love and heretics

It's better to light a candle than curse the darkness

Living with subjective morals, good without god?

One of the hardest bridges for me to cross has been coming to terms with subjective morality. I have found that I am quite the binary thinker, and it has been a real struggle to accept and admit that morals may not be absolute. I believe that we may have standards we base our morals off of, and that the standard can be objective, when realizing that it can be based off of what we understand and know at any given time allowing for evolution of understanding.I believe we have the ability to define terms like good and bad, using empathy, reason, critical thinking and understanding of benefits or consequences of behavior.The largest issue I see with this is the thought that people may not all agree on what is “good” or “bad”. This is quite true.
And though it may be scary to the binary thinker, (such as myself) , the fact remains that this is the reality we see. Even within various religions we see a varying idea of what is “good” and “bad”. There is a core of things that is much easier for humans to agree upon as we share similar feelings regarding consequences of behavior and how actions affect us. Things like poking another persons eye out can be viewed (and agreed upon by a majority) as “bad” when applying empathy and realizing that we would not like pain (and blindness) inflicted upon ourselves.  However, to clarify this cannot be an absolute moral, One would not say it is “bad” to remove an eye that had cancer, or if not removed would cause death to the person.  Other things like protecting the helpless, the children or elderly seem another acceptable agreeable trait when considering that if/when we are more helpless we would like others to protect us. (empathy combined with compassion). Does this give us an absolute? perhaps not, however it does give us the ability to rationally make standards and rules that we can agree to within society, or family.

This is something I have been working on since my deconversion as I have been continually asked if such a position (morals without god ) was rational and reasonable.

Just read a very interesting post by David Yerle on A Science of Morality found HERE.
All thoughts welcome…



  1. I see morals as simply the elaborate extension of empathy, which is a skill all higher order creatures (particularly social creatures) possess. No one benefits from chaos so we’re naturally more inclined to act in a manner that promotes ordered existence.

    • You have a gift of expression. 🙂

      • Reading your posts i have to say you’re more than handy with language as well!

    • I have to say I agree with that. I couldn’t have said it better.

      • I somehow doubt that, David. I’ve only just discovered your blog and it’s blowing my mind in the best possible ways! You now have a fan… and a stalker 😉

        • It must have been “blove” at first sight. I started following your blog this afternoon…

  2. I think people don’t always agree on what’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ because they have their default cultural morality clashing with more natural human morality, which you rightly define as ‘using empathy, reason, critical thinking and understanding of benefits or consequences of behavior.’ So the idea that it’s wrong to poke an eye out is the instant understanding of cultural morality. But using natural morality, as there are no black and white rules, one wouldn’t even question medical treatment, as there’s no benefit to leaving the eye in place.

    • How is there no benefit to leaving the eye in place? (to the person losing the eye?)
      I do think we have a mixture of cultural and even inborn or genetic morals(instinctive) And that we learn others.

      • That’s interesting, I’ve never considered the possibility of inborn/genetic morals. I would have thought instinctive morals are as a result of things like empathy that have naturally evolved.
        With regards to the eye, I guess that leaving it in place could lead to cancer spreading to the rest of the body and ultimately death. It’s all about weighing up risk and probability, rather than morals.

  3. Interesting post, thank you. I was just reading Dawkin’s ‘The god delusion’ for the umpteenth time. The chapter on “The roots of morality: why are we good” was my particular interest this go round. He makes a good case for the fact that there are in fact moral universals. Deeply embedded by evolution.

    • That sounds very interesting. I think it quite possible. Sometimes the “ick” factor seems to be related to more than just “learned behavior”. I have found the same with instinctive fears and phobias…

  4. It was also quite traumatizing for me. I used to have this very elevated idea of morals and, when I went from absolute to subjective morals, I couldn’t feel good about myself anymore. It took quite some time to get used to it.
    By the way, thanks for the mention!

  5. Well, if I may chime in, you all seem insane. Granted you have faith in your position and I don’t. On the other hand, we live in the cultural delusion that our cultural standards are absolute. Is the fact that our culture is delusional doing us any good? Would we be better if we came to the realization that our morals are subjective? Do you think Republicans can be persuaded to be more empathetic? It seems to me that subjective morals are what the whole world lives in all the time without realizing and it is a pretty ugly place.
    Meanwhiile, I enjoyed reading your blog. I would rather talk to a convinced opponent of my views than a supposed ally.

    • I do believe empathy can be taught, and learned. (a small example on aol right now is of Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) who has reversed his stance on same-sex marriage two years after finding out about his son being gay. His comments, “It allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that’s of a Dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have — to have a relationship like Jane and I have had for over 26 years,”
      I agree that the world does live with subjective morals, that is the reality we see. However, I still maintain that we have the ability to choose our goals, and ground our standards for morals objectively based on those goals.
      What are you offering in it’s place? Absolute morals? Those in fact seem to be the mystical myth as far as I can tell… 😉

      • I didn’t know that about Portman. Interesting. Of course, would’ve been better if he arrived at this conclusion based on nothing but his own rational thought processess (rather than being forced, so to speak), but it’s a positive move nonetheless.

