Whence Cometh Value?

Samuel Skinner has been trying to articulate and defend a non-theistic version of ethics in the comment thread of ‘The Inherent Value of Human Life’. Since I don’t think that debate is proving fruitful, I’m going to undercut it with a new argument which follows on from that original article.

Samuel has conceded that the universe, in toto, is amoral: that is, that is has no moral properties at all. In his own words:

I am admitting the universe is amoral […] The universe is entirely amoral. After all, none of its component parts are moral and they do not have any emergent properties that make the universe any different. To claim it is anything but amoral is similar to claiming that for any other inaminate object.

Value conference

It seems to me that this theory of ethics relies on the fairly generic idea of value conference. This is the notion that things only obtain value when we confer it on them. Value can take many forms—we could be talking about moral value (rightness), or teleological value (purpose), or epistemic value (meaning), or whatever. But the general idea is the same. The universe itself does not have value. Its constituent parts do not have value. They’re all just various amalgamations of matter and energy—and value isn’t a property of matter or energy. Therefore, if anything in the universe is to have value, that value must be conferred, rather than existing inherently in it.

Obviously, under a non-theistic view, value conference is done by sentient beings. Particularly of interest to us is the value conference performed by human beings. Under a non-theistic view, value conference does not involve (or need not involve) a deity of any kind—human value conference is sufficient. Put another way, value conference can be subjective, such that values are conferred by individuals; there is no need for an objective value-conferrer like God.

Now, if it can be shown that subjective value conference fails as a thesis, then the entire basis for non-theistic ethics (and epistemology and teleology) falls apart. If subjective value conference is intrinsically incoherent or irrational or impossible in some way, then it is clear that there are no grounds for whatever values non-theists believe exist—including moral values.

The form of the argument

What I’m going to show is that non-theists have no grounds for values. The kinds of grounds I have in mind are ontological, and not epistemological. In other words, I’m talking about whether or not, and how, values actually exist in the way that non-theists assert. I’m not talking about whether or not, and how, we can know about them. If you want to comment in this thread, make sure that you mark this distinction.

What I’m going to show is that subjective value conference is basically self-refuting. In this post, I will be focusing mostly on moral values, since that’s what’s at issue in the current debate with Samuel. I am somewhat indebted to Bill Vallicella, whose argument from meaning I am emulating.

The argument outlined

Under the non-theist’s view, some action has some moral value only if that value is conferred on it by some person. Now, the action, by the non-theist’s own admission, is intrinsically valueless. In terms of analysis as a physical system in the universe, it has no value, because value is not a property of physical systems. So the action only gains value upon the act of conference.

The problem for the non-theist is that, under his own view, the act of value conference itself is as intrinsically valueless as the action which it’s supposed to confer value upon. In that case, the question reasonably arises, how can a valueless act of conference nonetheless confer value?

The obvious answer which presents itself is that perhaps the act of conference has value conferred upon it in turn by some other act of conference. But this only pushes the problem back a step, leading to an infinite regress. That second act of conference would also be intrinsically valueless, requiring another act of conference—and so on ad infinitum.

The alternative, that value-conference is itself a valueless process, does not constitute any kind of explanation at all. It’s self-evidently absurd, and may even lead to conclusions which the non-theist would himself deny. An explanation of the origin of values ought to at least explain what it is about the process of value conference that actually confers value. If the action of value conference is, in the final analysis, a physical system, then value is not an intrinsic part of that process. What, then, about the process confers value? Whence cometh value?

Furthermore, if the act of conferring value is a process which does not itself involve value, then what distinguishes a valueless process which confers value from a valueless process which does not? It seems very unclear why such a process is even needed for there to be value, if there is to be value. It’s as if value “just exists” in the universe—but that is the very conclusion which the non-theist denies.


