Saturday, August 13, 2016

Debate: Objective Morality Without God? (p. 7)

Home  >  Philosophy  >  Atheism/Theism

Preface



This is a debate between me and SeekSecularism over the truth of the first premise of the following moral argument:
  1. If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.
  2. Objective morality does exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
The debate so far:




Maverick Christian’s Q & A





(1) Why does the Unbiased Atheist not have any (or why does she choose to ignore her) rational intuitions of basic moral truths?


First a recap of what the Unbiased Atheist is. The Unbiased Atheist has no preconceived opinions about whether morality exists, and initially has no intuitions of moral oughtness existing or not existing, including not intuiting propositions that have moral oughtness’s existence implicit in them (e.g. the Unbiased Atheist wouldn’t have the intuition that Something is morally wrong is true or probably true).

Recapping some symbolism:

M = Moral oughtness exists.
A = Atheism is true.
K = The relevant background data.
Pr(not-M|A&K) = The probability of M being false given A&K, i.e. the probability of moral oughtness not existing given atheism and the relevant background data.


Back to the question: why use a fictional character who doesn’t have any initial intuitions for morality’s existence, including basic moral truths? Why have someone who doesn’t have any intuitions for or against morality’s existence? I employed the Unbiased Atheist because it’s a useful way to see what Pr(not-M|A&K) would be if we excluded propositions like Morality exists from K (while also excluding propositions like Morality doesn’t exist from K).[1] But why exclude propositions like Morality exists from K in the first place? Why consider the vantage point of the Unbiased Atheist for Pr(not-M|A&K)?

To see my point of view on why I thought it was important to use this sort of vantage point in my argument, suppose an atheist proposes a probabilistic argument from evil, arguing that Pr(not-God|Evil&K) is high where K is some appropriate background knowledge (including e.g. free will for the theist who attempts a free will theodicy).[2] Suppose I argue that since belief in God is a rational intuition, we should include it in K, and when we do we effectively get Pr(not-God|Evil&God) which of course is extremely low, and thus Pr(not-God|Evil&K) is low. Therefore, I argue, the probabilistic argument from evil fails. Even though I think the intuition that God exists is a rational intuition, this maneuver does not seem philosophically appropriate. The intuition of God’s existence, while perhaps rational, is a subjectively experienced intuition, and the objective evidence would still be strongly against theism if Pr(not-M|Evil&K) were high when propositions like God exists are excluded from K.

Similarly, in this debate I’ve been offering a sort of “probabilistic argument from atheism” against moral objectivism, arguing that atheism makes moral objectivism unlikely, and that Pr(not-M|A&K) is high when K doesn’t include propositions like Morality exists, though K would include propositions like People have intuitions of morality existing. Suppose an atheist argued that since belief in morality is a rational intuition, we should include it in K, and when we do we effectively get Pr(not-M|A&M) which of course is extremely low, and thus Pr(not-M|A&K) is low. This seems no more a legitimate maneuver than inserting God exists in K for Pr(not-God|Evil&K) in the probabilistic argument from evil scenario, even though I think the intuition of morality’s existence is a rational one. The intuition of morality’s existence, while perhaps rational, is a subjectively experienced intuition, and the objective evidence would still be strongly against morality’s existence on atheism if Pr(not-M|A&K) were high when propositions like Morality exists are excluded from K.

In general, when arguing that there’s evidence against some proposition P such that Pr(not-P|Evidence&K) is high when P is excluded from K, we don’t normally think putting P in K so that Pr(not-P|Evidence&K) is low really solves the problem. Let’s call situations where propositions like P is true from K in Pr(not-P|Evidence&K) a standard exclusion from K, e.g. a standard exclusion from K in Pr(not-God|Evil&K) is excluding God exists from K.


2) Given that our rational intuitions are justified by the Principle of Phenomenal Conservatism, why should any thoughtful atheist choose to ignore her rational intuitions of basic moral truths and adopt the vantage point of your Unbiased Atheist?


I don’t! I think the atheist should trust the moral intuition of morality existing, but I also think the atheist should recognize that the first premise of the moral argument (“If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist”) is probably true, which would logically compel the atheist to convert to theism.

