Monday, July 29, 2013

Debate Round 5: Closing Statements

Home  >  Philosophy  >  Atheism/Theism


Below is the final round of a debate between me and fellow blogger Potnia Theron (a.k.a. Steven) over the existence of God. The debate thus far:

The Moral Argument

Definition Quibbling

First, a mild quibble: my opponent seems to think that my definition of “objective” was inappropriate in the context of the moral argument, where I stated that moral properties are objective in the sense that the hold independently of human belief and perception of them. But in the context of the moral argument the term “objective” typically means something like this, e.g. speaking in the context of the moral argument, philosopher Robert Adams writes that a moral fact is objective in the sense that “whether it obtains or not does not depend on whether any human being thinks it does”[1], and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on the moral argument speaks of moral properties as “objective in the sense that they hold or not regardless of human opinion.”

Moral Ontology

In my opening statement I discussed moral ontology. I noted that moral properties exist either solely as part of the physical realm or else (to at least some degree) as part of the nonphysical realm. One of these must be true, because if morality exists neither as part of the physical realm nor as part of the non-physical realm, then it follows that morality does not exist as part of reality at all. So if morality exists, some ontological explanation or other must be true.

Properties attached to the physical world likewise have some sort of ontology. For example, certain objects have the property of “redness.” Redness is a physical property and its ontology is fairly well understood (the natural sciences account for how the property exists). The property of moral wrongness however (as in the case of a man stealing a television where the man’s action has the property of moral wrongness) is different. Moral wrongness is a nonphysical property, and as a property of objectively existing oughtness (an action is morally wrong only if one ought not to do it), it cannot be empirically detected; barring the supernatural, the presence or absence of objectively existing oughtness would not affect the physical world at all. The ontology of objective moral properties like moral wrongness is rather curious and cries out for explanation.

I thus put forth what I called the argument from ontological simplicity. Given that all else held constant, the simplest explanation is the best and most probable one, I argued that the simplest ontological explanation leads us to an eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary entity that imposes moral duties upon us with supreme and universally binding authority. I further noted that the entity being a personal being most intelligibly accounts for the entity imposing duties upon us and having authority over people. If the entity is a personal being, we end up with an eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary being who imposes moral duties upon us with supreme and universally binding authority. We thus end up with a personal Supreme Being.

The other moral argument was noting that moral properties of objectively existing oughtness are objective and non-natural; some moral ontological explanation must account for this, and theism is the best ontological explanation; e.g. moral wrongness is one and the same property as that which God forbids.

I do not know of a better ontological explanation for objective morality than a God-like entity, so I asked for Steven’s alternative ontological explanation. Steven said his view was simpler because “it’s simpler to posit nothing than to posit something.” I thought this was an apposite response, because by my lights Steven scarcely provided an alternative moral ontology; with no metaphysical entities postulated, there is no ontological explanation. A moral ontology should at least posit the existence of moral properties, and it then becomes a question of how exactly these properties exist. One way to answer this question would be to provide an ontological explanation that is as vague and uninformative as possible about the ontology of morality, thereby avoiding the opportunity of describing an obviously inferior alternative to theism.

Was Steven’s answer that bad? Maybe not, but a good ontological explanation should tell us whether moral properties are physical or nonphysical, as well as tell us specifically how these properties exist. For example, moral Platonism tells us that moral values are nonphysical and specifically explains how objective moral values exist (namely, as Platonic objects), thus moral Platonism provides an ontological explanation of objective moral values (though in my opening statement I argued God being the Good is a better ontological explanation). Of course, we need an ontological explanation for objective moral duties too, and one example is divine command theory, which tells us (among other things) that moral wrongness is nonphysical, and it specifically explains how moral wrongness exists (namely, that moral wrongness is one and the same property as that which God forbids). In contrast, Steven’s response does not clearly answer whether moral properties are physical/nonphysical—though from his response I’m guessing the latter—nor does his response specifically explain how objective moral properties exist; his response is vague and largely uninformative on this issue.

For example, we know, according to Steven’s view, that moral properties supervene on non-moral properties (I agree), but this still doesn’t quite tell us how these mysterious nonphysical properties exist. We also know, according to his view, that moral facts are “fixed independent of what any stance any agent might take towards them,” yet at best this only tells us how mysterious nonphysical moral properties don’t exist rather than how they do exist. Steven does seem to think that objective morality (which presumably includes objective moral values) has “no foundation outside of itself,” but it isn’t clear from this if he accepts moral Platonism (where moral values exist as abstract objects independently of the mind) or some other moral ontology—if indeed he has one to offer at all. If Steven rejects Platonism, how exactly does he think these nonphysical moral properties exist? Alas, no clear answer was provided.

Perhaps he thinks objective moral properties are nonphysical and that they “just exist,” supervening somewhat inexplicably on certain actions in the physical world (like moral wrongness being attached to a man stealing a television) with no further explanation for why these nonphysical properties exist or why these properties are attached to certain actions. Is this simpler? I suspect not. With this view, I tend to visualize nonphysical moral properties as ectoplasmic clouds attached to certain actions in the physical world, and it seems simpler to posit just a single entity grounding all these nonphysical moral properties. This “consolidates” the nonphysical moral properties into a single entity (God being the Good grounds all objective moral values, God being the divine commander grounds objective moral duties e.g. moral wrongness being one and the same property as that which God forbids), and God grounding morality also provides a more intelligible moral ontology of e.g. objective moral duties. Given that some ontological explanation or other is needed for morality to be real, I do not think we can get simpler than a single grounding entity.

The Deductive Moral Argument

The deductive moral argument I gave was this:
  1. If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.
  2. Objective morality does exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
My space was limited in my opening statement so I skipped a few things I perhaps should not have. The first thing is that in the context of the deductive moral argument “God” refers to a personal Supreme Being, and stops short of saying that the Supreme Being is omnipotent (much as my argument from ontological simplicity does). Second (and I left this somewhat implicit) my view is that if no God (no Supreme Being) exists then atheism is the most plausible stance to take on the position of whether there are gods, but if atheism is true objective morality does not exist, and so we have good grounds for accepting the first premise. It should be noted that my opponent is a polytheist and might disagree with me on the probability of “If God does not exist, then atheism is true.”

While two of my moral arguments argue that God grounds morality, the deductive moral argument is an independent argument and makes no such claim.

Objection #1

Steven claims that premise (1) of the deductive moral argument tells us that God is responsible for the distribution of moral values and duties. The fact that this is not so is revealed by considering that even an atheist can agree with premise (1); all that’s needed to accept premise (1) is to believe that objective morality probably doesn’t exist if God does not exist. Many atheists believe this, and none of these atheists believe God is responsible for the distribution of anything. Thus, this objection fails against the deductive moral argument.

However, my other moral arguments do claim that God (in the sense of a personal Supreme Being) grounds objective morality. What about them? Steven seems to think that if God grounds morality then the “pain caused by a rape isn’t what makes rape wrong” and that rape being wrong would have “nothing to do with violating one’s autonomy,” but this doesn’t follow. We can all agree that so cruelly violating someone’s autonomy and inflicting such unwanted pain is something that objectively ought not to be done and that this is what makes rape morally wrong, but notice that this merely pushes the objective oughtness question back a step: we still need an ontology that accounts for the objective oughtness in morality whereby we ought not to inflict such unwanted suffering etc., and theism provides an excellent ontological explanation for objective moral oughtness.

Objection #2

Steven says, “Maverick Christian thinks that objective moral duties exist in every possible world.” I never claimed this (nor do any of my arguments), though I do believe objective moral values exist in every possible world (since God qua the Good grounds objective moral values in all possible worlds). Thus, this objection fails against my moral arguments.

Objection #3

Steven says, “It has been assumed that objective morality needs to have a foundation outside of itself.” It should first be noted that the deductive moral argument makes no claims about moral ontology, and even if morality has no foundation outside itself, that does not attack any premise of the argument. Nor does one need to accept that morality has a foundation outside itself to accept either premise of the argument (e.g. an atheist can believe objective morality has no foundation and accept premise 1). Thus, this objection does not attack my deductive moral argument.

Still, don’t I assume that objective morality needs to have a foundation outside itself in my argument from ontological simplicity? Not quite. I gave an argument that some sort of moral ontological explanation has to be true if morality exists (and Steven never disputed this point), and it just so happens that the simplest ontological explanation appears to give us a God-like entity.

Objection 4:

In criticizing the first premise, Steven says, “God’s non-existence would not be a sufficient reason to give up objective morality because it is more obvious that morality is objective than that objective morality depends upon God’s existence.” Again, the first premise does not say that morality is dependent on God; as a material conditional it merely says “It is not the case that God does not exist and objective morality exists are both true.” But what if “objective morality exists” is more obvious than “It is not the case that God does not exist and objective morality exists are both true”? All this really implies is that the second premise is more obvious than the first, and this is quite compatible with the claim that both premises are probably true.


