A few weeks ago, I recorded an interview with Prof. Sean McDowell on the “transcendental moral argument” for God’s existence from my new book Why Believe?: A Reasoned Approach to Christianity. Paulogia, an atheist with a large YouTube following, posted a response video and invited me onto his channel to discuss his rebuttal. Below are my notes on the topic, which I prepared in advance of our dialogue. I start by sketching my original argument. Then I respond briefly to Paul’s objections. And finally, I tackle our main disagreement: are all obligations conditional?
Our dialogue can be viewed here.
In the final analysis, this discussion highlights the tremendous gap between our worldviews. Fundamentally, Paul believes that there are no unconditional obligations or values of any kind. On his view, it is incorrect to say unconditionally “you ought to seek the truth” or “you ought to embrace reason and evidence” or “you ought to love our neighbor” or even “you ought to refrain from committing adultery, murder, and rape.” All of these statements carry the implicit conditional “…if that helps you achieve your personal goals and desires.” He also believes that nothing is intrinsically valuable. Love, compassion, and honesty are not intrinsically good. They are only instrumentally good insofar as they help you achieve your personal goals and desires.
Christianity flatly rejects this entire posture. God is intrinsically good. He is not good because of what he can do for you. He is not good because he’ll help you meet your goals. According to Christianity, that entire way of thinking damnable in the most literal sense. Other qualities like love, compassion, and honesty are intrinsically good because they reflect God’s attributes. They are not merely instrumentally good insofar as they help you meet your personal goals.
I think this difference is a perfect illustration of the original temptation of Genesis 3. Human beings want the universe to revolve around us. We want to be our own God and to decide for ourselves what is good and evil. In contrast, Christianity says “no. You are not your own gods. The universe does not revolve around you. And you can’t just make up your own standards of good and evil.”
This contrast is at the heart of our disagreement. I’m reminded of scenes from C.S. Lewis’ classic The Great Divorce, in which a busload of ghosts from hell take a trip to heaven. One of inhabitants of heaven tells one of the ghosts that he can be saved if he will simply repent and believe. This is ghost’s response:
“Well, that is a plan. I am perfectly ready to consider it. Of course I should require some assurances……….I should want a guarantee that you are taking me to a place where I shall find a wider sphere of usefulness—a scope for the talents that God has given me—and an atmosphere of free inquiry–in short, all that one means by civilization and –er—the spiritual life.”
The man from heaven answers:
“No… I can promise you none of these things. No sphere of usefulness: you are not needed there at all. No scope for your talents: only forgiveness for having perverted them. No atmosphere of inquiry, for I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.”
If the one thing that we simply must have is the freedom to do whatever we want, to desire whatever we want, to call whatever we want “good” and whatever we want “evil,” to be our own gods, and to live in complete autonomy, then God will forever be a horror to us.
My Argument: The Transcendental Moral Argument for God’s Existence
Premise 1. If a truth-loving God does not exist, then truth-seeking is neither intrinsically good nor morally obligatory.
Premise 2. Truth-seeking is intrinsically good and morally obligatory.
Conclusion. A truth-loving God exists.
This argument is logically valid, meaning that if both premises are true, then the conclusion follows logically from the premises. But are both premises true?
Premise 1 can be seen to be true by reflecting on the nature of our purported moral obligation to seek the truth. Like all moral obligations, they strike us as authoritative commands, imperatives that are binding on us irrespective of our particular desires or goals. As atheists like philosopher Joel Marks affirm, if God does not exist, such commands likewise do not exist.
In response, some atheists have argued that we can ground moral goodness and moral obligation in human flourishing. They argue that human flourishing is objectively good and we’re obligated to pursue it. But in this case, truth is only instrumentally good: truth is good if it promotes human flourishing and bad if it diminishes human flourishing. However, both at an individual and societal level, truth can potentially diminish human flourishing. So the atheist cannot ground the intrinsic goodness of truth or our obligation to seek it in “human flourishing.”
Premise 2 is a properly basic belief. We know intuitively that we ought to seek true answers to the big questions of life like “Does God exist?” or “Do I have moral obligations? And if so, what are they?” or “What is my purpose?” For example, if someone tells us “the way you are living is immoral and I can demonstrate this truth to you using reason and evidence,” we know that it would be wrong to simply plug our ears and ignore them because we don’t want them to ruin our fun.
