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William Lane Craig and the Foundations of Objective Morality

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Dr. William Lane Craig is well known for his debates with many prominent atheists, and as a fierce Evangelical Christian apologist. One of his more common line of arguments is on the subject of objective morality. In November 1996, Dr. Craig presented The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality to the Christian Theological Research Fellowship meeting at the American Academy of Religion. In the essay, he states:

Consider, then, the hypothesis that God exists. First, if God exists, objective moral values exist. To say that there are objective moral values is to say that something is right or wrong independently of whether anybody believes it to be so. It is to say, for example, that Nazi anti-Semitism was morally wrong, even though the Nazis who carried out the Holocaust thought that it was good; and it would still be wrong even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brainwashing everybody who disagreed with them….

Contrast this with the atheistic hypothesis. First, if atheism is true, objective moral values do not exist. If God does not exist, then what is the foundation for moral values? More particularly, what is the basis for the value of human beings? If God does not exist, then it is difficult to see any reason to think that human beings are special or that their morality is objectively true. Moreover, why think that we have any moral obligations to do anything? Who or what imposes any moral duties upon us?…

Distilled to a logical form, the argument looks like this:

  1. If atheism is true, then objective morals do not exist.
  2. Objective morals exist.
  3. Therefore, atheism is false.

Rational Foundation for Morality

Leaving the first premise aside for the moment, let’s examine premise number two. Namely, that objective morals exist. In the same presentation, he said:

And could anything be more obvious than that objective moral values do exist? There is no more reason to deny the objective reality of moral values than the objective reality of the physical world.

Elaborating on this point in weekly Q&A on his website, Dr. Craig argues that objective morality is properly basic:

[Objective morality] is a properly basic belief grounded in moral experience. Moral realists have compared it to belief in the reality of the external world of physical objects around us. Belief in physical objects is a properly basic belief grounded in our sensory experience. There is no way to get outside our sensory perceptions to test their veridicality. Still, until we are given a defeater for our sensory beliefs, we are rational to hold to them.

Objective reality is a properly basic belief (although we could just be disembodied brains....)

Objective reality is a properly basic belief (although we could just be disembodied brains!)

If Dr. Craig is right, and objective morality is properly basic (meaning that it’s a rational default position), then it is sufficiently rational to believe it on those grounds, alone. When he asks, above, “If God does not exist, what is the foundation for moral values?” we can answer that no other foundation is required, because he’s just informed us that belief in objective morality is properly basic. It is no more contingent on the existence of God than is the existence of objective reality. Dr. Craig’s defense of the second premise provides us with the very means for unraveling of the first.

Belief in objective morality is rooted in the very same rationality as belief in objective reality.

So how do we go about discovering moral truths? Dr. Craig has already provided us with a clue, from the same presentation: “But if moral values are gradually discovered, not invented, then such a gradual and fallible apprehension of the moral realm no more undermines the objective reality of that realm than our gradual, fallible perception of the physical world undermines the objectivity of that realm.” Moral values are discovered in a gradual and fallible process in precisely the same way we learn about the physical world: through application of the methods of reason and science. Sam Harris offers just such an approach in his book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Moral Values.

To further illustrate the point, let’s apply the same logic to objective reality as he does to objective morality:

  1. If atheism is true, then objective reality cannot exist.
  2. Objective reality exists.
  3. Therefore, atheism is false.

Immediately the problem in Dr. Craig’s logic becomes clear: the existence of objective reality does not stand as proof against atheism. That’s because it is a properly basic belief. Dr. Craig might be surprised, indeed, to discover that he’s just offered a solid defense for the scientific study of objective moral truth from a naturalistic starting point (both metaphysical and methodological). God just isn’t required.

Provisionally True

But how far does this take us? Objective morality is a properly basic belief, in the absence of defeaters. This sounds somewhat like the scientific method, where a theory is provisionally true in the absence of falsification. In other words, when we accept a properly basic belief as potentially true, we must admit some level of doubt. Just because we don’t happen to be aware of any defeaters lurking around the corner, doesn’t mean that our belief is, in fact, true.

Armillary sphere based on the geocentric model

Armillary sphere based on the geocentric model

Let’s take the Ptolemaic model of the universe, for example. It’s hard to imagine in the 21st Century, but before we turned our eyes to the heavens with the aid of a telescope, the geocentric view as worked out by Ptolemy (and refined through countless astronomical observations) was an extraordinarily good match for everything we observed about the movement of heavenly bodies. The astronomical instruments of the day simply did not have the observational power to challenge the data. Copernicus was a rather lousy astronomer, who lacked patience for the painstaking calculations required. It was this very laziness that led him to propose a shortcut in the math. In a brilliant flash of intuition, he discovered that by putting the sun at the center, a much simpler set of calculations could be used. There was a problem with this, however. The Ptolemaic system of epicycles had been worked out so precisely that it was quite accurate. Copernicus’ math could not match this precision, no matter how compelling it was in its simplicity. The reason for this is that his orbits were all spherical — Kepler had yet to propose his Laws of Planetary Motion. This error in the orbits was enough to throw the whole system off. Medieval astronomers weren’t stupid, after all (in spite of the objections from religious authorities). If the heliocentric model was a far better theory in terms of its predictions and correspondence to observed data, then it might not have required centuries more observation and correction before Copernicus was finally vindicated and the geocentric model retired completely.

In other words, it took centuries after Copernicus’ intuitive leap before the final defeater knocked the earth from the center of the universe. Ptolemy’s system, which by all accounts could be seen as a properly basic belief, persisted for roughly 1,500 years before it was summarily rejected.

A properly basic belief is not necessarily true, and it can take quite a long time to discover that fact.

Dialogue Concerning Two Chief Moral Systems

But let’s concede for the sake of argument that objective morality exists. Because it is properly basic, it can exist independently of God — much like any other set of truths about the physical world. But let’s suppose God exists — would morality derived from God be materially different, as it is actually experienced, than morality without God?

One might be tempted to say, “Yes.” After all, in a moral universe created by an all-loving God, one might expect a little less brutality. This is the root behind the classic Problem of Evil. But I think Dr. Craig, borrowing a lot from Alvin Plantinga, has done a nice job (if not necessarily conclusive) arguing that the problem of evil is a powerful but potentially ineffective argument against the existence of God. I have no problem conceding for the sake of argument that, if God exists, there are morally sufficient reasons for all of the evil in the world, whether or not humans can comprehend them.

The Problem of Evil

EVIL!

EVIL!

It’s worth noting that Dr. Craig offers quite a bit on the probabilistic problem of evil — namely, the objection that, even if we concede that God and evil can logically coexist, there are powerful reasons to suppose that the sheer amount of evil we see in the world renders God’s existence quite improbable. On this point, I think Dr. Craig’s first argument is sufficiently strong for the sake of this discussion: “We are not in a good position to assess the probability of whether God has morally sufficient reasons for the evils that occur.”

But he makes two more arguments that I will deal with briefly (a more thorough examination of these points may be warranted in a future post):

  1. The Christian faith offers doctrines that greatly reduce the improbability of God’s existence in relation to evil: Human happiness is not the purpose of life. Mankind is in a state of rebellion against God. Eternal life ameliorates whatever suffering occurs in this life. The knowledge of God brings incommensurable benefits that greatly ameliorate whatever suffering occurs in this life. 
  2. The existence of God is probable. Evil is not the only evidence to consider; when all is considered, God’s existence is probable. The evidence includes:
    1. Kalam Cosmological Argument: the universe can’t come from nothing. Current cosmology shows that the universe had a beginning. If God doesn’t exist, then that means the universe sprang out of nothing. This is logically impossible.
    2. The complex order of the universe, in relation to the fundamental constants of the universe, offers evidence that they have been fine-tuned in order to produce life as we know it. This is related to the strong anthropic principle. Dr. Craig argues that the probability is so small that the constants should be what they are, when the slightest variation would render life impossible, God’s existence (as the “fine tuner”) is more likely.
    3. Objective morality. (We’ve already dispensed with this one.)

I’ll concede that, if God exists, the first argument has merit. The Christian faith offers some excellent reasons to reduce the improbability of evil (though other faiths offer good reasons of their own, as well — if one assumes their view of ultimate reality).

An original manuscript of Einstein's General Relativity, which has yet to be reconciled with Quantum Theory.

An original manuscript of Einstein’s General Relativity, which has yet to be reconciled with Quantum Theory.

On the Kalam Cosmological Argument, we simply do not know what conditions prevailed at the moment of the Big Bang. When all matter and energy are collapsed into a singularity, space and time cease to exist. This presents two problems, I think, for Kalam: One, what does “nothing” mean in such a state? In a very real sense, it means “everything, all at once, outside of time.” That’s a very different concept of nothing than used in the argument. Two, there is no time at the occasion of the Big Bang. To talk of prior cause is meaningless, even in a logical sense. The totality of matter and energy exist in a timeless (i.e. — eternal) state. The whole of spacetime after the Big Bang must be included entirely within that state. Similarly, when dealing with probability of the fundamental constants of the universe, we can make a similar move as Dr. Craig on the problem of evil:

Probabilities are relative to what background information you consider. For example, suppose Joe is a student at the University of Colorado. Now suppose that we are informed that 95% of University of Colorado students ski. Relative to this information it is highly probable that Joe skis. But then suppose we also learn that Joe is an amputee and that 95% of amputees at the University of Colorado do not ski. Suddenly the probability of Joe’s being a skier has diminished drastically!

If we consider the universe as it is, with its fundamental constants, they appear fine-tuned given the background information that we have. Since physics has yet to arrive at a “Theory of Everything,” then it is certainly possible (even likely) that we lack sufficient background information with which to judge the probability of the fundamental constants holding any values other than what they hold. Any statements of probably, therefore, seem rather premature.

All of this serves only to show that we have yet to be able to weigh in, conclusively, on the probability of God’s existence or non-existence. Such arguments are not part of the question of objective morality. Since we have already conceded for argument’s sake that belief in objective morality is properly basic, with or without God, we shall proceed.

Morality in a Wicked World

Would morality — as we experience it — be any different in a universe with God or without God? I think not.

The degree of historical conflict over moral questions must fall in with Dr. Craig’s assessment of the problem of evil — it must be part of God’s plan that there is so much disagreement over basic moral questions. Likewise, one would certainly expect such conflict if God did not exist. (One would even expect it in the event that there is no objective morality, at all. But, for these purposes, we are conceding the existence of objective morality as properly basic.)

In spite of the existence of great evils, such as the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust or the purges of Stalin and Pol Pot, Dr. Craig’s theistic derivation of objective morality cannot object. And these are most definitely in line with a world without God.

One might ask why God might make moral truths so obscure or so easily overridden by ungodliness, so as to allow such atrocities. But Dr. Craig’s solution to the problem of evil renders that question irrelevant. It just so happens that such a world is perfectly compatible with one in which human beings struggle greatly to comprehend objective morality in a godless universe.

Tsunami: All part of God's plan?

Tsunami: All part of God’s plan?

Natural evils such as earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, wildfires, giant meteors, and the like must — in Dr. Craig’s theory — be part of God’s ultimate plan, though it may be somewhat harder to comprehend exactly how that is. But, we concede his solution to the problem of evil: our finite understanding cannot fathom the absolute genius that must lie within God’s plan for relentless destruction and slaughter by way of natural forces. Interestingly, no such challenge arises for the naturalistic view of objective morality: natural evils aren’t evil at all, since there’s no agency behind them. There’s only a moral component if the universe was created by an all-loving God.

Theology and philosophy have wrestled mightily with moral questions for centuries, and the problem seems as intractable now as it ever has been. But advances in cognitive science and social psychology in recent decades have opened up a line of inquiry into the neurological and evolutionary drivers for moral thinking and behavior. And if Dr. Craig is right that objective morality exists in much the same way as objective reality (that it is, in fact, part of objective reality), then one would expect to see moral behavior manifest in the neurology of non-humans, including primates, other mammals, and other species. This seems to be the case.

