Alister McGrath talks with Bret Weinstein

FeaturedAlister McGrath talks with Bret Weinstein

The popular Unbelievable? show, an apologetics and theology discussion program  hosted by Justin Brierly on Premier Christian Radio, launched The Big Conversation video series in 2018. The series showcases civil conversations between world-class Christian and secular thinkers, and has featured Jordan Peterson, Daniel Dennett and Peter Singer amongst others. I attended the live recording of John Lennox and Michael Ruse in 2018. Season 2 has now launched, and I’ve just been to hear Alister McGrath talk with Bret Weinstein (the video will be released later in the year).

Alister McGrath needs no introduction. A professor of theology at the University of Oxford, he has a background in biochemistry and is known for his Christian apologetics and work on the relationship between science and religion. Bret Weinstein is rather less well known in the UK. He’s an evolutionary biologist, and infamous for his controversial departure from Evergreen State College.

We began with some introductions. Alister described how studying the philosophy of science helped to disperse his logical posivitism – the view that only claims verifiable through empirical observation are meaningful – and this helped move him from atheism towards Christianity.  He opined that “New Atheism” pioneered by Richard Dawkins is waning – it helped open up discussion but soon we became aware of the paucity of most New Atheist answers. Bret agreed that New Atheism was overly simplistic, but it was necessary to make atheism more acceptable in society. One flaw was its labeling of people with faith as delusional. Bret believes each perspective has a validity not well recognised by the other. Each has a “bitter pill” to swallow – more on that later, as it became a recurring theme.

Bret is an evolutionary biologist, but believes Evolution 101 is inadequate to explain human complexity. Humans are at the far end of the evolutionary continuum, and we have culture. We can store and transmit information. Bret sees Dawkins’ idea of memes as being crucial. Because children have a long period of development, it allows us to program them with our ideas, and over time evolution selects the most favourable belief systems – those with adaptive value. According to Bret, this is certain. Religion is one of these belief systems, and Bret regards it as metaphorically true – a useful fiction that allows those who hold to these beliefs to out-compete those who do not.

Alister asked what Bret meant by religion, pointing out that we could easily be talking about ethics. He also noted that science has its own belief system. Bret agreed that the bitter pill for materialists is that some faith is required to do science. His job is to minimise faith and metaphorical truths. Alister agreed that science is at times very provisional and tentative. We can’t prove our most cherished beliefs.

The discussion moved to the postmodern conception of truth. Bret thinks believing whatever you like a la carte is nonsense. We need a coherent set of beliefs, like religions, which contain much wisdom. But there is a huge problem. Religious texts are not designed to be consistent – interpreters such as clergy are required to dispense a coherent narrative. In the past, this has worked successfully, but the church no longer has the authority to control religious text. The world is in crisis, and our religious texts can no longer help. Much is no longer relevant, parts are immoral, and they don’t tell us how to deal with new tools we come up with. The Bible doesn’t tell us whether we should enrich uranium!

Alister agreed that the Bible must be interpreted in the light of today. Every reading of the Bible is embedded in a cultural context, and we must recognise this and draw on past cultural readings – but at the same time ensure we are not locked into a reading of Scripture rooted in the past. Christianity does have the capacity to make sense of it all. Science helps us understand how, religion with why. Alister quoted C.S. Lewis’ well known saying: ‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else’.

Bret is of the opinion that religion can’t lead us through the uncharted waters we face today.  There is great urgency to stop the battle and obtain new tools for doing what we need to do. We need new wisdom, and violating the sacred is necessary. Unfortunately, religious texts have a plan interwoven to compete against other populations, and that isn’t sustainable. We have to step away from evolutionary competition, take evolution out of the driver’s seat, and start cooperating. How can we give the maximum number of humans a beautiful planet to live on? Alister admired such noble aspirations, but noted that evolution doesn’t allow for ethical imperatives – the empirical doesn’t lead to the normative.

There were some great questions asked after the discussion.  One of the best was when someone ask what the evolutionary benefit of following Jesus in the first century was – clearly, not much. Bret thought this was merely survivor bias – there are lots of belief systems out there, and some sneak through out of luck. I’m not sure how this answer fits with his idea that religion has adaptive value – perhaps he means over the much longer term? Alister added that religion gives the social benefits of solidarity.

