Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Darla the She-Goat

I'm still too busy to blog anything serious this month, so here's something easy. The following appeared in the December 2007 issue of the Atheists United newsletter, Rational Alternative (whose tagline reads: "Defying the idea that ethics come from God since 1982"). I punched this out in my spare time at the special request of the editor (who happens to be kin), as an essay entitled "Ethics Begins with Metaethics (Say What?)." It was scattered over pages 4, 12, and 13. It's obviously written in humor, and barely touches on many issues my book explores in more serious and complete detail. But for now, enjoy...


When atheists write about ethics all too often they talk about the wrong things. It's not that there is no use in discussing the evolution of human moral sentiments, or what the correct moral principles are, or how to apply them in the real world. Rather, it's that these questions aren't the problem. Usually when a Christian attacks atheists for having no moral foundation, of having no worldview that can promote the pursuit of virtue, atheists respond by talking about the fact that atheists typically are very moral people and evolution explains why. But the answer has nothing to do with the question. No wonder Christians think we really have no answer and instead are deviously dodging the question.


The Christians are saying we have no good reason to be moral people. Chattering on about how nice we are does not answer that argument, and offers no comfort. If we have no good reason to be that way, then it's just a matter of time before we realize that. It must truly be scary to a Christian how precariously close we are to tipping right over the edge into wanton evil. As they see it we're just one rational thought away from picking up a gun and shooting their babies and raping their pets. And being so committed to rationality as they know we are, you can see how scary indeed this imagined threat must be. For not only are we a ticking time bomb, but we're also fiddling with the switch all the damned time!

Yes, the historical fact that there aren't any armies of mad frothing atheists ravaging the countryside, skeet-shooting kittens and rounding up sex slaves, is still a good argument against the Christian's irrational worry. Generally if you think there are ten million ticking time bombs in your country just a bump away from detonating, the fact that this almost never happens should be a bit of a clue. But remember, these are people who after two thousand years still think Jesus is sure to come back in their own lifetime. They aren't very good at thinking things through.

Appealing to evolution doesn't help, either. Yes, compassion is an evolved trait, and we can prove it. But Christians already agree compassion is inborn. Even if they disagree with us as to the cause (they think an invisible man did it), they’re already on board with the idea that we are all innately compassionate. It's just that we’re also innately cruel. The same evidence that confirms the evolution of compassion also confirms the evolution of cruelty and indifference. For like compassion, cruelty is a survival strategy, and we are equally equipped for either.

Nature doesn't really care about the contradiction. She's just greedy. She only wants to keep grinding out babies. And she will kill, torture, and maim anyone who gets in her way. Evolution is a genuine monster, a horror movie villain, not some wise mother goddess that we have any reason to follow. To the contrary, like the plague and the hurricane, it ought to be defied. Evolution has no moral authority. Because it is vicious and heartless, and utterly mindless. So telling the Christian our reason to be moral is that evolution made us that way is not the least bit reassuring. It's like telling them we’re good because an evil apocalyptic baby-eating robot told us to be, and we think he’s really cool so we'll do whatever he says, man!

Anyway, we've evolved with the equipment of compassion and cruelty. So why not choose the latter? Atheists can be bad people, even downright evil, which is at least a proof of concept as far as the Christian is concerned. So the fundamental question you still have to answer is: Why be good? More specifically, why be honest, courageous, compassionate, or reasonable? Clearly we can get away with all kinds of evils if we're clever enough, or if there is ever enough of us to openly defy all worldly authority (which is the apocalyptic possibility the Christians lose the most sleep over). So why not go for it? This fundamental question actually precedes ethics. It belongs to a field called metaethics, which is to ethics as metaphysics is to physics: like metaphysics, metaethics is the art of building and justifying the root assumptions upon which all else is built. Ethics is about answering the question "What is the moral thing to do?" But the central question in metaethics is "Why be moral?"

I think it is a logically inevitable fact that if you answer this fundamental metaethical question, then a whole moral philosophy inevitably follows. Let’s follow a very simplified version of how this pans out for the average truckstop Christian. Why be moral? "You should be moral because otherwise God will send you to Hell." The underlying metaethical assumptions here? That Hell really sucks, and what God says goes. So you'd better damn well figure out what God said. You can see how someone who starts out on this metaethical foundation can begin working out an entire ethical system. Though it may be tricky, he at least knows what he's looking for.

