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October 04, 2007

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Do Atheist’s really have a problem with explaining good and evil? I've talked to some who have a good understanding of evolution and they will simply say that good and evil are fictional constructs of our society and in no way objective realities.

Here is something similar to the way their view would go:

Speaking hypothetically, war only becomes "evil" when we are conditioned (whether from personal or second hand exposure) to its effects. The idea itself is neutral (like ice cream); it’s merely all the baggage (death, suffering, etc) that’s attached to it that causes us to view it as evil.

Which ultimately would mean that the reason we think war is evil is because of the death/suffering that it brings. And we ultimately only think those things are bad because we have been conditioned through the process of evolution to avoid pain (because depending on the degree/severity of pain [speaking in terms of biology, i.e. nerves] this may lead to death) in order that we may reach the prime directive (i.e. to reproduce ourselves and thus continue the species existence) that is driving the human race from being annihilated.

Things like valor, bravery, and honor are merely illusions that our brain has evolved to “trick us” so that we will think we have a purpose in life, because those organisms that have a “purpose” will have a better chance of reaching the prime directive than those who do not. So “good” is actually an “illusion” that evolution has developed to “trick us” into giving us a purpose in hopes of keeping us alive long enough to reach the prime directive.

Curious what you guys think the best approach to respond to this type of argument would be.

Your brother in Christ,

-Josh

There are plenty of people who ponder "the problem of good" and "the problem of evil" who don't arrive at God or Christianity. I myself am agnostic/taoist, I think debating evolution and creation is a waste of time. How we came to be is something unknowable in the distant past, where we go after we die is an equally unknowable thing in the future, the answers should not effect our moral decisions in the present. The moral code everyone should follow and that everyone agrees on is the simple concept of the golden rule, it's the one thing all religions can agree on because it's the one and only thing that's true, everything else is superstition.
Peace

Josh, thanks for your thought provoking post. What is usually meant by the phrase "prime directive" ? I've heard it used elsewhere but have never seen it defined or clarified.

Alan,

The way that has been explained to me and the way that I have come to understand the term “prime directive” is this: it means the biological mechanism that is used to ensure the survival of the species.

Let me explain a little more, from an evolutionary standpoint the prime directive accounts for every adaptation/mutation within life because “life’s function” (by its very definition) is to live; thus its constantly and actively engaged in “living”. So the sole purpose (they wouldn’t use “purpose” in the same sense most Christian’s use the word, because they are speaking purely in naturalistic terms) of life is to pass on ones genes, thus ensuring the survival of the species. This I think is what most atheistic evolutionists mean when they use the term “prime directive”.

Some one who has read much more or understand the concept of this please correct me, this is my limited understanding of the concept from my brief reading and conversations with atheists.

Hope this is useful.

Your brother in Christ,

-Josh

Hi Steve, your comments would generate a number of fruitfull questions, but the follwoing one is one I wanted to pursue a bit further:

"The moral code everyone should follow and that everyone agrees on is the simple concept of the golden rule, it's the one thing all religions can agree on because it's the one and only thing that's true, everything else is superstition."

Can you tell me where Christianity teaches "The golden rule". Actually, can you tell me what you mean by "the golden rule". Also, why did you say "everything else superstition"? What part of the other religions are superstition?


Steve,

Religions may agree on the "what" of the golden rule (though that is highly debateable), but they clearly disagree on the "how" and "why" of the golden rule. How is the golden rule to be applied? Why is the golden rule to be applied? Most religions identify and institute moral codes as a means to an end (there is something to achieve by harmonious living); on those things, they disagree: is it to attain Nirvana, harmony with the Tao, paradise with Allah? Even if it is conceded that the main goal is "this-worldy," peace among people, you have to struggle with the issue of how you know peace is good and why is it good? Regardless, the reasons for living out the golden rule differ. In other words, living thoughtful of others is a means to achieve what could be called salvation, though variously named and defined by the religions. Christianity holds out that the golden rule is most applicable as a response to something attained, salvation. Those who are not saved still are able to identify what is good, but this derives from a sense of morality that may be a remnant of the image of God tarnished by the fall (I am obviously employing a Christian perspective, but investigate the religions and you find that they identify some problem with humans, leading them to not live as they should).

