how narratives ground human value

Most of us agree that human life has intrinsic value. But how are we to explain this fact? What is it about human beings that grant them greater worth than slugs, or rocks? And if this fact can be given a true explanation, would that explanation be able to fit with just any worldview?

Some people believe that naturalism has a hard time accounting for the intrinsic worth of human beings – that it lacks some important metaphysical resource for getting the job done. Indeed given that the ‘decline of religion’ is often cited as the cause of a widespread existential uncertainty in regards to one’s own value and purpose, it might be safe to say that this view of a dischord between naturalism and human value is intuitively felt on some level by many. But what is the lack in naturalism supposed to be?

Consider the following from William Lane Craig;

“If theism is false, why think that human beings have objective moral value? After all, on the naturalistic view, there’s nothing special about human beings. They’re just accidental byproducts of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth, lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe, and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time (Reasonable Faith, third edition, page 173).”

I’ll lay my cards on the table and say that I also think that naturalism cannot adequately account for the value of human beings, and that Craig has given the correct explanation as to why. That said, I’ve very sympathetic to the naturalist who is unconvinced that her worldview harbours such an unattractive failing. After all, Craig’s explanation is hardly a sustained and carefully laid out argument. There’s no clearly structured argument demonstrating this poverty within naturalism. Craig’s comments will ring true with those who share his intuitions on the matter, but he hasn’t given much to persuade anyone else. If we can more carefully explore the issue it will be good to do so.

As it happens I think that given the standard philosophical methodology, anyone who wants to subject claims like Craig’s above to caferul critical scrunity will find that it’s very hard to pin-point where the alleged problem with naturalism is supposed to be. Or at least, it’s hard to pin-point why the problem is uniquely a problem for the naturalist. This is something I myself found; although I had a strong intuition that there was a problem, when I set about analysing what it was, I struggled to make sense of it. Now, however, I think I understand why it seems so hard to explain the problem with naturalism. It’s because we have been trained to approach the problem ontologically.

What advantage is Christianity supposed to have over naturalism? Our instinctive response is to compare the different accounts of what human beings are in terms of their composing substance on these two worldviews. Traditionally Christian theists have viewed human persons as embodied souls, whereas on naturalism humans are purely physical entities, or at least emergent on physical entities. Is this supposed to be where the significant difference lay? Certainly it would be easy to read that kind of thinking into the sorts of things Christians might say on the matter. After all it’s common to hear people say that the problem with naturalism is that humans “are just a bunch of chemicals.” But I think that would be the wrong way to read those sentiments.

It’s incredibly hard to make sense of human worth as a matter of what sort of stuff humans are made of. How exactly is it supposed to make a difference in terms of worth whether human persons are immaterial beings or material beings? Would a jellotine being be of more value than a being made of rock? There doesn’t seem to be any sensible way of judging things in this manner. Of course, some might argue that unless human beings are immaterial souls, then we could not possess rationality or freedom of the will. But that would be to argue that human worth is down to human capacities, and not really the substance of our existence after all.

To view the issue in terms of capacities is another tempting move, one that again thinks fundamentally in terms of the features of what humans are, or have, as features of their being. But this too is problematic. If we think that human worth boils down to our rationality, then how do we avoid saying that the worth of a person is determined by their IQ, or something equivalent? Humans are not equal in terms of their mental ability, but they are surely equal in terms of worth. Additionally, why would rationality of all things give humans worth? The brain is surely impressive, but why favour that organ over any other? On what grounds? Freedom of the will is just as inexplicable as a foundation of worth. How does the proposition “humans have freedom of the will” entail “humans have instrinsic moral worth”? That logical jump there is inexplicable. Moreover the intuitive sense of the problem with naturalism doesn’t seem to focus on these aspects. No doubt there are many folk who think that naturalism also struggles to explain human rationality and free will, but these are surely distinct topics from the question of value. Certainly I don’t think these factors feature in my intuition on the matter.

So then, what is the answer?

Narratives.

The advantage Christianity has over naturalism is that Christianity provides a narrative which gives human beings an important role. On Christian theism the world is created and given to humans to rule over, the creator takes a special interest in their affairs and even steps into their history to rescue them from their sin. On Christian theism creation is to a certain extent about human beings. The significance of being made in the image of God for human value is not in its signifying that humans have particular capacities, or are made from certain materials, but that humans have an important role in the great cosmic drama that God has penned. Caparably, on naturalism humans have no such special role. The universe isn’t about human beings in any sense. If anything, humans are a sort of after-thought of an unintentional process. Go back and read’s Craig’s quote again in these terms and see if it doesn’t make more sense.

