17 January 2009

Dennis Prager: If There Is No God, Part 4

(Note: This is Part 4 in the series started here.  The previous installment is here. In each post, I comment on one of the fourteen points made by Dennis Prager in his article, “If There Is No God.”)

Dennis Prager’s Point #4:

Human beings need instruction manuals. This is as true for acting morally and wisely as it is for properly flying an airplane. One's heart is often no better a guide to what is right and wrong than it is to the right and wrong way to fly an airplane. The post-religious secular world claims to need no manual; the heart and reason are sufficient guides to leading a good life and to making a good world. (Note 1.)

Is Mr. Prager’s assertion correct?  Do human beings really need instruction manuals?  Or put more precisely: does every man need a guide to his actions, a set of principles by which he may determine what is good or bad, right or wrong?


For other living things, the processes required for survival are automatic functions, requiring no guide whatsoever because there are no options.  The amoeba digests its food automatically.  When a sunflower bends toward the sun, it does so not by choice but by a chemical process.  The thrush finds its remote winter home and the salmon wends its way upstream entirely by instinct.  Even the higher animals that can learn to fly, swim, hunt, or fetch, and occasionally demonstrate remarkably complex behavior, cannot be said to be choosing, at least not in a human way.  (Note 2.)  

All living things - from single-celled organisms to mammals - have values, of course, their lives being the most basic of these.  But in plants and animals, particular values cannot be chosen, nor can the actions that lead to those values.  An animal does not so much pursue his interests as follow them.  Thus, for all but one known species, morality simply does not apply.  The hyena that steals food from its brother deserves no censure; the lion that kills could not have done otherwise.

Not so for a man.  Though he has some basic hardware that functions automatically - his organs, senses, basic body functions, and even some parts of his consciousness - a human being is entirely dependent upon the free operation of his mind.  Sans mind, Homo sapiens is poorly equipped to even survive, never mind flourish.

As a conceptual being with free will, a man must have a guide, a set of principles to direct his actions.  Both of these characteristics of a man - his concept-forming capability and his freedom to operate it - contribute to the necessity of morality.  

Concept formation permits a man to organize and integrate direct perceptual facts (which can be obtained automatically) into abstractions that are not immediately perceivable.  These first-level concepts may be integrated into higher and higher level concepts.  When done properly, it yields a condensation and grasp of reality that is far beyond anything that can be obtained automatically by direct perception.  Without it, we would never have conceived the wheel or plow, never mind the sonnet, symphony, and skyscraper. 

But concept formation is not an automatic function.  (If you don’t believe it, ask any child laboring over her geometry homework.)  Almost every waking moment of his life, a man chooses how to operate his mind, including whether or not he will actively think at all.  This requires effort, an expenditure of energy.  And importantly, concept formation can yield errors. 

This is where morality comes in.  As with any living organism, a man’s most fundamental value is his life, but in the pursuit of values man is different from other creatures.  The particular values that contribute to his life qua man must be chosen, as must the means of arriving at those values.  And for this a man depends upon a faculty that is not automatic and is inherently fallible: reason.  To live, a man must operate his mind properly.  Morality consists of the set of principles a man develops and holds so that he may achieve his values throughout his life.

The fact that using one’s mind requires labor and is inherently fallible is no reason to throw up one’s hands in dismay at the futility of it all (as the subjectivists do) or to relinquish the responsibility of thinking to authorities (as the religionists do).  On the contrary, it is the very reason to make the effort to grasp the universe properly.(Note 3.)  So, even though Dennis Prager and I apparently agree on the necessity of morality, we have very different ideas about what morality consists of and why it is necessary.


There are three phrases in Mr. Prager’s paragraph that require attention.  In two of these instances, it is difficult to tell if his choice of words reflects a simple carelessness or if he is willfully misdirecting the reader.  The frequency of such seemingly innocuous terms in his writing sometimes strains my opinion of his intellectual honesty, but I’ll continue to give him the benefit of the doubt.  It is possible that these are not so much attempts to deceive as they are reflections of his own philosophy. 

The first is very subtle: his referring to one’s moral code as an “instruction manual.”  This metaphor is clever and appealing, but implicitly suggests that the “instructions” for moral behavior were written by someone else and must be heeded whether or not they are understood or even agreed with.  That is, after all, what instruction manuals are: detailed directions from experts, to be followed in order and without departure by the utterly dependent non-expert.  Of course, such a model is completely consonant with Prager’s view that moral behavior consists of unquestioning obedience to scriptural commands.  This is part and parcel of the Judeo-Christian worldview.  And indeed, if one goes looking for a literal “instruction manual” in nature - a complete moral code that is dug out of the ground or fished out of the sea, to be handed to men without the inconvenience of having to think - the search will be met with futility.  Such a "manual" does not exist.  This fact advances Prager's line of argument, for he has a divine "manual" readily at hand.  His metaphor cleverly calls to mind Old Testament stories; the very words that Prager chose smuggles in an image of stone tablets with the chiseled commandments of a supernatural authority.