If it is goodness for goodness's sake as appears to be your argument, you still have to reckon with the issue (read here definition) of goodness. This means that you have to identify on what basis something is deemed good as opposed to evil. The matter of the why then follows. This brings you back to square one.

Ultimately, the matter begins with epistemology: how do you know what good is? Then it moves to purpose: why should I live the good?

I thought the "prime directive" was StarfleetGeneral Order #1, which dictates that there can be no interference with the internal affairs of other civilizations. Applying it to biological processes anthropomorphizes them.

“In the final episode of the documentary "The War" last night, the first vet made the point we all agree on that war is evil.”

I disagree with this statement outright; so I guess not all agree.

I think that the 2 (basic) camps are:

(1) Someone or something from "outside" determines what good and evil are, and

(2) We determine what good and evil are from inside.

If one is atheist or agnostic, I don't see how (2) can be avoided.

But if we don't want the "prime directive" to be "the end justifies the means", then we are left with (1)...which is God making the rules (one way or another).

If the God of conservative, reformed Christianity is the one whose rules we accept, then good and evil are very well defined indeed.

So the golden rule is supreme because of majority vote, eh? And that makes it true? That's an argumentum ad populum, and it's a logical fallacy. Having everyone agree to a proposition doesn't make it true. It may be true on other grounds, but it can't be true by virtue of popular vote.

I don't think radical Muslims play by the golden rule; they're willing to kill those who refuse to convert to Islam, but I don't think they would like it if other religions decided to kill them if they didn't convert.

So Steve, you adhere to the golden rule because that's what the majority of folks agree to? Seems copacetic enough to me. But what about when the majority comes to a conclusion you don't agree with, such as the majority of Americans believe in God, however you are an agnostic? On what grounds do you dissent? What objective peg do you hang your hat on?

The golden rule is not going with the majority or giving people what they want, it's doing what's best for everyone instead of just yourself. Doing what's best for everyone, the "how" of the golden rule, is not always a simple solution, sometimes it even involves something as complicated and dangerous as war. War is not always evil (causing imbalance) sometimes it is necessary for good (restoring balance). I believe the golden rule is universal, people call it different things, the holy spirit, conscience, the Tao, group supporting behaviors inherited through evolution, whatever you want to call it. As for solving the "problem" of good and evil, it's not important. I don't see anything wrong with goodness for goodness's sake. Good makes people happy, peaceful, virtuous, so why not? This is the truth I've found, like Scott said, "from inside," which is where everyone should look for truth, not ancient books and invisible beings.
Peace

War isn't evil. People are evil. War is a result of that fact, in one way or another. Even wars that are fought to oppose some evil end up liberating evil in some of those fighting on the side of the 'good'.

War is, to paraphrase Washington on government, like fire; a dangerous servant and a fearsome master.

Steve,
since you think that there is nothing wrong with finding truths within yourself and then following them, I guess you will have no problem with my finding the in me that tells me that selfishness that leads to my taking what is yours so that I can enrich myself and have a better life with
at your expense trumps your golden rule?

Why should I abandon my rule, arrived at in the same way as you arrived at yours and gaining me better things, in favor of yours? After all, the only one I have to answer to is myself and what truths I find inside myself...right?

yeah there is no good or evil without god.

It's extremely hard to get the godless to see this.

You are right, your 'truth' and my 'truth' are often different, and that affects our decisions. I cannot convince you that you are wrong or stop you from taking action. By looking inside for answers you take responsibility for your own actions. Like you said, you would only have yourself to answer to and only yourself to blame. The reason this is important to me is that people use God as a trump card all the time. Justifying actions through God just isn't fair to the rest of us who might have a bone to pick with this God but we can't find his address and he apparently doesn't do interviews. And even if he did talk to us, he doesn't sound like he's someone we could negotiate with, he deals in absolutes. Or does he? Going back to something Scott said,

"If the God of conservative, reformed Christianity is the one whose rules we accept, then good and evil are very well defined indeed."

