Saturday, August 23, 2008

If there is no God (Part IV)

This is the conclusion of my criticisms of Dennis Prager's article on what would happen in the absence of God. In Part I, I criticized Prager's attempts to conclude that morality and meaning would suffer if there were no God. In Part II, I denied that a world without God somehow means that man has no free will. In Part III, I attacked the claim that the absence of God necessarily leads to some kind of cultural deterioration.

What's left? Well, I promised to still deal with Prager's claim that "Without God, humanist hubris is almost inevitable" as well as that "without God there are no inalienable human rights."

Let's start with the issue of rights.

Yes, it is my understanding that the Founding Fathers, when defending individual rights, relied on the Natural Law ideas of Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and others. The Natural Law tradition substantially based these ideas on the existence of a God, who created and maintains the natural order and, as the creator of man, endowed him with inalienable rights.

Despite the enormously important and praiseworthy achievement of the Founders in finally explicitly recognizing individual rights as part of a government and its Constitution, there are in fact quite a few problems in with the specific understanding of rights possessed by the Founders, not the least of which would be that basing the idea of rights on the existence of a fantastic being, would, as soon as more intellectuals started realizing the difficulties with the existence of such a being, put the whole Natural Law-based rights case in jeopardy.

But fortunately, and once again, Prager is wrong. The case for man's rights does not depend on the existence of God. Ayn Rand has shown that rights can be defended entirely on the basis of man's nature combined with a certain morality.
The source of man’s rights is not divine law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A—and Man is Man. Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival. If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational. Any group, any gang, any nation that attempts to negate man’s rights, is wrong, which means: is evil, which means: is anti-life.
The reason for the confusion in the minds of many Conservatives is again their inability to understand that individual rights are an objective moral principle. Its objectivity implies that it connects aspects both of man's consciousness (his values -- he is worthy of living) as well as of existence (his nature -- man survives by reason). It is not simply that rights are a kind of inherent hidden property of man that we would see if we were the right glasses. Nor do moral principles fall from the sky. They must be discovered, validated and practiced and in this case protected if they are to serve their function which is to further man's life. If men want to live in a society in which their rights are protected, they must recognize each others rights and create and sustain a government that is vigilant about protecting these rights. Frankly, God simply doesn't enter this picture at all.

In fact, the history of the 20th century notwithstanding, it is quite clear that belief in God as such does not lead to rights at all as the history of Europe from the 5th to the 16th century makes clear. God was very much in men's minds during those eleven centuries but individual rights were nowhere to be found. If one cares to study the periods involved, then it's clear that it was increasing emphasis of reason and the efficacy of the individual mind that ultimately lead some Christians to support the concept of individual rights, arguably in contradiction to much of their recent theology.

This is not, of course to deny the horrors of the 20th century, but here again it simply means that belief in God is not the only, nor necessarily the worst of the causes of man's inhumanity to man. But if we hope to do better, we ought to reject both religions and secular ideologies that differ only in the degree and type of mysticism, irrationality, collectivism and altruism. This is because rights depend on rationality, egoism, and individualism, ideas not usually associated with belief in God.

Finally, turning now to the issue of "humanist hubris," Prager writes:
12. Without God, humanist hubris is almost inevitable. If there is nothing higher than man, no Supreme Being, man becomes the supreme being.
I admit I have trouble understanding exactly what Prager is getting at here. Of course, the statement is almost trivially true. Among the religious, man may be highest among the animals but he is the equivalent of a speck of dust compared to the infinite, omnipotent and omniscient God. If such a God does not exist then man becomes the "supreme being."

Again, what does Prager mean here? He is surely aware, since that's one of his claims in the very same essay, that some secular people (certainly not me!) hold that humans and animals are of equal value. So then does Prager contradict his own claim here? On the one hand absence of God leads to humans and animals being of the same value, on the other hand, if there is no God man becomes the supreme being. Well which is it? Or could it be that the absence of God has no specific consequences, that atheism is simply the absence of belief in God and it's one's positive ideas that are the cause of one's values?

But I'll leave all this aside because I'm more interested in a deeper point raised by Prager's claim. I actually agree with Prager that, absent a God, man becomes the supreme being. This is not a problem for me but it seems to be a problem for Prager. Why?

The answer can be seen in the very same essay in Prager's various claims of what happens to men who operate without believing in a God. Apparently, Prager thinks that such men are basically irrational, immoral, uninspired, crude, profane, determined by their genes and environment, and devoid of meaning or purpose. Thus when such beings come to regard themselves as supreme, it would, in Prager's view, be a disaster. Such beings need to know that there's something above them to force them to behave as civilized beings rather than savage beasts.

