Thursday, February 24, 2005

Avoiding Nihilism

The Maverick Philosopher writes:
[M]any naturalists are morally decent people... but what justification could these naturalists have for maintaining the ideals and holding the values that they do maintain and hold? Where do these ideals come from if, at ontological bottom, it is all just "atoms in the void"? And why ought we live up to them? Where does the oughtness, the deontic pull, if you will, come from? If ideals are mere projections, whether individually or collectively, then they have precisely no ontological backing that we are bound to take seriously.

These are important questions - indeed, I've asked about 'deontic pull' (or 'normative force') before. But I don't see how any of these concerns are unique to naturalism.

Naturalists hold value to be reducible to natural facts (perhaps facts about human desires, and what would best fulfill them), rather than a distinct and irreducible ontological category. But why should that give them "precisely no ontological backing"? They are literally backed by their naturalistic 'reduction basis'. (Does the reduction of water to H2O make water any less real?)

BV asks why we should care about values that are merely part of the natural world. But if value is something apart from the world, why should we care any more about that? Why are non-natural values any more worthwhile than natural ones? Moreover, if we're causally isolated from values (being non-natural and all), how could we care about them? How could we even know of their existence?

Opponents of naturalism often claim that God grounds values and gives life meaning. My previous post on God-given Value disputes this, and I still haven't heard any satisfactory response. What difference does God make? What makes doing God's bidding any more meaningful than doing your own, or someone else's? Why obey divine commands at all?

I'm not sure I've understood him correctly, but BV hints that his only reason for behaving morally is a prudential fear of divine punishment:
If only naturalism were unmistakably and irrefutably true! A burden would be lifted: no God, no soul, no personal survival of death, an assured exit from the wheel of becoming, no fear of being judged for one’s actions.

Of course, just as the amoral theist behaves morally for fear of divine censure, so might an amoral atheist behave morally for fear of social censure. So the afterlife is not the only possible prudential reason to behave oneself (though it would provide the strongest one!).

More importantly, prudence is of little relevance to the broader debate. For one thing, it is distinct from ethics - I still don't see how religion gives us reasons to care about morality (as opposed to using it merely as a means to secure a pleasant afterlife). Further, it does not explain why we should care even about being prudent. If life is meaningless, what makes the afterlife any more meaningful? Surely extending worthlessness forever cannot make it worthwhile?

My questions aren't rhetorical - I'd genuinely like to hear theists' answers, if they have any. We hear a lot about how God gives your lives meaning, but how is that? What meaning or value does God provide that we would otherwise lack? I just don't see it.


  1. To add to your argument I would like to give my own thoughts. The atoms and the void alone might not seem valuable, but what about us? People are valuable, many things are valuable about a person. Why do we have to reduce everything? Seems like common sense and wisdom can explain appropriate behavior without the idea of God.

    As far as theology is concerened, I've read that they have accepted that laws and social contract ethics seems to make sense, but those idea don't obligate a person to do the right thing like a divine law would. But that doesn't change the fact that we can't know God's laws. What are his laws, and why does he have them? Even if you want to trust in the 10 commandments, there is much to be explained. "Thou Shalt Not Kill" seems like a flexable law considering that sometimes we have to kill in self-defense, etc.

  2. Jennifer, I'm all for behaving morally - as you say, it tends to better one's own life as well as others'. But obviously one doesn't require religion to behave in such a way. So I'm still left wondering, of those theists who say that life has meaning only if God exists, why do they think that?

  3. The problem is that naturalists have failed to provide an account for morality that satisfies most people's sense of moral objectivity.

    It may sound like a sweeping claim, but no attempt to reduce morals to 'natural facts' have been successful - it is difficult to get passed the is/ought gap. What naturalist account can give us an "ought?" Only with conditionals - conditionals whose premises need to be reduced to natural facts to be anything more than preferences.

    However, a lack of moral objectivity may not necessarily lead to nihilism. We may prefer certain moral codes, like not killing each other, because we prefer the consequences of following the code to following something else. (Contract theories do something like this).

    There is, however, something lacking in this account. It may not exactly be moral subjectivity, but it certainly doesn't pass for objectivity.

    The problem, it seems to me, isn't that values are "merely" natural in the naturalist account, but that there are no objective values in the naturalist account.

    I agree with you that attempts to resolve the difficulty by appealing to God can be equally unsatisfying.

    But perhaps Aristotle's functionalist argument can work here. Perhaps humans were created to serve a particular function, and are 'good humans' to the degree they perform that function well. This is subtely different than the argument you refuted in your God-Giving Values post.

    Of course, the functionalist argument doesn't have any need for a God, but I think it can be used to explain how God's "bidding" can be relevant to human morality.

    (I don't, as I suspect you do not, buy the argument.)

    As to God giving life meaning: the existence of God is supposed to solve the PSR problem atheists face. I might be equating meaning with reason (as in PSR), but I suspect that what most people mean by asking "what is the meaning of life?" is "what is the reason for there being life at all?" If you're willing to accept a self-sufficient being, you might be interested in posulating the existence of one to solve any PSR/meaning problems you might be having.

    Frankly, I don't know what the hell a self-sufficient being would be like (God, I suppose), and I'd think it would be fair to ask what is the reason God exists. Perhaps life is Absurd even if God exists.

  4. This post is one-yr late so I might as well be speaking down a well. First my position. I'm not acquainted with philosophy and will be making rather clumsy arguments ahead. Lets put aside the point of the objectivity/subjectivity of values for the moment. I would like to point out the difference between theory and practice. In theory, an individual may be a self-sufficient generator of values and meaning. One's life may be as full of purpose as one would have it be. A diversion- How meaningful is meaning that could be ordered ala carte off the menu. To a human mind, the relativity of values undermines "value" itself. Relative value is an obsolete currency.

    In practise, how many of us are still instinctively embarking on a search for meaning, as though it were still somewhere out there. If hacking with an axe does not get you what you want, change your tool. We've been arguing about the existence of God since who knows when, alright, are we making progress? If not, is arguing more going to change things? This is not saying we should all dumb down, but sometimes talking and talking isn't always the smartest thing one can do. What I hope philosophers could sit down one day and expound on is the idea, the concept of faith. which I think would make an intriguing topic of discussion. The idea that faith lifts minds to a higher perspective. A method of reaching understanding besides critical reasoning? I'd like to hear from that person who reads one year old posts. cheers

  5. Though I'm sure theologians have been expounding on the concept of faith as ineffectively and for as long as philosophers have been having more rigorous thoughts... ;-)


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