Do I really have to answer such absurd depictions of my view? Enlightenment values help discover morality and let it flourish

In a recent conversation with oldschoolcontemporary (OSC) about objective morality, we ran into many stumbling blocks to our ability to properly communicate with each other. So far as I could tell, OSC had immovable metrics in place by which to measure objective morality that were almost necessarily religious (redemption, salvation and infallible imposable authority) which were, so far as I can see, superfluous to morality. Morality, and hopefully we call all agree at at least this point, pertains to actions. But, this was borne out of what I suspect was a much bigger issue: OSC appeared to have an incredibly two-dimensional and uniform view of all morality that was ‘other’ to his own.

The morality I offered pertained to wellbeing (queue a million surprises), and the idea that we can progressively learn about this morality through open and honest discussion. The idea that we can learn about morality is based on what the Ancient Greeks initially spoke of, and which translates approximately to ‘Natural Law’. Natural Law is the concept that heavily informed the writing of the EU and UN documents on Human Rights. This concept of Natural Law has spanned cultural differences, national borders and religions. It is discoverable through the values we often related to the 17th Century Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment values are that of open enquiry, speech and the right of and to criticism. Those values have appeared in many places, and when they do they are accompanied by advances in civil rights and justice. The mini-Enlightenment of Ancient Greece, for example, laid the ground for for the first political use of democracy (at least, the first one that was recorded and those records have survived). Athenian democracy has its warts: only land-owning men were allowed to vote. Still, that was a great leap forward from where they were before. The Golden Age of Islam, for all its nonsense, did foster religious and cultural tolerance and intellectual freedoms.

My argument is that, given those conditions, human conversations nearly always (with the occasional bump; I’m not arguing this is perfect) conclude in social progress: wanting to extend liberties to other nationalities and ethnicities, to all genders, to other species; to the writing of human rights and the acknowledgements of war crimes; to freedom of sexuality and love, and to freedoms of migration.

OSC doesn’t accept any of that as necessarily ‘good’. To be a little more precise, OSC doesn’t accept that any of this meets the ‘grace of God’. This, apparently, is a key definition in what ‘good’ is, according to OSC. And that makes sense; that’s the only way to then demand the surrender of moral autonomy to a God and a love of Jesus and his sacrifice.

I attempted to address what I saw as shortcomings in OSC’s theistic morality from a base of common ground: this idea of God’s expectation of us being perfect, of authoritarian and tyrannical definitions, of the paradox regarding what ‘good’ actually is (God’s nature or something God ascribes to), the fact a human sacrifice is so contrary to human moral sensibilities (which presumably God made for us). This is why I was then surprised and frustrated to read OSC’s reply to me, where he demonstrated profound misunderstandings of what I said.

OSC attempted to define ‘wellbeing’ as narrowly as he possibly could, something that comes across as a dishonest strawman: he made it just about human wellbeing, but the expedient function of the human machine (i.e. “healthy” to the human body, with no regard even for psychological health). He converted the ideas of freedoms into “whims and fancy”, completely discarding the fact that humanity frequently agrees to extend these rights, even to people beyond your pragmatic interest (but, evidently, not beyond our moral interest). He set up an analogy where a religious person went to a humanist academy, and made the humanists into modernistic pragmatists with a disregard for experience and wonder, and gave those attributes to the religious character. This is despite those characteristics clearly belonging to the flourishing of wellbeing, and the people routinely going through predefined motions are those who define morality theistically.

All this I may have been willing to address and answer. In fact, I made some efforts. But, OSC’s comment persisting in deviating further into the absurd as the comment progressed. The first major transgression from anything I thought could even be argued an honest misunderstanding was the question of whether a wellbeing-based morality would permit a person to rape and torture 2 children, to save the lives of 3 children. The honest answer is that I don’t know. I don’t know all 5 children surviving, where two are raped and tortured is better than 2 children surviving without rape and torture, and three dying. (The fact I don’t know doesn’t stop that being an objective question. I also don’t know which is heavier: an average apple or an average nectarin.) But the thought experiment is so poorly thought-through. The person being indicted here the person who has to choose between the rape or the murder? Because it seems to be the person who should be indicted is the person who actually set-up this twisted little scenario. But, also, what is the Christian answer here? Should you permit 3 to death, or rape and torture 2? The failure of this thought experiment isn’t wellbeing, it’s that all options are heinous. Christianity fails to get a happy resolution to this, as well.

