05 December 2008

Dennis Prager: If There Is No God, Part 1

(Note: This is Part 1 in the series started here.)

Dennis Prager’s Point #1:

Without God there is no good and evil; there are only subjective opinions that we then label "good" and "evil." This does not mean that an atheist cannot be a good person. Nor does it mean that all those who believe in God are good; there are good atheists and there are bad believers in God. It simply means that unless there is a moral authority that transcends humans from which emanates an objective right and wrong, "right" and "wrong" no more objectively exist than do "beautiful" and "ugly."  (Note 1.)

It’s hard to find a more clear example of religionists conceding all philosophical ground to the subjectivists.  

Let’s reduce the two positions to their essences and compare:

The subjectivist position is that there is no natural basis to distinguish between good and evil. 

The religious position is that there is no natural basis to distinguish between good and evil... but there is a supernatural reason to do so. 

Notice that these alleged intellectual foes completely agree on the fundamental point: that there is no distinction between good and evil in the natural world.  Mr. Prager states clearly that were it not for the existence of God - a God that has no height, length, or breadth, no weight, no location, no color, no temperature, no energy; a God that recedes precisely and in lock step with the advance of inquiry; a God that has never been seen and by definition cannot be seen, yet is credited with every happy chance while misfortune is attributed to his “mysterious ways”; a God to whom a man who would not purchase an apple without first examining it nevertheless surrenders his mind; a God who is so obviously a creation of poets and scholars and tyrants, who so resembles the heroes, kings, and monsters that listeners and readers crave and storytellers from time immemorial have passed down to us; a God that is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, in everything yet outside the universe; in short, a God that exists because his existence is impossible - were it not for this God’s existence, all good and evil is merely subjective opinion.

A subjectivist could hardly refrain from bursting into applause when seeing Prager’s logic.  “You are making my point, my friend,” he would say, “and since the condition is clearly absurd, the conclusion is clear: all good and evil is subjective.”

As I said above, the religious conservatives willingly - even enthusiastically - concede all intellectual ground to the modern “liberals” with whom they profess to disagree.  They freely admit that there is no natural or logical reason to be moral.  The only dispute is whether some extra-universal “entity” with no attributes or possible connection to the physical world should serve as the absolute authority over human behavior.  The religionists posit the existence of such an “entity”; the subjectivists do not.

I disagree with their shared premise.  There is a very real reason to be moral.  Every man’s life and happiness depends upon his ability to discover reality, to understand his nature and the requirements of his survival.  Above all, one’s moral code is the very last thing one should surrender to any authority.

For an explanation of an objective morality based in reason, I refer the reader to “The Objectivist Ethics,” the first chapter of Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness.  This excellent volume also contains what is probably my favorite of her essays, “Man’s Rights,” which will be relevant for Part 13 of this series.

(Note: The next installment in the series is here.)


1.  Dennis Prager, “If There Is No God,” http://townhall.com/columnists/DennisPrager/2008/08/19/if_there_is_no_god.


Burgess Laughlin said...

> " . . . I refer the reader to “The Objectivist Ethics,” the first chapter of Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness."

Study Groups for Objectivists is currently reviewing the first half of "The Objectivist Ethics," at the rate of about 3 pp. per week. The next study group, beginning in January, will cover the second half. Studying "TOE" at a slow pace has been very helpful to me.

Burgess Laughlin said...

> "The subjectivist position is that there is no natural basis to distinguish between good and evil. The religious position is that there is no natural basis to distinguish between good and evil... but there is a supernatural reason to do so."

This is a very clear and concise statement of the issue known traditionally in the history of philosophy as the "Is/Ought dichotomy." That is the belief that there is no way to derive ethics ("ought") logically from the facts of reality, that is, nature ("is").

The subjectivists turn inward to retrieve whatever whim emerges; the religionists, who are intrinsicists who think we need to "download" revealed ethics, turn their eyes to heaven. Both agree the Is/Ought gap can't be bridged. But Ayn Rand did it--in the 1960's, in "The Objectivist Ethics."

Thank you for the clear, well-organized presentation of these fundamental issues. I suspect the battle lines are now forming and the "war" between Objectivists and both sides of the various false dichotomies will be public in the next 20 years. It looks like you will be part of it. I wish you well.

Brent Rasmussen said...

Very neatly reasoned! Kudos!

Stephen Bourque said...

Thank you for the comments, Burgess, and thank you for your excellent work with the SGO and on Making Progress.

I am joined in the battle, and it is indeed a war on two fronts - the two fronts being the two sides of the false dichotomy. It's no accident that I chose as my blog avatar Daniel Chester French's sculpture, The Minute Man. I am not a professional intellectual, but when my liberty is threatened, I will grab my musket - that is to say, my pen - and I will join you and others in the front lines.

Stephen Bourque said...
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Anonymous said...

