Posts from 1998

The Lord, Liar, Lunatic Trilemma

The Lord, Liar, Lunatic trilemma has been proposed by several Christian apologists, including the noted layman’s theologian C. S. Lewis. It seeks to argue that Jesus Christ was Lord, Savior, and all those other wonderful things he said he was in the New Testament. It goes about this by proposing something of a trilemma regarding Jesus:

Assuming that Jesus existed, and that he said he was the Lord, there are three possibilities regarding his claims: what he said was either (1) true—he was LORD; (2) false because he was a lying; or (3) false because he was insane, as only a lunatic would believe that he were the son of God if it were not true. Since his words are very profound, they can hardly be discounted as the words of a raving lunatic. He could not have been a liar because he was willing to die for his beliefs, as were many of his followers; this hardly seems like the acts of a liar. Therefore, since the other two options have been eliminated, he must have been LORD.

There are a number of flaws with this argument, starting at the most fundamental level of the assumptions. The assumptions need not be accepted at all; there are a number of other options. If the historical figure of Jesus did not exist at all (which is possible, but not necessarily plausible), then the argument is superficially ludicrous. If Jesus did exist, then he may not have ever said he was LORD, but rather the early Christians such as St. Paul and the New Testament Gospel authors merely fit his person to their Messiah god Xristos. One possible scenario, for instance, is that he never said he was LORD in the sense that Christians mean it, but was merely a Jewish religious reformer and faith-healer, who called himself by names which have been misinterpreted by later Christians (“Son of God” is a common term in Jewish religious literature for people who are very important to God, such as King David) and that his teachings were encrusted and embellished with miraculous life narratives and salvation myths as his followers shifted from the original Jewish reformers to the apocalyptic mystery cult of Christianity.

The next significant flaw is that of a false trichotomy: the argument proposes only three options when there are in fact more. One of the most likely is that Jesus’s followers sincerely believed what they said, but were not correct. Falsities could be introduced into the record by any number of means other than direct lying or insanity; exaggerated tales transmitted through the oral record, confusions of parables with actual events (such as with the fig tree incident, which is portrayed in one Gospel as an actual act of Jesus and in another as a parable), and interpolations introduced by Gospel authors who were more concerned with religious inspiration than historical accuracy may all play a large role in what has come to us as the stories of Jesus’s life. It is quite possible that, whether Jesus ever said anything about being LORD or not, St. Paul and the various other authors of early Christian books sincerely believed that Jesus was the Messiah in the form of Xristos.

The final significant flaw in this argument is that it seeks to eliminate the options of liar and lunatic, but fails to do so adequately. The argument simply dismisses them out of hand without any particularly objective standard. If Jesus was delusional as to his godhood, that does not in anyway preclude his abilities to make profound moral and religious observations; delusions of godhood do not rule out functional sanity in other fields of life, and even were he totally insane there are still several cases of insane or marginally loony people putting out observations that seem profound to some (E.G. Friedrich Nietzsche, who produced his final works the last year before he became clinically insane). The argument against liar is even less convincing; there is no reason to presume that Jesus or the early Christians deliberately acted knowing that they would die for it, and even had they, history has been littered with people making huge sacrifices for liars and lunatics. David Koresh, L. Ron Hubbard, Jim Jones, and the many other founders and leaders of lunatic-fringe cults could all be defended on the same grounds as Jesus, since there is no standard other than personal incredulity given for dismissing the options of liar and lunatic.

In fact, the argument could just as easily be applied to most other would-be prophets and saviors. Many have fought and died for Muhammed, and his moral teachings could be argued to be as profound as those of Jesus. Somehow I doubt, however, that our friendly apologist will rush into submission to the Will of Al-Lah.

This essay is a revision of an earlier version that dates back to 1997. —C.J. 2006-07-09

The Cosmological Argument

The cosmological argument for God, also known as the argument from First Cause, has been one of the most frequent defenses of the rationality of theism throughout its long history. Cosmological arguments have been proposed by some of history’s greatest intellects, including Saint Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle. In essence, it states:

All events have a cause, and the world as we know it is comprised of events. Everything that we observe is an effect of some previous cause. Since there cannot be an infinite regress of events, there must be some Uncaused Cause outside of the world, that is, a God.

