“If humans are just atoms, then they are not morally relevant”


One common — and pernicious — argument against naturalistic explanations of persons is that if people are just conglomerations of atoms, then they are not morally relevant (or that they lack moral significance; herein, I will assume that ‘moral significance’ and ‘moral relevance’ are interchangeable). The point, I take it, is supposed to be that, in virtue of their composition, anything composed of atoms would fail to have the right sort of properties to be morally relevant (whatever those sorts of properties are). For example, Christian apologist Brian Colon writes, “If all that exists is matter, then that would mean that we are nothing but matter as well.  If that’s true then why do we believe that humans are worthy of respect? […] Humans really are worthy of respect.  This is inexplicable on the Atheistic Worldview.” [1] Call this the atomic objection. In this post, I will show that the atomic objection fails spectacularly and argue that theists should not advance the atomic objection against their atheistic interlocutors.

1. What’s so wrong with being composed of atoms?

At minimum, the theist needs to do more work to spell out exactly what the atomic objection is supposed to be, or why it’s so objectionable to think that humans are composed of atoms. Notice that one way to make humans sound morally insignificant is with locutions of the following sort: ‘humans are just x’, where x can be filled in with whatever humans are taken to be composed of. For example, the materialist might say, “humans are just atoms in motion”, and this sounds rather deflationary and depressing. But the same could be said of their supernaturalist rivals — “humans are just immaterial souls” or “humans are just immaterial minds created in the image of God” or whatever — and it would sound just as deflationary and depressing. Therefore, one cannot simply list the component parts of humans and, from that list, surmise whether humans have some sort of moral significance. Instead, one needs to show that given their component parts, humans either can or cannot have attributes which endow them with moral significance.

Moreover, any property theists claim we possess in virtue of having a soul — the ability to form rational thoughts, or the ability to appreciate love or goodness, or whatever else — are likewise properties the atheist will attribute to our having minds, ultimately reducible to a particular kind of brain. If the theist claims physical matter cannot have thoughts, the ability to appreciate love, and so on, on the basis that they cannot see how physical matter could possibly perform those sorts of processes, the atheist is free to point out that they cannot see how the possession of a soul allows us those properties either. The theist can maintain that the soul performs those processes in ways mysterious to humans, but the atheist can just as easily maintain that the brain performs those processes in ways equally mysterious.

This impasse between the theist and atheist can made rigorous through a famous argument schema called the Moorean shift.

1a. The Moorean Shift

Since Rowe’s 1979 article “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism” [2], theists and atheists alike have noted that the problem of evil can addressed, by the theist, through a Moorean shift. In what follows, I will explain what Moorean shifts are, how they apply to the problem of evil, and finally show that the theistic objection I’ve been discussing in this post can be subjected to an atheistic Moorean shift. Arguments of the form [3]:

1. p

2. q

3. Therefore, r.

Can be responded to with parallel arguments of the form:

4. Not r.

5. q

6. Therefore, not p.

Shifting from 1-3 to 4-6 is termed a Moorean shift. The idea is that arguments like 1-3 are sometimes just as rational to maintain as arguments of the form 4-6. William Rowe maintained that theism and atheism can both be rational positions, depending on how one formulates the problem of evil. In a 2007 article, William Lane Craig follows Rowe and offers the following rendition of the problem of evil (where I’ve re-numbered the premises) [4]:

7. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.

8. Gratuitous evil exists.

9. Therefore, God does not exist.

Still following Rowe, Craig suggests the Christian can provide the following Moorean shift (again, with re-numbered premises):

7. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.

8*. God exists.

9*. Therefore, gratuitous evil does not exist.

Craig notes that premise 7 is uncontroversial between atheists and himself and explains that premise 11* can be maintained, by the theist, by appealing to independent arguments made on behalf of theism (such as the Kalam cosmological argument, the argument from contingency, and the moral argument). I’ll put aside whether Craig is right to maintain premise 8*. Supposing Moorean shifts are legitimate responses to apparent defeaters, objections the atomic objection can be similarly Moorean shifted by the atheist. For example, one way to state the atomic objection is as follows:

10. Nothing that is composed solely of atoms can have moral significance.

11. Atheists maintain that humans are composed solely of atoms.

12. Therefore, atheists should maintain that humans have no moral significance.

However, atheists are unlikely to accept premise 10. In fact, atheists are free to perform the following Moorean shift:

10*. Atheists maintain that humans have moral significance.

11. Atheists maintain that humans are composed solely of atoms.

12*. Therefore, atheists should maintain that some things composed solely of atoms have moral significance.

Here, atheists can maintain 1o* on the basis of independent arguments for secular moral realism or secular moral significance, just as Craig maintains 8* on the basis of independent arguments for theism. The theist cannot object that 1o* is question begging, unless they concede that 8* is likewise question begging.

2. Does our being created by God grant more moral significance to us than our not having been created by God?

The theist might try another approach. On Christian theism, humans were created for specific purposes and perhaps this explains why humans are more morally significant than they would be on atheism. On this account, humans have the proper sorts of lives when they maximally fulfill the purpose for which they were created and, when they fail to fulfill the purpose for which God created them (that is, when they fail to fulfill their telos), they fail to realize their greatest happiness. Moreover, humans have moral significance because they were created in the image of God — and so they resemble God in the appropriate ways, which includes their being non-physical, rational, free minds. In contrast, if there is no God and if humans are mere conglomerations of atoms, then they were not created for a purpose, have no telos to fulfill, and are not non-physical, rational, free minds. On this view, humans are morally significant because they have the requisite attributes to lead lives that are meaningful or purposeful in some important sense.

First, as already discussed, this version of the atomic argument can be responded to with a Moorean shift. The atheist maintains that humans are rational, free minds while simultaneously maintaining that they are composed of atoms not created by God and can appeal to secular arguments for moral realism and moral significance.

Second, the mere existence of someone who created oneself for some purpose does not suffice to provide one’s life with purpose in the relevant sense. All of us have parents who, presumably, brought us to life for whatever purposes they possessed. But it would be strange to say that we should always embrace our parents purposes as our purposes. Perhaps one’s parents wished that one become a doctor, but one is happiest if one is a philosophy professor. For the theist to claim that God having created us endows our lives with purpose in the relevant sense, the theist must maintain that God differs from parents in some relevant way.

One proposal might be that God recognizes some Good we might fulfill and has designed us in such a way that we would be maximally happy if we were to fulfill that Good. There are three metaphysical possibilities for the existence of such goods: a. such goods exist independently of God; b. such goods exist as a consequence of God’s will; or c. such goods can be identified (somehow) with God’s nature. I turn to each of these in turn to show that none of them succeed.

a. The first possibility: there are goods independent of God, but which God recognizes and has designed us so that we might fulfill them. Here, the problem is two-fold. First, by construction, none of these goods can exist as a result of God’s will or nature and therefore must not have been created by God. But, due both to God’s aseity and to central Jewish, Christian, and Islamic doctrines, nothing exists independently of God. Second, if there are goods, in virtue of which we might be maximally happy, independent of God, then such goods — because they are God-independent — can exist with or without God. Therefore, human lives could be meaningful — and thus morally relevant — on any atheist view which allowed for the existence of the Good.

b. The second possibility: the Good towards which our lives are to be properly directed is the result of God’s will. However, one might ask what sort of reasons God possesses for so directing us. Such reasons cannot involve a prior recognition of the Good, for such goods, and that we should be directed towards them, is the result — and not the cause — of God’s will. And, by construction, such goods cannot be somehow identified with God’s nature (though I will later consider the possibility that the Good is to be identified with God’s nature). Thus, it seems that such willings would be totally arbitrary and without reason if they only existed as the result of God’s will. Again, this is troubling for the theist, because willings without reason are random; God might as well have directed our lives towards evil or axiologically neutral states of affairs.

c. Finally, the theist might maintain that God directs our lives towards Good, where the Good is (somehow) identified with God’s nature. States of affairs which are maximally good, in the axiological sense, are those which maximally resemble God’s nature. However, it is fairly difficult to make sense of this view. What could it possibly mean to say that some creaturely state of affairs — which, like all other creaturely states of affairs, is infinitely distinct in every respect from God — somehow maximally resembles God? Christian philosopher Mark Murphy remarks:

[Craig] offer[s] no account […] of exactly how God’s nature provides the relevant standard [of goodness], a fact which is treated as an important consideration against nontheistic accounts of the nature of moral value. In reply to Craig, a number of writers suggested that a standard nontheistic account treats moral value as grounded in prudential value — what is good for persons — but as valued from an impartial perspective, one that takes into account all of the persons who can be made well or badly off. Craig rejects this view, claiming that it is not straightfowardly entailed by the existence of prudential value and the capacity of humans to take this impartial point of view that there is anything like moral value. But of course neither is it straightforwardly entailed by the proposition that God exists that there is anything like moral value. What we have here is a classic example of uneven standards being applied to the debate at hand, treating an appeal to God as able to fill an explanatory gap when it is far from clear that this appeal succeeds any farther than a nontheistic account does. [5]

Thus, for Murphy, grounding the Good towards which our lives might be directed in God’s nature is left mysterious by the theist. Moreover, if the theist can appeal to divine mystery to explain philosophical difficulties, the atheist can just as well appeal to naturalistic mystery. The God of the Gaps is just as good an explanation as Nature of the Gaps.