I've never heard of "conservative reformed Christianity," so I might be just showing my ignorance, but aren't the words conservative and reformed opposites? Anyway, if good and evil are so well defined why are there so many things Christians don't agree on? I believe there's not only black and white but also shades of gray, the world is constantly changing, yin and yang in constant motion. This golden rule I've been advocating is, to me, the best way to live in a changing world. Ultimately, arguing is futile, it's human nature to want to be right. All I can do is ask that you seriously consider finding your own path instead of following the one you've been given.
Peace

Steve,

"You are right, your 'truth' and my 'truth' are often different, and that affects our decisions. I cannot convince you that you are wrong or stop you from taking action. By looking inside for answers you take responsibility for your own actions."

Why should you even try to convince me of the validity of your truth over mine if the only distinction between them is that they are different? It would make sense if one of us was wrong and the other right. In other words, you must be convinced that your truth better reflects reality than mine does. To put it simply, you must believe that I am wrong and that you are right. This is not about taking responsibility for actions, but an examination of the motivation behind them.

"you would only have yourself to answer to and only yourself to blame."

If you really believe this, then why are you bothering to try to convince me of the superiority of your position to that of mine? I am, after all, only answerable to my own counsel and not yours...or are you no longer sure of that?

"The reason this is important to me is that people use God as a trump card all the time. "

Well, now, that might be important to you, but why should that be important to me? According to your philosophy, I should be only interested in the truths that I am the source of and my internal source says you are wrong regarding what is important and what isn't. I am frankly baffled why you should not be ecstatic that I am using the exact means you employ...unless of course you see a problem with your method not leading to the same conclusions you arrived at.


"justifying actions through God just isn't fair to the rest of us who might have a bone to pick with this God but we can't find his address and he apparently doesn't do interviews."

Now why should any of us agree with your idea of fair? What is fair if it is only your internal source that tells you what that is? If I consider it perfectly fair from my own internal source, you have to show me why I should bother with your definition of the word. Are you abandoning your position that the personal internal source for truth regarding fairness is the definitive means of determining what is true?


"And even if he did talk to us, he doesn't sound like he's someone we could negotiate with, he deals in absolutes. Or does he? Going back to something Scott said,"

Well, now...perhaps the problem is that you aren't on speaking terms with God...have you considered that possibility?
You wish to negotiate with a God who gives you everything you have or need? What's to negotiate? Unless you are waging war, perhaps, there is no need for negotiation. Perhaps you should be asking yourself the question: "Am I waging war with God and do I need to make peace with him and how do I go about doing that?" Perhaps, just perhaps, those are the really important questions you should be asking.

Think about it.

Steve, if you aren't concerned with the problem of good or evil, the origins of humanity, the final destination of all of us, and to top it all off you believe that truth is relative and debate is futile, I'm not sure I understand why you are participating in this forum. I appreciate your willingness to share your opinions, but according to your own position, everyone's opinions are every bit as valid and correct as yours.

Do you realize over the course of three postings you've changed your position from making truth claims about the "superstition" of all religions to saying all truth is relative? You do know that agnosticism doesn't allow you to make objective truth claims, right?

Please don't accuse me of being a relativist, I am far from it. Greg Koukl's arguement against relativism is what drew me to this website. I believe that truth, good and evil are not relative, they are just very hard to define. I have been a Christian (well, Mormon to be exact) for the majority of my life, and I have studied many religions and philosophies over many years. I think I understand Christianity better than my current Taoist beliefs that I am still learning. As it is with all worthy spiritual persuits, I will probably continue learning all my life.

"In other words, you must be convinced that your truth better reflects reality than mine does. To put it simply, you must believe that I am wrong and that you are right."

You caught me! I can't deny it, I believe you are making a mistake by putting your trust in God. After years of seeking, I believe the Taoist world view is the best reflection of reality and also the best way to follow to find true and lasting happiness. Your faith in God and my faith (I guess you could also call it faith, though it's more like intuition) in the Tao are not things that can be argued with logic. Why am I participating in this forum? Good question. I guess it's because I want to better understand your way of thinking and I want you to better understand mine. And not only understand it, but give it some serious consideration.
Peace

"Please don't accuse me of being a relativist, I am far from it. Greg Koukl's arguement against relativism is what drew me to this website. I believe that truth, good and evil are not relative, they are just very hard to define."