The problems with this argument are manifold. Some debaters, drawing on on some interpretations of Quantum Mechanics, may deny the iron law that all events must have a cause. Some also question the premise that an infinite regress of events cannot exist; however, a lot of modern cosmology points to a Universe with a definite beginning point. The issue of infinite regress will be dealt with at greater length below when we consider Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument. One way to circumvent the dilemma while preserving a definite beginning point for the Universe is to adopt the oscillating model of the Universe, which has at times received the support of Stephen Hawking, one of the foremost minds in modern cosmology. In this circular-time model there is an eternal cycle of bang/crunch events, where the crunched Universe bangs into another. Equations have been developed which can reconcile such a cyclical view with modern inflationary models of early Universe history. The primary factor in determining whether such models of the Universe’s geometry are true is the total amount of mass in the Universe; the amount of known mass is safely within the realm of an open Universe, but dark matter may account for the missing mass.

The logical implications of asserting that the Universe must have an explanatory entity are also theologically troublesome: the belligerent atheist can respond by asking why the Universe needs a Cause but God doesn’t. While at first such a question seems insipid and stupid due to the conception of eternal God, it is not stupid in the context of the Universe: for no apparent reason, the Universe is assumed to not be self-sufficient, while God is assumed to be so, which simply shifts the locus of the Uncaused Cause rather than resolving it. Thus, such a superficially trivial question in fact forges an important argument by analogy; the atheist is as justified in demanding, What caused God? as the theist is in demanding, What caused the Universe?

Even if we were to grant the theist’s argument for an external Uncaused Cause, his conclusion that such a being is necessarily a God is a non sequitur. This hypothetical explanation for the Universe could be any number of things which we would not call a god (indeed, Aristotle’s metaphysical primary only loosely qualifies as one)—the Cause could just as easily be the Tao or other transcendental, unconscious forces.

The most critical flaw in the cosmological argument, however, lies in its faulty understanding of time and causality. Modern cosmological theory states that the beginning of the Universe is, by definition, also the beginning of time. Causality requires time as a frame of reference1, and thus by definition the beginning of time—and the beginning of the Universe as well—has no cause in the traditional sense.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument

The Kalam Cosmological Argument is a spin on the First Cause argument which draws from medieval theology and subsequent philosophical cosmology. Its primary supporter today is the theologian William Lane Craig. Its essence is quite simple, following the mold of the previously presented cosmological argument: whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence; the Universe began to exist. Therefore, the Universe has a cause of its existence. Craig goes on to argue that this cause is, in fact, a personal God, in order to dodge the blunder of the prior cosmological argument. It commits several critical flaws, many of which are committed by other cosmological arguments. Because of this, it will be useful to consider a rebuttal against this specific breed of First Cause.

The first premise may again be challenged: some schools of QM hold that the existence of particles is a matter of probability. Indeed, empty space seethes with ephemeral particles which wink in and out of existence with no apparent cause (whether they have a hidden cause or not is a matter of debate). The QM cosmologist may come again to say that the Universe itself is explained by quantum fluctuation, thus removing the necessity for God at the first premise.

But let us assume a more old-fashioned view of the Universe and move on to the second premise. As Craig correctly points out, the argument itself is quite simple, and most of the work on the argument is necessarily debate over the second premise and its implications. Craig uses two primary sub-proofs to demonstrate the necessity of a finite Universe. First, he argues that an actual, or completed infinity cannot exist in reality. Second, he argues that time cannot infinitely regress because of the impossibility of traversing an infinite set: since infinity can never be reduced to finity by subtraction, if the Universe is infinitely old (beginning at t=-oo) then there is no way that it could ever reach the present moment (t=0).

Craig, however, never gives proper justification for the first sub-proof. He cites thought experiments such as Hilbert’s Hotel2 but never bothers to show why these strange examples prove logical impossibility. His argument is, verbatim: Can anyone sincerely believe that such a hotel could exist in reality? These sorts of absurdities illustrate the imposibility of the existence of an actually infinite number of things.3 Read it carefully: Craig has done nothing more than resort to personal incredulity. This is the only justification he gives for his primary sub-proof. Why Craig expects transfinite sets to act according to our presuppositions rooted in the behavior of the finite sets which we observe is not altogether clear. Craig, in essence, simply refuses to believe ∞+1=∞, and attempts to convince us by his lack of imagination.

The second argument may also be defeated by a number of devices. One of the first is again an appeal to science. The oscillating, or cyclical model of Universe history presented in the previous section is one possible defense, because if time moves in a circle rather than a straight line, then the problem of traversal is eliminated; there is a finite beginning point, but one may traverse forever if he so desires without reaching a boundary. Although Craig attempts to refute this model, his attempt is anemic at best: he proposes two points which supposedly defeat the model: (i) that no known physics explain the re-explosion after the crunch, and (ii) that there is not enough observed matter to bring about the crunch. Both are essentially God of the Gaps arguments: I can’t explain this, therefore God exists. (ii) may be explained away by dark matter; this issue, as far as I know, remains unresolved. (i) is subject to another problem: there is no reason to assume that we can find a cause for the re-Bang, because the crunch involves the end of time, and thus, the end of causality as we know it.

A more fundamental problem of Craig’s argument, however, lies in his naive presuppositions about time. Craig explicitly presupposes a dynamical view of time according to which events are actualized in serial fashion, one after another.3 Craig assumes that time, rather than an expanded dimension of the Universe, is an external property of change and movement. However, this position is simply scientifically untenable. The dimensional nature of time has been a fundamental part of physics since Einstein, and its expansion in the Big Bang is one of the least controversial notions in cosmology today. Further, Craig does not realize the vast importance of the idea that the beginning of the Universe is the beginning of time. Yes, there is some finite distance into the past before which the Universe did not exist. But that is because time is part and parcel of the Universe, not some disjoint phenomenon in which the Universe exists. The Universe did not non-exist for a period of time and then suddenly wink into existence; at the moment of the Big Bang, the Universe simply was, and time only existed after that moment. The ultimate cause cannot be traced back further because there is no frame of reference in which to trace.

Finally, Craig attempts to justify that the Uncaused Cause of the Universe must be a metaphysical primary with a will, a volitional entity, which he (and I as well) considers a sufficient condition for godhood. The argument is based on the notion of sufficient causes: if A is a sufficient condition for B, then whenever A is observed, B must also be observed. Thus, it is argued, if the sufficient condition for the Universe’s existence was simply the action of some transcendental force, then the Universe should have always existed, a notion which was already discarded in the process of the KCA. Therefore, it is argued, the sufficient condition for the Universe’s existence was the act of will of its Uncaused Cause, which occurred a finite amount of time ago and therefore explains the finity of time.

This argument, however, is pitifully flawed and inconsistent with Craig’s previous argument. In his hypothetical dilemma, one must wonder why the action of the force at a particular moment is any less valid a sufficient cause than the volition of the God. Forces are, fundamentally, relationships, and they do not produce the same result for all values of their independent variables. However, this comparison betrays an even more fundamental flaw of the matter: the argument hinges on time progression. If God does not will the Universe to be at one moment, and then did will it to be in the finite past, then there must be a time progression and a change between these moments—God is dethroned from his eternal and immutable posture outside time. Craig dismisses a Universe existing infinitely into the dynamical past, but he proposes a God which exists backward infinitely before the Universe. The incoherency in a system of propositions is rarely so obvious. Thus we could turn Craig’s KCA (if we admitted its validity) against God Himself. Craig gives atheists the tools for impiety by wanting to have his ontological cake and eat it too.

Notes

  1. This necessity is established both in theory and in practice of causality. In practice, one of the criteria required for acceptance of a causal hypothesis is that the property which is being caused cannot occur before the property which is alleged to cause it. In theory, there are two primary notions of causality: necessary condition and sufficient condition. In the case of the former, if A is said to be a necessary condition of B, then A must always be present while B is present, i.e., in the same section of time. In the case of the latter, if A is said to be a sufficient condition of B then B must always be present while A is present. Again, the temporal frame-of-reference is required.

  2. Hilbert’s Hotel is a thought experiment which involves a hotel with an infinite number of rooms. All of the hotel’s infinite rooms are occupied and the NO VACANCY sign is lit outside. However, a weary traveler arrives at the front desk and asks for a room. Very well, the management responds, and in order to give the man a room, they simply shift the occupant of room #1 to room #2, room #2 to room #3, and so ad infinitum. When all the guests have been shifted, the hotel’s guests still all have a room, but room #1 is now left unoccupied and the traveler is free to have a room.

    More weirdness ensues if the experiment is carried further. If the traveler now in room #1 checks out the following day, then the hotel still has no fewer guests—despite what the maid cleaning room #1 may say. If all the guests are shifted back to the room they occupied before the troublesome traveler arrived, then the hotel’s only empty room is filled and the VACANCY sign goes back to NO VACANCY. The discovery of further oddities is left as an exercise to the reader.

  3. Craig, William Lane. The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe.

This essay is a revision of an earlier version that dates back to 1997. —C.J. 2006-07-10.

The Argument from Design

The Argument from Design, also known as the teleological argument, is one of the most common arguments used by evangelists in defense of their god figure. It basically states that due to the incredible order of the Universe, or the incredible odds against abiogenesis causing life on Earth, it seems unlikely in the extreme that the Universe was not designed by a Creator.

