistic behaviour is inherently beneficial to the individual. Sometimes this is the case. Many times, especially in social contexts, it is not. Selective pressures on genes are not simply derived from the habitat, but also from the social, and even genetic, environment the genes exist in. In such contexts, behavioural patterns based on concepts of fairness are evolutionary stable strategies. I.e. Not only do they benefit the individual, they act to eliminate more selfish behavioural patters in the population.

        To use the vampire bat societies I mentioned in another post: The most advantageous behaviour to a vampire bat, in the context of a large colony of vampire bats, is a “tit for tat” strategy: Voluntarily donate blood to other bats. If there are bats who can afford to donate blood (i.e. who aren’t starving or ill) but never actually do, do not donate blood to them. This rudimentary behaviour based around fairness is selected by nature.

        You are correct in saying animals (at least most of them), do not abstract a concept of fairness from their behaviour. Most animals are not equipped with the brainpower to construct such abstractions, but this only shows how deeply hard-wired these instincts are. It’s why we can’t construct “oughts” from logic alone. There has to be primitive dispositions to begin with.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Morbert, I am totally in agreement with you on one point: “we can’t construct ‘oughts’ from logic alone.” No, we are born with consciences. You suggest this is due to “evolutionary stable strategies.” I would suggest instead that God created us with a sense of “right and wrong,” which we then either follow or suppress.

        Now, I am interested in your comment about “selective pressures on genes” as an alternative source of our “oughts.” First of all, it is pretty difficult to see how some behavior not previously caused by genes “modifies” the genes of successive generations, as you seem to suggest. How exactly does that work? Have there been genetic studies which verify this, or is this simply more of evolutionary “it must have happened that way because, here we are, and we had to get this way in some ‘naturalistic’ fashion (i.e., ipso facto rejection of God being involved), so we ‘reason backwards’ to justify our stance.” Have you ever instead considered that bats act the way you suggest because God designed them that way? Just like he designed everything else? Only, in our case, due to our free wills and frequent resulting rebellions, we sometimes (frequently) mess things up.

        “There has to be primitive dispositions to begin with.” Certainly there has to be SOMETHING “to begin with.” The question is which is more plausible as a source of this “to begin with”–purely naturalistic evolution or design by a Creator?

        Finally, you still seem to be missing my point. I am not arguing about whether there is “altruistic behavior.” I am, as I think Brent is, arguing why it is that we have a DEBATE about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of various behaviors. If everything is just “built in” to behave certain ways (as you say it is with animals–just like us?), I don’t see where we would ever get to the point of castigating or praising the altruistic versus “selfish” behaviors under your scenario. Bats don’t “debate” about whether to share blood or not. Whereas, we do debate about homosexual behavior, abortions, pornography, drinking, what movies to watch, etc., etc. And when we debate, we claim to be “right” about the behaviors we extol, and the other fellow is “wrong.” That is (at a minimum) what is inexplicable from a purely naturalistic rationale.

      • Morbert Says:

        I’ll start with the simple stuff first. We have debates about what is right and wrong because evolution only left us with primitive dispositions, and not complex, rigorous rulebooks. Food critics can argue over the quality of a dish or method of preparation, as evolution has merely left them with a disposition towards hunger. Mankind is sculpted by the societies we live in, refining instincts and simple behaviour into art and ethics. Heck, even mathematicians debate over theorems, and theorems are about as specific as you can get.

        As for the emergence of altruistic behaviour: This has been studied extensively. Firstly, scientists established the consistency of the very premise of altruism being more effective than individualism with mathematical models. I myself have programmed some simulations based around the prisoner’s dilemma ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner%27s_dilemma ) that demonstrated the advantage of cooperative behaviour. Such studies fall under the blanket field of ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_stable_strategy ). The strategies that succeed are precisely the same strategies we see in nature. Secondly, it is very easy to see how altruistic behaviour could evolve from other behaviour. Many animals, for example, have an instinct to protect their young. This instinct can extend to extended family, and then a society as a whole. So scientists have established that the evolutionary explanation is plausible, but they have also established that it actually occurred. The relevant biological field is ethology ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethology ) and you will be able to find many studies in any reputable journal in the subject (E.g. The Journal of Ethology http://www.springerlink.com/content/105357/?MUD=MP ). These journals collect a wide range of paleontological, neurobiological, primatological etc. evidence to better understand the evolutionary development of altruism. A typical example, alliance behaviour in primates: http://www.springerlink.com/content/bnq838m21271t745/

