bookmark_borderAnother Christian Apologist Tears Down a Straw Man of Atheist Morality

My friend Wintery Knight (WK) has written another blog post on the topic of morality. Like so many other theists (and a few atheists), he manages to completely botch the topic of atheist morality.
Who Speaks for Atheists, Anyway?
If you want to determine Christian beliefs about something, you can see what the Bible and various representatives of the (Christian) church hierarchy have to say. So if you’re a Christian apologist trying to make sense of atheist morality, it follows that you should see what the Atheist Bible and various representatives of the (atheist) church hierarchy have to say. Right?
Wrong! There is no atheist Bible or hierarchy, so you’re going to have to do better than quote mining various atheists, even famous atheists. You’re even going to have to do more than write snarky summaries of your favorite debates between William Lane Craig and his (typically) clueless-atheist-debate-opponent-of-the-month. You’re going to have to temporarily stop bashing non-STEM degrees (see, for example, here) and actually study ethics (specifically, meta-ethics) and construct deductively valid or inductively correct arguments to support your claims. As we shall, however, WK fails to do this.
Rationally Grounded Morality
WK begins his post by listing 5 requirements for a “rationally grounded system of morality”:
(1) Objective moral values
(2) Objective moral duties
(3) Moral accountability
(4) Free will
(5) Ultimate significance
After reading his comments on these five requirements, I thought to myself, “He could have been much more concise by simply stating that a rationally grounded system of morality must be personally approved by William Lane Craig or, better yet, require that God exists.” If that seems snarky, it’s not meant to be. WK’s comments really are that question-begging. The fact of the matter is that WK has confused rational grounding with a plethora of other topics.
Regarding (1) and (2): Like WK, I consider myself a moral objectivist, but I think it’s a blatant straw man for WK to claim that a “rationally grounded system of morality” requires objective moral values and duties. An ontologically objective system of morality requires those things, but I don’t think a “rationally grounded” system of morality does. At the very least, WK has given absolutely no reason to think that it does.
Item (3) suffers from similar problem. WK has confused the grounding of morality with motives and reasons for moral behavior. Whether there are ontologically objective moral values and duties is logically independent of whether there is moral accountability.
Turning to (4), he simply begs the question against both determinism and compatibilism (the latter entails that moral accountability is possible even if determinism is true). For the record, I don’t have a position on the free will vs. determinism and compatibilism vs. incompatibilism debates. But to write as if no one has given any serious arguments for compatibilism is simply irresponsible and, I daresay, immoral.
As for (5), WK confuses the grounding of morality with the topic of the meaning of life. As I’ve argued before (skip down to the end of the linked post):

This claim confuses the distinction between purpose and value. 
To say that something exists for a purpose means there is a reason for its existence.  To say that something has value means that it has desirable characteristics.  Even if something was not created for a purpose, that thing can still have value if it has desirable characteristics.  Moreover, in order for a thing to be valuable, it does not have to be valuable to the person or thing that created it.  Therefore, although the human species was not created for a purpose (and so is not valuable to the impersonal forces of evolution), the human species is still valuable because it is valuable to humans: individual humans desire the existence of the human species.
Objective moral values and obligations do not depend on a ‘cosmic telos‘ or external purpose for the universe’s existence.

In fact, one may not unreasonably conclude that WK hasn’t given an argument for why a rationally grounded system of morality requires ‘ultimate significance’. Rather, he’s simply expressed his subjective desire that our lives have ultimate significance (in his sense). Furthermore, as John Danaher has summarized, Toby Betenson has written a forceful, internal critique of WLC’s claim that theism accounts for the significance of life.
Finally, although I’m not going to attempt to defend a complete list of desirable characteristics for a system of morality, notice what WK left out of his list. His list says nothing about moral epistemology. But if you think about it for a moment, what practical difference do objective moral values and duties ‘out there’ make, if human beings have no reliable method of knowing what they are? In fact, moral epistemology, as a whole, favors naturalism (including atheism) over theism. Why? Because naturalism explains moral disagreement much better than theism does.
Quote-Mining, Anyone?

