Friday, February 27, 2009

The Heliocentric Analogy

I hold that questions of God’s existence – whether you believe in a god or not – are irrelevant to questions of morality. I look at the proposition that it is almost certainly the case that no god exists in the same way that I look at the proposition that it is almost certainly the case that the earth orbits the sun. It is a claim about what is true or false in the universe, but it tells me almost nothing about how we should behave.

For a moment, let’s pretend that we were locked in a dispute between those who believe that the Earth is the center of the universe, and those who believe that the Earth orbits the sun. Let us imagine the possibility that some people thought that this view had moral implications.

We could imagine somebody saying how important it is to teach geocentrism – the theory that the earth is the center of the universe – in our schools. I can well imagine somebody making the following argument:

Heliocentrism – or the sun-centered theory – threatens to drown civilization in a sea of immorality and chaos.

If we teach students that humans are infinitesimal specks on a piece of dust orbiting an average star lost in a sea of stars in an average galaxy lost in a sea of galaxies – they are going to view themselves and their neighbors as trivial and insignificant. This, in turn, can only be expected to lead to moral degeneration and chaos and, ultimately, the destruction of society.

Furthermore, we have proof of this. All we need to do is to compare the numbers of people who have been killed in human history by those who believed that the Earth was the center of the universe, compared to those who believed that the Earth orbits the sun.

We see that all of the great wars – the great atrocities of the 20th century were committed by people who believed the Earth orbited the Sun. Hitler. Stalin, Mao. Pol Pot. Every one of them believed in the earth-orbit theory. Every one of them believed that humans were specks circling an insignificant star.

On the other hand, if we returned geocentrism to our schools – if we once again filled our children with the sense of importance that comes from believing that they are the most important characters on the most important piece of real estate in the universe – the one place that the whole rest of the universe revolves around – we can have a return to morality and then, and only then, can we have a civilization that flourishes, free from the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and other heliocentrists.

We can imagine that argument. But, unfortunately, the earth still orbits an average main-sequence star in one of hundreds of billions of galaxies, and we are just going to have to learn to live with that fact. None of these arguments about how heliocentrism will lead to the immorality and the end of civilization, even if those claims are true, has anything to do with whether the Earth is, in fact, the center of the universe, or whether it orbits the sun is true.

And, of course, the argument is bogus anyway. Heliocentrism did not lead to Hitler and Stalin and Mao. A great many heliocentrists were opposed to these systems – and were a part of the armies that fought against those tyrannies. And they had good reason to do so. The fact that they were heliocentrists did not change the fact that they had no reason to live in a brutal dictatorship.

The fact that one is an atheist does not imply that one suddenly acquires a taste for living in a brutal and violent dictatorship. Atheists, have exactly the same reason to oppose those types of regimes – for their own sake, for the sake of their family, for the sake of their friends – as theists do. Perhaps more . . . because this life is the only life we have, and who wants to live this life under the heals of a brutal and violent dictator, or starving to death in a system that cannot feed its own people?

In fact, this proposition is so obvious it then raises the following question: What type of person is it who would make the absurd claim that atheists (or evolutionists) somehow lose their reasons to avoid subjecting themselves and their loved ones to tyrannical oppression, brutal violence, wonton imprisonment, and starvation?

Actually, it would be somebody who wants you to hate and fear those who disagree with him.

It’s a very common tactic – using hatred and fear as rhetorical tools. History is filled with examples of people asserting that “we” are the noble and good people and “that tribe over there” is filled with sin and evil who want nothing more than to rape your women and slaughter your children unless you take up arms – political arms, if not military arms - against them.

These people . . . those who want you to learn the history of the 20th century as being a conflict between the angelic Christians against the demonic atheists – are people who have learned to use unprincipled hatred and fear as political tools. Though they claim that their access to God gives them direct access to virtue somehow missed the part about how virtue is not found in using fear and hatred as a weapon.

The next time somebody uses the name of Hitler and Stalin as reasons for you to hate and fear atheists or evolutionists, think of what you would say if they were using the names Hitler and Stalin to teach you to hate heliocentrists. Think of the reasons that heliocentrists still have to oppose tyranny, brutality, and starvation, and you will see the argument as the piece of hate-mongering bigotry it is in fact.

13 comments:

david said...

"The next time somebody uses the name of Hitler and Stalin as reasons for you to hate and fear atheists or evolutionists, think of what you would say if they were using the names Hitler and Stalin to teach you to hate heliocentrists."


Perhaps I am misunderstanding what is being said here, but the reason most people cite examples such as Hitler, Stalin, the Crusades, or the Inquisitions goes a little further than "hate-mongering bigotry."

