The Baby-Eating Objection

I enjoy watching Christian vs. Atheist debates, but I’m often frustrated at the lines of argument that are usually presented. In a recent video I watched, the Christian team cross-examined the atheist side like so:

XTIAN: Do you believe that we are just stardust? Matter in motion?
ATHEIST: I believe that we are physical beings made of matter that started at the big bang, yes.
XTIAN: So we’re JUST matter, correct?
ATHEIST: I don’t believe in the supernatural, so yes, we are just made of matter, which is made of atoms and so forth.
XTIAN: So if we are just matter floating through space WHAT’S WRONG WITH EATING BABIES?

This is an example of the Moral Argument for the existence of God. I’ve heard it from plenty of people, and I myself, when I was much more evangelical, may have used it in an argument with someone. I do not believe it is a strong argument for a few reasons. To demonstrate, let me lay out the form of this argument:

THE MORAL ARGUMENT FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
P1 According to the atheist, all of existence can be reduced to little bits of matter and natural forces
P2 Atoms and physics are impersonal, chaotic, random, unintentional, and have no inherent value (aesthetic, moral, or otherwise)
P3 We intuitively or experientially know that morality exists
C There must be a God, who allows for value in the universe

Rick Warren makes this argument in his best-seller “The Purpose-Driven Life,” and various existential writers (Camus, Lovecraft, Houellebecq, Von Trier) have more or less accepted premise 2, while rejecting premise 3. I do not find this argument convincing, because it ignores how morality can be said to supervene (that is, require a smaller set of pieces to allow for its existence, like how organs supervene on tissue, and tissue supervenes on cells) on natural properties. To elaborate on what I mean, consider this reframing of the moral argument:

MORAL ARGUMENT REFRAMED
P1 According to the atheist, all of existence can be reduced to little bits of matter and natural forces
P2 If I understand all facts about these little bits of matter and natural forces, I will know all facts about the universe
P3 Nowhere does one find a moral or a value in bits of matter or natural forces
C By the atheist’s rules, there is no fact of the matter about morality

Versions of this argument could also be used to argue against things like aesthetic value or personal identity, but to stay focused, the reductionist seems to reject morality because moral properties do not appear amongst the reductive natural facts. In my view, this is an error. I reject premise 1, and by necessity, premise 2: even if I had complete knowledge of all atoms and their forces, I would not have knowledge of all possible facts in the universe. Why not? Because physical, social, political, ethical, and aesthetic facts supervene (or in other words, are predicated on) on facts about atoms and forces of nature, they are not necessarily reduced to them.

This phenomenon is called “Emergence.” Emergence is the ability for a system to have a greater level of organization and causal explanation on a macro level, than on a micro level. In an emergent system, the properties of the whole cannot be reduced to properties found in the bits and bobs that make it up. Here are some examples of emergence:

– Ant colonies
– Economic systems
– The internet
– Legal codes
– Rules of language

Imagine asking the same question about eating babies about language: if we are just atoms flying through space without the intention of a Creator God, then how can we have language? Who makes the rules for language? How could be possibly have semantics and syntactical forms? There is no language in inanimate dirt, after all! This is just the problem, if you look exclusively at the pieces, you miss the over-arching structure. Atoms allow for life, life allows for minds, and minds allow for language systems. Thus, the physicist who has total knowledge of all facts about atoms and their movement would not have knowledge about all languages and their rules, despite how all languages rely on physical systems of vocal cords, air vibrations, and physical gestures.

By the same measure, moral facts can be natural facts, supervening on top of and emerging from natural facts about societies, which are themselves natural phenomena. Supernatural or non-natural forces need not be evoked to allow for there to be something wrong with eating babies.

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