Morality, knowledge and emotions

Well, I’ve totally dropped the ball on this one. It’s been a shameful six months since your last post. Despite it weighing heavy on my mind practically every day, and despite a couple of incomplete attempts, I’ve only now found the time (and, let’s be honest, self-discipline) to properly respond. Still, assuming this blog lives on the internet in perpetuity, then statistically speaking, the vast majority of people reading this are doing so after we’ve made it to the end of Keller’s book, so for those readers at least, there has been no time lapse whatsoever between any of our posts. Huzzah!

Anyway, maybe this post can serve as a wrap-up to our discussion of Keller’s first chapter (though I do ask some questions of you, but I’ll leave it up to you whether they need to be answered now or later). And then maybe I should announce a specific date by which I’ll write about chapter 2 in order to keep myself accountable and, more importantly, in order to avoid another lengthy delay.

I’ll respond to your last post point by point. As such, I’ll essentially be quoting almost all of your post with my reply beneath each point. So, without further ado:

The chapter seemed like a fairly gentle introduction, kind of priming the pump for more substantial stuff to follow. Nothing here really helps us figure out what’s true or false. As you rightly identified, Keller’s largely trying to give disinterested readers a good reason to keep going, and he’s open about his modest aims at the end of the chapter: “I have not addressed whether religion is true. I have only sought to make the case that it is by no means a dying force.” (p. 27)

I actually think he does more. Showing that religion isn’t dying would’ve been a simple matter of citing a few studies. But he went further and offered three suggestions on why religion isn’t dying:

  • Many people find secularism intellectually lacking – it can’t properly explain things like love, morality, sacrifice, redemption, or forgiveness
  • Many people find secularism emotionally unsatisfying – if things like art and beauty awaken the sense that there’s ‘more to life’, secularism and atheism shut down those intuitions and declare, ‘Nope, sorry, there’s nothing more’. But, as C.S. Lewis once wrote: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
  • Many people have a direct, personal experience of transcendence that secularism or atheism simply can’t explain

I’m deeply persuaded that the first of those points is correct. You responded to this point by noting, “humans do a pretty good job at agreeing on most of the important moral questions”, regardless of whether morality is objective. That’s true, but you seemed to circle around or miss Keller’s main point: objective morality simply cannot come from atheism or scientific rationalism.

Yes, I agree. Sorry if I’ve never been clear about this. My stance is indeed that an objective morality is impossible without an objective source. Since I obviously don’t believe in any objective source, I consequently don’t believe that there is an objective morality. All we’re left with is the possibility for a subjective morality, which I believe can still be very useful and satisfying. So while I agree that an objective morality might be preferred over a subjective one, I’m simply arguing that it doesn’t need to be such an all-or-nothing issue. To put it another way, objective morality is greater than subjective morality which is, in turn, greater than no morality. You suggest that a subjective morality has no objective worth. Yes, that’s right. But nobody’s suggesting that. Rather, it has subjective worth. It’s a different thing, granted, but it’s not nothing. It serves a purpose that is greater than having no morality at all. The alternative to an objective morality doesn’t have to be anarchy and meaninglessness. You seem to want to make this a binary choice, ignoring the middle ground between objective morality and no morality. Or maybe you’re just lumping subjective morality together with no morality. I believe there’s a difference.

If we’ve achieved something close to consensus on key moral and ethical questions, it’s not because scientific rationalism got us there.

Well, I wouldn’t say it’s only because of scientific rationalism. I think intelligent discussion between members of society can be incredibly useful, but an important factor in our moral consensus is the evolution of our instinctive behaviour. Tribes that worked together and communicated well and treated each other well tended to survive longer than those who didn’t care about their fellow tribesmen and tore each other apart. There’s an evolutionary advantage in protecting your kin, so it’s no surprise our brains evolved to instinctively do just that. I think we both agree that inherent moral senses exist. We just differ on how they came to be. For you, the simplest explanation is that God imbued us with those moral senses. For me, the simplest explanation is that humans evolved to act a certain way. Both potentially explain how society is able to agree on basic moral issues.