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Morbert, your “simple stuff first” is impressive, and hardly “simple.” You seem to know a lot about what “evolution left us with,” skipping the step of how evolution did such magic things to “leave us with them” to start with. Perhaps the biggest problem here is–I DON’T DISPUTE that altruistic behavior is more likely to make societies survive over strictly individualistic ones. You cannot, however, leapfrog from “instincts” (where did those come from?) to the sense of MORAL OUTRAGE people have about other people’s conduct (or even the sense of shame a person has about his own conduct which violates God’s norms). It is not a question of “debating” about what behaviors are more likely to lead society to survive. (Of course Christian principles will actually do that, but that is because they were given by God, not because we “luckily” happened to “evolve” with certain “instincts” and then somehow “used our minds” [again, where did those come from, even for animals?] to start “working out details.”)

        You seem to envision a type of John Lennon’s “Imagine”- mentality Pollyanna society where we just keep getting “better and better” as we remove the shackles of religion which have held us back from the more rational advancements we would evolve into without them. How is that working out? Case in point–look at American society which has been pushing God out of the public square since around the 50’s. Has crime gone down? How about pregnancies outside of marriage? How about teen pregnancies? How about abortions? How about STD’s? In fact, what gauge of public wellbeing shows an improving society in the wake of these Supreme Court (and other courts) decisions? Jails are bursting at the seams. Even the economy and the political system are falling apart. I guess our “advancement” towards an “altruistic society” due to our “instincts” has hit a major “bump in the road,” despite the massive increase in knowledge and governmental protections and massaging. Did your “simulations” predict such consequences?

      • Morbert Says:

        I think we might be talking past each other. I am having trouble understanding you objection.

        You seem to be under the impression that, if evolution truly is responsible for moral dispositions, it should manifest as some cold utilitarian analysis of survival optimisation, as opposed to moral outrage and deep abhorrence. In my first post I said altruism is not motivated by a desire to survive, and I cannot stress this enough. When we are hungry we don’t think “Hmmm… If I do not eat, I won’t survive, therefore I should eat.” we instead think “I am hungry.” Similarly, when we witness an assault on another, we don’t think “This act decreases my chance of survival in the long run by degrading society, therefore I should be opposed to such behaviour.” we think “That is unjust!”. It is this base empathy and sympathy, and abhorrence towards unfairness that evolution instils in us.

        I’ll pose a question. Do you have an issue with the idea that evolution might predispose you to feel anger towards someone who assaults you personally, or steals from you? If the answer is yes, then the problem is with a deeper incredulity towards evolution that unfortunately cannot be resolved in this blog. If the answer is no, then what is the difficulty in accepting that evolution might instil a similar reaction in us when we see another be assaulted, or have their possessions stolen?

        I don’t understand where the comparison with Lenon is coming from. I haven’t said anything about the health of society. I am merely explaining how feelings of moral outrage and anger against unjust acts have been extensively studied in the context of evolution, and are hence compatible with materialism.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Morbert, I think it is interesting that you admit “altruism is not motivated by a desire to survive.” The debate here, though perhaps not so well articulated by me, is that moral outrage does not result from evolution. If you are willing to concede that there is some OTHER source for altruism besides evolution, we may be getting closer to being on the same page.

        Thinking, “That is unjust!” is nothing similar to saying, “I’m hungry.” My difficulty with your analysis on that point is that you start from some”instinct” (for what–survival?) and then suggest that altruism is “derived” from that. Do you mean we are just “naturally” altruistic by nature? If so, then you should understand my long diatribe which shows that is not the case. Rather, we appear to be basically individualistic, if not worse, and either religion or society attempts to CURB such behaviors and thought patterns. See Thomas Hobbs writings. And our present day American secular society doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job of that “curbing.” Ergo, perhaps we should be letting the Christian faith have more influence toward the altruistic “goal” (which comes from where?).

        Finally, if you are saying, altruistic behavior just “happened to happen” and worked so well that individualistic behavior got “weeded out” by survival of the fittest (without any “desire” to that end), I again say, “Just look at the newspaper” if you really think that has occurred.

      • Morbert Says:

        Oops, I accidentally posted this in the wrong location the first time around. Here it is again, in the correct thread. It might be wise to delete the copy of this post that is further down.

        To try and argue that God didn’t have anything to do with altruism would be pointless on this blog. My only goal is to argue that an evolutionary understanding of altruism and morality is compatible with materialism (Incidentally, I also feel it is compatible with Christianity.)

