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Whatever problems that may attend classical theism, Smith's Objectivist philosophy does not enable him to point them out.  The following is a critique of his popular compendium of atheistic argumentation, Atheism: The Case against God, the complete text of which is available for free download here.  For the transcript of a 1991 radio debate between the author of this book and a Christian apologist, go here.

Anthony Flood

September 3, 2011

 

 

The Fatal Flaws of George Smith's

Atheism: The Case against God

 

Anthony Flood

 

While a critique of atheistic philosophies cannot substitute for the task of providing a satisfactory theistic philosophy, it may clear the way for it in the minds of those who are persuaded by one atheistic philosophy or another.

A fatally flawed philosophy is incapable of grounding a critique of theism or any other philosophy.  The former's champion may hit upon a fruitful line of criticism, but must leave developing it to others.  Atheism: The Case Against God  (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1979), George Smith’s compendium of anti-Christian argumentation, is fatally flawed. Its metaphysics of “natural necessity,” epistemology of “reason,” and ethics of “life” (or “happiness”) together constitute the philosophy that he adduces in support of “critical atheism.”  By its internal incoherence it disqualifies itself from being a reasonable basis for affirming or denying anything.

 

1. Smith’s Metaphysics: the “Natural, Knowable Universe”

    “I shall use the term ‘god’ generally to designate any supernatural or transcendent being,” Smith stipulates, “and when I claim not to believe in a god, I mean that I do not believe in anything ‘above’ or ‘beyond’ the natural, knowable universe” (32). We encounter the latter term again later:

“While the particulars of knowledge differ among men, all men gain knowledge within one broad context: the context of the natural, knowable universe” (229).

Despite Smith’s claim that the atheist has no onus of proof, his definition of “god” seems to lay one on him. Smith’s “absence of theistic belief” is filled by his belief in “the natural, knowable universe.”

The atheist as such does not have a burden of proof, but the atheist as naturalist surely does. Smith’s defense of naturalism is merely an exercise in stipulation. Smith asserts that the knowable is to be exhaustively identified with what is “natural.” From that assertion it follows that anything putatively “supernatural” would be unknowable even if it should perchance exist. Smith cannot conduct an exhaustive inventory of all existing things only to find God missing, so it is understandable that he would resort to postulating that all possible existence is “natural” and then infer that God’s existence is impossible. Postulation, however, is not demonstration: Smith cannot know that the “natural universe” exhausts all there is to be known if he does not know all there is to be known, that is, if Smith is not God.

 

Presupposing Naturalism

Smith claims that explanation is possible only if it is true that all that exists is natural process:

“The controversy between naturalism and supernaturalism is not a contest between two rival modes of explanation; it is not a matter of which provides a better explanation. Rather, it is an issue of explanation versus no explanation whatsoever. It is an issue of the knowable versus the unknowable” (213).

“Supernaturalism,” the view that natural process is not all there is, negates causality, logical necessity, explanation, and therefore knowledge:

“To exist beyond the sphere of natural law means to exist beyond the scope of human knowledge; epistemological transcendence is a corollary of supernaturalness. If a god is a natural being, if his actions can be explained in terms of normal causal relationships, then he is a knowable creature. Conversely, if god can be known, he cannot be supernatural” (38).

Further:

“The theist wishes us to conceive of a being exempt from natural law but no theist has ever explained how we can conceive of existence other than ‘natural’ existence. ‘Natural existence’ is a redundancy; we have no familiarity with ‘unnatural’ existence, or even a vague notion of what such existence would be like” (39-40).

Smith apparently does not feel the need to justify naturalism: self-sufficient “nature” is just what the word “existence” means. (Atheistic naturalism is merely an implication of ordinary English usage!) Since he does not have concrete knowledge of all existence, however, Smith can only dogmatically assert that “existence” means “all that is humanly knowable,” i.e., “natural existence is the only knowable existence.” By Smith’s fiat, apparently, “existence” is correlative to his knowing.

 

Existence versus Existents

Yet Smith also identifies “Existence” with “Nature” and “Matter,” which terms usually refer to that which is not correlative to human knowing, but rather independent of it. Smith seems unable to avoid pronouncing on matters that, as a finite individual, he can know nothing about.

