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Theodicy of naturalists

30 December 2010

In a recent blog post (Nouslife: Theodicy of the naturalists) Andii Bowsher raised a point that has puzzled me for some time: Loyal Rue, an evolutionary naturalist, says that scientists should not be too hasty in letting the rest of us in on the secret that religions are adaptive illusions that have enabled the human race to evolve and survive, because if we came to realise that we might abandon the illusions and thus lose their adaptive advantage. “If we expose our religions as the lies they really are, humanity might go extinct.”

And Andii’s puzzlement, like mine, is why, on a naturalistic account, we should care whether the human race goes extinct or not?

Kevin Parry, in a post on his blog a couple of years ago raises the same question in a slightly different way. In discussing Ursula le Guin’s novel, The dispossessed

he writes Memoirs of an ex-Christian: Survival of the fittest (or most ethical)?:

Not only is such an argument an example of the naturalistic fallacy, but as the quote above clearly shows, the fittest are not necessarily those who are the most violent or domineering. As far as I understand, those organisms that are the strongest (or fittest), in the context of evolutionary theory, are those who are the most successful in passing along their genes to the next generation. And what better environment to successfully bear children than in a stable, peaceful society based on a common code of ethics.

And it seems to me that that is an example of the very naturalistic fallacy he refers to. The assumption seems to be that extinction is bad, non-extinction (ie survival) is good — but why?

For those unfamiliar with these terms (like “naturalistic fallacy), the following article and definitions may help: Naturalistic Fallacy:

Naturalism (as ideology) is a direct effect or benefactor of the naturalistic fallacy – naturalism being the idea that all explanations and descriptions of the universe and humankind must be based on a ‘natural’ understanding of our-selves and universe, given that human beings are a part of nature.

The “naturalistic fallacy” is the belief that we can derive an idea of how things ought to be from the way they are. The problem with it is the gap between the “is” and the “ought”.

The reason I found Andii Bowsher’s question interesting is that I have found the same problem. It is a problem that those who claim to have a naturalistic worldview seem to have most difficulty in understanding. If you ask them about it, they insist on answering a quite different question, and tend to say that naturalists/atheists (they are usually atheists) can be just as moral as religious believers, and believers don’t have a monopoly on morality etc. The question they always evade is why one should be moral, or think that anything has value. It seems to be the anthropomorphization of evolution, which makes it anything but “scientific”.

I tried, as an experiment, copying Andii’s post to a number of atheist and religious newsgroups, in which I could hope to find a few, at least, who might claim a naturalistic worldview. After a week, however, I had failed to find anyone who could explain it, and those who did respond tended to evade the question, or to misinterpret it, or both.

They also usually fail to understand the basis of Christian morals/ethics/values. Perhaps that it not quite so surprising, as many Christians also fail to understand it, and thus give a distorted picture to those who are not Christians. This view (or rather caricature) is that Christians believe we cannot be moral without God as an authority-figure to keep us in line with the threat of hell if we misbehave. The real basis of Christian morals/ethics/values is rather teleological: that God has made the world with a purpose, and that that purpose is part of its nature, and that some behaviour is consonant with that purpose and nature while other behaviour is not, and is therefore destructive.

But the one thing the naturalistic worldview denies is teleology or purpose. The universe came into existence or has always existed as a cosmic accident, and there is no meaning or purpose to existence. In such a view it is not meaningful to say that survival is “better” than extinction, or that existence is “better” than non-existence. While I have no doubt that some people who hold a naturalistic worldview are moral and have values of one sort to another, what I find difficult to understand is how they get from the “is” to the “ought” within the naturalistic worldview. I’m still looking for someone to explain that.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. 30 December 2010 5:10 pm

    Just as many Christians “fail to understand the basis of Christian morals/ethics/values”, many (atheistic) naturalists fail to fully grasp naturalism. As you point out, they are anthropomorphizing … the same thing Christians do with God.

