Sunday, December 4, 2016

Post Debate Reflections

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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:

Post Debate Reflections
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Post Debate Reflections (p. 1)

At times this debate was frustrating but I did find it useful. It encouraged me to present my case in a clearer, more analytical fashion. I owe my interlocutor a debt of gratitude for that. In this blog entry I’ll recap and summarize my argument, discuss what I think to be an interesting and substantive objection, why I don’t think the objection works, and some of the issues I found more frustrating.


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.

Let’s define natural properties as properties that are entirely in the language of physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology, e.g. “being healthy” and “being in pain” are both natural properties. Similarly, natural facts are facts that are entirely in the language of psychology and the natural sciences, e.g. “the dog suffered a painful injury” is a natural fact. For the sort of morality we’re concerned with, moral non-naturalism appears to be true. Since physics, chemistry, etc. deal solely with purely descriptive states of affairs, natural properties and natural facts are purely descriptive states of affairs. As such, since moral oughtness is a prescriptive ought and not a descriptive ought, moral oughtness is non-natural and moral oughtness properties (like moral wrongness, where an action is morally wrong for someone only if they morally ought not to do it) are non-natural.

Some Key Claims

Another indication that moral properties are non-natural is their empirical undetectability and causal inertness. To illustrate what I mean by moral oughtness being empirically undetectable, 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. Both views agree on all the same empirically observable facts, and moral oughtness being associated with certain physical facts (such as the dog’s injury) doesn’t explain any physical fact. Not only do we have zero empirical evidence for the existence of moral properties, we can’t have empirical evidence for moral properties since they’re empirically undetectable.

The dog kicker scenario also illustrates that moral oughtness is causally inert. Notice that whether moral oughtness is associated with natural facts (e.g. the dog’s pain and injury) or not, the physical conditions are the same in both cases, and so barring the supernatural, the presence or absence of moral oughtness makes no causal difference as to what those physical conditions will result in.

Another pertinent claim is that if atheism is true it would be a remarkable coincidence if moral intuitions happened to line up with what these nonphysical moral oughtness properties are really like. Moral oughtness is causally inert; it’s presence or absence would have no effect on what intuitions our brains would give us, nor would it have any effect on the evolutionary and environmental processes that gave us our brains. On atheism, which moral intuitions we’d get from sociobiological evolution is unguided and random—random in the sense that it could have been otherwise, there’s no external intelligence like God directing which intuitions we’d get, and the processes that give us our intuitions are completely blind and indifferent to what moral properties are really like, such that even the very existence of moral properties has no effect on which moral intuitions we’d get. On atheism 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). So all things considered, it would be a remarkable coincidence that the moral intuitions we’ve received happen to coincide with what these invisible and causally inert moral properties are really like.

Because moral oughtness is causally inert, the best atheistic explanation for why we believe morality exists does not require morality’s existence. Ultimately, we believe morality exists because our brains deliver the intuition that it exists; e.g. it just seems true to us that there’s something morally wrong with torturing innocent sentient life (like infants) just for fun. Barring the supernatural however (like God-guided evolution or supernatural clairvoyance), moral oughtness is causally inert such that even the presence or absence of moral oughtness would have no effect on which intuitions our brains give us, nor would it have any effect on the evolutionary and environmental processes that gave us our brains. So if atheism is true, those processes that gave us intuitions of morality’s existence would have done so even if morality did not exist.

With that out of the way, I’ll recap my argument for the moral argument’s first premise.

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