bookmark_borderDoes Theism Explain the Necessity of Moral Truths?

The book, Does God Exist? The Craig-Flew Debate, contains a transcript of the debate between William Lane Craig and Antony Flew, responses by eight commentators, and final responses by Craig and Flew. Many of the commentators, including some of the theists, sharply criticized Craig’s moral argument for God’s existence because, they argued, some moral truths are necessary truths and so do not need an explanation. Let’s call this objection UNMT (for ‘Unexplained Necessary Moral Truths’).
In his reply to commentators, as I read him, Craig replied as follows: (i) Christian theists who press the UNMT objection do not believe that God’s existence is logically necessary, whereas “the mainstream Christian tradition has held that God’s existence is broadly logically necessary, so that He can be the explanatory basis of necessary truths” (169). (ii) Necessary truths can stand in relations of explanatory priority to one another; indeed, there is such a thing as “explaining that (or why) a necessary truth is true” (169).
Allow me to explain. Let’s start with (i). Assume for the sake of argument that the proposition, Objective moral values exist, is true in every possible world but that the proposition, God exists, is not true in every possible world. In that case, God couldn’t be the explanation for objective moral values, since it would be impossible for a contingent truth (in this hypothetical, God’s existence) to explain a necessary truth (the existence of objective moral values). This hypothetical shows that, in order for it to be even possible for God’s existence to explain the existence of objective moral values, God’s existence has to be necessary. In other words, “Theism expresses a necessary proposition,” is itself a necessary (but not a sufficient) condition for God’s existence to explain necessary truths, including necessary truths about the existence of moral values.
As software engineers might say, this is a bug, not a feature, in Craig’s moral argument for God’s existence. If Craig’s moral argument requires that theism be a necessary proposition, then it is much more likely that theism is necessarily false (and so God cannot be the explanation for necessarily existing moral values) than that theism is necessarily true (and so it is possible that God might be the explanation for necessarily existing moral values). Why? Purdue University philosopher Paul Draper explains the point well.

Suppose that theism is not a contingent proposition. Then it is much more likely that it is necessarily false than that it is necessarily true. This is made clear by any objective comparison of the available reasons for thinking that theism is necessarily true to the available reasons for thinking that it is necessarily false. The former are limited to various versions of the ontological argument, which is almost universally rejected by philosophers. Indeed, even Plantinga admits that this argument fails to prove its conclusion. The latter include a whole host of serious arguments for the incoherence of theism. Keep in mind that I’m not convinced by these arguments for the necessary falsehood of theism, but they are clearly more persuasive collectively than the notoriously unpersuasive ontological argument. Further, theism asserts that the natural world was created by an omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect person, which assumes, not only that there is a maximum possible degree of power, knowledge, and moral goodness, but also that these three attributes are compatible with each other and with the existence of natural entities. Even ignoring specific arguments, clearly it is much more likely that some hidden incoherence lurks in the assertion that there exists a creator of nature possessing the highest possible degree of several distinct scaling properties than in the simple assertion that no such creator exists. Therefore, if I am mistaken and theism really is a necessary proposition, then it is very probably a necessary falsehood, which means that my assumption in my opening case that it is a contingent proposition is not only dialectically appropriate (for the reasons given in the previous paragraph), but dialectically generous. (LINK)

But let’s put that to the side and assume that God’s existence really is broadly logically necessary. If that were so, how would it follow that God’s (necessary) existence somehow explains the (necessary) existence of objective moral values?
A bit later in his response to commentators, Craig offers some clarification on the concept of a “moral value.” Regarding the metaethical position I call moral anti-reductionism (which Craig calls ‘atheistic moral Platonism’ but is far better known by the horrible label ‘non-naturalism’), Craig writes this:

First, it is difficult even to comprehend the Platonist view. What does it mean to say, for example, that the moral value Justice just exists? It is hard to know what to make of this. It is clear what is meant when it is said that a person is just; but is bewildering when it is said that, in the absence of any people, Justice itself exists. Moral values seem to exist as properties of persons, not as mere abstractions – or at any rate, it is hard to know what it is for a moral value to exist as a mere abstraction. (169, italics in last sentence mine)

Craig’s selection of “justice” as his example of a moral value is odd. Craig is aware of the distinction between moral values and moral duties; indeed, he emphasizes it in his writings. But most definitions of “justice” introduce the concept of law through the back door. For example, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy begins its article on justice with the words:

Justice is one of the most important moral and political concepts.  The word comes from the Latin jus, meaning right or law.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines the “just” person as one who typically “does what is morally right” and is disposed to “giving everyone his or her due,” offering the word “fair” as a synonym. (LINK)

In this context, “law” and “right” (including “morally right”) are deontological (duty) concepts, not axiological (value) concepts. This muddies the waters; if we say that “justice” is a moral value, it seems to be a different animal from other moral values which don’t refer to deontological concepts in their very definition. Perhaps we might call “justice” a ‘second-order moral value,’ since it is a moral value which is conceptually dependent upon a deontological concept, and say that we want a first-order moral value, a value which doesn’t combine concepts. Fortunately, Craig provides other, neater examples: mercy, love, and forbearance (170).
Here I want to use moral values like mercy or love to show that God’s necessary existence is not a sufficient condition for explaining the necessary existence of moral values. If moral values like mercy or love “exist as properties of persons, not as mere abstractions,” it would seem that they are relational and so would require that two or more persons exist. But, even if we assume that (mere) theism is necessarily true, the proposition, “More than one person exists,” is a contingent proposition. Mere theism doesn’t entail Christian theism, which in turn means it does not entail the Christian doctrine of the trinity is true, and so it does not entail the existence of multiple divine persons. Furthermore, mere theism doesn’t entail the existence of any non-divine persons. So, even if it were the case that theism is necessarily true, it wouldn’t follow that more one person exists.
But if, “More than one person exists,” is a contingent proposition, this creates a problem for Divine Nature Theorists (DNT-ists) like Craig who want to argue that God’s nature explains all objective moral values, including relational moral values like love and mercy. Sure, there is a sense in which we can talk about a person loving themselves or having mercy on themselves, but I think it’s clear that not what people usually have in mind when they talk about “love” and “mercy” as moral values. (Besides, it’s hard to imagine how or why God would have “mercy” on Himself.) So if moral values are properties of persons; if some moral values are relational; and if “More than one person exists” is a contingent proposition, then there are possible worlds in which God exists but relational moral values do not exist. Thus, God’s existence, even God’s necessary existence, cannot explain necessary truths about all objective moral values because it cannot explain necessary truths about relational moral values. But that entails Craig’s moral argument fails.

bookmark_borderQuibbling over Semantics While Missing the Point

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I’m a linguistic relativist. I don’t think words have objective meanings. I think the meaning of words is relative to time and place. So when I encounter someone who is adamant about defining a word in a different way than I do, I just shrug my shoulders. I’m much more interested in the concepts represented by certain labels than the labels themselves.
I recently discovered (or re-discovered) an exchange on this site in which a Christian apologist responds to my critique of William Lane Craig’s moral argument for God’s existence. Responding to a comment from reader “Andy,” who had promoted my critique, Timothy Stratton begins his critique by denying that I am a naturalist.
You said, “The biggest exponent of the moral argument is of course William Lane Craig. I’ll recommend to everyone again to view Jeffery Jay Lowder’s takedown of Craig’s version of the argument…”

Do you really think JJL’s argument is a good one, Andy? This is anything but a “takedown.” For starters, his title is “Naturalism, Theism, and Moral Ontology,” but he sure does not defend naturalism; in fact, he argues against naturalism!

Let’s see. I started one of the first atheist websites on the Internet, a website devoted to promoting metaphysical naturalism on the Internet. I claim to be a naturalist and, in that critique, I claim to be defending naturalism against an argument for God’s existence based on moral ontology. So why would Stratton deny that I am a naturalist? He continues:

He is anything but a naturalist as he states that there are many immaterial abstract objects that ontologically exist without beginning! He specifically references the laws of nature (which are not nature themselves), mathematical laws, and the laws of logic.

So, according to Stratton, I’m not a naturalist because I’m open to the existence of abstract objects.
This is a very uncharitable way of responding to critique, so allow me to explain why. Like many things, the word “naturalism” means different things to different people. For some people it refers to epistemology (i.e., “methodological naturalism”) while for others it refers to ontology (i.e., “metaphysical naturalism”). Furthermore, even within the domain of ontology, there is no consensus among philosophers regarding what it means. Some people define “metaphysical naturalism” in a way that is synonymous with materialism, i.e., nature is all there is. Other people (including yours truly), however, define “metaphysical naturalism” in a much more modest way that makes no claims for or against the existence of abstract objects. In light of the many legitimate definitions of “metaphysical naturalism” among professional philosophers, it is simply uncharitable for Stratton to act as if I am using an idiosyncratic definition of “naturalism.”  If an author or speaker uses one of many legitimate definitions of a word that is probably polysemous, the charitable thing to do is engage the author or speaker on his or her own terms.
I don’t really care whether my worldview is called “naturalism,” “weak naturalism,” “atheistic moral Platonism,” or “shnaturalism.” I’m interested in the concepts or ideas represented by the label. So, with that in mind, let’s try to put my critique in context. William Lane Craig defends an argument for God’s existence from moral ontology; my presentation is a critique of Craig’s argument. Regardless of the label we assign to my worldview, it is still the case that an “atheist” (in Craig’s sense of “atheist”) can consistently believe in “objective moral values and duties” (in Craig’s sense of “objective moral values of duties”). Furthermore, it is still the case that Craig’s supporting arguments are completely unsuccessful. Nothing Stratton has written refutes anything in that presentation.
Instead, Stratton basically tries to change the subject and present an argument from abstract objects for theism. He writes:

Now, I think a strong argument can be made that the best explanation of all of these immaterial abstract and eternal things is the eternal existence of God (I have written on this topic on my website).

Craig’s moral argument is based upon the claim that ontologically objective moral values and duties are logically inconsistent with God’s nonexistence. Even if it were the case that God is the best explanation for abstract objects, this wouldn’t vindicate Craig’s argument from moral ontology to God’s existence since that argument makes a much stronger claim. But in fact I think apologists are going to have a very hard time defending the kind of argument Stratton describes. In my experience, when defending such arguments, Christian apologists play fast and loose with the definition of theism and, indeed, equivocate. Sometimes “theism” means theism and sometimes “theism” means theism conjoined with one or more auxiliary hypotheses, such as the doctrine of divine aseity (which denies that abstract objects exist a se). It may be the case that Christians have excellent theological reasons for believing that doctrine; I am not making any claims about that. But mere theism does not entail divine aseity. The existence of fully autonomous abstracta is logically consistent with ‘mere theism.’
The upshot is this: theists can appeal to an auxiliary hypothesis, such as a sectarian doctrine about divine aseity, in order to explain abstract objects. But this gain in “explanatory power” is offset by a loss in “intrinsic probability,” and the best explanation is the hypothesis which has the greatest overall balance of intrinsic probability and explanatory power. So it is far from obvious that theism (conjoined with an auxiliary hypothesis about divine aseity) is the best explanation. In fact, it is far from obvious that abstract objects, if they exist, even need an explanation. But that’s a topic for another day.

Be that as it may, why can all of these supernatural (other than nature) immaterial abstract things exist, but a supernatural immaterial concrete “Thing” cannot exist?

Again Stratton tries to summarize my views and, again, he does so in a very uncharitable way. Nowhere in my critique (or anywhere else) have I claimed that the supernatural “cannot” exist, so it is odd that Stratton would try to saddle me with such a strong claim. In fact, my actual position denies that claim: I believe that theism is possible, but improbable. As anyone who is familiar with my writings knows, my preferred style of argumentation is inductive; I defend arguments which try to show that theism is improbable, not impossible.

How ad hoc to posit all of these supernatural entities to avoid an argument deductively proving a supernatural immaterial Thinking Thing exists.

The phrase “all of these supernatural entities” is key, for it emphasizes the key confusion in Stratton’s commentary. Unlike Stratton, I don’t believe that abstract objects are “supernatural” by definition. The key difference between supernatural beings and abstract objects is this: supernatural beings can stand in causal relations, while abstract objects cannot. Because supernatural beings can stand in causal relations, this make it at least possible to devise empirical ‘tests’ for their existence in a way that cannot be done for abstract objects. Those ‘tests’ provide reasons to doubt the existence of supernatural beings, but they don’t provide reasons to doubt the existence of abstract objects. So, contrary to Stratton, there is nothing “ad hoc” about it.

This atheist is willing to posit an *infinite* amount of supernatural things, but is determined to avoid a supernatural thing if it is an immaterial thinking thing (a mind).

Again, notice the uncharitable comment. I’m not sure why Stratton tries to saddle me with the claim that an “infinite” number of abstract objects exist, but it really doesn’t matter one way or the other. What matters is whether the existence of abstract objects provides a reason to think that God exists. For the reasons given above, I don’t think ‘mere theism’ does that. And the parting shot about psychological motivations (“determined to avoid a supernatural thing”) is just that, an irrelevant parting shot, not an argument.
If this is the best that WLC’s defenders can do in defense of his moral argument, then I think his critics (including some theists!) are quite justified in regarding his argument as unsuccessful.

bookmark_borderCharles Pidgen on the So-Called “Naturalistic Fallacy” in Meta-Ethics

A common objection to reductive moral naturalism (aka ‘ethical naturalism’)  is the so-called “naturalistic fallacy.” This fallacy comes into flavors: logical and semantical.
The Logical Form
This version of the naturalistic fallacy is normally referred to as the is-ought fallacy, the fact-value fallacy, or, in honor of its author, Hume’s Law.  The source of this form of the naturalistic fallacy is the following passage by Hume.

In every system of morality which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not.  This change is imperceptible, but is, however, of the last consequence.  For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for others, which are entirely different from it. (A Treatise on Human Nature, Book III, Part I)

Although this passage is often used to support a distinction between facts and values, the passage does not accomplish that.  As Charles Pidgen writes, “For Hume is making a simple logical point.  A conclusion containing ‘ought’ cannot (as a matter of logic) be derived from ‘ought’-free premises.”[1]  Hume’s logical point does not refute the ontological claim of reductive moral naturalism.
To understand why, consider an analogy with the biological concept of species.  There is a similar gap between conclusions about species and premises that make no mention of them.  A conclusion containing ‘species’ cannot be derived from ‘species’-free premises.  Yet nobody proposes a fact/species distinction or alleges that there is a realm of irreducible species facts.
Therefore, metaphysics does not create either gap.  Rather, as Pidgen writes, “It is the conservativeness of logic that creates the gap.”[2]  But this entails that the gap is logical, not ontological.
The Semantical Form
In his historic book, Principia Ethica, G.E. Moore introduced and defended the theory of moral anti-reductionism (aka ‘ethical nonnaturalism’) over and against moral reductionism.  Moore argued that moral reductionism is fatally flawed since moral facts and properties cannot be reduced to other types of facts and properties.  To support his claim, Moore advanced what he called “the open-question argument.”  According to Moore, no matter which naturalistic definition of good we consider (X), it is still meaningful (and hence an ‘open question’) to ask whether X is good.  So, for example, if an ethical naturalist claims that goodness is identical with pleasure, the nonnaturalist could reply, “Rape gives rapists pleasure, but is it good?”  Does Moore’s argument succeed in refuting ethical naturalism?
Moore’s argument may well be successful in showing that goodness is not strictly a synonym with any non-moral word.  Thus, semantic naturalism would be false; moral words would not be synonymous with non-moral words.  But, even if that were the case, moral words and non-moral words might both stand for the same property.  To use an example outside of meta-ethics, consider the relationship between water and H2O.  As Pidgen explains:

Water and H2O are identical.  Yet ‘water’ is not synonymous with ‘H2O’ even though they stand for the same stuff.  ‘Water’ expresses a pre-scientific concept accessible to children and savages – roughly, the colourless, tasteless fluid that falls from the sky and is found in lakes and rivers.  ‘H2O’, by contrast, expresses a scientific notion.  You can’t understand it fully without a modicum of chemistry.  People did not find out that water is H2O by meditating upon meanings.  Empirical enquiry did the trick.  Semantic naturalism might be false but synthetic naturalism might be true.   That is, moral properties might be identified with natural properties by means of empirical research rather than conceptual analysis.  Thus semantic autonomy, which says that moral words do not mean the same as any others, does not entail ontological autonomy – that moral properties are not identical with any others.[3]

Thus, neither the logical nor the semantic forms of the naturalistic fallacy succeed in refuting the ontological claim of reductive moral naturalism.
Notes
[1] Charles R. Pidgen, “Naturalism” A Companion to Ethics (ed. Peter Singer, Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), p. 423.
[2] Pidgen 1991, p. 424.
[3] Pidgen 1991, pp. 426-27.