Sam Harris argues that question of moral values come down to the well-being of conscious creatures. The fact that this necessarily brings subjective evaluation into the picture does not refute the proposition. After all, there is a hugely subjective component to matters of human physical and mental health, but this does not fundamentally rule that medicine is not a proper object of scientific inquiry:

I think there is little doubt that most of what matters to the average person—like fairness, justice, compassion, and a general awareness of terrestrial reality—will be integral to our creating a thriving global civilization and, therefore, to the greater well-being of humanity. And, as I have said, there may be many different ways for individuals and communities to thrive—many peaks on the moral landscape—so if there is real diversity in how people can be deeply fulfilled in this life, such diversity can be accounted for and honored in the context of science. The concept of “well-being,” like the concept of “health,” is truly open for revision and discovery. Just how fulfilled is it possible for us to be, personally and collectively? What are the conditions—ranging from changes in the genome to changes in economic systems—that will produce such happiness? We simply do not know. [Emphasis added] — from The Moral Landscape.

And in regard to our moral intuition (recalling Dr. Craig’s invocation of proper basic belief), Sam Harris observes:

Everyone has an intuitive “physics,” but much of our intuitive physics is wrong (with respect to the goal of describing the behavior of matter). Only physicists have a deep understanding of the laws that govern the behavior of matter in our universe. I am arguing that everyone also has an intuitive “morality,” but much of our intuitive morality is clearly wrong (with respect to the goal of maximizing personal and collective well-being). And only genuine moral experts would have a deep understanding of the causes and conditions of human and animal well-being. Yes, we must have a goal to define what counts as “right” or “wrong” when speaking about physics or morality, but this criterion visits us equally in both domains. And yes, I think it is quite clear that members of the Taliban are seeking well-being in this world (as well as hoping for it in the next). But their religious beliefs have led them to create a culture that is almost perfectly hostile to human flourishing. Whatever they think they want out of life—like keeping all women and girls subjugated and illiterate—they simply do not understand how much better life would be for them if they had different priorities. [Emphasis added]

Given that Dr. Craig has already proposed that moral discovery is a “gradual and fallible” process, he should find no particular objections to Harris’ argument.

Oh, you devil!

Oh, you devil!

In either case, we are left with whatever human faculties we possess (whether God-given or purely evolved). Dr. Craig believes he has a private apparatus for sure knowledge, but he cannot show it. (See: The difference between knowing and showing). To be fair, he believes we all have it. Perhaps he believes we have invisible little angels and devils on our shoulders. But if we find ourselves in disagreement — if we acknowledge the “gradual and fallible” process that occurs even with this private God-receptor — then Dr. Craig cannot show that a world with God-generated morality must necessarily be better than a world with a purely naturalistic one. Whatever the case, then, it is only through reason and dialogue that we can come to agreement on moral issues.

And this is exactly what we’re doing. It is indistinguishable from a universe without a God, and the matter rests on the faculties of human reason and judgement. Dr. Craig cannot demonstrate how the moral history of human beings is inconsistent with a universe without God; therefore, if his objective morality exists, it is indistinguishable from humans just working it out on their own. Therefore, the arguments for or against a theistic origin for objective morality depends entirely on external arguments for or against the existence of God. I will leave those, then, for another time.

The moral argument appears closed.

Written by parkerw

February 23, 2013 at 9:00 am

18 Responses

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  1. Beautifully done. I always like seeing Craig taken down, not that it will have any effect on his thinking. Your posts are helping me refine the way I interact with my “true believer” friends. One small typo I noticed, in the second to last paragraph. I assume it should be “…then Dr. Craig cannot show that a world *with* God-generated morality….”

    Chiefy

    February 23, 2013 at 10:14 pm

    • Thank you very much for your kind words, and I’m pleased to hear that my posts have been useful to you. Typo corrected — good catch! 🙂

      parkerw

      February 24, 2013 at 8:03 am

  2. Your objection to the moral argument is probably the sharpest I have heard. However, I think there is a confusion here between the epistemological and the metaphysical. When we describe beliefs as properly basic, it is an epistemic description, based on how we are justified in holding beliefs. Craig’s argument here I think revolves around that metaphysical- not about how we can be rationally justified in believing in morality, but how there can be moral ideals, ie. how there can be ideals to which we are obligated to conform, and how such obligation can exist: a subtle difference but an important one.

    Louis

    February 23, 2013 at 11:51 pm

    • Thanks, Louis! I think you’re quite right about the confusion, and I think that the confusion is on the part of Dr. Craig :-). I didn’t want to digress too far into epistemology in my post, because the argument didn’t need it. It’s aimed at those who accept that belief in objective morality is rational on the grounds that such belief is properly basic. If one accepts that, then God isn’t required, and the moral argument collapses.

      On the metaphysical versus epistemic issue, I think Dr. Craig may wish to make a metaphysical argument, but his treatment of the concept drags it into a purely epistemic stance. In anchoring the rationality of belief in moral truths to the rationality of belief in physical truths, he subjects it to the same process of trial and error that we employ when dealing with the physical world.

      It comes down to this: To what degree are we justified in trusting our intuitions about the world? And his answer is the only sensible one: “It depends.” Keep in mind that Dr. Craig and Plantinga aren’t dealing with objective truth, but rationality of belief. It is rational, for example, to hold a belief on the grounds of inductive reasoning (even if it’s ultimately not true) until counterexamples are found. If we weren’t prepared to grant the rationality of untrue beliefs, then we’re faced with the unpleasant dilemma of either accusing Ptolemy of irrationality, or declaring geocentrism to be true (this is why I used that example in my post). Geocentrism was a rational belief until it was thoroughly refuted. And, in fact, there was a time when both geocentrism and heliocentrism were rational beliefs.

      When Dr. Craig admits that there is a “gradual and fallible apprehension of the moral realm,” he is granting that moral intuition is only provisionally true, subject to refutation.

      In my view, Dr. Craig’s version of Foundationalism leads inexorably to an evolutionary epistemology, along the lines of Karl Popper. It is rational to hold a hypothesis as provisionally true — in fact that’s precisely what we do with our theories. The task, then, is to apply the hypothetico-deductive process of error-elimination by way of testing and rational argument, and includes questions about the reliability of intuition, as well as issues of falsifiability.

      parkerw

      February 24, 2013 at 8:34 am

    • I guess that was a long-winded way of saying that we can adopt a “methodological moral realism” in the same way we adopt a methodological naturalism without claiming metaphysical naturalism or metaphysical moral realism. It’s just a stance, and all of the implications of Dr. Craig’s Foundationalism leads in that direction.

      parkerw

      February 24, 2013 at 8:49 am

  3. I’m no expert on Craig’s ideas, but I think he might respond that atheism provides such a defeater to the basic belief of morality. ” If there is no God, then our moral experience is, plausibly, illusory”.( pg. 180- reasonable faith). I don’t think Craig disagrees with Harris that we can perceive a moral reality and that this reality is analogous to our perception of the physical world. but this isn’t the point. The defeater to the basic belief of morality is that without the existence of God we have no reason to believe that our consciences are not merely the product of sociobiological processes and are not reliable indicators of that moral reality in addition to there being a moral reality at all. ( I’m probably back tracking a bit on my original response)

    Louis

    February 24, 2013 at 3:54 pm

    • That’s a good point, and I think you’re correct that Dr. Craig’s response would likely run along those lines. He seems to be convinced that atheists are logically committed to moral nihilism. I don’t agree. I think there is room for a wholly naturalistic moral realism that is rooted in the biological necessity for cooperation among sentient social beings, and that successful evolution of such beings would always entail a moral dimension. In some of Dr. Craig’s writing on the subject, he seems to feel it’s somehow a defeater that we might expect a great deal of variability in evolved moral behavior, as if this implies an arbitrariness to it all. And yet he admits that, even with God-derived moral realism, our moral values are evolving gradually and fallibly. That there is moral conflict between cultures and even species does not rule out that we can propose naturalistic means by which such conflicts can be resolved, or that we have no grounds whatsoever to judge one group’s moral values against another (or to judge between various hypothetical sets of moral values, such as those that might have evolved differently if we were to wind back the evolutionary clock and start again, or the moral values of a sentient social species on another world). Mere naturalism does not require one to surrender the notion that, for example, gratuitous torture of infants is always wrong. Absent a specific defeater to the moral intuition that gratuitous torture of infants is wrong, I tend to agree that it is rational to hold that belief without further justification, even if one is an atheist.

      parkerw

      February 25, 2013 at 12:04 pm

  4. I agree with Louis that your essay is an interesting and provocative read (thank you).

    I also agree with Louis, however, that in your response to Craig you’ve conflated epistemology and ontology and fundamentally missed Craig’s point. In doing so you have erected and knocked down a straw man. You wouldn’t be the first, though. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Harris’ debate with Craig was that Harris simply refused to engage Craig on the ontology of moral properties.

    Craig’s own formulation of his argument is this:

    1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
    2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
    3. Therefore, God exists.

    Recognizing or believing in objective morality is one thing (#2), explaining how such a thing can exist is another.

    I think you go off the rails a bit here:

    “When he asks, above, ‘If God does not exist, what is the foundation for moral values?’ we can answer that no other foundation is required, because he’s just informed us that belief in objective morality is properly basic. It is no more contingent on the existence of God than is the existence of objective reality. Dr. Craig’s defense of the second premise provides us with the very means for unraveling of the first.”

    Suggest you delve a little more deeply into what he and Plantinga mean by a properly basic belief, also into what he means by “objective.” He doesn’t mean what you and Sam Harris appear to mean, which is that “good” can be defined as whatever maximizes creaturely well-being. What Craig is arguing is that truly objective moral properties need to be grounded in some kind of transcendent reality, not a human consensus.

    What makes human survival and happiness objectively good? As you know, there are groups of individuals among us who believe human extinction would be “good”, because, in their view, it’s better for the well-being of the earth as an ecosystem. So who’s objectively right or wrong here?

    Also suggest you investigate the naturalistic fallacy as explained by G.E. Moore and others in which defining moral language as merely equivalents to non-moral, utilitarian outcomes all you’re doing is merely creating a tautology…and an ultimately subjective and/or arbitrary one at that.

    I’d also be interested in hearing your take on how you can escape moral relativism and nihilism in a purely naturalistic framework. How would you respond to philosophers like Alex Rosenberg, for example?

    Enzo

    March 2, 2013 at 8:06 pm

    • Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I recognize that Dr. Craig, via Plantinga, is making an argument about ontology. But he’s doing so with some epistemic devices. I highlight those devices, and use them to undermine his argument. I still it’s sound.

      Reformed Epistemology, derived from Foundationalism, tries to justify too much, and there’s a leap from “properly basic” to, specifically, what is warranted. The most one can get from Plantinga’s definition of “properly basic” is that it is rational to hold certain beliefs, provisionally, based on intuition without evidence. He’s shifting the burden of proof, and it’s a move that I don’t entirely disagree with. I can accept a certain provisional stance that there is a God or some objective morality — that is, a stance that leaves room for God, for example, in spite of empirical contradiction of religious texts. What’s really important, I think, is where one goes from there. What, specifically, is one entitled to say *about* God or objective morality? Not much — and this is where Dr. Craig and I part ways.

      But one doesn’t need to go that far to accept the epistemic use of Dr. Craig’s “properly basic.” He tells us how one comes to apprehend objective morality — the same intuition we use to apprehend objective reality. He acknowledges that such apprehension is fallible and gradual. Of course he presumes the existence of God, but he does not argue that the epistemic value of “properly basic” is wholly dependent on the ontological status of God (in fact, it’s the other way around). The inner apprehension of objective morality is intrinsically sufficient, he argues, to warrant a belief in it — once again, with all the fallibility and gradual nature that is both implied and manifest in human moral reasoning and deliberation.

      And it is that last point, alone, that undermines his own argument. To defeat it, he would need to reject his own epistemic defense of “properly basic.”

      parkerw

      March 4, 2013 at 11:29 am

  5. Thanks for the reply, Mr Whittle.

    I think we still differ considerably on the effectiveness of your attempt to undermine Craig’s argument.

    I don’t want to put words in Craig’s mouth, but I’m going to try to paraphrase his argument (hopefully without doing violence to it) to make it more clear for the purposes of this conversation:

    1. If a supernatural, transcendent reality does not exist, then there is no ontological ground for an objective morality to exist.

    2. Objective moral values exist (they’re a properly basic belief)

    3. Therefore a supernatural, transcendent reality exists.

    This is an argument for the existence of God from properly basic beliefs about the ontology of moral properties.

    “Of course he presumes the existence of God, but he does not argue that the epistemic value of “properly basic” is wholly dependent on the ontological status of God (in fact, it’s the other way around).”