This, then, is the first problem of human value for naturalists: naturalism cannot provide a plausible narrative which gives human beings any prominence. This I think correctly drives the intuition that naturalism is at odds with human value.

But there is also a second problem for the naturalist. Obviously, the fact that we can tell a narrative about human beings does not entail that such a narrative is true. And the second problem for the naturalist is that no naturalistic cosmic-narrative could ever be true, simply because on naturalism there is no cosmic story-teller. Sure, it’s possible that naturalism as a mere metaphysical doctrie could be true: it could be true that there are no supernatural beings or anything of the like. But it’s impossible for a naturalistic narrative of the universe to be true. Stories are about things, but a naturalistic universe cannot be about anything because there is no intentional narrator behind it.

Naturalism, then, doubly fails to account for human value. Human value requires a true cosmic narrative that is to a great degree about human beings, but naturalism cannot have any true cosmic narratives, and even the false ones we could make fail to give human beings any prominence.

the “evil god” argument

William Lane Craig has recently responded to the “evil god” argument put forward by Stephen Law in their debate, and Law has himself responded to that response.

I thought that now might be a good time to share my own thoughts on the argument, and where my agreements/disagreements with these two thinkers lay.

First of all, here’s a summary of a basic evidential argument from evil (as given in Philosophy of Religion by C. Stephen Evans & R. Zachary Manis):

1. If God exists he does not allow any pointless evil.
2. Probably, there is pointless evil in the world.
3. Therefore, God probably does not exist.

Craig’s response to this argument is to challenge the justification for (2) by noting our cognitive limitations in relation to God’s, employing what is known as the “skeptical theist” defence. The proponent of skeptical theism points out that the supposed justification for thinking that (2) is true is simply that it appears that it is. Sure, the skeptical theist says, we may utterly fail to discern any justifiable reason for, say, the agonising death of a deer whose legs are crushed beneath a fallen tree, but why think that our inability to discern such a reason is evidence that there is no reason? This failing on our part would only be evidence against there actually being such a reason if it’s likely that, were there a reason, we would be able to spot it. But why would we be likely to know the reasons why an all-intelligent being allows something horrible to occur? God’s cognitive capabilities far exceed our own, and thus it would hardly be surprising if God has reasons that we would fail to discern.

I think this a perfectly reasonable response to the argument. But here’s where Stephen Law’s “evil god” argument kicks in. He thinks we can run a parallel argument:

1. If evil god exists he does not allow any pointless good.
2. Probably, there is pointless good in the world.
3. Therefore, evil god probably does not exist.

In this argument, a particular good is pointless if it does not contribute to a greater evil. After all, evil god is perfectly bad, and entirely hate-filled, so he wouldn’t allow anything good unless it contributed to a greater evil. But it seems like there are goods that don’t contribute to any greater evil. What about some particularly beautiful yet undiscovered species of flower? What about the excessive cuteness of children? Aren’t these evidence against evil god?

Law notes that the same theodicies open to the defender of God are open to evil god (one can have a reverse free will defence, or a soul-destroying theodicy etc). But also, Law claims that the tactics of skeptical theism are just as available to the evil god proponent too. What justifies us in thinking that, just because many goods seem ‘pointless’, then many goods are pointless? Evil god is omniscient and supremely intelligent, so we can say in regard to him too that we aren’t likely to know whether or not there are greater evils that justify the goods. The arguments against both God and evil god seem to be even, Law says. BUT, he claims, nobody takes skeptical theism seriously in regard to discounting all the evidence against evil god. Nobody thinks that, after pointing to the smile of a child, or a stunning sunset, that a defender of the belief in evil god would be rational in saying, “hold on, we can’t recklessly draw such an inference here – we simply aren’t likely to be able to discern evil god’s reasons for permitting all this gratuitous good.” But since there is parity between the evidential argument from evil and the evidential argument from goodness, if skeptical theism doesn’t bail evil god out, it doesn’t bail God out either.

Craig denies that the defender of evil god would be irrational to appeal to skeptical theism. He claims that one simply cannot confidently conclude what the character of the creator is like based on the evidence of evil and good in the world. Which of them is correct? Is skeptical theism in defence of evil god justified? Or is the existence of inscrutable goods evidence against evil god? I actually think they’re both right.

