Thursday, October 26, 2006

Christian morality

There is a presumption amongst many Christians that morality should be based upon the Bible. In the absence of such Scriptural teachings, they say, we would all be cast adrift morally.

This is a na├»ve presumption, for a number of reasons. Firstly, there is the rather conspicuous incidence of pre-Christian societies (such as the Greeks) who had rather well developed systems of ethics and morals. We may not agree with all of their teachings, but then the Christian ones leave something to be desired too – as we shall see.

Secondly, there is the matter of the Bible itself. If it really were the work of a perfect and loving God, it would be surely be perfect in every regard. It would be accurate, clear, concise, and consistent throughout. However, the Bible is hardly that. Many of its passages describe God-ordained atrocities, which would seem to be at odds with the concept of the omnibenevolent Christian God. Further, some biblical teachings are both unreasonable and unlikely since they are in obvious disagreement with common sense, as well as with God’s supposed characteristics. Other biblical accounts are absurd in that they represent very primitive beliefs, which are in clear disagreement with modern scientific and other knowledge.

Some Christians, of course, say that they don’t really follow the Old Testament anymore – finding it rather too violent and eccentric for their tastes. However, we might note the following passage in the New Testament, where Jesus makes it clear that the laws of the Old Testament are still binding, and are not subject to human interpretation:

Matthew 5:18-19 Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or tittle shall nowise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.

Of course, liberals still choose to ignore many of parts of the Bible, and to reinterpret other parts, but either it is the inerrant word of God or it isn't. If we are going to pick and choose the bits we like, and place our own interpretation on other parts, then we are potentially placing our judgment above that of God’s. If God very clearly and unambiguously stated that people should be executed for blasphemy (or picking up sticks on the Sabbath, or whatever), then to not do that suggests that we have moral goodness, knowledge, or powers of judgement that God doesn't have. However, in the Christian worldview this surely cannot be so. Either God is omniscient and omnibenevolent, or He isn't. If God says that we should do these things, then who are we to question this?Most liberal Christians prefer to go by Jesus’ (more moderate) teachings, and to largely ignore the Old Testament. However, Jesus did not say that his teachings were to replace the teachings of the Old Testament. In fact, he said the exact opposite - as per the verse quoted earlier.

There is no Bible version 2, in which universal love, compassion, tolerance, reason, and honesty are unambiguously preached. The New Testament may be an improvement upon the Old, but in my opinion, it is far from the great moral textbook that Christians would have us believe. So, even if one allows for God changing his moral message from that espoused in the Bible, there is no later bible in which this supposed new message is recorded. If God thought it important to get this revised message across, then one would expect it to be done in a clear and unambiguous manner, not just left to fallible humans to make this interpretation. Of course, I'm happy that Christianity has been forced in general to become more liberal and tolerant, but I'm just highlighting the apparent hypocrisy of this position.

Further, If one is going to use some of the Bible's moral teaching, and choose to ignore or reinterpret other bits, by what means is one making this choice? In order to decide what to include in one’s 'Christian moral framework', and what to leave out, one is necessarily appealing to some other ethical system - a sort of Meta ethics. One can't decide purely by reading the Bible what to include or not (since you should include everything, unless you make some sort of arbitrary choice), so it must be the case that you are making this choice based upon some other moral yardstick. In other words, there is some other framework - existing outside of the Bible - that is determining your morals. So, that gives the lie to the concept that a moral framework must necessarily derive from the Bible alone (and God's word).

If there is a kind of meta ethics to which people appeal in order to ultimately determine what is acceptable or not, and which is not based upon the Bible at all, why not just use this and ignore the Bible totally? Liberal Christians choose to ignore the biblical exhortations to stone people to death for all sorts of real and imagined crimes, and do not condone slavery, even though Jesus apparently saw no problem with it – which is good news! However, when they choose to follow those biblical teaching that are good, they always refer back to the Bible as their source.

Why can’t Christians just admit that the moral code espoused in the Bible is often a very primitive one, and is deficient and unenlightened in many ways? Subsequent, more enlightened thinkers have improved upon its moral teachings dramatically, which is to be expected, as the Bible is nothing more than a book written hundreds of years ago by fallible humans.


The ‘respect’ word seems to be ubiquitous these days concerning religious sensibilities. I suggest that there is a strong whiff of equivocation present in these exhortations, for there are two types of respect that are being conflated.