This “instruction manual” view of morality flies in the face of moral principles determined by reason, and is contrary to the requirements of human beings.(Note 4.)  As I’ve indicated above, one must never relinquish the responsibility of thinking for oneself by surrendering it to authorities - scriptural, spiritual, scientific, or otherwise.  This does not mean that every man must be a philosopher; on the contrary, it emphasizes the fact that one’s moral code is essential to every man, from the simpleton to the genius, and must be guarded thusly.  One’s morality has much more to do with being honest than being smart.

This brings up a point that is worth a brief digression.  A man must learn to operate his conceptual faculty properly but this does not necessarily imply that he must be taught.  Teaching can save a lot of time and effort, but it can also be destructive.  Philosophy could and should assist here - it ought to provide the framework by which men can grasp reality - but unfortunately, with few exceptions philosophers have completely failed.  However, even if philosophers got everything right, they still must be understood, not obeyed.(Note 5.)  Ultimately, each man must discover and comprehend reality himself.  There is no more sovereign authority to a man than his own mind.  To defer this to others is immoral... and foolish.

Returning to Prager’s text: the second phrase of his that must be examined is his combining of the words “heart and reason.”  First, he uses “heart” alone, writing, “One’s heart is often no better a guide to what is right and wrong than it is to the right and wrong way to fly an airplane.”  This is indubitable, if by “heart” he means feelings or whims, as is the general connotation.  In fact, I would dispense with Prager’s hedge of “often” and state emphatically that “one’s heart” is never a guide to any action, including determining right from wrong.  Reason is the only proper guide.  

However, later Prager binds “heart” and reason together when he writes: “the post-religious secular world [claims] the heart and reason are sufficient guides to leading a good life and making a good world.”[Emphasis mine.]  Here in his “post-religious secular world,” Prager lumps together subjectivists (who dispense with morality and for whom feelings and whims are guides to action) with rational men (who hold that reason alone provides our connection with the world and the means of discovering what is true and false, right and wrong).  This lumping together is no doubt convenient for Prager, who can flush the men of reason down the drain along with the proverbial bath water that is the subjectivists, but it is utterly unjustified.  That “heart and reason are sufficient guides” may be what subjectivists believe, but it is certainly not what I claim or what other Objectivists claim.  Feelings and emotions are quite real, of course, but they are generated automatically by one’s subconscious; via introspection, they can provide information about one’s own experiences and premises, but they are not guides to “leading a good life.”  Again, reason alone is the only proper guide to living a good life.

Having criticized Mr. Prager for two of his phrases, now let me give him credit where he deserves it.  If we can strip his “instruction manual” sentence of its scriptural connotation and understand it to refer simply to living a principled life, he followed with an excellent and insightful sentence: “This [necessity of principled action] is as true for acting morally and wisely as it is for properly flying an airplane.”  I like this formulation because it neatly ties together the moral and the practical.  (Frankly, I’m stunned that Prager recognizes the truth of it; after all, the Ten Commandments do not help one fly an airplane.)  It's true.  Morality is not some esoteric or impossibly abstract code that must be obeyed to earn a place in heaven.  Morality is a necessity for man to live on earth.

(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.

2.  I leave it to the experts to judge if some of the higher mammals sometimes show the most basic, rudimentary signs of “choice.”  For the purpose of this essay, I am referring to two faculties (or perhaps they are two aspects of the same faculty) - conceptual thought and free will -  that permit men to operate their minds and bodies in a manner that is distinctly non-instinctive, non-automatic.  This ability of men is different not merely in degree, but in kind, from that of any other known life forms.

3.  It is beyond to scope of this post to expand much more upon a reason-based morality (as against one based in the supernatural).  I refer the interested reader to “The Objectivist Ethics,” the first chapter of Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness.

4.  By “human beings” I mean modern men.  I do not wish to quibble about the requirements of pre-historic men - namely, whether or not savage or tribal men were even capable of grasping reason or formulating a reason-based morality.  I’ll limit the purview of my comments to mankind starting with the Greeks of the 5th century BC, whose influence spread rapidly via Alexander and the Romans through Europe and some of Asia, then to the New World during the Age of Exploration.  Certainly, in the modern world reason is available to every man who is honest enough to grasp it.

5.  I bring up Ayn Rand a lot in my writing because I discovered her to be the philosopher that “got everything right” - that is, her formulations and insights are all-encompassing and completely consonant with reality.  Nevertheless, I do not regard her writings as “teachings” in the sense of wisdom handed down from on high.  On the contrary, precisely because of my agreement with her, I have scrutinized her works with a razor that no other author I’ve read has been subjected to.  For more on this, see my post, “It’s Not About Her.” 


Burgess Laughlin said...

Prager > "The post-religious secular world claims to need no manual; the heart and reason are sufficient guides to leading a good life and to making a good world."

Coincidentally, I am reading George Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis, one of the most influential Christian intellectuals of the 20th Century, an academic whose influence continues today.

