Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Can atheists be moral? Sean McDowell and James Corbett debate

I got the audio for this debate from Apologetics 315, linked below.

Here is the MP3 file.

Sean’s case is similar to the one I make, but he only has 3 minimal requirements for morality.

First, he explains the difference between objective and subjective truth claims, and points out that statements of a moral nature are meaningless unless morality is objective. Then he states 3 things that are needed in order to ground objective morality.

  1. an objective moral standard
  2. free will
  3. objective moral value of humans

The question of the foundations of morality is without a doubt the easiest issue for beginning apologists to discuss with their neighbor. If you’re new, then you need to at least listen to his opening speech. He’s an excellent speaker, and his rebuttals are very, very smooth. The citations of atheist philosophers like Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, e.g. – to show that “religious” wars had nothing to do with religion, really hurt his opponent. He seems to cite prominent atheists like Thomas Nagel, Richard Taylor, Michael Shermer, etc., constantly in order to get support for his assertions. That took preparation. McDowell was very calm in this debate. It’s very hard to stay calm when someone is disagreeing with you in front of a crowd, but McDowell did a great job at that. He also seemed to be really prepared, because his rebuttals were crisp and concise.

For those of you who want to understand how these things work, listen to the debate. There is a period of cross-examination if you like that sort of thing. I do!

Filed under: Podcasts, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Is the concept of moral responsibility compatible with physicalism / materialism?

I saw that Brian Auten of Apologetics 315 linked to this post by J. Warner Wallace.

Excerpt:

When examining the causes for an event (such as a death) we can separate them into two categories: event causation and agent causation (prior physical events cause things to happen and free agents cause things to happen). It’s important to recognize that free agents alone have the freedom to act or respond without a prior physical causal event. Physical objects, like dominoes, cannot cause themselves to fall over; they require a prior event to cause them to fall. But you and I have the ability to cause the first domino to fall as a simple matter of choice (we don’t need a prior event to cause this action). You can’t blame a car for running over a victim; the car is simply a physical object subject to a series of physical processes, none of which can be held morally culpable. But we can blame thedriver of the car for driving the car over the victim. The driver is a free agent, and we recognize that his choices are just that: free choices. The driver is not like the car. His choice is not simply the result of a series of purely physical processes, like dominoes falling. He had the freedom to choose otherwise, and this is why we seek to arrest and prosecute him.

Our recognition of the moral culpability of the driver (rather than the car) is an admission that materialism (physicalism) fails to explain who we are as humans. Consider the following argument:

No Physical System is a Free Agent
Physical systems are either “determined” (one event necessarily following the other) or “random”

Therefore No Physical System Has Moral Responsibility
Moral responsibility requires moral freedom of choice

Human Beings DO Have Moral Responsibility
We recognize that each of us has the responsibility and choice to act morally, and indeed, we seek to hold each other legally accountable for each other’s free-will choices

Therefore, Human Beings Are NOT Simply Physical Systems
Our recognition of moral responsibility and our efforts to hold each other accountable are irrational and unwarranted if humans are merely physical systems

If we, as humans, are only physical systems (merely matter), we ought to stop trying to hold each other accountable for misbehavior. In fact, there can be no misbehavior if we are only physical brains and bodies; there can only be behavior. Our actions have no moral content at all unless we truly have the freedom to choose and the ability to break the bondage of physical event causation.

I finally learned what the “Twinkie defense” was by reading that post. It’s worth it for that reason alone.

This quote by JWW reminded me of a famous chapter in Theodore Dalrymple’s famous book “Life at the Bottom”, in which he explains the worldview of the lower classes in Britain. The chapter is called “The Knife Went In“, and it shows how people in the underclass describe their crimes in a way that completely minimizes their own free choices and their own responsibilities.

Take a look:

It is a mistake to suppose that all men, or at least all Englishmen, want to be free. On the contrary, if freedom entails responsibility, many of them want none of it. They would happily exchange their liberty for a modest (if illusory) security. Even those who claim to cherish their freedom are rather less enthusiastic about taking the consequences of their actions. The aim of untold millions is to be free to do exactly as they choose and for someone else to pay when things go wrong.

In the past few decades, a peculiar and distinctive psychology has emerged in England. Gone are the civility, sturdy independence, and admirable stoicism that carried the English through the war years. It has been replaced by a constant whine of excuses, complaint, and special pleading. The collapse of the British character has been as swift and complete as the collapse of British power.

