Intelligent Design

RDFish is wrong; Barry Arrington is right: Materialism cannot be reconciled with objective morality.

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In several previous posts, RDFish stumbled into a serious philosophical error that needs to be addressed. Barry Arrington had made the unassailable point that materialism (understood as physicalism) is incompatible with such concepts as good, evil, and objective morality. The reason is clear: Materialism reduces all choices to electro-chemical processes in the brain. With that model, all apparent moral decisions are really nothing more than chemcial-physical operations or functions.

 

Though RDF failed to refute the argument, confront the argument, or even define his own terms, he sought, nevertheless, to attack it through the back door, claiming that past atheist philosophers embraced both metaphysical materialism and objective morality. His list includes such notables as David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Ayn Rand, and Jeremy Bentham.

 

Since RDF’s claim should not, in any way, be taken seriously, it doesn’t rate a long post or call for an extended analysis. In fact, none of four philosophers indicated were both materialists and objectivists. It’s as simple as that. An abbreviated account should settle the issue:

 

Hume, though he was a materialist, did not believe in objective morality at all. For him, moral judgments are nothing more than subjective feelings. To say rape is “evil.” is to say “I hate rape.” This subjective view of morality is identical with the point that Barry was making. Materialist metaphysics leads inexorably to a pseudo-ethical model based solely on feelings and preferences.

 

Immanuel Kant was not a materialist in any way, shape, or form. Indeed, he is closer to being an Idealist, which is the opposite philosophical extreme. His ethical scheme is primarily subjective. Man is his own law. He is autonomous. He binds himself to the law that he gives himself. By contrast, objective morality binds the subject from the outside.

 

Ayn Rand embraced objectivist principles, but she was not a materialist.—As she puts it, “Man’s consciousness is not material—but neither is it an element opposed to matter” or again,”Man is an entity of mind and body, an indivisible union of two elements: of consciousness and matter. Matter is that which one perceives, consciousness is that which perceives it”

 

Jeremy Bentham, though an atheist, was silent on materialism, so there is no way to know for sure if he should be placed in that category. Unlike objective morality, his moral scheme of utilitarianism does not come from an outside source (God or nature). On the contrary, it is conceived by the subject and projected to the outside as a standard for other subjects.

 

So if RDFish is still hoping to find a metaphysical materialist who also embraces objective morality, I wish him good fortune. He will need it. The search for an impossible dream is overrated. It can be a continuing source of frustration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

32 Replies to “RDFish is wrong; Barry Arrington is right: Materialism cannot be reconciled with objective morality.

  1. 1
    Graham2 says:

    The god-botherers hate materialism. They want their gods, they want objective morality. Us heathens would accept all this supernatural noise if only there was evidence for any of it.

    If there is some objective moral standard, then why do we keep arguing over and over and over about moral issues ? This is the question the god-botherers just wont answer. If there is an objective moral standard, but we all (apparently) disagree on what it is, then what use is it ? Its identical to no standard at all.

  2. 2
    Joe says:

    Materialism is untenable, so who would accept it?

  3. 3
    Mapou says:

    Graham2:

    Us heathens would accept all this supernatural noise if only there was evidence for any of it.

    There is overwhelming evidence for a non-physical realm right in front of you. You are just blind to it. Why? It’s because your goal is not to progress in knowledge and wisdom but to kick the other guy’s religion around. It’s a personal thing to a materialist. It has always been a personal thing. It’s almost psychotic, demonic even. LOL.

  4. 4
    Mapou says:

    Here’s a question. Why are materialists/Darwinists/atheists so obsessed with arguing with Christians/creationists? They’re constantly foaming at the mouth over at antievolution.org. It’s a religious cult. A mental disease. LOL

  5. 5
    Roy says:

    Strange comments for a series of threads aimed at arguing with atheists and kicking the other guy’s materialism around.

  6. 6
    Mapou says:

    Roy, you guys always argue from the position that you are the enlightened ones and that the other guys are stupid IDiots. Why do you even come on a mostly Christian site and defend yourselves against the dumb soul believers? UD does not force materialists and atheists to participate in their discussions. Why do you even volunteer to discuss your advanced and superior understanding with primitive minds? Why not stick to scientific forums and ignore the peasants? You know you can’t change their minds. I’m looking for a motive, here.

  7. 7
    bornagain77 says:

    Graham2 asks:

    “If there is some objective moral standard, then why do we keep arguing over and over and over about moral issues ?”

    One word: Sin! The reason why Darwinists, and people in general, continually argue over morality is because of their/our rebellious nature.

    A moral law directly implies a moral law giver, i.e. God!

    Most hard-core Atheists I’ve debated on the internet would rather live in an completely incoherent worldview than ever humble themselves before God.