This argument has several critical flaws. In the form arguing against undesigned abiogenesis1, it claims that the probability of abiogenesis occurring without design is tiny to the point of absurdity. One flaw in this is that such a view is only on the planetary scale; given the chances of abiogenesis occurring at any given point in the Universe (rather than just on the planetary scale) multiplied by the size of the Universe and the amount of time in the Universe’s lifeline (so as to account for all possible timespace locations of abiogenesis), the probability—whatever it is—becomes much more palatable. Life could have just as easily arisen on Planet Zeetar in the fifteenth sector of the galaxy Drizzlefump as on Earth. The abiogenesis version also hinges on the probability of Earth-pattern life, which is not at all the only form of life possible. As an example, it has been proposed that life could arise from silicon-based polymers rather than organic2. Many of the structures, seen in Earth life, even at the cell level, are contingent on the circumstances of evolution, and it is therefore quite possible to find huge varieties of even organic life with little if any resemblence to Earth life.

The few times that a formal probabilistic model is produced for abiogenesis, the model is almost always is based upon something along the lines of the random formation of some large organic molecule (often a strand of DNA) from scratch. However, scientific abiogenesis does not require complex organic molecules like DNA to assemble from primordial scratch. The simpler organic molecules such as sugars and amino acids would have formed first, and once they had formed, the probability of DNA and other large organic molecules forming would show a marked increase. Further, it is suspect to even attempt to apply a probabilistic model to the chemical formation of life; chemical reactions are not random and therefore any use of probabilism is risky at best.

A common form for the Argument from Design is the Watchmaker Analogy, which runs something like:

If one finds a watch sitting on the beach, its orderliness would cause one to assume that there was a Watchmaker. In the same way, the incredible order of the Universe would seem to imply a Creator.

There are several flaws in this form of the argument. One of the most glaring errors is the faulty assumption about our method for identifying the watch as being designed: most of us would actually assume a watchmaker because we know from previous experience that watches are engineered by humans. Even if we were to encounter completely unfamiliar man-made goods, we would still be more likely to adduce their manmade nature from the materials and designs used (we know that most leather, plastics, pure metals, and so on are the results of human effort) than from their orderliness. Furthermore, when the analogy is applied to life, it must be emphasized that, unlike living beings, the watch is not a self-replicating structure with factors to modify the structure and selective pressures to regulate which structures are preserved (Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker). Because of the effects of natural selection, organisms have a form that is approximates conscious engineering.

When the Watchmaker analogy applied to the Universe as a whole, what makes it truly worthless is that the assertion that the Universe is strikingly orderly is absolutely without basis, due to the fact that there is no backdrop to which we can compare the Universe. In the Watchmaker Analogy, the watchmaker is assumed because the watch stands out against the seemingly random backdrop of nature. However, there is absolutely no backdrop to which we can compare the Universe.

Another, less common argument known as the Theistic Anthropic Principle is basically the Argument from Design’s abiogenesis version, slightly reworded and placed in something approaching argument form. It draws upon the cosmological principle known as the Anthropic Principle. This principle comes in two forms. The weak version is little more than simple common sense. It states that one should not be surprised that life arose in this region of the Universe: if it weren’t conducive to life, then we would not be here to discuss it. Another form of the principle is more emphatic: the strong Anthropic Principle states that the Universe is in some way engineered for Earth-pattern life. Not surprisingly, this view has fallen into the hands of theists, and a theistic spin upon the principle has developed. The underlying principle behind the Theistic Anthropic Principle and other teleological arguments is the same; the Anthropic Principle posits that there are some two dozen Universal constants which are necessary to hold the values that they do for life on Earth to arise, which, the proponents of the argument hold, makes undesigned abiogenesis unlikely in the extreme.

Since the Anthropic Principle hinges on universal constants, rather than on mere chance, it does not suffer from the same geocentric problems as the Argument from Design does. However, it does suffer from the same confusion of Earth-pattern life with all possible forms of life.

Nevertheless, one of the most critical flaws in these two nearly identical arguments is that they are based on a faulty understanding of probability. We may make an initial attack with another kind of anthropic principle: by the weak anthropic principle we can point out that, no matter how many Universes there have been, all those without the suitable parameters may be discarded because this Universe is the only one in which we would be around to talk about it. The second attack is best made by analogy:

Assume that one has 1,000,000,000,000,000 (one quadrillion) dice. All these dice are cast in a fair roll. The result that came up is incredibly unlikely (there are 61,000,000,000,000,000 possible outcomes), so much so that an Argument from Design regarding the outcome of the roll would posit that such an incredibly unlikely outcome would indicate that each die was placed face up to the right number. However, the roll must have a result, and this one happened to be the one that came up. And, in fact, any other outcome would have been equally unlikely.

