Saturday, July 5, 2014

Denying Both Premises of the Moral Argument

Behold the deductive moral argument (or at least one variety of it):
  1. If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.
  2. Objective morality does exist.
I’ve seen a number of atheists claim both premises to be false. In this article I’ll give an informal proof to explain why that is impossible.

In a way this article is redundant, since I gave a formal proof for the falsity of both premises being logically impossible in part 2 of my introductory logic series, with part 2 also explaining the basic symbolic logic and various rules of logic needed to understand the proof (thus it isn’t necessary to read introductory logic part 1 to understand the proof, though it wouldn’t hurt either). So what inspired me to write this article to present a more informal proof?


In one Facebook dialogue somebody denied both premises. I said it was logically impossible for both premises to be false, and gave a link that had the proof of this in symbolic logic while noting, “If you’re not well-versed in formal logic, not to worry, because the article gives a crash course of some symbolic logic rules.” His first response to this was to ignore the proof entirely while saying there is “no reason” why one can’t reject both premises. I pressed further to get him to respond to the logical argument against both premises being false, but he seemed to have little motivation to learn the logic and understand the objection (judging from e.g. him saying “I will attempt to go back over this at some point, but I really have very little motivation to do so”). It’s this sort of behavior that temps me to embrace the stereotype of atheists being irrational and giving lip service to logic while in reality having little real interest in learning it (at least when they discover it might be used against them).

But that’s a temptation I’m going to resist. I realize my articles introducing logic require a bigger time investment than reading a 100-word Facebook post, and that not everybody is interested in learning formal logic despite the benefits of doing so (e.g. helping one to think more logically). So in this post I’m going to distill some of the reasons of the logical proof in plain English.

Understanding the First Premise

For brevity’s sake I’ll abbreviate “objective morality” as OM. By morality being objective I mean that moral truths hold independently of human belief and perception of them (this matches closely with how “objective morality” is often defined in the context of the moral argument[1]). Behold the first premise:
  1. If God does not exist, then OM does not exist.
Among the bad objections against the moral argument are straw men and red herring fallacies against the first premise. So to help prevent that, I’ll note what the first premise is not saying. It is not saying that God grounds morality—even some atheists agree with the first premise and they don’t believe God grounds anything. Nor is the first premise saying it is impossible for OM to exist in the absence of God; it merely says it isn’t the case that OM exists without God.

If it’s hard to see why that would be true here’s another way to look at the first premise. Whether we should believe an if-then statement often depends on the background information we possess, e.g. If it rained heavily in the last ten minutes, then Sam’s car is wet might depend on whether Sam’s car is in a garage. Similarly, if you believe this equation is true…
God does not exist + background info = OM does not exist
…then you believe If God does not exist, then OM does not exist and to think otherwise is to misunderstand the meaning of the first premise. The first premise is not saying it is impossible for OM to exist without God, only that given the facts of the real world we are in OM does not exist if God does not exist.

The Proof

Let =entails⇒ signify “entails (by the rules of logic).” For example:
I have a hand and I have a leg =entails⇒ I have a leg
The above is true thanks to a rule of logic known as simplification (which I explain in introductory logic part 1).

A very important fact in the proof is this: if the following is true….
God does not exist + background info =entails⇒ OM does not exist
…then the first premise is true, and to think otherwise is to misunderstand the meaning of the first premise.

Now suppose we know the second premise to be false, i.e. OM does not exist is part of our background info. Then the first premise would be true because we’d get this:
God does not exist + background info

    =entails⇒ God does not exist and OM does not exist

    =entails⇒ OM does not exist
And thus the following entailment would be true:
God does not exist + background info =entails⇒ OM does not exist
Which would mean that the first premise is true. Once we accept OM does not exist as part of our background info, it inevitably leads to the above entailment and thus to the first premise. Thus it is logically impossible for both premises to be false, because the falsity of the second premise (OM does not exist) entails the truth of the first premise.

It is also worth noting that God, as traditionally conceived, entails the existence of objective moral values; God is morally good, and is good independently of whether humans believe him to be so, e.g. God was morally good prior to humans existing. Thus, God entails objective morality existing.


If you believe the following entailment to be true…
God does not exist + background info =entails⇒ OM does not exist
…then you believe If God does not exist, then OM does not exist is true, and to think otherwise is to misunderstand the meaning of the first premise. So if you’re an atheist who denies moral objectivism (and thus has OM does not exist as part of their background info) you accept the first premise, and to think otherwise is to misunderstand what the first premise means. In contrast, if God (a being who is morally good independently of human opinion) exists, objective morality exists.

