Atheism, Amoralism, and Arationalism

Atheism and Amoralism

On April 1, 2010, ethicist Joel Marks sat at his computer and wrote a confession to the readers of his column “Moral Moments” which had been a regular feature in the magazine Philosophy Now for a decade. His confession was not that he had done something immoral. No, his confession was that he could not have done anything immoral, at any time, because it turns out that there really is no such thing as morality. Or so he had come to conclude. The author of “Moral Moments” had come out of the closet as an ‘amoralist’. As he puts it in the first part of his “Amoral Manifesto”:

[T]his philosopher has long been laboring under an unexamined assumption, namely, that there is such a thing as right and wrong. I now believe there isn’t.

Marks immediately proceeds to explain the reasoning behind his “shocking epiphany” (bold added):

The long and the short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality. I call the premise of this argument ‘hard atheism’ because it is analogous to a thesis in philosophy known as ‘hard determinism.’ The latter holds that if metaphysical determinism is true, then there is no such thing as free will. Thus, a ‘soft determinist’ believes that, even if your reading of this column right now has followed by causal necessity from the Big Bang fourteen billion years ago, you can still meaningfully be said to have freely chosen to read it. Analogously, a ‘soft atheist’ would hold that one could be an atheist and still believe in morality. And indeed, the whole crop of ‘New Atheists’ … are softies of this kind. So was I, until I experienced my shocking epiphany that the religious fundamentalists are correct: without God, there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God. Hence, I believe, there is no morality.

You get the point: the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, are “soft atheists” because they deny God yet still want to affirm moral realism. The problem is that their position isn’t a coherent, stable one, because it seeks to affirm some phenomenon — in this case, objective moral norms — while denying the one metaphysical framework that could plausibly account for that phenomenon. Marks summarizes how he reasoned his way from “soft atheism” to “hard atheism”:

Why do I now accept hard atheism? I was struck by salient parallels between religion and morality, especially that both avail themselves of imperatives or commands, which are intended to apply universally. In the case of religion, and most obviously theism, these commands emanate from a Commander; “and this all people call God,” as Aquinas might have put it. The problem with theism is of course the shaky grounds for believing in God. But the problem with morality, I now maintain, is that it is in even worse shape than religion in this regard; for if there were a God, His issuing commands would make some kind of sense. But if there is no God, as of course atheists assert, then what sense could be made of there being commands of this sort? In sum, while theists take the obvious existence of moral commands to be a kind of proof of the existence of a Commander, i.e., God, I now take the non-existence of a Commander as a kind of proof that there are no Commands, i.e., morality.

In some respects, Marks’ confession shouldn’t be so surprising. After all, theists have been making the same kind of argument — no God, no morality — for aeons. Moreover, a number of influential atheists have already “made the good confession”: Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, J. L. Mackie, and (more recently) Alex Rosenberg.

So I’m not going to dwell here on what I think should be reasonably evident to those who reflect on the metaphysical foundations of morality. Instead, I want to focus on some comments Marks makes in the second part of his “Amoral Manifesto” which, while tangential to his concerns, I find to be quite revealing and hugely significant. For what Marks hints at in these later remarks is that a consistent atheist ought to be not only an amoralist who denies objective moral norms but also an arationalist who denies objective rational norms.

Atheism and Arationalism

In a section entitled “What Is Morality?” Marks argues that if (as he believes) moral realism is false, we ought to give up speaking of ‘morality’ altogether (rather than, say, adopting an as-if stance, or retooling our moral vocabulary). As he explains his reasons, note the concession he makes in passing:

I feel that the new understanding of morality as more myth than reality is important enough to warrant the inconvenience of dropping our accustomed ways of speaking and thinking about it and learning new ones. This is for two reasons. First is the value of truth itself. If it is true that metaphysical morality does not exist, then for that reason alone we should believe it. (Strictly speaking, I should say: If it is rational to believe that metaphysical morality does not exist, then for that reason alone we should believe it.) Do note that when I employ ‘should’ and ‘value’ and ‘warrant’ and such here, I am referring to epistemic norms, that is, to standards of knowledge, and not to moral norms. I will grant that, in the end, this may be a matter of subjective value or desire as well, for some people may not care very much about truth (or rationality), or at least not place paramount importance on it, if, say, the alternative were happiness. Think blue pill in The Matrix. So my first argument is addressed only to those who would take the red pill.

