Video #3

Problems with Naturalism and Postmodernism

Video Notes

Problems with moral non-realism in naturalism and postmodernism:

Analysis of Philosophical Naturalism:

  • Naturalism’s primary epistemology, scientism, is self-refuting. Scientism is the belief that science, and science alone, counts as true knowledge. If you can’t measure something empirically through the five senses, you cannot claim to truly know it. Since morals cannot be measured this way, they do not count as knowledge, only subjective opinion. Scientism, however, is self-refuting. To say that only science counts as real knowledge is not a scientific statement we can measure empirically, but a philosophical statement about science. Thus, scientism cannot fulfill its own rule.
  • Science presupposes philosophy in numerous ways. Thus, science isn’t the only thing we know to be true. In fact, you cannot even do the work of science without assuming several metaphysical truths, none of which can be proven empirically. 1) You must assume your mind can make accurate contact with the outside world. 2) You must assume that your questions about the natural world have rational and intelligible answers. 3) You must assume the external world can be known.4) You must assume that our cognitive and sensory faculties are reliable enough to provide us with justified true belief on a given proposition. 5) You must assume that the laws of logic objectively exist and can be known by the scientist. 6) You must assume that language is adequate to describe the world as it really is. 7) You must assume that the scientist has a moral duty to report his findings honestly and go no further with his conclusions than the evidence allows. And the list goes on. Science presupposes all these metaphysical assumptions, none of which are provable by empirical means.
  • Scientism cannot explain non-material minds. For the naturalist, the physical brain is the sum total of a person’s life — his or her experiences, memories, meaning, etc.— are all wrapped up in the chemistry and physics of synapse firings. Somewhere in those synapse firings is you. Those electric impulses in the brain carry all the messages. They determine everything you do and say throughout your life. In short, we are nothing but our physical brains. All of our thoughts, feelings, and convictions are determined by synapse firings. When synapse activity ceases, you cease. At this point, naturalists are no longer doing science. They’re doing philosophical anthropology: Matter alone constitutes human nature. Right away there are difficulties, as we can ask how nonmaterial minds emerge from purely physical processes, or how consciousness arises from unconscious brain matter. As John Searle points out, “The leading problem in the biological sciences is the problem of explaining how neurobiological processes cause conscious experience.” If that were not challenging enough, naturalism must also explain how these nonmaterial minds cohere with the physical states of the brain. The interaction between nonmaterial minds and physical bodies is difficult to explain, given materialism.
  • Naturalism gives us little freedom to reason. If everything about human beings can be reduced to predetermined patterns of synapse firings in the brain, why do naturalists try to persuade us to adopt their point of view? After all, our thoughts are also predetermined by our individual synapses, meaning we are not free to think any differently than we already do. Thus, in the very act of trying to persuade, the naturalist undermines his own case for determinism. His predetermined thoughts, including his predetermined thoughts on morality, can be no more rational than ours.
  • Naturalism gives us no basis to trust our minds. Put simply, if our minds are the result of blind, non-rational forces of nature, why trust them to convey truth about the world, including the truth about moral knowledge? Darwin himself doubted whether human beliefs were any more reliable than those of a monkey. “With me, the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind which has been developed from the mind of lower animals are of any value or are even trustworthy.” Evolution, in other words, is concerned with preserving adaptive behavior, not giving us an accurate picture of the world. Patricia Churchland (an atheist) puts it this way: “The principle chore of nervous systems is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive….Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost.” In short, if our cognitive faculties only tell us what we need to survive, not what is true, why trust them about anything at all, including the nature of morality?