        It will again stress that these instincts are dispositions, and not immutable, nor are they sufficient to understand every facet of humanity. They also don’t exist in a vacuum. We feel strong sympathy and empathy for people, but we also have some individualistic tendencies, and social and anthropological forces play a big role in defining society. Darwinian evolution is only relevant insofar as it provides the seed: Simple capacities for empathy, sympathy, the ability to be affected by the suffering of others, and a primitive desire towards a fair treatment. It certainly doesn’t imply a utopian (or dystopian) society of robotic automatons. There is no dichotomy. It’s not a case of either “Anarchic individualism” or “Hive-mind insect roboticism”. It’s a case of simple behavioural dispositions emerging from small-knit societies, distilled through the development of civilisation and human history.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        See, here is a fundamental problem with your argument; you presume that there are “the seed[s]: Simple capacities for empathy, sympathy, the ability to be affected by the suffering of others, and a primitive desire towards a fair treatment.” But where did those “seeds” come from? How did evolution, starting from nothing, instill such “seeds” in people (or any other life form)? That’s a big defect to me. Finally, I don’t see how ANY feelings can come from “materialim” in the first place. Feelings are “mind and heart” things, not “material” entities.

      • Morbert Says:

        I am getting the feeling your problem is not with the evolution of altruism, but rather with evolution in general. Do you also take issue with, say, the evolution of hunting behaviour, or of fight-or-flight strategies? Is your problem with the very notion of the natural selection of genetic mutations, and the ability of genes to produce behavioural phenotypes as a whole, or is it specifically altruistic behaviour that you take issue with?

    • brentwhite Says:

      Morbert, assuming that this “hardwiring” is in place, let’s be clear: the hardwiring is not there because that represents the way things ought to be. They simply are. No “good” is implied. After all, there is, by the same logic, defective hardwiring, too.

      • brentwhite Says:

        My point is that altruism is an illusion—not that we can’t describe a set of behaviors that most people agree are “altruistic,” by definition. But the atheistic argument says that our experience of altruism isn’t closely related to what altruism actually is (at a biological level, I mean). We feel love passionately. We feel justice passionately. Absent of this evolutionary explanation, we assign deep meaning to it. We want and expect it to be universal. Practically the first sentence every child learns is, “That’s not fair!” (I have three of them; I say this with some authority.) But “fairness” has no meaning beyond that which an individual assigns to it.

        If I say, “I disagree,” no one has any scientifically justifiable recourse to any authority outside of oneself to challenge me.

      • brentwhite Says:

        This is not what compassion, love, kindness, justice, etc., feels like. Of course these are just feelings, but why shouldn’t they matter? Many atheists want evolution to explain how we got here, and why we are the way we are. And they make it seem so nice and tidy and just so. But when something like Aurora happens, for example, we say, not merely that the shooter was violating his biological programming (which isn’t clear to me, but that’s beside the point), but that what he did was evil (even though evil is meaningless) and justice must be done (even though “justice” doesn’t mean what we think it means).

        This atheistic worldview just doesn’t ring true to me. Say what you will about us theists, at least we get Creation plus the virtues, plus justice, plus love—and these aren’t the byproducts of blind, unthinking natural selection, but are rooted in the eternal. Justice is exactly as we experience it. Our senses aren’t lying to us.

      • Morbert Says:

        The description of the evolutionary explanation as ‘just so’ is problematic by itself. The evolutionary explanation comes from very careful and rigorous studies of animal behaviour and specific phenotypes. The concept of ‘fairness’ is by no means exclusive to humans. Complex behaviour revolving around a sense of fairness has been observed in many primate societies, and even in non-primate species. Vampire bats, for example, donate blood to those who are equally willing to donate blood to others, or to those who are starving/in need of charity.

        As for the satisfaction of interpreting morality as a transient, local, human construct, that is something we’ve touched on before. I’ll simply reiterate my position: It might not be pleasant, but nature is not obliged to dole out pleasant truths.

    • Morbert Says:

      To try and argue that God didn’t have anything to do with altruism would be pointless on this blog. My only goal is to argue that an evolutionary understanding of altruism and morality is compatible with materialism (Incidentally, I also feel it is compatible with Christianity.)

