CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

The latest comment on my post documenting Leah Libresco's conversion to Catholicism is from an atheist with username "PhaseVelocity" (hence PV). By his tone he seems to be a typical strident, angry New Atheist (not to mention his sloppy grammar and usage) but he does trot out some standard objections to the moral argument so I want to take this opportunity to say a bit more about the grounds and strength of this argument.

Before going into that, let me just note the double-edged bulverism PV uses to dismiss Libresco's testimony:

Claiming you converted to a religion for rational arguments is common. Few people are willing to admit they converted for irrational arguments. Still this is usually the case. Humans base around 80% of their decisions on non-rational grounds. When somebody starts to accept faith for emotional reasons cognitive dissonance kicks in. A posteriori rationalizations are collected and most of the time the individuals involved actually genuinely believe the rationalizations were the main cause of the change in position.
And just like that, PV sweeps the legs out from under every de-conversion testimony on exchristian.net and other sites (just replace 'religion' with 'nonbelief'). But even leaving that aside, it is clear from reading through the archives on Libresco's blog that her conversion really was motivated by intellectual concerns. In my post I document the progression in her thinking by linking to several posts across a period of several years. I invite PV to do his homework instead of tossing out unsubstantiated psychological speculation.

But on to his substantive criticisms of the moral argument:
I have never seen a theist posit even remotely convincing evidence for objective morality that is properly measurable or can be reasoned. They usually say: "Moral horror X is really always wrong therefore morals are objective." All this establishes is that most people have a strong personal preference for moral horror X to be always wrong. It basically is an argumentum ad populum. It does not get much more subjective than that.
I don't recognize that syllogism, which is question-begging and trivial, from any of the prominent theists who defend the moral argument, and it certainly does not establish that most people have a strong personal preference for a certain moral horror to be always wrong (PV seems a bit flimsy on logical inference). Apologists for the moral argument will appeal to moral horrors about which there is a wide consensus, but then they go on to ask WHY there is a consensus about this. Even atheists will use such an appeal, as Greta Christina does when she contrasts the consensus surrounding perception of trees with the (alleged) lack of consensus surrounding perception of God. Unless you are a radical skeptic about subjective experience, believing that all we have access to epistemologically are mental representations that have no implications for understanding the way things are, you should grant that if there is a wide consensus about some perception, that is a strong indication that the perception is objective. 


But we can be a bit more systematic about the reasons for thinking that moral perceptions are objective. Such a case can be made by considering the phenomenology of human moral experience. In his book Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? secular ethicist Russ Shafer-Landau gives a convenient summary of the features of moral judgments that point to their being, at least in principle, objective:

  1. Human beings are committed to the possibility, and indeed reality, of moral error: there are certain acts and practices, such as infanticide or gladiator games, which we today condemn as not just outdated or different than our own moral practices, but as wrong (as in, people ought not to engage in them). Granted that these practices were once endorsed by those living in ancient times, and that we disagree about who is morally in error, the human race seems united in the judgment that some people ARE in moral error. And we make a clear distinction between matters on which people can differ without being in error (such as which side of the road to drive on), which would fall under the label of 'custom', and matters on which people cannot differ without at least one party being in error. I invite PV to try thinking of gladiator games or mass crucifixions as simply a different practice of a different culture at a different time, no more in need of justification and no more capable of condemnation than someone's taste in ice cream.
  2. As a corollary of the first point, human beings fundamentally reject moral equivalence: the conviction that no one person or society's moral judgments are better or worse than those of any other person or society. As Landau says, "When we feel strongly enough to denounce something-terrorism, spousal abuse, torture-we don't for a moment accept the equivalence doctrine. We think our opponents are just wrong. And they couldn't be (nor could we ever be), if moral skepticism were correct...who believes that slavers and abolitionists, for instance, are really holding views of equal merit? That slavery, or its abolition, are both equally morally acceptable?" (p.19) But this would be the logical implication of moral skepticism.
  3. A third aspect of the phenomenology of moral experience, again closely connected to the previous two, is our belief in the possibility of moral progress and the legitimacy of moral comparison. We consider abolition, universal suffrage, and civil rights to be genuine improvements over the state of affairs that existed prior to those movements. Society did not just change its stance on certain issues, it improved that stance. But moral progress would be impossible if moral judgments were mere expressions of opinion or preference, just as scientific progress would be impossible if scientific theories were all equivalent, none of them more accurately corresponding to the way the world actually works. Similarly, the world condemnation of Nazi Germany presupposes that it is possible to compare the moral standing of different societies and decide which one is morally superior or morally inferior. 
In summary, we experience moral decision-making as if moral judgments reflected, at least in principle, the way things are in the world. It was this realization that eventually led Leah Libresco to convert to Catholicism. To quote her again:
With regard to morality, I am in the same situation I might have been in before the eye was better understood. I receive certain sense perceptions which, instead of being ordered with regard to color and hue, are organized according to right and wrong. I can no more explain how I perceive these than I can explain exactly how I parse electrical signals, but, in my day to day life, these questions are not critical. I do know that I am at least as certain that my moral perceptions are meaningful and correspond to truth as I am certain that my visual perceptions do as well. In fact, I would go farther and say that I am as certain that my moral sense is attuned to something as real and urgent as the existence of physical matter.
Or take the agnostic Robin Le Poidevin:
Conscience directs us to moral properties of the acts themselves: the act (of murder, theft, and deceit or charity, compassion, and sacrifice) is itself good or evil. That property does not appear to reside in the mind alone. It may be that an action must originate in an evil thought in order to count as bad, but the badness of the action is not the same thing as the badness of the thought...This is the (real or apparent) objectivity of our moral judgments. Now, if the conscience whose promptings give rise to these judgments is a result of a combination of biological and social selection plus psychological conditioning, where does this sense of objectivity come from?... 
The mechanism is perhaps something like this: we witness, or think about, certain actions, such as deliberate deception, and they induce feelings in us, say of disapproval. This feeling is then somehow projected onto the act itself, resulting in what appears to be a perception of the act's badness. But this projection-if that is what it is-is very puzzling. It doesn't happen when things induce pain in us, for example. The experience of something may be accompanied by pain...but we don't then project the pain onto the thing that causes it. We may recognize a property in the object as the one that causes the pain, but the painfulness remains firmly fixed to the experience itself. Things are not intrinsically painful: it depends how they are presented to us. Why, then, when actions induce moral feelings in us, does the moral aspect of the experience not just stay fixed to the experience itself, rather than being projected onto the action, so that the action is seen as intrinsically good or bad, however it is presented to us?
PV might howl at this point that all I've done is show that human beings are hard-wired to treat moral judgments as objective, not that they actually are. So the question then becomes, what accounts for this hard-wiring? One very good explanation is that this hard-wiring developed in response to certain real features of our environment. After all, unless you want to fall prey to Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism, you should believe that in order to better survive and reproduce, human perceptions more or less accurately track important features of their environment. If moral facts do exist, they are supremely relevant to human flourishing and thus it would make sense that human beings evolved to perceive them. I submit that the burden of proof is on the moral skeptic to give good reasons why we should not at least prima facie trust our perceptions in this case.


Another objection PV makes is that "values, moral or otherwise, are by definition subjective. You value something, this is necessarily mind dependent."

But proponents of the moral argument are not arguing that the objectivity of moral judgments requires that they be mind-independent tout court. Indeed, the argument typically ends with the conclusion that moral facts do come from the mind of a Supreme Being. Rather, proponents of the argument reject human, or even better, finite mind-dependence for moral values and facts. Human beings just do not have the authority, knowledge or wisdom to make pronouncements about what they ought and ought not to do 'on their own steam', as it were. Finite, self-centered, survival-driven creatures that we are, our pronouncements would inevitably be driven by those preoccupations. Only the omnipotent, omniscient, magnificent Creator of all things could have the authority to craft and enforce moral facts. This pre-empts PV's further objection that a morality dependent on God would still be 'subjective'. It is, but not in the problematic way that a purely human morality would be.

PV's final objection is as follows:
Moral facts can only exist if the definition of morality is sufficiently precise to have a standard to measure morality by. I have never seen a theist give a meaningful definition of morality so they disqualify themselves even before any discussion would be possible.
His first claim is just wrong. Moral facts would exist whether or not we have sufficiently fine-grained definitions to allow us to 'carve them at the joints', as it were. Definitions are things WE propose and see if they match what we observe in the real world. This is like saying gravity didn't exist before Galileo. The second claim is ambiguous at best, because it's not clear what exactly PV wants here. Unless and until he comes forward with that, he disqualifies himself from the discussion.

18 comments:

An appeal to consensus does not, to me, make for a convincing argument for the objectivity of morality. With regard to the tree comparison, the existence of trees can be tested and observed in other ways besides just general agreement. Basically, the "arguments" presented to demonstrate that morality is objective are generally two-fold: humans tend to agree on certain moral precepts and humans generally behave as if morality was binding.

Both of these facts are explained just as easily if morality is a social institution. But a subjective/social morality concept better explains the divergences in convictions.

Furthermore, there is another similar phenomenon to morality where this same argument could be made, and Libresco makes reference to it: aesthetics. People generally agree on what is aesthetic, yet most (I think) are perfectly content with the notion that beauty is subjective. So, if an appeal to consensus isn't convincing that beauty is objective, I don't see why it should convince anyone that morality is objective.

I don't appeal to consensus as THE clinching argument in the case for moral realism. But it is an important factor. If people across time periods and cultures agree on some fundamental aspects of moral judgment (not necessarily agreement about specific moral judgments, but certainly agreement that moral judgments are statements that can be right and wrong), it would take a pretty solid case to establish that our perception of moral objectivity is illusory.

What are some of the other ways by which the existence and nature of trees can be 'tested and observed', aside from the phenomenology of the experiences themselves and intersubjective agreement?

What exactly do you have in mind when you say that morality is a 'social institution'?

Actually I think that there is an objective element to aesthetics as well, and that was the general consensus before modernist and post-modernist challenges to objectivity in all fields of inquiry. The good, the true and the beautiful are all inter-twined, because good acts, states of affairs and works of art are by definition excellent and admirable.

