bookmark_borderI Don’t Care – Part 6

Aquinas is often thought of as a rigourously logical and systematic thinker.  This is only half-true.  There is a good deal of vaguness, ambiguity, and illogical thinking in his book Summa Theologica, as far as I can see.
Here is a cautionary note from a philosopher who is an expert on Aquinas:
From the concept of God as ipsum esse subsistens, Thomas deduces certain other properties which must belong to God [i.e. in order to prove that “God”, in the ordinary sense of the word, exists].  The precise logical structure of the series of deductions undertaken by Thomas is very difficult to ascertain.  It is a very complicated structure for one thing; and although it resembles a series of proofs for theorems in a calculus, this comparison is probably not fair.  Thomas does nowhere systematically and exhaustively set out his equivalents of the definitions, axioms, and rules of inference of which he makes use.  The order in which he proves his “theorems” is no order of strict logical dependence. …Nor is it certain that he was absolutely clear in his own mind about the precise nature of his undertaking.  Thus, when we say that Thomas tries to deduce the other properties of God [i.e to prove that God exists] from the notion of ipsum esse subsistens, this must be taken as a kind of reconstruction of his intentions.  He nowhere says in so many words that this is what he is about to do.
(Knut Tranoy, “Thomas Aquinas”, in A Critical History of Western Philosophy;hereafter: CHOWP, p.111, emphasis added)
The first hint that Aquinas is something less than a rigorously logical thinker is his misuse of the word “God”.  Many people mistakenly think that Aquinas produced five arguments for the existence of God in the famous Five Ways passage from Summa Theologica (the Christian philosopher and apologist Peter Kreeft makes this mistake, for example).  That is probably because Aquinas claims to be proving the existence of God in that passage, but Aquinas is using the word “God” in an odd and non-standard way, and thus his arguments in the Five Ways are actually just a tiny piece of his long and complicated argument for the existence of God (in the ordinary sense of the word):
…it may appear that Aquinas is unjustified in describing the first efficient cause as God, at least if by “God” one has in mind a person possessing the characteristics Christian theologians and philosophers attribute to him (for example, omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, love, goodness, and so forth.).  Yet Aquinas does not attempt to show through the previous argument that the demonstrated cause has any of the qualities traditionally predicated of the divine essence.  He says:  “When the existence of a cause is demonstrated from an effect, this effect takes the place of the definition of the cause in proof of the cause’s existence” (ST Ia 2.2 ad 2).  In other words, the term God—at least as it appears in ST Ia 2.2—refers only to that which produces the observed effect.  In the case of the second way, God is synonymous with the first efficient cause;  it does not denote anything of theological substance.  
(Shawn Floyd in “Aquinas: Philosophical Theology“, section 2b, from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Aquinas fails to grasp this basic principle of philosophical reasoning:
Before we can try to prove anything at all we must, of course, have some idea of the nature or properties of the being whose existence we want to prove. (Knut Tranoy, CHOWP, p.110)
Aquinas works ass-backwards by first proving the existence of “God” and THEN proving that “God” has various divine attributes.  So, in order to understand his argument for the existence of God, we must constantly replace the word “God” in his arguments, with the appropriate metaphysical concept for that particular phase of his argument.  For example, in the Five Ways passage, the conclusion of the 2nd Way is NOT that “God” exists but that “a first efficient cause” (an FEC) exists.
My attempt to begin to reconstruct the “very difficult to ascertain” structure of Aquinas’ argument for the existence of God starts in the middle of Aquinas’ argument, when he infers the existence of a being that has PERFECT KNOWLEDGE from the existence of a being that is IMMATERIAL:
Since therefore God is in the highest degree of immateriality, as stated above (Q. VII, A. 1), it follows that He occupies the hightest place in knowldege.  (Summa Theologica, Part I, Question 14, Article 1)
When I take a look at the section where Aquinas claims to have previously shown that “God is in the highest degree of immateriality” it turns out that the section is arguing for God being INFINITE (Q 7, A 1), not for God being IMMATERIAL.  There is mention of materiality in the argument, but it is difficult to take an argument for God being infinite and to try to revise the argument to be about God being “in the highest degree of immateriality”.
So, this is another bit of confusion and unclarity from Aquinas.  I’m NOT impressed by this sloppy presentation of a supposed “proof”, where the reader is expected to take a proof given for one thing and reformulate it so that it works as a proof for something else.  Also, the argument about infinity is a rambling one and its logic is difficult to discern.  If the argument for God’s infinity was more clear, I might be able to figure out how to reshape it into an argument for God being “in the highest degree of immateriality”.  But the argument is not very clear, and I’m not going to spend lots of time (at this point) trying to make sense out of it.
In any case, the argument for God’s infinity rests upon the concept of an IES (ipsum esse subsistens) being:
Since therefore the divine being is not a being received in anything, but He is His own subsistent being as was shown above (Q. III, A. 4), it is clear that God Himself is infinite and perfect.  (Summa Theologica, Part I, Question 7, Article 1)
Presumably since the derivation of God’s infinity is based on the concept of an IES being, the derivation of the conclusion that “God is in the highest degree of immateriality” is also based on the concept of an IES being.  In that case, we can at least summarize the flow of Aquinas’ logic:
(MC6) There exists an IES being.
(CC2) If there exists an IES being, then there exists an IES being that is in the highest degree of immateriality.
Therefore:
(MC8) There exists an IES being that is in the highest degree of immateriality.
(CC3) If there exists an IES being that is in the highest degree of immateriality, then there exists an IES being that is in the highest degree of immateriality and that has perfect knowledge.
Therefore:
(MC9) There exists an IES being that is in the highest degree of immateriality and that has perfect knowledge.
Now we can work forward from the five metaphysical claims (that Aquinas argues for in the Five Ways passage) to get to the metaphysical claim of the existence of an IES being, (MC6), and thus complete the line of reasoning from the Five Ways to the existence of an IES being that has perfect knowledge.
The key passage about the existence of an IES being appears to be Question 3 , Article 4 (which Aquinas references in the above quotation).  In that passage, there are three different arguments to establish the existence of an IES being, which can be summarized in terms of three conditional claims:
(CC4) If there exists an FEC (first efficient cause) being, then there exists and FEC being that is also an IES being.
(CC5) If there exists an AP (actus purus, i.e. purely actual) being, then there exists an AP being that is also an IES being.
(CC6) If there exists a First being that is its own essence, then there exists a being that is its own essence and that is both a First Being and an IES being. 
The First Line of Reasoning Supporting (MC6)
The existence of an FEC being was argued for in the Five Ways passage, so that particular line of reasoning has been traced back to its starting point: the 2nd Way, which is an argument for this metaphysical claim.  We can combine that metaphysical claim with one of the above conditional claims to form a modus ponens:
(MC2)  There exists an FEC being.
(CC4) If there exists an FEC (first efficient cause) being, then there exists an FEC being that is also an IES being.
Therefore:
(MC10) There exists an FEC being that is also an IES being.
Therefore:
(MC6) There exists an IES being.
Here is a simple diagram showing the flow of this first line of reasoning:
FEC–>FEC & IES–>IES
 
The Second Line of Reasoning Supporting (MC6)
The second argument for the existence of an IES being is based on the following key metaphysical claim:
(MC7) There exists an AP being.
This metaphysical claim is argued for in Question 3:
Secondly, beause the first being must of necessity be in act, and in no way in potency. …Now it has already been proved that God is the First Being.  It is therefore impossible that in God there should be anything in potency.  (Summa Theologica, Question 3, Article 1, in the second argument)
The reasoning can again be put into the form of a modus ponens:
(MC11) There exists a First Being.
(CC7) If there exists a First Being, then there exists a First Being that is also an AP being.
Therefore:
(MC12) There exists a First Being that is also an AP being.
Therefore:
(MC7) There exists an AP being.
However, because Aquinas is somewhat careless in his reasoning, it is unclear what he means by a “First Being”.  This is a technical term, and Aquinas introduces it without providing a definition, and without providing any explanation or clarification of what this term means.
Since the passage I quoted that refers to “the First Being” occurs immediately after the famous Five Ways passage, this new technical term presumably refers to one of the following “first” beings discussed in the Five Ways passage:
(MC1) There exists a UFC being.  
(“a UFC being” = a being that is an unchanged first changer – often misleadingly translated “unmoved first mover” )
(MC2) There exists an FEC being.  
(“an FEC being” =  a being that is a first efficient cause)
(MC3) There exists an FN being.
(“an FN being” = a being that is a first necessary being, a being that is necessary but does not get its necessity from another being)
The 4th and 5th Ways do not speak of a being that is “first”, and unlike the other three Ways, they do not make use of the rejection of an infinite regress (to establish the existence of a being as the “first” in a chain of dependency), so the COP (cause of all perfections) being, and the IDN (intelligent designer of nature) being, do NOT seem to be good candiates for the referent of the expression “the First Being”.
My best guess is that when Aquinas speaks of “the First Being” in Question 3, he is referring back to the being that he tries to prove exists in his 2nd Way:  an FEC being.  The expression “the First Being” suggests the idea of “the First thing that exists”, and it is the 2nd Way that focuses in on the cause of the existence of beings in general.  The 1st Way is focused on the cause of changes, and the 3rd Way is focused on the cause of necessary beings, which is a special category of beings.  So, only the 2nd Way relates to the cause of the existence of beings in general.  I’m not certain of this interpretation of “the First Being”, but it seems to be the best of the three main alternatives.
Assuming my interpretation of “First Being” is correct, we can trace this line of reasoning back to the 2nd Way:
(MC2) There exists an FEC being.  
(CC8) If there exists an FEC being, then there exists an FEC being that is also an AP being.
Therefore:
(MC13) There exists an FEC being that is also an AP being.
Therefore:
(MC7) There exists an AP being.
(CC5) If there exists an AP (actus purus, i.e. purely actual) being, then there exists an AP being that is also an IES being.
Therefore:
(MC14) There exists an AP being that is also an IES being.
Therefore:
(MC6) There exists an IES being.
Here is a simple diagram showing the flow of this second line of reasoning:
FEC–>FEC & AP–>AP–>AP & IES–>IES
 
