Atheism’s Euthyphro Dilemma: A Dialogue

The Reconquista Initiative


Atheism’s Euthyphro Dilemma: A Dialogue

In the previous essay titled simply “Atheism’s Euthyphro Dilemma”, it was argued that while the theist does indeed have to contend with the standard Euthyphro Dilemma—a dilemma which the theist has a number of ways of answering and which the theist has answered for centuries now—the fact remains that the atheist, or more specifically, the atheistic-naturalist—which is the most popular and coherent form of atheism—has to deal with a similar type of dilemma, but one which is more dangerous to the rationality of atheistic-naturalism than the standard Euthyphro Dilemma is to theism. And while in the aforementioned essay the Atheist’s Euthyphro Dilemma was explained and articulated, the fact is that since the original Euthyphro Dilemma was presented in dialogue form, then, as tribute to this fact, I thought it fitting that the Atheist’s Euthyphro Dilemma should also be presented in the same manner. And so here is the Atheist’s Euthyphro Dilemma in dialogue form:

Richard (the Atheist): …so that is the Euthyphro Dilemma, and there is no way that the theist can get out of it.

Theo (the Theist): Actually Richard, the theist, especially a theist who posits a lower-case ‘g’ god, has a number of strategies to deal with the Euthyphro Dilemma, and so the theist as been able to answer this old dilemma for many years without too much problem. But let’s leave that aside for now. What I want to focus on for a few minutes is the Atheist’s Euthyphro Dilemma.

Richard: The Atheist’s Euthyphro Dilemma? What are you talking about?

Theo: Well, it is a dilemma that the atheistic-naturalist is subject to and which, if not properly answered, essentially renders atheistic-naturalism irrational.

Richard: I’ve never heard of it, so why don’t you spell it out for me.

Theo: Alright. So the Atheist’s Euthyphro Dilemma could be roughly stated as follows: If, at the fundamental level, all that we are, and all that reality is, is just matter-in-motion, as the atheist-naturalist believes, then it is absurd to posit the existence of any absolute moral rules and absolute moral duties on such a view, for immaterial and absolute moral rules and duties do not arise from mere particles banging around. After all, you cannot get a ‘should’ from an ‘is’ no matter how much you try. But, at the same time, if we do not posit the existence of any absolute moral rules or any absolute moral duties—such as, say, the moral rule that it is always and everywhere wrong for a human being to torture another human being purely for personal pleasure as well as the moral duty that every and all human beings, if they see another human being being tortured purely for the personal amusement of another human being, are always and everywhere obliged to at least do something to try to stop this from occurring—then this means that we must believe that in some circumstances, it would be impossible to morally condemn as absolutely wrong a human adult’s torture and rape of an innocent infant purely for that adult’s personal pleasure. But such a view is also an obviously absurd, and thus irrational, belief.

Richard: Wait, so are you trying to say that whatever way the atheistic-naturalist turns, his position is absurd and thus irrational.

Theo: That’s exactly right. If the atheist believes that at bottom, everything is ultimately just chunks of moving matter, and yet he also believes that absolute moral rules and duties exist, then he holds an incoherent and thus irrational position, for how can absolute and binding moral rules and duties—which are, if they exist, immaterial things—arise in a universe that is, at bottom, just matter and energy and combinations thereof. For again, immaterial things, especially of a moral nature, cannot arise from mere combinations of matter. So it’s literally an absurd mix of beliefs. But at the same time, if the atheist denies the existence of absolute moral rules and duties, then he must admit that such things as infant torture and rape, as well as not trying to stop infant torture and rape, are, at least in some potential cases, not objectively or absolutely wrong. And while the atheistic-naturalist may not like such behaviour in a personal subjective sense, he cannot call such behaviour morally wrong in an objective or absolute sense; nor can he claim that we have an actual absolute duty to at least try to stop such behaviour whenever it occurs. And yet this latter belief is also utterly absurd.

Richard: But…

Theo: In fact, and perhaps ironically, via my moral intuition, I have greater certainty that it is absolutely wrong to torture an infant for pleasure than I have certainty that matter actually exists, and so if I believe that matter exists—which the atheistic-naturalist cannot coherently deny—then I have all the more reason to affirm the existence of absolute moral rules and duties as well. Or at least one such moral rule and duty, which is all that I need for this dilemma to have force. So the atheistic-naturalist is, for all intents and purposes, screwed!

Richard: But what if someone denies the existence of such a moral rule and duty like you just mentioned? What would you say to him?

Theo: Well, two points. First, such a person would be a moral monster, which is a problematic enough point on its own. But second, and more importantly, if someone denies the specific moral rule and duty which I hold with such certainty, then it is more likely that the person is cognitively-defective in terms of his moral intuition than it is likely that that particular moral rule and duty is false. Indeed, it is rational for me to treat someone who denies the moral fact that I mentioned like the equivalent of a deaf person; he is, essentially, cognitively-disabled in the moral realm, much like a deaf person is disabled when it comes to hearing sound. And just as the deaf person’s inability to hear sound does not negate the actual existence of sound, so to is it the case that the person’s inability to perceive the moral rule and duty does not negate the actual existence of that absolute moral rule and duty. And indeed, in my assessment, this is the rational stance for me to hold.

Richard: But what does this have to do with God?

