John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.1, “The Story”

This first section tells a story about the origins of our morality. The story is just a story, not history or science. The story is not, however, merely fiction. The aim is to embed elements of the essential structure of the story at the beginning of Genesis about the Garden of Eden in an account whose details are mostly drawn from contemporary (non-theological) anthropology. It is still a story or myth, telescoping what a scientific account would spread over hundreds of thousands of years. The story does not mention God, but the fifth section of the chapter suggests that a storyteller who did mention God would provide a satisfying addition from an explanatory point of view. We can see the story as one that an anthropologist might tell her children, or as a Kant-like translation of the biblical story “within the boundaries of mere reason.”

Once upon a time there lived in Central Africa a group of apes. They were different from the groups of apes who lived around them, and they recognized this difference. For one thing, they seemed to be able to think of themselves as a group, and to think of what helped them as a group and what harmed them as a group. They would regularly meet together, and they sometimes had a kind of experience together when they met that also separated them from the other apes. They had an experience of everything belonging together, not just their own group, but everything. And it all seemed to them good and beautiful. Their assemblies gave them great joy and also a sense of awe, and they came to organize their lives together around them. They were able at these times to forget what kept them apart from each other, and to rejoice in what kept them together. Because of their new kind of unity, they were able to invent new cooperative ways to find food, and find new places to live that could sustain their form of life.

There arose among them a symbol for this goodness and beauty they had discovered, and a symbol of how the enjoyment of it distinguished them from the other apes in the old lands. They found themselves refraining from a particular kind of fruit, and this restraint was connected with their distinctive new form of life. Eating this fruit had been typical of the old way, the way of their ancestors, and they now needed to separate off their new way, connected with their new capacities and their new assemblies. They came to think of the fruit as forbidden by their common life, even though there was no reason (other than the symbolic connection) for refraining.

One day, when food was scarce, the elders of the group saw other animals eating the forbidden fruit, and they felt weariness with the restriction and a desire to go back to the old ways. They decided to eat the fruit themselves. This was a decision different in principle from eating the fruit in the old life, even though it was a decision to eat the same food, because it was now a decision against the authority of the common standard for their lives that they had accepted.

When they had made this decision, they found consequences that were natural but unexpected. One was that they lost the joy in their assemblies together. They also found their sexual lives changed. Before, they had been so conscious of what held them together as a group that they had not needed to protect themselves from each other, though they protected themselves and each other against common enemies. Now, they found themselves hiding from each other or fighting each other. The power of their common life waned, and competition increased for what each controlled individually. That included their food, but also their own bodies. They started to hide their bodies from each other by covering them, and to feel a new emotion of shame when they were uncovered.

Finally, the fighting and the competition between them got so bad that they were not able any longer to trust each other in the way required for the cooperation in finding food that they had discovered in their new place. Without this cooperation their lives there became unsustainable, and they were forced to leave. However, they kept with them the memory of how it had been, and the aspiration to return to it. They became in this way divided, each internally in their hearts, between the desire to protect what belonged to the individual and the desire for the common good that had been shared between them.


Naturalism, Christianity, and the Best Explanation of Moral Goodness

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In this essay I suggest that Christian theism better explains the existence of moral goodness than does naturalism. But what is goodness? One way to answer this question is by ostension.  We can point to things that are good as examples. If we asked a child, “What is water?” she would not likely respond, “It is a molecule composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.” Instead, she might answer by pointing to the stuff that comes from the sink.  In the same way, we might not know what the essential nature of goodness is, but we can readily identify a wide array of things that are good. For example, most would agree that being healthy is good, the beauty of the Grand Canyon is good, having a trusted friend is good, and that William Wilberforce’s abolitionism is good. But if we ask the further question, “What is the nature of goodness?” then we are faced with a deeper challenge. Socrates was notorious for pushing his interlocutors for essential meanings rather than definitions by ostension, and it didn’t win him many popularity contests.

One way to respond is by giving an account of instrumental goods. A thing is good if it has instrumental value. These are features of a thing that allow for some goal to be achieved. If, for example, I am learning chess, it would be good to study the play of Garry Kasparov. In this case, we might understand “good” to mean “whatever conduces to a given goal.” One way naturalists might be tempted to cash out the essential nature of goodness is in instrumental terms. We could, for example, read Philippa Foot’s teleological, nonconsequential view this way. Human virtues are just those things that conduce toward her preferred end of human thriving as a species. Or, on egoism, it is good to do whatever is in my self-interest. But, of course, instrumental goods exist in obviously bad places, too. The rounding up of the Jews was instrumentally good in Hitler’s plan for their extermination. What this suggests is that while instrumental goodness may get us some way toward understanding the essential nature of goodness, it cannot possibly be the whole story. And mere instrumentality does not explain how to make sense of a wide range of other things that are obviously good.

Clearly, what we are after here is something much more robust than mere instrumentality. We want to understand goodness as intrinsic and not merely extrinsic value.  Let us try again to get at the essential nature of goodness by ostension. What can we point to as an uncontroversial and obvious case of goodness? A good candidate here is humanity itself. The intrinsic value and worth of human beings is often assumed as the starting place of many ethical theories. So, if being human is good, how can we make sense of this claim? This view will have to accord with what we think humans actually are.

Consider, for example, the naturalist view of human persons. Naturalism usually utilizes what might be called “atomistic” metaphysics. That is to say, everything that exists is explainable in terms of the periodic table plus physical laws. All that exists is the material world. Further, matter does not possess any powers that cannot be captured in scientific, physicalistic terms. It follows, then, that humans too are composed of atoms and are governed by the physical laws. If this is true, then we cannot talk about human nature as some additional metaphysical category that obtains simply because there are collections of atoms arranged in a human-shape and that behave in human ways. Generating this kind of nature is not explainable in terms of the powers of physical things. Therefore, on naturalism, humans are piles of atoms arranged human-wise. And when I say “piles,” I do not mean it to be a caricature or a derogatory way of capturing the naturalist view. Rather, I think that is just the honest way to put it. If it seems degrading or silly, the problem lies with the naturalist and his metaphysics that commit him to such a view.

Given this picture of human beings, in what sense can we say that it is good to be human or that humans posses intrinsic value and worth? This will be hard for the naturalist to answer for a couple of reasons. In the first place, he must explain such strange categories as “value,” “worth,” and “dignity” in materialistic, scientific terms. But what combination of atoms conjoined with what set of physical laws will allow us to explicate such notions? In what sense can piles have intrinsic value? This seems like an exceptionally hard question to answer. On the other hand, it will be difficult to even meaningfully distinguish between humans and other physical objects. What can the naturalist point to as the relevant difference between, say, a human pile and a rock pile? This is, of course, a dramatic example. And it is a strong accusation to make to say naturalists cannot provide some relevant difference. But consider what the famous and brilliant popularizers of naturalism, Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, say when trying to capture the wonder of humanity. They point out the rather startling fact that humans are composed of star dust. Humans are made of the same stuff that makes the stars. On the surface, that has an aesthetic appeal, certainly. However, the rock pile is composed of the same stuff. Should this lead us the same wonder and awe of rock piles? Presumably not.

One way the naturalist would likely object here and say that humans are better than rock piles because humans have minds and rock piles do not. But if the naturalist that raises this objection is a thorough going materialist, then this objection will not get him any traction. This is because, presumably, by pointing to the fact that humans have minds, the naturalist wants to indicate some obvious and relevant difference between humans and rock piles. And there is an obvious difference indeed. The trouble is, however that this obvious and qualitative difference cannot be captured using the periodic table plus the physical laws. This is why philosophers of mind committed to materialism often try to reduce, identify, or functionalize mental phenomena to the physical. For example, naturalist and philosopher of mind, Paul Churchland says, “the human species and all its features are the wholly physical outcome of a purely physical process. Like all but the simplest organisms, we have a nervous system… We are notable only in that our nervous system is more complex and powerful than those of our fellow creatures. Our inner nature differs from that of simpler creatures in degree, but not in kind.”[1] In this case, if naturalist like Churchland were to say, “Well humans are better than rocks because they have minds” he would be committing a mistake given the truth of his own view. There just is no such thing as the mental understood as a unique kind of property or substance distinct from the physical. Rather, there is only a physical nervous system; the periodic table plus the laws of physics. Human piles may in some ways be more complex than rock piles, but mere complexity does not somehow generate intrinsic value.

Now perhaps the naturalist will want to say that despite the fact that humans are piles, they are still somehow special. I am open to hearing that case, but I suspect that the naturalist will have trouble giving an adequate explanation for how it is that humans, if they are complex material piles, are intrinsically valuable and worthy of dignity and respect. It seems to me that if the naturalist wants to explain human dignity and remain an atheist, he will at least need to abandon reductive materialism and opt for something like Nagel’s panpsychism or Wielenberg’s moral Platonism (and here he will face a new set of difficulties).

To put the problem more precisely: on naturalism, there can nothing in principle different between human piles and rock piles. They are both composed of matter and they both operate only and always according to physical laws. When one group of humans considers themselves intrinsically better than another just because of their biological make-up, we call those people racists. On naturalism, thinking human piles are better than other piles smacks of a kind of “matter-ism” and those who hold such views are “matter-ists.” So, if we want to avoid being matter-ists and we want a meaningful way to explain human value and dignity we must look elsewhere.

Consider in contrast to the naturalist position, the theistic one. Instead of positing matter and physical laws as fundamental, theists propose that God is fundamental. Classical theists hold that not only is God the ground of all things, He is also maximally great. That is, He possesses all great-making properties to the maximally compossible degree. God, then, is understood to be maximally and intrinsically valuable. Further, theists reject the physicalist metaphysics of naturalism. Instead, they say that spirit is fundamental because God is spirit. Matter exists contingently as the product of God’s free choice to create a material world. In light of this, we need not explain all things in term of matter and physics. We have other resources to appeal to, namely theists can say that possibly some things are composed of spirit.

Now let us turn our attention to the theistic view of human persons. In pondering this question, we might talk Alvin Plantinga’s advice. Plantinga suggests that Christian philosophers who want to understand what kind of things human persons fundamentally are should turn their thoughts to God because

God is the premier person, the first and chief exemplar of personhood. God, furthermore, has created man in his own image; we men and women are image bearers of God, and the properties most important for an understanding of our personhood are properties we share with him. How we think about God, then, will have an immediate and direct bearing on how we think about humankind.

In light of Plantinga’s insight, let us consider how humans might have intrinsic value. For one, humans, being in God’s image, bear a resemblance to Him. If God is intrinsically valuable, then humans too, insofar as they resemble God, also have intrinsic value. This may seem like too easy an answer to give and that could raise suspicion. But notice why the answer is easy. Contrary to the naturalists, theists hold that essential to the fundamental nature of reality is maximal intrinsic value. Value is right at the center of the world so it is not hard to say how value in general comes about. Value exists as a necessary and essential part of Reality. Further, the Christian view, based on the opening chapter of Genesis, is that humans are imagers of God – they bear a resemblance to God. The easy move to explain human value on Christian theism is due to the richness of the theistic world. This is not a fault, but a strength.

But there is more to say. Earlier, I said that naturalists face a “matter-ist” problem. That is, they cannot provide a meaningful difference between human piles and rock piles. This is not the case on theism. Humans are not piles on theism. Instead, humans are souls. Being a soul means being, fundamentally, an immaterial person imbued with the powers of volition, creativity, and the like. It also means bearing essentially a resemblance to God, who is the premier Person. God is spirit and so are humans, although humans have physical bodies in addition to being souls. It is our souls that ground the resemblance to God, not our physical parts. In this way, humans possess a relevant difference from rock piles. Rock piles have no soul and therefore do not resemble God. It really is better to be human than rocks on theism.

Christian theism, then, provides a better explanation of the reality of the intrinsic value of human beings in particular and moral goodness in general than does naturalism.


[1] Paul Churchland, Matter and Consciousness, MIT Press 1990, 21.

The Inadequacy of a Naturalistic Virtue Ethic (Part 2 of 2)

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Objections to Teleology

One of the main concerns is the role that teleology plays. According to Foot, individuals have a telos; they are meant for thriving as a member of a certain species. But it is unclear what this really could mean in a naturalistic world. To say something has a telos means it has a purpose essentially. Alasdair MacIntyre suggests that insofar as a virtue ethic is teleological, it requires “at least one central functional concept, the concept of man understood as having an essential nature and an essential purpose or function.”[1] Having a purpose, and having it essentially, means that a thing has a purpose by its very nature. One obvious way to say that teleology is both genuine and morally significant is to say that a thing was made by a person with certain intentions and purposes. An artist might design and paint a picture with the intention of bringing happiness (a moral good) to others. It is the artist’s intention that gives the painting moral significance. But the naturalist cannot say that humans are relevantly like paintings.  It does not make sense to say that nature “intended” an animal for something any more than it makes sense to say that a puddle of water was intended to fit in the hole it finds itself. This is because we normally think of teleological properties like being meant for X or being intended for Y as irreducibly mental properties. And the only thing we know that can have intentions or meanings is a mind. However, human beings are not the product of any mind, on naturalism, but of matter and the laws of physics. The same amount of intentional care that went into making puddles fit holes went into making us biologically fit for life; granted, there is more sophistication to the latter, but, on naturalism, the amount of intentional care is the same. That being the case, it stretches language beyond the breaking point to say that, on naturalism, we are intended or meant for anything.

Perhaps this objection can be turned back by means of clarification. What then does Foot mean when she says there is a way humans should be? To get that answer, we first have to know what she means by “human” and, second, what she means by “should.”

In responding, the naturalist faces an immediate difficulty. The naturalist cannot even say “there is a way humans are” without controversy because such a statement presupposes certain views about the nature of the category of species and thus what the term human actually means. Specifically, Foot argues that “human” is a real metaphysical category.[2]  Species in general must refer to real metaphysical categories if Foot’s system is going to work because it is by appeal to these categories that she can say what counts as specifying conditions. If the category of species were only fictional, contingently assigned to living things by human animals, then no meaningful norms can be grounded in them. So then, Foot needs there to be a genuine “human nature” to ground her theory. However, David Hull thinks naturalism cannot provide a way to account for this. Hull argues that in light of the impersonal, atomistic world of naturalism, there is no space for metaphysically robust concepts like “human nature.”[3] He says,

The implications of moving species from the metaphysical category that can appropriately be characterized in terms of "natures" to a category for which such characterizations are inappropriate are extensive and fundamental. If species evolve in anything like the way that Darwin thought they did, then they cannot possibly have the sort of natures that traditional philosophers claimed they did. If species in general lack natures, then so does Homo Sapiens as a biological species. If Homo Sapiens lacks a nature, then no reference to biology can be made to support one's claims about "human nature." Perhaps all people are "persons," share the same "personhood," etc., but such claims must be explicated and defended with no reference to biology. Because so many moral, ethical, and political theories depend on some notion or other of human nature, Darwin's theory brought into question all these theories. The implications are not entailments. One can always dissociate "Homo sapiens" from "human being," but the result is a much less plausible position.[4]

The upshot of this is that even having the term human refer to a class of things which share the same nature will not work on naturalism. Human only refers to a nominal way of grouping animals by their traits. However, by human Foot means a real metaphysical category. The trouble is that there is no way for naturalism to ground that meaning.

This also undermines Foot’s normative concept of “should.” To see why, let us consider what Foot means by the locution “should.” It is worth quoting her at length on this:

What, then, determines the truth of the teleological propositions…? We start from the fact that it is the particular life form of a species of plant or animal that determines how an individual plant or animal should be: the Aristotelian categoricals give the ‘how’ of what happens in the life cycle of that species. And all the truths about what this or that characteristic does, what its purpose or point is, and in suitable cases its function, must be related to this life cycle. The way an individual should be is determined by what is needed for development, self-maintenance, and reproduction: in most species involving defence, and in some the rearing of the young.[5]

Thus, by should Foot means individuals ought to exhibit the features which constitute the ideal for their species. But, the argument above has been that Foot can only consistently use species in a nominal way. Species do not really exist, on such a worldview; therefore, there is nothing to make teleological propositions true. From that it follows that there is no way a thing should be. All that naturalism allows for is descriptions of how things are. There is no such thing as a categorical moral “should.” (There are instrumental shoulds, presumably.)

Objections to Eudaimonia

But for the sake of the argument, let us grant Foot that humans have a telos so that there is a way a human should be and that moral evaluations follow from that. Still, what constitutes the ideal is a complete accident of physics. The ideal is further contingent on some arbitrary selection of a specific moment of time in human evolutionary history. What is ideal now could change in the future and it will change if Darwinism is correct. The result is that what is morally repugnant now may not be in the future. This is the view that Angus Ritchie calls “strong evolutionary ethics.”

