Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Debate: Objective Morality Without God?

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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 Opening Statement



The debate is about the first premise of the following moral argument (and I’ll argue that the first premise is true):
  1. If God doesn’t exist, then objective moral oughtness (OMO) doesn’t exist.
  2. Objective moral oughtness does exist.
  3. Conclusion: Therefore, God exists.

Moral Oughtness



Oughtness is an essential component of morality; e.g. an action is morally wrong for someone only if they ought not to do it, but it’s important to know the type of oughtness being used here since we use the word “ought” in a couple different ways. For that I’ll use stipulative definitions for these two terms: “descriptive ought” and “prescriptive ought.”

Let “descriptive ought” denote that type of ought where what it is can be expressed in purely descriptive language, e.g. when “If you want to live, you ought to breathe” just means something like, “As a matter of practical necessity, you need to breathe to live.” Descriptive language basically refers to language that doesn’t have terms like “ought” or “should” in it. Examples:
  • The atomic number of gold is 79.
  • Bob is in pain.
  • Bob needs an anesthetic to not feel pain.
  • The husband kept his promise to his wife.
Any “ought” that is no more than some purely descriptive state of affairs is a descriptive ought. One type of descriptive ought many of us are familiar with is the type found in hypothetical imperatives, and 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant says the hypothetical imperative represents the “practical necessity of a possible action as means to something else.”[1] For example, a statement like “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.”

Let the “prescriptive ought” be that type of ought that is prescriptive and isn’t a descriptive ought, e.g. “You should not torture infants just for fun.” The prescriptive ought is that sort of ought where what it is can’t be expressed in purely descriptive language, i.e. it’s that type of ought that isn’t the same thing as some purely descriptive state of affairs. Unless otherwise specified, when I use words like “ought” or “should” I’ll be using the prescriptive ought. The prescriptive ought is also the type of ought used in morality; morality tells us whether we really ought to do something, and not merely whether certain actions are a necessary means for some purely descriptive state of affairs. This is important because to get around the moral argument I’ve seen some atheists redefine morality so that it uses the descriptive ought.

General Approach



Note that the claim is not that OMO can’t exist without God, the claim is that OMO doesn’t exist without God. In this debate I’ll argue that if atheism is true then OMO doesn’t exist.

To illustrate my general approach, let’s consider how one can be justified in believing, “If it rained recently, then Sue’s car is wet” without knowing it with absolute certainty. Suppose I know Sue parked her car out in the open air two minutes ago, she has not left my side since then or given her car keys to anyone, and she’s the only one with the car keys. In this case (and given no further relevant information) I’m justified in believing “If it rained recently, then Sue’s car is wet.”

While it is possible that it rained recently and Sue’s car is not wet (e.g. maybe some weird person is randomly throwing tarps on people’s cars, including Sue’s car—though I have no reason to believe this happened) it is unlikely given the information that I have. Given that it rained recently, Sue’s car is probably wet—to the point where if I learned that it had rained recently, I would be justified in believing that Sue’s car is wet. Hence I am justified in believing, “If it rained recently, then Sue’s car is wet” even though I don’t know it with absolute certainty.

My approach to defending the first premise uses the same sort of reasoning: given atheism, OMO probably doesn’t exist—to the point where given atheism, one would be justified in believing OMO does not exist. If that’s true, we’d be justified in believing “If God does not exist, then OMO does not exist” even if we wouldn’t know it with absolute certainty.[2] I say “probably doesn’t exist” because I’m not claiming that on atheism we’d know for certain that OMO doesn’t exist, but I do think the probability is high enough such that on atheism we’d be justified in believing that OMO doesn’t exist.

To argue for my position, I’ll assume for sake of argument that atheism is true and then argue objective morality does not exist—thereby justifying “Given that atheism is true in the real world we are in, OMO probably does not exist.”

Overview



On a theistic worldview it makes perfect sense that there’d be some component of reality transcending our opinion that says people shouldn’t do certain things. Theism also (at least potentially) makes sense of moral knowledge, e.g. God designed us in such a way (by evolution or otherwise) such that when our cognitive faculties are functioning properly we intuitively apprehend elementary moral truths, just as we intuit elementary truths of logic and arithmetic.

But let’s suppose atheism is true.

On atheism OMO is rather strange; it’s 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. Given atheism, OMO probably doesn’t exist.

Moral Oughtness is Empirically Undetectable



To explain what I mean by OMO being empirically undetectable, consider the following illustration. Imagine a moral nihilist (who disbelieves in moral oughtness) and a moral realist (who believes in moral oughtness) observe some jerk kicking a dog just for fun; the dog whimpers in pain and runs away. Both agree on all physiological and psychological facts, e.g. that the dog felt pain and suffered minor injury. The moral nihilist says, “I don’t think moral oughtness (like moral wrongness) is attached to that action.” The moral realist says, “I think moral oughtness (moral wrongness) is attached to that action.”

There is no empirical way to determine who is right here, because both views agree on all the same empirically observable facts. Not only do we have zero empirical evidence for the existence of OMO properties (like moral wrongness), we can’t have empirical evidence for OMO properties since they’re empirically undetectable.

One way to try to get around the problem is argue that “moral oughtness” is one and the same thing as a certain set of natural properties (properties of chemistry, physiology, psychology, etc.), since natural properties are empirically detectable. That won’t work with the type of moral oughtness we’re dealing with here though, since purely natural states of affairs can be expressed in purely descriptive language. Consider the following deductive argument:
  1. For any natural state of affairs S, what S is can be expressed in purely descriptive language (e.g. Bob being in pain).
  2. Moral oughtness is something where what it is cannot be expressed in purely descriptive language (by definition of “prescriptive ought”; recall that any “ought” that is no more than some purely descriptive state of affairs is a descriptive ought).
  3. Therefore, moral oughtness is not the same thing as some natural state of affairs.
The above argument can be proven with some symbolic logic, but the idea is fairly straightforward without it. OMO is nonphysical and non-natural. OMO is also so metaphysical that we can’t empirically detect it.

The Argument from the Unbiased Atheist



To help justify the claim, “Given atheism, OMO probably doesn’t exist” let’s consider the point of view of someone I’ll call the Unbiased Atheist, a person who initially has no intuitions of morality existing or not existing, i.e. she isn’t biased by prior moral intuitions. The Unbiased Atheist helps illustrate the vantage point of how likely OMO is given atheism and our background information (e.g. the fact that people have moral intuitions). Presumably, there are objective probability facts regarding the evidential relationship between data and belief, e.g. “On the basis of the scientific data, quarks probably exist” is objectively true, and this is the sort of probability I have in mind when I say, “Given atheism, OMO probably doesn’t exist” (viz. the objective evidential relationship between “atheism + background data” and “OMO exists”). With that in mind, consider what would be true if atheism is true.

(1) Zero empirical evidence for OMO properties. I’ve already argued for this point so I won’t repeat my justification here, but I will note that point (1) supports the idea that there is no evidence for OMO existing from the standpoint of the Unbiased Atheist.

(2) It’d be a remarkable coincidence if moral intuitions happened to line up with what these invisible, causally inert moral oughtness properties are really like. Supposedly there are certain actions that we morally ought and ought not to do, but how do we know these details of the OMO system? One straightforward idea is that we know of OMO properties through intuition, but this is problematic on atheism since which moral intuitions we’d get from sociobiological evolution is unguided and random—random in the sense that it could have been otherwise and there’s no external intelligence like God directing which intuitions we’d get. On naturalism we could have had very different moral codes, even more different from the variations we’ve seen in human history, because 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, it would be a remarkable coincidence that our moral intuitions happen to coincide with what these invisible and causally inert moral properties are really like. Moreover, 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 is suspiciously queer. To illustrate the general idea behind the Argument from Queerness, 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; that is, in the absence of good reasons to believe it exists, we’re justified in rejecting its existence. To the Unbiased Atheist, OMO likewise seems “queer.” OMO is invisible, nonphysical, and empirically undetectable, yet exists somehow independently of our perception of it. Indeed, OMO is so metaphysical it seems we’d need something like supernatural clairvoyance to know it exists (naturally evolved intuition seems insufficient). From the Unbiased Atheist’s standpoint, she is prima facia justified in disbelieving OMO.

(4) Evolution occasionally gives false beliefs (e.g. gods). So there’s precedent for evolution giving humans false beliefs. And belief in gods potentially serves some evolutionary purpose: “Don’t do stuff that harms the group even if we’re not watching because the gods are watching and they’ll punish you for doing bad stuff.”

(5) Belief in moral oughtness has evolutionary value whether true or not. Suspiciously enough, belief in moral oughtness is kind of like the false belief in gods in potentially serving some evolutionary purpose: to get us to behave in the right ways. Belief in moral oughtness has evolutionary value whether true or not. This brings us to the next point:

(6) Our best theory for why we believe in morality doesn’t require morality’s existence. Our best theory (on atheism) for why we believe in moral oughtness is unguided sociobiological evolution giving us such moral intuition, and this atheistic theory for why we believe morality exists does not require morality’s existence. That’s unsurprising since OMO is causally inert; its presence or absence wouldn’t affect the evolutionary outcome at all. The fact that our best theory for why we believe in moral oughtness has no need for its existence strongly suggests that we don’t have rational grounds for believing in it.