True, this is no better than starting with "You should be moral because otherwise there’s this talking shegoat named Darla who’s gonna sneak in and eat your foot any night now." But that kinda works, too. Right? Then all you need do is figure out what'll piss off Darla the Shegoat and not do that. Maybe it'll be hard finding the shegoat to ask her, but lucky you, there's this guy on TV who says he ghostwrote a book for her on just that subject, and he swears she approved every word of it. Score!

Sadly, ghosts and santas and ravenous crime-fighting shegoats aren't really an option for us. We need, like, facts. For example: Does hell suck? Quite frankly, there's no more evidence of that than of Darla the Shegoat. Come to think of it, there's actually more evidence of Darla than even the existence of Hell, much less its suckiness. We know shegoats exist. We know they could eat our feet if they wanted to. And we know how to make them talk (just move around a few amino acids in a cell nucleus). But disembodied souls in alternate universes appear to be in much shorter supply. In fact, we've yet to find even one. If forced to bet your life's savings on which is more likely to turn up, a talking goat or an inhabited parallel dimension filled with the disembodied souls of the dead...well, we all know where our money is going on that one. The fact that Christianity is less believable than a talking goat is exactly why we're atheists.

So where does that leave us? In practice we'd work our way back from obvious things (like how much we enjoy friendship or how comfortable we are around honest folk) until we end up at figuring out just what the word 'moral' means and why we should care, then we'd work our way back up the line to straighten out all our other conclusions from whatever foundation we ended up with, and thus settle all the little questions about right and wrong and how we ought to behave. No time for all that here. Though the way to do it is simple: always ask "Why?" of every answer to every question until you’ve gotten to the bottom of things. Which I highly recommend everyone do. But for now I'll just give you the penny tour.

Here's a stumper you'll eventually fall upon. Define 'ought'. That’s right. What does that word actually mean? To answer that, you need to first answer what it even means for a word to have a meaning. So if you're wondering why I spend so much time on that in my book Sense and Goodness without God, now you know. But here's one way to think of it: if I say "you ought to brush your teeth," how would you confirm or refute that statement? What makes that statement true or false? Well, if brushing your teeth leads to consequences that you want (like getting laid) more than the consequences of not brushing your teeth (like having your mouth rot out from under you), then you ought to brush your teeth. Here 'you ought to do it' simply means 'you would do it if you were fully informed of all the facts' which actually means 'you will do it whenever you are fully informed of all the facts' [and, of course, reasoning correctly from those facts]. Why? Because thanks to the laws of physics everyone does what they most desire. Any contrary desire simply won't generate a neural signal strong enough to override the powerful signal your strongest desire is already pushing on the rest of your brain. But it's also common sense. If you want more than anything for your teeth to rot out, there's obviously no meaningful sense in which 'you ought to brush your teeth' will be true (at least for you...most of us aren't down with the whole teeth rotting thing).

Now think back to what the truckstop Christian says. "You should be moral because otherwise God will send you to Hell." That can only be true if you want to avoid Hell more than anything. If you actually want more than anything to go to Hell, then, for you, "you should be moral because otherwise God will send you to Hell" is false—even if in actual fact there is a God and he really is going to send you to Hell. That's why Christians try so hard to tell such awful stories about how nasty Hell is...even though they've never been there, nor met anyone who has. So even for the Christian, if the moral is what we ought to do more than anything else, then what we want to do more than anything else (like, stay out of Hell, or get into Heaven, or please Jesus, or save your foot from Darla’s ravenous maw, whatever) is the moral thing. And it has to be that way. There can't be anything you want more, or else there will be no meaningful foundation for your moral system. Hence being moral has to get you what you want most, either in this life or the next, or else even Christians have no good reason to be moral.

But there's no 'next life' for us. So the resulting metaethical conclusion is that the moral thing to do is what will increase our personal happiness here in this world. Because of all the things we actually know exist (as real, obtainable outcomes), there is nothing else human beings want more than their own happiness (whatever that may consist of for them). It's thus heaven on earth we aim for, and hell on earth we get busy avoiding. Put it all together, and: "You should be moral because you will be happier as a moral person overall than if you become any other sort of person."

I don't think there is any other conclusion atheists can reach. Still, you can probably see why Christians worry this will lead us to crime and hedonism. But all they have to offer in its place are fantasies. We don't know jack about any sort of Hell. But what about this idea that our life will suck more the more we suck as people? I think this can be proven, and proven empirically. And that's what I argue in my book: that simply being honest, courageous, compassionate, and reasonable will actually make our own lives better, here in this world. So the answer we give to the Christian should be: I don't want to be immoral, because my life would then suck—in fact, I like being moral, because it improves the quality of my life in countless ways, as it will anyone’s. Just be ready to defend that statement as true. So study up. 