In fact, atheism looks our collective moral decisions in the eye and sneers. It says to us, “If you humans happen to have mostly agreed on your morality, big deal. That doesn’t make it right or wrong, mostly because there is no right or wrong. And if you decided to change your collective morality next week, that won’t make it better or worse than today’s subjective, fleeting conclusions.”

This is perhaps a matter of perspective. When you use the words “right” and “wrong”, you’re clearly referring to an objective right and wrong, thereby insinuating that subjective morality is worthless because it’s not objective. You’re comparing subjective morality to objective morality without considering what merits subjective morality has on its own. As I said above, it may be that objective morality is the preferred option, but that doesn’t mean we’re all hopelessly lost souls without it. Subjective morality isn’t objective so of course none of its conclusions are objectively right. Instead, we can consider what worth subjectivity has. The fact that we all do agree on most things (regardless of why that’s so) is actually useful in a very practical sense. Is it perfect? No. Is it workable? Absolutely. Dismissing it as entirely worthless just because it’s not objective is like saying Sachin Tendulkar was a terrible batsman because he wasn’t Don Bradman.

I’d also be interested to hear your response to my argument about religious people having a similar dilemma in determining the specifics of any objective morality. It’s no good just having an objective morality. For it to be useful, everyone has to agree on what it is. How do you explain why Muslims or other religious people believe that only their moral rules are the truly objective ones? How do you explain why other Christians have differing interpretations of specific moral rules? They each believe they’re adhering to an objective morality, so how do we determine which interpretation of objective morality is correct? Presumably, if someone tried to convince you that there was nothing objectively wrong with homosexuality according to their interpretation of the Bible, you would disagree, so surely there’s still subjectivity involved in how we interpret what objective morality is.

You go on to distinguish between science as the basis for an atheist’s life and an atheist’s knowledge. But I’d want to ask: what kind of knowledge? This is exactly the button that I think Keller’s trying to push. Aren’t there forms of knowledge that go beyond what science can give us? You choose to call that ‘life’, but ‘life’ as you define it here depends on what we might call ‘moral knowledge’: a far-reaching and sustainable philosophy that allows us to pursue love, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, and justice (to name a few qualities)—not because we just feel like it, or because our culture has conditioned us to, or because we stumble into it, but because those things are actually, objectively, right and true.

First, yes, it sounds like there’s a little bit of a semantic difference here. I would probably define ‘knowledge’ as ‘objective facts we can discover about the world’. I acknowledge, however, that to you, morality is indeed included in that definition as a collection of objective facts that can be discovered (presumably through the Bible and a relationship with God). As I’ve just explained, however, I’m not convinced there is any evidence for an objective morality so for me, I don’t consider morality to be a form of objective knowledge at all. In that sense, you will first need to convince me that God (or some other objective source for morality) exists before I can accept that morals can be objectively known in the same way other facts can. To me, the scientific method is so far the only remotely reliable method we have to get at objective knowledge. Hence, morality, as with any other experience we have that is beyond the scope of science, is simply not objective, so we can’t know it in the same way we know that the Earth is round. So, with these definitions, I still stick to my stance that science is an atheist’s basis for knowledge (or at least it’s my basis for knowledge – I can’t speak for other atheists), and that a subjective morality is an atheist’s basis for life. With that said, there’s no reason why we can’t draw on the knowledge we gain from science to influence how we set up our moral structure.

I’d also love to drill down into this:

“Granted, I think we still need to start with a philosophical assumption, e.g. that happiness is the ultimate goal, or that we should aim for the least amount of human suffering, etc. That part is perhaps preference, but similar to my previous point, society is fairly aligned in its thinking about that.”

Aren’t you giving the game away when you admit that we need to start with ‘a philosophical assumption’?

Aren’t you curious as to why ‘society’ (or should that be ‘societies’) seem to be ‘fairly aligned’ in their pursuit of happiness rather than suffering? Aren’t you dissatisfied with having to admit that this is all ‘perhaps preference’? Or to put that last point another way, are you really content to say that a society that decided to minimise happiness and maximise suffering would simply have chosen another equally valid preference?

Again, I sort of answered this above. To me, the simplest explanation for society’s general agreement on major ethical issues, including any philosophical assumptions at the base of any subjective morality, is that our brains evolved that way. Decades of psychology studies show how similarly humans behave to each other, no matter their cultural upbringing. Our brains all work in mostly the same way and that includes how we think about things like happiness and suffering. From there, we can work together to formulate a usable moral code. Am I dissatisfied that it’s a preference? Maybe. But it’s not all preference, remember. It’s largely evolution. Am I content to say that a society that chooses to minimise happiness is equally valid? If there was a hypothetical world in which people evolved to desire suffering, then I suppose starting with that as their basis for morality would indeed be valid. But since we don’t live in that hypothetical world and we live in a world in which people evolved to avoid suffering (after all, that’s what evolutionary survival is all about), it would be logically impossible for a society to choose to maximise suffering anyway. To put it another way, if a society enjoyed suffering, then it couldn’t reasonably be called suffering any more. It’s a contradiction.

Let me turn the question back on to you: are you really content to say that if God had decided to minimise happiness and maximise suffering, he would be equally worthy of reverence? I presume your response to that question will be similar to my response to yours. If God had decided to create the world that way, we’d all share the feeling that suffering was inherently good, so you would indeed revere him.

I suppose you could argue that a society might choose to maximise suffering in others but not themselves, and that’s where things get complex. I’m certainly not suggesting there are easy answers here. When morality is subjective, it’s complicated to determine what the best course of action should be. There are different schools of thought with varying degrees of effectiveness, but all of them are within the limits set by our own psychological evolution.

In any case, if someone has a different opinion than me on any moral question, I’m not obliged to simply accept that and walk away, letting them do whatever they want. I’m not obliged to agree with them at all or even respect them. If I can back up my opinion with solid arguments (and this is perhaps where the knowledge we get from science can help), then I can attempt to convince the other person that they should change their ways. The same way you would.

To shift to another point, I worry you’ve inadvertently misled people in your description of how Keller uses the April 2015 Pew study. You claim that he “obviously didn’t take a close look at the Pew study … because, globally, when people change religions, they overwhelmingly move to the non-religious category (with most of them coming from Christianity).” You also included a graphic showing that the number of people expected to ‘switch religions’ to ‘Unaffiliated’ will grow significantly by 2050 and that Christianity will shrink significantly over the same time.

But as far as I can see, none of that contradicts Keller’s claims at all. In fact, he seems happy to admit that ‘religious switching’ may hurt Christianity’s overall numbers. His focus was on why and precisely how this might happen. Keller points out that, in recent years, people are leaving ‘liberal’ churches or expressions of Christian faith (e.g. “the most mild, modern kind that did not believe in miracles or the deity of Christ or a literal, bodily resurrection”, from page 25) in droves, but that more and more people are embracing ‘conservative’ expressions of Christian faith that uphold those traditional doctrines and emphasize the need for conversion (in fact he says faiths like this are “growing exponentially”). And he’s right. All the evidence shows that people around the world—even in the secular West—are turning to that ‘brand’ of Christianity.

Well, that’s sort of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. You’re essentially saying that the Christians who leave the faith were never really Christians to begin with. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that every single person who switches to the non-religious category in that Pew study was a barely-believing liberal Christian and that every single person who switches to Christianity upholds all the traditional doctrines. Even at that extreme, the numbers are still negligible compared to those who simply stick to their parents’ religion, which was my main point anyway. Keller acknowledges this phenomenon but doesn’t seem to give it enough weight, instead offering other reasons for why religion is growing (i.e. dissatisfaction with secularism, feelings of transcendence). Those reasons may account for the small percentage of people who actually switch to Christianity from atheism/agnosticism but they can’t be used to explain the overall trend of religious growth. It’s clear that the main reason religion will grow is because people rarely switch away from the religion of their birth. As I suggested in my previous post, I think this stat makes it clear that the vast majority of people don’t consider their religious options very carefully. Otherwise, we’d expect a much messier state of affairs with people switching all over the place from one religion to another (or, if one religion was obviously more intellectually satisfying, then more people would switch to that particular one).

