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« Francis Schaeffer - 100 Years | Main | Plans for a Temple to Atheism »

January 31, 2012


Interesting position by Dawkins, who has gone on the record saying there is no such thing as good or evil, just blind pitiless indifference and that wanting something to be true doesn't make it so.

If there is no such thing as good or evil, there is no should, and if there is no should how can there be a moral?

Good is what helps the species progress? Why should the universe care if we exist at all? If we all murdered each other, the rest of the universe would continue on it's merry way as if nothing happened. In a strict materialist sense, what we do or don't do doesn't matter. Even looking for a moral is a meaningless action.

So, in my opinion, much of Dawkin's statements are more sound bites to market himself than and deep philosophical musings.

"Dawkins blunders by claiming that if God created the universe then His existence needs an explanation, so it explains nothing. Dawkins obviously has never attempted to consider the arguments he disagrees with."

Hardly a blunder. Its a very reasonable point.

All in all, the existence and emergence of morals is a very interesting question. Maybe science cant offer an explanation. Doesn't give you the right to claim goddunnit.

Melinda writes,

We do need God, however, to account for the existence of morals. Evolution - no natural process - can do that. Morals are immaterial, universal values. They aren't physical things so science can't study them and natural processes can't explain them.

Notice that Melinda is writing as though moral values are entities that actually exist. If that is right, then presumably the following question is entirely fair: If moral values are entities that actually exist, then how many moral values are there?

The answer can only be finite or infinite. If the latter, then should we infer that, contrary to Dr. Craig’s claims, an actually infinite collection of things can exist, and so at least one line of argumentation in favor of the kalam cosmological argument fails? Perhaps Melinda’s view is that although moral values exist, there are only a finite number of them. In that case, one wonders if the number of moral values is even or odd.

I'd say that the atheist view is that we truly possess an ability to assess morality – and that this ability was created during evolution as a mean to advance the cause of both individuals and whole species. This faculty, including sub-faculties such as reasoning or empathy, enables us to create moral relations toward different objects. Empathy is in fact a key to the morality – we can see that it is strong in areas that we can easily relate ourselves to and weak in areas that are foreign to us.

For example the problem people usually have with animal cruelty is that it that they can easily relate to the pain animals feel (we can even see that we are more sensitive towards animals that are able to express their pain more clearly then let’s say towards fish). People seldom feel bad about it because they would feel they are infringing the stewardship God gave them! They feel much clearer “moral” impulse to abuse of animals then to abuse of flowers, though the degree of immorality in both cases from the steward’s point of view would be quite similar.

Another example of empathy being basis of our perception of morals is a case of financial fraud. Though the fraud can amount incredibly high amounts of money that could objectively be used to elevate suffering of many people, we tend to perceive it with lesser interest and passion then one child being abused. From God’s perspective the first case could be far more serious – but our empathy allows us to connect rather to the later case.

Jumper, Dawkins' point was not at all reasonable. It was plainly absurd because it leads to an infinite regress and makes it impossible to explain anything at all. It's curious that you'd be so impressed with Dawkins' reasoning, then turn right around and admit that science can't explain morals. If morals can't be explained, then by Dawkins' own reasoning, he has no business believing in them.

Faire, your account explains moral epistemology, but it does not explain moral ontology. Moral ontology is the issue here. The question isn't how it is we are capable of thinking in moral categories or why we recognize a distinction between right and wrong. The question is why we actually ought to behave in certain ways. Why are we obligation to pay any attention to the sense of right and wrong that we all apprehend? Where does the obligation come from, not just the sense of obligation?


You cant just hand wave away the objection like that. Its absurd to insist that everything that begins to exist has a cause and then hide the creator from this by claiming that "God is a person, and as an immaterial being wthout a beginning, He has no need of a cause and is an adequate explanation in Himself." How do you justify that claim? On what basis? Self licking lollipop.
The rest of your post doesnt make sense. Science might be able to explain morals - I dont know. Science cant explain poetry - should we not believe in poetry? Absurd.

Still doesn't answer what a moral is if there is no right or wrong in the first place.

You are only stating preferences, and calling them morals.

Why should I care about other people's preferences? The universe doesn't.

Jumper, since the only defense you gave of Dawkins' reasoning was to say, "Hardly a blunder. It's a very reasonable point," I didn't think it required much more than handwaving. But I didn't just handwave. I gave you a reason for why his reasoning is absurd. It leads to an infinite regress and makes it impossible to explain anything. The handwaving was on your part.