The typical response to this sort of argument is that value is an emergent property, just like love or art or intelligence or whatever. Non-theists often, rather ironically, try to put pressure on this argument by saying that it would reduce to non-existence all these things which we consider so important. Therefore, it must be the case that these things really do exist, but as emergent properties—of intelligence, for example; which is itself an emergent property of physical systems. But that’s the very point of the argument: to show that, under a non-theistic view, these things really don’t exist. Trying to put pressure on the argument by emphasizing its conclusion is therefore a tad naive. All the non-theist is doing is pointing out the very conclusion being argued, but disagreeing because it’s plainly absurd. But of course it’s absurd—the argument is of the form reductio ad absurdum; a “bringing back to absurdity”—a form of argument constituting a disproof of some proposition (in this case non-theism) by showing that it leads to absurd or untenable conclusions.

Appealing to emergence, as if this refutes the argument, is just like appealing to magic. It is not merely an admission that the non-theistic view of reality has no explanation for the existence of value (in marked contradistinction to the theistic view), but also an admission that non-theists would rather appeal to magic than to the clear and rational theistic explanation. As Paul Manata puts it,

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil & bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting
Lizard’s leg & howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell broth boil and bubble.

Macbeth Act IV, Scene 1

The crone throws the wing of a bat and the eye of a newt into the cauldron, mixes it up, and voilà, you have the emergence of some mystical and immaterial “protection” or “love” or “safe trip” or “powerful trouble” spell or charm.

Likewise, take the physicalist. That crone, Mammy Nature, mixes a few billions neurons, synapses, and some firing c-fibers, into that cauldron called your noggin, and voilà, you have the emergence of some mystical and immaterial mind with beliefs and intentionality and thoughts.

When appeals to the “mustbebraindidit” argument are made, I’m going to point out that this has a name: The bat wing and eye of newt fallacy.


Although my argument can no doubt be fleshed out and refined some, it is sufficient for now to undercut the value theories of Samuel Skinner, and any non-theist, by showing that they are, under his own view, non-existent or meaningless or impossible. If his own belief system provides no mechanism by which values can actually exist—that is, no ontological grounds for values—then it is pointless for him to try to defend his particular value system. Any such defense contradicts itself. He is, like all non-theists, tacitly borrowing theistic presuppositions even in presenting his non-theistic notions of how ethics work.

As for the Christian, he affirms that value actually does exist as a basic property of reality, grounded in the immutable and ontologically necessary God of Christianity.

Humanist Amsterdam Declaration refuted point-by-point

Joel posted this at the end of his response to my “Argument from Evolution” article.

There it was slightly off topic and I thought that this warranted a full response in a separate space.

Here is what he said;

Now that we ARE here on this planet, let’s focus on making the best of it. I hope we’d all agree that using outdated textbooks (ie the old testament – full of stories about an omniscient, jealous, irritable, racist & sexist intelligent designer who is proud to promote ethnic cleansing and child sacrificing) are not good stories to teach morality. Let’s put our faith in some good, relevant, modern discussion. Let’s agree on some guiding principles that seek to expand and fulfill lives and explain our universe without the need for outdated myths and “morality for all time” predictions. I like the 7 principles of Humanism, myself:

First, nobody (sensible) teaches morality from the ritual law of the Old Testament. You cannot impugn the moral law by citing examples of the ritual law about what is ceremonially clean or unclean, and that has no moral dimension to it. Second, nobody teaches morality from the false characterisation of God you give. God is an omni-benevolent, morally perfect being according to scripture and you’d do well to discard the false picture of the Christian view of God you have.

Here is my response, point-by-point, to the Humanist ethic communicated in the Amsterdam Declaration 2002. There is much here that the Christian can find in common with the humanist, but I think the question is which ethic (Christian or Humanist) provides a better account for our shared understanding of moral duties, values and accountabilities? Also, insofar as Humanism implies naturalism, humanism is deeply incoherent as I shall show.