But I think the situation is actually worse for the theist than Murphy indicates. As traditionally conceived, God’s nature is radically unlike anything in the created realm. To say that God transcends the created realm is at least to say that God is infinitely different from the created realm. So what could it possibly mean to say that a state of affairs is good if the state of affairs appropriately resembles God? Any given state of affairs, at least in the creaturely realm, will always differ infinitely from God; so are no states of affairs good? But then what would it mean to say that one’s life might be appropriately oriented towards the Good?


We’ve seen that the atomic objection does not succeed in showing that atheists are inconsistent if they posit humans to possess moral significance. At best, in positing the atomic objection, theists show that atheists are left appealing to mystery, but theists equally appeal to mystery in their claim that souls are morally significant. Either way, one maintains that substances — whether spiritual or physical — are somehow endowed with moral significance. Moreover, claims that only a spiritual substance created by God could be endowed with moral significance are left either allowing for atheistic moral significance, positing that persons are somehow only randomly morally significant, or with only more mystery.

[1] Colon, B. (2010) “Atheism a Failed Hypothesis”. On the Evidence for Christianity website. http://evidenceforchristianity.org/atheism-a-falsified-hypothesis/

[2] Rowe, W. (1979) “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism”. American Philosophical Quarterly, 16(4): 335-341. 

[3] Ibid, pp 338-9.

[4] Craig, W. (2007) “Theistic Critiques of Atheism”. In Cambridge Companion to Atheism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press): 69-85. Also see the online expanded version.

[5] Murphy, M. (2004) “Suarez’s ‘Best Argument’ and the Dependence of Morality On God”. Quaestiones Disputatae, 5(1): 30-42. Block quote is from pp 32-33.


Responding to McHugh’s Modal Ontological Argument from Divine Justice (MOADJ)

New Apologetics is a Roman Catholic apologetics, theology, and philosophy organization devoted, among other things, to ministering to atheists. For a couple years now, I have been friends with the organization’s head — Christopher McHugh — whose arguments interest me due to their originality. Chris defends a novel version of the ontological argument he calls the Modal Ontological Argument from Divine Justice (herein: MOADJ), of which I’ve long been suspicious. However, it’s only recently that I’ve been able to articulate where, exactly, the argument goes wrong. In this post, I will offer several critical responses. I encourage Chris — and his followers — to offer a reply.

Chris’s theological positions are summed up in a deeply technical document entitled The Tractatus, written in the style of medieval disputatio, and is located here. To read the MOADJ, scroll down to the section entitled “The Modal Ontological Argument from Divine Justice”. If that gave you a headache to read, you’re not alone. I find it incredibly dense and difficult to slog my way through. Nonetheless, I’ve read it multiple times (I hope you’re happy,  Chris!). The argument concludes that, contrary to appearances, injustice does not ultimately exist because there is a necessarily existent justice-making power that rectifies all injustices:

  1. Since “not being an unjust situation” is situationally necessary, either there is no sense to the concept of “injustice”, or there is an infallible justice-making power which is also situationally necessary. The action of this power “redeems” and transforms unjust situations reconciling them to perfect justice. Such a reconciliation would have to be metaphysically coextensive with the commission of the injustice itself such that every situation is transubstantiated to be exactly the right thing at the right time, otherwise “not being an unjust situation” could not be situationally necessary.
  2. It is not the case that there is no sense to the concept of injustice.
  3. There is a situationally necessary justice-making power. [from 6 and 7 modus tollendo ponens]

However, a parallel argument can be constructed for the non-existence of cats. First, we need to modify the second axiom to read:

Axiom 2: The property of “being situationally necessary” is not compatible with the property “being a cat.” [For any instance of a cat, there is a logically possible situation in which some other animal replaces the cat. For example, if there is a cat on my bed, there is a logically possible situation in which there is a dog on my bed.]

Next, we replace sentences about injustice with sentences about cats in the argument: 

  1. If the property of “being situationally necessary” is not compatible with another given property, then it is compatible with the complement of that property. [from Axiom 1]
  2. The property of “being situationally necessary” is not compatible with the property “being a cat.” [Axiom 2]
  3. The property of “being situationally necessary” is compatible with “not being a cat” [from Axiom 1 and premise 2, modus ponens]
  4. If the property of “being situationally necessary” is compatible with “not being a cat”, then the property of “not being a cat” is situationally necessary. [from Axiom 3 and premise 3]
  5. The property of “not being a cat” is situationally necessary. [from 3 and 4 modus ponens]
  6. Since “not being a cat” is situationally necessary, either there is no sense to the concept of “being a cat”, or there is an infallible not-cat-making power which is also situationally necessary. The action of this power “redeems” and transforms cats reconciling them to perfect non-cathood. Such a reconciliation would have to be metaphysically coextensive with the commission of the cat itself such that every possible cat is transubstantiated to be exactly the perfect non-cat at the right time, otherwise “not being a cat” could not be situationally necessary.
  7. It is not the case that there is no sense to the concept of cats.
  8. There is a situationally necessary non-cat-making power. [from 6 and 7 modus tollendo ponens]

This parody argument provides an important clue as to what went wrong in the original argument. The first axiom of the MOADJ states:

For any property “a”, necessarily one of the following is true:

1) Property “a” is compatible with either property “b” or its complement, “non-b.”

2) Property “a” is compatible with both property “b” and its complement, “non-b.”

The problem is that (1) and (2) are not exhaustive. Some properties are compatible with neither b or non-b. The first premise of Chris’s argument depends on the assumption that if the property of “situational necessity” is not compatible with some property p, then situational necessity is compatible with the complement of p, thereby entailing that p’s complement is situationally necessary. The parody argument suggests we consider the property of being a cat. Situational necessity is not compatible with there being a cat, because cats are contingent, but the situation of there not being a cat is not necessary either, because the situation of there not being a cat is also contingent. Thus, we should add a third condition to the first axiom:

3) Property “a” is compatible with neither property “b” or its complement, “non-b”.

However, granting a condition like (3) halts the original MOADJ. The conclusion no longer follows, because, among other things, one can no longer make inference from premise 2 to premise 3. I am reasonably sure that no fix could be made to the MOADJ either. To see why, notice that the inference from premise 2 to premise 3 has implications that would be illegitimate for modal logic S5. Premise 2 states that the property of unjust is not compatible with the property of being situationally necessary. In other words:

Screenshot 2015-08-10 at 12.01.10 AM

When commuting modal operators with a negation, you simply switch box to diamond and diamond to box, so commuting the negation with the two modal operators yields:

Screenshot 2015-08-10 at 12.02.32 AM

But necessarily x entails x. Thus, we can conclude:

Screenshot 2015-08-10 at 12.05.45 AM

In other words, Chris should conclude that, for any situation, that situation is possibly not unjust. But not being unjust is equivalent to either being just or morally neutral. Therefore, while Chris’s MOADJ concludes that all situations are necessarily just, at best, we can conclude that all situations are possibly either just or morally neutral: Screenshot 2015-08-10 at 12.06.38 AM

Chris’s conclusion is mistaken. Note that no characteristic of injustice is drawn upon other than that injustice is contingent and not necessary. Had Chris’s argument succeeded, we would have to conclude that for any contingent property, there is some necessary opposite property. Obviously, that’s not true; the property of there being a cat is contingent, but so is the property of there not being a cat.


A Return of the Satanic Panic?

For individuals interested in American culture or religion, the late 1970s, 80s, and early 90s are a period of time remembered as the “Satanic Panic”. The Satanic Panic was a period of time in which Americans became convinced that dangerous devil worshiping cults were abusing children and murdering people in dark rituals. Police officers and courts contributed to the panic, as they bought into rumors propounded by conservative Christian groups concerning the dangers of “Satanic Cults” [1], and daytime television programs warned parents of a massive, widespread Satanic conspiracy endangering the well-being of their children [2]. Stemming from the “cult scare” of the 1960s and 70s [3], blossoming to a widespread paranoia about devil worship in the 1980s [4], and finally debunked by numerous investigations in the early 1990s (especially by FBI agent Kenneth Lanning’s 1992 report on Satanic Ritual Abuse, or SRA), the Satanic Panic left in its wake numerous people falsely accused of crimes, lives ruined, and murders unresolved. The unfortunate episode in American religious history inspired The X-Files (and other horror movies and television programs).

The Satanic Panic also led to the persecution of a number of minority religions, including Wicca, Santeria, Vodoun, and others, by a literal 20th century witchhunt. A recent triple homicide in Pensacola, Florida, and its subsequent description as a “Wiccan ritual” by police officers, has led members of the neopagan community to worry about the return of the Satanic panic. A neighbor of the murdered family expressed to local reporters that, “It’s frightening to think about. Especially when you have small children […] to find out that it was this weird, satanic cult, witchcraft whatever, is just really unsettling.” The reporters repeated the neighbor’s message without criticism, signaling to a wider populace that “Satanic” “witchcraft” poses a legitimate threat to their children. The national media repeated the same message, again without criticism.

The persistence of the Satanic Panic past the early 90s has been a recent research interest of mine. I became interested in the issue in graduate school when I learned of a 2013 murder that the media had labelled “Satanic”. Miranda Barbour, who had recently married Ellyette Barbour, had met Troy Laferrara through a personal ad posted to Craig’s List. Miranda and Ellyette murdered Leferrara, left his body in an alley, and left to party at a strip club. When a reporter visited Miranda in prison, she described himself as a member of a Satanic cult, operating in numerous states, who had killed more than 20, but less than 100, people. In all likelihood, the story was a complete fabrication. Nonetheless, in the ensuing months, the media constructed a folklore surrounding Miranda and her supposed occult beliefs, constructing a theology, rituals, and other elements of a legendary religion. The case, and the media’s construction of a “Satanic” crime, became the focus of a working paper that I will be presenting on a panel at a conference in October.

In the past few years, there have been a variety of other cases resembling events from the Satanic panic. Ostension is the carrying out of a ritual originally appearing in legendary or folkloric categories [5]. One example of ostension is the popular “Bloody Mary” ritual in which teens chant in front of a mirror in the attempt to summon a spirit. Most instances of ostension are harmless, and the construction of makeshift rituals or the visitation of supposedly haunted locations, remains a common childhood past time in many communities. However, when preexisting legends or folktales involve violent rituals, teens may be encouraged to carry out acts of violence. During the Satanic Panic, teens who heard stories of devil worship from their Christian churches or daytime television were sometimes inspired to construct makeshift rituals. Paradoxically, the development of the Satanic Panic itself — and a widespread paranoia about violent occult ritualism — led to makeshift violent rituals.

Recently, two teens in Waukesha, Wisconsin, attempted to murder a classmate in order to summon the fictional character Slender Man, a supernatural entity they believed to inhabit the local woods. In several other recent cases, a numbers of homicide suspects who apparently cannibalized their victims, and who possess deeply frightening and anti-social appearances, have been characterized by the tabloid press as “Satanic” [6]. I don’t know whether these cases were instances of legitimate ostension, or if, as I strongly suspect and as was common during the 1980s, the cases were labelled “Satanic” because the suspects adorned themselves and their belongings with occult symbolism. In one case, the suspect’s Facebook profile is publicly visible, and is adorned with artwork from the band Slayer. Slayer uses Satanic symbolism on their album covers, but that someone who listens to Slayer happened to murder another person is not evidence that the murder was, somehow, Satanic ritualism.

In light of these recent cases, I asked a colleague whether or not we are seeing a return of the Satanic Panic. His response was that the panic had never actually ended. I share his assessment, but note that the panic has changed in significant ways over time. How, exactly, popular, social, and digital media, as well as the evolving American religious landscape, has affected — and will affect — the panic remains a fascinating area of research. As the recent event in Pensacola reminds us, the engagement of academics with the popular media is vital for preventing the demonization of minority religions.


[1] Police officers often received information on supposed “Satanic cults” from conservative Christian organizations. Training videos, released to law enforcement agencies during the 1980s and 1990s, are available on YouTube. Note that the video contains numerous references to minority religions, including Caribbean syncretisms, labeling them “Satanic”. Also notice the awkward, exploitive use of a bikini model to “demonstrate” the details of a “Satanic” crime.

[2] Geraldo Rivera provided the most famous.

[3] See, for example, Victor, J. (1993) Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend (Chicago: Open Court Publishing), pp 8-13.

[4] For various academic works on the Satanic Panic, see (1991) The Satanism Scare, Richardson, J., Best, J., & Bromley, D. (Ed), (New York: Walter De Gruyter); Victor, J. (1993) Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend (Chicago: Open Court Publishing); Frankfurter, D. (2006) Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

[5] See Bill Ellis’s (1989) “Death by Folklore”, in Western Folklore, Vol 48, No 3.

[6] See, for examples, see various articles by the Daily Mail and the Mirror.


Does moral objectivism result in authoritarianism?


Moral objectivism is the view that (1) there are true statements about what we morally ought to do and (2) those statements are true independent of whatever we might think or whatever our cultures might say (in this sense, moral statements are said to be objectively true or false). Authoritarianism is the following of dictates, provided by some authority, often to the subjugation and oppression of historically disenfranchised or marginalized groups. For example, in part, the authoritarianism of Nazi era Germany resulted in the holocaust. As another example, we can think of conservatives who maintain power over women by seeking to control women’s bodies and sexualities or charismatic religious leaders who gain power over their followers and lead them to violence (e.g. Jonestown, ISIS, etc).

One commonly expressed worry about moral objectivism is that moral objectivism justifies marginalization and violence performed on other groups. If the nazis can claim the holocaust was objectively right, they can dismiss the views of others as fundamentally mistaken and blind to reality. In a contemporary example, we often hear from today’s conservative Christians that objective moral absolutes have been provided to us from God, according to which LGTBQ+ folks are an abomination and that the autonomy of women ought to be suppressed in order to save babies from abortions. (Alternatively, if you oppose LGTBQ+ individuals or abortion, imagine instead dogmatists you oppose who claim to have access to absolute moral truth.) Hasn’t the claim to know objective moral truths led to imperialism, marginalization, the dismissal of dissent, and the legitimization of the status quo? Aren’t all of these behaviors that one should avoid?

Facing what they understandd to be the horrific consequences of moral objectivism, many instead side with moral subjectivism. On moral subjectivism, everyone’s views about morality are equally valid because all are equally true. Since everyone’s views about morality are equally valid, the moral subjectivist suggests that no one’s moral views can be dismissed; the views of the disenfranchised and the marginalized are just as true as those of the powerful. Those with a penchant for imperialism are left with no justification for their actions, the moral subjectivist might claim, because the peoples they seek to conquer have just as much a right to live as they choose. I think this worry – that moral objectivism leads to authoritarianism – and the suggested solution – that we should be moral subjectivists – is fundamentally mistaken. As I will argue in this post, moral objectivism provides the best way to oppose imperialism, marginalization, the dismissal of dissent, the legitimization of the status quo, and other manifestations of authoritarianism.

The Argument from Tolerance

The Argument From Tolerance proceeds as follows:

P1. The best way to be tolerant of others is through moral subjectivism.

P2. We should be tolerant of others.

C Therefore, we should be moral subjectivists.

As described in the introduction, the worry that moral objectivism leads to autoritarianism involves the argument from tolerance, or something like it. For example, the subjugation and marginalization of a minority group in the name of some absolute moral truth involves a failure to be tolerant of the minority group. Readers may worry that tolerance is not the right word to use, but there is some collection of behaviors the subjectivist thinks moral objectivism leads to – e.g., imperialism, marginalization, the dismissal of dissent, the legitimization of the status quo, etc – and which they seek to prevent by denying moral objectivism. Here, I am using the word ‘tolerance’ as a placeholder for the avoidance all of those behaviors the subjectivist thinks moral objectivism leads to.

The problem is that, on moral subjectivism, one should be tolerant only if one believes that one should be tolerant. For example, contrary to what I said in the introduction, on moral subjectivism, those with a penchant for imperialism have a justification for their actions. According to the imperialist, imperialism is right and, on subjectivism, whatever they regard as right really is right. Ditto for those who marginalize, dismiss dissent, legitimize the status quo, or otherwise promote authoritarianism. All can be justified on moral subjectivism, so long as they reflect one’s personal attitudes.

Since we each have infallible access to our own attitudes, moral subjectivism suggests we are all infallible about moral truth. Subjectivism entails I am unable to be incorrect about what I should do, and that, so long as I follow my attitudes wherever they lead, I will be in the right. In contrast, objectivists claim there are mysterious moral truths independent of us and to which we only have imperfect access. On the former view, imperialists, marginalizers, dismissers, and those who follow the status quo will always be right because they are following their own personal moral truths. On the latter view, we can not only be mistaken, but we can recognize that our moral knowledge is imperfect and requires constant scrutiny and insight from others. The fact that there are deep disagreements about morality may cause us to be skeptical about moral conclusions, but only because we recognize how easy it is to be wrong. Properly construed, moral objectivism entails epistemic humility, but moral subjectivism entails hubris. For this reason, historically, some fascists have preferred relativism over objectivism. Benito Mussolini wrote:

From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology, and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable. If relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories, and men who claim to be the bearers of an objective immortal truth, then there is nothing more relativistic than fascism.

The second premise of the argument from tolerance – that we should be tolerant (or avoid, e.g., imperialism, marginalization, the dismissal of dissent, the legitimization of the status quo, etc) – was itself a universally applied moral statement. But if there is a universally true moral statement, as the argument from tolerance suggests, then the argument from tolerance is self-refuting.

Moral Subjectivism Cannot Make Sense of Moral Disagreement

One of the concerns about moral objectivism was that moral objectivism might lead us to dismiss those who dissent and the subjugation of peoples or cultures we don’t understand, perhaps because we assume we have better access to moral truth than they do. In order to voice this concern, the subjectivist needs a notion of moral disagreement. However, as I argue in this section, the moral subjectivist cannot make sense of moral disagreement. To illustrate the problem, consider two individuals with strong but opposing moral views. Perhaps one of them believes racial segregation is morally obligatory and the other believes racial segregation is a deep injustice. Let’s assume that moral subjectivism is true and see what follows.

On moral subjectivism, whatever anyone thinks is moral really is moral. Since the segregationist says that racial segregation is good, it follows that racial segregation really is good. On the other hand, the anti-segregationist says that segregation is not. It follows that racial segregation is simultaneously good and not good. That’s a contradiction. Our initial assumption – that moral subjectivism is true – must be false.

But perhaps you think I’ve gone too fast. After all, the moral subjectivist does not say that the segregationist’s moral beliefs were true for everyone; instead, they’d say that the segregationist’s views are true only for the segregationist. I don’t know how to make sense of the notion of things being true for one person and not another, but let that pass. Perhaps subjectivists do have an account of what it means for a sentence to be true for one and not another and they utilize that account in their moral subjectivism. But if so, another difficulty arises. Consider the segregationist’s claim:

(S) Racial segregation is good.

Ordinarily, we’d say that the anti-segregationist disagrees with (S). However, following the subjectivist’s account of truth, (S) is equivalent to something like:

(S’) According to the racial segregationist, racial segregation is good.

The anti-segregationist agrees with (S’). Given that the anti-segregationist agrees with (S’), and that (S’) is equivalent to (S), the anti-segregationist agrees with (S). A parallel argument can be constructed to show that the segregationist agrees with statements made by the anti-segregatonist. Thus, even though the segregationist and the anti-segregatonist believe that they are arguing with each other, according to subjectivism, they actually agree. Ditto for any moral disagreement whatever. All moral disagreement evaporates in a puff of smoke.

I present a choice to the subjectivist. Choose between the Scylla and Charybdis of accepting standard semantic accounts of truth but result in contradiction, or reject the standard accounts of truth but make a mockery of moral disagreement. Either result spells trouble for moral subjectivism. In comparison, objectivists have no trouble making sense of moral disagreement. On their view, morality may be objective, but morality is also hard to pin down and difficult to think about.


I’ve argued that moral objectivism does not lead where the subjectivist feared objectivism would lead. Objectivism allows us an important notion of epistemic humility that subjectivism would erase and allows us to make sense of moral disagreement. Moral objectivists may be dangerous when they claim to have better knowledge of morality than the rest of us and use their supposedly superior knowledge to legitimate authority and social structures, but there is no reason moral objectivists need to say that they know, with any sort of certainty, what we ought to do.

Moral subjectivists claim they know what is right for them to do. Moreover, in saying that everyone’s moral views are equally valid, moral subjectivism provides undo credence to oppressors, imperialists, and all the other social, cultural, and economic ills the subjectivist sought to avoid. Imperialistic and oppressive attitudes are not equally as legitimate as those they colonize and oppress; the pleas of a victim not to be murdered are not equally as legitimate as the glee shown by their killer; and the statements of an abuse victim, that they were wronged, are not equally as plausible as the statements of their abuser. In contrast, moral objectivists can say that imperialists, oppressors, murderers, and abusers are much more likely to be wrong than they are likely to be right.

As a last worry, the moral subjectivist might ask whether objectivism allows for any sort of pluralism. As previously discussed, epistemic humility can cause us to doubt whether we have access to moral truth or if someone else has a better idea of moral truth than we do. Given that moral disagreement is especially pernicious and difficult to settle, we should welcome a wide variety of voices to the table in the pursuit of moral truth. Given the nebulous nature of morality, if someone shows too much self-assurance concerning some moral view, we should be deeply skeptical and critical of their statements. The disenfranchised and the marginalized should not be easily dismissed because their voices alert us to points we might have easily missed.

There is a second way moral objectivism can encourage pluralism. The moral objectivist will say that some ways of setting up society are better than others. For example, a society where everyone has a happy but otherwise mediocre life is better than a society in which the government inflicts pain on everyone all of the time. However, there may be a large number of different ways of setting up society, each of which are equally good, and each of which equally promotes the flourishing of its citizens. The moral objectivist does not need to say that the American way of life is better than that of peoples indigenous to the Amazon. (Nor, for that matter, does the objectivist need to say that the way of life of their own culture is the best way of life.) Instead, the objectivist can consistently claim that multiple different kinds of culture are objectively good.

Thus, moral objectivism can not only avoid authoritarianism, but moral objectivism can fight against e.g., imperialism, marginalization, the dismissal of dissent, and the legitimization of the status quo in ways not accessible to the subjectivist. Furthermore, moral objectivism allows us to retain important pluralistic notions not available to subjectivism.


A First Pass In Responding to Muslim Apologetics


A random person, originating in the middle east, recently messaged me on Facebook and asked for my opinion on a webpage featuring Muslim arguments for God’s existence. I don’t know why they were messaging me. Perhaps they wanted to convince me Allah exists. Perhaps they had doubts about Islam but did not know how to rebut the website. Or perhaps they had some other goal in mind. The webpage features an essay by Zakir Naik (I have since come to learn that Naik’s essay appears all over the internet, with a previous response by JT Eberhard, so I am not aware of its original source). As I understand Naik’s essay, he offers three arguments for God’s existence: (1) that atheists reject the wrong kind of God, (2) that we can infer the Qur’an’s divine authorship from the amount of scientific information the Qur’an contains, and (3) while modern science can help us to reject false deities, science should not cause us to reject the one true God. In what follows, I will explicate and then evaluate each argument in turn. Lastly, I will conclude that the three arguments are fairly weak.

However, I want to issue a bit of caution before diving into the arguments. For a variety of reasons, I do not typically respond to Islam. For one, there are others better equipped to do so (former Muslims, progressive reformers in the middle east, or others). I would rather take my lead from them. For another, non-Muslim responses to Islam – whether they originate with Christians or atheists – are often couched in imperialistic, essentialist, and racist notions of Islamic theology and brown people. However, I’ve decided to take time to evaluate the website because I was asked to do so by someone living in a predominantly Muslim country. My hope is that these comments will be instructive for thinking about theism generally and that I’ve shown the proper respect for a religion and culture with which I am largely unfamiliar. I am especially hopeful that my comments will be met as philosophically instructive and that they will not be seen as part of some misplaced war on Islam (in which I want no part).

Naik’s Straw Gods Argument

Turning to the first argument, Naik claims atheists reject the wrong kind of God. The claim that atheists reject the wrong sort of God is one I have heard ad nauseam from liberal and progressive Christians and to which I have spent some considerable time responding both on this blog and elsewhere. In contrast with the straw man fallacy, I call this argument the Straw Gods Argument: atheists only reject false idols and not true divinity. Often, proponents of Straw God Arguments say atheists are closer to true believers than idolaters because they have already rejected the wrong gods. Naik agrees; he writes that atheists have taken the first step in the Shahada – “there is no God” – and only have left to accept the latter portion – “but Allah”.

Typically, those who advance the Straw Gods Argument claim that God, properly construed, is a radically transcendent and categorically Other Being, accessible through mystical experience and unlike anything else otherwise accessible in this world. If God too closely resembled anything in our world, God could not be said to transcend our world. As such, God is not an existent thing among other existents – or another being among other beings (as Paul Tillich puts it) – but something else altogether. Christians say that, because we were created in the image of God (the imago dei) there is some sense in which we resemble God (perhaps in the sense that, like God, we have minds), but God’s transcendence requires us to maintain a firm distinction between the creature and the Creator.

Straw God Argument proponents typically assert that atheists deny the god they find commonly attested to in their culture, but their culture’s god is a false idol. Naik agrees. For Naik, the atheist’s denial of God’s existence requires them to first have some idea of what they are denying and the culturally acquired conception atheists reject is far too human to inspire proper religious belief:

My first question to the atheist will be: “What is the definition of God?” For a person to say there is no God, he should know what is the meaning of God. If I hold a book and say that ‘this is a pen’, for the opposite person to say, ‘it is not a pen’, he should know what is the definition of a pen, even if he does not know nor is able to recognise or identify the object I am holding in my hand. For him to say this is not a pen, he should at least know what a pen means. Similarly for an atheist to say ‘there is no God’, he should at least know the concept of God. His concept of God would be derived from the surroundings in which he lives. The god that a large number of people worship has got human qualities – therefore he does not believe in such a god. Similarly a Muslim too does not and should not believe in such false gods.

Naik goes on to explain that atheists may reject Islam because they view Islam as oppressive towards women, or as supporting violence, or as anti-scientific. I’ll put aside the claims concerning Islamic violence, except to note that I do not view Islam as monolithically or essentially violent (I do not think Islam has an essence), and momentarily shelve Islam’s relationship to science. In response to the Straw Gods Argument Naik offers, I offer the following challenge. Perhaps there are those who reject theism simply because their conception of God blurs the creature/Creator distinction. However, I am an atheist who is aware of the more transcendent conceptions of God and, thus, wherever my atheism originates, must be somewhere other than a naïve God conception. Moreover, pointing out that atheists are correct to reject some conceptions of God offers no reason to accept Naik’s God.

Naik’s Straw Gods Argument might be self-undermining. Naik’s statements imply God, correctly conceived, possesses no human characteristics. Presumably, characteristics possessed by other created entities would be similarly problematic; for example, God, properly conceived, should not have table-characteristics or cat-characteristics. Problems result for both religious epistemology and religious language if God lacks the sort of characteristics we are capable of conceiving. For religious epistemology, we can ask how close a conception needs to be to God in order to count as other than idolatrous. Christians and Muslims typically say there are grave costs for believing in the wrong God; but given God’s radical transcendence, are any of us capable of believing in the right God? Moreover, whether a radically transcendent God is compatible with natural theology is unclear. Natural theological arguments for God’s existence often rely on making inferences about what we would be likely to observe if God existed (i.e. that the complexity of living things or the fine tuning of physical constants are the likely result of intelligence). If God is nothing at all like a human agent, how do we infer what a universe designed by God would look like? For all we know, we would recognize the universe as evidence against theism, if only we had more of an understanding of God’s characteristics.

Radical transcendence spells problems for religious language as well. We seem to acquire language through our experience of the world. Therefore, if none of God’s characteristics appear in this world, then none of the predicates in ordinary human language apply to God (or, at least, none of the predicates acquired from our experience with Earthly matters). Historically, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians have suggested God is properly spoken of only by way of negation (the via negativa) – that is, by saying what God is not – or by way of analogy (the doctrine of analogy) – that is, our predicates only apply to God analogically. Still other theologians have suggested God can only be spoken of through metaphor.

Powerful objections to the via negativa, the doctrine of analogy, and metaphor appear in the philosophical and theological literature. For example, if God can only be referred to by saying what God is not, we cannot verbally distinguish God from nothingness, since nothingness lacks any characteristics we are capable of naming. If we say God is not unintelligent, it is equally true that nothingness is not unintelligent. If we say that God is not weak, it is equally true that nothingness is not weak. Or if we say that God is not evil, so, too, it is true that nothingness is not evil. And so on, through any list of negations. If, instead, the theist says that God can only be spoken of through metaphor, then any statement made of God will not literally ascribe a property to God. For example, if the theist says that God is only metaphorically all-knowing and perfectly good, they are not saying God possesses knowledge or that God is good. But then why call anything ‘God’ if it is not all-knowing and perfectly good? Still other problems occur for analogical predication, but I won’t take them up here. Instead, I will simply note that God’s categorical Otherness spells trouble for religious language and epistemology, those problems are recognized by theologians, and are the cause for internal theological disputes among theists. Thus, it is less than clear that atheists reject the wrong kind of God.

Science and the Qur’an’s Divine Authorship

In Naik’s second argument, he infers the Qur’an to have been written by God. He asserts that the Qur’an contains several passages with modern scientific information unavailable at the time the Qur’an was written and then calculates the probability that the information could have been randomly guessed. The first scientific fact Naik considers is the shape of the Earth:

At the time when the Qur’an was revealed, people thought the world was flat, there are several other options for the shape of the earth. It could be triangular, it could be quadrangular, pentagonal, hexagonal, heptagonal, octagonal, spherical, etc. Lets assume there are about 30 different options for the shape of the earth. The Qur’an rightly says it is spherical, if it was a guess the chances of the guess being correct is 1/30.

The second concerns whether light from the moon is produced by the moon or if it is reflected:

The light of the moon can be its own light or a reflected light. The Qur’an rightly says it is a reflected light. If it is a guess, the chances that it will be correct is 1/2 and the probability that both the guesses i.e the earth is spherical and the light of the moon is reflected light is 1/30 x 1/2 = 1/60.

And the third concerns whether every living thing is made of water:

Further, the Qur’an also mentions every living thing is made of water. Every living thing can be made up of either wood, stone, copper, aluminum, steel, silver, gold, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, oil, water, cement, concrete, etc. The options are say about 10,000. The Qur’an rightly says that everything is made up of water. If it is a guess, the chances that it will be correct is 1/10,000 and the probability of all the three guesses i.e. the earth is spherical, light of moon is reflected light and everything is created from water being correct is 1/30 x 1/2 x 1/10,000 = 1/60,000 which is equal to about .0017%.

He concludes:

The Qur’an speaks about hundreds of things that were not known to men at the time of its revelation. Only in three options the result is .0017%. I leave it upto you, to work out the probability if all the hundreds of the unknown facts were guesses, the chances of all of them being correct guesses simultaneously and there being not a single wrong guess. It is beyond human capacity to make all correct guesses without a single mistake, which itself is sufficient to prove to a logical person that the origin of the Qur’an is Divine.

There are a number of problems with this argument. One might first ask whether or not Naik’s interpretation of the Qur’an is plausible (does it actually talk about the shape of the Earth and so on?). I’m not an expert on Islam and I am willing to assume Naik’s interpretation of the Qur’an is correct. As a second concern, the scientific information Naik provides is largely incorrect. For example, while our bodies are mostly composed of water, no living thing is made exclusively of water. They are also made of oxygen and nitrogen and so on and I’m not sure why Naik says the “options are say about 10,000” (why 10,000?). Likewise, I don’t know why Naik states the Earth could have been one of 30 shapes (presumably, there are an infinitely large number of other shapes the Earth could have been).

However, I’m willing to let all of those issues pass. For one thing, while Naik’s scientific information is not completely correct, his arguments could be improved by incorporating correct scientific information; e.g. there are many more than 30 shapes – there are an infinite number! – but that diminishes the chances of guessing correctly to zero. Thus, if Naik’s interpretation of the Qur’an is correct, we have good reason to think the Qur’an’s author was not merely guessing at random.

Nonetheless, supposing that the Qur’an’s author was not guessing at random about e.g. the shape of the Earth does not entail that the Qur’an was written by God. For any given hypothesis h1 and a rival hypothesis h2, together with some collection of evidence E, if E supports h2 better than E supports h1, we should not infer h1. Note that we might not infer h2 either; perhaps E supports some third hypothesis h3 better than E supports h1 or h2. Thus, in asking whether or not we should reject the divine authorship of the Qur’an, we need only ask whether there is some other hypothesis better supported by the evidence than divine authorship. Importantly, the rival hypothesis does not need to be believable itself; again, there may be a better third alternative.

One initial problem in moving forward with this strategy is that Naik’s Straw Gods Argument might render the probability of God’s existence, in light of the Qur’an, inscrutable. If God possesses no characteristics we can comprehend, how would we know whether, in virtue of God’s characteristics, God was the likely author of the Qur’an? Perhaps the Qur’an is, for reasons beyond our comprehension, incompatible with one or more of God’s characteristics, in which case the Qur’an is, unknown to us, evidence contrary to God’s existence. I’ll put this concern aside and assume God’s characteristics are sufficiently comprehensible for Naik to claim to know what God, if God exists, would be likely or unlikely to do.

So far, we have two hypotheses on the table: first, that the scientific claims in the Qur’an were produced through random guesses and, second, that the Qur’an was written by God. Together with Naik, I’ve rejected the first hypothesis as improbable given Naik’s interpretation of the Qur’an. We have left to see whether a third hypothesis can be produced that is better supported by the evidence than divine authorship. Here, I’m not convinced the scientific claims Naik offers were unavailable at the time the Qur’an was written. For example, as early as the 6th century BCE Greek philosophers speculated that the Earth was spherical and the Earth’s radius was measured in the 3rd century BCE by Eratosthenes. By the fifth century CE, Greek writings on the Earth’s sphericity had spread all the way to India, where Aryabhatta wrote on the Earth’s sphericity and planetary motion. I don’t know much about the history of pre-Islamic Arab astronomy, but again – all I have to do is to produce a hypothesis better supported by the evidence than divine authorship and not a hypothesis that is, itself, probable. Thus, given that the scientific information Naik alludes to had been available for centuries prior, I see no reason to infer divine authorship. The author could have been aware of Greek astronomical writings or could have independently reproduced Greek thought.

But let’s suppose that the Qur’an really does contain scientific information that would have been unavailable at the time of its authorship. Even in that case, there is a hypothesis better supported by the evidence than divine authorship. Perhaps a species of advanced extraterrestrials visited the ancient middle east and perhaps one of those extraterrestrials was mistaken for the angel Gabriel, who Muslims say delivered the Qur’an to Muhammad. Extraterrestrials would know that the Earth is round, that the moon’s lighted is reflected and not emitted, and countless other scientific facts unavailable to ancient peoples. Moreover, the extraterrestrial authorship hypothesis does not require us to posit an entirely different category of being. Instead, extraterrestrials would possess characteristics with which we have some level of familiarity and would fit easily into what we already know about the world through science. Thus, the extraterrestrial authorship hypothesis is far more parsimonious than the divine authorship hypothesis. While I do not believe the Qur’an to have been authored by extraterrestrials, the fact that the extraterrestrial authorship hypothesis is better supported than the divine authorship hypothesis is sufficient reason to reject the divine authorship hypothesis.

Does Science Only Eliminate False Gods?

Naik’s third argument is that science only eliminates false gods. Supposing that science leaves Islam’s God untouched, we are left with no reason to think Islam’s God should be rationally accepted. There are many issues on which science is neutral, but science’s neutrality does not warrant belief. To steal Bertrand Russell’s example, perhaps there is a teapot orbiting the sun somewhere between Earth and Mars. Science may have nothing to say about whether there is such a teapot; after all, at least at present, we have no way of exhaustively searching the space between Earth and Mars. Moreover, we can modify Russell’s teapot so that no future empirical disproof would ever be possible. For example, we can posit that the teapot is invisible and incorporeal, so that no matter how hard we look we could never see it and, given its incorporeality, we could never hope to bump into it. Nonetheless, we have plenty of reason to find orbiting, invisible, incorporeal teapots implausible on non-empirical grounds. For example, given what we know about teapots, how could an orbiting teapot come to be? Alternatively, given the denotation of the term ‘teapot’, does it make sense to talk about incorporeal teapots? Can incorporeal objects orbit? Likewise, supposing science has nothing to say about Islam’s God tells us nothing about why we should accept Islam’s God or why atheists are incorrect in rejecting Islam’s God.


I hope that this post strikes the stranger I met on Facebook with the degree of respect I intend. While the arguments in Naik’s essay are fairly weak, there may be stronger arguments for Islam or for theism and I encourage them to continue pursuing the issue. For other readers, I hope that this post has been helpful in elucidating philosophical issues and for beginning discussions on God’s existence.


The Problem of Hell, as I presently see it

The problem of hell concerns whether or not traditional Christian notions of hell are compatible with traditional Christian notions of God. I wanted to provide some comments on how I presently see this problem. A word of warning: while I have read broadly in Christian theology and analytic philosophy of religion, I’m not an expert on the problem of hell and have not read a tremendous amount specifically on it. Unlike other posts I’ve recently written, there will be no extensive bibliography. This post should be seen more as a number of personal musings but will hopefully raise a number of insights the reader will find interesting and a challenge to the Christian apologist they might keep in mind when witnessing to non-believers.

I begin with how I presently understand Hell’s place in Christian theology.

Hell has been conceived of differently throughout the history of theology: from hell as a place of fire, pain, and gnashing of teeth to Hell as eternal separation from God. Regardless of how Hell is conceived, Christian theologians claim that contrasted with God’s overwhelming and infinitely good and just nature, all of us deserve Hell and no one deserves heaven. In God’s infinite justice, we are all consigned to hell.

But God is not only infinitely just; God is infinitely merciful. To be merciful means to provide people more than what they deserve. In God’s infinite mercy, God has provided us with an infinite sacrifice, in the form of the death of his Son on the Cross, which atones for all of our wrongdoings. While no human is capable of doing enough good to make up for their wrongdoings and so deserve heaven, Christ’s sacrifice is the infinite sacrifice of a god. So if we accept a relationship with Christ by welcoming Him into our hearts, we are throwing ourselves upon God’s mercy.

Groups vary as to whether it is metaphysically possible to lose one’s salvation after its been granted. Traditionally, protestants have accepted faith in Christ to be sufficient to enter heaven (sole fide) while Roman Catholics have thought we require additional steps to maintain salvation after conversion. Some Christians maintain that accepting Christ involves a re-birth and spiritual cleansing in the Holy Spirit they call being Born Again; whether or not it is metaphysically possible to be born again, but later lose one’s faith entirely, has been up for debate as well (though I know many people who were as devout Christians as one could possibly be and who later became atheists).

For completeness, I briefly note some Christians — i.e. universalists — have maintained a very different understanding of hell. Historically, they have been in the minority and I don’t believe their theology to be susceptible to the kinds of difficulties I will raise here.

Now I move on to why I currently find this doctrine implausible.

Most ethicists agree that ought implies can; that is, if I have a moral obligation to x, then it is possible for me to x. Moreover, if it is impossible for me to x, then I have no obligation to x. For example, it may be a deeply good thing for me to solve world hunger. But since I am incapable of solving world hunger (at least by myself), I have no obligation to resolve world hunger. Moreover, if I see a child drowning in a pond, part of the reason that I have an obligation to save the child is because I am capable of doing so. If I were assaulted, had my legs broken, and then laid helplessly on the sidewalk when I saw a child drowning in a nearby pond, I would have had no obligation to help. We’d see me as a tragic victim of circumstance. I may feel guilt for the rest of my life, and wonder to myself if I could have saved the child, but I would have committed no wrongdoing.

A deep intuition, closely related to ought implies can, is that we should be judged on the basis of the goods and evils of which we are actually capable. Christians have traditionally understood God to be perfectly good, but also perfectly wise. God, as the infinitely wise creator of human beings, would know what kinds of goods are achievable for Her Creation. I think part of the problem with the view of hell I described above is that God judges us on an impossible scale none of us are capable of living up to. If we had been capable of living up to that scale, then it would be false that none of us are worthy of entering heaven; some of us would be worthy. A properly calibrated scale would take into account the relative goods and evils of which we are actually capable.

Some objections.

The Christian may object that this inappropriately limits God’s infinite justice. Perhaps they have in mind that only from the perspective of finite justice could the finite goods we are capable of ever measure up. Contra the Christian, I don’t think infinite justice entails the use of an infinite scale. To judge humans, who are capable only of finite goods, on an infinite scale would involve an inappropriate contrast between God and humans. Again, God, in God’s wisdom, would know that creatures capable only of finite goods must be judged on the basis of an appropriately calibrated scale; moreover, in God’s perfect justice, God would judge us on an appropriately calibrated scale. To judge us on an infinite scale involves expecting us to act as gods act. But the Bible is clear (and correct) that expecting humans to act as gods is inappropriate.

There are additional problems having to do the coherency of both the trinity and of the atonement, but I’ll put those aside, as they are not specifically related to Hell.

Sometimes Christians argue as follows. God allows those who accept Her into Her Kingdom, but those who turn away have made a choice not to enter God’s Kingdom; it is logically impossible for God to allow humans the free-choice to accept Her spiritual gifts while forcing them to believe. So God doesn’t turn away anyone. Instead, people turn away from God and so do not end up eternally with God in heaven.

I find this to be implausible for a number of reasons.

First. Everything in my experience speaks against there being any sort of free-choice to believe God exists. On the one hand, there are arguments against God’s existence I find compelling. On the other, I find none of the arguments for God’s existence to be plausible. Moreover, I don’t understand how to choose as substantive a belief as theism without a bit more evidence or argumentation. I can’t decide to believe I presently reside on Mars; likewise, I cannot decide to believe theism is true. I know that many Christians will claim that I am putting my own experience ahead of God’s sovereignty, but, again, that seems wildly implausible; I don’t even know of God’s sovereignty, so it’s difficult to understand how I could be placing anything ahead of God’s sovereignty. (Note: I find doxastic involuntarism compelling, so I am likely going to find any account that depends on doxastic voluntarism — like the objection I am currently considering — implausible.)

Second. Suppose that, contrary to my experience, I really did choose to disbelieve in God’s existence. I haven’t also decided that I want to spend eternity in Hell. The decision that I be placed in Hell would still be God’s decision; God could have placed me in heaven even though I rejected a relationship with God. While it may be logically impossible for God to allow me free-choice in my beliefs, while forcing me into a relationship with Her, it is presumptuous — and question begging — for the Christian to say that God only allows us into heaven when we have a pre-established relationship with Her.

Third. There are many people for whom a relationship with the Christian God is not possible. For example, there are those who lived before Christianity existed or in areas to which the gospel message has not yet reached. Some theologians — such as Karl Rahner — suggest that God forms relationships with those individuals, although under a different name, and that they are judged (at least partly) based on their response to God’s revelation in the natural world (there is some biblical basis for this view in e.g. Romans). Yet there are those who seem constitutionally incapable of forming a relationship with God; there may be psychological explanations for at least some amount of disbelief. For example, autism is weakly anti-correlated with theistic belief, suggesting autism renders atheism slightly more likely. Some conservative Christians have likewise defended the notion that atheism is some sort of psychological impairment, perhaps, in a curious inversion of Freud, resulting from a neglectful father. While I ordinarily find the notion that atheism is a psychological impairment deeply offensive, both as a disbeliever and as someone concerned about the stigma associated with mental illness, if they are right, it is difficult to see how this functions as a Christian apologetic; if disbelief can be the result of psychological impairment or of autism, then disbelief is not always culpable. Again, sending those who disbelieve inculpably to hell would be a deep injustice.


CED, William Lane Craig, and Theistic Ethics

One reason William Lane Craig rejects atheistic moral platonism (i.e. robust moral non-naturalism) is that, on his view, obligations require commands from a worthy authority and only God could be sufficiently worthy: “[…] the theist can make sense of moral obligation because God’s commands can be viewed as constitutive of our moral duties” [1]. If all that existed were moral properties, but no divine commands, then we would have no moral duties, or so Craig claims.

I’ve previously considered an argument I call the Cosmological Euthyphro Dilemma (CED), according to which the origin of God’s reasons are mysterious. Either God’s reasons for God’s actions originate within God, in which case God does not have free-will, or God acts, at least sometimes, without reasons, in which case God’s actions are arbitrary and capricious. Theists welcome neither option and both can be used to argue for God’s non-existence. Furthermore, either fork in CED is incompatible with a host of traditional arguments for God’s existence.

Craig’s distinction between the Good, as constituted by God’s nature, and our moral duties, as constituted by God’s commands, reinforces the CED. To review, the atheistic moral platonist asserts morality can exist without God because moral properties, as abstract objects, exist independently of God. Craig responds that this is not enough and that God’s commands are required for moral duties. But, following the CED, we can ask whether God has reasons for God’s commands. Craig would answer that God does have reasons for God’s commands and these reasons originate within God’s nature as the standard of goodness.

We can ask whether God could have commanded otherwise. Recall the traditional Euthyphro dilemma asks whether x is right to do because God commands x or if God commands x because x is right to do. If x is right to do because God commands x, then there can be no further moral reasons as to why x is right to do, so God’s commands would be arbitrary. On the other hand, if God commands x because x is right to do, God’s commands are not arbitrary and are formed in recognition of the Good, but Divine Command Theory is false. Craig responds that these two possibilities are a false dichotomy. Instead, the reasons for God’s commands originate within God’s nature, so God’s commands are neither arbitrary nor God-independent.

Clearly, Craig does not endorse the view that God could have commanded otherwise. In responding to the traditional Euthyphro dilemma, Craig maintains God’s commands are always with reasons, and so are not arbitrary. But then, if God exists, God’s nature, from which God’s commands originate, is necessarily existent. So God cannot choose which commands to issue, as these are determined by the divine nature. Yet if the commands are uniquely determined by the divine nature, we are left wondering why God’s commands were required in the first place. What sort of explanatory role is left for God’s commands to play if, as Craig’s view apparently entails, our moral obligations can be determined from the nature of the Good? Perhaps we are left with a view similar to that endorsed by Ideal Observer Theory [2] — we have a duty to do whatever God would have commanded had God existed — which does not require God’s actual existence.

Here’s the upshot: if God’s commands are not required for moral obligation after all, and our duties follow merely from the nature of the Good, then Craig’s view is certainly no better than atheistic moral platonism. In fact, Craig’s view may be worse than atheistic moral platonism, because Craig’s equation of God with the Good is, at best, ad hoc. (Assuming one can make sense — which I cannot — of Craig’s grounding a property, e.g. goodness, in a particular, e.g. God. If grounding a property in a particular is incoherent, as I suspect, then Craig’s view is incoherent.[3])

The Divine Command Theorist may object that God’s commands have an explanatory role left to play, since obligations can only be obligations to someone. For example, suppose I promise Samantha I will walk her dog. By entering into a promise with Samantha, an obligation is created towards her, which can be overridden only by more compelling moral reasons; in other words, my obligation to follow through on my promise to Samantha is a categorical moral duty. Perhaps our moral duties, generally, are duties to someone, so, one might suppose, there needs to be a someone towards whom all moral duties are directed. Formally, we might construct this argument as follows:

  1. For any moral duty d, the duty to d is directed towards some person S.
  2. Therefore, there is some person, S, towards which all moral duties are directed.
  3. The only person towards which all moral duties could be directed is God.
  4. Therefore, all moral duties are directed towards God.

However, this argument is an example of a quantifier shift fallacy (in proceeding from 1 to 2) and so cannot work. Consider a structurally identical, but clearly false, argument:

1’. For any human x, x has a mother y.

2’. Therefore, there is a mother y for all humans.

3’. Only the Goddess could be a mother to all humans.

4’. Therefore, the Goddess is a mother to all humans.

That all humans have mothers does not imply there is a mother of all humans. (Certainly, Craig would want to deny the Godess’s existence!) Likewise, even if all moral duties were directed towards some person, it does not follow that there is one person towards which all moral duties are directed. Divine Command Theorists may object that only worthy authorities could create moral duties. If so, perhaps there is no quantifier shift fallacy after all, as there may be only one absolutely worthy authority. Nonetheless, recall my previous example. In my obligation to walk Samantha’s dog, I was obligated to Samantha and not to some other person. My obligation to Samantha did not require an authority exalted to any status higher than the two of us.

I have considered, and rejected, several reasons the Divine Command Theorist might propose as to why God’s commands are required for moral obligation, yet I might be missing something. Perhaps there is some further reason, as yet unknown to me, as to why the existence of moral duties requires God’s commands. However, if God’s commands are required for moral obligation, and do issue forth from God’s nature, then — as in the first fork in CED — we have an example of a divine act God cannot choose not to do, for if God’s commands were a necessary precondition for moral duty, God failing to issue commands would be inconsistent with God’s perfectly good nature.  Yet God’s inability to choose otherwise is incompatible with God’s free agency; thus, we have further reason to suspect something has either gone awry with theistic ethics or with the classical theist’s conception of God.


End Notes

[1] See, for example, Craig, W. (2007) “Theistic Critiques of Atheism”. In Michael Martin (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 83.

[2] For a brief of overview of Ideal Observer Theory, see Shafer-Landau, Russ, 2015. The Fundamentals of Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 303-306.

[3] Ethicist David Brink appears to be similarly befuddled by this view. See footnote 9 in his (2007). “The Autonomy of Ethics”. In Michael Martin (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 163-164. Erik Wielenberg expresses similar consternation: “I too have trouble grasping the claim that a mindlike Higher Power is identical to the property of goodness.” (2008) God and the Reach of Reason, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p 66.


What the Divine Command Theorist (almost certainly) should not say (or God’s commands meets Frege-Geach)

Over the past several weeks, I’ve blogged about theistic metaethical realism and whether moral truth require God’s existence. In this post, I will briefly describe an additional problem for those theories according to which our moral duties are identical to God’s commands. In addition, I will sketch a possible solution and illustrate one of its pitfalls.

Divine Command Theory (DCT) is the view that whatever we ought to do, we ought to because God commands it. DCT identifies God’s commands with our moral obligations. Famously, DCT is subject to the Euthyphro Dilemma — does God command us to do x because x is moral or is x moral because God commands us to x? The former possibility denies DCT, but the latter is comparatively implausible because it renders our moral duties arbitrary. Theists have provided various solutions — for example, that our moral duties issue forth from God’s essence, which is identified with the Good — and so I put aside the Euthyphro Dilemma in this essay to focus on a different problem.

Consider modus ponens:

1. If P then Q.

2. P.

3. Therefore, Q.

We say modus ponens is valid because the truth of the premises guarantees the truth of the conclusion. In other words, there is no way for 1 and 2 to be true, but 3 false. We can examine the truth table for all three propositions and notice whenever ‘If P then Q’ and ‘P’ are true, ‘Q’ is also true. We refer to valid inferences as truth preserving; i.e. they preserve the truth of the premises.

Meta-ethical theories can be broadly split in two categories: cognitive theories, according to which moral statements can be true or false, and non-cognitive theories, according to which moral statements can be neither true nor false. For example, a non-cognitive theory might indicate ‘murder is wrong’ really means ‘Boo! Murder!’. Booing is neither true nor false, so ‘murder is wrong’ would evaluate to neither true nor false. Notice what happens when we assume a non-cognitive theory and try modus ponens:
1′. If murder is wrong then ordering Tom to murder Carly is wrong.

2′. Murder is wrong.
3′. Therefore, ordering Tom to murder Carly is wrong.
Intuitively, we want to say that 3′ follows from 1′ and 2′. But how could 3′ follow from 1′ and 2’? The inference is no longer valid because 2′ does not evaluate to either true or false. We might try to develop some new notion resembling validity (shmvalidity?). Let’s attempt to do so. Notice validity relies on preserving something or other about the premises and that, whatever is preserved, determines the conclusion uniquely. For ordinary declarative sentences — where each sentence evaluated to true or false — the truth value was preserved. But because non-cognitive theories posit that moral statements lack truth values, there is no truth value to be preserved. Notice that what allowed the truth value to be preserved in the case of ordinary sentences was that the meaning was preserved; i.e. P means the same thing in 1 as P meant in 2. Thus, we might posit that although ‘murder is wrong’ does not evaluate to true or false, ‘murder is wrong’ does preserve its meaning from 1′ to 2′; if so, meaning preservation would ensure shmvalidity.
Unfortunately, ‘murder is wrong’ does not actually mean the same thing in 1′ and 2′ because, in 1′, ‘murder is wrong’ is mentioned but not asserted, whereas, in 2′, ‘murder is wrong’ is asserted. While it’s not clear what ‘murder is wrong’ means in the first sentence, the statement ‘If Boo! Murder! then ordering Tom to murder Carly is wrong’ is clearly not grammatical.

The problem generalizes: on non-cognitive theories, we cannot make sense of our usual rules of deductive inference. Moreover, on non-cognitive theories, we do not know how to understanding meaning of a statement in terms of its parts. Problems of this sort are referred to as the Frege-Geach Problem. Those who endorse non-cognitivism in ethics continue to hunt for a semantic theory to resolve the Frege-Geach Problem, but have been unsuccessful thus far. I am skeptical that they will ever succeed, so I regard non-cognitive theories as fairly implausible.

However, on one interpretation, DCT is a non-cognitive theory. Prescriptivism is the view that moral statements are commands; call Divine Prescriptivism the view that moral statements are God’s commands. On this view, ‘murder is wrong’ is equivalent to God’s statement ‘do not murder!'; moreover, prescriptivism, as a non-cognitive theory, is subject to the Frege-Geach Problem. Divine Prescriptivism, as a version of prescriptivism, inherits the Frege-Geach Problem.

Luckily for the DCT advocate, Divine Prescriptivism is not the only view on the market. While God’s commands might not be truth evaluable, whether or not God issued any particular command is true or false. For example, ‘do not murder!’ is neither true nor false, but ‘God told us not to murder’ can be true and false. DCT advocates claim only that moral duties are identical to God’s commands, not that moral statements are identical to God’s commands. Moreover, we do not ordinarily think our moral duties are propositions, so it’s not that surprising that our moral duties fail to be truth evaluable or that we cannot combine moral duties together to build complicated propositions.

Nonetheless, I find the identification of commands and duties fairly incomprehensible; can anyone — even God — speak duties? If duties are not speech acts, then they cannot be spoken, even by a being who can perform all logically possible tasks. The better option is to say that the commands of worthy authorities somehow enter us into various duties and not that the commands are identical to the duties. Consider promises. If I say, “I promise to feed the cat”, my statement isn’t somehow identical to my duty to feed the cat. Instead, we might say that verbalizing a promise enters me into an obligation to maintain the promise. Likewise, a worthy authority commanding us to x might enter us into an obligation to x, but it is difficult to see the command, itself, as identical to the obligation.

Yet, supposing that commands and duties were not identical, but the former somehow gives rise to instances of the latter, requires an additional moral duty; e.g. one should obey the commands of worthy authorities. The DCT advocate maintains that all of our duties arise from God’s commands, so our duty to obey the commands of worthy authorities must also arise from God’s commands. Yet if our duty to obey the commands of worthy authorities arose from God’s commands, there must be a further duty to obey that command. An infinite regress ensues. Nonetheless, perhaps God, as an omnipotent being, can issue an infinite number of commands; even then we would need a further principle — that we should obey that infinite regress of commands! So, there should be at least one duty that is not created by a divine command, but then DCT is false.

Thus, DCT advocates need not maintain Divine Prescriptivism, but the most plausible alternative is deeply problematic. I suggest to the DCT advocate they explain what, on their view, the metaphysical relationship between commands and duties is supposed to be.


The Cosmological Euthyphro Dilemma (CED) Defended: A Response to Maximus Confesses

The Cosmological Euthyphro Dilemma (herein: CED) asks whether God’s reasons for Her creation of the universe originate within God, independently of God, or if God possesses no reasons for Her creation. As I have previously argued, each possible response is problematic both for theism and for arguments commonly used in support of theism; I launched the argument first as a response to the Argument from Contingency; second, defended it from criticism; and, third, argued that CED can be used to construct a new atheistic ontological argument. Maximus Confesses posted a number of significant challenges to my argument in the comments section to one of my previous posts on this topic, so I thought I would post my response to his argument.

Maximus explains that he denies the possibility of libertarian free-will, but does not deny that God possesses compatibilist free-will. Thus, as I understand him, he defends the possibility that God possesses some sort of compatibilist free-will. I would have said that this cannot work, because God would still behave the same way in all possible worlds and that most compatibilists would at least expect there to be true counterfactuals concerning God’s actions, but, as we will see, Maximus anticipates this move and provides an apt response.

For Maximus, free actions are those which are “rationally informed”. Maximus conceptualizes God as time-independent:

Consider God, being an agent acting without any tense or spacial predication, actualizes all points of time from time T1 onward. There is no deliberation going on since God does not need to deliberate in order to garner more information for a more informed decision, what God is doing is necessarily actualizing space-time in a perfectly informed fashion.”

All of this seems perfectly comprehensible. God might possesses reason R1 for creating our universe and R2 for not creating our universe. Supposing that |R1|>|R2|, God would know that |R1|>|R2| and would not need to deliberate between R1 or R2. Instead, God’s timeless recognition that |R1|>|R2| would explain why God creates the universe (or, for any other action, why God would do that action). Maximus goes on to provide a helpful quote from Anselm concerning the sort of free-will that God might possess (from Anselm’s On Free Will):

There is a free will that is from itself, which is neither made nor received from another, which is of God alone; there is another made and received from God, which is found in angels and in men [sic]. That which is made or received is different in one having the rectitude which he preserves than in one lacking it. Those having it are on the one hand those who hold it separably and those who hold it inseparably. The former was the case with all the angels before the good were confirmed and the evil fell, and with all men prior to death who have this rectitude.

Here, Anselm appears to have chosen a particular horn in the dilemma: God’s reasons for Her actions necessarily originate within God (they are “neither made nor received from another”). In this sense, God’s reasons are distinct from creaturely reasons (i.e. the reasons of humans or of angels do not originate from our essences nor is our free-will originate from us intrinsically, but was provided to us by God). But given what Maximus has said about Anselm, we may wonder how it is that God acts differently in other possible worlds.

Here, Maximus suggests that we examine Buridan’s Ass. Imagine a hungry donkey, placed equidistant between two equally valuable sources of food. The donkey has just as much reason to pursue one food source as to pursue the other, so, if the donkey only acts on the basis of reasons, the donkey will starve. But our intuition is that the donkey will not starve because the donkey will choose one of the food sources without reason. Thus, it seems that free-will must involve a component of randomness. It is strange that Maximus points us to this possibility, given that Maximus has previously stated that he rejects libertarian free-will and that the actions produced by free-will are those which are “rationally informed”. Traditionally, compatibalists have been pressed to respond to Buridan’s Ass by responding that the donkey will starve; it is only the libertarian who is willing to say that free actions may be reasonless. So it appears that Maximus has jumped to the other fork in the dilemma.

Be that as it may, his response does not suitably defang CED. Maximus continues by positing that while God would not possess random reasons within Herself, She is capable of creating a “random actualizer” that would do the work for Her:

If there are two possible universes with a negligible difference, are we to suppose God irrational to choose one over the other? I should say not, it is possible for God to necessarily create a random actualizer to do the work for him. It would pick at random a possible world that he finds worthy of creation. This would make this world contingent through a necessary random chooser. Any effect it would have would be explicable by the random chooser.

Maximus’s example can be developed further. Suppose that there are multiple worlds, all of which God would find equally valuable, and that God must choose among these worlds. God has timeless recognition of God’s inability to act without reasons, so God creates a random actualizer to do the work that She cannot do Herself.

There are a number of worries that come about as a result.

First, while I don’t have a problem with the notion that God cannot do that which would be logically impossible for God to do (such as actions that contravene Her nature), we ordinarily do not suppose that God lacks some sort of power that is possessed by some creature. Yet that’s exactly what this solution would demand: God cannot act randomly, but God can create a random actualizer that does act randomly. At the very least, that poses problems for God’s sovereinty, ultimacy, and aseity.

Second, given that God could have created some other possible world (that is, which possible world God creates is contingent upon the results of the random actualizer), any evils which appear in the possible world God creates were not necessary for bringing about some greater good; whatever greater good they accomplish could have been brought about in some other way in any of the possible worlds that are equally good. Thus, any actual evil would be gratuitous; as most theistic and atheistic philosophers agree that gratuitous evil is inconsistent with God’s existence, this possibility grants us a reductio of theism.

But it gets worse. Consider the collection of all possible and impossible worlds; call this C. The random actualizer chooses among some subset (or subcollection) of this collection, with the condition that all members of the subset are equally valuable from God’s perspective; call this subset S. We may imagine that the worlds in C can be ranked in order of their value from God’s perspective. At any given ranking, there may be multiple worlds at that rank; this would explain why there are multiple worlds in S. Nonetheless, it seems plausible that there are worlds better than the world we live in (Leibniz’s statement that we inhabit “the best of all possible worlds” seems false). If so, then our world is not a member of S. But then we again have a reductio, since, if our world is not in S, our world would not be possible and would consequently not be actual. Yet our world is actual.

Furthermore, the random actualizer was meant to save the notion of metaphysical possibility. This falls into trouble, for it seems plausible that there are worlds of less value than our own which are metaphysically possible. Consider, for example, a world filled with nothing but endless pain and torment. Surely, such a hellish world is not a member of S. Yet no world which is not a member of S would be metaphysically possible. So the random actualizer does not save metaphysical possibility, at least as it is normally discussed, after all.

Maximus provides another possible way to save metaphysical possibility other than the random actualizer. Perhaps God creates all possible worlds that are of equal value, leaving us with a kind of modal realism. In that case, some notion of possibility and necessity would be preserved, at least as well as those notions are preserved in other forms of modal realism (i.e. such as David Lewis’s). However, as with the random actualizer, does not preserve the same notion of metaphysical possibility. Again, only the worlds in S would be metaphysically possible and not the full set of worlds that we would normally take to be metaphysically possible. Furthermore, this possibility does not preserve the notion that there are counterfactual truths concerning alternative ways in which God could have acted; so this possibility does not preserve God’s free-will (in either libertarian or compatibilist senses).


Theistic Metaethical Realism and An Epistemic Worry for Non-Natural Moral Realism

Readers of my blog know that I have been debating whether the is/ought dichotomy is compatible with theistic metaethical realism [1]. I’ve taken the stance the odds the is/ought dichotomy is true are at least as probable as the odds the is/ought dichotomy is false. Since the is/ought dichotomy is incompatible with theistic metaethical realism, and there are more ways to be a moral realist who denies the is/ought dichotomy than theistic metaethical realism, the odds theistic metaethical realism is true are less than 50%; thus, theistic metaethical realism is not obviously true. The preceding argument can be extended further: since theistic metaethical realism is less than 50% likely to be true, we should not be theistic metaethical realists. In place of theistic metaethical realism, I have suggested metaethical non-natural realism: the view that there are non-reducible objective moral truths that constitute their own fully autonomous domain of facts. Richard Bushey has argued the is/ought dichotomy and theistic metaethical realism are compatible [2], but, thus far, I have found his substantive challenges unconvincing. Here, I respond to another possible argument that the theist may provide against meta-ethical non-natural realism.

The theist may argue that, if the meta-ethical non-natural realist is correct, then it is difficult to explain how we know what moral truths there are. Moral truths would not have any spatial or temporal location, so we cannot observe them in the world; they would have no causal efficacy, so they could not cause various events that we observe; and our brain’s access to non-physical moral truths is mysterious. But, the theist may argue, theistic metaethics does not suffer from these problems. For theistic metaethics, God produces all moral truths, which He communicates to us through divine revelation [3]. The argument can be put formally as follows:

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