Another question asked how important a belief in God was, rather than just believing in the right moral framework. According to Bret, deity is a hack. God is always watching to prevent wrongdoing that is ultimately against your best interests. An ethical system isn’t watching you. Bret added that there are such things as absolute wrongs, which is interesting.

Someone commented that revering Scripture privileges writers from 2000 years ago, rendering current thinkers less influential, even though current thinkers have a better grasp of today’s problems. Alister didn’t see this as an issue. Christian writers articulate how we should interpret Scripture for today’s issues, just like Calvin saw that the underlying problem behind the ban of usury in the Old Testament was exploitation, and allowed for charging of interest if done fairly. Bret thinks there is an issue. The path forward is not clear, and it’s scary: the rate of change is unprecedented. We must update our sacred texts – our current tools are too powerful and the population too high. He is pessimistic about humanity surviving the next 200 years.

Finally, Bret was asked what could change his mind about believing in God. He said that as a scientist, of course he could change his mind. One possibility would be a message encoded in our genome that is unambiguously from a deity.

Conclusion

It was a fascinating discussion, very ably hosted by Justin as usual, although perhaps it was almost too polite. Alister is a gentleman, and very generous and positive in his responses. I felt he could have pushed Bret further in some of his assertions, but chose not to. I enjoyed Bret’s perspective, and felt he had fascinating ideas to share. It was a little puzzling though, as Bret seemed to have some strong ethical beliefs, and yet did not acknowledge them to be metaphorical truths produced by evolution in the same way that he believes religion is. Perhaps he is well aware of this, and even though they are fictions, regards them as useful ones that will help save the planet. I did leave with the impression that Bret was promoting a quasi-religious view that has elements in common with Christianity – that humanity has a problem, we need saving, and other ways are inadequate to deal with the problem.

Can objective moral values exist without God?

Can objective moral values exist without God?

In a recent post it was argued that to have objective meaning in life, it is sufficient that there be intrinsically good activities we can pursue. Naturally, for theists the question arises, how can there be intrinsically good things without God? Doesn’t the very concept of goodness require grounding in God?

Most Christians would say yes, we can’t make sense of goodness, or indeed any objective moral values* without God. Even many atheists are happy to concede that moral realism (as it is known) seems to require a transcendent source. Moore’s Open Question Argument showed that moral properties could not be natural properties, leading atheists to deny moral properties exist. For example, Mackie states that “moral properties constitute so odd a cluster of qualities and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events, without an all-powerful god to create them”. As an atheist, Mackie concludes that there are no objective moral values .

In recent years, though, some philosophers have put forward non-natural, non-theistic versions of moral realism. For example, Erik J. Wielenberg believes that some ethical truths are necessary truths, that they are “fundamental features of the universe that ground other truths”. According to Wielenberg, some ethical truths don’t need to be grounded in God. They are simply brute facts – facts without explanation – that we have to accept. As non-natural facts, they are sui generis, in a class of their own.

Surprisingly, this view also finds some support from theists. For example, philosopher Richard Swinburne states that “fundamental moral principles must be (logically) necessary”. William Lane Craig concurs: “I agree wholeheartedly with Swinburne that some moral truths are necessary truths”.

Craig’s statement is initially puzzling, given that he is the champion of the moral argument that has as its basis the premise that if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. But how can this be the case if there are necessary moral truths? Surely necessary moral truths are not dependent on the existence of God?

Craig’s position is that necessary truths still require an explanation. He quotes Shelly Kagan’s The Limits of Morality: “unless we have a coherent explanation of our moral principles, we don’t have a satisfactory ground for believing them to be true”. So Craig is arguing that Wielenberg needs to explain why there are some necessary ethical truths. Without such an explanation, we have no reason to believe these truths.

In effect, Craig’s argument is that while there are necessary ethical truths, there are no necessary ethical truths that have no explanation, i.e. brute facts.

This is redolent of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR), which states that for every fact F, there must be an explanation why F is the case.

There are two issues for Craig, though, regarding the PSR. The first is that the PSR is usually restricted to contingent truths, not necessary truths. Contingent truths are those truths that could have been false. If the PSR does not apply to necessary truths, then we can’t insist that necessary ethical truths require an explanation. Secondly, the PSR is controversial and is not accepted by many philosophers. Consequently, it is not particularly helpful in strengthening Craig’s demand for explanation, as it requires its own detailed justification.

