As I noted in an earlier installment in this series, Anderson presents six cases for the existence of a supernatural being we’re supposed to call “God”. I have already refuted the first of his cases (in two installments: here and here).
In the present entry I will examine his second case, “God and Values.” Unfortunately, this case suffers from some fatal defects, and nothing he presents in his second case overcomes the damning liabilities I uncovered in his first case.
Anderson begins his case as follows:
One of the things we do all the time, usually without thinking about it, is to make value judgments. We’ll think or say that something is good or bad. In extreme cases we’ll even use concepts like perfect or evil. Sometimes these judgments are clearly subjective in the sense that they depend on our own personal tastes or preferences. For example, I’m drinking a cup of coffee as I write this: I think coffee is a good thing – I can’t get enough of it – but I have friends who don’t like coffee at all. Likewise for other things, such as movies: I think Christopher Nolan’s Inception is a great movie while Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a tedious dud, but I know people who make very different value judgments. (As they say, there’s no accounting for taste.) (WSIBC, pp. 106-107)
Again, definitions would be helpful here. What is a value? What is a judgment? What is a value judgment? What does it mean to say that a judgment is objective or subjective? What is objectivity, what is subjectivism, and what distinguishes these two categories in the relevant context? Where would a Christian go to find these?
Sometimes thinkers casually equate “personal tastes” with “subjective,” as though these were one in the same, or at least the one entailing the other. But is it always the case that a “personal taste” is necessarily subjective? I can think of many examples which defy this ruling. That something smells pleasant or offensive to me is not something I have any control over. I’m certainly not speaking from a list of whim-based preferences when I note that secondhand cigarette smoke stinks to high heaven. I would prefer it doesn’t! Similarly with the smell of ammonia, bleach and certain other odors. I can’t simply choose to experience delight when a strong whiff of dog breath hits my nostrils. Such examples are more in line with the pleasure-pain response of certain stimuli we encounter in the world. There’s a causal process here, one which I certainly did not engineer, and one which I cannot alter to conform to my preferences. It’s not quite in the same category as “I prefer piano over organ” or “I like David Lynch’s films more than Quentin Tarantino’s.” I suspect Anderson more or less has this latter category in mind, but even then I cannot simply change my tastes on a whim. There is a huge context behind one’s tastes and preferences. To say that they’re all subjective whims may be a case of projection.
Perhaps the proper course to take in determining whether a particular preference or “personal taste” is subjective in nature, is first to inquire on the context informing the inclination in question. This requires introspection. If there is a cause involved, then identifying the nature of that causation would be in order. Of course, any predilection, preference, inclination, proclivity, etc., is not going to be completely causeless. “Chosen” does not automatically mean “subjective.” If I choose living over dying, does that make living “subjective”? Not in my book. Choices don’t happen in a vacuum.
If Anderson were so concerned to avoid subjectivism on the big questions in life, why does he not adopt an epistemology that guards explicitly against confusing the imaginary with the real? We already saw in his previous case (see here and here) that his entire defense relies on premises which are not supported by evidence, but are in fact informed by constructs of the imagination. But at no point does he advise any kind of caution for mistaking what might merely be imaginary for what is supposed to be real, especially in contexts where such caution would be most useful, such as in discussions about the origin of the universe, what lies “beyond” the universe, etc. After all, how does one reliably distinguish between what he thinks exists “outside the universe” from what he may merely be imagining? Indeed, what faculty other than the imagination can take us “outside the universe” in the first place? Certainly no telescope will do here. In my view, once discussions start going down that path, we’ve already stepped foot on the turf of the imagination. Failing to raise concern against the possibility of confusing what we imagine with what we are to accept as truth is like building a road on the steep side of a mountain prone to fog without any guardrails, center lines, lights or signage. What are the chances of going over the cliff while traveling such a road? I can only surmise that, for the believer, not only is confusing the imaginary with what is taken to be true not considered to be a danger, but that such blurring is in fact essential to faith-based paradigms. But this only means that labeling some things objective and others subjective is just hollow hand-waving, and that there’s an ulterior purpose in raising the concern in the first place.