The fact that the good is contingent on a species also leads to other puzzles. For example, if we suppose that Star Trek’s Borg were a real species, we could not disagree that their assimilation of other species was good for them as Borg, even if it were bad for us as humans.[6] Or, as Angus Ritchie has pointed out, the good for a cancer cell is in direct conflict with the good for a human. In cases of Borg and cancer, there are contradictory goods. And if the survival of cancer cells isn’t an intrinsically good thing, why is the survival of human beings, on this analysis? The fact that Foot distances herself from utilitarianism makes the challenge all the more pressing.

This at least seems like a problem. Intuitively, we think that the good is a trans-species thing. Part of the problem is that the term “good” is so slippery. In one sense, it is obvious and uncontroversial that if there is such a thing as Borg nature, then there is a good for Borg. But our intuitions about the moral good are such that this good cannot be totally determined by the way a species is. This good is supposed to be objective and necessary. It does not depend on anything, especially accidents of nature. So if the good for Borg or cancer is a real, moral good, it is because it stands in the proper relation to the moral good.  Foot thinks the intuitive problem is due to confusion about what we mean by “the good.”[7] According to her, goodness can only be determined by references to species; there is no good outside of that. However, the Borg and cancer puzzles show that there are real problems with identifying the good with the biology of a species.

Objections to the Role of the Virtues

Another problem with virtue in Foot’s theory arises from the conjunction of the role of the virtues and the implications of her naturalist ontology of human persons for human freedom. Aristotle says virtues are those practices that we “choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy.”[8] Virtues both lead to happiness and constitute it, but they are also intentional practices, chosen for good reasons.  Aristotle’s concept of the virtues presupposes a certain view of human persons, namely that they possess at least the power of rationality and volition.

But is such a view at home in a naturalist worldview? Perhaps not. There have been serious challenges to the naturalist’s ability to have confidence in human reason. For example, Alvin Plantinga has powerfully argued that the conjunction of naturalism and atheistic evolution undermines the possibility that humans actually have reliable cognitive faculties. Evolution, after all, is not aimed at producing reliable ways of knowing, but only survival through replication. But there are also concerns about the naturalist account of volition or human freedom. Mark Linville and Angus Ritchie have given similar arguments more delimited to moral cognition in particular.

One view of human freedom is called libertarianism. On this view, a person has the power to choose between alternatives. If presented with the choice of eating either Lucky Charms or Raisin Bran for breakfast, Susan, by her choice, determines which cereal she will eat. The word determines is important here. The libertarian thinks that humans actually act upon the world; they are the ultimate cause of their own actions. (Source theorists assign primacy to this aspect of free choices—that the agent in question is the source of the action—rather than the ability to do otherwise; on occasion, such as after an individual has formed a good enough character, choosing not to help someone in need might become a practical impossibility, without the agent’s freedom being impaired; a source analysis would make good sense of this.) So if Susan chooses Lucky Charms over Raisin Bran (the only rational choice!), the cause of the choice is Susan herself. However, this view of human freedom is problematic for naturalists precisely because a libertarian free will is generally thought to require an immaterial soul.[9] John Searle says that “our conception of physical reality simply does not allow for radical [libertarian] freedom.”[10] And naturalist John Bishop admits, “Agent causal relations do not belong to the ontology of the natural perspective.”[11]

Instead of thinking as humans as unified, immaterial souls, naturalists tend to hold that humans are (highly complex) collections of atoms and molecules. There is nothing special about the parts that make up humans. The laws of physics that operate in the world operate the same way on the parts a human body. This is why Daniel Dennett says, “according to naturalism, “we can (in principle!) account for every mental phenomenon using the same physical principles, laws and raw materials that suffice to explain radioactivity, continental drift, photosynthesis, reproduction, and growth.”[12] Susan’s choice of Lucky Charms is determined by the physical interactions of the parts that make her up, and environemental factors functioning deterministically, and not by Susan herself—in the sense that would satisfy most source theorists. In fact, Dennett thinks that though most people imagine they have a libertarian free will, there is no “I” that steers a human; “the little man in the brain” is illusory.[13] Along these same lines, Sam Harris says, “What I will do next, and why, remains, at bottom, a mystery—one that is fully determined by the prior state of the universe and the laws of nature (including the contributions of chance).”[14]

However, some naturalists think that despite the fact that our actions are determined by physical laws, human freedom still exists. The view that determinism and free will are consistent is called compatibilism. Usually “freedom” is not understood to mean “to exercise volition between two alternatives,” but “to do what one desires.” A free action is still caused, but in the right sort of way. Susan desired Lucky Charms and so she does what she desires to do, even if she could not have done otherwise except in a counterfactual sense. Or, as naturalist Sam Harris puts it, to say one could have done otherwise “is an empty affirmation.”[15]

Now let us return to what Aristotle said about the virtues. He said that a person will practice the virtues because they are judged to be good and to bring about a desired end. This works easily with a libertarian, common sense understanding of free will. But it is more difficult to say that a person practices the virtues because she thought it was a good idea on naturalism. She may indeed think it was a good idea to do, but such thinking plays no causal role in her action. Harris and Dennett think that we tell ourselves a fictional story about why we make the choices we do (I chose to exercise because I think it is good for me), but these are only stories, useful fictions. The real reason has only to do with brain chemistry. Other naturalists speak in terms of reasons as causes, and wish to retain room for what they dub genuine deliberation—but to my thinking this is rather difficult to square with the deterministic implications of a naturalistic world, at least at the macroscopic level. At any rate, onsider what it  means for a virtue ethic if naturalists like Dennett and Harris are right. It follows that persons cannot direct their lives toward a certain end. Instead, they are only directed by nature. Practicing the virtues may be a good thing to do, but we cannot be any more (or less) virtuous than nature has determined us to be. It is also difficult to see how a person could be held deeply culpable for failing to be virtuous or be deeply praised for being virtuous. After all, she could not have done anything besides what she in fact did. Ascriptions of praise and blame, at least intuitively, seem to require that a person could have done otherwise, at least most of the time. Deterrence and rehabilitation are categories that can be explicated on naturalism fairly well, but not anything like retributive justice or giving people their just desserts.

Such reflections do not show that a virtue ethic and naturalism are, in fact, incompatible. However, they raise questions about how comfortable the fit really is. If we want to be virtue ethicists and naturalists, we will have to lower our expectations about what counts as virtuous activity. It cannot be, as Aristotle said, an action chosen by an agent for good reasons that is both a means and end of human flourishing. (Indeed, most naturalists have already abandoned conceptions of formal and final causes so central to Aristotle’s paradigm.) Instead, we must incorporate the compatibilist idea that humans are determined by nature so that they could not do otherwise. Then virtue ethics becomes more about describing what happens to lead to happiness, rather than actually pursuing it. Ethics becomes predominantly descriptive rather than prescriptive. This, to my thinking, seems a rather deflationary kind of ethic. If we want to retain Aristotle’s more robust ethic, we will likely have to adopt a worldview besides naturalism that better explains the role of the virtues.


Earlier I said that for a virtue ethic to be successful it must  explain three facts: (1) that humans have a telos, (2) that achieving the telos is the highest moral good for a human, and (3) that the way to bring about that telos is through the practice of the virtues. In light of the objections raised above, it seems that a virtue ethic requires a set of metaphysical commitments that naturalists do not have the resources to make. Therefore, the NVE is not well grounded. If you want to be an intellectually satisfied virtue ethicist, you should look for a more promising worldview than naturalism.


[1] Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue : A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 69.

[2] Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness, 36.

[3] David L. Hull, The Metaphysics of Evolution, Suny Series in Philosophy and Biology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989). 73.

[4] Ibid., 75.

[5] Foot, 33.

[6]  Gary Watson expresses a similar objection: “An objective account of human nature would imply, perhaps, that a good human life must be social in character. This implication will disqualify the sociopath but not the Hell's Angel. The contrast is revealing, for we tend to regard the sociopath not as evil but as beyond the pale of morality. On the other hand, if we enrich our conception of sociality to exclude Hell's Angels, the worry is that this conception will no longer ground moral judgment but rather express it.” See Gary Watson, "On the Primacy of Character," in Identity, Character, and Morality: Essays in Moral Psychology, ed. Owen Flanagan and Amelie Rorty (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), 462-3.

[7] Foot, 36.

[8]Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, Chapter 7. W.D.  Ross translation.

[9] J. P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imgao Dei. 44. There are other, non-theistic ways, of trying to explain how a human can have libertarian freedom. One possibility is pan-psyhcism. On this view, the universe itself has latent mental powers. When put in the right combination, minds occur. Another option is emgergentism. According this view, an entirely new substance emerges from certain physical arrangements. These theories, if true, might allow for libertarian freedom. But, it is not clear that either one deserves the title of “naturalism.” Both are also highly controversial, and for good reasons, such as their relatively obscurantist elements.

[10] John Searle as cited in J. P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei, 44.

[11] John Bishop as cited in J. P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei, 46.

[12] Daniel Clement Dennett, Consciousness Explained, 1st ed. (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1991). 33.

[13] Daniel Clement Dennett, Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 30.

[14] Sam Harris, Free Will, 40.

[15] Sam Harris, Free Will, 37.

The Inadequacy of a Naturalistic Virtue Ethic (Part 1 of 2)

Photo by  Niko Soikkeli  on  Unsplash

Photo by Niko Soikkeli on Unsplash

In this essay, my aim is to show that naturalism does not provide an adequate ground for a virtue ethic. In order to that, I will first say what a virtue ethic is, then how a naturalist might construe a virtue ethic, and finally give some reasons to think such efforts likely fail.

The Features of a Virtue Ethic

Linda Zagzebski provides a concise definition of virtue ethics: “Traditional Aristotelian virtue ethics makes the concept of virtue dependent upon the more basic concept of eudaimonia – happiness or flourishing. Eudaimonia is in turn dependent upon the idea of human nature, understood as teleological.”[1] This definition can be broken down into three essential parts: teleology, eudaimonia, and the virtues.[2] If these parts are essential to a virtue ethic, then any theory claiming to be a virtue ethic must account for all three of these.

In order to account for the telos of human nature, a theory must say how it is that humans have genuine purpose.

When Aristotle uses eudaimonia he has in mind the ideal or best kind of life possible for a thing. Aristotle thought of eudaimonia as the chief end of man, the good under which all other goods are subsumed. Theories of virtue connect eudaimonia with the human telos so that living up to one’s telos counts as the highest good possible for a human.  Thus, an adequate virtue ethic must say how achieving the human telos, if there is one, counts as good for humans.

A virtue is a means of achieving one’s end, but it is simultaneously bound up in the end itself. By practicing a virtue, a person both helps to bring about eudaimonia and participates in it. If the ideal for humans includes compassion, then by being compassionate we ought to bring ourselves closer to the human ideal. If compassion does not have this means/ends relation to eudaimonia, it does not count as a virtuous activity.

Here is the upshot:  if virtue ethics is correct, then there are at least three facts in need of explanation: (1) that humans have a telos, (2) that achieving the telos is the highest moral good for a human, and (3) that the way to bring about that telos is through the practice of the virtues.

Naturalistic Virtue Ethics (NVE)

The next move is to consider what the naturalist has to say about these facts.

The first issue is whether naturalism allows for teleology in a human. For a thing to have a telos, it must be designed or intended for something. Typically, we think that if something is designed or intended, it was made by a person. That is because in commonsense language these terms imply someone with a mind who does the designing and intending.  This is why Richard Dawkins emphasizes that life has merely the appearance of design.[3] This fact alone might seem to prevent naturalists from assigning a telos to humans since no person designed humans. However, as Colin Allen points out, some naturalists think that Darwinian evolution provides a way for naturalists to talk about genuine “design” without reference to a personal designer.[4] The thought is that nature through the process of evolution really does design life. (Angus Ritchie refers to naturalistic evolution as “quasi-teleological.”)

Through the slow grind of evolution, nature settles (at least for a time) on certain designs or life-forms. Naturalist virtue ethicists invoke the concept of a “species” at this point.[5] A chimpanzee is a species that has a certain suite of natural abilities and characteristics endowed by eons of adaptations. These abilities, like the ability to see, are the result of a series of biological processes. When the processes operate as they should, a healthy chimp will be able to exercise all these abilities without defect. Foot puts it this way: “We start from the fact that it is the particular life form of a species of plant or animal that determines how an individual plant or animal should be.”[6] The should is defined by reference to kind or species which counts as the norm.  A hammer is a kind of thing that normally drives nails. Defective hammers break when driving a nail, or otherwise fail to perform its normative function. Defective chimps cannot see. This account takes the designation “chimpanzee” to refer to a real, in some sense normative, category; species carry with them normative constraints and implications. The result, as Thompson puts it, is that living things can be judged as “defective or sound, good or bad, well-working or ill-working, by reference to its bearer’s life-form or kind or species.”[7]

However, granting that Foot and the other proponents of a NVE are correct about teleology only gets them so far. Thompson admits that teleology by itself has no moral qualities.[8] A wrench is for turning bolts, but that does not mean when wrenches turn bolts there is any moral goodness around. So we must have a reason for thinking that the teleology in a human person actually is able to ground the good.

Foot’s first step is to point out that humans have a unique faculty that other animals do not: the will.  The will is a function of being human in the same way sight or hearing is. With a will, humans are able to act from intentions; this makes humans uniquely moral animals. This allows Foot to make evaluative judgments about the will of an individual: “Similarly, it is obvious that there are objective, factual evaluations of such things as human sight, hearing, memory, and concentration, based on the life form of our own species. Why, then, does it seem so monstrous a suggestion that the evaluation of the human will should be determined by facts about the nature of human beings and the life of our own species?”[9]A human’s choice to murder is a bad choice because it does not conform to the norm for humans. Conversely, good choices are those that correspond to the norm.

But this does not yet get us to explanation of the moral good for humans. In order to get at that explanation, Foot makes a distinction between different kinds of evaluations. There are different kinds of evaluations we can make about living things. “This kangaroo is defective because it has too few legs” is one kind of evaluation. But we can also evaluate the choices of human beings. “Harry’s choice to steal from his mom was bad” is another kind of evaluation. The reason Harry’s choice was bad was because it did not conform to the norm for a human.  Foot thinks that bad here also has a moral sense because it is an evaluation of Harry’s voluntary choice.[10] In other words, what makes the evaluation a moral one is just that it is an evaluation of Harry’s willful action.

However, we still want to know the substance of the good for humans. Foot’s first step in making the connection between bare teleology and the moral good for humans is to show that the norm for human beings includes a complex psychology and robust social interactions. Foot thinks that “human beings need the mental capacity for learning language; they also need powers of imagination that allow them to understand stories, to join in songs and dances—and to laugh at jokes. Without such things human beings may survive and reproduce themselves, but they are deprived.”[11] Foot adds that it “matters in a human community that people can trust each other, and matters even more that at some basic level humans should have mutual respect.”[12] The reason these things matter is because they contribute to the success of a human being as a human being. So the human good consists of a certain desired state of mind and community.

With the substance of the human good fleshed out, Foot can now give an account of the virtues. For Foot, an act is virtuous when it is rationally and successfully performed in light of one’s humanness. To be virtuous is to be an ideal human. So virtues like “justice” and “compassion” are morally good because they are constitutive of the natural norm for human beings. They generate the right state of mind and community.

In light of this, we can see how Foot accounts for the facts of virtue ethics. Humans have a telos because they are members of a species that has certain norms. Foot’s ethic is eudaimonist because living successfully as a human counts as the highest possible good for humans. And the virtues play the right structural role. But is this a successful account?

Tomorrow I will offer objections to a naturalistic account of virtue.


[1] Linda Zagzebski, “The Incarnation of Jesus and Virtue Ethics,” in The Incarnation, ed. Davis, Kendall, and Collins (New York: Oxford, 2002), 326.

[2] Katva uses a similar taxonomy: “Virtue ethics has then a tripartite structure: (1) human-nature-as-it-exists; (2) human-nature-as-it-could-be; and (3) those habits, capacities, interests, inclinations, precepts, injunctions, and prohibitions that will move us from point one to point two.”  Kindle location 576.

[3] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker : Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (New York: Norton, 1996). 21.

[4] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2009), s.v. "Teleological Notions in Biology."

[5]See Michael Thompson, "The Representation of Life," in Virtues and Reasons: Philippa Foot and Moral Theory : Essays in Honour of Philippa Foot, ed. Rosalind Hursthouse, Gavin Lawrence, and Warren Quinn(1998). 27. See also Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). 219. And Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). 24.

[6] Foot. 33.

[7] Thompson. 29

[8] Michael Thompson, "Three Degrees of Natural Goodness (Discussion Note) " Iride, (2003). 2.

[9] Foot. 24.

[10] See ibid. 71.

