Does atheism logically lead to non-rationality?

James N. Anderson, on his blog Analogical Thoughts, posted an entry called “Atheism, Amoralism, and Arationalism.” The entry starts from the premise that atheism leads to amorality, the absence of moral norms, and tries to draw an analogy between this rejection of moral norms and the rejection of epistemic norms. Unlike most apologists, he does not dwell on the refutation of moral norms, confining it to the following:

You get the point: the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, are “soft atheists” because they deny God yet still want to affirm moral realism. The problem is that their position isn’t a coherent, stable one, because it seeks to affirm some phenomenon — in this case, objective moral norms — while denying the one metaphysical framework that could plausibly account for that phenomenon.

This is yet another example of the presupposionalist affection for arguments from incredulity: Anderson can’t demonstrate, or even start to demonstrate, that there’s no other framework that can account for objective moral norms, he just assumes that there cannot be one because he can’t think of one.

There are two fatal problems with this (lack of) reasoning. The first is that, if God exists, then there cannot be objective moral norms, since any norms originating in God’s consciousness would by definition be subjective. Apologists have rationalizations for this fact, but they cannot deny the fact itself. For instance, they will say that “God is necessarily good,” but whether this is true or not does not deny the subjectivity of the norms. All it shows, if true, is that God’s subjective norms are good. This is of no concern to us.

The second is that there are plausible accounts of the existence of objective moral norms. Although I am no fan of utilitarianism, it does present objective moral norms attained through abstract calculation, and it is widely known. Someone who claims to be well-versed in theories about morality, like Anderson, should already know this. As readers of this blog probably know, I support evolutionary intuitionism as the best meta-moral position there is. Others may disagree, which is fine, but to claim that there is no atheistic framework that can account for objective moral norms is laughable and only exposes the speaker as completely ignorant of moral theories.

Before I go on to his analysis of possible defenses of epistemic norms, I do want to give my own position on the subject. I think there exists moral norms as well as epistemic norms. But I also agree with Anderson that, in the absence of moral norms, then there cannot be epistemic norms either, and I agree that this presents a problem for the atheist who claims there are no moral norms. If we cannot distinguish right from wrong, desirable action from undesirable action, then we cannot distinguish right way of thinking from wrong way of thinking (since thinking is just another kind of action), desirable methods from undesirable methods. The desire to be rational is in itself a moral position, rooted in our nature as evolved, thinking organisms dealing with an uncertain world. There is nothing innately right about seeking the truth, and the proposition that sometimes it may be wrong to seek the truth is not, in itself, absurd. We see this in debates around the debunking of free will and the supposed need to keep thinking we do have free will even though we don’t; although I strongly disagree with this supposed need, I don’t think it is a priori wrong.

Unfortunately for Anderson, this is a deep problem for Christianity as well: if Christianity, by definition, cannot justify moral norms, then it cannot justify epistemic norms either. There is ultimately no way for a committed Christian to defend his beliefs: if you keep asking “why do you believe this?” and dig long enough, you will eventually arrive at a dead end. They cannot rely on commonplace methods like science, induction, or the uniformity of nature, because a Christian is committed to subjective norms and therefore cannot be committed to any of those things.

If the Christian is committed to anything on matters of fact, it’s faith. But none of them have been able to adequately define or clarify what this means. So we see them descend into complete irrationality, like the much vaunted theologian William Lane Craig, who said that, if he went back in time and saw with his own eyes that Jesus never came out of the tomb, he would still believe in the Biblical account. Observing something directly and denying what you saw: that is about as direct a statement of irrationality as you can make. And yet this is the kind of thing we should expect from people who cannot be rational.

So let’s move on to Anderson’s attempt to demonstrate that the atheist who denies moral norms must also deny epistemic norms.

Option #1: Epistemic norms are just a subset of moral norms. On this view, to be irrational is just to be immoral in some way, to be intellectually irresponsible or blameworthy. This is probably the least attractive option for the atheist, because it would mean that amoralism entails arationalism. Any difficulty in accounting for moral norms on an atheistic basis would immediately carry over to epistemic norms. (There are other problems with this option, but I won’t get into them here.)

Option #2: Epistemic norms aren’t a subset of moral norms, but they’re analogous to moral norms. This doesn’t seem much more appealing to the atheist than the first option, since it still closely connects the two kinds of norms, such that they will tend to stand or fall together. If the two kinds of norms are analogous, then presumably they’ll have analogous grounds or origins. But if atheism invites amoralism then (by an argument from analogy) it will invite arationalism too.

These two options are very similar, so there’s no point in examining them separately. As it happens, I agree with both of them: amoralism does entail arationalism. As I pointed out, this is a problem for the Christian and the atheist who rejects moral norms, but not for the atheist who holds that moral norms exist.

Option #3: Epistemic norms are deontological in nature; they amount to intellectual duties or obligations. I mention this as a separate option, although I suspect it reduces to #2 or #3. In any event, this doesn’t look like a good option for the atheist. Duties and obligations can only arise in a personal context. So which persons give rise to our intellectual duties, our obligations to think in certain ways and not in other ways? Does the human race as a whole somehow impose obligations upon its individual members? Or do some members impose obligations upon other members? If so, on what authority? Why do I owe it to you or anyone else to use my cognitive faculties in a certain way? Intellectual duties appear to be no more explicable on an atheistic basis than plain-vanilla moral duties. If an atheist could account for the latter, presumably that would go some way toward accounting for the former. But isn’t that precisely the problem?

I don’t understand why Anderson thinks this is different from option 1 or 2: duties and obligations are moral constructs, and therefore they are part of moral norms. Again, I don’t think Anderson understands moral theories very much. Anyway, what Anderson is missing, I think, is the fact that humans are social animals. As we’ll see in his answer to option 7, he seems to be totally blind to that fact, and this greatly hinders his ability to think about morality, since morality and our status as social animals are inextricably linked. You cannot discuss one without discussing the other.

Our obligations and duties (at least, the ones that are actually moral in nature) basically exist because our well-being depends on the cooperation of others in our society, not on the basis of authority. Any obligation or duty conferred on the basis of authority would not be moral in nature: might makes right is not an argument about morality, and external obligations cannot be transferred to the individual. All obligations and duties must be generated internally, or they are not actual moral obligations or duties.

Besides that, he’s right that “the human race,” as an abstraction, does not impose obligations upon its members. That wouldn’t make any more sense than to say that “nature” imposes its laws on humans. In both cases, we’re talking about, at best, linguistic metaphors. But Anderson seems to believe that his metaphor is morally relevant, and that if it does not hold, then that tells us something about morality. This is semantic confusion. Whether the “human race imposes obligations” has no relevance to the existence, or lack thereof, of such obligations.

There is a further problem with the term “personal context.” In a trivial sense, everything we know, including moral and epistemic norms, arises in a “personal context”: our own minds. So it is true that “duties and obligations can only arise in a personal context,” but this is true of everything else, including one’s particular interpretation of the Bible or divine commands, one’s beliefs about morality, or one’s trust that the Sun will rise tomorrow. If by “personal context,” Anderson is using “personal context” to mean “only comes from persons,” then the problem equally applies to Christians, whose morality comes from… a person.

Option #4: Epistemic norms are teleological in nature; they pertain to the natural purpose or function of our intellectual faculties. I think it makes good sense to understand some epistemic norms as teleological in nature. Alvin Plantinga’s proper-function epistemology is a case in point: to think rationally is essentially to use one’s cognitive faculties as they were intended (read: designed) to be used, for the purpose of acquiring true beliefs and avoiding false beliefs. But as Plantinga and others have observed, while a proper-function epistemology fits comfortably with theism, it sits unhappily with atheism. It’s easy to see why: atheism is no friend of teleology in nature. The primary appeal of Darwinism for atheists is that it purports to explain the appearance of purpose and function in nature without any appeal to final causes (specifically, without any supernatural final cause).

I have already refuted Plantinga’s evolutionary argument, which proposes that cognitive faculties which are a product of evolution are necessarily unreliable. What Anderson is describing here seems to be the flip-side of that argument, showing the “correct” answer that our cognitive faculties must have been designed. But this flip-side is wrong for the same reason that the original argument is wrong: while our brains were not designed for anything, including truth-seeking, there is no particular reason to believe that brains which evolved to fulfill some other function cannot also be used for truth-seeking. This argument is about as stupid as saying: pins and sharpened pencils can reset electronic devices, therefore they must have been designed to fulfill this function. No, clearly pins and sharpened pencils originally served an entirely different function, and were later adapted to the new function, much like our cognitive faculties.

There is one flaw in my analogy: pins and pencils were created, and the human brain was not. But this exposes the main problem with Anderson’s argument: it assumes that our cognitive faculties were designed for truth-seeking. If that’s the case, then whoever designed them was a very poor designer, making God look rather like a fool (the same thing can be said about the supposed designed nature of parasites and diseases). It is very clear (at least, to anyone who is not out to push an agenda) that the human mind was definitely not designed for truth-seeking, but that it was, again, consciously adopted for that purpose by human beings.

To make another analogy, our hands did not evolve to manipulate keyboards, mice, or controllers, and they were clearly not designed for those functions either. Rather, humans took an existing ability (using our fingers and hands to manipulate objects) and adapted it to new functions. Clearly our hands are not optimal, by far, for such functions (anyone who suffers from carpal tunnel can testify to that), but they are serviceable.

Option #5: Epistemic norms are subjective in nature; they’re grounded in human desires, feelings, preferences, goals, or something along those lines. On this view, an epistemic norm like one ought to proportion one’s beliefs to the evidence is true because of certain human psychological states (either individually or corporately). The problem, of course, is that this is consistent with arationalism; it basically concedes that there are no objective epistemic norms. What we’re looking for here is an atheistic account of objective epistemic norms. This option is a surrender rather than a solution.

I completely agree with Anderson’s statements here. To claim that epistemic norms are subjective (in the sense of being justified by desires or feelings) would be a surrender of rationality. So what does that tell us about Christianity? What are Christian epistemic norms grounded on? They cannot be grounded in reality, because Christians have no grounds to believe in things like science, logic, induction, or the uniformity of reality. If we exclude those, then the only methods left are subjective methods.

In the Christian world, propositions like “I feel the guidance of the Holy Spirit”, “I just can’t imagine that this life is all there is,” or “I believe that the Bible proves [insert non-literary proposition here]” are at least on an equal footing (and often, on a higher footing) as propositions grounded in reality. This is the sort of insanity that a subjectivist worldview like Christianity generates. As Anderson says, “this option is a surrender rather than a solution”- surrender to God’s will (as subjectively interpreted by the believer), not a rational solution.

Skipping option 6, because I have nothing in particular to say about it, we get to the last, and longest, option in Anderson’s list. There is much to discuss here, so it will be divided in parts.

Option #7: Epistemic norms are evolutionary norms, in the sense that they further evolutionary goals or ends; they characterize cognitive operations and processes that are advantageous in evolutionary terms. I suspect many atheists will gravitate toward this option for much the same reason they gravitate toward an evolutionary account of morality. In the absence of God, one has little choice but to seek purely naturalistic explanations of what we are, where we came from, and why we behave as we do. Mother Nature and Father Darwin will together deliver the goods.

