December 1, 2010
Well. I hopped over to Common Sense Atheism today, where I found the transcript from Luke’s talk at Colorado State University, titled The Science Of Morality: No Gods Required.
First off, I wondered how it came to be that Luke – a newbie atheist who was a self-described irrational Christian just a few years ago – was granted the authority to educate students at a major university. What are his credentials? Should anybody with a popular blog be allowed to educate the populace in our public institutions? Lest any hasty inductors be tempted to cry ad hominem, allow me to clarify.
I’m not saying that credentials guarantee integrity and/or ability. I’m not saying that a lack of credentials guarantees a lack of integrity or ability, either. I’m not saying you shouldn’t believe Luke because he’s just another atheist blogger. There is no ad hominem strategy whatsoever in this delivery.
I’m saying I believe it is intellectually irresponsible and possibly even dangerous to allow popular – but unqualified – bloggers to give talks at a major university, where students should be getting their information from qualified professors. I am saying that in the interest of rigorous pursuit of truth, we need a system of checks and balances to make sure we aren’t misleading the students of this once-great nation, because tomorrow those students are going to be leading this once-great nation. I will also say that Luke did exactly that: though he certainly made some cogent remarks here and there, Luke misled the audience at Colorado State University on at least two specious claims that he’s already been called on here, here, here, and here, among other places. We’ll get to that, but for the sake of being charitable, allow me to state where I agree with Luke.
Beginning by drawing a distinction from the common theist claim that atheists can’t act morally – which he and I both agree is a false claim – Luke writes,
So maybe what [people] mean when they say you can’t have morality without God is that without God, nothing is REALLY right or REALLY wrong. Without God, it’s all just a matter of human opinion. Without God, it’s all just quarks and electrons bouncing around and there’s no OBJECTIVE VALUE in the world at all.
With the caveat of something like a moral field, I believe that is true as stated, and this is why I often declare that I would be an error theorist if I were an atheist. Luke continues,
…the phrase “OBJECTIVE moral value” means something like “moral value grounded in something beyond the attitudes of a person or persons.” Right? If what you’re calling “moral value” is just based off somebody’s personal attitudes, that’s called SUBJECTIVE morality. For example: If you say that what’s morally good for Ozzy Osbourne is whatever he thinks is good, and what’s morally good for Paris Hilton is whatever she thinks is good, that’s called Individual Subjectivism.
I believe that is also true as stated, but the ball begins slipping out of Luke’s hand right here:
Well, God-based morality says there’s this person named God, and whatever he thinks is good, is good. So this is another subjective theory! If God approved of rape, rape would be good. If God approved of racism, racism would be good. God-based morality is a SUBJECTIVE theory of morality, just by definition.
Wonderful in its simplicity, isn’t it? [/SARCASM]
Friends, this is either misleading negligence or willful dishonesty, and even though Luke has been corrected on this point before, I have no choice but to suspend judgment. I’m simply unaware of his motives, so I have no business speaking on them. Nonetheless, Luke’s use of the singular “God-based morality” implies that only one type of God-based morality exists: the kind that is grounded in the attitudes of a God or gods. Where is the evidence for this claim?
As it happens, I believe that claim is false, and sometimes I think of it in programming terms. Say you write some class of functions with specific parameters. Then – and only then – can it make sense to say there is something that all instances of the class “should” do. If there are no parameters, then it does not make sense to say there is something that instances of the class “should” or “should not” do. Thus, I argue that biblical theism->moral realism, and atheism->error theory.
Anyways, the salient point here is that Luke didn’t even mention that there is legitimate debate over these issues. He simply sets up the God-based morality he needs to make his point. IOW, he built a strawman and knocked it down, and that under the guise of rationalism at a major university. I don’t know about you, but I’m thoroughly disappointed.
As an aside, Luke’s definition of “subjective morality” renders desirism an equally subjective theory. Desires and aversions are attitudes towards propositions. The only difference is that as delineated thus far, desirism grounds morality in the subjective attitudes of all people instead of the subjective attitudes of any single person [desirism’s pertinence to animal desires has not yet been made clear]. I don’t have the citation directly handy, but I can guarantee you that Luke argues the same subjectivity. For example, he has claimed that if everybody desired to blast loud noise out of a boombox all day, that this would be moral. So then, what, exactly, is the difference between a person declaring as good that which fulfills their desires, vs. people declaring as good that which fulfills their desires? The former maps morality to the attitudes of a person, the latter maps morality to the attitudes of people. There is no correspondence to real-world fact. This is special pleading, plain and simple, but I digress.
Shifting his focus to William Lane Craig, Luke writes,
Well, [WLC] does it by using a different definition for what “objective morality” means. For Craig, “objective morality” means “morality grounded in something beyond the attitudes of a particular species of primate: homo sapiens.” Now, I think this is a bit sneaky, and kind of weird. Why would objective and subjective morality be defined in terms of the attitudes of a particular species of primate? That’s kind of strange.
Again, I agree wholeheartedly, and this is one of many reasons I’m generally not a fan of WLC’s arguments. Although, I would admonish Luke that his definition of objective morality is identical to Craig’s. After all, Luke just defined objective morality as “moral value grounded in something beyond the attitudes of a person or persons,” which is no different than Craig’s definition, since – as far as we know – all persons are Homo sapiens. Luke told the audience that Craig’s definition of objective morality is “sneaky,” yet his own definition is categorically equivalent! For the sake of maximizing clarity and avoiding charges of special pleading, I believe Luke should swap “person or persons” for “sentient being(s),” but again, I digress.
Here’s another point Luke has been corrected on many, many times, for example here and here: the God debate has not been decided. Yet, with flair and recklessness no less than the televangelist’s, Luke has the audacity to proclaim without evidence or argument that,
If you define “morally good” as “that which is commanded by God,” then nothing is morally good, because nothing is commanded by God, because God doesn’t exist.
As a theist, I find this annoying. As a respecter of logic and reason, I find it utterly deplorable. Luke effectively handwaves a millennia-old debate and foists his beliefs upon the impressionable minds at Colorado State University. Folks, this is no less deplorable than if WLC gave a talk in the same place and remarked that morality is whatever the Bible says, because God exists, and God wrote the Bible. I honestly believe that rational atheists and theists alike should condemn Luke for hypocritically preaching atheism and making claims about the real-world without real-world evidence to back them up. Do any atheist readers find this annoying or deplorable? If you share my concerns, please, by all means speak up, either here or at Common Sense Atheism. We can’t afford to replace one irrationality with another.
In his conclusion, Luke summarizes:
We DON’T need gods to have morality – and in fact, grounding your morality in God just makes morality SUBjective, because it’s grounded in the attitudes of a person.
That’s a three-tiered unjustified claim, and I fear that many in the audience probably swallowed it whole. After all, Luke is somewhat of a public figure, even if only in the small pond of (a)theist debate, and that’s going to carry some degree of authority. I won’t swallow any of it without question, though, and neither should you. IMHO, Luke should be asking questions and setting the stage for further debate, not simply asserting as truth what he believes to be true.