      • agreed. I shall take positive wherever we can find it. 🙂
        And, in the meantime, I shall remember just how very difficult it was for myself coming out of the particular paradigm of belief i formerly held, and in that realization be thankful with any other who find steps out of dogma….whenever it happens.

  6. This is an interesting post. The difficulty we have with deliberately harming or killing another member of our species has evolved and is clearly present in many other animals. This makes perfect evolutionary sense, as any species with a tendency to regularly harm each other without qualms would soon wipe itself out. In fact the best way to make a human behave hurtfully to another human is to use the threat of eternal damnation, or the offer of salvation. The Golden Rule, (do unto others…etc) is found in one form or another in all cultures, and while it’s a good rule, it’s pretty obvious. We don’t need sacred books to ask us rhetorically “How would *you* like it…?”

  7. “How would you like it?” is the negative form, don’t do to others what you would not want them to do to you, which is, as you say, found in many, perhaps all cultures. The positive form of the rule is original to Jesus.
    As to having a difficulty with deliberately harming one another – history doesn’t indicate that we do have much difficulty with it.

    • Thanks for your response Carroll. Okay, so how about “Do not do to your neighbor what you would take ill from him.”? Because that one’s from Pittacus, a Greek guy who lived more than half a century before Jesus was born, so I don’t see any evidence that Jesus put a particular original spin on it, and my point is, the rule actually originates from our evolutionary behavior.
      Regarding deliberately doing harm to one another, we are a species of 7 billion, and despite a few bumps in the road, most of which have been inspired by a faith in a religious-like dogma, we seem to be pretty good at looking after each other. I stop in the street if I see someone in distress, not because of a desire to please Jesus, Mohammed or Zeus, but because it feels right. I don’t need to be told that, I’ve just evolved that way, and so have you.

      • Again the quote from Pittacus is the negative form, “don’t do..” rather than the positive form, “do…”. Changing a negative to a positive was a first for Jesus, and seems to me to be significant enough to merit the epithet “original”.
        I am pleased by all kindness toward anyone whether from a religious motive or not, but the idea that the behavior is a product of evolution is questionable. I believe you attribute the behavior to evolution because you have nothing else to attribute it to – not a bad reason in itself but not a very good one. As to the “bumps in the road”, the religious like dogmas that inspired the most notorious bumps were not religions, per se. For the Nazis, the appeal was to social darwinism; for the reign of terror during the French Revolution it was rationalism, the pogroms of eastern Europe, Pol Pot – the excuse was occasionally religion but the reason was simply greed and inebriation with power, and counter-evolutionary by your interpretation I would think. Anything at all can be used as the excuse for evil, and has been, but that something is used as a pretext does not discredit it per se.

      • To ascribe the actions of the Nazi death-cult where the majority of SS officers were practicing Christians to “social Darwinism” is an argument I have no reply to, because it appears outside rational, logical thought. The religion-like worship of one leader is something all the cults you list have in common (you are of course missing out the crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the KKK, because of the closeness of their faith to yours).
        You’re claiming that anything can be used for evil, so we shouldn’t blame blind faiths, okay, that’s fine, but then you wish to smear evolution with the stain of hitler? I don’t find this argument very consistent.

        • “Secular schools can never be tolerated because such a school has no religious instruction and a general moral instruction without a religious foundation is built on air; consequently, all character training and religion must be derived from faith…. We need believing people.”
          -Adolf Hitler, April 26, 1933

          “I believe today I am acting in the same way as the Almighty Creator. By warding off the Jews I am fighting for the Lords work!”
          -Adolf Hitler, speech delivered in 1936.

      • …and I still don’t get the importance of the rewording of the golden rule by one of the writers or translators of the bible from a double negative (don’t do this if you don’t want this) to a positive (do this if you want this). A semantic inversion does not a deity make!

      • Sorry for the disjointed reply, but I’m attempting to multitask :). You say crediting evolution is questionable, I don’t see why, but maybe I should give you some further evidence. I’ve witnessed torque macaques clean each other’s wounds, orangutans teach their young how to use tools to get to food, silverbacks step up to defend others in the group, and countless other examples of animal behavior that points directly to empathy. I wonder whether evolution denialists ever take the time to actually watch other species. Go to the zoo, look out the window, take a walk in a forest, or at least watch a nature documentary! The evidence for the evolution of empathy is all around us.