Analysis of Postmodernism:

  • Problem of access: How can PMs know we can’t see the world as it really is given their claim that no one has privileged access to what is real in the first place? Put differently, when PMs make the universal claim that we are trapped behind our respective language communities and thus can’t get out to know reality, is that objectively true for everyone or just a constructed reality of their language community? If the former, their argument self-destructs. If the latter, why should I believe it? That’s just their socially constructed view.
  • Problem of undefined community: Which community is the relevant one? Human beings are members of several communities at the same time. We have vocational communities, sports communities, neighborhood communities, religious communities, and the list goes on and on. Which one has primacy determining moral truth?
  • Problem of misplaced bias: PMs confuse psychological objectivity with rational objectivity. It’s possible to hold a point of view and feel strongly about it, yet suspend my convictions to objectively weigh evidence and evaluate arguments. For example, as a juror, I can objectively weigh evidence in a felony case even though I have strong beliefs about theft, murder, rape, larceny, etc. Indeed, the judge in the case will expressly tell jurors they must do so. Whatever their disgust for the crime in question, they must weigh evidence on the merits, not their feelings. If that’s not possible, no one can ever serve on a jury or referee a sporting event.
  • Problem of foundations: “Bombproof certainty” is an unrealistic and unfair standard for knowledge. We are justified believing many things to be true, even if we cannot affirm them with bombproof certainty. For example, I am justified in believing that my wife is at home with our kids rather than eloping with Elvis in Las Vegas even though I do not have bombproof certainty of this. If you reply that Elvis is dead, therefore, I know for certain she has not eloped with him, I can retort, “How do you know he’s dead? After all, have you seen the body and ID’d it? Have you run DNA tests? If not, you can’t be certain he’s dead. All you have are news reports, which may be false. It’s possible he’s alive and they’ve eloped.” Well, it may be possible they’ve eloped, but it certainly isn’t probable. I am well within my epistemic rights to say, “I know she’s not with Elvis.” Likewise, if moral realism is more plausible than moral non-realism, we are justified in believing moral truth can be known even if we lack bombproof certainty for it.

Moral non-realism laid the intellectual groundwork for moral relativism

Relativism is the belief that right and wrong are either up to the individual or his society. There are no objective truths we should line up with, only those we agree to. Francis J. Beckwith and Greg Koukl identify three strands of relativism:

  • Society-Does Relativism: Cultures disagree on what’s right and what’s wrong, therefore, objective morals do not exist. The absence of consensus means an absence of truth. Yet how does it follow that because people disagree, nobody is right? People once disagreed on slavery — did that mean nobody was correct? Society-Does Relativism is descriptive not proscriptive. That is, it only describes what cultures do, not what they ought to do. Moreover, if the presence of disagreement means there are no objective truths, the relativist’s own claim is falsified. After all, non-relativists disagree with relativists!
  • Society-Says Relativism: Each society determines right and wrong for itself. What’s right for one society may not be right for another. Morality is reduced to a social contract determined by popular consensus. But if this is true, there can be no such thing as an immoral society or an immoral law. If a particular society chooses to enslave women or practice racial genocide, who are we, as outsiders, to judge? Indeed, the Nazis used this very defense at the Nuremberg Trials, claiming they had merely followed orders within the framework of their own legal system, one that varied from outside nations. Moreover, if society is the final measure of morality, then all of its judgments are moral by definition. Those who oppose those judgments—that is, moral reformers like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi—are therefore immoral. Society cannot be improved, only changed.
  • I-Say Relativism: Morality is up to the individual. I determine right and wrong for myself, meaning no one has a right to judge me. Problem is, if “I Say” relativism is true, there can be no such thing as an immoral individual.

Relativism is seriously flawed for many reasons:

  • Relativism redefines tolerance. The classical view of tolerance goes like this: I think your idea is mistaken, but I will tolerate you expressing your view and making your case. The classical view tolerates persons as being equally valuable, but rejects the claim that all ideas are so. Indeed, the very concept of tolerance presupposes I think you are wrong. Otherwise, I’m not tolerating you. I’m agreeing with you! The relativistic view of tolerance asserts that all ideas are equally valid, especially in religion and ethics. (Hence, the popular bumper sticker, “Celebrate Diversity.”) Don’t you dare claim your idea is superior to someone else’s idea or we will shut you down. In this case, tolerance becomes intolerance.
  • Relativism is self-defeating. That is, it can’t live with its own rules. Notice the language used by a University of Maryland student in response to viewing a pro-life display on campus:

After seeing the gruesome display on Hornbake Mall, I was once again reminded why I am pro-choice. Abortion is a horrible act that should only be reserved for when the health of the mother is in danger or when the circumstances of impregnation were brutal. However, to me this argument is brushed aside. As a gay student who grew up in a conservative area, I know firsthand what it is like to be judged, harassed, humiliated and denied the basic rights to marry the one I love and have a family. These are rights that I feel are universal, but conservative moralists have denied me of them. This is why I have developed an unwavering, uncompromising belief that personal morals must be kept personal, because no matter how strong my personal beliefs are, I would never have my moral convictions pressed upon another person. Our entire society is built on choice, and it is this freedom of choice that must be respected and preserved.

