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Stress-testing the
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Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


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Whence Cometh Value?

An argument undercutting non-theistic attempts to defend their value systems, by demonstrating that value itself is incoherent in a universe without God.

Samuel Skinner has been trying to articulate and defend a non-theistic version of ethics in the comment thread of ‘The Inherent Value of Human Life’. Since I don’t think that debate is proving fruitful, I’m going to undercut it with a new argument which follows on from that original article.

Samuel has conceded that the universe, in toto, is amoral: that is, that is has no moral properties at all. In his own words:

I am admitting the universe is amoral […] The universe is entirely amoral. After all, none of its component parts are moral and they do not have any emergent properties that make the universe any different. To claim it is anything but amoral is similar to claiming that for any other inaminate object.

Value conference

It seems to me that this theory of ethics relies on the fairly generic idea of value conference. This is the notion that things only obtain value when we confer it on them. Value can take many forms—we could be talking about moral value (rightness), or teleological value (purpose), or epistemic value (meaning), or whatever. But the general idea is the same. The universe itself does not have value. Its constituent parts do not have value. They’re all just various amalgamations of matter and energy—and value isn’t a property of matter or energy. Therefore, if anything in the universe is to have value, that value must be conferred, rather than existing inherently in it.

Obviously, under a non-theistic view, value conference is done by sentient beings. Particularly of interest to us is the value conference performed by human beings. Under a non-theistic view, value conference does not involve (or need not involve) a deity of any kind—human value conference is sufficient. Put another way, value conference can be subjective, such that values are conferred by individuals; there is no need for an objective value-conferrer like God.

Now, if it can be shown that subjective value conference fails as a thesis, then the entire basis for non-theistic ethics (and epistemology and teleology) falls apart. If subjective value conference is intrinsically incoherent or irrational or impossible in some way, then it is clear that there are no grounds for whatever values non-theists believe exist—including moral values.

The form of the argument

What I’m going to show is that non-theists have no grounds for values. The kinds of grounds I have in mind are ontological, and not epistemological. In other words, I’m talking about whether or not, and how, values actually exist in the way that non-theists assert. I’m not talking about whether or not, and how, we can know about them. If you want to comment in this thread, make sure that you mark this distinction.

What I’m going to show is that subjective value conference is basically self-refuting. In this post, I will be focusing mostly on moral values, since that’s what’s at issue in the current debate with Samuel. I am somewhat indebted to Bill Vallicella, whose argument from meaning I am emulating.

The argument outlined

Under the non-theist’s view, some action has some moral value only if that value is conferred on it by some person. Now, the action, by the non-theist’s own admission, is intrinsically valueless. In terms of analysis as a physical system in the universe, it has no value, because value is not a property of physical systems. So the action only gains value upon the act of conference.

The problem for the non-theist is that, under his own view, the act of value conference itself is as intrinsically valueless as the action which it’s supposed to confer value upon. In that case, the question reasonably arises, how can a valueless act of conference nonetheless confer value?

The obvious answer which presents itself is that perhaps the act of conference has value conferred upon it in turn by some other act of conference. But this only pushes the problem back a step, leading to an infinite regress. That second act of conference would also be intrinsically valueless, requiring another act of conference—and so on ad infinitum.

The alternative, that value-conference is itself a valueless process, does not constitute any kind of explanation at all. It’s self-evidently absurd, and may even lead to conclusions which the non-theist would himself deny. An explanation of the origin of values ought to at least explain what it is about the process of value conference that actually confers value. If the action of value conference is, in the final analysis, a physical system, then value is not an intrinsic part of that process. What, then, about the process confers value? Whence cometh value?

Furthermore, if the act of conferring value is a process which does not itself involve value, then what distinguishes a valueless process which confers value from a valueless process which does not? It seems very unclear why such a process is even needed for there to be value, if there is to be value. It’s as if value “just exists” in the universe—but that is the very conclusion which the non-theist denies.

