The conditional premise of the moral argument

Categories: Ethics Philosophy Philosophy of Religion

The title of this blog entry is a little misleading, since I’m actually talking about a conditional premise of one formulation of the moral argument. It’s not the formulation of the moral argument that I prefer to use, but it’s a common one nonetheless, and one that I do think is sound.

The common formulation that I have in mind is this:

  1. If God did not exist, then there could not be any objective moral duties and values
  2. There are objective moral duties and values
  3. Therefore God exists

This formulation is the one that most have in mind when they think of the moral argument. In a recent radio discussion I outlined my own formulation of the argument (see the above link), only to have my argument immediately re-described back to me using the above formulation (not I that I minded too much, as the above formulation is simpler and probably more appropriate for the radio discussion format). Such is the familiarity of this form of the moral argument in the minds of many.

The logic is flawless, there’s no doubting that. This is a valid argument – the conclusion follows inevitably from the premises. The only way to show that the conclusion is false, therefore, is to show that one of the premises is false. Usually when this argument is presented, those who take issue with it reject the first premise, which is a conditional premise (as it takes the form of “If… then…”). Most often when the argument is presented in a public forum the objection comes in the form of a misunderstanding along the lines of “Wait, do you really think atheists aren’t moral – that we can’t do good?” This is an objection that came up when I last presented the moral argument to a group of Students at the University of Auckland. This objection clearly misses the mark, since the argument has little if anything to do with how moral or immoral specific groups of people might happen to be. It’s about how moral facts can exist at all – about whether any actions might be objectively morally right or wrong, whether they are carried out by Christians, Taoists, Muslims, Jews or atheists. But another common rebuff that I hear is “Oh come on, that old canard? Seriously? That claim is so common but nobody EVER gives any reasons for thinking that it’s true!” In nearly every case I just ask the person who said that how many philosophical defences of the moral argument they have read. Plenty, I’m told – they’ve discussed in on the internet quite a few times! One (but only one) person has actually told me that they’ve listened to Bill Craig’s presentation of the moral argument and also read his summary of that argument in Reasonable Faith and they still say that he actually didn’t offer any considerations, but that claim is fairly unique (I don’t think any fair reader can say that Bill has actually offered no serious considerations at all in any of his books or public debates).

So what kind of considerations do philosophers offer for the first premise? Here’s where I get a bit preachy and vent a concern that I have with the way some blog readers (mostly not readers of this blog, of course) approach the acquisition of understanding. If you want a full, satisfying answer to this (or any other complex) question, you shouldn’t be reading a popular level blog entry to get it. A number of philosophers of religion have defended the first premise. Indeed nearly all Christian philosophers I am aware of who have commented on that premise maintain that it is true, so there is no shortage of places to look. You could start with the fairly popular level treatments by philosopher William Lane Craig (who touches fairly briefly on the issue in his book Reasonable Faith (or perhaps the somewhat simpler On Guard and has discussed the issue at more length with Richard Taylor in their debate “Is the basis of Morality natural or Supernatural?” Other popular level works that offer some considerations in favour of this premise include C. Stephen Evans, Philosophy of Religion: Thinking About Faith or (getting more detailed) Paul Copan’s chapter on the moral argument in the book he edited with Paul Moser, The Rationality of Theism. If you’re interested in really delving into the moral argument and the relationship between God and morality in more depth in a book length treatment, something like John Hare’s God and Morality: A Philosophical History, John Rist’s Real Ethics: Reconsidering the Foundations of Morality or Robert Adams’ magisterial work Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics may be more your cup of tea. The point is just that if you’re someone who rolls their eyes at the conditional premise here as though it’s a nonsensical alien idea for which you’ve just never heard any serious arguments before, then here’s some advice: the comment section of a blog is not the place to obtain an education in meta-ethics or philosophy of religion. I mean sure, via blogs and podcasts you can access some really useful reading and listening material and learn a lot, but there is no substitute for your own earnest research, and nothing can lift the burden of the responsibility of putting in the hours, days, weeks (etc) of learning the subject for yourself if you are someone who really wants to be able to speak as an insider on the subject. I spent a couple of lengthy chapters in a doctoral dissertation laying some of the groundwork for and defending a moral argument for theism, but even then there was plenty more that could have been said. So when I see someone say that they’ve just never seen any serious reasons (even reasons that they have considered and ultimately rejected) offered for the conditional premise of the moral argument, my answer is just that they need to do some reading. I have never encountered a good argument for why I should hold any particular belief about microscopic creatures that live on the sea floor, but that’s just because I’ve never bothered to spend much time reading about deep sea marine biology. It’s my own fault!

But let’s imagine that the following scenario is true: You don’t have time to do a lot of reading of academic books (or maybe you just don’t like it). You haven’t done a lot of reading in philosophy of religion or meta-ethics, and as a result, you (naturally) have no intentions of presenting yourself as someone who presumes to speak on God and morality with any kind of authority. You’re realistic about this. You’re just curious as to what kind of considerations philosophers have given for something like the conditional premise given here, and although you realise that a blog may not be the place to get the full story, you’re happy with a condensed version.

OK, well then you’ve come to the right blog entry (and possibly the longest introduction to a blog post, containing the most barbs about my own pet peeve ever)! I won’t presume to summarise the entire literature in answering this question because that’s just not realistic. What I’ll do is briefly describe two kinds of reasons that I have given in defence of this conditional claim: If God doesn’t exist then neither do “objective moral values and duties.” I prefer to refer simply to “moral facts,” so that’s what I will do from now on.

 

The nature of moral (and non-moral) facts

The first kind of consideration arises from considering what kind of thing moral facts (unlike other facts) are. There are a limited number of things that a moral property or a moral claim can be, provided we divide up the conceptual terrain fully. Maybe, as some allege, there aren’t any moral facts at all, just because moral claims aren’t statements of fact that can be true or false; they are just vents of emotion or expressions of will with no real cognitive content at all. This was the view of a number of important ethicists of the mid twentieth century, including R. M. Hare. Or maybe moral claims really are statements of fact after all, but they’re all false because there are just no moral facts, no moral properties, no objective moral values or duties at all. This is the outlook sometimes call ethical nihilism, or more politely, an “error theory” of morality, since all moral claims are in error.

But if we reject those perspectives and say instead that there really are some moral facts – that it’s true that some things are morally right or wrong (in other words, if we embrace moral realism), then those options are off the table. So if some claims about moral facts are true, what is it that makes a moral fact what it is? What is it that generates objective moral obligations? It’s either going to be something in the natural world, or it’s not. Easily the most popular position among atheists who are moral realists (like, for example, Sam Harris in the popular literature or Christian Illies in the philosophical literature) is to say that objective moral facts are a natural feature of the universe. This is a view that has had a cloud of suspicion over it at least since Hume, who famously pointed out that you can’t (on the face of it) derive an “ought” statement from a collection of “is” statements. The nature of moral facts makes this attempt highly implausible. Natural or scientific facts about the world, like logical truths, are statements about what is. For example: That is a tree. This lake is 97 metres deep. Sticking a hot needle into the body at this place creates a sensation of pain. Severing the carotid artery in a person’s throat (and not giving them medical attention) will cause them to bleed to death. White sunlight refracts in the rain to create a rainbow (to finish on a more pleasant note). The same is true of laws of physics or logic. They tell us about the way things are, or they predict what will happen under given circumstances. These are all descriptions. Moral facts, however, have an important prescriptive component that is not present in any natural scientific or logical truths. The scientifically verifiable fact that feeding a hungry person with save her from starvation tells us what will happen. This fact alone doesn’t tell us anything about whether we have any sort of duty to feed hungry people. The fact that some actions inflict horrific pain upon people, again, is a factual description. Nothing here informs us as to whether or not we have any requirement not to torture people. But consider the claim: “You must not torture people.” There is no observation of the natural facts, no scientific study, no logical analysis that we can do to find out that this is true. If you find yourself loving the people involved and you don’t want to see them in pain, then of course you won’t want to torture them, but not wanting to do something and being morally required to not do it are clearly not the same thing. What if you hated them and really did want to see them suffer as much as possible?

Immanuel Kant observed that the fundamental feature of morality is that it commands our will. This is certainly true of our encounter with morality. Unlike observations of the natural world, moral facts present themselves to us like commands, telling us what should be, and what we ought to do. In addition to reinforcing the suspicion that moral facts are not just a feature of the material universe, this observation (an observation that I maintain atheists share no less than theists) gives us reason to believe that moral facts have a personal origin. Commands, directions and anything like them, are expressions of intentions, and only personal beings have intentions. Obviously if the universe was created by a personal being – God – then it makes sense to think that there is a personal basis for moral obligations, as these obligations would reflect the way that our creator wants us to live, and as our creator God obviously knows how we were intended to live, as they are God’s intentions. If moral facts have a personal origin, then atheistic versions of what’s called “ethical non-naturalism” are also false. In that view, there are non-natural non-physical entities, you might call them “platonic objects,” and these things are moral facts. Apart from having quibbles with the idea of platonic objects, moral facts have an intentional or imperative aspect to them that is not compatible with their being simply brute impersonal facts. They are expressive of a will, they have desires, as it were. They aren’t just states of affairs that we just incidentally abide by or model. We are impelled to emulate those states of affairs as though we are satisfying someone or something by modelling them. Abstract entities don’t want us to do anything, only personal entities could do that. Connected to this is the observation made by many ethicists that moral facts or moral beliefs have the unique feature of having an inherently motivational quality. Michael Smith identifies this as the “moral problem”: How can there be facts that by their very nature motivate us to act in a certain way? The fact that moral facts in this way would be so unlike facts as we know them was part of what led ethicist and philosopher of religion J. L. Mackie to dub moral facts as downright “queer” and to reject their existence altogether.

In a related vein, Robert Adams has ably unpacked the idea that moral obligations have the features of social obligations. That is, they are like obligations that exist because of our relationships with other people. If we are moral realists who think that morality is a matter of facts, then we reject relativism. By “relativism” here I mean the view that there really aren’t any objective moral values or duties (and by “objective” I mean that these things are factual), and instead all we have is a bunch of widely different conventions of practice from one person or culture to the next, none of which is any closer than any other to being right (since “right” in that context would imply that some of them could be wrong, and that implies that there are facts of the matter). But if we embrace moral realism and reject relativism, then there has to be an objective standpoint from which to evaluate the obligations that we may or may not have to those we are in a relationship with in order for them to truly be moral obligations (and not, say, just contractual obligations or obligations created by malignant social expectations). Explaining this fully is fairly complicated, but I’ve devoted a podcast episode to the issue in order to give it some of the time it deserves. Since it is plausible to think of moral obligations as a species of social obligations (if Adams is correct), and since social theories of obligations include the fact that it really matters how we evaluate the demand made of us, and since we are talking here about objective obligations, a framework that includes a transcendent reference point over and above human relationships makes the possibility of moral facts much more plausible than it would otherwise be, and indeed it’s not clear that a non-theistic framework can offer a suitable substitute.

Of course, the above doesn’t count as a full, exhaustive explanation of the considerations from the nature of moral facts (and it would make little sense to complain that the above doesn’t deliver a full, exhaustive explanation and is therefore questionable). For that, you’ll need to venture forth on your own and work your way through some substantial reading on the subject. But these are kinds of positive reason that proponents of the conditional premise will offer. Bear in mind that there are other kinds of “moral argument” that run along quite different lines, like that of Thomas Aquinas, but those won’t involve this same conditional premise and so the positive reasons for accepting the premise obviously won’t apply there.

 

The failure of naturalism to account for moral facts

The second kind of consideration is more of a negative approach. It arises from considering the failure of attempts to ground moral facts in the natural world. If it’s true that either the moral facts are grounded in the natural world or they are grounded non-naturally (and it seems to me that something like this has to be true), then this is not a case of shirking the burden of proof. Since one of these two options must be correct if moral realism is true, it really does matter if one of them can’t be defended at all (since this would then count as a consideration in favour of the other option). On the face of it, moral facts don’t look like the kinds of things that can be accounted for as natural facts, as suggested by the first line of argument. But of course, first impressions – even highly persuasive ones – can sometimes be mistaken, and if a good argument can be made that moral facts really are natural facts about the world after all, then so be it.

The trouble – at least for the naturalist who is a moral realist – is that such attempts leave much to be desired. The recent public attempts to offer a naturalistic account of moral truths by Sam Harris, for example, really put on display the kind of naivety that some have about how easy the task is. In effect, he argued as follows:

  1. We already agree that it’s right to reduce human suffering and promote human happiness and flourishing
  2. Science can tell us ways to reduce human suffering and promote human happiness flourishing
  3. Therefore science can tell us in broad terms what’s right and what’s wrong

Of course, once we’ve already agreed on the kinds of goals that morality directs us towards, its’ true that science can often tell us, in practical terms, how to reach those goals. But this has nothing to do with offering an account of what makes it true that we do have an obligation to pursue those goals, so no matter how much science can tell us about how to pursue them, it isn’t giving us a grounding for moral facts at all. I’ve dealt with Harris’ line of argument in more depth in a previous podcast episode, Sam Harris, Science and Morality.

Others who recognise that we can’t just start with the moral assumptions that we’re trying to ground have had their stab at grounding moral facts as well, but the result is generally vague at best.

This fact is not lost on philosopher Christian Illies, himself an atheist and a moral realist. After one hundred and ninety-two pages of argument in favour of moral realism, that is, argument that we should believe moral realism is correct, he then spends six pages on the question of how there could be these things we call moral facts, and what in the world could provide the facts in question. While Illies is sure that there are moral facts and thinks there are many reasons to believe that there are moral facts, he concedes in the end that explaining how this might be metaphysically possible (given naturalism) is a tough nut to crack. He notes that some philosophers “have dismissed the ontological problem on the basis of a coherence view of truth, claiming that any enquiry about correspondence is illegitimate.”((Illies, The Grounds of Ethical Judgement: New Transcendental Arguments in Moral Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003), 192.)) Let’s just get all our beliefs consistent, some might say, and not indulge in any presumption of knowing brute reality as it is and basing all of our beliefs on the “facts.”

