The worldview commonly described at UD as “Evolutionary Materialism” — roughly: the view that our cosmos from hydrogen to humans must be explained “scientifically” on matter and energy in space and time, evolving by forces of chance and necessity — is nothing new. For, 2,350 years ago, Plato described it as a popular philosophy among those who saw themselves as the cutting edge elite in his day.
As he said in the voice of The Athenian Stranger in his dialogue, The Laws, Bk X:
He also saw the consequences of this thinking, and therefore warned in no uncertain terms:
[[T]hese people would say that the Gods exist not by nature, but by art, and by the laws of states, which are different in different places, according to the agreement of those who make them; and that the honourable is one thing by nature and another thing by law, and that the principles of justice have no existence at all in nature, but that mankind are always disputing about them and altering them; and that the alterations which are made by art and by law have no basis in nature, but are of authority for the moment and at the time at which they are made.– [[Relativism, too, is not new; complete with its radical amorality rooted in a worldview that has no foundational IS that can ground OUGHT. (Cf. here for Locke’s views and sources on a very different base for grounding liberty as opposed to license and resulting anarchistic “every man does what is right in his own eyes” chaos leading to tyranny.)] These, my friends, are the sayings of wise men, poets and prose writers, which find a way into the minds of youth. They are told by them that the highest right is might [[ Evolutionary materialism leads to the promotion of amorality], and in this way the young fall into impieties, under the idea that the Gods are not such as the law bids them imagine; and hence arise factions [[Evolutionary materialism-motivated amorality “naturally” leads to continual contentions and power struggles; cf. dramatisation here], these philosophers inviting them to lead a true life according to nature, that is, to live in real dominion over others [[such amoral factions, if they gain power, “naturally” tend towards ruthless tyranny; here, too, Plato hints at the career of Alcibiades], and not in legal subjection to them . . .
This is exactly what we are seeing in our time: evolutionary materialism promoting radical relativistic amorality, manipulation of the balance of public views, ruthless factions that use amoral “might makes right” tactics, and a rising tide of abuse of those who dare to differ. As, of course, the author of this post is currently experiencing through an episode of cyberstalking.
(SIDEBAR: I will not bother to share the current contents of my comments inbox, save to say that they are on the dossier on aggravating circumstances, and that they are foul, sadly reflective of unhinged, en-darkened minds joined to benumbed consciences that imagine that those who differ with them “must” be ignorant, stupid, insane and/or wicked, so they are free to slander as they please — as long as they think they can “get away” with it — in the teeth of libel law, and to threaten in the teeth of cyberstalking laws. They do not understand or care about the difference between liberty and destructive license, and do not shun to boast of their shameful resort to the mafioso threat: we know you, where you are and where those you care for are. Worse, in my scan of the fever-swamps that are egging these on, I found but few voices of reason or conscience that cautioned: you are going too far, stop. I do thank those few who have tried to speak up for decency. But, the balance of the attitudes expressed is all too revealing about the force of Plato’s warning on what is liable to happen if such en-darkened, benumbed factions seize power. A point echoed by 100 million ghosts of victims of atheistical regimes over the past 100 years. We can hardly say that we have not been warned, or that we do not have historical exemplars to guide us. And, TWT, a word to you: if you choose to publicly reveal your ignorance of the democides of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and all too many more, that simply reveals more about what you really are. Wake up, man! You plainly do not understand the matches you are trifling with.)
Now, the root of this problem of amorality is the IS-OUGHT gap often thought to have been definitively discussed by Hume in his “guillotine” argument:
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. [A Treatise of Human Nature. London: John Noon. p. 469.]
That pretended “surprise” is inadvertently revealing, on many levels. Arthur Holmes therefore aptly retorts, echoing Elizabeth Anscombe:
However we may define the good, however well we may calculate consequences, to whatever extent we may or may not desire certain consequences, none of this of itself implies any obligation of command. That something is or will be does not imply that we ought to seek it. We can never derive an “ought” from a premised “is” unless the ought is somehow already contained in the premise . . . .
R. M. Hare . . . raises the same point. Most theories, he argues, simply fail to account for the ought that commands us: subjectivism reduces imperatives to statements about subjective states, egoism and utilitarianism reduce them to statements about consequences, emotivism simply rejects them because they are not empirically verifiable, and determinism reduces them to causes rather than commands . . . .
Elizabeth Anscombe’s point is well made. We have a problem introducing the ought into ethics unless, as she argues, we are morally obligated by law – not a socially imposed law, ultimately, but divine law . . . [Ethics: Approaching Moral Decisions (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1984), pp. 70 – 72.]
