What Atheism Offers: Justifying a Life’s Purpose

There exists a need among theists to justify life’s purpose. Far from being content with self made goals, with personal achievements set by the individual for his own existential benefit, they desire an authority handing down purpose, telling them this is how they ought to live or this is the proper role they are to play. For the atheist, the mere facts that he is here, existing, and that his existence is finite are purpose enough indeed. With one life, the drive becomes to make the most of it we are capable. Thus, the non-believer can answer history’s most asked question by saying, “The purpose of life is to live the best life each and every one of us can.”

Why should god be included in this consideration? Why can’t the question end there, with each human defining for himself what the best life looks like and taking whatever steps he is willing to get there? For the theist, however, this solution is not freedom but nihilism. A self generated purpose is no purpose at all. It is emptiness and, with it, despair. If nobody made me, why am I here? If nobody wants me to follow a given path, why should I follow any at all?

This is the same argument from consequences so often hurled at evolution: if we’re all just the product of random chance, what’s the point? If the universe is without a creator, then, for theist, we are all horribly, cripplingly alone. Yet, as an atheist, I am not alone. I have a wife I love and close friends and family I can share my successes and failures with. I’m on a planet with billions like me: humans living out their own tiny blinks of time in the same universe both awesome and mysterious. Making right by that world and the people in it is my purpose, one I can feel the profound weight of and the grand and breezy freedom it allows me to define exactly what “right” means for me. While I may be the result of the very non-random process of natural selection acting upon an arbitrary base of matter and mutation, the joy I feel when I’m with people I love and the sense of accomplishment I get when I fulfill my goals are far from random.

What role can god even play in any of this? Let us say there exists a supreme being who planted in my head the notion that I ought to live the best life I know how. Does he tell me what that means? If he does, it’s in contradictory forms, for what is best within a Catholic world view is very different from best for a buddhist or best for a Wahhabi muslim. Without definite selection criteria between the faiths, criteria that can themselves be verified without appeal to one of those faiths, how am I ever to know what is the best life? Because the specifics of the world’s religions are, therefore, of little use, I’m left only with what feels right to me. I can seek the advice of others–and I would be prudent to do so–but even they are in same boat as myself, advocating rightness to them as they understand it. Thus the existence of god, so far as purpose goes, is of pitifully little value, with the experience of man carries incredible weight.

It’s Okay To Kill: A Libertarian Argument for the Death Penalty

For those of us who believe in limited government and the fallibility of human certainty, the death penalty can pose quite a problem. Is it ever okay to kill someone because of his own criminal actions? I confess to being torn about the morally proper answer to this question. Even if I am sure a mistake of innocence has not been made, do I or anyone else have the moral authority to take a life?

Last week’s episode of Penn and Teller’s excellent libertarian show, Bullshit, was about the death penalty, to which they are deeply opposed for two reasons. The first, that it is possible that innocent people can be wrongly killed, is a strong objection and one I find convincing enough to support doing away with the death penalty except in cases where guilt is beyond doubt.

It’s their second reason, though, that I believe is difficult to morally support. Interestingly enough, the objection is itself grounded in the morality of the death penalty. Penn and Teller claim, with great conviction, that it is never okay to kill someone unless that person presents an immediate threat. Call it a clear and present danger. If that isn’t the case, you, I, and the government are prohibited from ending a life. This strikes me as unrealistic and, more broadly, morally wrong.

In order to understand the problem with the position Penn and Teller have on the morality of the death penalty, several notions need to be unpacked. Let’s start with the interesting claim the hosts make that it is only okay for government to kill people in times of war. We need to keep in mind that when we talk about the “government” killing people, what we really mean in a non-metonymic sense is individual people killing other people when the former have been told to do so by still others in a position of power within the structure we refer to as government. So if you believe that killing enemy combatants during wartime is morally permissible, then you believe that it is okay under some circumstances to kill at the request of government. The question now becomes, what are those circumstances? I’ll address an answer to this question below, but other clarifying duties need to be tackled first.