The Third Line of Reasoning Supporting (MC6)
The third line of reasoning involves another reference to the “First Being”:
(CC6) If there exists a First being that is its own essence, then there exists a being that is its own essence and that is both a First Being and an IES being. 
If we interpret the expression “First Being” as a reference to an FEC being, then this conditional claim (CC6) can be stated more clearly:
(CC9) If there exists an FEC being that is its own essence, then there exists a being that is its own essence and that is both an FEC being and an IES being. 
We have part of what is needed to show the truth of the antecedent of this conditional claim:
(MC2) There exists an FEC being.  
But it needs to be shown that such a being “is its own essence” in order for us to be able to affirm the truth of the antecedent of (CC9).  Aquinas argues for the existence of a being that “is its own essence” in Question 3, Article 3: Whether God Is the Same As His Essence or Nature?  The argument in that section is based on another metaphysical concept:
Since God then is not composed of matter and form, He must be His own Godhead, His own Life, and whatever else is thus predicated of Him.  (Summa Theologica, Part I, Question 3, Article 3)
This suggests the following conditional claim:
(CC10) If there exists a being that is not composed of matter and form, then there exists a being that is its own essence.
Since Aquinas needs to prove the existence of a being that is both an FEC being and that is its own essence, he needs to prove the following modified version of the above conditional claim:
(CC11) If there exists an FEC being that is not composed of matter and form, then there exists an FEC being that is its own essence.
Aquinas argues that God is “not composed of matter and form” in Question 3, Article 2: Whether God is Composed of Matter and Form?  He gives three different arguments to support this claim, and the third argument is based on the concept of an FEC being:
Now God is the first agent, since He is the first effecient cause as we have shown (Q. II, A. 3).  He is therefore of His essence a form, and not composed of matter and form.  (Summa Theologica, Part I, Question 3, Article 2).
So we can now trace this line of reasoning back to the 2nd Way, because Aquinas has argued for this conditional claim:
(CC12) If there exists an FEC being, then there exists an FEC being that is not composed of matter and form.
Add to this the metaphysical claim from the 2nd Way for a modus ponens:
(MC2) There exists an FEC being.
Therefore:
(MC15) There exists an FEC being that is not composed of matter and form.
(CC11) If there exists an FEC being that is not composed of matter and form, then there exists an FEC being that is its own essence.
Therefore:
(MC16) There exists an FEC being that is its own essence.
(CC9) If there exists an FEC being that is its own essence, then there exists a being that is its own essence and that is both an FEC being and an IES being. 
Therefore:
(MC17) There exists a being that is its own essence and that is both an FEC being and an IES being. 
Therefore:
(MC6) There exists an IES being.
Here is a simple diagram showing the flow of this third line of reasoning:
FEC–> FEC & not composed of matter and form–>FEC & is its own essence–>is its own essence & FEC & IES–>IES
=======================
If we ignore the conditional claims and focus on just the metaphysical claims in the above arguments, we can depict the flow of Aquinas’ reasoning from the conclusion of the 2nd Way (MC2), to the conclusion that there is an IES being with PERFECT KNOWLEDGE (MC9).  Click on the image below for a clearer view of the diagram:
Flow of Reasoning from MC2 to MC9
 
 
 

bookmark_borderBiological vs. Philosophical Perspectives on Morality

(Redated post originally published on 18 October 2011)
(This is from my archives and is undated; I’m guessing I wrote this about a decade ago. I think it is still relevant, as evidenced by Jerry Coyne’s article about explaining morality.)
I recently updated one of the official FAQs for the *.atheism newsgroups. (For interested parties, I updated the “Atheist Media FAQ” at http://www.infidels.org/news/atheism/media.html.) In private email, I received the following suggestion relative to the “morality and religion” section of my bibliography:

“Good Natured”, by Frans de Waal. He extensively documents morals in non-human primates.

As someone who is focused on metaethics and normative ethics (as opposed to descriptive ethics), this suggestion seemed like an odd one to me. This suggestion reminded me how differently the word “moral” can be used in the philosophical community vs. the biological community. Without having read de Waal’s book, I suspect that what de Waal documents is that non-human primates exhibit certain social behaviors and perhaps even “customs” that promote the flourishing of the respective species. But what is the philosophical significance of “morals in non-human primates” in that sense? At the risk of sounding like some of theists I criticize, “Yes, non-human primates exhibit certain social behaviors that promote the flourishing of their species, but is it morally good?” It seems to me that the behavior exhibited by non-human primates is not even relevant to metaethical questions unless one has good prior reason to believe that ethical naturalism is true. Or, to be more precise, instead of saying “not even relevant to metaethical questions,” I should say, “not even relevant to moral ontology,” without implying anything about the other branches of metaethic

bookmark_borderJerry Coyne on Goodness without God

(Originally published on 17 October 2011)
Jerry Coyne recently wrote an op-ed in USA Today entitled, “As Atheists Know, You Can Be Good Without God.” Christian philosopher Matt Flanagan wrote an excellent critique, not of Coyne’s claim that nonbelievers can be good without God (which Flanagan grants), but of pretty much everything else Coyne wrote related to metaethics. I wanted to highlight a couple of areas where I especially agree with Flanagan, since Flanagan points out some errors that a scientist wihout philosophical training can make. I also want to state where I disagree with Flanagan.

First, what is the focus of Coyne’s critique? According to Flanagan:

The argument that our instinctive sense of right and wrong “is strong evidence for [God’s] existence” found its most important formulation in a 1979 article by Yale Philosopher Robert Adams.

Let me begin by saying that I am familiar with Adams’ work and have great respect for it, especially his magisterial, Fine and Infinite Goods. Also, I agree with Flanagan that Adams’ work has been influential among theists. Finally, I agree with Flanagan that nothing Coyne writes in any way undermines Adams’ moral argument(s) for theism.
It doesn’t follow, however, that Coyne is to be faulted, in the way Flanagan criticizes him, for not criticizing or refuting Adams’ argument. Coyne is writing in USA Today, not a professional philosophical journal, so I think it’s reasonable to expect Coyne to tailor his message to his audience. While I have no empirical data to back this up, if you want to name philosophers, I suspect that C.S. Lewis’ moral argument for God’s existence is probably much more influential among the average reader of USA Today than the work of Robert Adams. And Lewis does appeal to a variety of moral phenomena in in Mere Christianity as part of his moral argument for God’s existence. That phenomena includes not only what Lewis calls the “Moral Law,” but also moral emotions (e.g., guilt, obligation). Thus, I think it is legitimate for Coyne to offer a naturalistic explanation for moral emotions. In this sense, I think Flanagan is being unfair to criticize Coyne for not interacting with Adams.
On the other hand, Flanagan is absolutely correct when he says there is a difference between moral obligation and the feeling of obligation. So even if, for the sake of argument, Coyne is successful in offering a naturalistic explanation for the feeling of obligation, it doesn’t follow that Coyne has explained moral obligation in general.
Second, Coyne is simply wrong when he claims that moral emotions “couldn’t” come from the will or commands of God, even if we assume that Euthyphro dilemma is a fatal objection to divine command theories (DCT) of moral obligation. That is much too strong of a claim. Again, using the obligation vs. feeling of obligation distinction, at most the Euthyphro dilemma refutes the claim that moral obligation in general comes from God; it does not in any way prevent a theistic explanation for moral emotions, including feelings of obligation.
But is the Euthyphro dilemma a fatal objection to DCT of moral obligation? That’s not obvious to me at all.  I’ve read a lot of recent work by theists refining, clarifying, and defending sophisticated versions of DCT. While I am not prepared to take a definitive stance on the matter yet, here my sympathies lie with Flanagan. Why? That would be the topic for another post, some other time. 🙂
Update 24-Feb-16:
After the original publication of this post, I published my Primary on Religion and Morality. I cover many of these same topics in slightly greater detail there. LINK

bookmark_borderThe Problem of Epistemic Evil

The problem of epistemic evil is raised by Rene Descartes in the fourth of his Meditations on First Philosophy. In the previous meditation he believed that he had exorcised the Evil Genius who might be systematically and comprehensively deceiving us. Descartes believes that he has proven the existence of a good God who will not permit us to be always deceived. However, in the fourth meditation he considers the question of why, if a good God will not allow us to be always deceived, he still permits us to be deceived on occasion. Intellectual darkness is a bad thing, and it seems puzzling that a good God would ever let it happen.
Descartes’s answer is that we deceive ourselves. We choose to leap to conclusions before we have acquired sufficient grounding or justification for our beliefs. If we exercised epistemic discipline, and only affirmed truths when the evidence was clearly adequate, then we would never go wrong. God is not to blame for not giving us infinite minds such as his own, so we cannot legitimately complain that our powers are limited. But even our limited powers would not lead us astray if we were to refuse to give assent to claims until the evidence was clearly sufficient. Thus, we have our own willful irrationality to blame when we are deceived.
This was a pretty good answer given Descartes’s assumptions and background knowledge. However, today, thanks to the work of cognitive scientists we have a much more thorough knowledge about how massively we deceive ourselves. It turns out, that our propensity towards irrationality is much deeper than Descartes suspected. It is not a matter of consciously misusing our will-to-believe. As researchers such as Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have shown in abundance, we are virtually programmed for error. We go wrong spontaneously and without any conscious effort time and time again. Much of Kahneman and Tversky’s work consisted of classifying the foibles of human reasoning, i.e. the types of information that we consistently misuse. Instead of choosing to reason badly, it is all we can do to keep from falling into these cognitive traps.
Consider confirmation bias, the almost irresistible tendency to see evidence that confirms your beliefs while not seeing disconfirming evidence. Even if it is early morning as you read this, you probably have already believed something today on the basis of confirmation bias. So have I, in all probability. Confirmation bias is incredibly pervasive and insidious. What makes it so insidious is that we are almost always oblivious to its influence.
We are especially bad with respect to our spontaneous estimates of probabilities. Consider our amazing inability to consider base rates. Driving, as I do, in S.E. Texas, it seems to me that about half the time when somebody is tailgating me in traffic it is either somebody driving a big truck or a big SUV. My spontaneous and almost irresistible conclusion is that drivers of big trucks and big SUVs make up an inordinately large percentage of the jerky, aggressive drivers. However, you have to consider that in S.E. Texas a very significant percentage of all vehicles are big trucks or big SUVs! So, the apparently excessive representation of truck and SUV drivers among the jerks may be nothing more than a base-rate effect.
It seems then, that the problems with human reasoning are much deeper than Descartes imagined, and therefore would seem to require a much more sophisticated theodicy than the one Descartes gave. What might such a theodicy look like? Why would God permit us, seemingly, to be spontaneously inclined towards bad reasoning? As we have seen, a free-will defense would not work because so many of our errors are automatic and involve no choice. Indeed, they can be very hard to resist. To see how bad things are consider how we would try to prevent ourselves from falling into confirmation bias. We would do it by looking back over our cognitive judgments and seeing if they fell into confirmation bias or, instead, duly considered contrary evidence. The problem is that in the very selection of such instances we would probably succumb to confirmation bias! We would select those instances that reinforce our conviction of our own rationality and ignore the ones that did not! Hilary Kornblith has written an entire book on how reflection often only further deceives us.
Of course, bad reasoning is not only bad in itself, but leads to all sorts of other terrible problems, including much pain and suffering. Confirmation bias supports bigotry. The bigot sees the instances that confirm his prejudice, but ignores the ones that do not. National leaders might even go to war on the basis of ginned-up “intelligence” that told them what they wanted to hear (No!). Indeed, whole societies, including ones that once prided themselves on their scientists and scientific achievements, might start to trust mountebanks, ax-grinding ideologues, and ignorant blowhards rather than scientists (A purely hypothetical society, I assure you.). Bad reasoning either causes or supports much evil.
Maybe the argument would be that God permits us to have such strong tendencies towards irrationality so that the few triumphs of reason (e.g. general relativity, molecular genetics, symbolic logic) will stand out as all the more gloriously in comparison. Such diamonds shine all the more resplendently scattered, as they are, in the general muck. But all too often the muck covers the diamonds. The recent reported confirmation of gravity waves got scant notice in the media, easily drowned out by the accounts of Donald Trump’s latest buffoonery. Einstein may have been the glory of the human race, but for every Einstein there are a million Donald Trumps. And the really shocking thing is that if the cognitive scientists like Kahneman and Tversky are right, we each, all too often, listen to our inner Donald Trumps.

bookmark_borderHow Not to Debate ‘the’ Moral Argument: Reply to PZ Myers

(Redated post originally published on 8 June 2012)
In a recent post, PZ Myers complains that a couple of atheists botched their response to ‘the’ moral argument for God’s existence.[1] He writes:

There is a common line of attack Christians use in debates with atheists, and I genuinely detest it. It’s to ask the question, “where do your morals come from?” I detest it because it is not a sincere question at all — they don’t care about your answer, they’re just trying to get you to say that you do not accept the authority of a deity, so that they can then declare that you are an evil person because you do not derive your morals from the same source they do, and therefore you are amoral. It is, of course, false to declare that someone with a different morality than yours is amoral, but that doesn’t stop those sleazebags.

Even if Myers were right that the question is insincere, that still doesn’t refute the argument. With all due respect to Myers, I detest, in any context, the presumptuousness of assuming that one person is inside another person’s mind and knows their thoughts, feelings, and motives. I think he is flat out wrong about the sincerity of the question; I think many people do have genuine questions about the foundations of morality.
Other than (perhaps?) the question, “Where do your morals come from?”, Myers doesn’t quote anything the Christian debaters actually said, so I don’t know which argument the Christian debaters used. Myers put the words “objective morality” in the title of his post, however, so I’m going to assume that the Christians used an argument similar to William Lane Craig’s version of the moral argument. If that assumption is wrong, Myers can correct me.
Myers summarizes his “objective humanist morality” as based upon interest, consent, harm, and stigma.  Unfortunately Myers seems to have mixed up normative ethics, which is concerned with what we ought or ought not to do, with metaethics, which, among other things, is concerned with the ontological foundation of moral properties (like moral obligations and moral values). Even if his normative principles of interest, consent, harm, and stigma are perfectly correct, Myers still has said nothing about what makes his principles objective. At best, his calling morality an “objective humanist morality” simply summarizes the conclusion of an argument he hasn’t (yet) provided: Myers has given no argument which shows that objective morality can exist without God.
To say that morality is objective is to say that it doesn’t depend upon the subjective states of a person like feelings, beliefs, emotions, thoughts, etc. So when someone says, “Moral principle X is true,” we can ask, “What makes X true?” Take, for example, harm. Myers writes:

I avoid behaviors that cause harm to others.
Again, this is not done because an authority told me to do no harm, but is derived from self-interest and empathy. I do not want to be harmed, so I should not harm others. And because I, like most human beings, have empathy, seeing harm done to others causes me genuine distress.

