Last week, I blogged about a recent episode of The Good Wife in which a philosophical materialist—one who believes that nothing exists beyond the physical universe—was tripped up by his own philosophy. One commenter linked to this YouTube video of celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins rejecting the idea that you need God (or any transcendent being) in order to be a moral person.
On the one hand, of course that’s true: atheists can certainly be—and usually are, I imagine—about as moral as anyone else—religious or otherwise. On the other hand, as I said in my reply, Dawkins’s response misses the point of the question he was asked in the video:
For our purposes in this post only, it hardly matters whether we “agree” on what is right or wrong. It is more important to have a right or wrong on which to agree or disagree. [Dawkins] seems to fail to grasp the question. So he likes modern Western secular values. What is his rational basis for doing so? How does he prove in any scientific way that these values are best? He doesn’t. And that’s the point.
The commenter responded: “Do you feel values in the western world are not superior to others? If you could choose a nation with the best values, or system for us to live by, which would it be? Just curious.” To which I replied: “To a philosophical materialist, words like ‘best’ and ‘superior’ are meaningless except insofar as they express one’s personal tastes, shaped as they are by blind forces…”
In other words, if materialists can agree on what counts as “good,” then they can work out what is better or best, superior or inferior. But a materialist who’s true to his values doesn’t pretend that the “good” means what we human beings usually mean when we use the word, at least insofar as it relates to justice—as in, “This is right, and that is wrong.” We are appealing to a universal standard that transcends opinion and taste.
To the materialist, by contrast, the good is entirely subjective—which is fine, of course, so long as you live among people who agree with you. But if you’re being tortured by people who disagree on the question, there’s no sense saying, “This is wrong. This is evil.” Because based on your own philosophy, your torturers’ sense of right and wrong would be no more or less justified than yours.
In a series of blog posts this week, Roger Olson put the problem with materialism in sharp relief. (He refers to materialists as “naturalists,” but same difference).
He issued this challenge to anyone who wanted to defend naturalism as a worldview:
So let me put it this way. I’m not a naturalist, but here I will adopt the “voice” of one:
I am a young naturalist, having adopted a purely naturalistic worldview, such that I believe nature is all there is and there is no transcendent meaning or purpose to my life or anyone else’s life. I am here by accident and when I die I am simply gone. There is no God or gods, only matter, energy, space and time.
I have decided to live for pleasure; I will do only what pleases me. I happen to find that treating others as means to my end is advantageous to me. I do not find that compassion or empathy or cooperation are of any value to me except insofar as they happen to enhance my own happiness. More often than not they don’t. I use them as tools for my own advantage–to enhance my own pleasure.
However, I have discovered certain ways in which I can mistreat other people, take advantage of them, through deception and manipulation, and not at all be disadvantaged by it. You can’t convince me otherwise. I see other people doing the same and I follow their example and am perfectly happy.
So long as I am not socially or personally disadvantaged, why should I not manipulate, even oppress, others? My life plan is to live entirely for myself and my own personal pleasure. It brings me satisfaction. I am very smart, smarter than the majority of people, and am confident that I can get away with my chosen path of life. If it leads me to commit crimes, I will do so–so long as I am sure I will not be caught.
Some people tell me that I have some kind of altruistic gene and that I ought to live a life of cooperation and compassion. I do not feel that; if there is such a gene I didn’t inherit it. Don’t tell me I’m not normal; I don’t care about being normal. I care about being happy and I am happy taking advantage of others and living solely for myself.
My life philosophy is “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.” I am a hedonist and don’t see any reason not to be. Life is what it is and its only purpose is survival, reproduction, and happiness. Those are my only values.
Try to convince me, on naturalist presuppositions alone, that I am wrong. Good luck.
Read the comments sections of these posts. Given that his follow-up posts were called “Adventures in Missing the Point” and “Further Adventures in Missing the Point,” you can see that he didn’t get very far.