Marks distinguishes here between moral norms and epistemic norms. Roughly defined, moral norms are standards for behavior, while epistemic norms are standards for belief; moral norms are concerned with right acting, while epistemic norms are concerned with right thinking. When we talk about ‘rationality’ and ‘irrationality’ we’re presupposing epistemic norms, just as when we talk about ‘morality’ and ‘immorality’ we’re presupposing moral norms. But remember that, as a consequence of his atheism, Marks now denies that there are any real, objective moral norms. (“Hence, I believe, there is no morality.”) Instead of making traditional moral claims, we should just speak about “subjective value or desire.” There are no real moral truths to debate or to apply to our lives; all we can properly discuss are our personal preferences and wishes.

Marks is aware, however, that moral norms and epistemic norms, while distinguishable, nevertheless move in similar orbits. As the previous paragraph makes clear, there are parallels between the two kinds of norms, even if one kind cannot be reduced to the other. Thus, Marks’ grounds for denying the reality of moral norms can be extrapolated into grounds for denying the reality of epistemic norms. If you think that talk about ‘morality’ is really just “a matter of subjective value or desire,” it’s a natural next step to think that talk about ‘rationality’ is “in the end … a matter of subjective value or desire as well.” On the face of it, it’s hard to see why, given atheism, there would be objective epistemic norms but no objective moral norms. Why would it make sense to talk about right thinking but not right acting? Why would there be objective standards that govern our cognitive faculties but no objective standards that govern our other faculties? For the atheist it’s really only a small step from amoralism to arationalism.

Let’s dig a little deeper to extend the support for this supposition. Why would atheism invite arationalism? It’s commonly held that metaphysical naturalism is the most consistent and parsimonious atheistic worldview; at any rate, I think it’s safe to say that it’s the most prominent worldview among atheist intellectuals today. As Alvin Plantinga has observed, naturalism “is eminently attackable”:

Its Achilles’ heel (in addition to its deplorable falsehood) is that it has no room for normativity. There is no room, within naturalism, for right or wrong, or good or bad.1

I think Plantinga is right on this point, if naturalism entails that the only reality is a scientifically-circumscribed reality (where ‘science’ is understood in terms of the natural sciences: physics, chemistry, and biology). Whatever exists is susceptible to scientific description and explanation. But science by its very nature is restricted to descriptive claims. Science can tell us what is the case, but it cannot tell us what ought to be the case. Science doesn’t trade in normative claims. Hence science (and by extension naturalism) has no room for real, objective norms of morality and rationality. “Thou shalt not steal” isn’t a scientific statement. “Thou shalt not believe what is logically inconsistent” isn’t a scientific statement either.

Admittedly, atheism doesn’t entail naturalism, even if naturalism is the most natural (!) expression of atheism. There are some non-naturalist atheists. Even so, atheism is surely committed to the idea that the ultimate reality (whatever exactly that turns out to be) is non-personal and non-rational. As such, it’s hard to see how an atheistic worldview could account for objective epistemic norms, especially once it is already conceded that it cannot account for objective moral norms.

Surveying the Options

But again, let’s try to be more specific. What sort of options does the atheist have when it comes to understanding and accounting for epistemic norms? Here are seven possible answers; in each case I’ll briefly indicate why that answer should be unsatisfactory for the atheist. (Note: I don’t claim that these options are exhaustive or mutually exclusive, only that they’re the ones which present themselves most immediately.)

Option #1: Epistemic norms are just a subset of moral norms. On this view, to be irrational is just to be immoral in some way, to be intellectually irresponsible or blameworthy. This is probably the least attractive option for the atheist, because it would mean that amoralism entails arationalism. Any difficulty in accounting for moral norms on an atheistic basis would immediately carry over to epistemic norms. (There are other problems with this option, but I won’t get into them here.)