Men are not born believing in God. Children are not aware of such an idea until it is taught them by their elders. Thus I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Prager regards atheistic individuals as for the most part no better than children (and particularly badly behaved children at that) who need to be taught to obey a higher authority.

Prager has over the years claimed that one of the most important differences between himself and his intellectual opponents is the fact that while he believes that "we are born with tendencies toward both good and evil," they believe that "people are basically good." On the face of it, Prager's attitude seems balanced but on closer examination, and based on the way Prager regards atheistic man described above, it seems far more likely that Prager regards man as basically bad, though he grants that with enough application of faith and force something good may come out.

How to respond? At this point I have to quote Ayn Rand on man:
Man has been called a rational being, but rationality is a matter of choice—and the alternative his nature offers him is: rational being or suicidal animal. Man has to be man—by choice; he has to hold his life as a value—by choice; he has to learn to sustain it—by choice; he has to discover the values it requires and practice his virtues—by choice.
By virtue of his rational faculty, man is the supreme being on earth. But by the fact that the faculty is volitional, i.e., his to control via his choices, he is capable of both great achievement and great destruction. However, it is not his destructive capabilities that distinguish man but his creative abilities because when he is creative he is actualizing and fulfilling his fundamental nature as a rational being, whereas when he is destructive, he merely returns to the level of animals, even if he is capable of more destruction than they are. Thus man at his best is good. Man at his best is worthy of admiration and even of worship. I conclude with another quote from Ayn Rand:
Do not confuse “man worship” with the many attempts, not to emancipate morality from religion and bring it into the realm of reason, but to substitute a secular meaning for the worst, the most profoundly irrational elements of religion. For instance, there are all the variants of modern collectivism (communist, fascist, Nazi, etc.), which preserve the religious-altruist ethics in full and merely substitute “society” for God as the beneficiary of man’s self-immolation....
The man-worshipers, in my sense of the term, are those who see man’s highest potential and strive to actualize it. . . . [Man-worshipers are] those dedicated to the exaltation of man’s self-esteem and the sacredness of his happiness on earth.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

If there is no God (Part III)

In this post I thought I would tackle Prager's claims that without God there is a cultural deterioration in terms of art, language, and the equation of the value of animals with people (I'll leave "hubris" for another post). I happen to agree that all these are indeed disturbing aspects in today's world but I would put the blame not on the absence of God but the general irrationality of the culture. Interestingly, Prager argues that it is the absence of belief in God that leads to this irrationality. He writes:
Without God, people in the West often become less, not more, rational. It was largely the secular, not the religious, who believed in the utterly irrational doctrine of Marxism. It was largely the secular, not the religious, who believed that men's and women's natures are basically the same, that perceived differences between the sexes are all socially induced. Religious people in Judeo-Christian countries largely confine their irrational beliefs to religious beliefs (theology), while the secular, without religion to enable the non-rational to express itself, end up applying their irrational beliefs to society, where such irrationalities do immense harm.
There are several problems with Prager's above claims. The first and foremost is that it portrays a deep ignorance of the history of philosophy. All the secular irrational doctrines had their origin in religious and theistic thinkers that severely undermined the efficacy of reason. Philosophers such Rene Descartes (a Catholic) and Immanuel Kant (a Lutheran), among others, did much to undermine reason and the secular thinkers that followed them simply pushed their ideas to their logical conclusion with the ultimate result being the absurdities of 20th century philosophy. The result of the decay of philosophy was a deterioration in all the humanities and arts. As philosophers claimed to have conclusively shown that no absolutes and no standards existed, it is no surprise to see the obvious results on art and language.

But there is no reason to think that secular rational and principled people that speak politely, produce great art, and think clearly about important issues cannot exist. I dare say I know quite a few myself. The culture does not have to continue to be dominated by ugliness, coarseness and irrationality but it seems to me that substituting one kind of irrationality for another is hardly a reasonable solution.

As to the particular irrationality of regarding humans and animals of equal value, I don't think that opinion is limited to secular thinkers. Certain religions of the East also take this view. If one understands that value for human beings depends on holding man's life as the standard and man's happiness as the goal of life, then I think there's really no issue at all. Admittedly this is not self-evident but thanks to Ayn Rand, the means of establishing objective values has been achieved. Animals may have value for man, but they are not of the same value to man as man.

This series concludes with Part IV.

