Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Goodness as an Argument for God

A love atheists. They're especially good on toast. ;) One of my favorite writers, Douglas Adams, was an atheist. I like to think he's changed his stance on that since his death. Atheists are so impassioned about their belief that God doesn't exist. They can be as fervent in their belief as many Bible-thumping Christians.
So, one of my favorite living atheist left me a comment:
Randy's comment
I followed with an email and then he was inspired to write a couple of interesting posts on his blog Sisyphus Sidestepped. I'll now discuss the idea of goodness as an argument in the favor of God's existence. I welcome any and all feedback.

Randy supposes we are purely selfish creatures seeking our own pleasure. He wrote that the number one driving force in life is the avoidance of pain. No doubt that is a huge driving force in many people's lives. But we are thinking humans and not animals so we can override that instinct. Humans risk death and injury to save another person. We donate to the poor when it would be much more fun to spend that money on ourselves. We refrain from boxing up our unruly teenagers and sending them to Timbuktu- (much to the relief of the Timbuktuvians). You can fill in your own examples, I'm sure.

The argument can be made that we do those things to keep ourselves from feeling pain. The pain of seeing another person starve, burned in a building etc. But think. A firefighter risks his/her life to protect people. Most they save, a few they can't. Wouldn't firefighters be happier avoiding fires altogether? Something drives us to think of others first. That leads me to my main question...

Why does human life have value?
Or does it?
Why should I care if somebody suffers or is killed? What's it to me? Why does it hurt me to see somebody suffer? Why should I care if people are starving halfway across the world? Why should I care that millions were killed by Nazis during WWII? If we have no souls and we're just a lump of flesh created randomly, why do we love other people? Do you believe in the existence of love? It's not tangible. You can't see it or touch it.

I believe human life has value because God loves us. I'm not the first to suppose this. The Declaration of Independence states that, "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." If anybody wants to deny this statement, go on and give up your rights now. After all, survival of the fittest should dictate that the strongest among us should get what we can without considering another person's rights and value. (It should be noted that I'm a heck of a lot weaker than Randy, so that could be part of my rejection to 'survival of the fittest.') ;)

So, I leave you with two questions:
Why does human life have value?
Do you believe in the existence of love?


randy said...

I didn't say our focus was seeking pleasure, that is what sociopaths do. Our focus is to avoid pain. Avoiding pain is what love is. Remember my airplane analogy? One wing is love and the other is pain. The more loving you are the less pain you feel. The stronger your love the greater potential there is for pain.

If one risks their life to save another it is because the pain of watching someone suffer is too great to just stand there doing nothing.

If one gives money to the needy it is for the same reason. I'll give you a personal example. I was in the parking lot of a Red Roof Inn in Ohio when this guy pulls up and tells me he needs a new radiator hose and asks me if he can borrow $18 which he will send me in the mail later.

I was 99.9% sure this guy was lying to me but I gave him $20. He asked me for my address and I told him to keep the money. At the same time I'm wanting to punch this guy in the face for playing me for a fool. I did my best to hide my anger.

Why did I give him the money? I gave it to him because in my mind there was the .1% of a chance that he was telling the truth and if I didn't give him the money I would spend the rest of the day feeling like a grade-A turd. I didn't give him the money for him, I did it for me; to avoid the painful feeling of guilt.

Now the question is how did I get these feeling to begin with? Did God give me these feelings? No, nature selectively bred me to have these feelings. These are the same feelings that drive me to care for my child or pull my hand away from a flame.

So why do I love my children? Parents don't need to love their children for them to survive. There are many examples in nature where parents don't care for their young at all. They just spit them out and they're done with it. Why can't humans do the same thing? It's because of the different strategies employed.

The difference between humans, for example, and say, sea turtles is that turtles have many offspring which are capable of survival on their own once they hatch. They use a shotgun approach to procreation. Human babies, on the other hand, are defenseless for years and require tremendous amounts of care. A child born to a careless mother has no chance of survival and also no chance of passing on the careless-mother gene. The turtle can pass off the careless-mother gene successfully but the human cannot.