But even if we took this road (unpromising though I think it would be), Illies is quite right to note that “there is still the challenge of explaining the possibility of harmonizing the picture of a mind-independent world with our beliefs – beliefs obtained through a justification that is independent of any correspondence.”((Illies, The Grounds of Ethical Judgement, 193.)) “How,” he asks of moral facts, “do they fit into the picture of the world we normally have?”((Illies, The Grounds of Ethical Judgement, 193.)) Coherentism is not a saviour for this problem because the very nature of the problem is actually one of coherence. The idea of moral facts does not seem to cohere with the naturalist outlook. Trying to steer a course between empiricism and idealism, he imagines that maybe the solution lies in neither the objective world nor in reasoning, but rather “in an underlying common and foundational structure in both,” whereby the universe just is such that “the same principles may well structure reason itself, and be keyed into the way the world is.” If the world is structured by the same principles that underlie reasoning, he says, then “this would account for our ability to grasp rationally the things which are independent of our thinking.”((Illies, The Grounds of Ethical Judgement, 196.)) And so when we reason, we tap into the way the world really is, just because the way the world really is happens to be shaped by the same thing that shapes our thinking. In seeking to offer an ontological solution then, Illies falls back into epistemology, seeking to explain how we can know moral facts if the universe is a certain way, and never again returning to the question of how such facts could be facts at all. And even with respect to his metaphysical account of how we know as outlined above, Illies concedes the obvious, “I do not claim, by any means, that this metaphysical picture of the world could easily be made plausible.”((Illies, The Grounds of Ethical Judgement, 197.)) He is sure, however, that even though the ontological answer is elusive, “we must surely avoid the Charybdis of explaining the obscure by the obscure as much as the Scylla of a deus ex machine (‘the most absurd argument one could choose’, as Kant rightly remarks in a letter to Herz of 21 February 1771).”((Illies, The Grounds of Ethical Judgement, 197.)) My own position is that the ontological solution is not so much “obscure” as distasteful to many. What Illies has given us in the end is a surrender to mystery: We have absolutely no idea what the underlying facts are that ground morality, but we’d better not say that it’s God!

Somewhat more outspoken for atheism, Russ Shafer-Landau says that “most people think that if moral rules are objective, then they must have been authored by God.”((Russ Shafer-Landau, Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 75.)) This includes, he says, those “who embrace moral scepticism, just because they believe that the only escape from it is to God, whom they reject.”((Shafer-Landau, Whatever Happens to Good and Evil, 75.)) For this reason, Shafer-Landau calls the principal argument of such people the “argument from atheism.” “It says that ethics is objective only if God exists. But God does not exist. Therefore ethics isn’t objective.” Shafer-Landau says that in his “own experience,”

people tie objectivity to God because of a very specific line of thought. The basic idea is that all laws (rules, principles, standards, etc.) require a lawmaker. So if there are any moral laws, then these too require a lawmaker. But if these moral laws are objective, the lawmakers can’t be any one of us. That’s just true by definition. Objectivity implies an independence from human opinion. Well, if objective moral rules aren’t authored by any one of us, then who would did make them up? Three guesses.((Shafer-Landau, Whatever Happened to Good and Evil, 75-76.))

This is not precisely how I formulate the moral argument, but there are obvious similarities. Neither the theist nor the atheist should accept the argument from atheism, says Shafer-Landau, since laws do not really require lawmakers after all. “Since [atheists] can easily accept the existence of at least some objective laws (e.g., of physics or chemistry) they should deny that laws require authors. But once we get rid of that view, then there is no reason at all to suppose that objective moral rules require God’s existence.”((Shafer-Landau, Whatever Happened to Good and Evil, 76.))

At least one important response to Shafer-Landau seems obvious. The claim that the moral argument makes is that moral rules are problematic in metaphysical naturalism, not simply because they are rules or facts, but because they are rules or facts of a certain kind. They do not, like the laws of physics, simply tell us what will happen or what to expect. They tell us what we should do, and in doing so they express intent. Hence Shafer-Landau has made a poor comparison.((This is to say nothing, for now, about whether or not religious thinkers would grant that the laws of physics do not require an author.)) He has anticipated this response. He replies:

I disagree. The best reason for thinking that moral laws require an author is that all laws require an author. But that reason, as we’ve seen is mistaken. What other reason could there be?

I don’t think there is one, or at least one that works. Not all normative laws require lawmakers. For instance, the laws of logic and rationality are normative. They tell us what we ought to do. But no one invented them. If you have excellent evidence for one claim, and this entailed a second claim, then you should believe that second claim. If you are faced with contradictory propositions, and know that one of them is false, then you must accept the other. If you want just one thing out of life, then you ought to do what’s necessary to achieve it.

None of these are moral principles. But they are normative ones. If you are an atheist, you’ll deny that God made up such principles. If any principles are objective, these are. So we have here objective, authorless, normative laws. Objective principles, scientific or normative, need no authors.((Shafer-Landau, Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? 78.))

There are various ways of using the words “ought” or “should.” By apparently ignoring these distinctions, Shafer-Landau has engaged in equivocation. When he says that “If you have excellent evidence for one claim, and this entailed a second claim, then you should believe that second claim,” what he says is only true if he means something like you should believe that second claim in order to achieve consistency or in order to avoid holding beliefs that are inconsistent with the evidence or something involving an “in order to” clause of some sort, because this is a rational ought, a means-to-an-end ought. It is not a moral ought. If Shafer-Landau wants to say that this is the sort of ought we should be concerned about when it comes to morality, then he is no longer talking about objective laws at all, and certainly nothing comparable to moral rules. If I want to cut off your head, then I ought to use a sharp instrument. If you want to be a successful rapist, then you ought to master the element of surprise. But if you want to make the world a happier place, then perhaps you ought to give to charity, or if you want peace with God, according to many, you ought to become a Christian (although the same “many” might construe that as a normative ought as well as a rational one). In each case, the ought is the same as the ought Shafer-Landau refers to when he says that we ought not to believe things inconsistent with the evidence or that we ought not to believe contradictory claims.

If Shafer-Landau takes issue with that, and insists that really this is something which, regardless of what you want to do, you really ought, in some more basic moral sense, to obey the laws he refers to, then it is no longer obvious that what he says is true. What is so normative about these laws? Is there some grand ethical principle that says we should never believe contrary to the evidence and so forth? Certainly there are and have been those who believe that knowingly believing in spite of the evidence or in the absence of evidence is immoral, and that epistemic duty is a matter of following moral law. William Clifford probably put it most memorably: “It is immoral to have faith – to prejudge matters before one has evidence.” And famously: “To sum up:  it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”((W.K. Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” in Lectures and Essays (London: Macmillan, 1879), 183.)) If that’s what Shafer-Landau has in mind, then it’s obvious that he is begging the question. Effectively this would be to say: “We know that ethical rules don’t require a rule maker, because we can compare them to these ethical rules, and they don’t require a rule maker.” So either Shafer-Landau is equivocating, and in doing so treating certain laws as normative when they aren’t (at least not in anything like the sense in which objective moral rules are supposed to be normative), or else he is begging the question, when actually the norms he has in mind are themselves moral norms, and subject to the very dispute in question.

Sometimes I am led to consider a theory as more plausible than I used to just because the widespread attacks on that theory prove to be so ineffective. For many, perhaps the same will be true of the moral argument. There’s an effort among atheist philosophers to knock down the moral argument by coming up with non-theistic accounts of how moral facts might be grounded. By the result, as I see it, is a spectacular failure. This second type of consideration, then, should lead people to have another look at the moral argument for theism.

In any event, these are the kids of considerations that can be offered for the condition premise of the simple version of the moral argument: “If God did not exist, then there could not be any objective moral duties and values.” Firstly, the nature of moral facts compared to the nature of natural facts in general suggests important differences that make moral facts difficult to portray as simply features of the natural world. Secondly, the attempts by atheist philosophers to provide a natural foundation for moral facts does not look promising at all, contributing to the suspicion that if atheism’s best cannot provide such a foundation, it may simply not be there.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 97 comments… add one }

  • Kristian December 18, 2011, 2:53 AM

    That was an excellent read :)

  • Jason December 18, 2011, 8:55 AM

    Thanks Glenn, that was very informative.

  • bethyada December 18, 2011, 2:24 PM

    Thanks Glenn. I think this a strong argument for theism.

    I may have to re-read this as you may have covered it? You take equivocation of “ought” to task. I am frustrated at the equivocation of “laws” of science with moral “laws”. They are not categorically the same thus comparisons are incorrect. Better to use the formulas of science which is based on matter/energy; and laws, or rules, or oughts of morality which may be informational, though they probably in their own category.

  • Kenneth December 18, 2011, 11:18 PM

    Oh come on, Glenn. This is the best you’ve got? Stephen Law could *easily* respond to this, just as he did on the Unbelievable show. The rebuttal, which is completely devastating, would go like this:

    *ahem*

    “This is dodgy. I’m not going to respond to it, because I know a lot of people who don’t agree with these arguments.”

  • stephen law December 19, 2011, 1:29 AM

    Dear Kenneth

    Wow, it’s like people have their fingers in their ears and are going “Nya, nya, nya I can’t hear you!” when I explain precisely why the moral argument is pretty much useless as a riposte to the problem of evil (and thus something I don’t even need to refute) given the problem of evil constitutes a very significant evidential threat to theism, which it does (and Glenn has spectacularly failed to explain why it doesn’t. Go read my blog if you are still not sure what my actual view is.

    http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2011/12/glenn-peoples-on-evil-god-challenge.html

    Sure I also pointed out the first premise is controversial. But that was largely an aside. It was not my response to the moral argument. So you are attacking a straw man, Kenneth. Please at least bother to find out what my actual view is before you start mocking it.

    Glenn – I’m tempted to start investigating your argument more but it would be really helpful if you could set out the argument more formally, so that the most basic premises supporting your conclusion are clearly identified. Make it very clear why there is objective moral value if and only if there is an all-powerful, all-good, personal God. E.g. why moral Platonism won’t do, for example. Why non-natural objective moral facts won’t do either. Why it’s got to be a person. Exactly how the is-ought gap plays a role in delivering the conclusion. It would also be good to see what your assessment of the probability of each of basic premises of the argument is.

    Notice by the way that as more premises are introduced that you may consider to be much more probable than not – that have, say, an 80% probability of being true – the probability of your conclusion being true may nevertheless drop like a stone. With, say, with just five required basic premises of 80% probability each, the probability that your conclusion is true drops to 32%.

    That’s to say, the probability that your conclusion is FALSE is nearly 7O%!

    (Wes Morriston also points this out, I believe)

    However some theists (not you, I’m sure) others are very good at disguising this problem of plummeting probabilities with amazing rhetorical flourishes!

  • Mike D December 19, 2011, 11:05 AM

    These types of arguments – that “objective moral values” can only come from God, and which falsely equate moral relativism and moral nihilism, suffer from a flaw so glaringly obvious that it shouldn’t even need mentioning.

    Even if I grant you that premises are true, and that the argument is correct, you’re still confronted by an intractable dilemma: how, exactly, is this absolute and objective morality known to us?

    If morals indeed come from God, we haven’t gotten very far because as it happens, nobody has direct, objective access to God. Nobody is capable of making claims about God’s desires for us (his moral commands) that can be independently verified or falsified. Appeals to revealed knowledge are in principle completely unverifiable and ergo pragmatically useless: God spoke to this person, or authored this book, or appeared before that person.

    So, again, even assuming that you are correct about the validity of the premises (which, for the record, I don’t think you are), where have you left us? Whose version of which god? Whose interpretation of which holy book?

    At the end, despite all your ruminations, you’re still in the same boat as the rest of us: being that we are an innately bonded, interdependent species that lives in a cooperative social hierarchy as a matter of survival, you have to reason about moral behavior through the lens of mutually beneficial, rational self-interest.

  • Ken December 19, 2011, 11:06 AM

    Glenn refers to the “is-ought” problem in : “Hume, who famously pointed out that you can’t (on the face of it) derive an “ought” statement from a collection of “is” statements. The nature of moral facts makes this attempt highly implausible.” But then, like a lot of people who do this proceeds to base his oughts on is’s. (In his case the existence of his god).

    To a large extent this is inevitable as, in a sense, he has no interest here in understanding morality, but in using “the moral argument” to “prove” his god. I am coming from a different direction as I think understanding of morality is far more important than any religious belief and, anyway, the logical steps quoted always seem to prove only that the apologist can count to three.

    If we actually look at what Hume was saying perhaps we will have more respect for his conclusions:
    He says: ” the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprized to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not.”
    And that no-one bothers to give a reason “for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.”

    We can understand Hume’s point better if we read the context. His comment appeared at the section entitled “Moral distinctions not derived from reason.” He was very much making the point that morals are not based on reasons or outside facts but are based on intuitions. In fact they need to be as reason and facts by themselves cannot motivate people.

    I take Hume’s point that we can never understand human morality by talk of gods or facts (or assumptions, wished for phenomena) about the outside world. We need to understand intuitions and subconscious motivating feelings and emotions.

    I believe that modern science is now concurring with Hume’s idea of human morality – and going deeper with the advantages of modern psychology, neuroscience and cognitive science. It has led to a new science of morality.

    Personally, I think these studies also reveal why some people get distracted into absolutist ideas of “objective morality” – because our intuitions of “right” and “wrong” are extremely strong – they need to be. They feel absolute or even “objective.” So people get fooled and start looking for objective “is’s” to explain their “oughts”.

  • Mhssu December 19, 2011, 12:00 PM

    Ken,

    As Glenn is advancing a moral argument for God’s existence, he’s not inferring moral facts from the existence of God. That seems to me to get it exactly backwards- rather, he’s inferring the existence of God from moral facts. If he is successful, and it can be shown that there is a personal being who has the power to impose obligations through its commands, in what way can objective moral obligations fail to follow from that being’s commands?

    As for the inference to such a being, I think that that inference is pretty good. Surely, if there are objective “ought-facts” at all, they must have a certain nature. If that nature is, as Glenn argues, prescriptive, then, plausibly, a personal being with the power to generate such oughts is a justified inference from this nature.

    Cognitive science is at best an interesting distraction from the main meta-ethical issue. It can tell us what does motivate us and how, but it cannot, on the face of it, tell us whether what we are motivated by is what we ought to be motivated by. Of course, it can be useful once we do accept certain moral facts, but it is nevertheless powerless to establish them.

    If one doesn’t beg the question, cognitive science offers little in the way of a rebuttal to theistic meta-ethics. If there are moral facts that our brains are able to perceive, discerning the biological basis of these beliefs doesn’t indicate that they’re non-existent, anymore than analysing the biological basis of logical cognition undermines the objectivity of logic.

  • Nightvid Cole December 19, 2011, 1:04 PM

    Incidentally, I have listened to William Lane Craig and others, and have yet to hear a convincing argument for the premise.

    All they ever seem to do is appeal to ignorance by saying something to the effect of “If there is no God, then it’s hard to see why…” which is a terrible argument. “I can’t understand why X is true” is not a proof that “X is false”.

  • Nightvid Cole December 19, 2011, 1:38 PM

    And so as I see it, the biggest irony of them all is that the very theist who whines most loudly about confusing moral ontology and moral epistemology continually puts forth an argument that does just that by making a leap from “I can’t see why, given Q, X could be true” to “If Q, X is false”. The theist is just being hypocritical, end of story!

