Many atheists are perfectly comfortable with confining the notion of value to a mere evolutionary product of the brain which serves to amplify a human’s fitness for survival. But I wonder how many of them have really thought this one through.
People in general are not convinced of a concept of value that ultimately fails to transcend their own thinking. After all, if ‘values’ reflect nothing more than the delusional musings of “bewildered apes” (Chesterton) then let us drop the pretense and live as if values were truly fictional. Even John Lennon in all his “imagining” never imagined such a nightmare.
By “transcendence” of value I have in mind the view that values have a mind-independent reality. An example would be the view that some actions and beliefs are good or evil in and of themselves. Or, if that’s too esoteric, the belief that human life is valuable and would remain valuable even if every last person on the planet quit believing so.
The philosophic naturalist/materialist has a difficult time assigning ‘truth’ to claims of value for the reason that values are not reducible to physical substance, thus they lack any real existence. The naturalist idea is that all the activities of the mind (consciousness, cognition, value judgments, etc.) must ultimately be reducible to mere physiology. Nothing—including thought itself—can fall outside the physical domain.
Here’s the problem in a nutshell: values are either ultimately subject to our personal fancy—attitudes, hormones, biases, etc.—and are thus imaginary, or they reflect mind-independent truths with real existence that is either self-referential (teleological view) or God-referential (theistic view).
The naturalist can say as much as he wants about morals and ethics being obvious to everyone and not dependent on religious teaching to ground them as imperatives, but the rub comes in the actual everyday existence of the individual himself. When faced with a moral issue the materialist can simply disregard such voices of conscience as mere delusions of biology speaking out of turn and go about doing whatever it was he was planning on doing in the first place.
The Christian has no such option. When faced with the issue of, let’s say, adultery the Christian has no wiggle room whatsoever. Adultery is a violation of God’s will—period. Of course the Christian can disregard his conscience just as easily as the materialist, but does so based on outright disavowal of authoritative values good and evil. He cannot play the ‘biological illusion’ game with himself.
In short (and I’ll say it as bluntly as I can), if the naturalist were to live in congruence with the naturalist worldview it would be next to impossible to avoid becoming a psychopath. I argue that materialists, as a rule, are not psychopaths due to the fact that they do not live a life compatible with their espoused theory (thank God). The reality they live, as opposed to the reality they think, assumes the reality of value.
For those who will be angered by this statement, please consider what it means to believe that human life has no value in reality. If you believe humans do have mind-independent value, relax, you’re not a thoroughgoing materialist.
The Christian (and here I speak for Orthodox Christians, since I realize the category ‘Christian’ is quite broad) is called to live life according to the righteousness of God. This, of course, is impossible to do without failing continuously along the way. However, the Christian does not thereby live in contradiction; rather the call to live righteously is a life of faith that entails continual striving for virtue, repentance, humility, and love for God. Contradiction only occurs if the Christian believes he can both eat at “the table of demons” and “the table of the Lord,” to use St. Paul’s analogy.
I could write much more on this topic, but I feel that addressing some of the more common objections from naturalists might go a long way. I will cover three that I encounter the most (some of which were already touched on) and will address whatever else may come up in comment posts later.
(1) A God-hypothesis is not necessary to account for moral and ethical values. Evolution has already explained the appearance of value in our minds.
For the sake of argument, let’s agree that the above is true; let us imagine that moral and ethical values are built into our DNA (so-to-speak) and can be fully accounted for by evolutionary processes at work in human development over the ages; that humans are endowed with a sense of altruism via survival-trait influences. Even if one dismisses a God-hypothesis there is no conceivable way to ground morals and ethics in evolutionary processes with any sort of seriousness. At base this leaves the idea of values as still being mind-dependent imaginations subject to change with each new subject (person) in control of such dispositions. An internal motivation to benevolence does not equal an imperative to act. At best one can only say he is biologically oriented to do good to his neighbor, but since such orientation lack ultimate moral authority his actions are wholly subject to whatever he decides is good.
(Extra things to consider: Any evolutionary account of the place of reason presupposes reason’s validity and cannot confirm it without circularity (Nagel). For example, if one proposes that thoughts are fully accounted for by biological processes, yet one can only know this according to biological processes, then the notion is hopelessly question-begging. Similarly, one cannot confirm logical inference by using the hypothesis that evolution has selected our logical thought processes for their accuracy.)
(2) There is no reason to believe that values need to be mind-independent. Humans are “gigantic lumbering robots” (Dawkins) and have no actual value. Indeed, “the notion that human life is sacred just because it is human life is medieval” (Peter Singer).
I’m double dipping a bit here, but the trouble with this line of thinking is that no one really believes it (minus the psychopaths as noted above). If belief can be measured in the degree to which one appropriates his ideology to his actual life, and not just his phantasmal existence as pure reason, then I’ve literally never met an atheist who believes that they only do and say whatever the total-system determines for them to do and say. For example, no one believes that their love for their children or spouse is a biological illusion, or that their life has no meaning beyond survival and reproduction (which is meaningless in that no organism ultimately survives anyway), or that any of their deeply held beliefs are a matter of mere physiology, mechanically determined through a great chain of cause and effect stretching back to the Big Bang. And if one did believe his thoughts were nothing more than physical determinism at work and not that of free-agency then there is no reason to believe one’s thoughts are true (please see my other article here for more on this). Under this notion, thoughts need not track with so-called ‘truth’ so long as they track merely with biological events that just so happen to be happening in their brain.
(3) Our thoughts of value need not be a matter of material reductionism; they are simply emergent properties of the mind.
The emergent answer appears to handle the dilemma with sophistication and put an end to the speculation, but in fact it adds endless speculation and fails to move the ball downfield in any meaningful way. The problem with claiming emergence is not that it is not a viable alternative to reductionism. The problem is that it is not explainable in scientific terms. The best one can say is that a complex system interacting with another complex system somehow produces the mind which produces the sense of value and everything else that goes with it, but this is essentially no different—or at least not incompatible with—a theistic claim. A Christian could just as easily say that the mind is an emergent property of the brain interacting with another complex system, i.e., the Logos of God, and through that interaction value becomes known. This is of course an unacceptable conclusion for the naturalist in that it is not a “scientific” explanation, but again, as it stands, the naturalist version of emergence lacks scientific explanation as well. But beyond all this, it still does not raise value to anything north of arbitrary human disposition.
Of course the assumption of this article is that the good majority of humanity simply doesn’t buy the proposition that values are biologically manufactured concepts with no correspondence to reality. High flying scientists and academics may be satisfied with materialism on this count and turn their noses on humanity, but the average person who is not caught up in academic group-think (the likes of which is disobeyed only at the peril of one’s reputation as a “thinker”), wholeheartedly discards it. The trouble for materialism comes when it attempts to break out of its textbook and enter the real world. When it does it runs up against real, living, existing human beings who simply know that they are not the measure of all things and that value transcends their own thinking. It is for this reason that a naturalist/materialist-informed atheism is “on the ropes” as a viable worldview for humanity at large.
Thanks for reading.