But not all value judgments are subjective and person-relative in that way. Some are objective value judgments, in this sense: when we make those judgments, we’re saying that something is good or bad regardless of anyone’s personal tastes or preferences. For example, the discovery of antibiotics was a good thing while the Holocaust was a bad thing – indeed, a supremely evil thing. No right-thinking person really believes these value judgments are merely matters of personal taste or cultural preference. People may disagree about which things are objectively good or bad, but the fact is that everyone makes some objective value judgments, whether they recognize it or not. (p. 107)
What Anderson states in the above paragraph warrants special focus. Recall that, in my list of initial questions I put before myself as I was first embarking on my examination of Anderson’s book, I posed the following as the final of my questions:
At any point does Anderson make a statement (especially in regard to the nature of truth) which involves an implicit or concealed appeal to the primacy of existence (such as “believing doesn’t make it true” or “wishing doesn’t make it so” and the like – i.e., statements which take for granted the fact that objects of consciousness exist and are what they are independent of conscious activity)?
This point is critical to any discussion of objectivity and the concern to avoid the subjective in worldview content and method. For while the apologist will performatively assume the primacy of existence when asserting any statement as a truth (for he’s not saying it’s true because he wants to be true, is he?), he’s oblivious to the fact that the content of what he claims is true presupposes the exact opposite metaphysics – the notion that consciousness holds metaphysical primacy over existence.
Let’s see how this plays out with value judgments. Suppose someone says that the Holocaust was an abhorrent evil because he doesn’t like it, or because thinking about it makes him queasy. It may be true that he doesn’t like it and that thinking about it makes him queasy. But is that what makes the statement “the Holocaust was an abhorrent evil” objectively true? Anyone making that claim would clearly be open to the charge of subjectivism in this case because such a statement would seat the value judgment in question on one’s own dislikes and emotional reactions rather than on relevant facts. Is any improvement to be gained by saying “it’s wrong because I want it to be wrong” or “it’s wrong because I declare it to be wrong”? Obviously not. Is the subjectivism here avoided by saying “it’s wrong because it violates [fill-in-the-blank]’s commands”? Well, clearly not. For whether it's anyone’s likes or dislikes, emotions, declarations, wants or commands, the same essential is involved here, namely the primacy of consciousness, the very notion that is implicitly denied when one says “X is the case whether anyone recognizes it or not.”
I certainly agree that the Holocaust was supremely evil. It is one of many mass injustices perpetrated on human beings by big governments. But what worldview informed the policies of those big governments? In every case, without exception, it is some form of mysticism, whether outwardly religious or secular. A mystical worldview is one which grants metaphysical primacy to consciousness, whether to one’s own, to a “collective consciousness” here on earth, or to some imagined consciousness residing “outside the universe,” and always involves some form or authority worship. Sound familiar? Whether it’s Sunday morning in church or the bureaucratic elites of the Chinese Communist Party, mysticism is as much alive and well today as it was five thousand years ago.
But all this is lost on Anderson. He argues that objective value judgments as such imply a supernatural dimension:
Now what does this have to do with the existence of God? Here’s the argument. Any objective value judgment presupposes some objective standard or criterion of judgment: some objective standard of goodness by which things can be judged. What’s more, the standard has to be independent of us, otherwise it wouldn’t be truly objective. It can’t be reducible to human desires, feelings or preferences – as if the Holocaust was bad for no other reason than that most people didn’t like it or want it. (What if most people had wanted it?) (p. 107)
To say that “the standard has to be independent of us, otherwise it wouldn’t truly be objective,” then, is too vague for its own good. Or rather, it’s too vague for human good. There’s a scene in one of the Star Wars films where one of the villains casually remarks “good is a point of view.” There’s some truth to this. When I purchase the best cat food on the market and feed it to my cat regularly, from my cat’s point of view, that’s good. If I refused to feed my cat and locked it in an iron box all day, that would not be good from my cat’s point of view. (For further elaboration on this, please see my blog entry William Lane Craig Versus Objective Morality.) Essentially by stating that “the standard has to be independent of us,” one overlooks a critical question: Of value to whom? We cannot speak of values and the standard that makes them objective without considering this question. If one were to say that an ancient monolith buried deep under the Atlantic Ocean were the standard of good or the ultimate value, one would be correct in asking: What relevance does that have to my life?