Firstly, there is respect in a minimal sense. I respect the rights of all people to think and say what they want to, unless such utterances constitute a direct incitement to violence (but not to do whatever they wish, as I do not condone murder). Then there is the second type of respect, which impels me to not say and think whatever I wish, in case it upsets the sensibilities of the religious. There is a further implied connotation that I should esteem the worldview of these people who claim respect from me.

Well, I, for one, have no more ‘respect’ for the Christian worldview than I would have for any other worldview that I consider to be fundamentally flawed and misguided (N.B. I could easily substitute the other major monotheistic religions here). However, in my opinion the Christian worldview is far more insidious than this. I am happy to accord people the right to hold the Christian or any other worldview, so long as they accord me the minimal respect required to allow me to disagree with them, and do not try to impose their beliefs upon me. However, by nature the Christian religion (and many others too) is fundamentally intolerant of any opposing worldview. This is not just a case of human nature perverting an intrinsically tolerant worldview either (although human nature has inevitably made things much worse). Rather, it is the case that intolerance is fundamentally enshrined at the very core of the religion. I could quote chapter and verse all day long to back up this assertion, but I need look no further than the Ten Commandments –

3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me
5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
7 Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.

These commandments alone have been responsible for untold death and misery. Of course, human intolerance wasn’t invented by the Abrahamic religions. Human beings are naturally intolerant of different opinions and beliefs. However, as a human invention, these religions have intolerance at their very core.

Of course, one can use the Bible in order to justify both good and bad acts, and no doubt the Bible has also been responsible for many acts of moral goodness. However, one would imagine that the product of a supposedly morally perfect, omnipotent, and omniscient god should have been written in such a way that it could not be interpreted in any way that would justify death, misery and suffering.

So, to summarise, I grant the religious the minimal level of respect that I grant all humans, but I refuse to grant them the type of exaggerated respect that they crave from me. In this latter sense, I am no different from the religious themselves, as all too often they fail to grant such respect to me as an unbeliever, or to those of other religions – as, to them, we are all blasphemers by definition.

Science and the supernatural

One often hears the argument that it is not reasonable to analyse the likelihood or otherwise of a supernatural and transcendent deity using scientific means, as such a deity is, by definition, outside of the material universe – and is thus beyond science’s sphere of applicability. In answer to that, I would firstly point out that we have no evidence that there exists anything outside of the physical world (i.e. supernatural). However, even if we are to suppose that some supernatural entity does exist, we nevertheless seem to be limited in our enquiries to the material world alone – as that is the world that we inhabit. Hence, we can only attempt to infer the existence of such a supernatural entity by searching for traces of its effects upon the material world. So, in order to make any progress with this question, we need to frame our supernatural entity hypothesis in such a way that it makes predictions about the material world that we are able to investigate.

I would further point out that if we were to persist in the requirement that any supernatural event or entity is forever beyond scientific investigation, even in principle, then we are actually saying that no such thing (or effect of this thing) can ever be observed. For, if it can be observed, then it can also be investigated scientifically. If we hold this view, then we believe in the existence of something that we have no way of ever verifying or falsifying. It exists as a metaphysical construct only. Whilst it might be interesting to construct such a metaphysical hypothesis, I would contend that it is not rational to believe that it exists in reality unless one has some good reason for doing so (beyond mere wishful thinking).

If we are to really make any progress on this question, then how would we define a supernatural event? As a starter, I would suggest Keith Augustine’s definition for a candidate supernatural event: “(1) the cause of the event cannot be identified as any known physical force or entity nor is it supervenient upon any known physical force or entity; (2) the cause of the event cannot be located in space and time; (3) the event defies all attempted scientific explanations thus far; (4) the event appears to violate well-established scientific laws (as distinguished from genuine laws of nature); (5) the event is highly improbable if it solely has known natural causes; and (6) the event exhibits apparently purposive or intelligent behaviour.”

As far as the concept of the supernatural that is disallowed by metaphysical naturalism, the following definition explains it well: “What all metaphysical naturalists agree on, however, is that the fundamental constituents of reality, from which everything derives and upon which everything depends, is fundamentally mindless. So if any variety of metaphysical naturalism is true, then any mental properties that exist (hence any mental powers or beings) are causally derived from, and ontologically dependent on, systems of nonmental properties, powers, or things. This means metaphysical naturalism would be false if any distinctly mental property, power, or entity exists that is not ontologically dependent on some arrangement of nonmental things, or that is not causally derived from some arrangement of nonmental things, or that has causal effects without the involvement of any arrangement of nonmental things that is already causally sufficient to produce that effect.

