Moral Obligations Prove God’s Existence (Well They Don’t, Unfortunately)
The Moral Argument for God:
- If there are objectively binding moral obligations, then God exists.
- There are objectively binding moral obligations.
- Therefore, God exists.
Even Timothy Keller admits that is not an “inescapable, watertight proof of God’s existence” (190). So I will not spend any time on this. So what else is there? This is examined in Timothy Keller’s book, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical. It was a good book, I read it twice. But there were — in my humble uneducated opinion — some logical mistakes. In this blog I take from Sam Harris’s’ Moral Landscape and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion to comment on Keller’s work and argue why he’s wrong. I hope you find this beneficial for the current debate on morality within Christian circles. Let me first state clearly: I believe morality to be evolved and I don’t think it makes my morality relative to my own desires. As we have gotten that out of the way now let us start at the beginning.
The ‘Progress Principle’: Could Morality Have Evolved?
Was there something that constructed morality for us? Well evolutionary psychologists have wondered this as well. And they came up with a theory: the ‘Progress Principle’. It explains “why people find more pleasure in working toward a goal than they experience when they actually attain it” (Keller 88). Evolutionary psychologists claim that it helped our ancestors to adapt and survive. Keller goes on to explain: “[psychologists] conjecture that our forebears who experienced post-attainment disappointment were more likely to work hard to achieve higher goals. These people were then more likely to live longer and so, having more children, they passed down their genes to us. Therefore, the discontent — the feeling that nothing in the world fulfills our deepest longings — is actually a chemical response in the brain that helped our ancestors survive” (88). That’s the theory.
Keller does not agree, however, as he points out. Keller references Gorski for dismissing the ‘Progress Principle’. They wonder, “as do many others,” how today’s admiration for self-sacrifice — especially outside of your tribe, race, etc. — could have led to the survival of the species. The theory, Gorski points out, “fails to explain why any of our ancestors would have had ‘moral feelings in the first place’ . . . ‘Once upon a time we thought there were moral universals. . . . Then, we discovered . . . [that] what is forbidden in one culture may be enjoined in another. . . . We realized that there is no [cosmic] moral law within us, much less in the starry skies above us. . . . We concluded that all [moral] laws are ultimately arbitrary. They are the product of power, not reason, be it human or divine’ (quoting from Gorski)” (Keller 182). The dismissal doesn’t explain the beginning. So let us come back to that. All the way back to cells and genes.
The Selfish Gene, can it be Altruistic?
Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion in the chapter: The Roots of Morality: Why are we Good? starts with a confession. He says that “There are indeed many circumstances in which survival of the individual organism will favor the survival of the genes that ride inside it” (247). He however clarifies that it is not uncommon for genes to “ensure their own selfish survival by influencing organisms to behave altruistically” (247). They fall into the subsequent two categories:
- A gene that programs individual organisms to favor their genetic kin is statistically likely to benefit copies of itself. Such a gene’s frequency can increase in the gene pool to the point where kin altruism becomes the norm. Being good to one’s own children is the obvious example. Bees, wasps, ants, termites, naked mole rats, meerkats and acorn woodpeckers, have evolved societies in which elder siblings care for younger siblings.
- The other is reciprocal altruism, ‘You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’. The unadorned theory of reciprocal altruism expects animals of any species to base their behavior upon unconscious responsiveness to such traits in their fellows. In human societies we add the power of language to spread reputations, usually in the form of gossip (Dawkins 248–49).
He then goes through the four different Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic or ‘moral’ to one another.
- Genetic kinship.
- Reciprocation: the repayment of favors given and the anticipating of favors given back.
- The Darwinian benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness.
- (Theory) Conspicuous generosity (Altruistic giving may be an advertisement of dominance or superiority).
“By any or all of the four routes, genetic tendencies towards altruism would have been favored in early humans” (252).
He then makes the incredibly important distinction and clarification: “Selection does not favor the evolution of a cognitive awareness of what is good for your genes. That awareness had to wait for the twentieth century to reach a cognitive level, and even now full understanding is confined to a minority of scientific specialists” (252).
He calls this the ‘mistake’ or ‘by-product’ idea. Natural selection programmed our brains to have altruistic urges, including sexual urges, hunger, xenophobic urges, etc. He uses the example: when a woman is on the pill, and her partner and herself still feel the urge to procreate, or the desire to have sexual intimacy, that the desire is in the end “independent of the ultimate Darwinian pressure that drove it” (253).
What Dawkins is suggesting is that the same applies to altruism: “In ancestral times, we had the opportunity to be altruistic only towards close kin and potential reciprocators. . . . Nowadays that restriction is no longer there, but the rule . . . persists. . . . It is just like sexual desire” (253). He calls these ‘mistakes’ — “blessed, precious mistakes”.
The question remains, does needing a reward for accessing moral development negate the validity of the evolution of morality? Well no it doesn’t. For some people it may seem tad cruel for it to be this way. I personally do not find it to be that way.
For example Keller says that this is a“trick that our biology or society has played on us” (182). He says that if loving altruistic behavior helped our ancestors survive (making our brain chemistry feeling good), it doesn’t necessarily invoke a moral obligation — not just a feeling — for action. He believes that it is just the feeling that is invoked. The question then is, is it not the feeling that leads to action?