As far as how to reconcile the notion that "Everything that begins to exist has a cause" with the notion that "God has no beginning and no need of a cause," the answer should immediately jump out at you. If everything that begins to exist requires a cause, then if God didn't begin to exist, then God doesn't require a cause. Where is the difficulty?

I am not suggesting that if science can't explain morals that we shouldn't believe in morals. I'm suggesting that by Dawkins' own flawed reasoning we should not believe in morals if we have no explanation for them. I totally agree with you that it would be absurd to deny the existence of poetry just because science can't explain it. Take up your objection with Dawkins.


My difficulty is with this premise:

"then if God didn't begin to exist, then God doesn't require a cause."

How do you know that? Its special pleading.

Besides, the whole Kalaam Cosmological argument falls apart when confronted by physics. And I read your post about it on your blog.

I have no idea what you are on about wrt Dawkins own flawed reasoning so if you want to point me to where he claims "we should not believe in morals if we have no explanation for them" Id be very interested., thank you.

Sam: I am a lawyer and perhaps my way of thinking is a bit influenced by that ;) I see obligation as a prescribed behavior followed by a result (in this case negative one) if that behavior is not fulfilled. Now when we speak about natural law (e.g. law of gravity) we do not commonly argue that there has to be a law-giver for the law to exist – the law is just describing effects of an action. In the same way there could be moral laws without a law-giver – there would be just behavior and its effects. For example to murder people does arguably have a negative effect to your psychic health – it is not beneficiary to you. The only difference that arises with the existence of God is that he is able to impose the negative effects Himself by sovereign and individual acts of His will. The only obligation in this way of thinking is that to behave morally pays off in the end – why do you think that there is more then this?

If God did not begin to exist, then the event of his beginning to exist did not happen. How can there be a cause for an event that didn't happen?

What aspect of physics is at play here?

Just askin.

Actually for the materialist it is quite worse. Since by thier admission evolution is ateleological there is no difference between survival and nonsurvival other than the former reproduces and the latter does not. similarly there is no difference between enlightenment and non-enlightenment, and it follows none between moral and non-moral.
DNA just dances with no goal or purpose. To quote the honey badger "DNA don't care."

Jumper, to say that if God doesn't have a beginning, then he doesn't need a cause is not special pleading, because we are not excepting God from anything. Look carefully at the first premise in Kalam. It does not say, "Whatever exists requires a cause." If it did, then God would require a cause. Rather, it says, "Whatever begins to exist requires a cause." If God didn't begin to exist, then this premise does not apply to God. It does not apply to anything that does not begin to exist.

I did not say that Dawkins said "we should not believe in morals if we have no explanation for them." What I said was that by Dawkins' reasoning we should not believe in morals if we have no explanation for them. Dawkins thinks that before you can postulate an explanation, you have to first have an explanation of the explanation. If you don't have an explanation of the explanation, then you haven't explained anything. But that leads to an infinite regress because if you need an explanation for everything you're attempting to explain, then you also need an explanation of every explanation you're using to explain things, ad infinitum. And that means it's not possible to explain anything. If morality has no explanation, then we cannot be justified in believing in morality by this reasoning. But Dawkins believes in morality, and he also does not require an explanation for everything explanation he thinks is valid, and that undermines his reasoning. He is inconsistent, and he HAS to be inconsistent since his reasoning about explanations is plainly absurd.

Faire, I don't think the analogy with the laws of nature is valid because the laws of nature are descriptive whereas moral laws are prescriptive. While I could grant that you can have a law of nature without a law-giver, it would not follow that you could have a moral law without a law-giver.

I don't think a negative result is necessary for an obligation. What's necessary is some sort of authority. As a lawyer, you should recognize the difference between a recognize governing authority imposing legal obligations on people and a band of misfits attempting to impose legal obligations on people. We have a legal obligation to obey the civil law, but if a group of people got together and drafted a constitution in their basement, it would have no authority over us. Legal obligations get their force from legitimate authorities.

Well, if it is possible for there to be an unjust law, then there is a realm of morality that transcends law and that law can be judged by. That means there must be an authority that stands over and above human laws. They are both prescriptive, after all.

Morals take the form of imperatives. Do this; don't do that. If there is not a person with legitimate authority issuing these imperatives, then we have no obligation to obey them. I don't know how to argue this to people who just don't see it, but it seems obvious to me.


And what I asked was - how do you know that God didnt begin to exist?

In any case, the first premise of the Kalam is false, which makes the argument unsound. It extends the notion of existence ex materia to existsence ex nihilo - clearly 2 different concepts

The rest of that post looks like a strawman of epic proportions. If you dont refer to a quote backed up by a citation then its tricky to make any comment

Sam: My point is that moral laws can be subsumed under the natural laws without any big difficulty.

