by John Feakes -
The End of Morality? A Critique of the Materialistic Views Expressed in Discover Magazine (July-August, 2011)
The two strongest arguments for Christian Theism, seemingly impervious to refutation by materialists, are the arguments from the validity of consciousness and thought, and the argument from morality. The former argument centers on the fact that if everything is reducible to molecules in motion, then our very thoughts – which are simply the result of the meaningless flux of atoms in the human brain – would be called into question as reliable sources of information as well. This would serve to undermine the validity of all reasoning, including the reasoning of the atheist who claims that his brilliant mind has led him to the conclusion that God does not exist. Such a view makes the task of determining which thoughts are more or less “valid” than others impossible. Conversely, Christian Theism has no problem assessing the validity of competing thoughts. Recall that on this view, God has designed the human mind for the express purpose of apprehending truths external to itself. The rational thinking that follows from such apprehension is a reflection of the mind of God, the Rational Mind responsible for this grand universe in the first place.
The second argument focuses on the fact that human beings across the board seem to have a sense that there is a way in which the world “ought” to function. This strong sense poses something of a problem for the atheist/materialist who, again, claims that all that exists is reducible to molecules in motion. From such a claim it follows logically and necessarily that there is no way in which the universe “ought” to function. On atheism, the universe simply “is.” How is it then, that the atheist can, and very often does, prescribe for us what is “good” or what is “right?” He speaks as though these terms have some sort of meaning in an objective sense, which of course is incoherent given materialistic assumptions. Again, Christian Theism makes sense of our moral intuitions. On this view, God as the very locus of moral goodness has built into His image-bearers a sensitively to a very real set of objective moral values and duties. Morality seems real and objective because it is.
The strengths of these arguments have only increased over the years and it is perhaps for this reason that secular science has turned so many intellectual guns in their direction. The drive to invalidate these two great lines of argumentation supporting Christian Theism, would, after all, offer intellectual justification for rejecting God’s moral injunctions. This is, I suspect, is the real incentive behind secular science’s preoccupation with explaining mind and morals materialistically. A fantastic example of this may be seen the Discover Magazine article by Kirstin Ohlson (July-August, 2011) entitled “The End of Morality.” The logical outcome of adopting the views given in this article are so absurd and nightmarish that I felt compelled to respond in article form.
The General Thrust of Ohlson’s Article
As expected, the article’s approach to the issue of morality is an entirely materialistic one. That is to say, the article sees no objective standard to which our moral intuitions are aligned. Instead, the article describes our moral intuitions as simply emotional responses to stimuli as strongly determined by our genetics and environment. The article states in bold print on p. 35:
“You have these gut reactions and they feel authoritative, like the voice of God or your conscience. But these instincts are not commands from a higher power. They are just emotions hardwired into the brain as we evolved.”
No reason is given for this pronouncement. It is merely assumed. Later, on p. 36, the article asks concerning a recent study,
“Why would kids and adults from different contexts all have pretty much the same moral intuitions if it weren’t some expression of a shared conscience or moral faculty that’s natural, not something one learns exclusively at school or church or from some other external source?”
From a Christian perspective, these moral faculties are explained as having been designed into us by our Creator. Paul the apostle wrote about folks who didn’t have the Bible to provide written moral imperatives. Nevertheless,
“…when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another…” (Rom 2:14-15)
Several implications follow logically from the denial of the biblical view. Some of these are implicitly stated in the article, others quite explicitly. These implications, some of which are frankly nightmarish, will be addressed below. More fundamentally, an attempt will be made to show the article’s overall approach to the topic inconsistent and therefore absurd.
Utilitarianism: the objective standard in a world without objective standards
In several places the article assumes utilitarianism as the apparently objective guide to proper human decision-making and conduct. The problem of course is that utilitarianism itself is at best arbitrary as a guide in an atheistic universe. After all, if atheism is true, then there is no way in which things ought to be and hence, no objective reason why humans ought to embrace utilitarianism over any other ethical system. At worst, utilitarianism appears virtually vacuous in actual, helpful content as a legitimate guide to human moral behaviour. The utilitarian motto that humans ought to strive to “serve the greater good” is meaningless because on atheism, the “ought” is completely without rational justification. Furthermore, what does it mean to say that something is “good” in a moral sense given atheistic assumptions? Yes we can speak of things that are pragmatic for achieving certain desired ends as “good.” For instance, we may say that lifting weights is a “good” way to build muscle, or that fertilizing the soil is a “good” way to grow corn. Assuming that we want to built muscle or grow corn, practices such as lifting weights or applying fertilizer would be “good”, but not in a moral sense. After all, suppose that I want to remain skinny, or that I want my field to remain corn-less. In these cases, the practise of lifting weights or applying fertilizer would not be “good” ways to for me to achieve what I want and so I would refrain from engaging in them. We can say with a certain measure of confidence that patience, kindness, and generosity are “good” ways to maintain social cohesion. This does not however, mean that such things as patience, kindness and generosity are actually “good” in a moral sense, at least not given atheistic assumptions.
