Atheism’s Truth Dilemma

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Atheism’s Truth Dilemma

One of my favorite arguments for God’s existence is the Moral Argument, and a hopefully novel offshoot of that argument is one that I wish to present here, and which, quite honestly, I like slightly more than the Moral Argument. And I call this related argument the “Truth Argument” (TA).

Now one of the reasons that I prefer the TA over the Moral Argument is that many opponents of the Moral Argument can, as an intellectual defense against it, simply embrace moral nihilism and thus deny the objectivity or absoluteness of certain moral rules and duties. And while these people never really act as if moral nihilism is true, they nevertheless do embrace moral nihilism as an intellectual defense against the rational force of the Moral Argument. Think, for example, of such individuals as Alex Rosenberg or philosopher Joel Marks, both of whom simply contend that God does not exist and thus that moral nihilism is true (see Rosenberg’s “The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality” and Mark’s “An Amoral Manifesto” for details). And again, while this intellectual denial of certain absolute moral norms and duties is never really practiced in reality, such individuals do vocalize this point of view, and thus they present the façade of having a quick and easy intellectual objection to the Moral Argument itself. And while I think that this intellectual objection is absurd given the fact that certain absolute moral rules and duties (such as that it is absolutely wrong to torture an infant for fun and that all human beings have an absolute duty to do our utmost to stop such as incident from occurring if we ever see it) are astronomically more certain than, for example, any claim that science tells us or the claim that matter exists, it is nevertheless the case that this intellectual act of affirming moral nihilism as a strategy against the Moral Argument does come into play almost immediately whenever the Moral Argument is presented. And this is where the Truth Argument can enter the picture, for the TA uses premises that opponents of theism often, and even righteously, affirm, and which would be very difficult for them to deny. Not only this, but if the unbeliever opposes the premises implicit in the TA, then he removes from his worldview any objective means to castigate others for believing worldviews which he claims are false. In this way, the TA puts the unbeliever in a serious dilemma. On the one hand, if the unbeliever affirms the premises of the argument, then he has good reasons to be theist, or at the very least, he has good reasons not to be an unbeliever. On the other hand, if the unbeliever denies the premises in the argument, then he has removed any objective reason that he might have had to rail against people holding beliefs which to him are false. Either way, the unbeliever, be he just an atheist or an atheistic-naturalist, faces a dilemma when it comes to the issue of truth and truth-seeking.

Now, in terms of its structure, the TA parallels the Moral Argument. As such, the Truth Argument is presented as follows:

Premise One: If God does not exist, then, for human beings, an objective (absolute) purpose and duty to seek out and believe truth over falsehood, as well as an objective (absolute) duty to follow the evidence wherever it leads, as well as an objective (absolute) duty to proportion our non-basic beliefs to our level of evidence, does not exist.

Premise Two: But, for human beings, an objective (absolute) purpose and duty to seek out and believe truth over falsehood, as well as an objective (absolute) duty to follow the evidence wherever it leads, as well as an objective (absolute) duty to proportion our non-basic beliefs to our level of evidence, does exist.

Conclusion: Therefore, God exists.

Now, in reference to Premise One, I think that a strong case can be made that on atheism, this premise is true. And this fact is affirmed by numerous non-theists themselves, who routinely tell us that absolute / objective purposes and duties for human beings do not exist given atheism, or, more specifically, given atheistic-naturalism. And indeed, on atheistic-naturalism, it is hard to see how such duties could exist. After all, on atheistic-naturalism, reality is ultimately nothing but matter in motion, and matter in motion does not create objective / absolute duties or purposes, and so on atheistic-naturalism—the most popular and arguably most coherent form of atheism—a duty to believe the truth over falsehood simply does not exist. And indeed, you cannot derive an objective or absolute ‘should’—which is what a duty is—from an ‘is’, which is all atheistic-naturalism offers you, at least from an objective sense. And so, as stated, Premise One is readily defensible.

