Are Moral Truths Simply Brute Facts About the Universe?

In my new book, God’s Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for A Divinely Created Universe, I describe eight pieces of evidence “in the room” of the natural universe and ask a simple question: Can this evidence be explained by staying “inside the room” or is a better explanation “outside the room” of naturalism? One important piece of evidence I consider in this effort is the existence of objective, transcendent moral truths. Many atheistic philosophers, while they recognize the existence of such truths, attempt to explain them from “inside the room” by describing moral truths as “brute facts” of the cosmos. Like mathematical truths and the laws of logic, moral truths are described as “fixed features” of the universe. According to these naturalistic philosophers, humans don’t create such truths; we simply become aware of them after careful reflection. Moral laws, under this view, are every bit as binding on us as the laws of logic or math. By claiming moral truths are simply brute facts, atheists are able to explain their existence from “inside the room,” but this explanation, while it recognizes and affirms the existence of objective moral truth, fails to adequately explain its origin:

This Approach Fails to Account for Moral “Obligations”
It’s one thing to acknowledge a particular fact, but another to be obligated to submit to such a fact. Describing moral truth as a brute fact of the universe serves to identify and affirm moral truths without explaining why there are moral obligations. Philosophers David Baggett and Jerry Walls put it this way: “Naturalism can make good sense of why we might feel or believe that we have moral obligations, but it has a much harder time explaining moral obligations themselves, and its deterministic framework means that vital moral categories, to survive, have to be watered down and replaced.” The laws of mathematics and logic describe “what is,” but moral laws describe “what ought to be,” and moral claims and legal statutes represent obligations between persons.

This Approach Fails to Explain Why There Are Brute Facts
Those who describe the existence of objective moral truth claims as brute facts of the universe have only taken the first step in explaining their existence. When I discover a piece of evidence in a crime scene, it’s not enough for me to simply identify its existence. I’ve got to figure out how the evidence got in the scene in the first place. Why is it there? If moral truth is a brute fact of the universe, we should reasonably ask why this is the case and begin to examine what kind of universe would necessarily possess moral obligations in the first place.

This Approach Disconnects Morality from Mind
As philosopher John Rist observes, moral ideals are “objects of thoughts, not mere constructs or concepts.” This poses a problem for those who think transcendent moral truths are a brute fact of the universe. The notion of a transcendent, eternal “object of thought” without a transcendent, eternal “thinker of thoughts” is incomprehensible. Baggett and Walls put it this way: “The need for Platonic forms ultimately to be grounded in a mind that recognizes them is once again keenly felt. ‘Free floating metaphysical items’ do not have the ontological strength and stability that we think morality must have. Even if we discern these moral truths before we identify their deeper foundations, this only reminds us again that the order of knowing is distinct from the order of being.”

This Approach Suppresses Further Investigation
As with similar efforts to explain the reason for the universe’s existence (I also describe these in Chapter Two of God’s Crime Scene), explanations such as “that’s just the way it is,” or “that’s a pointless question” are largely unsatisfying and serve to suppress further investigation rather than lead us to the truth. Detectives who take this approach typically don’t solve many murders. If reasonable explanations are available, we ought not to ignore them in favor of “that’s just the way it is.”

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Advice to Boomers: Think Like a Millennial

I had a conversation with my neighbor that got me thinking about the nature of work these days. My neighbor retired from his career as a radiology oncologist last year. He was just 62. As he has reminded me over the years, “I’m the doctor you don’t want to see.”

He certainly helped a lot of people extend their lives, but he also saw a lot of death. “All of those cases accumulate and finally they get to you,” he told me. Besides, he observed, if you do just one thing all your life, there finally comes a time when you say, “I don’t want to do that any more.” So he retired.

I suspect a lot of people in my Boomer generation are in this place right now. Those who can afford to retire have done so or are strongly thinking about it. Those who aren’t there financially wish they could be. I feel for those who are ready to retire but have no choice but to keep their nose to the grindstone. I have no words of wisdom for them.

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Are Moral Truths a Product of Culture?

In my new book, God’s Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for A Divinely Created Universe, I examine eight pieces of evidence in the universe by asking a simple investigative question: “Can I explain the evidence ‘in the room’ (of the natural universe) by staying ‘in the room’?” This is a question I ask at every death scene to determine if I actually have a crime scene. When evidence “in the room” can’t be explained by staying “in the room”, I’ve got to consider the involvement of an intruder. If the evidence inside the universe can’t be explained by staying “inside” the natural realm of the universe, we must similarly consider the involvement of a cosmic intruder. One critical piece of the evidence in the universe is the existence of transcendent moral truths. Can we explain these truths by staying “inside the room”?
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That Time Pain & Joy Collided in a Court Yard in Congo

Years ago I found myself standing in an open area wedged between two buildings with a young boy who had a fierce case of the giggles. I would simply look at him and he’d crack up. I will never forget the sound of that sweet laughter or the dark almond shaped eyes of that little boy. He wore faded and worn pink overalls and his bare feet danced around the concrete floor as he laughed.