Ok. Do you find it as difficult to identify them?

" I have been a Christian (well, Mormon to be exact) for the majority of my life, and I have studied many religions and philosophies over many years."

Ok. Let me try to put it this way. I was a Catholic who converted to Christianity. Being a Catholic was a lot like when you try to drive a car from the east coast to the west coast by learning about driving a car, never having driven before. Learning about driving won't get you there, learning to drive...you have a chance.
Being a Mormon in this example is more like driving a car from east coast to west coast by learning about driving a motorcycle having never driven either a motorcycle or a car. You have less than no chance of getting there with the car.

"I think I understand Christianity better than my current Taoist beliefs that I am still learning. As it is with all worthy spiritual persuits, I will probably continue learning all my life."

Well, my friend, if your only background in Christianity is a Mormon one, then you really need to browse through the many bits of information stored on this website. I'm afraid that there is a gigantic difference between a classical understanding of Christianity and that taught by LDS. Looking at either from the vantage point of the other, you would never mistake them as being the same.

"You caught me! I can't deny it, I believe you are making a mistake by putting your trust in God. "

Fair enough.


"After years of seeking, I believe the Taoist world view is the best reflection of reality and also the best way to follow to find true and lasting happiness. "

Ok. The thing is this, is the seeking of your own happiness the ultimate good? Let me give you an example. A soldier throws himself on a grenade to save his fellow soldiers. A soldier deserts his unit in order to be with his sweetheart so that he can achieve happiness.
Now, in the two examples, which of the two is the greater good?
It is good that you are here corresponding with us because it does seem that you need to. You see, a dedicated Christian's goal is not a selfish pursuit of happiness. If it were, there would be no Mother Theresa.

"Tao are not things that can be argued with logic."

If that is the case, how do you know that you are not simply relying on feelings? You said that you are seeking lasting happiness...but that is a self contradiction. It is the nature of happiness to be fleeting...ephemeral as are feelings in general. It is sort of analogous of trying to get a square circle. There just ain't no such a thing. You are chasing vacuum my friend.

" Why am I participating in this forum? Good question. I guess it's because I want to better understand your way of thinking and I want you to better understand mine. "

Well, now, that is a noble cause indeed. I certainly hope you will achieve both and that in some small way, we can be of help.

"And not only understand it, but give it some serious consideration."

Consider this statement from Lao Tzu then "Therefore, the sage puts his own person last."

How do you accomplish this by selfishly seeking lasting happiness?

How do you accomplish this by selfishly seeking lasting happiness?

Wow dude, just wow... did you not catch what I said about the golden rule? Try to pay attention, this is what I've been saying. Letting go of your ego, your self, serving and loving others, doing what's best for everyone, not just yourself, even if it means sacrificing your life, is what will make you truly happy. You are putting a very narrow definition on the word happiness. Lao Tzu is absolutely right, can't you see how his words echo in the words of Jesus in Mark 10:31? There are whole books written on the parallels between the Tao Te Ching and the New Testament. Some even claim Lao Tzu's words were an ancient prophecy of Jesus. The main difference between these two texts is Jesus claiming to be God, and that's where the problem lies. I started out as a Mormon, but there was a time when I believed in Christianity as well. I read the Bible, I read C.S.Lewis and other authors, I prayed for salvation and felt I was saved, I was convinced. But it wasn't too long before I saw problems which led me to where I am.

I sympathize with the Christian view. Jesus is like the original Superman, he knows what's right, he catches the bad guys, everything is black and white and everything works out in the end. It's nice to look at all the evil in the world and say it serves a purpose because God is testing us or because God gave us free will, or because we have to know evil to know good or any other argument that explains why there is evil in a world created by a perfect God. It's nice to look at all the injustice in the world and think God will sort it all out in the end. I think that is the strongest argument for belief in God. Mankind cannot solve its own problems so we need God to solve them for us. I think we ought to have more faith in ourselves and not look at death as a problem to be solved or saved from.
Peace

"How do you accomplish this by selfishly seeking lasting happiness?

