Evaluating the Moral Arguments

This post is meant to be an initial assessment of two forms of the moral argument.  I have taken them exactly as formulated by Tyler.  I want to apologize up front if I come across as overly pedantic.  I like to break things down as much as possible.  Also, it’s my blog… so deal with it.

The Arguments Stated

The Epistemological Argument:

(1) If NE is true, belief in objective moral values and duties cannot be warranted.
(2) But belief in objective moral values and duties can be warranted.
(3) Therefore, NE is false.

Note: “NE” stands for the conjunction of naturalism and evolution.

The Classical Moral Argument:

(1) If God doesn’t exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
(2) Objective moral values and duties do exist.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

The Arguments Evaluated

– The Epistemological Argument –

Let’s start by putting this in symbolic form.  Technically, the proposition NE is true is a compound proposition, namely Naturalism is true and evolution is true.

Let n be the simple proposition Naturalism is true and e the simple proposition Evolution is true.  Finally, let b represent the simple proposition Belief in objective moral values and duties can be warranted.  Then the argument can be expressed as

(1) (n\wedge e)\rightarrow \sim b

(2) b

(3) \sim(n\wedge e)

This form of argument is valid (modus tollens), so the first order of business will be to address any ambiguities and then the soundness of the argument.

I’ll start by pointing out that some clarification is needed as to what is meant by “naturalism”, since the term has no precise meaning in philosophy^{1}.  Presumably this term is intended to be a position excluding the supernatural, but then there is the question as to what counts as being super-natural.  For instance, one might subscribe to naturalism, but hold that parallel universes exist or that Platonism is correct, which could be interpreted as “super-natural” in some sense.  Some care also needs to be taken since naturalism is many times distinguished from materialism.

Putting that aside for the moment, let’s examine premise (1) with just a broad understanding of the terms.  Note that the negation of (1) would be \sim[(n\wedge e)\rightarrow \sim b], which is equivalent to n\wedge e\wedge b.  In words, this says that naturalism is true, evolution is true and belief in objective moral values and duties can be warranted.

At this point we need to know more about what it means for something to be warranted.  From what I understand, Tyler uses the term in the same sense as Alvin Plantinga.  It is a technical term given to that which distinguishes mere true belief from knowledge.  In particular, warrant is strongly related to the notion of proper function.  This seems to mean something like our faculties being geared toward forming true beliefs when operating correctly.  Thus, what I’ll need to argue, here, is that our faculties can be geared toward forming true beliefs even if they were not designed by an intentional agent.  However, to prevent excessive length (and because this will be a continued discussion), I shall start by merely giving some general ideas.

Something to note right away is that this argument assumes that morality is objective.  I happen to think that morality can be objectively defined, but I’m not entirely convinced that what counts as moral is objective.  More on this later.  

If we grant for the moment that there is such a thing as objective moral values and duties, then I imagine that these moral facts would exist in the same sense that, say, logical facts do.  As far as we know, what allows us to be able to access such facts is our capacity to think, reason, abstract, and in the case of morality, empathize.  So, it seems reasonable to take it that any creature constructed similarly enough to the way humans are, will be able to access logical and moral facts.  The question then shifts to: how did we come to be constructed in this way?

Certainly one possibility is that God purposefully made us (somehow) this way out of nothing.  Now, one thing we seem to know with reasonable certainty is that our world (and arguably any possible world) is governed by or written in the language of mathematics.  I maintain that the mathematics that underlies our reality exists eternally and necessarily.  So, it may be that there is a multiverse in which all mathematically possible worlds simply exist.  In at least one of them, namely ours, the structure will allow for creatures to exist in a way that they can access the laws of logic and moral laws.  Thus, the need for special creation is eliminated and it is possible that naturalism is true, evolution is true, and yet we can be warranted in a belief in objective moral values.

The last thing to point out is that the conclusion of this argument is not as strong as the theist might intend.  What I mean is that \sim(n\wedge e) is logically equivalent to \sim n \vee \sim e, which simply says that either naturalism is not true or evolution is not true.  Nothing here requires that both are false.

 -The Classical Moral Argument-

This argument is another example of modus tollens.  Since it is valid, let’s consider the premises.  I’ll be a bit shorter with my analysis of this argument to start.

First let me say that I see no reason to accept (1).  As alluded to above, moral facts may exist in the same way that logical facts do.  Second, I contend that (2) is undecidable.  Morality is of such a nature that we cannot tell if it is truly objective.  It certainly feels this way, but this is largely built on intuition deriving from how we are made up as humans.  At best, I think one could only maintain that morality is what I call “locally objective”.  That is, there is a certain set of moral laws M associated with humans (based on how we operate) such that any creature c that is sufficiently similar to humans will be subject to M.

Okay, at this point I don’t want to take much more time, so I’ll pass it over to Tyler.  Upon receiving his critique, I will then expand on my thoughts where needed.

1. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/naturalism/

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A Friendly Discussion on the Moral Arguments

I am a mathematician.  But as many of you know, the topic of God’s existence is also of great interest to me.  This is in large part due to my desire to understand the ultimate nature of reality.  Some might reckon that pursuing the question of theism is a waste of time.  It has been debated for millennia with seemingly little progress.  While perhaps true, I tend to be a bit more optimistic.  Even if the question is ultimately undecidable, some very interesting ideas and philosophy have come out of the discussion, which have shaped many areas of our thought.

There are many different types of arguments for the existence of God, and even if they ultimately fail, there is no denying that evaluating them has led to great progress in various philosophical topics.  The notion of morality happens to be one of these.  In fact, the moral argument is one of five or so major types of arguments for God’s existence.  I personally find the topic of morality to be one of the most difficult to analyze and nail down.  Because of this, I find the moral argument to be the weakest of all theistic arguments.  Others, like my friend Tyler Dalton McNabb, assess it as among the stronger arguments.

So, this is what I would like to do: Tyler and I have agreed to have a friendly discussion on the moral argument.  He has presented the basic arguments on his blog.  I will give an initial assessment of these arguments on my blog and he will then address my criticisms back on his blog.  It should prove to be a fruitful exchange, so follow along and enjoy.  Comments are also welcome.