Ophelia Benson has highlighted a wonderful comment on The Internet. The commenter, Sastra, has an insightful idea that ties in nicely with some of the discussions that have been going on here recently.
We’ve been talking on this blog about abstract things like beauty and morality – whether they are objective or not, and what it would mean to say that they are. What would it mean to say that moral rules exist?
I have written, in brief, that such things are not objective. Beauty differs according to who you ask, as does morality. People naively intuit that there are such things as “moral rules,” but these rules are not binding, and therefore amount to no more than strong preferences (and I intend on writing more about this soon).
Yet theists, especially, seem to be unable or unwilling to grasp this. Sastra spoke about this as it relates to the concept of love:
Supernaturalists seem to have a lot of trouble trying to make sense of abstractions and levels of experience: they want to take everything literally, as irreducible substances. Love is only real to them if it’s a thing, a sort of spiritual-substance which is made of neither matter nor energy because it is the immaterial essence of love. Ironically, that makes them super-materialists — spinning material into finer and finer substances until like only comes from like. Love is derived from love. Otherwise, it can only have the same properties that were there in its origin.
Despite their claims to be so comfortable with “higher levels” of reality, supernaturalists are concrete thinkers. They can only make sense of immaterial abstractions by turning them into spirit-things in a spirit-world.
This hits the nail right on the head. For all their alleged theological sophistication, supernaturalists (or theists) show an inability to think in abstract terms. Love is not a concrete thing, it is an interaction between two concrete things – my brain and yours. There is no “essence of love” floating about in some spiritual realm. Even if there were, this wouldn’t explain anything about love. How does the essence of love make its way into my brain, and how does it make me want to spend time with my girlfriend? Couldn’t the photons of light that bounce off of her visage and into my retina, and the atoms of her hand touching mine, do the same? To say that I am touching Love Itself is to create a double-dipping explanation.
The same goes for concepts like beauty and life, even fire and wetness. These words describe a process or an interaction between substances – they are not substances themselves. To say otherwise is to be mired in essentialist thinking.
And thus we return to objectivity. Beauty, being the name I give to a pattern of colors and lines that I find pleasing, cannot be an objective property of a thing because it is dependent on my brain. While it is objectively true that my brain has this reaction to this stimulus, that does not guarantee that your brain will do the same. Nor should I feel the need to force such a reaction on you.
Moral rules stem very much from the desire to force such a reaction on others. I feel that you must not have sex before marriage, therefore you must not! But unlike gravity, there is nothing binding about these laws. So in what sense can they be said to exist? In what sense are they a “thing?”
If you argue with the theist long enough, you will find out that they are not a thing. “Morally wrong” simply means “God told us not to do it, and he will punish us if we do.” This is a concern, to be sure, but it’s also far less than what we were promised. Moral rules are not out there in the universe. They don’t exist, like gravity or paintings exist. They’re just some wants, as expressed by a deity. And “wants,” or things that are “dependent on the mind,” are the definition of subjective.
So I see the phenomenon described by Sastra – that supernaturalists ironically think in very concrete terms – as stemming from two things. Either they are unable to think in the more complicated terms of processes and interactions (rather than concrete “things”), or they resist doing so because it would force them to hold a more accurate view of the universe, in which God isn’t necessary, and the idea of him cannot be used to control others.