WK then proceeds to quote three atheistic biologists who support his claims: Coyne, Provine, and Dawkins. (I’ve commented on each before; see here.) But, in what is becoming all too typical of Christian apologists, what we don’t find is any interaction with philosophers, especially those who specialize in metaethics–including both theists and nontheists–who reject his claims. These people include:

He also ignores the work of atheist philosopher Alonzo Fyfe (who is ABD) and who developed the theory of desirism. WK also ignores John Danaher’s formidable critiques of WLC’s arguments (see, for example, hereherehere, here, here, here).
In short, WK hasn’t even come close to charitably interacting with atheist morality.
A WLC-Style Case for the Autonomy of Ethics
Since WK is such a fan of WLC’s debates, I’d like to close this post with a WLC-style case for the autonomy of ethics, i.e., why ethics doesn’t (ontologically) depend on God.
First Contention. There are no good reasons to think ontologically objective moral values depend on God.
(1) The “laws require a lawgiver” argument is a weak reason to think that moral laws require a moral lawgiver.
(2) The “I can’t see how morality could have an objective ontological foundation without God” argument is a weak reason to think that morality cannot have an objective ontological foundation without God.
(3) The “I can selectively quote some famous atheists who agree with me” is a weak reason to think that morality without God is subjective. (Cf. here, here)
(4) The “Darwinian naturalism entails that morality is nothing but a biological adaptation” argument is a weak reason to think that morality without God is nothing but a biological adaptation.
(5) The arguments in (1)-(4) are representative of the kinds of arguments used to justify the claim that God is required for a rationally grounded system of morality.
(6) Therefore, there is no good reason to think ontologically objective moral values depend on God.
Second Contention. There are good reasons to think ontologically objective moral values depend on God.
1. In order to determine if objective values exist, one must first:
(a) have a rigorous definition of “objective values”;
(b) determine whether ontologically objective values require a ontological foundation; and
(c) determine if there are nontheistic ontological foundations available.
2. If objectivity is defined epistemologically, God isn’t needed for objective values.
3. If objectivity is defined ontologically, God isn’t needed for objective values. This is because:
(a) it’s far from obvious that ontologically objective moral values require an ontological foundation (some such values could be brute facts); and
(b) if they do, nontheistic foundations are available.
4. Therefore, ontologically objective moral values do not depend on God.

bookmark_borderChristian Apologist: Theists Care About Science but Naturalists Don’t

Christian apologist Wintery Knight has written an unintentionally funny post against naturalists in which he attempts to turn the tables on those who would use science to argue against religion.
Linking to an old article which explains how the planet Jupiter deflects comets and asteroids that might otherwise hit Earth, Wintery Knight argues that this shows our habitat was fine-tuned to be life-permitting. This would make sense if, say, we were talking about a junior deity (call him “Bob”) who was stuck with the laws, constants, or initial conditions of the universe–you know, the ones that on a good day make our universe look like a cosmic Hunger Games scenario–but who did have enough power to design the solar system to provide an imperfect, coarse-tuned Earth defense system (Jupiter). This does not, however, make any sense if we are talking about a “Triple O” deity (omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent) who can design the universe with any logically consistent laws, constants, and initial conditions–in other words, a universe that doesn’t need a planetary defense system because it doesn’t have random comets and asteroids tumbling through space!
But let that pass. The real howler is when he spins the significance of this evidence.

People who are not curious about science sort of take these blessings for granted and push away the God who is responsible for the clever life-permitting design of our habitat. In contrast, theists are curious and excited about what science tells us about the Creator. Theists care about science, but naturalists have to sort of keep experimental science at arm’s length – away from the presuppositions and assumptions that allow them to have autonomy to live life without respect, accountability and gratitude. Naturalists take refuge in the relief provided by speculative science and science fiction. They like to listen to their leaders speculate about speculative theories, and willingly buy up books by snarky speculators who think that nothing is really something (Krauss), or who think that the cosmic fine-tuning is not real (Stenger), or who think that silicon-based life is a viable scenario (Rosenberg), etc. But theists prefer actual science. Truth matters to us, and we willingly adjust our behavior to fit the scientific facts.

bookmark_borderWilliam Provine on Evolutionary Naturalism and Morality

Cornell University biologist William Provine debated UC Berkeley law professor in 1998. (Click here for a link to the transcript.) In his opening statement, Provine made the following provocative assertion.

Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.

I don’t know if Darwin would agree with Provine’s list of consequences or not, but I want to comment on the alleged ethical consequences of evolutionary naturalism.
Many apologists (see, e.g., here) have made an argument from authority, using Provine’s statement, to support the claim that atheism entails nihilism. While some arguments from authority can be logically correct, this one is not. Let P be the statement “If naturalistic evolution is true, then there is no ultimate foundation for ethics,” and let S be metaethics. Using Wesley Salmon’s schema for inductive arguments from authority,[1] we can then formulate the argument from authority as follows.