As for legal obligations, you could also say that they take their power from the possibility of their enforcement (it is better for me to go along the rules, otherwise they catch me). People do also behave according to law because they consider it to be "good behavior" - but then again, the believe that they can profit from it. Therefore they again care about the effect, not some kind of abstraction. As long as the effect matters, there is no real need for a law-giver.

As for the wrong law - the effect that matters here is that the bad law is harming in the long way. Again you do not really need anything transcendent.

As for the last paragraph: let's say that lying, abusing and manipulating people harms you, your relationships and enviroment in the long run. Again, you would be wise to abstain from such behavior even if no legal authority sanctions that behavior.

In the end I believe that the question really depends on one point - whether the main incentive of moral behavior is its beneficial effect, or something more abstract. When I am making moral choices I try to do what God's tell us not primarily because He is my authority, but because I believe he is a loving and wise God and His commandments are what is actually best for us. In the same way I could be striving for morally worth choices even if I believed there is no God but such choices will benefit to me and society surrounding me.


What does it mean: 'begins to exist'?
What begins to exist?
What doesn't?
How do you know?

It's amazing that people can just sit in chairs and decide things about the world by starting with stuff like this.


"It's amazing that people can just sit in chairs and decide things about the world by starting with stuff like this."

Exactly. A little understanding of quantum mechanics would go a long way in helping people not be so brash.

Lawrence Krauss's new book is a good introduction to this kind of thing.

"cosmological explanation is logically sound and doesn't beg the question of God's existence. In that way at least, it is explanatorily superior to evolution for the origin of the universe."

When did evolution become a theory that explains the origin of the universe?!


I couldn't dig out a citation off the top of my head, but I have heard of Dawkins and other New Atheists claiming that, via the multiverse hypothesis, the universe "evolved" by being spontaneously created and destroyed a bazillion times over, until it hit the right target for life to exist. It's how they get around the issue of fine tuning, by applying evolutionary theory to cosmology. Of course, it's about as apt as the whole 'memetics' nonsense to explain ideas. Shows what happens when your only tool is a hammer.

It’s a shame that we live in a world where folks like Dawkins and Sam Harris regularly get out their water-guns and try to shoot down theism while high-fiving each other with self-satisfaction the mutual exchange of flattery (witness: They seem to think quite highly of themselves for not believing in what, according to them, only an idiot would believe, thereby proving themselves no adherents of the principle that the more obviously idiotic something is, the less impressed one should be with oneself for not believing it. Furthermore, if grown men parading their water-guns as rocket launchers is not bad enough, these guys even do this stuff in public, and before adoring and applauding audiences! I kid you not! Is anyone else reminded of those artisans discussed in Plato’s Apology, concerning which Socrates says the following?

because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom - therefore I asked myself on behalf of the oracle, whether I would like to be as I was, neither having their knowledge nor their ignorance, or like them in both; and I made answer to myself and the oracle that I was better off as I was.

Having attended a lot of philosophy colloquiums, I’ve seen speakers in the question and answer session not realize that their arguments were just blown out of the water, despite the fact that everyone else in the room knew it. It’s rather awkward, I must say. But what I’ve never witnessed is someone succeed in sustaining such obliviousness for months and even years. For instance, it is by now a well-known fact that Dawkins’ “central argument” against theism (as presented in The God Delusion, I think) is not even logically valid, and so the “central argument” is rather a botch. As far as I can tell, however, Dawkins doesn’t know this (correct me if I’m wrong there). The poor guy actually thinks his argument is good.

Smugness has never reached the heights that it has with Sam Harris. He publicly talked down to Peter Singer and Simon Blackburn, who have both probably forgotten more philosophy than Harris will ever know, and received quite the paddling for it. It’s on youtube for those strong souls that are interested and can bear to listen.

The circus really gets going when these guys try to go toe to toe with Plantinga, which is rather like listening to children brag about how badly they could beat up Muhammad Ali. They criticize his arguments as though they first understood them, and congratulate themselves on having refuted them. But I doubt that Dawkins would recognize a refutation if one slapped him in the face, since, after all, a refutation is known to have slapped him in the face (I have Craig in mind here), and I’m not sure he noticed it on that occasion.

Lawrence Krauss versus the Kalam? Yeah, I remember how that went.

trip trap trip trap

"He publicly talked down to Peter Singer and Simon Blackburn, who have both probably forgotten more philosophy than Harris will ever know"

Mal, if you're ever in SC, I'll buy you the first beer.


Well thank you for the offer!