For example, watch a video of my Michigan Talk on Moral Theory. And read my more technical refutation of nihilism in Rosenberg on Naturalism.

29 comments:

Agnostics_R_Us said...

lmao.

Seriously though, do you think we possess equal and opposite portions of compassion and cruelty in general by default? Wouldn't the overall trend of "more good than bad" seem to indicate otherwise?

I guess my real question is...what does Darla think about all this? I hope she doesn't mind, but I think "oughts" and "shoulds" are primarily goal contingent first and foremost, and that our goals in terms of analogy and solidarity are only generally aligned in sort of a "good enough" fuzzy kind of way as a result of being the same species. So I'd only add a slight distinction there that perhaps you already agree with but didn't unpack.

Richard Carrier said...

Agnostics_R_Us said... Seriously though, do you think we possess equal and opposite portions of compassion and cruelty in general by default? Wouldn't the overall trend of "more good than bad" seem to indicate otherwise?

Good question. No, I don't claim exactly equal portions. I claim every human being possesses both potentials, but not to any universally fixed degree. I would claim some are born with less or more of an innate tendency either way (probably matching a bell curve pattern within the population as a whole), but that every human can cultivate one potential more than another well beyond their biological tendencies (provided they actually do so, and by a method that actually works: and there are methods that work, and methods that don't--and working methods include the active, i.e. self-development, and passive, i.e. parental and societal influence and upbringing).

I agree with your other remark, at least more or less. My book (of course I mean Sense and Goodness without God) says more on that subject.

JD Walters said...

I wish atheists would stop cooking up ridiculously bizarre stand-ins for God (like Darla the she-goat, or the flying spaghetti monster, etc.) and use them to show that supposedly accepting the Christian God is no more rational than any of these freakish substitutes. There are many good reasons why this analogy simply does NOT hold, despite its obvious appeal to the potshot-loving atheist crowd, but I will simply point out one in this context, and a theologically neutral one at that: cognitive science shows that religious beings are only minimally counter-intuitive. They possess characteristics which violate our intuitions in one domain or another, whether folk physics, biology, etc. or what have you but if you stretch that too far the concept of such a being will just not stick. So there's good reason why there will never be a religion based on Darla the she-goat (that's not to say that there might not be therianthropic figures in various religious mythologies which blend characteristics of humans and animals) or the flying spaghetti monster: they're too cognitively implausible. Whether that means anything else about the nature of ultimate reality I will not argue here (for example the notion that we find certain beings plausible because God designed us that way and/or some of them actually exist), but please take my main point as it stands. Believing in Darla the she-goat is NOT for all intents and purposes like believing in the Christian God.

zhadi said...

Rick, you wrote that in your spare time? Dang, boy, you scare me! I should be able to write something that well-thought out in MY spare time. The cats won't let me, though...

JD obviously is not familiar with the worship of Bastet.

JD Walters said...

See here:

http://www.egyptianmyths.net/bastet.htm

Then read my comment again, paying careful attention to what I did and did not concede.

Miguel Picanco said...

I believe the whole point of conjuring Darla or FSM is parody.. not to create plausible divine alternatives.

rAmen

Tatarize said...

JD, simply being cognitively unaware of the absurdity of God due to exposure from a young age does not make the notion true. Suddenly having your mind assaulted with Darla the She-Goat doesn't make the notion false.

To you the Christianity may see far more acceptable because it is suppose to be far more acceptable. The parody-religions are supposed simply to be rejected whereas religious beliefs are composed to be accepted.

The difference you cite is the point. I could equally give the example of Islam rather than the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the worship of Zeus or Bastet. The rejection of the supposed deity is the bedrock of the argument. If this is unacceptable and your deity is acceptable, where is the logical difference? -- Simply pointing to your acceptance of religion and rejection of the parallel point doesn't negate the problem.

I was raised as an atheist, and when I was first really introduced to religion, I found it patently absurd and as silly as Darla the she-goat. It took me a while to accept that people actually believe it. Not only was the belief far fetched, but the belief that it was believed was far fetched.