Once we accept the falsity of the second premise (OM does not exist) as part of our background info, it inevitably leads to the above entailment and thus to the first premise. It is impossible for both premises to be false because the falsity of the second premise entails the truth of the first premise. All that is a bit rough, so if you want a rigorous formal proof for the logical impossibility of both premises I recommend reading part 2 of my introductory logic series.

[1] A few examples:
  1. Adams, Robert M. The Virtue of Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 105.
  2. Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith, Third Edition (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2008), p. 173.
  3. Peter Byrne’s article on the moral argument that used to be part of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

America Leads In More Than Three Things


A viral YouTube video has been going about that as of this writing is titled, “The most honest three and a half minutes of television, EVER...” that came from the 2012 episode of The Newsroom.

But it’s not exactly the most honest one in the world, and I’m not just saying this because I’m an American. But first a disclaimer:

The Disclaimer

It's healthy not to have an inflated opinion of one's own country, and I do not adhere to the idea that we’re the greatest country in the world. I’m also not sure whether America was ever the greatest country in the world. The video has the guy saying, “We didn’t scare so easy.” Really? What about the Red Scare? And when was America’s golden age when we were so great? During the years of slavery? I know, we weren’t the only nation to have slaves back then, but generally overseas slavery was not permanent and hereditary like it was in America. How about when political bitterness got so bad it started a civil war? The idea that America was so great in the past is also repeated by some of my fellow Christians who want to “take back America for God.” But as the Minnesotan Christian pastor Greg Boyd writes:
Was the golden age before, during, or after white Christians loaded five to six million Africans on cargo ships to bring them to their newfound country, enslaving the three million or so who actually survived the brutal trip? Was it during the two centuries when Americans acquired remarkable wealth by the sweat and blood of their slaves? Was this the time when we were truly “one nation under God,” the blessed time so many evangelicals seem to want to take our nation back to?

Maybe someone would suggest that the golden age occurred after the Civil War, when blacks were finally freed. That doesn’t quite work either, however, for the virtual apartheid that followed under Jim Crow laws—along with the ongoing violence, injustices, and dishonesty toward Native Americans and other nonwhites up into the early twentieth century—was hardly “God-glorifying.” (In this light, it should come as no surpise that few Christian Native Americans, African-Americans, or other nonwhites join in the chorus that we need to “Take America Back for God.”)

If we look at historical reality rather than pious verbiage, it’s obvious that America never really “belonged to God.”[1]
Maybe somewhere along America’s history we were the least bad nation, but I’m going to reserve judgment on that. We also have a lot of problems right now that prevent me from saying we’re the greatest country in the world. One is the severity of political bitterness and brinksmanship as illustrated in the 2013 debt ceiling crisis in contrast to the remarkable bipartisan cooperation America saw when it enacted the 1960 Civil Rights Act. Our education system also isn’t nearly as competitive as it should be given our wealth, and the economic mobility in my country is terrible compared to that of other developed countries (like Denmark), making the so-called American dream a bit of a joke. Then there’s the ridiculously high health care costs due to numerous American flaws as mentioned in the video:

How bad is it? In case you didn’t watch the video, a number of governments in the developed world provide (more or less) free health care like Canada, Germany, and Australia, and you might think it’s because those governments tax the crap out of people. But as the video mentions, American taxes spend more on health care per capita than Canada, Germany, and Australia.

Hopefully all that I’ve said above is enough to show that (1) by my lights, whether America ever had a golden age is at best a tad prickly; (2) I am not some jingoist American who believes that America is or ever was the greatest country in the world, which will hopefully make what I’m about to say more credible and less prone to someone misrepresenting me to say that I’m arguing that America is the greatest country in the world.

I say that because when I argued the video was misleading on someone’s Facebook thread, he deleted all of my comments and misrepresented me as saying I was arguing that America is the greatest country in the world, saying something like, “You so rudely barged in and started spouting nonsense about some seemingly arbitrary points of why America is still the greatest country. I GOT NEWS FOR YOU and your arguments:” and then proceeded to attack arguments I didn’t quite make, which is hard for others on Facebook to notice because he deleted the arguments I did make.

Why the Video is Misleading

One reason it’s not quite “The most honest three and a half minutes of television, EVER...” is because it wasn’t quite three and a half minutes, giving a false impression once you see the full clip, but that’s a nitpick. I’ll go into the meatier portions next.

In 1:08-1:13 he says that there “is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world.” Now as I said before, I don’t adhere to the view that we’re the greatest country in the world, and I also think that to at least some degree it’s a matter of taste as to what makes for “greatness” in a nation (e.g. does the amount of land or number of people factor into this judgment?). But with all that said, to say that there’s absolutely no evidence is an awfully strong claim that doesn’t bear scrutiny. America is after all the only remaining nation that’s a superpower and we have the greatest GDP. While what makes for greatness is to at least some degree a matter of taste, I think being the only remaining national superpower and being the world’s wealthiest nation counts for something. Just because a belief is false, that doesn’t mean that the evidence for its falsity is completely one-sided, and I don’t believe the case for/against America’s greatness is any exception.

In 1:24-1:33 he says we lead the world in only three categories: (1) number of incarcerated citizens per capita; (2) number of adults who believe angels are real; (3) defense spending. This is misleading in that it’s false. This episode aired in mid-2012, and an article came around about that that time that refuted the idea that America leads in only those three things. We also lead the world in Olympic medals, CO2 emission reductions, per capita worker productivity on a per year basis, research universities (“Starting with Harvard, MIT, and Yale, the United States has 13 of the top 20 in U.S. News’ global rankings”), and generosity. A couple points about the last two things: when it comes to research universities, the U.S. is still doing pretty good; go to this Wikipedia article and click on the black arrows next to “2013” to sort the rankings, and check out how many of the top 20 universities belong to the USA; it’s a pretty high percentage. Also, if one checks out the World Giving Index 2013 report (the most recent report as of this writing), “In 2012, proportionally more Americans gave in some way than in any other country.” We lead the world in a lot more than three things, and some of those things are pretty nice.


Unfortunately all this talk about America’s “greatness” (and I still think it’s too subjective a term to answer that issue objectively) leads to emotional irrationality and people going too far in both directions, like liberals who think America is far worse than it is, and conservatives who think the nation is far better than it is.

Another unfortunate fact about human irrationality is that some people just don’t see things clearly even in regards to what people are claiming, making the irrationality harder to fix. To illustrate, even before a certain individual deleted my comments on Facebook, I had said, “I never said America was the greatest country in the world, but that still does not change the fact that the video is misleading and inaccurate, since we do lead the world in SOME nice things.” His brain had apparently deleted that from his memory when he deleted my comments and said, “You so rudely barged in and started spouting nonsense about some seemingly arbitrary points of why America is still the greatest country. I GOT NEWS FOR YOU…”

When it comes to emotionally heated topics, some people’s brains seem overly fond of finding enemies where none exist, e.g. seeing people not for what they are or what they claim but as people who say or do things they are not actually doing. Predictably, this holds not just in politics but also religion. I’ve seen internet atheists attack the moral integrity of Christian apologist William Lane Craig based on some pretty scanty evidence, such as accusing him of dishonesty as if he couldn’t plausibly be believing the claims he puts forth (and I’ve seen internet atheist do the same to me as well). Maybe some of us think we’re immune, but I think vilifying the opposition is something we should all be careful about doing. I resisted the temptation to think of my Facebook interlocutor as deliberately misrepresenting my views and deliberately destroying evidence that proved him wrong, because I recognize that sometimes people fail to think rationally and fail to see things for the way they are, especially when it comes to emotionally heated topics. That sort of temptation is something we should all be wary of.

[1] Boyd, Greg The Myth of a Christian (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2007) pp. 98-99

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Are We Stuck In Intellectual Neutral?

I thought this was apropos to post on New Year’s Day, a video by one of my favorite contemporary philosophers. In it he addresses the question, “Are we (Christians) stuck intellectual neutral?” In 1980, a distinguished academic and statesman Charles Malik said this:
I must be frank with you: the greatest danger confronting American evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism. The mind in its greatest and deepest reaches is not cared for enough….The result is that the arena of creative thinking is vacated and abdicated to the enemy. Who among evangelicals can stand up to the great secular scholars on their own terms of scholarship? Who among evangelical scholars is quoted as a normative source by the greatest secular authorities on history or philosophy or psychology or sociology or politics? Does the evangelical mode of thinking have the slightest chance of becoming the dominant mode in the great universities of Europe and America that stamp our civilization with their spirit and ideas? For the sake of greater effectiveness in witnessing to Jesus Christ, as well as for their own sakes, evangelicals cannot afford to keep on living on the periphery of responsible intellectual existence.[1]
William Lane Craig’s message here is a bit long for those addicted to satisfying their short attention spans, but I think this is worth watching.

[1] Charles Malik, “The Other Side of Evangelicalism, Christianity Today, November 7, 1980, p. 40.