Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Mammal Extinction: So What?

Scientists are concerned that 1 in 4 mammals faces extinction. "Our results paint a bleak picture of the global status of mammals worldwide," is what a conservationist team has concluded, as noted in a recent article.

"We estimate that one in four species is threatened with extinction and that the population of one in two is declining," the report explains.

So what? Given the predominant worldview of naturalism in science -- that the material universe is all that exists -- does the extinction of some mammals matter? Combined with the predominant scientific view that some day our world and the universe will be gone, why is extinction a big deal? Why should we care about it?

If we are the random products of undirected chance and time, who cares? Given this framework for a worldview, there is no reason to care about anything or do anything purposeful.

My point here is not to state that we shouldn't care, but that the naturalistic worldview has no basis for caring about matters of extinction. There is simply no viable foundation for such moral sentiments.

Even when the experts cited in the article appeal to "what kind of world do you want to leave for your children," the naturalistic position on conservation is weak if not completely crippled.

I am not saying that all those involved in this study are naturalists. Some may be pantheists (another worldview without a foundation for conservationism), theists, Christian theists, etc.

My point is that as the dominant worldview in the sciences, naturalism offers nothing logically positive in response to the challenges the world faces. It is empty. But naturalists will appeal to emotion, appeal to arguments, and appeal to ethics in order to help the world and save some mammals from extinction. To do so they must compromise the fundamentals of their worldview and borrow concepts from other worldviews such as Christianity.

Christianity offers a real foundation for conservationism, while naturalism does not. Psalm 24:1 reads, "The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it ..."


Adam D said...

I agree with your criticisms against the atheist worldview, in this post and in previous posts but at the same time I think there are some pretty robust arguments from atheists for a naturalistic morality that could answer a charge like this particular one. I'm thinking of, for example, Daniel Dennett's book "Freedom Evolves" and his arguments centered around game theory. A moral framework may be explained purely in terms of naturalism. Further, a man like Dennett is quite comfortable admitting that he wants to borrow from Christianity (itself an evolved phenomenon, he says). If you haven't, you should check out his TED talk in response to Rick Warren.

As I said, I agree with your conclusion, but (to play devil's advocate) think some atheists out there actually do have some pretty deep, developed ideas that may be worth grappling with. At least, I feel I've benefited for grappling with them.

Robert Velarde said...

Thanks, Adam. I find any moral argument that excludes a transcendent God as seriously lacking. I address this somewhat in my book Conversations with C.S. Lewis, but not in detail. Atheist arguments in this area, in my assessment, are not convincing.

They can continue to pretend they live in a moral universe, but when it gets down to it, atheism is fundamentally amoral. But I do grant that atheists themselves are often moral individuals, but this is because of natural law, not because of some evolutionary or other explanation.

Thomas said...

If we are the random products of undirected chance and time, who cares?

Not quite. Evolution proceeds by natural selection, which is not a random process.

Why must one believe in a supernatural creator in order to hold that life is precious and that morality is objective?

Robert Velarde said...

Natural selection is undirected, as in there is supposedly no intelligence behind it. But if we can discern evidence for design in the natural world, this suggests a designer. For more on this -- specified complexity, irreducible complexity -- see Dembski, et. al.

What is your basis for the ethical claims, "life is precious" and "morality is objective"?

Thomas said...


OK. I guess then one could call it "undirected natural selection and time".

Theories don't require a basis. Rather, true theories are preferred because they provide better explanations and stand up to criticism better than their rivals.

For example, I can criticise relativism on the grounds that communication is possible and requires common knowledge between its participants. Or I can simply decide that relativism isn't true, which, according to relativism, is a valid thing to do.

Robert Velarde said...

Thanks for the additional comments, Thomas. Your statement, "Theories don't require a basis," puzzles me. A "basis" is support or the foundation of a position. In this sense, I think every serious proposed theory needs a basis.

I agree with you that the better explanation line of reasoning is valid (abductive reasoning is the technical term for this approach).

However, I still don't have a clear sense of why you believe "life is precious" (that is what you stated earlier) on the basis of non-theism.

Thomas said...

Suppose we try so say that Einstein's theory of gravity prevails "on the basis" that is explains more than Newton's theory, its predecessor, and that it survived the implicit criticism of stringent experiments where Newton's failed.

However, that isn't a firm basis, because it's only an historical accident that its predecessor was Newton's Theory. It might have replaced a different theory T.

Different criticisms (including different experiments) would have been required to select between T and Einstein.

In other words, Einstein's theory would now have a different "basis".