We now turn our attention to the issue of killing itself. Namely, is it okay, in any situation, to kill someone who does not constitute an immediate threat to you or someone else? This, in fact, is what the death penalty amounts to. To answer the question, yet another must be posed: Are human rights—including the right to life—inalienable? The Declaration of Independence says they are but even its signatories didn’t believe that in the absolute. After all, they listed liberty as a right but were more than willing to lock people up who broke the laws of the land. This disconnect can be rectified by differentiating between internal and external alienation of rights. In short, while it is not okay for you to act to strip me of my rights, I can engage in actions that remove those rights from myself.

What’s interesting about this claim is that, while it initially seems to preclude third parties from engaging in rights removal, in fact third parties are a necessary ingredient. Take the right to liberty, for example. I can act in such a way as to remove that right from myself. I could steal your car, for example. Because of the theft I’ve committed, I can no longer claim liberty as a right—I’ve removed it from myself. But unless someone else comes along and locks me up, that right hasn’t actually been removed. Even if I were to confine myself to my apartment under self imposed house arrest—perhaps out of shame for what I’ve done—I can leave that house at any time. Only if a third party enforces the confinement can it be said that I have truly given up the right to liberty.

Most of us don’t have a problem with third parties participating in rights removal as outlined above. You’re unlikely to hear people arguing that criminals convicted of grand theft ought not be put in prison but should, instead, retain their right to autonomy. So why do we have an issue with third parties removing the right to life? It’s irreversible, yes, but that goes to concerns about false guilt, not the actual immorality of the death penalty.

What I want to do now is construct a libertarian argument for the morality of punishment by death. I want to show that a libertarian who believes that government should have very few powers can still think it okay for that government to kill its citizens under a strict set of circumstances. I’ll do so by employing that classic libertarian liberty, freedom of contract.

Let’s say I’m the father of a twelve year old daughter, to use the same example Penn and Teller do. My daughter is hanging out with friends when she’s abducted by a man she doesn’t know. He ties her up, rapes, tortures, and then murders her. Has this man given up his right to life? I would say so. He doesn’t deserve to continue living because he has stripped another of the same right and has, therefore, removed that right from himself. Of course, if he is to do so, he must be aware of the wrongness of his actions. This is why we allow an insanity defense in criminal proceedings. But let’s say he knows rape and murder are morally impermissible yet he just doesn’t care. As the father of a slain girl, am I justified in killing this man myself? Assume for purposes of argument that there is no doubt of his guilt. He’s admitted the crime and is proud of it. Many people—Penn and Teller likely included—would answer yes. It’s okay for the father to kill the rapist. To broaden this example, would it be okay for a family member of a victim of the 9/11 attacks to kill Osama Bin Laden? Yes. Bin Laden, through his own horrific and heinous actions, has given up his right to life.

From this line of argument, we’ve established that it is okay for you to take the life of someone who has seriously wronged you—or someone close to you—in a beyond the pale fashion. Now there’s a new question: can you hired a hit man to carry out the deed? What I mean is, is it morally permissible for you to offload the actual duty of execution onto a third party? Let’s go back to the example of the father of the raped and murdered daughter. What if the father had been in a terrible car accident and was paralyzed from the neck down. He is incapable of killing his daughter’s murderer. In this situation, could he as his brother to carry out the deed?

To answer no seems very odd indeed. If the murderer has given up his right to life, what does it matter who actually takes the actions necessary to enforce that right removal? And if it is okay for the grieving father to have his brother act as executioner, can he ask his best friend? What if neither is willing to do it? Would the father then be justified in seeking out an unrelated third party and forming a contractual agreement to kill the murderer? If you accept that the father can kill the guilty party and that he can rightfully ask his brother to do so, you’d have to also accept the contractual killing. To do otherwise would be draw an unjustifiable and arbitrary line.

