An Argument from Morality and Meaning

By Matthew L. Halsted

Can meaning and morality come from a purely naturalistic-materialistic worldview? I think this is an important question. First, let’s define the terms. When we say “naturalistic-materialistic worldview,” what is meant is the belief that all there is to reality is the natural process of matter interacting with each other. That is, “naturalism” is the idea that all reality is, well, nature and natural processes. Materialism, moreover, is the idea that all reality can boiled down to mere matter (i.e., physical stuff). There is no supernatural realm or anything. It’s a sort of “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” reality. But can this view of reality, this worldview, account for things we know to be true, things everyone—atheists included—hold dear to their hearts? I don’t think it does for reasons given below.

First, if materialism is true, then all things, including people, are nothing more than a highly complex clump of cells, atoms, and the like. But if that’s the case, how can anyone look upon another person and say, “That person has dignity, worth, and meaning”? A naturalist might say that “meaning” is something made up by each person. That is, things like individual worth and meaning are prescribed by people. A few thoughts about this idea are needed. First, this answer is perfectly understandable in a materialistic/naturalistic worldview—meaning and worth and dignity would all, it seems, be up to each person. The idea of an “objective reality” or “transcendent reality” is for the naturalist non-existent (there is nothing, after all, but the physical universe). Because there is no supernatural (i.e., “beyond the natural realm”) which transcends the physical universe, it seems subjectivity must come along and fill in the gap. (By “subjectivity,” I mean the view that a person’s meaning, worth, etc., are all up to the person, each and every “subject.”)

Second, there is a dilemma in this worldview. If, for instance, “meaning” and “worth” and “dignity” are all up to each and every individual, then what prevents another individual from coming along and saying the exact opposite? For instance, consider the following statement: “My son’s life has worth and meaning and dignity—all because I say it is so; therefore, it would be wrong to harm him or her and impede his life from being full and happy.” But what prevents someone else (a crazy man, say) from coming along and saying, “No, I disagree. I don’t think your son has worth or dignity or meaning whatsoever—all because I say so.” The difficulty here is that the parent can’t appeal to any over-arching, objective standard to refute the man’s statement. After all, the crazy man is doing the same thing as the parent, namely, making a subjective claim regarding the child’s worth and dignity and meaning. The problem with any and all subjective approaches to this issue is that it is, by definition, not objective. When people’s lives are reduced down to the mere personal opinions of individuals, then society will break down. The fact is that every life is meaningful, dignified, and has worth—not on the basis of subjective truth that could vary from person to person, but upon objective truth that transcends everyone. But under a materialistic-naturalistic worldview, people are nothing more than complex arrangements of cells, molecules, etc. There is nothing transcendent, nothing objective by which events occurring within the physical universe can be properly judged. And let’s make no mistake about it: under a materialistic worldview, everything is merely a physical event. In fact, the human race itself is a chance phenomenon of physical properties coming together over a period of billions of years. You and I (and our children), under this worldview, are nothing more than the result of lots of unguided events, happening all by chance, by way of lots of time. Under this account, if nothing transcendent exists over and above the physical universe, then all events within the universe (such as births of children and their subsequent lives) cannot be said to have objective meaning which all people must respect, but rather only subjective meaning, varying from person to person. Humanity, after all, is nothing special—rather, we are a mere cosmic accident, comprised of brute matter, molecules, and cells. There is no meaning for humanity at this point, only pointless absurdity.

The issue of morality is similar. I raised this issue once to an atheist, and they responded by saying what grounded, more or less, our morality (and meaning) in a materialist worldview was that we as people have the capacity to show sympathy. But I’m not sure that answer works. After all, what is “sympathy” in a materialist/naturalistic worldview? “Sympathy” is nothing more than the firing of neurons—that is, physical processes. “Sympathy” and all such feelings of “love” are nothing more than chemical reactions. So, to appeal to “sympathy” as the answer to how meaning (and morality) can be accounted for in a materialistic worldview is to forget one’s own materialistic presuppositions—namely, that things like “sympathy” and “love” are nothing more than brute chemical reactions! It seems that in order to give an account for things like meaning (and morality), the naturalist is forced to forget their own naturalistic assumptions. This brings me to my third (and final) point below.

