How do atheists define good and evil?

Below is a post I wrote in response to the following question.

How do atheists define good and evil?

Atheists define good and evil differently, just like theists do. You’re probably familiar with Christians who have different beliefs about what good and evil are than you do. There are Christians who don’t think morality is based on God’s will, and even among Christians who do think morality is based on God’s will there isn’t complete agreement about what God’s will is, specifically. The situation with atheists is a lot like this – lots of different worldviews with no single set of principles between them.

Personally, I think Ayn Rand correctly defined good and evil in her essay “The Objectivist Ethics.” Ayn Rand thought that the purpose of morality was to have the best life for yourself and the people you love. This doesn’t mean exploiting other people, like Nietzsche thought it did, because the only way to become happy is to live a principled, productive life, neither sacrificing yourself to other people nor other people to yourself.

If you’re interested in looking into Ayn Rand’s own summary of her philosophy of Objectivism, you can read it at the link below:

http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/objectivism.html

Let me know if you have any questions.

Rationalism vs. Empiricism

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a great article explaining the basics of the rationalism – empiricism debate. It covers Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, and some contemporary thinkers. Kant is mentioned but not really discussed.

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rationalism-empiricism/

My position is closer to the empiricism side of things, if we go by the terminology of this article. I don’t think we gain any knowledge solely on the basis of deduction from a priori intuitions, although I think deduction plays an important role in knowledge, and I don’t think we have any innate knowledge or innate concepts.

Of course, there is a lot of work that needs to be done to establish this position, and I’m not going to attempt that here.

 

Variation

I posted the following on a forum I belong to, and I think the point is general enough to post here as well:

I doubt that any two people on this forum have exactly the same beliefs and values, or even exactly the same beliefs and values about all of the major issues we discuss here.

For example, Christians like to paint atheists as moral subjectivists, but this isn’t quite right. Atheists disagree about whether morality is objective. In addition, the atheists on this forum who think morality is objective all have different ideas about what objective morality looks like, and the atheists who think morality is subjective on this forum all have different ideas about what subjective morality looks like (e.g., HRG’s ideas on the subject vs. Corvidal’s).

Christians aren’t a uniform group, either. No two Christians on this forum have exactly the same views. There are Catholics and Protestants, liberal Christians and evangelicals, Christians in favor of homosexual marriage and Christians opposed to it, and Christians in favor of legalizing abortion and Christians opposed to it. And there are all kinds of different specific variations within each of these camps.

The metaphysical reason for this is that people have free will – they choose how they interpret the evidence available to them, and no two people have exactly the same evidence or make exactly the same decisions. To take an example we’re all familiar with, if you post a story about a Christian terrorist blowing up an abortion clinic, one person will interpret it as an isolated incident, another will interpret it as representative of the logical implications of Christianity.

My point is that you have to learn what each individual poster thinks by talking to them. Broad generalizations about what a group believes are necessary for some purposes, but don’t rely on them too much when you’re dealing with a specific member of that ideology.

Undermining the Case for Theism

I’m an atheist, so my position on God’s existence is based on the premise that the arguments for God’s existence fail.

I can’t go through every argument in an internet post, obviously, but I will list a few sample arguments and explain why I reject each of them.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument

1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

This argument is based on an equivocation between different arrangements of matter and matter itself. We have sufficient evidence that every arrangement of matter has to have a cause, but no evidence that matter itself requires a cause. Actually, the first premise implies that the universe is eternal, interpreted properly, since every arrangement of matter would need to have a cause in a prior arrangement of matter, all the way back forever.

In addition, this argument does not establish that the cause would have to be God. Craig attempts to give a conceptual analysis of the cause of the universe, but it is very weak, especially the principle of determination that he uses to justify the inference to a conscious cause.

The Fine Tuning Argument

This argument attempts to support the claim that God exists using the alleged fine tuning of the constants of the universe. These constants had to be within incredibly small, specific ranges to allow life to emerge. This fine tuning is very unlikely given naturalism, but it is at least not incredibly unlikely if God exists. Therefore, the fine tuning is evidence for God. (Robin Collins is an example of a theist who uses this argument.)

