Monday, March 4, 2013

Morality, Knowledge, and X-Men

X-Men Set The Stage
I was watching X-Men: First Class the other day and something stood out that I thought might help in our discussions of morality. The two main characters (Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr) are mutants- humans with special abilities. Charles can read and control minds. Erik can manipulate metal via magnetism. Both of these are very powerful abilities demonstrated throughout the series. In the series, the X-Men series story goes that there is a growing fear of mutants among the normal populace and an effort by some government officials to eliminate them. Ultimately it ends up in a war between normal humans and mutants. However, Erik and Charles end up on opposite sides. Erik (as Magneto) wishes to eliminate the lesser evolved humans (ones without mutations), while Charles (as Professor X) fights to preserve humanity.

But what caught my attention was something very subtle: a miscommunication between Erik and Charles is actually responsible for them being on opposite sides of the war, yet both believing that they are right and the other is wrong.

What Kind of "Good"?
Erik's and Charles' definitions of "good" and "better" were different. Erik's was based on mutation and survivability. Charles' was based on morality. Charles was pushing Erik to be the "better" man; Erik believed that he already was the "better" man because he was more evolved. They did not mean the same thing. The result of using common language but meaning two completely different things landed them on sides of a war opposite of one another for the rest of the series.

This is a powerful illustration by Hollywood of just how different the meanings of "objective morality" are when spoken by the atheist and the theist. Interestingly enough, the meanings for the atheist falls directly in line with Erik's in X-Men: survivability determines what is good. Charles' definition aligned more closely with the theist (though Charles never makes the effort to found his position like Erik did).

I want to explore two issues that I see with this little gem.

The Equivocation of "Good"

"Objective" Morality
When an atheist says that they can explain "objective morality", do not make the mistake in believing that they mean the same thing when the theist uses the same terminology. Just as Erik and Charles meant two completely different things when they said "good," so does the atheist and theist. They are making two completely different claims about what their worldviews can support.

The atheist is claiming that anything that ends in survival of a sentient creature or its species is "good". While the theist is claiming that "good" is independent of survival of sentient creatures (though the two often run parallel). The atheist is making a claim that is teleological (purpose-based) while the theist is making a claim that is metaphysical (morally-based). When the two make the claim that their worldviews can support "objective" morality, understand that they do mean two totally different things. A consequence of this is that when a theist shows that atheism does not allow for a metaphysically moral good, the atheist is not really disagreeing with them, because atheism, by definition does not have a standard to base a metaphysically moral "good" on. However the atheist will still maintain that they can accommodate "objective good" because they maintain that certain actions are objectively good and bad for reaching a certain goal (survival, in this case), but again, they are talking about a different kind of "good".

Teleologically Objective Good Challenged
But with this recognition, is there still a way to remove the word "objective" from the atheist's claim? Well, let's examine the claim in a very broad sense. This objective "good" is founded on the survival of something- be it humans or sentient life in general, it doesn't matter for this challenge. All we have to do is fast-forward to the heat-death of the universe. This is the time in the future in which all usable energy will be gone- no heat, no light, no life. If this is what atheists believe will be the ultimate end for all life (death), then no action can ever end in the survival of any life. Which means that no action is even teleologically good, and since all actions will end in extinction, all actions are teleologically evil. Which further means that even on the atheist's teleological view of "good", no one does any good at all or is even capable of doing good. If atheism is true, in our X-Men series, Charles is just as villainous as Erik. The actions they have subjectively chosen will both lead to the same end (death of all life), meaning that teleological "good" is ultimately subjective. Even if we grant the atheist is only trying to maintain a objectively teleological good based on survival, they still can't do it. Atheism simply cannot support objective good, no matter what type of "good" one is trying to maintain.

Parallel to Our Reality?

Irony In Their Reality
But let's revisit who's the hero and who's the villain in X-Men. In the series, Erik is portrayed as the "evil" one. Yet, in the worldview of the world of the X-Men series, Erik's view is the only one that is sound and can be defended. Mutants are better. The ability to survive determines that. Charles' view is based on purely subjective opinion. He values the lives of unmutated humanity and claims that it is "good," but he cannot defend the idea that his view is objectively true, while Erik can. Ironically, the character who holds a view in line with the reality of the worldview of the story is portrayed as the villain, and the person who stands against that reality is portrayed as the hero.

Mixed Signals to the Audience
Many people believe that no God exists. They believe that there is no such thing as morality that is established outside of human opinion. They do, however, believe that right/wrong and good/evil are established by the natural order (specifically evolution's natural selection). If this idea from the movies is truly parallel to our reality, then how is it that we can watch X-Men and understand that Professor X is fighting for a noble cause, while Magneto is fighting for evil?

If there is no God to establish morality outside of any natural process, then the writers of the movie are banking on the hope that the movie will appeal to a human delusion- the delusion of objective morality. Actually, this goes for every film out there that pits good against evil. If the audience actually believed that there were no objective standard for morality, then the audience would never know which side to be hoping will win in the end, in fact, most audience members would probably be apathetic towards both the "hero" and "villain," thus keeping the audience emotionally separated from the characters and making the movie not as enjoyable and worth watching.

Testing Worldviews
The hope that a movie will gross a great profit is founded in the idea that the audience will be able to distinguish between good and evil and bring themselves into the drama of the struggle between the two sides. The ability to do so exists because of one of two reasons: either our idea of objective reality is an illusion (morality is actually subjective) or it is not an illusion (objective morality actually exists outside of the natural order).

If such a movie is enjoyed by the masses and produces a nice profit, then we can reasonably conclude that the moral foundation exists. But we don't yet know whether that foundation is solid or illusory. All we have to do to sort that out is ask one question: does natural selection necessarily select for true beliefs or survival (or both)? If we wish to maintain that there is no objective standard for our morality, then we must conclude that the foundation is illusory. Which means that nature has so far selected species who believe something false. Which further brings into question all other beliefs that we have (including the idea that there is no objective standard for morality). This is the view of naturalism and atheism. Notice how both, even though they are portrayed in the movie, must be denied subconsciously by the writers of the movie in order to found their hope for a profit.

But that was just a negative test (which undermined naturalism and atheism). Can theism maintain both objective morality and a trustworthy way to know it? Theism has an objective standard for morality that exists outside of nature; it is God. God is the source of morality that does not change depending on the mood of a society or individual. God also created humanity in His Image. Which means that we have the ability to trust that our beliefs may be true; they can be reliably tested using senses and brains that were not selected due to survivability, but created by the creator of the rest of the universe to observe, test, and come to reliable conclusions about reality. Objective morality and the ability to know are necessary features of theism. This is the positive test, and theism passes.

One of the things that I love about movies is that they portray good and evil. I have an innate understanding of what is good and evil, which allows me to get drawn into the story. But that understanding is useless if it is based on an illusion of morality and a second illusion of reliable beliefs. Atheism cannot maintain objective "good" (metaphysical or teleological), while theism can. Given the purpose of movies and the audience's consumption of movies, it is extremely difficult to accept the idea that God (an objective moral standard) does not exist.

Recommended Reading to Investigate Further

For more movie reviews, check out the NEW Cultural Apologetics page. 

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