Friday, September 10, 2010

Morality, God

I left this comment in response to an article about an atheist who felt himself compelled to abandon the idea of objective morality.

There's nothing logically impossible about holding the two beliefs:

1. Moral truths exist.
2. God does not.

One can believe right and wrong are brute facts of the universe (as many assert God is), that is, things that simply are, and are not explained by other deeper facts. They are like laws of physics--brunt, irreducible, simply there--and not like biological laws, which are really just generalizations from deeper chemical (and then physical) facts. To ask who created morality is as fallacious as asking who created God. It is that is.

Nonetheless, many of the reasons for rejecting the existence of God are similar to the reasons for rejecting the existence of morality: you can't see morality, people believe in different moralities, etc. So though one can hold those two beliefs simultaneously, they have to deal with the tension.

For my part, the tension eventually became too much, and I went from soft atheist to hard atheist. The reason was, however, parenthetical to theology. It actually came from reading David Chalmers's the Conscious Mind, in which he argues that everything reduces to physical facts, except consciousness. Moral truth, aesthetic truth, and other sorts of truth are abandoned. I found the argument compelling.

Nonetheless, I still act in a way most people would consider moral. I turn the other cheek. But I do this, in my view, not to follow any objective notion of right or wrong, but simply to follow my own preferences, which--fortunately--line up with most peoples'. Indeed, becoming a moral skeptic hasn't changed my behavior at all. I just swapped an objective grounding with a subjective one.

This is part of a deeper ontological indifference of mine. I am generally uninterested in whether something has a subjective or objective grounding--we can, for example, argue about the quality of a movie and in so doing be appealing to either 1. an objective ideal of cinematic truth, or 2. our personal preferences as to what's a good movie. But the standard--objective or subjective--we base the argument on is far less interesting to me than the actual argument.


James said...

Your correspondent may have simply been unclear. It may be that when he calls himelf an atheist, he actually means to say that he is something stronger, e.g. an eliminative materialist, in which case he really can't believe that moral truths exist.

Scott said...

Actually the person had been a moral realist but found over time his atheism pushed him toward an eliminative materialism he ultimately accepted. But as I said, this isn't a logical necessity (although the same thing happened to me).