Emergence

The typical response to this sort of argument is that value is an emergent property, just like love or art or intelligence or whatever. Non-theists often, rather ironically, try to put pressure on this argument by saying that it would reduce to non-existence all these things which we consider so important. Therefore, it must be the case that these things really do exist, but as emergent properties—of intelligence, for example; which is itself an emergent property of physical systems. But that’s the very point of the argument: to show that, under a non-theistic view, these things really don’t exist. Trying to put pressure on the argument by emphasizing its conclusion is therefore a tad naive. All the non-theist is doing is pointing out the very conclusion being argued, but disagreeing because it’s plainly absurd. But of course it’s absurd—the argument is of the form reductio ad absurdum; a “bringing back to absurdity”—a form of argument constituting a disproof of some proposition (in this case non-theism) by showing that it leads to absurd or untenable conclusions.

Appealing to emergence, as if this refutes the argument, is just like appealing to magic. It is not merely an admission that the non-theistic view of reality has no explanation for the existence of value (in marked contradistinction to the theistic view), but also an admission that non-theists would rather appeal to magic than to the clear and rational theistic explanation. As Paul Manata puts it,

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil & bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting
Lizard’s leg & howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell broth boil and bubble.

Macbeth Act IV, Scene 1

The crone throws the wing of a bat and the eye of a newt into the cauldron, mixes it up, and voilà, you have the emergence of some mystical and immaterial “protection” or “love” or “safe trip” or “powerful trouble” spell or charm.

Likewise, take the physicalist. That crone, Mammy Nature, mixes a few billions neurons, synapses, and some firing c-fibers, into that cauldron called your noggin, and voilà, you have the emergence of some mystical and immaterial mind with beliefs and intentionality and thoughts.

When appeals to the “mustbebraindidit” argument are made, I’m going to point out that this has a name: The bat wing and eye of newt fallacy.

Conclusion

Although my argument can no doubt be fleshed out and refined some, it is sufficient for now to undercut the value theories of Samuel Skinner, and any non-theist, by showing that they are, under his own view, non-existent or meaningless or impossible. If his own belief system provides no mechanism by which values can actually exist—that is, no ontological grounds for values—then it is pointless for him to try to defend his particular value system. Any such defense contradicts itself. He is, like all non-theists, tacitly borrowing theistic presuppositions even in presenting his non-theistic notions of how ethics work.

As for the Christian, he affirms that value actually does exist as a basic property of reality, grounded in the immutable and ontologically necessary God of Christianity.

7 comments

  1. Timothy H.

    Hey Bnonn, Paul Copan has written a chapter dealing with evolutionary ethics and the value issue discussed here which might be of use to you:

    http://www.paulcopan.com/articles/pdf/God-naturalism-morality.pdf

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Thanks a lot Timothy; I’ll add that to my collection on Ma.gnolia (:

  3. Scott

    Wow, OK. Hello DBT,

    I just stumbled upon your blog the other day and was mostly impressed. The first article that I read was “Why Do Atheists Proselytize?” and felt compelled to start writing a response. Before posting it I came here on a link you provided to clarify your position for myself and now see a glaring problem that I thought before would have been overkill to state.

    First off, I would like to state how refreshing it is to find a Christian that can explain their ideas clearly, without dogma, able to hold civil discourse, AND seems quite able to use and understand logic. I don’t mean this as a dig to Christians… just an honest observation and a complement to you. Given this statement, I’m sure it is no surprise that I could be called atheist. While I do not primarily identify as such, it is still accurate (if interested, I primarily identify as skeptic).

    As I said before, your logic is quiet good, maybe even flawless inside the blogs I’ve read. I think where your issues may lie is your pre-logic assumptions. They seem to arise from two places. First, you seem to lack an understanding of non-theist beliefs/arguments as a whole. Second, a propensity to project your presuppositions upon us. This is understandable, however, for the following reason.

    People tend to lump ‘the enemy’ in their head and see them as an undifferentiated mass with out individuality and thus humanity. I believe you are doing this to a small degree. Not the humanity part, but the individuality part. First thing to understand about ANY ideological group, not just non-theists, is that members and their beliefs can very GREATLY. I often find that I am answering questions from Christians that would be like asking a Catholic “Why are all you Mormons so crazy?!” You do not SEEM immune to this as your writings seem to be full of statements like…

    “Any such defense contradicts itself. He is, like all non-theists, tacitly borrowing theistic presuppositions even in presenting his non-theistic notions of how ethics work.”