And in one fell swoop, this question points us in the direction we need to go here. Life is conditional, which means that some conditions will support life while others will threaten life. This is as true for kitties and goldfish as it is for human beings. It’s not true for rocks and rainclouds. Life is something special in this regard, for all living organisms require values, and they require values in order to live. Values, then, are whatever an organism needs in order to continue living. And clearly man needs values, and his nature as a biological organism dictates what can qualify as a value, what is a non-value and what is a threat to his life. This need is not due to or reducible to anyone’s “desires, feelings or preferences”; it is a need which obtains independent of anyone’s wishes, feelings, preferences, likes or dislikes, beliefs, imagination, etc. Which means: man’s need for values is an objective need, and his nature as a biological organism is the objective standard of what determines what his values are. Satisfying this need is non-negotiable to his life, regardless of what lies under any ocean, and yes, regardless of what is imagined to reside “outside the universe.”
Anderson digs the grave for his apologetic even deeper when he writes:
Furthermore, that objective standard must represent pure goodness. It must be absolutely good, otherwise it couldn’t serve as the final standard of what is good or bad. If the standard weren’t absolutely good – if it were a mixture of good and bad – then there would have to be some higher standard by which we judge it to be less than absolutely good. The upshot is that our objective value judgments take for granted that there’s some absolute standard or measure of goodness by which everything else can be judged. (pp. 107-108)
This compromised moral nature is nowhere more vividly put on display than in the gospel story. For according to its own terms, God the Father turns his back on his own child as his child is being tortured and readied for execution, knowing full well what is happening and what is to come. Speaking as a parent myself, this is clearly evil as it is the purposeful allowance of one’s own values to be destroyed by vicious persons. What loving father would do this, especially if he had the means and opportunity to intercede and rescue his child from such a fate? The magical trope of resurrection does not justify child abandonment; I certainly wouldn’t want to be the child of anyone who thought it does!
So here’s the crucial question. Which worldview makes sense of our objective value judgments? Which worldview is most consistent with our assumption that some things are objectively good and other things are objectively bad? Which worldview affirms that absolute standard of goodness? (WSIBC, p. 108)
By contrast, Objectivism is a philosophy which is self-consciously based squarely and uncompromisingly on the primacy of existence, so its very starting point is objective in nature. One’s starting point is key: get that wrong, and everything else is mental wreckage. But a starting point is not the end of the story – it’s just the beginning. From there, there’s a never-ending discovery of the richness of facts, facts which we identify, integrate and sometimes even judge. So we need reason, not faith, in order to formulate objective value judgments. Objectivism’s uncompromising adherence to reason guarantees that of all worldviews, it is best suited to making sense of our value judgments.
At this point Anderson reaches for the readymade foil of “Naturalism,” which did not help at all in his previous case. Will it help here? Let’s see. He writes:
As many philosophers have recognized, the Naturalist worldview faces real difficulties in this area. If the universe came from nothing and has no objective meaning or purpose, what sense does it make to say that some things in the universe are objectively good or bad? (p. 108)
But we can safely say that where the universe “came from” – if it “came from” anything to begin with – is ultimately irrelevant to the nature of man’s values and therefore their standard. For whatever theory one wants to buy into, whether the universe popped into existence from some ancient cosmic explosion or it were wished into being, man still faces the fundamental alternative of life versus death, his life is still conditional, he still needs values, either way. If objectivity is essentially the recognition that the facts of the universe are what they are independent of conscious activity applied to everything one knows, thinks, believes, and infers, then regardless of what some might believe about the “origin” of the universe, the conditions for objectivity exist in the here and now. No new theory will ever be able to unseat the conditions for objectivity, for even theories must abide by the norms of objectivity if they themselves are to be objectively valid. One can respond to the question “Where did the universe come from?” with a flat “I have no idea” and still have all he needs to adhere to an objective worldview. Indeed, we would need objectivity in order to entertain such questions and embark on discovering rational answers.
On the other hand, if ‘universe’ is essentially the sum totality of all that exists, and we know that existence exists, then there’s really no problem here: existence is not created by an act of consciousness, which means: existence must be eternal – literally out of time. This is further bolstered by the recognition that time presupposes existence rather than the other way around. Time is the measurement of motion, which can only mean: things must exist and be capable of moving relative to one another (such as the earth in relation to the sun) in order for such measurement to be possible. So again, the objective position is to avoid the stolen concepts implicit in the question “Where did the universe come from?” to begin with. It seems one has only two options: either start with the fact that existence exists and move forward from something we know to be true, or start with non-existence and spend your energy on futile efforts trying to explain something that does not need explaining in the first place.