A purely naturalistic account of the universe is one that nobody can live consistently with—not even naturalists. Is it not the case that even naturalists and atheists love their own children? Of course it is. Is it not the case that even atheists can be very moral people? Absolutely! Many atheists are good, upstanding individuals who make great contributions to society. There is no reason to think otherwise. In fact, to confuse what I am saying here about naturalism with a particular naturalist’s own morality and meaning is to make a category error. I’m not saying naturalists can’t be moral (and I’m certainly not saying they don’t have value and meaning). I’m simply saying their worldview can’t account for these things. Moreover, for my argument to work, I’m actually assuming that atheists are, in fact, moral people and that they, like all of us, do understand and recognize what morality and meaning are in real life.

The fact is, every naturalist lives as if people have objective meaning, that their children have objective value and worth. And because their children have objective value and worth, they expect all people everywhere to treat them properly and fairly and justly. So, on the one hand, their worldview says, “There is nothing other than matter and nature; even human beings are the result of these two things.” But naturalists live their life inconsistent with this worldview by treating people as if there were more than just the complex arrangement of matter, time, and chance. As we have said, many non-believers are, and have been, on the side of justice and peace and charity. For example, David Hume, the famous skeptic, was a very giving and charitable man (or so I am told). But I’m not sure how this type of praiseworthy benevolence can be accounted for under naturalism. I mean, rocks and trees (being complex arrangements of matter) don’t typically do moral things like alms-giving. And I don’t (indeed, can’t!) fault them for not doing so. I’m wondering how alms-giving on the part of people (like David Hume) is indeed good and praiseworthy. I mean, under the naturalist worldview, people are only complex arrangements of matter, much like trees and rocks, etc. (In fact, under a genuine evolutionary model, people and trees have one, common ancestry—distant cousins, if you will). One objection could be: “Yes, but goodness and morality can be based upon our ability to show sympathy. Since trees can’t show empathy, they can’t be considered ‘good’ or ‘evil’.” But again, this argument fails to answer the question, for even “sympathy,” under a naturalistic account of the universe, is nothing more than the firing of neurons, being a materialistic/naturalistic process. That’s like saying, “I can give an account for meaning and morality in my materialistic worldview by appealing to a materialistic worldview.” All such objections are circular. One thing I can guarantee is that everyone – both atheist and theist alike – don’t actually believe their love for, say, members of their own family is reducible down to the mere firing of their neurons. There’s something more objective, something more transcendent (perhaps even spiritual), about their feelings of love for their family.

This is an important subject. How important? Very. The fact is, ideas do matter. Ideas and ideologies matter precisely because people matter. Nancy Pearcey, a noted Christian apologist, discusses a fascinating instance where this issue comes to the fore. Rodney Brooks, professor emeritus at MIT, is quoted below concerning the issue of meaning and love in a naturalistic worldview. Here’s a portion of the article:

Atheists cannot live consistently with their worldview because it contradicts what we know about the world. That is just one of the key principles in the new book by Nancy Pearcey, Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Secularism, and other God Substitutes. She develops five principles from Romans 1 that provide a guidebook on how to evaluate other worldviews while also making a convincing case for Christianity.

One of the stories she tells in her book and told on my radio program comes from Rodney Brooks. He is professor emeritus at MIT and is author of the book, Flesh and Machines. He writes that a human being is nothing but a machine—a “big bag of skin full of biomolecules” interacting by the laws of physics and chemistry.

We might add that it is difficult to see people that way. But Rodney Brooks goes on to add that: “when I look at my children, I can, when I force myself, . . . see that they are machines.”

But is that how he treats his children? Of course not! He admits, “That is not how I treat them . . . I interact with them on an entirely different level. They have my unconditional love, the furthest one might be able to get from rational analysis.” Nancy Pearcey says that his worldview sticks out of his box.

How does he reconcile such a heart-wrenching cognitive dissonance? Actually, he really doesn’t even try. Brooks ends by saying, “I maintain two sets of inconsistent beliefs.” He (like so many other atheists, materialists or secularists) lives with an inconsistent set of beliefs because their worldview does not correspond with reality.[1]


[1] Full article and interview can be found here:


Copyright © Matthew L. Halsted