[11] Ibid. 43.

[12] ibid. 48.


Photo: "Many Species. One Planet. One Future." By N. Jois. CC License. 

The Failure of Naturalism as a Foundation for Human Rights

(Ed. Note: Dr. Menuge is the current president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society)


Almost everyone is in favor of human rights, and many of our cultural debates depend on pitting one alleged human right against another.  Both of the major human rights instruments, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1953) include the basic right to life, for the obvious reason that without life, none of the other rights can be exercised.  Yet today, it is common to claim that abortion and physician assisted suicide are also fundamental human rights.  Since the set of rights claims is inconsistent, we all need some principle that will tell us when a particular claim is (or is not) justified.   As Dave Baggett[1], Paul Copan[2] and John Warwick Montgomery[3] have argued at length, theism clearly provides such a principle.   But most philosophers are committed to naturalism.  So, can human rights be given a naturalistic foundation and avoid the need for God?

I will begin with a few remarks about the nature of human rights, and indicate the prima facie implausibility of naturalistic theories.  Then we will examine Evolutionary Ethics in more detail and show that its attempt to ground morality in natural history faces a serious dilemma.

1. Human Rights and Naturalism.

The modern idea of a human right developed as a response to Nazi atrocities in World War II and the inadequacy of appeal to the positive law of particular nations, since, in point of fact, the atrocities were legal.[4]  At the Nuremburg trials it was recognized that human beings have fundamental, intrinsic value and dignity deserving of protection, and that the state has no authority either to grant or to revoke human rights: these rights are universal (all humans have them), inherent (one has them simply in virtue of being human) and they are inalienable (they cannot be suspended or taken away).

An interesting consequence is that the obligation to protect human rights holds of normative necessity.  To be sure, a higher right can override a lower one (thus the right to self-defense may override an attacker’s right to life), but this is a case of two rights worthy of moral consideration, not one.  It cannot be said, in utilitarian mood, that one has a human right only if the consequences are good and thus perhaps that the attacker had no right to life:  rather, he had a genuine human right to life worthy of moral consideration that was overridden by a higher right to self-preservation.  Thus even though it may be overridden, the existence of a human right as a morally considerable factor is not contingent on circumstances, and this is why (at least) a prima facie obligation to protect human rights has normative necessity.

It is not hard to see why naturalism finds it difficult to ground such obligations.  This is just a special case of the general difficulty naturalists find in accounting for the existence of objective moral values and duties.   For naturalism, the entire cosmos is an unintended collection of undirected natural processes.   It is not true of any of these processes that they are (or are not) supposed to be a certain way.   Thus, on the face of it, the natural processes leading the members of a tyrannical regime to commit genocide are no different, morally speaking, from the natural processes that led Mother Teresa to care for the sick and the poor of Calcutta.   These processes simply are, and we cannot say that some are good (e.g. those protecting human rights) and some evil (e.g. those violating them).

The general problem is the well-known naturalistic fallacy.  No amount of facts about what is going on in nature imply anything about what ought, or ought not, to be going on.   Now a naturalist might embrace nihilism or some very strong version of moral anti-realism, but then they can no longer (without equivocation) claim to justify human rights claims since they do not believe human rights exist.  So what is a naturalist who affirms human rights to do?

A rather desperate suggestion is Atheistic Moral Platonism (AMP).[5]   According to AMP, it is just a brute fact that reality contains both the physical universe and a “Platonic” realm of moral universals (like justice and goodness), and so it is possible that there are objective moral obligations and duties.  However, this is highly implausible. The defender of AMP seems to have whipped out his philosophical credit card and added moral universals to the ontological cart with no serious attempt to show that the moral universals are grounded in the physical universe.[6]  And since there is no substantial relation between the physical and moral realms, there is no reason to expect that the moral universals have anything especially to do with us: why should they not protect the rights of rocks and mollusks, but be indifferent to human beings?   And even if these universals did apply to us, how could they generate obligations?  It is simply incredible that we can have moral obligations to impersonal universals like the form of the good or justice.   And this reveals a more fundamental problem: in our experience, moral obligations (e.g. to keep promises, be fair and impartial, etc.) obtain between persons, for it is persons who prescribe, persons to whom we are morally accountable, and persons whom we can wrong.

Most naturalists realize that they must show why moral values and duties are to be expected in a physical universe.   Naturalists may be either strict or broad.[7]  For strict naturalists, no teleology is operative in nature and so there are no goals (not even impersonal ones) that could ground moral obligations.  If this is how nature is, then J. L. Mackie was surely right to conclude that “objective intrinsically prescriptive features … constitute so odd a cluster of qualities and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events…”[8]  Indeed, there is no way (besides magic) that completely non-teleological processes can ground objectively binding prescriptions since there is no way the world is supposed to be.   It is not surprising then, that strict naturalists have often concluded that a non-cognitive approach to ethics is required (e.g. emotivism or constructivism[9]), and this means that any idea that we should respect and protect human rights must be an illusion.

However, broad naturalists typically claim[10] that even though teleology is absent at the level of basic particles, as more complex arrangements of these particles in physical systems develop, various higher level properties appear (e.g. consciousness, reason, free will, moral values[11]).  It is further claimed that these properties still qualify as naturalistic because they wholly depend on the physical arrangement of particles (via supervenience or emergence).   On this view, the basis for human rights is to be found in the natural, causal history of human beings: it is only because human beings developed the right kind of complexity that they have special rights.   Yet, it is precisely this claim of historical contingency that appears incompatible with the very idea of a human right.

2. Evolutionary Ethics.

While several versions of evolutionary ethics (EE) are possible, a shared claim is that the moral sense of human beings is the result of their natural history.   Since this history is contingent, it follows that our moral sense could have been different, leading us to make different moral judgments than those we actually do.  Darwin illustrates the point with a striking illustration.

If … men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.[12]

In this scenario, humans might have thought that (select) acts of fratricide or infanticide were not merely permissible, but obligatory.

But Darwin is not clear about whether these counterfactual moral beliefs would correspond to a different moral reality, and this leaves the defender or EE two options, which I call Weak EE and Strong EE.  For Weak EE, it is only moral psychology (our moral beliefs) that would be different if we had been raised like hive bees.  So fratricide and infanticide might still be wrong even if we didn’t think so.   But for Strong EE, it is moral ontology itself (what is right and wrong) that natural history explains.  And so in that case, had we been raised like hive bees, fratricide and infanticide would have been right.

Now it is certainly possible for a proponent of EE to defend either moral skepticism[13] or some version of moral anti-realism.[14]  But that would not be sufficient to show there is a genuine moral obligation to respect and protect human rights.  Our question, then, is whether either Strong EE or Weak EE is a plausible foundation for this obligation.  I submit that it is not.  Strong EE faces a serious ontological problem: if it is true, it does not seem that there can be any such thing as human rights.   Weak EE faces an epistemological problem: while it is compatible with the existence of human rights, Weak EE makes it incredible that we could know what they are.  Either way, there is no effective, practical basis for defending human rights.

A. The Ontological Problem for Strong EE.

The trouble with Strong EE is that it makes human rights unacceptably contingent.  Of course, even a theist will say that rights are contingent in some ways: they are contingent on our having been made in the image of God.  However, granted that we are so made, the theist affirms that being human is enough to secure our rights and denies that any further contingencies (such as class, race, intelligence, strength or wealth) are relevant to our value.   By contrast, on Strong EE, being human is no guarantee that we will have any particular set of rights, since our rights will also depend on the details of our natural history.  Thus, had we been raised like hive bees, (select acts of) fratricide and infanticide would have been right, and this means that (certain) brothers and female infants would not have a right to life.   If so, then any right to life such brothers and infants have (because we were not in fact raised like hive bees) is not inherent: we do not have it because we are human, but because of the way we were raised.

Now of course, a defender of Strong EE might bite the bullet and say that his view still allows us appropriate rights in the actual world, where we were not raised like hive bees.  But this move incurs several serious costs.  First, the defender of Strong EE still must deny that there is any normative necessity to our obligation to protect life.  That brothers and daughters have a right to life just happens to be the case.  And yet the only difference between these individuals and others who happen to have been raised like hive bees is extrinsic (we are, note, not assuming some ghastly genetic experiment, so that in the counterfactual case, humans actually become hive bees).  Thus, second, Strong EE seems to violate the principle of relevant difference: it says two classes of individual have different moral value without indicating a relevant difference between them.  And third, Strong EE seems to have the same problem as classical utilitarianism.  When confronted with the fact that a majority may be made happy by the genocide of a minority, utilitarians typically retort that in the real world and over time, most people are made unhappy by such atrocities.  Even if true, this would imply that had a tyrant been more effective in brainwashing or slaughtering those who disagreed, genocide would have been right.  It is surely absurd to suggest that genocide is only wrong in the actual world because of administrative incompetence!

What is more, the defender of Strong EE is in no position to claim that human rights are inalienable or necessarily universal.  This is because changes in future living conditions could affect what rights we have.  Thus, suppose some tyrant loves hive bees (he sees them as model citizens) and decides that, henceforth, we are all to be raised in similar fashion.  With a stroke, brothers and female infants lose their right to life.  So even if they currently do have such a right, it is not necessary that they do, and the state could easily engineer circumstances which revoke that right.  Indeed, more horrific scenarios are possible, reminiscent of various science fiction novels and movies, where human beings are used as living batteries, fertilizer or food, and in which no one has a right to life (or has it for very long).   More realistically, we see that societies frequently have attempted to engineer living conditions such that (they claim) some group does not enjoy (full) human rights: slavery, child labor, the caste system, forced concubines, ghettoes and apartheid.  All of these, though, are clear examples of human rights abuses, and reinforce the fact that human rights are not dependent on living conditions as Strong EE claims.

Underlying this failure of Strong EE is that it appears to confuse two notions of “good.”  Natural selection can explain the retention of characteristics that are good for an organism, community or species, in that they increase the likelihood of survival and reproduction.   But as Richard Joyce points out, the fact that X is good for Y does not imply that X is morally good.[15]  Assassination is good for removing political leaders and exterminating people in gas chambers is good for ethnic purity, but this does not make either of them morally good.   And the same point applies to the biological good.  That mosquitoes serve malaria’s biological good does not imply that mosquitoes have any moral value, and the fact that (to use one of Darwin’s examples) tribal warfare serves the biological good of a particular tribe by enhancing cooperation and cohesion within it (even if the tribal warfare violates all conditions of a just war) surely does not imply that such tribal warfare is morally good: indeed it could constitute a major human rights abuse.  And similarly, the fact that fratricide and female infanticide might be biologically good for human beings if they lived like hive bees does not imply that those behaviors would be morally good.  Thus there is a logical chasm between what serves the biological interests of a species and what is morally valuable.

A yet further problem is that once our rights are made contingent on the actual distribution of natural capacities conferred by our natural history, there is no good reason to think that only human beings, or that all human beings, have special rights.  If rights are based on our degree of biological adaptedness, then, as James Rachels points out, the humble cockroach is just as well adapted.[16]  So Peter Singer would be right to reject the claim that only human beings have special rights as “species-ism.”  And if rights are based on our natural capacities, then it will always be possible to find individuals who suffer physical and mental defects and thus do not have rights.   And in any case, natural capacities are not uniformly distributed, and this would undermine the basic equality of human rights.  Thus, since some people are naturally smarter or stronger (etc.) than others, it appears some people will have more rights than others.  Yet again, being human is not enough for naturalism: one has to be the right kind of human.  This utterly subverts the idea of human rights, rights one has simply in virtue of being human.

So, if Strong EE is true, it seems that there really are no universal, inherent, inalienable rights.  Even if there are some “rights” (e.g. conventional or contractual ones), human rights will not exist.

B. The Epistemological Problem for Weak EE.

Weak EE, as a modest thesis of moral psychology, is certainly consistent with the existence of human rights.  However, it also has nothing to do with the explanation of those rights.   On this view, had we been raised like hive bees, we would have believed that fratricide and female infanticide were right, but that would have nothing to do with moral reality.    Certainly, this view allows that we might have true moral beliefs, since what our natural history disposes us to believe might happen to correspond to moral reality.   But Weak EE surely gives no grounds for thinking we could know moral reality (including human rights) and even some reason to think that we could not.

It is virtually universally agreed amongst epistemologists (whether internalists who demand we can see why our belief is true, or externalists who are satisfied provided we are in fact reliably connected to the truth) that it is impossible to know that p if one is only right by accident in believing that p.  Thus, if I look at a broken clock that says 7:30 and it is 7:30, my belief is true, but I do not have knowledge because I was only right by accidental coincidence.   A natural explanation of what went wrong here is this: the fact that it was 7:30 had nothing to do with why the clock said 7:30, and hence nothing to do with why I believed that it was 7:30.

Unfortunately for Weak EE, if it is true, then we are in a precisely similar situation regarding our moral beliefs.  For on that view, natural history is causally relevant to our moral beliefs, but does not account for moral reality.  So if we had been raised like hive bees we would think fratricide and infanticide were right even if they were not.  And, it could be that we think fratricide and infanticide are wrong (because we were not raised like hive bees) even though they are right.  But now suppose that our belief that fratricide and infanticide are wrong happens to be true.  Still, it is not knowledge, because what made us believe this has nothing to do with why our belief is true.

Notice that internal conviction of certainty is of no avail.  Suppose we were to meet a tribe of humans raised like hive bees.  They would be just as convinced that we were wrong, holding back out of superstitious ignorance from our sacred duties of fratricide and infanticide, as we would be convinced that their behavior was morally abhorrent.  Thus the best that Weak EE could hope for is that we are right by the fortunate accident that we were raised a certain way.

But then of course, one must also ask how likely it is that our beliefs would track moral reality if Weak EE is true.  We have already seen that there is no logical connection between biological adaptedness (what is biologically good for an individual or species) and the moral good.   If so, and given the vast number of possible natural histories we might have had, it seems highly unlikely that our belief-forming mechanism would be apt for moral truth.

This is not merely because of the well-known general problem for naturalism, that biologically useful beliefs do not have to be true.  In the case of beliefs about physical reality, the naturalist can at least offer some sort of causal theory of representation that connects the physical state of affairs with a belief, and it is not wholly implausible that having true beliefs about some local aspects of the physical environment would be adaptive.  Matters are wholly different with moral beliefs since moral values are not physical items with which a creature’s body and brain could causally interact (at least, not on any naturalistic view of causation).  As J. P. Moreland points out, “value properties are not empirically detectable nor are they the sorts of properties whose instances can stand in physical causal relations with the brain.”[17]  So even if moral values are out there in the world, naturalistic evolution has no credible account of how our belief-forming mechanism could be formed and honed so that we could come to know what they are, making moral skepticism the most reasonable option.  In fact, matters are even worse, as Richard Joyce points out.  On naturalistic assumptions, we would have the moral values we do because they are biologically useful even if no objective moral values have ever existed![18]  So if the explanation of our moral faculties and beliefs does not even depend on the existence of moral values, it surely follows that we cannot know them if they do exist.

So if Weak EE is true, even if there are human rights lying around somewhere, we can never claim to know what they are (indeed, for similar reasons to those given above, we cannot even have evidence of their existence and character).  This is as good as useless in justifying human rights and adjudicating competing human rights claims.


It is not difficult to see that the dilemma for Evolutionary Ethics is but one instance of a general problem for Naturalistic Ethics.  Given only the contingencies of naturalistic causation, there is no way to ground claims that hold of normative necessity.  Just like the authority of deductive logic, the authority of fundamental moral obligations depends on a kind of normative necessity that does not depend on, or reduce to, the contingent interactions of humans with their physical environment.  Indeed, we can run a precisely analogous argument to the argument against EE above if the naturalist appeals to individual learning history rather than the natural history of the species.   If we believe in real obligations, like those to respect and protect human rights, we should abandon naturalism.



[1]For example, see David Baggett and Jerry Walls’s, Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[2]See Paul Copan, “Ethics Needs God,” in eds. J. P. Moreland, Chad Meister and Khaldoun Sweis, Debating Christian Theism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 85-100 and “Grounding Human Rights: Naturalism’s Failure and Biblical Theism’s Success” in ed. Angus J. L. Menuge, Legitimizing Human Rights: Secular and Religious Perspectives (Farnham, UK; Ashgate Publishing, 2013), 11-31.

[3]See John Warwick Montgomery’s The Law Above the Law (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishing, 1975) and Human Rights and Human Dignity (Dallas, TX: Probe, 1986).

[4]John Warwick Montgomery, The Law Above the Law, 24.

[5]An example of this sort of view is provided by Erik Wielenberg, “In defense of non-natural, non-theistic moral realism,” Faith and Philosophy 26:1 (2009) 23-41.