Notice what’s going on here. He claims that morality is personal and that he would never press his moral convictions on others, but then emphatically states that personal morals must be kept personal and freedom of choice must be respected. Question: Says who? Is that his view? If so, who is he to push his personal views onto pro-lifers who disagree? Remember: The person who says, “you shouldn’t judge” just judged you. The person who claims that you shouldn’t force your views on others just forced that view on you.

  • Relativism can’t say why anything is truly wrong, including intolerance. If morals are relative to culture or the individual, there is no ethical difference between Adolph Hitler and Mother Teresa; they just had different preferences: The latter liked to help people while the former liked to kill them. Who are we to judge? But such a view is counterintuitive. We know there’s a difference between starving a child and feeding him. Greg Koukl writes: “Relativists find themselves in the unenviable position of having to admit that there is no such thing as evil, justice, fairness, and no obligation of tolerance.”
  • Relativists inevitably make moral judgments. If the relativist thinks it’s wrong to judge, how can he say that pro-lifers are mistaken in the first place? Isn’t he just pushing his socially conditioned view on me? Whenever a relativist says you shouldn’t force your views on others, the first words out of your mouth should be, “Why not?” Any answer given will be an example of forcing a view on you.
  • Relativism is not neutral. Some relativists, echoing political philosopher John Rawls, hope to convey a more sophisticated claim, namely, that society should confer a large degree of liberty by not legislating on controversial moral issues for which there is no consensus, especially if those issues involve comprehensive moral doctrines based on prior metaphysical commitments. Abortion, so the argument goes, is a divisive and controversial issue. Therefore, the government should not restrict it. However, to say the government should remain neutral on metaphysical questions is itself a metaphysical claim, a comprehensive moral doctrine about how government should function. It’s also controversial: Do we have a consensus that we should not legislate on divisive matters like abortion? Moreover, slavery and racism were controversial issues. Was it wrong to pass laws against them?

Secular attempts to rescue morality in a universe without God:

  • Naturalistic (atheistic) ethics: Though philosophical naturalism insists the universe came from nothing and was caused by nothing, some atheists nevertheless affirm objective morals. Morals either exist as brute facts of the universe or are products of evolutionary processes (that is, they are written in our genes). Either way, they aid survival and reproduction and thus are beneficial. Any deeper (transcendent) meaning is illusory. Two problems:
    1. Objective moral rules in a naturalistic universe lack incumbency (authority). Objective moral laws require an objective moral law-giver. For example, if you are playing Scrabble and see the word “leave,” do you exit the game? Of course not! The word is entirely accidental with no authority behind it whatsoever. But if a police officer says “leave!,” you go. There is authority behind the badge. Outside transcendent moral authority, moral rules are random and arbitrary, the product of blind evolutionary processes. Richard Dawkins admitted this in a radio interview with radio host Justin Brierley:

Brierley: “When you make a value judgment, don’t you immediately step yourself outside of this evolutionary process and say that the reason this is good is that it’s good? And you don’t have any way to stand on that statement.”

Dawkins: “My value judgement itself could come from my evolutionary past.”

Brierley: “So therefore it’s just as random in a sense as any product of evolution.”

Dawkins: “You could say that…Nothing about it makes it more probable that there is anything supernatural.”

Brierley: “Ultimately, your belief that rape is wrong is as arbitrary as the fact that we’ve evolved five fingers rather than six.”

Dawkins: “You could say that, yeah.”

Put simply, in a universe that came from nothing and was caused by nothing, moral rules lack authority. If a critic replies that I should obey them anyway for the good of the group, I can always ask, “Says who? And why should I care about the group?”