“For the atheist, the universethe totality of existenceis a metaphysical primary and, as such, cannot require explanation. The natural, knowable universe provides the context in which all explanations are possible, so to demand an explanation for the universe is epistemologically absurd” (230).

Smith offers no reason for identifying the totality of existence with the universe, i.e., the physical cosmos, or with anything else for that matter. He is not in a position to make statements like, “The totality of material entities and processes exhausts the totality of existence” (unless he were God; but the existence of God, even if Smith were He, would contradict that statement).

Smith then implicitly ascribes a substantive nature to existence, even though he elsewhere implies that only concrete things are substances:

“A causal primary . . . is the metaphysical basis for the concept of causality. It does not require explanation, because it makes explanation possible; it is the basis of all causal interactions.  Existence, the causal primary, is presupposed by all causal processesall motion and changeand therefore must be regarded as existing eternally” (241).

It seems that by “existence” he does not mean the being of every individual thing, for each of them perishes. Perhaps he means his imagined totality of Matter out of which each of the many particular existents come and into which they eventually disappear. This, however, is equivocation: he fallaciously uses “existence” to refer both to the being of the great multitude of impermanent things and to the permanent Being of the “eternal” totality or “causal primary.”

 

Universal Natural Law

For Smith, there cannot be “a being exempt from natural lawa being that does not fall within the domain of scientific explanation” (39). But the latter method of explanation, which consists in a set of operations, cannot legislate what may or may not exist. The method may presuppose that its field of investigation is law-governed and therefore cannot discover something not law-governed, i.e., a chance happening. If there were something not bound by natural law, that method could neither acknowledge it nor say that it could not exist.

Smith asserts that Nature exhibits universal regularity:

“Natural law pertains to the presence of regularity in the universe, and, for this reason, it is sometimes referred to as the ‘uniformity of nature.’ Entities behave according to specific causal conditions, and we know that an object will not suddenly disappear or act in an incredible manner without an explanation or causal antecedent.  Given the right conditions, an acorn will grow into a tree; it will not mysteriously transform itself into a pumpkin, a snowball, or a theologian” (40).

What seems to perpetuate mystery in the name of science are naturalistic, evolutionary cosmologies which maintain that virtually amorphous Matter is the source of all diverse particularity. Finite in spatial location and temporal duration, however, Smith could never know this.

“Natural law is based on the limited nature of existence,” Smith reveals. “Every entity has a specific nature, specific characteristics, that determine the capacities of that entity” (40).

Here Smith twice uses the word “nature” to denote “essence.”  The totality of essences or “natures” is Nature, that is, Existence or the totality of things that exist (existents). But if “every entity has a specific nature” and therefore specific capacities, then the Universe is a Many really and a One only nominally. But then Smith could not justify his statement, “every entity has a specific nature,” unless he had an infallibly cognitive, i.e., divine, grasp of each and every entity.

Smith conceptually unifies all “existents” by appeal to the unifying utility of the term “Existence.” He does this, however, only by ignoring his own sense-based theory of knowledge acquisition, which we shall examine presently, for Existence is not a possible object of sense perception. If Smith believes the “universe” consists of particular entities, then he may say that “Existents exist,” but not (following Ayn Rand) that “Existence exists,” for unlimited Existence (or Nature, or Matter), is not a “natural entity” and therefore by Smith’s own reasoning could not exist.

 

What’s the Matter with Matter?

Undaunted, however, Smith confounds confusion by saying that the “existence of matter is unconditionalthere is nothing else for it to depend on.” (250) He says that “Existence . . . is presupposed by all causal processes . . . and therefore must be regarded as existing eternally.”

“Existence,” we surmise, is Smithian for “Matter,” but also, when it suits him, it stands for the “metaphysical basis for the concept of causality.” (241) So what possible meaning could the term “the existence of matter” have in Smith’s thought? How can Matter both have Existence and be Existence?  If particular, concrete entities exist, then Matter cannot.  Matter is eternal and unconditional, and Smith has told us that such things are unknowable.

Indeed, the natural, material universe is what Smith would call a “supernatural” being that bears several divine attributes:

(1)  it is exempt from natural law,

(2)  it does not enter into any normal causal relationships, but is rather the precondition of causality and the presupposition of causal explanation,

(3)  it had no beginning in time, and

(4)  is not limited by anything outside itself, i.e., it is infinite.

(Smith implicitly reserves omniscience for himself: how else could he believe he knows these four statements? Perhaps Smith is a polytheist.)

If to “exist is to exist as something, and to be something is to possess specific, determinate characteristics” (260), then the natural universe does not exist. By Smith’s own criteria, no reference to Matter, Nature, the Universe, or the Totality of Existence ought to be intelligible.

 

2. Smith’s Epistemology: Reason, Self-Evidence and Faith

Smith claims that truth is the central issue of Atheism:  “Throughout most of this book,” he writes, “we shall be concerned with one question and one question only: Should theism be accepted as true?” (28). Such an inquiry presupposes a grasp of truth, but Smith’s philosophy makes knowledge of truth impossible.

“The conflict between Christian theism and atheism,” Smith writes, “is fundamentally a conflict between faith and reason. This, in epistemological terms, is the essence of the controversy. Reason and faith are opposites, two mutually exclusive terms: there is no reconciliation or common ground. Faith is belief without, or in spite of, reason” (98)” Again:

“One atheist defines faith as ‘the commitment of one’s consciousness to beliefs for which one has no sensory evidence or rational proof’” (100).

And, in case you missed it:

“This is the essence of faith: to consider an idea as true even though it cannot meet the test of truth, to consider an idea as having a referent in reality while rejecting the process by which man knows reality” (123).

And what is this process?

“‘Reason,’ to quote Ayn Rand, ‘is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses.’ It is by abstracting the immediately given concretes of his experience into concepts, and integrating these into still wider concepts, that man acquires knowledge and surpasses the ability of lower life forms” (102).

But Smith has not shown, and I challenge anyone to show, that higher “life forms” know the law of contradiction or the existence of a mind-independent world by abstracting from “immediately given concretes,” or even that those “concretes” are “immediately given” in the first place. That law and that objectivity, Smith tells his readers, may be “self-evident” or otherwise certain, but I cannot see how we can know them by means of reasoning as Smith defines it. The law of contradiction is a truth “for which one has no sensory evidence or rational proof.” It matters not that that law is presupposed in all proof: to accept “self-evidence” as a “test of truth” is to “reject the process by which man knows reality” as Smith has identified that process. Man appropriates both “without reason,” i.e., by “faith.”

If, as Smith believes, reason is man’s only means of acquiring knowledge, then a man does not know a truth if he did not reason to it, however incorrigibly he may believe it. Yet, he says, we “accept the laws of logic because we must accept them; they are self-evident and necessarily true” (144). Two pages later, he says that we “accept the premise of an external world in the name of necessity, intelligibility and consistency, not in the name of ‘faith’” (146). But the laws of logic and the fact of an external world, i.e., a world that exists independently of the human mind that thinks about it, are two examples of truths not arrived at by reason, i.e., by abstraction from sensory material.

Even if I were to grant Smith’s “reason” the benefit of the doubt, it remains a mystery how he could know anything about “reason” itself by means of abstracting, identifying, and integrating sensorially given concretes. I submit that he believes in “reason” by “faith” as he defines both. Thus we have before us a major tenet of his humanistic credo:

“Explicit atheism is the consequence of a commitment to rationality – the conviction that man’s mind is fully competent to know the facts of reality, and that no aspect of the universe is closed to rational scrutiny. Atheism is merely a corollary, a specific application, of one’s commitment to reason” (98).

In other words, before he knows anything by means of “reason,” Smith feels an extra-rational commitment to this means of knowledge, a subrational conviction, that all facts are knowable: “no aspect of the universe is closed to rational scrutiny.” This conviction is the fountainhead, not the product, of Smith’s “reason,” a faith that both informs and sets the parameters of his reasoning. This falsifies his belief that “it is logically impossible to reconcile reason and faith” (101). What is logically impossible is for one to reason to a single judgment without already believing that reality is exhaustively intelligible.