At some sort of tipping point, OSC stepped into politics. He started talking about utopianism, and how all ideas of utopia have been just-the-other-side of awful and heinous things. He started talking of the suppression of religious freedoms under the Soviets. He started talking about eugenics under the Nazis. He started talking about how my view―that of safeguarding wellbeing and having an open and frank discussion about what is good―would lead to horror and atrocity. I didn’t force his views―one of understanding morality through some epiphany or religious revelation in a relationship with God―into Crusades and Inquisitions or religious persecution and Witch Hunts. But, apparently, no such courtesy was extended to me. Everything that is not theistically defined morality, to OSC, is all Soviet oppression and Nazi eugenics.

Do I have to answer that? From a practical sense, are there people who read a conversation like that and will have OSC’s absurd strawman slip past their intellectual faculties? How much work is ahead of me when my interlocutor doesn’t get a single element of my proposal right and compares it to the complete antithesis of what I’ve said? I’ve got to restate my position, actively disavow and untangle that position from the smear and then start unpicking anything they presented as their own view. It’s overloading, putting work before me that I should never have to do.

My response to OSC was frustrated and angry. OSC is an elegant and intelligent writer, and for that reason I had been hooked into a long and time consuming discussion with him. Some of his religious views are nuanced, intricate and require considerable ruminations over, especially the epiphany-interpretation of Christianity I explored in my last post. This (along with the fact morality matters to me) is why I responded badly, having felt betrayed by OSC sudden descent into such insane argumentation.

45 thoughts on “Do I really have to answer such absurd depictions of my view? Enlightenment values help discover morality and let it flourish”

  1. I suggest that the aphorism that begins “Never argue with a pig …” applies here.

    On Wed, Aug 17, 2016 at 7:42 AM, Allallt in discussion wrote:

    > Allallt posted: “In a recent conversation with oldschoolcontemporary (OSC) > about objective morality, we ran into many stumbling blocks to our ability > to properly communicate with each other. So far as I could tell, OSC had > immovable metrics in place by which to measure ob” >

  2. OSC is failing to see an open system. His thinking is, therefore, thoroughy and hopelessly flawed. When we consider that that evolution never ends it becomes immediately apparent that concepts such as end design, optimal design, stasis, and even destiny are only fleetingly meaningful notions, and only ever so in a local context. Professor Adrian Bejan saw this, and although pertaining to all systems, animate and inanimate, his Constructual Law of design and evolution in nature explains morality quite well.

    “In each case the urge [of living] is not toward an ideal. It is toward something better tomorrow, and to something even better the day after tomorrow—relentless improvement and refinement.”

  3. No. If a discussion reaches a point where no useful progress can be made, there is no reasonable requirement to continue it. Nor is it wise to continue. In words which OSC might understand: “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces” (Math 7:6)

    Having some experience with both viewpoints, I was surprised that I could not follow the discussion, but of course, it was obviously a summary and much necessary to the understanding of those not involved could reasonably be expected to be missing. Perhaps the biggest hurdle in compressed form was relating “wellbeing” to morality. If this is the wellbeing of a society, then I can see a connection between the concepts. But morality often actually conflicts with the wellbeing of the individual.

    Then there was the mixing of the concepts of morality and “freedoms”, with an implication of “rights”. Not only are the connections tenuous, but “rights” is a questionable concept. When you get right down to it, there really are no “rights”, there are privileges which come with responsibilities. If someone says “I was denied my rights”, they are likely to be at best, confused. If someone says “I fulfilled the responsibilities and was denied the privilege” then there is a good chance they have a valid point.

    “Freedom of migration”. It is a pretty concept. After all, does it not seem reasonable that if someone is someplace horrible, they should be allowed to go someplace better? There are two problems. One, this does nothing to make the horrible place less so. Two, and perhaps more importantly, what sane person thinks it is ok to go to a better place and demand that it be the same as the place left? With this mindset, not only does the horrible place not get better, but the better place is made less so, with the potential to end up equally horrible.

