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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An Improved Ontological Argument for Atheism

Alvin Plantinga (in)famously proved the existence of God using the axiom S5 in modal logic. Axiom S5 states that if it is possibly necessarily the case that p, then it is necessarily the case that p. In other words, if there is any possible world in which it is a necessary truth that p, then p is a necessary truth in all worlds. (In case the reader has some phobia to talk of possible worlds, we can state the axiom another way: if it can be shown that there is a possible maximally consistent set of sentences in which ‘necessarily, p’ occurs, then that statement must appear in all maximally consistent sets of sentences.) Plantinga defines God in such a way that if God did exist, then God would be necessarily existent. Using axiom S5, the modal ontological argument follows. A simplified version of the modal ontological argument – which skips over much of the detail and explication Plantinga is careful to provide – might proceed as follows:

  1. If it is possibly necessarily the case that God exists then it is necessarily the case that God exists.
  2. It is possibly necessarily the case that God exists.
  3. Therefore, it is necessarily the case that God exists.
  4. Therefore, it is actually the case that God exists.

There have been those who were skeptical of modal logic generally or of those modal logics which use S5 in particular (e.g. Quine). Put modal skeptics aside; most philosophers agree that modal logic captures something important about our talk of possibility and necessity. The trouble for the theist, as Plantinga is careful to point out, is that a parallel argument can be constructed for the atheist:

  1. If it is possibly necessarily the case that God does not exist then it is necessarily the case that God does not exist.
  2. It is possibly necessarily the case that God does not exist.
  3. Therefore, it is necessarily the case that God does not exist.
  4. Therefore, it is actually the case that God does not exist.

The two arguments can be further simplified to two statements:

T. Possibly, God exists → God exists.

A. Possibly, God does not exist → God does not exist.

The difficulty rests in stating which of the antecedent in T or A are more plausible. The question remains: is it possible that God exists? Or is it possible that God does not exist?

On the one hand, if the atheist claims that God does not exist, they have to show that there is no possible world at which God exists (or, for the metaphysically phobic, that there is no maximally consistent set of sentences in which ‘God exists’ appears). That’s a rather tall order and the theist would be right to respond with incredulity: it’s not even possible that God exists?

Furthermore, the theist’s work seems to be cut out for them: all they have to do is to point out how reasonable it is to say that God is at least metaphysically possible. Certainly, the concept of God does not appear (at least prima facie) to contain any contradictions. So the theist might declare victory (and Plantinga does call his ontological argument victorious).

On the other hand, the atheist should caution the theist that they declared victory too soon. It seems fairly plausible that there is at least one possible world at which God does not exist (or that there is at least one consistent set of sentences in which ‘God exists’ does not appear). For the theist to declare that there is no such world is a rather tall order; the atheist would be right to respond with incredulity: it’s not even possible that there is no God? And, again, the atheist’s work seems to be cut out for them: all they have to do is to say that God’s non-existence is at least metaphysically possible. Certainly, atheism does not appear (at least prima facie) to contain any contradictions. So the atheist, as the theist, might declare victory (and we might call the resulting atheistic ontological argument victorious).

So the stalemate rests. However, I’ve noticed that my Cosmological Euthyphro Dilemma (CED) may contain a possible solution in favor of the atheist. In what follows, I will briefly summarize my CED argument and then show why I think it has the potential to resolve the impasse between T and A. I note that one of the resident theists on this blog network, MaximusConfesses, has provided me with a possible Anselmian response to CED. I will assume, for this article, that the Anselmian reply does not work, but I will postpone my response to the Anselmian reply to a future blog post.

What is CED? Traditionally, theists have posited that both that God created the universe and that God is absolutely ultimate (e.g. aseity). CED poses a dilemma to the theist: did God’s reasons for creating the universe originate in God (perhaps in Her nature or essence) or did they originate independently of God? If God’s reasons originated in God, there are two problems for the theist. First, because God’s nature or essence are both necessarily existent, God’s reasons would be necessarily existent. But if God’s reasons are necessarily existent, then God could not have chosen to do other than what God did; thus, God does not have free-will (in either the libertarian or compatibalist senses, which both require true counterfactuals about one’s actions). This is incompatible with God’s existence because God is defined as an agent; but if God does not have free-will, then God is not an agent. So God does not exist. Second, given that God would create the same universe in all possible worlds, the universe that we are in would be the universe that necessarily exists. Ditto for anything else that exists, for, on a traditional conception of God’s ultimacy, everything that exists is either God or created by God. So, metaphysical possibility is destroyed; everything is necessarily existent. But this also leads to God’s non-existence because most philosophers are not willing to give up the notion of metaphysical possibility or contingency. Thus, if we posit that some other states of affairs are possible, then God does not exist.