Finally, we must consider the most fundamental problem to all of these arguments: a probability for the outcome has not been determined and cannot be until all the possible outcomes are first defined. Neither the number of possible results nor even the possible ranges of the constants behind the Theistic Anthropic Principle have been defined. It is not necessarily valid to assume that the values of the physical constants are malleable, varying between possible worlds; if physics determined that our current Universe’s parameters were the only possible outcome, then the arguments would seem superficially silly. Indeed, they would if the chances were found to be anything but astronomical.

For further reading:

  • Dawkins, Richard: The Blind Watchmaker
  • Dawkins, Richard: Climbing Mount Improbable
  • matthew: The alt.atheism FAQ

Notes

  1. Abiogenesis is the emergence of life from non-living matter (a+bio = without life, genesis = creation of life). The first doctrine of abiogenesis was the pre-scientific idea of spontaneous generation, which has long been discredited. Modern scientific abiogenesis is the hypothesis that primordial life formed from chemical reactions in early Earth history which produced larger and larger organic polymers. Under most theories, conditions in nature on Earth are no longer suitable for abiogenesis to occur.

  2. It should be noted that this has only been proposed as a possibility. It is in fact far less likely that silicon-based life exists elsewhere in the Universe than it is that carbon-based life does; it is much harder for silicon molecules to form the large polymer chains needed for life. It is merely raised in this paper as one possibility amidst many, another small chink in the teleological argument’s already swiss-cheesed reasoning.

This essay is a revision of an earlier version that dates back to 1997. —C.J. 2006-07-10.

Morality and Atheism

This essay was co-authored by Ed. Stoebenau and Charles Johnson, based on an earlier version that dates back to some time in 1997. The views expressed in the first part of the essay are no longer the views of the author of that part (Charles Johnson); indeed, his views are now almost precisely the opposite of those expressed. —C.J., 27 May 2002.

One claim that theists make often in #atheism is that one cannot both accept atheism and objective moral standards at the same time. They feel that at least one of these two views is true: objective moral standards prove that God exists, or that if there is not a God, then there cannot be objective moral standards. This paper serves a few purposes. First, it directly shows that there are differing views on morality between atheists. One of the writers is a moral subjectivist; the other is a moral objectivist. In the first half, Charles Johnson defends a subjective view of morality. In the second half, Ed. Stoebenau defends a view that atheism and objective morality are consistent; one can accept both and still be ration in these respects. This paper shows that the moral argument for theism can be defeated in both of its premises: either there are not objective moral standards or they do not need to be from a deity.

Moral Subjectivism

The first response to the theist’s question is to question why a totally objective moral code is necessary or even superior to a subjective one. Granted, the ethos of most societies have a few universal elements. Some of these include taboos against murder and theft (although definitions of justification for killing and confiscation of property may differ from society to society) and against incest. Beyond these, however, morality seems to vary from society to society and from individual to individual. The subjectivist view is that these are due purely to differences in personality between societies in general and between individuals in particular, and because of this, no more objective than taste preferences or impressions of beauty. Many atheists feel that moral codes that are subjective to one degree or another are the way morals should be and in fact are treated.

At this point, the theist may well inquire why there is any degree of universality to moral codes. This conclusion can be arrived at in both a moral objectivist and a moral subjectivist perspective without calling in gods by examining how certain behaviors affect animal populations. To analyze behaviors from this evolutionary perspective, it is highly beneficial to consider the concept of the meme, as pioneered by noted evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. A meme is, in short, an idea, thought, or memory which replicates itself from mind to mind (some refer to the mind which the meme inhabits as a host). By separating the replication process of the meme from its host, we can thus draw an analogy between the neo-Darwinian conception of the selfish gene and the replication of beliefs. Because moral systems are usually indoctrinated into children as part of the socialization process, it should be clear that ethos can thus be analyzed memetically, and therefore we can apply the basic principles of evolutionary biology to forge a useful tool for seeking out the roots of morality, through sociobiology. For example, consider murder, theft, and incest, three taboos which are commonly brought up in arguments of this sort.

