Sean McDowell and Michael Shermer talk about the Fine-Tuning of the Universe, Objective Morality, and the Evidence for God

Christian apologist Sean McDowell and skeptic Michael Shermer discuss whether theism or atheism better explains morality and the universe. McDowell is a great communicator and the videos are a good introduction to the issues involved in the debate. The conversation was hosted by Cross Examination, a show produced by The Salvation Army to stimulate thinking and discussion.

Objective morality and God: Part 1

Objective morality and God: Part 2:

The Fine-Tuning of the Universe:

Does atheism or theism better explain the universe?:

Evidence and God:

18 replies
  1. Neal Korfhage
    Neal Korfhage says:

    Michael Shermer’s argument for the objective nature of moral values being better explained due to physical necessity is a text book example of the naturalistic fallacy. If objective moral values and duties aren’t ontologically grounded in a being outside nature itself he has no where else left to go. Pointing out the differences among religions about which moral duties we should act on and believe is a red herring.

  2. peanutaxis
    peanutaxis says:

    Our moral values are perfectly explained by the evolution of groups/societies. McDowell says ~”it is objectively true that Michael Shermer is 5’7″ “. Well, it is also objectively true that moral values are a result of group selection.

  3. peanutaxis
    peanutaxis says:

    I think we should not torture for fun by logical extension of our sense of empathy. And I think that our sense of empathy was as inevitable as our ability to reason/do logic. We know that intelligence aligns with group behaviour/empathy in species, therefore it was never going to be the case that humans could have evolved as an intelligent species of psychopaths any more than we could have evolved to become an intelligent species that was LESS able to reason.

    If we accept that being more intelligent is more ‘correct’, more of an advancement in the world we find ourselves in, then so is being more empathetic. Torturing others is therefore a step backwards.

  4. Stuart McEwing
    Stuart McEwing says:

    Hi peanut, you say,

    “I think we should not torture for fun by logical extension of our sense of empathy”

    However, it does not logically follow from (1) We have a sense of empathy, a descriptive axiom, to (2) we should not torture people for fun, a prescriptive axiom. To think it does is commonly understood to be a deontic fallacy.

  5. peanutaxis
    peanutaxis says:

    Hi Stuart,

    The first thing brought up in the first video is a claim that gravity is a fixed feature about the world. What I have been pointing out – just as Shermer is doing – is that morality is a fixed feature also. Morality and empathy are inevitable, and it is not arbitrary. Because it could never be the case that an intelligent species of psychopaths could have evolved. Evolution _necessarily_ progresses to more intelligent species because more intelligent species survive better, and more intelligent species are necessarily more empathetic and moral.

    “I think we should not torture for fun by logical extension of our sense of empathy”
    What I mean, I suppose, is that I think we derive ‘oughts’ from a ‘what ifs’ very validly all the time. I would say the fundamental thought behind the empathic sense is “That could easily be me – I could easily be in that person’s shoes”. I think that this statement is actually true. Sometimes I get into a situation, and sometimes someone else does – the difference is happenstance.

    If it really is true that I could be in their shoes and our places could be reversed then I should treat the other person how I would want to be treated.

  6. Stuart McEwing
    Stuart McEwing says:

    Hi Penut,

    On a naturalistic view, the fixed morality he speaks of is by nature merely subjective, and any objectivity it seems to have is illusory. Its ‘fixed’ in the sense that some sort of ethic would arise, and that ethic is probably going to be beneficial in the sense that it helps the species survive, but its not ‘fixed’ in the sense that you have to abide by it, or that the survival of the species is a good we should aspire to.

    Empathy doesn’t necessarily follow from intelligence. For instance, the Borg weren’t empathetic at all, yet highly intelligent. Its possible that a similar hive mind could have evolved to be the dominant species on the planet. If its negation is possibly true then its not necessary.

    And a prescriptive ‘ought’ does not arise from a descriptive ‘is’, such as feelings and questions like ‘What if…’. As U saud before, this is a fallacy. Prescriptions need prescribers. which you don’t have on naturalism.