  • d December 19, 2011, 1:51 PM

    For Craig’s moral argument to make any sense, he has to define his terms. But if you know anything about his divine command ethics, you’ll know that he defines his moral terms in a way something like the following:

    a) good/moral: Some aspect of God’s nature
    b) objective moral obligation/duty: that which is commanded by God

    Now look at the original argument again:

    1) If God did not exist, then there could not be any objective moral duties and values
    2) There are objective moral duties and values
    3) Therefore God exists

    Now let’s look at it again, and substitute the actual definitions into the argument:

    1. If God did not exist, then commands issued by God would not exist
    2. Commands that are issued by God do exist
    3. Therefore God exists

    And this, of course, is an incredibly bad sounding argument, especially when compared with the version that obscures these moral definitions, by using the actual words instead of their definitions (i.e. “moral”, “moral obligation”, etc).

    Even if it can be said that this argument doesn’t technically beg the question, its pretty doubtful one can demonstrate the existence of “commands issue by God” any easier than one could support the straight-up existence of God. It’s just a bizarre route to take.

  • Ken December 19, 2011, 5:06 PM

    Mhssu – you make the very point I do – Glenn is attempting to “prove” the existence of his god by using morality. And as I said that is a trivial thing – the more important aspect is understanding morality. Discussing existence of gods is a mug’s game – no point in indulging in that until there is a well structure hypothesis to discuss.

    My comments here really follow on from Glenn’s previous post – On the evolution of moral beliefs. I have no interest in god concepts. The origins and nature of human morality is both fascinating and important.

    You might think Glenn’s inference is good – I think it is shocking – although it does prove he can count to three. But nothing surprising – it is perfectly natural to manipulate arguments to fit a preconceived conclusion. And to approve of arguments fitting your own bias. Everybody does it.

    Cognitive science. Like any other science, of course does not concern itself with theistic meta-ethics, or anything theistic. That conflict was solved 4000 years ago and religious philosophy and theology is no longer considered a reliable way of understanding or knowing reality. Science won that debate long ago.

    Rob WTF is the “Dawkins bandwagon” – and why introduce that diversion?

    As for WL Craig – I agree with Nightvid Cole – he is not convincing – In fact he must be embarrassing to religious apologists at the moment with his “divine command” ethics justification for genocide/ethnic cleansing and infanticide.

  • Ken December 19, 2011, 5:09 PM

    Sorry, not 4000, 400 years. Think Galileo (now that is provocative?).

  • Mhssu December 19, 2011, 6:30 PM

    Ken,

    I see very little evidence of engagement with the ideas at hand in your posts. You simply assume that you’ve won the argument, cast a few aspersions on Glenn’s motives, then move on to talking about science that is irrelevant to the meta-ethical issues.

    Why is an argument a bad one just because its conclusion is that God exists? Why is an argument a bad one just because its author has a vested interest in its success? Is your critique therefore a failure simply because you have a personal interest in its success?

    Surely, if it is actually a bad argument, you could critique the argument on its own merits, and not throw around red herrings and vague allusions to vagueness. It seems to me that, when Glenn’s claims are examined, they do indeed bear out in our moral experience. Morality if it exists does seem that it would have those prescriptive and generally social qualities that imply a relation to a divine commander, and nothing you’ve said really seems to serve as a reply to that.

    As for cognitive science, it’s hard to see the point you’re making here. If, indeed, it provides no rebuttal to the theistic meta-ethical arguments, why bring it up? Being as irrelevant as it is, it’s hard to see how it is more oriented to understanding meta-ethics than philosophy, which at least supplies pertinent arguments.

  • Mhssu December 19, 2011, 6:53 PM

    d,

    That seems to be a poor interpretation of Craig. He doesn’t define objective moral values as “what God commands,” nor does he define the good as “aspects of God’s nature.”

    What Craig does contend is that God is by definition the supreme authority and the paradigm of the good, but this is not the same as saying that the good is by definition that which God commands, or which is a part of God’s nature. Thus, you can’t use the sort of substitution you attempt. This would probably be more faithful to the gist of Craig’s point-

    1) If there is nothing which is supremely authoritative and has a nature that is paradigmatic of the good, there would be no objective moral values and duties.

    2) There are objective moral values and duties.

    3) Therefore, there is something which is supremely authoritative and which has a nature that is paradigmatic of the good, and this all men call God.

    Thus, it is demonstrating 1 that is important, and I think it is intentional that moral values and duties aren’t defined further.

    I think Craig can certainly demonstrate that if there is a being which is supremely authoritative, and which has a nature that is paradigmatic of the good, its commands would constitute our duties, and its nature would constitute the good against which all other goods are measured. Thus, it naturally gives rise to the features of morality that we wish to ground, and if it exists, then morality would indeed consist in these products of such a being’s nature.

    Of course, as a good philosopher, Craig isn’t defining morality to suit himself. The atheist is, because moral values and duties aren’t defined further, free to come up with another basis for objective moral values and duties that captures intuition as well as Craig’s supremely authoritative and paradigmatically good being.

  • Ken December 19, 2011, 7:00 PM

    Mssu – you misrepresent me. In no way do I say “an argument is a bad one just because its conclusion is that God exists.” I suggest you go back a reread what I wrote. (My point was that when there is a structured hypothesis to discuss let me know. Until then I am not interested.)

    Why bring up science? (I actually included others besides cognitive science). Because my interest is in understanding human morality and it’s origins. This is a continuation of Glenn’s last post and a critique of the present because he should really get to grips with what human morality really is before talking about “moral truths.” We need to see what science has found in this area to make progress.

    So why bring up theology? We learned 400 years ago that it was useless for understanding reality. Science was able to make progress because it broke away from theology and religious philosophy.

    This is clearly recognized even by most religions with respect to natural sciences. Any respect for religion on moral questions that remains is an anachronism. The progress is being made with the scientific approach – not the theological one.

    The advantage of a scientific approach over a limited philosophical one (and especially a religious philosophical one) is that it include more than just “pertinent arguments.” It actually interacts with reality and doesn’t just limit itself to counting to three.

  • Glenn December 19, 2011, 7:11 PM

    Mike D:

    These types of arguments – that “objective moral values” can only come from God, and which falsely equate moral relativism and moral nihilism, suffer from a flaw so glaringly obvious that it shouldn’t even need mentioning.

    Even if I grant you that premises are true, and that the argument is correct, you’re still confronted by an intractable dilemma: how, exactly, is this absolute and objective morality known to us?

    That’s a worthwhile question, sure, but it doesn’t pose a problem for the considerations offered in this blog post. On another note: This blog post doesn’t equate relativism with nihilism. I think there are distinctions to be made bewteen the two. But having said that, the following is a direct quote of an entire entry in the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy: “nihilism, ethical. See RELATIVISM.”

  • TaiChi December 19, 2011, 7:14 PM

    Glenn, some random comments..

    [Naturalistic Moral Realism]..has had a cloud of suspicion over it at least since Hume, who famously pointed out that you can’t (on the face of it) derive an “ought” statement from a collection of “is” statements.

    I’m not sure whether I should be convinced by Hume or not, but in the very least this way of putting it is question-begging. For suppose it is true that objective moral facts are a natural feature of the universe – then these facts can be, like other natural facts, expressed in descriptive statements. But in that case one can derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, because those moral statements which we recognize as prescriptive turn out to be descriptive as well.

    Unlike observations of the natural world, moral facts present themselves to us like commands, telling us what should be, and what we ought to do.

    I also find this bit of interest. If it is true that moral facts present themselves to us like commands, then it would seem that moral facts don’t present themselves to us like facts at all: commands are not truth-apt, whereas facts are (they are what is true). I think you are inadvertantly endorsing the non-cognitivism you earlier rejected here, which is a form of moral anti-realism.

    In addition to reinforcing the suspicion that moral facts are not just a feature of the material universe, this observation (an observation that I maintain atheists share no less than theists) gives us reason to believe that moral facts have a personal origin.

    For all I know, you may be right about other atheists. But for myself, I’ve never been attracted to this view, and for the reason above: a command qua command is something less a fact, and only facts seem to be solid enough to ground the ontology of morality.

    Apart from having quibbles with the idea of platonic objects, moral facts have an intentional or imperative aspect to them that is not compatible with their being simply brute impersonal facts.

    I think one could maintain that the imperative quality of moral facts lies not in their nature, but in their expression: to state a moral fact is to state a compelling reason for acting in a certain (moral) way. As for their intentional quality, I’m not sure what that is apart from the question-begging assumption that moral facts are the product of some agency.

    Michael Smith identifies this as the “moral problem”: How can there be facts that by their very nature motivate us to act in a certain way?

    It’s not clear that they do motivate us in any unfamiliar way: one can maintain that where moral facts motivate us it is through an implicit or explicit desire to be a moral person. Of course, sometimes they don’t motivate us, but in that case it is because we haven’t recognized them as facts, or because we do not wish to be moral people (which can either manifest as a temporary malaise or a life-long character flaw).

    Since it is plausible to think of moral obligations as a species of social obligations (if Adams is correct), and since social theories of obligations include the fact that it really matters how we evaluate the demand made of us, and since we are talking here about objective obligations, a framework that includes a transcendent reference point over and above human relationships makes the possibility of moral facts much more plausible than it would otherwise be, and indeed it’s not clear that a non-theistic framework can offer a suitable substitute.

    I’m not sure, but it seems to me there’s something going on here with your use of the phrase “objective standpoint”. It is unclear, to say the least, why the existence of an omniscient being should change the status of any facts he is aware of, why his observation should magically transform social obligations into something objective.

    So either Shafer-Landau is equivocating, and in doing so treating certain laws as normative when they aren’t (at least not in anything like the sense in which objective moral rules are supposed to be normative), or else he is begging the question, when actually the norms he has in mind are themselves moral norms, and subject to the very dispute in question.

    This seems awfully unfair. It is you who are assuming that the full-stop sense of ‘ought’ just is the moral sense of the word. But Shafer-Landau can obviously disagree: that there are norms which govern how you ought to believe full-stop, then there are full-stop, absolute norms other than moral norms.

  • Glenn December 19, 2011, 7:18 PM

    Stephen:

    Glenn – I’m tempted to start investigating your argument more but it would be really helpful if you could set out the argument more formally, so that the most basic premises supporting your conclusion are clearly identified. Make it very clear why there is objective moral value if and only if there is an all-powerful, all-good, personal God. E.g. why moral Platonism won’t do, for example. Why non-natural objective moral facts won’t do either. Why it’s got to be a person. Exactly how the is-ought gap plays a role in delivering the conclusion. It would also be good to see what your assessment of the probability of each of basic premises of the argument is.

    I think I anticipated responses of this sort when I said:

    Here’s where I get a bit preachy and vent a concern that I have with the way some blog readers (mostly not readers of this blog, of course) approach the acquisition of understanding. If you want a full, satisfying answer to this (or any other complex) question, you shouldn’t be reading a popular level blog entry to get it. A number of philosophers of religion have defended the first premise. Indeed nearly all Christian philosophers I am aware of who have commented on that premise maintain that it is true, so there is no shortage of places to look.

    I have a non-academic day job. I don’t get to read and write philosophy all the time. I work at the tax department, I come home, I spend time with my wife and kids, etc, none of which has anything to do, alas, with philosophy of religion or ethics. In my spare moments I blog, podcast and write stuff for publication. So I really wasn’t trying to be cheeky or just waxing rhetorical when I said the above. This blog entry is an overview that explains what some of the issues are and what some of the considerations in favour of the conditional premise are like.

    It’s also worth noting that you said “Make it very clear why there is objective moral value if and only if there is an all-powerful, all-good, personal God.” Hopefully you’ll see that this specific argument doesn’t say anything about God being all-powerful. But besides that the considerations described in this blog entry are supposed to give a good idea.

    Perhaps, Stephen, off the top of your head you could suggest a source for readers that offers considerations that count against the type of reasons offered here? (considerations that are compatible with moral realism)

  • Mhssu December 19, 2011, 7:28 PM

    (continued from my previous post)

    I think that Craig can demonstrate that he does have a good foundation for moral values, and that no alternative presently available can succeed.

    Even if one grants that it is possible that some atheist will come up with a foundation for moral values that captures the features of morality as well as the theist, it’s an eventuality that’s simply inscrutably likely.

    If on the one hand one has a foundation that accounts naturally for all the features of the phenomenon considered, and on the other one has the inscrutably likely hope of an alternative, I think that it is much more rational to hold to the foundation which works, rather than to simply cleave to an “atheism of the gaps” without good reason to do so, just because the alternative is theism.

  • Glenn December 19, 2011, 7:30 PM

    TaiChi:

    I’m not sure whether I should be convinced by Hume or not, but in the very least this way of putting it is question-begging. For suppose it is true that objective moral facts are a natural feature of the universe – then these facts can be, like other natural facts, expressed in descriptive statements. But in that case one can derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, because those moral statements which we recognize as prescriptive turn out to be descriptive as well.

    See, you said “this way of putting it,” as though you were referring to the way I put it, but then you used terms that I did not. I did not distinguish between Hume’s reference to natural facts and reference to moral facts. I referred to Hume’s reference to is statements vs ought statements. The principle that “ought” statements cannot be derived from statements that are not also “ought” statements of some sort is straightforwardly clear.

    It’s true that if moral “facts” were nothing but commands then they would not be truth apt and hence not facts at all. Fortunately I didn’t say this. if you recall, I said that moral facts present themselves “like” commands, in the sense that they tell us what to do. This does not, of course, mean that there must therefore have everything in common with commands.

    I daresay that your ostensible rejection of the view that moral facts have a motivational quality is very doubtful. But since we can verbally present anything we like – and we can even convince ourselves that it represents our real view if there is some benefit to us in doing so – I doubt very much I will be seeing you grant this.

    Lastly (yeah I didn’t mention everything, just the things that struck me as most important), if Shafer-Landau thinks that there are full-stop objective obligations to believe certain things on pain of engaging in conduct that one absolutely shouldn’t, and he wants to call that a non moral obligation. Then I’ll just nod my shed, continue writing my shlog entries, and pignore him (i.e. he’s just messing with words).

  • Mhssu December 19, 2011, 7:58 PM

    Ken,

    I am sorry if that misrepresented you. The rejection of the argument on the basis of the conclusion seemed to me to be an implication of a disparaging attitude toward attempts to prove the existence of God, along with the digression into the motivations for advancing such arguments. “God can’t be shown to exist, so any argument or argumentator must be spurious or spuriously motivated,” was the impression I got, and I’m glad I was mistaken.

    About science, it’s difficult to see how you could scientifically investigate, one way or the other, what morality “really is,” because the significance of scientific findings to the question will be different depending upon your prior philosophical commitments. You can’t show that Glenn has a false idea of what morality is simply by pointing to neurophysiology, cognitive science and sociobiological evolution, for example, because the moral realist need not have any trouble accomodating such findings- he simply doesn’t accord them the meta-ethical significance you do.