    A DEFENSE OF THE (Divine) REVELATION AGAINST THE OBJECTIONS OF FREETHINKERS, BY MR. EULER
    Excerpt: “The freethinkers (atheists) have yet to produce any objections that have not long been refuted most thoroughly. But since they are not motivated by the love of truth, and since they have an entirely different point of view, we should not be surprised that the best refutations count for nothing and that the weakest and most ridiculous reasoning, which has so often been shown to be baseless, is continuously repeated. If these people maintained the slightest rigor, the slightest taste for the truth, it would be quite easy to steer them away from their errors; but their tendency towards stubbornness makes this completely impossible.”
    http://www.math.dartmouth.edu/.....2trans.pdf

    Of related note on Euler:

    God by the Numbers – Connecting the constants
    Excerpt: The final number comes from theoretical mathematics. It is Euler’s (pronounced “Oiler’s”) number: e^pi*i. This number is equal to -1, so when the formula is written e^pi*i+1 = 0, it connects the five most important constants in mathematics (e, pi, i, 0, and 1) along with three of the most important mathematical operations (addition, multiplication, and exponentiation). These five constants symbolize the four major branches of classical mathematics: arithmetic, represented by 1 and 0; algebra, by i; geometry, by pi; and analysis, by e, the base of the natural log. e^pi*i+1 = 0 has been called “the most famous of all formulas,” because, as one textbook says, “It appeals equally to the mystic, the scientist, the philosopher, and the mathematician.”,,,
    The discovery of this number gave mathematicians the same sense of delight and wonder that would come from the discovery that three broken pieces of pottery, each made in different countries, could be fitted together to make a perfect sphere. It seemed to argue that there was a plan where no plan should be.,,,
    Today, numbers from astronomy, biology, and theoretical mathematics point to a rational mind behind the universe.,,, The apostle John prepared the way for this conclusion when he used the word for logic, reason, and rationality—logos—to describe Christ at the beginning of his Gospel: “In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God.” When we think logically, which is the goal of mathematics, we are led to think of God.
    http://www.christianitytoday.c.....ml?start=3

    “Like a Shakespearean sonnet that captures the very essence of love, or a painting that brings out the beauty of the human form that is far more than just skin deep, Euler’s Equation reaches down into the very depths of existence.”
    Dr. Keith Devlin – Stanford University mathematics professor –

    Commenting on Euler’s Equation Alexander Vilenkin stated:

    “It appears that the Creator shares the mathematicians’ sense of beauty.”
    – Alexander Vilenkin

    Verse and Music:

    Matthew 13:15
    For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’

    Matthew West – Day One (Lyric Video)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qq2Tp3asLU8

  8. 8
    Box says:

    StephenB: Materialism reduces all choices to electro-chemical processes in the brain.

    So, in effect—under materialism—”choices” are not “choices” at all.

    StephenB: With that model, all apparent moral decisions are really nothing more than personal preferences governed by physical forces.

    With that model all apparent moral decisions are really nothing more than electro-chemical processes in the brain; full stop. Where does a ‘person with preferences’ come from? Why kindly allow materialism to use these concepts? “Personal preferences governed by physical forces” makes at much sense as “choices” which are reducible to electro-chemical processes in the brain. Physical forces don’t have personal preferences and electro-chemical processes in the brain (or anywhere else) don’t make choices.

    Of course, you are very much aware of everything I said Stephen. I don’t think for a moment that I tell you anything new here. It is you who explained it to me first.

    However, I want it on record.

  9. 9
    Mung says:

    Barry Arrington had made the unassailable point that materialism (understood as physicalism) is incompatible with such concepts of good, evil, and objective morality.

    Could someone please explain how materialism is compatible with subjective morality?

  10. 10
    StephenB says:

    Box, yes indeed. Even as we express our doubts about matter’s potential to produce the effect in question, we are still granting to it undeserved causal power. Could we not, for example, also ask this: From whence comes the faculty with which the person makes the choices?

  11. 11
    StephenB says:

    Mung:

    Could someone please explain how materialism is compatible with subjective morality?

    Excellent question. As a product of the aimless interaction of molecules, is Kant’s sophistry any more likely to emerge than Aristotle’s brilliance?

  12. 12
    Seversky says:

    Mung @ 9

    Could someone please explain how materialism is compatible with subjective morality?

    Materialism – or the upgrade, Materialism 2.0, better known as physicalism – is a philosophical position on the nature of reality or what is. Morality is about how we humans ought to be. Anyone heard of the is/ought problem?

    If the question is how can the electrochemical processes in the physical brain give rise to the conscious world of ideas in which we all live, the answer, as before, is that no one knows. This is the Hard Problem of Consciousness. All we can say is that brain and conscious awareness are closely associated, No brain, no conscious mind. Like it or not, matter matters. We can’t exist without it.

  13. 13
    StephenB says:

    seversky

    Materialism – or the upgrade, Materialism 2.0, better known as physicalism

    That is a good way of putting it.