  7. Ian
    Ian says:

    A couple of random thoughts:

    Thought the first:

    I really enjoy how much certainty people give to the notion of gravity. We have absolutely no idea what gravity is, how it works or what causes it – gravity is literally nothing more than a sophisticated description of how things seem to behave. It isn’t by any stretch objectively true, it just seems to predict things effectively. Ironically I think we may actually have a better grasp of why people behave the way they do than we do about gravity given psychology and social anthropology are well developed fields of research.

    Thought the second:

    I think there is a false dichotomy in discussions around morality – for example: “But is it objectively true that I should not torture Michael Shermer to death for my own amusement?“: I would answer that question by saying “no it is not objectively true”. Many would be inclined to think or respond along the lines of “then why don’t I?” and the answer is pretty obvious – permission to do something doesn’t mandate you doing it. If I said “you can draw a picture of a cow on a piece of paper if you want” doesn’t immediately force you to do so – you might not want to and most likely will not. Something does not have to be objectively wrong to not want to do it. I am pretty sure we are not holding ourself back from a desire to torture Shermer for our amusement purely on the basis of some objective morality.

  8. peanutaxis
    peanutaxis says:

    Stuart,

    That’s your view of the naturalist view. I personally think that moral intelligence was as inevitable and non-arbitrary as our logical intelligence. Because an intelligent species was always going to have to evolve into the environment of each other.

    ‘What if…’. As U saud before, this is a fallacy.”

    I’m not so sure. If (1) “I want to be treated well by others”, and (2)”I could be in your place”. If we take (2) really seriously. Really seriously (and I think we do) Doesn’t it follow that I should treat others well?

    Empathy doesn’t necessarily follow from intelligence.”
    I’m afraid it does. It is simply a brute fact. Intelligence and empathy co-evolve – that is what we observe, and there has been plenty of experimentation for otherwise scenarios to have evolved. Billions of years! and they haven’t.
    And there are good reasons why. A being that can observe and understand the world around it can necessarily observe the beings around it as being beings just like itself. We have evolved into the world around us but a huge part of the world around us is each other.

  9. Stuart McEwing
    Stuart McEwing says:

    You ask,

    I’m not so sure. If (1) “I want to be treated well by others”, and (2)”I could be in your place”. If we take (2) really seriously. Really seriously (and I think we do) Doesn’t it follow that I should treat others well?

    The answer is no. Logic is conservative. “Should” and “oughts” don’t arise from premises which merely describe things that are.

    You insist that empathy follows necessarily from intelligence.

    Aside from the fact I’ve shown that its not nessesary because its possibily false, the ethic you are trying to formulate is either fundamentally defective or seriously incomplete, for (1) and (2) does not give us reason for caring for anything other than human beings, like animals and the enviroment, and because its false that “I could be in your place” since if I were in your place I wouldn’t be myself.

  10. peanutaxis
    peanutaxis says:

    Stuart,

    “Aside from the fact I’ve shown that its not nessesary because its possibily false”

    Haha. Seriously? Who are you trying to kid? We observe in the Real world that empathy always correlates with intelligence, and increases with increasing intelligence, without exceptions. But, no, we are supposed to believe fiction instead! I guess at least you’re consistent.

    You say “since if I were in your place I wouldn’t be myself.” dismissively, but I doubt you have considered the seriousness of it. What is ‘yourself’?
    We ever know that we are the product of our environment. Under Naturalism then, it makes perfect sense to even help someone whom you wouldn’t naturally identify with. You now CAN identify with them because you realize that if you had had their genetics, upbringing, experiences, you would be as they are. The ethical circle expands.
    (2) makes perfect evidential; factual sense. No wonder empathy has evolved. It is an inevitable extension of intelligence applied to the environment of each other. And it is perfectly logical that this be extended to other beings and a necessary part of their wellbeing: their environment.

