Quibbling over Semantics While Missing the Point

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I’m a linguistic relativist. I don’t think words have objective meanings. I think the meaning of words is relative to time and place. So when I encounter someone who is adamant about defining a word in a different way than I do, I just shrug my shoulders. I’m much more interested in the concepts represented by certain labels than the labels themselves.

I recently discovered (or re-discovered) an exchange on this site in which a Christian apologist responds to my critique of William Lane Craig’s moral argument for God’s existence. Responding to a comment from reader “Andy,” who had promoted my critique, Timothy Stratton begins his critique by denying that I am a naturalist.

You said, “The biggest exponent of the moral argument is of course William Lane Craig. I’ll recommend to everyone again to view Jeffery Jay Lowder’s takedown of Craig’s version of the argument…”

Do you really think JJL’s argument is a good one, Andy? This is anything but a “takedown.” For starters, his title is “Naturalism, Theism, and Moral Ontology,” but he sure does not defend naturalism; in fact, he argues against naturalism!

Let’s see. I started one of the first atheist websites on the Internet, a website devoted to promoting metaphysical naturalism on the Internet. I claim to be a naturalist and, in that critique, I claim to be defending naturalism against an argument for God’s existence based on moral ontology. So why would Stratton deny that I am a naturalist? He continues:

He is anything but a naturalist as he states that there are many immaterial abstract objects that ontologically exist without beginning! He specifically references the laws of nature (which are not nature themselves), mathematical laws, and the laws of logic.

So, according to Stratton, I’m not a naturalist because I’m open to the existence of abstract objects.

This is a very uncharitable way of responding to critique, so allow me to explain why. Like many things, the word “naturalism” means different things to different people. For some people it refers to epistemology (i.e., “methodological naturalism”) while for others it refers to ontology (i.e., “metaphysical naturalism”). Furthermore, even within the domain of ontology, there is no consensus among philosophers regarding what it means. Some people define “metaphysical naturalism” in a way that is synonymous with materialism, i.e., nature is all there is. Other people (including yours truly), however, define “metaphysical naturalism” in a much more modest way that makes no claims for or against the existence of abstract objects. In light of the many legitimate definitions of “metaphysical naturalism” among professional philosophers, it is simply uncharitable for Stratton to act as if I am using an idiosyncratic definition of “naturalism.”  If an author or speaker uses one of many legitimate definitions of a word that is probably polysemous, the charitable thing to do is engage the author or speaker on his or her own terms.

I don’t really care whether my worldview is called “naturalism,” “weak naturalism,” “atheistic moral Platonism,” or “shnaturalism.” I’m interested in the concepts or ideas represented by the label. So, with that in mind, let’s try to put my critique in context. William Lane Craig defends an argument for God’s existence from moral ontology; my presentation is a critique of Craig’s argument. Regardless of the label we assign to my worldview, it is still the case that an “atheist” (in Craig’s sense of “atheist”) can consistently believe in “objective moral values and duties” (in Craig’s sense of “objective moral values of duties”). Furthermore, it is still the case that Craig’s supporting arguments are completely unsuccessful. Nothing Stratton has written refutes anything in that presentation.

Instead, Stratton basically tries to change the subject and present an argument from abstract objects for theism. He writes:

Now, I think a strong argument can be made that the best explanation of all of these immaterial abstract and eternal things is the eternal existence of God (I have written on this topic on my website).

Craig’s moral argument is based upon the claim that ontologically objective moral values and duties are logically inconsistent with God’s nonexistence. Even if it were the case that God is the best explanation for abstract objects, this wouldn’t vindicate Craig’s argument from moral ontology to God’s existence since that argument makes a much stronger claim. But in fact I think apologists are going to have a very hard time defending the kind of argument Stratton describes. In my experience, when defending such arguments, Christian apologists play fast and loose with the definition of theism and, indeed, equivocate. Sometimes “theism” means theism and sometimes “theism” means theism conjoined with one or more auxiliary hypotheses, such as the doctrine of divine aseity (which denies that abstract objects exist a se). It may be the case that Christians have excellent theological reasons for believing that doctrine; I am not making any claims about that. But mere theism does not entail divine aseity. The existence of fully autonomous abstracta is logically consistent with ‘mere theism.’

The upshot is this: theists can appeal to an auxiliary hypothesis, such as a sectarian doctrine about divine aseity, in order to explain abstract objects. But this gain in “explanatory power” is offset by a loss in “intrinsic probability,” and the best explanation is the hypothesis which has the greatest overall balance of intrinsic probability and explanatory power. So it is far from obvious that theism (conjoined with an auxiliary hypothesis about divine aseity) is the best explanation. In fact, it is far from obvious that abstract objects, if they exist, even need an explanation. But that’s a topic for another day.

Be that as it may, why can all of these supernatural (other than nature) immaterial abstract things exist, but a supernatural immaterial concrete “Thing” cannot exist?

Again Stratton tries to summarize my views and, again, he does so in a very uncharitable way. Nowhere in my critique (or anywhere else) have I claimed that the supernatural “cannot” exist, so it is odd that Stratton would try to saddle me with such a strong claim. In fact, my actual position denies that claim: I believe that theism is possible, but improbable. As anyone who is familiar with my writings knows, my preferred style of argumentation is inductive; I defend arguments which try to show that theism is improbable, not impossible.

How ad hoc to posit all of these supernatural entities to avoid an argument deductively proving a supernatural immaterial Thinking Thing exists.

The phrase “all of these supernatural entities” is key, for it emphasizes the key confusion in Stratton’s commentary. Unlike Stratton, I don’t believe that abstract objects are “supernatural” by definition. The key difference between supernatural beings and abstract objects is this: supernatural beings can stand in causal relations, while abstract objects cannot. Because supernatural beings can stand in causal relations, this make it at least possible to devise empirical ‘tests’ for their existence in a way that cannot be done for abstract objects. Those ‘tests’ provide reasons to doubt the existence of supernatural beings, but they don’t provide reasons to doubt the existence of abstract objects. So, contrary to Stratton, there is nothing “ad hoc” about it.

This atheist is willing to posit an *infinite* amount of supernatural things, but is determined to avoid a supernatural thing if it is an immaterial thinking thing (a mind).

Again, notice the uncharitable comment. I’m not sure why Stratton tries to saddle me with the claim that an “infinite” number of abstract objects exist, but it really doesn’t matter one way or the other. What matters is whether the existence of abstract objects provides a reason to think that God exists. For the reasons given above, I don’t think ‘mere theism’ does that. And the parting shot about psychological motivations (“determined to avoid a supernatural thing”) is just that, an irrelevant parting shot, not an argument.

If this is the best that WLC’s defenders can do in defense of his moral argument, then I think his critics (including some theists!) are quite justified in regarding his argument as unsuccessful.