The Amsterdam Declaration 2002

Humanism is the outcome of a long tradition of free thought that has inspired many of the world’s great thinkers and creative artists and gave rise to science itself. [italics mine]

The ‘long tradition’ that stretches all the way back to 1952, the first World Humanist Congress. Facts are however, the ‘many great thinkers and artists’ that humanism can legitimately claim drown in the influence made by Christianity. In thought and art it is undeniably how Christianity far out-weighs any paltry offering humanism makes. If humanism can sustain the practice of science is a discussion for another time, but the thought that Humanism gave rise to science itself is laughable. Only Christianity provides an epistemological foundation for scientists seeking to make sense of the universe, and almost every major field of science was founded by a Christian, working specifically from a Christian worldview.

Just consider these few scientists who were Christians; Isaac Newton, the father of modern physics; William Turner, the father of English botany; Johannes Kepler, the planetary laws of motion; Galileo Galilei, the father of modern astronomy; Rene Descartes, philosopher and mathematician; Blaise Pascal, physicist and mathematician who defended the scientific method; Robert Boyle, the first modern chemist; Louis Pasteur, inventor of the pasteurization method; Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics; Lord Kelvin, important in Thermodynamics; Max Planck, the founder of Quantum mechanics, and the list goes on.

The fundamentals of modern Humanism are as follows:

1. Humanism is ethical. It affirms the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others. Humanists have a duty of care to all of humanity including future generations. Humanists believe that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others, needing no external sanction.

Humanism provides no metaethical foundation for it’s ethical system. Why is a metaethical foundation necessary? One is apt to ask why the human has worth, dignity and autonomy. To finally come to rest the foundations of a morality on the worth of a human is ad hoc. Especially after the humanist’s naturalistic view of evolution makes men into mere animals. Evolution is the great leveller. What’s so special about humans on naturalism? We’re just fortunate sacks of molecules in motion that have survived against the odds by tooth and claw.

On Christian theism humans are created by God in His image. This gives us inalienable rights, guarantees the right of personal freedom of choice, as well as deep significance and meaning to life. Moreover, God expresses our worth in His eyes when he showed his love by giving His only son as a sacrifice to pay our sin-debt and conquer death on our behalf. He spared not his only son for us.

You see how Christianity gives a substantiated reason for its assertions of worth and dignity, but how humanism cannot?

2. Humanism is rational. It seeks to use science creatively, not destructively. Humanists believe that the solutions to the world’s problems lie in human thought and action rather than divine intervention. Humanism advocates the application of the methods of science and free inquiry to the problems of human welfare. But Humanists also believe that the application of science and technology must be tempered by human values. Science gives us the means but human values must propose the ends.

This self-affirmation is astonishingly presumptuous. There is no argument here: only assertions and declarations of belief, more akin to blind faith than science and reason.

Still the Christian can agree that human thought and action are for solving the worlds problems and that the application of science and free inquiry should promote human welfare. We can agree to use science creatively and not destructively, but we’re not likely to condemn the scientist who researches dynamite to pull down an old building safely, or to minimise collateral damage during justified warfare.

On the Christian view God gave humans a mind to think and engage with the world as it is. On naturalism the mind is a physiological response to stimuli, socio-cultuarl pressures and evolutionary development. It is therefore tuned for survival and not for the apprehension of truth or rationality. It is hard to see why humanism is rational given naturalism.

There are few questions that must be asked, like who determines the ‘human values’ that temper the application of science and technology? Is it Hitler, Hefner, the Humanist or the Holy Spirit? Is it science itself, and if so doesn’t it work out that science proposes the means and the ends? If so, was Hitler rational at the time to propose and carry out his ‘Final Solution?’ After all, that was in accord by the evolutionary science being propounded in his day; was supposedly for the betterment of human welfare; and was then the human value system in vogue. At Nuremberg it was quickly realised to condemn these Nazi war criminals there needed to be a standard that stood above human and societal values, and the only values they could find to do that were rooted in God.