You can bet there was plenty of careless mothering in the genetic line that led to humans but that trait was selected against long before humans even evolved. Those mothers who felt no love for their offspring, which is another way of saying they felt no pain at their offspring's loss of life, failed to contribute to the gene pool. No love and demanding child-rearing are biologically incompatible....

until now. In our kill-ourself-with-kindness, liberal society careless mothers can pass on their careless gene. We've lowered the bar and taken up the slack. Now any trait that nature normally selects against has a greater viability. Now those traits are many times rewarded at the expense of society. The acts of the irresponsible are subsidized by the generosity of the responsible, but I digress.

randy said...

The man who wrote "all men are created equal" owned slaves.

randy said...

And finally, love is tangible. Love is a product of brain chemistry which is a product of your genetic code. You in love are different from you not in love. Your hormones levels are different. You could pump hormones (which are actual physical things) into somebody and you can make them feel love or any other emotion. You could mix up the contents of a cranium with a mixer and erase love altogether.

How is it that you fall out of love? It's because the person you were in love with no longer elicits the hormonal response required for the love feeling. The potential for love is there just the same but a different stimulus (another hunk of flesh) is needed.

The Geeky Quill said...

Jefferson wrote that. He spoke against slever, however it's true that owned slaves. He was deeply in debt and he could not free them until he was free of debt, which never happened. There are other reasons. Some info here:

Anyway, the truth of the matter is, the U.S. government gives us our liberties under the premise that God values us.

On avoiding pain by helping others: Humans help out strangers they'll never meet or see. People go seeking out the poor in order to help them. We don't only help people that are in our face.

If our lives have no meaning, then who cares how women carelessly pass on their genes? It's just survival of the fittest anyway. And people can procreate or kill without worrying about morality.

randy said...

And finally, this time I mean it, those who believed in the "right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" had to be fit enough to fight off British oppression.

It's not fair that life is that way but there is nothing about nature that is fair. Nature is brutally cruel. We can appreciate the beauty of nature at the level we do because we are lucky enough to be at the top of the food chain.

Ask a wild rabbit whose average life span is four months how fair nature is.

If God created the world I would ask him, "God, why, when you could have made the world any way that you wanted, did you make this a kill-or-die world? I don't want to kill anything. Why is it that the only way for me to survive is to kill another life form?"

What would you think of a human being who had the option to create a world and he chose to create one where painful death was the matter of course? I would call him a psychopath.

Anyway, contemplating the state of the world is so painful that I'm tempted to create the hope for a god that can make some sense of it. Nah, I'm weak, but I'm not that weak.

The Geeky Quill said...

I completely disagree about your love statement. Sure, chemicals are involved in 'loving feelings' but I know I love even when I don't feel all fluttery.

I think too many marriages fail because people demand to feel all fluffy all the time. True love isn't like that. It's fierce like when one is defending a loved one's life. It's passionate at time. It's cozy at times. And at times it feels a little flat-linish.

When I'm cleaning throw up off my kid's pillow at 2am when I have a raging fever myself, I'm not feeling fuzzy, but I still love.

When Peter and I are discussing how we'll pay for everyone's dental bills, I'm not feeling fierce or sexy, but I'm still in love.

Love isn't just chemicals because love isn't just an emotion.

randy said...

We give people we'll never see money because it gives us a warm and fuzzy AND if we mention it to anybody, a sense of superiority.

Who said life has no meaning? Meaning yes, ultimate purpose, no.

The Geeky Quill said...

Aha, now we're getting to another set of questions- If there is a God, what is his nature? and Why did he create a world where bad things can happen?

That is a topic for a seperate blog of it's own.

The Geeky Quill said...

So, what is the meaning of life?

randy said...

There are different levels of love but they all have one thing in common. I was once "in love" with my wife. If she slept with another at the time I would feel a devastating pain. I'm not "in love" with her anymore, she is married to another man and I couldn't care less. I don't even like her. But you know what, I still love her even though I despise her. How do I know? I would experience a rush of hormones that would result in painful feelings if I saw her dying. I would try to do what ever I could to prevent her from dying and sparing myself pain in the process. I would do the same for a rat though. I would feel the same way about any living thing that could feel pain. I wouldn't feel that way about anything that doesn't feel pain (a plant, for instance).

randy said...

