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14: Debate: Is Morality a Mere Emotion That We Project On Others?

Theist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty continue their conversation about basic issues at Theology Unleashed

In the “Does God exist?” debate at Theology Unleashed between theist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty (September 17, 2021), a questioner asks, what underlies morality?

Readers may recall that the debate opened with Egnor explaining why, as former atheist, he became a theist. Then Dillahunty explained why, as a former theist, he became an atheist. Michael Egnor then made his opening argument, offering ten proofs for the existence of God. Matt Dillahunty responded in his own opening argument that the propositions were all unfalsifiable. When, in Section 4, it was Egnor’s turn to rebut Dillahunty, Dillahunty was not easily able to recall Aquinas’s First Way (the first logical argument for the existence of God). Then, turning to the origin of the universe, Egnor challenged Dillahunty on the fact, accepted in science, that our universe began in a singularity (where Einstein’s equations break down). He accused Dillahunty of using science as “a crutch” for his atheism. Then they discussed the Second Oldest Question (after “Why is there something rather than nothing?”) If there is a God, why is there evil?

And then, what is the true origin of our sense of morality? Besides, what if Dillahunty isn’t really an atheist anyway? Egnor has come to doubt that. Egnor and Dillahunty then took questions. The questions included a perennial question, why is there evil?, once again, and Egnor defended the traditional view that evil is absence of good. And how can God show both justice and mercy without contradiction? Then we got past whether singularities are a part of science and another questioner asks, is atheism a belief system? Ah…

But now, what about that whole edifice of morality? What underlies it?

A partial transcript, notes, and links to date follow:

Arjuna [debate host, reading from a listener’s question]: Mike, is it possible that humans evolved a tendency to project prescriptive, moral “oughts” onto others as if it’s objective, but it’s really just emotion? [02:04:00]

Michael Egnor: Morality by its nature implies something that is outside of mere human opinion. Whether we can actually know it, whether we have access to it, is a whole separate question. But morality is something that is objective and outside of human opinion, if it exists. And I think that we — everybody I know — at some level thinks it does exist. We all think that certain things are just right and wrong. [02:04:30]

Matt Dillahunty: Which proves he doesn’t know me.

Arjuna: I think the question is saying, how do we know the ontology of morality? Is it nothing but opinion that happens to have been bred into us through evolution? [02:05:00]

Michael Egnor: Well, my argument is a reduction to absurdity: If you really believe that morality is just an opinion, then you have to believe that the viewpoint that it is wrong to rape babies is merely a matter of opinion. And, hey, I don’t know many people who feel that way. [02:05:30]

Arjuna: Right, a question. Why would God create the world if the world is less than perfect and so would lower the overall perfection of all that exists?Then not everything that exists would be perfect.

Michael Egnor: It’s a good question. Why would God create something that was not perfect? Well, first of all, anything he would create would have to be imperfect because only one thing is perfect, and that’s him. There’s only one of him. So I don’t know why he created the world. I think the Catholic answer is, out of an excess of love. And I don’t know that I understand that, but I think that’s the Catholic answer. [02:06:00]

Arjuna: Right, and again, the Hare Krishna theology would have a different perspective, but a topic for another day.

Set of different stylish furniture for wardrobe isolated on white

Question from Justyn H. for Michael: Can I communicate the design of a cupboard that doesn’t exist to you, and then have you understand and draw up plans based on it? [02:06:30]

Michael Egnor: Of a cupboard? There’s a difference, as Thomas Aquinas. said, between essence and existence. Essence is just a form, and it can be a form of something that actually exists, or it could be a form of something that only exists in your mind. You could describe to me a unicorn and I can draw a unicorn based on your description; that doesn’t mean that a unicorn exists in the outside world as an actual animal. [02:07:00]

Note: The distinction to which the questioner refers is the difference between the abstract form of a thing (essence) and the concrete outcome (existence). In the case of a cupboard, there is a nearly endless varieties of ways we can produce a cupboard. But the abstract idea (a frame in which we can store things out of the way) is the same.

Arjuna: Another question for Matt. How can we know anything if our knowledge is at best probabilistic, since our models are constantly subject to change? [02:08:30]

Matt Dillahunty: First of all, no philosophical model of knowledge holds that it must be absolute. Absolute certainty isn’t required as a component of knowledge, even under justified true belief… I think all knowledge is probabilistic. And I think largely what people are talking about when they say knowledge is a confidence level, because you don’t wait until you have knowledge to act. You act in accordance with your belief. If you believe that this is the case, you act in accordance with that. You can’t help but act in accordance with your beliefs. It’s just that sometimes beliefs come in conflict. So you may be thinking, oh, I’m acting in accordance with this belief when you’re acting with another one. [02:09:00]

Like, I believe it’s wrong to steal, but this person is dying in front of me and there’s a defibrillator in the window. So now I believe that it’s right to borrow or steal that for this, or to take bread, after [Hurricane] Katrina, when people were called looters for taking supplies to survive, that was going to go to waste. The world’s more complicated than all of that. [02:09:30]

Knowledge isn’t defined as certainty. Scientific information, scientific knowledge is probabilistic and tentative. I don’t know that we can actually do any better than that, but as soon as somebody demonstrates that we can do a better, I’m fine with that. We want as high a confidence level as we can. But I think most people, when they say, I believe something, they’re saying, I’m convinced this is likely true. And when they say they know something, what they’re really saying is, I’m really, really, really, really confident that this is true. It would be worldview-altering for me to discover this is false. I think that that’s largely what people mean when they say “knowledge,” in that belief/knowledge context. But if we’re saying the best we can do is to have probabilistic models based on good information, I’m fine with that. I don’t know how we can do better than our best. [02:10:30]

Next (and final): How can a cause and effect occur at the same time?

