The Best Argument for God’s Existence: The Argument from Moral Agency

Continuing my theme of summarizing arguments about God’s existence inspired by the writings of Paul Draper, this time I have chosen to summarize an argument for God’s existence, the “argument from moral agency.” Draper’s full argument may be found in his paper “Cosmic Fine-Tuning and Terrestrial Suffering: Parallel Problems for Naturalism and Theism.” (The link will take you to JSTOR, where the paper sits behind a ‘paywall,’ so if you don’t have JSTOR access you won’t be able to read the paper.)

I’ve thought about this argument often since I first read Draper’s paper many years ago. I’m inclined to believe this is the strongest argument–by far–for theism I have ever read. It is surprising that so many theists continue to press boilerplate fine-tuning arguments when the argument from moral agency is so vastly superior (or, at least, so it seems to me). It is equally surprising that the argument has not garnered the critical attention of atheist philosophers.

Abbreviations:

>!: much greater than
E: there exist embodied moral agents
T: theism
N: naturalism

Argument Formulated:

(1) E is known to be true.
(2) Pr(E | T) >! Pr(E | N).
(3) N is not intrinsically much more probable than T.
(4) Other evidence held equal, Pr(T) > Pr(N).

Draper’s Defense of (2)

“I do not contend that the existence of moral agents is certain on theism; for example, a morally perfect God might, for all we know, create only moral patients rather than moral agents or create only moral agents that are not embodied. Nevertheless, there are reasons on theism that we do not have on naturalism to expect the existence of moral agents. For example, the fact that such beings have a distinctive sort of dignity or worth does not raise the probability of their existing on the assumption that naturalism is true, but does raise the probability of their existing on theism. In addition, moral agency requires moral responsibility, which in turn (pace Harry Frankfurt) requires libertarian free will, and libertarian free will is for a variety of reasons much more likely on theism than on naturalism.4 Of course, given that there are moral agents, the fact that they are embodied is more probable on naturalism than on theism, but not much more probable. So there is an interesting argument from moral agency in support of theism quite apart from any ‘fine tuning data.’

“The fine tuning data, however, greatly strengthen this argument, because they show that moral agency is extremely improbable on naturalism. (It is only because of this strengthening that the argument from moral agency can compete in the same league as the argument from evil.) The argument for this is fairly convincing, though unfortunately it requires relying on the claims physicists make about the fine tuning data. According to this data, only a small proportion of the range of possible values that certain ‘cosmic constants’ could have had would be life permitting, and only a small proportion of the possible initial conditions that could have obtained in our world would be life-permitting. Thus, the antecedent probability of life given naturalism is extremely low. But in a naturalistic world, moral agency almost certainly depends on the existence of living beings. Thus, moral agency is extremely unlikely given naturalism.”

In later sections of the paper, Draper considers the multiverse objection to both his argument from moral agency and the argument from evil. In a brilliant move, Draper argues that the multiverse objection is a much stronger objection to arguments from evil than it is to the argument from from moral agency.

I don’t have an opinion on whether the multiverse objection to arguments from evil succeeds, but I am inclined to agree with Draper that the multiverse objection to the argument from moral agency (and to fine-tuning arguments in general) are failures.

On the other hand, I think premise (3) is false: I think N is intrinsically much more probable than T. (Indeed, I’m not sure, but I think Draper himself may also now share this view.) But I am not sure how to weigh the prior IMprobability of theism against theism’s explanatory power with respect to moral agency.

Also, it’s worth mentioning, in the spirit of Draper’s “Fallacy of Understated Evidence,” that Draper, in a later paper, argued a more specific fact about moral agency favors naturalism over theism: the variety and frequency of conditions that severely limit our freedom.

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03125711244980154445 Bradley C.

    I could be off in left field, but does this argument presuppose the existence of objective moral values? It seems implied by premise 1.

    If that is the case, it seems like the argument only works against people who hold to both naturalism and moral realism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01786844757672182664 Truth Seeker

    Robin Collins has been making this same point in his fine-tuning argument for years.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    1) Like all fine-tuning arguments, the theist must fine-tune his gods hypothesis from the set of all logically possible gods. Beings who are a) willing and b) able to create moral agents do not simply fall out in a trivial way from the proposition "some intelligent creators of the universe existed at one point."

    2) I stopped reading after "moral responsibility requires libertarian free will". If that were true, which it is not, then premise 1 is false.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Bradley: Good question. I'm not sure.

    Truth Seeker: Collins's exchange with Draper in the Great Debate on the Secular Web suggests otherwise. Can you post a reference to something by Collins which you think makes the same point as Draper's argument?

    Hiero5ant: I'm inclined to interpret "moral responsibility requires libertarian free will" probabilistically, which definitely does not make premise 1 false.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    Note that I am granting for the purposes of argument only the extremely dubious assumption that metaphysical claims can be meaningfully assigned probabilities in the way empirical claims can.

    LFW is either incoherent (hence its "probability" is 0.0) or it perfectly satisfies the definition of randomness, in which case moral agency is impossible. Just saying "moral responsibility probably (whatever that means) requires LFW" doesn't escape this fundamental dilemma. If one's hypothesis "probably" requires a gibberish statement to be true, then it is "probably" gibberish itself.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10212971606135991995 Wes

    Only 16% of professional philosophers believe in free will (55% are compatibilists, and the rest are something else).

    Fifty-six percent are moral realists and only 28% are anti-realists. http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl?affil=Philosophy+faculty+or+PhD&areas0;=0&areas;_max=1&grain;=coarse

    Among those with an AOS in metaethics, 62% are compatibilists and only 14% believe in libertarian free will (they go 57%-27% realism to anti-realism).
    http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl?affil=Philosophy+faculty+or+PhD&areas0;=28&areas;_max=1&grain;=coarse

    If the argument depends greatly on libertarian free will, Draper's view is not widely supported by those in his his academic field or those who specialize in the relevant discipline.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07559081710058635050 Pulse

    I agree with Bradley C. and Hiero5ant that Premise 1 needs more robust support than the assertion that it "is known to be true."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10212971606135991995 Wes

    My first line should have read, "Only 16% of professional philosophers believe in libertarian free will."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04760072622693359795 Francois Tremblay

    Why do you think this is an even remotely good argument for theism? It makes no sense to me. The defense of (2) by Draper is extremely muddled and nonsensical. I don't understand what there is even to discuss. I do not have access to JSTOR so cannot get longer quotes or context, but from what you copied it seems to be a complete failure.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Francois — Good to hear from you. I need to send you an email but lost your address. Could you please send me an email by going here?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04760072622693359795 Francois Tremblay

    Uh sure. But I'd still like to know what you thought was so convincing in Draper's defense of (2).

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