Yesterday while I was making lunch I listened to the latest Reasonable Faith podcast, called “The Real Consequences of Atheism.” One thing that was said got me thinking and it was about how atheists explain the tension between the fact that, on the one hand, naturalism excludes any kind of objective and universal basis for morality, but on the other hand, all humans live as if there are objective moral values and duties that are binding on all people. As of right now, the reason I’ve read and heard given to explain this tension is that humans have developed the (false) belief in objective morality in order to function, even though it’s not really true. So, going off this, I jotted down this argument that attempts to reduce such reasoning to absurdity.
(P1) Under naturalism, everything human beings are and do can be explained in that we are a highly advanced species due to our highly advanced brains. Ergo, there is no need for God.
(P2) Under naturalism there are no objective moral values or duties. Many atheists accept this as a necessary conclusion from naturalism.
(P3) Yet we intuitively know that some things are right and wrong, and everyone lives this way since nihilism is existentially repugnant. Even atheists live with strong moral values that they believe are objectively binding on all people (e.g., torturing people merely for fun is always wrong).
(P4) Atheists explain the dissonance between (P2) and (P3) by appealing to our highly evolved brains (P1) that have deluded us into thinking that there are such things as objective moral values and duties in order to aid human survival. But if we were to face the world as it really is (read: Dawkins, Ruse, etc.) then there is no morality and we are just reproducing genetic animals.
(P5) But, by definition, a brain that deludes people as to the nature of reality and causes us to live inconsistently with how things really are (regarding morality) – regardless of the delusion’s utility for survival – is not highly evolved. In fact it is a malfunctioning brain.
(C1) If our brain is not highly evolved due to its moral ontological malfunctioning, then naturalism, which is predicate upon the theory of a highly evolved brain to explain our existence and rationality, is false.
(C2) Furthermore, if our brains are not highly evolved and are in fact malfunctioning biological tissue, then we should not trust our brains to tell us about the nature of reality. This means we can’t believe our brains when it tells us humans have evolved without God and that there is no objective morality. (This is essentially Plantinga’s argument in Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism). Therefore, naturalism is false.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that this argument might not work. I think the weight of the argument lies on P4 and P5. I could be that someone might want to flip P5 around and say that a brain that has learned to overcome the moral nihilism of the world and deceive people into believing in and practicing moral duties in order to survive is the essence of a highly advanced brain. I don’t know. I guess the question to be answered is what a highly advanced brain that is bent on survival would do to overcome the threat of nihilism. But is this question even answerable? I’m putting this argument it out there to be examined and vetted. It came to me quickly and on the spot. I haven’t refined it very well. Perhaps with some tweaking (or a major overhaul) it could be developed into a formidable arguments. All (constructive) comments are welcome, whether you agree or disagree.
Prima facie, it would seem that from the similar universal moral experiences of human beings, there does indeed exist objective moral values and duties. If this is so then naturalism would have to explain how such moral objectivity is to be ontologically grounded. Now certainly many atheists have attempted this, not the least Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Harris fails, as do those who posit some kind of contractarianism or brute facts to explain how humans have evolved universal moral values. On the flip side, there are many atheists who are brutally honest on the moral implications of naturalism. Take Richard Dawkins for instance (from River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, p. 133):
The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. … DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.
Or again, listen to what Michael Ruse has to say (from “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in The Darwinian Paradigm, pp. 262, 269):
The position of the modern evolutionist … is that humans have an awareness of morality … because such an awareness is of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. … Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. … Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction and has no being beyond or without this.
Now it could be that these atheists are in the small minority; or perhaps they have changed their minds. That is an internal discussion for atheism to have. Yet as far as I know, there is no good explanation on naturalism for objective morality. And any claim that our moral intuitions are illusory tricks played on us by our highly advanced brains seems to be an absurd claim.