Luke Nix argues that atheistic moral realism (the view that there are moral facts) is impossible because atheistic evolution wouldn’t make it possible to know the truth about anything other than the empirical (observable) world. I will defend atheistic moral realism and object to his argument by saying that (a) atheism does not necessarily require empiricism and (b) empirical moral realism can be consistent.
Note that “atheistic moral realism” is compatible with God—it merely means that God doesn’t directly intervene in the world to bring about moral reality. That means the argument that moral realism requires God might be false, even if God exists. When I defend “atheistic moral realism,” I am defending what I see as the most plausible form of moral realism, even if God exists. I am not merely trying to make sense of moral realism as an atheist.
Luke Nix’s Argument
Luke Nix says, “I would like to point out that atheists are required to give up either absolute, objective morality or consistency in order to maintain their atheistic belief.” He basically argues that atheistic evolution would make it impossible for us to know moral facts:
[A]theists cannot explain their drive for finding consistency between what they know to be true intuitively and what they find to be true by their observations. Not only that, since natural selection operates based on survivability (vs. truth) they cannot establish that what they know to be true intuitively or what they observe to be true, are even true, themselves. Theists can explain all this without stretching their worldview one iota.
What exactly does this mean? He admits that atheists can provide consistency concerning “the physical world (the world of empirical observation)” Apparently Nix thinks that evolution can provide us truths concerning the physical world because it gave us the five senses to observe the physical world, but he doesn’t think we can know anything about morality—because morality isn’t part of the physical world. The nonphysical parts of reality can’t be known through evolution alone because we would only evolve the ability to do what is necessary to survive, and the ability to know moral facts wouldn’t be necessary to survive. (Morality requires us to be altruistic sometimes, after all).
We can formulate Nix’s argument as the following:
- Atheistic evolution requires empiricism.
- Empiricism can’t account for moral realism.
- Therefore, either (a) atheistic evolution is false or (b) moral realism is false.
This argument is logically valid, but we don’t know the premises are true. I find both of the premises to be unjustified assumptions.
Luke Nix actually does not use the word “moral realism” but I think it’s a better word to use than “objective morality” because the word “objective” is too ambiguous. The word “absolute” is also ambiguous, but there is a sense that moral realism always supports “absolute moral facts” insofar as these facts aren’t “a matter of opinion” and there are true conceptual moral facts that are “always true.” It’s always true that “all things equal, you shouldn’t torture children.”
1. Atheistic evolution doesn’t necessarily require empiricism.
Nix argues that evolution alone wouldn’t enable us to know anything nonphysical (or abstract). We know about logic, mathematics, and morality—and I agree that we don’t know these things from empiricism alone. However, I disagree that conceptual knowledge would be impossible given atheistic evolution.
First, conceptual knowledge can give us a reproductive advantage. (a) It seems like a really bad idea to have contradictory beliefs, so logic is important. (b) It seems like a good idea to know how numbers apply to the physical world. A longer distance means more resources will be required to make the trip. Although moral knowledge might not give me a reproductive advantage, conceptual knowledge certainly does.
How does conceptual knowledge apply to morality? I know that pain is intrinsically bad (bad just for existing) and I know it’s wrong to make someone have intrinsically bad experiences (without a very good reason to do so). These are all “conceptual truths” because they abstract away from concrete reality and various situations we can encounter. In fact, it’s a conceptual truth that (all things equal) it’s wrong to drown someone in a deep pit of spaghetti even though such a deep pit of spaghetti might never exist.
Conceptual knowledge is something everyone wants to account for—including empiricists. However, some people think that something like Platonism is necessary to fully account for conceptual knowledge. Even if this is true, it’s not entirely clear that Platonism is incompatible with atheistic evolution (or atheism in general).
Second, not everything we evolve is a reproductive advantage. Evolution doesn’t only produce what is advantageous to survival and nothing else. For example, our minds might not be “necessary” to have a reproductive advantage. We have minds and the fact that we could evolve minds could be a fortuitous fact involving the brains that were eventually evolved. The laws of nature seem to be what gives us minds based on the fact that we have brains, but it’s theoretically possible to evolve advantageous behavior without a mind. We could have merely evolved seemingly intelligent mindless behavior similar to how we can program computers to do seemingly intelligent mindless behavior.
Why did we evolve minds? One, because the first brain-like nervous systems that evolved were already advantageous before they (probably) gave anything a mind. Two, the fact that certain brains produce minds is explained because of natural laws. Three, it might be more “efficient” to evolve a mind rather than a mindless computer program. Four, it might be a free byproduct of complex nervous systems that isn’t actually advantageous to survival.
In other words conceptual knowledge might be something we evolved because it is (a) “efficient,” (b) advantageous to survival, and/or (c) a free byproduct of another advantageous trait.
Three, no one has all the answers. Even if atheistic evolution doesn’t currently have the tools to explain why we have moral knowledge, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for atheistic evolution to ever attain an explanation. It’s an argument from ignorance fallacy to claim “you don’t know why something happens, so your belief is false.” If Nix wants to argue that atheistic evolution and moral realism couldn’t possibly be true, then he would have to prove that all possible forms of moral realism are incompatible with all forms of atheistic evolution—but he didn’t provide that argument.
Imagine if we had to answer every question before knowing that our “theory” might be considered to be plausible. In that case almost no theory would be plausible. Even scientific theories face “anomalies” that have yet to be explained. (There mere existence of anomalies does not disprove scientific theories because many anomalies can be explained away at some point.)
Four, atheistic evolution isn’t up for debate. Even theists should believe in “atheistic evolution.” Evolution is the only plausible theory in biology to explain our existence at this point in time, and God’s intervention in evolution would have dire consequences that are not currently accepted by biologists. “Atheistic evolution” is probably true given our current information, even if atheism is false. (Calling it “atheistic evolution” only means that God is not directly interfering with evolution.)
2. Empiricism and “physicalism” might be able to account for moral realism.
First, empiricists think they can account for conceptual knowledge. Empiricism is considered to be a sufficiently plausible epistemic theory in contemporary philosophy and no one has ever sufficiently discredited it—and empiricsts are very interested in conceptual knowledge. Empiricists think that conceptual knowledge is something like “generalizations.” It’s true that “pain is intrinsically bad” because whenever pain exists, it has the property “intrinsically bad.” We might wonder how an empiricist could know this of all pain—and one possible answer is that all the pain anyone ever experiences confirms the hypothesis “all pain is intrinsically bad” and no experience ever disproves it.1 Perhaps not all pain is intrinsically bad, but certainly most of the pain I have experienced seems like it. For more information, I argued that “pain is intrinsically bad” in my essay “An Argument for Moral Realism.”
Second, intrinsic values might be physical. Intrinsic values attach themselves to other things—such as experiences or consciousness. If nothing exists, then nothing is intrinsically good or bad. If pain exists, then something intrinsically bad exists. Pain exists as part of the “physical world” insofar as our minds are part of the physical world.
One might wonder if our minds are part of the physical world, and it’s quite possible that they are. If so, that merely means that the physical world is more than atoms and energy.
How can we know about thoughts, pain, and minds? We experience them. When I have a thought, I at least sometimes know it. When I experience pain, I at least sometimes experience the pain. When I experience pain, I at least sometimes experience it as being “intrinsically bad.” Other people seem to have thoughts, pain, and minds much like I do for much the same reasons. Having a living brain gives you mind and touching fire gives you pain.
Third, no one has all the answers. Again, we don’t know everything. Empiricists might not know how to fully explain conceptual knowledge yet, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for them to do so.
3. Nix didn’t prove that theistic moral realism is plausible.
Nix is right that there contemporary theories of knowledge, such as empiricism, face difficulties, but he didn’t prove that these theories of knowledge require God. Nix is right that contemporary theories of knowledge haven’t been fully related to evolution, but he didn’t prove that these theories of knowledge would be impossible given atheism or “atheistic evolution.” Nix argues that it’s possible that theism and moral realism to be true at the same time, and I agree.
The question is: Is theism compatible with our “knowledge?” Is theism plausible? So far, I am unconvinced. In order to know that “theistic moral realism is true,” we would have to prove that this theory has a greater justification than the alternatives, and Nix did not prove that. Nix may have proved that there are weaknesses in “atheistic moral realism,” but he didn’t prove that “theistic moral realism has no weaknesses. If theistic moral realism is probably true, then it must have a greater justification than atheistic moral realism.
The question is: Is theism compatible with our “knowledge?” Is theism plausible? So far, I am unconvinced. In order to know that “theistic moral realism is true,” we would have to prove that this theory has a greater justification than the alternatives, and Nix did not prove that. Nix may have proved that there are weaknesses in “atheistic moral realism,” but he didn’t prove that “theistic moral realism has no weaknesses.” If theistic moral realism is probably true, then it must have a greater justification than atheistic moral realism.
Theistic moral realism is not considered to be plausible in contemporary philosophy. Why not? Because we should prefer our theories and explanations to be as modest as possible. To require all the atheists, Buddhists, and Taoists around the world to reject moral realism or believe God exists is not modest by any means. We have reason to believe in moral realism, and it is from evidence other than a belief in God.
Consider that we know that pain is bad, which is why “(all things equal) we ought to give strangers an aspirin when they have headaches.” We know this because we know what it’s like to have a headache, not because we know God hates headaches. If God was used as evidence for moral realism, then we would have to know something like (a) the nature of God and (b) that the nature of God is perfection.
It is immodest to require anyone to believe in God insofar as God’s existence is controversial. Perhaps the main problem is the belief that God is supernatural. Whenever we talk about the supernatural, we are talking about something we can’t examine or test—and something that almost by definition defies our experiences of reality. The “intuitions” people have concerning God have also been proved inconsistent. Many Christians think God must be omnipotent and supernatural, but not everyone agrees with those beliefs.
No one has all the answers, but it certainly hasn’t been proven that atheistic evolution and moral realism are inconsistent. To do so would require us to prove that atheistic evolution and moral realism couldn’t possibly be true at the same time—but to do that would require us to prove every version of moral realism to be incompatible with every epistemological theory compatible with atheism.
I am not saying that “it’s my way or the highway.” It’s not that I have all the answers and everyone has to agree with me. There are serious meta-ethical theories in philosophy all competing right now. However, atheism is compatible with all of the competing contemporary moral realist theories that I know of—including Platonism and intuitionism. (That’s not to say that theism isn’t also compatible with such theories.)
How should we decide what theory to believe in? It’s not an all or nothing decision to make. You don’t have to prove that all theories are impossible except the one you accept. Instead, I suggest that a careful analysis of pros and cons must be assessed. There are multiple positive epistemic traits a theory can have that make it more plausible, and some theories have a better combination of positive traits than another. For more information, see my essay on “Knowledge, Justification, and Theoretical Virtues.” Such theoretical virtues are themselves up for debate and are “contentious.” For example, empiricists will reject self-evidence. However, the alternative of doing philosophy (and trying to decide what theory is “most justified”) isn’t looking good.
The best way to argue for a moral realist theory is not to try to prove that all the alternatives are impossible. That is too ambitious for the reasons given above. Instead, a careful analysis of theoretical virtues in an attempt to prove one theory to be “more justified” than the rest would be much more modest and much more likely to be convincing as a consequence. (For example, theistic moral realism seems to violate Occam’s razor.)
Update (1/26/11): I added a clarification to the introduction, and I clarified the objection, “Is theistic moral realism plausible?”