The meaning of life? I'll save that one for my blog ;-)

randy said...

Also know that I am not "impassioned by the belief that God doesn't exist". To the contrary, I couldn't want more to be wrong. I hope God does exist. I'll just wait until God proves me wrong. Of course that isn't good enough for those who wish to profit from my belief in God.

Mike Peatman said...

Randy - coming in on this conversation half-way through. I was intrigued by your assertion that our focus is to avoid pain and that is what love is. That was the stand of the 19th centruy Utilitarians like Mill in ethics, of course.

My problem with your assertion is that I think not only does love open you up to more pain, love involves pain. For a Christian, the pain of Christ especially in the passion narrative is part of the evidence of his love.

I guess I'm rather less cynical that people make painful choices solely because they believe the alternative is more painful. I believe they make them (whether religiously motivated or not) because love compels them in a positive way as well as it simply being a choice against greater pain or loss.

But hey, I'm an oppressive Brit ;)

randy said...


I wouldn't describe my viewpoint as cynical either because I think the love act is, for the most part, unconscious and uncalculating (that would explain why we make so many bad decisions in the pursuit of it). It's only when you boil it down to its biological root does it show its true selfish nature.

I'm probably the wrong person to use the Jesus example on :-)

The Geeky Quill said...

Mike, it's true that love brings pain. The pain of childbirth is nothing compared to what comes later.

I think most dreaded pain involved with love is the pain of separation through death or otherwise.

To love is to become vulnerable. Like splaying your insides out.

Randy, what do you mean by "It's only when you boil it down to its biological root does it show its true selfish nature."

Most parents would die for their kids. I had a friend who did die saving her kid. I know, you'll say that that's just a selfish attempt to pass on your genes. What about adoptive parents? Do you think they are less likely to die for their kids? I think not. Love effects the spirit as well as the body.

randy said...

What I mean is that love isn't (necessarily) selfish on the conscious level. Nature gave us the means (mostly in the form of pain) to love because it serves us in our ability to survive. The selfishness is on the part of nature. Nature doesn't think, though, it just is.

I get the feeling you are completely misunderstanding me because nothing you have said in your last comment disagrees with what I have written. Let me start again.

Nature gives us the ability to feel pain. It gives us the ability to feel physical pain via our nervous systems. It allows us to feel emotional pain and fear via our hormonal system. This is a fantastic survival tool.

Because we feel physical pain we commit the self-loving act of unconsciously pulling our hand away from a flame. Without physical we wouldn't know our hand was on fire (see children who are born with an inability to feel pain).

Because we feel the pain of fear we flee when it is in our best interest not to fight. If it wasn't for the painful feeling of fear we would just stand there when being attacked by a predator. It doesn't (necessarily) require conscious thought to be afraid.

Because we feel emotional pain (unlike the sea turtle) we commit the loving acts of providing care for our children and nurturing our relationships with our spouses. We don't have to even think about these things because they are ingrained into us by nature through natural selection.

Now the loving feelings are apart of who we are regardless of the pain motive. But, if you trace those love feelings back to their biological roots you'll find that the difference between you and all of those who never existed was that your prehistoric ancestor, millions of years ago (before man), chose to act in defense of its offspring because the feeling of not doing so was too much to bear. Nature made it commit to its offspring instead of act like a turtle. It made it do it through painful feelings.

When you referred to "survival of the fittest" in the original post you do what so many do and give it a negative connotation. You associate it with physical strength.

The ability to love, avoiding the various forms of pain that are detrimental to survival through loving acts, is probably the greatest form of fitness. Love is the impetus that drives all of the technological advances that has allowed man, even though he is nowhere near the strongest, to reign supreme on earth. Yep, I'm saying atomic bombs were built out of love.

randy said...

You mentioned adoption. Do you believe that is a selfless act? Do you believe the parents of adopted children don't feel pleasure raising those kids? Do you believe they don't feel some level of discomfort at the thought that there are children out there that need caring for?