      It will again stress that these instincts are dispositions, and not immutable, nor are they sufficient to understand every facet of humanity. They also don’t exist in a vacuum. We feel strong sympathy and empathy for people, but we also have some individualistic tendencies, and social and anthropological forces play a big role in defining society. Darwinian evolution is only relevant insofar as it provides the seed: Simple capacities for empathy, sympathy, the ability to be affected by the suffering of others, and a primitive desire towards a fair treatment. It certainly doesn’t imply a utopian (or dystopian) society of robotic automatons. There is no dichotomy. It’s not a case of either “Anarchic individualism” or “Hive-mind insect roboticism”. It’s a case of simple behavioural dispositions emerging from small-knit societies, distilled through the development of civilisation and human history.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        (Sorry if this is out of order.) Certainly I have a problem with evolution in general. However, let’s not duck the issue. The primary question we have been focusing on under this post is, Can the strong sense of “Ought’s” characteristic of most all of the human race be explained from a purely “naturalistic” (mechanistic) vantage point? You shouldn’t duck my question about where ““the seed[s]: Simple capacities for empathy, sympathy, the ability to be affected by the suffering of others, and a primitive desire towards a fair treatment,” to quote you, come from. You can’t just duck under a cloak of, “Well, if you just believed in evolution you would not have a problem with that.” Actually, I think the situation is the other way around–not being able to show where these “seeds” come from demonstrates yet another problem with evolutionary development theories in toto.

        No, I don’t believe there are any “genetic mutations” which “further” the “advancement” of one species into another, nor have any such been demonstrated in the “real world” or, I suspect, even in laboratories.

      • Morbert Says:

        I just saw this second thread which was split because of my double post. It seems clear that it is evolution itself you have an issue with.

        I reject any accusation of question-ducking. I provided a clear outline of the topics related to evolution of altruism (Evolutionary stable strategies, genetic modelling, and Ethology). I don’t think you’ve been clear enough in your specific contention.

        Do you object to the notion that any form of behaviour can have a genetic factor?

        Do you accept the role of genes in behavioural dispositions, but feel these genes could not have formed under natural selection?

        Do you accept the evolutionary origin of altruism, but feel moral outrage is something else?

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Morbert, I don’t know in what thread this will appear, but I am responding to your “I just saw” comment. You indicate that you have explained the development of altruism, but I don’t see that you do much more than “invoke categories” for types of investigation (“a clear outline of the topics”). You still don’t explain the underlying premise you made as to where the “seeds” came from, from which altruism supposedly subsequently developed in, I guess, “normal evolutionary development” (via survival of the fittest?).

        So I think it is somewhat of a diversion and probably an escape from the point of this post for me to go through why I believe evolution to be intellectually bankrupt when looked at from a total perspective. However, to avoid any ducking on my own part, I will briefly respond to your particular questions:

        “Do you object to the notion that any form of behaviour can have a genetic factor?” No, I think that various abnormalities that some people have are a result, at least in part, of some genetic injury.

        “Do you accept the role of genes in behavioural dispositions, but feel these genes could not have formed under natural selection?” If you are asking me more broadly whether our physical personalities, etc., are generated by genes, I think God does incredibly include the “raw material” for what we become in the fertilized egg. I totally reject any argument that there was some “evolutionary process” that gave rise to DNA, RNA, protein chains, etc. Those are far too complex and “complete” to have resulted from any sort of “time-times-chance” chronology, even for an ameoba.

        “Do you accept the evolutionary origin of altruism, but feel moral outrage is something else?” No, I don’t accept the evolutionary origin of anything, much less altruism.

        (I’ll certainly read any response you may make, but don’t promise further replies, as we have pretty well exhausted the “OUGHT-NESS” question that Brent posed.)

      • Morbert Says:

        Then an impasse has been reached. If you don’t accept evolution, you will not accept the evolution of behavioural traits, and hence you will not accept the evolution of altruistic behavioural traits.

        A general discussion on evolution here is probably not a good idea because a) It is well off topic, and b) In your previous post, you characterised evolution as “time x chance”. It implies a false understanding of evolution derived, more than likely, from creationist institutes like AiG, IRC, or the DI, an understanding that is unfortunately common in the United States and some Islamic countries. It is a false understanding that is very difficult to remove, and we would have to spend a lot of time removing misconceptions of evolution before we could even begin to talk about the scientific studies.

  13. brentwhite Says:

    Thanks, Morbert. When I complain about “just so” explanations, I’m mostly referring to the way rigorous scientific work is distorted by non-scientists (or scientists outside of their fields of expertise) for popular consumption. I’m not a scientist, but, as with any field of higher learning, we should interpret and apply scientific findings with humility and caution. Outside of peer-reviewed scientific journals, this is often not the case.

    As I’ve said before, naturalistic explanations don’t need to “compete” with theological ones. They can be both/and. I agree with you that nature isn’t obliged to “dole out pleasant truths.” But I’m arguing that if the God of Christianity is real, then our desires need not be frustrated: love and justice really are what we believe them to be, what we feel like they are, what we want them to be.

  14. morbert Says:

    I wont be at a computer again until tuesday but I’ll answer Tom’s questions then.

    Morbert


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s