Listening as I do every day to the accounts people give of their lives, I am struck by the very small part in them which they ascribe to their own efforts, choices, and actions. Implicitly, they disagree with Bacon’s famous dictum that “chiefly the mould of a man’s fortune is in his own hands.” Instead, they experience themselves as putty in the hands of fate.

It is instructive to listen to the language they use to describe their lives. The language of prisoners in particular teaches much about the dishonest fatalism with which people seek to explain themselves to others, especially when those others are in a position to help them in some way. As a doctor who sees patients in a prison once or twice a week, I am fascinated by prisoners’ use of the passive mood and other modes of speech that are supposed to indicate their helplessness. They describe themselves as the marionettes of happenstance.

Not long ago, a murderer entered my room in the prison shortly after his arrest to seek a prescription for the methadone to which he was addicted. I told him that I would prescribe a reducing dose, and that within a relatively short time my prescription would cease. I would not prescribe a maintenance dose for a man with a life sentence.

“Yes,” he said, “it’s just my luck to be here on this charge.”

Luck? He had already served a dozen prison sentences, many of them for violence, and on the night in question had carried a knife with him, which he must have known from experience that he was inclined to use. But it was the victim of the stabbing who was the real author of the killer’s action: if he hadn’t been there, he wouldn’t have been stabbed.

My murderer was by no means alone in explaining his deed as due to circumstances beyond his control. As it happens, there are three stabbers (two of them unto death) at present in the prison who used precisely the same expression when describing to me what happened. “The knife went in,” they said when pressed to recover their allegedly lost memories of the deed.

The knife went in—unguided by human hand, apparently. That the long-hated victims were sought out, and the knives carried to the scene of the crimes, was as nothing compared with the willpower possessed by the inanimate knives themselves, which determined the unfortunate outcome.

I wonder how much the secularism and atheism of the Britain academics has now seeped down to the lower classes and caused them to view themselves as lumps of meat or animals, rather than responsible free agents. Britain is the country of Charles Darwin and the idea of unguided Darwinian evolution. If you believe that you are an animal who evolved by accident in an accidental universe, then you don’t believe in free will, moral choices or moral obligations. The funniest thing in the world to me is how atheists go about their lives helping themselves to moral language that is not grounded by their worldview. Like parrots who have been trained to talk about the stock market. There is no realm of objective moral values and duties on atheism, so why are they using moral language and making moral judgments? On their view right and wrong are just social customs and conventions that vary by time and place, and human actions are biologically determined anyway. There are no choices. There is no responsibility.

You can read the whole Dalrymple book for free online, and I’ve linked to all the chapters in this one post.

Filed under: Polemics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Is the concept of moral responsibility compatible with physicalism / materialism?

I saw that Brian Auten of Apologetics 315 linked to this post by J. Warner Wallace.

Excerpt:

When examining the causes for an event (such as a death) we can separate them into two categories: event causation and agent causation (prior physical events cause things to happen and free agents cause things to happen). It’s important to recognize that free agents alone have the freedom to act or respond without a prior physical causal event. Physical objects, like dominoes, cannot cause themselves to fall over; they require a prior event to cause them to fall. But you and I have the ability to cause the first domino to fall as a simple matter of choice (we don’t need a prior event to cause this action). You can’t blame a car for running over a victim; the car is simply a physical object subject to a series of physical processes, none of which can be held morally culpable. But we can blame thedriver of the car for driving the car over the victim. The driver is a free agent, and we recognize that his choices are just that: free choices. The driver is not like the car. His choice is not simply the result of a series of purely physical processes, like dominoes falling. He had the freedom to choose otherwise, and this is why we seek to arrest and prosecute him.

Our recognition of the moral culpability of the driver (rather than the car) is an admission that materialism (physicalism) fails to explain who we are as humans. Consider the following argument:

No Physical System is a Free Agent
Physical systems are either “determined” (one event necessarily following the other) or “random”

Therefore No Physical System Has Moral Responsibility
Moral responsibility requires moral freedom of choice

Human Beings DO Have Moral Responsibility
We recognize that each of us has the responsibility and choice to act morally, and indeed, we seek to hold each other legally accountable for each other’s free-will choices

Therefore, Human Beings Are NOT Simply Physical Systems
Our recognition of moral responsibility and our efforts to hold each other accountable are irrational and unwarranted if humans are merely physical systems

If we, as humans, are only physical systems (merely matter), we ought to stop trying to hold each other accountable for misbehavior. In fact, there can be no misbehavior if we are only physical brains and bodies; there can only be behavior. Our actions have no moral content at all unless we truly have the freedom to choose and the ability to break the bondage of physical event causation.