Yes, I realize that an appeal to consensus isn’t the only factor, and I indicated as much. Nevertheless, you mentioned it as an important one. That is problematic, considering that it is a logically fallacious method of argumentation. If such a key cog in this argument is logically fallacious, I do not see why it would take “a pretty solid case” to unseat it. Seems to me all that needs to be pointed out is that there isn’t an adequate foundation for the idea.
The existence of trees can be tested/observed by their effects: apples, leaves falling, etc. They can be photographed by cameras or measured by laser scanners, so we know that our personal perceptions are veridical. Furthermore, the perceptions we use to “sense” trees: sight, sound, touch, etc. are all useful for other things, and can be demonstrated to be generally reliable in sensing other things. This is not so for any “moral sense”, which would only be useful for sensing one thing, and is (seemingly) impossible to verify. So, the comparison of objective morality to trees is misguided. We don’t accept the existence of trees because of consensus, we accept the existence of trees because numerous, independent means of sensing them, which *explains* the consensus.
Also, I did not claim that morality was, in fact, a social institution. But by referring to that possibility, I simply meant that it is possible that morality is a system of mores, developed, accepted, and practiced in varying degrees by individuals and societies. I do not deny, however, that morality may be objective. I am just not convinced that this has been adequately demonstrated to be the case.
Also, I understand that there is a strain of thought that holds to beauty being objective, which is why I brought it up. Nevertheless, the idea that beauty is objective does not seem to me to be nearly as widespread, now or historically, as morality – despite the fact arguments for both are similar. And of course, the objectivity of beauty would suffer from the same defeaters as the objectivity of morality, but never mind that for now. Just as I cannot deny that morality may be objective, neither can I deny that there may be an objective “element” to beauty. For instance, if we include symmetry as part of definition of beauty, then obviously symmetry is very objective. Nor would I deny that there may be objective elements to morality as well, depending on how we define it. But this is a far cry from stating that there is a transcendent beauty or morality imposing itself on us.
You do, however, get points for consistency on this. If you accept one argument, it would seem like you would have to accept the other, and apparently you do. Nevertheless, I fear that you are putting far too much stock in a logical fallacy.
So why should one idea (morality vs. beauty) have been more convincing than the other? To me, it is obvious that the difference is in consequences. What is the consequence if beauty is not objective? Nothing very severe. Maybe enjoy some dissonance in jazz and blues instead of more traditional approaches to music. But what is the consequence if morality is not objective? Well, pretty severe, it may seem. All of a sudden, we leap from listening to some ungodly rock ‘n’ roll to murder and mayhem being “not preferable” rather than wrong.
And it isn’t hard to see this argumentum ad consequentiam presented underlying a lot of the moral objectivity debate. But, because of this, it’s also not hard to see why people may behave as if morality is objective – despite the fact that it may not be.

"Claiming you converted to a religion for rational arguments is common. Few people are willing to admit they converted for irrational arguments. Still this is usually the case. Humans base around 80% of their decisions on non-rational grounds. When somebody starts to accept faith for emotional reasons cognitive dissonance kicks in. A posteriori rationalizations are collected and most of the time the individuals involved actually genuinely believe the rationalizations were the main cause of the change in position."

Of course that doesn't apply to atheists. Everything they do is so very rational. Like when they say "I can't believe something that's not proven empirically, then they use the multiverse to answer every arguemnt for God, even though it has no empirical backing.

So called "appeal to consensus" is not a proof for moral axioms, like empirical data. It's one source of grousing, probalby the only one that can be managed since we can't prove moral axioms.

JB,

It is not logically fallacious to appeal to consensus in general. If I am not sure that I am really seeing what I think I'm seeing, for example, an excellent way to test that is to find out if others are also seeing the same thing. Maybe in certain highly ramified contexts it would be problematic, for example to judge the validity of evolutionary theory based on the percentage of the population that accepts it, but especially when trying to decide whether something happened or whether something exists, intersubjective testing is the way to go.

I was afraid you would say the things you did about testing for the existence of trees, hoping you would realize that all of it boils down to intersubjective observation. There are no 'additional' methods. You can capture an image of a tree on camera, sure. But ultimately doesn't that just kick things back a step, so now the question becomes whether everybody sees the same image on the camera? And any case for the reliability of the senses already presupposes their general reliability. At best we can check one sensory output against another, presuming the general reliability of all of them.

The distinction of when appealing to consensus is valid or not is when you are appealing to opinion/belief or not. Appealing to a consensus of observation is valid, as I indicated earlier. But this is because the underlying justification is the observation. It surprises me that you don’t see that your example about those who believe evolutionary theory more closely resembles the scenario where people *believe* in objective morality, rather than those who *observe* trees.

I have no problem with the notion that it’s properly basic to trust one’s senses. Despite this, I’m sure you would also agree that our senses routinely deceive us. Nevertheless, if you see a hammer swing at your head, it makes sense to duck – even if you’re known to hallucinate. But, the fact that there is a known unreliability with our sense is why additional methods of testing are so important. And, yes, while ultimately we still depend on our senses to interpret these additional methods, the fact that it does “kick things back a step” is important! After all, it may simply be that given certain conditions our senses deceive, and then under different conditions (or different methods of observation) they do not.
To make the case for objective morality using this line of reasoning, then, you need to demonstrate that morality has been (objectively) perceived or observed, not just (subjectively) believed. People can largely agree on very subjective things. People generally think that sugar tastes “good”. That doesn’t make it objectively good. Stating that people are committed to the idea of moral error, that they reject moral equivalence, and believe in moral progress does nothing to demonstrate that human beings are perceiving/observing a moral reality.

There isn’t anything in that data that associates the behavior/belief with something actual/objective. Even if you disagree, it seems to me that you should want a lot more than that. That kind of data just demonstrates the behavior/belief. There isn’t any way, that I see, to “kick things back a step”, to increase the probability that what is being considered is real.

Furthermore, for any very general agreement people may have about morality (“torturing kids for fun is wrong” is fairly universal, I think), it is just as easy to point out widespread disagreements. So, if an appeal to consensus of opinion is a valid move to make to make a positive case, then it would seem that the opposite is just as valid. Perhaps such a study (comparing how much people agree on morally vs. how much they disagree) has been done, I don’t know, but it seems to me that it would get you nowhere fast.