The idea that the ubiquitous nature of Christian imagery makes the Christian god less shocking and therefore more valid should be apparent as a farce. It's the fallacy of numbers wrapped in cognitive science. By this same argument, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy should certainly be real because they are less shocking and many children who accept them on a fundamental level.

The absurdity you know is no more real than the one just made up with equal evidence and plausibility.

JD Walters said...

Tatarize,

Read my comment carefully and you will find that I say nothing about whether or not the fact that certain supernatural beings are more cognitively congenial to the human mind makes it more likely that they actually exist. My argument from cognitive science was against a common atheist tactic of equating or at least finding parallels between Christian theism and any number of outlandish belief systems, as if they were equivalent. Notice again what Richard Carrier writes about Darla:

"True, this is no better than starting with "You should be moral because otherwise there’s this talking shegoat named Darla who’s gonna sneak in and eat your foot any night now." But that kinda works, too. Right?"

My point is that no, this kinda doesn't work too, because no one derives a system of morality from a talking she-goat. Just in terms of 'getting the job done' of providing a justification for morality, there is definitely a scale of plausibility to various religious entities, if only because of their congeniality with our innate cognitive machinery.

Speaking of which, since you keep parroting the same old skeptical cliche of lumping God with Santa and the Tooth Fairy, it sounds like you really haven't done any serious reading in the cognitive science of religion. Exposure from a young age has nothing to do with it. And my rejection of Islam is a lot more complex than simple incredulity at their religious beliefs. After all, I believe in very similar things with Muslims about God, creation and so on.

I suggest that you read Justin Barrett's "Why would anyone believe in God?" as a starting point for the cog sci, then go on to McCauley, Whitehouse, Lawson and D. Jason Slone.

Agnostics_R_Us said...

They are equally plausible and the difference is in the appeal. A super mind that has all sorts of bizarre traits and characteristics for apparently no reason that exists simply to seek its own glory makes no sense whatsoever. Having a different entity with a random set of other traits...like say that of a she goat or a spaghetti monster *is* actually "just as good." You might think Alpha Centauri is really far away from Earth, but in cosmic terms they're sitting on the same park bench. What exactly does "more plausible" mean on the scale of completely implausible? Regardless of your tactful rhetoric, you are still equating psychological appeal with plausibility and missing the nature of Carrier's fundamental point which does have merit even at an apparently childish level. And aren't there some animists out there that would be a little offended that their animal spirits are second rate metaphysical players in your book? Oh well, right?

I'm pretty sure Carrier agrees that I've pointed out the actual fulcrum of the joke, because the more technical version of the idea is laid out in section III, chapter 3 (page 81 is a good reference especially) of his book, "Sense and Goodness without God." I guess I'll be nice and do a book plug so Carrier doesn't have to. lol It might work better if the entry to this blog happened to be the purchase button at amazon.com.

ARU

peet said...

JD Walters wrote:
1)"Read my comment carefully and you will find that I say nothing about whether or not the fact that certain supernatural beings are more cognitively congenial to the human mind makes it more likely that they actually exist."

I've read your comments very carefully and this is exactly what you said. You even repeat it in the very same post just a few sentences down.

2)"...there is definitely a scale of plausibility to various religious entities, if only because of their congeniality with our innate cognitive machinery."

Do you see it? It's the same thing with different words.

"certain supernatural beings" from 1 = "various religious entities" from 2. "are more cognitively congenial to the human mind" from 1 = "their congeniality with our innate cognitive machinery" from 2. "more likely that they actually exist" from 1 = "there is definitely a scale of plausibility" from 2. I cannot make it any clearer then that. You are blatantly contradicting yourself.

Are you just messing with us?

Brian said...

JD Walters wrote:
"My point is that no, this kinda doesn't work too, because no one derives a system of morality from a talking she-goat. Just in terms of 'getting the job done' of providing a justification for morality, there is definitely a scale of plausibility to various religious entities, if only because of their congeniality with our innate cognitive machinery."

I thought Richard's point was that on a scale of plausibility, Darla the Shegoat ranks higher then any Christian "religious entity". Richard writes:
"Come to think of it, there's actually more evidence of Darla than even the existence of Hell, much less its suckiness. We know shegoats exist. We know they could eat our feet if they wanted to. And we know how to make them talk (just move around a few amino acids in a cell nucleus)."

I don't think plausibility is the best argument to use in this case.

Pikemann Urge said...

I might agree with JD that Jehovah is more plausible than Darla. Sure, plausibility is relative, but that's a separate issue. But I can give several examples where something is deemed plausible by society even though it's an invalid or false idea or concept.