As Smith equivocated on “existence,” so does he also on “reason,” by which he means not only the “faculty” of sense-data integration, but also a norm of thinking. A belief that is “based on reason” is guided by evidence, internally coherent, and consistent with other knowledge (110), norms that presuppose the operation and validity of the laws of logic. A “reason” in this case is not a faculty of conception, but a justification for belief. “Reason” as justification is something Smith does not give for his belief in “reason” as faculty. He simply declares, apparently after extrapolating from what he thinks he knows about his own mind, that “man’s mind is fully competent” to know reality exhaustively (98) Unfortunately, I could find no attempt to justify that extrapolation.

 

Abstraction and Concept-Formation

     Not only can Smith’s reason not know itself, it cannot know anything at all. It cannot know the law of contradiction, for it is not a sensorially given concrete. But without that law, there is no “necessity, intelligibility, and consistency,” in “the name of” which Smith “accepts” the external world. But even in the case of knowledge of physical objects, a theory of knowledge grounded in abstraction guarantees only ignorance, an ironic implication of a philosophy that would portray Christian theology as pious skepticism. Here is Smith’s account:

“Man retains his knowledge in the form of concepts. Beginning with the perceptually given concretes of his sensory experience, man forms concepts through a mental process of abstraction and integration. He abstracts, or mentally ‘lifts out,’ common characteristics of observed existents, and integrates these characteristics into a single mental unit, a concept, which is used thereafter as an open-ended classification subsuming an unlimited number of concretes of a particular kind” (137).

Was this divinely revealed to Smith? Where is his warrant for saying that reality is constituted by “concretes,” discrete “existents” whose reality is “perceptually given” or “observed”? If those concretes are only the pluralistic appearance of an ultimately monistic reality, Smith’s epistemology is without a foundation. As an Aristotelian-Randian, he must categorize knowing before answering the question, “How do you know?” But that requires a theory of existence before a theory of knowledge. I could find none in his book that would serve his purpose.

If concepts are products of abstraction, they cannot also inform that activity. Unless “reason” is already equipped with a concept of a characteristic common to two “observed existents,” “reason” cannot “abstract” it from them. If Smith believes that the characteristics leap out of the objects into the mind and then integrate themselves, he should say so. In any case, the mind cannot “lift” them out (Smith’s metaphor) without a criterion of choice. The mind indeed classifies them, but only by means of its already operative grasp of universality. Smith says the characteristics pertain to “observed existents” and, in the same sentence, are subject to mental “integration,” suggesting a remarkable telekinesis.

Finally, how many existents must one “observe” and “abstract” from before one can certify that one has an “open-ended classification” that can subsume an “unlimited number of concretes of a particular kind”? The inference of a universal statement from the observation of a few particulars suggests the so-called problem of induction, for which Smith nowhere even hints at a solution.

 

Irrational Volition in a Rational Universe

     For Smith, concept-formation, unlike perception, is not an automatic, physiological process, but has a “volitional” factor. As Smith quotes Rand: “Man is a being of volitional consciousness. Man has to acquire knowledge by his own effort, which he may exercise or not, and by a process of reason, which he may apply correctly or not. Nature gives him no automatic guarantee of his mental efficacy; he is capable of error, of evasion, of psychological distortion” (136-37).

There is no “natural law” of concept-formation. Man is one with nature, a part of nature, a product of nature, and yet . . . he isn’t!  He is “free” to evade, err, distort.  Once again, the advocate of the One (Nature, Law, Determinism) attempts to come to terms with the Many (Freedom, Contingency, Indeterminism). A volition is a non-necessary, contingent, or “chance” occurrence: “To say that something exists contingently makes sense only within the sphere of volitional action” (251).  I take it he does believe it makes sense there at least.  Not twenty pages later, however, we read that with “every natural phenomenon” there are “natural causes operating according to natural necessity” (270). Therefore volition is not only non­necessary, but also non-natural and therefore nonexistent, right?

Not if Smith can help it.

