Morality Debate, Part 2

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Hans Jacobse’s opening statement:

The first problem comes less than two minutes in: “Atheism, properly understood…” In other words, “I’m about to tell you what you believe”, not a promising beginning for a fruitful debate.

He continues:

Atheism, properly understood, allows for no objective existence of anything non-material, not made from matter. Philosophical materialism is the philosophical ground of atheism.

One word: software.

Software is non-material. It is, if I understand the definition that Jacobse gives later on, transcendent. On one hand, you can change a book by altering the ink pattern on its pages; on the other hand, you can convert the ink patterns to air vibrations or a flow of electrons, and still have the same book.

This is not some abstruse academic question. It is a practical matter that comes up every time you agree to a software license that says you own the DVD, but not the program on the DVD. It keeps an army of intellectual property lawyers employed. So I hope Jacobse isn’t saying that atheists deny the existence of non-material things like music, mathematics, and personalities.

I would argue as a historian that atheism cannot exist except in a Christian society. I would argue that. It’s actually an outgrowth of our Christian heritage.

I’m sure this will come as a shock to atheists in Japan, India, and Israel, to pick but a few.

does atheism even acknowledge the independent existence of the transcendent, or any being, or even principle apart from matter, apart from that which can be quantified using the tools of science? The answer, at least if the atheist is true to his premises, must be no.

Again, thank you for telling me what I believe. What would I do without you?

You can’t see it in the video, but there’s a mounting pile of strawmen behind his podium.

He goes on to trot out the “no ultimate authority” boogeyman.

But the value he [the atheist] places on one moral act over another is necessarily derivative, which is to say dependent on a view of the universe, of nature and reality, that is not his own.

In other words, we’re incapable of figuring things out on our own.

But even other religions recognize what I consider an elementary fact of the universe: man cannot live by bread alone, which is to say that man is more than the molecules that shape his body.

This seems trivially true, given that the molecules that make up our bodies get recycled every so often, even while we continue to be the same person. And no one argues that a given person is equivalent to a few bucks’ worth of water and other chemicals. The arrangement of those chemicals is crucial.

I think what he’s tap-dancing around is that if the universe is “merely” arrangements of matter, then there’s no magic, and he wants there to be magic.

Truth is a category of existence. A transcendent category of existence, which is to say truth exists apart from any comprehension that I may have of it.

I think this is as close as he ever gets to defining the term “transcendent”.

The truth, and thus morality, can never escape a sort of continuous relativism in the atheist paradigm. Imprisoned, that is, to the shifting winds of the day.

I’ve addressed this elsewhere. Even if our discussions of morality don’t include an ultimate supreme authority, our morality won’t be arbitrary because it’s tethered to reality: we can look at specific actions and events, be it the Holocaust or a parking ticket, and decide whether we like those outcomes, and what sorts of rules we can come up with to codify them.

The most maddening part about this presentation was the way that Jacobse erected an army of straw men, punctuated with the occasional present-company-excluded, and ignored the points that Dillahunty made in his opening statement just prior.

But it gets worse.

9 thoughts on “Morality Debate, Part 2”

  1. The transcendentalists suffer from a basic confusion: physical matter is a substrate within which processes take place, eg: life, thought, computer program execution, in accordance with the physical laws governing the behaviour of matter. Even something so simple as the “flowing of a river” is an example of this. But none of those depend on the non-physical magic they want to prove.


  2. Eamon Knight:
    I think you’re right. And as I think I was trying to get at in my post Nouns, this may be a side effect of the way the brain is wired. Something like “flow” or “motion” or “evil” is a process, not a thing like a rock or a chair, but we still use nouns to describe these processes, and this may be because the mental machinery we use to think about them was adapted from machinery that arose to process physical objects like rocks and trees.

    Furthermore, things like “symmetry” or “theorem” or “justice” aren’t even processes: they’re more like conditional statements of the form “if there is a system that fulfills [some long list of conditions], then that system is symmetrical/true/just/whatever”. The fact that we use nouns to describe these is an artifact of the human mind, not of the thing under consideration.

    In later episodes, Jacobse shows this sort of confusion. I’ll try to point it out when it happens.


  3. For the web nerds, I just thought I’d point out something I think is cool: most of the links in the post above make the embedded video seek to a particular time. You can link to a particular time within a YouTube video by appending a tag like “#t=3m40” to the end, but these links don’t open an external link, they control the embedded video.

