Morality of Particles?: Why Physicalism Fails to Account for Objective Morality

Steve Articles, Parents, Youth 2 Comments

Physicalism is the idea that all that exists is particles in motion. 1It is also called materialism and naturalism. Although, technically speaking, they are slightly different from one another, we’ll take them to be synonymous for our purposes here. (Many atheists are physicalists.) According to this belief, whatever exists in this world, if you break it down to its most basic parts, it can be measured by modern science at least theoretically: no god(s), souls, angels, or demons, period. What about objective morality, then? 2From here on, when I say “morality,” I mean “objective morality” unless I qualify otherwise. Can physicalism account for objective morality? In other words, given physicalism, can there be real good/evil and right/wrong, the kind that is valid and binding regardless of people’s opinions? 3Notice that I am not saying whether physicalists can be good people. I am asking whether we can even have objective morality itself on physicalism. I think not.

Value and Duty

In order for morality to make sense, we need at least two things: value and duty. Imagine for a moment what our morality would look like if one of these things were missing. Let’s suppose that we had no moral value. In this case, our duty would become arbitrary. If I were commanded not to torture a little baby for fun, it would not be because that act is evil (since value is missing) but because someone is simply prohibiting me from doing so. The difference between torturing a baby for fun and caring for a baby with love would be the same as driving on the left or right side of the road. We know such a thing to be absurd from our moral experience.

Now, what if, this time, we had moral value but no moral duty? If duty were missing, then all we would have left is the distinction between good and evil. We would not owe to anyone to behave one way or another. This, also, is contrary to our moral experience. After all, all we need to do in order to appreciate this moral dimension to be on the receiving end of some evil act. (We all know that guy who weaves in and out of traffic like he is uniquely entitled to the use of the road while putting everyone else around him in danger.)

Value and Duty on Physicalism

So, then, can physicalism handle value and duty? I think not. First, let’s think about value. Remember I said earlier that, on physicalism, everything can be reduced to particles in motion? Let’s substitute dominos for particles and suppose that we have domino A and domino B. There are at least two scenarios. First, domino A can fall over and knock over domino B. Or else, domino B can fall over and knock over domino A. Now, which scenario is morally superior? Clearly, this question is absurd, because this is a non-moral event—it’s just physics at work. 4Other possible scenarios—no dominos falling over, dominos being too far apart to knock each other over, etc.—don’t change anything in this regard. If we increase the number of dominos, does it change anything? A hundred dominos? A million? A trillion? It would just be more of the same. 5I’ve heard an atheist acquaintance of mine say that rarity gives rise to value. For example, biological life ought to be valued because it is incredibly rare in the universe. Besides, each life is unique in that, once it is destroyed, the same life cannot be restored. However, rarity cannot be the standard by which to measure objective moral value when you can have good acts and evil acts both of which are rare. For example, the Jewish Holocaust was a relatively rare event in world history, and yet everyone agrees that it was evil.

prisoner

What about duty? Again, physicalism fails to account for it. Duty, simply put, is something that you owe, and you can only owe something to a person. Seashells don’t owe you anything, nor do you owe anything to the dinner table. But, if you borrow a book from your friend, you owe it to your friend to return the book. Since, given physicalism, there can be no persons, 6For more on this, I invite you to listen to our Apologetics Canada Podcast episodes on the Zombie Culture. there can be no duty, either.

A bigger problem for physicalism when it comes to value and duty is that physicalism can’t accommodate them in principle. According to physicalism, everything that exists is material things. Yet, value and duty are immaterial things. After all, what is the colour and length of value? Weight of duty? So, then, physicalism rules out a priori such immaterial realities as value, duty, personhood, etc. When these are ruled out, so is morality. 7Remember that I’ve been talking about objective morality. Certainly, we can create our own moral framework—that’s not in question. However, subjective morality suffers from many critical flaws. Here is an interesting interaction between Ravi Zacharias and a questioner at the open forum at the University of Pennsylvania. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0218GkAGbnU In short, if physicalism is true, then morality is out the window.

Notes   [ + ]

1. It is also called materialism and naturalism. Although, technically speaking, they are slightly different from one another, we’ll take them to be synonymous for our purposes here.
2. From here on, when I say “morality,” I mean “objective morality” unless I qualify otherwise.
3. Notice that I am not saying whether physicalists can be good people. I am asking whether we can even have objective morality itself on physicalism.
4. Other possible scenarios—no dominos falling over, dominos being too far apart to knock each other over, etc.—don’t change anything in this regard.
5. I’ve heard an atheist acquaintance of mine say that rarity gives rise to value. For example, biological life ought to be valued because it is incredibly rare in the universe. Besides, each life is unique in that, once it is destroyed, the same life cannot be restored. However, rarity cannot be the standard by which to measure objective moral value when you can have good acts and evil acts both of which are rare. For example, the Jewish Holocaust was a relatively rare event in world history, and yet everyone agrees that it was evil.
6. For more on this, I invite you to listen to our Apologetics Canada Podcast episodes on the Zombie Culture.
7. Remember that I’ve been talking about objective morality. Certainly, we can create our own moral framework—that’s not in question. However, subjective morality suffers from many critical flaws. Here is an interesting interaction between Ravi Zacharias and a questioner at the open forum at the University of Pennsylvania. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0218GkAGbnU

Comments 2

  1. Very good. This is meant to be constructive, not critical, but don’t leave out the “social evolution” fallacy, i.e. collectivism was advantageous and religion helped foster community, etc. Altruism then becomes socially beneficial (insert obligatory bee colony comparison). That argument is of course its own article of faith steeped in confirmation bias, but it needs to be prepared for and addressed as part of a robust apologetic.

    1. Post
      Author

      Hi Jake,

      Thank you for taking the time to give feedback!

      Yes, I agree. Social evolution is probably THE most common response, and it should be dealt with. (We try to keep our blog posts to a certain length, so I didn’t have the space for it.) I would simply say that social evolution does not and cannot dictate the metaphysics on the level of which the grounding of objective morality must be discussed. After all, social evolution can take place on both the physicalistic and the theistic worldview. So, to presuppose physicalism in support of physicalism would be circular reasoning. Even with social evolution, if the metaphysical foundation is naturalism, it’s the dominos all over again. (I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir, though. 🙂 )

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