[6]See the critique of Wielenberg in Paul Copan’s “Grounding Human Rights: Naturalisms’s Failure and Biblical Theism’s Success,” 13-14.

[7]See Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro’s Naturalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008).

[8]J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 115.

[9] Sharon Street, “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value,” Philosophical Studies 127:1 (2006): 109-66.

[10]An exception is Thomas Nagel [Mind and Cosmos (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012)], who attempts to build teleology into nature at a foundational level.  Arguably, though, this natural teleology then stands in the same need of explanation as all of the “remarkable” phenomena (consciousness, reason and morality) which it is invoked to explain.  Otherwise, it suffers many of the same problems as AMP, since there is no reason to think the teleology is especially concerned with us, and nor is it the sort of thing to which one could have a moral obligation.

[11]See, for example, Larry Arnhart’s Darwinian Natural Right (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998) and Darwinian Conservatism (Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2005).

[12]Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998), 102.

[13]Michael Ruse and E. O. Wilson, “Moral Philosophy as Applied Science,” Philosophy 61: 236 (1986): 173-92.

[14]For example, Sharon Street defends the idea that there are no moral facts, but that moral truths derive from a process of reflective equilibrium.  This is no use for defending human rights as those who gathered together to plan the “final solution” for the “Jewish problem” reached reflective equilibrium.

[15]Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 170.

[16]James Rachels, Created From Animals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 70.

[17]J. P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei (London: SCM Press, 2009), 149.

[18]Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality, 183.


Photo: "Broken" by hjhipster. CC License. 

Angus Menuge


Angus Menuge is professor of philosophy and Concordia University Wisconsin and President of the Evangelical Philosophical Society.  His research interests include philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, apologetics and C. S. Lewis.  He earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a Diploma in Christian Apologetics from the International Academy of Apologetics, Evangelism and Human Rights, Strasbourg.  He is editor of C. S. Lewis: Lightbearer in the Shadowlands, Christ and Culture in Dialogue, Reading God's World and Legitimizing Human Rights.  He is author of Agents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science.

Four Problems with Naturalistic Evolutionary Ethics

Gargan, the caveman, lived for only one purpose: producing offspring. His sole purpose in life was to propagate his DNA by any means necessary. Brutality and selfishness are simply the tools of the trade to accomplish the life mission bestowed upon him by natural selection, making Gargan a mean character with no regard for any creatures, human or otherwise, around him.

This caricature of evolutionary morality is becoming increasingly outdated as new methods of observing and studying mammalian behavior shed light on behavioral tendencies. Humans are social mammals, and as such, we depend on each other’s cooperation to survive. Thus, there is a kind of proto-morality that can be observed even among chimps, bonobos, and other primates. Some species of primates understand and live by the laws of reciprocity and fairness, engaging in tit for tat and giving favors in exchange for future favors. Frans deWaal points out that Chimpanzees “build a social economy of favors and disfavors to food to sex and form grooming to support in fights. They seem to maintain balance sheets and develop expectations, perhaps even obligations, hence their negative reaction to broken trust” (The Bonobo and the Atheist, 129). This complex system of interaction is interesting scientifically, but it suffers from some deep problems when applied to conversations about morality and normative ethics.


  1. Naturalistic Fallacy

Defining that which is “good” as that which is “natural” commits what G. E. Moore called the naturalistic fallacy: “To argue that a thing is good because it is natural or bad because it is unnatural…is therefore certainly fallacious: and yet such arguments are very frequently used.” “All that the Evolution-Hypothesis tells us is that certain kinds of conduct are more evolved than others” and what this leads to, say some, is the “definite view that better means nothing but more evolved; or even that what is more evolved is therefore better.” Once we collapse “goodness” into “naturalness,” we have no standard by which to measure the moral status of human behavior. In order for human behavior to be subject to evaluation, “goodness” has to mean something more than merely “that which is natural.” Moore also points out that: “The value of the scientific theory, and it is a theory of great value, just consists in showing what are the causes which produce certain biological effects: whether these effects are good or bad it cannot pretend to judge.” A recent study has demonstrated a link between the genetic mutation that inhibits the production of Monoamine Oxidase A (an enzyme that catalyzes dopamine and seratonine) and both lower levels of empathy and higher levels of aggression. Another study has shown that males with less white matter in their brains are more likely to experience and express pedophilic tendencies. If “goodness” and “naturalness” are synonymous, then it would follow that male aggression and pedophilia are good, but we all agree that this is not the case. We subject human behaviors and tendencies to moral scrutiny by a standard that exists beyond human behaviors and tendencies (we do it no other way!).

  1. Is-Ought Fallacy

The evolutionary sciences only tell us what is the case about evolutionary history, primate behavior, human psychology, etc. They do what science is meant to do: describe the natural order of things. Hence, by virtue of what science is, it merely describes behavior, but it cannot prescribe behavior. As David Hume pointed out, there is an epistemic and normative gap between that which is the case and that which ought to be. Deriving an ought from an is seems difficult, if not impossible. Science, the careful, methodical observation of the world, can only describe human behavior. It cannot prescribe moral behavior. While scientific results and discoveries can offer interesting and even relevant insight into ethical questions, science is not the arbiter of ethics. And as with the naturalistic fallacy, we run the risk of endorsing immoral oughts simply because we observe some immoral behavior that simply is. A recent anthropological survey of human ancestors in the Pleistocene era has suggested that male-on-female rape was exceedingly common. Due to various factors, females began to recognize and implement their role as sex monopolizers, and this in turn led to an increase in rape. This detrimental exchange of behaviors was soon phased out by natural selection, but for some time it was the norm. It still goes without saying that rape, whether then or now, is morally reprehensible regardless of circumstances. If it is true (and it is) that rape is, always has been, and always will be wrong, then we can condemn natural states of affairs that favored rape and concede that we cannot derive an ought from an is.

It is also interesting to note that humans seem unique in that there is a moral dimension to our behavior. Rape among humans is not merely forcible copulation. Forcible copulation takes place regularly in the animal kingdom with ducks, sharks, dolphins, and bedbugs. Bedbugs and other invertebrates actually practice what is known as “traumatic insemination” as the ordinary means by which they copulate. With human beings, forcible copulation is termed “rape” because we recognize that human behavior is saturated with moral status, whether good or bad. Male lions sometimes kill cubs, but they do not murder. Fighter ants use aphids as forced laborers, but they do not practice slavery. Young bottlenose dolphin males have been known to corner a single female and take turns forcibly copulating, but they do not commit rape. Murder, slavery, and rape are immoral acts that are only possible among humans because of the unique ability of human actions to carry moral status.

  1. Arbitrary Moral Values

The values and tendencies that humans hold are contingent upon the specific kind of social mammals that we are. Had the tape of evolutionary history been rewound and played once again, we might have a completely different set of moral values and tendencies –on what Angus Menuge calls “strong evolutionary ethics.” Darwin himself noted this conclusion: “If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.” Michael Ruse also paints a stark picture: “We are what we are because of contingent circumstances, not because we necessarily had to be as we are. Suppose, instead of evolving from savannah-living primates…we had come from cave-dwellers. Our nature and morality might have been very different. Or take the termites…they have to eat each other’s feces…had humans come along a similar trail, our highest ethical imperatives would have been strange indeed.”

  1. Evolutionary Science Undermines Justification for Moral Beliefs

Imagine that when you were a child, a scientist gave you a pill that caused you to believe that George Washington was the first president of the U.S.A. Imagine also that this pill caused you to forget that you ever took such a pill. Finally, imagine that the same scientist finds you again late in life and confesses to you that you were part of this experiment of which you were unaware. He tells you that your belief that George Washington was the first president was solely the product of a pill. If you had never researched the topic for yourself, you would not be justified in continuing to believe that George Washington was the first president, right? The only reason you had that belief was the pill that was given to you. But now that you have knowledge about the pill, you cannot honestly say that you have good grounds for believing that George Washington was the first president.

The same is true of evolutionary science and what it tells us about ethics. We are learning now, more than ever, that human beings are social animals with tendencies built in to us over the course of evolutionary history that allow us to function well together in groups. We have tendencies to take care of our children, our spouses, etc. We have tendencies towards reciprocity, altruism, and empathy. The problem however is that coming to know that these tendencies are inculcated into us by evolutionary processes geared towards maximizing survivability and reproduction actually undercuts our justification for believing that these moral tendencies are true and binding for us. In the same way that once you find out that your George Washington belief is solely the product of a pill, you no longer have good reasons for continuing to believe it to be true, understanding that “morality” is merely a set of evolutionarily-ingrained tendencies also undermines our justification for moral beliefs and actions. “Morality, or more strictly our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends (Ruse and Wilson 1985)” and it “is a collective illusion foisted upon us by our genes” (Ruse 1986).


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The Inability of Naturalism to Explain Moral Knowledge

© By R Scott Smith, PhD, Biola University,  

There are various positions taken amongst naturalists in metaethics, and these have implications for whether or not a particular naturalist would believe we can have moral knowledge. In this short paper, first I will survey options in metaethics that various naturalists have taken and draw out those implications. Though they may differ in their metaethical standpoints, all these theorists are united around a common ontological claim – real, intrinsic, moral facts do not exist. Yet, they also think we can (and often do) know much about morality. For example, following the fact-value split, we know not only that science (i.e., today’s orthodox science, which is naturalistic) gives us knowledge of the facts of reality, but we also know that ethics and religion give us opinions, preferences, and our own constructs. But in the second section, I will take up a broader question: can we really have knowledge on naturalism? If not, then it seems naturalism would be false, for there are many things it seems we do know, including in morality. If so, then naturalism should be rejected.

I. Various Metaethical Positions for Naturalists

I. Noncognitivism: On a traditional, linguistic understanding, noncognitivists believe that moral judgments are neither true nor false. This would include two main positions, i.e., prescriptivism and emotivism (which A.J. Ayer supported). But this depiction has been criticized for at least a couple reasons by Richard Joyce, who first challenges just what a moral judgment is.[1] On his view, noncognitivism could be (1) a denial of the existence of beliefs (as mental states which could be true or false); (2) the lack of expression of a proposition (which would eliminate beliefs, which are propositions); or (3) the denial of the assertion of a belief. Overall, beliefs have no place metaethically, so there is no moral knowledge (understood as a justified true moral belief) available on this view.

Now, Simon Blackburn nuances his noncognitivism by appealing to projectivism and quasi-realism.[2] The latter is a linguistic thesis which seeks to “‘earn the right’ for moral discourse to enjoy all the trappings of realist talk,” including truth predicates in moral sentences.[3] For the noncognitivist, “stealing is wrong” really means something like “stealing – ugh!” However, for the quasi-realist, judging by the surface grammar of the sentence, it may be considered to be (or, treated as) true or false. Such sentences mimic moral realist assertions, yet do not really mean the same thing. The focus here is completely on moral discourse (a linguistic emphasis) and not about a moral property being instanced in some action (which would be a metaphysical focus) - for such things are not real. Blackburn is quite clear why: “The problem is one of finding room for ethics, or placing ethics within the disenchanted, non-ethical order which we inhabit, and of which we are a part.”[4]

But whether on Blackburn’s views, or the more traditional noncognitivist ones, there is no moral knowledge. There are no moral facts or moral judgments that can be known to be true or false. Still, that does not mean that someone like Blackburn or Ayer does not claim to know much about morality.

2. Moral Cognitivism - Subjectivist Theories: In general, cognitivists believe that moral statements are truth-apt yet disagree about the object of such statements. Of course, within this position, there has been the traditional distinction between private subjectivism and cultural relativism.

Here are two subjectivist examples. While Gilbert Harman seems to reduce moral facts to natural ones, nonetheless that does not mean that there are no moral facts. He affirms the theory-ladenness of beliefs, so that any moral beliefs we may have from making empirical observations are not due to some self-presenting, intrinsically moral property, but rather our interaction (which is conditioned by our upbringing and psychology) with just natural facts. Moral facts are mind-dependent, or our constructs; that is, in terms of a broader issue of moral realism versus anti-realism, he seems to be a subjectivist about morals (i.e., metaphysically).[5] So, we can know what moral facts are (i.e., human constructs), but we cannot know a moral reality independent of nature, for there is none.

Consider also Michael Ruse’s subjectivist ethics. For him, “the meaning of morality is that it is objective.”[6] Ruse embraces sociobiology: morality (in particular, social cooperation) just is a shared, biological adaptation. He draws upon Richard Dawkins’ “selfish gene” view, and he suggests that we may speak of genes as selfish or altruistic. Yet, that is just to employ a biological metaphor, on which “altruistic” behavior is cooperative. Further, we objectify morality, but that is an illusion that has been thrust upon us by our genes, for there is no foundation for morality independent of biology. Yet Ruse also stands strongly against behaviors such as rape, female circumcision, or Hitler’s atrocities.[7] Evidently, then, Ruse believes we can know various acts to be morally right or wrong, yet he also seems to have special access to the truth about morality itself – that it is not objective but just a biological adaptation.

3. Moral Cognitivism - Error Theory: J.L. Mackie argued that, descriptively, there are widespread differences in moral views, and their best explanation is that moral judgments “reflect adherence to and participation in different ways of life.”[8] He also argued that if there exist objective moral properties, they would be entities of a very queer sort, utterly unlike anything else that exists in the physical universe, and they would require some atypical means to know them.

But the error theorist also claims that our moral discourse trades upon institutional (and thus socially constructed) facts, not brute, physical facts. Institutional rules guide our actions and speech, so moral judgments (which are beliefs) that profess to be real and institution-independent instead are infected with error. Why? There are no intrinsic moral facts. So for the error theorist, there is no room for moral knowledge, for there is nothing truly moral to be known. Yet, we may know much about moral discourse, that such talk does not reflect a predication of real moral properties.

4. Moral Cognitivism - Ethical Naturalism: On this last set of views, moral statements are about moral acts, or objects thought to have moral value. But here, moral facts can be reduced to natural ones which can be studied by science. On such a view, we can infer that such naturalists think we can have “moral” knowledge, since we can have knowledge of natural facts via science. Yet, of course, such knowledge would not be of intrinsically moral facts.

The Cornell Realists (Richard Boyd, Nicholas Sturgeon, and David Brink) offer a variation. For them, all our observations (scientific, ethical, etc.) are theory-laden and are justified in light of their coherence with one’s whole web of beliefs. But this need not result in thoroughgoing anti-realism. For them, there are moral explanations of natural facts, and when we do this, we bring to bear our presupposition-laden background beliefs. So, for these realists, claiming that there are no moral facts lacks independent rational force against a realist’s web of beliefs. Thus, it seems we could have moral knowledge on this view, but again, it would not be of some intrinsically moral facts.

In sum, there is a spectrum of positions amongst naturalists in metaethics, resulting in different answers to the question, can we have moral knowledge? Some are confident that we can, while others are not. Yet they all seem to think there is much we can know about morality and moral discourse. Now, let us turn to examine the prospects for these (and other) knowledge claims on naturalism.

II. The Prospects for Knowledge on Naturalism

In general, given naturalism’s ontology, it seems that since only real natural facts exist in a mind-independent way, all other facts are human constructs. This line of thought fits with John Searle’s distinction between the brute facts of the physical world and the constructed facts of social reality.[9] Similarly, when addressing the reality of intentionality, Michael Tye avers to the reality of physical facts, yet explains the mental as a way of describing, or conceiving of, the physical.[10] Others seem to follow this same kind of pattern, such as David Papineau, Fred Dretske, and William Lycan.[11] Indeed, it seems to be a reasonable move, for on naturalism, the only intrinsic facts are physical ones. All else that we experience in reality (whether involving relationships, social life, economics, politics, business, sports, ethics, entertainment, or more) are due to how we conceive of, or talk about, the physical.

Daniel Dennett takes a similar line of argumentation. If we are consistent as naturalists, it means that while real brains and real physical patterns of forces exist, nonetheless things like mental states, intentions, and meanings are just attributions, or interpretations, we make from having adopted the intentional stance.[12] That stance is merely a tactic we adopt to help us predict behavior, and not to posit the “existence” of a variety of other “real” entities. For instance, consider the examples from Star Trek™, where Mr. Spock plays chess with the Enterprise’s computer.[13] For Dennett, both Spock and the computer are mechanisms, without any real intentions. Still, to help us predict what move Spock will make at a given stage in the game, we adopt the intentional stance, in which we attribute to him the intention to checkmate his opponent; thus, likely, he will make a given move. We treat the computer similarly, in that it “intends” to checkmate Spock and thus we predict it will make such-and-such a move.

