March 2012


One of the arguments moral relativists use to support their view that moral values are not objective is what I call the “change and diversity argument.”  It is reasoned that since moral values have changed over time (we once thought slavery was moral, but now we don’t), and moral opinions even differ from culture to culture at the present time, morality cannot be objective.

This is not a good argument for several reasons.  First and foremost, the presence of contrary opinions does not imply the absence of truth.  Just because people disagree on what is moral does not mean moral values are not objective, nor does it mean that no one is capable of possessing knowledge of moral truths.  Consider a mathematical problem posed to 10 students.  If each student provided a different answer to the same problem, would it follow that no one was right or that there is no right answer?  No.  Relativists who offer the “change and diversity” argument against objectivism are confusing moral epistemology for moral ontology.  While it may be that people can be mistaken about what is right and wrong, that no more implies that there is no moral truths than the fact that people get their sums wrong implies that there are no mathematical truths.

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What do you think of the pericope of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16?  Do you think it is a parable or a historical event?  Why?

Those who reject dualism (the view that man is made up of two kinds of substances: physical and immaterial) often cite the “interaction problem” as an argument against the view.  Stated simplistically, the interaction problem is to explain how an immaterial entity such as a mind/soul could causally interact with material entities.  One envisions the Hollywood movies in which a ghost is desperately trying to pick up a beverage or kiss someone to no avail.  Try as he might, he cannot connect his immaterial self to the material world to affect it in any way (unless you are Patrick Swayze!).  Many monists think the interaction problem alone is sufficient to dismiss dualism as a possibility.

Such an approach to the question seems wrongheaded, however.  One should not look at the queerness of mind-body interaction and immediately conclude that the mind cannot exist independent of the brain.  One must first evaluate the evidence for the existence of such an entity.  If there are good, independent reasons to think the mind is not an immaterial entity—but can be reduced to the brain or arise from material processes—then the interaction problem could serve as further confirmation that there is no soul.  But if there are good reasons to think the mind is an immaterial entity separate from the brain, then the interaction problem—while difficult or even impossible to explain—is insufficient to overturn the evidence that the mind is immaterial.  While we may not know how the mind interacts with the material world, we know the two entities do exist, and do interact with each other.  One need not explain how something occurs to know that it occurs.  We may forever be ignorant of how the mind and body relate to each other, but we have direct awareness and experience of the fact that they do.

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Oded Golan with the James Ossuary

Oded Golan, an antiquities collector, and Robert Deutsch, an antiquities dealer, were acquitted today of forgery charges brought against them by the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA).  The IAA had charged these men with forging some of the most famous and recent finds related to Biblical archaeology including the James Ossuary, Jehoash Inscription, Ivory Pomegranate, and Three Shekels ostracon

The verdict does not prove that these artifacts are authentic. It only shows that the prosecution could not prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.  But given the fact that the trial lasted five years, there were 138 witnesses, and 400 exhibits, the fact that the IAA could not demonstrate that these artifacts are forgeries says a lot.  There are good reasons to think they are authentic, and there are world-renowned experts in the field who agree with this conclusion.

I wonder how the media will report this given the fact that most media outlets have been referring to the James Ossuary as a forgery simply based on the IAA’s charge.  If you see any media reports, please provide the link in the comments.

While I do not think the objectivity of moral values makes sense in an atheistic or purely naturalistic world, many atheists and naturalists affirm the objectivity of moral values anyway (for which I am happy).  When you press them to explain what makes it wrong to steal, rape, or murder, however, they will often respond that such things are morally wrong because they cause unnecessary suffering.  This is unhelpful.  The question seeks to know the ontological grounding for the moral values that exist in the world.  Rather than provide that grounding, the atheist appeals to another moral value (any X that causes unnecessary suffering is wrong).  But you can’t explain what makes moral values “moral” by citing another moral value.  The moral value that it is wrong to cause harm unnecessarily needs to be grounded ontologically just as much as the moral value that it is wrong to steal or right to tell the truth needs to be grounded ontologically.  Since it can still be asked what makes it wrong to cause unnecessary harm, the ontological grounding for morality must go deeper.

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In the early 20th century German theologian Walter Bauer proposed that Christian orthodoxy is a historical fiction.  Heretics were not those who departed from the original teachings of Jesus and the apostles, but those on the losing side of a political battle for dominance by one group of Christians over another.  Orthodoxy represents the side who won, not the side of those who remained faithful to Jesus’ teachings.  There is no such thing as Christianity per se, but rather a collage of various Christianities.

While Bauer’s proposal was severely critiqued by other scholars and joined the ash-heap of theological history, as is the case with most bad ideas, someone comes along later, picks up the idea, brushes off the ashes, repackages it, and tries to sell it again.  Such is the case with the Bauer thesis.  Today it is being peddled by people such as Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels.  Speaking to a postmodern generation that prizes diversity, detests absolute truth claims, and thinks truth claims are an attempt to gain power and exert control, they have found a receptive audience for their pluralistic view of Christian origins and history.  For them, the only true heresy is orthodoxy itself: the claim that there is one enduring truth, and one Christian faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints.

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During his dialogue-debate with Rowen Williams (the archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Church under the Queen of England), Richard Dawkins was asked by the moderator why, if he admits that He cannot disprove God’s existence, he doesn’t just call himself an agnostic.  Dawkins response was, “I do.”

This is interesting, particularly in light of his past identification as an atheist, as well as his remarks that on a scale of 1 to 7, with one being “I know God exists” and seven being “I know God doesn’t exist,”  he ranks himself a 6.9.  He is only 0.1 away from being absolutely certain God does not exist, and yet he thinks that is good reason to adopt the agnostic label.  I disagree.

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J. W. Wartick has written a nice article evaluating the case for atheistic ethics, particularly as presented by philosopher Louise Anthony.  She represents a brand of atheists (such as Sam Harris and Michael Shermer) who refuse the nihilism of an earlier generation of atheists who admitted that if there is no God, there are no objective moral values.  She thinks God does not exist but moral values do.  Or so she says.  When she defines what those moral values are and how they are determined, it becomes clear that they are subjective, not objective.  Something has value if she values it, and something is wrong if it causes suffering.  But these are mind-dependent, and thus subjective by definition.  For meaning and morality to be objective, it must have an existence independent of human thinkers such that even if conscious beings did not exist, moral values and meaning would still exist.

Ultimately, atheists can only put forward various ways that humans can know what is moral (epistemology); they cannot explain what makes those moral values moral.  Secular ethics lack an objective foundation.

Bioethics is a strange field.  Not only are there no objective qualifications for being a bioethicist, but one need not even hold views that are deemed ethical by most morally sane people.  Indeed, it seems that the field of bioethics consists primarily of liberals who hold to a utilitarian philosophy of ethics in which almost everything is permissible.  That is why you can have bioethicists advocating infanticide in respectable bioethics journals like the Journal of Medical Ethics.  Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva wrote an article for the journal titled “After-birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?”[1] that appeared online February 23, 2012.

The abstract reads:

Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus’ health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.

While I disagree vehemently with their reasoning and conclusion, this is where the arguments for abortion logically lead one to.  The authors recognize that birth is a trivial and subjective dividing line for determining who is valuable and who is not; who can be killed and who cannot.

HT: Wesley Smith


[1]J Med Ethics doi:10.1136/medethics-2011-100411.

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