Of course we do not act on all of our moral intuitions. Since we tend to be crippled by insecurities of various kind and/or laziness, external circumstances that are hard to influence, on and on we can go. But when continuously rewarded, our brain is positively induced to participate in activities that provide well-being for those around us in our society. That is why I believe it to be important to educate people on the benefits of smiling, eating well, exercising, reading, meditating, having deep conversations, drinking alcohol less, sleeping more, hugging, and telling people you “love” them. It encourages dopamine release in the brain because of the positive reaction we receive back from these actions. These are not arbitrary things that lead nowhere and/or point to an outside moral source. They are evolutionary by-products that are being reinforced in our culture due to the digital age that made all of humanity much smaller and more aware.
For Keller it seems to just be a point of not wanting to believe that the world exists like this, that there is a moral source apart from an omnipotent being, namely altruism in genes.
The Difference Between Ethics and Morals
Further Keller says that there is no cosmic law because all sets of morals can not and do not apply to all cultures. I believe it is important to differentiate between ethics and morals here. We all have a set of ethics or rules, regulations which we apply on a regular basis, such as not stealing, not killing, pillaging, destroying, etc. Morals on the other hand refer to our own principles of what is right or wrong, it is the “conscience” that speaks to us. Science, then, as Harris says in his book Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Human Values, “can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want — and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible” (28).
He further elaborates, making the reasonable assumption that “there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind” (28). Science is simply the observation of that which is occurring within nature, that includes morality. I do not see how Keller’s argument for universal morals applies to there being a universal law-giver. It surely must be the case that since feelings are observable, the reactions to those feelings give rise to moral intuitions. That can be both produced and observed. It will vary of course with different cultures since we have set different ethical regulations for each other, but it does not negate the claim that there is a right way to live for all people — universally.
Timothy Keller, as much as I love his writing and respect his intellect, does not argument sufficiently against moral relativism. It is unfortunate since I would love to be persuaded by his reasoning. Let us progress with a quick definition and further guidance on the topic matter.
Moral Realism and Consequentialism
Moral Realism: moral claims can really be true or false.
Consequentialism: all questions of value (right and wrong, good and evil, etc.).
“Without God and the future life . . . everything is permitted, one can do anything” (Fyodor Dostoevsky).
The belief is that since God does not exist, then there is no final obligation to morality, as Keller points out in his book. Keller can not find an obligation if there is no judge to sit over his decisions and actions, which is rather disheartening.
In his own words: “If there is no God . . . it creates a great problem in that there doesn’t appear to be alternative moral source that exists outside of our inner feelings and intuitions” (178).
The claim is: all morality condones to power. Harris responds: “all questions of value (right and wrong, good and evil, etc.) depend upon the possibility of experiencing such value.” It does not matter whether the only moral source is our inner feelings and intuitions, as Keller says. “Without potential consequences at the level of experience — happiness, suffering, joy, despair, etc. — all talk of value is empty” (Harris 62).
Keller however insists that it does not create obligation. He says: “what has been generally beneficial to the species over the ages may not be particularly beneficial to an individual in the present,” and “if morality is really a matter of benefit rather than of spiritual obligation transcending personal concerns,” then any set of ethical guidelines “can, like any other useful instrument, be taken up or laid down as one chooses.” . . . there is no reason not to act in any way we desire, if we can get away with it practically. There’s simply no way to tell right from wrong, so we shouldn’t try” (183).
This seems like a fake, nihilistic conclusion. It’s almost like he is trying to persuade the reader that the absence of God in morality leads to moral chaos. To paraphrase this, he says that since benefiting from our morals (being concerned of others in this case) leads to personal gain, we can not discern between right and wrong, so there’s no point in trying. The conclusion baffles the mind. The only way to discern between right and wrong is through trial and error. And Christianity has led it’s course for 2,000 years to a set of ethics that lead to unhealthy behavior in many scenarios. It is not as black and white as it seems for Keller.
According to Keller This Then Leads to the Loss of the Human Self
This all means one thing to the Christian — the loss of self. It is puzzling how this becomes the conclusion. But Keller believes it wholeheartedly. He references the Renaissance when he says: “Eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers, however, were committed to the belief that human reason and science, apart from ancient tradition or divine revelation, were sufficient to give us the knowledge we needed to understand our world and live rightly. . . . And because that could not be confirmed by science or reason alone, the Enlightenment rejected “any notion of essential human nature” or of a telos for human beings” (Keller 185).
It would be interesting for him to define what he means behind this “science and reason alone”. Does he mean that reflection and empirical studies on morality are not enough? I don’t see why he objects to this so much. He suggests that “Hume, Kant, Kierkegaard, and others sought to provide justification for objective moral claims. But they all failed, and this is why our society today is riven by polarized, irreconcilable, alternate universes of moral discourse, none of which can convince the others in the slightest” (186).
The argument is: “How can you inspire people to unselfish, loving behavior by appealing ultimately to selfish motives, that it will pay off for them?” (188). Well you inspire them by invoking these principles by law and sometimes by force until they stick to the cultural moral norms, as we have done in our society and many others. We were not wired always to never steal and to never kill those arounds us. We don’t do these things on a more regular basis now because of law and prisons in our countries that penalize such crimes.
I would like to provide the argument that this does not lead to the loss of self but quite the opposite: the fulfillment of self. This will be argued in Part 2 of this series.
I hope you enjoyed this. Until next time, keep reflecting.
“Beauty invites a certain curiosity. But, as Oscar Wilde said, beauty is just five minutes long if you don’t have anything else to sustain that curiosity.” — Unknown.
Moral Landscape, by Sam Harris.
Making Sense of God, by Timothy Keller.
The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins.