Link blog: moral argument, philosophy, theism, william-lane-craig

Angra Mainyu’s blog: The Moral Argument: Why Craig’s metaethical case for theism fails

A pretty comprehensive attempt to refute William Lane Craig’s Moral Argument for the existence of God.
(tags: moral argument philosophy religion morality theism william-lane-craig)

19 Comments on "Link blog: moral argument, philosophy, theism, william-lane-craig"


  1. I’ve recently found Neal Stephenson’s description of Diax’s Rake really useful for this sort of thing.

    I find it useful to recast Craig’s argument as “But, if there’s no objective morality, then there’s no way to show [worst atrocity in the last century] is objectively wrong, but I really really really want it to be objectively wrong, therefore it is.”

    Putting it like that, I think the major flaw is obvious.

    I think it’s like, someone stands up on stage and says “The prime minster has just voted to give free puppies and lollipops to everyone here, and to tell them that I’m an awesome person.” Obviously the person who comes on stage next and says “actually, that’s just wishful thinking, it’s not going to happen, sorry” is going to look like the bad guy. But I hope that if people think about it, they could figure out why being the anti-puppy guy isn’t actually the anti-puppy guy’s personal fault…

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    1. I don’t think that’s what Craig’s argument is at all.

      It’s closer to “You really really want it to be wrong”, i.e. his opponent.

      Or, more accurately, his argument is that “X is objectively wrong” logically implies “objective morality exists”, and so the reader/listener must either accept that objective morality exists, or accept that s/he has no grounds on which to claim X is wrong. People are often reluctant to do either, but logically must do one or the other.

      Whether Craig wants to believe X is wrong is irrelevant.

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      1. It’s closer to “You really really want it to be wrong”, i.e. his opponent.

        Even if so, that surely still doesn’t make it a good argument for God’s actual existence? If the premises are “morality implies God” and “there is morality”, then one could deduce “there is God”; but if the second premise is now “you-my-interlocutor really want to believe in morality” then surely at most – even granted the rest of the argument has no holes – Craig ought to be able to deduce that his interlocutor really wants, or ‘ought to want’ if thinking clearly about the consequences of their desires, to believe in God!

        People are often reluctant to do either, but logically must do one or the other.

        I’m not sure, strictly speaking, that people must come down on one side or other of the objective morality question. It’s a perfectly sensible position to say that one doesn’t know the answer!

        One could say, for example: there might be objective moral truths, but if so, they do not seem by their mere existence to cause every reasoning being to comply fully with them, or even to cause serious moral philosophers to agree fully on what they all are; alternatively there might not be objective moral truths, in which case all those ‘wrong’ things are just things that the general consensus is to dislike and it’s therefore unsurprising that a few people won’t agree with that consensus; either way, it doesn’t seem to make much difference to the practical question of how we stop people doing things that are destructive to our general consensus wish to live in reasonable peace and safety, so if it’s all right with the moral philosophers I’ll concentrate on that practical question and leave the eternal verities to yer working thinkers.

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        1. It’s a perfectly sensible position to say that one doesn’t know the answer!

          True; but even if they conclude they don’t know either way, then they still don’t really have grounds on which to base their strong belief that X is wrong. If P->Q and you strongly hold P, then it’s not good enough to be agnostic about Q. You have to claim Q as well, or else downgrade your belief in P to uncertainty.

          surely at most – even granted the rest of the argument has no holes – Craig ought to be able to deduce that his interlocutor really wants, or ‘ought to want’ if thinking clearly about the consequences of their desires, to believe in God!

          So I think we were only talking about “X is wrong” -> “morality exists”, rather than the next step, “morality exists” -> “God exists”. But of course your objection is valid anyway.

          Hmm. I think I’d say that “cannot disbelieve” isn’t quite the same as “really wants to believe”. (I was deliberately mirroring Jack’s wording when I said “You really really want it to be wrong”, and tried to then explain how what I meant wasn’t quite that.) If the interlocutor strongly believes something (e.g. the Holocaust was wrong), and if there’s a chain of reasoning going from there to the existence of God (which I accept is debatable), then the interlocutor ought to believe in God (or abandon their original belief). This isn’t the same as proving objectively that God exists. But if, say, Bob has a belief which he holds so strongly he can’t imagine rejecting it, then demonstrating that that belief logically implies God is equivalent for Bob to objectively proving God.

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      2. Um, sorry, I think I was accidentally really misleading there. I don’t seriously think Craig expects me to believe in God because he thinks something is really, really wrong. I just used “I really, really want” as shorthand to mean I think that’s what Craig thinks, and I think he assumes that the people listening will automatically agree, and I do agree (although see footnote in follow-up comment), so it didn’t occur to me it would be important to distinguish between them.

        For the record, I think the actual steps in the argument are something like:

        1. I (or whoever) have a really firm convinction that X is definitely wrong.
        2. Therefore X is universally wrong.
        3. Therefore there is an objective morality.
        4. If there’s an objective morality, then that [certainly/probably/possibly] comes from God.

        I think everyone should (and does) agree with 2->3.

        I think 3->4 is suggestive but not certain: it wouldn’t instantly make me sure there was a God, but it would make me sit up and think about it and see if there was, or was not, any plausible other explanation.

        I agree with the premise #1 (although see follow-up comment).

        My objection is with the step from 1->2. It’s possible I’ve fluffed my description of them so they don’t mean what I intend them to, but I hope it’s clear what I’m getting at? I think it’s easy to run 1 and 2 together, but I think there’s an important difference. I think most people feel really certain that some things are Really Really Wrong, and feel very bad at the idea that there might be any way whatsoever those things might not be Really Really Wrong. And I think talking about the alternative is sometimes difficult. But if alien race A thinks Really Really Wrong thing is ok, and alien race B thinks Really Really Wrong thing is incomprehensible because the bad things that happen doesn’t apply to their bodies/minds, and alien race C doesn’t seem to have any sort of morality at all, and so on and so on, I don’t think you can conclude that there is one universal standard of right and wrong that just happens to be what humans think. I do think the Really Really Wrong thing is Really Really Wrong, but I think that’s because humans tend to think similar things are really bad, not because there’s an objective standard of right and wrong.

        PS. I’m sorry if I sounded overly dismissive in that last post — even if I think it’s likely I’m wrong, if someone says something that sounds to me like nonsense, I find it very hard not to react very negatively, even if ought to know I may look like a jerk later, alas…

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      3. The promised follow-up caveat to the previous post. I think the digression I’m about to make is interesting, and if I’m wrong about it, it would significantly alter all our views of the morality argument. However, it’s also likely to be a large distraction if I’m not wrong, so I want to try to make clear that I don’t think anyone needs to debate this point in order to think about the rest of the conversation unless they think there’s a significant chance I’m wrong and this caveat actually matters.

        In the previous post (and in many other situations, and I think many other people do the same) I assumed that Craig, I, and most other people had a similar level of certainty in “what is moral”. I notice that I have a definite tendency to assume that “what’s right” adheres to some sort of universal standard, and my belief that that’s an illusion stems from (a) considering the logical problems with it (b) observing that many people including me are equally certain of moral beliefs that they later decide were just a product of cultural upbringing. However, it’s conceivable, although in my opinion unlikely, that some people DO have an inner sense of right and wrong which is more certain and more constant than mine, and I assume their sense is like mine, and they assume my sense is like theirs, and hence we miscommunicate. I don’t think it’s likely I’m wrong, but when I was writing my previous comment, I realised that I was assuming I know what Craig and other people felt, but hadn’t really justified that.

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      4. I think you’re right, except that “you” here is probably a combination of the opponent and the audience: Craig’s knack is to come up with premises which seem like common sense to them, so that an opponent will have to spent a lot of time explaining why that common sense premise is wrong, or at least, unjustified.

        Craig equivocates between “objectively wrong” and “wrong”: people are perfectly happy to use language like “wrong” even if they think there are no OMVs or they’re not sure. Craig needs an argument that “wrong” must mean “objectively wrong”.

        It’s interesting that the comments here have focused on the second premise of the moral argument, but the link above was about the first one. Angra Mainyu accepts the second premise for the sake of argument and then goes on to see why anyone would think the first one was true. Perhaps that’s a more productive strategy for dealing with Craig, as attacking the second one gets you bogged down in “you’re saying there’s nothing wrong with $HORROR” counter-attacks from Craig.

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  2. Does WLC have any argument for “there are objective moral values” other than “if you say there aren’t, I’ll go all outraged and say you’re obviously a Bad Person”?

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    1. Craig said in his debate with Law that any argument against OMVs has premises which seem less likely than the existence of OMVs. Craig also assumes, at least for the sake of the debate, that only OMVs are what we mean when we say something is really wrong, therefore without OMVs we cannot truthfully say that $HORROR is really wrong: without God, Craig would be an error theorist, I suppose.

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    2. I present the never-seen-before Kalam meta-ethical argument:

      1. Every ethic is either objectively true, or depends on a meta-ethic.
      2. There can be no infinite regress of meta-ethics.
      3. Therefore some ethic (or meta-ethic, or meta-meta-ethic, or …), is objectively true.