For instance, suppose an individual cares nothing about social cohesion whatever. Sexual predators such as Ted Bundy, for example, saw their own gratification as paramount. For them, stalking and abducting defenceless young women was a “good” way to achieve what they wanted. Would anyone in their right mind really suggest that such practices could seriously be considered “good” in a moral sense? This is atheism’s dilemma. It cannot define for us what moral goodness is. Utilitarianism then, fails as an appropriate ethical system precisely because its claim to serve the greater good is practically meaningless morally.
Hypothetical Moral Dilemmas
The article describes several hypothetical moral dilemmas that were put to text subjects. All involved the impending deaths of numerous people that could be averted if less people could be sacrificed instead. In one scenario, a runaway hotdog cart is careening downhill. The article describes the situation:
“It is rolling downhill toward the road, gathering speed, and poised to kill dozens of cyclists unless someone shoves the cart across the road – but that would kill three spectators instead. What should one do?”
Another scenario involved several villagers hiding from murderous soldiers in wartime. Your crying baby is about to call attention to your location so you cover the baby’s mouth. If you don’t remove your hand soon the baby will suffocate. If you take your hand away its crying will draw their attention and everyone will die. What do you do?
In all such scenarios test subjects’ immediate gut feeling was to do nothing rather than actualize the death of anyone. FMRI scans of those deliberating on these scenarios showed that the decision to sacrifice the few to save the many required significantly more brain power than simply following our instincts.
Categories: Reason = “good”; Emotion = “bad”
Cognitive scientists Joshua Greene and Fiery Cushman interpreted the fMRI data to mean that in those instances where sacrificing few to save many, “reason was overriding an automatic, instinctual response.” This thought is developed throughout the article:
“…Greene saw morality not just as a philosophical concept but as a neurological phenomenon. This was the beginning of what he calls his dual-process theory of moral judgement, in which instinct and reason collide in a battle for supremacy.
The article argues that nature (not God), has programmed us to make proper moral decisions in everyday life situations. When faced with a unique situation, however, like the runaway cart or the crying baby scenario, such intuitions can be harmful. On p. 92 we read,
“[Our moral intuitions] are not always trustworthy moral indicators since they were set to handle problems deep in our evolutionary past and are often useless for the newer complexities of the modern world. We need to rely on our manual settings, the reasoning sections or our brain, for more complex or novel situations. This is why research matters. It helps us become conscious of our brain’s moral machinery. When the sirens of our emotions are sounding in unproductive ways, we can crank up the reasoning parts of our brain to make sound decisions…We have made progress as individuals and a society when we have managed to override our automatic setting, even if we did not realize that was what we were doing. We have to be willing to put our feelings aside and think a little more.”
This excerpt from the article sums up its thrust very well and therefore deserves careful consideration. The following points break down what is being affirmed and what their implications are.
The Door is Wide Open
The reasoning presented in the article leads us to the nightmarish conclusion that anything and everything can be justified – no matter how initially revolting to our moral intuitions it may initially be. This is precisely what took place in Nazi Germany 70 years ago. Though the persecution and eventual extermination of Jews and Gypsies may have seemed distasteful, it was carried out by people who became convinced that it was not only morally acceptable but was in fact the admirable thing to do. In other words, the Nazis did exactly what the article suggested, that is, they ignored their moral intuitions and relied solely upon reason. In this case, it was believed that the emergence of human kind was due solely to evolution by natural selection – survival of the fittest. Given such an assumption, who can judge the Nazis for crimes against humanity when their motive was to purify and strengthen the human race by eliminating what appeared to them to be the less fit among us?
Substance Dualism Affirmed?
Recall that the article reminded us that,
“When the sirens of our emotions are sounding in unproductive ways, we can crank up the reasoning parts of our brain to make sound decisions…”
On atheistic materialism, our minds are wholly dependent upon our physical brains. Therefore it is safe to say that all thoughts and emotions are produced by nothing more than physical action taking place in that grey matter contained in our skulls. The law of identity states that A=A, a subject is equal to itself in all logically possible worlds. On materialism then, it would be true to say that thought = physical phenomena in the brain and this identification must necessarily hold in all logically possible worlds. But consider now the article’s reminder to us that we can detect when emotions are leading us in the wrong direction, and we can “crank up the reasoning parts of our brain….” This statement contradicts outright the materialist scheme that the article had thus far been foisting upon its readers. That is, it seems to identify our thinking, rational self, with something other than our material brain. Of course, the Christian has absolutely no problem making such a distinction. On Christian Theism, a human being is an immaterial person; a rationally thinking, self-aware, and volitional entity), conjoined to a material body equipped with a physical brain. Thoughts produced by our immaterial minds are somehow detected by the physical brain. On this view it makes sense to speak of directing one’s brain to think better. To use such language however, from a materialistic standpoint, marks a systemic contradiction within that worldview.