      • adaminberlinio,
        I believe the rewording was a step forward in our evolution of understanding one another. “don’t do to others what you do not want done to yourself” was upped by Jesus to be proactive. Do unto others what you would like done to yourself. (His ever concern appeared to be for the poor, and sick…)
        But, I believe we have evolved in understanding even beyond this point. Coming to realize that what we want or do not want, may not be the same as someone else. Another big step for mankind 😉
        As to the evidence of empathy and altruism in other species…I agree. We are continually learning new things in this area. Even that some have demonstrated the understanding of “fairness”.

        • I understand that people may consider such modifications meaningful, but all of human history, and indeed animal behavior, points to the golden rule being an evolved characteristic, and we can argue endlessly about the merits of different cultures’ interpretation of it, but I don’t see how a Christian reading of it could be said to have led to some higher form of morality. Jesus did not reject the old testament. I find much in the bible to be deeply unethical and simply wrong. The good stuff that can be picked out if you like, I have no problem with that in principle, but the reality is that anyone can use that big, rambling and contradictory book to justify pretty much anything, be it love thy neighbor, an eye for an eye, keep slaves if you want, turn the other cheek, kill the gays, don’t eat pork, don’t lend money, don’t eat shellfish, don’t even think about your neighbor’s wife in that way (thought crime), and if a man has sex with a pig, you must kill the man and the pig! Take your pick, but it seems like a strange starting point if you want to build some kind of code of ethics, IMHO.

      • I certainly understand your point. I would say that I don’t personally use it as a starting point for ethics but allow its inclusion in the evolution of our ethics (whether for the good or the bad) . The question of “have our morals evolved?” was one of the first that actually caused me to reconsider my own former dogma….

  8. The concept of reciprocity is found in many of the early civilizations and religions. I agree that Jesus appears to be the first to add a positive to the usual negative rendering. However, since his teachings we have evolved it even a bit more, (no intentions to offend here just sharing my own current if less learned than others/ understanding)
    From “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” to the understanding through empathy , that others may not like what we like. A small story. A man makes a sandwich for himself and his wife. He brings her the sandwich made for her, and she blurts out, “for years you have given me the heel of the bread on my sandwich!! And yourself the soft bread that is not the heel, you selfish man.!”..(forget that he had been the one making HER the sandwich 😉 ) To which the man replied in surprise, “but my dear…that is my favorite part! ”
    A step further in the golden rule, is listening and learning what it is the other truly needs or wants, a step past of just thinking about what we want or desire, and being able to imagine, (realize) that they might want or like something different than ourselves……

  9. Argus

    Different strokes for different folks—my own standard is “If I wouldn’t like that done to me, I won’t do it to someone else” …

    … unless of course the anus well and truly deserves it, in which case often it’s better to do it back to him first. Sadly we can’t always pre-guess the actions of others, in which case the good ol’ Mosaic eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth provides adequate justification.

    My point here is that for many folks the Golden Rule is a mere guideline that can be discarded once feelings run hot—at which point scriptures can be used to justify any (r) any inhuman activity. And they are.

    • There was a recent article about how many Amish girls had been abused. And were silent. they were taught to “turn the other cheek” and “forgive, seventy times seven”.
      And that to not do so would be basically an equal crime to what had been done to them. 😦
      The ideas can certainly be ill used and must be balanced. Otherwise the ick/evil/meanies would rule the world….

      • The quote from Hitler posted by Adam Zande is telling I think. Hitler of course used the Christianity of his culture, but his commitment was not to Christianity, it was to himself, as all the Christians in German who did not submit to him found out. Hitler was using faith to put himself as nearly in the place of God as he could. Nor do I dismiss the KKK because they are too close to my views. I lived in Mississippi for too many years to not see the evils of white supremacy and how it had taken over the churches. It led me to reject Christianity as the root of all evil. I hated it, I think, as much as any of you might. But Jesus stopped me. My allegiance is to Him, not my religion or my church or my culture or my country.
        Don’t misunderstand me as being a creationist, by the way. I am not. But as to the evils of social darwinism, as to the Nazis’ devotion to it, read Marilyn Robinson’s essay “Darwinism” in the collection The Death of Adam. Evil is evil whether it is in the Church or out of it, whether it is in the mind of a scientist or the mind of a fool. Theism is a convenient scapegoat for blaming evil on, but the real cause of evil is in our own hearts.