(1) The vast majority of statements made by William Provine concerning subject S are true.
(2) P is a statement made by William Provine concerning subject S.
(3) Therefore, P is true.

This argument does not satisfy Salmon’s conditions for an inductively correct argument from authority, in two ways. First, even if we treat Provine as an expert on metaethics, the argument would still be evidentially worthless. As Salmon observed, an appeal to one group of authorities has no evidential value when another group of authorities who are equally competent disagree.[2] And there are many qualified experts on metaethics who believe P is false.[3] Second, with all due respect to Provine, he is not a reliable authority on subject S. He is an evolutionary biologist with a Ph.D. in the history of science, not a philosopher who specializes in metaethics. Therefore, premise (1) is dubious. The upshot is that this argument from authority provides literally zero evidence for statement p.
Even if we cannot accept P on the basis of Provine’s authority, however, it is still possible that Provine has a good argument for believing it. If he does, however, it’s not exactly clear how the argument is supposed to work. The only relevant statement I could find in the debate transcript is the quotation I provided at the beginning of this post. Here it is again.

Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.

It’s far from obvious why Provine thinks that “modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear” that “There is no ultimate foundation for ethics.” At first glance, this seems very implausible because P lies within the domain of philosophy, not biology. One can’t help but wonder if Provine presupposes scientism and that his statement about the purported conclusions of “modern evolutionary biology” are really just a statement about the implications of scientism. That really doesn’t matter one way or the other, however. All that matters is whether Provine has given a good reason to think that evolutionary naturalism leads to nihilism, which he hasn’t. Provine has provided nothing more than a mere assertion of bias for moral nihilism.
The upshot is that Provine’s statements in his 1998 debate with Johnson provide no support whatsoever for the claim that atheism entails or implies moral nihilism.
Notes
[1] Wesley C. Salmon, Logic (third ed., Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1984), 100.
[2] Ibid.
[3] E.g., Adams; Hick; Moore; Morriston; Nielsen; Pojman; Post; Rottschaefer; Sagi and Statman; Shafer-Landau; Q. Smith; Swinburne; and Wielenberg.

bookmark_borderScientific Discoveries, Theism, and Atheism: Reply to Wintery Knight

I’m going to offer some comments on a recent post by Wintery Knight. He writes:

When people ask me whether the progress of science is more compatible with theism or atheism, I offer the follow four basic pieces of scientific evidence that are more compatible with theism than atheism. [italics are mine]

The following point is nitpicky, but it’s worth mentioning just because so many non-philosophers, including both theists and nontheists, misuse words like “compatible” and “consistent.” Compatibility is like pregnancy: a person is either pregnant or not. There is no in-between. Likewise, evidence is either compatible with a hypothesis or it’s not. There is no such thing as “degrees of compatibility.” If you want to talk about evidence offering a greater degree of support for one hypothesis over another, then “compatible” is the wrong word to use. You can instead use words like “expected,” “surprising,” or “favors.” For example, “There are four basic pieces of scientific evidence which favor theism over atheism.”

Let’s move on.

Here are the four pieces of evidence best explained by a Creator/Designer:

  1. the kalam argument from the origin of the universe
  2. the cosmic fine-tuning (habitability) argument
  3. the biological information in the first replicator (origin of life)
  4. the sudden origin of all of the different body plans in the fossil record (Cambrian explosion)

I have one more nitpicky point and then a more substantial point. The nitpicky point is that WK has conflated “a piece of evidence” with “an argument about that piece of evidence.” The first two items in his list are not items of evidence, but arguments about items of evidence. The kalam argument is an argument about the finite age of the universe and the cosmic fine-tuning argument is an argument about the life-permitting physical constants. So if WK wants to present a list of evidence, he should correct his list so that the first item just is “the finite age of the universe” and the second item is something like “the life-permitting physical constants.”  (Okay, I said this was a nitpicky point.)
The more substantial point is this. Simply claiming that a Creator/Designer is the “best explanation” hardly amounts to showing that a Creator/Designer really is the “best explanation.” In my experience, many (but not all) people who invoke a Creator or Designer as the “best explanation” fail to show that it is the best explanation. Indeed, some (and this includes WK, at least in the linked post) don’t even try! Instead, they just assume that a Creator or Designer is an explanation.  If, however, the design hypothesis isn’t an explanation at all, then it cannot be the best explanation.
The creation/design hypothesis is, at best, an incomplete explanation.