For examplek it's plausible that the Bernoulli effect makes aircraft fly. Except that it has nothing to do with why a wing provides lift. Etc., etc. And that's just a tame example.

If you want a reference for the above (caveat: I'm not a physicist and don't pretend to understand this stuff):

http://user.uni-frankfurt.de/~weltner/Flight/PHYSIC4.htm

Brian said...

pikemann urge writes:
"I might agree with JD that Jehovah is more plausible than Darla." Do you have any evidence or reason to back up this claim.

Also, why would you say that God is more plausible then Darla, then immediately state "But I can give several examples where something is deemed plausible by society even though it's an invalid or false idea or concept." By this line of reasoning one would infer that God is a false idea or concept. I guess I'm confused as to whose side you are on.

Pikemann Urge said...

Brian, there are many sides I could be on but I'm not on the side of religion. That much I know. ;-)

If you really are hanging for a reason behind my initial statement: it is more plausible, I think, for a god to be invisible, all-seeing and materially inaccessible than a physical being. Otherwise there doesn't seem to be much point in having gods.

Darla would, however, be more plausible if she claimed to be an incarnation of a god rather than an actual god. That would allow her to be accessible to humanity and still be ultimately 'supernatural' behind the facade of incarnation.

I forgot to make the opposite point, too, in response to JD. Implausible things can be true, just as plausible things can be false. E.g. when particles were observed as obeying different physical laws this was seen as implausible. But it's true nonetheless.

Not the best example but you get the idea.

TinyRobot said...

Being somewhat familiar with the research that jdwalters is bandying about i feel i must point out some obvious points (incidentally i got this from Atran and Norenzayan, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2004). First, whether the Christian god is minimally counter-intuitive is a question for serious debate. For example, combining concepts such as the trinity, omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence would seem to violate more than a few of our standard epistemological criteria. Indeed, some of the, allegedly sophisticated apologists for religion often criticise atheists for not engaging with some of these thorny, counter-intuitive theological concepts. Obviously you don't have to accept all these criteria, i.e. you may have a much more robust, 'big-man in the sky' concept of god. However, if you do have a less counter-intuitive god in mind, then you have a concept of god which is much easier to disprove. Indeed, there is some support for the idea that concepts of god have retreated from the robust, minimally counter-intuitive types (perhaps best epitomised by animist beliefs, including goat-gods) to the more abstract 'ground of all being' type of gods once it became obvious that the former didn't exist.

The best one can say about jdwalters's argument is that it is inconsistent since a minimally, counter-intuitive god would probably be considered insultingly childish, whereas a more abstract god would be too counter-intuitive.

TinyRobot said...

I should comment that i got my understanding of the cognitive science of religion from that article and not the actual arguments that i deploy above

J. J. Ramsey said...

"First, whether the Christian god is minimally counter-intuitive is a question for serious debate. For example, combining concepts such as the trinity, omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence would seem to violate more than a few of our standard epistemological criteria."

True, but as Pascal Boyer pointed out, while believers consciously hold that God is all those strange things, he is treated as a "human-like agent with a particular viewpoint, a particular position and serial attention. God considers one problem and then another." Even a half-animal god like Bastet appears to act very humanlike, which is a big difference from Darla the She-Goat.

Mikado said...

JD Walters says:

...My point is that no, this kinda doesn't work too, because no one derives a system of morality from a talking she-goat.

Not yet, anyway. It's certainly possible to develop a morality based on Darla though. Just give it a few thousand years.

Stan said...

Which is more absurd, a deity, or multiverses?

Let's say we accept multiverses as a viable answer to the anthropic argument. Then the following aargument tumbles out.

a)There are an infinite number of universes, encompassing all possible variations of the supposed anthropic friendly variables.
b)There are amongst these infinite universes, those with different dimensions than the 3 dimensions plus time that we encounter.
c)There are an infinite number of universes that have totally different dimensions from our x,y,z, and an infinite number of these do not include time.
d)An infinite number of these totally non-material universes overlay our universe.
e)An infinite number of the overlaying universes hav ethe ability to produce intelligent life, in non-material form.
f)An infinite number of the universes that contain intelligent life, also confer the ability on that intelligent life to make changes in the lesser dimensions.
g)Some of the "changes to lesser dimensions" includes the creation of more of them, i.e. new sub-universes that are material.

Is this more or less absurd than "there exists a deity"?

Yvonne said...