Another way of illustrating this point is to note the somewhat arbitrary nature of Keller lumping all the religious categories together in order to isolate the non-religious. Different religions have completely different beliefs, even including who or what God is, so it’s sort of cherry-picking to only focus on their belief in the supernatural. I mean, by that logic, I could just as easily point out that the Pew study shows that there is a growing percentage of people who reject Christ’s resurrection as a fact (i.e. all the categories that aren’t Christianity). I’m sure Keller wouldn’t argue that the reasons for that stat are because people are dissatisfied with the evidence for the resurrection. And to be clear, I wouldn’t make that argument either. Rather, the reason is the same as the one for the religious growth, namely that people are mostly just sticking to their religion of birth and, by extension, those religions with greater fertility rates are increasing faster. Since the non-religious have a lower fertility rate, the overall share of religious people is increasing. That’s all we can determine from that study.

But again, of course, none of that is decisive in helping us to figure out what’s actually true.

Agreed. Which I suppose makes most of this bloviating somewhat unnecessary. But like you said, Keller goes one step further than just pointing out that religion isn’t dying. If he’d stopped there, I probably wouldn’t have had as much to say, but since he makes claims about the reasons for religion’s growth, I wanted to address that. 

Lastly, I’m interested in your response to the notion of ‘joy’. You quoted Keller’s argument: “If you are being swept up in joy and wonder by a work of art, it will impoverish you to remind yourself that this feeling is simply a chemical reaction … and nothing more. You will need to shield yourself, then, from your own secular view of things in order to get the most out of the experience.”

I think he’s right, but you responded: “I’m not sure I really understand why this needs to be the case. The joyous feeling is what it is. When I feel joy, I’m joyous, even if I understand it’s just neurons firing in my brain. I’m not less joyous because I recognise it as a chemical reaction.”

Maybe the moment of joy is roughly the same (although I’d argue that it’s still experienced quite differently; when I experience joy, my own thoughts nearly always turn to thanking and praising God, which I believe enhances and intensifies the joy). But what about ten minutes (or ten days, or ten years) later?

Imagine the atheist pondering his moment of joy: “That moment of joy felt nice at the time, but now that it’s passed I can admit to myself (whoever ‘myself’ is) that it didn’t mean anything—not in any real, lasting or objective way, at least. Sure, it made me (whoever or whatever ‘me’ is) feel nice. I hope I experience feelings like that again and again; it sure beats feeling miserable. But it was just a chemical and neurological process within my brain (whatever ‘my’ means), triggered by a meaningless event. It felt good, but I can’t say ‘it was good’. It had no more objective value or worth that my moments of misery. And one day all my moments—whether joyful or sad—will come to an end, and I (whatever ‘I’ is) will simply be gone.”

Then the Christian: “That moment of joy felt nice at the time, but I’m so glad it wasn’t just a passing moment. It was a gift from my heavenly Father who gives me every good and perfect gift as an overflow of his love for me. Just think—at the heart of the universe is a personal God who loves, and who designed me to experience love and joy. And he’s prepared an eternal home for me so that, one day, when my life in this world is finished, I’ll be with him to experience perfect joy in his presence, knowing him and relating to him and enjoying him forever. Oh, how it increases my joy to know that every moment of joy is given by him as a foretaste of that eternal joy that awaits me!”

Or something like that.

The point is: surely there really is a difference between how an atheist and a Christian experience joy.