Smith believes both that “every natural phenomenon” is governed by natural necessity and that human volitions are “contingencies,” i.e., not so governed. Human agency both must be understood and cannot be understood in terms of natural necessity. Smith writes: “we might say that a building exists contingently, meaning that, if certain men had decided to act differently, the building would never have been constructed. With this exception, however, the idea of contingent existence has no application. Everything exists necessarily” (251).

Some “exception”! Unfortunately for Smith, there can be no exceptions to true universal statements. The statement “Everything exists necessarily” is either true or false. It is false if the billions of actions that carry out human decisions daily are “contingent.” The contingent is the non-necessary, that which might happen or might not happen. If the universe is exhaustively describable in terms of natural law, then there is nothing that might not have happened, including any given human action. The “mental effort” that allegedly goes into concept formation is therefore no more “free” from natural law than is the physiology of perception or digestion.

Smith implies that contingency is not just any sort of conditioned occurrence. After all, an earthquake that ruins a building site can prevent construction just as surely as can a financial decision. But the metaphysics of universal natural necessity cannot distinguish physical from financial impediments. Smith seems aware of the problem: “volition, properly understood, does not mean that man’s thoughts and actions are uncaused; it means, instead, that with regard to some thoughts and actions (excluding such things as reflex actions), man acts as a primary causal agent; man is the cause. Volition entails man’s freedom to choose among existing alternatives, his choices not being determined by factors beyond his control” (293).

But to say that volitions are “not uncaused,” because “man is the cause” only shifts the site of the problem instead of solving it. Smith says volition “means that man is the initiator of thought and action” (292-93). But what is this “primary causal agent” and “initiator of thought and action” he calls “man”? Is he the “physical organism who perceives through physical sense organs” (160), a “particular molecular composition,” the aggregate of certain “atomic constituents” which, when they unbind, dissolve “the substance of man”? (251) It is hard to see how a concept of personal, purposeful agency can survive Smith’s thorough­going materialism.

Evidence of his materialism abounds:

“Matter and energy are the basic constituents of the natural universe. . . . .” (246).

“. . . [T]he concept of ‘matter’ is essential to our concept of ‘being’” (67).

“. . . [T]he existence of matter is unconditional . . . .” (250).

“Our senses are simply physical organs with no will of their own . . . . They simply transmit sensations according to their physiological characteristics, which our brains then automatically integrate into percepts” (155).

“. . . [P]erception involves a chain of physiological events” (158).

“. . . [M]an is a physical organism who perceives through physical sense organs. These sense organs operate according to specific physiological processes determined by their nature” (160).

“When we say that a man ceases to exist, we mean that a particular molecular composition and its corresponding attributes no longer exists . . . . [T]he substance of man, the irreducible atomic constituents that com­prise man, do not depend on anything . . . . they simply exist” (251).

Now unless Smith is exempting himself by reason of his divinity, the above description must apply to him as well. If he is but a molecular composition, we should not take any of his arguments seriously until he shows us how impersonal molecules, subject to physical law, can perform the nonphysical task of drawing inferences. Reasoning occurs under the impetus to discover truth; molecular motion, under the impetus of other molecules. If the particles into which a man can be exhaustively analyzed, without remainder, are subject to “natural necessity,” then there is no “contingency” either in their individual operation or in their interaction (unless Smith believes that “natural necessity” can issue in “supernatural contingency”).

If all that exist are physical bodies, then no part of man can both escape causal influence and also exercise such influence “volitionally.” Only by his own divine fiat can Smith bridge the realms of Nature and Freedom. Like the Christian God, Smith’s “man” is an “uncaused cause,” the legislator of universal law who is not subject to it, i.e., to “factors beyond his control.” Smith thus oscillates between his unstable dual commitments both to law-transcending volition and to volition-prohibiting law.

The idea of the contingent “has no application,” Smith declares: “We speak of ‘chance’ when we are unaware of all relevant factors. . . . The concept of ‘chance’ is epistemological, not metaphysical” (261). Now unless he is God, and therefore aware of “all relevant factors,” how can he justify these remarks? If he says volitions are not caused, he only turns our attention to some mysterious and uncaused “initiator of thought and action.” Now if one disconfirming particular suffices to falsify a universal statement, then billions of volitions surely add up to a massive refutation of the doctrine of “universal natural necessity.” But Smith cannot find by a method consistent with his epistemology any “man” inside the human organism that transcends that necessity and is therefore “free.”