Item of Evidence Explanation Name Explanation Description
Finite Age of the Universe Creation Unknown. The beginning of the universe is the result of a Creator using an unknown, theistic (directed) mechanism for an unknown purpose.
Life-Permitting Constants of the Universe Design Unknown. The life-permitting constants of the universe are the result of an unknown, theistic (directed) mechanism, designed for an unknown purpose.
Origin of Biological Information Design Unknown. Biological information in cells is the result of an unknown, theistic (directed) mechanism, designed for an unknown purpose.
Origin of Cambrian Animal Forms Design Unknown. Cambrian animal forms are the result of an unknown, theistic (directed) mechanism, designed for an unknown purpose.

In light of all the unknowns in these theistic “explanations,” one can hardly be blamed for concluding that “creation” and “design” are simply explanation names, not actual explanations. Compare to a naturalist saying, “X is the result an unknown, naturalistic (undirected) mechanism operating without a purpose.” It’s unclear why any of these unknown theistic explanations are supposed to be better than their unknown naturalistic counterparts.
But let’s put that to the side. WK summarizes what he calls typical atheist responses to those four arguments.

Atheists will typically reply to the recent scientific discoveries that overtured their speculations like this:

  1. Maybe the Big Bang cosmology will be overturned by the Big Crunch/Bounce so that the universe is eternal and has no cause
  2. Maybe there is a multiverse: an infinite number of unobservable, untestable universes which makes our finely-tuned one more probable
  3. Maybe the origin of life could be the result of chance and natural processes
  4. Maybe we will find a seamless chain of fossils that explain how the Cambrian explosion occurred slowly, over a long period time

I have three replies.
First, I agree with WK that ad hoc, “just so” stories invented to “explain away” the evidence are no substitute for the best explanation. If one hypothesis clearly explains an item of evidence but the second hypothesis doesn’t (and has to invent an arbitrary, extra theory to explain it away), that item of evidence clearly favors the first hypothesis over the second hypothesis. This point applies equally to arbitrary, extra theories postulated by atheists and theists.
Second, there are atheists and then there are atheists. WK may be right that atheist layman typically do make such replies. What is more interesting is what atheist scholars, especially atheist philosophers of religion, have to say in response to these four lines of evidence. WK provides no evidence that each of these responses are typical of atheist philosophers of religion, however. While the multiverse hypothesis has some support among atheist philosophers of religion, I doubt that the majority of atheist philosophers of religion support the Big Crunch/Big Bounce hypothesis. For example, in my experience, atheist philosophers of religion do NOT typically respond to Big Bang cosmology with the response listed by WK. Instead, they argue that the universe is uncaused.
Third, like many other apologists, WK seems to be understating the evidence. Let’s assume, but only for the sake of argument, that each of WK’s four items of evidence favor theism over naturalism. WK fails to mention other more specific facts, facts that, given those four items of evidence, favor naturalism over theism.

General Fact More Specific Fact(s)
Finite Age of the Universe The universe began to exist with time, not in time.
Life-Permitting Constants of the Universe So much of the universe is hostile to life.
The Origin of Biological Information Excluding examples of so-called “complex specified information” allegedly related to intelligent design, all other examples of complex specified information involve a mind dependent on a physical brain.
The Origin of Cambrian Animal Forms 1. The Cambrian era did not include animal forms much more impressive than known Cambrian animal forms.
2. All living animals are the gradually modified descendants of Cambrian animals.

Again, it appears that WK has understated the evidence. And it is only by understating the evidence that he can give the illusion of having justified statements such as the following.

The data we have today says no to naturalism. The only way to affirm naturalistic explanations for the evidence we have is by faith. We need to minimize our leaps of faith, though, and go with the simplest and most reasonable explanation – an intelligence is the best explanation responsible for rapid generation of biological information.

In addition to understating the evidence (or perhaps because of it), WK has also oversimplified the evidential situation. Again, even if we grant that WK’s theistic facts say “no to naturalism,” other, more specific facts say “no to theism.” Once the relevant scientific evidence is fully stated, it’s far from obvious that the general theistic facts outweigh the more specific naturalistic facts.