It is quite clear to me that it is not at all likely that we’d be able to discern all the underlying reasons for an omniscient good being or an omniscient evil being to run the world as he does. But that isn’t the whole story. The above isn’t the only form an evidential argument from evil/goodness can take. I think skeptical theism shows this form to be a weak one, but a stronger one can be made through a comparative case.

the comparative argument

In a comparative argument, the God hypothesis, or the evil god hypothesis, is pitted against another hypothesis and judged on its power to explain some data, in this case, the existence of certain quantities/kinds of evil/good. Following Paul Draper, we can call this hypothesis “the Hypothesis of Indifference”, though I will describe it in my own way as follows:

HI: the universe is not ordered or guided by any all-powerful intelligent being that has a primary preference for good things, or a primary preference for bad things, nor a primary preference for the well-being of creatures, or a primary preference for the suffering of creatures.

HI is consistent with naturalism, and also a deism whereby god’s character is morally indifferent, but it isn’t consistent with theism, nor belief in evil god. Now, what about the data which the hypotheses will be “fighting” over? Let’s call the following observation about the world ‘O’:

O: There is roughly the same amount of good in the world as there is evil, and there is roughly the same amount of inscrutable evil/good as there is “meaningful” evil/good.

The truth of O is no doubt contentious, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that it’s true. It certainly doesn’t seem obviously false. Note: “meaningful evil/good” should here be understood as evil which, through an agent’s intention or not, contributes to a good, or good which, through an agent’s intention or not, contributes to an evil.

We can ask then, whether O is more surprising on theism/the evil god hypothesis, than on HI. For simplicity, we’ll keep to a comparison between HI and theism (the God hypothesis) – seeing as there is parity between the two, what counts for one will count for the other anyway. A comparative argument from evil might run like this then:

1. O is probable given HI.
2. O is improbable given theism.
3. Therefore, HI is a better explanation of O than theism.

Is (1) defensible? Well seeing as on HI there is no preference for either a wholly good, or wholly evil universe, it figures that, just by luck, the distribution of both would be about even. And since, on HI, there is no intelligent agent intending to bring about good or pleasurable states of affairs, there will likely be instances where evil or suffering fail to contribute to goods or pleasure, but also instances where such contributions occur via luck or incidentally, thus balancing out. So O is not all that surprising given HI. But is O surprising given theism?

I’d have to say that we can’t be sure. Again the considerations of skeptical theism (I think rightly) come into play. Can we really say with confidence that God couldn’t have achieved the amount of good there is (or will be) in the world without the amount of evil there is? I’d have to say that we can’t be so confident. I think the probability of O on theism is inscrutable. Thus (2) is a little strong and needs to be replaced by the following:

(2*): The probability of O on theism is inscrutable.

Does the conclusion still follow from (1) and (2*)? Yes, I think so. Put it this way; if you knew that one horse had a high chance of winning the race, but as for another, you had no clue as to their odds, you’d be a fool to pick the one you didn’t know about, even if in reality that horse had an even higher chance of winning. So yes, HI is a better explanation of O than theism. O is thus evidence against theism.

retaining rationality

Is HI’s explanatory power over theism in regards to O a problem for the theist? Does it make her theism irrational? I don’t think so. Perhaps relative to O theism is improbable, but theism is probable all things considered. Perhaps the theist’s being evidentially challenged here is no more significant than the kind of evidential challenge found in the following scenario:

Say (1) there is a pet store that I know is nearing the end of its transition from being an all-purpose pet store, to one that sells only cats and things relating to proper keeping of cats: the only non-cat left for sale is a solitary dog. Say also (2), I have a friend who is very familiar with the contents of this store, and is heading out to buy a single pet from there tomorrow. And (3) this friend has told me that she is going to buy that solitary dog. Now relative to (1) and (2), (4): “my friend is going to buy a cat” is much more probable than (3). (1) and (2) count as evidence against (3) in favour of (4). But surely I am rational in still believing that my friend is buying the dog. After all, I know that she is! But if I didn’t know (3), I would be much more justified in believing (4) over (3).

Similarly, O might not be a problem for the theist if she has good grounds for her theism! But if she didn’t know that theism were true, or didn’t have good grounds to so believe, she would be more justified in believing HI over theism. And by virtue of the symmetry of the circumstances, the same would be true of the evil god hypothesis. The evil god hypothesis isn’t the best explanation of O, but for someone who has good grounds for believing in evil god, this fact need not make the belief irrational.