This intuitive awareness of our obligation to seek the truth makes sense if Christianity is true. We live in God’s reality and God’s commands, including his commands to seek the truth, are written on our hearts. Therefore, our intuitive beliefs about the intrinsic goodness of truth and our obligation to seek it are justified. In the same way, we intuitively know that other moral facts exist, that other human beings have conscious experiences like our own (they’re not zombies who simply mimic the appearance and behavior of conscious human beings), that the laws of logic are true, that our cognitive faculties are reliable, and that the external world actually exists (we’re not just living in the Matrix). We don’t need to have independent evidence of these truths to justify these beliefs.
In defense of Premise 2, I also appeal to the atheist’s own implicit endorsement of truth-seeking. An atheist who tells Christians “you ought to embrace the truth of atheism” or who recoils at the idea that he should seek to believe comforting falsehoods is showing that he recognizes that truth is intrinsically good and that we ought to seek it.
(For a more detailed discussion, see p. 131-139 of Why Believe? or my interview with Sean McDowell How the Search for Truth Reveals God)
Paul seems to agree that the transcendental moral argument is valid (meaning that if the premises are true, then the conclusion is true), but he argues that the argument is unsound (meaning that one or both of its premises are false).
I identified 8 distinct objections in Paul’s rebuttal and will respond to each. Only one of the objections relates to premise 1, which means we may actually agree that premise 1 is true. However, Paul vehemently denies premise 2. So let’s examine his objections. I’ll state them along with selected quotes and timestamps from his video, and will then offer a response.
Objection: The transcendental moral argument engages in begging the question.
Paul (20:03): “His one and only example of seeking truth as moral obligation is an obligation to seek truth about God. But this becomes an obligation only if God exists, and so Neil is assuming the conclusion in his premise, begging the question.”
Paul (6:58): “If the Christian God doesn’t exist then there would be no such obligation to form an opinion at all. So for this argument for God to carry then one must first assume the conclusion making the whole thing an exercise in begging the question“
Paul (7:42): “I’m waiting for one truth that we are morally obligated to seek. Again if you posit that your single example is that God morality obligates us to seek the truth of God therefore God then you’re begging the question.”
Paul (20:09) “his one and only example of seeking truth as moral obligation is an obligation to seek truth about God. But this becomes an obligation only if god exists and so Neil is assuming the conclusion in his premise, begging the question.“
My response: Paul is correct that “begging the question” is an informal fallacy that occurs when the premises of an argument presuppose its conclusion. However, he is wrong that the transcendental moral argument engages in question-begging because neither premise assumes the conclusion that “A truth-loving God exists.”
For example, an atheist could affirm premise 1 and deny premise 2, which Paul seems to do. He could believe that objective moral value and duties –including our duty to seek to know the truth about God’s existence– could only exist if God exists (premise 1). But he could deny that any objective moral values and duties exist (premise 2), and therefore could deny the argument’s conclusion.
Alternatively, an atheist could affirm premise 2 and deny premise 1. In other words, he could affirm that we have a duty to seek the truth (premise 2), but he could deny that God is necessary to ground moral obligations (premise 1). For instance, he could argue our obligation to seek the truth is grounded in some realm of Platonic forms. Or he could argue that it is grounded in human flourishing, which he thinks is only maximized when human beings seek the truth. (For example, see atheist philosophers like Erik Wielenberg or Derek Parfit). So he could insist that we do have an obligation to seek the truth about God’s existence, but could still deny the argument’s conclusion that God exists.
But if we can affirm either premise without affirming the conclusion then the truth of the conclusion isn’t presupposed by either premise.
I suspect Paul was thrown off by the fact that I list one of our obligations as “seeking to know whether God exists.” It’s worth making two comments here.
First, I actually mention that this obligation is only one of several obligations. I said: “when it comes to certain truths especially truths about the big questions in life like ‘Does God exist?’ ‘What is his will for me and for my life?’…’Does he have a purpose for my life?’… I’m obligated to seek to know those truths” (Neil, 6:16). So I’m not asking only about God’s existence. Moreover, I could ask other “big questions” that make no reference to God like “Do I have any moral obligations?” or “How can I best fulfill my moral obligations?” or “Is atheism true?” (see p. 139 of Why Believe?).