Thus, it is Premise Two that is the key premise of the argument. But note, if the unbeliever denies this second premise, then he can never—apart from his own personal subjective preferences—claim that we should all follow the evidence wherever it leads, or that we should believe truth over falsehood. Indeed, as an illustrative example of what would happen if this second premise is denied, consider a staunch “Blind-Watchmaker” Darwinist who nevertheless denies this premise. Such a Darwinist could thus never claim that an Intelligent Design proponent was doing anything objectively incorrect by denying the truth of Darwinism. In fact, if the Intelligent Design view became the dominant view, the Darwinist might express his subjective displeasure at this fact, but he still could not claim that people were somehow objectively incorrect or negligent in believing Intelligent Design over Darwinism. And yet the defenders of Darwin repeatedly tell us that we need to believe in Darwinism over Intelligent Design precisely because the former is true and the latter is not. So the very actions of such people show that they affirm the second premise of this argument. And this is the second key point in support of this particular premise: namely, that the vast majority of unbelievers do affirm this critical premise. After all, how often do we hear from the unbeliever that we must follow the evidence wherever it leads, no matter how harsh the outcome might be? And how often are we told by the unbeliever that we should believe extraordinary claims only if we have extraordinary evidence for the claim in question, thus implying that we have some type of objective duty to proportion our beliefs to the evidence for them. Thus, it is indeed the case that unbelievers often pronounce their adherence to something-like the second premise in their discussions with theists, which means that it would be rather hypocritical of them to deny this idea just because it is being used in an argument against their position.

Furthermore, think of what occurs with science or the process of justice if Premise Two is denied. Science and our courts depend on the idea that humans, and especially humans engaged in those endeavors, have an objective duty to pursue the truth, and to pursue it above other considerations, and so numerous aspects of our society implicitly accept such a premise, thus making its denial difficult.

Yet perhaps the most damning thing that occurs if the unbeliever denies the truth of the second premise is that the unbeliever loses any ability to claim that theists or religious believers are somehow irrational for holding to the views that they hold to. After all, rationality is purpose and duty dependent, and thus if there is no objective or absolute duty or purpose to seek out and believe the truth, and if the theist thus has some other purpose than the latter as his primary purpose, then the unbeliever truly does lose any ability to claim that the theist is irrational. Consider: maybe the theist’s primary purpose in life is to feel good, and maybe theism makes the theist feel better than atheism does, and thus, since the theist has no objective duty to believe truth over falsehood (if the second premise is denied), then the theist is eminently rational in holding to theism over non-theism regardless of where the evidence points or what the truth of the matter is.

We can thus see that denying the truth of the second premise does indeed come with serious consequences for the individual who decides to do so. And, in particular, for the unbeliever, who so often proclaims his belief that we should all follow the evidence wherever it leads and that we should believe truth over falsehood no matter how harsh the truth might be, one of the main dangers in denying the second premise is to expose his hypocrisy for all to see.

Now, note as well that the argument can also be modified slightly to make it even stronger. And the way that this would be done is by arguing that we, as humans, not only have an objective duty to believe truth over falsehood, and to follow the evidence wherever it leads, and to proportion our non-basic beliefs to the evidence that we have, but also that these are, in fact, our primary non-moral duties. So not only are these things duties that objectively exist and which we must fulfil, but they are our primary duties. And now, the reason that this modification makes the argument even stronger is because on atheistic-naturalism, the way that human beings came to be was through a process of blind evolution; but the focus of such a process is survival and reproduction, not truth. And so, on atheistic-naturalism, if we can be said to have any sort of objective duty to fulfil, it would be to survive and reproduce, even at the cost of believing certain truths. Thus, on atheistic-naturalism, if we could, for the sake of argument, have a primary non-moral duty, the most natural one given atheistic-naturalism would be to survive and reproduce, not to believe what is true. And lest a person try to argue that believing what is true is also what will help us survive and reproduce the best, it can be noted that religious belief, which atheists consider false but which is very evolutionarily advantageous—after all, you do not see many secular families with children in the double digits, but you do see that with very religious families—is one big objection to such a claim. And there are, in fact, many more examples which could be offered to show that believing what is truth is not always the best for survival and reproduction.