Regarding the concepts of meaning and purpose, I question whether it’s even valid to apply these concepts to the universe as such. Generally speaking, meaning is a property of concepts, not of things. One does not pick up a handful of sand and ask, “What does this mean?” The presence of sand may be evidence of something else, but this only means that the context extends beyond the thing in question. But when we get to the universe, i.e., the sum totality of all that exists, there is no such context which extends beyond the sum totality of all that exists to inform a comparison. So to object to a worldview because it does not ascribe meaning to the universe as such is just another exercise in stolen concepts.
Similarly with attempting to apply the concept ‘purpose’ to the universe. Purpose is a teleological concept and applies only to a certain category of existents, namely living organisms. Purpose is concurrent with living biology, and this is observable in everything from amoebas to human beings. Again, life is conditional, and all living organisms, whether flora or fauna, require values in order to live. What is the purpose of life? Life is an end in itself. Where does life come from? From existence. What should man do? He should live. See, no appeals to supernatural beings are needed here.
Anderson’s question of course can be refitted and turned back against Christianity: If the Christian god came from nothing and has no objective meaning or purpose, what sense does it make to say that its commands or creations are objectively good or bad? But the real issue here is far worse for the Christian: If the god he worships and believes in is really just a figment of his imagination, then what sense does it make to say that a belief system premised on such a notion can offer any philosophical insight on values and value judgments? Blank out.
Anderson then poses a couple questions:
If everything reduces to physical particles and forces, what basis could there be for objective value judgments? What sense does it make to say that one arrangement of physical particles is any better or worse than any other arrangement of particles? (Ibid.)
Anderson sums the problem for “the Naturalist” as follows:
Let me try to put my finger on the basic problem for the Naturalist. If we say that some aspects of the universe are objectively good (e.g., butterflies) and other aspects are objectively bad (e.g., diseases) there must be some standard of goodness independent of the universe by which we’re judging those different aspects of the universe. And that standard must be pure goodness. But according to the Naturalist, nothing exists except the universe. It’s precisely this problem which has led many Naturalists to deny that our objective value judgments have any meaningful connection with reality. (pp. 108-109)
If the concern here is to identify an objective standard, we have that in the primacy of existence: Existence exists independent of conscious activity, whether that conscious activity is performed by actual living organisms or believed to be performed by beings which we can only imagine. This orientation between subject and object necessarily inclines us towards relevant facts, such as: the fact that man is a biological organism; the fact that, like other biological organisms, man faces a fundamental alternative (life vs. death); the fact that life is in fact conditional; the fact that values are those things which man needs in order to continue living, etc. Any value judgment is going to be premised on the fact that a valuer is involved. If life is one's standard of value, as Objectivism holds, then everything else eventually finds its place in relation to man’s need for values.
I don’t think Anderson makes at all a good case for premise that the standard of goodness must be something “independent of the universe.” And I see numerous problems for any attempt he might make for this in future apologetic volleys. For one, there is clearly a standard right here in the universe – namely the primacy of existence; one would have to make use of this standard in order to deny it or refute it – that would be like trying to use a mathematical equation to prove that there is no such thing as a mathematical equation. Second, the notion of anything being “independent of the universe is conceptually incoherent – for the universe is the sum totality of everything that exists. There’s nothing “outside” the universe. Peikoff puts this succinctly when he points out that “Existence exists – and only existence exists” (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 109). Third, as we saw above, by making the standard of goodness independent of human nature (as something “independent of the universe” would have to be), Anderson renders that standard utterly irrelevant to man’s needs and would leave him without any moral guide for living his life. Finally, by pointing to something that allegedly exists “independent of the universe,” Anderson shuts the mind to facts and throws it wide open to whatever one might imagine as the standard of goodness. But failing to anchor imagination to facts quickly makes chaos of knowledge, turning it into knowledge falsely so-called. I can imagine Anderson’s god, but I know that I’m imagining it, and I know that what I imagine is not real.
Thus it’s entirely ironic when Anderson writes “the Christian worldview makes sense of the objective value judgments we make as a matter of routine, including our assumption that such judgments are actually grounded in reality rather than fiction” (WSIBC, p. 109). If the believer’s value judgments are formulated in deference to something that is accessible only to the imagination, grounded in reality they are not!
Again, I’m glad these aren’t my problems!
by Dawson Bethrick