The other possibility is that God’s reasons for creating originate (somehow) independently of God. But if so, there is at least one thing – namely, the source of God’s reasons – that is either more ultimate than God or just as ultimate as God. Neither of these possibilities square with the conception of God as most ultimate. Thus, if God possesses reasons and these reasons must originate independently of God, then we are led into contradiction; so God does not exist.

There is a third possibility. Many of the traditional defenses of libertarian free-will rely on the notion that some sort of mysterious action without reason may be possible. For example, consider Buridan’s Ass. We imagine a hungry donkey equidistant between two equally valuable sources of food. If the donkey does not choose one food source over the other, then the donkey will starve. But if the donkey does choose one food source over the other, this cannot be with any sort of reason, for the donkey has just as much reason to choose one food source as the other. Intuitively, the donkey will choose one food source over the other; so, if our intuitions are correct, we must be capable of acting without reason (somehow). Perhaps this will save the theist from the CED argument.

Unfortunately, this third possibility cannot save theism from the CED argument either. If God acts without reason, this is no better than God acting randomly. It is difficult to see why this possibility would be desirable to the theist, though, historically, some theists did choose this option. (See Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being.) At the very least, if God acts randomly, God acts capriciously. It is difficult to see how this possibility would be consistent with the notion that God is perfectly good or all loving.

CED destroys a number of traditional arguments for God’s existence. For example, the design argument posits that our universe, or various structures in our universe, appear to have been designed for various purposes and that they were not merely created at random. But if the only way to save theism, given the CED, is for God to have created randomly, then design is not what we would expect to see in our universe. God could have no purpose for Her creation, for she evidently created without reasons.

Or consider the argument from contingency. The argument from contingency maintains that our universe is metaphysically contingent (i.e. our universe is not metaphysically necessary) and requires the existence of a metaphysically necessary being to explain its existence. The argument from contingency is not consistent with the notion that God’s reasons originate within God, for, in that possibility, our universe would not be contingent. One might think the argument from contingency is consistent with the possibility that God’s reasons originate independently of God, provided that wherever God’s reasons originate is contingent. But this cannot be so, for if the source of God’s reasons is contingent then either that source was created by God or contingent things do not require necessary creators after all. If the source was created by God, then we arrive back at CED: where did God’s reasons for creating that source originate? Lastly, perhaps one could think that the argument from contingency was consistent with God creating the universe without reason. But then it becomes difficult to explain why a theistic explanation would be better than positing that the universe originated at random without God, for both explanations posit that the universe was created without reason.

As promised, I now proceed by explicating how the CED argument might break the stalemate between T and A. One way of stating the stalemate is that we need some reason for thinking that it is more plausible for there to be at least one possible world without God than at least one possible world with God (or vice versa). The CED argument can provide that reason.

Recall that, on the possibility that God’s reasons originate within God, if God exists, there can be no other metaphysically possible worlds. It’s possible to show, using familiar arguments in modal logic, that there being no other way that the could be is entailed by possibly, God exists. So T and A become:

T’. Possibly, God exists → There is no other way that the world could be.

A. Possibly, God does not exist → God does not exist.

Using T, together with the statement that there is some other way that the world can be, we arrive at the antecedent to A via modus tollens. And it’s far more plausible that there is some other way that the world could be than that there is no other way that the world could be. So the stalemate is settled in terms of A. Thus: God does not exist and God’s existence is, probably, metaphysically impossible.