 

Can Matter “Abstract”?

     Is “abstraction” a material process? Is the “lifting out” of common characteristics physical or mental? Smith says it is “mental” (131) and puts scare quotes around “lifts out” in order to eliminate any suggestion of violent telekinesis. But a materialist theory of consciousness and abstraction is no easier to defend than a naturalistic theory of liberty.

Smith says that “‘Consciousness refers to the state of awareness exhibited by particular living organisms” (67), yet it is also that to which an “axiomatic concept” refers and is therefore incapable of proof (138). How an organism, i.e., an arrangement of molecules, “exhibits” awareness, Smith does not say. Neither does he explain how he could have arrived at this theory, presumably itself an instance of knowledge, by means of abstraction.  Nor does he explain how he “accessed” the contents of other consciousnesses in order to “lift out” all the “efforts” at abstraction allegedly common to them. Indeed, it is a wonder how Smith’s epistemology allows him to know that even one consciousness exists, even his own, since it provides no material for his senses and therefore cannot be an object of reasonable affirmation.

For Smith the laws of logic are “self-evident” presuppositions of thinking: each thinker “has to discover the rules of thought, the laws of logic, to direct his thinking” (137). But such a “discovery” does not seem to square with his theory of concepts. On what ground does he know the “discoveries” will not vary from mind to mind? Is this not just one more assumption we must grant Smith so he can make his “case”?

 

How Can Concepts Be “Axiomatic”?

     Smith claims that the intelligibility of all thought and speech depend upon “axiomatic” concepts. He writes: “it is logically impossible to have an infinite regress of concepts; there must be a fundamental underpinning, a foundation to set the context. This foundation, for Rand, consists of axiomatic concepts. These are the foundations of man’s knowledge” (138). “Axiomatic concepts” allegedly satisfy the need to terminate the process of justification.

“An axiomatic concept,” Smith cites Rand, “is the identification of a primary fact of reality, which cannot be analyzed, i.e., reduced to other facts or broken into component parts. It is implicit in all facts and in all knowledge. It is the fundamentally given and directly perceived or experienced, which requires no proof or explanation, but on which all proofs and explanations rest.” Any attempt to deny them commits the “Fallacy of the Stolen Concept,” which Nathaniel Branden defined as “using a concept while ignoring, contradicting or denying the validity of the concepts on which it logically and genetically depends” (139).

Smith ought, however, to have provided an argument to show (a) how a chain of justification can impute truth about reality to any link in that chain and (b) how one can know anything about logical dependency or independence in an exhaustively material universe. Also, if a concept is the product of abstraction, as Smith has already defined it, then that which is not such a product cannot also be called a “concept” without equivocation. Calling a belief “axiomatic” does not remove from it the stigma of “faith.” Although the self-refutation of skepticism (“I know that I know nothing”) implies that there is indeed inescapable knowledge, mere awareness of that fact cannot serve as a theory of knowledge.

It is interesting that while Smith admits that “it is logically impossible to have an infinite regress of concepts; there must be a fundamental underpinning, a foundation to set the context,” he doesn’t see that that is exactly why many Christian philosophers believe there is a first cause: it is logically impossible to have an actual infinite regress of anything, whether concepts or causes.

 

3. Smith’s Ethics: The Irrationality of Obeying God

     Smith explicitly holds that it is irrational to ground an ethics in obedience to God’s commandments; yet he also maintains, interestingly enough, that if the Christian God exists, it would be rational for a human being to believe all that He tells him, including moral precepts. Smith is on record as saying that it is reasonableness itself to take God at His Word if one believes one has such a Word:

“Working from the premise that an omniscient, infallible being exists and that this being has revealed a proposition to man, it is a short, logicaland uncontroversialstep to conclude that this proposition is worthy of belief. . . . If the proposition comes from an infallible, nondeceitful God, it cannot be false; therefore, it must be true” (172).

