A local atheist and I had an impromptu debate on Wednesday about the basis of ethics: Can morality be an evolved trait? With his kind permission, I reproduce the debate here in an easy-to-read format.
Since we debated through Twitter, our replies had to be kept to that software’s 140-character limit. That was a challenge, considering the topic!
I debated Andy Welfle, whom I met in 2006 while he was working at The News-Sentinel as a writer and copy editor. (That’s a photo of him.) He’s a former Roman Catholic (baptized as a child, I presume) and he’s now managing director of the Fort Wayne Dance Collective — and is a member of FreeThought Fort Wayne, which, as far as I can tell, is a group dedicated to freely thinking about everything in the same naturalistic way.
I’ve rearranged the order a little, combined quotes a bit and lightly edited to more closely follow the line of argument. (Andy is welcome to correct me if I got something wrong.) And I’ve deleted some “rabbit trails” — questions that were left unanswered just because the conversation went elsewhere.
awelfle: Huh. Katharine Hepburn was an atheist. She had a great quote about that: http://tinyurl.com/8mxd5w
jonswerens: That’s nice and quaint, but how does she know we should be kind to one another? Is she smuggling in some Christian ethics?
awelfle: You think that the golden rule is an idea original to Christians? Its an evolved trait, and has to come from within.
jonswerens: You mean: Evolved as in we slowly crafted it from older rules, or we slowly realized the rule as though it always existed?
awelfle: I think that as we starting existing in complex societies, we developed altruism because it makes it easier to coexist. For the most part, that is. There are always exceptions. I’m just saying religion isn’t necessary for morality.
jonswerens: OK, there are always exceptions. By what standard are exceptions to the rule OK? And by what standard do you oppose Prop 8?
awelfle: And my personal opposition to Prop 8 stems from my want to see gay ppl be able to marry who they want.
jonswerens: What if Calif. hasn’t evolved enough yet and won’t evolve enough for 500 years? By what standard do you say Prop 8 is wrong?
awelfle: How did Prop 8 get mixed in here? (-:
jonswerens: Prop 8 got mixed in here because it’s a case of how your “evolution of morality” doesn’t work. Why does what you “want” matter?
awelfle: So you’re saying that morality is dictated to me by an invisible man in the sky? That humans are intrinsically bad and have to follow what is written in an old book or else we’re condemned to ETERNAL punishment? Sorry, I don’t buy that.
jonswerens: We’re talking about what you believe, not me. If morality evolves, how can you say the Prop 8 vote is bad or wrong?
awelfle: It seems to me that your argument assumes there is some sort of end-goal in evolution. When in fact, it is just a gradual adaptation to circumstances that is encountered at that particular epoc in time.
jonswerens: Um, actually, no, that’s not my argument. I thought that was *yours*.
awelfle: But intrinsically, morality is a personal thing. If God dictates morality, why do I feel one way, and you another? How could there be a sociopath with no moral structure? Did he make a conscious decision to abandon God; and that’s why he’s the way he is?
jonswerens: OK, so then, this Golden Rule. It doesn’t necessarily apply to all cultures or all times. That’s what you’re getting at?
awelfle: And yes, but I think that there would have to be a vastly diff. world than ours if the Golden Rule wouldn’t be appropriate.
jonswerens: I think the very fact of this debate proves that there is something beyond mere matter. Where do the rules of logic reside?
awelfle: Where do the rules of logic reside? I don’t think I understand the question. Do you mean where they are based? In the human mind, I guess. Or mathematically, depending on what sort of logic.
jonswerens: So, is math something that’s universal? Or can one of your alternate worlds feature math in which 2 + 2 = 7 1/2?
awelfle: People can disagree with my morality because we’re all different. Different genetics, different life experiences, different situations. And at the risk of getting too extentialist, I don’t think we can say that anyone is is *truly* right or wrong.
jonswerens: But if I say 2 + 2 does equal 7 1/2, can I claim my different life experience led me to that conclusion? In other words, are there any universal standards at all? If every human died today, would 2 + 2 still equal 4?
awelfle: Morality isn’t as clear-cut as math. Moreover, what is a “2” to me, may not represent the same thing to someone else.
jonswerens: Ah, so how about words? Or do you doubt that what your typing is understandable to me?
awelfle: Re: 2+2 if every human died today, it wouldn’t matter. and re: your last tweet, that’s a leading question. (con’t…)
jonswerens: What’s wrong with a leading question?
awelfle: …We have to make some assumptions about understandability, otherwise, we’d never be able to communicate.
jonswerens: Sorry, but I don’t accept your assumptions without some proof.
awelfle: Then I guess we’re at an impasse. My expertise at this doesn’t allow me to prove to you that we’re speaking the same language … without actually speaking the language.
jonswerens: Actually, starting with your philosophy, no, we do not even have language, let alone a conversation. By assumptions, you mean what we Christians call “faith.”
awelfle: Please explain how making assumptions about communicating ideas translates into faith.
jonswerens: Well, what is faith? Bible says: “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” So the obvious attack on Christianity — I believe something I cannot prove — is moot. We *all* believe things we cannot prove. So, when I look across this world with strange beings and curious activities, what assumptions make the most sense? I posit that the atheist cannot stay true to his beliefs. If he does, he loses logic, language and love, because they, like anything else worth living for in this world, are not “provable.”
awelfle: But I wasn’t going after Christian faith — I was going after a god-defined morality!
jonswerens: Ah, and I was going after a so-called godless morality, which can evidently be one thing on Monday and something else on Thursday.
awelfle: Well put, re: atheists cannot stay true to his beliefs. We should pick this up another day. Tho atheism is the LACK of a belief, specifically in a god. God cannot be the only answer for logic, love, etc.
Thanks for the debate, Andy. I hope we can pick this up again soon.