An outsider can examine a belief system (Darwinism, Christianity, Islam) a believer's actions can reasonably be traced to propositions found in that belief system. By "belief system" I merely mean any organized set of propositions that person x can affirm and thus x is a believer.

Was Stalin operating off of assumptions that he gleaned from a particular secular worldview? If so, then blame the secular worldview.

Were the Crusaders operating off Christian assumptions? If so, blame Christianity.

I'm not saying this is a sound argument for combatting belief systems, but it does appear to go deeper than bigotry. For me the logical response to Stalin is to identify what led him to commit those atrocities (which is likely not simply a secular worldview).

david said...

Apologies for this mistake:

"An outsider can examine a belief system (Darwinism, Christianity, Islam) to determine if a believer's actions "

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Dave

For clarification, I have made the argument elsewhere that references to Hitler and Stalin are not automatically wrong. I imagined a case in which Hitler returned, with the same goals and ambitions, complaining all allong during his rise to power that it was wrong for anybody to compare him to (the original) Hitler.

We can, in fact, criticize the elements of a belief system for what that belief system implies. However, part of my point here is that the relationship between atheism and morality is the same as the relationship between heliocentrism and morality. There are no inferences of the type worthy of criticism.

Now, you wrote:

as Stalin operating off of assumptions that he gleaned from a particular secular worldview? If so, then blame the secular worldview.

No.

Blame that particular secular world view.

Even here, it is only legitimate to blame those parts of that world view that actually imply the conclusions that one has reason to reject.

Even here, that blame has to be limited.

If a particular world view contains proposition P, and Stalin (or somebody) argued P implies Q, and we have reason to reject Q . . . we still only have reason to reject P if P in fact implies Q (if Stalin's assertion that P implies Q is true). Otherwise, we can trace blame back no further than Stalin's (or whomever's) mistake of inferring Q from P.

If people use prison statistics to defend racism, the reasons that exist for objecting to racism do not allow us to imply that the prison statistics are false. It only justifies us in condemning those who make the false inference from true prison statistics to racism.

Eneasz said...

I got several points, but not a lot of time, so I'll just hit the big one.

Since when is Darwinism a belief-system? What the heck even IS Darwinism? You put it next two Christianity and Islam, so I'm assuming it's some sort of religion? Since when did "learning and/or teaching scientific knowledge" become a religion? It sounds like that would make Heliocentrists, Einsteinians, GermTheory-ians, etc etc all religions too. It seems to be a bit of a corruption of the word.

david said...

Eneasz: I defined belief system as an organized set of propositions that one can affirm.

Alonzo: I agree with the distinction between "P implies Q" and "Stalin thought P implied Q." My only point is that if one argues that P implies Q, and offers Stalin as an example of that in action, then we shouldn't write it off as bigotry.

Eneasz said...

David: then the term "belief system" is vauge to the point of uselessness. One could have a "belief system" of how to make a delicious chocolate cake. It's more productive to call it a recipie though.

The use of the term "belief system" is a pet peeve of mine, actually, because it's generally used dishonestly. A vauge definition is given that could include almost anything, but the only things that get included in practice are religions and sciences. And then the theist will assert that because he created this new catagory which includes science and religion this means that science is just another religion than requires faith! It's ludicrous.

Anyway, even given your definition of belief-system... what are the assertions of Darwinism? If it is merely that "all the evidence we have supports the current theory of evolution to such a strong degree that denying it is as silly as denying gravity", then why is it being compared to Christianity and Islam?

david said...

Eneasz: It is probably more accurate to specify that a belief system contains propositions that are descriptions about reality.

As to the assertions of Darwinism, I'm not seeing how this is relevent to the discussion. I found this textbook to be especially accessible to the general audience: "Evolution" by Mark Ridley

Perhaps an obviously false example will make this clear:

P1. The survival of the fittest through natural selection ensures the promalgation of the strongest genetics, and in turn the most adapted members of a species.

P2. Some action inhibits natural selection.

P3. If an action prohibits natural selection, it should not be taken.

C. Therefore, that action should not be taken.

Now this is a poor argument that a person could make, and perhaps in particular use to conclude that euthanasia should be legally required.

Note that P3 isn't explicitly a proposition from within the worldview.

Christian Apologist said...

The next time somebody uses the name of Hitler and Stalin as reasons for you to hate and fear atheists or evolutionists, think of what you would say if they were using the names Hitler and Stalin to teach you to hate heliocentrists. Think of the reasons that heliocentrists still have to oppose tyranny, brutality, and starvation, and you will see the argument as the piece of hate-mongering bigotry it is in fact.