All that being said, what is the difference between a third party hit man agreeing to kill the murderer and the government doing the same? After all, as I showed above, the government is really nothing more than a large group of third parties. If you can make a contract with any one of them, why can’t you make a contract with a representative group of them?

In this sense, the government is not actually going out and killing the guilty. Instead, it is acting as a killing agent in the place of the families of victims. If those families are justified in seeking death, it is morally permissible for the government to carry out the act.

Intelligent Design’s Logical Fallacies

The many articles on Newsvine regarding creationism and intelligent design have sparked a good deal of comments from proponents of those views, several expressing the same tired arguments for why creationism ought to be afforded time in science classrooms across the country. Primarily, they argue that, because the evidence for evolution isn’t convincing (to them, that is — nearly all scientists find it overwhelming), evolution must be wrong and, because it’s wrong, intelligent design must be right. Clearly, these people haven’t spent much time in an introductory logic course, because they’re snagging themselves on fallacies left and right.

First we have the False Dilemma:

A limited number of options (usually two) is given, while in reality there are more options. A false dilemma is an illegitimate use of the “or” operator.

Either evolution is right or God created life. Those are the options given by the creationist. But, of course, there a good deal more possibilities. Maybe there are physical laws we have yet to discover that cause atoms to arrange themselves into living beings. These laws could be a natural as gravity and would in no way require the presence of a creator. I’m sure anyone with even a little imagination can come up with more scenarios that don’t include God. This is a False Dilemma because it is perfectly reasonable for someone to reject both evolution and intelligent design. They are far from the only two possibilities.

The problem is, this is would mean an end to most creationist arguments. They don’t actually have any evidence for creationism — except the very weak one from complexity I examine below — and so are forced to construct an artificial binary and then proceed to attack one side of it.

And then there’s what I’ll term the Lottery Ticket Fallacy. It goes something like this: Let’s say there’s a huge pile of pieces of paper, each with a one-hundred digit number on it. You reach into the pile and pull one out at random. Looking at it, you exclaim, “Wow, providence must be at work because, out of all these possibilities, I happened to get this number.” It’s a silly reaction, right? There’s nothing special about your number except that it happens to be the one you got. You couldn’ve seen the same providence at work no matter which number you drew.

How is this similar to creationism? Take this comment, posted on one of my other websites:

Well, if our own bodies and the very planet we live on is not evidence enough of a supreme power that created us it should at least be enough to be accepted as a credible theory.

(A note: Here again we have the creationist mixing up the meanings of “theory.” In every day life, it means a guess: “I have a theory that the reason the Patriots lost last week is because…” In science, on the other hand, a theory is considerably more rigorous. Please, if you don’t fully understand the difference, read up on it. This is the single most common creationist argument against evolution and it’s also by far the dumbest.)

What’s going on here? Basically, he’s claiming that because the world exists and because he finds that fact miraculous, there must be an intelligence behind it. How else to explain getting this reality as opposed to some other one? Here’s how:

There is some evidence to support that our universe goes through cycles. It expands and collapses, over and over again. Each time, it is likely that conditions are slightly different. So it is certainly possible that there have been millions (or billions or trillions) of prior universes that didn’t have the capacity for something like us. And now that Universe 1,000,001 comes along and makes humans, it must be God at work. But what about the other beings that probably existed in those other universes? Did they think the same thing? Did they find their universes required a creator because their own existence was miraculous?

To take it a step further, there’s no reason to suppose that ours is the only universe. There could be a trillion-billion others out there that don’t have the conditions for life. The simple fact is that even if you take an enormous number of dice, so long as your roll them a sufficiently enormous number of times, eventually you’ll end up with whatever total or sequence you’re looking for. There just isn’t any evidence that there’s anything particularly special about this universe.

Creationists can’t address either of these questions because they can’t give positive arguments for the existence of God that don’t rest upon similar lines of reasoning. God has to be taken on faith and can, therefore, never be disproved, just as he can never be proved. Evolution, on the other hand, can be easily disproved. All it would take would be finding a skeleton of human or house cat below the KT Boundary.