Second, someone could deny that God exists and could still believe that we’re morally obligated to seek the true answer to the question “Does God exist?” because it will affect our ability to fulfill our other moral obligations. For example, an atheist might insist that we’re obligated to maximize human flourishing and therefore could insist that we are obligated to seek to know the truth that “God does not exist” because that will free us to devote ourselves full-time to maximizing human flourishing in the present rather than wasting our time serving an imaginary God.
Consider the following illustration. Imagine I’m the chief legal officer at a large company with a supposedly brilliant but reclusive CEO, whom no one has seen for years. One morning, I find a letter on my desk, written on official company stationary that says “Investigate whether the CEO really exists.” Imagine the following argument:
P1. If the CEO does not exist, you are not obligated to investigate whether the CEO exists.
P2. You are obligated to investigate whether the CEO exists.
C. The CEO exists.
Someone may not find this argument convincing, but it is certainly not begging the question. For example, someone could affirm P1 but deny P2. They could say “I agree that only the CEO has the authority to order you to investigate the CEO’s existence, but I think some guy in the mail room wrote this letter. Therefore, you are not obligated to investigate whether the CEO exists.” Alternative, someone could affirm P2 but deny P1. They could say “I think the company president also has the right to order you to investigate the CEO’s existence, and I think they sent the letter so you are obligated to investigate. So I deny P1 but I affirm P2.” Therefore, accepting either premise does not require you to accept the argument’s conclusion.
In summary, Paul was incorrect to claim that the transcendental moral argument engages in “begging the question.”
Objection: Premise 1 is meaningless.
Paul (25:55): “truth has instrumental value not intrinsic value so there’s no need to try to ground its intrinsic value. Premise 2 fails so Premise 1 is meaningless.“
My response: Here, I think Paul simply misspoke. Even if we deny premise 2, it doesn’t follow that premise 1 is “meaningless.” In other words, if premise 2 is false, that doesn’t entail that premise 1 is a nonsense sentence like “Loren ipsum brillig cough splat computer.” I think what Paul meant is that if premise 2 is false, then premise 1 is irrelevant, which is true insofar as this argument goes.
But if Paul really did mean “meaningless” then he’s wrong. Premise 1 would not be “meaningless” even if Premise 2 were false.
Objection: Nothing is unconditionally obligatory.
7:59 Neil: “Do we have an obligation to seek the truth?”
8:04 Paul: “No we do not have such an obligation“
11:08 Paul: “Truth-seeking has instrumental value not intrinsic value”
14:39 Paul: “Not despising the truth isn’t moral obligation to truth. Wanting to know the truth at a deep level isn’t moral obligation to truth.”
16:16 Paul: “I would never say that you ought to do anything without a qualifier”
16:29 Paul: “Apologists like Neil like to pretend you can have oughts without ifs, but I reject that completely. Without a subjectively chosen goal to compare it to no action can be evaluated.”
30:49: Paul: “I reject a moral obligation for truth-seeking”
33:24 Paul: “If you want to live a life that conforms to reality then you ought to seek the truth if you prioritize comfort and happiness then you’re under no obligation.”
My response: Paul’s claims here are the crux of the discussion, and require a much longer response, which I’ll provide in the third section. For now, I’ll simply note that Paul is making a positive claim which he repeats many times: all obligations are conditional. There are no unconditional obligations. In other words, you can never say “you ought to do X” without (implicitly or explicitly) appending “…if you value Y.”
This is crucial because at one point Paul rightly insists (9:29) that the person making a positive claim bears the burden of proof. I agree. Therefore, Paul now bears the burden of proof to demonstrate that “all obligations are conditional.” Of course, it is fair game for Paul to argue that I have not convinced him that P1 and P2 are true and therefore, he can remain skeptical of the conclusion that “A truth-loving God exists.” However, since he has positively asserted that all values and obligations are conditional, then he bears the burden of proof in demonstrating why his claim is correct.
Objection: Thinking something is important doesn’t mean you believe it’s a unconditional obligation:
3:41 Paul: “Something being important isn’t remotely the same as that thing being a moral obligation.“
4:50 Paul: “I’m gonna get repetitive, but deep commitment isn’t the same as moral obligation.”
