Posts Tagged ‘Randal Rauser’

An argument about morality in The Swedish Atheist

March 12, 2013

Probably my favorite argument for God’s existence—in the abstract, apart from considerations about the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus—is the moral argument: We have these strong moral intuitions that atheism can’t account for. If atheism is true, we have no objective morality; our moral intuitions are merely aesthetic or utilitarian: Ultimately, I help this old lady across the street, rather than push her in front of a bus, because it pleases me to do so, or at least I’ll avoid getting into trouble, not because doing one or the other is objectively better. Since there’s no good, there’s no better or worse.

Not so fast, many atheists object. Hasn’t evolution encoded within us a sense of morality to ensure the survival of our species (or something)? In his new book on apologetics, which I discussed in yesterday’s post, Randal Rauser’s atheist opponent, Sheridan, makes this argument: We have evolved as a species to obey these ethical rules, which facilitate survival of the species. As long as we’re human beings—as opposed to hungry lions who may eat humans with no ethical problems—we are bound to live by this code of behavior. If that’s not strictly “objective,” isn’t it close enough?

It’s no surprise that Rauser doesn’t think so. But he also doesn’t think that Sheridan thinks so—not if he really thinks about it. Suppose a group of aliens from outer space came to our planet. These aliens obviously enjoy intelligence, reason, language, and culture. In many ways they are more highly evolved than we homo sapiens are. Like us, they are moral agents: they have evolved their own morality, which guides their behavior—only, their moral system allows them to torture, rape, and murder human beings with impunity.

Is it possible, based on Sheridan’s account of morality, that such space aliens could exist? Yes, Sheridan concedes. Is it morally O.K. for these aliens to torture, rape, and murder? Sheridan agrees that we human beings would have no basis for judging them.

What about your moral intuition? Rauser asked. Wouldn’t it be screaming that what these aliens are doing is wrong? “That’d hardly be the first time our intuitions have misled us,” Sheridan said. “But Sheridan,” Rauser said, “I don’t see any reason to think our moral intuitions are flawed about something so basic as the necessary evil of raping moral agents for pleasure.”[1]

Rauser then tries a different tack. He asks Sheridan to consider convergent evolution: two different species can have a strikingly similar trait or bodily form even though their common evolutionary ancestor didn’t possess this trait or form. He gives the example of the North American flying squirrel and the marsupial squirrel glider. Genetically, these mammals are very different, even though they look the same.

What if homo sapiens had similar humanoid cousins, who were physically indistinguishable from us? Suppose they walked and talked like us but had a very different evolutionary history? It’s possible that such a humanoid could exist. Suppose this humanoid species had evolved with a morality that permits them to torture, rape, and murder human beings with impunity. Would their actions be morally O.K.?

While Sheridan is less sure of himself, he complains that it doesn’t matter: Rauser’s example is pure science fiction. After more arguing, Rauser says,

“Sheridan, repeatedly intoning about ‘science fiction’ is a red herring. Not only are your views implausible as descriptions of morality, but they also wreak havoc with our sense of moral progress. Right now we humans strive—in word if not always in deed—to achieve certain ends like courage, justice, patience, and kindness. Your view entails that depending on the way our evolutionary trajectory progresses, there may come a point where we have to rethink and even abandon these virtues. More to the point, there may come a time when they are no longer virtues for us. Perhaps in the future it will become morally praiseworthy for a more fully evolved humanoid descendant of ours to rape and torture other creatures. Perhaps Ramirez [a serial killer who claimed that his morality was “beyond” that of ordinary human beings] is a glimpse into our own moral future when the most morally virtuous of us are those who can rape and kill without conscience. That’s possible in your view. But in my view, that fluid notion of moral progress is falsified by our very absolute moral intuitions. We know that certain actions and behaviors are always to be cultivated and others always to be avoided regardless of the future evolutionary direction of our species.”[2]

Of course, this doesn’t prove that there’s a God. Maybe our moral intuition lies to us constantly. Evolution only purports to explain what is, not what ought to be, regardless how deeply we feel this ought-ness in our bones. Wishing something were true doesn’t make it so, as atheists have told me a few times.