    RTFS for details.


  4. I’m not going to get into the snake pit debate of God, not God, Good, Evil. That’s pointless. I don’t have time for it and probably less interest.

    But I am going to point out that “software” is matter. Software is bits and bytes that execute an effect on a system. It’s the same principal as “thoughts” or “feelings.” All thoughts or feelings that an individual has arise from chemical interactions on a neuron level. That’s matter. If you say something or even think something, you are moving matter around no matter how small a quantity.

    Memories are matter. Current progress has shown that by removing a couple of proteins in the right place, you can eliminate the memory forever. Yet it feels intangible –no one can see it, touch it, but it has an effect on the individual. It’s electrical flow hitting the right sweet spot in the brain. It only lasts while the sweet spot is affected.

    And software is a current flowing inside a machine that is simply adding 1 and 0. Current has matter. Wave or particle, who cares until Schrodinger looks inside the box. Both are matter.

    To say that faith is intangible and therefore not matter is ridiculous. It’s simply a thought or feeling. But don’t fight his ideas with false science.


  5. Jill:

    But I am going to point out that “software” is matter. Software is bits and bytes that execute an effect on a system.

    I think you’re confusing software with its implementation. Yes, software is implemented in matter (aka hardware). But that doesn’t mean that it’s the same thing. There’s a difference between Linux and a Linux CD, or between a novel (software) and a book (hardware). When you ask a vendor for a license key (software), it doesn’t matter whether they give it to you in a paper letter, a fax, email, a CD, or dictate it to you over the phone. Those are all different implementations of the same underlying software.

    Software is a pattern made by arranging bits of matter, yes. But we can consider the pattern independently of any particular implementation. In that sense, software transcends matter.

    Current progress has shown that by removing a couple of proteins in the right place, you can eliminate the memory forever.

    Right. That’s just like saying that if your disk develops a bad sector, World of Warcraft won’t run properly anymore. That doesn’t mean that WoW isn’t software.


  6. Both Linux and the Linux CD are matter. The Linux flowing on the computer is still matter. The effect on the system is that now there is a current flowing and executing statements. Waves and particles are both matter. You’re getting the Linux CD (particle) confused with Linux (wave).

    When you consider the pattern, you are considering it. Thoughts boil down to matter too. They are chemically induced currents that act on a system (like software on a computer). But thoughts are currents. Waves. And that’s still matter.

    The original argument was that the priest said that atheists deny anything non-material. And that is rubbish. Because faith is matter too. It is simply a set of rules transmitted from one wetware based computer to another. It’s just another form of matter. You can change the container, but the idea is held in matter. Either in your brain, on the computer, or on the USB in your pocket. It’s still held in a particular form.


  7. Oh and music, mathematics, and personalities are all matter too. Ideas are matter held and acting on particular points in your brain.


  8. Jill Says:

    Both Linux and the Linux CD are matter.

    Have to disagree with that. If I asked you to hold a copy of Linux in your hand you’re going to be holding a CD that you are claiming to be Linux. How are you going to demonstrate that what you’re holding is indeed Linux? All you can present as evidence at that point is a lump of metals and plastic that you are claiming to be Linux but by any objective measure available at that time is just a piece of media that might hold anything. Can I sent LDAP queries to the CD? Can I read my mail with the CD? If I use that Linux CD to install a copy of Linux on my computer does the computer then become Linux? Is it still Linux when I unplug said computer?


  9. Fez:
    For purposes of this discussion, it’s probably safe to assume that the CD is whatever it says on the label. The easy way to demonstrate that the Linux CD in her hand is, indeed, Linux, is to get the MD5 checksum of the contents, and then compare it to the one on Redhat’s website.

    One standard I’ve been using in my mind is, roughly: what would get me sued for copyright infringement? If I started making books that are letter-for-letter copies of The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown would sue me. But if bought a legal copy of the book, then typed it back in and posted it here, he could still sue me, because even though it’s a different medium, it’s still the same work.

    What I’m really getting at is that what defines software is not matter, but the arrangement of matter, or the patterns of motion of matter. In the case of computer programs, music, text, mathematics, and (to a slightly lesser extent) personalities, it makes sense to talk about the arrangement or pattern without regard to the underlying matter.


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