An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 8

Oy. This chapter was exhausting. Not because it's horrible or anything, but because it's verbose to the point of masturbatory absurdity. The author, Samuel J. Youngs, certainly has a way with words and, to his credit, manages to get in "phlegmatically". Here's a sample of what I'm talking about:
An indifferent universe, an “accidental collocation of atoms,” is by definition a world without meaning, a world where the ships of reasoning and consideration have no horizon by which to plot their course; where the beating hearts of compassion have no higher sun to warm their virtue; where the earth and all its peoples are cast adrift in the cold dregs of harrowing vastness.
Good grief. Not that I don't enjoy creative prose, because I do, but in this chapter it just serves to obfuscate the actual arguments being presented. When you're crafting an argument, it's better to be concise. And in this case, it takes Youngs a good bit of flowery blathering before he gets to the point, which is this: you can't have meaning without God.

As I always do, I'm going to start with the qualifier that I do not expect this book to re-convert me to Christianity; I'm just looking for some clever arguments that will persuade me to rethink some of my key beliefs. But I admit, this is getting kind of boring. I've read CS Lewis, Francis Collins, Alvin Plantinga, John Haught, etc. etc. So far, these guys aren't exactly pulling out anything new. But, I said I would read this book, so read it I shall.

Chapter 8: By It, We See Everything Else – The Explanatory Value of Christianity for Meaning and Ethics

Geez, even the title is verbose. Anyway, for all its verbosity, the chapter's arguments can be summarized as:

  1. On naturalism, there is no intrinsic meaning to life, so there can be no meaning to anything we do
  2. Accordingly, there's no reason to be good toward other people.
See? That's how you do it concisely. But let me throw in some quotes just to illustrate how Youngs actually argues it. Unlike the previous chapters where I would quote a short bit and then respond, the way this chapter is written will make it easier for me to just put all the quotes up front and then respond to his central thesis as a whole.
The response of the naturalist, when faced with honesty, comes across as rather fruitless and depleted. It asks us to accept a universe with indifference at its heart, where no ultimate meaning can be ascribed to anything. What becomes of humanity, of life itself, of interpersonal interactions, in such a situation?
We interact with each other in many ways— and some would argue in every way— as though those interactions have meaning, have significance, have weight. But why should we do this? If the accidental mixing of gases and the meaningless march of blind natural processes are all that can be said for history’s progression, why would I be inclined to interact with others as though they mean something? Why would I be inclined to be kind to them, apologize to them, sacrifice for them, or give to their charities? Yet we do all of these things, and innumerable smaller and more mundane things, as though our actions mean something. 
What’s more, isn’t it interesting that in our examination of any number of studies among chimpanzees which have claimed to detect “pre-moral” sentiments such as altruism and reciprocity, 15 we should have within our human selves inklings and capacities for ranking the chimps’ actions in any ethical way at all? If a naturalist wants to call jumping into the water to save a fellow chimp “moral,” 16 what standard is she using? Where did she get this idea of morality to read back onto said chimps? What’s more, when male chimps attack female chimps who are carrying infants (as has long been documented), 17 what allows us, as humans, to look at that behavior and value it as less good, less seemingly virtuous or moral than chimps trying to save each other from drowning? Where does the mechanism for choosing and discerning among moral options come from? 
A worldview driven solely and slavishly by the discoveries of science will only find itself able to “describe” the world, not explain it, not know it deeply, not understand it. It finds itself without basis or foundation for making moral judgments or lending credence to lives which are saturated with significance, for a significance we mark every time we are hurt, fall in love, seek higher truth, or rail against injustice.

Essentially, Youngs just spends the whole chapter stating that because (on naturalism) there is no intrinsic meaning to anything, including our own existence (true), that nothing can be meaningful to us (false). It's a non-sequitur because it conflates subjective and objective meaning – it says that if the latter does not exist, the former cannot exist either. But that simply does not follow, because they are two very different things.

Rather than devote several paragraphs to debunking an obvious non-sequitur, I'll just let Shelly Kagan do the talking, from his debate with William Lane Craig. This excerpt very nicely summarizes my thoughts on Youngs' chapter.


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