Years ago, I saw Christopher Hitchens in a debate in which he kept referring to Occam’s Razor: the simpler explanation is usually preferable to the more complex one. Therefore, why bother with God to explain our world if something as simple as non-theistic evolution will do just fine?

While I strongly disagree that evolution alone accounts for much—and Hitchens’s idea of God’s “complexity” is bad philosophical reasoning—I’m happy to invoke Occam’s Razor against the New Atheists when it comes to moral intuition. Why is this sense of right and wrong so incredibly strong and pervasive—at least among us non-psychopaths?

We Christians have a far simpler explanation than they do.

1. Randal Rauser, The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2012), 181.

2. Ibid., 184.

The problem of free will (not related to Calvinism this time)

March 11, 2013

swedish_atheistI recently read a new book by Randal Rauser called The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails. Its intention is to help believers think through and respond to major philosophical and scientific challenges to Christianity.

The book’s conceit is that it narrates one long, hypothetical conversation in a college-town coffee shop between a theologian (the author himself) and a scornful atheist student named Sheridan. One criticism of the book that I encountered online is that it’s hardly a fair fight: Sheridan, who uses the word “dude” and “sky daddy” a lot, knows his New Atheists like Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and, ahem, Bill Maher. Unlike the author, however, he isn’t well-acquainted with the heavyweights of philosophy. Why not set up a conversation between a theologian and a “real” philosopher?

Fair enough. But since the New Atheists have hogged the media spotlight over the past ten years, responding first to their objections seems practical. Sheridan represents their point of view nicely. The author certainly couldn’t have made Sheridan less sympathetic to Christianity.

Spoiler alert: by the end of the book, while the author gains some ground with Sheridan and at least gives him a reason to be less certain of his convictions, Sheridan remains unconverted. That seems realistic, too.

One idea I hadn’t considered before reading this book is the problem that free will poses, not to the Calvinist this time, but to the philosophical materialist: Why do we seem to possess a non-material substance called a mind, which transcends the three-pound lump of gray matter called the brain?

That’s easy, says Sheridan: the brain—the result of physical processes only—gives rise to the mind and consciousness. Philosophically, this idea is known as epiphenomenalism.

Rauser directs Sheridan to consider a professor, Dr. Ferry, who’s currently tapping on the glass of the pastry case, ordering a cinnamon bun. Why does he order this cinnamon bun and not a rhubarb muffin? There is no materialist account of this action, Rauser argues, that doesn’t compromise our belief in free will.

“Sheridan, you suggested that mental events—sensations, desires, intentions and the like—are mere byproducts of the firing of neurons like smoke rising from fire. If that’s the case then they have no role to play in the story of Dr. Ferry’s ordering a cinnamon bun. All of Dr. Ferry’s actions are determined and thus explained by the firing of neurons in his brain while his mind does nothing. But this doesn’t seem to match reality at all, does it? Surely Dr. Ferry’s intention to order a cinnamon bun is causally basic in the story of how one ends up on his plate. It’s because he wanted a cinnamon bun that a particular pattern of neurons fired, causing his finger to tap the glass. And it’s because he wanted to express this intention that more neurons fired, thereby causing him to vocalize the desire to have one to the barista.[1]

In other words, if Sheridan is right then there’s no “mind” superintending the ordering of this man’s cinnamon bun that isn’t itself the consequence of blind, physical processes of cause-and-effect. Desire and choice are illusions. By contrast, a theistic account of reality provides an alternative that better explains our experience.

Hauser continues:

“This means we have at least one example of a non-physical substance—a mind or soul—that interacts with the physical world. And if souls can exist and interact with the world, then why not think that God could be another non-physical substance that interacts with the world?”[2]

1. Randal Rauser, The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2012), 102-3.

2. Ibid., 103.