I've raised dozens of baby pigeons over the years that were pushed out of their nests at my work before they were able to fend for themselves. Seeing them so vulnerable gave me feelings of anxiety and caring for them gave me much pleasure. Without consciously doing so I was compelled to act on their behalf in an effort to make myself feel better.

Was I trying to pass on my genes? Of course not. I was trying to avoid those painful feelings nature instilled in me. Mind you, we're talking about pigeons here. What I feel for those pigeons can accurately described as love. It's the same as when a godless, female dog is compelled to care for an orphaned kitten.

I have a philosophical question for you, why haven't you adopted any kids? Don't you think God would want you to do so? Sure, you have five kids but with a little sacrifice you could afford one more.

I'll answer for you. Even though you are no doubt as loving as anyone you have selfishly (and rightly so, in my book) chosen to put the needs of your children ahead of others. The pain or discomfort of the thought of them having to do with less is greater than the discomfort of knowing there is a needy child out there that can use your help. The feeling of taking from your kids feels worse than helping another's feels good. You feel this way because YOUR children are more important from your perspective.

Is that an accurate statement?

The Geeky Quill said...

But how does an instinct to care for baby birds help a person's survival? If it was all natural selection, then wouldn't the instinct to eat the birds be more beneficial?

The dog's not godless. God made them too. St. Francis of Assisi preached to the animals.

Randy, the day you talk Peter into adopting kids is the day I buy you a pony! I even tried to sway him with writing an essay about why we should. He was unmoved. Poor thing has this whole money anxiety thing going.

Our kids are our special charge because we're blessed enough to be their guardians, but we also donate to charities. It's true that if I had no children of my own, I'd probably do a lot more for the rest of the world. At least I hope I would. It's not that my kids are more important, it's that I have a bigger responsibility to them as their parent.

Of course I feel closer to them than other kids because I've bonded with them, lived with them, physically and emotionally cared for them.

I'm reminded of two lines from the book "The Little Prince." I can't locate my copy, but it's something to the effect of "The time you waste on your flower, makes her important." and "You are forever responsible for those you tame." We do have personal responsibility to those closest to us.

I would never actively harm another child for the benefit of mine. As soon as I found out that some vaccines are made from the tissue of aborted babies, I found out which ones and refused them for my kids.

I had a balancing act this morning on this line. We bought a bunch of fruit to bring to the homeless at the winter night's shelter and those grapes looked super good to my kids. On one hand I had my cute little kids craving a very healthy snack and on the other I had people I never met who would probably appreciate that food a whole lot more.

btw I let the kids have a few grapes then quickly wrapped up the rest of the fruit and brought it down there. But you're absolutely right that I did face a delemma.

randy said...

The instinct to care for the bird is a side effect of the instinct to care for my child. It all falls under the genetic code of the instinct to care.

Yes, it is more beneficial to eat the bird and that is why the vast majority of us eat birds even when the thought of killing them brings us pain.

I choose not to eat birds. I'm able to do this because I have the luxury of having other options to fill my protein needs. Believe me, though, when it comes to my child eating or starving no other living thing is safe regardless of how much love I feel for it.

Regarding the "money anxiety thing", it's no picnic, especially when you feel like you're selling your soul to get it. Being a slave to other men (or women) and the clock can be a real life-sucking endeavor. Oh, the things we do for love.

You may have the love to emotionally feed a thousand children but love doesn't have many calories in it :-)

randy said...

Hey, wait a minute! I can just as easily ask, "why does God give us love for birds when he also makes them so tasty to us?"

Anyway, as you have alluded to earlier, nothing in biology suggests that God doesn't exist. I guess what I am claiming is that IF God does exist his work was finished at the Big Bang. After that, no more magic takes place and what happened before it is unknowable. At the Big Bang everything was in place necessary to produce what we see today.

The real question is, how do we know the creator of the Big Bang is judging our lives and deciding whether we go to Heaven? What is God and Heaven based on besides man's fantasy and wishful thinking? It isn't goodness as your originally asserted because "goodness" is in the eye of the beholder (man) and he didn't exist until billions of years after the Big Bang.

Btw, your propensity towards fantasy and your need to believe in God isn't lost on me :-)

The Geeky Quill said...

