The Center and Purpose of history, the Creator and Sustainer of all we see, the Author of our faith, wrapped in the flesh of a newborn. Astounding – welcome to our world.
A lovely, even haunting version of this less widely heard Christmas hymn:
In his latest ‘Thought of the Day‘, in which atheist Michael Hawkins offers us his profound wisdom, he makes this statement:
I see no reasoning given as to why good and evil ultimately being subjective also automatically makes them meaningless. The only argument ever put forth is that subjective morality = meaningless. That’s a bad equation.
I am always suspect of someone who ‘sees no reason’ for something, and then goes on to give a reason, however weak a strawman that reason is.
As usual when we parse these sort of statements we have to walk back a bit and ask a few questions – for example, how do we know what evil and good are to begin with? Who gets to say what is evil and good? If evil and good are merely the inclinations of individuals, then why would they be universally considered? What is the relationnship of evil to good?
That last question is the one I think I have always found to be the most misunderstood. Often when we consider the nature of evil, we think of it as having a reality like ‘good’ does – as if there is some list of evil standards which evil adheres to. But in fact this is not the Christian view of evil; it is not the polar opposite of good, but instead the absence of good. In this sense we can compare it to darkness – darkness isn’t a thing in and of itself, but the absence of light.
In the same way, for a Christian, ‘good’ is not merely a set of standards or rules, but proceeds from the nature of God Himself – in other words what is good are actions which are consistent with what God is. This is why the origination of why it is wrong to kill innocents doesn’t come from the commandment ‘Thou shall not kill’, but farther back, where Noah is told murder is a capital crime because man is made “in the image of God.” That is, murder is an assault on the image of God Himself – which is a contrasted with the death of any other living creature. It is an assault on the good.
Understanding evil this way also explains why Jesus was able to sum up the law into two statements – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”, and “You shall love you neighbor as yourself“. All acts of evil are contrary to these two imperatives, because they are absent the love we are to have for God and in every person who incorporates His image.
So the objectivity of evil is a given if we agree that good can exist as an objective standard of behavior. Of course that brings us back to Michael’s argument – that subjective good can have meaning. I would say that obviously it can have meaning to an individual – but I don’t think that matters once you have more than one person in the conversation, i.e. that subjective view of good has no bearing on those who don’t share it. So it has little value (or meaning) beyond informing the actions of the individual who holds to that view of what is ‘good’. So the statement then becomes, subjective morality only has meaning for those who hold that particular standard of morality. That isn’t an argument against subjective morality per se, but it with the following example we can show why subjective morality fails to be generally meaningful.
We can see this by considering a particular idea of ‘good’ held by a particular group, for example that of the Nazi’s. In their purview, it is ‘good to eliminate undesirable persons’. If moral views are subjective, then obviously this view has meaning for the Nazi’s – the problem of course comes for those who hold an alternate view, say, “it is wrong to intentionally kill innocent persons”, which if morality is subjective, would also have meaning only for those who adhere to it.
What then of the inevitable clash that occurs between these two views? The minute we assert one over the other, we assert the objective rightness of that view – and so undermine the notion of a subjective morality. Of course in asserting an objective rightness of a particular view, we revert to the earlier questions I asked in this post – how do we know our view of morality is the objectively right one? Why do I get to say what is right (as opposed to the Nazi’s)? etc.
And of course the Christian has response to this – because what is good is embodied in the nature and existence of a real eternal Creator, who has articulated that good to us in the form that provides a basis for it. One may not agree with that statement, but it provides a rational foundation for asserting the existence objective good – the naturalist has no such basis to offer, other than personal preference, and so the subjective good he claims, while it may have meaning for him, does not allow us to formulate generalized standards of good.
It is in this sense that the idea of subjective good (and evil) fails.
As a Christian I generally don’t feature Barenaked Ladies on my blog, but for Christmas I will make an exception since I like this version of the song so much – which also features Sarah McLachlan – sadly I couldn’t find a performance video with good audio, so the video isn’t much to look at, but still fun to listen to:
In rather bizarre discussion on the Science & Origins site on Crosswalk.com, a poster, who goes by the name ‘Notredame’ has argued that there is no ‘CIS’ evidence for God.
Now it doesn’t seem to matter that no one originally claimed there was such evidence, or that he failed to define what constitutes such evidence, or that CIS evidence is a particular kind of evidence which is limited to a particular setting (like a courtroom) and that the rules that govern such evidence may vary depending on jurisdiction, history, even the particular judge in question; and that even then it can be suspect from a scientific perspective.
I suspect that the introduction of such an odd argument has more to do with the fact that Notredame is a lawyer (or has some legal training) than the fact that it is useful to make a determination about the existence of God – and that he is uncomfortable discussing biology or logic, and so feels compelled to frame it in a way he thinks he can contribute, however obtuse the contribution.
Nonetheless, it does pose an interesting question – what would constitute forensic evidence of a murder (CIS evidence), that is, a death that is the result of intelligence and planning as opposed to a natural death (which could include suicide)?
I think it is helpful to consider an extreme case first. Imagine if you will, a person found in a room who has multiple stab wounds and bullet wound to the back of the head. It is shown through investigation the person died as a result of blood loss from the same wounds. Intuitively, most would consider this a murder – but why? The primary reason is because the alternatives are too unlikely – that is there is no known mechanism by which knives and bullets, themselves products of intelligent design, can cause the death of a person apart from intention; that is that it is too unlikely that multiple stab wounds coinciding with a bullet wound could cause the death of a person. It is in essence a statistical argument that the chance of such a thing happening by accident, or as the result of wholly natural events is so unlikely as to not being worth consideration.
And what is not necessary to proclaim the scene a crime scene is not to know who did it, or why they did it, but merely to be confident that someone must have done it. And it doesn’t matter if the person who did it themselves stabbed and shot the person, or if they devised a clever machine to do the work; the event is still ultimately the product of intention.
