William Lane Craig and the Foundations of Objective Morality
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:
- If atheism is true, then objective morals do not exist.
- Objective morals exist.
- 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.
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:
- If atheism is true, then objective reality cannot exist.
- Objective reality exists.
- 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.
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.
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
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):
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
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.
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.
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.