I’m all for people arguing against evolution. That’s the nature of science. It’s clear that almost every theory (and that’s theory in the scientific sense, kids) we’ve held throughout human history has been shown to be inadequate. There’s no reason to believe our current ones won’t look just as silly or basic a couple hundred years from now. Evolution has more evidence going for it than almost any other theory creationists have little trouble with (such as Newtonian physics, the Theory of Relativity, etc.), but it is singled out because it conflicts with a religious world view. Creationists don’t make up their minds after carefully parsing the available sides, theories, and evidence. They believe what they believe and attack anything that might point to the Bible not being true.

Like flat earthers and anti-Copernicans, we need only wait a few hundred years for their views to be widely derided as nothing more than religious dogma. Until then, though, we can sit back and at least make them learn a little about basic logic.

Abandoning Superstition: Why I Don’t Believe In God

If you take a look at the history of ideas from the Enlightenment onward, an unmistakable trend is the steady abandonment of superstition. Weather patterns aren’t caused by raucous spirits. Diseases aren’t the work of angry spouses and their witch doctor friends. We break it to children in sympathetic voices that Santa Claus doesn’t wiggle down chimneys and the Tooth Fairy doesn’t break into bedrooms at night. Few of us care if a black cat meanders across the sidewalk in front of us or if the big exam falls on Friday the 13th. On the whole, then, we’re a reasonable bunch. So why do so many of us persist in believing in what the biologist, Richard Dawkins, has called “an imaginary friend who listens to your thoughts, listens to your prayers, comforts you, consoles you, gives you life after death, [and] can give you advice?”

It’s that sort of god I’m talking about. The personal one, the big guy who hangs out in heaven, watches everything you do, and adds spice to your life when you need it. This is the god the muscled man at the gym was talking about last week when I overheard him explaining to a woman about how his life had been so terrible lately. The thing was, he said, he knew he was going to get through it because “the good Lord never gives you more than you can handle.” So not only do Americans believe in this all powerful imaginary friend, but they’re also convinced he’s the one making their spouses leave, their backs give out, and their children use drugs. That god, the omniscient player of the Sims, is the concept I have so much trouble believing.

It’s important, before going too much further, to lay out rather exactly the point I’m trying to make. Namely, I want to claim that I don’t believe in God, and neither should you. This is quite different from asserting the non-existence of God. To say “there is no God” is a fool’s utterance. How would we know? If God can do everything people say he can, I bet he’d be pretty good at hiding, too. We can’t look everywhere for him and there’s a good chance we wouldn’t even know if we’d found him. In this sense, God is like a ghost. I don’t believe in ghosts but I can’t say with total certainty that they don’t exist.

The reason I don’t believe in God is because I’ve never found a convincing reason to do so. Every argument made to me has fallen prey to counter examples, alternate constructions, and problems of logic. What I’m going to do in this essay is run through one of the more frequent positive arguments for God I’ve heard and show why it shouldn’t convince anybody that he’s up there watching over us.

That most common of arguments goes like this: “I don’t need evidence for the existence of God. I have faith.” That’s a terrible reason for believing anything and I’m going to explain why, but let me first take a couple of steps back and introduce the topic of Phenomenal Conservatism. See, for philosophers, knowledge is a sticky concept. If you don’t believe me, grab an introduction to epistemology textbook and prepare the have your simplest assumptions thoroughly rocked. The issue Phenomenal Conservatism want to solve is the problem of justified belief. When are we justified in believing something? Justified means roughly that it is acceptable to believe it. So if I’m standing in front of a table with a cougar sitting in the middle of it and I turn to you and say, “I believe there’s a bullfrog on that table,” you could rightly question my justification for that belief. The trouble is most knowledge stems from our senses and those can be deceived. The most recognizable form of this argument is the brain in a vat thought experiment, which was the basis of the central conceit of the Matrix movies.

Phenomenal Conservatism jumps into this fray by providing the following basis for justification.