    Which is just a reflection of who we are. Humans interpret everything around them through their own experience and expectations. So, unless one makes a serious effort to avoid it, ze will see the world as one wants it to be.

  2. 30 December 2010 5:30 pm

    [“The question they always evade is why one should be moral, or think that anything has value.”] I’m surprised, as I see no need to avoid this issue. From my p.o.v., we’re a social animals, with behavioural drives and a ‘moral compass’ that have evolved, quite naturally, over aeons. Even without ‘ultimate purpose or meaning’ along theist lines, we inherit a moral code that itself is constantly if imperceptibly evolving. and this code has served to enhance the survival chances of ourselves and our kin, ie our genes through future generations. I respect that heritage, and have a reasonable understanding from the evolutionary psychology angle of how the process functions. It is a code on which religions (since long before Christianity came on the scene) are based, and certainly not vice versa.

    Technically we are speaking of relative morality, yes, atheists are quite aware of that. But the reason there are, for example, proportionately considerably less atheists in US gaols than Christians is that their moral compass is (at least) no less solidly based than that of the believer. In my case a moral code, loosely based on the Golden Rule, has value and virtue because I believe I am hugely privileged to be self-aware, in awe of this incredible universe. I know that the only possibility of eternal life open to me is by passing on my genes. It is why I think of it as a duty and privilege to be able to conform to certain standards (that have fortunately evolved and improved upon biblical ideas about women, homosexuality, etc.) I am delighted and grateful to be part of the journey, and long may our kin have the good fortune to carry on along the same path.

    THAT’s meaning. THAT’s why it pays to adhere to well-proven, socially-adaptive, codes of behaviour.

    So we “should be moral” because the rules that govern cohesive group behaviour are those that have helped us to survive individually, and will help our offspring to do likewise. It feels right, simply because positive/negative emotions reinforce our impressions of right and wrong behaviour, even to the point of self-sacrifice, other purely altruistic acts.

    So to sum up, the humanist code works. It would be intellectually dishonest to adhere to one version or other of the multiple religious codes on offer when we are utterly convinced there’s no plausible evidence to support their basis in truth. Our morality may be relative, but it’s a key reason why I’m here writing this, thousands of generations down an unbroken line. And and why should anything have value? Well I place great store in truth, and science is rapidly getting to grips with understanding the evolution of human behaviour. Countless deities vying for control over what is right and wrong, ultimate arbiters threatening ‘behave or else’ is not my idea of truth, but rather the fanciful delusions of very, very ordinary men.

    • Ingemar permalink
      30 December 2010 9:53 pm

      I am delighted by atheocrat’s incompetent attempt to reply to this thread (while simultaneously missing the point–WHY should we care that our people survive?) The part with citing incarceration statistics out of thin air was a nice touch.

      Atheocrats basic thrust is–Morals change in order that we may pass on our genes–is a thinly veiled retread of utilitarianism. Furthermore, his appeal to his own motivations undermines his previous thesis that our morality is adapted for the survival of the whole. Should we do good because “it feels good for me,” or because that is what is required of the members of the body politic?

    • 31 December 2010 8:40 am

      So we “should be moral” because the rules that govern cohesive group behaviour are those that have helped us to survive individually, and will help our offspring to do likewise.

      But isn’t that begging the question?

      You are saying, in effect, that survival is good because it helps us to survive.

      • Anton permalink
        31 December 2010 9:03 am

        To tag on to Steve’s comment, “You are saying, in effect, that survival is good because it helps us to survive.” And since meaningless things (such as morality) help us survive, our lives end up as equally meaningless.

        It is interesting how so many people believe they can figure out anything purely by processing the limited natural data they have.. All the while discounting spiritual experience, and anything they decide is not worth acknowledging.

        I have seen dozens of miracles through prayer. Hundreds. Others I know have seen many more. Bones fusing. Cancers disappearing. MS gone. People have dreams speaking of purpose, life and even experiences which detail future events. Much of this has been documented even, yet those who believe they are wise enough to know better (as they possess superior mental processes) choose not to see.

