Thursday, July 07, 2016

Nazi lampshades

Jeff Lowder debated me at Victor Reppert's blog. Here's my side of the exchange:

Two related questions for Jeff:

i) Suppose moral nihilism were true. In that event, does Jeff think it would be worthwhile to defend moral nihilism? Would he create educational organizations dedicated to the promotion of moral nihilism on the Internet?

ii) Suppose existential nihilism were true. In that event, does Jeff think it would be worthwhile to defend moral nihilism? Would he create educational organizations dedicated to the promotion of existential nihilism on the Internet?
Jeff thinks that he is important. That his dignity is important.

This is one of Jeff's intellectual problems. He's never allowed himself to appreciate the reductionistic consequences of atheism for human significance.

If atheism is true, then Jeff is worthless. Everything is worthless.

Jeff is a temporary entity that came into existence for no good reason, that will soon pass out of existence. Jeff is interchangeable with billions of other human biological units. He will be replaced.

If atheism is true, Jeff's existence has no intrinsic value. At best, it's only subjectively valuable–the way some Nazis (reputedly) valued Jews as as raw material for lamp shades.

I'm pointing to the ironic fact that atheists like Jeff can't stand it when people treat atheists consistent with the reductionist view of humanity that atheism entails. 

Jeff's comments are a lengthy exercise in misdirection:

i) I didn't quote Shermer, Dawkins, or Coyne. So mentioning them in response to me just a diversionary tactic.

ii) I didn't make an appeal to authority. Rather, if you bother to read the links, many of them provide arguments for their rejection of moral realism. Pity Jeff doesn't know the difference between quoting someone as an authority figure and quoting someone for their arguments.

iii) Furthermore, even if it were, in some cases, an argument from authority, when Christians point out that atheism is incompatible with moral realism, and some atheists respond by acting as if that's an ignorant, defamatory attack on atheists, it's perfectly legitimate to cite counterexamples from their own side to demonstrate that this isn't a Christian caricature of atheists, but something that many prominent atheists concede.

And in my experience, not a few internet atheists have no idea that there are real live atheist thinkers who deny moral realism. They just imagine that must be a Christian strawman.

iv) Jeff then acts as though, unless someone is an expert in metaethics, you should simply ignore their arguments. But isn't that self-refuting? Is Jeff an expert on metaethics? I guess we can safely discount everything he said in his two lengthy comments. What makes Jeff an expert? That he's an autodidact on metaethics?

v) I'd add that Jeff likes to artificially compartmentalize knowledge. But when, for instance, the topic at hand is evolutionary ethics/evolutionary psychology, it's preposterous to suggest a philosopher who specializes in philosophy of mind or evolutionary biology can't have anything worthwhile to say on the subject. These are interdisciplinary debates.

vi) Having made a dismissive comment about "the obvious rhetorical value of quoting hostile witnesses," Jeff does the very same thing by citing Robert Adams and Mark Murphy.

Likewise, Jeff complains about "name-dropping a selective list of atheists (or even merely summarizing the arguments made by those names…" even though his second comment is nothing but name-dropping (or summarizing) a selective list of theists and atheists.

vi) Finally, I've often responded to the subset of atheists who struggle to defend moral realism. It's not as if I haven't engaged their arguments.

But I do understand Jeff's need to throw a lifeline to his drowning cohort, Angra.
Jeff says Robert Adams would reject the claim that atheism is incompatible with moral realism. Perhaps Jeff can quote where Adams has said that.

In Finite and Infinite Goods, Adams details a position in which the standard of goodness is defined by the divine nature. Finite things are only good insofar as they exemplify divine goodness. Given that framework, it's hard to see how Adams could also say atheism is consistent with moral realism, absent the necessary source and standard of goodness. So is Jeff saying Adams has elsewhere taken a position that's logically at odds with what he said in Finite and Infinite Goods?

"Steve tries to dismiss the entire point about inductive arguments from authority, as if that were an idiosyncratic interpretation of his remarks. I don't claim to be able to read his or anyone else's mind, so if it was not his intent to make an argument from authority, then I will take him at his word. Steve wasn't making an argument from authority…So instead of making a logically incorrect inductive argument from authority, it is instead the case that Steve has simply brought up a bunch of irrelevancies to support his claim that 'Atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible.'"

i) So Jeff is telling us that he doesn't know the difference between testimonial evidence and an argument from authority. When an atheist reacts to the statement that consistent atheism denies moral realism as if that's a Christian strawman, it's both relevant and legitimate to quote prominent atheists who concede that very claim. 

That's testimonial evidence to the contrary. A witness needn't be an authority figure to be a reliable witness.

ii) Over and above that, there are atheists who give reasons for their rejection of moral realism. So that's hardly an argument from authority, as if you should accept their position on their say-so alone. Rather, they explain why they reject moral realism, given their commitment to atheism, and the attendant implications thereof. Jeff's characterization is muddle-headed.

"He's never been able to grasp the significance of the distinction between 'cosmic' or 'ultimate' significance and non-cosmic, non-ultimate significance, or the fact that 'life has no ultimate significance' allows for 'life has significance.'"

Actually, I drew that distinction. For some Nazis, Jews had no cosmic or ultimate significance, but they did have non-cosmic, non-ultimate significance when their skin was used to make Nazi lampshades.