Update 8/24/2008: Added link to Part IV.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

If there is no God (Part II)

Since I'm a little tired tonight, I'll leave most of Prager's remaining points for my next installment, and confine myself to Prager's claim that "if there is no God, the human being has no free will." According to Prager's eighth point:
Only if one posits human creation by a Creator that transcends genes and environment who implanted the ability to transcend genes and environment can humans have free will.
One of the more frustrating aspects of this particular claim is that one seems to find quite a few atheists who would agree with it. It is a depressing fact that determinism appears to be a far too prevalent opinion among many scientifically oriented people. But we cannot go by the popularity or unpopularity of a point of view. Is Prager correct to say that without God there's no free will? No. In fact both Prager and the materialists who deny free will are wrong. The fact of free will is axiomatic and it is not in fact possible to rationally deny it. Those who attempt to deny it are implicitly relying on their ability to choose their own views by their own free choice -- otherwise they would be determined to believe in determinism and would have no choice in the matter. They are saying in effect: I freely choose to believe in the fact that we are all determined -- an obvious contradiction. Thus, contrary to what Prager suggests our genes and environment do not determine our thoughts and actions. Determinism is false, even in a world without God.

Furthermore, notwithstanding much rhetoric to the contrary, an omniscient God, far from supporting the idea that man has free will, substantially undermines it. This follows from the fact that if God exists and knows all, including all future events and choices then those choices cannot really be considered free. Some variants of Christianity go so far as to support the doctrine of predestination which is arguably itself a form of determinism. No, I'm quite sure that free will is in fact much safer without God.

I'll try to address Prager's remaining points in my next post.

Update 8/24/2008: Added link to Part III.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

If there is no God (Part I)

If there's one thing it's hard to resist blogging about, it's Dennis Prager's incessant arguments against atheism. For some reason, I tend to take these essays personally. Perhaps it's because at various points in my life I have struggled with the issue of religion so that I take these arguments very seriously.

Prager's latest effort against secularism is entitled "If there is no God" and he lists 14 separate consequences that he believes follow from atheism. He grants at the outset that "it is not possible to prove (or disprove) God's existence," which fact, as Ari Armstrong quite correctly points out, makes any claim to the existence of God arbitrary and thus worthy of immediate dismissal. In the same post, Ari also adds that "[n]evertheless, because claims about God involve absurd metaphysical presumptions, it is possible to disprove God's existence."

But let's leave all that aside for the moment, Prager is effectively conceding that belief in God is an irrational leap of faith but claims that "what is provable is what happens when people stop believing in God." What, as far as Prager is concerns, happens when people stop believing in God?

Well, I think Prager's points can be divided up as follows. I count four separate items that are really all about the claim that the absence of God makes the theory and practice of morality impossible and thus leads to outright immorality and evil. Three items relate to what Prager peceives as the "lack of objective meaning to life." As far a Prager is concerned this results in life being a "tragic fare" for all of us and the, to Prager apparently disturbing fact, that everyone after death everyone ends up the same way. This is followed by several items that may be termed cultural deterioration, including such things as no inspiring art, an increase in profanity, something Prager calls "humanist hubris", and the fact that humans and animals have equal value. Finally, there are the claims that without God, man is determined, has no rights, and is more prone to irrationality.

Here I must remind the reader that I'm not arguing as a representive atheist, not if that means that I'm somehow an average of all atheist ideologies. I can only argue for what I regard as true which is Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand (though of course I am merely presenting my understanding of the ideas -- any errors are my own). Objectivism is of course atheist, but that is a consequence of its regard for reason, not a primary. Prager is also not a general theist, whatever that would mean. In fact Prager, specifies what kind of God he is referring too:
The God of Israel, the God of America's founders, "the Holy God who is made holy by justice" (Isaiah), the God of the Ten Commandments, the God who demands love of neighbor, the God who endows all human beings with certain inalienable rights, the God who is cited on the Liberty Bell because he is the author of liberty.
Unfortunately I dare say that is not nearly as clear as the philosophy of Objectivism. However, since Prager is an advocate of what he terms Judeo-Christian values, I assume by the references that he means the God of Judaism and Christianity.

Let's start with the obvious ones first -- the claims about atheism and morality. Prager makes the following four claims:
  1. Without God..there are only subjective opinions that we then label "good" and "evil."
  2. Secular philosophy provides no real guidance for an ethical life.
  3. Atheism leads to unwillingness to confront evil
  4. Atheistic regimes commit more atrocities than religious regimes

The fourth claim really needs to be dismissed out of hand. It is simply improper to make an argument based on a relatively lesser number atrocities. To the extent that we disapprove of such things, I think we can all agree to condemn regimes that engage in such acts, whether on a large or small scale. It is simply no use to a victim of the Inquisition that he is a member of a much smaller group of victims than the communists put in the Gulag or the Nazis in the concentration camps.