    1. I’d done likewise after outlining several arguments which weren’t understood by the spirit in which they had been shared, Cat! Although I’ve always considered the Pearls before swine saying far more sophisticated than “Don’t talk to pigs”, how another less elegant message tried to explain. Another excellent Bible quotation would be “The mouth speaks from the abundance of the heart”, and it’s whether or not my heart drew from its abundance of slander and slur which the above article appears in large part to be concerned with. I’m also of the opinion that you’re an excellent contributor, showing scarce partiality in the messages shared, even cutting to the heart of an issue with such interesting questions as the above, many of which go unanswered, for which I’m going to have to interpret your claim to not having followed our discussion in light of you being a sort of detective Columbo figure. 🙂

      Insofar as the above functions as an objection or somewhat of a rebuttal to my own viewpoint, I’m of the mind it has missed the mark on several counts. With which I’m reminded of the now infamous “Scopes Monkey Trail” of 1925, whereby the lawyer Clarence Darrow touched upon few things of specific substance. They’d apparently asked such questions as “Where did Cain find their first wife?” of the often flat-footed William Jennings Bryan, which would be a fair question if the Bible itself could be first defended in its intent and then content. Darrow’s performance, though beloved of unbelievers, was later described as so: “Any brilliant lawyer can tell you that in most trials, when only selected facts are permitted into the courtroom, any adept wordsmith can construct a farce.” I’m tempted to write Allallt too has as opposed to facing the reality of our discussion made for himself a comfortable farce. On an aside, the brilliant lawyer appears to have later been dismantled by the famous “Defender of the Faith” G. K. Chesterton. Even after the back and forth however, Darrow spoke fondly of their Catholic counterpart Chesterton: “I was favorably impressed by, warmly attached to, G.K. Chesterton. I enjoyed my debates with him, and found him a man of culture and fine sensibilities. If he and I had lived where we could have become better acquainted, eventually we would have ceased to debate, I firmly believe.” I’ve rarely found Allallt bereft of that same collegiality (albeit the farce remains).

      For just one example, the idea of an academy of moral imperatives wasn’t an “us versus them” battle of the intellectual heavyweights, furthermore defining into narrow terms by a rereading of the message wouldn’t be found as my objective, nor was the message a kind of tool so to caricature the irreligious as humourless automata how that Allallt imagined. Rather than the above my example worked as merely an exercise in how upon the atheist’s behalf I could ascribe objectivity to their claim to objective morals. “In what way am I to read objectivity into their view?” was my purpose in proposing an academy. I’d began the example by: ‘Finally answers to the sense in which “objectivity” has affirmation in the secular world-view are being highlighted,’ and practically bookended by way of writing: ‘There’s “objectivity” only in that yes there’s indeed an optimal way to not shoot someone, yes, there’s an optimal way in which not to starve, yet,’ The immediate literary context was crystal clear. My intentions couldn’t have been further from some of the imaginings of the above article. Likewise the question with regards to children and suffering wasn’t about castigating anybody, least of all the person having to make the difficult choice, rather my intention was to point to the sorts of behaviour which would or could be classed as “moral” under such an unusual system of supposedly objective morality, whereas in the Christian perspective the entire thing wouldn’t be moral, rather such would be evil, even gratuitous evil, something atheistic morality again cannot countenance. There’s simply no evil in an unbeliever’s world-view, there are simply behaviours which may or may not go against the subject’s best interests (though often of no interest to the subject), physically speaking. My heart goes out to Allallt that he might review again the content of our discussion so to gain a fuller grasp of what has been shared.

      1. I don’t go searching for things to comment on, but if they “pop up” in my email, I certainly become involved. I’m not quite sure what causes the ones which pop-up to pop-up, but I suspect that in the process of replying to and following one, I am signed up for more from the same source. Which usually works out pretty well.

    2. If you have the patience, the full discussion is in the comments below here. As you can imagine, I somewhat take umbrage with OSC description recounting, but I think providing the source material would be better than arguing with him. I was constantly invited to follow him down a different rabbit hole, as you’ll see, and as such got into no real conversation at all.