But let’s accept the spirit of the question, which I think is something like, “Why should the atheist take the vantage point of the Unbiased Atheist seriously in a probabilistic argument form atheism against moral objectivism?” Part of this I’ve already answered; just as it seems inappropriate to put God exists in K when responding to a probabilistic argument from evil for Pr(not-God|Evil&K), it seems inappropriate to put something like Morality exists in K when responding to a probabilistic argument from atheism for Pr(not-M|A&K). By excluding propositions like God exists from K in assessing Pr(not-God|Evil&K) we’re assessing the objective evidence against God’s existence, and if Pr(not-God|Evil&K) is high in that sort of situation, the objective evidence would indeed be against theism. Similarly, if Pr(not-M|A&K) is high when propositions like Morality exists are excluded from K, the objective evidence would still be strongly against morality’s existence on atheism.

But that’s only part of the answer. Is it possible for subjectively experienced intuitions to trump what the objective evidence indicates? Yes. Regarding the probabilistic argument from evil, suppose it is true that Pr(not-God|Evil&K) is high when we make the standard exclusions from K. It’s still possible for the theist to know God exists while being aware of Pr(not-God|Evil&K) being high if God exists and if God is supernaturally responsible for the theist’s intuition of God’s existence. So can’t we do something similar for the atheist moral objectivist somehow and solve the problem that way, where subjectively experienced intuition trumps objective evidence?

There are a couple problems. First, if Pr(not-God|Evil&K) really were high given the standard exclusions from K, I think the probabilistic argument from evil would be successful in at least some sense. After all, the only people who would accept the “God gave me the intuition” response are people who already believe in God. So when it comes to convincing agnostics and atheists vis-à-vis the probabilistic argument from evil, the “God gave me the intuition” response is a question-begging failure. The atheist moral objectivist’s appeal to subjectively experienced intuition against the probabilistic argument from atheism faces this same sort of weakness; e.g. it won’t provide any good reason for the agnostic to not accept the moral argument’s first premise.

Second, whereas within the theistic worldview there is a plausible mechanism for knowledge of God’s existence if the theist faced objective evidence to the contrary, no such plausible mechanism seems to exist for the atheist moral objectivist. To illustrate my point of view, suppose my belief of the sky’s color was decided by me randomly throwing darts on a dartboard, where what I’d believe depends on where the dart lands. Even if the dart landed on the correct belief, my true belief wouldn’t be knowledge. The same goes for randomly throwing darts to decide whether I’d accept moral realism (“morality exists”), moral nihilism (“morality doesn’t exist”), or moral skepticism (“nobody knows”). Even if the dart happens to land on the correct position, it’s not knowledge.

With that in mind, consider how we’d come to believe morality. On my theistic worldview, God used divinely superintended evolution to give us moral intuition, and thus there’s a mechanism whereby this intuition of morality’s existence constitutes knowledge. But on atheism, evolution is unguided and random. Whereas nature evolved our senses to detect the physical world around us, there is no such sense (barring something like supernatural clairvoyance) for detecting non-natural moral properties being associated with events in the physical world. Instead, on atheism it’s just nature randomly throwing darts on a dartboard to decide which intuitive beliefs the sapient species would evolve. Nature could have evolved a sapient species where the majority have a moral nihilist intuition, or a moral skeptic intuition. But if it’s simply blind chance choosing the intuitive belief about morality’s existence, not some sensory mechanism, then it’s not really knowledge even if the randomly chosen intuitive belief happened to be correct. Theism has (within its worldview) a plausible mechanism for moral intuition constituting knowledge, but no such plausible mechanism exists for atheism; just blind natural forces throwing darts on a dartboard. Consequently, there is no plausible mechanism on atheism for subjectively experienced intuition to trump the objective evidence.

In short, on atheism the objective evidence is against moral objectivism, and while on the theistic worldview there is a plausible mechanism to override the putative evidence against theism in the probabilistic argument from evil, no such mechanism appears to be available for the atheist moral objectivist to override the objective evidence in the probabilistic argument from atheism. So it seems to me that the atheist moral objectivist ought to seriously consider the ramifications of the Unbiased Atheist’s viewpoint.


3) If you found out tomorrow (with reasonable certainty) that God did not exist, then would you really believe that it was not only rational but morally acceptable to seek unjustified death, disability, pain, loss of freedom, or loss of pleasure for their own sake?


I don’t think it would be necessarily rational since behaving that way wouldn’t necessarily meet any of my goals. Would I think it was morally acceptable? Well, yes in the sense I would think that moral nihilism would be true and I wouldn’t think anything is morally wrong. If I were convinced that atheism is true, I would find it very likely that my would-be intuition of morality existing is very likely the product of nature throwing darts on a dartboard, and so such an intuition would be undermined, at least in the light of the strong objective evidence against such an intuition being veridical.


4) If you had sufficient reason to believe that God had commanded you (without justification) to rape, kill, and eat your children, then would it be morally good to perform this action? Would you have a moral obligation to carry out said action?


In that situation I’d ask my friend the married bachelor.

To understand what’s behind my admittedly flippant response, suppose someone made this argument against virtue ethics:
If raping innocent people were a virtue, then raping innocent people would be ethical. But raping innocent people cannot possibly be ethical, therefore virtue ethics is false.
Something’s wrong here, but what? True enough, if raping innocent people were a virtue, raping innocent people would be ethical. However, if raping innocent people cannot possibly be ethical, then it is equally impossible for raping innocent people to be a virtue. So whatever answer a virtue ethicist might give to a question like, “If raping innocent people were a virtue, then would it be morally good to carry out this action?” it wouldn’t really show virtue ethics to be false.

The same principle applies to my theistic moral ontology. On my theology, an essential attribute of God is that God is (among other things) the incarnation of objective morality. Thus if raping my children cannot possibly be ethical, then it is equally impossible for God, qua the personification of objective morality, to command me to do it. So whatever answer I give to, “If God commanded you to eat your children, would it be morally good to carry out this action?” it wouldn’t show my theistic moral ontology to be false.

Back to the question: yes, if per impossibile God, qua the personification and incarnation of objective morality, commanded eating my children etc. it would be morally obligatory for me to do so. But if such actions cannot possibly be ethical, then it is equally impossible for God, the personification of objective morality, to make these commands. This is like asking, “If raping innocent people were a virtue, would it be morally good?” Technically yes, but in the end questions like these don’t really prove anything.


5) If God is required to explain the veridicality of our moral intuitions (and those of some other primates), then is God also required to explain our (and some other primates) veridical intuitions of mathematics? Logic? Science? Playing chess?


Well, I think supernatural clairvoyance could allow moral intuition to be knowledge too, but it just seems so far-fetched on atheism. As for other intuitions, it seems to me that some sort of supernatural component is needed (not necessarily God, but something supernatural) for us to have real knowledge if for no other reason than it seems to me that the evolutionary argument against naturalism is a sound argument.



[1] Any propositions that have morality’s existence implicit in them would also be excluded, e.g. Raping innocent people is morally wrong has morality’s existence implicit in it and so would be excluded from K as part of the “standard exclusions” from K in Pr(not-M|A&K).

[2] For the record, I do not believe that Pr(not-God|Evil&K) is high, but the hypothetical scenario of it being high does serve as a useful illustration.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Debate: Objective Morality Without God? (p. 6)

Home  >  Philosophy  >  Atheism/Theism

Preface



This is a debate between me and SeekSecularism over the truth of the first premise of the following moral argument:
  1. If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.
  2. Objective morality does exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
The debate so far:




SeekSecularism’s Closing



If God does not exist, then is it the case that there are irreducible, objective, and evaluative moral truths having an intrinsically motivating quality called “moral oughtness?”

I take this to be the fundamental question that has emerged from the current discussion. If the answer is probably not, then MaverickXtian believes he has a sound argument from morality to the conclusion that God probably exists. However, if the answer is yes (as I have argued), then MaverickXtian’s moral argument is unsuccessful.

MaverickXtian’s Approach

MaverickXtian believes that he can justify his argument by defending the following proposition:

If God does not exist, then it is probably the case that our beliefs in objective moral facts are not veridical.

Notice the above proposition does not entail that there are no moral facts if God does not exist. It only entails that we do not have reliable moral knowledge if God does not exist. We can summarize MaverickXtian’s view in a catchy slogan: atheism implies moral nihilism. But why think this is true? MaverickXtian (roughly) sketches it this way:

Absent an intentional agent with divine properties guiding the causal process of evolution which selected for our moral capacities, it is probably the case that our moral intuitions are not veridical, thus implying our belief in basic moral truths (and by extension moral oughtness) is likely a delusion.

MaverickXtian appeals to 6 pieces of evidence from a vantage point that he calls the Unbiased Atheist to support his case.

Where does MaverickXtian go wrong?

MaverickXtian goes wrong in his very first premise. He defines his unbiased atheist as someone who does not have any (or ignores their) rational intuitions of basic moral truths. He provides neither a convincing reason for why an atheist should think this way nor how it allegedly supports the claim that Pr(not-M|A&K) is high. It is simply a non-sequitur when MaverickXtian claims that if his hypothetical, unbiased atheist was justified in believing “Pr(not-M|A&K) is high,” then “Pr(not-M|A&K) is high” is probably true. Premise 1 is false.

I could be content to stop here and summarize my case, but can we salvage anything from MaverickXtian’s argument? Do the evidences that he appealed to give an atheist any reason to believe that atheism implies moral nihilism? I want to briefly summarize why I believe that there are no good reasons to believe that atheism implies moral nihilism. The main evidential theme of MavChrist’s case seems to be:

If atheism is true, then blind evolutionary forces have thoroughly shaped our moral faculties in doxastically discriminating ways, so it would be a remarkable coincidence if our moral capacities were to line up with moral facts.

I think that MaverickXtian has overestimated the evidence for thinking this, and I think that he underestimates the self-evident nature of basic moral truths. An atheist can always dismiss MaverickXtian’s entire approach for one simple reason:

Any evolutionary argument for the conclusion that cruelty is not objectively wrong will inevitably appeal to premises which are themselves less obvious than affirming the objective wrongness of cruelty.

I want to now turn my attention to why MaverickXtian’s evidences do not support the claim that atheism implies moral nihilism.

There is zero empirical evidence for objective moral properties.

This is the case regardless of whether or not God exists, and I have not argued for moral properties that can be known empirically. I have emphasized that basic moral truths are necessary truths that we grasp non-empirically via our rational intuitions. I have no idea how empirically undetectable moral properties are supposed to support the claim that atheism implies moral nihilism. I take this piece of evidence as completely irrelevant, without any force, and fundamentally misguided.

It’d be a remarkable coincidence if moral intuitions happened to line up with moral facts.

The obvious objection is that the veridicality and initial justification for beliefs about basic moral truth does not derive from their fitting into an evolutionary explanation. To reject basic moral truths on the grounds that sociobiology fails to predict them is no more plausible than rejecting basic mathematical truths on the same grounds. Most philosophically inclined atheists believe that basic moral truths are grasped non-inferentially by rational intuitions in the same way that basic truths of logic and mathematics are grasped AND that evolutionary theory has very little to directly tell us about any of this. For example, humans are capable of learning to play chess at an incredibly sophisticated level even though evolution did not directly select for this capacity. No one seriously believes that our rational intuitions regarding chess are “remarkably coincidental” with game theory on the grounds that evolution did not directly select for them.

Moral oughtness is a “queer” property of moral facts akin to invisible unicorns.

A universal property like moral oughtness is not relevantly analogous to a concrete object like an invisible unicorn. We have knowledge of the former a priori, and we would have knowledge of the latter a posteriori. If this analogy is rejected based on this epistemic distinction, then it is not the case that we are prima facie justified in rejecting the existence of universal properties for similar reasons that we are prima facie justified in rejecting the existence of an invisible unicorn. MaverickXtian presses further:

“Moral oughtness is so metaphysical it seems we’d need something like supernatural clairvoyance to know it exists.”

This misunderstands moral realism by weighing it down with metaphysical baggage i.e. a truth-maker other than value itself. A moral realist only needs to maintain that some facts count for or against performing certain actions similar to how evidence can count for against believing a proposition. For example, the fact that I will run over a dog if I do not step on my brakes counts as a reason in favor of me stepping on my brakes. The more general truth which licenses this inference (i.e. that the unnecessary suffering of another sentient creature is bad) is not made true by a fact of any other “queer” kind. It is nothing but itself. I can come to see that it is true by generalizing from the evident disvalue of my own suffering, and once I recognize it, then my motives and intentions can be altered by impartially extending it to other sentient beings. Generalization is what leads us to recognize the value of possible future experiences, in the means to them, and in the lives of creatures other than ourselves[2]. If a sociobiologist claims that current evolutionary theory did not predict that we would have knowledge of this kind, then an atheist could reason that something is missing from the current evolutionary story rather than that her moral beliefs are delusional.

Evolution occasionally gives false beliefs.

This is just another way of suggesting that it would be a remarkable coincidence if our moral faculties happened to line up with moral facts. That evolution has supposedly selected for some false beliefs does not undermine moral realism any more than it undermines scientific, logical, or mathematical realism. At best, it suggests an incomplete understanding of how creatures capable of moral knowledge came to be.

A belief in moral oughtness has evolutionary value whether true or not.

This is also another way of implying that it would be a remarkable coincidence if our moral faculties happened to line up with moral facts. MaverickXtian is still pressing the point that our moral intuitions, if only shaped by natural selection, would merely track beliefs conducive to survival and reproductive fitness rather than tracking objective truth. But, again, an atheist does not need to consult sociobiologists to see whether knowledge of moral facts is likely given evolution any more than she needs to consult them to see whether veridical knowledge of scientific, logical, or mathematical facts are expected. We take ourselves to be creatures capable of reasoning. I have argued (and cannot emphasize enough) that moral thought is a function of reason in general, so whatever explanation accounts for our capacities for reason in general will also explain our capacity for moral reasoning.

Our best theory for why we believe in moral facts doesn’t require their existence.

This is yet another way of suggesting that it would be a remarkable coincidence if our moral faculties happened to line up with moral facts. Even if an atheist conceded that moral realism was incompatible with current evolutionary theory, it does not follow that moral realism is false. An atheist could follow the reasoning in the opposite direction and conclude that current evolutionary theory has left something essential out of its story.

Where does this leave us?

In the course of this discussion, I have laid out a plausible moral realist position whereby we have knowledge of basic moral truths via our rational intuitions which are justified by the Principle of Phenomenal Conservatism[1]. In my rebuttal, I argued for (1) a presumption against the kind of moral nihilism that MaverickXtian’s argument implies, (2) the plausibility of a non-theologically based account of moral oughtness, and (3) that account's compatibility with atheism. These key points can be seen in the following two propositions:

(a) Glorious pleasure is intrinsically better than excruciating pain.

(b) Nothing is intrinsically motivating.

These two propositions are incompatible, and I take it as obvious that (a) is prima facie more plausible than (b). In order for MaverickXtian’s argument to be successful, the evidences that he presents must make (b) more plausible than (a). MaverickXtian attempts to do this, but instead underestimates the relevance of our rational intuitions, and he overestimates his evidence for the claim that atheism implies moral nihilism. If he has failed to make (b) more plausible than (a), then it seems reasonable for an atheist to affirm the truth of (a) and thereby deduce the existence of moral oughtness (as done in my rebuttal). Do I think that MaverickXtian has successfully made his case? Absolutely not, and I do not believe that my judgment on this is idiosyncratic. A 2013 poll[4] found that the majority of professional philosophers were non-theists (~85%) and moral realists (~55%). Now this does not necessarily imply that either view is true, but it is indicative that my case is more or less congruent with the consensus of relevant thinkers while MaverickXtian’s is not. Take, for example, the following quote from the atheist Thomas Nagel that I believe decisively undermines MaverickXtian's case:

There is no reason to allow our confidence in the objective truth of our moral beliefs, or for that matter our confidence in the objective truth of our mathematical or scientific reasoning, to depend on whether this is consistent with the assumption that those capacities are the product of natural selection. Given how speculative evolutionary explanations of human mental faculties are, they seem too weak a ground for putting into question the most basic forms of thought. Our confidence in the truth of propositions that seem evident on reflection should not be shaken so easily[2].

Taking all of this into account, I believe it is reasonable to conclude that an atheist is justified in her affirmation of objective moral oughtness, and that the current moral argument on offer is unsound, because it is not the case that atheism implies moral nihilism. For a more thorough defense of secular moral realism I recommend Michael Huemer’s book “Ethical Intuitionism” and Erik Wielenberg’s “Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe.”[3] Both give responses to common theistic and evolutionary objections to secular moral realism while also raising decisive objections to theologically-based ethics. I want to thank MaverickXtian for graciously hosting me on his blog. Our many online discussions have helped me better understand and articulate my own views, and it has also been an enjoyable experience. Cheers!

[1] “Ethical Intuitionism,” by Michael Huemer
[2] “Mind and Cosmos,” by Thomas Nagel
[3] “Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe,” by Erik Wielenberg
[4] http://philpapers.org/archive/BOUWDP

Monday, December 21, 2015

Debate: Objective Morality Without God? (p. 5)

Home  >  Philosophy  >  Atheism/Theism

Preface



This is a debate between me and SeekSecularism over the truth of the first premise of the following moral argument:
  1. If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.
  2. Objective morality does exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
The debate so far:




Maverick Christian’s Closing Statement



Recap



By descriptive ought I mean that type of ought that is nothing more than some purely descriptive state of affairs, e.g. “If you want to do well in school, you ought to study” meaning something like “As a matter of practical necessity, you need to study to do well in school.” By prescriptive ought I mean that type of ought that is not a descriptive ought, e.g. “You should not to torture infants just for fun.” By moral ought I (roughly) mean the prescriptive ought as applied to human behavior. For example, an action is morally wrong for someone only if they ought not to do it. When describing moral goodness and badness, SeekSecular defines “intrinsically motivating” as things that rational beings ought to (in the prescriptive ought sense) pursue in the case of moral goodness or ought to avoid in the case of moral badness. This too would be an example of a moral ought, particularly since this is attached to moral goodness and badness. By objective moral oughtness (OMO) I mean moral oughtness existing independently of whether we believe it to be so.

With the following symbolization key:

M = Moral oughtness exists.[1]
A = Atheism is true.
K = The relevant background data.
Pr(not-M|A&K) = The probability of M being false given A&K, i.e. the probability of moral oughtness not existing given atheism and the relevant background data.


My overall argument can summarized thusly, where the Unbiased Atheist is someone who has no intuitions of moral oughtness existing or not existing, including not intuiting propositions that have moral oughtness’s existence implicit in them (e.g. the Unbiased Atheist wouldn’t have the intuition that Something is morally wrong is true or probably true):

(P1) If the Unbiased Atheist would be justified in believing Pr(not-M|A&K) is high, then Pr(not-M|A&K) is high.
(P2) The Unbiased Atheist would be justified in believing Pr(not-M|A&K) is high.
(C1) Therefore, Pr(not-M|A&K) is high.
(P3) If Pr(not-M|A&K) is high, then Given atheism, moral oughtness probably doesn't exist is true.
(P4) If Given atheism, moral oughtness probably doesn't exist, then the first premise of the moral argument is probably true.
(C2) Therefore, the first premise of the moral argument is probably true.


Lines (P1), (P2), and (C1) are more or less the Argument from the Unbiased Atheist (AftUA). The main purpose of the AftUA was to show that on atheism, people’s intuitions of moral oughtness existing are probably delusory and not veridical, which of course implies Pr(not-M|A&K).