Yet Smith argues that even if we presuppose “that a god exists, there is nothing intrinsic to the idea of disobedience” to divine commands “that requires a negative evaluation” (302). That is, if God commands you that you must do something, it doesn’t follow that you should do it, although in some sense it is “worthy of belief.”  But let us look more closely at what Smith means by “rational” ethics.

 

Moral “Ought” vs. Instrumental “Ought”

Ethics is, according to Smith, a “normative science” (281) seeking “to discover human values, classify them, and integrate them into a coherent system of principles that is used to guide men’s choices and actions” (280). Smith notes that “many sciences other than ethics,” medicine and architecture among them, “are concerned with ought judgments,” (281) that is, judgments not only about what is, but also about what one ought to do. Smith denies any unbridgeable gap between facts and values, between “is” and “ought” (unless, of course, the fact is a divine command). Knowledge of value is at once factual knowledge, as is knowledge of the relationship of means to ends. If something is good, then that is a fact and if one wants to enjoy that good one to ought fulfill the necessary conditions of that enjoyment.

Nothing could be more obviousor ethically useless. When we ask ourselves, “Am I doing the right thing?,” we are not asking about the most efficient means to achieve an end, but rather about the value of the end itself and of its pursuit. Ethics critically examines proposed ends and studies means only as intermediate ends. “Man has the capacity for choice,” Smith declares, “and whenever a theoretical principle is applied to the sphere of human action, it becomes necessary to prescribe a course of action, an ought judgment, if a given goal is to be achieved” (282). But if a human being is composed exhaustively of atoms (251), each of which is governed by “natural necessity” (270), it does not seem possible that he can cause such a contingent or nonnecessary event as a “choice” (251).

In addition to this metaphysical difficulty, there remains Smith’s confusion of instrumental with moral judgment. Knowing that a means will bring about an end does not entail knowing that one ought to bring it about. “An architect ought to do x, if he wants his building to stand,” says Smith (282). And y if, like Howard Roark, he does not want it to stand. But the moral issue of whether to create or to destroy is not primarily a question of the efficiency of means.

 

“Life”

In his attempt to smuggle Freedom into Nature, Smith bestows ethical dignity upon biological fact. “The first relevant aspect of human nature is an obvious one: man is a living entity, a biological organism, who faces the alternative of life or death. As Rand has emphasized, it is this conditional nature of life, “that generates the concept of ‘value.’” (283) But it is not “obvious,” apart from presupposing naturalism, that biology yields the “first relevant aspect of human nature.” What does seem obvious is that biology does not reveal morally relevant values at all. A biological entity does not “face” moral alternatives: either it lives or it dies.

“Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generating action,” Rand wrote. “If an organism fails in that action, it dies” (283)” But all that means is that one fact follows another by impersonal, natural necessity. Expanding on Rand, Smith writes:

“When we say that water is of value to a plant, for example, we mean that water is conducive to the life of that plant . . . . The water will, in fact, save the life of the plant, so to say that water is of value to the plant is to describe a fact of reality” (283, 284).

Yes, but not a moral fact, for plants are not choice-making agents. They cannot ponder alternative courses of action. That water is “of value” to a plant or to a human being is devoid of ethical significance in itself.

“Conditional existence” does not imply moral value. That is, if we grant that x is conditioned, it does not follow that x’s conditions morally ought to be fulfilled. Discovering facts of nature will not tell us whether or not they ought to be. A sandcastle, a plant, a dog, and a man are all conditioned arrangements of molecules that act, in Smith’s universe, by natural necessity without a tincture of the contingency of choice or volition. No moral significance attaches to the generation or corruption of this or that material entity.

If biological survival were an ethical “standard,” we could not measure the value of survival itself against other values which might be realized at the cost of survival.  For there may be values that we fervently wish to realize, even when one condition of their realization is that we are not around to enjoy them. The last act of a happy man may indeed be the sacrifice of his life so that others might live, the forfeiting of a great good for a greater.