      The Academy comment is here, in the same thread, if you’re a little more pressed for time…

  4. I am a Christian (engineer) who accepts theistic evolution, which includes the following: a Creator, a universe that is approximately 13.8 billion years old, a Big Bang, matter and anti-matter canceling each other out leaving a infinitesimally small amount of matter which turned into bosons, …single cell amoebas, Hominids and the Son of God taking on the human evolved form to be the Savior of the world.
    God never intended for us to be perfect. He created a setting where we could trust Him and His love. We have decided otherwise since the beginning of God’s conversation with us. That conversation is ongoing.
    In fact God made the conversation possible by giving us hominids consciousness that other evolved species do not have. It is a consciousness that goes way beyond an animals’ Amygdala which determines possible threats. It is a consciousness that can create a dread in us that our life has not been lived with purpose or without love. No atheist or evolutionist can create a consciousness out of DNA.
    “Human sacrifice is so contrary to human moral sensibilities.” How does material DNA know what moral sensibilities are (and then invoke them here) without a human consciousness given to us by God? And, truth is not trial and error evolution. Truth is not consensus. Truth is not what my friends allow me to get away with. There is absolute truth. It exists outside of our minds. And your consciousness understands that there is an absolute reference point. We use subsets of absolute truth in the hard sciences. If we didn’t chaos would ensue, just as has happened in or culture, a culture which has largely abandoned the Creator-Truth Giver.
    How do we know that Eugenics and abortion are crossing a line?
    Rather, it is Gods’ own sacrifice that is so contrary to human moral sensibilities.
    Anyway that is my two cents. Some posts from my blog:

    1. Asking how DNA knows of moral sensibilities might seem like a pertinent question, but you can swap out ‘moral sensibilities’ for more base sensations, and still not have an answer: how does DNA know what hunger is? How does DNA know what pain is? There’s no answer (because that’s not how knowledge works) and yet you already concede natural explanations to these. So, as profound as the aesthetic of your question appears, I have to wonder what your point is.
      Indeed, it gets worse for your implied argument: other primates have shown a propensity to consider fairness. So moral sensibilities that extend further than determining threats is evident in some of our cousins.
      To me, at least, this raises some interesting questions about what you believe about consciousness. Clearly it is not some binary thing, it exists in gradations. Dogs have been seen performing acts of self sacrifice, and primates seem to ponder fairness at a meta cognitive level. Interestingly, those more genetically similar to us seem closer to us in moral sensibilities. Whatever the reference point is, genetics do seem to be able to pick out trends.
      But even that begs the question slightly. What if there is no more reference point, but a direction? No absolute; just the possibility of progress?

  5. How do you know what progress is or that someone or something is being sacrificial? What yardstick are you using? And if there is only constant mutation in a unspecified direction then how is progress to be defined without a reference point?

    I submit that what we understand is via a God-given consciousness that informs what you perceive (and ask). Your DNA provided senses and your senses communicate to your consciousness. Your consciousness then makes decisions, hopefully above an animal level.

    Genesis talks about a life force or soul – Nephesh – that is in humans and higher animals. Your consciousness is intrinsically woven into your humanity human. It was placed in you by God – so that that you could know Him.

    1. I’m confused.

      If life force is equal to soul, and only humans and higher animals have it, how are lower animals “alive”? Or is “life force” not a requisite to be alive?

      What is the dividing line between “higher animals” and “lower animals”? And why are humans allowed to mistreat higher animals?

      If higher animals have souls, are they judged on their behavior? And if so, why are their standards of behavior different from that for humans?

      1. Nephesh has been translated as “living being” and is often equated with having a soul. It is a general term for life force.
        Consciousness varies in degree among higher animals such as apes. Humans have received a higher consciousness from God that allows them to reason (errantly) that there is no God, allows them to abstract thought, to imagine and to make moral value choices.
        You wouldn’t be confused if you had no consciousness.
        And simply mutating from point A to point B, without a God-given consciousness to assess the value, would not result in knowledge of “progress” no matter how many milestones are along the way.
        Telling me that there are milestones of “progress” and that we are constantly evolving into a higher form is arguing from a higher consciousness – an ability that evolution alone cannot provide.
        Value judgments do not come from evolution. Comprehension does not come from evolution. Understanding complex math cannot be derived from evolution.
        Your sensory inputs do generate neuron impulses. They will tell you hot and cold, fear or dread. But, it is a God-given consciousness that enables one to decide from all inputs including intuition and communication with others whether you run and hide or you overcome your fear right then and there and kill the sabre tooth tiger (and whether or not it was God who provided dinner.)