Hi JD,

Thank you for your questions.

You seem to be interested in people changing faith. I just happened to stumble upon somebody I knew as a rather fundamentalist Christian called Paleocrat who seems to have become an atheist because of the evidential argument from evil and the impossibility to find a coherent and plausible set of religious doctrines:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NXXezboSv0I&feature=plcp
Amazing considering he used to be bashing atheist quite hard and knew a lot about theology.
That as a side note.



You said:
“I don't recognize that syllogism, which is question-begging and trivial, from any of the prominent theists who defend the moral argument”

I am afraid you are wrong here. Most religious apologists use such poor logic in their moral arguments for the existence of God. Examples are Bill Craig, JP Moreland, John Lennox, Frank Turek, Dinesh D'Souza, CS Lewis but almost all apologists that use the moral argument use flawed logic. Some more transparent than others.
Here criticism on an example by Bill Craig:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8_EZAaGezV8&feature=plcp

Here is a debate between Bill Craig and Shelly Kagan where Craig is beaten quite badly in my opinion:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rm2wShHJ2iA
(Bill Craig is considered the strongest religious apologist in the world by many.)


Why is there consensus on some moral issues if there is no God?
Well, we can have a consensus on lots of things without appeal to a God or even to something objective. Certain kinds of things found in nature that are nutritious and not poisonous are found to be very distasteful to most humans. You can easily have consensus on something that is not objective. If you want to decide what is objectively true by a majority vote or a large majority vote we would end up in epistemic relativism. If opinion changes the truth would suddenly change. That seem contradictory when talking about objective things. It can only work when applied to subjective things. If there is consensus on something tasting delicious that kind of self validates as such a subjective judgment becomes true because of subjective support. Therefore if you hold that the method of determining the objectivity of a moral question is by consensus you are kind of admitting morality is subjective.

1 You say that condemning things like gladiator games proves humans can be in error. This is incorrect. It proves our moral norms change over time. That is a potential argument against objectivity unless you can show it fits within some objective framework that explains those shifts in morality. As you have not done so this is an argument AGAINST your concept of moral objectivity.
Today we can subjectively condemn these kinds of practices as that only requires looking at our current societal norms and judging them from that framework. There exists no such thing as mandatory cultural relativism or anything else that would effectively block our judgment so you do not have a point.

2 I agree, we usually do not see other people's or culture's morals as better. We are biased.
Another reason is that obviously we usually think that our own convictions on the way we should live actually is the way we should live. If we would not be convinced of this we obviously would not think it is the way we should live and adopt a different morality. It is kind of self-evident. We hold the values we hold because we value the things we value and other people who have different values will always hold values that are lesser or equal at best from our own perspective.

3 Moral progress does not prove objectivity. I can be at a bar where they play horrible music to my tastes and subjectively observe next time I am there that they have made progress because they changed the music.

Moral perceptions are meaningful by definition because morals are about the social things that are important to us. Meaning does do nothing for the subjectivity – objectivity distinction.
Moral perception being perceived as true is again a personal perception. It is true that Leah Libresco feels strongly about certain moral issues. The problem is that such strong feeling are not a valid way to know if they reflect actual universal truths.
An example is the fact that several times when people converted from Islam to Christianity in Pakistani villages and people found out angry mobs formed and attacked the homes of the converts and tried to kill them. The people in those mobs had truly very strong feelings about how wrong the now Christian was. Their feelings were probably even much stronger than any of yours and Leah's have ever been as it sent them into a murderous rage. Does this now prove it is objectively immoral to become a Christian? Does it prove that such murderous behavior is justified? Is feeling of wrongness really a proper and reliable method of measurement?
I think the methods presented by religious apologists to prove moral objectivity are all fundamentally flawed. You can only prove something to be objectively true is you have a good way to establish this. You need to be able to explain at exactly which point something is still subjective and at which exact point something becomes objective and be able to defend the validity of this.


Quotes from Robin Le Poidevin:
“Conscience directs us to moral properties of the acts themselves: the act (of murder, theft, and deceit or charity, compassion, and sacrifice) is itself good or evil. That property does not appear to reside in the mind alone. It may be that an action must originate in an evil thought in order to count as bad, but the badness of the action is not the same thing as the badness of the thought... “
Correct

“This is the (real or apparent) objectivity of our moral judgments. Now, if the conscience whose promptings give rise to these judgments is a result of a combination of biological and social selection plus psychological conditioning, where does this sense of objectivity come from?...  ”
The sense of objectivity could come from various things. The job of the theist who is trying to use this as an argument is to prove that morality is objective and that objectivity necessitates divinity both of which have not been demonstrated (ever).
The fact that Robin Le Poidevin was puzzled about morality does not prove anything. His perception that everybody thinks morals are objective is also false. What everybody thinks is that others should bow down to their own version of morality. This does not make your morality objective, it merely shows you think you are right and people who disagree with you are wrong and that you care about these matters of morality. That is not objectivity. Morality is more like: you do X because I am convinced that X must be maintained as the standard for everybody. This could be correct but it also could be very wrong in terms of utility or any other point of view.



“PV might howl at this point that all I've done is show that human beings are hard-wired to treat moral judgments as objective, not that they actually are. So the question then becomes, what accounts for this hard-wiring? One very good explanation is that this hard-wiring developed in response to certain real features of our environment. “
Obviously we have evolved several moral faculties that work together to form our moral output.