Wow dude, just wow... did you not catch what I said about the golden rule? Try to pay attention, this is what I've been saying. Letting go of your ego, your self, serving and loving others, doing what's best for everyone, not just yourself, even if it means sacrificing your life, is what will make you truly happy. "

But your ultimate goal in doing all this is your own happiness...right? Is that what you think the Golden Rule is there for? Did the second person of the trinity lower himself to our level and bore all our sins for His own benefit...or solely for ours? You say that I missed something by not paying attention to what you said. I think that I have been paying very close attention not only to what you said regarding your philosophy, but to your stated goals as well. I see them as being at odds with each other as one of them promotes selflessness and the other pursues selfish ends.
I don't doubt that you have an academic understanding of the things you say you either believed or do believe now, but it seems to me that when you push away from the pure academics to the more practical application in life, the inherent contradiction between your personal goals and your adopted philosophy make the actualization of your philosophy impossible.


"have more faith in ourselves and not look at death as a problem to be solved or saved from."

I think this is an interesting statement. Part of the reason I became a Christian is because I came to the end of myself and found myself unworthy of faith. Surely it is not that uncommon a human experience to have failed others and yourself. If any of us reflects on the lives we have led, I am fairly sure that each of us can come up with examples of that being the case. Based on this truth, why are any of us worthy of faith?
You admit that we are creatures that need to have faith in something and this is a starting point that both of us can agree on. Where we seem to part company is in the evaluation of who is worthy of that faith. I am simply not convinced that a failable human being like myself is more worthy of that than a perfect unfailing God.
BTW-Placing faith in yourself does not lead to lasting happiness, but may tragic misstatements. So, your philosophy is actually leading you away from your goal.


Happiness is really just a side effect of living a good life. For Christians you give your will to God, for me I try to get rid of it entirely. If you have no personal desires you rid yourself of all the feelings that lead to 'sin' like greed, envy, pride, etc, and feelings of love, compassion, and happiness come in. If you give your will to God you have to figure out what God wants. This leads to either figuring out what the scriptures say (good luck with that), finding a preacher, prophet, pastor, pope, or other 'authority' to tell you what God wants (again, good luck with that) or praying directly to God. Praying to God might actually get you a good answer. If you ask God what he wants you know what he'll say? Nothing. Maybe you should try wanting nothing too and see where it leads you.

Good post.

I too have pondered this question. People who reject God often use the problem of evil as a "conversation-stopper," to prove beyond doubt that God does not exist, or if he does, he cannot be loving and just.

But two questions naturally arise from such an argument:

1) How do you judge what is "evil" if you have no objective standard by which to do so?

2) Given that evil exists, how do you explain the existence of good? That should be just as perplexing a question, in my view.

Thanks for your thought-provoking blog.

Now we're getting somewhere. This really gets to the heart of the issue.

1) How do you judge what is "evil" if you have no objective standard by which to do so?

This is where God has to come in, or for me, the Tao (the way). There has to be something above and beyond ourselves because we are imperfect. God and the Tao are very similar, both are mysterious, omnipresent, omnipotent, creators of everything, the source of life, posses the ultimate wisdom, etc. The difference is God is a personal being that you can get to know through prayer and obedience to his laws. The Tao is an unknowable force, to get to know the Tao you have to become familiar with and try to live in harmony with its manifestations, that is everything and everyone.

2) Given that evil exists, how do you explain the existence of good? That should be just as perplexing a question, in my view.

Good results from following God, or for me, the Tao. Here's how I see it. Following the Tao is like going straight to the source, following God without the 'middleman' to fog things up. By middleman I mean church, clergy and scripture.

Steve, if the Tao is "everything and everyone," then it is also the evil, so why would you judge it, and on what grounds?

"Steve, if the Tao is "everything and everyone," then it is also the evil, so why would you judge it, and on what grounds?"

Nothing is good or evil in and of itself, it is actions that are good or evil. A knife can be used to prepare a delicious meal, or to murder, the knife itself is neutral. The yin/yang symbol used to represent Taoism is often misinterpreted as a balance of good and evil. Yin and yang are pairs of opposites, like woman and man, cold and hot. Good comes from a balance of yin and yang, evil comes from imbalance.

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