I think I know what you are thinking of. There is way more going on here than the swinging of hammers. And please, stop bringing up Dawkins if you are going to talk about cosmology. Sure, he talks about it in layman terms in his book but he constantly differs to the experts and scientists in this field. It's like if I picked Kirk Cameron as the default christian to argue with over a vast array of theological issues. It's easy, unfair and fruitless.

Melinda branding evolution as an explanation of the origin of the universe is a category error either way she meant it. One I often have to address.


I wouldn't hold Dawkins as representative of the thinking atheist--that was sorta the general point folks here were thrusting at, I think. You just asked who the heck would posit that the universe evolved. I quite agree that cherry-picking the weakest form of the other side's argument to criticise is "easy, unfair and fruitless." My apologies if it came off like I was trying to do that, I simply meant to footnote.


Have you heard of Turok and Steinhardt?


"Lawrence Krauss versus the Kalam? Yeah, I remember how that went."

Thanks for the unfunny joke

I don't really like first person shooters, so I didn't get into the Turok series.

Didn't Steinhardt write the Grapes of Wrath?


Maybe you should expand your horizons a little.

Fine tuning? Hasn't that one been debunked enough for you?


Are you under the impression that mentioning the names of physicists makes an argument? You do seem awfully fond of punctuating sentences with things like "NOMA", as if the ghost of S. J. Gould is going to rise up and make your point for you.


I'm bored of people claiming that their brand of superstition is accurate because science hasn't explained this that and the other. This is precisely what NOMA informs one to steer away from. If you want to suggest that multiverse theories are inaccurate then I suggest you avail yourself of current thinking in cosmology, and what Turok and Steinhardt are saying, rather than try to be funny.


Besides, you could have just answered no to my question instead of making you joke. Did I not ask a reasonable question?


I have no trouble believing that you're bored.

Incidentally, I make my steady income editing journals of physics which cover seismic imaging, elementary physics, cosmological models, and so on. In other words, on a daily basis, I read articles about quantum physics that haven't even been published yet.

You don't know your interlocutor. You don't know what Steinhardt and Turok actually said. You don't appear to have the patience to read an extended article in an academic journal, or have the education or sophistication to process it if you *did* read more than an abstract.

So don't get too huffy if I find you precious. Especially since at no point did I say that Fine Tuning was true, any more so than I did that Dawkins' layman understanding of physics was representative of anything but his own ignorance. You're trying to disprove a point I never made, with evidence you don't understand.


Au contraire. If you'd like to come over to I'll talk to you about it all day long. Your call.


No thanks. To be frank, I've gotten as annoyed by this as I'm willing to be. We aren't really having a meaningful dialogue, and I don't feel a need to go troll a bunch of internet infidels.

Have a good day, kiddo. My apologies for taking a tone with you. Let's try not to repeat this; I don't think it does any good for our positions, or our blood pressure.

" but I have heard of Dawkins and other New Atheists claiming that, via the multiverse hypothesis, the universe "evolved" by being spontaneously created and destroyed a bazillion times over, until it hit the right target for life to exist."

And the evidence for this is? It is proven how? It was tested in what manner?

Did Dawkins not also write in a public letter to his daughter not to believe anything unless there was proof, regardless of the credentials of the speaker?

or something along that line.

Hasn't the eternally cyclic universe model been debunked? Especially considering the idea that our universe will ever collapse doesn't seem to be a dominant idea any more and it seems more likely that the rate of expansion is actually accelerating, which would mean if we had an eternally cyclic universe evolving until there was life suddenly stopped being cyclic once life appeared.

Odd how that would happen.


That's my summary of his view, which is a simplification of Dawkins' statement, which is itself a grossly oversimplified misapprehension of the actual models in physics.

The epkyrotic (or 'cyclical') model is at least as old as Buddhism, at least in Eastern philosophy. It got math on its side sometime around 2001, but it is a speculative model. Meaning it is neither proven nor disproven; it's just a mathematical construct for how some physicists think the universe would behave, if indeed it were cyclical.

There is, in fact, very little way to prove such things given the state of the evidence. A lot of what goes on in the more highfalutin' realms of cosmology is, honestly, science fiction and metaphysics being dressed up in computer-generated figures and dense academic jargon. This isn't all bad, but it is important to remember when we think that someone in QP has made a major point for or against some idea.

It really gets absurd when it's popularized. I won't even get into how a lot of science popularizers are really trotting out an axe to grind under the guise of a textbook, but the media has a way of taking "Maybe this is true, in 40% of cases" and turning it into "STUNNING NEW EVIDENCE OF ABSOLUTE SHOCKING TRUTH"

Sorta like when the newspapers make a scary headline about how "plastic water bottles might be killing your baby" or "red wine might be the cure for cancer."