"It's a bit like complaining that winning one million dollars or even just one hundred dollars from the lottery has no value because the money won't last as long as you would like…If I win a finite amount of money from the lottery, that money will not last forever. Therefore, it has no value. That argument fails for the same reason Steve's argument fails. A thing does not need to have an infinite amount of value--or value for an infinite duration--in order to have value."

i) I didn't suggest a thing needs to have an infinite amount of value to have value.

ii) Jeff's analogy is quite unfortunate for his position. Money has no intrinsic or objective value. People impute value to money because it's more convenient than a barter economy. But consider the value of Confederate currency after the South lost the war, or the value of money during hyperinflation. The value people assign to money is an arbitrary social convention, as a means to an end. Money can instantly become literally worthless.

iii) What Jeff's analogy actually proves is that humans, like money, have no inherent value, given atheism. They only have utilitarian value (like money), or subjective value–insofar as people project value onto other humans. And, of course, that's very selective. 

iv) Another problem with Jeff's attempted analogy is that my statement wasn't confined to eventual nonexistence. I also noted that according to atheism, Jeff came into existence for no good reason. But Jeff presumably thinks there is a good reason for money.

"If everything is worthless, then the fact that 'everything is worthless' is itself worthless and we should pay no attention to it."

So this is Jeff's feeble attempt to be clever, but it fails:

i) To begin with, I'm posing an argument ad impossibile. The fact that atheism is incoherent doesn't mean you can't discuss the consequence of atheism from a hypothetical or counterfactual standpoint.

ii) Moreover, I didn't say that if everything is worthless, then nothing is true. Rather, on that scenario, it would be true that everything is worthless.

Let's zero in on one of Jeff's key confusions. I never suggested, as a general principle, that anything temporary is worthless. Rather, I had specific reference to human existence.

A temporarily experience can be, and often is, worthwhile. A remembered experience.

A temporary event can be worthwhile insofar as it contributes to the well-being of the individual. The event itself now lies in the past, but it may have a beneficial, ongoing effect, or be a useful stepping stone.

If, however, the individual himself ceases to exist, then he can't remember the experience. In the long run, that event won't accrue to his benefit. Oblivion cancels everything out.

"A better name for 'intrinsic value' might be 'non-derivative value' and a better name for 'extrinsic value' might be 'derivative value.' If I ask you, 'Why do you like to go rowing?' and you answer, 'Because I love the feeling of the scull breaking through the water when the boat is at a full sprint,' your answer reveals that, for you, rowing is extrinsically or derivatively valuable: it is valuable because it is a means to an end. If you then ask, 'Why do you like the feeling of the scull breaking through the water when the boat is at a full sprint?' and you answer, 'I just do,' then that feeling is intrinsically (non-derivatively) valuable to you: it is an end, not a means to an end. The point is that, as soon as you make the distinction between intrinsic vs. extrinsic or derivative vs. non-derivative types of value, it is trivial to show that, even on the most reductionistic, materialistic versions of atheism, there can still be intrinsic (aka non-derivative) value."

Suppose, due to brain damage, I have an irrepressible urge to swallow lightbulbs. Of course, that's hazardous to my digestive system. Dangerous to swallow or excrete broken glass.

If you ask me, "Why do you swallow light bulbs?" I say, "I do it because I love the feeling of swallowing light bulbs." If you ask me "Why do you love it?" I say, "I just do".

But surely there's something amiss with that answer. I'm not supposed to love swallowing light bulbs. That's a life-threatening compulsion.

Jeff's comparison omits the normative dimension of value. Whether something has value or disvalue independent of how we feel about it, in spite of how we feel about it.

In fact, his comparison illustrates subjectivism rather than realism. In his illustration, the experience is right or wrong in virtue of how we feel about it, rather than how we feel about it being right or wrong in virtue of something independent of our attitude towards it. Right or wrong despite our attitude towards it.

I see Jeff did a post on our debate:

Two basic problems with Jeff's introduction:

1. Nowhere in my statements on the Dangerous Idea thread did I discuss what Jeff says our recent interaction has shown to be the case. In our exchanges on that thread, I didn't discuss the argument from evil or how that's related to moral realism. On the face of it, Jeff is simply using this as a pretext to saddle up his hobbyhorse.

And I notice that Jeff's fanboys in the combos don't even register the obvious disconnect. Confirmation bias blinds them to the hiatus.

2. Moreover, as I've repeatedly explained on other occasions, I never said that atheists who deny moral realism can't mount an argument from evil. Rather, what I've said is this:

i) If an atheist is implicitly or explicitly mounting an external argument from evil, then that only works if he can defend moral realism on secular grounds. Put another way, if an atheist believes the world contains objective moral evils which are incompatible with the existence of a benevolent, omniscient, omnipotent God, then moral realism is a presupposition of his argument. So he needs to be able to defend that necessary presupposition consistent with his atheism. He is judging Christian theism by his own standards.

ii) If an atheist is mounting an internal argument from evil, then, in principle, he could do so even if he himself denies moral realism.

However, as I've also pointed out, if he denies moral realism, then he implicitly denies epistemic duties, in which case there's nothing morally wrong with believing in Christian theism even if it's demonstrably false. So what is the purpose of critiquing Christian theism if you reject moral realism? What's the rational motivation for convincing people that something is false unless you think people ought to reject falsehood?

Why does Jeff find those distinctions so hard to grasp or remember?


  1. Is Atheistic Moral Platonism More Plausible Than Theism? (William Lane Craig)

  2. Thank you Steve, this is a great article. There was one point where Angra asked, "By the way, how do you think people without access to the Bible should go about making moral assessments?" Now, you pointed out that Angra was swerving off topic, but I wonder about the questions on its own. Surely - according to Romans 1 - there are moral assessments that are a matter of general revelation; but to what degree do you think that "bible-less" cultures could grasp moral truths?

    1. i) Due to common grace, it's possible for unbelievers to have reliable moral intuitions in some situations.

      ii) At the same time, withholding special revelation is, itself, a divine punishment for sin.