The need for such a transcendent absolute, or law above the law, can be illustrated by what happened at the Nuremberg Trials of World War II criminals.  Those accused appealed to the fact that they were only obeying the laws of their own culture, and that they were not legally responsible to any other.  Faced with this argument, Robert H. Jackson, Chief Counsel for the United States, appealed to permanent values and moral standards that transcended life-styles, particular societies, and individual nations. While he was not necessarily appealing to biblical norms in this trial, the situation illustrates the need for a transcendent basis for moral values. For example, God’s commandment against murder was not just for the Jew.  It transcends culture, and it transcends generations.  Murder is as wrong today as it was in the Old Testament.

Christian ethics escape this problem of cultural relativity because it is based upon the nature of God.  Good is what God wills in accordance with His nature (see Mark 10:18).  God provides the moral patterns which apply to all human behavior.

Because this standard is based upon God’s holy nature, it is binding on all people.  There is no standard beyond Him that can define moral conduct. Christian ethics applies to everyone and is not merely a parochial discipline for Jews and Christians.  God’s moral revelation extends to all generations.  God is the ultimate standard for human behavior.1

Also, who is it that diagnoses the ‘world’s problems?’ Is it the humanist? The smartest? The most popular? the strongest? The bible says that the major problem with this world is sin, and there is little hope for man’s efforts to rectify that problem. Sin (defined often as failure to meet God’s perfect standard, or imperfection, or breaking God’s law) is symptomatic system-wide, and the evidence for that is clear. Only a divine solution and intervention can save us from that ultimate problem.

On Christianity the solutions to the worlds problems lie in human thought and action as well as divine intervention. God also determines to use mostly use people as his agents on earth. Woe to the humanist if God exists and he/she rejects divine intervention.

3. Humanism supports democracy and human rights. Humanism aims at the fullest possible development of every human being. It holds that democracy and human development are matters of right. The principles of democracy and human rights can be applied to many human relationships and are not restricted to methods of government.

Human rights are declared to be universal rights. That is they stand above all nation’s laws for all times and all places for all people. This statement is like eating white-froth if you consider the next fundamental’s (4) claim to be undogmatic and imposing no creed upon its adherents. Christianity however provides something substantive for the table. Universal human rights were developed by the founding fathers of America from their understanding of the scriptures. In Christopher Hitchen’s words Thomas Jefferson was a deist with atheistic tendencies. However, when it came to finding a ground for unalienable Rights, he pointed to the sky and said “We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.”2 The abolition of slavery was a practical out-working of this same understanding from scripture: that all men are created equal.) The Bible even gives justification for democracy also, but at the moment I’m not prepared to support that contention.) Both groups of people were smart enough to recognise that if human rights are given to a human by another human, they can be taken away again. If human rights are given by God, then no man can take them away. They become inalienable and truly universal.

Humanism lacks a model of what it means to be the fullest development of a human being. On Christianity it is clear the model is Jesus. On Humanism it can only be subjective and relative. What if the fullest possible development of the human being is Hitler? You might say that he did not support democracy, but then you’d be forgetting that Hitler was the legitimate democratically elected official of that nation. You might say that Hitler was wrong because the humanist ethic is based upon understanding and support for others, but then you’d be forgetting that Hitler deeply cared for Germany and to carry out his atrocious acts all that he needed to do was create a culture that dehumanised Jews, Blacks, Homosexuals, the handy-capped, etc.

How do you decry the wicked man who says he is only becoming ‘the fullest possible development of what it means to be human,’ if he has radically changed what it means to be human. Humanism lacks a definition of what it means to be human, but Christianity has a ready anthropological definition grounded in its own basic theology.

4. Humanism insists that personal liberty must be combined with social responsibility. Humanism ventures to build a world on the idea of the free person responsible to society, and recognises our dependence on and responsibility for the natural world. Humanism is undogmatic, imposing no creed upon its adherents. It is thus committed to education free from indoctrination.