  14. 14
    Bob O'H says:

    If there is some objective moral standard, then why do we keep arguing over and over and over about moral issues ?

    For me this is (almost) the critical problem with an objective moral standard. If there is an objective moral standard someone should be able to point to it, and show its objective basis. Jeremy Bentham at least tried to do this, and utilitarianism is certainly consistent with materialism.

    I wrote “almost” because if there were a readily identifiable objective standard then we would still find cases where it would be difficult to apply, so we would still have arguments, but they would be at a different level: we would have a solid grounding for any discussion.

  15. 15
    Mark Frank says:

    SB

    The claim that materialism entails subjectivism – which is how Barry put it – is  extremely assailable. But the whole episode was strange. Why did Barry bother in the first place? Most materialists on this forum are subjectivists anyway. So what is gained by trying to demonstrate that one entails the other?

    I think the main issue was actually describing subjectivism as personal preferences. I think that is true but misleading. It is a bit like describing maternal love as a personal preference for your baby. Others found it so misleading as to be false.  This has come up zillions of times before so I don’t see what was added by trying to show it followed from materialism.

    Nevertheless, is it true that materialism entails subjectivism? Of course it depends what you mean by materialism and especially what you mean by subjectivism. I have always thought that a statement is subjective if its truth depends on the reaction of the speaker/observer (or possibly the reaction of people in general) and it is objective if it does not. So beautiful, awesome, heartrending are subjective and fast, green and angry are objective. I know you disagree. In response you wrote:

    As I have stated in the past, I don’t think things like subjective personal tastes can be compared to attempts to subjectivize truths. After giving it a lot of thought, I have come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as objective funniness or tastiness, but I do think there is such a thing as objective truth. So, I don’t think we can make analogies along those lines

    Which I found hard to interpret. It doesn’t include an alternative definition of subjective/objective and I am  not even sure if you are saying my definition is wrong.

    If you accept my definition of subjectivism then something is objective if it is true or false independent of the reactions of the speaker/observer.  Something is fast or green even if there never was a living thing to react to it. A person is angry even if there never was another living thing to react to him/her. But something cannot be heartrending because it has the potential to renders hearts. It is the reaction, or potential reactions, that determines its truth of falsity.  So a subjective theory of morals asserts that something is right or wrong because of the potential human reaction to it.  But it doesn’t require those reactions to be material. That is a completely different question.

    I am pretty sure Barry was muddling the statement materialism entails subjectivism with a different claim:

    Subjectivism and materialism combined entail that moral statements are true or false because of electro-chemical processes in a person’s brain.

    This rather depends on your definition of materialism but if you take it as meaning that all mental events are electro-chemical processes in a person’s brain then it is true enough.

  16. 16
    Mark Frank says:

    Just noticed an important typo in my #15.

    It should read:

    But something can only be heartrending because it has the potential to renders hearts.

  17. 17
    Florabama says:

    Mung @ 9, “Could someone please explain how materialism is compatible with subjective morality?”

    It is not, but that’s the point. If morality is subjective there is no morality. If you argue rape is evil with Marquis de Sade, what emerges? Is there a consensus on rape? Or simply two polar opposite opinions? Where do two polar opposite opinions leave any consensus on morality? Any extrapolation leaves you with the same problem. If morality is what every man says it is, you have nothing but 10 billion opinions.

    Whether even subjective morality or free will or even reality itself can exist if materialism is true, is another question. If everything you experience — every feeling, emotion, sense, smell, touch — is just electrical impulses firing in your brain, how do you know you’re not just a battery in the Matrix?

  18. 18
    Silver Asiatic says:

    Box

    With that model all apparent moral decisions are really nothing more than electro-chemical processes in the brain; full stop. Where does a ‘person with preferences’ come from? Why kindly allow materialism to use these concepts? “Personal preferences governed by physical forces” makes at much sense as “choices” which are reducible to electro-chemical processes in the brain. Physical forces don’t have personal preferences and electro-chemical processes in the brain (or anywhere else) don’t make choices.

    I agree with that clarification. It’s not personal preferences, and they’re not even ‘governed’ by anything. It’s just various functions of the organism.
    So the sentence would be: “all apparent moral decisions are really nothing more than chemcial-physical operations or functions”.

    In materialism, there can’t be “decisions”. The chemcial-collectives just do what they do. A rain cloud doesn’t decide to give off precipitation at some point. It just follows the physical process.
    What theists call “decisions” are the same as the rain cloud in materialism. Things just happen because physics & chemistry require them.

  19. 19
    StephenB says:

    Silver Asiatic, Box,

    Although the sentence in question was meant to reflect the claims that are being made, I agree that it can be misleading, so I edited the post to convey the point you are making. Thank you for your kind attention to detail.