    Furthermore, to assume that discovering the physical/evolutionary origins of moral beliefs is to discover meta-ethical truth itself requires a prior commitment to controversial philosophical positions to do so. Why think that the nature of morality is itself a subject of scientific investigation, unless you already have an idea of what it is you’re looking for?

  • Ken December 19, 2011, 8:26 PM

    Mssu – I find this weird: “Why think that the nature of morality is itself a subject of scientific investigation, unless you already have an idea of what it is you’re looking for?”

    Why think anything can be investigated using evidence and reason/logic? Humanity would be in a very sorry state if we all thought that way wouldn’t it? Just as well most of us don’t.

    The fact is that “the nature of morality” is being studied scientifically – or do you not accept that?

    And this too is weird: “the significance of scientific findings to the question will be different depending upon your prior philosophical commitments.” I realize there are people who have “prior philosophical comitments” that prevent them from accepting a heliocentric solar system, the facts and science of evolution, the facts and understanding of our planet’s changing climate, modern medicine, etc. But that in no way prevents a consensus of understanding of reality which enable humanity to use that knowledge to create a better life. We would be unable to build houses, ships, planes or send vehicles to Mars if that were so.

    And let me stress again I am in no way advocating “rejection of the argument on the basis of the conclusion.” you still misrepresent me. Surely we can disagree on belief in invisible friends without this misrepresentation.

  • TaiChi December 19, 2011, 8:34 PM

    See, you said “this way of putting it,” as though you were referring to the way I put it, but then you used terms that I did not. I did not distinguish between Hume’s reference to natural facts and reference to moral facts. I referred to Hume’s reference to is statements vs ought statements. The principle that “ought” statements cannot be derived from statements that are not also “ought” statements of some sort is straightforwardly clear.

    Well, I was giving you the benefit of the doubt, by assuming that you had made an error of expressing your interpretation of Hume rather than had misunderstood him. I used different terms because feeding someone’s own words back to them isn’t usually helpful in getting them to see what is wrong with what they’ve said.

    But, alright, I could’ve said: suppose it is true that objective moral facts are a natural feature of the universe – then these facts can be, like other natural facts, expressed in ‘is’ statements. But in that case one can derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, because ‘ought’ statements turn out to be ‘is’ statements as well.

    It’s true that if moral “facts” were nothing but commands then they would not be truth apt and hence not facts at all. Fortunately I didn’t say this. if you recall, I said that moral facts present themselves “like” commands, in the sense that they tell us what to do. This does not, of course, mean that there must therefore have everything in common with commands.

    Well, then I’m a little confused: isn’t the point of comparing moral facts to commands to show that they likely are commands, those of God? And shouldn’t they therefore have everything in common? Feel free to point me towards another of your posts outling your ethical theory, if I’ve incrrectly pegged you as a divine command theorist.

    I daresay that your ostensible rejection of the view that moral facts have a motivational quality is very doubtful. But since we can verbally present anything we like – and we can even convince ourselves that it represents our real view if there is some benefit to us in doing so – I doubt very much I will be seeing you grant this.

    Right. And deep down inside, I probably believe in God too. Why waste time justifying yourself?

    ..if Shafer-Landau thinks that there are full-stop objective obligations to believe certain things on pain of engaging in conduct that one absolutely shouldn’t, and he wants to call that a non moral obligation. Then I’ll just nod my shed, continue writing my shlog entries, and pignore him (i.e. he’s just messing with words).

    I don’t think he would be: what is characteristic of moral norms is that they tell us how to act, and what is characteristic about Shafer-Landau’s logical norms is that they tell us how to reason. Whether or not both norms provided us with full-stop obligations, we would still have cause to distinguish between them, and call one kind of obligations ‘moral’ and the other ‘epistemic’.

  • Glenn December 19, 2011, 8:40 PM

    ” I could’ve said: suppose it is true that objective moral facts are a natural feature of the universe – then these facts can be, like other natural facts, expressed in ‘is’ statements. But in that case one can derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, because ‘ought’ statements turn out to be ‘is’ statements as well.”

    You means moral truths could be expressed via “is” statements like “X is wrong”? Well they already are! But clearly that sidesteps the problem.

    “what is characteristic of moral norms is that they tell us how to act, and what is characteristic about Shafer-Landau’s logical norms is that they tell us how to reason.”

    I don’t think this will do. “Do not bear a grudge against your neighbour” is not obviously about action over and above thinking, yet it strikes me as an eminently moral instruction.

  • Ken December 19, 2011, 9:26 PM

    “I think that Craig can demonstrate that he does have a good foundation for moral values, and that no alternative presently available can succeed.”

    Bloody hell. With Craig justifying infanticide and genocide/ethnic cleansing I think that’s a dangerous attitude.

    There are plenty of alternatives thst don’t lead to that inhumanity.

  • TaiChi December 19, 2011, 10:12 PM

    You means moral truths could be expressed via “is” statements like “X is wrong”?

    No, I mean they can be expressed in terms of something less obvious than that – with recognizably naturalistic terms only.

    Well they already are! But clearly that sidesteps the problem.

    Clearly, how? If one recognizes that ‘ought’ statements can be derived from ‘is’ statements concerning right and wrong, then that’s a first step. The second step for the Naturalist Moral Realist is to propose definitions for moral terms which largely pick out what those moral terms do, for then we can use the definitions to link the moral ‘is’ statements on back to natural features. Following this method, there seems to be no impossibility of deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. (Easier in theory than in practice, of course).

    I don’t think this will do. “Do not bear a grudge against your neighbour” is not obviously about action over and above thinking, yet it strikes me as an eminently moral instruction.

    Well, you’ve said it is about action, in which case, I don’t see how it is a counterexample.

  • Stephen Law December 19, 2011, 10:52 PM

    Glenn

    In case it’s not clear, I am pointing out that a deductively valid moral argument based on even say five basic premises with an 80% probability of truth each, produces a conclusion that has 68% probability of being false. Much more likely to be false than true!

    Now your moral argument, which you putting up against the problem of evil (which you’ve entirely failed to deal with, and which itself renders the moral argument more or less useless, even if its first premise *could* be established), seems on the face of it to be based on a series of thoughts which you find fairly plausible which you think entail your God exists. But even if (i) your argument makes say just 5 basic assumptions with an 80% probability of truth each, and (ii) they do collectively deductively entail your god exists, your argument is still a dismal flop.

    I ask that you clarify what your argument is so we can check if this rather obvious seeming flaw in your argument is there. You say you haven’t got the time…

    Yeh, the reason the vast majority of philosophers consider the moral argument awful is just because they haven’t understood it…

  • Mhssu December 19, 2011, 11:02 PM

    Ken,

    I don’t think the nature of morality can be studied scientifically- at least, not in a way that is meta-ethically relevant. A full account of the evolutionary and sociological history of our moral instincts, for example, would not go one step closer to affirming moral nihilism over moral realism or vice versa.

    If, as Hume points out, the ethical properties of the basic moral “ought” are not derived from pure reason or observation (it’s not like oughts are physical objects or behaviours that can be observed, after all), but are primarily apprehended through some other faculty, like conscience, that means that moral facts are not empirically investigable.

    I don’t see how you could begin to claim that meta-ethics is an empirically investigable matter unless you have already done all the meta-ethical hard work and shown how moral facts can in principle be reduced to facts about matter in motion.

  • Glenn December 19, 2011, 11:39 PM

    Stephen:

    I am pointing out that a deductively valid moral argument based on even say five basic premises with an 80% probability of truth each, produces a conclusion that has 68% probability of being false.

    and

    But even if (i) your argument makes say just 5 basic assumptions with an 80% probability of truth each, and (ii) they do collectively deductively entail your god exists, your argument is still a dismal flop.

    That is your objection? You’re talking about multiplying the probability of each premise to reach the actual probability of the conclusion (and its falsehood – “that has 68% probability of being false”). In deductive reasoning, you should recall, the conclusion follows necessarily if the premises are true. What’s more, you don’t multiply the probability of the premises to get the actual probability of the conclusion in a deductive argument (the worst case scenario, absolute lowest imaginable probability perhaps).

    Others much better than I have explained how there is a relationship between the probability of the premises and the lowest bound of the probability of the conclusion, but that’s not what you’re saying here, is it?

    Surely you cannot mean what you have written here. Am I missing something really obvious? What you describe above is not the way of establishing the probability of the truth of conclusion of a deductively valid argument.

  • Mhssu December 19, 2011, 11:48 PM

    Dr Law,

    About the nature of probabilities in deductive arguments, I’m wondering how you would respond to William Lane Craig’s article on the question, here: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=8273 He seems to have a very low opinion of this line of reasoning.

    I think that it’s rational to accept that a premise is true if you have much better reasons to believe in it than not. If I have five premises, each of which is 80% likely to be true, and that were a sufficient probability for me to believe within my rational rights that each of them actually is true (it’s not like there’s such a state of being as 80% true, after all), then I would be committed to the truth of a conclusion that followed from accepting all of them.

    To multiply the probabilities of the truth of each premise to determine the probability of the conclusion thus seems to me wrong-headed. If one only believed that the premises had a certain percentage chance of truth, and not anything further, perhaps it might have force, but that’s not what’s going on in these kinds of arguments. Each premise is, once some minimum threshold of probability is established, regarded as true, and if each premise in an argument is true, the conclusion follows.

    If your problem is anywhere, it would be with the leap from regarding something as probably true to regarding it as actually true. Yet it seems that the epistemic cost of restricting what can be known to be true to that which we are certain has a 100% chance of being true is unacceptable.

  • Dima December 20, 2011, 1:24 AM

    Dr. Law,

    I am sure you are aware that calculating probabilities in deductive arguments is more nuanced than you seem to suggest. You write:
    “But even if (i) your argument makes say just 5 basic assumptions with an 80% probability of truth each, and (ii) they do collectively deductively entail your god exists, your argument is still a dismal flop.”
    What you seem to be suggesting here is that in the argument that has the following structure:
    1. If (A&B&C&D&E), then F (where A, B, C, D, E are the “5 basic assumptions” and F is the conclusion)
    2. A
    3. B
    4. C
    5. D
    6. E
    7. Therefore, F
    If we assume that premise 1 has probability 1 and premises 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 each have probability .8, to calculate P (F) one needs to multiply the probabilities of the premises. Well, two important considerations must be kept in mind.
    First one is fairly obvious, multiplication is appropriate only if the premises are probabilistically independent. Without this information, one cannot proceed with multiplication if one wants to get a somewhat precise result.
    Second, P (A&B&C&D&E) is NOT the same as P (F). But unless F is the logically strongest conclusion that can be derived from these premises, even an upper bound on the conjunction of the premises (here, given the stipulated numbers, 0.8) is not an upper bound on the probability of the conclusion F. After all, the argument
    1. P
    2. Q
    3. R
    4. S
    5 Therefore,(A or ~A)has a conclusion with a probability of 1 no matter what the probabilities of the premises may be.
    Let me unpack a more nuanced approach to assessing probability of the conclusion in the argument above and then raise a question for you, Dr. Law.
    Let M denote the event that “If (A&B&C&D&E), then F.” The probability of F, denoted P(F), can now be split up into the sum of two values: P(F|A&B&C&D&E&M)P(A&B&C&D&E&M)+ P(F|~[A&B&C&D&E&M])P(~[A&B&C&D&E]). We read P(F|A&B&C&D&E&M) as “the probability of F given the events A&B&C&D&E&M.” We read P(F|~[A&B&C&D&E&M]) as “the probability of F given the event ~[A&B&C&D&E&M],” or, alternatively, “the probability of F given that at least one of A, B, C, D, E or M does not obtain. Clearly the value of P(F|A&B&C&D&E&M) is 1. If we consider the values 0.8, 0.8, 0.8, 0.8, 0.8 and 1, respectively, for P(A), P(B), P(C), P(D), P(E) and P(M), then P(A&B&C&D&E&M) = .33 and therefore P(~[A&B&C&D&E&M]) = .67. So

    P(F) = .33 + P(F|~[ A&B&C&D&E&M)(.64)

    So, P(F) has a lower bound in this case of .33. However, P(F|~[ A&B&C&D&E&M]) can span from 0 to 1, which means that P(F) could be as high as 1.
    I am sharing this to raise an important question for you, Dr. Law, as to what, in your view, counts in principle as a good deductive argument so that I can understand your expectations of Glenn’s moral argument in particular. Which one is it?
    (1) A good deductive argument is one that gives rational certainty about its conclusion
    (2) A good argument is one that makes its conclusion more probable than not
    (3) A good argument is one that places a lower bound greater than zero on its conclusion without placing an upper bound lower than .5 on that conclusion
    With probabilities of 0.8 for each of the five basic assumptions, the argument does not meet the requirements of (1) and (2), but it does meet the requirements of (3). So which one is correct on your view? Also, I know that you never claimed to be able to do this, but if you could provide an example of a good deductive argument for the conclusion “God does not exist”, it would be great and instructive, especially for us theists who are hopelessly employing deductive arguments in our apologetics.
    Kindest regards,
    Dima

  • Stephen Law December 20, 2011, 1:49 AM

    Hi Dima

    (1) is obviously too stringent
    (3) is obviously too weak
    (2) is better though more probable than not is still too weak.

    I’m not offering a good deductive argument against the existence of God.I’d have to go away and construct one…maybe when I got a moment.

  • Stephen Law December 20, 2011, 1:59 AM

    Glenn, you say:

    QUOTE “That is your objection? You’re talking about multiplying the probability of each premise to reach the actual probability of the conclusion (and its falsehood – “that has 68% probability of being false”). In deductive reasoning, you should recall, the conclusion follows necessarily if the premises are true. What’s more, you don’t multiply the probability of the premises to get the actual probability of the conclusion in a deductive argument …” END QUOTE

    MY REPLY: Yes, that’s the objection, Glenn. Consider this deductive argument:

    I have the X gene
    If I have the X gene, I will get cancer Y
    I will get cancer Y

    This is deductively valid. The truth of the premises necessitates the truth of the conclusion. So what’s the highest probability can we reasonably assign to the conclusion, given the probabilities of the premises? Yes you DO indeed multiply the probabilities of the basic premises to figure that out.

    Suppose I have a 50% chance of having the X gene, given my ancestry, and suppose those with the X gene have an 80% of getting cancer. Then we cannot reasonably suppose the probability of the conclusion is any higher 40%, given just those premises (which is not to say the probability of the conclusion could not, for independent reasons, be considered higher [e.g. it's probability would be 1 if it were a simple tautology]).

    That you have fallen for the fallacy of supposing that an argument with five premises each of which has an 80% probability of being true must provide good support for its conclusion is intriguing. You have invested an awful lot in the moral argument. This must give you pause for thought, surely?