For Dennett, these attributions of intentional states (and beliefs, desires, intentions, thoughts, etc.) are useful, shorthand ways of talking. They enable us to predict efficiently and reliably the behavior of intentional systems, which are systems that are amenable to treatment from this tactic.[14] It is more efficient than developing a lengthy, cumbersome description using the language of neuroscience.[15]

Now, while Dennett denies the reality of mental entities and their content, he does affirm the objective reality of physical patterns in the real world that we can detect.[16] However, Dennett also realizes that though these objective patterns are real, they always fall short of perfection. Therefore, there always will be uninterpretable gaps. Why? Here, Dennett draws upon Quine’s indeterminacy of radical translation[17] and extends it to the “‘translation’ of not only the patterns in subjects’ dispositions to engage in external behavior (Quine’s ‘stimulus meanings’), but also the further patterns in dispositions to ‘behave’ internally.”[18] Dennett realizes that there always will be such gaps entails that it is “always possible in principle for rival intentional stance interpretations of those patterns to tie for first place, so that no further fact could settle what the intentional system in question really believed.”[19]

Besides Quine, Dennett also appeals to Donald Davidson, who explains this principle in terms of its application to belief: “If there is indeterminacy [of meaning or translation], it is because when all the evidence is in, alternative ways of stating the facts remain open.”[20] Now, Dennett sees that Quine demonstrated the indispensability of intentionalistic discourse, yet for them such talk is not grounded in real mental states. So, Dennett uses Quine to support his own denial of the reality of mental entities and content: “Quine’s thesis of the indeterminacy of radical translation is thus of a piece with his attack on essentialism; if things had real, intrinsic essences, they could have real, intrinsic meanings.”[21]

So, if there were such essences, then meanings (along with other intentional states) could be determinate. There could be a single, correct answer to questions such as, What was Spock really intending to do when he made that move in chess? Or, what does Spock really believe about the moral status of Starfleet’s “prime directive”?[22] But Dennett thinks it is futile to think we can match up “mental” entities with their physical correlates. In principle, these patterns are capable of being interpreted variously from the intentional stance, and those interpretations could tie for first place. There are no deeper facts (i.e., essences) to give a determinate answer to the question, “What does it mean?”

Yet, with the language we use to describe the physical and behavioral traits of living things and other objects,[23] we take as real the entities referred to by that language. This is because we believe there are brute facts in the real world, something which can be described accurately from the standpoint of the Darwinian, materialistic story.

However, let us consider a comment Dennett makes in passing about his own views’ implications. He observes that Samuel C. Wheeler draws insightful connections between Derrida, Quine, and Davidson. Per Wheeler, Derrida provides “important, if dangerous, supplementary arguments and considerations” to the ones that Davidson and other Quinians have put forth.[24] As Wheeler notes, “For Quinians, of course, it is obvious already that speech and thought are brain-writing, some kind of tokenings which are as much subject to interpretation as any other.”[25]

Since there are no essences, there are no representations that are intrinsically about anything. Moreover, since natural selection itself is unrepresenting, there cannot be any “natural signs,” something that intrinsically would represent something else. Now, this means that for Dennett, we are left with events of “taking as,” in which we take (interpret, conceive of) some input as something else.[26] There is no room, it seems, for any aspect of the world as it is in itself to come before us and be known as it is, apart from how that input has been conceptualized.

Likewise, if any event of “taking as” cannot intrinsically represent something, then it too must be taken to be something else. Of course, that taking also must be taken as something else, and so on to infinity, it would seem, without any way to get started with these takings. As Willard argues, “Either there is going to be at some point a ‘taking as’ which does not itself represent anything (even what is ‘taken’) – which certainly sounds like a self-contradiction and is at best unlike the instances of ‘taking’ featured in Dennett’s explanations – or there is going to be an infinite regress of takings.”[27]

Now, clearly, this conclusion would apply to those things we would consider on naturalism to be our constructs, such as mental entities, morality, religion, and much more. But it also would hold for those aspects of the materialistic, real world Dennett takes to be objective. If everything that can be known (or even thought about, processed, etc.) by the brain is the result of a process with nothing but takings, since nothing is immediately given to us, then it seems there is no room for Dennett’s “brute facts” to be exempt from Derrida’s point: everything is a “text” which needs interpretation. The so-called “brute facts” also are conceptualizations, the result of the “raw stimulus” having been “cooked” by the brain’s distributed processes. Even the so-called “raw stimulus” is a taking (of something, but what we do not seem to know) as something else.

Now, it makes sense that there must be some raw stimulus; no one who takes the need for interpretation seriously, at least whom I know, denies that there is a real world. But, like all else, the raw stimulus, and even the so-called “objective” patterns, also must be takings of some things as such. They too are conceptualizations, every bit as much as anything else. Even the so-called “facts” of the objective, materialistic world of the natural sciences, would be just interpretations.

If so, then on what rational justification can Dennett privilege the third-person, objective, materialistic, Darwinian view of the real world? On his view, the language of materialism, cognitive science, etc., would be just as subject to Quine’s thesis of the indeterminacy of translation as the language of folk psychology. This is because the language of materialism is a brain-writing, which is a token, and therefore would be as much in need of interpretation as any other facet of existence.

Thus, when all the “facts” are in, there still will be alternative ways of stating them, in addition to the language of materialism and cognitive science. And, since there are no essences, there will be no deeper facts to settle any disputes that would arise. Therefore, applying Dennett’s own logic, in principle, it will always be possible for rival interpretations to tie for first place.

Now, this issue seems to arise not just for Dennett, but also for other naturalists as well, for the problem surfaces precisely because there are no essences to determine the facts of the matter. And it is not a problem just for in the areas of ethics or religion; it seems to be a problem in principle for naturalism. Without essences, it seems there would be an endless series of interpretations, without any way to get started, even with the so-called “brute facts.”

Now, this regress of interpretations may not seem problematic to some. After all, we do experience real trees, brains, moral situations, and the like. So, perhaps the ubiquity of interpretation may simply imply that while we do experience objects in reality, our access always is interpreted access.

At first glance, this reply may seem to alleviate the problem. For when we make observations of, say, a gas at a certain temperature and pressure, we still do need to interpret those observations. This is all well and fine; I have no desire to underestimate the importance of interpretation. However, that is not my point; rather, it is that without essences, there is no way to gain any “foothold” onto reality and begin to know it. An interpretation always is of something, but here, at every step, it seems that “something” ends up being another interpretation, without a way to access reality itself and even start.

III. Implications

Without essences, there are no intrinsic constraints on what is intentional or mental. Thus, we seem utterly unable to have any knowledge if the ontology of naturalism were true. The same implication applies to morality; at best we are left with a beginningless series of interpretations, such that there is no way to gain any foothold on reality, to even begin to conceive of something as moral. This means that there is no place for knowledge about morality, or of moral discourse, or even whether a particular action is moral or immoral. Also, on the fact-value split, we think we can know the facts of reality through naturalistic science, and that the deliverances of ethics and religion are just opinions. But these claims also become impossible to know on naturalism.

Indeed, every claim to knowledge becomes impossible to know, for there is no way to escape the relentless regress of interpretations. This condition simply is the natural result of rejecting the existence of essences, and it applies in morality because of the specific rejection of intrinsic moral properties, or facts. Without them, naturalism is unable to give us any moral knowledge, or knowledge about morality, despite the contentions of its expositors.

Yet, descriptively, the fact remains that many people who are naturalists do know several things, including in the field of ethics. For instance, Ruse contends vigorously that rape is wrong. Peter Singer knows it is wrong to treat animals cruelly. Those who appeal to the problem of moral evil as evidence against God’s existence know that injustice and genocide are wrong.

But these cases of moral knowledge should make us pause, for if naturalism were true, we could not them. So, it seems that a different ontology, which includes the reality of essences, must be true.



[1] Richard Joyce, “Moral Anti-Realism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,, accessed March 21, 2013.

[2] E.g., see his Essays in Quasi-Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) and Spreading the Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).

[3] Richard Joyce, “Projectivism and quasi-realism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,, accessed March 21, 2013 (emphasis in original).

[4] Simon Blackburn, Ruling Passions: A Theory of Practical Reasoning (Oxford: Clarendon Press), 49.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Michael Ruse, “Evolution and Ethics: The Sociobiological Approach,” in Ethical Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings, ed. Louis Pojman, 4th ed. (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2002), 661.

[7] Ibid.

[8] J.L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), 36.

[9] John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality (New York: The Free Press, 1995).

[10] Michael Tye, Ten Problems of Consciousness: A Representational Theory of the Phenomenal Mind (Cambridge, MA.: Bradford Books, 1995).

[11] For Papineau, see his Philosophical Naturalism (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), and Thinking about Consciousness (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002). See also Dretske’s Naturalizing the Mind: The 1994 Jean Nicod Lectures (Cambridge, MA.: Bradford Books, 1995). For Lycan, see Consciousness and Experience (Cambridge, MA.: Bradford Books, 1996).

[12] These attributions “are interpretations of the phenomena,” and they serve as a “heuristic overlay.” See his Daniel C. Dennett, “Dennett, Daniel C.,” A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind: Blackwell Companions to Philosophy, ed. Samuel Guttenplan (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1994), 239.

[13] Star Trek and related marks are trademarks of CBS Studios Inc.

[14] See Dennett, “Dennett, Daniel C.,” 239.

[15] Daniel C. Dennett, The Intentional Stance, 3rd printing (Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 1990), 233-34. Even in a “golden age” of neuroscience, we still will need the language of folk psychology.

[16] Dennett, The Intentional Stance, 40 (emphasis in original).

[17] Quine explains: “To expect a distinctive physical mechanism behind every genuinely distinct mental state is one thing; to expect a distinctive mechanism for every purported distinction that can be phrased in traditional mentalistic language is another. The question whether … the foreigner really believes A or believes rather B, is a question whose very significance I would put in doubt. This is what I am getting at in arguing for the indeterminacy of translation.” See his “On the Reasons for Indeterminacy of Translation,” Journal of Philosophy LXVII (1970), 180-81, quoted in Dennett, The Intentional Stance, 40.

 [18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid. (emphasis in original).

[20] Donald Davidson, “Belief and the Basis of Meaning,” Synthese Vol. 27 (1974): 322, quoted in Dennett, The Intentional Stance, 41(bracketed insert mine).

[21] Ibid., 319, note 8 (emphasis mine).

[22] The prime directive is Starfleet’s order to not interfere with the internal development of an alien planet’s culture. Often, it is treated as absolute, yet episodes explore if it could be overridden in certain cases.

[23] For example, see W.V.O. Quine, Word and Object (Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 1960), 221, quoted in Dennett, The Intentional Stance, 342.

[24] Samuel C. Wheeler III, “Indeterminacy of French Interpretation: Derrida and Davidson,” in E. Lepore, ed., Truth and Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), p. 477, quoted in Dennett, The Intentional Stance, 40, note 2.

[25] Wheeler, 492, quoted in Dennett, The Intentional Stance, 40, note 2.

[26] Compare Dallas Willard, “Knowledge and naturalism,” in Naturalism: A Critical Analysis, ed. J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig (New York: Routledge, 1999), 40.

[27] Ibid., 41.


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The (Social and Political) Wages of Naturalism


Author’s note to readers: This paper was written for a panel presentation, “Finding the Theistic Foundations of Morality,” at the 2014 American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. Because my presentation is the last of the panel—allowing me to elide a number technical issues and nuances already covered and, instead, to focus on ending the panel on a provocative note—I have opted to write in a manner more punchy and less technical than normal.

In this paper, I argue that naturalists cannot defensibly affirm as objectively good or superior any social or political desiderata. They also cannot defensibly condemn any social or political harms as objectively bad or inferior.[1] In addition, I contend that practically living out naturalism may be classicist and corrosive, especially with respect to the vulnerable members of society.

Before turning to the body of the paper, a few definitions are in order. While naturalism isn’t the easiest view to define,[2] I think it is safe to distinguish between ‘narrow naturalism’ and ‘broad naturalism.’[3] Narrow naturalism holds that (a) nature is all that exists and (b) nature itself is whatever will be disclosed by the ideal natural sciences, especially physics. Broad naturalism also holds that nature is all that exists but that nature itself is whatever will be disclosed by the natural and human sciences—not just physics but psychology, sociology, and the like as well. It thus affirms the emergent reality of consciousness, intentionality, valuing, and so on.


Ontological foundations

Having established some basic definitions, I now turn to the body of the paper. I’ll first focus on the ontological resources of naturalism. Since my colleagues have already done the heavy lifting, I’ll limit myself to a summary of some main ideas from my point of view. While there are a variety of ways to think about the matter, one way is to observe that, on narrow naturalism, nature itself is typically regarded as amoral because there are no ‘goodness’ or ‘rightness’ particles or forces (or groups of particles or forces). There are no ‘oughtness’ particles or forces (or groups) either. There are just brute particles and forces—fermions and bosons—describable by physics. As one narrow naturalist puts it, “In a world where physics fixes all the facts, it’s hard to see how there could be room for moral facts.”[4] As such, there are no objective moral facts (or ‘moral values,’ as I will call them). That is, there are no real, intrinsic, mind-independent moral values—about fairness, justice, equality, etc.—which are irreducible to, or not identical with, physical facts.

Broad naturalism, on the other hand, affirms the emergent reality of values, including moral values like fairness, justice, social stability, and the like. As such, humans’ subjective experience of good, moral, and right values are not reducible to, or identical with, say, the complex biochemical and structural features of the human brain. On typical formulations of this view, the human mind is something qualitatively different than the human brain. The human mind emerges from the complexity of the brain; one emergent complexity is the ability to form, maintain, communicate, and apply values. However, on this view such values are not ontologically independent of the human brain. In a real sense, their existence depends upon the existence of a physical brain. If human brains ceased to exist,[5] so would moral values. Thus, on this view moral values are not objective—that is, they do not exist independently of human brains and minds. While subjective experiences of valuing are real enough, objective moral values themselves are not. I might be passionate about a state that protects civil liberties, but the value of liberty is itself no more real than the tooth fairy.


Political Implications

In light of this result, it follows that naturalists cannot defensibly affirm any political state or political philosophy as objectively good (or superior), nor can they defensibly condemn any political state or political philosophy as objectively bad (or inferior). For example, naturalists cannot reject Hitler’s Third Reich as objectively wrong and affirm representative democracy as objectively superior. Recall that according to narrow naturalism, there are only physical particles and forces, all of which are amoral. So, one elaborate arrangement of fermions and bosons—say, a social and political system organized according to Nazi principles—is no more or less moral than another array of fermions and bosons, including one arranged according to the principles of democracy. These two (collective) states of affairs are distinguished exhaustively and exclusively by the spatio-temporal differences of their constituent particles and forces. Neither is ‘good’ and neither is ‘bad.’ Neither is ‘morally better’ nor ‘morally worse.’ Fermions and bosons just are.

In the case of broad naturalism, on the other hand, persons may value representative democracy more than Nazism. Nonetheless, democracy is no more objectively good than Nazism. On broad naturalism, it’s true that people’s experience of valuing democracy is qualitatively different than the corresponding subvenient physicality of their brains. But without any mind-independent status to morality, their experience of valuing democracy is no more objectively correct than someone else’s experience of valuing Nazism. Even if every person past, present, and future valued democracy over tyranny, this valuing would not count one iota toward the objective moral superiority of democracy over tyranny. Quite simply, there are no objective values. Accordingly, broad naturalists, like narrow naturalists, cannot affirm a ‘good’ political order as objectively superior to a brutal order.

The implications of this result are troubling. For example, naturalists who lean towards political conservatism, such as political scientist Larry Arnhart, have no real basis to affirm universal human desires—for things like friendship and justice—as the objectively correct basis for social and political order.[6] So, too, naturalists who favor a Rawlsian approach have no real basis to affirm the objectivity of the “principle of equal liberty” or “the principle of difference” nor the legitimacy of the veil of ignorance or the original position.[7] The same is true about negative judgments: Rawlsians have no grounds to attack conservatives, and vice versa. Something similar can be said for any naturalist who wishes to affirm the objective correctness (or objective wrongness) of the core normative principles of Locke’s Second Treatise or Hobbes’ Leviathan or Rousseau’s Social Contract or even James Carville’s It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! Thus, from the right to the left, naturalism decimates the objective moral status, positive or negative, of any political system or philosophy.

This result holds not just at a macro-level of political states or philosophies, but also at the micro-level of particular social and moral causes. Narrow and broad naturalists cannot affirm that women have reproductive rights, the rich ought to pay higher taxes, gays and lesbians have the right to marry, and that climate change ought to be countered. Likewise, naturalists cannot condemn rapacious capitalism, marriage inequality, pro-life legislative coercion, systemic racism, and so on. Naturalist Alex Rosenberg drives this point home: “We have to acknowledge…that many questions we want the ‘right’ answers to just don’t have any. These are questions about the morality of stem-cell research or abortion or affirmative action or gay marriage or our obligations to future generations.” We may want answers but, as Rosenberg concludes flatly, “There are none.”[8] In the end, none of a naturalist’s favored positions are objectively correct or superior to their opposites. And no views are objectively bad or inferior, either. All that’s left standing are either particles and forces or subjective experiences.