        And possibly even worse than discounting the overtly spiritual – we discount beauty and do not allow it to be evidence in and of itself.

  3. 3 January 2011 8:34 pm

    Thanks Steve for doing the work of putting this question into a more conversational arena.
    I find myself considering that about the most telling question/insight from the naturalist perspective is the one that asks whether it isn’t all meaningless; ie even the existence of God is not particularly meaningful. I think that this is an ‘infinite regress’ argument, a version of ‘who made God?’ But it’s right in noting that, potentially, simply saying ‘God gives meaning’ may only be putting the question back a stage further. To respond to that one, we need to have an analogous perspective to the one that answers ‘who made God?’ which is to say that there is a point at which the regress stops, that we get to the bottom of the rabbit-hole. In one case that means simply saying ‘either God made God or God is unmade; simply being’; in the other case that an infinite being provide more than enough context for teleology (as you point out) and to give meaning. If there is a being that is ‘in part’ personal (though clearly meta-personal and meta-impersonal), then our personal longings and meanings are grounded in a reality and not simply accidents of nature and ephemeral but ungrounded and therefore meaningless epiphenomena.

  4. 11 January 2011 5:11 pm

    Thanks Steve and Andii, this has been my experience from interacting with Atheists as well, they fail to derive the “ought”. I’ve met many Atheists who affirm the Golden Rule but few who could explain why this “should” be so from Atheist principles.

  5. 20 January 2011 5:21 am

    Sam Harris thinks we can derive ought from is.

    • 1 February 2011 4:40 pm

      I saw Sam Harris’s book in a bookshop today, and thought I’d like to read it, but I was reluctant to pay for it. I looked at the blurb, and I think I can guess what he says, and didn’t want to lay out good money for a book like that. Maybe someone I know will buy it and lend it to me!

  6. Kevin Parry permalink
    22 January 2011 6:19 pm

    Thank you Steve for this article and for mentioning to my blog. It has definitely given me a lot think about! I would like share two points, if that is okay. I’m still thinking about them, so I would like any thoughts or feedback you or your readers might have.

    My first point is that the naturalistic fallacy does not pose a problem for the worldview of naturalism as a whole (ie, the acceptance of the ‘is’) but only for naturalistic ethics (ie, the ‘ought’).
    My second point is that we make is/ought decisions every day, but in my mind we don’t always commit the naturalistic fallacy. Take the following example (to borrow from Richard Carrier): if there is no oil left in your car’s engine (the ‘is’ statement), ought it be changed? On a surface level, most people would seem to be committing the naturalistic fallacy because they would say, without thinking twice, that the oil ought to be replaced *because* there is none left.

    But if you probe deeper, you will find that people have other reasons for changing the oil in their cars: they might want to change the oil because a non-functional car will thwart their desire of visiting friends, or they might value the fact that they have jobs and need the car to get to work on time. A car designer, who is testing how long an engine might work without oil, will say that he ought not to change the oil; this is because he has a different goal in mind.

    In other words, in the examples above, the ‘ought’ is not derived directly from the fact that something is a fact of nature or that something is ‘natural’ (ie, the naturalistic fallacy). Rather, it is derived from the goals, needs and desires of the individual when the individual confronts an ‘is’. In other words, individual (and sometimes societal) goals, needs and desires form the bridges, so to speak, between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’.

    • 1 February 2011 4:49 pm


      Thanks very much for your comments, and I am generally in agreement with what you say. For me the problem is not that people think that there are some things that they “ought” to do, but rather that they think that the “ought” can be derived from science, as Sam Harris evidently does (see the previous couple of comments).

      I think you once posted an executive summary of that argument on your blog once, but when I looked I couldn’t find it. The article you cited was presented as an alternative to the (supposed, though incorrectly) idea that Christian morality was based on the arbitrary fiat of a tyrant god who would send anyone who didn’t keep his moral code to a neverending punishment in hell.

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