Evolution has no moral authority. Because it is vicious and heartless, and utterly mindless.

I realise this is a tongue-in-cheek statement, however, if it's utterly mindless it cannot also be vicious and heartless, because it has no intentions.

As to whether it actually is vicious, that would depend on whether you think that co-operation is equally important as competition in determining who gets to survive and pass on their genes (as for example, Kropotkin did).

Yvonne said...

Pikemann Urge wrote: it is more plausible, I think, for a god to be invisible, all-seeing and materially inaccessible than a physical being.

I'm not sure about that. Here's a logical sequence of ideas that shows why invisible deities are less plausible.

1. Consciousness is an emergent property of matter/life. AND There is nothing outside the universe.
2. therefore, any deity/ies that exist must be immanent in the physical universe. (OR non-existent)
3. therefore it could be said that the physical universe (if it can be said to be conscious in any way) is their physical appearance.
4. You are made of the same stuff as the universe (every atom in your body was once part of a star), and you have consciousness (spirit in religious language).
5. If consciousness/spirit is the main attribute of deity, then you are a god (or at least a Future Buddha).

Bad said...

I've made my basic case as to why theism cannot provide any superior sense of "meaning," including moral meaning, here.

And stan, multiverses are an idea that came out of the math in QM and string theory. They are not something wished into existence for the sole purpose of dealing with supposed problems with the anthropic principle. There is, in fact, not much of a problem there I can see (in the sense that we cannot possibly know if there is anything at all strange or notable about our universe), and if there was one, I don't quite see how an external being with equally specific designs on making specific things solves, rather than compounds the problem.

Richard Carrier said...

JD Walters said... Believing in Darla the she-goat is NOT for all intents and purposes like believing in the Christian God.

Apart from the fact that your comment is like explaining to a comedian that "no real wife would ever have sex with an anonymous circus clown while riding a ferris wheel, so you should stop telling that joke," you are confusing the point of the analogy.

We do not use ridiculous analogies like this to illustrate anthropological or psychological tendencies in humans. And we certainly aren't suggesting them as practical models of secretly-fake religions we could actually use to control society (such as Plato suggested). Rather, we use them to illustrate that even intuitive deities make no more sense than unintuitive ones, which we make deliberately counter-intuitive for that very reason, i.e. we specifically looked for examples that are beyond normal human assumptions (and therefore we chose them because no one would believe them--that's the point), to illustrate the fact that more "intuitive" versions have no more genuine cognitive basis (in fact, arguably less, as I point out), and even if they were epistemically credible, the arguments derived from them remain no more valid.

For example, people still pretend to know what God/Darla will do to us and when and for what, and all religious morality is based on this (which is really just human opinion, with a "God said so" tacked on the end to make it sound impressive), which is equally invalid even if we had good reason to believe there was a God. And yet we don't have any more reason to believe that than in Darla, anthropological psychology notwithstanding.

Of course, I did add the particular aside that despite our intuitions, objectively, Darla belief would be more epistemically plausible (as in fact our intuitions are frequently incorrect guides to reality--which is why most science is counter-intuitive). That aside in itself was intended to point out what is actually the most counter-intuitive about Darla: the fact that Darla is actually more likely than God. Yes, this is counter-intuitive. But as with many things, our intuitions here are simply wrong.

Of course, one might take issue even with the point you wanted to make.

The trinity, reliquaries, transubstantiation, saint worship, snake handling, demon possession, the ability to "spread gayness" by touch or television, and other superstitions abound (even now--don't get me started on what people used to widely believe!), which are hardly more intuitively plausible than Darla. I once had someone seriously tell me that I will invite demons (yes, actual demons) into my soul if I engage in oral sex, and that this would cause me to descend into depression and criminal behavior. Objectively, how is Darla any less plausible than that?

Or consider this:

There once was an entire nation of people who believed if a man of a specific lineage, who was without physical blemish and wore a strange hat and a little gold plate tied over his forehead with a purple ribbon, cut a live goat's throat over a special magic rock on a specific day each year, while letting a second goat run off into a bunch of trees, you and all your fellow countrymen would thereby escape punishment for any crime you ever committed, by being raised from the dead at some appointed time in the future, after your bones literally roll through secret underground caverns to the area around the magic rock, which are then magically reassembled and your flesh spontaneously grown back over them, and thus raised from the dead, all your wounds, wrinkles and scars would heal, and you would grow wings like those of eagles and fly up into outer space to live forever in a golden city somewhere in the vicinity of Saturn, where you will sit at a table and eat the flesh of a gigantic monstrous fish called Leviathan that God made on the fifth day of Creation, while the earth below is dissolved by beams of divine light.

