Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Truth or Consequences

I am concerned about what is true, and as is clear from my writing here, I do not think that the central claims of Christianity are true. Anyone concerned about discovering the truth needs to be aware of fallacies. Fallacies are arguments (or types of arguments) where the premises do not actually provide logical support for the conclusion. You can find whole catalogs of fallacies around the Internet.

One type of fallacy is an argument from consequences. While there are several variants, a typical form goes like this:

  1. If P, then Q.
  2. Q is good (desirable)
  3. Therefore P is true

Alternatively, it can be framed as an argument against some proposition:

  1. If P, then Q.
  2. Q is bad (undesirable)
  3. Therefore not-P

Neither of these arguments is valid; in neither case does the conclusion follow from the premises, regardless of whether or not the premises are actually true.

Of course, people do not normally express themselves using this form explicitly, and in fact, some of the premises of an informally expressed argument may not even be stated. When this is so, the fallacy may be harder to recognize. Nevertheless, the fallacy is still there.

A pretty typical example in the context of a discussion about the truth of Christianity would be "Without God my life would have no meaning (or purpose, or hope)." This single sentence is usually the informal condensation of the argument:

  1. If God does not exist, my life would have no meaning (or purpose, or hope)
  2. Lack of meaning (or purpose, or hope) is bad (undesirable)
  3. Therefore God exists

Stated in this way, it is clearly an argument from consequences, and so the conclusion does not follow from the premises, even if the premises were true. If God does not exist, and if it were true that meaning, purpose and hope were dependent on God's existence, well, then there would be no meaning, purpose or hope, no matter how much we might want those things.

Another example concerns morality. The claim is frequently made that without God, there would be no grounds for morality. In this case, the argument could be refined in several ways. If the hidden assumption were "Having no grounds for morality is bad", then the implicit argument would be fallacious because it would be an argument from consequences. On the other hand, the unstated assumption could be that "We have grounds for morality." In this case, the argument would not be an argument from consequences, but it still fails, for if the only grounds for morality were that God existed, the argument would be circular, since the conclusion is contained in one of the premises. On the other hand, if the second premise stated that we have grounds for morality that are independent of God, then the second premise would contradict the first premise (that without God, we have no grounds for morality) and the conclusion again would not be supported.

The existence of God or the truth of Christianity cannot be decided on the basis of how much you like or dislike either alternative. Not liking the perceived consequences of God's non-existence presents an emotional barrier to disbelief, but it has nothing to do with the truth or falsehood of that claim. Further, if your hope (or meaning or purpose) is dependent on God's existence, but God does not exist, then your hope is false, your meaning fake, your purpose illusory. All of that might make you feel better, but it will not be real.

But what if, in addition to the arguments being fallacious, the premises are wrong? What if there can be hope, meaning, purpose and morality without God? If you believe in God because it gives you hope, you would be trading real hope for false hope. If you derive your morality from a non-existent God, but grounds for morality do exist apart from God, you may end up acting immorally. Your ill-founded purpose may be misleading. I think all of these are the case and these all contribute to the harm caused by Christianity.

The particular fallacious arguments that I described are fairly common, and their repetition is harmful because they raise an emotional barrier to proper belief, that is, belief based on true premises and valid arguments. In these cases, the premises are false and the arguments unsound. They do have emotional impact. People appear to fear the consequences they imagine or have been told would follow from God's non-existence. If so, disbelief might and probably will require some courage. But that fear cannot be allowed to prevent us from finding the truth, whatever it might be.


10Matt39 said...

The argument from morality concerns the concept of a universal moral law. If you believe there is a universal moral law then it is not consistent to disbelieve in a universal law giver.

If I don't believe in universal moral laws, then I should not use the words: right, wrong, good or evil. I could still use the words preferable, customary, cooperative and lawful. I could say, for example, that I do not prefer what Hitler did in invading France and that Hitler was uncooperative with the Jews, but I could not say that what he did was wrong.


Alan Lund said...

I disagree.

We need to be careful about our terminology and, according to the context, avoid using words in ways that are likely to cause confusion. Alternatively, we can attempt to avoid confusion by being explicit about how we are using those words.

For instance, the word "law" can be used different ways. In popular use, of course, it refers to rules constructed and enforced by governments. In this usage, you are correct to say that without a lawgiver there would be no law. But the word "law" is also used for the observed regularities of nature, like the laws of physics. While some people would still attribute this type of law to a lawgiver, it is not a necessary attribution. One could say that, in a similar sense, there could be a universal moral law without a universal law giver.

I also disagree that one should not use the words "right", "wrong", "good" or "evil" (or "bad") if there is no universal moral law. Now, when you say "universal moral law", I am inferring an absolute, universal law grounded in some deity, since you mentioned a universal law giver. There are other ways to formulate objective moral standards that apply to all people without reference to God. Such standards are universal in the sense of applying to all people. Given such a standard, the words "right", "wrong", "good", "evil" (or "bad") are meaningful.

I personally tend to prefer "good" and "bad" to "right" and "wrong", but for a very different reason. "Good" and "bad" admit to variations in degree. "Right" and "wrong" are polar opposites and we never speak of something being "more right" or "more wrong". At least under utilitarian conceptions of ethics, there usually exist a spectrum of choices with a spectrum of utilities, and I find that the terms "good" and "bad" are more amenable to conveying that concept. Even so, there are times when I would use "right" and "wrong", and the Holocaust is something that I would not hesitate to call "wrong".

By the way, I must congratulate you for triggering Godwin's Law in your very first comment.

10Matt39 said...

You say there are other ways to formulate objective moral standards that apply to all people without reference to God. Would you like to elaborate on this?


Alan Lund said...

If you are brave, you might look back at the last six or seven months worth of "Diablogue" posts, my half of a discussion with my Christian friend Ernie.

Or, you could look at a couple of other sources where this kind of question is already answered: The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick, or any of a number of posts over at Atheist Ethicist including Ethics Without God, Ethics Without God II, Subjectivist Weekend: Part I, Subjectivist Weekend: Part II, Virtue, God and the Concept of "Evil" and Answering M on Subjectivism.

There are no doubt many more sources as well.

Alan Lund said...

Sorry, I meant to provide a link to the Diablogue posts. But the other links will answer your question more directly anyway.

10Matt39 said...

Hi Alan,

I did scan some of those links but I just don't have the time to read them fully.

There are many people who identify themselves as Christian who, in fact, are functional atheists. They never read the Bible, or pray and very seldom come to worship. They live their everyday lives without regard to God and they all call themselves moral. We know this through surveys. This proves to me that people don't need long essays about some variant of universalism in order to think themselves moral. They have no standard for morality so however they behave is self justified as moral merely by adjusting the standard. In everyday life, they behave as they feel like behaving, i.e. they are driven by their feelings of fear and self esteem.

If one day these functional atheists were to wake up and admit that they are atheists, I'm sure they would soon come to write their own essays about atheistic morality.


Alan Lund said...

Matt, are you just trolling? I wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt, despite your history in other forums. But you asked for an elaboration of objective, non-theistic moral standards, yet you cannot be bothered to read and try to understand the sources I suggested. Without bothering to try to understand how people can and do have moral standards defined apart from Christianity, you conclude that they do not and cannot have such standards. On top of that, you are able to diagnose the underlying motivations for all of this "godless" behavior, again without hearing what they have to say.

If you do not have time to give these things your consideration, why are you spending so much time arguing about them?