  • The Atheist Missionary December 20, 2011, 2:49 AM

    Stephen, you are forgetting how theistic arguments are constructed. Each premise is axiomatic.

  • d December 20, 2011, 3:35 AM

    Mssu said:

    That seems to be a poor interpretation of Craig. He doesn’t define objective moral values as “what God commands,” nor does he define the good as “aspects of God’s nature.”

    At best, you may be able to nail me here because Craig may maintain that moral obligations are something that “flows from divine commands”, but not one and the same as divine commands. But even correcting that, the argument still maintains its strangeness:

    1) If God does not exist, nothing flows from His commands
    2) Some things do flow from his commands
    3) Therefore God exists.

    No matter which way you chop it up, we’re left with a rather strange and unpersuasive argument.

    Thus, it is demonstrating 1 that is important, and I think it is intentional that moral values and duties aren’t defined further.

    Even granting that your reformulation is more true to Craig’s meaning, one simply cannot hope to skate by on such vague, ambiguous moral terminology. These terms have to be defined, else how can we actually agree with the premise that they exist? How can we even make any intelligible sense out of it, if we don’t know the precise meaning of the words?

    But if Craig is explicit about his moral terms, then I think we’ll find that they are intimately defendant upon features of God. And the existence of these features will be at least as controversial as the existence of God himself, generally. And I think that will make the argument far less persuasive.

    I think Craig can certainly demonstrate that if there is a being which is supremely authoritative, and which has a nature that is paradigmatic of the good, its commands would constitute our duties, and its nature would constitute the good against which all other goods are measured.

    I think phrases like “paradigmatic of the good” become unintelligible on Craig’s view. God’s Nature is what provides the meat to the definition of the word “good”. You can’t then describe God’s nature as being “paradigmatic of the good” – you’re just saying “God’s nature is paradigmatic of God’s nature” – well duh!

    But this is the same problem – the meaning of of the term “good” is entirely dependent upon some feature of God.

    Of course, as a good philosopher, Craig isn’t defining morality to suit himself.

    Yea, but he does have to define it! Because right now, it looks like he really hopes to persuade us that God exists by way of a moral ontology, which upon some cursory examination, seems strangely dependent upon God’s existence. Not buying it!

  • Czar December 20, 2011, 10:33 AM

    Dr. Law’s point, it seems to me, is misguided. In a deductive argument, if the premises are true and the argument is valid the conclusion is guaranteed. So if each of the premises has a probability that is high enough to warrant the claim that the premises are in fact true, then the conclusion is also warranted.

  • David Winter December 20, 2011, 11:01 AM

    Dr. Law’s point, it seems to me, is misguided. In a deductive argument, if the premises are true and the argument is valid the conclusion is guaranteed. So if each of the premises has a probability that is high enough to warrant the claim that the premises are in fact true, then the conclusion is also warranted

    What’s the probability that at least one premise will be false?

  • Ken December 20, 2011, 1:44 PM

    Mhssu – I raised the need to understand human morality because Glenn presented his argument in a naïve, trivial, way – as 3 step logic. Why bother with such an obvious list? After all such deductive logic is never better than the premises. That’s where the effort should be put. In scientific research we use such deductive logic all the time but I don’t recall anyone putting such attention into presenting these 3 steps and then putting so much effort into ignoring support for the premises.. Perhaps in theology this procedure is to make up for the fact that you guys are completely at a loss when it comes to the premises.

    In dealing with the premises 1 and 2 that’s where science can be very useful. After all, it has a huge epistemological reputation for its ability to deal with and understand reality. Yet you guys refuse to acknowledge any role for science in supporting these premises. You don’t seem to have a clear idea of what is meant by human morality, let alone “moral truths.” And you won’t understand that until you interact with reality.

    Perhaps this is because you are not interested in morality – rather you are using it as “the moral argument” to “prove” the existence of your god(s). But that is foolish because your whole argument depends on understanding morality! You need to pay attention to your premises.

    You say: “I don’t think the nature of morality can be studied scientifically.” OK that’s you axiom. No support given. But the fact remains that there is a science of human morality. We are investigating “the nature of human morality.” So I am forced to wonder do you also think the nature of human origins, the origin and evolution of the universe, etc., cannot be studied scientifically? And what about chemistry, aerodynamics?

    Perhaps your problem is that you are reducing scientific investigation into “moral facts can in principle be reduced to facts about matter in motion.” Moral decisions do of course rely on consideration of situational facts when they are undertaken consciously. They also rely on the values and criteria of the organism – avoidance of harm and concern for well-being. These values arise from the material facts of human nature – so in a sense it is “matter in motion.” But why express it that “cold” way?

    Science is definitely capable of investigating the nature of human morality. (Notice this is not the same as making a moral decision – no one is claiming that). It also helps provide information useful in rational moral decision-making. But in the end, and in practice most of the time, moral decisions (oughts) are matters of feeling, emotions (Hume’s passions).

    I think Hume’s “is-ought” argument is opportunistically misrepresented by the ideological inclined on human morality. And theistic concepts of “objective morality” surely seem to be an “is” – after all it is objective? So after misquoting Hume you guys then seem to proceed to make the very mistake he talks about.

    And in the process you ignore the point Hume was making – that human morality is about “passions”, feelings, emotions. And there are good evolutionary reasons for that.

  • The Atheist Missionary December 20, 2011, 3:44 PM

    Mhssu wrote: I don’t think the nature of morality can be studied scientifically- at least, not in a way that is meta-ethically relevant.

    This kind of view is attractive to those who are uninterested in the Sweet Smell of Morality. It’s far easier to blame moral failings on a Fall attributable to beings who supposedly didn’t even know the difference between good and evil.

  • Josh December 20, 2011, 4:12 PM

    Ken – Your assesment of Hume’s point is spot on and brings.

    What I find intriguing with this particular argument, especially in the format Glenn lays out in this post, is that it can potentially be damaging to the idea of Yahweh being that god.

    Say I grant that the first two premises are correct and, therefore, the conclusion that God exists is true. Obviously this does not mean I will automatically think Yahweh is that God. The work is still cut out to show which, if any of the available options, is the God that authored these moral values and duties.

    The problem with Yahweh (and I will use Yahweh in this post as this is a christian blog) is that his character, as shown in the bible, is lacking in the morality department. He commands genocide, abduction, slavery and mutilation – all things that many would take to be immoral. Based on the commands and actions of Yahweh I am faced with either 1) rejecting him as god, 2) rejecting him as a good god or 3) accepting he is god and that genocide, slavery and all the rest are moral.

    Essentially this brings us back to Plato’s classic dilemma (altered to fit monotheistic considerations): Are god’s commands good because god commands them or does god command things because they are good?

    Many apologists (such as William Lane Craig) prefer the fist option and use various rhetorical techniques to justify the actions we see as immoral today. That is simply because the second option (“god commands things because they are good”) indicates that good can be determined external to god. It may be that God’s ways are “higher” than our ways and whatever he commands is right by default. However if that is correct then morality becomes a purely subjective exercise based on the whims of a super-being.

    Anyway I am at work – so this has to kept to a brief outline of my problems with the moral argument.

  • Geoff December 20, 2011, 4:21 PM

    It’s far easier to blame moral failings on a Fall attributable to beings who supposedly didn’t even know the difference between good and evil.

    Yeah, because that’s what the bible says! /sarcasm

  • Glenn December 20, 2011, 5:00 PM

    Josh, Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma has been well and truly dealt with by divine command meta-ethics. This has been done so many times I find it incredible that anyone still brings it up!

  • d December 20, 2011, 5:23 PM

    Glenn –

    Euthyphro has been “dealt” with in a sense – but I think not in the way the divine command theorists imagine. They’ve dealt with it, in that they’ve taken the first horn of the dilemma (while usually trying to make it sound like they split the horn). But there’s actually nothing wrong with that.

    They have too – in fact, every realist moral theory does have to take the first horn. Euthyphro-like dilemmas can be posed against any of them, as they all appeal to some first principle for which it could be asked, “Why is that good?!”.

    Taking the second horn *always* results in an infinite regress, which is undesirable. The first horn terminates, but it comes with the arbitrariness problem… which again, I just don’t think is that much of an issue.

    It just requires us to accept that morality comes from some thing that is, and this thing that is, is what it is, for no moral reason – (whether it’s God’s nature, natural forces, material processes, or something else) but why’s that scary?

  • Ken December 20, 2011, 5:25 PM

    I have noticed a certain pattern when it comes to powerful arguments like the  Euthyphro Dilemma. It gets “demolished” by the declaration:

    “Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma has been well and truly dealt with by divine command meta-ethics.”

    Which means that The arguments against it are not impressive – except to advocate of command ethics. 

    Mental gymnastics and bluster. Pity it wasn’t that easy.

  • Glenn December 20, 2011, 6:30 PM

    “Taking the second horn *always* results in an infinite regress, which is undesirable. The first horn terminates, but it comes with the arbitrariness problem… which again, I just don’t think is that much of an issue.”

    Right d – the problem of arbitrariness has received good attention in the literature and been shown not really to be a problem.

    Ken, seriously, why even post comments like that?

  • Ken December 20, 2011, 6:53 PM

    Glenn – I would have thought my intention obvious. To point out a pattern of responses you tend to follow. You may well be satisfied with command ethics rejection of Euthyphro. Others aren’t – it is a sign of arrogance to dismiss them by such declaration. (Or perhaps embarrassment).

    After all, command ethics advocates are not exactly credible at the moment with Craig’s justification of infanticide and genocide/ethnic cleansing. And the criticism comes from fellow Christians as well as others. But I guess you can fob them off by declaring that advocates of command ethics have dealt with the issue adequately.

    They haven’t of course.

  • Josh December 20, 2011, 6:54 PM

    That is precisely the danger of using the moral argument – even if you accept that the first two premises are correct – you still have to find a god that fits the bill.

    Also; I am not speaking of the Euthyphro dilemma in a general sense but am applying it directly to recent debates I have seen in which the god in question (whether stated or not) is Yahweh. Those who rely on the moral argument to prove Yahweh set themselves up to be confronted with this dilemma. In these debates this is usually resolved with the “whatever god commands is good” answer. In all honestly I think this ends up being a dangerous approach as it undermines the idea of objective morality (which is a necessary premise for the original argument).

  • Glenn December 20, 2011, 7:15 PM

    Glenn – I would have thought my intention obvious. To point out a pattern of responses you tend to follow. You may well be satisfied with command ethics rejection of Euthyphro. Others aren’t – it is a sign of arrogance to dismiss them by such declaration. (Or perhaps embarrassment).

    Oh Ken, you’ve only been back a little while and already you’re fitting back into your role of armchair psychologist. Give it a rest will you?

    If you’re genuinely investigated the way that philosophers of religion who advocate divine command ethics have addressed the objection grounded in the Euthyphro, and you reject their arguments, fine. But given the tone and lack of detail in your dismissive remarks, I doubt it. If you want to be in that position, for starters I would humbly suggest my own “A New Euthyphro,” Think: Philosophy for Everyone 9:25 (2010), 65-83. Additionally, see: Matthew Flannagan, “The Premature Dismissal of Voluntarism,” Colloquium 42:1 (2010), 38-66, Glenn Graber, “In Defense of a Divine Command Theory of Ethics,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 43:1 (1975), 62-69, Richard Joyce, “Theistic Ethics and the Euthyphro Dilemma,” Journal of Religious Ethics 30:1 (2002), 49-75, Philip Quinn, “Theological Voluntarism” in David Copp (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 63-90.

    But if you’re just going to troll, please do it elsewhere.

  • Ken December 20, 2011, 7:29 PM

     Glenn, I am sure “the way that philosophers of religion who advocate divine command ethics have addressed the objection grounded in the Euthyphro” is as you say.  But don’t be surprised that others aren’t convinced.

    Such self deception is common in ideologically motivated groups of all types.

    But, as I said, many are concerned that command ethics leads to the sort of behavior exhibited by Craig.  Understandably they reject such ethics as they are out of step with most acceptable moral systems.

    I can understand your unwillingness to engage on this issue but don’t expect others to simply accept your declarations. We do have the ability to think for ourselves.

  • Glenn December 20, 2011, 9:18 PM

    “I can understand your unwillingness to engage on this issue”

    Ken, you lack self control. Your posts will now go into moderation by default. I’ll release them if they’re mature/civil. If that bothers you, sorry but you brought it on yourself. If you want your posts to appear, take a deep breath before you hit “send comment,” check your comment and ask if it meets basic criteria of civility, politeness etc, and check it against the blog policy that you have agreed to follow by posting here. If it does, go ahead and click, and it will be approved. For what it’s worth, sneering passive aggression is no more tolerable than blatant insults. Common sense is key.

    As has always been the case, I allow 100% of all comments that follow the blog policy.

  • Stuart December 21, 2011, 12:59 AM

    Stephen Law,

    Premises in deductive arguments are either TRUE or FALSE. The principle of bivalence is assurance of this. The probability of a premise can only be with respect to its warrant, which is an epistemic consideration. There are degrees of plausibility, not degrees of truth. In a sound argument (where the logic is valid and the premises are true) the conclusion is necessary, and therefore any multiplication of the probabilities in the premiseses to caluculate the probability for the conclusion is fallacious.

  • The Atheist Missionary December 21, 2011, 2:40 AM

    Geoff, Genesis 3:5 9(NIV) is unambiguous on the effect of eating from the tree of knowledge: For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Ergo, before Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge, they did not know “good and evil”.

    I remain flummoxed as to how anyone could be held morally responsible for anything before they knew how to discern right from wrong. This is no idle question. The doctrine of original sin is a lynchpin for Christianity. If anyone is aware of a good source of apologetic writing on this point, I would appreciate the cite.

    [Yet another topic they conveniently neglected to discuss at Sunday School]

  • Geoff December 21, 2011, 8:29 AM

    TAM

    You clearly do not understand the passage in question in that case.
    “Knowing good and evil” is not knowledge of morality, but experiential knowledge of what it is like to break the trust of God.

    Adam is given the rules in Gen 2, then proceeds to break the rules.

  • Buzz Moonman December 21, 2011, 12:54 PM

    Seasons Greetings

    Trying to find a conscious being to be the objective basis for morality is coming at it from the wrong direction. Your mistake, and that of many others, including Secularists, is looking for that basis in some form of conscious being, either natural or supernatural, ie looking for a conscious authority to give commands. The problem with that is that conscious authoritive beings have a hard time being objective. It seems to me that the objective basis for morality is not an authority nor a conscious being commanding via authority.