So what your saying here is that anyone who disagrees with you about the motivations of Hitler and Stalin is a hate-mongering bigot. Isn't that a bit of a tyranical statement. :)

Reason why Athiesm allows for evil:

1. If there is no God there is no such thing as objective morality

2. If morality is subjective then there is no reason why an evil man should not commit evil. As a matter of fact there is no such thing as evil if morality is subjective.

3. If morality is subjective there is no reason to resist an evil dictator when asked to do evil yourself.

4. The end result is the Soviet gulags.

Eneasz said...

Ah, I see. It looks like I just misunderstood what you were saying.

I think it's problematic to judge individuals by assigning them to a belief-system catagory and then judging that belief-system. In the vast majority of cases, the official belief-system dogma does not match what the individual actually believes. Often the individual isn't even aware of everything that belief-system asserts, or is mistaken as to what it asserts. Sometimes they are aware but disagree with certain aspects of it.

Furthermore, it is a corruptible system. It's very easy to say "Jews are dirty and greedy" or "Muslims are violent", and therefore John Doe should be punished, since he belongs in that catagory.

Rather than judging entire belief-systems and attempting to promote or inhibit them, it would be much more advantageous to judge desires individually and promote or inhibit those. Rather than saying "Islam is bad", it would be better to say "A desire to keep women powerless and servile is bad. You should have an aversion to that, not a desire for it", and let people talk to whatever imaginary friends they want to.

Eneasz said...

Christian Apologist -

So what your saying here is that anyone who disagrees with you about the motivations of Hitler and Stalin is a hate-mongering bigot. Isn't that a bit of a tyranical statement. :)

I could make assertions about the motivations of the Jewish Cabal to destroy the Twin Towers on 9/11. If someone were to call me a bigot, I could respond the same way you did: "Oh, so anyone who disagrees with you about the motivations of the Jewish Cabal on 9/11 is a hate-mongering bigot?" That doesn't change the fact that there was no Jewish Cabal, and that the reason I'm claiming Judism is behind the attacks is because I want people to hate Jews. And that therefore, yes, I am a hate-mongering bigot.

If atheism actually did lead to Hitler/Stalin, then you'd have a point. But the very obvious fact of the matter is that it does not. It is so plain and so obvious that the only reason someone would claim the opposite is because he wants to spread hatred of atheists. Thus - he is correctly called a hate-mongering bigot.

1. If there is no God there is no such thing as objective morality

This betrays either gross ignorance or intentional lying. It ignores centuries of moral philosophy, and somehow manages to ignore that THIS VERY BLOG is about objective morality with no god.

I'm not even going to bother with the rest. Did you read the original post? It showed very simply and clearly why someone would oppose evil regardless of whether or not the earth revolves around the sun, or a god exists. At this point you are simply plugging your ears and repeating "nuh uh!"

Phoesune said...

Ok, I got to comment on Point 2 of Christian Apologists argument. It is an impossible statement following point 1. If there is no objective morality then their is no objective evil.

If there is a relative morality then there is relative evil. determining the "evilness" of a dictator's demands is dependent on the situation. Let's say the dictator demands the genocide of a race of people. Is it moral for the person to kill these people on the basis of the dictator's command alone, or is it the moral obligation of the person so commanded to determine the morality on their own? What are the reasons for this genocide? Have other methods been tried that are less final? Do these people pose an enduring threat to humanity due to disease? At what point do you question this dictator's motives? Is the dictator just egotistical and think these people stand in the way of the dictator's people conquering the world? does the dictator just hate them because of some perceived slight?

Another question is what is the moral evil of the dictator versus the moral evil of the follower? Is it more evil to command genocide or to carry it out?

Of course I am thinking of two situations here. Hitler against the Jews and the Jews against the Amalekites.

Morality is subjective only to the circumstance for which it is required. It cannot be objective in my view. Yet that does not mean that morality is subject to our whims anymore than eating is subject to hunger. It is a way we have developed to interact effectively.

faithlessgod said...

Another element to this whole argument is if we grant a theists highly dubious basis for classifying wars and atrocities according atheism and use the same standards to classify theism as well, then history shows that theistic based world views are about 100 times more lethal than atheistic ones!!!!!!!!

So why on earth are the even brining attention to this? Because atheists have either
a) correctly identified this is an invalid basis to decide the moral worth of theism or atheism as morality has not necessary connection with such a dimension of a world view, this is the point that Alonzo makes
b) Gets diverted by dealing with the fallacious claims that Hitler's Positive Christianity and the Nazi movement were atheist etc.
c) Have not bothered to check the facts all you have to do is point them out to a theist!

I will write my next post on this.

faithlessgod said...

OK here is the deliberately provocatively titled post Is a theist 100 times more lethal than an atheist?