I am confused. I thought you sought to refute Prager's Point #1, but instead you simply ridiculed the idea of God's existence. It is true that, by definition, nothing described as "supernatural" exists in reality (unicorns and ghosts would be good examples). However, it is a circular argument to refute Prager's point by simply denying the existence of God and then claiming that Prager appeals to the supernatural for the source of his morality. If God indeed exists, then He is NOT supernatural. Your diatribe about the presumed absurdity of God's existence does not constitute a refutation of the idea of His existence unless we accept the premise that only observable phenomena actually exist. If we accept that premise, then no disproof of God's existence is necessary. However, your claim that unobservable phenomena do not actually exist is questionable at best. By your standards, medieval thinkers would have been right to deny the existence of atoms or a geoidal earth, since both were unobservable given the technology available at the time. (Please note that I do not claim that we will someday develop technology making it possible to see, smell, taste, hear, or feel God directly.)

Perhaps your argument works when "preaching to the choir" (ha), but it falls short when dealing with those who consider God to be a metaphysical reality. One must show the need to accept only observable phenomena as real before accepting the idea as axiomatic. Otherwise, one is unconvinced why we must exclude the unobservable from metaphysical reality.

To actually refute Prager's idea, one would need to show that a valid and objective morality is ingrained in nature AND that nature does not arise from God (of course, disproving God's existence would suffice for the latter point).

I don't intend to waste time with presenting evidence for God's existence. I'm sure most readers here have seen most of it and have rejected it (although I find it quite compelling). In fact, I would think if one has already arrived at the conclusion that atheism is correct, one considers anything having to do with God irrelevant and disposes with it out of hand, in turn making the idea of addressing the claims of religious people a waste of time. At the most, it would be enough to write, "God doesn't exist (an easy enough theorem to deduce from the axiom that unobservable things don't exist), so the idea that God is the source of anything, including objective morality, is mistaken." Done. Any other assertion that God is the source of anything would be dealt with equally easily.

Stephen Bourque said...

Thank you for the comment, Anonymous. I must disagree with you that I was “simply ridiculing” the idea of God’s existence. I don’t think I was being derisive or insulting at all. (I’ve come to dislike the “New Atheists” like Christopher Hitchens who simply hurl invective about. I certainly do not consider them to be my intellectual allies.) I write passionately but my intent is to criticize, not ridicule. My hope is to reach some minds and elicit a few intelligent comments... like yours.

I am a little surprised by your suggestion that God is not supernatural. Your logic is generally correct: If X exists, then X exists in the universe, and thus X is not supernatural. But of course, X has to exist in the first place for the conclusion to be true. In any case, I’m not stuck on the “supernatural” part anyway; I brought it up only because most believers posit God to be the actual creator of the universe, and thus to be outside of the universe, not subject to its physical laws, etc. I do indeed insist that a supernatural anything is impossible (and you seem to agree), but that is a relatively narrow aspect of my argument.

My broader objection to claims of the existence of God is that such assertions are arbitrary. The onus is upon one who makes a claim to have some rational basis for that claim: direct evidence, inference from evidence, logical deduction, abstraction from other knowledge, etc. There is simply not an iota of reason to posit a God. Period. I do not so much “deny the existence of God” as I reject the statement outright on grounds of arbitrariness. To claim that God exists is “not even wrong,” as the saying goes, which means: it does not even rise to the level of evaluating its truth or falsehood.

I don’t have to prove that God does not exist any more than you would have to prove that unicorns and ghosts do not exist, to use your examples. Acquiring knowledge is a positive, additive activity. It does not consist of of going through life eliminating what doesn’t exist. One must have a reason to think something is true, not the absence of a reason to think that it is false.

I am glad you brought up the point about in medieval times “denying the existence of atoms.” It illustrates my point about the arbitrary while showing that it has nothing to do with mere superstition. When Democritus and others advanced an atomic theory in ancient Greece, it was utterly unjustified. The idea (it cannot even be called a hypothesis) was arbitrary and ought to have been rejected as such at the time. When, some two thousand years later, Lavoisier, Proust, and others inferred the atomic nature of matter by observing the law of definite proportions emerge in their experiments, it was not arbitrary, but based in reason. There is no sense in which we can look back and say Democritus was right.

Incidentally, you have not extracted my position quite correctly. You wrote, “your claim that unobservable phenomena do not actually exist is questionable at best.” I do not claim that “unobservable phenomena does not exist,” nor do I consider it axiomatic that one should “accept only observable phenomena as real.” (For instance, justice is not exactly “observable,” but exists all the same. The particular instances that the concept “justice” subsumes are observable, but the concept itself is an abstraction.)

I do claim that all primary knowledge - all raw material - is obtained from the senses. One builds knowledge inductively first; deduction, abstraction, introspection follow.

I’m running long here in my comment, and it would be difficult to fully elaborate upon this here. Plus I want to attend to the comments that you (presumably) have made on other posts. I’m going to have to defer to other essays - some that I have already written and some for the future. I will say that I am in complete agreement with Ayn Rand on these matters, so if you want to skip ahead to what I consider to be the best imaginable elaboration on these points, I refer you to Atlas Shrugged and her essays in The Virtue of Selfishness. In the meantime, my plan is to continue to flesh out these ideas on my own here on the blog. Again, I thank you for your time and efforts.