(P1) seems true due to what K can and can’t include. K cannot include question-begging propositions like M is true or M is probably false, since then we wouldn’t really be answering the question at hand, which is how likely M is in the first place on atheism and not e.g. how likely M is given A and M is probably true. SeekSecular balked at the idea of the Unbiased Atheist being a good vantage point for the objective evidential relation between A&K and M, but given which sort of data is admissible for K, what more could one reasonably ask for than someone like the Unbiased Atheist, since any good-vantage-point atheist wouldn’t have the a priori intuition knowledge of moral oughtness existing?

My support for (P2) was the following inductive argument (with each premise predicated with, “If atheism is true, this is true:”).
  1. There is zero empirical evidence for objective moral properties. This supports the idea that the Unbiased Atheist has no good reason to accept M.
  2. It’d be a remarkable coincidence if moral intuitions happened to line up with what these invisible, causally inert moral properties are really like. Such reliance on remarkable coincidence suggests that we wouldn’t have real knowledge of objective moral truths; at best we’d have coincidentally true beliefs.
  3. OMO properties are suspiciously queer, akin to invisible and nonphysical gods.  To illustrate the general idea behind the Argument from Queerness (AfQ), suppose someone claims there is an invisible unicorn floating above my head. This claim is possible, but not plausible. I would be justified in disbelieving in this unicorn. The unicorn is “queer” enough to be prima facia implausible, and we are prima facia justified in rejecting its existence. Moral oughtness is invisible, nonphysical, empirically detectable, and causally inert. To the Unbiased Atheist, moral oughtness likewise seems “queer,” giving her prima facia justification for disbelieving its existence.
  4. Evolution occasionally gives false beliefs (e.g. gods).  So there’s precedent for evolution giving humans delusory intuitions for invisible nonphysical things.
  5. Moral oughtness beliefs have evolutionary value whether true or not.  Moral oughtness beliefs potentially serve some evolutionary purpose: to get us to behave in the right ways.
  6. Our best theory for why we believe in moral oughtness doesn’t require its existence.  We don’t need to posit something so extravagant as these invisible and highly metaphysical properties to explain moral beliefs; we can just say it’s a trick of evolution to get us to behave in certain ways.
Therefore: (probably) premise (P2) is true; the Unbiased Atheist would be justified in thinking that, like people’s intuitions of gods existing, people’s intuitions of moral oughtness existing are probably delusory and not veridical.

Note: I do not think any single premise by itself is enough to justify the conclusion, but I do think the combination of all six premises justifies the conclusion.

Line (P3) is true by definition, since what I mean by Given atheism, moral oughtness probably doesn't exist just is Pr(not-M|A&K) is high. Line (P4) is supported by a mathematical theorem.

One of my key claims that the AftUA illustrates is that on atheism the objective evidence suggests that people’s intuitions of M are probably delusory. In some cases our justification for beliefs comes from non-evidential grounds. For example, consider for example the following brain-in-vat (BIV) hypothesis: you are recently created (say, within the past five years) brain in a vat hooked up to a supercomputer feeding you all the memories, sense experiences, and intuitions you know have. We can’t justify our belief that BIV is false based on evidence, because there can’t be any evidence against it.[1] Instead it’s our intuition of its falsity that justifies our belief that BIV is false and that this perceived reality is real. The atheist moral objectivist (AMO) could similarly argue that he’s justified in believing OMO based on non-evidential intuition grounds, even if Pr(not-M|A&K) is high. But a crucial disanalogy is that in the case of BIV we don’t have any objective evidence suggesting BIV is true, whereas on atheism the objective evidence suggests that people’s intuitions of moral oughtness existing are probably delusory. This makes the a priori intuition option much less viable for the atheist.

Objections



SeekSecularism aims to undercut (P2) via his “Unbiased Observer” argument. (P2) says the Unbiased Atheist would be justified in believing Pr(not-M|A&K) is high. Showing that someone else would be justified in accepting A and M doesn’t attack the truth or justification for (P2).