An Objection

Of course a critic might point out that broad naturalists, at least, can still affirm, say, democracy over fascism as a matter preference. As long as this is true, they can live out meaningful, good lives supportive of democratic principles even if they have no objective basis to regard democracy as (in fact) superior.

By way of reply, it is true that any naturalist can live a certain lifestyle that most of us would regard as good and virtuous, say, one supportive of democracy. But so can a person who thinks he’s an eggplant but that all eggplants have special abilities as well as moral obligations to support representative government. Nearly anyone can live a good life in the limited sense of consistently acting in ‘good’ ways. But that’s not the issue.

The issue is whether naturalists have—on their own grounds—any ability to hold that, say, one political system is objectively better (or worse) than another, and that people ought to support the superior system. They do not have such grounds. Indeed, even a broad naturalist (who has more resources than a narrow naturalist) is in a pickle when he says he can live a good life. He can’t coherently call his life “a good life” in any objective sense. All he can really say is that he lives a certain way that he prefers, and this way happens to be preferred by a number of others.[9] That’s it. Like turtles, it’s just preferences all the way down.

Before closing, I have two more brief notes about living out naturalism in a practical way. The first is an observation; the second, a criticism. First, it is arguable that living this worldview may be a classist luxury, by and large. That is, this lifestyle is viable only for those of privilege. Because naturalism does away with objective moral values, living this view means that one must not take traditional moral and social norms as given but rather substitute one’s own personal perspective (or the prospective of one’s self-identified group). Doing so generally includes complex assessments of social expectations (not obligatory norms), combined with personal introspection and discovery of “what I really want” (or what my group “really wants”), which are negotiated and re-negotiated with one’s friends, peers, colleagues, associates, sub-cultures, and culture. All of this requires leisure time, wealth, verbal ability, education, and the like. But those who lack wealth, education, leisure time, and so on often do not have the wherewithal to engage in such negotiations. A single mom working two jobs, taking care of two kids, slaving through housework, struggling to parent, and collapsing on the couch at night simply doesn’t have the bourgeois luxury to spend two hours over cocktails with a cadre of professional friends discussing just how to maintain her “independence” in the face of archaic social expectations. Practically living out naturalism is, by and large, a plaything of the wealthy and privileged. Again, this is not a criticism per se but an observation. It is noteworthy because some naturalists who see themselves as marginalized or as fighting established powers—“check your privilege,” they tell us—don’t seem to realize just how fortunate they are.

Second, by way of a criticism: practically living a naturalistic view may be corrosive, primarily to the vulnerable. (By ‘the vulnerable,’ I mean those in the bottom tier educationally, economically, politically, socially, professionally, and/or psychologically—individuals, say, who never finished high school, are poor, come from deeply dysfunctional families, have drug addictions, ongoing depression, or the like.) Naturalists who constantly chip away at traditional social and moral norms end up helping to erode the very moral and social capital that traditionally help the disadvantaged. For example, in part under a ‘progressive’ assault, the sacred bond of marriage has become weaker (or less valued) over time. But marriage not only helps single, poor women, it also helps children.[10] Kids who are born out of wedlock, victims of divorce, or raised in single-parent homes are more likely to suffer from a range of difficulties than kids raised in two parent homes.[11] In trying to fight ‘those on top,’ naturalists inadvertently harm ‘those on bottom.’

In conclusion, then, narrow and broad naturalists cannot defensibly affirm or deny the objective goodness or superiority (or the objective badness or inferiority) of any political state, political philosophy, or position on any social or moral topic. And, as I have just noted, living out this view seems to be a classicist privilege and a corrosive stance against the vulnerable. None of this is to say naturalism is false, of course, but only that it comes at a very high cost indeed. Thank you.



[1] I assume throughout the paper that, for a person (or persons) to defensibly affirm social or political desiderata as ‘objectively good or superior’ or to defensibly condemn social or political harms as ‘objectively bad or inferior,’ there must be actual (or real) objectively good or superior (or objectively bad or inferior) social and political desiderata (or harms). (See below for my informal definition of ‘objective.’) But for those who disagree with this assumption, I can make a similar argument easily enough—namely, that, on naturalism, there simply are no objectively good or superior social or political desiderata nor are there any objectively bad or inferior social or political harms. The end result is much the same. My fundamental claim is metaphysical (there are no objective moral values given naturalism) although for stylistic reasons, I highlight epistemological elements (naturalists cannot defensibly affirm social or political desiderata as ‘objectively good or superior,’ etc.). I trust the reader will understand my (metaphysical) meaning throughout the paper.

[2] In fact, Michael Rea claims that “there is no clear answer to the question of what it means to be a naturalist.” Michael Rea, “Naturalism and Material Objects,” in Naturalism: A Critical Analysis, ed. William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland (New York: Routledge, 2000), 110.

[3] Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro, Naturalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 2008). Cf. David Papineau, Philosophical Naturalism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993).

[4] Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality (New York: Norton, 2011), 94-95.

[5] Or, the brains of some other physical creature of sufficient cognitive complexity.

[6] Larry Arnhart, Darwinian Natural Right (Albany, NY: SUNY, 1998). Larry Arnhart & Ken Blanchard (ed.), Darwinian Conservatism, second edition (Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2009).

[7] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Oxford: Belknap Press, 2005). “The principle of equality” holds that each person is to be granted the greatest degree of liberty harmonious with a  similar level of liberty for everyone. “The principle of difference” holds that practices producing inequality among individuals are acceptable only if they work to the advantage of disadvantaged people, and that positions of privilege must be open to everyone.

[8] Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide, 96, emphasis added.

[9] Undoubtedly, a number of others disagree with his preferences. All that’s left to settle the matter is force, fraud, or moving away.

[10] For example, Emma Green, “Wealthy Women can Afford to Reject Marriage, but Poor Women Can’t,” The Atlantic, January 15, 2014. As for children: Hyun Sik Kim, “Consequences of Parental Divorce for Child Development,” American Sociological Review, vol. 76, no. 3 (June 2011): 487-511. Toby L. Parcel, Lori Ann Campbell, and Wenxuan Zhong, “Children’s Behavior Problems in the United States and Great Britain,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 53 no. 2 (June 2012): 165-182. Toby L. Parcel, Lori Ann Campbell, and Wenxuan Zhong, “Children’s Behavior Problems in the United States and Great Britain,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 53 no. 2 (June 2012): 165-182. N. Glenn, S. Nock, and L. J. Waite, “Why marriage matters: Twenty-one conclusions from the social sciences,” American Experiment Quarterly 5 (2002): 34–44. G. E. Weisfeld, D. M. Muczenski, C. C. Weisfeld, and D. R. Omark, “Stability of Boys’ Social Success among Peers over an Eleven-year Period,” In Interpersonal Relations: Family, Peers, Friends, edited by J. A. Meacham (New York, NY: Karger, 1987). B. Defoe, Why There Are No Good Men Left (New York: Broadway Books, 2003). G. R. Weitoft, A. Hjern, B. Haglund, and M. Rosen, “Mortality, severe mortality, and injury in children living with single parents in Sweden: A population based study,” Lancet 361 (2003): 289–95. S. Rhoads, Taking sex differences seriously (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2004). W. B. Wilcox, Why Marriage Matters: Thirty Conclusions from the Social Sciences. A Study from a Team of Family Scholars Chaired by W. Bradford Wilcox (New York: Institute for American Values, 2011). P. Wilcox Rountree and B. D. Warner, The State of Our Unions 2011: Marriage in America (Charlottesville, VA: The National Marriage Project, 2011). M. Parke, Are Married Parents Really Better for Children? (Washington, DC: Center for Law and Social Policy, 2003). S. R. Aronson and A. C. Huston, “The mother-infant relationship in single, cohabiting, and married families: A case for marriage?” Journal of Family Psychology 18 (2004): 5–18. P. Fomby and A. J. Cherlin, “Family instability and child well-being,” American Sociological Review 72 (2007): 181–204. M. Gallagher and L. Waite, The Case for Marriage (New York: Random House, 2000). J. T. Cookston, “Parental supervision and family structure,” Journal of Divorce and Remarriage 31 (1999): 107–27. Some of the data: “Children from divorced homes suffer academically. They experience high levels of behavioral problems. Their grades suffer, and they are less likely to graduate from high school. Kids whose parent’s divorce are substantially more likely to be incarcerated for committing a crime as a juvenile. Because the custodial parent's income drops substantially after a divorce, children in divorced homes are almost five times more likely to live in poverty than are children with married parents. Teens from divorced homes are much more likely to engage in drug and alcohol use, as well as sexual intercourse than are those from intact families…. They are also more likely to suffer child abuse. Children of divorced parents suffer more frequently from symptoms of psychological distress. And the emotional scars of divorce last into adulthood.” See Amy Desai, “How Could Divorce Affect My Kids?” available at See also Jann Gumbiner, “Divorce Hurts Children, Even Grown Ones,” Psychology Today, October 31, 2011. For an opposite view, see Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfeld, “Is Divorce Bad for Children?” Scientific American, vol. 24, no. 1. Yet even Arkowitz and Lilienfeld conceded that kids of divorce are more likely to suffer a range of difficulties than kids raised in two-parent homes. LaVar Young reports on children born out of wedlock: “Fragile families [in which parents are not marriage at the time of the child’s birth] are shown to have harsher parenting practices and fewer literacy activities, and children of such families produce lower cognitive test scores and a have a higher incidence of aggressive behavior. Furthermore, previous research demonstrates that children who live apart from one of their parents at some point in their childhood are twice as likely to drop out of high school, twice as likely to have a child before age 20, and one and a half times as likely to be out of school or work by their late teens or early 20s.” LaVar Young, “Fragile Families: Most Children Born Out of Wedlock Aren't OK,” Huffington Post, June 6, 2011.

[11] Ibid.




Photo: "Dachau Nazi concentration camp's main gates reading "arbeit Macht Frei" meaning "through work one will be free". Dachau, Germany" by Zoriah. CC License. 



Stephen Dilley

Stephen Dilley is an associate professor of philosophy at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. In addition to political philosophy, his areas of interest include the history and philosophy of biology. He has published essays in British Journal for the History of Science, The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, and elsewhere. Dilley is co-editor of Human Dignity in Bioethics (Routledge, 2012) and editor of Darwinian Evolution and Classical Liberalism (Lexington, 2013). He enjoys bowhunting.

Mark Smeltzer Replies to Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer’s article “Religion and Politics…and Science” attempts to present a narrative of religion becoming obsolete in the political sphere the same way he thinks it’s becoming obsolete in the scientific realm.  HIs reason for thinking it’s becoming obsolete from politics may be due to his neglect of moral theory.  As a consequence, his campaign misses the mark and his celebration seems premature.

Shermer sets out his thesis like this: “I argue that morals and values can be established and defended through science and reason.” Interestingly, however, this is actually not a political claim but an ontological one.  Moral ontology is central to any moral theory because it addresses the question of the foundations of moral truths. Shermer claims that atheism provides an adequate basis for morality but overlooks most of the hard challenges of spelling out how.

The challenge naturalists face in providing such a foundation for ethics is formidable. Many secular ethicists remain undaunted by the challenge, though, offering a variety of naturalistic attempts at ethical foundations. An evolutionary biologist may theorize that our DNA and the evolutionary development of human beings produced such behaviors that end up facilitating some type of cooperation for survival, rewarding those with such adaptive behaviors with a higher chance of survival. This assessment of our biological origins may be correct.  But even if this is right, this account of the genesis of various behaviors would not illuminate anything about moral ontology.

According to the grand naturalistic narrative, the universe came into existence several billion years ago with no explanation, then the earth formed, then life on earth.  So what is there within the atheist’s story and resources that can function as an objective moral reference point to ground, explain, or otherwise make sense of value judgments?  Even many atheists are gradually coming to admit that objective, authoritative moral facts would be strange entities in a purely physical world.

If atheism is true, humans are complicated arrangements of elements from the periodic table.  Naturalists are hard pressed to account for our intrinsic worth if this is true.  Values of any kind are hard to account for.  Richard Dawkins, at least at this time, agreed. “There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference. . . . We are machines for propagating DNA. . . . It’s every living object’s sole reason for being.”

In this light, the paragraphs of Shermer’s recent piece that are most interesting for present purposes start when Shermer begins to argue that the principles of the Declaration of Independence “were in fact grounded in the type of scientific reasoning that Jefferson and Franklin employed in all the other sciences in which they worked.” Shermer cites the famous statement that certain truths are “self-evident” as an example.  Shermer imagines that this “self-evident” reference is actually produced from scientific reasoning. He points out a quote from Walter Isaacson, who cites an edit made by Franklin.  “By using the word ‘sacred,’ Jefferson had asserted, intentionally or not, that the principle in question—the equality of men and their endowment by their creator with inalienable rights—was an assertion of religion. Franklin’s edit turned it instead into an assertion of rationality.” Shermer seems to conflate rational with scientific.

It is true that self-evident truths are not assertions of religion.  Nor are they assertions of science, as Shermer suggests.  There is nothing scientific about them.  Scientific knowledge is an a posteriori venture while self-evident knowledge is a priori.  (Robert Audi gives an empirical account of moral intuitions rooted in our feelings, but the point is that value judgments must rely on more than purely scientific claims.) Reasoning draws from both at any given time.  And the sort of self-evident truths the founding fathers referenced were moral truths: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Self-evidence is how we come to know something and leaves open the question of what makes the truth in question true. Our having been made by God in His image and for His purposes provides a powerful explanation for human equality; what the ground is for Shermer’s conviction in such a self-evident truth remains in need of explanation. To say the answer is “reason” is more assertion than argument, and rather unprincipled at that.

As David Bentley Hart argues persuasively in Atheist Delusions, the idea that humans have equality—a notion that most people in the past have vociferously rejected—is historically based in the Judeo-Christian tradition and its emphasis on God’s having stamped His image on all people.  And because people are His image bearers, no one is more morally valuable than any other; all of us are equal in moral worth and possess great inherent dignity, value, and worth. On the other hand, if atheism is true, what good grounds are there to believe that human beings are essentially equal? Or that they possess inherent dignity and worth? It is no coincidence that societies without such sturdy convictions are much more likely to engage in the grossest of human rights violations. So Shermer was right in this sense, only in reverse: there are indeed, ultimately, large political repercussions for a lack of strong metaphysical foundations for morality. Most atheists are better than their worldview, and nowadays most would strongly affirm their belief in essential human equality. Whether they know it or not, though, this is due to our religious heritage. Equality remains part of the air we breathe in the West, but it came from an anthropology informed by robust theism. But as Nietzsche predicted, the rejection of belief in God will likely, in time, make its presence felt, perhaps even calling into question reasons for treating others equally.

Shermer seems less interested in promoting science as in preaching scientism. Christianity, contrary to a negative stereotype some try to perpetuate, is, at least at its best, in fact interested in promoting science. A diverse range of thinkers, including Stanley Jaki, has chronicled the role the Christian worldview played in promoting a dispassionate scientific analysis of the empirical world. Most of the first scientists were Christians and theists.  Newton closely studied the Bible and claimed to know that a logical God made the universe in an orderly way, thus providing the basis by which experiments could be carried out and provide predictions; in contrast, atheism and science are neither historically nor inherently linked.  And there is nothing in Galileo’s writing to suggest he was not a Christian.  Dennis Alexander’s book Rebuilding the Matrix provides an interesting read on this score.  From the beginning, the scientific enterprise has needed the Christian worldview.  Scientific thought depends upon certain assumptions about the world and Christianity. As the famous philosopher Alfred North Whitehead put it, Christianity made it acceptable to have “faith in the possibility of science” which came prior to the development of actual scientific theory. One obviously need not be a Christian to be a scientist, but Christian philosophy facilitated the scientific enterprise.

Part of Shermer’s recurring mistake here is eminently understandable. Atheists can apprehend moral truths as clearly as anyone, but they are mistaken when they assume that what they apprehend is explicable and articulable with the resources of their worldview. As they are not inclined to reject either commitment, they tacitly assume they are consistent, when in fact they are not—or at the least atheism fails to provide the most effective explanation of objective moral facts and humanistic ideals.

In light of the obstinacy with which Shermer pushes his point and assumes what is not in evidence in his battle against theism, one wonders whether his rejection of theism is rooted in rationality. Thomas Nagel, an atheist professor of philosophy and law at NYU, is a rare example of a transparent atheist on this point, writing, “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.  It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief.  It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

Shermer may be of the same mind, but without admitting it.