This is another great example of the subjectivist norms of Christianity. Biological evolution is one of the most studied, and the most well understood, natural phenomenon on this planet. Based on the mass of empirical data that we have, we know for a fact that it happened. But to the Christians who reject evolution, their subjective trust in a book trumps all the scientific evidence. They then have to reframe this scientific evidence in emotional terms (“Mother Nature and Father Darwin,” dragging down nature and science to the paternal nature of God) to hide the flimsiness of their position. This is pathetic religion and even more pathetic philosophy. But he continues on more serious grounds:

The basic idea, then, is that human cognitive faculties have evolved via purely natural processes, with natural selection acting on genetic variations providing most if not all of the driving force, and epistemic norms characterize how those cognitive faculties operate to give us true beliefs which serve the ‘ultimate’ end of effective reproduction and survival. A cognitive operation or process is rational or irrational just in case it tends to produce, respectively, true or false beliefs. True beliefs promote survival. False beliefs hinder survival. Thus epistemically normative ultimately reduces to biologically advantageous.

There are several serious problems with this account. In the first place, the assumption that natural selection will tend to favor cognitive faculties aimed at truth is highly questionable. Organisms can survive just as effectively with false beliefs as with true beliefs; indeed, most organisms on the planet reproduce and survive very effectively without any beliefs.

Furthermore, as Plantinga and others have argued, evolution as a purely naturalistic process would be entirely blind to the propositional content of our beliefs (and thus to whether they are true or false). Given naturalism, only the physical properties of our brains and the physical consequences of our brain processes could have any causal influence on evolutionary outcomes. In short, evolution pays no heed to what an organism believes, only to how it behaves. As philosopher Stephen Stich (among others) has frankly admitted, “natural selection does not care about truth; it cares only about reproductive success.”

It’s funny how Anderson presents what is supposedly the evidence-based view, and then debunks it with more evidence. Talk about a straw man. Of course we are well aware that organisms can survive as effectively, if not more, with false beliefs as with true beliefs: religion is a prime example of this phenomenon. Not only that, but religion is the biggest source of other false moral and epistemic norms. So it is quite clear that the straw man account presented by Anderson is exactly that, a straw man.

As I discussed before, Anderson seems to believe that using a tool for a specific purpose must mean that this tool was designed completely for that specific purpose, and that any other alternative is an inferior explanation. But this is not rational. Our cognitive faculties did not evolve through producing true beliefs, just like our hands did not evolve through manipulating electronics or our legs did not evolve through dancing. And yet we use them for those purposes. There is no logical reason to believe that any given purpose of an organ or object must be its original purpose, and that design must be involved in that process.

But there’s a more fundamental problem here. Even if we grant that evolution would tend to favor cognitive faculties aimed towards true beliefs, an evolutionary account of epistemic norms would still fall short, for this simple reason: there’s nothing objectively normative about evolutionary outcomes. Evolutionary theory seeks to give a naturalistic explanation for where organisms came from and why they are the way they are. But it’s a descriptive theory — as must be any explanatory accounts derived from that theory (such as accounts of our cognitive faculties). From an atheistic perspective, there’s nothing objectively ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ about what evolution produces. The outcomes of evolution aren’t objectively good (or objectively bad, for that matter). They simply are what they are.

Anderson commits one gigantic equivocation in this passage: he goes from “evolutionary outcomes”/”what evolution produces” (i.e. organisms, organs, etc) to “evolutionary theory” (i.e. the actual evidence and the structured data derived from them). These two things are not the same at all. He’s trying to prove that “evolutionary outcomes”/”what evolution produces” do not inform our norms by appealing to the descriptive nature of “evolutionary theory.” Either he did not realize he was equivocating, in which case this is sloppy writing, or he did, in which case he is being blatantly dishonest.

Evolutionary theory is descriptive, like all truly scientific theories. In that he is correct. But evolutionary outcomes do heavily inform our moral and epistemic norms. To see how absurd it is to think otherwise, could you design a set of precise physical instructions which would enable all animals to move forward? No, of course not. Animals with legs move completely differently from animals with fins or wings, and even within these categories there are vast differences. The evolutionary product in every case, the organism, differs so much that designing such a set of instructions is impossible. Without knowing what the evolutionary product consists of, we cannot design “walking norms.”

The same basic idea applies to the intellectual faculties. The moral norms applicable to the individuals of each species depend to a large extent on their nature. It would be futile to apply human moral principles to chimpanzees or dolphins (in the same way that it would be futile to try to move a salmon like a buffalo). Of course social context also has a big role in this (not just in humans, as observations of other primates has demonstrated). But the fundamentals of our moral and epistemic norms lie in our nature as organisms and the way our brains work.

Anderson’s basic error is to fail to recognize that humans are social animals. Right and wrong are only necessary because individuals interact in fluid ways within various social structures: Robinson Crusoes need know-how and drive, not morality. I may be wrong in my interpretation, but Anderson seems to believe that individuals can only impose morality on each other, presumably within hierarchies (whether it’s the hierarchy of God-over-humans or any human hierarchy). But within that narrow framework, morality is pointless. All we have to guide action is power, and the application of power is not morally relevant. Obeying God’s orders, or obeying a tyrant’s orders, is not a recognition that those orders are moral, but a fear of the consequences of disobedience. Therefore the problem highlighted by Anderson equally applies to his belief system: divine command theory is descriptive (it describes God’s desires), not prescriptive (especially since, as I’ve already linked, external obligations cannot be transferred).

In a sense, his statement that “there’s nothing objectively ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ about what evolution produces” is trivially true, insofar as evolution is not a person and therefore it cannot be right or wrong in producing anything. But persons, which can be right or wrong, are the product of evolution, they are part of “what evolution produces.” The nature of the organisms produced by evolution dictates the fundamentals of what is right or wrong for those organisms. Therefore, “what evolution produces” does entail “things that are objectively ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.” This is the case under any secular moral realist theory that I know, whether they include it in their reasoning or not. We cannot dissociate our knowledge, including our knowledge about morality and epistemology, from our nature as knowers.

The most an atheist could say about the ‘goodness’ or ‘rightness’ of certain evolutionary outcomes is that they’re subjectively good: they’re good because we ourselves value them (presumably because we value things like our own survival, having true beliefs, having pleasurable experiences, and so forth). But in that case option #7 has collapsed into option #5 and the atheist is no further forward.

Here Anderson seems to be reiterating his mistake in option 3: equating the “personal context” with subjectivity. This is incorrect because it would make all knowledge subjective by definition. Knowledge doesn’t float around without context, knowledge is necessarily knowledge acquired by someone, within their personal context. The fact that we value something doesn’t automatically make it subjective: if that was the case, then all values, including those of the Christians, would be subjective, making this argument self-refuting.

I see no other clear way of interpreting this paragraph. Option 5, the position that epistemic norms are actually subjective (i.e. based on our desires, feelings, and so on), cannot be the end point of this line of reasoning, because there are a great deal of reasons why we hold certain values. Having true beliefs is not good solely because we all desire to hold true beliefs: most people (including Christians) don’t really care if they hold true beliefs or not, at least not explicitly. Having true beliefs is objectively good because (amongst other reasons) it helps us make accurate evaluations about actions and situations.

To take a clear example, the false belief that epileptic seizures are caused by a voodoo curse (a belief which still exists in certain parts of South America) may cause you to take actions against spirit possession instead of taking your loved one to the doctor, thus prolonging their suffering. The false belief is undesirable because it causes you, in this case, to take an action which you would find undesirable otherwise. Or to take another example closer to home, the false belief that homosexuals are cursed by God cause a lot of people to create hardships for their loved ones, when such hardship is wholly unnecessary and undesirable. In both cases, holding the false beliefs as true is wrong because people rely on those beliefs and act accordingly.

I suppose this entry is a peculiar form of criticism, insofar as I agree with Anderson’s main point (that a lack of moral norms entails a lack of epistemic norms). Yet his reasoning is so flawed that I think his entry highlights not only the weaknesses of Christian apologists regarding morality, but also their many projections on the subject.

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