    Case in point, not only am I ‘atheist’, I am also amoralist. I personally know many ‘atheists’, not all are confirmed amoralists.

    One final thing before I address the argument at hand. I caution you to not use straw man arguments. While I cannot know if you used week non-theist arguments (or week versions there of) on purpose or if the best of your research yielded these, but I feel like I could tear apart the non-theist arguments that you have put forward (as I often do for my atheistic friends who are lazy or use bad arguments). This leads me to suspect that you might be using straw men, as I have seen better arguments out there, but will give you the benefit of the doubt for now, and please just take this as a bit of advice.

    I will give my counter argument in the next post.

  4. Scott

    (I am going to use ‘materialist’ where you have used ‘non-theist’ as there are non-theistic spiritual/religious belief systems that do hold to an objectively moral reality (such as some animists, pantheist, and perennialists), and I believe you were actually targeting materialists. Please forgive me if I am wrong, and you can ignore the rest of this post if that is the case, but given that the ‘non-theistic’ arguments that you put forward would be absurd to attribute them to animists, pantheists, or perennialists, I don’t think my position is unfounded.)

    As said before I am arguing from a non-theistic, amoral, materialist, causal determinist perspective.

    First, if your only attempt is to refute the materialist that tries to argue for an objectively moral reality or a reality that has morals transferred to it by sentient beings, then congratulations, you have succeeded. I would be negligent, however, if I did not point out that you have likely defeated a VERY small minority of materialists. But given the article’s description…

    “An argument undercutting non-theistic attempts to defend their value systems, by demonstrating that value itself is incoherent in a universe without God.”

    it doesn’t seem like that was your goal. You seem to believe that you have successfully outlined the materialist’s argument for value (that is, shared by most materialists), but you really have only constructed a straw man that is all to easy to knock down. Mind you, even if you can point to a materialist that holds the kind of beliefs you are suggesting we hold to, attacking the weakest version of similar arguments that we hold would still constitute a straw man and be intellectually dishonest if you knew of better arguments from our side.

    Second, the only quote you actually used from a materialist is one that admits to total amoralism (the link you provided is broken so I don’t know the rest of his argument). You then go on to argue against a position that is not amoralism, by pointing out the absurdity of conferring moral value while being an amoralist (something an amoralist wouldn’t do by definition). For instance, you state

    “What I’m going to show is that subjective value conference is basically self-refuting. In this post, I will be focusing mostly on moral values, since that’s what’s at issue in the current debate with Samuel.”

    That is NOT the current debate, an amoralist would ever try to “confer moral value” on any level as moral value, to an amoralist, does not exist on any level. Now, you do go on to talk about value transference in a general sense, which the amoralist will often claim to do, but when you try to turn around and equate all forms of value conference, this is where another point of contention arises.

    “Value can take many forms—we could be talking about moral value (rightness), or teleological value (purpose), or epistemic value (meaning), or whatever. But the general idea is the same.”

    The general idea, to an amoralist, is not the same. Moral value is a nonsense idea, where subjective teleological value is at least a perception of something that is grounded in reality (“This is a valuable screwdriver because it drives screws well.”).

    Third, I am unclear of your definition of ‘value conference’ (can we start abbreviating this to VC). It seems that your definition includes that somehow the object of value is changed metaphysically to receive the intangible state of valued item. A materialist would never think this, and would be part of your straw man if your argument against our position included that we thought this way. If your definition of VC is more like mine (and the vast majority of materialists), where the object of value changes in no way and that value exists only as an impression in the psychology of the one who does the valuing… then I will admit the rest of your argument makes little to no sense to me. For instance, I do not see your following statements as a problem if we accept my definition of VC…

    “The problem for the non-theist is that, under his own view, the act of value conference itself is as intrinsically valueless as the action which it’s supposed to confer value upon.”
    and…
    “The alternative, that value-conference is itself a valueless process, does not constitute any kind of explanation at all. It’s self-evidently absurd, and may even lead to conclusions which the non-theist would himself deny.”