Smith’s attempt to root ethics in nature (perhaps thinking that this will secure its “rational,” i.e., nonsupernatural, character) must backfire.  If Smith is entangled in Nature, he logically cannot enter the realm of Freedom, responsible choice, volition, or contingency. He is reduced to asserting both poles of the antinomy that imprisons him:

“Like all existing things . . . man has a specific nature; and like all living organisms, his nature requires a specific means of survival. Unlike other life forms, however, man has the capacity for choice. While other life forms respond to their environment on the automatic level of sensations or perceptions, man’s distinctive power of conceptualization permits him to deliberate before acting. . . . [M]an has the capacity to evaluate the alternatives confronting him; and the volitional, goal-directed action of man is motivated by his evaluations.” (284)

Man’s “nature” is therefore both a product of and an exception to Nature: the evolution of the contingency of choice out of a universe of natural necessity allegedly increased man’s chance of survival. But if natural necessity is universal, then the contingency of human choice is a deceptive appearance, a nonoccurrent “exception.” Man is deluded if he believes he “evaluates,” and his “evaluations” are no more significant morally than are his instincts. If he opts for the reality of freedom, then he must forfeit universal causality and “natural necessity.” But Smith’s epistemology entitles him to neither pole of the antinomy (and logically no one is entitled to both).

 

“Happiness”

     The metaphysical context for ethics, we were told, has been set by the survival requirements for man. To avoid the appearance of imputing rights to animals, he introduces “happiness” (or “well-being”) as the ultimate goal for which man acts and the standard by which he measures actions taken to achieve it. Unfortunately, Smith does not show how happiness in the sense of well-being can emerge out of a universe of “natural necessity.”

Smith does not define “happiness” at all, but his treatment of it suggests that there is no way to rationally criticize present desire. Smithian happiness seems to consist in the enjoyment of all the goods he now thinks he wants to enjoy.  Smith does admit that it “is possible . . . for a man to value things (in a subjective sense) that are not in fact of value to him (in an objective sense)” (285). But such a belief would require a standard of objective value not tied to the satisfaction of present desire. “If x is of value to man (a fact), then man ought to value and pursue x (a normative judgment) if he wants to further his life and well-being (a goal)” (286). But he still has not told his reader in what “well-being” consists, how he knows x truly “furthers” it, or even that his well-being is an ethical goal, if consists only of fulfilled desires.

Rand says that ethics “is an objective, metaphysical necessity of man’s survival” (286), but certain men have survived quite nicely, even thrived, while violating every imaginable ethical precept. Of course, if everyone violates every precept at the same time, civilized society is impossible. But then we seem to require an argument for taking the view of “society.”  Whose time preference "counts"? The “unethical” individual depends on others to support the patterns of civilized living for him. Any individual may ask: why should I be ethical? Why should I forego the short-term gains that an immoral action would bring if I think I can get away with it? That’s the question Smith must answer.

Smith says he “shall posit ‘happiness’ as man’s ultimate value,” without defining it or asking how one knows whether certain activities lead to it. “I shall offer happiness as a hypothetical goal. In other words, a man desires happiness, then he ought to be concerned with those conditions, those values, that are conducive to man’s happiness” (286). These formulations suggest that he does not know, with certainty, that happiness is man’s ultimate value, for if man by nature desires happiness, it is misleading to treat it hypothetically.

“Ethics . . . is concerned with the facts of value as those facts relate to the pursuit of man’s long-range happiness.” (287; my emphasisA.F.) Now Smith is referring to an individual’s happiness. But why is “long-range happiness” the concern of ethics? What if I do not have a long-range perspective because, say, I am terminally ill and have six months to live? May I then lie, steal, or kill to satisfy as many of my desires as possible in my remaining time if I’m sure I can avoid retaliation?  If I do not cease to exist when I am pronounced medically deadand Smith has provided no basis for ruling out this possibilitythen must my rational concern with my long-range happiness take my post mortem existence into account?  Answers to these questions are not even raised, let alone answered, in Smith’s book.

 

Conclusion

We rest our case: Smith’s naturalism, doctrine of reason, theory of concept formation, and ideas of volition and of happiness provide no footing whatsoever for a philosophical assault on classical theism or on any other philosophy.*  

*This essay modifies a portion of a paper written in 1989.