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  3. Yeah, that link was reasonably good (a lot more comprehensive than I can usually manage). I’m torn because on the one hand I know people I like who think a fair amount of Craig, and I’d certainly like to think that simple mathematical arguments can prove the existance/non-existance of God. But on the other hand, that’s not sufficient, and I have a massively negative visceral reaction to basically everything I read by him.

    One big problem is that I think it’s extremely deceptive to pretend that everyone obviously believes his simple premises, but hasn’t realised it themself, and the only bit missing is to put them together in a simple syllogism to deduce something momentous. It’s obvious to me that the real issue is between people’s hope/expectation/gut-feeling that there’s an objective morality, and their discomfort with the evidence that there isn’t.

    I think the main effect of his syllogisms is to hide the real issue, and make his proof look like a really sophisticated logical argument. It’s convenient for an argument to have numbered points to debate for or against, but I have a very negative reaction when the bits people who disagree will disagree with are buried away under a throw-away assumption about point #3 of 16, rather than clearly stated.

    WRT morality specifically, I think it is possible to look for evidence of an objective morality. For instance, if people’s internal moral senses do agree significantly more than you would expect from biological and social factors, or (less likely) if external physical events correlate with our internal moral senses in some way, I would consider that evidence in favour of the hypothesis. And if there were strong evidence that there is an objective morality to the universe, I’d think that was suggestive (although not conclusive) that a personality might be involved in its creation. However, it definitely seems to me like as we learn more evidence, it almost always tends to be away from that idea, and I’m not convinced that saying “Quick! Shut your eyes and ignore the evidence. Now, guess really, really sincerely, do you think this thing you really hope is true is actually a fundamental law of the universe” will produce reliable answers.

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    1. I think it is possible to look for evidence of an objective morality. For instance, if people’s internal moral senses do agree significantly more than you would expect from biological and social factors

      I’d be fascinated to know how one might reliably assess how much agreement they would expect from biological and social factors! That seems to me like one of those unanswerable questions along the same lines as “so, what might we expect the observable universe to look like in the absence of a god?” – in order to answer either, you have to basically re-imagine from all possible starting points the course of human evolution and social development or the entire process of universe-formation and subsequent life-development (respectively), neither of which you’d be able to make more than a wild guess at even if you did have a clear idea of what your probability distribution of starting points was.

      I presume you meant that in principle the above might be an approach one could take to trying to find evidence for or against an objective morality, in which case I have no argument with the statement. But if you were saying it would actually be practically feasible, then I’m inclined to disagree 🙂

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      1. Yeah, I didn’t mean you could go out and systematically survey it, more than you could look for places where you might find evidence and hope to find something interesting. I mean, many taboos are shared between completely different cultures, and could be observed in people even raised in complete isolation. If they’re things like “no incest”, then we have a good suspicion that might be biological. If they’re things like “first-cousin marriages are always wrong but second cousin marriages are always ok”, we might well think that was too specific to have plausibly evolved. Obviously we can’t say for sure, but if we find LOTS of those, many, many more than we have any idea of why they might have evolved, it seems suggestive. For instance, if every unconnected religion happened to have exactly the same ten commandments, even in the same order, it would seem pretty strong evidence that they had some common origin.

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        1. Hmm. I take your point that your universal-ten-commandments scenario does feel striking enough to me that if it were true I might agree that it constituted evidence in favour of something interesting going on.

          However, I wonder if that’s just an artefact of it not being true in reality? That is, are we both unconsciously using the actual real world as our ‘in the absence of objective morality and God’ baseline, and thereby begging the question? Perhaps on another planet where they haven’t even managed to agree on killing each other being a bad idea, they might consider our broad consensus on that point as the same kind of evidence; and perhaps if we’d grown up in a world where your commandments thing was true and we were already used to the idea that there was very detailed agreement between religions’ moral pronouncements, we (as a pair of atheists in that society) might discount that as particularly convincing evidence precisely because it had happened 🙂

          I’m not saying we are necessarily falling into that trap, but I think that in any serious attempt to present an argument along these lines one would have to provide a convincing argument of how one was sure one was not.

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          1. I agree with you that it’s very hard to tell, but I think it is possible to (cautiously) make that sort of inference. I’m sure if I had more time I’d be able to consider some examples, but I don’t right now. I’ll try to come back to it later 🙂

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  4. My problem here comes down to (as in so many cases) definitions. I want to know what people mean by “right” and “wrong” and “good” and “evil”.

    Because most people who start down the “X is wrong, therefore God exists” route seem to have very unclear (or nonexistent) definitions of “wrong”, and are thus not making statements which have any clear meaning in the first place.

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