In lay terms, if metaphysical naturalism is true, then all minds, and all the contents and powers and effects of minds, are entirely constructed from or caused by natural phenomena, while if metaphysical naturalism is false, then some minds, or some of the contents or powers or effects of minds, are causally independent of nature, either partly or wholly caused by themselves, or existing or operating fundamentally on their own. Belief in the latter entails some form of supernaturalism (the opposite of naturalism), which is not limited to supernatural beings, but can encompass mindless things with distinctly mental properties, like magical objects, or causally efficacious Platonic Forms or the existence of Love as a cosmic force.”

Now, when we investigate the material world, we should do so scientifically, as this is by far the most successful methodology that we have at our disposal for such an enterprise. It combines logic with observation (not to mention peer review) in the most rigorous way that we have so far been able to invent. Now, you may try to argue that we cannot investigate the non-material world scientifically, but that is not what we are attempting to do here. I repeat, as this is the crux of the argument, that since we appear to be limited to the material world (and have no direct evidence that any supernatural realm exists at all), we have no choice but to attempt to infer the existence of the supernatural by looking for its effects within the material universe. Therefore, that objection is just a red herring. For, if we are not able to observe any supernatural event or entity, then it is not rational to presume that such things exist at all.

On a mundane level, this involves testing psychics and the like by carrying out empirical tests of their supposed powers. They have framed their assertions in such a way that the purported phenomena should be detectable to us in the material world. Therefore, if they are not detected, then the psychics’ hypotheses are falsified. By contrast, if we were able to consistently reproduce some event that fits the definition of supernatural given earlier, then we would have some explaining to do. Is it actually supernatural – therefore falsifying metaphysical naturalism – or is it some as yet unexplained natural event? It would need careful analysis. However, do date no such event has been consistently observed.

Similarly, in order to investigate the supernatural god hypothesis, we need to frame it in such a way that it makes predictions about what we would expect to observe in the material universe. If we are not able frame our god hypothesis in such a way, then it cannot be investigated at all, as we have no other means at our disposal. Logic alone will not do here, as we can formulate any number of hypotheses that would pass the logical consistency criterion. Furthermore, there are logical issues with the god hypothesis anyway, as I pointed out in another post.

Now, some may argue that their favoured god hypothesis makes no predictions about what we would expect to see in the material universe, or predicts exactly what we observe already. In such a case, there is no reasonable argument to be made for believing it. By contrast, the types of hypotheses advanced by many theists (for example, an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God who is specifically interested in humans) do make many predictions about what one would expect to observe in the universe. Almost without exception, these predictions are not met in reality, so the hypothesis is almost certainly false (and is clearly not the best explanation available).

So, to summarise, we are justified in investigating our god hypothesis scientifically, as this is all that we can do. That is not to say that the supernatural cannot possibly exist, but rather that as we seem to be confined to the material world and, when investigating the material world, the scientific method is our best bet. So, we have no choice but to frame our hypotheses of supernatural entities in such a way that they make predictions about what we would expect to observe, and test these.

If you disagree, then how would you propose that we test our supernatural god hypothesis in any other way than by observing the material universe?

See here for a very interesting discussion of this topic.

The God Hypothesis

Amongst philosophers, the theory of knowledge is a contentious one. Also, as pointed out by Hume, there are circularity issues with the type of inductive reasoning used within science. Consequently, no explanation of the world around us can ever be claimed with absolute certainty. One can only reach provisional conclusions. In a real-world scenario in which we have many possible hypotheses that explain a phenomenon (possibly including supernatural ones), rationality dictates that we should provisionally accept the most reasonable hypothesis on offer.

When it comes to fathoming the universe, what counts is finding the most plausible hypotheses by means of comparing them with observation. In order to move beyond the realm of pure metaphysics, one must endeavour to compare one’s chosen hypothesis with reality, to assess its fit with the evidence. With no requirement to compare with reality, one can concoct ever-increasingly complex worldviews, without any way to know if they are true or not. Logical consistency alone as a criterion will only get you so far, as an infinity of logically consistent hypotheses can be put forward to explain some phenomenon or other. We have to compare our favoured hypothesis with reality. As Hume said - even a rational man with no experience “could not have inferred from the fluidity and transparency of water that it would suffocate him, or from the light and warmth of fire that it would consume him.”

