Thursday, October 15, 2009

Creationist Hugh Ross's Creator and the Cosmos, Chapter 1

One of my students lent me a book, The Creator and the Cosmos, by old-earth creationist Hugh Ross that argues that contemporary science directly supports all the claims in the Bible. Just for fun, I am going to critique Ross's claims one chapter at a time. My short take is that the book is a mix of intellectual inconsistency, willful ignorance, often bizarre misinterpretations of evidence, poor argumentation, strawmen, and wishful thinking.

Chapter 1: The Awe-Inspiring Night Sky

Ross starts off laying out his fundamentalist Christians presuppositions and biases. He claims that:
[i]f the universe not created or in some manner accidental, then it has no objective meaning, and consequently, life, including human life, has no objective meaning. A mechanical chain of events determines everything. Morality and religion may be temporarily useful but are ultimately irrelevant. The Universe (capital U) is ultimate reality.

On the other hand, if the universe is created, then there must be reality beyond the confines of the universe. The Creator is that ultimate reality and wields authority over everything else. The Creator is the source of life and establishes its meaning and purpose. The Creator's personality establishes its personality. The Creator's character defines morality (p. 10).

These claims are utter nonsense. Neither meaning of life, even objective meaning, nor morality depends on a creator. Philosophers have nearly all thought that morality does not depend on God at least since Plato's Euthyphro. Socrates asks Euthyphro whether the gods love the pious because it is pious or whether something is pious because the gods love it. Euthyphro immediately selects the first option: things are good independently of God (or the gods) or God's character or command. But why is this so obviously the best answer?

Perhaps the best argument that morality does not depend on God comes from Leibniz. If morality depends on God's command, then God can have no reason to prefer one command over any other; God's commands are arbitrary since they could be based on nothing themselves. If this were the source of morality, it could only be the morality of a bully, that one should do what the bully wants because he/she has the power to enforce it. It would make no sense to praise God for being good since God's commands would be equally good no matter what God's commands were.

These considerations basically refute the idea that morality depends on God's character just as well as they do the Divine Command theory. No one could praise God for having a good character because no matter what character God had, it would be equally good. We could not say, "God dislikes murder because it is wrong," but only "Murder is wrong because God dislikes it." But then God's preferences--indications of God's character--are arbitrary.

Two final points (from Rachels' Elements of Moral Philosophy) against the divine command (character) theory. First, it is utterly mysterious how God's character could determine morality. How could God having a murder-hating character make murder wrong? If we found out that God did not like murder, we might decide to go along with God on it from fear of punishment or hope for reward, but those are not moral reasons at all. But there is no way to make sense of the idea that God's character determines morality. Second, there are good reasons to be morally good and avoid moral evil. If we judge moral right and wrong only on the basis of God's character, we miss the important facts about benefits and harms to people.

The question about meaning is more complex question, but Ross's claim is equally wrongheaded. First, he conflates meaning and purpose. It's not clear what the meaning of life is, but it does not depend on our creation by a being with a purpose in mind for us. Nor does it depend on our having an eternal afterlife.

Having an eternal afterlife is completely irrelevant to whether this current life is meaningful. Whatever fact there is about the afterlife (e.g. it is pleasurable, it connects us to God, it provides opportunity for morally important goals that we are committed to) that would make it meaningful, could equally be available to people in this life. If an eternal life could be meaningful, then a finite life could also be meaningful.

God's purpose for our life is equally irrelevant to the meaning of our lives. Suppose a mad scientist creates a being in a laboratory with the goal of making that person a slave who cleans the scientist's lab equipment. Or suppose the scientist wants this creation to run around stupidly in circles, banging his head and chanting songs of praise for his creator. That would be a meaningless life if any life is despite the person clearly having a creator who had a purpose for his existence. So if God having a purpose for creation is to be meaningful, it must be a meaning that is independently meaningful. Just as in the morality case, God would not give us meaning by creating us, but would have to create us with an independent meaning. If God created us only to provide food for worms, then that would not make our lives meaningful. Moreover, if God is morally good, God could not treat humans only as means to an end rather than as ends in themselves. But if God tried to give us meaning by creating us only for his purposes, then God would be treating humans as means only. In order for us to have meaning in our lives, God would have to create us with a meaning already.

Ross's misunderstanding of basic philosophy is not only a mistake in itself but also leads to biases in his understanding of the evidence from physics and cosmology. If one goes into an evaluation of evidence with a preconceived view of the matter. Ross knows what his interpretation must show before he even considers that evidence; he has a conclusion and is determined to find the evidence to fit it. And it is little wonder given this confession that this is what he proceeds to do in the rest of his book.

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