In a lecture that C. S. ("Jack") Lewis gave, "Why I Am Not a Pacifist," Lewis held (Sayer explains) that one must always follow one's conscience. It is a confluence of "one's [own] experience, the facts, certain basic moral intuitions, and human and divine authority," says Sayer, p. 265.

It find it ironic that at least one Christian proposed that we should be guided by this self-contradictory stew of guides poured into the mold of "conscience," while another, later, Christian rejects the supposed secular guidance of the self-contradictory "heart and reason."

From both subjectivist secularists and intrinsicist religionists, we receive no rational guidance. Reason and reason alone, as you say, must be our guide.

Anonymous said...

Burgess, I'm not sure what an "intrinsicist religionist" is, but as a Christian, I would never claim that reason has no purpose. The Bible teaches that the "heart" is not reliable in matters relating to understanding God directly. At the same time, the Bible suggests that we are to reason together with God, so it is certainly not useless. Indeed, Romans 1 states that God's existence is manifest in nature, so the idea of reason and perception being involved in faith is not foreign to Christians. However, Christians look to God for morality because the Bible teaches morality. As for conscience, Christians believe that it incorporates both our understanding of biblical teaching on moral precepts and our own understanding of how those precepts should be applied to any particular circumstance. (I would also add that the Holy Spirit guides us in the process, but that probably wouldn't hold too much water for objectivists who deny the existence of the Holy Spirit!) In the end, there is no contradiction here. I doubt Prager would deny that "conscience" has its role to play in morality, since it requires reason to apply the Bible's moral code to everyday life. He simply would not appeal to reason for the formulation of the precepts themselves.

Stephen Bourque said...

Thanks for the comment, Anonymous. I’m sorry it took so long to write responses to your notes, but I just hadn’t a chance for a couple of months.

I don’t want to speak for Burgess, but by his juxtaposing “subjectivist secularists” and “intrinsicist religionists” in that manner, I understand him to be referring to the two main competing philosophies that have dominated civilization for two and a half millennia. On the one hand are the subjectivists, who deny absolutes and reject the possibility of values being objective (e.g. they would say what is good cannot be a fact, but only an opinion). Broadly speaking, this set of ideas began with the Sophists, with their boast of being able to “prove anything,” and it drives modern “liberalism” and multiculturalism today.

On the other hand are the religionists, who certainly recognize absolutes, including absolute good and evil... but cast them in another realm that renders them at least partially inaccessible to men. This idea has its roots in the notion of the Forms, which Plato introduced in his Allegory of the Cave. These Forms are the perfect ideals that allegedly exist in some other realm, and can never be known fully by men who are locked in their earthly bodies. Clearly, this is the philosophy that supports religion, with its inaccessible mysteries, revelations, and general short shrift with regard to the physical world - especially, for the body as compared to the soul. I admit the label “intrinsic” or “intrinsicist” may seem a little obscure, but I think the idea is that the value of something is considered (by subscribers to this school of thought) to be intrinsic to it - that is, values are attached to entities or concepts themselves, apart from any context. In other words, an intrinsicist would believe that something has value apart from a valuer.

The upshot of all of this is that I completely agree with Burgess’ statement. Neither subjectivists nor religionists provide a satisfactory account of metaphysics, epistemology, or morality. I reject the idea (and I can safely say that Burgess would reject it as well) that one must choose one or the other of these philosophies; it is a false dichotomy. Objectivism identifies absolutes in reality, not as mystical ideals that cast imperfect shadows on the physical world. I’ve gone into a fair amount of detail on this in my posts, so I won’t repeat it here.

I don’t think there are many Christians who would say that “reason has no purpose,” and I certainly wouldn’t think that of you, who is clearly very thoughtful. The problem is that reason and faith are opposites and are mutually incompatible - notwithstanding the many people throughout history that have tried to blur the distinction. Of course, a single man can (and most do) hold a mixture of premises - some based in reason, others in faith. If you directly perceive something, infer it from observations, deduce it from past experience, conclude it using valid logic, or abstract it from noticing similarities among entities, these are all examples of applying reason. Faith is required to believe something to be true with no evidence whatsoever - and indeed, the truly faithful boast of believing in things when evidence contradicts it. “I believe it because it is absurd,” to paraphrase Tertullian.

To be continued, below...

Stephen Bourque said...

(Continued from previous comment.)

I’m not trying to give you a hard time, Anonymous, but I really don’t know what you mean by “the Bible suggests we are to reason together with God.” I can parse the sentence properly, but it conveys no meaning. If you wrote, “I will reason together with my lab partner,” at least I would understand essentially what you meant (although since reasoning is a solitary activity, the phrasing is a little peculiar). But how do you reason with God? All that I get from the sentence is that when you use the word “reason,” it doesn’t mean anything close to what I mean by “reason.”

Or for another one: “God’s existence is manifest in nature.” Again, this is syntactically correct, but its meaning is completely elusive. Essentially, you could replace the subject with any noun that I did not know and convey the same idea. “Asdfghjkl is manifest in nature.” How so? Can you give me some examples?