She shakes her fist at Randy. "Darn you! You shall see the wrath of my pink unicorn dragon!"

Ah ha! "The creator of the big bang." So you concede there may be such a being. That's a beginning.

I don't see what God does as 'judging' in the ordinary sense of the word. Does a parent judge their child? Not really. We guide them, punish when necessary, try to get them to want to obey the rules for their own good, prepare them for what comes next in life. I think God's sort of like that. Nothing bad can get into Heaven, so we need to prepare ourselves- kind of like wiping our shoes before we go into the house but instead of our soles, it's our souls. ;)

You know, you never did answer my question: Does human life have value?

karabu said...

I probably don't want to get involved in this debate, but the question about why a human would be drawn to care for an orphaned bird reminded me of something from an animal behavior class I took in college.

They told us a story about a goose, who would roll any eggs that got out of it's nest back in. So that's good for the reproduction of the goose, no surprises there. But the goose would also roll in anything remotely egg-like in too. Golf balls, oranges, or other eggs, like Ostrich eggs, that it obviously didn't lay itself. Why? Wasting energy caring for an orange was not benificial to the goose or it's offspring.

They theory was that taking care of eggs, and keeping them all safe in the nest is so vitally important to the survivial of baby geese that they have evolved to take no chances with it. Better to care for an orange than risk not caring for an egg.

I think it could be argued that humans also have an 'overflow' of nutering instincts in this way. As Randy pointed out, our offspring are particuarly helpless, and need an unusually high level of parental care to survive. Our children benefit from not only our willingness, but our egerness to nuture.

Plus, I raise baby birds because I love birds, they make me happy, and want more of them in the world. So there.

The Geeky Quill said...

Ah, but where does the love come from whether it's for baby birds, baby humans, or baby rhinos?

Or we can take something less practical- music. Where does that come from? What purpose does it serve? It's not a survival adaptation.

Or how about something so insanely useful it could never come about at random, like the way the orchid mantis looks?

randy said...


the goose probably cares for the eggs and anything resembling an egg for the same reason we give love to a teddy bear or a blankie. We don't do it for the good of the egg, teddy bear or blankie, we do it for the feeling it gives us. The fact that the goose caring for the egg results in another generation of geese is a fringe benefit for the irrational goose. On a rational level it couldn't care less whether there's another generation of geese. That would require the ego of man.

randy said...


I don't care what nature is called. If one wants to call it God that's fine by me. From what I've heard about Christianity it's very much about judgement and I can quote the Bible if I need to. There's zero evidence that nature thinks let alone judges its manifestations.

Of course I believe life has value. I say it every time I take a breath of air or eat a bite of food in an effort to prolong it.

Life's value is only in the eye of the beholder though. The more people (including you) who love you, which is to say the more people who feel pain from the loss of you, the more value your life has.

randy said...

Where does love come from? From exactly where the desire to pull your hand away from a flame, whether consciously or not, does. The bottom line is the avoidance of pain (the avoidance of stimulating the pain sensors in our brains via our nervous and hormonal systems).

randy said...

Why does music give us pleasure? Why does a bird's song give us pleasure? Nature doesn't think, it just is. Not everything that happens in nature is designed to promote life. Cancer is natural and doesn't help anybody, why would nature , or God, consciously create such a thing? If it DOESN'T prevent procreation then it doesn't get selected against and is allowed by an unthinking nature to exist.

The Geeky Quill said...

Randy, you just completely knocked the wind out of me. I can't believe you're saying what I think you're saying.

Here's what you wrote:

"Life's value is only in the eye of the beholder though. The more people (including you) who love you, which is to say the more people who feel pain from the loss of you, the more value your life has."

Okay, so you're saying that a person whom nobody loves has no value? So, if an old person's entire family was dead, we may as well kill them? Or a baby whose mother doesn't want her should be killed?

You also said that Christianity is about judgement. Judgement of what? Could you elaborate about that?

randy said...

IF a person, whether it is a baby or an old man, is unloved by others he can still love himself. If that person doesn't love himself enough to do what is necessary to live then that person has deemed his own life worthless, right?

BBBBBUUUUUUUUUTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTT!!!!!!!!!!!!, what person is unloved? There isn't a person on earth that I could watch suffer without feeling some level of pain. The same can be said of just about every other person. They all feel a level of love for everyone.

The only scenario where I can see (human) life having no value is one where there was only one person on earth and he was suicidal. No lovers equals no value of life.

You are too narrowly defining love. As long as there is a goose willing to roll a rock into its nest, there will be love.

Now push your heart back down your throat :-)

randy said...

Judgement? I'll take the easy way out (for now) and ask you. You mentioned your concern about my getting into heaven so, at least, I could keep Peter company. Who's going to keep me out? Who's going to JUDGE me unfit for heaven?

The Geeky Quill said...


Okay, so self love counts as love. So, we should have suicide clinics to take care of depressed people with no friends? We can set them up next to abortion clinics and annoying teenage clinics.

I see a flaw. A baby, whether it loves itself or not (not sure how to determine that) can't do anything for itself to ensure it's own survival. It's completely dependant on somebody else to care for it.

Oh Randy. I was sort of kidding about keeping Peter company in Heaven. I want you to get there for your own sake.

Judgement, as in "the final judgement" isn't a judgement in the hyper-anti-politically correct way. It's not "is this soul worthy?" for all souls were created by God and he loves everyone.

It's more of a "how clean is this soul?" Nothing imperfect can get into Heaven just by definition. It is Heaven, after all. (And it isn't "into" as in a physical location. Jesus calls it his father's house but of course it's not a literal house.) Sin leaves a mark on your soul that only God can clean. But the trick is, you have to let him. He won't force himself on you.

As a Catholic I am taught the ordinary way to do this on Earth is to go to Reconciliation. We also get Purgatory after death to complete any touch up work.

I don't know if I'm explaining this well or not.

randy said...

You said,

"I see a flaw. A baby, whether it loves itself or not, can't do anything for itself to insure its own survival. It's completely dependent on somebody else to care for it".

Yes, it's completely dependent on somebody else's love. Who made that rule? If the baby dies I guess nobody loved it (including God?) and therefore its "life" has no value in the eyes of whatever let it die.

randy said...

If there is only heaven after death then there is no judgement. If there is heaven and hell (or anything else) then a judgement has to be made of who goes where.

Believe me, if I see God I will be more than happy to let him clean my soul. But I'll need to see him first. It'll take more than some man who claims to speak on God's behalf to convince me. I'll be damned (not literally, I hope) before I tithe a man or church to "save" me.

karabu said...

See, I knew I didn't want to get involved.

Kinda fun to watch though. . .
*returns to lurking*

randy said...


I don't know why you wouldn't want to get involved. You made good points which I happen to agree with :-)

The Geeky Quill said...

Don't be afraid Kara. I won't splash holy water on you or anything...

*strokes her chin thoughtfully and mutters* "Hmm, there's in idea.*


randy said...

Thanks to this thread I have honed my Athiest's Definition of God. Here goes,

"God is the loving gift we create for ourselves in the effort to avoid, or otherwise deal with, painful reality".

If I had a car I would put that on a bumper sticker.

I'm coming for dragons and unicorns next :-)

The Geeky Quill said...

That would make a mighty long bumpersticker.

Here's another:
"Atheism is the lie we tell ourselves so we don't have to be accountable to anything but our own desires."

However, "I break for unicorns"
or "My other car is a dragon" would fit better on a bumpersticker.

randy said...

Well, there's another point for debate. In the thirty-five of my years that have been spent as an atheist I've never found it difficult to be accountable for my behavior. Atheism and morality are not mutually exclusive but that seems to be the attitude of the believers as they claim the high ground. I've also noticed that many people who believe in God don't let that get in the way of murdering, stealing or committing adultery. Even church leadership is guilty of its fair share.

I'm reminded of something that happened to me. I was driving down the road and came upon a car that was stalled. I pulled over and asked the woman driver if she would like me to push her car into a nearby parking lot. She replied, "Oh yes, thank you". When I finished she said, "God bless you, you must be a Christian". I didn't have the heart to tell her, "No, I'm an atheist but it's a good chance that most of those who passed by without helping you before I got here were".