Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Morality and God: The Importance of BELIEF in God

On this series, I am attempting to put various ideas on the relationship between morality and god in one convenient location.

I am writing this series in the backdrop of the article, The Plausibility of Grounding Moral VAlues In God

Yesterday, I wrote that, at a basic level, the relationship between morality and god does not matter. If moral properties are real - like trees and atoms are real - then the atheist and the theist can equally recognize the wrongness of rape just as they can discuss recognize and discuss the properties of trees and atoms.

However, a lot of people who hold that morality is dependent on god do not view moral properties as real in the way trees and atoms are real. One of us can believe that trees could not have come into existence without a designer and that matter could not come into existence without a first cause - while the other denies these claims - yet we can agree on the height of the tree and the chemical composition of its bark. In contrast, the view being examined here holds that one cannot be properly aware of the wrongness of rape - or have a reason to avoid any particular arrangement of matter - without a belief in god.

This is absurd.

The absurdity of holding that a belief in god is necessary to perceive that a state is worth avoiding is demonstrated by the absurdity of holding that a belief in god is necessary to feel pain.

One would think, in listening to those who hold this view, that an atheist can put his hand in a bed of hot coals without feeling any discomfort. After all, the only thing that happens when a person sticks his hand in a bed of hot coals is that the atoms in one's hand change their arrangement. Some molecular bonds are broken and new ones are formed. Some chemicals escape from the end of one neuron and attach themselves to the end of a nearby neuron. There is nothing in this for the atheist to perceive as bad or worth avoiding.

In the article cited above, this attitude is captured in:

2) Everything in the universe is fundamentally the same stuff (quarks & waves)

3) Therefore, nothing in the universe is qualitatively different from something else, and therefore does not lay claim to valuing anything more than anything else.

Everything involved in the burning of one's hand is "fundamentally the same stuff" - various arrangements of quarks and waves. Therefore, according to this argument, there is no reason for the atheist to favor the state in which his hand is not being burned in a bed of hot coals over a state in which it is being burned. The atheist should be indifferent among these two states.

Please recall that I am writing this in the context of contrasting two views of the relationship between value and a deity. There is the "it really does not matter" view where two people disagree on the origins of something but agree on its current real-world properties. This is contrasted with, "It matters because a belief in a diety is necessary to know of the badness of things" view.

The person holding the first view can say, "Yes, atheists can feel pain and recognize an interest in avoiding it - though a god is necessary to have assigned this badness to pain." This view holds that the reason to avoid pain could not have emerged in nature - but acknowledges that it is as real as trees and atoms.

It's the person who holds the second view of the relationship between value and morality - who holds that an awareness of a deity is necessary to feel pain and to have a reason to avoid putting one's hand in a bed of hot coals - who crashes into this absurdity.

Where we allow that an atheist has the capacity to feel pain and sees a reason to avoid pain, we see that atheist also has reason to organize his environment in ways that reduce the odds of being burned. Or, more generally, he has reason to arrange his environment in ways in which he is less likely to put in a state of experience pain.

For example, he has reason to see to it that his house is wired in such a way that it will not catch fire and trap him inside and he has reason - with the other members of his community who also wish to avoid being burned - to support a fire department of skilled professionals who can and will respond quickly to a report if a fire and rescue those at risk.

He also has a reason to join with his neighbors to support a culture - to support institutions and practices - that will cause people (himself and others) to be reluctant to do things that would cause pain.

Furthermore, the standards for a good electrician, a good firefighter, and a good neighbor, and good institutions and practices are not arbitrary.

It is not a matter of opinion that the electrician willing to pass a heavy current through a thin wire, or who refuses to hook up circuit breakers, is just as good as the electrician who uses thicker gauge wires and circuit breakers.

Similarly, the neighbor who enjoys setting houses on fire, or who is careless with fire on his own property such that the fire may spread, or who is careless with fire while visiting - tossing a lit cigarette behind the couch, for example - is as good a neighbor as the responsible neighbor who makes the possibility of fire less likely.

Finally, you cannot draw any odd set of institutions out of a hat and claim that they are just as good as any other. They may not, in fact, be just as good at creating an environment that reduces the chance that one avoids pain or other unpleasantries - hunger, thirst, enslavement.

Everything said here about good neighbors and institutions and the interest in avoiding pain also applies to good neighbors and the interests in avoiding murder, rape, theft, lying, fraud, enslavement. It also applies to the relationship between neighbors and institutions and the practice of charity, civil defense, community education, and the creation of a clean and healthy environment.

All of this follows from the atheist's ability to recognize that a state in which one's hand is being burned - and similar kinds of states (hunter, depravation, enslavement) - is one that the agent has a reason to avoid.

I will draw the connection between these basic interests and moral institutions more clearly in future posts. For the moment, everything I need to say is sufficiently grounded on the fact that atheists can experience pain. This demonstrates that it is possible to hold that different arrangements of atoms can be qualitatively different without believing in a god. We can disagree how this is is possible - just as we can disagree as to the origin of matter and of life. However, that these qualitative differences exist is a fact that the atheist has no trouble recognizing.

Any view that holds that atheists would be incapable of perceiving or responding to qualitative differences among the arrangement of atoms is patently false.

Yet, this easily disproved view is held by a great many people. Why is this the case?

Whenever people hold to a view that is easily demonstrated to be false, we have reason to ask what it is that blinds them to the problems with this view and makes the falsehood attractive to them. The answer to this question has a lot to say about the perceived relationship between morality and god. I will address this question tomorrow.

1 comment:

Colin Murphy said...

Alonzo, I would just like to add that the typical theist who holds the view of value that you are critiquing would actually argue that "Of course, the atheist can recognize badness without belief in God; they just have no justifiable reason (or grounding) for saying that it it so. Of course that really isn't any better than the options you give in your posting because its like saying, "Sure you can say that your hand is in pain, but you have no reason to say that it is in pain" which is, of course, absurd as well.