Murder and theft are demonstrably harmful to animals that live together in communities (gregarious animals). If a animals in a group go about killing one another and do not have some non-arbitrary code of offenses, to be known and avoided, which merit death, then they will not tend to survive very long in groups. In order to survive, any gregarious species must develop reactions against behavior detrimental to the group. Although genetics would be one possible route, it is fairly infeasible to consider genes as a source for ideas. Thus, a meme complex which promotes a general abhorrence for murder is superior from a survival standpoint to a lack thereof in gregarious animals, and such a trait would be preferred in natural selection. Theft is a natural extension of the same reasoning; by unjustified confiscation of property from one’s neighbors, an organism creates animosity against it, so a general concern for the rights of one’s neighbors is genetically superior for gregarious animals. This leads to a more generalized trait, which could cover murder, theft, rape, and a number of other moral taboos.

The taboos against incest are also easily explainable from the perspective of evolution: heavy inbreeding, especially between close relatives, reduces the genetic diversity of a population, which makes the population as a whole more susceptible to extinction when their ecosystem is disturbed. For instance, in a highly homogenous population, if a particular disease to which the population is particularly susceptible strikes, the chances are good that it may well wipe out most or all of the breeding population. Also, genetic homogeny increases the likelihood that damaging recessive traits (almost all non-neutral recessive traits are harmful) will be expressed. A good example of this phenomenon can be found in the heavily inbred royal families of Europe, where the genetic disorder hemophilia (caused by a recessive gene on the X chromosome) became widespread to the extent that it was considered a royal disease. In the wild, hemophilia would be extremely disadvantageous, and the inbred individuals would probably be selected out of existence within a few generations. Therefore, in general, natural selection favors those organisms which do not inbreed heavily, or preferably, at all.

One of the advantages of this evolutionary analysis of morality is that, since it is derived from principles of biology, it may be evaluated as any other scientific theory, in terms of how well it fits observed data and how its predictions of further results hold up against observation. An example of such a verified prediction would be as follows: in more interdependent animal societies, social order is more important to social survival than in less interdependent societies. Therefore, in general societal interdependence should correlate positively with altruistic behavior—the more order is critical, the higher the selection pressure in favor of behavior which benefits the group over the individual. A verification of this can be seen by observing colonial insects and comparing altruistic tendencies to less tightly-knit social animals—say, humans. Colonial insects such as honeybees routinely sacrifice their lives for the betterment of the hive. While altruism is often exalted as a heroic ideal in human societies, it is not in any way expected, instinctual behavior as in colonial insects.

This evolutionary approach is, of course, not the only philosophical explanation for commonality in morals within an atheistic worldview. For example, the popular atheist philosophy of Objectivism, founded by Ayn Rand, believes strongly in moral objectivism based in philosophy and logic, and attributes morality to the fundamental truth or falsity of a statement, a property of the Universe itself. To Objectivists, those actions which are rational and those beliefs which are true, are good; those actions which are irrational and those beliefs which are false are evil. In the introduction to The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand elaborates:

The Objectivist ethics holds that the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self-interest. But the right to do so is derived from his nature as man and from the function of moral values in human life—and therefore, is applicable only in the context of a rational, objectively demonstrated and validated code of moral principles which define and determine his actual self-interest. It is not a license to do as he pleases and it is not applicable to the altruists’ image of a selfish brute nor to any man motivated by irrational emotions, feelings, urges, wishes, or whims. (ix)

Moral Objectivism

Having considered the counterpoints to the theist’s question, we can finally address the arguments that he has brought up. On the first argument, let us assume that there are objective moral standards. What other premises then, would we need to prove that God exists? Obviously, we would need a premise like if there are objective moral standards, then God exists. But this premise is too question begging to accept in an argument. To add more steps, let’s try moral standards can only come about by decree. We can also add to be objective, a standard must come from an absolute supreme source. Furthermore, we must also use The only absolute supreme source is God. Then, we can conclude that if there is an objective morality, than God exists. But are the premises sound for this argument? Again, there is good reason in thinking they are not. The last is non-debatable. The second depends on the soundness of the first, for if standards do not need a standard-giver, than neither do objective standards need an absolute objective standard. The first falls to the Euthyphro objection. Standards by decree cannot be objective, because they presuppose the objectivity of the standard giver, but if the standards come from such a source, they cannot be objective because there is no reason to believe that a standard-giver would give objective standards, without assuming external objective standards. So external standards are needed, and the first argument fails.

The second argument is that if there is not a God, than there cannot be objective morality. Even ignoring the Euthyphro objection for the most part, for the theist’s argument to succeed, he would need to claim that if God exists, than there is a God-given morality, and that if there is a God-given morality, than there are objective moral standards. Furthermore, if there is a God-given morality, than God exists. He also assumes that if God does not exist, then there is not a God-given morality. Of these premises, the last two are obviously true, the second we will assume to be true because of ignoring the Euthyphro problem, and we assume the first is also true, even though it is not necessary (for example, the deist’s God might well not care a whit about human morality). However, from the premise that God does not exist, all we can conclude is that there is not a God-given morality. We cannot conclude that there are not objective moral standards, because we do not have a premise of either If there is not a God-given morality, than there are not objective moral standards, or If there are objective moral standards, than there is a God-given morality. The second of these was shown to be false in the first part, and there is no non-question-begging reason to assume the first to be true, as this would beg the question for a divine command theory of morality.

Some theists, especially Calvinist Christians object to this argument because it is not divine commands which form objective morality, but rather the divine nature of God. But what would be the case if the nature of God were the standards of morality, assuming that God exists? It would mean that omnibenevolence would only mean God is what God is. While it is certainly true that God is what God is, it is not the case that omnibenevolence is just what God is. Omnibenevolence itself presupposes that there is an independent standard by which God is morally perfect; to deny this denies any meaning to the word. So this argument also does not give any reason why an atheist should not accept an objective morality.

There is also, in my opinion, a conclusive argument that objective morality and atheism are logically consistent: it is the deductive problem of evil. This can be shown by the following proof of consistency, where means it is logically possible that, and is strict implication.

if [⋄(A & C) & (A & C) → B], then ⋄(A & B)

It must be noted that neither A, B, or C need be true; they only need to be possible. Now let us let A be there is an objective morality, B mean there does not exist a deity and C mean the amount of evil in the world is so much that God does not exist. Now it is certainly the case that even if one does not exist that an objective morality is possible, and so is it possible, even if it is not the case, that the amount of evil in the world is so much that God does not exist. It is also the case that A and C in this case are consistent: it is possible that there is an objective morality and there is a large amount of evil in this world. But as these two premises together imply that God does not exist, then it must be the case that atheism and moral objectivity are consistent.

Bibliography

Memetics and evolutionary origins of ethics:

Theistic and atheistic origins of ethics:

Notes

Note 1: For this paper, the following terms should be differentiated with respect to morality: objectivism, subjectivism, relativism, and absolutism. Moral objectivism is just the view that morality is objective: there is such a thing and it does not depend on how it is perceived. Moral subjectivism is the view that there is not an objective morality: moral codes depend on the perceptions of the persons. It should be noted that moral subjectivism does not necessarily lead to moral anarchy, the view that anything goes. Moral relativism, while generally considered to be synonymous with subjectivism, is just the view that the morality of an action is not just an either/or thing: there are degrees to right and wrong. Moral absolutism has two differing meanings. In its first form, it is just the view that morality is universal, and so is a subset of objectivism. In its other form it is a view that there are not degrees of right and wrong; there are no shades of gray. A moral objectivist can be a relativist or an absolutist of either form, and even a relativist and an absolutist of the first form. A subjectivist can hold that someone can be any of the relativists or absolutists.

Note 2: Although there is plenty of debate in the field of aesthetics as to whether beauty is objective or subjective, I think we can agree that impressions thereof are fairly subjective.

Note 3: Be sure to note the difference between Objectivists, adherents to the philosophical system founded by Ayn Rand, and moral objectivists, adherents to the philosophical position that morality is independent of the individual. Keep in mind that all Objectivists are moral objectivists, but not all moral objectivists are Objectivists.

Note 4: Rand, Ayn. Introduction. The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: Signet Books, 1964. vii-xi.

Note 5: The problem of evil given here does not need to be sound. All needed for this argument are the possibilities of the statements. An atheist can be consistent in believing that the deductive problem of evil is unsuccessful and that it can be used to show the logical consistency between atheism and moral objectivism.

The Ontological Argument: an assessment

This essay is © 1998 by Ed. Stoebenau. It is based on an older version that he sent me to host on my website some time in 1997. In moving it over to my new website, I have updated the formatting to correctly represent the logical notation that Ed. originally used. —C.J. 2006-08-02.

The ontological argument is unquestionably one of the most interesting arguments for the existence of God. Similar to all ontological arguments is that the concept of God entails that there exists in reality a being which corresponds to this definition, or more simply: God exists. Any perusal of the philosophical literature will show that the ontological argument is still very much debated in different forms. I will show that the ontological argument does not succeed in what it tries to do, namely, prove that God exists. I will consider the first form of Anselm’s original argument, Descartes’ argument, Hartshorne’s, and that of Plantinga.