The problem with this argument is that none of the premises can be objectively supported. It’s controversial among physicists whether the fine tuning even exists. It isn’t clear in what sense the constants of the universe might have been different from what they are or how we could objectively determine the “probability” of their being at the values they are, either.

Finally, we have no basis for the crucial premises about what is likely given naturalism and theism. Who is to say that this sort of fine tuning is unlikely given naturalism – on what basis? Further, how could we objectively predict what God would be likely to create, given that our human preferences and values do not necessarily track the preferences and values that God would have? The fine tuning argument’s claims about God are based on nothing more than unjustified anthropomorphism.

The Argument from Miracles

The argument from miracles attempts to establish that God exists on the basis of miracles that allegedly occurred. One alleged miracle that is popular among apologists, and crucial for the Christian religion, is the alleged miracle of Christ’s resurrection. The textual evidence in the Bible, particularly the Gospels, is alleged to contain enough evidence to establish the claim that Jesus rose from the dead.

The problem with any argument from miracles is that there cannot be sufficient evidence for an event that violates the laws of nature. A law of nature is supported by countless observations over the course of human history, so we cannot allow one event, which is only supported by ancient texts of dubious reliability, to overturn it. Our experience uniformly shows that people who die stay dead, and we cannot allow the Gospels, which were written by fanatics, to overturn such a strong generalization.

Sometimes apologists say that the credibility of miracles depends on establishing the existence of God first, but this only shows that miracles cannot be evidence for God’s existence, since they presuppose it. If we have to believe in God to believe in miracles, then we cannot use miracles as evidence that God exists on pain of circular reasoning.

In conclusion, the case for God’s existence is very weak indeed.

Note: I copied and pasted this post from an internet forum post that I made elsewhere.

Free Will is Scientific

Determinists often attempt to associate determinism with science. The idea is that determinism is scientific and free will is not, because the laws of physics as we currently understand them are deterministic.

I think one fact this overlooks is that science requires the concept of intellectual responsibility. A scientist is expected to look at the evidence and draw only the conclusions that it warrants. Scientists who draw unjustified or irresponsible conclusions are criticized for doing so, and scientists who draw the correct conclusions from the evidence are praised and sometimes idolized.

A determinist might respond that it would be useful to praise and criticize scientists on the basis of whether they drew the correct conclusions from the evidence even if we didn’t have free will. The problem with this response is that it assumes that the speaker has free will and can choose whether or not to praise and blame the scientists. You can’t say that no one has free will and then tacitly assume that you have free will.

So, I think belief in free will should be seen as the scientific position, not determinism.

Majoring in Philosophy: Career Prospects

There is a widespread belief that majoring in philosophy is harmful to your career. I have been researching this claim, and the evidence I have supports the conclusion that it is partly true, but very misleading.

First of all, it is true that philosophy majors have a higher unemployment rate than most other majors. The numbers I have seen all put the unemployment rate for philosophy majors at about 9-10%, which is higher than most other majors. For example, it is about twice the unemployment rate for computer science. Philosophy majors also have a higher rate of working in retail than most other majors.

However, once hired, the salaries of philosophy majors rise faster than any other major (tied with mathematics). Philosophy majors’ salaries start at $39,900 and reach $81,200 at mid career, on average, which is higher than any other humanities degree. Philosophy majors who pick up some technical skills make $6,000 more than philosophy majors without those skills when they start, on average, and are eligible for hundreds of thousands of additional job openings.

Philosophy majors also do very well on standardized tests. Philosophy majors do better than any other major on the LSAT, and prospective philosophy graduate students, most of whom would have studied philosophy as undergraduates, do better than prospective graduate students in any other field on the analytical writing and verbal sections of the GRE.

I would say majoring in philosophy does provide you with useful skills, but it will probably be difficult to persuade employers that you have those skills due to the cultural bias against philosophy.

Persuasion

It is frequently said that people rarely change their minds about politics because they insulate themselves from information that contradicts their point of view. According to the Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, however, recent research shows that this is not true. People don’t insulate themselves from contrary points of view, they just subject arguments against their worldview to much harsher criticism than arguments favorable to their worldview.

This is why presidential campaigns result in very little overall persuasion. That doesn’t mean that there is no point in having the campaigns, though, because they serve a useful reinforcing effect for people who agree with the candidates. People need to know that there are other people who agree with them.

Source