Photo: "We hold these truths to be self-evident" by P. Lloyd . CC License. 

Thomas Nagel’s Rejection of Theism: A Critique

Review Essay* Thomas Nagel’s Rejection of Theism: A Critique

In his most recent book—Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False—and in numerous places in his previous work, Thomas Nagel wishes to suggest several reasons that theism is not a live option for him (to use a phrase made famous by William James).[1] He does not seem to intend many of his criticisms to be more than suggestive, much less decisive; nonetheless, in light of the strength of his conviction that theism is somehow too inherently outrageous an option to believe, I would like to spend a bit of time identifying and assessing the criticisms he mentions.

Nagel does not seem averse to characterizing his resistance to theism as something of a bias. He is rather transparent about theism simply not being a reasonable alternative for him. He seems to leave open the possibility that others may find it to be so, but he himself, he says, has not been blessed with the sensus divinitatis. Alvin Plantinga’s work in epistemology employs this notion, borrowing from the writings of John Calvin, to refer to the idea that God has made his reality known to people in a direct fashion apart from discursive inference.[2] Nagel, though, claims to have no such sense, however inchoate. The thesis of theism strikes him rather as a dead option—perhaps akin (this is my example, not his) to the difficulty if not impossibility for an evangelical Christian to endorse reincarnation or karma.

Important to emphasize is the irenic way in which Nagel conveys this impression. There is nothing overtly tendentious or dismissive about his view toward theists in general, despite his own rejection of theism and incredulity at some of its tenets. In fact, he goes out of his way to express gratitude for certain theistically motivated advocates of intelligent design—lauding them as iconoclasts—for raising important questions and pointing out salient limitations of naturalism. His recent review of Plantinga’s latest book is exceedingly fair.[3] And he admits that plenty of thinkers, on seeing the limitations of naturalism, might naturally gravitate toward theism as the superior explanation of various important aspects of the human experience—a few of which I shall mention below. Nagel’s fair-mindedness and collegial tone are laudable, refreshing, and a poignant contrast with the contentious animus of the New Atheists whose strident dismissiveness of their debate interlocutors bespeaks a troubling lack of intellectual accountability. Nagel’s is not a divisive, partisan voice, but rather the sincere effort of a great and scrupulously honest philosopher trying to understand reality in light of his atheism and the seemingly in-principle inability of naturalism to explain important phenomena that he is unwilling to renounce.

His book, to express it in broad outline, argues that various features of the human condition—value, meaning, cognition, consciousness, agency—reside beyond the ability of naturalism to account for. The thesis is not a new one, although what is most striking about Nagel’s book is that he is an atheist admitting the limitations of naturalism. Usually such criticisms are lodged by theists, like Christian philosopher J. P. Moreland, who, three years ago, published his book The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism.[4] Moreland argued specifically that consciousness, free will, rationality, personhood, objective morality, and intrinsic value are unable to be sustained by a naturalistic worldview. Ironically enough, in an appendix Moreland discusses Nagel at length, specifically the “dismissive strategy” Nagel employed in a 1997 book—a strategy that attempted to undercut, among other things, a theistic account of reason.[5] For present purposes, though, it is important to see that Nagel and Moreland agree that naturalism is ill-equipped to explain important features of reality.

Let us take value as a paradigmatic example to illustrate their point. The last chapter in Nagel’s (and Moreland’s) book treats the question of values generally, ethics more particularly. In seeking an adequate explanation of value (as he did for the other items on his list), Nagel divides the question into the constitutive issue concerning what value is all about and the historical question of how it could come about that creatures like us could recognize objective value and be motivated by it. Causal historical accounts, he argues, inevitably are problematically reductionist, leaving out important and ineliminable parts of the picture. Historical explanations, such as those offered by theists, could indeed help explain much of what needs explanation here, but Nagel nonetheless rejects it for reasons to be discussed below. Instead, he opts for a nonintentional teleological explanation, something in the vicinity of the ideas of Aristotle, he thinks. Although he admits he is not entirely sure such an explanation makes sense, it is the direction he thinks is most likely to prove fertile. What he remains adamant about is that subjectivist and eliminativist (anti-realist) accounts, though they may be explicable with the resources of naturalism alone, are beyond his ability to embrace psychologically, involving too prohibitive a price and too big an affront to common sense. “The teleological hypothesis,” he writes, in contrast, “is that these things may be determined not merely by value-free chemistry and physics but also by something else, namely a cosmic predisposition to the formation of life, consciousness, and the value that is inseparable from them.”[6] The question as to which alternative is best comes down, he thinks, to a matter of relative plausibility.

Nagel, of course, admits that his notions of nonintentional teleology—a universe coming to life, coming into an ability to recognize itself, a view that resonates in certain respects with C. D. Broad’s view of the mind in nature and with Bergson’s picture of creative evolution—may well, in today’s intellectual climate, strike many readers as implausible, in the same way that materialism and theism strike him.[7] At any rate, although much of what Nagel is suggesting here is not altogether new, in the contemporary discussion of, say, value and reality, it represents a fourth option after three well-rehearsed ones, which are as follows: naturalists confident in moral realism, like Nagel, but who, unlike Nagel, retain the hope that secular ethical theory will eventually suffice to capture what is distinctive about value; naturalists who, like Nagel, see naturalism as in principle unable to explain important aspects of value and who, unlike Nagel, thus reject moral realism; supernaturalists who remain staunch moral realists, like Nagel, but who, unlike Nagel, identify theistic foundations for morality. Nagel agrees and disagrees with all of these camps. Let us call his view “teleological emergentism.” With respect to value, this is (1) a realist perspective affirming objective value, (2) it sees that naturalism cannot account for such realism, and so (3) it rejects naturalism. In its place, though, (4) Nagel steadfastly resists the theistic hypothesis, gesturing instead in this other direction—a view of the universe as somehow having had this teleological direction latent within it, rendering the emergence of consciousness, value, and the like more than just wild coincidence.

Assessing the merits of his alternative proposal is a task for another day; for now, why is it that Nagel retains so strong a bias against theism, beyond his admission to not being blessed with a sense of God’s reality? On my reading, he identifies several reasons to explain his philosophical, psychological, and aesthetic aversion. It is worth noting what they are, because classical theists have some important points to emphasize in reply. If the discussion is to proceed by more than merely citing one’s biases, but rather by a genuine, careful assessment of relative plausibilities, it is important that Nagel’s concerns about theism be forthrightly addressed.

To this end, let us identify the reasons he adduces for skepticism about theism. His quest for adequate explanation functions with a few strictures, one of which is antireductionism. Others are that certain things cannot be explained as merely accidental, and “the ideal of discovering a single natural order that unified everything on the basis of a set of common elements and principles.”[8] Both Cartesian dualism and classical theism reject this second criterion or aspiration, thus departing from the single natural order to which Nagel aspires. Theists who appeal to the miraculous are attempting to explain features of the world by divine intervention. Since this is not part of the natural order, it is beyond where he is willing to go. Is this merely his bias, or a reason for rejecting the theistic hypothesis? If we were to attempt to make it into a reason, the logic seems to go something like this: divine interventions seem to represent a breakdown in explanation, an unnecessary ad hoc add-on, a theological addition to the picture that is indulgent and foreign. This is why Nagel’s earlier aversion seems aptly characterized as rooted in something aesthetic: he seems to be operating on the assumption that there is something explanatorily suspect about theism and the miraculous from the start. He at any rate is unable to countenance it, and he suspects in today’s intellectual milieu appeals to theism will largely be seen as troublesome.

Call it a mere bias if you will, but Nagel’s concern here seems to be that an adequate explanation, to avoid appearances of being ad hoc or ontologically indulgent or something else, needs to be integrated. Its parts cannot just be slapped together in haphazard and unprincipled fashion, but must truly inform each other and combine into an organic whole. God’s transcendence or the disruption of the natural order by miracles or something of the kind seems to strike him at a deep level as incongruent with this constraint imposed by integration. Although I do not share his reservations here, for reasons I shall explain below, I think I can empathize with his concern to a degree and can feel some of the force of his sentiment. It is this issue in particular, in fact, that I wish to explore further below, enlisting the assistance of C. S. Lewis to do so. First, though, let us briefly review some of Nagel’s other reasons for rejecting the supernatural.

A recurring theme of Nagel’s is that mind must somehow be central to the story of reality—not just an accidental product fortuitously arising billions of years into the narrative, but something that somehow guided the process from the start. Theism accomplishes such a feat impeccably, of course, but Nagel insists that this does not help. For he writes, “So long as the divine mind just has to be accepted as a stopping point in the pursuit of understanding, it leaves the process incomplete, just as the purely descriptive materialist account does.”[9] This then is another reason for his rejection of the theistic hypothesis: its alleged incompleteness in making God, in this case, a stopping point. At this point plenty of classical theists would be entitled to balk, of course, since God seems to be a natural stopping point indeed, a Being whose existence is necessary, the One who is, in fact, the very ground of all being. If anyone or anything is entitled to be a legitimate stopping point, is this not it? Nagel admits (or at least intimates) that, unlike the nomological laws of physics, God’s existence is more plausibly thought of as metaphysically necessary. And even though theism accommodates Nagel’s insistence that mental phenomena must be attributed to the working of a comprehensive mental source, he still finds theism no more credible than materialism as a comprehensive world view. But why?

According to Nagel, “Theism does not offer a sufficiently substantial explanation of our capacities, and naturalism does not offer a sufficiently reassuring one.”[10] The problem with naturalism construed reductionistically is that it fails to undergird our confidence in the deliverances of reason, since reason itself is explicated in a way that casts doubt on its ability to uncover the truth (an issue we will return to later). The problems identified here for theism are that it fails to provide an adequate explanation. It “amounts to the hypothesis that the highest-order explanation of how things hang together is of a certain type, namely, intentional or purposive, without having anything more to say about how that intention operates except what is found in the results to be explained.”[11] Nagel continues by writing that “a theistic explanation will inevitably bring in some idea of value, and a particular religion can make this much more specific, though it also poses the famous problem of evil.”[12] He then mentions the difficulty of believing in God, and then claims that the disadvantage of theism as an answer to the desire for comprehensive understanding is that it does not offer explanation “in the form of a comprehensive account of the natural order. Theism pushes the quest for intelligibility outside the world.”[13] Thus, a theistic self-understanding “would not be the kind of understanding that explains how beings like us fit into the world. The kind of intelligibility that would still be missing is intelligibility of the natural order—intelligibility from within. That kind of intelligibility may be compatible with some forms of theism—if God creates a self-contained natural order which he then leaves undisturbed. But it is not compatible with direct theistic explanation of systematic features of the world that would seem otherwise to be brute facts—such as the creation of life from dead matter, or the birth of consciousness, or reason. Such interventionist hypotheses amount to a denial that there is a comprehensive natural order.”[14]

How do we assess Nagel’s claims here? To begin with, let us identify and summarize the main sources of his concern. It is a bit challenging to unravel the cluster of inter-related concerns here, but let us give it a try. I suspect that the whole assortment of Nagel’s concerns is predicated on his reasonable assumption that metaphysics and epistemology tie together adequately. Among his foundational epistemic commitments is what can practically be dubbed an aesthetic preference: he is rather forthright about his psychological aversion to propositions that smack of being ad hoc, to overly pluralistic pictures of the world, to views he considers ontologically indulgent, positing unnecessary and extraneous entities. Even when such entities may accomplish work in explaining some of what is in need of explanation, Nagel is hesitant to affirm them if they do not seem to resonate and dovetail enough with a single natural order. His epistemology precludes theses like Cartesian dualism and interventionist variants of theism, because these would, in his estimation, amount to a denial that there is a comprehensive natural order. They push the quest for intelligibility outside the world, resulting in an inadequately integrated worldview. The epistemic strictures he maintains dictate that the right answer, the true view of reality, be a world involving an organic whole, and supernaturalism simply fails to satisfy such a constraint.

If this sort of summary is the gist of Nagel’s concern about theism, how might the classical theist, one who not only believes in the supernatural realm but even in a God who can and does intervene in the natural order, defend such theism against his criticisms? Can supernaturalists answer Nagel’s worries and nagging concerns? I think for the most part that they can, and where they cannot, I am inclined to say that this is so much the worse for some of Nagel’s epistemic strictures. This at least is the case that I am now going to argue for. In order to do so, I want to enlist the assistance of the great literary scholar and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, particularly some of the insights he shared in his book on miracles.

First let us dispense with a few preliminaries. Nagel writes that he lacks the sensus divinitatis. Even if such a reality exists, however, the fact that Nagel himself does not personally have much of an experience with it provides no evidence against theism generally or Christianity particularly. All sorts of potential obstacles can stand in the way of such religious experience. The wiser course here is to raise the relevant evidential questions about the truth of theism. Even Plantinga, a firm believer that we can be justified to be theists and indeed Christians while lacking discursive justification, remains convinced that several dozen arguments collectively provide a strong evidential case for the truth of classical theism. Let us for now simply set aside the notion of religious belief as a candidate for proper basicality, which would simply get us off track.

Nagel, recall, also mentions the problem of evil, a big discussion in its own right that we need to set aside for now as well. Writing on the problem of evil in recent years has ballooned into an enormous literature. In the estimation of many, it is the proponents and advocates of classical theism who have had the upper hand in the debate in recent years, as atheologians advancing arguments from evil have consistently had to keep changing their approach to find a workable version of the argument. Those convinced by the problem of evil that belief in classical theism is irrational, though, will need to look elsewhere for considerations aiming to disabuse them of this conviction. It will not be addressed directly here.

The particular crux of the issue on which I wish to focus is Nagel’s aesthetic bias in favor of an integrated picture of things, a constraint he is convinced interventionist (i.e. classical) theism cannot satisfy. By calling such a stricture “aesthetic” I do not mean to impugn its value; aesthetic considerations may well function in an important way in any right and properly expansive epistemic approach, especially as we attempt something so ambitious as identifying the true metaphysical worldview. No, rather than denying the need for the satisfaction of such a constraint, I would prefer to argue that classical theism is better at meeting such a constraint, or at least one in its close proximity, than Nagel seems to realize. Nagel’s view of theism, in certain respects, seems to be inadequately nuanced and sophisticated. Rejecting Sunday school versions of theism and Christianity may well be altogether appropriate; equating such variants with the real thing would be a mistake.

For a more sophisticated version of the theistic perspective, let us turn to the writings of C. S. Lewis; as we do so, it will be almost surprising to see the prescience with which Lewis anticipated just the sorts of worries that preoccupy Nagel. Recall Nagel’s concern that theism (by which I will mean, henceforth, classical and interventionist theism) would preclude the “organic whole” and “comprehensive natural order” Nagel desires. His own Aristotelian-like, emergentist, teleological account of mind, though not compatible with reductionist naturalism, does not preclude the sort of organic wholeness and comprehensively naturalistic explanation he is after. For this reason, despite the latter’s obscurity as an explanation, Nagel is more drawn to it than to classical theism with its notions of intelligent creation.

Now, by way of counterpoint, consider this passage from C. S. Lewis, from the eighth chapter of Miracles. It comes right after he speaks of the way some people find intolerable the notion of miraculous interventions in the world. “The reason they find it intolerable,” he writes, “is that they start by taking Nature to be the whole of reality. And they are sure that all reality must be interrelated and consistent.”[15] He then says he agrees with them, but he thinks that “they have mistaken a partial system within reality, namely Nature, for the whole.”[16] He then continues:

That being so, the miracle and the previous history of Nature may be interlocked after all but not in the way the Naturalist expected: rather in a much more roundabout fashion. The great complex event called Nature, and the new particular event introduced into it by the miracle, are related by their common origin in God, and doubtless, if we knew enough, most intricately related in His purpose and design, so that a Nature which had had a different history, and therefore been a different Nature, would have been invaded by different miracles or by none at all. In that way the miracles and the previous course of Nature are as well interlocked as any other two realities, but you must go back as far as their common Creator to find the interlocking. You will not find it within Nature.[17]

So Nagel and Lewis, we might say, entirely agree on the aesthetic constraint for an integrated worldview, but their views are diametrically opposite on the question of what such a constraint demands. Nagel’s insistence is that such integration be found within nature, and Lewis insists that, though it is to be found, it will not be found there. “Everything is connected with everything else: but not all things are connected by the short and straight roads we expected,” Lewis wrote.[18] They cannot both be right on this score. Nagel’s constraint would preclude taking seriously Lewis’s suggestion; and Lewis’s alternate suggestion means that Nagel’s effort would be bound to fail. In light of so fundamental a conflict of intuitions, argument and evidence would be useful, much more so than subjective epistemic biases. Unfortunately for Nagel, though, this is the precise point where his argument is the thinnest. Lewis, as we are about to see, is just getting started.