Basically the idea is that the Unbiased Atheist (a) has no good reason to believe that people’s intuitions of moral oughtness existing are veridical; and (b) has at last prima facia grounds for thinking such moral intuitions are not veridical. I think the above six facts are enough to support (a) and (b) for the Unbiased Atheist. Summarizing, the following would be true if atheism is true:
  1. Zero empirical evidence for objective moral properties.  This supports my view that on atheism we don’t have rational grounds for believing moral objectivism.
  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.  Thus there’s at least prima facia justification for disbelieving OMO’s existence.
  4. Evolution occasionally gives false beliefs (e.g. gods).  So there’s precedent for evolution giving humans false beliefs.  And belief in gods potentially serves some evolutionary purpose: “Don’t do stuff that harms the group even if we’re not watching because the gods are watching and they’ll punish you for doing bad stuff.”
  5. Moral oughtness beliefs have evolutionary value whether true or not.  Suspiciously enough, moral oughtness beliefs are kind of like the false belief in gods in potentially serving some evolutionary purpose: to get us to behave in the right ways.  Moral oughtness beliefs have evolutionary value whether true or not.
  6. Our best theory for why we believe in moral oughtness doesn’t require its existence.  This strongly suggests we don’t have rational grounds for believing in moral oughtness.  And 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.
Lines (1) though (6) above serve as the premises for a sort of inductive argument for the conclusion, “The reasonable conclusion for our Unbiased Atheist is that like intuitions of gods existing, moral intuitions are probably delusory and not veridical.” I’m not saying the Unbiased Atheist would know for certain that OMO doesn’t exist, but given the above six facts I think she’d be justified in believing it doesn’t exist.

We can make a deductive argument from the Unbiased Atheist that goes like this:
  1. If the Unbiased Atheist would be justified in believing moral intuitions are not veridical, then given atheism moral intuitions are probably not veridical.
  2. The Unbiased Atheist would be justified in believing moral intuitions are not veridical.
  3. Therefore, given atheism moral intuitions are probably not veridical.
The first premise is true because the Unbiased Atheist is rationally considering all the evidence including the existence of human moral intuition; her vantage point represents the objective evidential relationship between “atheism + background data” and “moral intuitions are veridical.” If from her vantage point moral intuitions are probably not veridical, then (from an objective standpoint) given atheism moral intuitions are probably not veridical.

The second premise is justifiably true due to the reasons I’ve already mentioned (no rational grounds for the Unbiased Atheist to believe OMO, OMO’s queerness gives prima facia grounds for rejecting its existence, etc.).

Conclusion



With the background data we have, OMO probably doesn’t exist if atheism is true. On atheism, the Argument from Queerness provides prima facia grounds for disbelieving OMO, and the Argument from the Unbiased Atheist suggests that people’s intuitions of moral oughtness existing are probably not veridical (both premises appear true; my challenge to my opponent: which premise is false and why?). The Unbiased Atheist provides a vantage point to view the objective evidential relationship between “atheism + background data” and “OMO exists,” helping to show why “OMO exists” is probably false on atheism given the background data we have.

If it’s true OMO probably doesn’t exist if atheism is true to the point where given atheism we’d be justified in disbelieving OMO, then we’re justified in believing “If God does not exist, then OMO doesn’t exist.”[2]

A challenge to my opponent: why on atheism should we believe in OMO? The only thing I can think of is moral intuition (it is why I currently believe in OMO), but the Argument from the Unbiased Atheist seems to show that “atheism + background data” strongly suggests that such moral intuition is probably not veridical, such that if I were an atheist I would disbelieve OMO. Moreover on atheism the objective evidence seems awfully one-sided; it seems the Unbiased Atheist has reason to disbelieve in OMO (e.g. Argument from Queerness) and has no evidence for OMO existing. Given premises (1) through (6) of my inductive argument (the one arguing that the reasonable conclusion for the Unbiased Atheist is that people’s intuitions of moral oughtness existing are probably not veridical), why on atheism should we believe that OMO exists and that people’s intuitions of it existing are any less delusory than people’s intuitions of gods?



[1] Section 2 of Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (a.k.a. Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals) in Thomas Kingsmill Abbott’s translation.

[2] There’s a mathematical proof for the idea that “Given A, probably C” entails “Probably, if A then C.” Thus, “Given atheism, OMO probably does not exist” entails “Probably, If atheism is true then OMO does not exist.”

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