So both Craig and Law are right. Skeptical theism is a perfectly legitimate move, but, nonetheless evil is evidence against God, and goodness is evidence against evil god. The agnostic, atheist and evil god proponent are justified in believing that evil counts against the existence of God. The agnostic, atheist and theist are justified in believing that good counts against the existence of evil god. But both the theist and evil god-believer need not be deterred when their own beliefs encounter this evidential challenge.

Bill Craig loses a debate! (and all sorts of goodies are revealed)

William Lane Craig recently debated Stephen Law on the question “Does God Exist?” (the audio is available here)

I’ve listened/watched/read loads of Craig’s debates and I think he’s comfortably won every encounter. However, I think that Stephen Law actually got the best of him in this excellent debate, and provided better arguments for the claim that “God does not exist” than Craig did for the claim that “God does exist”, at least so long as “God” is defined with philosophical rigour. In fact, the brilliance of Law’s approach to the debate is that it completely concentrated on disproving (or providing evidence against) one of God’s attributes, not ALL of them; in particular, he attacked the good character of God. He employed an argument involving the notion of an “Evil God” and Craig in fact let out an admission which gave Law’s strategy great power, which is that the definition of God necessarily implies God’s goodness. And indeed that is the philosophically correct way to understand God. But that means that, so long as Law could successfully argue against God’s goodness, Law would, by virtue of doing that, be arguing against the existence of God. So long as one attribute of God is shown to be rationally untenable, God full stop is shown to be rationally untenable. I think he pulled off his strategy brilliantly.

Craig opened with only three of his usual arguments for God’s existence, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, the Moral Argument and a (very) minimal facts case for the resurrection of Jesus. Craig normally brings 5 arguments and I think his dropping two actually suited Law well. Law didn’t touch the KCA since his strategy was to target only God’s goodness and that argument doesn’t say anything about the character of the first cause of the universe. Craig didn’t go into nearly enough detail with the resurrection argument for it to be at all dialectically useful. I can’t imagine any non-Christian being persuaded from that extremely bare bones presentation. He reduced the standard 4 or 5 facts to a mere 3 and relied solely on authority to uphold them, rather than delve into the reasons why they are generally conceded as facts. As such, Law didn’t have to do much to shake the audience’s confidence in the case except point out some general worries that “supernatural” theories have when appealed to as the best explanation. Because of this the debate was entirely focussed on the moral argument and Law’s rather novel and intriguing argument from “Evil God”, or “Anti-God” as Craig re-named him.

Craig didn’t help himself in that he actually misunderstood the argument. He thought that the argument was trying to show that, on an inductive survey of the evidence, an evil creator god is as likely as a good creator god. But that wasn’t the argument. It was actually something like this:

1. There is just as much evidence from the goodness/evil of the world that the creator god is evil, as there is that the creator god is good.
2. We are justified in believing that evidence of goodness in the world demonstrates that there is not an evil creator god.
3. Therefore, we are equally justified in believing that the evidence of evil in the world demonstrates that there is not a good creator god.

The argument was thus designed to support the general evidential argument from evil, and undercut the attempts to soften the argument by appeals to “skeptical theism”. After all, Law contended, nobody takes considerations of sceptical theism seriously in dismissing evil god, so why good god? Craig did implicitly counter the argument by incidentally denying the second premise, but his misunderstanding meant that he didn’t make it explicit and so Law’s argument appeared unchallenged.

As for the moral argument, again Law took the upper hand and made similar criticisms that I myself made in a post here. That is, Craig didn’t show that, necessarily, atheism cannot account for objective moral values and duties. Now perhaps Law, and myself, have misunderstood the argument. Even granted that, Craig didn’t clarify it to make an adequate response and so failed to defend it. Craig also revealed something interesting about the moral argument; in the Q&A he spoke of it in terms of induction and “best explanation”. So perhaps it shouldn’t be formulated deductively, as it leads to confusion.

Moreover, although this wasn’t discussed as a feature of the debate, I wonder if Craig’s moral argument could be twisted to support the existence of “Anti-God”? Perhaps there is a transcendent being with all the attributes of God except necessary existence and moral goodness (to concede that maximal greatness entails moral goodness). We’ll give him moral badness instead and call him “Anti-God” as Craig does. What makes this argument any more or less compelling than the standard moral argument?