  11. Bnonn Tennant
    Bnonn Tennant says:

    Peanut, the kind of necessity you need in order to get your argument off the ground is broadly logical necessity. You don’t seem to know what that is, so rather than laugh and pretend that Stuart is the idiot, you should stop embarrassing yourself and look it up.

    In any case, empathy is not morality. The mere fact that I feel disposed to act in a certain way doesn’t tell us whether I *should* act in that way. Until you can give us a sensible explanation of why I *should* do X rather than Y, you haven’t even managed to spin your rotors in building a naturalistic theory of ethics — let alone get off the ground.

  12. peanutaxis
    peanutaxis says:

    The evidence for empathy arising with intelligence is overwhelming. Grasping at Star Trek is, frankly, embarrassing. Perhaps Harry Potter proves that it’s not necessary that we evolved without the ability to do magic.

  13. Bnonn Tennant
    Bnonn Tennant says:

    But there is nothing about the nature of intelligence which *logically necessitates* it produces empathy. And that is what your argument requires to go through. In fact, we know of obvious counterexamples in that sociopaths lack any empathy whatsoever, despite often being very intelligent.

    You’ve also simply ignored the fact that merely being disposed to act empathetically doesn’t give us any reason to think we *should* act empathetically. In other words, you’ve completely failed to show that empathy is normative. Yet ethics are normative by definition.

    I can understand why you’d want to ignore that, since it blows your entire position out the water. But if you’re gonna try to crow about how silly we’re being, you can’t very well complain when we feed them crows back to you.

  14. peanutaxis
    peanutaxis says:

    But what matters here is empirical evidence. Navel gazing as to what might be ‘logically possible’ leads to ridiculous view like the one here – appealing to fantasy while ignoring the massive amounts of real evidence. To be clear, I DO think that empathy and intelligence are co-dependent, and this is based on observing the real world.

    Psychopaths did occur to me. I think that if a species of intelligent psychopaths was possible there would be at least a few examples that break the trend in the plethora that is nature. Intelligent psychopaths are also only afforded their intelligence by the evolutionary history of their species, which necessarily(empirically) involves empathy. A species of intelligent psychopaths is as possible as a species of Down’s Syndrome.

    I do believe that objective morals have come from nature, but I am certainly not claiming that I have a watertight system proving it – I’m simply considering the problem and making some claims.
    For the moment I am quite happy that my (1) and (2) above are a good explanation of what goes on with empathy (which I do think is the basis of morality given what I know about the evolution of social groups) and I think give me good objective reason for trusting the empathetic sense.

  15. Bnonn Tennant
    Bnonn Tennant says:

    Navel gazing as to what might be ‘logically possible’ leads to ridiculous view like the one here – appealing to fantasy while ignoring the massive amounts of real evidence.

    Since science relies on logic in the first place, and this so-called “appeal to fantasy” is a basic reflection of modal logic, your comment is unintentionally comical.

    I think that if a species of intelligent psychopaths was possible there would be at least a few examples that break the trend in the plethora that is nature.

    Of course, this is just an argument from ignorance, and is thus completely unscientific. How do you know there aren’t such species in the universe? Or perhaps you’re going to extend your hilarious, unscientific ideas about what is “necessary” for intelligence to our planet in general? Ie, since we have no evidence for species evolving on any other planets, therefore earth is necessary for evlution to occur!

    Intelligent psychopaths are also only afforded their intelligence by the evolutionary history of their species, which necessarily(empirically) involves empathy.

    Please provide empirical evidence in the form of real peer-reviewed scientific research proving that empathy is *necessary* to the evolution of a sentient species.

    I think give me good objective reason for trusting the empathetic sense.

    So you’re simply choosing to avoid the awkward fact that your entire theory is based on the naturalistic fallacy. But we’re the ones with “ridiculous views” and “appeals to fantasy”. Right.

  16. Stuart McEwing
    Stuart McEwing says:

    On Naturalism there is no confidence to think that we are not all psycopaths, thinking we are intelligent and that having empathy for one another is a good thing.

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