The LCA was as follows.
  1. If the contingent universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is an eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary, personal cause.
  2. The contingent universe has an explanation of its existence.
  3. Therefore, the explanation of the contingent universe’s existence is an eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary, personal cause.
Steven says:
For, however we characterize God’s “explanation” of this contingent universe—whether it be as an event, a state of affairs or an action—it will itself be contingent, thus belonging to the contingent universe it’s explaining.
Not quite, because in my opening statement I defined the contingent universe as (roughly) the totality of all contingent things (as rocks, trees, and galaxies), whereas God being the personal cause of the universe is more of an action. By asking “Why does the contingent universe exist?” I’m asking the question, “Why do contingent things exist at all?” Steven himself admits, “Of course, we can simply shift to speaking of purely contingent things, which excludes contingent events, states of affairs or actions involving necessary beings,” apparently unaware that contingent things was what I was talking about all along.

Apart from this misconstrual, Steven does not seem to dispute any premise of the argument; indeed he seems to think it is essentially sound. He does say the LCA doesn’t get us God. Right; the LCA by itself doesn’t get us to God (as we have defined him in this debate) but I’m making a cumulative case here and the LCA does give us some an entity with some of the key attributes of God.


In my opening statement I noted that ceteris paribus, the simplest explanation is the best and most probable one. I also noted that the simplicity leads us to a God that is omnipotent and omniscient. This was not disputed in Steven’s rebuttal.

Steven does say that simplicity isn’t the only earmark for truth; that beauty is another. One problem with this claim is that old cliché that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Steven says that
no description of this ‘personal cause’ fills me with the sense of awe and admiration as that of the greatest beings in existence working with one another to bring the universe into existence.
As for me, no description of a polytheistic explanation fills me with a sense of awe and elegance as the following. God, the greatest being in existence, is an infinite power that all other power ultimately derives from (both physical and volitional; e.g. God delegated some of his power to us humans when he gave us power over our own actions). God is also the locus of morality, and as an omniscient being God knows everything. Some of our beliefs are properly basic, and theists believe that God designed us (by evolution or otherwise) in such a way that when our cognitive faculties are functioning properly we intuitively apprehend certain elementary truths about logic, mathematics, and morality. Our knowledge of such basic truths ultimately originates from God himself. By my lights, there is a kind of elegant simplicity in the theory that all power, knowledge, and goodness ultimately originates from some ultimate source, and that God delegated some of his power to us so that we have the ability to follow his will or defy it.

I suspect “beauty” is too subjective to be a good earmark for truth (witness my and Steven’s differing tastes for beauty), unless perhaps it is metaphorical for e.g. how well a theory ties in with background knowledge, the breadth of its explanatory scope, the depth of explanatory power, and so forth. Moreover, while it may well be that a polytheistic explanation fills Steven with a sense of awe and admiration, to think this constitutes an earmark for truth strikes me as more a fallacy of wishful thinking than an appeal to some philosophically sound truth-conducive virtue.


Steven’s arguments are perhaps not quite arguments from evil but they at least live in the same neighborhood. One argument relied on the belief that if God is real, nothing would be ultimately unfair in any possible world. But this doesn’t follow from the type of God I am arguing for in this debate, since while the definition of God being used in this debate says that God is omnipotent and omniscient in the actual world, no claim is made about how powerful God is in other possible worlds. The theist could believe that God is omnipotent in the actual world but there are also possible worlds where God is incapable of e.g. preventing a Boltzmann brain from living a merely ephemeral existence.

Another argument relied on the assumption that allowing a child to suffer purely for someone else’s mistake is child abuse. I pointed out this was mistaken with the counterexample of leaving Billy suffer a headache so I could save two women from dying, and thus while I would be permitting Billy to suffer purely for someone else’s sake this would not constitute child abuse.

Perhaps it would be child abuse if one had no morally sufficient reason for allowing a child to suffer, and not knowing of a morally sufficient reason for God to suffer gives the argument from evil some plausibility. But a big problem, as I pointed out in my rebuttal, is that due to the chasm between God’s infinite mind and the finite human mind, it is plausible that if God and evil were to co-exist we would not (fully) know why God allows evil any more than an ant knows why the sun gives off heat. So while our ignorance of a morally sufficient reason for God to allow evil gives the argument from evil a superficial plausibility, it doesn’t quite work on a deeper intellectual level. The consequences of the infinite chasm between our minds and God’s may be unfortunate (e.g. we plausibly wouldn’t understand all the reasons why God allows evil), but they would be real if God existed. For good or ill, a comprehended God is not God.

[1] Adams, Robert M. The Virtue of Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 105.

No comments:

Post a Comment