Option #2: Epistemic norms aren’t a subset of moral norms, but they’re analogous to moral norms. This doesn’t seem much more appealing to the atheist than the first option, since it still closely connects the two kinds of norms, such that they will tend to stand or fall together. If the two kinds of norms are analogous, then presumably they’ll have analogous grounds or origins. But if atheism invites amoralism then (by an argument from analogy) it will invite arationalism too.

Option #3: Epistemic norms are deontological in nature; they amount to intellectual duties or obligations. I mention this as a separate option, although I suspect it reduces to #2 or #3. In any event, this doesn’t look like a good option for the atheist. Duties and obligations can only arise in a personal context. So which persons give rise to our intellectual duties, our obligations to think in certain ways and not in other ways? Does the human race as a whole somehow impose obligations upon its individual members? Or do some members impose obligations upon other members? If so, on what authority? Why do I owe it to you or anyone else to use my cognitive faculties in a certain way? Intellectual duties appear to be no more explicable on an atheistic basis than plain-vanilla moral duties. If an atheist could account for the latter, presumably that would go some way toward accounting for the former. But isn’t that precisely the problem?

Option #4: Epistemic norms are teleological in nature; they pertain to the natural purpose or function of our intellectual faculties. I think it makes good sense to understand some epistemic norms as teleological in nature. Alvin Plantinga’s proper-function epistemology is a case in point: to think rationally is essentially to use one’s cognitive faculties as they were intended (read: designed) to be used, for the purpose of acquiring true beliefs and avoiding false beliefs. But as Plantinga and others have observed, while a proper-function epistemology fits comfortably with theism, it sits unhappily with atheism. It’s easy to see why: atheism is no friend of teleology in nature. The primary appeal of Darwinism for atheists is that it purports to explain the appearance of purpose and function in nature without any appeal to final causes (specifically, without any supernatural final cause). I presume the only option for an atheist here would be to appeal to some prior designer within the natural universe, i.e., some non-human organisms with consciousness and intelligence (space aliens?) who somehow bestowed upon us our intellectual faculties. The flaw in such an account is obvious: it would only push the problem back a step. What would account for the intellectual faculties of those organisms? What would ground their epistemic norms?2

Option #5: Epistemic norms are subjective in nature; they’re grounded in human desires, feelings, preferences, goals, or something along those lines. On this view, an epistemic norm like one ought to proportion one’s beliefs to the evidence is true because of certain human psychological states (either individually or corporately). The problem, of course, is that this is consistent with arationalism; it basically concedes that there are no objective epistemic norms. What we’re looking for here is an atheistic account of objective epistemic norms. This option is a surrender rather than a solution.

Option #6: Epistemic norms are descriptions of how we normally think. According to this answer, to be rational is to think normally, and to be irrational is to think abnormally. The immediate problem here is the ambiguity in the term ‘normal’. It could mean simply ‘common’ or ‘regular’ (as in “it’s normal to get thunderstorms at this time of year”). But that reading won’t give us an adequate account of epistemic norms. Surely we don’t want to say that to be rational is to think in the way that humans commonly or regularly think, as though rational thought were just whatever is statistically dominant. That would be to confuse the descriptive with the prescriptive; to confuse epistemology (how people ought to think) with psychology (how people do in fact think). Just consider: if people regularly formed beliefs on the basis of wishful thinking, would that make wishful thinking rational?

Alternatively, ‘normal’ could mean ‘normative’. But then this answer wouldn’t amount to anything more than the vacuous statement that “epistemic norms are descriptions of what is epistemically normative.” Option #6 would vanish in a puff of tautology, leaving the atheist to look elsewhere for a meaningful account of epistemic norms.

Option #7: Epistemic norms are evolutionary norms, in the sense that they further evolutionary goals or ends; they characterize cognitive operations and processes that are advantageous in evolutionary terms. I suspect many atheists will gravitate toward this option for much the same reason they gravitate toward an evolutionary account of morality. In the absence of God, one has little choice but to seek purely naturalistic explanations of what we are, where we came from, and why we behave as we do. Mother Nature and Father Darwin will together deliver the goods.