Thus no theory rests on a secure foundation.

All our knowledge is tentative and fallible. New and better theories may arrive at any moment to replace old ones.

That "life is precious" is the prevailing theory. It's implicit in our laws and in the way we treat other humans and animals: we try not to harm them.

Even one's feelings of peace and happiness are facts which a rival theory would have to explain away as delusions.

Robert Velarde said...

Thanks again for your remarks, Thomas. Your explanation of "theory" and "basis" still puzzles me, but I don't think we're going to make much headway in that area given the medium of blogging.

Regarding "life is precious," your remarks come across as suggesting "life is precious" is acceptable because it "is the prevailing theory," but this does not seem to square well with your earlier remark about the objectivity of morality in a non-theistic universe.

If at some future point "life is precious" were no longer the "prevailing theory," would you then adopt whatever the prevailing theory towards life would be at that given time? If so, then your suggestion that morality is objective would be off, unless some logical gymnastics would allow for such drastic changes in moral standards while still retaining objectivity.

Moreover, I still don't see a viable foundation for your statement, "life is precious." To be precious means to have value, worth, to be treasured, etc. Where does the foundation for such ethical ideals come from within a non-theistic framework?

david said...

Hi thomas,

This is an interesting discussion, so I couldn't help but chime in.

That "life is precious" is the prevailing theory. It's implicit in our laws and in the way we treat other humans and animals: we try not to harm them.

Are you saying that many people do align their behaviors with the prevailing theory of "life is precious" or that all people ought to align their behaviors with this prevailing theory?

Thomas said...

Hi David,

Oh, this is an interesting topic.

Yes, I do believe that, on the whole, people are enacting the "life is precious" theory, with some mistakes and disagreements here and there.

I think if one acted differently, without a good explanation as to why, it would be a sign that something is wrong.

One might be depressed and experiencing suicidal thoughts. The solution here is to get urgent help.

Or one might be tempted to commit murder. Apart from being an act of appalling wickedness, murder is also a straightforward mistake, since evil can expect to fail by its own terms. Perhaps the solution there is to urgently calm down and reinterpret one's thoughts about the other person.

If an environmentalist says there are too many humans on the planet Earth, we could criticise his theory by saying that more humans means more creativity, which is good.

If someone claimed life is too robust to be precious then we might say that, biologically speaking, there are many more ways to be dead than to be alive.

In all these cases, yes, one ought to revert to the belief that life is precious, although the method of doing so will vary.

It's hard to imagine what a true explanatory theory which asserted that "life is bad" or "life is cheap" might look like. But this is no argument. It *might* turn out that reality is some kind of ghastly trap and that all our values are doomed to fail.

Thankfully there's no reason to suppose so.

david said...


We agree that murder is evil, but we reached that conclusion from different paths (I'm assuming you aren't a theist).

The basis for moral imperatives in my worldview is both the law written on my heart by my creator, and the specific things he has revealed in the Bible about what exactly this good/evil business is all about.

Now understandably you would disagree, which is fine but my question is how did you conclude that evil is a mistake "since evil can expect to fail by its own terms." I am assuming you are looking at this from a pragmatic angle?

As to an explanatory theory of why life is good, bad, cheap, precious, me is seems like the Christian worldview has an explanation: man is created in the image of God and set apart among creation. I agree with you that atheism has no such explanation, since without an external reference point one could not distinguish a crooked stick from straight stick. One can only claim that the straight stick tends to work better for performing certain tasks. :-)


Thomas said...

Thank you, David.

Morality can be seen as a set of emergent theories about how to get what one wants. A crucial part of this is continually changing one's wants for the better.

If this sounds circular I think that's because it is. We solve problems and this leads us to more problems.

A murderer's intentions can be expected to fail. The details will vary, and it may not be obvious to him in the beginning.

e.g. Say he wanted power: well, he's in jail now and consequently pretty powerless.

Say he wanted security: well, even though the police haven't caught him, he is full of remorse and fear for what he has done. He cannot feel secure even in his own company.

It's often my heart that seems to indicate if some course of action is right or wrong. I admit that I usually don't interpret this as the prompting of God, though I could be mistaken about this.

However I acknowledge that the intellect can lead one astray, especially without humility, continual error correction, and the sincere desire to improve.

This view of morality is a practical one, as you suggest, and much of getting what one wants involves practical problem solving.

However being practical isn't enough: I need to choose what to practice, too. Exploration and a sense of adventure are required.

One can learn more about goodness from the works of C.S. Lewis than from the overwhelming majority of atheist philosophers.