    1. Many moral rules have little to no adaptive value. Altruism, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, and compassion can put individuals (and societies) at a competitive disadvantage in terms of survival and reproduction. Indeed, the very concept of “moral obligation” assumes that I set aside self-interest for the sake of a higher principle.
  • Deontological ethics: Acts are intrinsically right or wrong in themselves independent of the consequences which follow. What matters is adherence to the relevant moral principle, which may be religious (God’s commands, for example) or non-religious (the ethical rationalism of Immanuel Kant). Deontological ethics are commonly summarized as “duty for duty’s sake.” But minus a clear ontological (and transcendent) foundation, we can ask, “Why ought I be moral?” Suppose I don’t care about duty. Now what?
  • Utilitarian ethics: Contra deontological systems, right and wrong are measured by consequences, not their intrinsic values. What’s right is that which brings the greatest good for the greatest number. Also known as consequentialism, utilitarianism divorces morality from divine revelation and thus is attractive to a secularized citizenry. Utilitarian thinking dominates debates over abortion and physician-assisted suicide in the public square, where deontological considerations are dismissed a-priori due to their alleged ties to the metaphysics of religion. Though often rejected wholesale by Christian theists, utilitarian considerations play an important role in good moral thinking. We should weigh the consequences of an act before proceeding. But utilitarianism as a comprehensive (stand alone) model for moral thinking is deeply flawed.
    1. Some acts are wrong in themselves such as rape and murder. However, given utilitarianism, intentional evil can be justified to produce the greatest good for the greatest number. For example, it would not be wrong to frame a homeless man for a crime he did not commit to prevent a city-wide riot. Moreover, minorities as a whole suffer under utilitarianism. After all, slavery clearly benefitted the pre-Civil War South, benefitting more people than it harmed. But it was evil for other reasons
    2. Utilitarianism is an incomplete theory: It can’t define “good” without borrowing from other, deontological systems. For example, suppose a 99- year-old man brings “good” in the form of joy to his family and friends, but stress to an equal number of people who wish to euthanize him because he uses up limited medical resources. How do we decide the relative weight of these considerations? In this case, utility alone can’t tell us what ultimate good to pursue. We need a standard outside utility to break the tie.
    3. Utilitarianism fails to give sufficient guidance on decision making, especially when the calculated results may not be known for some time. How do we know when we’ve achieved the greatest good for the greatest number, or that we’ve achieved it? Suppose local officials dislodge 250 families via Eminent Domain to build a new professional sports stadium on grounds it will provide public revenue and increase the overall good of the local community. Sounds good, but how many years will it take to calculate the cost (financial, psychological, relational, etc.) of 250 families losing their homes? And who decides if it was worth it? Suppose five years out, tax revenues are indeed up, but 28 percent of the dislodged families are now living near poverty due to losing their homes, while another forty percent suffer psychologically from being forcibly uprooted. Meanwhile, violent crime in the neighborhoods surrounding the stadium is noticeably higher, especially on game days. Eight years out, the crime is even worse as sex-traffickers and panhandlers set up permanent residence on residential streets. In this example, who decides if dislodging 250 families was truly “good” for the community? Utilitarianism alone can’t say. Might makes right in this system.

Again, utilitarian considerations should inform good moral thinking, though they should never be the sole basis for it. For example, a terminally-ill cancer patient, on a doctor’s advice, may decide that aggressive treatment is no longer helpful and thus not worth the toll it takes on her mind and body. Rather than ruin what little time she has left, she forgoes further treatment to be present with those she loves. While prolonging life is an objective good she affirms, in this case, it’s not the only objective good in play. Connecting with loved ones and saying meaningful goodbyes are also objective goods. While the consequences of continuing treatment clearly inform her decision, they are not the sole basis for it. Deontological considerations like, When, if ever, is it morally permissible to withdraw treatment from a dying patient? and, Is there a difference between letting a disease run its course and intentionally killing those with terminal illnesses? also guide her thinking. In short, given the hand she’s been dealt, an honest consideration of consequences helps her pursue the best objective good she can: connecting with family while the disease runs its course. A strict utilitarian calculus might go the other way: Given her situation is hopeless, she requests physician-assisted suicide to preserve scarce medical resources, thus benefitting the many over the one.

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