The memory and sound of his joy-filled laughter is forever etched in my mind. It wasn’t just the sweet laughter that marks this moment unforgettable; it was the culmination of so many emotions and thoughts that this particular place triggered within me.

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Can An Understanding of Eternal Life Change the Way We See Evil?

In my latest book, God’s Crime Scene: A Homicide Detective Examines the Evidence for A Divinely Created Universe, I examine eight pieces of evidence in the universe as I make the case for God’s existence. When a piece of evidence points toward a particular suspect it is called inculpating evidence. If it points away from a suspect (or, more precisely, excludes the possibility a particular suspect is involved), it is called exculpating evidence. The existence of evil in the universe has been trumpeted by many skeptics as a form of exculpating evidence, excluding the reasonable existence of God altogether. After all, how can an all-powerful, all-loving God allow evil to persist? An ancient form of the problem is sometimes attributed to Epicurus:
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Are Atheists Correct When They Claim Mental States Are Merely Brain States?

In my new book, God’s Crime Scene: A Homicide Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe, I examine eight pieces of evidence in the universe as I make a cumulative case for the existence of God. One important piece of evidence is our common experience of consciousness. If atheism is true, our natural universe is nothing more than space, time, matter and the laws of physics and chemistry that govern such things. In this material, physical environment, it’s easy to account for brains, but difficult to explain our experience of “mind”. Brains are material, minds are not. Some naturalistic atheists who try to stay “inside the room” of the natural universe for an explanation argue brains and minds are identical. From this perspective, mental states (such as anger or pain) are identical to brain states in which, for example, a particular set of neurons may be firing. If our mental states are nothing more than brain states (physical, neurological activities of one kind or another), it would be easy to account for mind from the materials and processes available in the physical universe. But while it’s increasingly popular to think of the mind as nothing more than the activity of the brain, this approach has significant liabilities. Here is a brief summary of the problems related to this explanation:

There Are Several Irreconcilable Differences Between Mind and Brain
In God’s Crime Scene, I identify five important differences between mental and physical states and entities. Any attempt to form an identity relationship between the mind and the brain must overcome these differences, yet no theory has yet been able to do so. The power of this dilemma shouldn’t be underestimated. The five distinct differences between the mind and the brain stand as five good reasons to reject the notion our brains are identical to our minds.

Physical Activity in the Brain Cannot Be Generalized
If certain types of physical brain activities are identical with particular kinds of mental states, we ought to be able to match the two neatly, even in a variety of individuals and settings. But this isn’t possible. It turns out our mental states are interconnected with our past experiences, subjective histories and personal idiosyncrasies. They are specific to individuals; researchers are unable to identify a “type to type” relationship between physical processes and mental states generally. In fact, species other than humans—dogs, for example—also experience mental states (like pain) even though they have very different brain structures. If, on the other hand, brain states cannot be generalized as “types” and are, instead, specific to individuals, we would be unable to talk about broad categories of mental states. It would be difficult to refer to “pain,” for example, if the mental state is identical to a physical brain state, yet different in every member of the species because it is specific to individuals.

Logical Connectivity is Different from Physical Causality
Mental states are complex and interconnected. They are specific to the subjective thoughts and experiences of the person who holds them, and their connections are logical, rather than causal. While physical objects are subject to laws of physics, mental states are subject to laws of logic. In other words, while logical relationships between mental states determine (at least in part) what kind of mental state we might experience, no such relationship exists between neurons firing in the brain. As philosopher Edward Feser observes, “There seems to be no way to match up sets of logically interrelated mental states with sets of merely causally interrelated brain states, and thus no way to reduce the mental to the physical.”

We Could Imagine the Existence of Mind without Brain (and Vice Versa)
To make the situation even more difficult, most philosophers and scientists acknowledge the metaphysical possibility a mind could exist without any brain at all. One could imagine, for example, extra-terrestrial creatures who might be physiologically different from humans, possessing minds with completely different physiologies (and without any neuron activity at all). Philosophers have also proposed examples of brains without minds. All of us are familiar with the fictional concept of zombies, but from a philosophical perspective, zombies are an important hypothetical proposal. Imagine a human being who is identical to you in every physical and functional way, yet without any mental life whatsoever. From a philosophical perspective, zombies seem metaphysically possible, and if they are, strict materialism is false. We could exist like zombies, yet we don’t. As humans, we possess more than the simply physical, behavioral and functional abilities of zombies; we have a mental life over and above the purely physical life of zombies. If minds can exist without brains, and brains can exist without minds, mental states cannot be identical to brain states.