  1. If it seems to me that P
  2. and there are no defeaters for P
  3. then I am justified in believing P

What I want to argue is that the faith argument is a specific form of Phenomenal Conservatism and, therefore, collapses when facing the arguments traditionally used against its parent.

So what’s wrong with Phenomenal Conservatism? Well, think about it for a moment. If you follow through on the logic, you’ll see that it can be used to justify belief in pretty much anything. For sample, let’s say I believe in unicorns. Am I justified in do so? It does seem to me that unicorns exist. And there clearly aren’t any defeaters for this position. After all, nobody has conclusively disproved the wonderful tales of brilliant and beautiful horses frolicking in the woods, somehow managing not to get the the narwhal tusks sticking out of their heads caught on every low branch.

And there lies the problem. Phenomenal Conservatism, as a criteria for justification, is way too powerful. It’s the reverse scorched earth approach to epistemology. Don’t want to risk throwing out beliefs that are justified? Then just go out and justify everything. This sort of thinking isn’t only sloppy–it can be quite dangerous.

For example, consider the following situation proposed by the philosopher, Michael Tooley. Let’s say I believe there is a supreme being who has the power to put me up in a nice loft in downtown Paradise after I die. He’ll give me wine and women and all the sitcoms on TV won’t have laugh tracks. Sounds like a good deal, right? There’s a catch, of course. You see, to land this righteous, posthumous pad, I have to go out and kill people who don’t believe in my omnipotent patron. If I don’t slaughter at least twenty heathens by the time I kick the bucket, I’m going to some place far worse than Paradise.

It certainly could seem to someone that the above is the case. And there aren’t any defeaters. How could there be? This makes the above belief justified according to Phenomenal Conservatism. But we don’t want that. We’ve had enough people killed by lunatics who hold fast to similar beliefs to make it more than worth our time to show how they are in fact not justified in flying planes into buildings and chopping the heads off of Wall Street Journal reporters.

So Phenomenal Conservatism isn’t good enough. It’s too easy to justify even the most erroneous and idiotic beliefs. Now think about the argument from faith for a moment. Isn’t it more or less the same thing? I have faith in God which means it seems to me that God exists. Furthermore, nobody has disproved the existence of God. Therefore I’m justified in believing in God. End of debate. Let’s all send our money to the 700 Club.

Wanting to believe something isn’t a good enough reason for actually believing it. I want to believe I will win the Powerball lottery next week without even having to buy a ticket. Maybe such a belief is fine because it’s rather innocuous. The trouble starts when I act upon that belief. I throw away all my existing furniture because, you know, I’ll have way better stuff next week. Who needs a Sears bought sofa when you’ll be able to afford the entire Ethan Allen store in seven days?

Or maybe I believe that good Christians can cure their cancer through prayer. I tell all the men in my congregation who are being slowly killed by tumors in their prostates to stop writing checks to doctors and, instead, write them to the 700 Club. And all you women with breast cancer? You ought to do the same. After all, Jesus healed those lepers. And, dammit, I’ve got faith he’ll do the same for you.

Belief in God is a big deal. It makes people radically change the way they live. It informs their sense of morality, for better or, just as often, for worse. And when faith in involved, there isn’t any way to question the justification for hatred of gays, the slaughter of non-Muslims, or terrible gospel rock.

I don’t believe in God because I don’t have a reason to. I understand how life can evolve without divine guidance. I don’t feel a need to hold fast to the idea that my consciousness will continue after I die. I have a firm grasp of the secular grounding of morals. I don’t need Dawkins’ imaginary friend.

In short, I don’t believe in the supernatural because it all strikes me as more than a little made up. Without hard evidence to the contrary, I don’t see how any reasonable person can think that this last weekend celebrated the birth of a guy who literally raised the dead, turned water to wine, magically healed the sick, and, if he’d had half a mind to, probably could’ve shriveled penises with the best of those crazy African witch doctors we’re always reading about in the international editions.

I mean, if you believe that, you’ll believe anything.