If you’re arguing that you and I place different meanings on joyous moments, then I could agree with that, but I don’t think that means we “experience” joy itself differently. Again, though, it’s just two different perspectives. I don’t think one is necessarily greater than the other. You’ve painted a very pessimistic view of atheism. While some atheists may indeed think the way you’ve described, it’s by no means a necessity. You’ve also conflated subjectivity with meaninglessness again. Who cares if the feeling was objectively good? If it felt good at the time, why can’t that be enough? Can’t we feel satisfied to have ever experienced it in the first place? And yes, one day all those feelings will come to an end. Some may find that very sad, but despite how satisfying it would be to believe in an everlasting life, there’s a sense of determination and even excitement that goes along with knowing you only have one life to live.

So how about this as an alternative to your atheist thinking about his moment of joy:

“That moment of joy felt nice at the time, and now that it’s passed, I’m glad I was capable of experiencing it. It may not have meant anything to the universe, but it certainly meant a great deal to me and, despite how fleeting and random life may be, it sure is wonderful to be alive and have the ability to feel things like that.”

I feel I need to also address your “whatever me is” refrain. We could have an entire discussion just on the nature of consciousness, but to keep it brief, I’m perfectly comfortable with the idea that my brain is who “I” am. There’s certainly no evidence (outside of the Bible) that consciousness or the mind is anything other than the activity of the brain. Nor is there any evidence of a soul or any other thing that continues to exist after the brain has died. So while you may not find it as satisfying as knowing you were lovingly created by an all-powerful being, I see no reason to be confused about my own existence just because I acknowledge that my brain was formed through evolutionary processes.

Once again, it doesn’t prove that Christianity is true. But it does suggest that Christianity makes good emotional sense of our lives. And because emotions are real and important (if imperfect), it’s nice to have a worldview that makes best sense of them.

So my question for you—and I don’t think I’ve ever really asked this, but I probably should have. You’re a rational, scientifically minded kind of guy (which I really appreciate). Most of our discussions about spirituality come back to that kind of thinking. And yet you’re an artist. You live and move and have your being in the world of artistic endeavour. For example, you spend an inordinate amount of time delving into films, asking things like: Why did that film ‘work’? What makes a truly great acting performance? So I’d be especially interested to know how you responded to Keller’s discussion of art. Have you ever felt that sense of the transcendent that he described? Have you ever been moved by a work of art in a way that made you feel, “Yes, maybe there is something more to life, to this world—and to me—than the things I can see, touch, and scientifically analyze?”

Maybe you won’t believe me, but I honestly don’t recall ever having an experience that I would describe as transcendental. Not when watching a great film. Not when listening to powerful music. Not even when I used to pray to God as a child. Sure, I’ve been emotionally moved by art but none of those feelings were ever so profound that it made me think there was something more to this world.

And to be perfectly frank, even if I had experienced that kind of feeling, I wouldn’t trust it enough to jump to such a grand conclusion. On their own, my emotions don’t have the ability to tell me anything concrete about the world. They’re frequently wrong about factual things and, after searching for confirmation from more reliable types of evidence, I often find out that my emotions just led me in the wrong direction. I’d be happy to use an emotion as a starting point (e.g. a hunch or hypothesis) but I certainly wouldn’t place any importance on it at all if I couldn’t uncover any corroborating evidence for whatever conclusion my emotion was trying to reach. Perhaps it’s easy for me to say all this because I’ve never experienced the sort of emotions you’re talking about, but in my opinion, it’s just safer to keep emotions out of it altogether. Otherwise, they might unduly influence my conclusions, undermining an impartial investigation.

As such, making sure my worldview makes the most “emotional sense” is not my main goal, to be honest. I want a worldview that makes the most scientific sense. Because, to me, the scientific method is far more reliable than trusting my emotions.

As expected, this is once again proving to be the big sticking point between us. You’re reliant on your emotional experiences to the point that they mean more to you than scientific knowledge (or at least you hold them as equally valid). I believe that’s a mistake.

I’ve posed a question or two there, but like I said at the beginning, I’ll let you decide whether they need answers now. I’m guessing many of these topics will be raised in later chapters anyway, so maybe we can just move on and address them when the time comes. Either way, in order to keep the momentum going, I’m going to set myself a deadline of two weeks from today to read the next chapter and post my thoughts on it.

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