        • I understand that you have experienced some kind of personal revelation, and that’s fine, but either we can debate using logic and reason, or you’re just proclaiming your faith. I’m happy to do the former, and you are, of course, most welcome to express your faith, but I have no reply to your claim to having a personal relationship with the son of a god who’s also a god (the same god?), who lived two centuries ago and who was horribly murdered in order to help me out somehow, because I’m bad, and if I don’t actively worship this figure, I’ll not just miss out on going to a nice magical place, but I may well end up in a horrible magical place for ever and ever. You may find this hard to believe, but that story is actually pretty hard to buy even if you don’t connect it to the sickening works of the KKK.
          I also don’t buy your definition of evil I’m afraid. I don’t think religions are actively evil, they’ve just often led to really bad things happening. Fanaticism and extremism, these are the things that can lead to terrible acts, and to get there you must start with some kind of faith. Do you really think I’m scapegoating theism? No, I’m just pointing the finger at whatever system encourages blind faith and irrationality, but if the shoe fits…

      • …one more point here, you suggest that Christians in Germany resisted nazi terror. I know of no Christian resistance movement. If you have some evidence of this I’d be most interested. Living in Berlin, I know of how some churches (specifically in Leipzig) were used as a meeting places for the resistance movement against the GDR totalitarian state, something they can be rightfully proud of, but as far as I know, Christianity in Germany was broadly supportive of the nazis (hitler received the pope’s blessing in a signed agreement, the Reichskonkordat, in 1933).

      • Argus

        The meanies DO rule the world …

        Damn, as a randy young opportunist did I miss a trick? I should have been an Amish—all the victims I could possibly want and God Himself to protect me and keep them complaisant* . Free sauerkraut too—have they defined Heaven, or what? (For the guys that is). Hard luck Islam, Amishery is right here on Earth—beat that!

        * Or a Catholic priest, they have it made too …

    • Argus

      Amish … or anyone else that can remove a person’s (female in this instance) independence. So morality is all about control, power, and lust then. Either that or the Amish countless others are immoral (but not, of course, in their own eyes: there’s no end of Catholic priests and things can testify to that). Are we to conclude that there is no real (universal) Morality?

      Obviously. Simple observation demonstrates that much.

      • I’m not completely convinced on that. I think we can at least have morals based on universal standards…(we live together on this earth and can choose whether to survive or not)
        would morals exist if we were on an island all by ourselves?
        would they if we lived with one person? two? more?

        • Argus

          Interesting example. I’d say not if your ‘we’ were a singular ‘I’ … but being more than one of I introduces the necessity for ‘human’ morality.

          Even alone on a desert island, I still wouldn’t pull the wings off flies …

          • ah, fair enough argus. In the example given it was originally posed to me as a single “being” on an island. so cancel out the opportunity to pull the wings off other “beings”. The only thing one can do, is harm oneself….
            now….can you…sin? or be…immoral? I think the point came home to me with this illustration that morals…kindness…justice…love…courage…all these things are part of living with others….being more than one. And what type of experience we want to have on this world…

  10. Sorry, now I am being disjointed.
    It occurs to me that in the appeal to evolution, one may argue cogently that caring for each other has parallels in the animal world. I don’t think that is enough, though, for this purpose. Jesus said that loving our friends was not enough, that we were to love our enemies, those who were intent on harming or destroying us. Is there a parallel in the natural world to loving our enemies? Does the prey ever seek to do good to the predator in the natural world?

    • Good point! Now here is an example of where the supposedly wise teachings of Jesus makes no sense to me. Why should I love my enemies? Who actually manages to do that, and what’s the advantage. My enemies are, presumably, a threat to myself and others close to me. My preferred version would be something like “Don’t just get into a fight, display warning signs, give your enemy a chance to move away” – this is something seen in the cupped chest-beating of the male gorillas, the raised hackles of the wolf, the snarl of the fox, the roar of the lion, the tree-root pounding of the chimpanzee. and the jutting chin and narrowed eyes of the threatened homo sapien.
      The predator and pray analogy is a little strange, as I perhaps wrongly assumed that Jesus was referring to love of enemies of the same species, rather than “love great white sharks, grizzly bears and lions.”
      The other problem with replying to your perspective is that when you say “Jesus said that…” I read it as “I’ve chosen to have unquestioning faith in one book that describes contrary descriptions of a man’s life, and after thousands of years of copying and translating, I’ve decided that this man said that…” – and right there I have to either conseed a huge premise that to me is completely false, or give up the argument. I would never present such week proof to any of my major points. I’ve listed off many, many examples of animal behavior, some of which I’ve witnessed personally, along with others, some I’ve photographed or filmed, some I’ve watched in documentaries, or read in scientific journals and books, each with references and supported by evidence.
      I’m not complaining, I just mean to point out that we are not arguing on an equal basis here, as every claim I’ve made about evolution is actually grounded in real science, and you casually dismiss those points and return to what “Jesus said”. Rationally, logically, and reasonably, that’s not really an answer, is it?

      • No apologies necessary, I am enjoying the discussion very much, just wanted to take my time working through the points, (and sometimes i have less computer times than others)
        I was interested in your point on loving your enemies..and the teachings of Jesus.
        I fully agree that it can be very dangerous to accept any words as gospel truth, without critically examining and weighing them.
        One could say that it makes absolutely no logical sense to “love one’s enemies” and that in fact it could be very harmful.
        The questions I have which remain about the teachings of Jesus, (and many which are also found in Buddhism such as loving through understanding even those we would hate (and according to some worldviews SHOULD hate) but i have actually seen how love can change a person. (i don’t’ personally credit this to a supernatural love but rather the combination of forgiveness, understanding, empathy, and compassion and how unconditional love can indeed have an effect on our psych.)
        So regarding the point above, for me, my questions about the teachings of Jesus, and their value have no relation to whether or not he was more than just a man, it is a question of whether they have value and benefit….