12:29 Paul: “Thinking that truth-seeking is a big deal is not the same as ‘truth-seeking has intrinsic value.’ Winning gold at the Olympics is a big deal. Getting into the college of your choice is a big deal. Having a baby is a big deal. But the value of each is instrumental.”
My response: I actually agree that being “deeply committed” to something doesn’t necessarily mean you think it’s intrinsically valuable.
However, I’m actually arguing the converse. I’m arguing that we recognize a moral realm and we recognize that certain things are intrinsically good and obligatory, which is why we are deeply committed to them, even if we can’t explain that commitment within our worldview.
Here’s an illustration I use in my book (Why Believe? p. 130). Let’s say that I tell you “I don’t believe in gravity; it’s not real. It’s a fabrication of George Soros and the liberal media.” But then my family and I take a trip to the Grand Canyon and you see me holding firmly onto the guard rails. And when my kids start to play near the edge, I call out “Hey stay away from the canyon! Don’t you see the warning sign?” No matter what I claim about not believing in gravity, it certainly looks like I believe in gravity, because I’m acting just like someone who believes in gravity. Now, let’s say you ask me to explain my behavior. I pause and think and then finally say, “Ok, sure, on reflection, my behavior seems odd. But I still don’t believe in gravity. I just believe in following rules, because if we all follow the rules, then society functions better. That’s why I act the way I do.”
However, as we’re travelling together, we stop along the highway at several scenic overlooks. Every time we stop, you see me clinging to the guardrails and warning my kids to stay away from the edge. At one point, I even drop my wallet off a cliff, but I just leave it behind and say “well, I can’t go over the edge. That’s against the rules.” So you pull me aside and say, “Look, are you sure you don’t believe in gravity? Because there aren’t any signs here. If gravity really doesn’t exist, why don’t you float down and get your wallet?” I pause again for a few moments to think and finally reply, “Well, I’m just applying a heuristic. In general, following the rules of gravity-believers makes society function better. I’m not going to hash out every exception on a case-by-case basis. To be honest, I don’t really worry about that.”
At some point, you’d be justified in saying “I think you experience the same laws of gravity as everyone else, but -for whatever reason- you don’t have a category for it, so you explain your experiences in some other way. But I think you’re encountering the same laws of gravity that I am.”
That’s a good illustration of what I’m talking about when I say that atheists’ deep commitment to truth-seeking shows that they’re encountering the same moral universe that all of us are. At 17:14, Paul said “Neil’s case for an obligation to seek truth and intrinsic value of truth rests entirely on people knowing it deep down. And for the majority of the population who have given their epistemology zero thought perhaps this rings true.”
Exactly. Paul seems to be agreeing that the idea that truth-seeking is obligatory “rings true” “for the majority of the population.” However, he attributes their belief to the fact that they’ve “given their epistemology zero thought.” That’s where I disagree. (As a side note, even among professional philosophers, moral realists outnumber moral antirealists by roughly 2:1!)
Instead, I’m arguing that most people intuitively grasp that moral categories exist. They don’t really reflect on how they know it; they just know it. In the Blank Slate, Harvard biologist Stephen Pinker includes a list of Human Universals found across cultures and across history that includes “good and bad distinguished, distinguishing right from wrong, and distinguishing true from false” (p. 435-439). So universally, people recognize these categories.
But at some point, some people realize that moral categories don’t make a lot of sense if God doesn’t exist, so they try to reconcile their experiences with their worldview. Many end up saying, “oh, I don’t believe in objective good and evil or objective moral obligation. I just personally, subjectively value human flourishing. So things that help people flourish are subjectively good to me and I do things that promote human flourishing because that’s my personal, subjective goal.” That’s the man who doesn’t intellectually believe in gravity, but is still deeply committed to acting as if gravity is real.
And finally, most skeptics don’t constantly reevaluate whether some particular action is really promoting human flourishing. Most relevant to our discussion, when they come across some claim, they don’t immediately ask: “Wait! If I find out that this claim is true, will that knowledge diminish human flourishing? Because if it will, I’d better avoid finding out whether it’s true.” Instead, they just try to figure out whether it’s true whether or not that belief will promote human flourishing, like the man who won’t jump off a cliff to retrieve his wallet even though he doesn’t believe in gravity. If they claim this is merely a “heuristic,” it’s worth asking why they don’t spend more time re-evaluating it on a case-by-case basis.