    I confess I’m not really sure what you’re trying to say here. I would think it’s clear that Craig’s argument doesn’t assume the existence of God. He’s arguing to that as a conclusion. Also, the first premise of his argument is that the only plausible *ontological* explanation for an individual’s “properly basic” belief in an objective morality (i.e., unique moral properties that exist independently of human perceptions) is a personal, transcendent reality we label “God.” Therefore he is explicitly saying that the ontological status of any objective morality is wholly dependent on the existence of the transcendent reality of God.

    Do we agree on that, or do we understand his argument completely differently? I ask because if you’re going to write an essay refuting Craig’s moral argument, you’d want to be confident you’re refuting the argument he’s actually making. 😉

    In response to Craig’s argument, you write:

    “When he asks, above, ‘If God does not exist, what is the foundation for moral values?’ we can answer that no other foundation is required, because he’s just informed us that belief in objective morality is properly basic.”

    This is where I believe you miss Craig’s point and confuse epistemology with ontology. “Foundation” is being used in an ontological sense here, not an epistemological one, being vs. knowing.

    Your reply seems to be arguing that because you and Craig agree that *belief* in objective morality is properly basic, then you can ignore the ontological question as irrelevant (i.e., deny the first premise without argument). But, if that’s the case, then you’re not responding to Craig’s real argument at all. Craig’s argument isn’t about whether or how we *know* (that’s assumed to be true in the 2nd premise), it’s what needs to be true for such an objective morality to possibly *exist*.

    It seems to me that if you’re going to make a naturalistic case against Craig, you should target his second premise about properly basic beliefs, not agree with him and dodge his first premise. I personally haven’t heard a compelling case made for an objective morality from a purely naturalistic framework (Sam Harris chose to not even try in his debate), and I think the reason is that it’s probably not possible.

    As per philosopher of science and atheistic naturalist Rosenberg:

    “If there is no purpose to life in general, biological or human for that matter, the question arises whether there is meaning in our individual lives, and if it is not there already, whether we can put it there. One source of meaning on which many have relied is the intrinsic value, in particular the moral value, of human life. People have also sought moral rules, codes, principles which are supposed to distinguish us from merely biological critters whose lives lack (as much) meaning or value (as ours). Besides morality as a source of meaning, value, or purpose, people have looked to consciousness, introspection, self-knowledge as a source of insight into what makes us more than the merely physical facts about us. Scientism must reject all of these straws that people have grasped, and it’s not hard to show why. Science has to be nihilistic about ethics and morality.”

    I think you’ll find that a big part of Craig’s project is to push atheists into living with the logical consequences of their metaphysic. Harris, IMHO, does a commendable job of trying to erect a facade of objectivity for his naturalistic formula for morality in his book (similarly Daniel Dennett’s cheerful, glass is half full surrender to materialistic determinism in his book Elbow Room), but philosophers like Rosenberg don’t feel compelled to try and hide the nihilism that he believes necessarily follows from the naturalistic view. I think there are good practical arguments to be made for establishing a cultural consensus on morality, but I don’t think it’s really possible for a naturalist to agree with Craig that a belief in an objective morality is properly basic without an ontology to support it.

    Enzo

    March 5, 2013 at 11:47 am

    • I see what you’re getting at, and agree that Dr. Craig might be arguing from that stance. He does spend significant time quoting atheists who agree that there is no such thing as objective morality, which would seem to justify his first premise.

      And there are certain kinds of moral virtues that would surely seem to require the existence of some God. For example, without Divine Command Theory, the genocide of the Canaanites, slaughter of Egypt’s firstborn, and the sacrifice of Isaac offend our moral intuitions. Only the existence of God, for example, could render the act of flying airliners into skyscrapers into a moral virtue.

      Even if that is Dr. Craig’s argument, I still think that the “properly basic” argument seriously weakens the ontological claim. The reason for that is indicated in my post:

      1) If atheism is true, then objective reality cannot exist.
      2) Objective reality exists.
      3) Therefore, atheism is false.

      If we use “properly basic” to justify the second premise, then it seems to me that we need to strengthen our ontological argument in the first premise. This is due to the epistemic features of “properly basic.” Let’s put it this way:

      1) Without God, there is no justification for the existence of objective reality
      2) Belief in objective reality is properly basic
      3) It is rational to hold beliefs that are properly basic, without further justification
      4) It is rational to believe in objective reality without further justification (i.e. — God)

      In other words, God is not needed as a further justification for objective reality because we do not need to explain how or why objective reality came about in order to believe in it.

      The ontological argument, even if true, is utterly superfluous to the existence of objective morality, if belief in objective morality is properly basic.

      And from a naturalist’s point of view, morality need not be transcendent or eternal in order to be objective. It is, indeed, a different meaning of objective than is typically held, but it meets the requirements: something is morally virtuous whether or not there is anyone who believes it. Altruistic behavior is a common evolved trait of social animals, providing adaptive benefits to the group even if it is non-adaptive for the individual. If there were no social species exhibiting this trait at any given point in time, it does not follow that altruistic behavior is no longer adaptive. Altruistic behavior is a potential trait of any social group that, upon its emergence, could provide adaptive benefits. In that sense, it is objective (not dependent on the subjective sentiments of conscious beings).

      I’m not making a particular case for objective morality, since such a case is not required if we accept the “properly basic” argument. But I think it is important, when considering the ontological argument for God and objective morality to be clear about what sort of moral virtues one is trying to establish as objective. Chances are that the individual is seeking to justify certain virtues that offend our moral intuitions and are not, indeed, properly basic. 🙂

      Great dialogue! Much appreciated.

      parkerw

      March 8, 2013 at 7:21 am

  6. Parker, thanks for the thoughtful exchanges.

    > The ontological argument, even if true, is utterly superfluous to the existence of objective morality, if belief in objective morality is properly basic.

    Two problems:

    1) your statement here is simply wrong. Saying that *belief* in objective morality is properly basic doesn’t render the question of exactly how it’s grounded superfluous, irrelevant or meaningless. In fact, it does exactly the opposite. Saying that the belief objective morality is properly basic means that one is justified with that belief as a *starting point* (i.e., I don’t need to argue my claim to *know* that objective morality exists), but, if that’s the case, then there’s a *necessary question* about the ontology of that objective morality. The claim to know objective morality exists is properly basic, the ontological explanation for it is not.