The “Unbiased Observer” accepts moral oughtness because this observer has a subjectively experienced intuition of moral oughtness existing (namely, the “intrinsically motivating” facet of moral badness). Three problems:
  1. The Unbiased Atheist would not have this intuition, so this doesn’t affect the truth of (P2).
  2. X is morally bad is not admissible in K any more than X is morally wrong is since the conception of moral badness we’re using here has moral oughtness implicit in it.
  3. The Unbiased Observer argument fails to show that “this new observer can plausibility reason to both moral realism and atheism without tension” because it doesn’t address the tension I’ve argued for: the fact that given atheism, it seems that people’s intuitions of moral oughtness existing are probably delusory and not veridical.
In my inductive argument for (P2), Seek Secularism asserts, “(2), (4), (5), and (6) all presuppose that our unbiased observer is committed to sociobiological evolution to sufficiently explain the veridicality of rational intuition.” This is mistaken. (5) merely points out that moral oughtness beliefs (the right ones) would have evolutionary value in getting us to behave in certain ways. What (2), (4), and (6) actually assume is that evolution is responsible for our cognitive faculties, our cognitive faculties are responsible for our intuitions, and these intuitions are susceptible to societal and evolutionary pressures; e.g. moral oughtness beliefs affect behavior, and behavior is susceptible to evolutionary pressures. Some moral oughtness beliefs would be more evolutionary advantageous than others.

For (2), I noted the variations of moral beliefs in human history (if raised in a different society, we might have had very different moral beliefs) and I noted that moral intuitions would likely track adaptive behavior (behavior conducive for survival and reproductive fitness) rather than truth. Evolution could even have evolved a species where adaptive behavior would be to kill one’s own sibling, and we know this because it’s already happened (the Nazca booby bird). All things considered then, in the absence of the supernatural, we would at best get coincidentally true intuitions of what these invisible and causally inert moral oughtness properties are really like rather than having genuine moral knowledge. The atheist could abandon naturalism in favor of us having some sort of supernatural clairvoyance of moral oughtness, but this seems far-fetched. This of course helps support the AfQ in premise (3); moral oughtness is so metaphysical it seems we’d need something like supernatural clairvoyance to know it exists.

Three reasons support (6): (a) the truth of premise (5); (b) Ockham’s razor suggests we not multiply our explanatory entities beyond necessity, and we already have an explanatory entity for our cognitive faculties in general (evolution gave us brains, brains give us intuitions, shaped further by the societal environment); (c) moral oughtness is causally inert; its presence or absence wouldn’t affect the evolutionary outcome.

SeekSecularism says, “Undermining the veridicality of rational intuitions which also constituted any explanations of them would be analogous to sawing the very branch from which one sits.” True, but irrelevant; the claim is not that atheism undermines all rational intuitions, but rather that on atheism the objective evidence is against the intuition of moral oughtness existing (the same does not necessarily hold for all intuitions).

Conclusion



The best SeekSecularism could appeal to on atheism for is the subjectively experienced intuition of moral oughtness existing, whether it’s directly via an intuition like M is true, or intuiting a proposition that has moral oughtness’s existence implicit in it, e.g. the intuition of a particular action being morally bad. The Unbiased Atheist would not have any such intuition (though she would not intuit any proposition that has M is false implicit in it either) and if the Unbiased Atheist is a good vantage point for evaluating the objective evidential relationship between A&K and M as I’ve argued, then (P1) is true.

The AftUA is also a good vantage point from which to evaluate where the objective evidence points on atheism. People can have conflicting subjective intuitions about whether moral oughtness exists, but if on atheism the objective evidence suggests that people’s intuitions of moral oughtness existing are probably delusory, this seems like a serious if not fatal problem for the AMO.

Moral oughtness is invisible, nonphysical, and empirically undetectable. So why shouldn’t the consistent atheist reject the existence of this invisible nonphysical thing that cannot be empirically detected, if the atheist is to reject the existence of invisible nonphysical deities that have not been empirically detected? Given atheism, it seems more likely that people’s belief in moral oughtness is a delusion brought about by evolution to get us to behave in certain ways and help our species survive. The AftUA helps show that given atheism, objective moral oughtness probably doesn’t exist, which in turn suggests that the first premise of the moral argument is probably true.


[1] This can be shown with the help of mathematics (given that the sort of “evidence” we have in mind is something that makes a hypothesis more or less likely); see p. 2 of Why evidentialism sucks.