Atheism, Morality, and Nature

As a response to an earlier discussion of atheism and morality, one person wrote, writing, “Atheists have morals and act morally because morality isn’t related to existence of gods.” I think this raises a very interesting question: if atheism is true, what is morality related to? Granted, it wouldn’t be related to the existence of gods! But that’s a negative answer, a non-solution. A more interesting question is the positive version of the question, namely: if atheism is true, what would morality be related to? (Please notice how I define atheism).

The crucial starting place in thinking about this is the following question: what resources, what categories, what language can we even use to describe ‘morality’? If atheism is true, we certainly cannot use any supernatural categories, but only natural categories. In particular, we should restrain ourselves to only discussing morality using language that refers to matter, energy, or space-time.

This may be difficult or hard at first, but the demands of reason and science require us to follow the evidence, wherever it leads us. And if atheism is true, there simply is nothing more to this cosmos than matter, energy and space-time. For instance, to quote the late Carl Sagan from his documentary Cosmos:

“The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”
“A galaxy is composed of gas and dust and stars – billions upon billions of stars.”

Ok, so let’s try to understand a widely agreed upon moral principle in these categories. For instance, let’s go with the principle, “everything else being equal, don’t harm others.” Nearly everyone would agree that is a good idea for guiding our behavior.

Could we understand this as being expressed in some kind of material form? What if we found a constellation of stars that expressed, in a grammatically accurate Greek sentence, this moral principle? For one, that would be awesome. Can you imagine the tabloid headlines? But let’s not get too distracted here. The main problem would be: so what? Just because “the stars” happen, in an entirely random and accidental way, to spell out this teaching does not mean that we are obligated to do anything about it. After all, the arrangement into the sentence is, in itself, not intentional. It isn’t like the stars are actually trying to tell us something. They are stars. Just a bunch of light-emitting balls of plasma. Curious, but by no means binding.

If you’re inclined to think otherwise, that perhaps we should obey the stars, would you feel the same way if the sentence read, “Kill the whales!” or “Woman are worse than men”? No, you’d ignore that sentence and go, “wow, that’s a weird message in the stars!”

But you certainly wouldn’t take it seriously or implement it in your life (or, at least, the atheists I know wouldn’t do something like that).

But the biggest problem is this: the stars aren’t arranged into any sentences. In fact, there are no intelligible messages from any random arrangement of any kind of physical matter. The jokes about typing monkeys and Shakespeare makes the point: no matter how long a million monkeys type, they aren’t going to be producing any plays anytime soon.

So matter won’t work as a basis for this moral principle. What about energy or space-time? Here I have to admit my own ignorance, which is honestly not the wisest of argumentative strategies. But I simply cannot imagine how the idea “everything else being equal, don’t harm others” could even be a kind of, say, heat or kinetic energy. The fact that an object’s energy can be changed into mass and vice versa doesn’t seem to be of any use here. Nor am I able to conceive of how our moral principle could be a kind of space-time. Now, admittedly, an argument from personal incredulity is a weak kind of reasoning, and so I must remain completely open to an explanation along these lines from someone else. In the meantime, I am cautiously optimistic that most people will be (rightly) as puzzled as I am and conclude that there are no possible solutions, in those domains, for discussing morality.

The only other place that morality could come from is the neurological structure of our brains. It does seem to be the case that, due to the complex way our neurons fit together, we often have the perception that “everything else being equal, don’t harm others” is a true and important statement.

We face a number of problems here. First: what’s the difference between our neurons and the stars? Why should we think that this random arrangement of chemicals in our brains is, in fact, morally binding upon us? After all, if our neurons were arranged in such a way that we thought, “Kill the whales!” or “Women are worse than men!” wouldn’t we want to ignore their directives? Or even if we personally didn’t want to ignore them (after all, in this case they would be our neurons), wouldn’t society (or at least some societies) discourage us from acting on these impulses?

Of course, we’re glossing over the difference between a physical arrangement and the symbolic interpretation of that arrangement, which raises problems for atheism on another level. There’s something distinctly non-physical about the proposition “don’t murder” that is not reflected in our neurons. In other words, there is an essential distinction between sentences and meaning that still remains to be bridged.

Notice, also, that we have to find a way of saying “yes, these neurological arrangements are good” and “oh no, those neurological arrangements are bad.” Where did we get those ideas of good and bad? The only place we could get these evaluative terms is from our neurons! So we haven’t found a solution at all. It’s the same problem at a different level.

An example will make clear that, if morality is just neurological arrangements, then we have no way to resolve moral disagreement. Let’s say that Bob’s neurons tell him “Women are worse than men” and Sarah’s neurons tell her, “Women and men are equal to one another.” Just from looking at the brain scans, whose neurons have it right? What criteria could you even use to prefer one arrangement of neurons to another? The only criteria that you could have would come from the arrangement of neurons in your brain. But how could that settle the matter?

That turns out to be a serious problem: If there is no way to resolve moral disagreement, then there is no way to identify the difference between “good” and “bad.” That means we are in a state of complete moral confusion. Even worse, the reason we can’t identify the difference is that morality, if atheism is true, can be nothing more than differing physical arrangements. And it is clear as the stars shining at night that differing, randomly assembled arrangements of matter cannot be a guide to what is right and what is wrong.

To summarize: another problem with atheism is that it lacks any sensible language or categories to discuss morality.

My thanks to William Lane Craig for outlining this approach in his books and public debates.