I'm sorry, how is that more plausible than Darla eating my feet when she's angry?

Richard Carrier said...

Stan said... Which is more absurd, a deity, or multiverses?

That is off topic, though obliquely connected, so I won't boot it. Since I already demonstrate why in fact a multiverse is less absurd than a deity--and with a point-by-point analysis, no less--in my book Sense and Goodness without God, there isn't any need of further reply.

(Except to say that I missed where you derive any "non-material universes" from multiverse theory, much less an infinity of them--I have no idea where that comes from).

Richard Carrier said...

Yvonne said... [You said] "Evolution has no moral authority. Because it is vicious and heartless, and utterly mindless." I realise this is a tongue-in-cheek statement, however, if it's utterly mindless it cannot also be vicious and heartless, because it has no intentions.

Poetic license, surely (it's called a metaphor), but those words actually do have double meanings that frequently apply to inanimate things and circumstances (as well as unintelligent animals), so it isn't a stretch.

vicious: savage, ferocious, unpleasantly severe or intense, unruly, characterized by violence.

heartless: unfeeling, unkind.

These terms do not even require metaphor: they are literally true of the process of evolution by natural selection.

True, though, I certainly didn't intend these terms to exclude symbiosis and other "nice" survival strategies. What selects those strategies is still vicious and heartless. Obviously the results themselves need not be (hence empathy and altruism are found widely within the animal kingdom, including us).

I'll add, though, in support of your (perhaps somewhat "kidding on the square") argument against the plausibility of invisible gods, I have actually formally argued something related to this before, including the Argument from Nonlocality and the Argument from Physical Minds.

Pacotheus said...

Everybody is getting bogged down with Darla. The real question remains of why an atheist should be "good" and even what "good" means to an atheist. And it doesn't help to confuse what is "good for society" with what is "good" for the individual atheist. If it were possible for an atheist to be "king of world" and have anything she wants at everyone else's expense, what, exactly, would be the reason she ought to decline that? Because, certainly, Christians have never had any problem with seeking that sort of situation whenever they could!

Richard Carrier said...

Pacotheus said... The real question remains of why an atheist should be "good" and even what "good" means to an atheist.

Theists have as hard a time answering this question as atheists. It's a problem for any worldview (read Euthyphro). Hence my concluding remarks: to answer it, you have to start at the metaethical question. Answer that, and in a way that is empirically defensible, and that will lead you to the answer to your questions.

And it doesn't help to confuse what is "good for society" with what is "good" for the individual atheist.

I agree. Hence as I say in this blog (and then prove in Sense and Goodness without God), nothing that's "good for society" is plausibly good at all unless it's also "good for the individual." But even theism reduces to the same conclusion: it's ultimately always about what's good for the individual (heaven or hell), and whether society benefits or not is simply a byproduct. But generally (a la Rawls), individuals share many common interests with society as a whole, so a godless inquiry won't lead to as much conflict as a divine one can, in which society can be damned as long as the individual is saved.

If it were possible for an atheist to be "king of world" and have anything she wants at everyone else's expense, what, exactly, would be the reason she ought to decline that? Because, certainly, Christians have never had any problem with seeking that sort of situation whenever they could!

Yet look at the outcome of when that happens (in both cases: Christian and Marxist-atheist totalitarianism). It's actually worse even for the elite, than the life they could have had in a more liberating social system. And it's so bad for the hoi polloi, they constantly seek to undermine or overthrow the elite, which only compounds the fears and miseries of the elite (and ultimately dooms them).

The reality is, it's impossible to reliably obtain, much less maintain, absolute power of the sort you ask about. There are far more effective strategies of happiness accrual, which cost less and have a much higher probability of long-term success. Thus in practical terms, that's why she would decline the totalitarian strategy.

Speaking more abstractly, there are two sorts of person you can become: dishonest and uncompassionate, or honest and compassionate. Once you've become the latter, there is no reasonable path back: once you sympathize with other people and value your own integrity, these things become too valuable to you to be worth abandoning again. Moreover, these attributes will have collateral effects on your life that greatly improve its quality. And if such a person gains power, they will enjoy using it for the common good (they will actually derive pleasure from this), and not enjoy using it for selfish gain (they will actually feel bad about it).