All of this applies to truth-seeking. All of us, including atheists, recognize that they have an unconditional obligation to seek the truth about the big questions in life. However, they can’t explain that obligation if atheism is true. But they continue to act as if they are obligated to seek the truth, and just explain their actions in some other way.
Objection: People don’t actually seek the truth in practice
32:14 Paul: “Acknowledging that people prefer a comforting lie over an inconvenient truth serves only to undermine Neil’s point. Truth-seeking is frequently limited by instrumental value“
15:03 Paul: “someone close to me once begged that I not expose them to information that would erode their faith”
My response: I completely agree that people often prefer comforting lies to inconvenient truths. But saying that “people don’t do X” doesn’t threaten the claim that “people ought to do X” or even “people know they ought to do X.” I mentioned Pinker’s list of Human Universals earlier and it provides a sad example. According to Pinker, two human universals that are present in every culture across time and history are 1) the belief “you shouldn’t commit rape” and also 2) the act of rape.
In the same way, we all encounter the same moral reality, the morality that says we’re obligated to seek truth. And, deep down, we know we do have that obligation. But that doesn’t mean we fulfill it.
This is the essence of Christianity: we know God’s moral law exists, but we break it anyway. That’s why we need a savior.
Objection: Intuition is untrustworthy:
19:19: Paul: “if you are the kind of person who takes ‘we just deeply know’ as justification you’re probably not the kind of person who uses arguments to come to a conclusion about god’s existence right”
38:06 Paul: “I don’t understand why theists are so enamored with intuition“
My response: This is a fascinating issue and I think it reveals just how far apart our worldviews are. Yes, Christians believe that deep, human intuitions are reliable even though they are fallible. In other words, intuitions are not going to get everything right because we’re sinful, but because we’re made in God’s image and because we’re still living in God’s universe, we don’t have to be skeptical of all of our intuition about everything. In other words, for the sake of argument, imagine that Christianity is actually true. Then we would expect to be able to trust our intuition to at least some extent because God made us in his image, endowed us with reliable cognitive faculties, and enabled us to understand reality.
But if atheism is true, then can we trust our intuition? I don’t think so. Even Darwin had this nagging doubt: if we evolved by random chance alone apart from any design or intention, then what reason do we have to trust our thoughts? Darwin himself asked “do we trust monkey’s thoughts?” No, not really. Evolution doesn’t care about truth; it just cares about getting your sex organs in the right place so that you’ll reproduce. That’s it. So why think that your thoughts are trustworthy representations of reality?
In fact, at 22:28 Paul even provided a good example of how evolution could have incentivized us to have false beliefs: he imagines a “creature on the African savanna who assumes that every rustling in the bush is danger.” In this case, false beliefs increase the organism’s fitness. So there’s no necessary connection between cognitive faculties that produce only true beliefs and maximizing survival.
Now, the common response is that if our cognitive faculties routinely produced beliefs that were detached from reality, then we would just die off as a species, so nature would select for organisms with reliable cognitive faculties. But I just don’t think that claim is supported by the actual evidence. Let me provide just one strong example. Atheists routinely lament the fact that the vast majority of human beings throughout history have had wildly false beliefs in all kinds of magic and superstition. For example, Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark argues that scientific thinking is crucial for guiding us out of these widespread false beliefs. But think about what that means from an evolutionary perspective. It means that for tens of thousands of years, human beings had no problem surviving despite all kinds of wildly false beliefs.
Now, I think there may be some ways around this reasoning, but my point is that, as an atheist, you’re right to doubt your intuition. So I think I actually agree with Paul on this. If I adopted his worldview, I would be skeptical of my intuition too. But my question is whether he takes this skepticism far enough.
For example, if I asked an atheist: “how do you know that the laws of logic are true?” or “How do you know that modus ponens is valid reasoning?” or “How do you know that circular reasoning is a fallacy?” what would he say? If he says “I mean, come one. That’s obvious. Anyone can see those things are true” it seems to me that he’s relying on his intuition. But if his intuition is unreliable, how can he do that?