    I don’t know how to put it any more simply for you.

    2) Craig’s argument isn’t designed to establish the ontology of morality, it’s to establish the existence of God given a properly basic belief about the objective status of morality. As I stated earlier, his first premise is a claim (and a correct one, I believe) that there has to be a transcendent reality to serve as the ground of objective morals.

    It’s a common complaint of theistic philosophers that most atheists and naturalist non-philosophers routinely conflate epistemology and ontology and completely miss the important philosophical question at issue…and they’re usually correct about this.

    Sam Harris does have a background in philosophy, and therefore he doesn’t mistakenly dismiss the ontological question as irrelevant. In fact, in his book The Moral Landscape, he both affirms the existence of objective morality, *and* he expends great intellectual energy trying to ground objective morality and duties in nature–unsuccessfully, IMHO, as he commits the classic naturalistic fallacy.

    You can find Craig’s assessment here: http://tinyurl.com/b8e7dtl

    FWIW, I think Craig’s criticisms of Harris’ project are valid.

    So, rather than close the door on the moral argument, in my opinion you’ve based your essay on a non sequitur, and the door is still very much wide open.

    In order to respond to Craig, you would need to successfully attack either of the first two premises of his argument. The first premise seems to me to be rather unassailable (contra Harris). This is why other naturalistic philosophers deny that objective morality really exists (it is, at best, an evolved illusion), but argue that we as a species ought to act as if it does for our own (subjective) sakes. (Rosenberg, Ruse, etc.)

    You said: “And from a naturalist’s point of view, morality need not be transcendent or eternal in order to be objective.”

    From a naturalist’s point of view it *can’t be*. 😉

    “It is, indeed, a different meaning of objective than is typically held, but it meets the requirements: something is morally virtuous whether or not there is anyone who believes it.”

    Two things: 1) if you’re defining “objective” differently than Craig, then you’re not really responding to *his* argument. 2) suggesting that moral objectivity can be based on a behavior’s success as an adaptation for a species is, again, the naturalistic fallacy…but it’s what Harris does, so you’re not alone. Defining morality purely in purely naturalistic terms means that moral properties per se do not exist in any objective sense at all…they’re just a different form of language applied to valueless empirical facts…facts such as the successful survival of a species, the amount of physical or emotional pleasure that results from an individual or collective activity.

    As I pointed out earlier, it is a subjective and ultimately arbitrary choice to put a higher value on the survival of sentient beings than the unspoiled and unaltered earthly eco-system.

    Finally, I hope you weren’t really serious about this one:

    “Only the existence of God, for example, could render the act of flying airliners into skyscrapers into a moral virtue.”

    Are you really trying to claim that fanatical theists have a monopoly on turning atrocities into virtues? I think that if you replace “God” with non-transcendent authorities like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, a Hutu militia leader, etc., you get exactly the same thing, but usually at a far more grand scale if there’s some sort of government sponsorship.

    What was it Stalin said? “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” Whether it’s starving Kulaks, some other ideological purge during a cultural revolution, gratuitous torture and cruelty perpetrated on civilians during a war, or a tribal genocide, there’s no shortage of empirical data to illustrate that a merely human authority (issuing non-divine commands) can rationalize any sort of atrocity imaginable into a “moral virtue”, particularly a collective one. So, asserting that morally justifying an atrocity requires the invocation of a deity is false.

    It’s worth noting that without a transcendent, objective standard there’s no objective basis on which to condemn such atrocities, whether justified by an appeal to an imaginary divine command or a policy issued by a political party.

    Thanks again for the back and forth.

    Enzo

    March 14, 2013 at 7:48 pm

    • Thanks, Enzo — Of course Dr. Craig’s ontological argument is directly related to the existence of objective morality. What I meant, and I think it was clear, is that the ontological argument is the non-sequitur in Dr. Craig’s argument, *if* belief in objective morality is properly basic. Further grounding is not required. Now, I’m not saying that one should not attempt to ground such belief, but (as I pointed out in the post) that is an entirely different argument.

      There are two reasons for this, having to do with the way Plantinga and Dr. Craig use “properly basic.”

      1) Belief in objective reality is properly basic. Philosophers have attempted to ground objective reality in something transcendent, and they haven’t been particularly successful. I recall reading Popper describe a solipsistic philosopher who would turn around as quickly as possible in order to catch the world rendering itself for the benefit of her senses. If we had a satisfactory transcendent grounding for the existence of objective reality, then there really wouldn’t be much need for the “properly basic” defense. Belief in objective reality is properly basic precisely because there is no grounding for the existence of objective reality, and yet we cannot function except for that belief.

      2) Plantinga and Craig claim that belief in God is properly basic. Not only is this considered entirely sufficient grounds for belief in God, it is used to justify such beliefs even in the face of all kinds of challenging or difficult evidence (the Problem of Evil, for example). They assert that belief in God is properly basic precisely to avoid having to ground it further. It shifts the burden of proof to those who would deny the existence of God.

      The root of my argument is to assert that naturalists are entitled to make exactly the same move in the case of objective morality. We do not need to find an ontological grounding in order to assert that belief in a naturalistic objective morality is rational, and we need not submit to a demand that morality be rooted in anything transcendent.

      It is this move that entitles the naturalist to act “as if” morality is objective, just as we’re entitled to act “as if” reality is objective.

      Beyond that, we may be tempted to seek to ground a particular naturalistic view of objective morality. And on the face of it, naturalists have a harder row to hoe there. But theists aren’t in any better position when it comes to *particular* moral principles, because they rely on beliefs on a *particular* God. No one, theistic or otherwise, has at their disposal a well-known, transcendent, objective standard on which to judge a particular act. Dr. Craig cannot, for example, prove that the 9/11 hijackers were morally wrong without proving that his interpretation of God is the right one.

      This was the point of the later parts of my post. Holding a properly basic belief in objective morality does not entitle us to much of anything at all, whether or not there is some transcendent moral standard. Dr. Craig concedes the “gradual and fallible” nature of moral apprehension.

      Dr. Craig’s particular objective standard isn’t any better grounded that Harris’s, though admittedly for different reasons.

      parkerw

      March 15, 2013 at 6:47 am

      • I’ll put it another way:

        Belief in a *transcendent* objective morality is properly basic. I’ll grant that, in that it’s rational to believe in it, even if it’s not true. In this case, the ontological argument is tautological.