  20. 20
    Silver Asiatic says:

    Thanks, SB — it helps to remove any theistic concepts (and it’s surprising how subtly they creep into our explanations on materialism).

  21. 21
    Silver Asiatic says:

    Florabama

    If morality is subjective there is no morality.

    Interesting. If morality is merely “how an organism functions”, like eating or sleeping, then there’s no need for moral rules or laws. Each organism just does things.

    Conscience is impossible to reconcile with that.

    An organism does something. Then at night, it has bad, disturbing thoughts about the ‘wrong’ thing it did.

    A sand dune cannot do a “wrong” thing. Even a tornado’s actions cannot be “evil”.

    It doesn’t appear that a lion spends a sleepless night trying to reconcile his conscience with the vision of a bloody zebra carcass on his mind. Even moreso with animals that resort to trickery and ‘lies’ to capture victims.

  22. 22
    StephenB says:

    Mark Frank

    So what is gained by trying to demonstrate that one entails the other

    I don’t understand why you are asking me about Barry’s argument when my OP is about RDF’s argument.

  23. 23
    Mung says:

    Physicalism has no place for morality, either objective or subjective.

    So all these materialists who claim that morality is subjective are just full of **it.

    True?

  24. 24
    WALTO says:

    The problem with the OP here, IMO, is that “choice” is equivocal. Choices may on one level be considered “nothing but electro-mechanical processes,” but they are also intentional. I.e., they are THAT chocolate is better or TO go to the store.–and those intentional objects are not themselves brain processes. Put another way, whether the alleged inconsistency of morality with physicalism is correct depends on the nature of the reduction that is claimed to be possible. If it suggests that intentionality can be somehow dispensed with (the so-called “hard problem”) then I agree it’s a fool’s errand. If it says that thoughts are nothing but events in brains, without attempting to imply that “they are thus not OF anything outside of brains”–which IMO is what a sensible physicalism actually does say–then I think it’s perfectly compatible with the objectivity of moral claims.

    W

  25. 25
    Barry Arrington says:

    WALTO @ 24:

    Choices . . . are also intentional.

    And for that reason are precluded by materialism, which denies the existence of intentionality.

  26. 26
    Mark Frank says:

    #22 SB

    I don’t understand why you are asking me about Barry’s argument when my OP is about RDF’s argument

    The title of your OP is:

    RDFish is wrong; Barry Arrington is right: Materialism cannot be reconciled with objective morality.

    And RDFish was refuting Barry’s argument.

  27. 27
    WALTO says:

    arrington @25

    As indicated, that depends on one’s definition of reducibility. That’s a highly controversial matter in philosophy. I know you prefer team sports to nuances, however.

    W

  28. 28
    StephenB says:

    Mark Frank

    And RDFish was refuting Barry’s argument.

    Right. And that is what 99% of the OP is about. We are discussing, specifically, the historical and philosophical error inherent in his futile effort.

  29. 29
    Mapou says:

    Bob O’H:

    For me this is (almost) the critical problem with an objective moral standard. If there is an objective moral standard someone should be able to point to it, and show its objective basis. Jeremy Bentham at least tried to do this, and utilitarianism is certainly consistent with materialism.

    I wrote “almost” because if there were a readily identifiable objective standard then we would still find cases where it would be difficult to apply, so we would still have arguments, but they would be at a different level: we would have a solid grounding for any discussion.

    The hard problem is not whether or not morality can be objective, or whether morality is always subjective (there is already a logical contradiction right here), but whether the concept of morality makes any sense in a materialist world. It does not.

    And yes, there is an objective morality. The ancients knew about it. It is called unity. Everything is ONE. This means that a balance between opposites must be maintained in the end. In physics, this is manifested as the conservation of energy, momentum, charge, etc. In the spiritual realm, it’s called karma. That is to say, all debts must and will be paid for one way or another. We, Christians and others, believe in and accept the sacrifice of Yeshua as more than sufficient to pay our debt. This is why we are free.

  30. 30
    StephenB says:

    Mark

    The claim that materialism entails subjectivism – which is how Barry put it – is extremely assailable.

    I would say two things.

    The best materialism can do is posit physical reactions to physical stimuli. So, Barry is right to say that under materialism, all you get is physical reactions, perhaps posing as preferences (though preference may be too strong of a word).

    From a big picture analysis, I agree with Mung. Under materialism, there can be no rational choices. One can choose neither objectivism or subjectivism because he has no immaterial will with which to make the choice. Electro-chemical processes cannot function as a “faculty.”

  31. 31
    Mark Frank says:

    #30 SB

    You can say both those things, which are of course controversial, but neither of them are reasons for supposing that materialism entails subjectivism.

  32. 32
    StephenB says:

    Mark, I would like to read the comment in context. Could you point me to the post where Barry says that materialism entails or necessarily leads to “subjectivism.”

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