But what about the other possibilities, that either God’s reasons for creating originate independently of God or that God creates without reason? First, consider the possibility in which there is some God independent source for God’s reasons. In that case, there are two possibilities: either the source is necessarily existent or the source is contingent. Suppose that the source is necessarily existent. In that case, God possesses the same reasons in all possible worlds, so we return to T’ and A is again more plausible. Suppose that the source is contingent. In that case, God may possess different reasons in different possible worlds, but which reasons God might have for any of God’s actions would depend upon some contingent object. Strangely, this turns God into a slave of some God-independent object; this contradicts the ontological argument’s supposition that God is the greatest of all possible beings (this also contradicts the notion of God’s impassability). The only possibility that remains is that God has no reason for God’s actions. But, in that case, God’s actions are arbitrary and capricious. At best, God would act randomly. Again, it’s difficult to understand how a capricious God that acts arbitrarily is the best of all possible beings. And, again, this possibility is inconsistent with the theistic ontological argument. So the atheistic ontological argument remains.


The Moral Argument Revisited: A Second Reply to Richard Bushey

This is the latest entry in a series of posts on Libere and Therefore God Exists in which Richard Bushey and I debate whether the is-ought dichotomy is incompatible with theistic metaethics. Previous entries included:

Libere: Do atheists steal morality from the Christian worldview?

Bushey: Is the moral argument guilty of the is-ought fallacy? 

Libere: In Defense of the Incompatibility of Hume’s Is/Ought Dichotomy and Theistic Metaethical Realism: A Response to Richard Bushey 

Bushey: In Defense of the Moral Argument: A Response to Dan Linford

I’ve recently defended the view that the is/ought dichotomy and theistic metaethical realism are incompatible. My argument was originally posed as a response to presuppositional apologists, like Greg Bahnsen, who argue that moral facts both exist and are so obviously grounded in God that anyone who claims not to believe in God must have deceived themselves. I call this the obviousness thesis. In response, I argued that the is/ought dichotomy is incompatible with theistic metaethical realism and that because it is less than clear whether the is/ought dichotomy is true, the obviousness thesis is false. Theists who maintain moral facts are grounded in God, but, contra Bahnsen, that this is not obviously so, are free to agree with me and to deny the is/ought dichotomy. Others may maintain that moral facts are not grounded in God; moral facts may be reducible to natural facts (as for moral naturalists who deny the is/ought dichotomy) or non-reducible (as for robust moral realists who maintain the is/ought dichotomy).

Richard Bushey charges that there is no incompatibility between the is/ought dichotomy and theistic metaethical realism. I do not know where he stands on the obviousness thesis, because, as far as I know, he has not written on that topic. Nonetheless, if nothing else, the debate between the two of us indicates these issues are not trivial to settle; if so, the obviousness thesis is false. Richard raised three objections to my argument. In my first response, I answered, at length, to all three. In his new rebuttal, he responds that none of my responses were adequate. In what follows, I will demonstrate that none of Richard’s responses succeed; nonetheless, Richard’s responses raise important and substantive issues in metaethics that are worth discussing.

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God’s Ultimacy and the Trinity: Why Traditional Christianity is False

Of orthodox Christianity’s many doctrines, God’s Ultimacy – that God both causally and explanatorily precedes all else – and God’s triunity – that God is three in Person but one in substance (or essence) – are considered central. For most Christian theologians, to deny either God’s Ultimacy or God’s triunity is to proceed into heresy or to abandon Christianity altogether. Both appear in the Nicene Creed and God’s Ultimacy historically preceded Christianity altogether, having its roots in Jewish monotheism. Yet, as I will show in this article, straightforward understandings of these two doctrines produce contradictions when they are placed in conjunction.

It has often been claimed that Trinitarianism produces contradictions. As Augustine describes the trinity in his On Christian Doctrine [1], the trinity may be described with the following seven propositions [2]:

      1. The Father is God.
      2. The Son is God.
      3. The Holy Spirit is God.
      4. The Father is not the Son.
      5. The Son is not the Holy Spirit.
      6. The Father is not the Holy Spirit.
      7. There is only one God.

From these seven, we can derive:

      1. The Father is not the Father (from 1, 4 by replacement).

Orthodox Christians would be correct to point out that 8 does not actually follow from 1 and 4, either in traditional Christian doctrine or through Augustine’s conception of trinitarianism because the word ‘is’ is equivocal between 1 and 4. In 1, the Father’s substance or essence is identified as that of God. Within both Aristotlean and Platonic frameworks, two things share in essence if they are of the same kind. For example, Plato would have said that two cows share the same essence by participating in the Form of cowness. Contemporary readers, who may be mystified by the appeal to substances and essences, will not be misled (at least for the purposes of this article) if they understand the ‘is’ appearing 1-3 as the ‘is’ of predication.