    As long as you want to use a conscious being, particularly an authoritarian one, as that basis then it seems to me that it will be impossible to get an ought from an is. But shift your objective basis from a conscious being to an idea that is a political act that conscious beings can use as a base to measure the morality of actions, an idea such as mutual peace, and you’re on a different playing field and it looks level to me

    Theists do not show that there is not a natural objective basis for morality, they just assert that their alleged alternative basis exists. The fact that we are still arguing as to whether this alternative exists, is an indication that it has not been established that it does.

    The objective foundation for morality is the mutual peace of un coerced peaceful co-existence.

    Morality comes from the idea of mutual peace, not the idea of god.

    Mutual peace is not only the objective, it is objective. It is a political act between humans. It is not a divine gift. Mutual peace exists regardless of the existence or not of any gods. It cannot be given as a gift, it has to be achieved by human co-operation.

    When humans behave in ways that create the conditions for mutual peace, they are being moral, doing right. The conditions necessary for peace, (and I mean un-coerced peaceful co-existence, not Pax Romana or Pax Britanica which are not mutual peace and are merely an Orwellian idea of peace) are created using the golden rule, mutual aid and loving your neighbour, using the tools of reason, empathy, compassion and emotion, measured against mutual peace.

    It’s not rocket science. Why would you prefer not to live in a world of peace on earth and mutual aid and goodwill to all.

    Mutual peace is the objective foundation of morality. Measuring behaviour from mutual peace gives us the basic modes of behaviour that result in morality. Morality is the rules of social living.

    Morality is not a result of a religious discourse. Religion is the result of a moral discourse. You cannot have religion without first having morality as you can’t have religion without having a stable social group and to have a stable social group, you need to have morality.

    Morality changes because we constantly measure morality against the idea of mutual peace and when humans decide that a particular moral standard doesn’t measure up against the idea of mutual peace anymore, we change our attitude and what was once moral now becomes immoral, like slavery, racism and sexism.

    What was accepted as moral by Christians in the past is not accepted by them now, like slavery. The Quakers and liberal Christians who were at the forefront of abolition were not popular with mainstream Christians but they persevered and succeeded because their measurement of slavery against the idea of mutual peace was correct.

    The practice of mutual peace is the end result of morality and the idea of mutual peace is the starting point. Peace is the alpha and the omega of morality. Not only is mutual peace the objective basis of morality it is the objective goal of morality. Only sadists and masochists and the immoral don’t want to live in a state of mutual peace. Only a state of mutual peace allows people to live a flourishing meaningful life and give a future to their children and therefore the species.

    “Good” is not a basis for morality because it is subjective. There is disagreement about the concept of good because “good” is subjective. There is no disagreement, that I am aware of, around the concept of mutual peace. Everyone knows what that is, because it is objective.

    Mutual peace does not care how we use the morality we obtain from peace, nor care whether we are moral or immoral. Mutual peace doesn’t demand that we behave in a certain way. Mutual peace is not an entity. Mutual peace doesn’t have an agenda or a Plan for us that it demands we follow. Mutual peace doesn’t demand our submission to its will.

    Mutual peace is an idea that leads to a political act. From that idea, we can measure moral behaviour because when people behave in ways that generate un-coerced peaceful co-existence, they are being what we call moral, and those ways to behave start with following the golden rule, mutual aid and loving your neighbour.

    Mutual peace is objective and is the same for everyone regardless of their prejudices and ideologies. Some people may not want mutual peace or like it but it is still objectively the same for them as it is for those who do want peaceful co-existence. That’s why people who are Humanist, be they religious or secular, strive for Peace on earth and goodwill to all, which is just another way of describing mutual peace.

    We naturally derive morality from examining the way to live in un-coerced peaceful co-existence which gives us a natural ordering principle. We don’t need a god to reveal this morality to us. The morality from god thesis only shifts the goalpost as it leaves unanswered the question of how god reaches a decision on morality. If god uses reason to arrive at a morality decision then god is not doing anything we can’t do for ourselves.

    What’s the point of morality? What are we trying to achieve with it. What type of life are we after? What is the end result of behaving morally? A peaceful un coerced life, that’s what we are trying to achieve, so that our children have a future.

    Our cave dwelling ancestors worked this out a couple of hundred thousand years ago and we’ve been doing it ever since. Morality is the rules of social living.

    So the argument looks like this

    Objective moral values can be measured by mutual peace
    Objective moral values and mutual peace exist
    Gods are redundant in determining objective moral values

    Shalom
    Peace be with you
    Go in peace
    Peace on earth and goodwill to all (aka Mutual Peace)
    Give peace a chance

  • david winter December 21, 2011, 5:22 PM

    Premises in deductive arguments are either TRUE or FALSE. The principle of bivalence is assurance of this. The probability of a premise can only be with respect to its warrant, which is an epistemic consideration. There are degrees of plausibility, not degrees of truth. In a sound argument (where the logic is valid and the premises are true) the conclusion is necessary, and therefore any multiplication of the probabilities in the premiseses to caluculate the probability for the conclusion is fallacious.

    Surely all reasoning is probabilistic. Yes, a premise may be true or not but we can’t (usually) be sure of that. So, in an argument with non-redundant clauses and in which each clause is independent, the probability that at least one of the premises is false is one minus the product of the probability we place on each premise’s truth?

    Obviously, there may be other ways to get to the same conclusion, so such a calculation only gives user the lowest possible probability, but making a chain of “more likely that not”s seem a bit weak, no?

  • Joe December 21, 2011, 5:58 PM

    Stephen:

    “So what’s the highest probability can we reasonably assign to the conclusion, given the probabilities of the premises? Yes you DO indeed multiply the probabilities of the basic premises to figure that out.”

    It’s you vs my logic teacher.

  • Glenn December 21, 2011, 8:45 PM

    Joe – that’s my impression as well from what I have seen, although I admit to not being any sort of specialist in formal logic.

    Interestingly, at the forum over at William Lane Craig’s site someone raised a question about this. Craig was not, by the way, the source I used for my comments on logic. However, Craig did make the same claim: That in a deductive argument it is a mistake to get the probability of the conclusion by multiplying the probability of the premises. All the probability of the premises can do is set the lowest bound of the probability of the conclusion.

    In the forum somebody asks for an explanation. Somebody who did have a background in logic, an atheist as it turns out (not that this should matter), chimed in as follows (in the first response to the original post):

    As much as it pains me to say this, Craig’s comment regarding probabilities (note: not his entire post regarding good arguments) is accurate.

    Let D denote the event that “If (A & B), then C.” The probability of C, denoted P(C), can now be split up into the sum of two values: P(C|A&B&D)P(A&B&D) + P(C|~[A&B&D])P(~[A&B&D]). We read P(C|A&B&D) as “the probability of C given the events A&B&D.” We read P(C|~[A&B&D]) as “the probability of C given the event ~[A&B&D],” or, alternatively, “the probability of C given that at least one of A, B or D does not obtain. Clearly the value of P(C|A&B&D) is 1. If we consider the values 0.6, 0.6 and 1, respectively, for P(A), P(B) and P(D), then P(A&B&D) = .36 and therefore P(~[A&B&D]) = .64. So

    P(C) = .36 + P(C|~[A&B&D])(.64)

    So, P(C) has a lower bound in this case of .36. However, P(C|~[A&B&D]) can span from 0 to 1, which means that P(C) could be as high as 1.

    While I am, as I said, not a specialist in formal logic (maybe Stephen is, he can clarify), this does make sense. The method Stephen has used should be aimed at determining the lowest possible probability that the conclusion is true -not the actual probability that it is true. But he claimed that the latter was the case: “With, say, with just five required basic premises of 80% probability each, the probability that your conclusion is true drops to 32%.”

    He looks to have made an error.

  • Stephen Law December 21, 2011, 11:59 PM

    Glenn and others want to create a smokescreen of technicality to disguise the fact that his argument, looks, prima facie, like a dismal flop given it’s based on a series of “more probable than not” basic premises. The rule I am applying is: to get the highest probability you can assign to the conclusion in a valid deductive argument, you just multiply the probabilities of the basic premises.

    Now yes, there are some exceptions to this general rule. So for example, when a premises is redundant, like so: A, B therefore A. Here, you don’t factor in the probability of B, for obvious reasons. Also, when the conclusion is a tautology, it’s probability will be 1, irrespective of the probability of the premises. Also, simple multiplication is not appropriate where there’s a logical or known causal connection between premises. The probability of the conclusion may then be either higher or lower than the figure you get by simple multiplying. E.g.

    A is a man
    A is female
    Therefore A is male and A is female.

    Given our background knowledge that being male makes it highly unlikely you are female (though not impossible: i.e. a hermaphrodite), it’s clear we should not give a value of 25% to the conclusion given a prob of, say, 51% to each premise. The probability is LOWER than you get by simple multiplication, given that further background knowledge. Ditto (and here the we’re dealing with mathematical exclusion – the conclusion has a mathematically guaranteed probability of 0):

    A is 60 years old
    A is 61 years old
    A is 60 years old and A is 61 years old.

    Other times the probability of the conclusion can indeed be higher than you’d get by simple multiplication, given background knowledge.

    So yes, there exceptions to the rule. But the point is they are exceptions to a general rule that does otherwise generally apply and will apparently apply in the case of the moral argument too, unless Glenn can explain why it doesn’t. At this point, we cannot tell for sure, because Glenn won’t even clearly set out what the basic premises of his argument actually are. In which case, we should just shrug and walk away. Glenn’s given us nothing.

    Incidentally the “upper bound” stuff, while it looks awfully impressive especially when articulated using long strings of formulae, appears to be based on some rather dubious ideas. I cannot find any reference to it outside of theistic circles (e.g. Tim McGrew). Can you point me to some?

    Craig’s reference to it is opaque, btw, in the context of what he says. That looks like an attempt to baffle with bullshit.

    But I note in any case that the “upper bound” point, even if it is correct, appears to give us no reason at all to suppose that we cannot, on the basis of saying that Glenn’s basic premises are five with a probability of 0.8 each, draw the conclusion that the probability of his conclusion can’t reasonably be estimated as higher than 0.32, given knowledge of just those premises. Indeed, that’s just the conclusion we’re usually entitled to draw in such cases (noting, of course, that there are indeed a few exceptions – perhaps Glenn will say “God exists” is a tautology?! In which case the premises are all redundant!). So why not in this case? That’s what Glenn would need to explain, once he’s actually identified what his premises are (hint: Glenn might insist there’s some connection between the premises that means the probability of the conclusion should be higher – but the onus is surely then on him to identify this connection). Remember, I am not saying the probability of Glenn’s conclusion will definitely be low. I am saying that if it’s based on a series of merely more-probable-than-not basic premises, then (unless this is some sort of special case – see above) the probability of the conclusion cannot be considered, on that basis alone, very high.

  • Stephen Law December 22, 2011, 12:00 AM

    sorry first premise of first arg should have been A is male (not a man).

  • Stephen Law December 22, 2011, 12:03 AM

    AND i meant to say value of 26% to the conclusion, not 25% in that example, obviously… sorry done in haste.

  • Thrasymachus December 22, 2011, 2:42 AM

    I’m not ‘trained in formal logic’, but I do a lot of stuff on probabilistic inference, so maybe I can help out.

    Craig is right to say the product of premises in a valid nonredundant argument only set a lower bound for the credence of the conclusion*. Here’s an easy example to show why.

    1) If the moon is made of cheese, Socrates is mortal
    2) The moon is made of cheese
    C) Socrates is mortal.

    Everyone assigns really low credences to (1) and (2), yet they think (C) is pretty close to certain. So in deductive arguments we only get lower bounds of plausibility – after all, there might be other information not in the argument that raises the credence even higher.

    But (and a big but), if you’re trying to use an deductive argument to persuade someone, this lower bound becomes important. For if their credences in the premises are such that the product is less than 0.5, then so long as their credence in the conclusion is between this lower bound and 0.5, your argument can be replied to with a nod and a shrug. Although the credence can vary anywhere from the lower bound to 1, so long as they are in this range, the argument offers no reason to shift it upwards.**

    Deductive arguments effectively specify rules between credences, violation of which indicate failure of reflective equilibrium. More plausible than not simply isn’t good enough, especially as the number of premises climbs – with 5 premises, you can be consistently think each is “more plausible than not”, yet still think the conclusion is 0.1 or less!

    An example to make this counter-intuitive result:

    1) Dice A comes up 1-4
    2) Dice B comes up 1-4
    C) both die come up 1-4.

    Both premises more plausible than their negation, but the conclusion is unlikely to occur. This is one of those cases where the lower bound is the right answer. To make the point clearer, just add more dice.

    I think a lot of the confusion around this is people being unclear about what we are dealing with. Of course, *in fact* these things are either true or false. But we’re dealing with *epistemic probability*, which means we express uncertainty about propositions as degrees of belief.

    This issue has come up before, and I wrote a bit about it then:

    http://www.thepolemicalmedic.com/2010/09/what-makes-a-good-argument/

    * Assuming independence. If premises not independent, then the lower bound will be higher in step with their covariance.

    ** Very strictly, there might be some shifting. If you hold a credence distribution over a given range, and someone restricts it at the low tail, the likely redistribution of credence over this range will lead to a higher mean. However, I don’t think any human has a good enough grasp of their own credences to make this a point worth making.

  • Nightvid Cole December 22, 2011, 4:35 AM

    Regards the debate about multiplicative probabilities, let me give a “real world” example to make the issue easier to understand. Consider the following:

    Premise 1. My father’s dog is alive
    Premise 2. My father’s dog will not die today
    Premise 3. My father’s dog will not die tomorrow (either because she is already dead or because she remains alive)
    Premise 4. My father’s dog will not die the day after tomorrow
    (………)
    Premise 20,000. My father’s dog will not die on September 21, 2066

    Conclusion: My father’s dog will be alive at midnight on September 22, 2066

    This is deductively valid, and each premise is MUCH more plausible than its negation, yet its conclusion would be astounding if it turned out to be true.

  • Tim December 22, 2011, 4:41 AM

    Stephen Law writes:

    In case it’s not clear, I am pointing out that a deductively valid moral argument based on even say five basic premises with an 80% probability of truth each, produces a conclusion that has 68% probability of being false. Much more likely to be false than true!

    Now your moral argument, which you putting up against the problem of evil (which you’ve entirely failed to deal with, and which itself renders the moral argument more or less useless, even if its first premise *could* be established), seems on the face of it to be based on a series of thoughts which you find fairly plausible which you think entail your God exists. But even if (i) your argument makes say just 5 basic assumptions with an 80% probability of truth each, and (ii) they do collectively deductively entail your god exists, your argument is still a dismal flop.

    As Dima correctly points out, this claim is not in general correct. It holds only when two conditions obtain:

    (1) the premises are all probabilistically independent of one another, and

    (2) the conclusion is the logically strongest possible conclusion derivable from the premises.

    Condition (2) is tantamount to saying that the conclusion is logically equivalent to the conjunction of the premises. When that is not the case — as here it clearly is not — all that the product of the probabilities of the premises gives, assuming independence, is a lower bound on the probability of the conclusion.

    Bill Craig pointed this fact out to Wes Morriston in their discussion, but it appears that some people still haven’t got the memo.

  • Stephen Law December 22, 2011, 5:24 AM

    Tim

    Even assuming all that is true, how does the probability of the premises license us in giving the conclusion a higher probability than that lower bound?

    Of course, other factors may license us in giving the conclusion a higher probability. But how do the probabilities of the premises do so?

  • Stephen Law December 22, 2011, 5:45 AM

    Oddly my earlier comment, which is before Tim’s and is on related subject matter, is still awaiting moderation. Must be cos I said the B word again.

  • Tim December 22, 2011, 7:06 AM

    Stephen,

    Good question. Without further information, all that we can obtain for the conclusion of a deductively valid argument without superfluous premises is a lower bound: the probability of the conclusion is at least as great as a certain lower bound b. We can calculate b without assuming independence; in general, it will be a little lower than the value we would get if we assumed independence.

    More precisely, where the uncertainty of a proposition x, U(x), is defined as 1 – P(x), the lower bound for a conclusion will be 1 – [the sum, for all i, of U(xi)]. So for a valid three-premise argument where the premises have probabilities .9, .8, and .7, the uncertainties are .1, .2, and .3 respectively, their sum is .6, and therefore the lower bound on the conclusion will be 1 – .6 = .4. (Note that this is a little lower than the calculation of a lower bound assuming independence, which would give us .9 * .8 * .7 = .504.) Other considerations would need to be brought to bear for us to see more precisely where the probability falls in the interval [.4, 1].

  • Stephen Law December 22, 2011, 7:19 AM

    Right Tim. So how does any of this help Glenn, given that he wants to show that belief in his God is pretty probable (significantly over 0.5) – via a valid deductive moral argument based on a series of (apparently) independent merely-more-probable-than-not premises? We do have legitimate grounds for doubt that he’s going to manage it, I take it?

    As you seem very familiar with these considerations about upper bounds (much more so then me, I’ll happily admit!) I have another question. Is the point, in essence, that the probability of the conclusion cannot necessarily be deemed 0.32 given 5 basic premise of 0.8 because we need to factor in how probable the conclusion is anyway, i.e. how probable it is even if it’s not the case that the argument is valid and has true premises?

    Is that right? If so, how is it news?

    I mean, we always knew that to say that probability of the conclusion given the premises is 0.32 is not to say that the probability of the conclusion might not be much higher, all things considered. So for example:

    I have gene x
    Those with gene x get cancer y
    I will get cancer y

    If the premises have a probability of 0.5 each, and this is all the information available, it’s reasonable for me to conclude my probability of getting cancer Y is 0.25. Given just those premises.

    But if I have the undeniable symptoms of cancer Y, then I should assign a much higher probability to the conclusion, even without revising the probability of the premises.

    Is there any more to the “upper bounds” point than this? Presumably, there is but I am struggling to see what it is at this point…

  • Stephen Law December 22, 2011, 7:29 AM

    …perhaps the further thought is that premise 1 might lend some support to the conclusion anyway, even if, say, premise 2 is false.

  • Stephen Law December 22, 2011, 8:00 AM

    PS when I said “Is the point, in essence, that the probability of the conclusion cannot necessarily be deemed 0.32 given 5 basic premise of 0.8 because…” I was assuming no superfluous premises, and probabilistically independent premises. Bit sloppy of me.

    I must say this stuff is rather intriguing, and feel I must get to the bottom if it.

  • Tim December 22, 2011, 9:23 AM

    Stephen,

    These are indeed fascinating issues!

    I haven’t worked the 5-premise argument you refer to, so everything I have to say will be strictly on the formal side. Assuming that the premises are independent (an assumption one should not make lightly), and assuming that the probability of each premise, given some reasonable background knowledge, is .8, then the lower bound would be (.8)^5, or just a little below .33.

    What’s the use of such an argument? For one thing, in this case, it would get some version of theism — call it MT for “moral theism” — on the table for discussion. Because deduction is monotonic, merely adding premises cannot weaken the conclusion. Unless further evidence depresses the probability of the original premises of the argument, which of course it might, the probability of MT won’t go lower than that. When some new piece of relevant information comes in, we can take the endpoints of the interval [.32768, 1) and do standard Bayesian conditionalization with each of them (think of it as “worst case” and “best case” calculation) in order to obtain a new interval. Under certain plausible conditions, the interval will narrow. This shows that rational agents who share likelihoods and start with probabilities lying in that interval for their (relative) prior probability and then update by conditionalization on the same evidence, will find that their posterior probabilities converge. (I’ve made the interval half open in order not to have to qualify this claim further.) That’s interesting news.

    There are also some interesting theorems that one can generate regarding the effect of multiple deductive arguments with premises that are all independent (i.e., each premise of argument A is probabilistically independent of every combination of assertions and negations of all of the other premises of A and of all of the premises of arguments B, C, …); it turns out that even when none of these arguments by itself renders their common conclusion more probable than a lower bound of n, for real valued n > 0, a combination of a sufficient number of them can raise the probability as close to 1 as one likes. (Of course, in certain circumstances that might require trillions of arguments!)

  • Glenn December 22, 2011, 5:36 PM

    Thanks for weighing in Tim. You’ve said what I was referring to, but as someone to whom Stephen might listen. :)

    Stephen, I hope you can grant now that if a deductive moral argument is a dismal flop, it is certainly not, as you suggested earlier, because of a misunderstanding on my part about the relationship between probability and deduction. I’m afraid it’s the truth of the premises that will need to be argued against.

  • Tim December 22, 2011, 6:23 PM

    Stephen,

    You write:

    Incidentally the “upper bound” stuff, while it looks awfully impressive especially when articulated using long strings of formulae, appears to be based on some rather dubious ideas. I cannot find any reference to it outside of theistic circles (e.g. Tim McGrew). Can you point me to some?

    (1) It’s a lower bound, not an upper bound.

    (2) I’m not sure why you think that it is based on dubious ideas. Feel free to elaborate.

    (3) You can read all about it in Ernest W. Adams, A Primer of Probability Logic.

  • Joe December 22, 2011, 7:39 PM

    Thanks Tim – my logic teacher made basically the same point. You don’t just multiply the probability of the premises in a deductive argument, but their probability still tells us about the minimum probability of the conclusion.

    Stephen – this is what Glenn said in reply to you, and you rebuffed him as though he didn’t know what he was talking about. In fact to a previous commenter you spoke as though this was just the religious people up to their old tricks. “Theists,” you said: are “very good at disguising this problem of plummeting probabilities with amazing rhetorical flourishes.” To Glenn, you stated that because of THIS problem, “your argument is still a dismal flop.” When Glenn replied and pointed out the possible problem with your claim (which has now been confirmed), you would not listen. You were supremely confident, saying:

    That you have fallen for the fallacy of supposing that an argument with five premises each of which has an 80% probability of being true must provide good support for its conclusion is intriguing. You have invested an awful lot in the moral argument. This must give you pause for thought, surely?

    Glenn was correct.

    You were wrong.

    I think you should plainly say so.

  • Stephen Law December 22, 2011, 11:10 PM

    Thanks very much Tim. I see you know this stuff inside out. You’re not the Tim, are you?

    I certainly agree that these considerations might have some interesting consequences. Definitely worth pursuing. I have a couple more clarificatory questions if you have the time, though.

    First, it seems to me that if someone says, “I have a valid deductive argument of five premises of prob 0.8 each that shows it’s much more probable than not that C” we should indeed be highly suspicious.

    Indeed, if their premises are independent (and none are redundant), then setting aside whether there might be other factors that might bestow a higher probability on C, the probability of the conclusion given the premises alone is indeed 0.32768.

    If, in their defence, they say, “Ah, but remember, the upper bound of the probability of the conclusion could be as high as one, even if the lower bound is 0.32768” they are in effect just pointing out that the probability of the conclusion could be higher, given other factors. But of course we knew that already. That’s not to contradict the point made in the preceding paragraph. Is that correct?

    My other question probably has a simple answer but I cannot see what it is. It is true, isn’t it, that given other factors, the probability of C might also be lower than 0.32768? So in my cancer example, the premises might have a probability of 0.5 each, yet if I also know that I have the very rare z gene that prevents you getting cancer Y, I should assign a lower probability to the conclusion than is otherwise correctly obtained by multiplication. So why, if we say the upper bound of the conclusion I drew is 1, do we not say the lower bound is zero?

    After all, A, -A, therefore A&-A is deductively valid, and might have premises with a probability of 0.5 each, yet it still has a conclusion with probability of zero. Probabilities can be revised down as well as up.

    Indeed, in the following case our background knowledge that being male almost always excludes being female (but some hermaphrodites) and a probability of 0.51 to each premise, the probability of the conclusion is much lower than 0.25:

    Ted is male
    Ted is female
    Therefore: Ted is male and Ted is female.

    So, to return to our original example, why say the upper bound is 1 but the lower bound is no lower than 0.32768?

  • Stephen Law December 22, 2011, 11:16 PM

    Tim you said: “(1) It’s a lower bound, not an upper bound.”

    I was referring to the upper bound of one.

  • Tim December 23, 2011, 3:35 AM

    Stephen,

    (1) “You’re not the Tim, are you?” From Monty Python? Yep. But who listens to me? ;)

    (2) “I was referring to the upper bound of one.” Oops — my apologies. I misunderstood that.

    (3) “After all, A, -A, therefore A&-A is deductively valid, and might have premises with a probability of 0.5 each, yet it still has a conclusion with probability of zero. Probabilities can be revised down as well as up.”

    In that example, the premises are logically incompatible. If each premise taken alone is contingent, which they would have to be in order for P(A) = P(~A) = .5, then they are not probabilistically independent, for P(A|~A) = 0 ? .5. Since the minimum probability of the conclusion is 1 minus the sum of the uncertainties of the premises, we have P(A & ~A) ? [1 - (U(A) + U(~A))] = 0. And that is, of course, exactly right.

    When the probability of the conclusion of a deductively valid argument is fixed at some real value r > 0 in this fashion, further evidence can depress the probability of that conclusion below r. But it cannot do so without also lowering the probability of one or more of the premises of the original deductive argument. So long as those probabilities remain undiminished, the impact of new relevant evidence on the conclusion will be to increase its probability.

    (4) “So in my cancer example, the premises might have a probability of 0.5 each, yet if I also know that I have the very rare z gene that prevents you getting cancer Y, I should assign a lower probability to the conclusion than is otherwise correctly obtained by multiplication.”

    First we need to reformulate the cancer example a bit. Your original argument was:

    1. I have gene x
    2. Those with gene x get cancer y

    Therefore,

    3. I will get cancer y

    But it isn’t quite right to say that premise 2 here has a probability of .5; that would be to say, putting it colloquially, that it’s an even bet that every single person with gene x will get cancer y, whereas I think what you mean to say is that the probability, given no further relevant information, that an individual will get cancer y, given that he has gene x, is .5.

    Thus reconstructed, the argument isn’t quite a modus ponens, since (reconstructed) premise 2 can’t be read as assigning a probability to an indicative conditional; if we want to read (reconstructed) 2 as a conditional, it will have to be a subjunctive conditional. But setting aside that worry for the moment, this is a case where the new evidence lowers the probability of one of the premises: the fact that you have rare gene z is ex hypothesi relevant to the question of whether, if you were to have gene x, you would get cancer y. So the impact of the new evidence “Stephen has rare gene z” is felt in its lowering the probability of the reconstructed premise 2.

    Does that help?

  • Stephen Law December 23, 2011, 3:49 AM

    Ah right that helps a lot re my second question, Tim. But what is the answer to the first one (which is the more important one – the second one was just for clarification)? Maybe I’m really asking more than one question. To clarify:

    First, it seems to me that if someone says, “I have a valid deductive argument of five non-redundant premises of prob 0.8 each that shows it’s much more probable than not that C”, we should indeed be highly suspicious. Are we right to be suspicious/skeptical?

    Indeed, if their premises are independent (and none are redundant), then, setting aside whether there might be other known factors that might bestow a higher probability on C, the probability of C given just validity and the probabilities of the premises alone is indeed 0.32768. That is correct I take it?

    If, in their defence, they say, “Ah, but remember, the upper bound of the probability of the conclusion could be as high as one, even if the lower bound is 0.32768”, they are in effect just pointing out that the probability of the conclusion could be higher, given other factors. But of course we knew that already. That’s not to contradict the point made in the preceding paragraph. Is that correct?

  • sam g December 23, 2011, 6:13 AM

    d, the problem with taking the ‘first horn’ of the dilemma is that what appears to us to be objective morality is in fact just gods subjective morality, so the first conditional premise discussed here becomes “if god did not exist, then there couldn’t be god’s subjective views on moral duties and values”. this is just stating the obvious and the rest of the argument falls apart.

    they can’t take the second horn because then good is independent of god and his role is just to point it out for us, so the premise is false.

    glenn, when you say it has been ‘dealt’ with, is this a fair summary in a nutshell? god is the personification of good so it is meaningless to try and distinguish between his command and the thing which he commands. everything is good because he commands it but he only commands good things, there is no difference.

    if this is reasonably accurate, how does it impact the first conditional premise? it seems to me that it still fails.

    random thought: this conversation assumes the platonic version of categorical good, but i find the eastern ying/yang view more compelling in that all good has some bad in it and it is impossible to separate them and isolate ‘good’ even on an abstract level, so any moral duties and values will also be a partly immoral. i think this much more accurately reflects the world i see around me, and makes this entire conversation non-sensical. just a random thought though.

  • Glenn December 23, 2011, 2:49 PM

    Sam, who is “us”?

  • Glenn December 23, 2011, 3:00 PM

    Oh sorry, there was a question for me (I’m having trouble keeping up with these conversations with other things going on!)

    “god is the personification of good so it is meaningless to try and distinguish between his command and the thing which he commands. everything is good because he commands it but he only commands good things, there is no difference.”

    No, I wouldn’t say this at all. It’s perfectlymeaningful to distinguish between the act that is the command, and the thing commanded. Also, things are not at all good because God commands them. God commands them because they are good and God loves goodness. But things become right (i.e. morally required) because God commands them – or else the property of being morally right is identical with the property of being commanded by God (not some hypothetical God, but the actual God, who is good and loving).