The complete debate, with transcripts and notes:

Two chess knights facing away from each other
  1. Debate: Former atheist neurosurgeon vs. former Christian activist. At Theology Unleashed, each gets a chance to state his case and interrogate the other. In a lively debate at Theology Unleashed, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and broadcaster Matt Dillahunty clash over the existence of God.
  2. A neurosurgeon’s ten proofs for the existence of God. First, how did a medic, formerly an atheist, who cuts open people’s brains for a living, come to be sure there is irrefutable proof for God? In a lively debate at Theology Unleashed, Michael Egnor and Matt Dillahunty clash over “Does God exist?” Egnor starts off.
  3. Atheist Dillahunty spots fallacies in Christian Egnor’s views. “My position is that it’s unacceptable to believe something if the available evidence does not support it.” Dillahunty: We can’t conclusively disprove an unfalsifiable proposition. And that is what most “God” definitions, at least as far as I can tell, are.
  4. Egnor now tries to find out what Dillahunty actually knows… About philosophical arguments for the existence of God, as he begins a rebuttal. Atheist Dillahunty appears unable to recall the philosophical arguments for God’s existence, which poses a challenge for Egnor in rebutting him.
  5. Egnor, Dillahunty dispute the basic causes behind the universe. In a peppery exchange, Egnor argues that proofs of God’s existence follow the same logical structure as proofs in science. If the universe begins in a singularity (where Einstein’s equations break down), what lies behind it? Egnor challenges Dillahunty on that.
  6. Is Matt Dillahunty using science as a crutch for his atheism? That’s neurosurgeon Michael Egnor’s accusation in this third part of the debate, which features a continued discussion of singularities, where conventional “laws of nature” break down.
    If the “supernatural” means “outside of conventional nature,” Michael Egnor argues, science routinely accepts it, based on evidence.
  7. Dillahunty asks 2nd oldest question: If God exists, why evil? In the debate between Christian neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty, the question of raping a baby was bound to arise.
    Egnor argues that there is an objective moral law against such acts; Dillahunty argues, no, it is all just human judgment.
  8. Does morality really exist? If so, does it come from God? Matt Dillahunty now challenges Michael Egnor: There is no way to know whether a moral doctrine represents any reality apart from belief. Michael Egnor insists that a moral law exists independently of varying opinions. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, that has always been the traditional view worldwide.
  9. Michael Egnor explains why Matt Dillahunty is not an atheist. Not really, anyway, Egnor insists, because he keeps invoking a moral standard that can’t exist if materialist atheism is true. Egnor: I’ve encountered few people who demand as much fairness for themselves as atheists. They don’t live like atheists. They live like theists.
  10. Christian Egnor and atheist Dillahunty now take questions… For example, “ What is Mr. Egnor’s best evidence of any god that would make me believe?” Key questions turned on whether abstractions like “right” or wrong “wrong” represent realities. It’s the perennial realism vs. nominalism question again.
  11. Is evil in the world simply the absence of good? Christian Michael Egnor argues for that view. Then he and atheist Matt Dillahunty clash over whether a cause can be outside of time. Many traditional philosophers have held that evil is the absence of good in the same way that darkness is the absence of light. It has no independent existence.
  12. Egnor vs. Dillahunty: How can God be both just and merciful? After atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty explains his view of morality, an audience member asks neurosurgeon Michael Egnor to explain how a just God can show mercy. Under what circumstances, a debate watcher asks, would it not be contradictory to show both justice and mercy?
  13. Egnor vs. Dillahunty: Are singularities a part of science? Also, an audience member asks the debaters: Does atheism make better predictions than theism? Dillahunty denies that atheism is a single position; Egnor responds that that is a suspect claim because atheist positions are quite predictable.
  14. Debate: Is morality a mere emotion that we project on others? Theist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty continue their conversation about basic issues at Theology Unleashed. Michael Egnor argues that God created the universe, imperfect in relation to himself, out of an excess of love — perhaps so that we all have some type of being.
  15. Debate: How can a cause and effect occur at the same time?? In the broken window analogy, the brick becomes a cause simultaneously with the shattered glass becoming an effect. In the wrap-up, Egnor restates that atheism is not really an argument, just ignorance, and Dillahunty restates that Egnor was attacking him personally.

You may also wish to read these pieces by Michael Egnor:

Science can and does point to God’s existence. Michael Egnor: Natural science is not at all methodologically naturalist — it routinely points to causes outside of nature. If we are to understand natural effects, we must be open to all kinds of causes, including causes that transcend nature.

The Divine Hiddenness argument against God’s existence = nonsense. God in Himself is immeasurably greater than we are, and He transcends all human knowledge. A God with whom we do not struggle — who is not in some substantial and painful way hidden to us — is not God but is a mere figment of our imagination.

Atheist Claims about logical fallacies often just mean: Shut Up! In the recent debate, Matt Dillahunty accuses theists of “the fallacy of the argument from personal incredulity” because we examine his claims and find them incredible. What atheists fear most is having to explain themselves, and the invocation of fictitious “fallacies” is one of their favorite ways to evade scrutiny.

Theists vs. atheists: Which group has the burden of proof? Because Dillahunty refuses to debate me again, I’ll address his claim that atheists have no burden of proof in the debate over God’s existence in this post. Both atheists and theists make positive statements about the nature of the universe. If atheists shun the ensuing burden of proof, it should count against them.


Atheist spokesman Matt Dillahunty refuses to debate me again Although he has said that he finds debates “incredibly valuable,” he is — despite much urging — making an exception in this case. Why? For millennia, theists have thought meticulously about God’s existence. New Atheists merely deny any need to make a case. That’s partly why I dumped atheism.

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14: Debate: Is Morality a Mere Emotion That We Project On Others?