    Going forward in this discussion let us try not to use the word “value” without identifying its subjective or objective nature (I have found it is a good rule in general). I will try to interpret these sentences in the most intellectually generous fashion I can (that is, interpret this passage with the intent to give you the benefit of the doubt that you meant the most logical interpretation).

    “The alternative, that subjective value-conference is itself an objectively valueless process, does not constitute any kind of explanation at all. It’s self-evidently absurd, and may even lead to conclusions which the non-theist would himself deny.”

    (If, on the other hand, you are suggesting that a materialist would propose the above statement with a combination of [sub/sub], [obj/obj] or even [obj/sub] then you are indeed building straw men)

    I agree the act of Subjective VC (SVC) is intrinsically valueless in the objective sense, and find no problem in this as objective value does not exist. Materialists say “I value this,” and feel no compunction to justify it objectively as that would be nonsensical. If you are presupposing that value must be objective to be “real” or “of actual value”, then you are begging the question aren’t you? By requiring that a subjective value must refer to an objective value you are presupposing your conclusion. That is, if you are assuming that things are only truly valuable if that value is grounded in an objective frame of reference, then of course the above quote is going to seem absurd to you, but I see no reason to require the objective frame of reference for SVC.

    Let me put it another way. What, in the ontological nature of subjective value (psychological impression of value), requires this objective reference to be truly meaningful? I see no self-evident reason to assume this nature of subjective value and thus feel that the burden of proof would be on the one suggesting this nature exists.

    To give a similar example you may be familiar with, Christians often ask “If God does not exist, then where did the universe come from?” This assumes that objects of type universe have the attribute of “need for creator”, which is simply not self-evident, and thus needs to be established by the one making the assertion.

    Additionally, because of the lack of need for reference to objective value, no materialist would suggest a line of reasoning that would lead to the infinite regression you point out.

    Ultimately, the materialist accepts his biological drives and psychological values, and grounds their “reality” in their physical manifestations. The moral materialist may try to derive morality from biology and evolution, but I find that as illogical as you do. The only logical position left for the materialist is true amoralism and a lack need to justify ones values on any moral level, subjective or objective. This position, you have not really addressed.

    P.S.: I have more, but I feel like I have given you more than enough to chew on for now. BTW, while I may seem highly critical, the only reason I am even taking the time to write all of this out is because I think you are good enough to be considered a worth ‘adversary’. If you rather continue this via email, we can work it out.

  5. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Scott, I appreciate your comments.

    Tbh, I don’t remember the original context of this post very well. It was several years ago now (2008). I wouldn’t formulate the argument in this way today. I would probably focus specifically on purpose rather than using vaguer terms like value or meaning.

    The main issue, as I see it, is with respect to the very concept of subjective purpose in an objectively purposeless universe. It is far from clear to me that this is a coherent concept.

    The difficulty as I see it is that the act of imposing purpose on your life is, in reality, itself a purposeless process. Saying that you have decided the purpose of your life is X seems rather like saying that you have decided the purpose of this particular pattern of leaves on the ground is to relay an encouraging message from Gaia. It is just a belief with no connection whatever to reality as it actually is. The reality outside your mind is that those leaves just fell in that pattern because of natural forces acting mechanistically from the beginning of the universe; and by the same token, the reality outside your mind is that your life and the very process of you imposing purpose on it are just a result of natural forces acting mechanistically from the beginning of the universe.

    Put another way, I don’t see how you can distinguish “subjective purpose” from delusion. If reality itself is not purposeful, then taking a small part of that reality and simply declaring it to be purposeful seems like at best an exercise in wishful thinking. The purposeless fiat of a purposeless person can’t change reality as it actually is.

