Atheistic Moral Realism – Part 2

I am going to engage in a bit of logic chopping now.  But for those who do not have an appreciation for logic chopping, do not despair;  my close examination of the bark on one tree will lead me to make some broader points that have significance for philosophy of religion, ethics, and serious thinking about God.  The broader points might even have some relevance to evaluation of William Craig’s argument from the Existence of Objective Moral Values (Let’s rearrange those words a bit: “Moral Objective Values Exist”; hence I will refer to this as Craig’s MOVE argument).

In Part 1 of this series,  I pointed out a couple of alternative ways of stating Craig’s MOVE argument.  One of the alternatives was a modus tollens argument:

1A. If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.

2A. It is NOT the case that objective moral values do not exist.


3A.  It is NOT the case that God does not exist.

It seems to me, that (3A) is ambiguous, at least when considered by itself, apart from this argument.  It could mean either of the following:

3A’. The sentence ‘God does not exist’ asserts a false statement.

3A”. The sentence ‘God does not exist’ does NOT assert a true statement.

Notice, however, that while (3A’) is incompatible with atheism, (3A”) is perfectly compatible with atheism.  A number of atheist philosophers in the 20th century argued that sentences like ‘God exists’ and ‘God does not exist’ only appear to assert statements that are true or false, but in fact do not assert statements at all, and so these sentences are neither true nor false.

The conclusion (3A”) is compatible with atheism of the sort I just described, because such atheists would gladly agree that the sentence ‘God does not exist’ does NOT assert a true statement, because it does NOT assert any statement at all, which is why, they would argue, we should all be atheists, why we should all reject the belief that ‘God exists’, as well as rejecting the belief that ‘God does not exist’.  Both beliefs should be rejected, not because they are false, but because they only appear to assert something about the world, they only appear to describe how things are, but in fact do not assert anything nor do they describe even a possible state of affairs.

So, if (3A) can reasonably be interpreted as asserting (3A”), then the conclusion of Craig’s argument does not rule out atheism, at least not atheism of the sort that was popular among philosophers in the 20th century.

I don’t know if this objection would hold up under close scrutiny, so I’m not going to insist on it.  Even if the objection works, Craig could discard this particular way of stating his MOVE argument and use one of the other ways of stating it.  That might be enough to avoid this objection.

There are at least three sorts of objections to the assumption that the sentence ‘God exists’ makes a coherent statement:

  • The sentence ‘God exists’ makes an incoherent statement, a statement that involves an internal logical contradiction, a self contradiction.
  • The divine attribute of ‘perfect goodness’ fails to describe an objective characteristic, thus making it logically impossible for anyone to be correctly and objectively identified as being ‘God’.
  • No evidence is relevant to confirming or disconfirming the truth of the sentence ‘God exists’, so this sentence does not actually assert a statement or description of how things are or might be.

In The Coherence of Theism, Richard Swinburne argues briefly against the Logical Positivist objection in the third bullet.  He spends much more time dealing with the problem of apparent logical  self-contradictions in the concept of ‘God’,  the objection in the first bullet.  In Chapter 11 he briefly makes a case for moral realism (or what he calls ‘moral objectivism’), a case which does not depend on either theism or atheism, and that case would take care of the second bullet.

Concerning the problem of apparent logical contradictions within the concept of ‘God’, Swinburne acknowledges that skeptics are correct about some of the contradictions that have been pointed out in the concept of ‘God’.  Swinburne gets around these correct objections by making modifications to some of the traditional divine attributes.

For example, Swinburne acknowledges that there is a contradiction between divine foreknowledge and human freedom.  But he points out a more important contradiction along the same lines between divine foreknowledge and divine freedom.  God, according to Swinburne’s analysis is perfectly free.  But if God knows everything that is going to happen in the future, then God knows everything that God will decide to do in the future, but then God would not be free to do anything else other than what he already knows he is going to do. Thus, God’s perfect freedom contradicts God’s unlimited knowledge or omniscience.

Swinburne gets around this problem by limiting the extent of God’s knowledge of the future.  God can know every little detail about the past and the present, but God does NOT have perfect and unlimited knowledge of the future, because God does not know with certainty today what God will himself decide to do tomorrow. In other words, God’s knowledge of the future is limited and constrained by God’s perfect freedom.

I think Swinburne was on the right track in trying to salvage the concept of ‘God’ from various apparent internal logical contradictions.  However, he did not go far enough, and thus left open various other potential logical contradictions.  It is very difficult if not impossible for a finite and imperfect human mind to anticipate all of the various complex logical relationships and interconnections between a set of several abstract concepts.  Swinburne is assuming that his careful examination of various historical objections to the concept of God would be sufficient to enable him to grasp all of the various possible logical implications and interactions between the several abstract concepts that constitute his definition or analysis of the concept of ‘God’.

The problem is, I believe, that when you add adjectives like “perfect” or “infinite” or “unlimited” to abstract characteristics like ‘knowledge’ or ‘power’ or ‘goodness’, the logical scope of those concepts is magnified tremendously.  In other words,  in pumping up these characteristics, one is bound to create logical contradictions between them.

Just as theists argue that there can only be ONE God, ONE supreme being, similarly there can only be ONE divine attribute that trumps all the other attributes.  If, for example, perfect freedom comes into conflict with perfect knowledge, then one of those attributes must be sacrificed for the other.  That is to say, one of the two conflicting attributes must be qualified or limited in relation to the other conflicting attribute.

Another similar philosophical problem occurs in the field of ethics. Mill’s Utilitarianism proposed a criterion for moral evaluation of actions.  An action was good or right if, in comparison with alternative actions, it would result in the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.   But this criterion is problematic, because it really contains two different criteria or values:  (1) the greatest happiness and (2) the greatest number.

But sometimes these two values or goals come into conflict with each other, and a hard choice must be made. Suppose you have to choose between one action A that would bring about a moderate amount of happiness for a large number of people and another action B that would bring about a large amount of happiness for a moderate number of people.  The principle of Utilitarianism does not help decide which of these two actions is best.  It fails to provide an answer because the two criteria in that principle point in opposite directions in this case.

In ethics, when you have multiple basic values or goals or criteria to use in evaluating the goodness or rightness of an action, the most reasonable strategy seems to be to give differnt weights or priorities to different values or goals.  In other words, when one needs to employ multiple values or criteria to make an evaluation, one should set up some sort of hierarchy of values/goals.  What is the most important value or objective?  What is the second most important value or goal?

Take for example, the following classic moral dilemma:  “If  you lived in Germany when Hitler was in power, and some Jews were hiding in your house, if a Nazi official came to your front door and asked you if you had seen any Jews in the neighborhood recently, should you lie to protect the lives of the Jews hiding in your house, or tell the truth which would almost certainly result in the Jews being taken to a concentration camp and murdered?”  Although some people think that it is always wrong to lie, most sane people recognize that in this situation the moral duty to tell the truth is outweighed by the duty to protect human lives.

Truth telling is not as important as life saving.  The above scenario is only a dilemma for stupid people who fail to recognize the obvious truth that moral principles and values can sometimes come into conflict, and thus that moral principles and values need to be arranged into a hierarchy so that we are not stuck without any guidance when two rules or two values do come into conflict.

It seems to me that if one is to have any realistic hope of constructing a concept of God that will not run into various internal logical contradictions,one must set up a hierarchy of divine attributes.  For Swinburne,  perfect freedom was more important, more basic to his concept of God than the divine attribute of omniscience. So, Swinburne allows the attribute of perfect freedom to limit the attribute of omniscience.  Setting up an overarching hierarchy of divine attributes seems to be the only possible way of making sure that one avoids internal logical contradictions or incohernce in the concept of ‘God’ and in the claim that ‘God exists’.

Only ONE divine attribute can be supreme. Only one divine attribute can be utterly and completely unlimited, and all the other attributes must be subject to limitation by that supreme attribute. Only ONE attribute can be second in importance, and all other attributes, besides the supreme attribute and the secondary attribute, would be subject to limitation in relation to those top two divine attributes, and so on.