      • Sunofmysoul, I believe there are complex social interactions at play regarding what you describe as love that are interesting to explore but are currently outside the application of science. Where I step in is when people suggest that there is no way that evolution can account for certain behaviors. I’ve yet to find any evidence to support that position, and considering there is no evidence that the behavior of every animal on the planet has been shaped by *anything* other than evolution through natural selection, evolution is not even competing with serious alternative hypotheses. The construction of the origin myths and various deities are endlessly fascinating, producing a wonderfully rich texture to the history of our species, but the claim that without some of them we would somehow behave less morally is, to me, ridiculous. If the claim is that the Christian myth gives us superior morals compared with, say, Norse mythology, I see no evidence for that. The people of Scandinavia developed a complex society with social codes, restrictions, expectations, legends and guiding stories passed down generations. To claim that they lacked a morality (with the inference that they still do, as most of the Nordic nations are only nominally Christian) is just silly, but if this claim is not made, that leaves the whole validity of Christian morality hanging, imho.
        So, to conclude, if people take inspiration from supposedly wise words written down a long long time ago, great! Do we need any of those words to live a good life? Probably not.
        Give a child an understanding of the world around them through science, give them language skills, the gift of communication for them to share ideas and grow intellectually, independent of those around them, and give them the confidence to question, everyone and everything, to take nothing at face value, and to keep exploring until they form their own picture, do these things, and you’ll find you’ve done a pretty good job equipping that child with what they need.

      • sorry, I realize I completely failed to answer your question, but although I could theorize about the deeper meaning of love and its relationship to hate, I feel that I would be just winging it. When you say how you’re seen how love can actually change someone, pedantically I ask questions in my head like “In what way have they changed and how can we measure that?” and “How can we test for evidence that it was the love that changed them?” and then “How can we measure the levels of love?”. Of course, this is where science falls down, and I have to politely take my leave, as I find myself out of my depth among such musings!

  11. Well, you are certainly correct that an appeal to some kind of personal revelation has no logical strength. I mentioned it only to distinguish between a commitment to a person and a commitment to an institution that goes by his name. And I seem to have done rather badly communicating. The whole of my comments boils down to these points I was intending to argue:
    1. religion is used as an excuse for evil, but should not be credited as the cause of evil.
    2. rejecting the validity of religion because it is used as an excuse for evil should lead to the rejection of other things which are also used as excuses for evil – namely reason, darwinism, and other things worthy in themselves.
    3. religion is not the only form of belief that depends on faith. So does science.
    4. evolution is not sufficient as an explanation or cause of moral behavior.
    5. fanaticism and extremism are evil, I agree, but I have found nothing in faith, as I have experienced it or pursued it, that is irrational. There are certainly religions that despise rationality, and many of them are Christian in origin, but that faith is intrinsically irrational is too sweeping a generalization.
    6, Christianity is distinct from Christ and the two require distinct responses.
    I hope this at least makes what I think more clear. Doubtless you will disagree with me on all of these points, but at least we need not seem to disagree on what we don’t disagree on.

    • Firstly, I think you communicated rather well, as this post explains further exactly what I thought you believed.
      So, point by point:
      1. That’s an opinion, and that’s fine, but you don’t offer an argument as such for that position. Why shouldn’t religion take the credit?
      2. This is based on the false premise of ‘Darwinism’. If you mean evolution through natural selection, then this cannot be lightly rejected due to the huge catalogue of data supporting it, but if you are twisting it to reference nazi racism then yes, let’s throw that out too.
      3. This is where you reveal your lack of understanding of the scientific method, as faith can only be a hinderence to science.
      4. This seems like a conclusion that you have drawn before looking at all the evidence. It’s a perfectly valid opinion to have I suppose, but my understanding of animal behavior, evolution and neuroscience leads me tentatively, to the opposite conclusion.
      5. Faith, by definition, means believing something without empirical evidence or logical and rational support. This may involve a belief in a mythical deity, or the healing power of cristals, or perhaps the supremacy of your local football team, and I wouldn’t like to deprive anyone of their comforts, but please don’t tell me that it is rational.
      6. Any distinction between Christianity and Christ I shall leave to the theologians among us, although distinguishing Buddha and Buddhism seems pretty easy, so I don’t see how it’s a gamechanger.
      Thank you for your clarifying response, and I’m also glad that you haven’t taken offense, or at least hidden your offense, as none is intended.

    • Carroll, it sounds as if you are saying religion doesn’t kill people, people kill people. 😉

      • Oooh, that is bad. How did you know I was a gun control guy? No, I am saying that anything and everything kills people, including things both you and I admire. How many times have you heard, “I’m just saying this because I love you” just before they stab you in the back?
        As to being offended, it would seem irrational to be offended at someone expressing an opinion you already know he has.
        ttfn (that’s “ta ta for now” just in case you thought I might be smuggling in anything off color.)

  12. For the Christian resistance movement in Germany, which was small, read Dietrich Bonhoffer or about him. As far as quoting Jesus, any person who subscribes to the teachings of any great teacher will quote from that teacher, Marx, Plato, etc. Citing published scientific papers is quoting from some researcher or other and trusting that his work was honest. In Greek trust and faith are the same thing; I trust that when Jesus said something he knew what he was talking about.
    As to the scientific method I understand it well enough. It is true that I am a mathematician by training and not a scientist, but I have studied physics in the university a great deal and to a lesser extent chemistry and biology and engineering. I think Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is enlightening. It does not directly concern the role of faith in the sciences but it impinges on it. As soon as science makes an assumption out of necessity rather than from experimental verification then it enters the dimension of faith, and I think it does that inevitably in its foundations. Science must assume, for example, the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system and that assumption is a declaration of faith, not of science.

    • I agree that science can work on assumptions but for me the key is the provisional nature of these assumptions. To classify this as a faith can only be a misrepresentation because all assumptions are gleefully overturned (usually by younger, ambitious scientists) whenever evidence points to an alternative hypothesis. I can’t see that happening in religion. As far as a philosophical perspective goes, I find Karl Popper, along with the works of Carl Sagan, a pretty good starting point. Much like Richard Feynman once said, I find this myth of a god that actually came down to this planet as a member of our species to be so provincial, such a small idea, when you consider the universe. Distant pulsars with the mass of our sun are revolving 30 times a second. An atom is to an apple what an apple is to the earth, size-wise. Why would the creator of the universe send a son to this rock in the form of this particular species?
      As far as comparing Jesus to Marx and Plato, and then to scientific papers, I’ve read Marx and Plato, but I’m no expert in the works of either. But if I cited a paper as part of an argument , it would only be valid if it represented the scientific consensus of the time. Some fringe publication that is questioned by most in that field wouldn’t be much more valid than a quote from the bible. I don’t trust scientists to be honest, I do however trust the process of science to self-correct over time, and therefore there is no need for me to trust anyone!

  13. How can you trust the process of science if you can’t or don’t trust the scientists? Both the scientist and the priest are obliged to pursue the truth within the limitations imposed by their vocations and both are liable to failure. The assumption of uniformity of natural causes in a closed system is not a provisional assumption. It is the foundation on which science is built and if it is removed the whole structure of science will fall. I do not fault science for making the assumption, only for making the assumption and them claiming a superiority over other assumptions similarly based on faith. The climate of opinion in scientific circles looks to me like the same kind of smug pretentiousness that was dominant in the fundamentalist churches I grew up in. The fundamentalists were proud of their blindness, the scientists won’t admit to it.
    Karl Popper was good, but I do not think he understood the scientific enterprise. Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman were both profound thinkers, but they misunderstood as well the kind of non-scientific beliefs their scientific beliefs rested on.
    Sorry. I know that we will probably never agree on this, and I think our disagreement is one of different religions. When I was young, I arrived at the university in something like your viewpoint, despising the religion I had grown up with and in love with science. I was not a Christian when I arrived, but I was a Christian before I left, much to their disgust I might add. I rejected fundamentalist Christianity for reasons I think you would approve, but I found the same forces undermining the academic environment.

    • Firstly, scientists are not obliged to pursue the truth within any limitations. I do have a certain amount of trust in the scientific process exactly because I don’t trust anyone, including myself, not to make a stupid mistake. Science searches out the mistakes people make, religion doesn’t.
      This phrase “uniformity of natural causes in a closed system” appears to originate from Francis Schaefer, a Christian apologist. I suspect that it’s a reworking of the first law of thermodynamics. Please correct me if I’m wrong. If it is, however, it’s a straw man argument because there is a great deal of evidence supporting the laws of thermodynamics, much of it really quite easily understood.
      Your story is a very interesting one. Presumptuously I would perhaps suspect that your rejection of the oppressive organized religion you grew up with was only partial, and you simply returned to that psychological need for such beliefs at a later stage because of the lingering influence of the original dogma. Just a guess of course, as I’m far from any kind of psychologist!
      One thing I must correct you on though, I have no hatred for religion. I was brought up in an agnostic family and attended a Protestant school until 18, and I enjoyed arguing with the religious teachers there, and I liked my role of rebel because I questioned all their stories, but I’ve never felt any hatred for anyone.
      I do accept that much of the history of science comes directly from religious scholarship, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian, and I believe that Sagan was the first to acknowledge such debt. This leads me to question your characterization of scientists as smug and pretentious.
      I can see some scientists may be seen as rude, impolite, dismissive and impatient, sins for which I myself must occasionally plead guilty. Individuals may be smug too, but I don’t see that as a characteristic of scientists any more than any other group. Pretentious though? Really? I have to put both of these claims down to nothing more than ad hominem attacks, which, although I don’t take personally in any way, don’t really help your position in this argument.
      So, finally, when you say “I think our disagreement is one of different religions”, although this sounds superficially conciliatory, it’s actually quite offensive, as I’ve devoted some time now explaining politely how science is in no way a religion, and you haven’t actually addressed any of my points. Reiterating your claim against science at this point is a little exasperating, but I’ll let it go, as I’m sure you mean well, and I should be grateful that you at least attempt to engage with me in this discussion, even if any seeds I may have sown may not sprout for some time. 😉