So here we have a (normative) moral principle: we should avoid behaviors that cause harm to others. What makes that true? According to Myers, the answer is “self-interest and empathy.” This simply pushes the problem back a step. What makes moral principles “derived from self-interest and empathy” true? If the answer is, “That’s what humans have decided,” then that’s not an objective morality, by definition. Nor is the question asking, “Why should I be moral?” That’s a different subject.
Update: 8-May-12 5:15PM
I just identified the Christian debate opponents for the debate witnessed by Myers: Paul Chamberlain and Michael Horner. Horner’s account of the debate is available online. Based upon my familiarity with Horner’s arguments, I am now even more confident that the moral argument used by Chamberlain and Horner was essentially the same as the version used by William Lane Craig in his debates. 
Update: 24-Feb-16 4:45PM
After the original publication of this post in 2012, I have since created a YouTube video in which I explain the logically correct way to refute the type of moral argument favored by William Lane Craig and Michael Horner (and which seems to be target of Myers’ attack). LINK
Note
[1] I’ve put ‘the’ in scare quotes because there are many distinct types of moral arguments for God’s existence, so it’s misleading to suggest there is only one. This is not to suggest that PZ Myers makes this mistake, however.

bookmark_borderChristian Apologists Ignore the Best Objections to the Moral Argument

(Redated post originally published on 2 August 2014)
To be precise, there are many kinds of moral arguments for theism. The question in the title is really talking about what we might call “ontological” or “metaphysical” moral arguments, the kind which claim that we need God in order to have an “ontological foundation” for objective or absolute morality.
People who defend a version of this kind of argument include a veritable “Who’s Who?” of contemporary Christian apologists: C.S. Lewis (see here and here), Alvin Plantinga (see here and here), William Lane Craig, Paul Copan, J.P. Moreland, Randal Rauser, David Baggett, Jerry Walls, Norman Geisler, Frank Turek, Roger Olson, Michael Horner, and so forth.
While there have been many critics who seem to be clueless about how to refute such arguments (see here and here for just two of probably 100+ available examples), there are many other philosophers who understand the arguments perfectly well and–gasp!–actually offer relevant objections. (What a concept!) In my opinion, the two best critics of ontological moral arguments are Erik Wielenberg (see here and here) and Wes Morriston (see here and here). Why, then, do apologists who’ve written on the topic in the last decade continue to ignore Wielenberg and Morriston?
I’m starting to think Ex-Apologist has a great explanation, albeit one he didn’t invent specifically for this topic. In fact, I think he has a great name for this great explanation. In a post entitled, “Proposal for a New Entry in the Philosophical Lexicon,” he calls this behavior “craiging.” Here is how he defines it.

craig, v. (a) to engage in dialectically illegitimate argumentative maneuvering, such as (e.g.) construing an interlocutor as offering a rebutting defeater for P when it’s more charitable to construe them as offering an undercutting defeater for P[1]; (b) to maintain a somewhat positive image of one’s positions in part by choosing not to address, mention, or cite the strongest criticisms of them; (c) to take up, critique, and/or ridicule an uncharitable construal of the theses and arguments of one’s interlocutor.

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[1] Relatedly: to infer or otherwise assume that because a reply fails to rebut P, it also fails to undercut P.

It is (b) which I think applies to contemporary defenders of ontological moral arguments for theism: they simply act as if these critiques don’t exist.

bookmark_borderWhere have all the Miracles Gone?