    2. And if there is only constant mutation in a unspecified direction then how is progress to be defined without a reference point?

      What makes you say there are no reference points? There are many in nature. There exists a historically unambiguous universal tendency of design to evolve in a specific direction, and that direction has faithfully produced entities that can move more current farther and faster per unit of useful energy consumed. This is the underpinning Constructual Law. When we replace genes with memes and look at human cultural evolution, one easy-to-see reference point is the reduction of suffering. Another is law and human rights. We can watch the memes spread and refine themselves through time.

  6. See above and:
    Without a consciousness there are no reference points to map out, only infinity in every direction. Reference points would have no meaning.
    You understand that there are reference points because of your God-given human consciousness. And that understanding also means that you can also make moral judgments.

      1. Yes, God-given and not evolved from nothingness.

        I understand that the belief systems of atheism must excommunicate God from truth-seeking. But suggest rethinking that dogma.

        Here is “what I really think”. Beyond accepting theistic evolution and its old earth aging I see truth-seeking science and Christianity as totally compatible. And, as you are aware, both science and Christianity involve human error – including theory and practice. But neither situation affects the veracity of God’s existence, only our concepts of God.

        “Putting flesh” on our concept of God: the resurrection of Jesus is a historical fact; the tomb was discovered empty by eyewitnesses; hundreds of individuals and groups saw Jesus alive; Jesus appeared to believers and unbelievers alike; the original disciples saw Jesus firsthand after the resurrection. There are records of Roman emperors from the same time period.

        There is nothing evidentiary in favor of atheism.

        Here is mathematician Dr. Amir D. Aczel, PH.D. in a radio interview. Dr. Aczel is not a proponent of any religion. He simply posits that science cannot disprove God:

        [audio src="" /]

        I got to get back to work…

      2. Couple of things:
        (1) I was not asking for a definition of ‘God-given’. I was asking for evidence. You just kind of dropped it in.
        (2) The resurrection is a historical fact? Citation needed.
        (3) I don’t give a damn what a PhD graduate says. I’ve met many. Many of them are wrong about topics that relate to their own field but are not exactly their narrow area of expertise. I’ve seen PhD Medical Doctors write books that contradict their own published research.

      3. It does not matter what one particular PhD (Piled Higher and Deeper) says. Science has been unable to detect God so far. This could mean that God is not there, or it could mean that God is not detectable by (current) science. Thus science cannot (currently) prove God exists. God is supernatural, by definition, Science cannot (currently) detect supernatural. Until they come up with a proven supernatural detector which shows there is no supernatural, science cannot prove that God does not exist. And you cannot show you have a detector for something unless you have the something to detect to show the detector works.

      4. And until it is proven otherwise, you’ll believe? I’ve made this mistake before, where you mask your own quite sophisticated and nuanced view behind some trite argument…

      5. Of course, sorry. You’ve mentioned this before.
        Tell you what, come up with a practical definition of supernatural, then we can work on what the detector should be looking for.

      6. In order to define the supernatural, we need to define the natural. Would you agree with this definition:

        The natural is the environment we exist in, can perceive and for the most part, can comprehend. It has 3 physical dimensions, length, width and height, and a time dimension which proceeds forward at a constant rate (although children eagerly awaiting something or bored may disagree with the constant rate claim 🙂 ). Everything contained in the natural follows a set of physical laws which are immutable.

      7. Both “God-given” consciousness and “just happened” are not theories. Not even in the colloquial sense. They’re so ill-define and lacking in explanatory power that I doubt they make the great for conjecture.

      8. Actually, they are theories. Not GOOD theories, of course, but theories none the less. Or if you prefer, SUB theories of the larger theories of how we and “everything” came to be.

        So consider your consciousness. Where did it come from? There are, as far as I know, only three possible answers. The simplistic answer is “it was installed or caused to be installed in us by God (or some other intelligence, which then begs the question of where that consciousness came from)”. That is a theory, by definition (a sub theory of the Theory of Creation). It answers a question of scientific interest, fits the known facts, but cannot be proven or disproved. Then there is the opposite answer of “a series of random beneficial mutations which over eons became consciousness”. Also a theory, by definition (a sub theory of the Theory of Evolution).