      • Okay, that all reads a little smug, I’ll grant you, but don’t let that tarnish science! 🙂

      • Okay, correction! I just read up on Schaefer’s position regarding closed systems and it appears to be a metaphysical/epistemological point rather than addressing any particular part of science, so I withdraw my straw man accusation. Regarding his actual meaning, I have no ability to debate that kind of stuff, not actually being a fan of any philosophy that does not see itself as subservient to actual, real, testable science.

  14. I suppose our most basic disagreement is that I believe science is a religion in disguise, a religion whose god is itself, and which operates like a religion while proclaiming it is not. Sort of a worst of both worlds. It was not always that way, but has become so increasingly.
    Perhaps I can explain what I mean here. I do not know what Schaeffer had in mind, but the way I understand “uniformity of natural causes in a closed system” (which I think I got from a physics text) is this:
    the uniformity of natural causes is the assumption that scientific laws do not vary as we move from place to place. An experiment done in Europe would go the same as the identical experiment done in America. It becomes an assumption when we extrapolate to the universe as a whole: an experiment done in Europe would go the same as the identical experiment done in M31, or further. Uniformity of natural causes also says that scientific laws do not vary from time to time. This becomes an assumption particularly when physicists discuss cosmology or when biologists discuss evolution, or even when they appeal to radio carbon dating. As this assumption stands it is reasonable, it is probably necessary for doing science at all. But it is itself an unverifiable assumption we make in order to do what we do.
    The assumption that the universe is a closed system means that all causes and effects originate within the universe. Nothing outside the system of cause and effect we live in can enter that system as a cause of anything within the system. Intrinsically this assumption is unverifiable as well, and equally necessary for the practice of science. But it does exclude the Christian God from the realm of existence and it does so by an assumption.
    It seems to me that both of these assumptions are matters of faith. I have no problem with scientists making these assumptions in their practice of science because they have to. One cannot begin an experiment without assuming no miracle will take place, obviously. But when scientists leave the practice of science and seek to establish these assumptions over all of life we have a religious conflict. The science that you advocate seems to take as its presupposition that the God I believe in can’t exist, whereas His existence is my presupposition; and then it claims that its presupposition is valid on a higher level, above faith, whereas my opposite presupposition is invalid on the lowest level as mere faith. This is what I mean by pretentiousness – not so much the individual scientists, but the way the scientific enterprise is conducted.
    But if a proposition is a matter of faith, surely its negation is equally a matter of faith.
    If this is unconvincing, it is probably the best I can do. I would be content if you felt some doubt about your convictions.
    It is undoubtedly true that my present position might be just a return to psychological needs that were repressed. And you? Is your agnosticism a position created by loyalty to your upbringing, and perhaps the pleasure of being a rebel? I don’t know, but psychology is a slippery tool, as liable to wound the wielder as the target. I admit to being as prone to self-delusion as anyone, but I am aware of the danger and try to safeguard against it. Any seeds your comments may have planted in me are as unlikely to sprout as any seeds my comments may have planted in you. But you never know.
    I do hope hollycampbellsoms is not irritated with me for hijacking this blog so far off topic