The relevance of this comes out as soon as we consider the concept that we have rights; binding moral expectations that others should respect us as holding an innate, inalienable dignity:
If we admit that we all equally have the right to be treated as persons, then it follows that we have the duty to respect one another accordingly. Rights bring correlative duties: my rights . . . imply that you ought to respect these rights.[p. 81.]
But, why should we consider that people have rights at all? The only enduring answer to this has been aptly summarised in the US Declaration of Independence of 1776, the 235th anniversary of which was celebrated just yesterday:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . .”
Or, digging in deeper, to the roots of this thought, we can trace how John Locke in Ch 2 Sect, 5 of his Second Treatise on Civil Government, cited “the judicious [Richard] Hooker” in the classic (but now largely neglected) 1594+ Ecclesiastical Polity:
. . . if I cannot but wish to receive good, even as much at every man’s hands, as any man can wish unto his own soul, how should I look to have any part of my desire herein satisfied, unless myself be careful to satisfy the like desire which is undoubtedly in other men . . . my desire, therefore, to be loved of my equals in Nature, as much as possible may be, imposeth upon me a natural duty of bearing to themward fully the like affection. From which relation of equality between ourselves and them that are as ourselves, what several rules and canons natural reason hath drawn for direction of life no man is ignorant.
In short, the is-ought gap of ethics points to the question that rights and correlative duties arise from our being equally valuable as creatures of God. But such claims often do not sit well with modern or post-modern people, who wish to reject the moral argument to God.
But, as we look on and see the consequence s of that rejection, we can begin to ever more deeply appreciate the wisdom of the founders of modern liberty and democracy who grounded liberty in the premise of the inherently good Creator God, who made us all equally in his image and placed us under the moral government of the Golden Rule.
(F/N: If you imagine that the Euthyphro dilemma, so-called, drags such general theism anchored in an inherently good Creator God down into the same muck of amorality as materialism, I suggest you rethink in light of here and the onward linked. [Note, this will still hold if God created by means of directing the course of nature over the 13.7 BY often said to have obtained for our observed cosmos, so please save your favourite anti Young Earth Creationism talking points, strawmen and red herrings for another venue, and as this is a worldview level philosophical — primarily ethical — discussion relevant to the design vs materialism issue, kindly put away your “Creationism in a cheap tuxedo” talking points as well.])
In case you think I exaggerate the problem, let us hear prof William Provine of Cornell, in his now notorious 1998 Darwin Day address at the University of Tennessee, his home state:
Haldane, by the early 1930’s, knew better:
“It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter. For if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.” [[“When I am dead,” in Possible Worlds: And Other Essays , Chatto and Windus: London, 1932, reprint, p.209.]
And, Will Hawthorne administers the coup de grace:
Assume (per impossibile) that atheistic naturalism [[= evolutionary materialism] is true. Assume, furthermore, that one can’t infer an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ [[the ‘is’ being in this context physicalist: matter-energy, space- time, chance and mechanical forces]. (Richard Dawkins and many other atheists should grant both of these assumptions.)
Given our second assumption, there is no description of anything in the natural world from which we can infer an ‘ought’. And given our first assumption, there is nothing that exists over and above the natural world; the natural world is all that there is. It follows logically that, for any action you care to pick, there’s no description of anything in the natural world from which we can infer that one ought to refrain from performing that action.
Add a further uncontroversial assumption: an action is permissible if and only if it’s not the case that one ought to refrain from performing that action . . . [[We see] therefore, for any action you care to pick, it’s permissible to perform that action. If you’d like, you can take this as the meat behind the slogan ‘if atheism is true, all things are permitted’.
For example if atheism is true, every action Hitler performed was permissible. Many atheists don’t like this consequence of their worldview. But they cannot escape it and insist that they are being logical at the same time.
Now, we all know that at least some actions are really not permissible (for example, racist actions). Since the conclusion of the argument denies this, there must be a problem somewhere in the argument. Could the argument be invalid? No. The argument has not violated a single rule of logic and all inferences were made explicit.
Thus we are forced to deny the truth of one of the assumptions we started out with. That means we either deny atheistic naturalism or (the more intuitively appealing) principle that one can’t infer ‘ought’ from [[a material] ‘is’.
Given what has been going on over the past few days and weeks, the usual talking points on how atheists can be “good without god,” are pointless; for we can see for ourselves how they are plainly paralysed in the teeth of Internet thuggery by their fellow atheists, how they have no firm anchor for principles of thought and action that should tell them where to draw firm lines and stand by them.
We have been warned. So, now, let us heed the warnings from Plato to Hawthorne. END