Thus, in the end, we have seen that both the original first premise and the modified first premise are very plausibly true. Next, the second premise is often affirmed by unbelievers, who are the key target of this argument. Furthermore, it is clear that if the unbeliever denies the truth of the second premise, then they put themselves in a position that either exposes them as intellectual hypocrites or seriously weakens their own position in general terms.

Finally, it should also be noted that a modified form of this argument can be offered. And while this modified argument is weaker in terms of its objective, which is to put the atheistic-naturalist in an overt dilemma rather than to argue for God’s existence, it is also an argument which is arguably easier to defend. And so this modified argument, rather than being a direct argument for the existence of God, is instead an argument which can be used to defeat atheistic-naturalism. And this modified argument can be presented as follows:

Premise One: To be a rational, coherent, and consistent atheistic-naturalist, an atheistic-naturalist—given all the points above and the various arguments from atheistic-naturalists themselves—should deny, or at best be agnostic about, the fact that human beings have an objective (absolute) purpose and duty to seek out and believe truth over falsehood, as well as an objective (absolute) duty to follow the evidence wherever it leads, as well as an objective (absolute) duty to proportion our non-basic beliefs to our level of evidence.

Premise Two: But it is absurd for a person to deny or be agnostic about the fact that human beings have an objective (absolute) purpose and duty to seek out and believe truth over falsehood, as well as an objective (absolute) duty to follow the evidence wherever it leads, as well as an objective (absolute) duty to proportion our non-basic beliefs to our level of evidence. After all, for all intents and purposes, our courts, the sciences, and numerous other human endeavors all depend on the existence of such a duty, and we all speak and act, in our daily lives, as if such a duty exists, so it is absurd to deny the existence of such a duty or be agnostic about it.

Conclusion: Therefore, the atheistic-naturalist either positively affirms the existence of a truth-seeking duty, but is irrational for doing so so long as he holds to atheistic-naturalism, or else the atheistic-naturalist does not affirm the existence of an objective-truth seeking duty and thus embraces absurdity, which is itself irrational. Either way, the atheistic-naturalist is between a rock and a hard place when it comes to being rational.

And so, the long and short of it is this:  the issue of truth, and whether or not humans beings have an actual objective and overriding duty to seek the truth come what may, presents a serious problem for the unbeliever, for the unbeliever’s worldview—usually some form of atheistic-naturalism—does not have the resources to necessary to account for the existence of such a duty, or, at best, makes belief in the existence of such a duty uncertain; and yet, at the same time, it is absurd to deny the existence of such a duty. So, either way, the unbeliever is in a dilemma. Furthermore, if the unbeliever denies that human beings have an objective duty to believe truth, the atheist must thus refrain from criticizing—apart from criticizing it subjectively, much like someone criticizes someone else’s choice of ice cream—any religious believer’s maintenance of his religious belief or that religious believer’s attempt to push his belief into the public square.

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Anno Domini 2016 12 10

Non nobis Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam

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One thought on “Atheism’s Truth Dilemma

  1. To get right into it, I have a bit of a problem with premise 1. I agree that there is no objective purpose or duties concerning believing truths, following the evidence a.s.o. but I don’t see how the existence of God would provide any of this. If God exists and is a person (which seems to be the claim) then God’s views on the matter are, by definition, personal (i.e. subjective). To claim that purpose and duties provided by God are objective simply means that you’re arbitrarily elevating God’s subjective opinions by slapping the label “objective” on them.

    This objection is probably periferal to this discussion, though as I definitely disagree with premise 2 and, consequently, with the conclusion.

    So now, according to your argument, I’ve put myself in a position where I can never “claim that we should all follow the evidence wherever it leads, or that we should believe truth over falsehood”. Well, I certainly can’t say that we should do these things because we have an objective duty to do them – but so what? I get the same sense from the Truth Argument that I get from the Moral Argument from which it’s derived. Both arguments seem to be suggesting that either there are objective morals/purpose/duties or anything goes. This is obviously false.

    If there are no objective duties to follow the evidence or believe truths, does this mean there are no consequences to not following the truth or to believing falsehoods? Of course not. Reality is what it is and we deny it at our peril. We are not accountable to any objective duties but we are, ultimately, accountable to each other. As long as your beliefs don’t affect anyone else, that’s fine but if you start acting on them and enough people find your behaviour harmful, there will be consequences.