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Gotham City

As long as I can remember, I have been interested in the world of Batman. Since I was pre-kindergarten, I used a towel  for a cape and donned a mask and tried to save the city against the likes of the Joker, the Penguin, or the Riddler. The truth remains: I still am a fan of the Dark Knight.

In fact, let me point out a few similarities.

We have the same initials: BW.

We both can point to emotional distress and loss as a catalyst for certain decisions and actions.

We both are more nocturnal than the average person and both have a rather tight inner circle. Oh, and there’s more, but you are already rolling your eyes a bit, so I’ll stop here for now.

Can Naturalists Explain Where Life Originated?

In my new book, God’s Crime Scene: A Homicide Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe, I make a comprehensive case for the existence of God from eight pieces of evidence in the universe. In Chapter Three (The Origin of Life: Does the Text Require an Author?), I describe the futility scientists have experienced when trying to identify the location in the universe where life might have originated without the intercession and involvement of an Intelligent Designer. The origin of life requires the emergence of pre-biotic molecules (amino acids and nucleotide bases). Where could this have happened? Could life have originated from “inside the room” of the natural universe? If so, where, and is there a better explanation for the origin of life “outside the room” of the universe? (For more on this “inside the room” or “outside the room” investigative analogy, please refer to the Opening Statement of God’s Crime Scene). Naturalistic scientists have repeatedly failed to identify an evidentially reasonable location for the origin of life, despite a concerted effort over many years. Here is a very brief summary of the failed attempts to locate a reasonable naturalistic point of origin:

Could Life Have Started in the Atmosphere?
You may remember the famous 1952 Miller-Urey experiment from your high school or undergraduate biology class. Stanley Miller and Harold Urey mixed ammonia, methane, water vapor, and hydrogen and passed an electric charge through the circulating gases. Within a week, they found several types of amino acids had been created. This experiment later became the “poster child” for a naturalistic explanation of the basic building blocks of life. Many believed it proved amino acids could be formed naturally in the atmosphere of the early earth. But with the evidence we now have about the conditions of the early atmosphere, we know the gases used by Miller and Urey were not present in the quantity or proportion they used. While this experiment may have some historical significance, it does not prove life could originate in the atmosphere. In fact, scientists now believe the early atmosphere simply could not produce amino acids at any significant or necessary level.

Could It Have Started in Water?
Like the Miller-Urey experiment, the concept of an ancient “primordial soup” is an iconic fixture in most entry-level biology textbooks. Soviet biologist Alexander Oparin first proposed the idea in 1924, arguing “chemical evolution” took place in the Earth’s early waters, resulting in the formation of amino acids, then primitive proteins. But aside from the fact we have no physical evidence to support the existence of a “primordial soup,” we now know the “chicken and egg” relationship between proteins and polymer chains (DNA) makes their simultaneous appearance in water extremely unlikely (to put it mildly). In addition, the absence of significant sources of phosphate for the early formation of DNA, RNA or ATP is prohibitive in this environment. Worse yet, there would be no way to limit the proportion of left and right “handed” amino acids, nucleotides and sugars in the “primordial soup”, making the formation of DNA and RNA molecules exceedingly difficult.

Could It Have Started On Land?
Some researchers have proposed a scenario in which local terrestrial conditions, such as those occurring in clay, might capture water on occasion, allowing the necessary molecules to form and interact. But when trying to recreate these conditions in the laboratory, scientists have come to realize the impossibility of stabilizing the environment to allow for the formation of the necessary cellular components.

Could It Have Started In the Earth?
Some scientists have proposed an underground location for the origin of life where molecular formation would be protected from water and atmospheric interference. But the underground locations available in the early earth would have been incredibly hostile to the formation of bio-chemical precursors, proteins and RNA. Just as problematic would be imagining a scenario in which these primitive forms of life could then transition from their underground origin to their eventual homes above ground.

Could It Have Started In Space?
Some scientists, frustrated with the lack of progress locating a reasonable earthly source for pre-biotic molecules, have turned their attention to outer space. But even if the basic building blocks for life, amino acids, were delivered to earth in a meteorite, this would still fail to explain how the simple molecules formed into the more complex proteins and nucleic acids necessary for life, given the “chicken and egg” problem (refer to Chapter Three of God’s Crime Scene). And if these more complex organic elements came to us from space, how did they originate there and how could they survive the entry into earth’s atmosphere?

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Can Naturalism Account for the Appearance of Fine-Tuning in the Universe?