But if you are dishonest and uncompassionate, these traits will have collateral effects that will greatly degrade the quality of your life, and that will have a low probability of producing a net benefit even in material terms, and an exceedingly low probability of achieving totalitarian power. And even if you do, the rest of us are morally obligated to kill you. So, like they say, "Good luck with that."

There is a continuum of personality types between these two extremes, but the effects likewise track the continuum. Your life will thus suck less the more you cultivate a character of compassion and integrity, and suck more the less you cultivate that kind of character.

The details and evidence I provide in Sense and Goodness without God.

Richard Carrier said...

Loneknight30 said... I would still argue that whatever initial metaethical premise you start with is somewhat arbitrary, and therefore the entire basis of any resulting morality would be subjective, not objective.

Arbitrary facts can be objective. Where the magnetic north pole is relative to the kinetic pole is entirely arbitrary (random factors determined it), yet nevertheless an objective fact. Even if what humans need to flourish and be happy is likewise arbitrary in that same sense (random factors determined what it would be), that would still be an objective fact. And everything that followed from that would then be an objective fact, too (as what is entailed by an objective fact is itself an objective fact).

As it happens, what makes humans happy is not as arbitrary as where the poles diverged, as I explain in Sense and Goodness without God, pp. 326-27. Certain facts make it almost logically inevitable that any civilized species will converge evolutionarily on the same or similar needs and interests. Exceptions are still possible, but since we're not one of the exceptions, the possibility that they exist is moot as far as how we should behave, which objectively must follow from our nature, not some other being's.

Thus, that you must do x to optimize happiness and that you want happiness above all else are objective facts, not only about you, but all sane human beings. Even self-sacrifice is done to pursue a balance of outcomes that satisfies your greater happiness (e.g. that you will be happier knowing your daughter survives a plane crash if you sacrifice yourself to ensure that result, than you would be saving yourself and losing her).

That the motive derives from an emotion which is subjectively felt is as much a red herring as the fact that what you know of your daughter's existence is subjectively constructed. That it is subjectively constructed does not make it not objectively true. Likewise, that your drive toward happiness is subjectively felt does not make it not objectively true that there is nothing you would want more (when fully informed of all the consequences of all options available to choose from), nor does it make it not objectively true that only x will achieve that result (which is as much an objective fact as any instrumental proposition, such as how to get the result of cracking open a nut to eat the seed).

Richard Carrier said...

Loneknight30 said... Also, specifically the idea in that blog that people work to maximize their happiness in their lifetime is an obvious truth, and this is the reason to be moral. However it breaks down for guys like Napoleon, or Hitler, or Stalin, who have some talent, or opportunity that allows them to toss conventional morality out the window in pursuit of lusts that capture their imaginations.

That's not true. Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin made decisions based on a matrix of factually false beliefs. The right thing to do is conditional of what's actually true, i.e. it's not what you want at the moment that defines your maximum happiness, but what you would want if you were fully informed of all the relevant facts.

This should be obvious. For example, the right investment decision to make for your retirement is not what seems best to you at the time, but what actually is best, which is why you are likely to take steps to reliably discover the latter rather than act on impulse, but your failing at that won't make a bad decision the right one, it will simply make it a wrong decision made uninformedly. So, too, ethics, or anything else (e.g. the best medical intervention for cancer isn't what we currently know; it's what will actually be the best intervention, hence we still spend billions of dollars trying to discover what that is, while in the meantime using the best we know so far).

Indeed, the lives and fate of all three men demonstrate this decisively. Had Hitler become a morally conscientious painter in Vienna and lived out his life thus, he would have had far more happiness on balance than he ever achieved from his megalomaniacal endeavors (indeed, by all odds he would have lived twice as long, too). Had Stalin fled communism to become a simple liberterian glass blower in Glasgow, ditto. Had Napoleon opened a game company and made and marketed strategic war games while pursuing morally joyous relationships with his friends and employees, he would have gained far more satisfaction from life, and if presented on his deathbed the opportunity to do it all over again as the megalomaniacal and perpetually thwarted and ultimately failed war monger he otherwise was to be, the other Napoleon would say no thanks.

Like the person making an investment decision, if you are rational, you should want to make the best decisions for yourself, based on all possible outcomes. In other words, had these men thought things through, and pursued the requisite knowledge to make informed choices, they would have become entirely different men, who were not only morally admirable, but abundantly happy (and certainly far happier) for the most of their lives.