“If moral facts do exist, they are supremely relevant to human flourishing and thus it would make sense that human beings evolved to perceive them.”
In order to be able to account for the existence of our strong feelings regarding morals this feature must be a beneficial adaptation. I struggle to see how anybody cannot see the obvious advantages of for example to be inclined to reject lying and stealing in your community. This has obvious cooperative advantages and humans are social animals so the adaptations that allow for those kinds of behaviors are selected for. Stronger emotions about “wrong” actions allow stronger enforcement of rules beneficial for cooperation. If people would think all the time that the detrimental actions of others are “kind of wrong” but they do not really care about it rules will not be enforced as good as when people think: “This is VERY wrong and is never permissible!”. The strength of the moral conviction and the dedication to enforce it are important to make moral rules effective.

As for the claim that our perception are that morals are objective, I think there is a possible way to explain how morals are objective but I just think it is not yours. To show your form of objectivity is correct you have to show how we know morals are objective because the way you show this also proves the foundation of objective morals. Just claiming we feel morals are objective is to vague to prove anything specific.


“proponents of the moral argument are not arguing that the objectivity of moral judgments requires that they be mind-independent tout court. Indeed, the argument typically ends with the conclusion that moral facts do come from the mind of a Supreme Being. Rather, proponents of the argument reject human, or even better, finite mind-dependence for moral values and facts. Human beings just do not have the authority, knowledge or wisdom to make pronouncements about what they ought and ought not to do 'on their own steam', as it were.”
This excuse does not work. Subjective is mind dependent. Morality grounded in a person is by definition subjective no matter how smart or powerful that person is.
Might makes right cannot turn the subjective into objective.
Knowledge could make something objective but knowledge is based on objects. The objects of the knowledge are what makes the knowledge true. God's knowledge reflects the external real world and therefore that external real world and not God is what makes things moral and God is just a proxy for that information. God would be redundant.
I reject the possibility of a god being able to ground objective morality. It is not coherent.


“Moral facts would exist whether or not we have sufficiently fine-grained definitions to allow us to 'carve them at the joints', as it were.”
If you say X is wrong and I say X is right and we both have opposite definition of what morality is we are both correct and morality is effectively meaningless.
The trick religions like Christianity have applied is to mutilate the meaning of morality and then hijack morality as a whole and claim that only their religion holds morality. This to emotionally extort people into accepting that religion if they want to be moral persons. This trickery has worked for centuries but I think today the scheme is not working very effectively anymore. Moral issues are becoming that which it has always been again. To maximize collective well being, preference utility or similar ideas are what people actually perceive as that which morality is about. No religious meddling needed, morality can stand on its own without God but with humans valuing themselves and each other as a basis.

Theists cannot or do not want to give a proper definition of morality because it reveals that their argument is flawed. If they give a rational definition God is not needed. If they give one that helps their argument the question begging nature becomes apparent as the definition would have to contain things related to God.

@PhaseVelocity, in your 1st comment you wrote:
-"Most religious apologists use such poor logic in their moral arguments for the existence of God."-
The moral argument itself - at least as it is usually formulated - is logically airtight. If the premises are true, then the conclusion inevitably follows. The poor logic is not with the moral argument itself, but in defending the existence of objective morality, a premise within the argument itself.

-"Here is a debate between Bill Craig and Shelly Kagan where Craig is beaten quite badly in my opinion."-
Well, not that WLC needs my help, but it is interesting that this wasn't a standard debate by design. According to WLC, "...our hosts with the Veritas Forum had made it very clear to me that they were not interested in having a knock-down debate but a friendly dialogue that would foster a warm and inviting atmosphere for non-believing students at Columbia. The goal was simply to get the issues out on the table in a congenial, welcoming environment, which I think we did." I don't expect this to change your mind or anything, but I think it might explain why this would be one of the very few debates people think WLC "lost".

---

In your second post, you claim:

-"Moral perceptions are meaningful by definition because morals are about the social things that are important to us."-
Says who? There is no reason for morals to be important to us. Moral perceptions are only "meaningful by definition" if they are objective, or if you arbitrarily decide for them to be so.

---

In the third post, in response to this quote...

“If moral facts do exist, they are supremely relevant to human flourishing and thus it would make sense that human beings evolved to perceive them.”

...you claimed the following:

-"In order to be able to account for the existence of our strong feelings regarding morals this feature must be a beneficial adaptation."-
Wrong. Things can be deleterious and persist, as well as neutral.

-"I struggle to see how anybody cannot see the obvious advantages of for example to be inclined to reject lying and stealing in your community. This has obvious cooperative advantages and humans are social animals so the adaptations that allow for those kinds of behaviors are selected for."-
I struggle to see how anybody can't see the obvious advantages of being able to do whatever you want. The problem with this line of thinking is that it's completely subjective as well. You are falling prey to the same logical shortcomings you accuse theists of. Anybody can create just-so stories.

-"I reject the possibility of a god being able to ground objective morality. It is not coherent."-
Then explain why.

-"Theists cannot or do not want to give a proper definition of morality because it reveals that their argument is flawed. If they give a rational definition God is not needed. If they give one that helps their argument the question begging nature becomes apparent as the definition would have to contain things related to God."-
Such as? Theists have developed numerous models for morality, Divine Command theory being just one. I assume you would not consider such as an argument "rational" because it involves God as the law-giver? Then you are just as guilty of begging the question. If you think such an argument begs the question, then you need to explain why.