In such a scenario, I assert that we should resort to an argument to the best explanation. In general, the more one explanation exceeds all others on each of the following criteria, the more confident we can be that it is true -

• Explanatory scope
• Explanatory power
• Plausibility
• Parsimony
• Evidential fit

Based upon this, what conclusions can we draw if we compare the God hypothesis with a generic scientific multiverse theory?

Firstly, we should note that the most parsimonious hypothesis is the one that explains the observations whilst introducing the fewest ad-hoc assumptions. So, the multiverse concept is plausible as it is entirely consistent with known physical laws; is parsimonious, as it actually introduces none or very few ad-hoc assumptions (depending upon which version you favour); and has a great deal of explanatory power and scope, as it explains why we see the particular universe that we inhabit, rather than some other possibility (and so, in one fell swoop, rebutting the cosmological fine-tuning argument). In fact, it is less parsimonious to conjecture a single universe rather than an infinity, as this would require the positing of some ad-hoc rule explaining why only one of an infinity of possibilities actually exists.By contrast, the god hypothesis suffers from a number of problems –

• It is not plausible, as it requires the positing of a supernatural universe-creating entity – when we have no reliable evidence that anything supernatural exists at all. The only methods that have so far been shown to work consistently are empirical ones, and they have thus far only discovered natural things and causes.
• It has no power or scope, as it does not explain why we see the specific universe that we do. Why would God choose to create a universe that is so vast and is almost entirely a radiation-filled vacuum? Why would God choose to create a universe that takes billions of years to evolve? Why would God choose to create a dizzying array of fundamental particles? Why would God choose to create a universe at all? These can only be answered by introducing more ad-hoc assumptions.
• It is not parsimonious, as numerous ad-hoc assumptions are required in order to explain the existence and properties of God, and of the universe created by it. At first sight, it may seem to be a seductively simple explanation. However, this simplicity is shown to be illusory once one analyses the implications entailed by this explanation.
• Further, it must be less parsimonious to invoke an eternal and uncreated supernatural creator of the universe, than to suppose an eternal, uncreated and infinite universe that is consistent with known physical laws. Purely by logic alone, if we can suppose that God can be eternal and uncreated, we can also suppose the same of the universe, and dispense with God altogether. Further, the concept of an eternal and uncreated universe is explained by a variety of scientific hypotheses that are consistent with known physical laws, whereas the concept of a supernatural entity is not consistent with naturalism.
• If we were to presume the existence of a supernatural creator, then what explains why this creator exists at all? Why not just no God and no universe? If we are allowed to posit an eternal creator that has no explanation, then why can we not posit an eternal universe that has no explanation? This is more parsimonious as it does not require the introduction of any supernatural entity.
• If we further suppose characteristics of God that are part of conventional Christian doctrine, then we run up against other notorious problems - such as the problem of evil, and the problem of divine hiddenness – that theology has no convincing answers to.

So, in summary, I would contend that the scientific multiverse hypothesis offers a better explanation of the existence of our universe than does the God hypothesis. In general, I would contend that the worldview that is the argument to the best explanation of the world we see around us is metaphysical naturalism. That does not mean that metaphysical naturalism is necessarily true, but rather that it is currently the best explanation on offer. Thus, I contend that it should be provisionally accepted. It is certainly a far better explanation than any competing theistic worldview.

If you would like to read more about this, I can highly recommend Richard Carrier’s book ‘Sense and Goodness Without God – a Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism’

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Some theists contend that contemplation of this age-old philosophical question can be credited to religion. However, unless one is to conflate metaphysical thought and specifically religious thought, then this is an error of reasoning. For example, Parmenides was contemplating this question in the fifth century B.C - somewhat before the Abrahamic religions got in on the act.

Anyway, what exactly has religion contributed to answering this particular question? Of course, it has posited that there is something rather than nothing because God chose to create the material universe. Nevertheless, under this assumption, why is there a God rather than no God? By that, I don't mean what reason is there for thinking that the existence of the universe necessitates a supernatural creator (that we call God). Rather, if we take it as a given that this supernatural creator exists, then why would such an entity exist at all, rather than just not existing? Why not just no God and no universe? Surely, that would be simpler?

In contrast to the religious answers, which succeed only in replacing one question with another (with the addition of positing an ill-defined supernatural creator), science does have something of use to say on this matter. See, for example -