Craig does, however, seem to have a point. If the necessity of certain ethical truths can be better explained with theism, perhaps this view should be preferred over non-theistic alternatives such as Wielenberg’s. Craig uses the example of “2+2=4” being a necessary truth that is grounded in Peano’s axioms, the set of statements that define the properties of natural numbers.

What then is Craig’s explanation for necessary ethical truths? Unsurprisingly, he thinks they are grounded in the necessary existence of God. Because God necessarily exists, certain ethical truths also necessarily exist. There are complications with this relationship,  though, and there is considerable debate about its nature.

Additionally, God’s necessary existence is considered by some theists to be “the ultimate brute fact”, as Swinburne puts it. Swinburne thinks God’s existence is contingent and has no explanation. This allows Wielenberg to claim that grounding necessary ethical truths in God still terminates in a brute fact, and so it is no more explanatory than regarding ethical truths themselves as brute facts. However many philosophers of religion disagree with Swinburne’s views here, regarding God’s existence as logically necessary. The explanation for God’s existence is generally regarded as lying within his own divine nature, i.e. God’s existence is self-explanatory. Wielenberg certainly makes no suggestion that necessary ethical truths are self-explanatory.

An issue for Wielenberg’s view is the correspondence between moral facts and our moral beliefs. If the universe contains basic moral facts, and these moral facts are causally inert, how do they become correlated with our beliefs? This is what Terence Cuneo calls the “remarkable coincidence”, and which Sharon Street considers is enough to reject moral realism – what she calls the Darwinian dilemma. Evolution is aimed at survival and fitness only. If it has also shaped the cognitive faculties that produce our moral beliefs, why should we think these moral beliefs have any relation to moral facts? This is really an argument about moral knowledge. Moral facts may exist, but how could we ever know what they are?

Rather than postulating a direct connection, both David Enoch and Wielenberg argue that there is a third factor responsible for binding moral facts to moral beliefs. This third factor is adaptive, but has only an indirect correlation with moral facts – our fitness enhancing beliefs also happen to produce our moral beliefs.

In Enoch’s view, survival is good, and since evolution is directed to survival, we develop beliefs about what is good. This is not particularly convincing, as it seems that Enoch has replaced one coincidence with another – how the results of natural selection just happen to align with moral truth. Wielenberg’s more nuanced argument is that we developed certain cognitive faculties that produce basic motivational tendencies that are adaptive. He focuses on tendencies that protect personal boundaries, as they will increase survivability. These cognitive faculties also allow us to develop beliefs about our rights.

Such arguments still seem to be question-begging. We believe survival is good, and that we have certain rights, but these are moral beliefs called into question by Street’s argument. Enoch and Wielenberg have not completely defused the evolutionary debunking argument, as it is known.

Another concern is what is known as the Anscombe intuition about moral obligations. In her famous paper Modern Moral Philosophy,  Anscombe argues that the unique authoritative character of moral obligations requires a law-giver. It is difficult to see how moral facts (even if they are obligations) provide the robust obligation that a divine command theory supplies, and Wielenberg struggles to justify this.

Conclusion

Recent non-theistic accounts of moral facts such those of Wielenberg and Enoch do provide an account for objective moral values without God. On these views, moral facts exist without explanation. It is a puzzle how moral facts are correlated with our moral beliefs, given that evolution aims at survival and fitness, and why we are obligated to pay attention to these moral facts is unclear.

Theists explain moral facts by appealing to the necessary existence of God. On the theistic view, moral obligation is also explained, and there is an account of why moral facts are correlated with moral beliefs.

There seems little reason to accept Wielenberg or Enoch’s view that brute moral facts just happen to exist and happily match our moral beliefs. Street’s Darwinian dilemma is persuasive, and on an atheistic view, it seems more realistic to attribute our intuitions about moral facts to evolutionary advantage rather than defend moral realism together with our moral knowledge.

 

*Moral facts and moral properties are often used interchangeably. For example, it is a moral fact that inflicting unnecessary pain on conscious beings is wrong. This can be restated as inflicting unnecessary pain on conscious beings has the property of being morally wrong. What about objective moral values? Moral facts are facts about objective moral values.