Theo: Honestly, at this point, nothing. The argument has nothing to do with God right now, although it could be re-formulated into a stronger version that argues for God’s existence, but that is not the aim right now. Right now, this is just an argument to show the irrationality of atheistic-naturalism, not an argument for theism.

Richard: But what about Christianity or the Bible? After all, you are a Christian, so—

Theo: Again, those have nothing to do with the argument. They are red herrings and are irrelevant at this point, so I am sorry, but I not getting distracted by such unrelated objections.

Richard: Well, fine, so it’s not about God or the Bible. But then getting back to the dilemma, what about our development as evolutionary organisms? Doesn’t that give us a reason to believe, or at least feel, that there are absolute moral rules and duties?

Theo: Hmmm, see, first off, even if we evolved to feel like there are absolute moral rules and duties, this does not mean that these absolute moral rules and duties actually exist. Feelings do not make for objective existence.

Richard: Of course they don’t.

Theo: So that won’t work. But at the same time, there is another reason that appealing to our evolutionary development will not work. Namely, our existence as evolutionary organism may actually give us a reason to do the exact opposite of what we all take to be patently obvious absolute moral rules and duties.

Richard: What do you mean?

Theo: Well, consider the moral rule and duty that I have already argued all rational people know: namely, that it is absolutely wrong for a human being to torture an infant for fun and that we have an absolute duty to at least try to take some actions to stop this behaviour whenever we see it. Or, for a different example, take the idea that incest is wrong and that we have a duty not to do it; and this is a belief that all cultures have essentially had.

Richard: OK.

 Theo: But now think of what would happen if we just looked at the issue from the perspective of an evolutionary organism striving to maximally propagate its DNA.

Richard: Fine.

Theo: Yeah, so think of it as if those moral rules and duties I just mentioned just sort of developed in us as good rules of thumb from an evolutionary perspective because, on the whole, those rules helped human evolutionary organisms to maximize the spread of their genes. But now, consider the fact that while these rules of thumb might be sound in most cases and for most evolutionary organisms, in some cases they may be the absolute opposite of what an evolutionary organism should do.

Richard: What?! What do you mean?

Theo: Well, think about it. As disgusting as it sounds, say that you just happen to be one evolutionary organism who—and I shudder to say this but we have to think about it—only gets sexually aroused by torturing children or by engaging in incest. There are, after all, very deviant people out there. So in such cases, and looking at the issue only from the perspective of being an evolutionary organism, then that evolutionary organism would be perfectly rational in torturing a child or in committing incest in order to enhance its sexual arousal so it could then spread its genes. And this is not even considering how it might also be evolutionarily advantageous to commit other abhorrent and absolutely immoral acts, such as murder or rape. So the evolutionary perspective not only does not give us absolute moral rules and duties, but it actually provides us with a reason to break the moral rules and duties that we all essentially consider absolute to begin with. So appealing to evolutionary biology just isn’t going to do the work that the atheistic-naturalist needs it to do in order to avoid the horns of the Atheist’s Euthyphro dilemma. And remember that I could give many other such examples if I had more time.

Richard: Yeah, well, okay maybe. But what about something like Platonic forms? Couldn’t they provide a basis for absolute moral rules and duties?

Theo: I guess they might, but an atheistic-naturalism that appeals to immaterial Platonic forms seems to be a very strange sort of atheistic-naturalism, doesn’t it? In fact, it almost seems to make atheistic-naturalism so broad that it can accommodate almost anything!

Richard: Well, I can see your point, but couldn’t this be at least one way that the atheistic-naturalist could avoid your so-called dilemma, even if it is a very unorthodox method for the unbeliever to take?

Theo: Let me think for a second…

A short pause.

Theo: I just don’t see it, Richard. After all, even if the Platonic forms could somehow serve as the ground for absolute moral rules, why would I ever have an absolute moral duty to these impersonal forms? I mean, think about it. I have duties to fulfill towards other people, but do I have any duty towards an abstract form of something like “justice”, or the abstraction of “compassion”? Such an idea seems almost unintelligible. So I just don’t see how Platonism is going to help you here, even if you could combine Platonism with atheistic-naturalism in a way that was actually coherent, which I think would be difficult in and of itself.

Richard: Okay, but…

Theo: Anyway Richard, all I’m saying is that it seems to me that the atheistic-naturalist really is in a kind of bind. On the one hand, if the atheistic-naturalist decides to hold to the existence of moral rules and duties that are binding at all times and in all places and in all circumstances—and note what that really means: it means that if we were somehow teleported to the second after the Big Bang, it would still be just as wrong for me to torture a child then as it is for me to do so now—and if the atheistic-naturalist also believes that all of reality is fundamentally just particles moving around, then the combination of these two beliefs forms an overall worldview picture is just incoherent and absurd, for there just does not seem to be any way that matter-in-motion can give rise to anything like immaterial and absolute moral rules and duties. But, on the other hand, if the atheistic-naturalist denies the existence of absolute moral rules and duties then he must, at least in principle, concede that certain actions, such as torturing an infant for pleasure, are ultimately not wrong in the objective or absolute sense, which is itself obviously absurd. So either way the atheistic-naturalist turns, he runs face first into absurdity and irrationality. And so this is the atheistic-naturalist version of the Euthyphro dilemma. And quite frankly, I just don’t see how the atheistic-naturalist can get out of it.

Richard: Well…who caused God then?

Theo: Jeez, Richard, really!


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


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