I finally learned what the “Twinkie defense” was by reading that post. It’s worth it for that reason alone.

This quote by JWW reminded me of a famous chapter in Theodore Dalrymple’s famous book “Life at the Bottom”, in which he explains the worldview of the lower classes in Britain. The chapter is called “The Knife Went In“, and it shows how people in the underclass describe their crimes in a way that completely minimizes their own free choices and their own responsibilities.

Take a look:

It is a mistake to suppose that all men, or at least all Englishmen, want to be free. On the contrary, if freedom entails responsibility, many of them want none of it. They would happily exchange their liberty for a modest (if illusory) security. Even those who claim to cherish their freedom are rather less enthusiastic about taking the consequences of their actions. The aim of untold millions is to be free to do exactly as they choose and for someone else to pay when things go wrong.

In the past few decades, a peculiar and distinctive psychology has emerged in England. Gone are the civility, sturdy independence, and admirable stoicism that carried the English through the war years. It has been replaced by a constant whine of excuses, complaint, and special pleading. The collapse of the British character has been as swift and complete as the collapse of British power.

Listening as I do every day to the accounts people give of their lives, I am struck by the very small part in them which they ascribe to their own efforts, choices, and actions. Implicitly, they disagree with Bacon’s famous dictum that “chiefly the mould of a man’s fortune is in his own hands.” Instead, they experience themselves as putty in the hands of fate.

It is instructive to listen to the language they use to describe their lives. The language of prisoners in particular teaches much about the dishonest fatalism with which people seek to explain themselves to others, especially when those others are in a position to help them in some way. As a doctor who sees patients in a prison once or twice a week, I am fascinated by prisoners’ use of the passive mood and other modes of speech that are supposed to indicate their helplessness. They describe themselves as the marionettes of happenstance.

Not long ago, a murderer entered my room in the prison shortly after his arrest to seek a prescription for the methadone to which he was addicted. I told him that I would prescribe a reducing dose, and that within a relatively short time my prescription would cease. I would not prescribe a maintenance dose for a man with a life sentence.

“Yes,” he said, “it’s just my luck to be here on this charge.”

Luck? He had already served a dozen prison sentences, many of them for violence, and on the night in question had carried a knife with him, which he must have known from experience that he was inclined to use. But it was the victim of the stabbing who was the real author of the killer’s action: if he hadn’t been there, he wouldn’t have been stabbed.

My murderer was by no means alone in explaining his deed as due to circumstances beyond his control. As it happens, there are three stabbers (two of them unto death) at present in the prison who used precisely the same expression when describing to me what happened. “The knife went in,” they said when pressed to recover their allegedly lost memories of the deed.

The knife went in—unguided by human hand, apparently. That the long-hated victims were sought out, and the knives carried to the scene of the crimes, was as nothing compared with the willpower possessed by the inanimate knives themselves, which determined the unfortunate outcome.

I wonder how much the secularism and atheism of the Britain academics has now seeped down to the lower classes and caused them to view themselves as lumps of meat or animals, rather than responsible free agents. Britain is the country of Charles Darwin and the idea of unguided Darwinian evolution. If you believe that you are an animal who evolved by accident in an accidental universe, then you don’t believe in free will, moral choices or moral obligations. The funniest thing in the world to me is how atheists go about their lives helping themselves to moral language that is not grounded by their worldview. Like parrots who have been trained to talk about the stock market. There is no realm of objective moral values and duties on atheism, so why are they using moral language and making moral judgments? On their view right and wrong are just social customs and conventions that vary by time and place, and human actions are biologically determined anyway. There are no choices. There is no responsibility.

You can read the whole Dalrymple book for free online, and I’ve linked to all the chapters in this one post.

Filed under: News, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Does it makes sense to be good on atheism? Scholars debate atheism and morality

This was the question debated by two scholars Sean McDowell and James Corbett. The audio was posted on Apologetics 315.

The debaters

Sean McDowell: Head of the Bible Department at Capistrano Valley Christian Schools, where he teaches the courses on Philosophy, Theology, and Apologetics. He graduated summa cum laude from Talbot Theological Seminary with a double Master’s degree in Theology and Philosophy. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in Apologetics and Worldview Studies from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Sean received the “Educator of the Year” for San Juan Capistrano, California in 2008.

Dr. James Corbett: Dr. James Corbett is a popular history teach in Capistrano Valley High School. On April 30, 2010 US District Court Judge James Selna ruled that he had violated the First Amendment by disparaging Christians during a classroom lecture. His reference to religion as “superstitious nonsense” was recorded by a student, Chris Farnan, who subsequently filed the lawsuit.  He has a Ph.D. in communication-journalism from Ohio State University; master’s from San Diego State University; bachelor’s from Syracuse University.

Here is the MP3 file of the debate.

Sean’s case is similar to the one I make, but he only has 3 minimal requirements for morality.

First, he explains the difference between objective and subjective truth claims, and points out that statements of a moral nature are meaningless unless morality is objective. Then he states 3 things that are needed in order to ground objective morality.

  1. an objective moral standard
  2. free will
  3. objective moral value of humans

The question of the foundations of morality is without a doubt the easiest issue for beginning apologists to discuss with their neighbor. If you’re new, then you need to at least listen to his opening speech. He’s an excellent speaker, and his rebuttals are very, very smooth. The citations of atheist philosophers like Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, e.g. – to show that “religious” wars had nothing to do with religion, really hurt his opponent. He seems to cite prominent atheists like Thomas Nagel, Richard Taylor, Michael Shermer, etc., constantly in order to get support for his assertions. That took preparation. I can’t believe that McDowell is this calm in a debate situation.

When I listen to Frank Turek, he seems to struggle in his rebuttals. McDowell sounds like he foreknew exactly what his opponent would say and pre-wrote responses. He even had powerpoint slides made in advance for his rebuttals! I am not making this up – Corbett even remarked on it.

For those of you who want to understand how these things work, listen to the debate. There is a period of cross-examination if you like that sort of thing. I do!

Filed under: Podcasts, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sean McDowell reviews Sam Harris’ new book “Free Will”

Jay Watts of LTI tweeted this book review by Sean McDowell.

Excerpt:

After rightly emphasizing the importance of the question of free will, Harris concludes, “Free will is an illusion” (p. 5). According to Harris, we are not the conscious source of our actions and we could not have behaved differently in the past than we did. He says, “I, as the conscious witness of my experience, no more initiate events in my prefrontal cortex than I cause my heart to beat” (9). “In physical terms,” says Harris, “we know that every human action can be reduced to a series of impersonal events” (27).

Harris rightly points out that there are three main approaches to the problem of free will and determinism: determinism, libertarianism, and compatibilism. He then says, “Today, the only philosophically respectable way to endorse free will is to be a compatibilist” (16). But if determinism were true, as Harris asserts, why would any position be philosophically unrespectable? After all, people are determined to hold their beliefs—whether compatibilist, libertarian, or determinist—by forces outside of their control. Why would he bother to critique other positions if the people who hold them couldn’t have believed differently? In fact, his critique is just the result of chemicals moving in his brain, so why do they matter? What makes his chemicals more respectable than others?

Later in the book Harris says that giving up free will (and becoming more aware of the background causes of our feelings) allows people to have greater creative control over their lives. “Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings,” says Harris, “can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives” (p. 47). Do you see the contradiction? The idea of “steering” a more intelligent course through life, of course, has no meaning in a deterministic world. On Harris’ view we can’t steer anything! The belief that we can steer our lives is an illusion. All of our beliefs and behavior are entirely the result of forces outside our control. In one breath Harris says all our beliefs are determined, but then in another breath he speaks about steering the course of our lives. Which is it?

[...]He says that dispensing with the idea of free will allows us to focus on things that matter most—assessing risk, protecting the innocent, and deterring crime (p. 53). He seems to be implying that we ought to accept his deterministic views for the betterment of mankind. Yet again, if determinism is true then we can’t change any of our beliefs—we can’t freely follow his logic since our beliefs are already set. The very fact that he argues for his position undermines his stated belief in determinism.

Sean McDowell did a debate a while back in which he argued that morality was not rationally grounded on atheism because atheism denies free will, and free will is necessary for making moral choices. And here is the atheist Lawrence Krauss denying that free will exists. It’s very hard to see how there could be any freedom of the will if humans are just matter in motion, which is the view of humans that fits most naturally with atheism.

Another atheist William Provine also says atheists have no free will, no moral accountability and no moral significance:

Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.

Like Provine, Krauss also denied that objective morality existed at all in his debate with William Lane Craig. His view is that morality evolves in different times and places arbitrarily, and that whatever evolves in any group is right for them in their time and place. It’s important to understand what the implications of atheism are for things like rationality and morality.

I always thought that the “freethought” name that atheists sometimes apply to themselves was ironic for that reason. Not only are they not free, but they have no non-physical minds to think with, either.

Filed under: News, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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