        The third answer? “I don’t know”. This is NOT a theory. It is (or should be) a statement of fact.

      9. “fits the known facts” – God installing consciousness (on to pre existing hardware?) fits the known facts? Even if that was the definition of a theory (which it isn’t) you’d have a hard time arguing that consciousness being installed ‘fits the known facts ‘.
        Even the evolution answer is not a theory. An hypothesis, perhaps. Even a well informed conjecture. But not a theory.

      10. OK, not an ideal definition. How about these (from Merriam-Webster):

        – an idea or set of ideas that is intended to explain facts or events (this definition allows for valid and invalid – can be proven incorrect – theories)
        – an idea that is suggested or presented as possibly true but that is not known or proven to be true (this definition does not allow for invalid theories – if it can be proven not to be true, it is not possibly true)

        So, I have a consciousness and don’t know where it came from. A idea which can explain it is “God gave it to me”. This could be true, but cannot be proven to be true. Voila, a theory.

        The Theory of Evolution is NOT a theory? What do you think it is?

        As far as I can tell, it’s a very good theory (idea explaining how “we” came to be), with enough evidence that the smart adherent to the conflicting Theory of Creation considers the possibility that it was the METHODOLOGY of Creation. But unless I’ve missed something, it has not been “proven”, which is the only it becomes a fact instead of a theory.

  7. “God-given” – by logical inference. Nothingness does not give birth to consciousness.
    You will notice that I have used the words “truth-seeking”. When a person “doesn’t give a damn what a PhD graduate says” they have discharged truth-seeking from their belief system. By the same dismissive rationale, why should anyone care what you think? If you “don’t give a damn”, if you pick and choose those things that only match your world view, then you will not arrive at truth but only a small subset of yourself. And citations and evidence mean nothing.

    The resurrection? Here is a good place to start for those seeking truth.

    Thanks. I hope things go well for you.

    1. I didn’t dismiss citations or evidence. I dismissed the musing of PhD graduates. And I gave my reasons.
      Do you care to explain the steps of your logical inference? Because, as it stands, you have some vague allusions that fall foul of, at the very least, the false dichotomy fallacy.

      Lastly, when I asked for a citation “” is not what I had in mind. Perhaps a journal article is available?

      1. You replied immediately to my comment which means you hadn’t read anything offered. You dismissed it out of hand with a form of pseudo-intellectualism. This, my friends, is what the religion of atheism does – it disavows truth-seeking in order to maintain a god-less worldview.

        Good luck on Island 120. Again, I hope things go well for you.

  8. Why would it not fit that description; which does not say anything about a limit on the bigness or smallness of the dimensions. If an additional dimension is found, and it follows the same laws as the rest of our environment, would that not be part of the natural as well? But your question does point out one flaw in the description; the constant rate of movement of time. There is that compression of time at near relativistic speeds which needs to be included, either by adding “except near relativistic speeds” or dropping the constant rate limitation entirely.

      1. It is possible to perceive tiny/far away things with the aid of tools we build which follow the rules of the natural, such as electron microscopes and telescopes. And it is possible for (some portion of) mankind to comprehend quantum mechanics even if I don’t..

      2. We would have to have a device at least part of which was not bound by the laws of our “natural”. Because that is the key to true supernatural (not just misused supernatural as you describe in the linked post). If it obeys the natural laws, it is natural. If it does not obey the natural laws it is not natural (to us) and we can consider it to be “supernatural”. As you say, it would be “natural” to God.

        Note that there are people who have claimed to come back from the “supernatural” and they are generally not believed. Its that whole personal experience thing which can be complete proof to the experiencee but no proof to others. And that is probably as it should be, because people can be mistaken, and people can lie.

      3. I’d go further. Knowing that senses and memory occasionally malfunction, if you have a suitably strange personal experience you can be highly sceptical of that, too.
        I’ve had auditory hallucinations. Because “hallucination” is a better explanation than ‘my grandad isn’t dead’ or ‘people can speak to me from the other side of death’, I believe it was a hallucination.

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