Or take other metaphysical beliefs like “I am not living inside a computer simulation” or “I should only believe claims on the basis of evidence” or “the world wasn’t created last Thursday” or “other people are not mindless zombies who have no actual consciousness” or “the law of induction is valid.” How do you know any of those are true?
If you insist “we can’t trust our intuition” are you really going to be skeptical of all those claims?
Objection: Short-term individual happiness in not identical to human flourishing:
24:19 Paul: “the reason Neil’s grandma example is so intuitively obvious is that telling the truth in that scenario would harm an individual with no reasonable potential for increased flourishing”
26:32 Paul: “Personal happiness is not human flourishing this is a huge mistake on Neil’s part he’s fighting a straw man“
28:22 Paul: “[Shenvi] reverted back assuming that short-term psychological discomfort is a greater detriment than the long-term benefit of facing the universe as it actually is… who is to say we cannot travel [the path of Star Trek]?”
31:46 Paul: “they may not mean short-term individual happiness like you do you”
My response: I don’t actually believe that short-term individual happiness is identical to human flourishing and make that clear in the interview.
If you look up “human flourishing” in the philosophical or psychological literature, you’ll see that it is a catch-all term that includes many different aspects of well-being, including happiness, physical and mental health, a sense of meaning and purpose, and close social relationships. Now, I do think that the “feeling of happiness” is a key element of human flourishing. For example, if someone is physically and mentally healthy, has a sense of meaning and purpose, and has close social relationships, but feels utterly miserable all the time, I don’t think that counts as “flourishing.” But I agree that “flourishing” is more than just how happy a person is.
I also agree that human flourishing is not merely individual or short-term. For example, when I explain how a utilitarian, who values human flourishing, defends the instrumental goodness of truth, I say that they would argue that truth is instrumentally good because “it can get you to certain things maybe it’ll get you to you know cure world hunger and cure diseases and get you to colonize distant stars and then truth seeking is good” (25:08). And again, at 25:37, I ask “what if we just empirically discover that most human beings and societies just can’t deal with an atheistic universe?” In both cases, I’m assuming that human flourishing is not purely individual or purely short-term.
For the particular example of the dying grandmother, I focused on her happiness, because in that particular case, the truth will not affect her physical well-being or her social relationships. But I do not believe “short-term, individual happiness,” is identical to “human flourishing,” which is consistent with the meaning of the term itself and with my remarks about it.
Objection: You haven’t explained why we are obligated to seek some truths but not all truths.
8:21 Paul: “you seem to be acknowledging that in general there is no obligation to seek truth and you have not demonstrated any reason that seeking the truth about god is an exception”
First, the transcendental moral argument would still be sound even if there were only one truth that we are morally obligated to seek (see Sean’s comment at 7:17 which Paul agrees with). Moreover, premise 2 could be true even if I could not identify that truth and gave no explanation of why that particular truth is different than other truths.
But second, I make a distinction between truths about the “big questions” of life and other mundane truths like “how many rocks are there in my garden?” in parallel with the distinction between what is “good” and what is “right.” Essentially, this distinction explains why some things can be good without being obligatory. For example, it is good to be a doctor. However, we are not obligated to become doctors. And if someone chooses to become a scientist rather than a doctor, they have not failed to fulfill some moral obligation.
In the same way, it is good for us to know truths about botany, or geology, or medicine, or history, or even about random facts like “I have exactly 37 rocks in my garden” because truth is intrinsically good. However, it is not obligatory for us to know all such truths.
(For Paul’s full response, see the video This God Argument is UNPOPULAR for a Reason!)
The Central Issue: Are All Obligations Conditional?
The crux of this debate is the question of whether we have an unconditional obligation to seek the truth about the “big questions” of life. Both of us have made positive claims. I have made the positive claim that we do have an unconditional obligation to seek the truth. Paul has made the positive claim that there exist no unconditional obligations of any kind. Both of us therefore bear a burden of proof to defend our respective claims.
Rather than turning this into a “yes there are unconditional obligations”/”no there aren’t unconditional obligations” exchange, here are some important questions I plan to ask Paul, in the hopes of probing the fundamental differences in our worldviews.
What evidence do you have that there are no unconditional obligations?