The article claimed that by suppressing our moral intuitions we were able to bring about moral progress. Moral progress however, entails that there exists some known standard which we ought to move toward. Without such a standard it would be next to impossible to determine whether or not any change at all has taken place morally, let alone trying to determine whether or not legitimate moral progress has been made. On Christian Theism, God Himself is the standard of goodness, and obligations placed upon us come by way of His divine commands. Adopting such a view allows us to legitimately speak of moral progress since Christianity does provide an ethical standard to which we ought to aspire. Again, it is meaningless to speak of legitimate moral progress given materialistic assumptions. Here we see the bankruptcy of atheism/materialism expressed by its proponents’ need to “borrow capitol” from the Christian worldview.
A Glaring Inconsistency: An Intuitional/Emotional Ignorance of Altruistic Alternatives
All of the moral dilemmas presented in the article involved choosing between doing nothing and letting many people die, or sacrificing a lesser number of people in order to preserve the greater number alive. Some scenarios – most notably, the crying baby and the runaway hot dog cart scenarios – would very likely have entailed a third, unmentioned option. That is, in these scenarios the one sitting on the horns of the moral dilemma himself could lay down his own life for the sake of the many. In the crying baby scenario for example, we can imagine a person escaping into the streets where the soldiers are and directing their attention away from the hidden group. One can also imagine a person choosing to leap in front of the runaway cart rather than shove it into a group of innocent bystanders. In one scenario subjects were asked if it was moral to kill an innocent man in order to use his organs to save the lives of several other people. Again there is a third option here that the article completely ignores. That is, the very person contemplating whether or not to harvest the innocent man’s organs might sacrifice himself in order to save others.
Why are these altruistic alternatives consistently ignored? The answer is obvious. People have a strong drive to survive built into them. As the great apostle Paul observed,
“For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church:” (Eph 5:29)
So strong is this drive to survive that it actually serves to limit even the utilitarian’s options. That is to say, even though the utilitarian says he believes that the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number ought to be adhered to, he nevertheless completely ignores the option to sacrifice himself for the greater good. In fact, one would think this a more moral option than killing unwitting, innocent bystanders because the hero in these cases would be a willing sacrifice. Surely saving innocent human lives this way is morally superior to resorting to outright murder!
The important point here is that the utilitarian’s commitment to self preservation is based squarely on emotion and intuition – the very things the article says we ought to eschew. Now the obvious question must be asked: why am I justified in obeying my personal survival instincts when constructing an appropriate ethical system (even in extreme circumstances), but not my instinct to avoid murdering others? Who gets to decide which instincts ought to be adhered to and when? Again, without God in the picture as a transcendent anchor for objective moral values and duties we are simply lost in social-cultural relativism. In this case, without a competent authority qualitatively greater than human kind prescribing what ought and what ought not to be, utilitarian injunctions become nothing but subjective human opinions without binding force whatever.
The moral dilemmas presented in the article all include killing smaller numbers of people in order to “save” a greater number. The problem is that the word “save” needs to be clarified. What, for example, are the people in hiding from the soldiers being “saved” from? Should they escape the soldiers’ attention indefinitely, they would have avoided being shot to death, and of course most of us would agree that that is a good thing. However, they haven’t escaped death permanently. This is key. All of us – without exception – die. All we really have therefore is the freedom to live this life in the way of our choosing. In the case of choosing to murder the baby, it might very well be the case that, though the murder may have temporarily preserved human being, the murder itself may be that which utterly destroys human well being. That is to say, those that survive might find the memory of the murder in which they were implicated, so burdensome that life becomes unbearable. Who would look upon this state of existence and consider it “flourishing”?
What we do with our lives matters. The choices we make matter. Both the Christian and most atheists concur on this point. How can the decision to leave the world as an innocent man who refused to strongly actualize the murder of another human being possibly be seen as unethical? One may claim that being guilty of multiple deaths is surely a worse crime. In the case of the villagers hiding from the soldiers however, it is absolutely false to claim that because the baby is preserved alive by the group in hiding they are somehow responsible for the soldiers’ heinous crimes after they are detected. One can choose to die as an innocent man who was murdered by bloodthirsty soldiers, or a coward that killed a little baby in order to save his own skin. It seems to me that anyone with an ounce of decency and any sense of honour would choose the former as the more moral of the two options.
The view of morality presented in Discover Magazine is incoherent and frankly horrid. Most importantly, it is downright dangerous. On this view, any horrendous act can be justified by claiming that our moral revulsion to it is merely emotional. Conversely, one can argue that any act – even the most nightmarish – is rationally justified so long as we remain convinced that it will achieve utilitarian ends. Hitler’s Germany, Mao’s China, and Stalin’s Russia, are sombre object lessons which illustrate the inevitable consequences of adopting such a philosophy. In the past, it was the western nations, influenced as they were by Judeo-Christian morality (which saw individuals as equally precious in the eyes of God) that bridled the utilitarianism adopted by such regimes. Today however, the west has exchanged the truth of the Bible for the consensus of modern scientific opinion, which, as we have seen, is now adopting the very ethic responsible for the deaths of countless innocent lives. Because this system of thought is being foisted upon us by the much venerated scientific community, I fear that such an ethical system will soon take firm root here in west. This time around there will be no one to limit the atrocities that will be committed in order to achieve “the greater good.”
HT: CARE Ministries