1. If Anti-God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties exist.
3. Therefore, Anti-God exists.

After all, what’s required for objective moral values and duties is a transcendent source of moral values and duties. But what stops that source being an inherent evil being, rather than an inherently good being? Either way, objective values find a source. Craig could say such a being can’t exist because God necessarily exists, but at that point he’s forced to use the ontological argument, and the moral argument ceases to be dialectically useful.

Again that argument wasn’t made, but I do find it interesting. I conclude that Stephen Law won because he provided a better case for the non-existence of God (who is necessarily good) than Craig did for the existence of God. However, I imagine that Craig might take the moral victory. After all, with the KCA untouched he did put forward an unchallenged case for an immaterial, all-powerful, spaceless, timeless, unchanging, personal being. Although not technically theism, it is theism in spirit. So perhaps both debaters can walk away happy. Law had a narrow and focussed objective, which he succeeded in achieving, but it may not have been broad enough to satisfy his fellow atheists.

Overall it’s a wonderful and refreshing debate that I highly recommend listening to. It was nice not to see Craig’s opponent make the same typical blunders and misunderstandings. Law clearly has a sharp mind and I’m keen to look into his work; I was smiling all throughout his inventive “Evil God” argument. Craig was by no means white-washed, but his opening hand set him up for a difficult time given Law’s tactics.

If it seems I’m being harsh on Craig, I should balance this with the fact that I’m extremely excited to hear him talk (and hopefully to meet him) at the be-thinking.org apologetics day conference this Saturday! Can’t wait!

EDIT: I now have some further comments on the evil god argument over here, and thoughts on Law’s discussion with Glenn Peoples on the argument over here.

Craig’s moral argument for the existence of God

For a while now I’ve been dissatisfied with William Lane Craig’s moral argument for the existence of God. Or more to the point, (seeing as I suspect that the argument is actually sound), I’m dissatisfied with how he normally defends the argument. I want to use this space to explain what I see as his method’s shortcomings. However, a caveat I give is that I’ll be critiquing Craig’s defence as I’ve come across it in his debates and online material. Craig is no fool and charity requires acknowledging the possibility that he does things differently in his scholarly published works, or that I’ve simply misunderstood the argument. At any rate, for what they’re worth, here are my thoughts on the matter.

The form of the argument he typically gives is this:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.
(Source)

The first premise is the one I want to concentrate on. As a material conditional, it is false if and only if the antecedent is true and the consequent is false. That is, the premise is false if God does not exist and moral values and duties do exist.

Presumably there are a number of atheists who think that is precisely how things are. They think that atheism is true and that this fact does not affect the existence of moral duties and values whatsoever. Not every atheist is a “subjectivist” about moral values and duties. So how does Craig aim to convince these atheists, or other folk who think this atheist position is not absurd?

From what I’ve seen, Craig defends the first premise by examining various naturalistic accounts of ethics (naturalistic as in non-supernatural, not naturalistic in the more technical sense used in metaethics) showing that they fail to account for, or “ground”, objective moral values and duties. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Craig’s critiques of these accounts are on the money. We’ll ignore any problems we might have with his criticisms or any quibbles we might have with his understanding of “objective” etc. If we’ve successfully put such worries aside then, we’ll be willing to explore the thought that, as Craig claims, there are no plausible naturalistic accounts of how it is that objective moral values and duties can exist.

The question that springs to my mind at this moment is “so what?” Perhaps there is no successful naturalistic account of these important ethical features to hand. Are we to think that a plausible naturalistic account could never be formulated? What stops the atheist from saying, “that’s right I don’t have a plausible naturalistic metaethical account, but I know intuitively that there are objective moral values and duties. I don’t need to explain how something is so to know that it is so. Perhaps we will know how it all fits together in the future.” As far as I can tell an atheist would be perfectly within their rights to say that. Showing that there is no adequate naturalistic account of values and duties available is not the same as showing that objective values and duties can’t exist given naturalism.

As such it seems to me that Craig either needs to do more to defend the first premise, or argue for a weaker conclusion, such as “theism is the best explanation of objective moral values and duties.” To adequately defend the first premise he needs to, by my understanding, give an analysis of the necessary conditions for the existence of objective moral values and duties, and demonstrate that, necessarily, atheism cannot meet those conditions.