As a kid, I often left Sunday school wondering why God was so much less communicative today than he had been in Biblical times. Back then, according to the stories I heard, he was constantly speaking, out loud apparently, to some patriarch or prophet. Further, the Holy Book was chock full of flashy, often public miracles that made God’s presence and intentions abundantly clear to even the most hardheaded skeptic. Pharaoh, it appeared, even if he were even stupider than the usual royal dolt, would surely have recognized by the sixth or seventh plague that he was up against a dangerous supernatural being. Elijah vs. the priests of Baal (I Kings, chapter 18) was even a fine example of a crucial experiment. Surely nobody who had witnessed that could have the least bit of doubt that Baal was a fake and The Lord was the genuine article.
Yet, in our day, when there were as many bad guys and as much doubt and uncertainty as in the old days, God was strangely quiescent. No voices boomed from on high, no seas parted, and everyone dead stayed that way. When I asked, I was told that the age of miracles was over and that God expected us to believe on the basis of faith rather than spectacular demonstrations. Whatever the reason, it seemed abundantly clear that big, obvious displays revealing God’s purpose and power simply did not occur. Hitler could oppress the Jews far worse than Pharaoh, but his destruction came not from supernatural plagues, but from entirely earthly causes–Allied guns, tanks, and bombs.
No doubt some would claim that miracles do in fact still occur. For instance, on very rare occasions patients with advanced metastatic cancer will spontaneously and mysteriously recover. Their tumors will just go away for no apparent reason. But such cases surely are more reasonably interpreted as having unknown natural causes that medical science would very much like to discover. In fact, once you have weeded out the reports of quacks, cranks, charlatans, and special pleaders, there just do not seem to be any robustly verifiable miracles left. There is nothing at all like feeding thousands with one Happy Meal or public displays of aquatic pedestrianism. If they do occur, why are TV cameras never present?
Some might say that miracles, in the sense of physical effects brought about by the intervention of supernatural entities, occur all the time. For substance dualists, everything we do has a supernatural cause—the soul. For dualists, it is literally a miracle that I am now moving my fingers to write these words. Such events involve the intervention by a supernatural entity into the physical world. However, such a claim is highly tendentious and would really only serve to redirect attention to a critical discussion of substance dualism.
It therefore seems that we could conclude that, by far, the best explanation for the absolute absence of verifiable miracles is that they are not happening, and, further, that the reason that they are not happening is that there is nobody there to perform them. Such an inference would prima facie seem far more plausible than alternative explanations, such as that miracles occur but that today’s unbelievers refuse to admit it or that, for some reason, God now hides his miraculous interventions. If you keep not getting valentines from a secret admirer, the best explanation of this sad state is that you have no secret admirer.
This “no miracles” argument is, of course, an aspect of the general problem of divine “hiddenness.” However, I think that it has advantages over a more general statement of that problem. A standard reply to the hiddenness argument is that if God made his presence too obvious, belief would no longer be a matter of free choice. When something is dead obvious, the belief is forced upon us. We would obey God out of prudence rather than due to a freely-given loving response to his grace. But such a reply is difficult to square with the fact that, according to holy writ, God did make his presence and power very obvious to large numbers of people with very public miracles. Many of Jesus’s miracles were performed in public. Famously, (I Corinthians 15) the risen Christ supposedly appeared before 500 of the “brethren” at one time. In the OT, the miracles are often truly Spielbergian displays performed before gaping multitudes.
The salient question then is why in those days it was appropriate for God to leave no doubt about his existence and will but not now. Did God change his mind? Why would a free, uncompelled response to God be so important now but not then? What answer would not be arbitrary or ad hoc? If a free, faithful response is so important now, why was it not back then? On the other hand, would not some big, public miracles be  a great benefit today? When, by the way, did the Age of Miracles end? There are many lively reports of miracles in the literature of the Middle Ages. Indeed, it appears that respectable sources report miracles often right up to the Enlightenment when miracle reports went out of fashion with professional historians. Did God keep performing public miracles right up to the time that educated people started getting skeptical about them? Wouldn’t that have been the time to perform more and more public miracles to counter the corrosive effects of skepticism? Why not some parting seas or resurrections to instruct our notoriously unbelieving age?

bookmark_borderFor Victor Reppert: The Metaethical Objections to Craig’s Moral Argument Which His Sophisticated Critics Use, But Craig Never Acknowledges in Debate Opening Statements

(Redated post originally published on 21 June 2012)
This is a quick follow-up to my last reply to Victor Reppert. The title of Reppert’s post is, “The Moral Argument that Christians don’t use, but atheists always rebut.” In reply, we can point to “The Metaethical Objections to Craig’s Moral Argument Which His Sophisticated Critics Use, But Craig Never Acknowledges in Debate Opening Statements.”
LINK

bookmark_borderI Don’t Care – Part 5

The famous Five Ways passage by Aquinas in Summa Theologica does not contain five arguments for the existence of God. Rather, it contains ZERO arguments for the existence of God.  There is actually only one argument for the existence of God in the Summa Theologica, and the reasoning in the Five Ways passage only represents a tiny piece of that very long and complicated argument.
The Five Ways passage presents arguments for these five metaphysical claims:
(MC1) There exists a UFC being.  
(“a UFC being” = a being that is an unchanged first changer – often misleadingly translated “unmoved first mover” )
(MC2) There exists an FEC being.  
(“an FEC being” =  a being that is a first efficient cause)
(MC3) There exists an FN being.
(“an FN being” = a being that is a first necessary being, a being that is necessary but does not get its necessity from another being)
(MC4) There exists a COP being.
(“a COP being” = a being that is the cause of all perfections)
(MC5)  There exists an IDN being.
(“an IDN being” = a being that is an intelligent designer of nature)
=================
NOTE:
The above list of five metaphysical claims is a revised version of the list of five metaphysical claims that I spelled out in Part 3 of this series of posts.   There are two key metaphysical claims by Aquinas that are derived from one or more of the above five metaphysical claims, but I jumped the gun by including those two key claims in the previous list of five metaphysical claims that Aquinas argues for in the Five Ways passage.  The two additional key metaphysical claims are argued for by Aquinas in other passages that occur later in Summa Theologica:
(MC6) There exists and IES being.
(“an IES being” = a being that is ipsum esse subsistens, i.e. its own self-subisting existence)
(MC7) There exists an AP being. 
(“an AP being” = a being that is actus purus, i.e. pure actuality, with no potentiality)
=================
Aquinas’ argument for the existence of God can be summarized this way:
(MC6) There exists an IES being.
(CC1) IF there exists an IES being, THEN God exists.
Therefore:
(G) God exists.
The Five Ways passage comes close to providing an argument for (MC6), but some additional reasoning is required.  The Five Ways passage, however, makes no attempt to prove the conditional claim (CC1).  Several (at least a dozen) other passages in Summa Theologica provide a long and complex line of reasoning in support of (CC1), as we shall see.
I had initially thought that I would use the strategy of working backwards from the main conditional premise that Aquinas needs to support:
(CC1) IF there exists an IES being, THEN God exists.
The argument for (CC1) needs to be something like this:
ARGUMENT FOR (CC1)
(P1) IF there exists an IES being, THEN there exists exactly one being that is the creator of the universe, an eternally bodiless person, an eternally omnipotent person, an eternally omniscient person, and an eternally perfectly morally good person.
(P2) IF there exists exactly one being that is the creator of the universe, an eternally bodiless person, an eternally omnipotent person, an eternally omniscient person, and an eternally perfectly morally good person, THEN God exists.
Therefore:
(CC1) IF there exists an IES being, THEN God exists.
I was planning to work backwards from various conditional claims linking the existence of an IES being to the existence of an IES being with a divine attribute:

  • IF there exists an IES being, THEN there exists an IES being that is the creator of the universe.
  • IF there exists an IES being, THEN there exists an IES being that is an eternally bodiless person.
  • IF there exists and IES being, THEN there exists an IES being that is an eternally omnipotent person.
  • IF there exists an IES being, THEN there exists an IES being that is an eternally omniscient person.
  • IF there exists an IES being, THEN there exists an IES being that is an eternally perfectly morally good person.

However, Aquinas’ argument for the existence of God is even more lengthy and complicated than I first thought, so it is a bit discouraging to use the strategy of working backwards from (CC1) to reconstruct his reasoning.  So, I am changing my strategy, and I will be starting in the MIDDLE of his reasoning and working my way both forward, to arrive at the conditional claim (CC1), and backwards to the initial five metaphysical claims made in the Five Ways passage.
The middle of Aquinas’ reasoning occurs when he shifts from discussion and argument about abstract metaphysical properties of God to the more recognizable religious properties of God.  The core religious property of God is KNOWLEDGE, in Aquinas’ view, and this religious property is derived from the metaphysical property of IMMATERIALITY (although I include “eternally bodiless person” as a basic defining divine attribute).
Here is the passage where Aquinas makes the shift from the derived metaphysical property of IMMATERIALITY to the core religious property of KNOWLEDGE:
I answer that, In God there exists the most perfect knowledge. … Therefore it is clear that the immateriality of a thing is the reason why it is cognitive, and the mode of knowledge is according to the mode of immateriality. … Since therefore God is in the highest degree of immateriality, as stated above (Q. VII, A. 1), it follows that He occupies the highest place in knowledge.
(Summa Theologica, Part I,  Question 14, Article 1: Whether There is Knowledge in God?)
By starting in the middle of Aquinas’ reasoning, I break the complex task into two main pieces: (1) working backwards from the conclusion that an IES being is IMMATERIAL to the metaphysical claims made in the Five Ways passage, and (2) working forward from the conclusion that an IES being has PERFECT KNOWLEDGE to the derived religious/theological properties of God:  the creator of the universe, an eternally omniscient person, and an eternally perfectly morally good person.
The religious property of omnipotence is derived not from PERFECT KNOWLEDGE but from some of God’s metaphysical properties.  So, I will also have a third task: (3) working backwards from the existence of an eternally omnipotent person to the metaphysical claims made in the Five Ways passage.
Since being IMMATERIAL appears to imply that God is bodiless, if I can trace the reasoning for the claim that an IES being is IMMATERIAL backwards to the metaphysical claims in the Five Ways passage, then that will cover the property of being bodiless (though Aquinas needs to show that God is eternally bodiless, so some additional reasoning will probably be needed).
The following diagram shows the general flow of the reasoning (click on the image below for a clearer view of the diagram):
Reconstructing Aquinas Argument
 

bookmark_borderDoug Geivett’s Turnaround Argument on Evil as a Departure from the Way Things Ought to Be

(Redating post last published on 31 October 2011)
(Redating this post due to clarification from Geivett regarding his argument)
For those of you who don’t know of him, Doug Geivett is a Christian philosopher at Biola University. I had the opportunity to meet him in 1997 at the I.I.-sponsored debate on the existence of God between him and Paul Draper. During that debate, I remember Geivett presenting a “turnaround argument” in response to Draper’s evidential argument from evil. In debate jargon, a “turnaround argument” is where you try to flip an argument on its head and use some portion of it to support the opposite conclusion.
As documented here, Geivett’s turnaround argument may be summarized as follows:
1. Evil exists.
2. Evil is a departure from the way things ought to be.
3. If there is a departure from the way things ought to be, then there is a way things ought to be.
4. Therefore, there is a way things ought to be.
5. If there is a way things ought to be, then there is a design plan for things.
6. If there is a design plan for things, then there must be a Designer.
7. Therefore, there must be a Designer.
Update (31-Oct-11): Geivett has provided some comments (see below) which clarify his argument.