  • sam g December 23, 2011, 5:30 PM

    by ‘us’ i meant mankind pretending we were all christians. sorry. anyway the point was that if you accept the first part of the dilemma then what you are claiming to be objective moral facts are just gods commandments and the first conditional premise become ridiculous.

    as for the way the dilemma has been dealt with… i’ve read some of matts pieces on it but obviously still haven’t got a grasp on what you’re saying. when you say: “God commands them because they are good and God loves goodness” you’re saying they are objectively good independent of god commanding them? and when you say they become morally required because god commands them, you’re implying we’re not directly morally required to do good things. we’re morally required to do what god commands us, but god will only command us to do things that are objectively good independent of whether or not he commands them… there’s correlation, but no causation.

    so you’re going with the second part of the dilemma in respect to ‘goodness’ in that there can be moral goodness independent of god, but going with the first part in respect to ‘moral duties’ in that we’re not required to do anything morally good unless god commands it. i note that the first part of your premise is ‘moral duties’, presumably defined as ‘that which god commands us to do’, so this discussion of morality is correlated but essentially unrelated to any discussions of ‘goodness’. are ‘values’ defined as ‘what god values’?

    so by ‘moral duties and values’ you mean ‘that which is morally required’ which in turn means ‘what god commands us to do’. so shouldn’t the first conditional premise then be “if god does not exist, then he has not commanded us to do anything”, and still be pointless?

    disclaimer: i’m one of the internet followers you attack in your first few paragraphs. i prefer the term ‘weekend thinker’, and this particular friday afternoon i’ve had a few beers.

  • Glenn December 23, 2011, 7:39 PM

    Sam, Oh no – I don’t at all attack casual philosophers. My disdain is reserved for those whose only exposure to the ideas is in brief online exchanges, and who take themselves (or appear to take themselves) to be experts. I’m sure that’s not you. :)

    And yes, I think that goodness exists independently of God’s commands. After all, I think that God is good, quite independently of any of God’s commands. I prefer to think of all goodness that is not part of moral duty as “non-moral” goodness. This includes instrinsic goodness like aesthetic goodness, as well as instrumental goodness (e.g. god for something).

    so by ‘moral duties and values’ you mean ‘that which is morally required’ which in turn means ‘what god commands us to do’. so shouldn’t the first conditional premise then be “if god does not exist, then he has not commanded us to do anything”, and still be pointless?

    No, because the relationship between moral rightness and God’s commands is not semantic. The phrases don’t have the same linguistic meaning. I’ve suggested two relationships: The first is causation. Here God’s commands make things right or wrong. Obviously this formulation isn’t subject to the pointlessness you refer to.

    The second relationship that I have referred to is identity, where the property of moral rightness is (i.e. is identical with) the property of being commanded by God. This is not semantic either. To see clearly why, think of the morning star and the evening star. They are in fact the same (identical) object, but the phrase “the morning star” obviously doesn’t mean the same thing as “the evening star.” Similarly, “right” doesn’t just mean “commanded by God,” even if they are the same thing.

    PS – And I have no objections whatsoever to doing serious philosophy or theology after a tall dark ale.

  • sam g December 24, 2011, 10:58 PM

    to avoid asking questions you’ve already answered, i found your ‘new euthyphro’ paper. what a mind bender! i commented on it if you get time to check it out, but i know you’re busy.

    what i’m trying to understand is how this understanding of moral rightness affects the fist conditional premise addressed in this post.

    a principle i was using in re-wording the first conditional premise was mathematical one where “A = 2″ can be replaced with “A = 1+1″, “A = 3-1″, or “A = 1×2″ as needed to solve the equation, and these in turn are all interchangeable amongst themselves. if you look at the superficial format then they are not the same, like the same word written in two different fonts, but that’s not relevant to what is being communicated.

    his reasonable faith podcast from 21/10/08, craig objected to plato’s ‘the good’ as an abstract object on the grounds that no obligations can arise from the existence of an object. good needs to be personified to give rise to moral obligations communicated via commands, which is where i got my earlier understanding christian solution to the euthyphro dilemma from. you have a different approach to craig but i think end at the same point, especially in relation to the first conditional premise.

    in the first conditional premise, i need you to explain exactly what ‘moral duties and values’ mean, and here’s why:

    I’ve suggested two relationships: The first is causation. Here God’s commands make things right or wrong. Obviously this formulation isn’t subject to the pointlessness you refer to.

    actually this is seems to be exactly the pointlessness i refer to. IF, as i understand it is, the first conditional premise is saying if god did not exist there would not be right and wrong and be right and wrong is the same as saying commanded or forbidden by god then without contradiction the first conditional premise can be replaced by if god did not exist he would not have commanded or forbidden anything.

    in your second relationship of identity, while the phrases have different meanings, that difference is in only relation to our earthly solar orbit and it remains true that we are discussing the planet venus. the difference requires a perspective, but here we are attempting to discuss moral rightness independent of our perspective (we’re not concerned with our subjective judgement of god’s moral commands), ie we are discussing the planet venus and not bothered that sometimes it appears to us in our mornings and sometimes in our evenings. if we are talking objectively about the planet then ‘the morning star’ actually does mean the same thing as ‘the evening star’ and are perfectly interchangeably, like nicknames for the same person. so i still hold that the words ‘morally right’ in any sentence uttered by a christian can be replaced by the words ‘commanded by god’ in order to illuminate exactly what they are saying, and the first conditional premise of the moral argument for gods existence, as i currently understand it, is pointless and doesn’t lead to the conclusion.

    merry christmas, happy new years!

  • Glenn December 24, 2011, 11:58 PM

    Me: “I’ve suggested two relationships: The first is causation. Here God’s commands make things right or wrong. Obviously this formulation isn’t subject to the pointlessness you refer to.”

    Sam: “actually this is seems to be exactly the pointlessness i refer to. IF, as i understand it is, the first conditional premise is saying if god did not exist there would not be right and wrong and be right and wrong is the same as saying commanded or forbidden by god then without contradiction the first conditional premise can be replaced by if god did not exist he would not have commanded or forbidden anything.”

    But Sam, what I’ve just said is that saying “right” or “wrong” is not the same as saying “commanded by God.” At this stage I can’t see why you’d reply to that and say, in effect, “Yes, but if you’re quite wrong, and actually the two phrases are equivalent and mean the same thing, then my previous comment applies.” Well maybe it would under those circumstances, but I have denied that the terms mean the same thing, so your previous comment doesn’t apply. Being identical does not mean that the terms have identical semantic meanings. I don’t know of a single philosopher of religion who maintains that “right” actually means (i.e. is semantically equivalent to) “commanded by God.” So the sort of pointlessness you refer to just doesn’t exist in the views of real world Christian philosophers.

    Secondly, try not to get yourself tangled up in knots over peculiarities about the planet Venus. Every analogy is just an analogy, and if you start analysing the objects being compared in ways that fall outside their relevant analogies to each other you’ll end up going down all sorts of rabbit holes. Another well known example is “water” and “H20.” We know the two things are identical, but they don’t have the same semantic import. We know this because people were able to talk about water before they even knew about it being H20. So don’t get bogged down in irrelevancies about us having a “perspective” on the morning and evening star. None of that matters in the least, and it will only muddy the waters.

    And indeed – Merry Christmas! I can’t promise to keep following this, but I’ve appreciated it.

  • sam g December 25, 2011, 6:56 AM

    yes the meanings are different, but if gods commands and only gods commands give rise to the property of moral rightness then of course saying that something morally right is the logical equivilent of saying it was commanded by god. like in your new euthphro, given that his wife calls him home because she is angry, it makes perfect sense to say that he is going home because his wife is angry. even though that would be neglecting to point out the nearest link in the casual chain to his friend at the pub who would find such a statement confusing, we are disucussing the chain independent of this friends awareness of the most recent link.

    but people talked of water, ice, and even steam knowing full well they were discussing the same thing.

    and thats fine if you can’t keep following this, this is just a hobby for me and thanks for replying as much as you have.

  • Stephen Law December 28, 2011, 3:33 AM

    Glenn

    It seems, given what Tim has said, that the highest probability we are licensed to place on the conclusion of an argument, by virtue of its being valid and having five non-redundant premises of probability of 0.8 each, is 0.32768.

    Which is what we get by multiplying the probabilities of the premises.

    Sure, that’s a more qualified and carefully formulated claim than my off-the-cuff remark earlier (which I’ll happily admit was rather sloppy). But my overall point remains the same – that such an argument is, as it stands, a flop.

    I’m sure you’d be first to agree with that verdict if our hypothetical argument was an argument AGAINST the existence of God.

    True, establishing certain inter-dependencies between the premises might then license us in giving C a higher probability than 0.32768. However, the mere fact that the argument is valid and has premises with those probabilities, does not, by itself, allow is to say that the conclusion is significantly more probable than not. In fact, it falls well short of allowing us to say that the conclusion is more-probable-then-not.

    Such an argument might combine with other arguments to bestow a higher probability on C. C might, all things considered, be very probable indeed. It might have a probability of 1. That’s entirely beside the point. I was not making any claims about the probability of C all-things-considered.

    Moreover, let’s not forget that other considerations (the evidential problem of evil) might work to reduce the probability of C still further (and also the probabilities of the premises).

    That’s how it seems to me (though I’m no expert on probability theory, and am quite happy to be corrected). Tim is far more knowledgeable about the ins and outs of this stuff than I, so he may be able to point out where I’ve gone wrong, if I have… My thanks for his help thus far, in any case.

    Happy Winterval!

  • Stephen Law December 28, 2011, 3:43 AM

    PS Glenn, of course this is all hypothetical as we don’t even know what the basic premises of your moral argument are, or what probabilities you want to assign them, as yet.

  • Glenn December 28, 2011, 9:41 AM

    “we don’t even know what the basic premises of your moral argument are”

    Why not? I did link to my “five step” version of the argument.

    As for your post #37, saying that in fact the highest probability the conclusion of a five premise argument could have (assuming a probability of 0.8 for each premise) – although it’s actually a four premise argument, since the fifth step is the conclusion (and one of the premises is actually just the conclusion of two prior premises…. so actually it’s a three premise argument), but never mind that just now – is just the product of multiplying the probability of the premises, I have the sinking feeling you’re back where you started! You call this the “highest” probability we can assign to my conclusion, but as has been explained, that is actually the lowest probability. I wonder if you understood what Tim said.

    “I’m sure you’d be first to agree with that verdict if our hypothetical argument was an argument AGAINST the existence of God.”

    Let’s not attribute your partisanship to me! :)

    Merry CHRISTmas Stephen!

  • Stephen Law December 28, 2011, 9:51 AM

    You linked to five premise argument that’s a four premise argument? I wasn’t referring to any of those arguments. Just talking about a hypothetical argument.

  • Glenn December 28, 2011, 10:07 AM

    No – I linked to what I called a “five step” argument. The five steps consist of four premises and one conclusion. However, premise three is really just the conclusion of premises one and two, so logically can be removed entirely. So in terms of how the argument works, there are three premises.

  • Matthew Flannagan December 28, 2011, 6:03 PM

    “”Sam G: yes the meanings are different, but if gods commands and only gods commands give rise to the property of moral rightness then of course saying that something morally right is the logical equivilent of saying it was commanded by god.”"

    Sam with respect, perhaps you should bone up on intensional and extensional contexts. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extensional_context gives a summary.

    Your claim above is true only if you have extensional equivalences in mind. If your referring to intensional equivalence then your claim is false as Glenn’s examples shows. This is not terribly controversial in philosophy of language. You really should familiarise your self with basic distinctions in a topic before you wade in to rebut others.

  • Glenn December 28, 2011, 7:09 PM

    Very true Matt. This is yet another one of those contexts where the de dicto / de re distinction is so important and easily overlooked, as it is this distinction that undergirds the extensional / intensional distinction.

  • sam g December 28, 2011, 10:07 PM

    thanks matt, will do :)

  • sam g December 29, 2011, 12:31 PM

    that was actually very helpful thanks, gave me lots to think about, and i think i see where i was going wrong. tell me if i’m on the right track now:

    a designating phrase may designate different things under different conditions (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/logic-intensional/#ParIntObj) but it depends on those conditions (carnap’s “state of affairs”?), such as knowledge or beliefs. “george knows that venus is seen in the sky near sunrise” may be false if george doesn’t know that the star he sees in the morning is venus, so ‘venus’ and ‘morning star’ cannot be swapped in this sentence. so while i couldn’t find a clear definition of intensional statements, all examples i found had intensional operators like ‘believes’ or ‘knows’, so it at least seems apparent that there needs an epistemic state of affairs named george for ‘the morning star’ to not mean ‘venus’.

    in relation to the premise: you stand on one side of a pane of glass and draw on the glass a horizontal arrow pointing to your right. i stand on the other side of the pane of glass and see the same arrow, except to me it is pointing the my left. so the direction of the arrow is relative to the position of the observer. or if we stand on opposite sides of the north pole we can be facing each other but both facing north.

    if moral rightness arises entirely from the commands of god, then from the perspective of god good moral rightness is subjective: he can command what he wants (even if what he wants is determined by his nature). but to us they will appear to be objective duties in that they are independent of our opinions or desires like any other objective fact, or gravity. so i was trying to discuss de re, but by making my extensional swap i was just replacing our perspective with gods perspective. and it’s not that i was wrong, it’s just that you weren’t discussing the arrow de re, you were discussing the direction of the arrow from our side of the glass. ie, the first conditional premise assumes ‘objective moral duties’ are relative only to the human perspective, but i missed that part. it was your whole point that the difference morning star was not venus relative only to a level of astronomical ignorance called george.

    so the premise will need to be amended, because surely you can’t just assert that a statement is intensional without giving the condition or state of affairs. i can’t just assert that ‘clarke kent can’t fly’ without referencing lois lane’s beliefs, or that ‘the number of planets’ does not designate ’9′ without referencing the epistemic state of affairs in 1781. so it doesn’t seem fair to just assert that ‘moral duties and values’ does not mean the same as ‘commanded by god’ simply because it is intensional and leave it at that. in my opinion the premise needs to be amended to show whose perspective it assumes, something along the lines of ‘if god did not exist then there would not appear to be objective moral duties to sentient non-god beings’. i’m sure you’ll amend it differently, but you get my point.

    further implications i think this has, but ponder it more i must.

  • C July 19, 2012, 1:38 PM

    Glenn, thanks for that. It’s frustrating that we who are average lay-people (ie non philosophers and non theologians) have to wade through some many scholarly pieces to really get a proper grasp on this. But I see why – those who attack your position seem to think that if they do it confidently, that’s all they need to do and uninformed people do seem to fall for it. It amazes me that some of these trolls expect to be taken seriously when they regularly commit fallacies, namely attacking the person.

    You spent one paragraph on the position that there are no moral values. What is your rebuttal to those naturalists or atheists who hold that view? I’m not that clear as to why it is obvious that there are objective moral values. And if one cannot establish that premise, one cannot arrive at that conclusion, right?

  • John Quin November 7, 2012, 2:24 AM

    I’m taking it that Monty python Tim is Tim McGrew??

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