    • Hi Carroll,
      So first of all I share your concern that we are perhaps too much for hollycampbellsoms so I’ll try to wrap this up by summarizing the two positions as I see them, and I’ll try and be concise (not my strong point, as you may have noticed).
      A quick digression (not a good start, concise-wise) – my goal in this discussion is to look for a logical rationalisation or some evidence presented by my ‘opponent’ that would lead me to changing my world view. For me, that would be a win. The happiest words I could type here would be “Oh, I never thought of it like that before.” Of course we’re all biased and instinctively resistant to accepting a change in viewpoint, so I do what I can to get past that bias. I often fail.
      At some point, however, I have to conclude that the chances of my own viewpoint being further enlightened are narrowing (perhaps due to the repetitive nature of the responses, or the lack of evidence presented), and I will then console myself with the idea that perhaps my opponent has had the privilege of learning something new from me. This is better than nothing, but not my priority.
      Your accusations against science (smug, pretentious, self-deluded, a religion, arrogant, based on a false premise, etc…) appear to lack any specific examples I can deal with, and your digressions into philosophy/theology, although interesting in their own way, result in semantic debates that, in my experience, bring little to the table when addressing the importance of science: a very real, practical thing.
      I respect your belief, based upon feelings you have that are not currently measurable by science. They’re personal, and I wish you all the best with them. I’ve encountered no need for such beliefs myself, and that’s something I’m currently happy with. I’m sorry if you find my position antagonistic. That’s not my intention, and I don’t understand how you’ve drawn that conclusion.
      I have no philosophical loyalty to my upbringing, in fact I disagree with much of what my parents believe, lovely as they are, including their intention to ignore all religious questions with the vague hope that they remember to do a deathbed repent “just in case”. My youthful ‘rebellion’ involved neglecting to bow my head and close my eyes during school prayer. Not exactly burning churches. And now I live in the former East Berlin, and I would guess 70%+ of the people I know are non-believers, the rest being a mixed bag of Deists, the generally “spiritual”, and few Catholics from tradition. So, in my world, the rebels are the ones talking about how they have a personal relationship with Jesus (people tend to move away from them at parties, whereas I hunt them out to talk to, like spotting a rare bird!).
      I hope this explains how I have no antagonism towards believers, because if you can’t get past that preconception, I don’t think you’re going to be able to get to the meat of my point.
      Another long one. Sorry hollycampbellsoms!

    • Not irritated at all Carrol. I have been intrigued with the discussion, and your points on uniformity of natural causes and assumptions was very interesting. (I admit to feeling like I should observe more than speak as you are probably both far more learned than I.)

  15. Thank you very much for your response. I felt no antagonism from you on any personal level, though I can see how I came across as implying that. I hope that you feel that I do respect you personally as well, though we seem likely to always speak different languages from different worlds. For what it is worth, I will pray for you – hey, it can do no harm, right?
    I will close this by re-recommending Kuhn’s book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. He was not a Christian himself, just a philosophy of science guy like Popper. I believe he taught at Harvard. It is a book that may or may not affect how you think, but it has had a strong influence on me. If you have any parting books to recommend to me, I welcome them.

    • Great, thanks for the recommendation. I’ll look him up (interesting wiki page). Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World is a wonderful overview. Also the writings of the excellent Dr Steven Novella, specifically his blogs when they get philosophical, like here –
      But what kind of recommendations would you be interested in? I think my world view is formed by observing the universe through the prism of objective science and then deciding for myself, so I don’t follow any philosophers.

  16. I suppose a book that has been critical to you personally in forming the way you think.

    • Honestly I couldn’t come up with one book. I love the Sagan one, but mostly because it organized my thoughts and assisted me in communicating them, but I wouldn’t say it was critical in forming the way I think. Sorry to be so pedantic.
      N.B. I’ve enjoyed this debate. I’m not sure I’ve explained my position very well, but I appreciate your civil, thoughtful responses, even if we’ve done little to bridge the gap between a worldview built on empirical falsificationism and one based on faith.

  17. Argus

    Often morality (that which is morally acceptable) depends on who is holding the gun.

    Mostly I read the post first, and comment; only after do I read the other comments. If binary means black and white with no shades of grey … well, that gives us a starting point. But most humans mix and match to suit their chances and they seize profitable opportunities as and when: is this pragmatism?

    For myself I have standards. There are lines I will not cross—unless my survival depends on it; in which case the veneer of civilisation drops away and it’s open slather. Regrets can always come later. I know what I will and won’t do—not many can say the same.

    And as a rule of thumb I do anything I can to ensure a level playing field for all; let them make of it what they will. To me that is only moral …

    • I have been watching a few “end of civilization as we know it ” kind of shows….one with a zombie apocalypse type ending, another with power being shut off and humans having to revert to life without power…
      each one illustrates how morals and values would change to some extent, but some things …in order to hold on to our very humanity stay the same…
      I think there are standards for mutual survival, that will be agreed upon by societies. I think anytime we try to make absolute rules..that are unbendable and unchangeable with new information we screw it up…

      • Argus

        The mistake many of us make is to forget that there are people out there completely devoid of anything we might — by our standards — call a ‘moral code’. This is where we shoot ourselves in the foot, we say “Oh no, they’d never do that!” because we can’t imagine anyone actually doing that.

        But people, often in very high places, DO do that. They march to a different drum in a world that overlaps ours only partially. Not good.


  1. a question of science, philosophy and morality, nothing heavy | things temporarily hidden
  2. Humanist! the cause of all evil !! | love and heretics

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