If a person is responsible to society, then what happens when society tells you to do something that is objectively wrong, like slaughter Jews wholesale (Nazi Germany), or force husbands to watch as their pregnant wives are split open by sabres so their unborn children fall to the ground to be crushed underfoot (Saddam Hussein’s Iraq), or taking unwanted new-borns and dashing them on rocks (ancient Greeks). The list of examples is appalling in its length and brutality, but it is already clear that responsibility to society is an insufficient ethic to build a world on. There needs to be some transcendent standard above society and humanity. Christianity provides that by revealing a morally perfect transcendent God as the standard.

“Humanism is undogmatic, imposing no creed upon its adherants.” This is self-referentially incoherant. It is dogmatic in being undogmatic. It is thus really rich when it concludes that humanism is committed to education free from indoctrination. Even if it is possible to educate people free from indoctrination from operating within a worldview, this statement is as double-handed as it gets. Humanists are experts at indoctrination. You need only look at our current education system here in NZ. An example follows in the next section.

5. Humanism is a response to the widespread demand for an alternative to dogmatic religion. The world’s major religions claim to be based on revelations fixed for all time, and many seek to impose their world-views on all of humanity. Humanism recognises that reliable knowledge of the world and ourselves arises through a continuing process of observation, evaluation and revision.

Humanism of course excludes itself from the dogmatic religious crowd, and seeks to fulfil the widespread demand for an alternative to dogmatic religion. It will do this by supplying people with another dogmatic religion (if not religion then ethical framework) and imposing it on others.

For example, take the belief that ‘morality is an intrinsic part of human nature.’ This means that humans are essentially and basically good. This is taught all throughout the education system and is one tenant of humanist indoctrination. Is it true? I leave it for you, but I think the Bible gives a far more realistic account to the state of the human heart; see Jeremiah 17:9 and Romans 3:9-19.

Christianity recognises that reliable knowledge of the world and ourselves arises also through revelation from God. If reliable knowledge arises from observation, evaluation and revision then its not really reliable is it?

6. Humanism values artistic creativity and imagination and recognises the transforming power of art. Humanism affirms the importance of literature, music, and the visual and performing arts for personal development and fulfilment.

On the surface this affirmation is fine. A deeper look at it though and you quickly realise how shallow it really is. What is creativity and imagination supposed to transform us into? What is it about literature, music and the other arts that provide us ‘human development and fulfillment.’ Humanism fails to answer the deep existential needs of human beings; ‘Why am I here?’ and ‘Where am I going?’

The purpose underlying most (if not all) creative expressions is communication. Art is a vehicle for a message. When you start to value the form, and not the message that lies behind the form, then art becomes mere mindless entertainment; a distraction to personal development rather than an aid. Is fulfilment reduced on humanism to amusement? Take from art its purpose and society will transform into a mindless mass that is far too easily manipulated.

Christianity affirms the value of art and artistic expression by imbuing the artist with purpose, answering the deep existential questions of life; by affirming the artist is created in the image of God and is therefore a creative agent; by supplying the artist with a message, inspiration and talent; and by infusing the world waiting to be captured and mirrored by great works of art, with a sense of the sublime. Naturalism on the other-hand finds beauty an awkward notion. It is difficult to see why an apes brain would appreciate the aesthetic pleasure from a morning sunrise, the star-filled sky and or the frozen waterfall.

7. Humanism is a lifestance aiming at the maximum possible fulfilment through the cultivation of ethical and creative living and offers an ethical and rational means of addressing the challenges of our times. Humanism can be a way of life for everyone everywhere.

If human existence transcends the death of the body, then obviously humanism is not for everyone everywhere. Humanism become bankrupt if this life is not all there is or if there is a God. Besides this, based upon the refutation of points 1 through 6 it is not obvious humanism does supply an ethical and rational means of addressing the challenges of our times.


1. Author unknown, A Christian View of Ethics, (Received 15 October 2008,

2. In Congress, JULY 4, 1776, The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America