That leaves the first three claims. Prager clarifies 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."

In Prager's argument objectivity in morality comes from "a moral authority that transcends humans." Let's ignore the inherent weaknesses in using an "authority" as a claim to objectivity. Prager clearly conflates what Ayn Rand called "intrinsicism" with objectivity. He regards any view emanating from a human being, no matter what it's based on, as "subjective."

But this is mistaken (to put it charitably) -- man can regard his views as objective if he follows an objective method in reaching his conclusions, a method that relies on facts and reason. Objectivity is not a feature inherent in reality. While the phrase "objective reality" can be used, it is primarily with regard to man's knowledge and ideas to which the idea of objectivity applies. Prager might agree that scientific knowledge and ideas can be objective but he claims that values cannot be. But this is also false: Ayn Rand has shown that values follow the same pattern as other knowledge and that it is possible to arrive at objective values by the application of reason to the facts of man's nature.

Values are that which we pursue or aim to keep. Living things other than human beings automatically pursue those values that are beneficial to their lives, within the limits possible to them. Since a human being, like all living things, is confronted with the alternative of life or death, if he wants to live, he must follow the principles of self-preservation by choice. These principles are the objective requirements of man's life and thus constitute the objective values and virtues that man should follow. There is, of course, much more to it than that, and whole books have been written on the subject. These books also address in some detail what Prager perceives as the missing guidance for ethical behavior. Objectivism agrees with Prager that human beings need guidance and it endeavors to provide it in the form of values such as reason, purpose and self-esteem, as well as virtues, such as rationality, independence, integrity, productiveness, honesty, justice, and pride, as well as a major vice -- the initiation of physical force. If these values were pursued and virtues practiced consistently by leaders of the Western world, I'm quite certain that evil would be confronted. In fact, I would think evil would not get nearly as far as it has.

Next, let's tackle the issue of meaning. This is actually a very fascinating and challenging topic that others have written some important things about. Prager claims that without God our "existence has no more intrinsic purpose or meaning than that of a pebble equally randomly produced." Here I may surprise some and agree completely. It's true: Without God there is no intrinsic purpose or meaning. An intrinsic purpose or meaning would be one intrinsic to the very nature of reality as specified by reality's purported creator and entirely independent of any human values. For religious people, this meaning is very important, very dear to their hearts. And in Judaism and Christianity specifically, the meaning revolves around the overall plan that God has for man and the world he lives in, as well as the existence of an afterlife.

Be that as it may, I cannot help feeling unmoved as my happiness in life does not depend on any such meaning. For me and many others like me, the meaning I receive from my most important values such as work and loved ones is sufficient. I have other broader goals as well, such as helping to spread my values to the wider culture. So frankly, my overall answer to Prager's claim is that my life has meaning and value to me and that is sufficient. I refuse to indulge in fantasies to compensate for any perceived inadequacies in my life. If I am unhappy about some aspect I aim to change it and thus add actual value and meaning to my existence.

Prager regards life without God as "a tragic fare," in which "we live, we suffer, we die." Leaving aside the specific formulation for the moment, why does this constitute a problem to someone who does not wish for the impossible? "Tragic" is an evaluative term. But as far as Objectivism is concerned, in this context, it is a stolen concept ("using a concept while denying the validity of its genetic roots"). To evaluate requires that one first accept the standard of value: Man's life. It is improper to apply moral terms to basic facts of existence, including man's existence. It is a fundamental fact of living entities, including man, that they live and eventually die. It is not to be evaluated, it is the basis of all evaluation. The fact of man's limited lifespan leads to the need for moral principles. If human beings could live forever, no particular mode of living and thus no ethics or morality would be required.

Prager is also, of course, wrong to summarize human life as "we live, we suffer, we die". He deliberately left out the possibility of human happiness. There is certainly no necessity of suffering as such and modern medical technology has certainly reduced the amount of suffering that man does experience during his life time. More importantly, life has the potential to be a source of great happiness and flourishing, if one's sets rational goals and achieves them. Reality is not inherently set against man. If man accepts the absolutism of reality and follows the principles of morality he can, barring accidents, achieve his values in this world and many have done so. This is what Ayn Rand called the Benevolent Universe Premise.

I don't know that there's much point in addressing Prager's apparent concern about the similar fate of nuns and mass murderer's after death. Why this should concern a rational person is really beyond me. After death only the living remain. It is the responsibility of the living to remember and judge the dead appropriately and justly.

I will continue with Prager's remaining claims in the next part.

Update 8/24/2008: Added link to Part II.