 

Is life meaningless without God?

Is life meaningless without God?

Claims that life without God is absurd, without purpose or meaningless are some of the most commonly voiced criticisms of atheism by Christians.

Philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig puts it bluntly: “If God does not exist, then life is futile”. Pastor Rick Warren states in his immensely popular book The Purpose Driven Life that “without God, life has no purpose, and without purpose, life has no meaning. Without meaning, life has no significance or hope.” According to most Christians, life is bleak without God.

Of course, they do not mean to imply that this demonstrates alternatives such as Christianity are true. Craig acknowledges this explicitly. Instead, he suggests that if the evidence for Christianity and atheism is weighed and found to be equal, then it would be “positively irrational to prefer death, futility, and destruction to life, meaningfulness, and happiness”.

Some atheists agree. For example, philosopher Julian Baggini admits, “I think it’s time we atheists ‘fessed up and admitted that life without God can sometimes be pretty grim”.

Curiously, though, many atheists do seem to lead happy and meaningful lives. At least, they seem to think so. Are they somehow deluded, or perhaps just not telling us the truth? It could be, of course, that Craig, Warren and other Christians who make these sorts of claims are themselves deluded or lying. However these seem to be very uncharitable explanations, so we need to dig deeper to explore this apparent contradiction.

It is important to do so, especially for Christians. We are prone to making negative claims about atheism such as its lack of meaning, and so Christian charity requires making an effort to understand why atheists might disagree.

So why do we have such opposing views about such an important topic? As is often the case in philosophy, the answer comes down to equivocation on terms. Words such as “meaning” and “purpose” are used by both groups, but are being understood in very different ways.

What do atheists understand a meaningful life to be? A good place to start is Erik J. Wielenberg’s Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, where he explains different understandings of meaning.

Supernatural meaning is where purpose is provided by a supernatural being. For example, Christians may believe God has given them a reason for living. They are on a mission from God. Obviously, this understanding of meaning will never be shared with atheists.

Having external meaning is to make a difference in the world, making it a better place than it would have been had you never existed. And finally internal meaning is to live a life that leaves the individual better off for having lived it. It includes worthwhile activity that is good for the person living it.

To claim that atheism results in a meaningless life must therefore entail that even internal meaning is unachievable without God. But is this true?

Wielenberg discusses various arguments for this position. The first is the final outcome argument. Because eventually the universe is doomed to extinction, no events leading up to this outcome have value, including our lives. The pointless existence argument says that without a God to assign purpose, there can be no meaning. The nobody of significance cares argument claims that our lives can only have meaning if there is a God who cares about our lives.

There are various responses to these arguments such as those detailed in Thomas Nagel’s essay The Absurd. Nagel points out that we can easily ask the question, why is our ultimate end of glorifying and enjoying God meaningful? Craig responds that “with God we have reached an end that is truly worthy and capable of being an intrinsically good and meaningful stopping point”.

This leads to Wielenberg’s approach, who bases his counter-argument on Aristotle’s insight that some activities are intrinsically good. If intrinsically good activities exist, then engaging in them can give our lives internal meaning, no matter what the final outcome or who cares about it.

So to claim that life is meaningless without God requires that intrinsic goodness cannot exist without God.  Is this the case?

Wielenberg says no. His view is that some ethical truths are necessary truths. For example, suffering is intrinsically evil, and there is no possible world where this is not the case. Some ethical truths lie at the “very bedrock of reality, created by no one, under no one’s control, passing judgement on the actions and character of God and man alike”. They are brute facts, and to ask where they come from is misguided in the way it is misguided to ask where God comes from.  According to Wielenberg , “they come from nowhere, and nothing external to themselves grounds their existence; rather, they are fundamental features of the universe that ground other truths”.

Thus the argument about meaning reduces down to which of basic ethical truths or the existence of God are accepted as brute facts. Wielenberg has cleverly attempted to level the playing field with what he calls non-natural non-theistic moral realism.

Bearing this in mind, Christians should be cautious about making sweeping claims about atheism’s lack of meaning. Not only are there various interpretations of meaning, Wielenberg provides a plausible argument for the possibility of internal meaning without God. To counter it requires demonstrating his version of moral realism is untenable.