    Concerning the Intelligent Design proponent, he doesn’t have any objective duty to believe anything in particular but if he doesn’t follow the evidence, he is less likely to produce any usable scientific results – and results is the only thing that could make ID the dominant view. The criticism the ID movement is receiving from mainstream biologists isn’t due to any objective duty but due to the fact that the ID results don’t match the rhetoric. Less talk, more lab work is what the ID movement needs if they want to make any kind of scientific impact.

    You write: “Science and our courts depend on the idea that humans, and especially humans engaged in those endeavors, have an objective duty to pursue the truth, and to pursue it above other considerations, and so numerous aspects of our society implicitly accept such a premise, thus making its denial difficult.”

    It may very well be that the people working in science and the courts feel an obligation to pursue the truth but I don’t see that this comes from some abstract objective duty. Rather, the source of this feeling of obligation is the awareness of the negative consequences of not pursuing the truth. Science fills two basic needs: on the one hand, our curiosity which compels us to find new knowledge and on the other hand our desire to use this knowledge to improve our lives. The fact that scientists, on the whole, tend to pursue the truth isn’t due to any objective duty but to the fact that following the evidence is the best way to get the desired result: new knowledge and the potential of using this knowledge to improve our lives. Of course, there are many motivating factors at work here: research grants, positions at prestigious universities, patents for commercial applications, peer recognition etc. but it all comes down to producing usable results – and following the evidence tends to be the best way to achieve this.

    As for the courts, they also fill a basic need: our desire to live in a safe, functioning society. People tend not to relish the idea of being murdered, beaten or robbed so it’s hardly surprising that we’ve devised institutions to deal with people who hurt others. If the professionals involved in the process feel an obligation to pursue the truth, it’s not due to any abstract objective duty but due to their awareness of the very real negative consequences of not pursuing the truth.

    According to your essay, the most damning aspect of the argument is that if I deny the 2nd premise I lose “any ability to claim that theists or religious believers are somehow irrational for holding to the views that they hold to”. Granted, I can’t refer to any objective duty (since I don’t think any such objective duties exist) but I most certainly can voice my subjective opinion on the matter. As long as people’s beliefs don’t have an effect on other people’s lives, there’s no problem. However, if you act on your beliefs and enough people find your actions harmful, their subjective opinions will lead to consequences for you, either legal or social (or both).

    I realize I’m repeating myself here but this is really my main counter-point to your argument: we are not bound by any objective duties but we are bound by reality. One obvious aspect of reality is the laws of physics – you can hold the belief that you can fly but if you act on this belief by jumping off a tall building, there will be consequences. A more subtle aspect of reality is the fact that you’re sharing it with other people who may not believe as you do. You can disregard this and say that it’s just their subjective opinion (which it is) but if most of the people around you are of the subjective opinion that you’re harming them by acting on your beliefs, then there will be consequences. This, I believe, is what has always guided human behaviour: not any objective purpose/duties/morals but our subjective opinions and the consequences of clashing with other people’s subjective opinions. This clash of opposing subjective opinions is certainly what drives the democratic process which ultimately provides the guidelines (i.e. laws) that we live by.

    You make the argument that religion is beneficial for survival and reproduction, pointing to religious families having more children than secular families. I would say that a stronger correlation can be made between family size and living conditions than with religiosity. In poor countries, life is precarious and having many children is an insurance policy that there will be someone around to care for you when you get old. The clear trend world-wide is that as living conditions improve, family sizes diminish. BTW, did you know that Iran (a country so religious it’s a theocracy) is currently facing a population crisis? Iranian women give birth to, on average, 1.9 children – which means Iran’s population is effectively stagnating and will eventually start to decrease if the trend continues.

    Finally, I don’t think the modified version of your argument is any more compelling than the original one. You state that it’s absurd to deny that there are objective purposes and duties concerning truth and evidence but I don’t think you’ve made that case. For every instance you can point to where people pursue truth and follow evidence, I can point to a deeper underlying reason that doesn’t involve any objective duties: the inescapable fact that our actions have consequences.

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