Yes, but my thought is that an idea that is not the commonly held one gets an extra oomph in the public eye when it comes from a famous Oxford professer who's paid position was to educate the public on modern science.

Still, not really anything to do with evolution.


It is indeed a bummer that Dr. Dawkins gets to spout off on things about which he is a layperson from a position of perceived authority. His story is somewhat similar, in my view, to Noam Chomsky, who did some groundbreaking but by no means uncontroversial work in linguistics, and then became a 'public intellectual' arguing about wars and politics and so on (his debates with William F Buckley are fun to watch, if you can find a tape).

Nobody seemed to notice, however, that he hadn't done any work in his field for over twenty years, however, and was in no real way a working scientist anymore, nor was he quite the titan that the media portrayed him as, within his own field.

A funny thing with my disagreements with Dawkins is that I don't even care what he thinks about God; I find The Selfish Gene a "young man's book" as some reviewer put it, because his theories are too reductive and simplistic. When dealing with small details, he's genius. When dealing with the big picture, not so much. When dealing with huge, fundamental issues, he's screamingly wrong. I'd believe anything the man told me about alleles or mitochondria, or RNA synthesis (or would have as late as the 90's), but I'd be sketchy about his views on the overall human organism, and downright derisive if he tried to make broad points about society or the holistic ecosystem.

It comes down to how he sees the world--through a microscope. Makes for problems when you can't even see the trees, much less the forest, for all the attention you're paying the bark.

On the bright side, by the by, you can always pull out the CS Lewis card. He was an Oxford don *and* a Cambridge professor. He even had a posher accent. ;)

"My apologies if it came off like I was trying to do that, I simply meant to footnote."

You're fine dude, I know you are smarter than that. I just felt like it had been something that was being allowed unchecked. He was mentioned in the post more than once which covered areas that are not his expertise. anyways, i came off grouchy. sorry. lol.


No worries, amigo. We're still cool. ;)

Hi Josh,
You can't mean me, because all of my jokes are funny.

More on Krauss and Kalam.

Since Dawkins, the world's most famous science popularizer, just made these statements at the close of a well-publicized festival, why is it supposed to be a problem that it is this set of statements being critiqued here?
Why should STR either ignore his comments, or substitute better arguments than the ones he has made?


Actually, I think Josh made a fair point about Dawkins. I wouldn't want my Christianity to be judged by Kirk Cameron's, so why would it be fair to judge Josh's ideas by those of Dawkins? It's perfectly fair to criticise Richard, and I do. Frequently, and with some relish. But we can't assume he's representative of all atheists, especially those who don't accept the "New Atheism" sect label.

You are right, of course, Bennett, in the error of generalizing. But where in the many references specifically to Richard Dawkins and his flawed views would a person read in Josh's ideas?
When STR criticizes the views of certain Christians who reads that as a criticism of Christianity?


I think it may come to the difference between logical argument and politics. Given that we are "on their side" it's pretty clear that we aren't criticising Christianity when we criticise other Christians. It can be more sensitive if we're speaking about members of our "out-group".
Especially one who have set themselves up as founders of what amounts to a schismatic religious movement and tacitly claim to speak for others like them (I realize Dawkins claims "religion is evil" and protests spuriously at the idea of temples being built, or Greyling's little Atheist Bible, but that there is no way in any realistic, legal, or semantic sense to differentiate between New Atheism and any other religious system, apart from some particulars of content and praxis--which is where all religions differ, naturally. It can be distinguished, but not differentiated).

Consequently, from a political angle, criticising statements of a leader can be taken as criticising his group at large, since the whole idea is that he is 'representative' in more than one sense of the word. On the other hand, when we argue amongst ourselves as Christians, it's more clear that we're attempting to settle on particulars.

It might not be a substantial difference, in some senses, but it does make a difference to the civility of our conversations to be mindful of certain sensitivities.

I kinda agree with Daron, but Bennett is not to be disregarded. If someone takes offense because they dont like the way the "leader" is representing they can do some in house clean up and inform those who are on the outside making charges. The key is that their identity isn't wrapped up with someone else, but with the pure doctrine, then it seems that criticism can be strewn about without taking it personal whether merited or not.

Sometimes it happens, and it's nice to see, when someone argues the others position better than the opposing person. I've seen WL do this often and just right above here, Bennett. Like I said, it's nice to see even if someone doesn't like it that an outsider understands all too well.

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