Nagel is no pantheist, but he definitely has resonance with panpsychism, according to which, via emergentism, the basic physical constituents of the universe have mental properties. This is how he is inclined to explain what needs explaining: that mind must somehow function centrally in the story of reality. Like pantheism, though, such an account is considerably more amorphous and simply vague than the account of classical theism. Nagel seems to consider this an advantage in practice over the crude and dualistic nature of theism, but Lewis would completely disagree. Speaking of pantheism, rather than panpsychism, but in a way that in salient respects could extend equally to both, Lewis writes that “at every point Christianity has to correct the natural expectations of the Pantheist and offer something more difficult, just as Schrodinger has to correct Democritus. At every moment he has to multiply distinctions and rule out false analogies. He has to substitute the mappings of something that has a positive, concrete, and highly articulated character for the formless generalities in which Pantheism is at home. . . . The ascertained nature of any real thing is always at first a nuisance to our natural fantasies—a wretched, pedantic, logic-chopping intruder upon a conversation which was getting on famously without it.”[19] Lewis notes that when people compare adult versions of other worldviews with a knowledge of Christianity acquired in childhood, they get the impression that the Christian account of God is the “obvious” one, the one too easy to be true, while its alternatives seem sublime and profound by comparison. Lewis thinks just the opposite is the case. Reality is hard and obstinate, and not at all what we might expect most of the time. Vague notions of spirituality or a diffused mind animating the universe is hardly a novel notion; it is arguably the native bent of mind and immemorial religion. “An ‘impersonal God’—well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads—better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap—best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband—that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall?”[20]

Interesting to note is that Nagel’s problem with theism largely evaporates if it is a theism that does not involve intervention. Had God created the world in such a way that it was henceforth self-sustaining and self-regulating, then, Nagel thinks, there would be hope of reconciling such theism with the sort of worldview he is seeking. But a God who intervenes, who performs miracles, who upholds the universe by his power, who sent his Son into it to die for our sins—this sort of supernaturalism is beyond the pale, an unprincipled epistemic indulgence, an ontological foul. Interestingly, Lewis himself anticipated this very response. At the beginning of chapter twelve, Lewis captures the mentality of those who think a God who intervenes smacks of a petty and capricious tyrant who breaks his own laws. It is the good and wise kinds of gods who obey them. Even if miracles do not violate laws of nature, still the impression, in the minds of some, is that they “interrupt the orderly march of events, the steady development of Nature according to her own inherent genius or character. That regular march seems to such critics as I have in mind more impressive than any miracle.”[21]

Lewis himself seems to have entertained such a mentality as an atheist, but he would change his mind eventually. As a literary scholar, he offers an analogy to soften readers up to the propriety of God’s interventions. It is the stupid schoolboy, he says, who might think that the abnormal hexameters in Virgil or half-rhymes in English poets were due to incompetence. “In reality, of course, every one of them is there for a purpose and breaks the superficial regularity of the metre in obedience to a higher and subtler law: just as the irregularities in The Winter’s Tale do not impair, but embody and perfect, the inward unity of its spirit.”[22] Lewis’s point is that there are rules behind the rules, and “a unity which is deeper than uniformity.”

A supreme workman will never break by one note or one syllable or one stroke of the brush the living and inward law of the work he is producing. But he will break without scruple any number of those superficial regularities and orthodoxies which little, unimaginative critics mistake for its laws. The extent to which one can distinguish a just ‘license’ from a mere botch or failure of unity depends on the extent to which one has grasped the real and inward significance of the work as a whole.[23]

The analogy is even worse for the dogmatic anti-interventionist than this, though. In his insistence that miracles are improprieties unworthy of the Great Workman rather than expressions of the truest and deepest unity in His total work, he must be reminded that “the gap between God’s mind and ours must, on any view, be incalculably greater than the gap between Shakespeare’s mind and that of the most peddling critics of the old French school.”[24]

Employing yet another literary insight to drive home the point, Lewis highlights Dorothy Sayers’s The Mind of the Maker, whose thesis is based on the analogy between God’s relation to the world and an author’s relation to his book. “The ghost story is a legitimate form of art; but you must not bring a ghost into an ordinary novel to get over a difficulty in the plot.”[25] Doing the latter would be a blunder outside the realm of legitimate authorial prerogatives. Just such an analysis fuels many a suspicion that miracles are marvels of the wrong sort, involving an arbitrary interference with the organic whole of a story. Lewis admits that if he thought of miracles in such terms (as Nagel seems to), he would not believe in them either. But Lewis rests assured that if miracles have occurred, “they have occurred because they are the very thing this universal story is about. They are not exceptions (however rarely they occur), nor irrelevancies. They are precisely those chapters in this great story on which the plot turns.”[26] For those, like Nagel, who seem to think that atoms and time and space are the main plot of the story of the world, Lewis would respond by suggesting that the narrative God is weaving is a long one with a complicated plot. Lewis writes, “and we are not, perhaps, very attentive readers.”[27]

Again, Lewis and Nagel entirely agree on the epistemic preference that reality be integrated and a unity, even if they disagree on certain matters of uniformity. Lewis defends such subjective and admittedly aesthetic criteria, echoing Sir Arthur Eddington’s phrase that science progresses on convictions, perhaps unjustified but nonetheless cherished, about the “innate sense of the fitness of things.” A universe in which interventions were ubiquitous and irregularities omnipresent would be anathema; on this Lewis and Nagel agree. Lewis pushes this point a bit further, though, taking aim at naturalism. For we can ask, of what epistemic significance are such preferences? Lewis argues, and Nagel would likely agree, that if the true metaphysics is mindless naturalism, then such epistemic preferences we hold for order and unity are unlikely to be conducive to the truth. They would simply be facts about us. “If Naturalism is true we have no reason to trust our conviction that Nature is uniform,” Lewis wrote.[28] But if theism is true, and the deepest reality is like us, the ultimate fact is a rational spirit in whose image we have been made, then our epistemic preferences are more plausibly thought to be reliable in pointing us toward the truth. This entirely turns on its head the notion that a desire for unity undermines belief in an interventionist God. Modern science, in fact, came about as a result of men believing in law in nature, expecting it because they believed in a legislator. “But if we admit God, must we admit Miracle? Indeed, indeed, you have no security against it. That is the bargain. Theology says to you in effect, ‘Admit God and with Him the risk of a few miracles, and I in return will ratify your faith in uniformity as regards the overwhelming majority of events.’ The philosophy which forbids you to make uniformity absolute is also the philosophy which offers you solid grounds for believing it to be general, to be almost absolute.”[29]

Miracles, Lewis argues—at least from the perspective of Christianity—are not arbitrary, capricious interventions, ubiquitous ad hoc interruptions, but carefully orchestrated turning points in the plot, key chapters on which the whole plot of the novel turns, the main theme of the symphony, as it were. Whether specific alleged ones among them are inherently problematic cannot be answered a priori, but depends on how illuminating of the whole they prove to be. The incarnation, for example, is a picture of the divine condescending to take human flesh, one person both wholly divine and wholly human. No greater portrait of integration and rapprochement of the natural and supernatural is easy to envision. If God can so descend into a human spirit, the reality we inhabit is “more multifariously and subtly harmonious than we had suspected.”[30]

Lewis’s is a classical theistic picture, and his is not the strawman to which simplistic caricatures of religious views lend themselves. If Nagel wishes to defend his aversion to classical theism—despite its superior explanatory power over naturalism—opting instead for his much less evidenced and more obscure conjectures about unintentional teleological emergentism, not only does he have a lot of work to do to defend his own view:  he also needs to do considerably more to subject classical theism to critical scrutiny.




*[1] Thomas Nagel, Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[2] See Plantinga’s trilogy on Warrant. Warrant: The Current Debate (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993); Warrant and Proper Function (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993); Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[3] Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, & Naturalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). Nagel published his review of Plantinga’s book in “A Philosopher Defends Religion,” The New York Review of Books 59 September 27, 2012.

[4] J. P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism (London: SCM Press, 2009).

[5] Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

[6] Nagel, Mind & Cosmos, 123.

[7] Nagel cites C. D. Broad’s The Mind and Its Place in Nature (London: Routledge, 1925) 81–94, and Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution (trans. Arthur Mitchell; New York: Henry Holt, 1911).

[8] Nagel, Mind & Cosmos, 7.

[9] Ibid., 21.

[10] Ibid., 25.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 26.

[14] Ibid.

[15] C. S. Lewis, Miracles, in C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 354.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 376.

[20] Ibid., 383.

[21] Ibid., 385.

[22] Ibid., 386.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 387.

[25] Ibid., 388.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., 389.

[28] Ibid., 395.

[29] Ibid., 395–396.

[30] Ibid., 401.

Photo: "Dendrons, Pisces and the Cosmos" by M. Flynn-Burhoe. CC licence. 

Worldview as Explanatory Hypothesis

In the town in which I live resides a Harvard-trained academic neurosurgeon who, in 2008, was struck by a rare illness that put him into a coma for seven days, during which his entire neo-cortex shut down. Evan Alexander had mysteriously contracted E-coli bacterial meningitis, which attacks the brain. Just recently I met Alexander, who was doing a local book signing. He has written up the remarkable story of his experience in a gripping book—Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife—that has been featured on the cover of Newsweek. That he survived and without permanent brain damage is amazing enough, but perhaps that is not the most surprising part of his story. For during his coma, when the part of his brain responsible for thought and emotion was not merely malfunctioning but turned off and off line, Alexander recounts that he experienced a hyper-vivid voyage to another realm of existence where he claims to have gleaned profound insight into the nature of reality and the human condition—most importantly that an all-powerful, infinitely loving God is real. Irrespective of how veridical are all the features of his experience and his various interpretations of the experience, what is remarkable is that in his condition he was able to experience any conscious states at all.

Nobody was more surprised at this than Alexander himself, who admits that for the seven years leading up to this life-changing event, he had been a card-carrying materialist. He had heard his share of near-death experiences, and he had retained the conviction that an adequate scientific explanation would be forthcoming, an explanation predicated on the axioms of materialist reductionism, a thoroughgoing naturalistic paradigm. As a neurosurgeon, though, once he regained consciousness and came to understand the severity of his condition during the coma, he became convinced that no naturalistic account would do. As a scientist, he entertained a range of hypotheses to explain his memories—from a primitive brainstream program to ease terminal pain and suffering to the distorted recall of memories from deeper parts of the limbic system relatively protected from the meningitis inflammation, and seven more hypotheses—none of which, in his studied estimation, can explain the nature of his conscious experience during that coma on the assumption of a materialist worldview’s account of consciousness. Needless to say, the event proved transformative for him, unraveling the naturalistic paradigm that he has so long adopted and assumed, a viewpoint that is arguably the prevailing worldview among most contemporary philosophers and scientists.

That naturalism is a worldview means, among other things, that it is an explanatory hypothesis. To say a worldview is an explanatory hypothesis is to identify one of its most important functions: the epistemic task of providing, in J. P. Moreland’s words, “an explanation of facts, of reality, the way it actually is. Indeed it is incumbent on a worldview that it explain what does and does not exist in ways that follow naturally from the core explanation commitments of that worldview.” Moreland argues that such explanations must range over causal, epistemic, and metaphysical issues. A worldview is an expansive way of looking at ourselves and the world. Worldviews offer answers to questions about God, meaning, knowledge, reality, the human condition, and values. Naturalism is certainly a worldview, but is naturalism a religion? Here’s what Alvin Plantinga has to say on that matter: "[Naturalism] isn’t clearly a religion: the term ‘religion’ is vague, and naturalism falls into the vague area of its application. Still, naturalism plays many of the same roles as a religion. In particular, it gives answers to the great human questions: Is there such a person as God? How should we live? Can we look forward to life after death? What is our place in the universe? How are we related to other creatures? Naturalism gives answers here: there is no God, and it makes no sense to hope for life after death. As to our place in the grand scheme of things, we human beings are just another animal with a peculiar way of making a living. Naturalism isn’t clearly a religion; but since it plays some of the same roles as a religion, we could properly call it a quasi-religion." As I ponder such issues, I can’t help but think of the students at the Christian university where I teach. Unless they are told they must, when they are asked about their own worldview, very few of them will say anything about why they believe what they do. Nor will they tend to have much if anything to say about what explanatory power their worldview possesses. If they do broach the issue of why they believe their worldview, they tend to privilege psychological over philosophical or evidential categories. What students tend to do is just give a litany or perhaps one or two of their core convictions—God exists, for example, unlike what those atheists believe. What is especially hard to take about this, for me, is that this doesn’t just explain their answers coming into my introductory philosophy course, but going out too.

It pains me to admit this, but perhaps this sad state of affairs gives me an opportunity. At present I administer a worldview pre-test and post-test to my students in this particular class. The course has for one of its major goals greater clarity on worldview—articulating it, defending it, etc. We cover quite a few ways in which they can do these things better, but the results at the end of the course are generally disappointing, revealing nominal improvement at most much of the time. What I intend to do to ameliorate the situation is to hold their feet to the proverbial fire. For whatever reason, they often do not seem to be connecting the dots, despite our encouragement for them to do so. I am less convinced they can’t than that they simply are not. And if they think they can get away with the bare minimum, sad to say, they usually try, which means the post-test tends not to show their best work. Students at this age—with their philosophy of education, their pragmatism, their time constraints, and their still-forming pre-frontal cortex—often need their hand to be forced. Formerly I would refrain from requiring a minimum word length on the post-test, reasoning optimistically that surely students would avail themselves in an “essay assignment” as part of the final exam to show what they know. I figured they would relish the chance to knock it out of the park. What I have found too often instead are a series of strikeouts or, at best, weak singles. The internal motivation I had assumed would animate them on such an assignment frequently fails to materialize. If am I right, the problem is more about this issue of motivation than that of competence. So, one obvious way to address this situation is to require the post-test essay to be at least a specified minimum length. That’s an easy fix.

The second change I’m planning to implement, though, will be far more important, I’m convinced. Once again, since students tend to focus on the content of their beliefs, the assignment needs explicitly to force their hand to consider questions of evidence. Students tend to be steeped in the lingo of social science, so it needs to be clarified to them that the issue is not the origin of their beliefs—culture, parents, church—but rather their truth and evidence. So what I intend to do is to follow Moreland’s characterization of worldview as explanatory hypothesis. I intend to leave behind saying a worldview is primarily a matter of one’s beliefs and convictions about God, the world, and the human condition—which invariably lends itself to superficial first-order analysis and mindless litanies. No, the function of a worldview is to explain. Talk about that, I intend to tell them, and then to remind them of the specific ways in which they can do so. What can better explain facts that most all of us—theists and atheists alike—believe in and common sense can apprehend? The human capacity for rational deliberation, free will, objective moral truths, real guilt, and moral responsibility? Arguments, philosophical and otherwise, for the ability of theism to explain such realities better than atheism are both cogent and compelling. This is the very stuff we spend so much time in class on all term long. One of the books I have my students read in the course is C. S. Lewis’s Miracles, the third chapter of which is the famous “argument from reason,” the topic of Lewis’s famous debate with famed Wittgenstein student Elizabeth Anscombe, and an argument that in recent years has been updated by the likes of Alvin Plantinga and Victor Reppert. The import of the chapter is the intrinsic problem naturalism has accounting for rationality. In a recent book by atheist Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, he makes a similar point; this is not just an argument only theists can see. In the fifth chapter of Miracles Lewis shows that naturalism has an equally hard time making sense of objective morality. Morality and rationality, however, are comfortable fits in a world created and sustained by a loving and personal God. Elsewhere in the course we spend time exploring how naturalists lack the resources to make sense of genuine free will in the world as they envision it—yet without free will, there can be no genuinely authoritative morality. For theists who believe that, as a prerequisite for loving relationship, God has conferred on human beings, made in his image, the capacity for free choice, it all makes excellent sense. Classical theism can simply explain free will, rationality, and morality better than can naturalism; the evidence is on the side of theism.

But today’s Christian students, starting well before college, are breathing the air of a culture that, each day in a myriad of ways, proclaims the irrationality of a life of faith. Even the locution “faith” has been co-opted to convey connotations of an Enlightenment-foisted distorted view of faith as bespeaking a lack of evidence. Biblically, faith is nothing of the kind, but rather principled trust in God’s faithfulness to do all he has promised to do, principled for being rooted in God’s track record of faithfulness. If we do not wish to lose a generation of Christian young people to the corrosive effects of skepticism and cynicism, postmodernism and the quasi-religion of naturalism, we need to help them know not just what they believe, but see why. They must, and fortunately they can, come to understand that they are eminently justified to hold a Christian worldview because, as an explanation of life’s most important and undeniable realities—from love to logic, from cognition to consciousness—it is second to none.