Let’s consider the case of imperatives, or commands. Imperatives do not always have conditions. For example, if I tell my six-year-old “put down the chainsaw” I am not adding, either explicitly or implicitly “… if that is consistent with your goals and desires.” I am giving him a command as a rightful authority figure, one who loves him and also one to whom he owes obedience.
In the same way, if your wife says “Stop watching porn” she is not silently adding “…if that helps advance your personal goals.” If you disagree, I suggest asking your wife whether she meant to add “…if that helps advance your personal goals.”
Now, if some third-party heard your wife’s command and said “you ought to stop watching porn,” they would also not be adding a silent conditional like “…if that helps you advance your personal goals.” They would simply be reminding you of your wife’s command.
So why think that “oughts” must include conditionals?
If evolution has hard-wired into us certain goals/desires, does that mean we ought to keep those goals/desires?
5:17 Neil: “if you grant that desire [for truth] is there how is it justified and what what world you can rationally explain why you have that desire and why it’s a good and right desire for you to have”
5:27 Paul: “because truth is that which conforms to reality and being able to make accurate predictions about reality is a biological survival advantage it’s as simple as that”
21:42 Neil: “why should we care about you know whether we live or die?” Paul: “again a species that doesn’t care about life or death is at a survival disadvantage this is grounded in biology. no god required”
30:29 Sean: “[carrying out human flourishing is] a moral duty in the universe and it’s hard to see where that comes from apart from god”
30:36 Paul “it’s incredibly easy to see that this comes from biology“
It seems to me that your view is that no goals or desires are intrinsically good or bad and that there are no goals or desires that we ought to have. But at least three times, someone asks “why is it right to desire to seek the truth?” or “why should we care about living?” or “why do we have a moral duty to promote human flourishing” and you seem to respond that the answer is “biology.” But, on your view, that seems wrong. Certainly, on your view, evolution hard-wired certain goals and desires into us. Biology might explain why we’re hard-wired to desire to live or to promote the survival of the species. It might explain why we have certain instincts. But I don’t have to simply accept the desires biology has given me. I can ignore them and I can change them.
We actually do this all the time. Babies naturally develop a fear of heights. But if I decide that rock climbing is a great hobby, then I work to conquer that fear. Or if I fall in love with a girl who lives in a 30th floor apartment, I conquer that fear. I don’t say “oh, evolution hard-wired this fear into me; I shouldn’t tamper with it.” That’s ridiculous. If I find instincts in me that thwart my goals, then I conquer those instincts.
The same is true of desires. I have a desire to eat a tub of ice cream every day. It’s biologically hard-wired! I also have the desire to not die at age 50. So I choose to subordinate one desire to the other and I even work to wean myself off a desire for ice cream.
So, Paul, could you clarify? Do you think “biology” explains why it’s some desires are “right” or why we “should” care about survival?
On what basis do you decide your desires and goals?
This is just a genuine question. We can’t just punt to evolution and say “these are the desires and goals evolution has hard-wired into me” because we all have the capacity to change our desires and goals. But then, how do you practically decide which goals to adopt as an atheist? Let’s say Person A says: “My ultimate goal is to promote the survival of the human species. I evaluate everything in terms of whether it will further that goal.” Person B says “My ultimate goal is to promote my own personal happiness. I evaluate everything in terms of whether it will further that goal.” Person C says “My ultimate goal is to kill as many people as possible. I evaluate everything in terms of whether it will further that goal.” Person D says “My ultimate goal is to indoctrinate as many people as possible into my religion. I evaluate everything in terms of whether it will further that goal.”
According to you, none of these goals are intrinsically good or bad or better or worse than the others. So how you decide which goals to adopt?
If there is no ultimate goal/desire that we “ought” to adopt, how is rational persuasion possible?
Consider an example. Let’s say I came on your show and asked you: “what’s your main goal and desire in life?” and you said “my main goal and desire in life is to know the truth.” So I said “Great!” and then I gave you an iron-clad proof that Christianity was true. And I said “in conclusion, you ought to believe that Christianity is true, because your goal is to know the truth.”
But then you replied “Actually, now my goals have changed. Now my main goal is to promote the survival of the human species. So I’ve decided not to listen to your argument because if I listened to it, I’d become a Christian and that wouldn’t promote the survival of the human species.”
So then I gave you a completely iron-clad proof that Christianity would promote the survival of the human species.
But then you replied “Actually, my goals have changed again. Now my main goal is to be happy. So I’ve decided not to listen to your argument because if I listened to it, I’d become a Christian and that would make me unhappy.”
So then I gave you a completely iron-clad proof that Christianity would make you happy.
But then you replied “Actually, my goals have changed again. Now my main goal is to do whatever I want. So I’ve decided not to listen to your argument because if I listened to it, I’d become a Christian and I couldn’t do whatever I want.”
On your view, is there anything inconsistent or irrational with simply changing your ultimate goals whenever you want? To put it another way, if we all have the desire to “do whatever we want” doesn’t this view just boil down to “I want to do whatever I want to do”?
What is “human flourishing”? Why should anyone desire it? And isn’t it also a purely subjective quality?
As you mentioned, Sam Harris believes that we can ground objective moral value in human flourishing. But you also mentioned that our views on human flourishing might “expand.” What does that mean? If one person’s views “expand” and another’s don’t, who’s actually right?
Paul you said (29:54) “[human flourishing] is a subjective goal that is hardwired into creatures that are descended from ancestors who wanted to flourish.” But this doesn’t seem right. If you can’t define “flourishing” objectively, then how do you know they wanted to “flourish”? Do you just mean “survive”?
And if you just mean “survive,” then a plague might wipe out most humans except for brainless zombies. If all you care about is “survival” then you should be cheering for the plague-surviving zombies. At that point, I have to ask why we anyone should subjectively invoke “human survival” in the first place?
Do you recognize that, if Christianity were true, your views about value and obligation are wrong?
11:20 Paul: “Determining the existence of god is important only for purely instrumental reasons: to worship him, to obey his commands, and to take steps to get into heaven. Merely having this truth isn’t sufficient the author of the book of James admonishes the idea that the truth about god is of intrinsic value: ‘you believe that there is one god good even the demons believe that and shudder'”
11:51 Neil: “the fact that you are willing to read this book and wanting to know whether Christianity is true it shows you that at least implicitly you’re endorsing this premise.”
11:56 Paul: “Not at all. I entertain the notion that Christianity is true because it has potential to determine my eternal fate. That is instrumental value, the opposite of intrinsic value.”
Your assumption in these statements is that nothing has intrinsic value. Nothing is good because of what it is. Things are only good because of your personal goals. Do you agree that if Christianity were true, that would completely up-end your view?
Christianity teaches that God is actually good. He is not good only insofar as he helps you achieve your goals. He is not good only if he fulfills your desires. He is intrinsically good. And other things are intrinsically good, whether or not you like them.
I think this is the central difference between our worldviews. Your worldview is entirely man-centered (I’m using that term descriptively, not pejoratively). And not just “man-centered”; it’s specifically “you-centered.” Is a sunset good? Is a symphony good? Is the love between a mother and her child good? You would have to answer “That entirely depends. What do they do for me?” You might say:
“My goal is money. Can the sunset give me money? No. Then it’s bad because I can’t sell it.”
“My goal is fame. Did I write the symphony? No. Then it’s bad because it distracts people from praising me.”
“My goal is sex. Is maternal love good? No, because that woman will spend time taking care of the child instead of having sex with me.”
Everything becomes just a means to an end.
Christianity is going to take that assumption and grind it to dust. The universe isn’t about me. Good isn’t about me. My life isn’t even about me.
So here’s an important question: if Christianity were true, do you recognize that it would require you to entirely give up your ideas about “goodness” being purely contingent on your own goals and desires? And would you do that? If so, why would you do that?
Does our eternal fate rest entirely on our belief about the existence of God?
6:34 Paul “a primary assertion in Christianity is that our eternal fate rests entirely on our belief about the existence of god”
I thought this comment was especially interesting in light of your later quotation (at 11:20) of James 2:19: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” So clearly, Christianity does not teach that “believing that God exists” is sufficient to be reconciled to God!
So I’m curious to know your religious background. What denomination were you a part of as a Christian? And what is the Christian view of salvation? What exactly do Christians think is required to be forgiven and reconciled to God?