The basic idea, then, is that human cognitive faculties have evolved via purely natural processes, with natural selection acting on genetic variations providing most if not all of the driving force, and epistemic norms characterize how those cognitive faculties operate to give us true beliefs which serve the ‘ultimate’ end of effective reproduction and survival. A cognitive operation or process is rational or irrational just in case it tends to produce, respectively, true or false beliefs. True beliefs promote survival. False beliefs hinder survival. Thus epistemically normative ultimately reduces to biologically advantageous.

There are several serious problems with this account. In the first place, the assumption that natural selection will tend to favor cognitive faculties aimed at truth is highly questionable. Organisms can survive just as effectively with false beliefs as with true beliefs; indeed, most organisms on the planet reproduce and survive very effectively without any beliefs.

Furthermore, as Plantinga and others have argued, evolution as a purely naturalistic process would be entirely blind to the propositional content of our beliefs (and thus to whether they are true or false).3 Given naturalism, only the physical properties of our brains and the physical consequences of our brain processes could have any causal influence on evolutionary outcomes. In short, evolution pays no heed to what an organism believes, only to how it behaves. As philosopher Stephen Stich (among others) has frankly admitted, “natural selection does not care about truth; it cares only about reproductive success.”4

But there’s a more fundamental problem here. Even if we grant that evolution would tend to favor cognitive faculties aimed towards true beliefs, an evolutionary account of epistemic norms would still fall short, for this simple reason: there’s nothing objectively normative about evolutionary outcomes. Evolutionary theory seeks to give a naturalistic explanation for where organisms came from and why they are the way they are. But it’s a descriptive theory — as must be any explanatory accounts derived from that theory (such as accounts of our cognitive faculties). From an atheistic perspective, there’s nothing objectively ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ about what evolution produces. The outcomes of evolution aren’t objectively good (or objectively bad, for that matter). They simply are what they are.5

The most an atheist could say about the ‘goodness’ or ‘rightness’ of certain evolutionary outcomes is that they’re subjectively good: they’re good because we ourselves value them (presumably because we value things like our own survival, having true beliefs, having pleasurable experiences, and so forth). But in that case option #7 has collapsed into option #5 and the atheist is no further forward.

Summing Up

As I noted earlier, I’m not claiming these are the only options an atheist could entertain, but they do seem to be the main ones. Since several of them are readily available to the theist, I’d say that the atheist bears something of a burden to indicate how epistemic norms might be explained on a consistently atheistic basis, especially if the atheist has already thrown moral norms under the bus.

What I’ve provided here is little more than the outline of an argument. But its central insight can be simply stated: given the parallels between moral norms and rational norms, a worldview which struggles to account for the former will also struggle to account for the latter.

Consequently, I maintain that a consistent atheist ought to embrace both amoralism (the denial of objective moral norms) and arationalism (the denial of objective epistemic norms). At least, those atheists who have openly embraced amoralism should also, for consistency’s sake, advocate arationalism, because the logic that leads from atheism to amoralism continues to push through to arationalism.6

  1. Alvin Plantinga, “Afterword,” in The Analytic Theist, ed. James F. Sennett (Eerdmans, 1998), p. 356.
  2. Readers who think theists must face the same problem haven’t grasped the relevant differences between God and natural organisms.
  3. See, e.g., Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies (Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 316ff.
  4. Stephen Stich, The Fragmentation of Reason (MIT Press, 1990), p. 62.
  5. Similarly, talk of evolutionary ‘goals’ or ‘ends’ must be treated as metaphorical, since naturalistic evolution is by definition undirected and unintentional. Hence, if epistemic ‘norms’ are to be explained in terms of such ‘goals’ or ‘ends’ they cannot be taken as literally normative.
  6. Some readers may object that I haven’t shown any logical inconsistency between atheism and the existence of objective epistemic norms. That’s true, but irrelevant. The issue here isn’t one of strict logical consistency but rather of adequate metaphysical grounding.

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