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, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Are moral values and moral duties rationally grounded in atheism?

Brian Auten posted the audio a few milliseconds after the debate concluded!

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. 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, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Atheist Jerry Coyne explains why morality is impossible and incoherent for atheists

Let’s review what you need in your worldview in order to have a rationally grounded system of morality:

1) Objective moral values

There needs to be a way to distinguish what is good from what is bad. For example, the moral standard might specify that being kind to children is good, but torturing them for fun is bad. If the standard is purely subjective, then people could believe anything and each person would be justified in doing right in their own eyes. Even a “social contract” is just based on people’s opinions. So we need a standard that applies regardless of what people’s individual and collective opinions are.

2) Objective moral duties

Moral duties (moral obligations) refer to the actions that are obligatory based on the moral values defined in 1). Suppose we spot you 1) as an atheist. Why are you obligated to do the good thing, rather than the bad thing? To whom is this obligation owed? Why is rational for you to limit your actions based upon this obligation when it is against your self-interest? Why let other people’s expectations decide what is good for you, especially if you can avoid the consequences of their disapproval?

3) Moral accountability

Suppose we spot you 1) and 2) as an atheist. What difference does it make to you if you just go ahead and disregard your moral obligations to whomever? Is there any reward or punishment for your choice to do right or do wrong? What’s in it for you?

4) Free will

In order for agents to make free moral choices, they must be able to act or abstain from acting by exercising their free will. If there is no free will, then moral choices are impossible. If there are no moral choices, then no one can be held responsible for anything they do. If there is no moral responsibility, then there can be no praise and blame. But then it becomes impossible to praise any action as good or evil.

5) Ultimate significance

Finally, beyond the concept of reward and punishment in 3), we can also ask the question “what does it matter?”. Suppose you do live a good life and you get a reward: 1000 chocolate sundaes. And when you’ve finished eating them, you die for real and that’s the end. In other words, the reward is satisfying, but not really meaningful, ultimately. It’s hard to see how moral actions can be meaningful, ultimately, unless their consequences last on into the future.

Atheists can’t ground any of these.  Let’s take a closer look at #4.

Atheists can’t ground freedom of the will 

Here’s Jerry Coyne’s editorial in USA Today to explain why atheists can’t ground free will. (H/T Neil Simpson)

Excerpt:

And that’s what neurobiology is telling us: Our brains are simply meat computers that, like real computers, are programmed by our genes and experiences to convert an array of inputs into a predetermined output. Recent experiments involving brain scans show that when a subject “decides” to push a button on the left or right side of a computer, the choice can be predicted by brain activity at least seven seconds before the subject is consciously aware of having made it. (These studies use crude imaging techniques based on blood flow, and I suspect that future understanding of the brain will allow us to predict many of our decisions far earlier than seven seconds in advance.) “Decisions” made like that aren’t conscious ones. And if our choices are unconscious, with some determined well before the moment we think we’ve made them, then we don’t have free will in any meaningful sense.

If you don’t have free will, then you can’t make moral choices, and you can’t be held morally responsible.

Here are some more atheists to explain more about how atheists view morality.

William Provine 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.

Michael Ruse says atheists have no objective moral standards:

The position of the modern evolutionist is that humans have an awareness of morality because such an awareness 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 when someone 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 any deeper meaning is illusory.(Michael Ruse, “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 262-269).

Richard Dawkins says atheists have no objective moral standards:

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, or any justice. The universe that 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. (Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995))

When village atheists talk about how they can be moral without God, it’s important to ask them to justify the minimum requirements for rational morality. Atheists may act inconsistently with their worldview, expecting praise and blame for complying with the arbitrary standards of their peer group, but there is nothing more to morality on atheism that imitating the herd – when they are looking, anyway.

If you would like to hear a good debate where the importance of free will for morality is explained further, then click here.

Here is a good transcript of a debate on morality and atheism. And here’s a debate between William Lane Craig and secular humanist Paul Kurtz that you can watch on Youtube.

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

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