        But, belief in a *naturalistic* objective morality is also properly basic. So the naturalist isn’t defeated by Dr. Craig’s argument.

        parkerw

        March 15, 2013 at 6:56 am

  7. > What I meant, and I think it was clear, is that the ontological argument is the non-sequitur in Dr. Craig’s argument, *if* belief in objective morality is properly basic. Further grounding is not required.

    Well, it’s not clear at all, because I think this claim is simply mistaken. You conflate ontology and epistemology. As explained, the claim to *know* that morality is objective is taken as properly basic in Criag’s argument. The ontology of that objective morality is not.

    “Belief in objective reality is properly basic precisely because there is no grounding for the existence of objective reality, and yet we cannot function except for that belief.”

    I’m not exactly sure what this means. I do agree, however, that, as Plantinga himself explains, we all take the existence of an objective reality external to our own minds as a properly basic belief because we cannot function otherwise. But it’s properly basic not because it lacks an *ontological* ground, but because we can’t make anything more than a probabilistic logical argument for it. This is, again, the distinction between epistemology and ontology, or being and knowing. My instinct here, again, is that you’re conflating the two in your statements, and thereby missing exactly how Craig’s argument really works.

    “2) Plantinga and Craig claim that belief in God is properly basic. Not only is this considered entirely sufficient grounds for belief in God, it is used to justify such beliefs even in the face of all kinds of challenging or difficult evidence (the Problem of Evil, for example). They assert that belief in God is properly basic precisely to avoid having to ground it further. It shifts the burden of proof to those who would deny the existence of God.”

    I think this statement is pretty unfair to Plantinga and Craig, especially the latter. Craig has spent his academic career expounding on various arguments for the existence of God, not avoiding them. It seems to me that even a cursory look at his published work would make that obvious.

    Second, as you yourself admit, Craig (and Plantinga as well) have spent quite a bit of effort on the Problem of Evil (a problem that can only exist in the context of an objective moral standard, not in a naturalistic model). So, your whole second point is mistaken, I believe.

    “The root of my argument is to assert that naturalists are entitled to make exactly the same move in the case of objective morality.”

    This again, is where you conflate. It’s perfectly legitimate to, as some other naturalistic philosophers do, take belief in an objective morality as properly basic. The problem is then explaining the ontology of the morality that is taken for granted…and this is something that Harris cannot do, and that other naturalists admit simply cannot be done in a naturalistic framework…hence Craig’s argument…and hence my contention that if you’re going to successfully counter Craig, you’d need to attack, not accept his 2nd premise.

    “We do not need to find an ontological grounding in order to assert that belief in a naturalistic objective morality is rational, and we need not submit to a demand that morality be rooted in anything transcendent.”

    Properly basic means that the “belief” is rational, *even if you cannot, at that time, explain it.* It does not mean, however, if that belief is true, then there is a logically coherent and plausible ontology that necessarily exists. Craig’s argument is that only a transcendent ground can sustain the claim of objectivity, and I have yet to see any naturalistic argument that can do that. Instead the best you can achieve is a tautology in which any notion of distinctly moral properties disappears.

    “It is this move that entitles the naturalist to act “as if” morality is objective, just as we’re entitled to act “as if” reality is objective.”

    But no one disputes this, and it’s irrelevant to the validity of Craig’s argument.

    Hitchens used to challenge theists to “Name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever.” The answer is obviously that there is none. But that entirely misses the point.

    Anyone can behave as though objective morality exists. The question is what sort of metaphysic is necessary FOR objective morality to exist. The question is whether or not one’s metaphysic is logically consisten with one’s “properly basic” belief in an objective morality.

    “Beyond that, we may be tempted to seek to ground a particular naturalistic view of objective morality.”

    Tempted? 😉 Indeed…we might desire a logically coherent explanation as to how such a thing could possibly (and really) exist.

    “And on the face of it, naturalists have a harder row to hoe there.”

    On this we agree.

    “But theists aren’t in any better position when it comes to *particular* moral principles, because they rely on beliefs on a *particular* God.”

    But Parker, this is an entirely different question, correct? You’re making an apples and oranges comparison that just doesn’t work in this context. Craig, as you’re aware, is open to any plausible theory of exactly how individuals move *beyond* their properly basic belief in objective morality to the discovery of the particulars.

    Theists are in an infinitely (and I use the word quite consciously) better position to have a plausible ground for an objective morality than a naturalist, because some sort of transcendent ground is *necessary* for objective moral properties per se to exist. The naturalist has no similarly plausible ground and can *only* equate moral language with empirical phenomena. This means that distinct moral properties do not even exist. Moral language is just that…a different vocabulary we use to describe empirical phenomena that we subjectively desire.

    As I have repeatedly pointed out, a good number of naturalist/atheist philosophers accept that and run with it. They’re contention is that, yes, on our terms objective morality cannot exist, but we regard maintaining the *illusion* that is does as being preferable to destroying it, because we subjectively prefer the utilitarian or hedonistic outcomes possible in that context to those that would result in a culture where that illusion is abandoned. They’re essentially saying, “yes, there cannot be any objective morality, but we as a species to do the best with what we’ve got,”

    “Dr. Craig’s particular objective standard isn’t any better grounded that Harris’s, though admittedly for different reasons.”

    I admit I don’t follow you here at all. IF Craig’s first two premises are true, then a transcendent ground is logically necessary, and he’s made his case.

    You can attack either of those premises to refute him. As I’ve said, the first appears to me to be unassailable, because the existence of objective and *distinct* moral properties appears to me to be impossible in a purely naturalistic metaphysic, but possible in one in which there is a transcendent reality.

    The second premise is what is attacked by those atheistic philosophers who agree that naturalism cannot support an objective morality. Therefore, on their view, objective morality is an illusion that we have evolved for whatever reason, but we need to be grown ups and acknowledge that it doesn’t really exist.

    “Belief in a *transcendent* objective morality is properly basic. I’ll grant that, in that it’s rational to believe in it, even if it’s not true.”

    You do agree, do you not, that this is not something that either Plantinga or Craig would say?

    “In this case, the ontological argument is tautological.”