    I suspect our disagreement will come down to how we define purpose. If you’re content to define it as a purely internal, wished telos with no connection to reality as it actually is, then that’s where we’re going to run aground. That seems fundamentally similar to when other physicalists define morality as a biologically-programmed instinct. It doesn’t seem to explain morality or purpose so much as explain it away. Your definition has been so attenuated by your metaphysically emaciated worldview that it is no longer robust enough to deal with our commonsense intuitions.

    Of course, you can simply accept that, but I think most people won’t be very impressed by a worldview that makes purpose and delusion functionally indistinguishable. You’re left defending and asserting a position no one else wants because it’s just obviously wrong.

  6. Scott

    OK, if vocabulary and formation of argument has changed, allow me to ask some clarifying questions so I don’t wander off into left field.

    Do you believe that if a person believes that there is no objective purpose to the universe or themselves that they cannot lead a meaningful/happy/motivated life?

    “Put another way, I don’t see how you can distinguish “subjective purpose” from delusion. If reality itself is not purposeful, then taking a small part of that reality and simply declaring it to be purposeful seems like at best an exercise in wishful thinking. The purposeless fiat of a purposeless person can’t change reality as it actually is.”

    I agree that and so would most materialists. Are you still saying that you think “non-theists” (materialists/physicalists) do this? If that is the case, I would have to say, you are no further after all these years in understanding the materialist’s position. If I am misunderstanding or missing some bit of information please explain. Perhaps this is the question. Do you delineate the difference between…

    “I am going to be a philosopher because I want to and it makes me happy.”
    And
    “I am going to be a philosopher because [I was destined to be one]/[it is my designed purpose].”
    ?

    As a materialist and amoralist, I never prescribe to purpose or the existence of morality. I do not define morality as biologically-programmed instinct or anything else other than delusion.

    That does not mean I do not have a definition of purpose, though I tend to use the words “proper function” (as Ruth Millikan defines it). A modern day can opener has the proper function of opening cans because it was created with that intent. I as not created with intent, but that does not mean I cannot design my own future (to a limited degree).

    What are our “commonsense intuitions”? That we have an objective purpose? I would have to completely disagree that such a perception is intuitive or event reasonable on any level.

  7. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Do you believe that if a person believes that there is no objective purpose to the universe or themselves that they cannot lead a meaningful/happy/motivated life?

    On the face of it, no, I don’t believe that. That confuses epistemology with ontology. A person may believe there is no purpose, and yet be mistaken; thus he leads a life that is objectively meaningful. Moreover, happiness and motivation seem only tangentially related to purpose. In principle, one can be motivated even if the motivation does not rise to the level of purpose; or happy even if one is purposeless. Surely animal behavior is a good example of that. Animals can be both happy and motivated, yet we don’t ascribe purposeful intent to them, and under a materialist worldview they have no purpose.

    If that is the case, I would have to say, you are no further after all these years in understanding the materialist’s position.

    I think you should be careful about presuming to speak for others. The posts I write and the arguments I make are in response to my specific situation—the discussions I have, the friends I make, the positions they hold. I wouldn’t argue against this position if I didn’t know any materialists who held it.

    “I am going to be a philosopher because I want to and it makes me happy.”
    And
    “I am going to be a philosopher because [I was destined to be one]/[it is my designed purpose].”
    ?

    Sure, those are obviously distinct issues. Wanting to do something doesn’t mean there is purpose in doing it.

    I as not created with intent, but that does not mean I cannot design my own future (to a limited degree).

    I’m not sure how this avoids the problem I’ve raised. Swapping out the term “imposing purpose” for “designing my future” only changes the semantics of the argument, not the substance. If your designing your future is actually an undesigned process, it doesn’t seem to amount to much. Or saying that you create an intent for your future is hollow when your doing so is an unintended process. You can’t bootstrap proper function for yourself when you and your entire thought process has no proper function.

    What are our “commonsense intuitions”? That we have an objective purpose?

    That’s a good question. My impression is that most people want their lives to count for something. They want their lives to matter in some capital-M sense. It would be interesting to tease out all the implications and presuppositions entailed there, but suffice to say that under materialism, their lives do not count for something, and do not matter in any notable sense.

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