Contrast with a 100 year old person with cancer who dies in their sleep at home; there is little reason to suspect foul play, particularly after disease and age are determined to be the only factors. Now obviously there are many cases that lie in-between, but we see the usefulness of the principle.
And such forensic work is effective even thousands of years after the events, as seen with the investigation of the death of the Tollund Man ‘bog body’– even though over time such evidence can degrade. The same logic is applied to scientific investigations – for example when considering the difference between artefact and geofacts, or determining whether a signal is ‘natural’ or of conceivably of alien origin, as SETI attempts to do.
In fact, the most robust scientific statements are those which take the form of a falsifiable statement; that is a statement which can be disproved by simply producing a case to the contrary. We can see this in something like investigations into germ theory by Pasteur, who demonstrated by his experiments that organisms do not propagate by way of spontaneous generation. To disprove Pasteur would be a simple matter – all that would be need is the demonstration of a single case of spontaneous generation. Of course this has never been done, and so Pasteur’s finding stands. In the same way certain forensic evidence would weaken if it was ever demonstrated that bullets and knives could simply find their way into bodies through wholly natural events – of course this has never happened either.
Which brings us to the case Notredame was attempting to argue – that there is no such evidence for the work of God in the natural world. From an intelligent design perspective, we can consider certain structures and systems which exist on the world, both with human technology and in biology; namely information systems and machinery. Indeed, the case is much more robust than that – for what exists in biology are information driven machines capable of sustaining and replicating. Since we can observe the origination of such systems and machinery in human technology and compare them to what we find in biology, we can come up with a falsifiable statement, namely that information system driven machinery only ever results from the work of an intelligent agent. Now this is an eminently falsifiable statement, easily disprovable by showing a case to the contrary – and since this has never been done, it constitutes evidence that the existence of information systems and machinery in biological systems constitutes evidence (either ‘CIS’ evidence, or scientific evidence) for the origination of those living systems.
Now I think there is much evidence beyond this, but this in and of itself is sufficient to establish the case. And furthermore it provides a basis for the truth of the verse being discussed in the same thread:
“For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”
In a recent series on his site, the atheist Jerry Coyne attempts to argue against the existence of God by citing the absurdity of believing in Him in light of the great evils that occur in the world. He cites rather weak arguments made by believing non-theologians have made as evidence that somehow this argument has the power to defeat the existence of God.
This seems to be a regular theme with Coyne. Michael Hawkins quotes him on his site in his ‘Thought of the day’ post as saying:
“Are we really such a weak and cowardly race that we must concoct these silly rationalizations to avoid admitting the obvious: there doesn’t seem to be a God, or at least one who is loving and powerful? Can’t we admit that bad things are simply bad things and not some manifestation of a tortured and incomprehensible divine calculus? When will our species grow up?”
Both points beg the question; one can see this when the argument is laid out as a logically:
1. Evil exists
2. If God existed, He wouldn’t allow evil to exist
3. God does not exist.
Obviously the first assumption is based on some moral system – a system which delineates certain human actions and behaviors as ‘evil’ (or ‘bad things’ as Coyne alls them). I would say this in and of itself defeats the atheist argument before it begins, for if atheism is true, there is no necessarily ‘evil’ behavior, only the behavior that is. One can see this by looking the animal kingdom. For example, chimpanzees, claimed by evolutionists to be our closest living relatives, are known to cannibalize chimpanzee infants, even within their own group . As well, male dolphins, often cited as very intelligent mammals, are known to aggressively coerce female dolphins to mate ; indeed male dolphins will often attempt to mate with non-dolphins species.
All these behaviors amongst humans are considered to be ‘evil’ – even by atheists. And yet, when we consider them amongst other species, we don’t consider them to be evil; why is that? To be considered evil, something must be contrary to an objective idea of ‘good’ – that is a standard by which our actions can be measured. Amongst animals there seems to be no objective measure of this sort; they record no laws, they do no delineate between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ societies, they do not hold up individuals as models of good behavior to emulate. Indeed, there seems to means at all by which there behavior is measured other than it allows them to survive and reproduce.
So when an atheist claims ‘evil exists’ he or she is making a tacit admission that a standard of proper human behavior exists. In other words, that there is a set of behaviors to which we ‘should’ conform. If no such standard exists, then of course the claim that ‘evil’ exists is absurd – we simply behave as we behave, and any claims that our behavior are wrong are mere opinions or illusions. In short, evil can’t exist, and the atheist’s first statement fails, as would the rest of the argument.
Indeed, there is some irony in Coyne’s lamenting question, “ When will our species grow up?” in that it assumes there is some place we ‘should be’, a way that we ‘should’ act, a set of goals that should be achieved that are aren’t at all evident from a wholly naturalistic perspective. Indeed, historically societies that have been intentionally made devoid of a belief in God are invariably are less free, less prosperous, and more deadly than almost any others, and so Coyne’s proscription for maturity seems misled.
Of course, if we believe that evil does actually exist, it has other implications – namely that an objective behavior exists, and we have fallen short of that standard in behaving contrary to it. So the very claim that evil exists is an argument for an objective, external standard of behavior, which of course a theist (or more particularly a Christian) would see as deriving from God. Indeed, Christians call the internal monitor of this behavior our conscience, which all men have, though few (conceivably none) obey.
I will try at a later time to deal with why God allows evil to exist, but I just wanted to point out that atheists lose this argument from the first statement of it.
Well, at least that is how he is known around our house – though he did many traditional Christmas hymns as well, this is his signature Christmas song, and the only one video I have seen of where we can see him actually singing. Get a cup of of egg nog and dress up like an eskimo, and enjoy: