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Thursday, August 24, 2017


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But how does the existence of God give one a reason to "care about the flourishing of anyone outside of oneself and one's tribe?"

The God in question is the God of the Judeo-Xian tradition. If one believes that this God revealed himself and his commandments (e.g., "Thou shalt not kill") to Moses and revealed himself more fully in Jesus Christ ("Love thy neighbor as thyself") then belief in this God gives one a powerful reason to, say, support famine relief efforts in Africa.

If we are all sons and daughters of the same Father, then equal rights are secured despite manifest empirical differences.

The real question is whether equal rights can be secured without appeal to a transcendent God.


I call foul!

As I've told you many times in recent years, I am NOT "a naturalist and atheist in the Dennett-Dawkins-Harris camp." I am not even an atheist at all: I am simply a doubter, and I am fully aware that the existence or nonexistence of God is, epistemically, an open question. Even my unbelief has wavered in recent years.

Moreover, I have to say that I am very disappointed by your characterization here of both my views and of the conversation we've been having over the past few days. You asked me:

"Can someone who emphasizes the biologically-based differences between groups and sees cultural differences percolating up out of those differences appeal to a "sense of shared humanity" sufficiently robust to support equality before the law?"

I replied (this being a philosopher's blog, I wanted to clarify the question, and my answer, as precisely as possible):

I can say with complete confidence that someone can, because I do. I'm sure that lots of other people in The West do, too.

I also wrote what you quoted above:

". . . one can accept the principle of equality before the law, based on a fundamental sense of shared humanity and liberty, merely as a stipulation, a premise one accepts because one thinks it leads to a just society, without belief in a transcendent foundation in God. It is simply a choice that a person, or a society, can make; we do that with all sorts of other premises and conventions."

So: all I'm saying here is that it's possible in principle to hold these views on personhood and justice without a firm belief in God: many people do so, and I'm one of them. Even a nihilist can do it, simply because under nihilism, there is no reason he must assert to any normative principle, but also no reason he can't.

Then you asked a more important question:

"It may be that the West is running on fumes, the last vapors of the Judeo-Xian worldview and that your sense of equal justice for all is but a vestige of that dying worldview. Can belief in that moral code survive when belief in a transcendent Ground thereof is lost?"

To this question, which has troubled me no end for many years now, I replied:

I agree that the answer is probably no. (I wouldn't have agreed twenty years ago, but I'm older and wiser now.) From a Darwinian perspective (and I've been saying this some time now), I think secularism is maladaptive.

I'm agreeing with you here, Bill! Would a Dennett or Harris or Dawkins say that secularism leads to extinction? I'm really surprised by this response of yours, I have to say. I have written again and again that the "universal acid" of radical doubt, having eaten through its container, and now dissolved all the sacred and traditional foundations that enable organic societies to survive. The consequences, which we see all around us, have been disastrous.

So, just to be clear: while I am not myself a theist (for now), and although I know from introspection that a person can be an unbeliever and still uphold the principles of personal rights and justice that make our system work, I have made it abundantly clear -- both here, and through many years of patient exposition at my blog -- that I believe that, at the scale of societies and cultures and civilizations, a robust faith in the transcendent is essential for the group's health and survival. I have written repeatedly and emphatically that I think the erosion, by an unbridled and unsophisticated skepsis, of these sacred foundations is a cancerous and probably fatal affliction of the modern West, one that puts us, if nothing else (and there is plenty else) at a competitive disadvantage with societies that retain these foundations
-- for example Islam.

In short, at the risk of belaboring the point: I agree with you that to imagine the death of God is something the West can just "get over" is foolishly Utopian. For some reason, you imagine me to be projecting my own, quite personal, belief-structure (non-theism, combined with an affirmation of personhood and moral consideration to all humans as humans) onto the unreflective masses, and simply hoping for the best. But I am doing nothing of the sort. On the contrary, it is my firm, and very carefully articulated, belief that the death of God is, in fact, a crucial factor in the approaching death of the West. Is that clear enough?

I greatly enjoy discussing these things with you, Bill, and as I have said before, I am deeply indebted to you for helping me to find my way out of what once was doctrinaire atheism. But please, if you are going to put words in my mouth, please use words that I might actually say. At the very least, don't ascribe views to me that are in fact the exact opposite of what I believe.

I invite readers to review the whole thread Bill refers to, and to decide for themselves whether I have been fairly summarized in this latest post.

"If one believes that this God revealed himself and his commandments (e.g., "Thou shalt not kill") to Moses and revealed himself more fully in Jesus Christ ("Love thy neighbor as thyself") then belief in this God gives one a powerful reason to, say, support famine relief efforts in Africa".

But what exactly is this powerful reason? That God knows better than we do how people should be treated or that there is a threat/promise of punishment/reward?

Jordan Peterson is quite awful in general tho Bill, check out his take on Post-modernism. I haven't seen many f**k up history the way he has to push his views. Doesn't help that he gets much of his ideas from Stephen Hicks when it comes to Post-Modernism, and a Quasi-Randian source for anything is a massive red flag.

Hi BV,

out of genuine curiosity, I would be interested to know why you were not that impressed by Peterson's performance on the Tucker show. Did you feel that his analysis of the issue was not particularly noteworthy?



He came across as an oddball uncomfortable before the camera. He reminded me of myself. I wouldn't be impressed by me if I saw myself on TV.

I was invited to contribute to an NPR radio broadcast a while back, but then they backed out when they dug into my archives. Perhaps they found my anti-NPR posts!


I just watched my second of his videos, this one: https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2017/06/05/jordan_peterson_why_you_have_to_fight_postmodernism.html

It seemed pretty good to me. I didn't discern anything specifically Randian about it. (I have criticized Rand in many posts, see Rand category.) But if you are pro-POMO you will disagree.


There are two ideas. One is that if there is an objective right/wrong, then it needs a non-empirical ground. God is one candidate non-empirical ground.

The other idea is that if the world is not to be absurd, then there must be an adjustment of virtue and happiness. In this life the wicked often prosper and the good suffer. God restores justice via an afterlife. See Kant.

Of course, this does not prove the existence of God. The world might just be absurd. But if you don't live your life as if it is absurd, then you might be assuming God as a practical postulate in Kant's sense.


If you're reading this and Dr. Vallicella would not mind me posting this here, what exactly is wrong with Jordan Peterson on po-mo? Stephen Hicks does seem to link together philosophers who shouldn't be, e.g., he thinks Kant somehow can be connected to po-mo or its eventual development. However, in general, as a non-expert who still has been studying po-mo, I don't see any major problems.

David Gordon, who's a philosopher I trust, while having reservations, said there's a lot good from Hicks: https://mises.org/library/explaining-postmodernism-skepticism-and-socialism-rousseau-foucault-stephen-r-c-hicks

Dr. Peterson talks about how po-mo ends up at relativism, how it disconnects language to the world entirely, and how things like critical theory have produced an awful identity politics.

His basic outline of it matches, e.g., "Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction" by Catherine Belsey. (That's one book of a dozen or so books I've looked through in my research.)

Also, Dr. Peterson is not at all an objectivist. For what it's worth, I believe he's a pragmatist (which I don't philosophically agree with).


Dr. Vallicella,

If the moral argument for God's existence is not certain in its proof, this seems to leave open if morality is still objectively existing. What if we believe things have natures, that those natures are objectively good, and that those natures are sufficient in themselves to guide us in morality without the existence of God?

Practically speaking, people do seem to need more than a philosopher telling them what is good and bad. Atheists like Theodore Dalrymple appear to believe that society needs religion morally in a practical sense. In any case, what about theoretically speaking? Certain philosophies may supply us with objective moral truths without the need to ground those apparent truths into God.

Doesn't somebody like Edward Feser say that morality can be treated akin to physics? We can know a lot about physics without appealing to God. Now he does argue that even physics needs to appeal to God's existence at a metaphysical level, though physics can be studied in a self-contained way nevertheless. Maybe this is a distinction without a large difference?

-- George


Perhaps I should apologize for being insufficiently attentive in noting the changes in your views.

I am glad to hear you are not an atheist. Are you now agnostic about naturalism too? I did note that you finally came to see the light on scientism.

Ability and justification are two different things. If you do x then you can do x; but if you can do x it does not follow that you are justified in doing x. Of course you know that.

Our question is whether one can justifiably uphold equal rights for all without a transcendent foundation, on a merely conventional basis.

To be honest, I found your talk of "shared humanity" hard to process given your overall position.

Take Willie Horton. What do you or I have in common with that monster? Well
all three of us are instances of h. sapiens, even though that dude is none too sapient. But you can't ground moral status in some merely biological-anthropological feature. "Shared humanity" points us beyond the merely empirical. A theist-personalist can say that, despite his crimes, Horton is a person made in the image and likeness, etc. and for that reason has a right to be treated equally and fairly, give a trial, etc. He is a person just as we are.

I am sorry if I offended you, but you seem a tad oversensitive. The post was not about you but about Peterson. I mentioned you because Peterson is addressing the very issue we were discussing.


Thanks for the link to David Gordon. Gordon is right that the Rand crowd misreads Kant.

POMO cannot fairly be blamed on Kant

Hi Bill,

"I am sorry if I offended you, but you seem a tad oversensitive."

I'll apologize also for what was an overlong and overheated reply. I was a bit exasperated.

You're right to raise the idea of justification. I do think, though, that most ordinary people can go along in life without being able to provide a detailed argument to justify their beliefs and intuitions, moral and otherwise. (I'd say that even a majority of everyday theists would have a hard time defending their moral justification against a persistent Socratic inquiry.) For the unbeliever, the choice is to flounder around, Sam-Harris-style, trying to find some naturalist bedrock for morality, or just to accept some combination of moral intuition and social convention as "good enough" for a morally satisfying life. (That's what I, and many many others, do.)

You say that "you can't ground moral status in some merely biological-anthropological feature." I'd say that you can, if you're willing to stop there, or somewhere in that vicinity -- for example, conferring moral status upon conscious beings who can suffer (or, in the case of the unborn, who will develop into conscious beings who can suffer). Willie Horton checks both of those boxes.

As for whether I am now agnostic about naturalism too, I suppose I am, but the boundaries of "naturalism" are unclear to me. I have no doubt that we lack an exhaustive understanding of the natural world, and that we fool and flatter ourselves if we think we do in fact have such an understanding (or even can) -- but that is to me the conceit of "scientism". Is whatever can physically affect the natural world to be included, by extension, in the natural world, and therefore brought under the umbrella of naturalism? To give an example, I think it may well be that the human mind is, somehow, a production of the natural world, but in some way, or due to some properties of matter, we cannot yet imagine. On the other hand I acknowledge, but do not lean toward, the possibility that it isn't, that it is, rather, something really transcendent. Does that acknowledgement qualify me as an agnostic regarding naturalism?

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