Anselm first gave what has become known as the ontological argument in his Prosologion. He used the definition that God is that being than which no greater can be conceived. Using this, he gave a reductio ad absurdum, that if one claimed that this being did not exist, then there exists a being which is greater than the being which no greater can be conceived. A major assumption of Anselm’s was that whatever exists in both the mind and in reality is greater than that which exists only in the mind. However, it is tough to see why one should accept this premise as sound. Is five dollars actually being in my pocket greater than 100 dollars existing in my mind? Can we even make such a comparison? This does not seem likely. One cannot claim that an old worn down coin is greater than a hypothetical brand new one of the same date, just because it exists. Furthermore, the premise that if one denies the existence of God, that there is a being greater than the being which no greater can be conceived, presupposes the actual existence of that being, so the argument runs in a circle. Hence, Anselm’s original argument fails.

Descartes’ ontological argument is simpler than Anselm’s, but unfortunately is more question-begging also. His argument is:

  1. God contains all perfections.
  2. Existence is a perfection.
  3. Therefore, God contains existence (or God exists.)

The second premise is highly questionable at best. Generally, one would think that bringing something into in existence would cause an imperfection in the object; one does not see how at first why God would be any different. For example, if one thinks of a perfect hill (such as the one just outside of Buchanon VA), the conception of the hill would be more perfect than a hill in existence; hence bringing something into existence does not make it more perfect, and therefore existence is not a perfection. So Descartes argument also fails.

Hartshorne’s ontological argument is based on Anselm’s second argument and claims that God’s existence is logically necessary. Hartshorne’s argument is given here, where A means it is logically necessary that A, ~A means it is not the case that A, is strict implication, means or, and g means God exists:

  1. g → ▯g
  2. g ∨ ~▯g
  3. ~▯g → ▯(~▯g)
  4. g ∨ ▯(~▯g)
  5. ▯(~▯g) → ▯(~g)
  6. g ∨ ▯(~g)
  7. ~▯(~g)
  8. g
  9. gg
  10. g

This argument is valid. Furthermore, given an Anselmian conception of God, premises one and five are sound. Premise two is just the law of the excluded middle, and premise three is a law of the modal logic S5. Premise nine is obviously sound, so this leaves premise seven as the only premise to question. Premise seven says that it is logically possible that God exists. If you were to change it to:

7′. It is possible that God does not exist.

Then using premise one, and 7′, one gets this conclusion:

10′. God does not exist.

Therefore, one must have a good reason to prefer it is possible that God exists over it is possible that God does not exist. However, there does not seem to be. Therefore, with two premises of equal prior (epistemically) likeliness leading to opposite conclusions, I conclude that Hartshorne’s argument cannot succeed.

Alvin Plantinga’s ontological argument is similar to Hartshorne’s, and falls to the same attack. Plantinga’s argument is based on the semantics of possible worlds. For him, logically necessary existence means existing in all possible worlds, logically possible existence means existing in at least one possible world, and logically impossible existence means existing in no possible worlds. A modified version of Plantinga’s Argument follows:

  1. The proposition that a thing has maximal excellence if and only if it has maximal excellence in every possible world is necessarily true.
  2. The proposition that whatever has maximal excellence is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect is necessarily true.
  3. There is a possible world in which the property of possessing maximal greatness is exemplified.
  4. Therefore, the property of possessing maximal greatness is exemplified in every possible world.
  5. Therefore, God exists.

Again, this argument can be critiqued similar in a way to Hartshorne’s, by using this premise:

3′. There is a possible world in which the property of possessing maximal greatness is not exemplified.

Combined with 1, we get:

4′. Therefore, the property of possessing maximal greatness is exemplified in no possible world.

From this, we can conclude that God does not exist. Since both 3 and 3′ are equally likely and lead to opposite conclusions, I conclude that Plantinga’s ontological argument does not succeed.

I have examined four ontological arguments. I have concluded that none of them succeed in what they try to do: proving God’s existence. They either rest on highly questionable premises, or on premises in which different premises equally likely lead to opposite conclusions. Therefore, if there is to be a proof for God’s existence, it lies elsewhere.

Other web sites:

For further reading:

  • Plantinga, Alvin: The Ontological Argument
  • Plantinga, Alvin: God, Freedom, and Evil
  • Plantinga, Alvin: The Nature of Necessity
  • Barnes, Jonathan: The Ontological Argument
  • Hick, John & McGill, Arthur C.: The Many-Faced Argument
  • Hartshorne, Charles: Anselm’s Discovery
  • Oppy, Graham: Ontological Arguments and Belief in God