    In Craig’s argument it is not.

    “But, belief in a *naturalistic* objective morality is also properly basic. So the naturalist isn’t defeated by Dr. Craig’s argument.”

    Again, your conflation is evident. Belief in objective morality is what’s properly basic to Craig…not the metaphysics of that belief.

    To defeat his argument, you need to fatally undermine either premise 1 or premise 2, not dodge them.

    😉

    Enzo

    March 16, 2013 at 11:13 am

    • I just wanted to make some brief points.

      First, if by the “naturalistic fallacy” you mean the whole Humean “is/ought” distinction, then that disitnction applies just as much to Craig’s position as Harris’. Hume explicitly applied his point to theistic positiona. And in any event, the distinction is largely a red herring and can be rebutted easily. It doesn’t offered a serious objection to any moral realist position, including moral naturalism.

      Second, if you mean Moore’s “naturalistic fallacy”, then Moore’s point also applies to theism. Some people erroneously think that by “natural” in the “naturalistic fallacy” Moore was specifically talking about moral naturalism. He wasn’t. He was talking about ANY view that used non-moral terminology in discussing moral properties. This includes Craig’s divine command position that uses terminiology involving God’s commands in discussing moral properties. Furthemore, Moore’s naturalistic fallacy is a red herring and fails to rebut moral naturalism, especially what are called “synthetic” moral naturalist positions.

      [If you want further background on this, I’d recommend checking out either Charles Pigden’s or Richard Joyce’s work on this. The blog “Philosophical Disquisitions” has a fairly good summary of one of Pigden’s articles. Neither Pigden nor Joyce advocate moral naturalism or moral non-naturalism. Joyce is a moral nihilist and moral skeptic, and Pigden is a moral error theorist and a moral skeptic. So they aren’t criticizing Hume and Moore out of some interest in defending their own positions. They just both recognize the failings of the whole “is/ought” point and Moore’s naturalistic fallacy]

      Third, I get that some theists like to cite some atheists like Rosenberg and Ruse when discussing moral arguments for God’s existence. This makes no sense to me. Most atheist philosophers I know of, including evolutionary naturalists and moral nihilists, reject Craig’s first premise. Examples include [I’ll stick with the moral error theorists/moral skeptics for ease; otherwise, the list would go on for awhile]: Richard Garner, Ian Hinckfuss, Richard Joyce, Charles Pigden, Joshua Greene, Jonas Olson, etc. Garner puts it beautifully when he writes:

      “Mackie says that ‘if the requisite theological doctrine could be defended,’ and he did not think that it could be, we might be able to defend ‘a kind of objective ethical prescriptivity’ (Ethics, p. 48). This is far from obvious. Even God only supplies a most unusual subjective source (or Subjective Source) of value or obligation.”

      In fact, Ruse’s argument against moral objectivism has nothing to do with God’s existence or premise 1 of Craig’s argument. Instead, it’s an explanatory argument that hinges on Occam’s razor. One can be an evolutionary naturalist (as I am) and easily rebut Ruse’s argument without mentioning a God, simply by noting that the moral properties supervene on some of the properties he includes in his naturalistic explanation.

      In any event, given that most evolutionary naturalists, including moral nihilists / moral skeptics / moral subjectivists, would reject premise 1 of Craig’s argument, I think it makes no sense to cite some of them as if that gives anyone a reason to accept the first premise. To make the point sharper, here’s an an easy challenge:

      Before you cited Rosenberg and Ruse. Could you point out ANY passage in their work that supports premise 1 of Craig’s moral argument?

      Note that giving me a passage where they advocate moral subjectivism / moral nihilism/ …, or claim that their own position (or evolutionary naturalism or ….) implies moral subjectivism/atheism, won’t help. Pointing out that atheism implies not-X does not show that theism implies X. After all, the above passage from Garner shows that atheists need not think theism implies moral objectivism, and philosophers regularly categorize theistic meta-ethical positions such as divine command theory, divine attitude theories, etc. as moral subjectivism.

      So what you instead need to give me to meet the challenge is a passage where Ruse or Rosenberg say that if objective moral properties exists, then God exists; or claim that contrapositive: if it is not the case that God exists, then it is not the case that objective moral properties exist. I’m pretty sure you won’t find such a passage in Ruse’s work, given what I’ve read of his writings on meta-ethics. And both men obviously know of atheistic versions of non-naturalism and naturalism that imply moral objectivism. They simply don’t advocate those positions. But as long as they think these alternative views are more plausible than the theistic alternative, then they can easily reject premise 1.

      NoctambulantJoycean

      April 30, 2013 at 1:13 am

  8. I think people in the comment section have gotten clear on the “ontological/epistemic” distinction with respect to morality and Craig’s moral argument. But I’m still left confused b/c this distinction doesn’t help premise 1 of Craig’s argument. It hurts it in a number of ways. Let me explain one of them: it leads to moral subjectivism.

    Here’s a quick definition of moral subjectivism: moral subjectivism involves making the truth of moral statements dependent on a mind’s views on the matter, where “views” can include stuff such as attitudes, beliefs, commands, etc. The lone exception to this relates to the views of a victim with respect to stuff that’s their’s; that wouldn’t be subjectivism and accounts for stuff like rape, stealing, etc. that, by definition, go against the informed preferences of the victim. There are a couple more details that would need to be fleshed out, but I think this is a decent working definition of moral subjectivism.

    So “ontologically grounding” moral properties in God’s views would be moral subjectivism, just as “ontologically grounding” moral properties in an idel observer would be moral subjectivism. That’s why, for example, divine command theory is recognized as a version of moral subjectivism. It makes the rightness and wrongness of rape depend on God’s views; specifically, God’s commands. It therefore really confuses me when a divine command theorist like Craig advocates a moral argument for God;s existence from objective morality, while presupposing a moral subjectivist/non-objectivism position.

    In any event, I was just curious about how you “ontologically ground” moral properties? Are they grounded in the natural world (which is my position, by the way)? Are they non-natural? Divine? Is the question irrelevant since morality does not need any “grounding for moral properties”?

    Thanks for your insightful post.

    NoctambulantJoycean

    April 30, 2013 at 12:36 am

  9. I sure wish I knew what the hell you people were talking about!

    cardoa

    August 18, 2013 at 2:08 pm


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