However, the ‘is’ appearing in 4-6 is the ‘is’ of identity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share a common essence, but they are not the same Person and are thus not identical. While the interpretation of the trinity remains controversial, this seems to be enough to render the doctrine free of contradiction. At the very least, I will assume that, by itself, triunity is coherent for the remainder of this article [3].

I turn next to God’s Ultimacy. Traditionally, Christians have understood God as absolutely ultimate, by which I mean that God both explains and was/is causally responsible for all else. As Brian Leftow (among others) has pointed out, this runs us into an interesting implication: God is identical to all of God’s properties, a doctrine known as ‘Divine Simplicity’ [4]. In what follows, I sketch Leftow’s argument for that conclusion, but interested readers should refer to his article for the full details. I will note that Leftow is not the first to argue for Divine Simplicity; the doctrine is first ancient and second popular among orthodox Christian theologians. The doctrine appears in the Catholic Catechism [5] and a Catholic theologian I consulted assures me that Divine Simplicity is part of the Church’s official teaching. Briefly, I note that Simplicity has not been without criticism and that both David Hume and Erik Wielenberg, among others, have produced previous atheistic arguments based on Simplicity [6]. I shelve those arguments and proceed forward.

Why does Ultimacy entail Simplicity? Leftow’s argument proceeds as follows. First, notice that God’s properties cannot precede God, either in cause or explanation, because this would entail that God’s properties are more ultimate than God. Second, notice that God’s properties cannot be posterior to God, either in cause or explanation, because this would render God incoherent. The only solution is to identify God with God’s properties. Again, if the reader remains unconvinced, I invite them to read over Leftow’s paper, in which this argument is produced with full rigor.

Having described both trinity and ultimacy, I proceed by showing that the conjunct of these two doctrines produces a contradiction. Consider the following argument:

  1. Divine Simplicity: The godhead is identical to all of the godhead’s properties.
  2. The Trinity: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are God in substance, but the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the HS, and the Father is not the HS.
  3. The godhead is identical to all of the properties of the Persons of the Trinity (from 9 & 10).
  4. Therefore, the properties of the Persons of the Trinity are all identical to each other (from 11).
  5. The Persons of the Trinity are Simple (i.e. each are identical all of their properties).
  6. Therefore, the Persons of the Trinity are all identical to each other (from 12 & 13).
  7. Contradiction! (from 10 & 14)
  8. Therefore, either the godhead is not triune or Divine Simplicity is false.
  9. If the godhead is not triune then Christianity is false.
  10. If Divine Simplicity is false then divine aseity is false (i.e. God is not Ultimate in the right sense); but if so, Christianity is false.
  11. Therefore, Christianity is false.

Thus, we arrive at the advertised conclusion: given that an orthodox understanding of Christiany involves both trinity and Ultimacy, and that the conjunct of these entails a contradiction, orthodox Christianity is false. It remains possible for the Christian to deny Ultimacy or to deny trinitarianism. Certainly, some Christians already do deny one or both of these doctrines; for example, Dale Tuggy has advocated that Christians abandon the Trinity [7]. Nonetheless, the foregoing appears to be sufficient deny orthodox Christianity.



[1] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 1:5.

[2] Philip Cary summarizes trinitarian doctrine this way in his “Logic of Trinitarian Doctrine”, Religious and Theological Studies Fellowship Bulletin, Sept/Oct 1995, p 2.

[3] For a summary of the various theological models of the trinity, see Rhea, M. “The Trinity”. In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology ed. Thomas P. Flint & Michael Rea (Oxford University Press, 2009).

[4] Leftow, B. “Is God an Abstract Object?”. Nous, 24 (1990): 581-598.

[5]Catechism of the Catholic Church: Revised in Accordance with the Official Latin Text Promulgated by Pope John Paul II. 2nd ed. (Vatican City): Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997: 43; 202.

[6] See Wielenberg, E. “Dawkins’s Gambit, Hume’s Aroma, and God’s Simplicity,” Philosophia Christi 11 (1), (Summer 2009): 111-125; Hume, D. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 1779: 159-160.

[7] See, for example, several of Dale Tuggy’s papers available on his website.