No, the problem is also proving that only a god can provide objective morals. Any supernatural entity or force could be thought up to account for morals.
Not only do they not provide any argument for this, it also is self refuting as objective is not personal and morals grounded in a person, even if God, therefore are logically not objective.

Those are just poor excuses by Craig. He failed to deliver arguments. that has nothing to do with being friendly.

"Moral perceptions are only "meaningful by definition" if they are objective, or if you arbitrarily decide for them to be so."
Morals are meaningful if they impact our lives significantly and they do. No objectivity needed here just like hunger impacts our lives even if the feeling is subjective.

"Wrong. Things can be deleterious and persist, as well as neutral."
That is highly unlikely for a random feature. Morality is a large series of features. The odds of this being neutral are zero for practical purposes.

"I struggle to see how anybody can't see the obvious advantages of being able to do whatever you want. The problem with this line of thinking is that it's completely subjective as well. You are falling prey to the same logical shortcomings you accuse theists of. Anybody can create just-so stories."
If you cannot understand the power of cooperation then I cannot help you.

"-"I reject the possibility of a god being able to ground objective morality. It is not coherent."-
Then explain why."
See the first paragraph of this response.

"Such as? Theists have developed numerous models for morality, Divine Command theory being just one. I assume you would not consider such as an argument "rational" because it involves God as the law-giver? Then you are just as guilty of begging the question. If you think such an argument begs the question, then you need to explain why."
Well if they have a coherent one that can be used in combination with the moral argument for God I would like to see it. I have asked several theists to give a definition but they declined. Pretty strange if they are so knowledgeable on the topic that they think they can show morality requires a God.

-“No, the problem is also proving that only a god can provide objective morals. Any supernatural entity or force could be thought up to account for morals.”-
Sure, but then you’d have to account for why we’d be *obligated* to abide by supernatural entity X’s system of morality. That is more difficult to do than simply dreaming up another being. Classical theism, whether you agree with it or not, grounds this obligation in God being ultimately Good & all-knowing, etc. (that is probably overly simplistic). And if you’ve dreamt up another being who is all-good, all-knowing, etc. – but simply don’t want to call that Being “Yahweh” (or whatever) – then we’re really talking about “God” by another name, aren’t we?

-“Not only do they not provide any argument for this, it also is self refuting as objective is not personal and morals grounded in a person, even if God, therefore are logically not objective.”-
Again, they do provide argumentation for this. That Craig (or whoever) does not do so in the format of a debate is obviously rooted in the fact that there is a time limitation.
As for “objective”, you seem to be operating according to a different definition than most others. Most others, that I know anyway, use the term to mean “it exists whether or not anyone acknowledges its existence.” Nothing in that definition implies or entails that it cannot be personal. It is fine if you choose not to use the term in that way, just understand that you will be talking past theists if you try to demonstrate morality cannot be objective if grounded in God.

-“Morals are meaningful if they impact our lives significantly and they do. No objectivity needed here just like hunger impacts our lives even if the feeling is subjective.”-
There is a subjective element to hunger, but hunger exists whether you or I choose to acknowledge it or not. Hunger is objective. Likewise, morality cannot affect anything significantly if it does not exist. Now, you can claim that people have believed in things that aren’t real that have still affected them significantly, and that is true enough. But then we are talking about the belief itself that is objective, not the object of belief.


Regarding whether or not morality would have to be beneficial to have persisted, you claimed “That is highly unlikely for a random feature.” Here you need to define “random”. Evolutionarily speaking, there are different kinds of random, and depending on which one you use, it might or might not be correct.

-“If you cannot understand the power of cooperation then I cannot help you.”-
The point is not that I cannot see the power of cooperation. The point is that I might also see, as Ayn Rand and her ilk do, the power of rational self-interest. I might deny my obligation to the former, but acknowledge the necessity of the latter. The point is that you cannot arbitrarily assign, as Sam Harris and his ilk do, a utilitarian perspective to morality and try to pass it off as “objective” (defined as I stated before).


And as for models of morality, there are too many to get into: virtue-based ethics, duty-based ethics, consequentialsim, etc. All of them could be used with the moral argument. Heck, even objectivism could be used with the moral argument, because the whole system hinges on your life having (objective) value – which the theist would argue is not possible unless God exists. Each model would require slightly different argumentation. In any case, if many Christians don’t want to get into those details, I suspect it’s because they acknowledge that the success of the moral argument does not rest on a specific moral/ethical model, but on whether morals would depend on God and if they exist (objectively) in the first place.

“Sure, but then you’d have to account for why we’d be *obligated* to abide by supernatural entity X’s system of morality. That is more difficult to do than simply dreaming up another being. Classical theism, whether you agree with it or not, grounds this obligation in God being ultimately Good & all-knowing, etc.”
No proper account is given for the the obligation to follow Yahweh's system of morality either other than might makes right (if you do not obey you are going to be attacked and/or tortured by Yahweh). If Yahweh's wisdom is the reason then morality is grounded in that which his wisdom reflects which is the creation so morality would be grounded in creation, not in God.
I can just say that fairies sprinkle objective morality over our heads every night when we sleep but them not being perfect they sometimes miss somebody or give only a weak dose so bad things happen. That seems a lot more consistent and accounts for reality a lot better than the Yahweh story. Of course it is an equally ridiculous explanation.


“Again, they do provide argumentation for this.”
No they do not.
If a person can ground objective things then I can ground objective morality for the rest of the universe in my personal convictions and objectivity becomes meaningless.


“It is fine if you choose not to use the term in that way, just understand that you will be talking past theists if you try to demonstrate morality cannot be objective if grounded in God.”
I will not let them contort the meaning of words to suit suit their needs to deny reality and meaning. If they can make any word mean anything they would like it to mean and hijack every concept they like all discussion becomes futile. It does not matter if they made up false meanings of words yesterday or 2000 years ago. Objective has a meaning and that meaning cannot entail the personal.
You seem to have bought into the excuses apologists bring up a little to much. Here is what a quick search on the meaning of objectivity brings up (I left out those definitions that go even further and restrict it to materialism):

“The word 'objectivity' means judgment based on observable phenomena and uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices”

“Truth conditions are met and are "mind-independent"—that is, not met by the judgment of a conscious entity or subject.”

“intentness on objects external to the mind.”

“Metaphysically, it is the recognition of the fact that reality exists independent of any perceiver’s consciousness. Epistemologically, it is the recognition of the fact that a perceiver’s (man’s) consciousness must acquire knowledge of reality by certain means (reason) in accordance with certain rules (logic).”

“The terms “objectivity” and “subjectivity,” in their modern usage, generally relate to a perceiving subject (normally a person) and a perceived or unperceived object. The object is something that presumably exists independent of the subject’s perception of it. In other words, the object would “be there,” as it is, even if no subject perceived it.”

“of, relating to, or being an object, phenomenon, or condition in the realm of sensible experience independent of individual thought and perceptible by all observers : having reality independent of the mind ”

So it seems that the definition I used is the prevailing one and if we talk past each other this is because of theists inventing their own meaning for words for ideological reasons. In this case they invent the new meaning to be able to claim objectivity in a way that is logically impossible. But they won't let mere logic spoil the fun. Just reinvent words and you can make anything work no matter how inconsistent it is.

“There is a subjective element to hunger, but hunger exists whether you or I choose to acknowledge it or not. Hunger is objective. Likewise, morality cannot affect anything significantly if it does not exist.”
The personal experience of hunger is a personal experience. The experience is real but not objective. Every person will experience hunger slightly different. This is just like the perception of morality. The experience of it cannot be objective by definition. The nutrients deficiency part of hunger however is objective just like the impact on collective well-being or preference fulfillment of moral behavior exists objectively as we can measure stress hormones, pain levels etc. Personal experience - subjective, effects measurable by an external mind independent standard – objective. Please keep the two apart.
Now I realize that morality is seated on the border between objective and subjective but that does not deny the fact that the parts of it that are objective can only be objective by virtue of a standard that allows knowledge, not by virtue of a mind. Minds change so it can never be a mind that provides objective morality. Theists will say that the mind of God does not change but that is again the violation of the meaning of a word.
Mind:
“(in a human or other conscious being) the element, part, substance, or process that reasons, thinks, feels, wills, perceives, judges, etc”
“The collective conscious and unconscious processes in a sentient organism that direct and influence mental and physical behavior. ”
Etc etc.
A mind requires change. Immutable minds cannot exist. God cannot have a mind.

If you consider morality to much mind based to be objective by the standard I gave earlier then this is not a problem. All that means is that morality would be labeled subjective but that we still maintain standards to judge morality. Normative aspects are not affected. There is a good case to call morality subjective and I am not dogmatically attached to morality being objective but I think that just like we can deduce what causes hunger we can deduce what causes the vast majority of us to judge things as moral or immoral. That could be sufficient to base a standard on and that is what I argue. We can call things moral or immoral based on a standard that comes closest to what at least 99% of humans mean when they use the word. The meaning of the word sets the standard and that meaning is not arbitrary as our tendency to have a system to maximize well-being is not arbitrary but a result of our biological makeup just like our tendency to eat is not arbitrary but caused by the biological need to gain nutrients.


“Regarding whether or not morality would have to be beneficial to have persisted, you claimed “That is highly unlikely for a random feature.” Here you need to define “random”. Evolutionarily speaking, there are different kinds of random, and depending on which one you use, it might or might not be correct.”
I mean that morality is a long series of adaptations which could not have come about by chance but must have been favored by the pressures of natural selection. This means morality necessarily is a very favorable adaptation. For morals to be effective they must be a reflex, they must be rational or they must be managed by strong emotions. We have brains that have evolved to learn social interactions and their consequences (please look up “theory of mind” for instrumental background information) and we have faculties to make us value these consequences (please look up for example “mirror neurons”).

Individuals that have damaged or missing moral faculties have definite disadvantages. Highly functioning autists for example often suffer the consequences of their diminished social skills. Sociopaths can often get through life fine but when things go wrong they can go very wrong which essentially removes those from the gene pool. The persistence of such genes can be explained by the fact that when things do not go catastrophically wrong for them they can manipulate things into their advantage and have no emotional problems with parasitic behavior. This makes it a efficient strategy. But if all people would be sociopaths it would not longer work. Therefore evolutionary pressure exists to prevent and punish parasitic and other harmful behavior. This pressure results in morality. Something similar has even been discovered in species of slime molds:
http://scienceblogs.com/loom/2006/08/23/us-and-them-among-the-slime-mo/
Morality is largely evolved around solving the free rider problem. That is not anything close to a divine explanation. And why would we need a divine explanation? Nothing about morality that can be observed requires a God to explain it. All the theist presents is some rambling about supposed objectivity whatever that means in reli-lingo and the claim that God would solve the imaginary problem they just conjured up.


“The point is not that I cannot see the power of cooperation. The point is that I might also see, as Ayn Rand and her ilk do, the power of rational self-interest. I might deny my obligation to the former, but acknowledge the necessity of the latter. The point is that you cannot arbitrarily assign, as Sam Harris and his ilk do, a utilitarian perspective to morality and try to pass it off as “objective” (defined as I stated before).”
Well we “Harris and his ilk” actually can.
There is the morality calculus we all largely subconsciously perform when making moral decisions. All moral inputs including self-interest, loyalty to the group and objective utilitarian rational morals are weighed and a winner rolls out. Your dominating desire might at one point in time be hedonistically serving the self, at another time serving the social group and at another time utilitarian reason all depending on circumstances including your brain chemistry of the moment. For example: if you just was almost hit by a car your moral calculus will temporally be very significantly affected.
When “Harris and his ilk” say X is moral they simply mean that if you are impartial, rational and have enough relevant information you would do X. As a consequence you doing X could be praiseworthy while you refraining from doing X could be blameworthy. It is how it is. It describes how an important part of our morality works while it is obvious nobody is completely living up to such a standard. It just enables us to have better insight in what is moral and what is not. The ought comes from our peers enforcing the morals, our emotions/desires and our reason. If you can explain why something is moral you can make an appeal to a person's reason. Because we all (well most of us anyway) desire to be rational creatures this can be a persuasive argument. But in order to be able to reason you need a standard like ideal observer theory, desirism or preference utilitarianism.

Virtue-based ethics, duty-based ethics are useless as they do not explain why one duty or virtue is better than another. Consequentialism is a simple version of utilitarianism. Any moral theory that will rationally work and conforms to our actual perception of morality does so because is is just another renamed version of utilitarianism. The only real discussion is about whether the basis is well-being, desire fulfillment, preference maximization etc. This is about the details. The big picture remains the same.

“the whole system hinges on your life having (objective) value – which the theist would argue is not possible unless God exists”
If the theist argues that he is making a fool out of himself. We are entities that value things and one of the things we value most is our lives and the lives of the ones we love. Guarding these valuables is best achieved by striking a deal with others to ensure the best chances of reaching the objective. Alone this will be much harder. Justice is a way to retaliate against those who do not stick to their end of the deal. If you kill somebody you will most of the time get into big trouble. This is enough to deter most potential offenders. But this requires a majority to cooperate so the moral rules can be enforced. There is no way around morality if you want to maintain an even remotely successful society. It really should be a no-brainer.


“In any case, if many Christians don’t want to get into those details, I suspect it’s because they acknowledge that the success of the moral argument does not rest on a specific moral/ethical model, but on whether morals would depend on God and if they exist (objectively) in the first place.”
I suspect they have only their few scripted lines plus the ability to stick to those regardless of how much it is being refuted.

PV, apologies for not following up on this sooner. For whatever reason, I cannot get subscribed to the comments, so I was having to check up on these manually, and obviously at some point I forgot to keep doing so.

You say that "No proper account is given for the the obligation to follow Yahweh's system of morality either other than might makes right" Obviously, "proper" is the key qualifier above. And I assume you do not think "might makes right", so obviously that isn't "proper", either. Again, whether you agree with it or not, the fact of that matter is that God is typically defined as "good". If God is not "good", He is not "God". Whether or not that amounts to something other than question-begging, I will leave to the philosophers, but I would certainly think it is problematic.

Nevertheless, it is obviously the case that other accounts exist for being morally obligated to the Judeo-Christian God. Your dismissiveness isn't exactly helpful here. Whether you're hand-waving arguments away because you think they are wrong or because you think they don't exist is unclear.

You state: "If a person can ground objective things then I can ground objective morality for the rest of the universe in my personal convictions and objectivity becomes meaningless."

A person can ground things in an objective way, depending on what we mean and what we are referencing. You want to eliminate "objective" as a descriptor when involving God and morality, because most view God as a "person". But I think we'd all acknowledge there can be "objective" facts about persons. The fact that something relates to a person does not necessarily make it "subjective".

Even so, it makes no sense for you to "ground" morality, because even though there may be objective facts about moral beliefs you hold, you have no such standing. To ground something is to establish a basis in something logically/causally prior. Now, were you to spawn your own set of minions, then you could be an objective source of morality for *them*, although there is the troublesome question of obligation again.

So, it should be clear that the fact that morality is grounded in God's nature does not make it "subjective". If it was grounded in God's whims and fancies, then yes.

On a related note, you claim that because morality would be grounded in God's "mind" (not what theists would claim), they have to claim God, and by extension His mind, is immutable. It is my understanding that classical theists would claim that God's *nature* is immutable, not His mind. Any being that acts or thinks obviously cannot be immutable, so it stands to reason this is not what theists refer to when they use the term.

"When 'Harris and his ilk' say X is moral they simply mean that if you are impartial, rational and have enough relevant information you would do X."
Sounds like Stoic philosophy to me. (That doesn't mean it's wrong, just making an observation). The problem with this, at least as I see it, is that most people would make a distinction between what might be rational and moral. With this line of thinking, any rational behavior is moral behavior. It seems to me (and my guess is about 99% - to meet your standard - of humanity would agree) that it is obvious that an impartial, rational person is only obligated to do anything if there is an *ought* somewhere in the calculus, and this "ought" is not supplied by reason itself.

You seem to admit as much, stating that it can be supplied by our emotions. But then it should be obvious that such a system is not "objective", as it is dependent on something that is not mind-independent.

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