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Monkey business and the problem with the new absolutism

Unsplash/Eugene Zhyvchik
Unsplash/Eugene Zhyvchik

Nearly 20 years ago, pastor William Watkins wrote a book, The New Absolutes, that’s proved to be prophetic regarding the culture wars of 2024.

Watkins observed that the whole postmodern, post-truth, superficially tolerant true-for-you-but-not-for-me movement was a farce. He argued that the societal skirmishes being fought in the political and moral domains were not, in fact, between moral relativists and moral absolutists, but rather between two absolutist camps.

While Watkins chronicled 10 or so examples of the differences between the two warring factions, the foundational distinction between them was that the traditional absolutists had, for the most part, a Christian underpinning while the new absolutists eschewed God and His moral standards. The former had a transcendent and immutable groundwork and the latter an arbitrary, humanistic, and ever-evolving base. 

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Even though it kicked God to the curb, the new absolutism had rejected the typical atheist conclusions reached by Enlightenment thinkers like A. J. Ayer who asserted that any statement that could not be empirically verified should be discarded — including ethical declarations. Technically, Ayer and his peers were correct because once a transcendent cause that delivers meaning and purpose is eliminated, as Dostoevsky famously observed, “Without God, all things are permitted.”

But the new absolutists want none of that — they aspire to have and eat their cake too. But they can’t.  

The reason why was explained in an 1881 letter penned to William Graham by evolutionist Charles Darwin who had thought through the matter of ethics without God and concluded: “With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

Not me.

Talk all you want about the supposed animal world’s benevolence towards itself, it’s not the same thing as right/wrong, good/bad, and Darwin knew it. “Goodness” has nothing to do with anything in the naturalist’s world — everything simply plays out for the survival of the species in their worldview.

Even worse, if Darwin was right, the naturalists can’t even have confidence in believing naturalism is true. Or anything else for that matter.  

The irrationality of naturalism

The footpath of the new absolutists leads to the door of Darwin’s “horrid doubt.” If God isn’t in the picture and everything is time + matter + chance, then the evolved mind of a monkey is what we have and that’s kinda scary. Not only does it make any supposed “new absolutist” ethical statement anything but, it also calls into question how you can believe in anything, including naturalism, in the first place.

Addressing this in a recent article, Dr. William Dembski, commenting on woke ideology, referenced philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s argument against naturalism which is about as airtight as you can get when it comes to making this case.

Plantinga’s reasoning is laid out in 4 steps.

The first point observes that, given the mechanics of naturalism and evolution, the probability of our cognitive faculties being reliable is low (Darwin’s “horrid doubt”). And if our beliefs are selected not based on truth or the validity of their content but rather on their survival worth, there’s little confidence to believe that our cognitive faculties are reliable.

That being the case, the next step argues that any believer in naturalism and evolution should acknowledge that they have a “defeater” (a refutation that undercuts any confidence) for believing their cognitive faculties are reliable.

The third premise argues that if anyone has a defeater against their cognitive faculties being reliable, then they have a defeater for any belief produced by their cognitive faculties, including their belief in naturalism.

I’m betting you can guess the final step.

Therefore, says Plantinga, anyone who believes in naturalism and sees that the probability of their cognitive faculties being reliable is low, has a defeater for the reliability of their belief in naturalism. Meaning, naturalism can still be true, but it cannot be rationally defended.

If you’re reading this, and not a God-believer, but instead a theological mortician, you may be tempted to wave Plantinga’s argument away, but you would be wrong in doing so. Instead, take the advice of renowned atheist philosopher Quentin Smith who penned an article in Philo: A Journal of Philosophy some time back entitled “The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism,” which cited Plantinga’s rigorous style of argumentation and impact on naturalistic thinking. In it, he said:

“The current practice [of naturalism], ignoring theism, has proven to be a disastrous failure. More fully, naturalist philosophers’ pursuit of the cultural goal of mainstream secularization in a philosophically governed way has failed both philosophically (in regard to the philosophical aspects of this philosophically governed pursuit of the cultural goal) and culturally. The philosophical failure has led to a cultural failure.”

Yep. Wrong thinking usually plays out that way.   

In the end, the new absolutism is just the old relativistic thinking with a bully spirit and has, as a book written by Francis Beckwith and Greg Koukl described it, its feet planted in midair. Same old monkey business with the same old disastrously failed outcomes. 

Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.

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