The just so appearance of “fine-tuning” in our universe is rather uncontroversial amongst scientists and cosmologists. Even physicist Paul Davies (who is agnostic when it comes to the notion of a Divine Designer) readily stipulates, “Everyone agrees that the universe looks as if it was designed for life.” In my new book, God’s Crime Scene: A Homicide Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe, I investigate this fine-tuning in great detail. The foundational, regional and locational conditions of our universe, solar system and planet are delicately balanced and finely calibrated. The slightest modification of these conditions would be disastrous for life. The delicate requirements for the existence of galaxies, star systems, and planets capable of supporting “intelligent observers” are incredibly fragile.
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Are Moral Truths Human-Specific Biological Facts?

How are we to account for the existence of objective, transcendent moral truths? Some philosophers, like Sam Harris, believe “moral values are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.” Well-being (also described as human “flourishing”) is, according to Harris, the purpose of our existence as human beings. Since human biology transcends human culture, moral truths (if they are rooted in human biology), would also transcend culture. As a result, we can account for the existence of objective, transcendent moral truths without having to ground them in a transcendent moral truth-giver (like God). Harris believes these kinds of truths are simply grounded in the well-being of our entire species, and according to Harris, can be ascertained and apprehended by simply studying the science of human flourishing. Harris argues “that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want—and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible. There are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind.” But this attempt to ground objective, transcendent moral truths in human biological flourishing is misguided for several reasons:

This View Assumes a Moral Definition of “Well-Being”
What is Harris’ definition of “well-being” in the first place? Is it merely survival, or is it a particular kind of survival? Even philosophers who hold this view readily admit some behaviors (like subjugating slaves and stealing the resources of opposing groups) can actually aid in the survival of a people group. But these same thinkers simultaneously believe these kinds of behaviors are detrimental to the group’s well-being. This implies, however, there’s a right way to survive and a wrong way. Did you spot the logical inconsistency here? Those who believe the pursuit of human well-being is the origin of moral truth, begin with a definition of well-being already infused with moral truth. Who gets to determine the right or wrong way to survive or flourish? This approach to moral truth argues for something more than mere biological survival of the fittest. It argues for a kind of moral survival (described as “well-being”) before it has adequately explained the source for moral truth.

GCS Chapter 07 Illustration 07

An Illustration from God’s Crime Scene

This View Confuses Facts with Norms
The majority of psychologists and neuroscientists, even those studying moral reasoning, understand the difference between scientific facts and moral norms. Philosopher and psychologist Jerry Fodor explains it this way: “Science is about facts, not norms; it might tell us how we are, but it couldn’t tell us what is wrong with how we are. There couldn’t be a science of the human condition (emphasis mine).” It’s one thing to describe what is (where in the brain, for example, one might find synapse activity corresponding to a moral choice), but it’s another thing to explain why a moral choice is either good or bad. As J. P. Moreland notes: “Moral properties are normative properties. They carry with them a moral ‘ought.’ If some act has the property of rightness, then one ought to do that act. But natural properties… do not carry normativeness. They just are.” Facts about how guns work, for example, cannot tell us whether or not you should use one to murder a rival. In a similar way, facts about how our brains work cannot tell us about the value or nature of our moral norms.

This View Fails To Determine Which Behaviors Are Actually Beneficial
Even if we believe moral truths are nothing more than biological facts about human flourishing, it’s not always easy to determine which behaviors are beneficial to our well-being in the first place. If the value of every action is to be determined by the consequence the action has on human well-being, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to make these assessments with certainty. How can one truly know if an act will have a positive or negative impact on human flourishing many years down the road?

This View Fails to Determine Whose Well-Being Is Most Important
Why would any of us consider the well-being of strangers prior to the well-being of our own families and communities? If history is any indicator, humans are far more inclined to care for themselves than for others, even when the activities of their own group may ultimately harm the survivability of the entire species. Who gets to define “flourishing” when cultures and individuals disagree about notions of happiness, compassion, contentedness, or physical and psychological health? When competing interests collide, whose definitions (and whose well-being) warrants our consideration? As philosopher Patricia Churchland observes, “no one has the slightest idea how to compare the mild headache of five million against the broken legs of two, or the needs of one’s own two children against the needs of a hundred unrelated brain-damaged children in Serbia.”

Even if we are only interested in the well-being of an isolated group, should we be more concerned about total well-being or average well-being of the group? Those concerned with total well-being prefer a world in which the most people possible are able to live with at least moderate well-being. Those concerned with average well-being prefer a world in which smaller groups maximize their well-being, even if others suffer, so the average for the species is elevated. If we derive moral value from an action’s impact on the well-being of the entire species, why should I, as a law enforcement officer, care at all about murdered gang members such as Jesse’s victim? Shouldn’t I be more focused on the fate of those better educated, wealthier or more intelligent contributors to our society than those who are actually preying on our society? Aren’t those in the first group more likely to contribute to the well-being of our species than those in the second? Assessing an action’s moral value on the basis of its ultimate consequence is nearly impossible to accomplish and leads to disturbing discrimination.

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