Atheistic Moral Realism – Part 2

I am going to engage in a bit of logic chopping now.  But for those who do not have an appreciation for logic chopping, do not despair;  my close examination of the bark on one tree will lead me to make some broader points that have significance for philosophy of religion, ethics, and serious thinking about God.  The broader points might even have some relevance to evaluation of William Craig’s argument from the Existence of Objective Moral Values (Let’s rearrange those words a bit: “Moral Objective Values Exist”; hence I will refer to this as Craig’s MOVE argument).

In Part 1 of this series,  I pointed out a couple of alternative ways of stating Craig’s MOVE argument.  One of the alternatives was a modus tollens argument:

1A. If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.

2A. It is NOT the case that objective moral values do not exist.


3A.  It is NOT the case that God does not exist.

It seems to me, that (3A) is ambiguous, at least when considered by itself, apart from this argument.  It could mean either of the following:

3A’. The sentence ‘God does not exist’ asserts a false statement.

3A”. The sentence ‘God does not exist’ does NOT assert a true statement.

Notice, however, that while (3A’) is incompatible with atheism, (3A”) is perfectly compatible with atheism.  A number of atheist philosophers in the 20th century argued that sentences like ‘God exists’ and ‘God does not exist’ only appear to assert statements that are true or false, but in fact do not assert statements at all, and so these sentences are neither true nor false.

The conclusion (3A”) is compatible with atheism of the sort I just described, because such atheists would gladly agree that the sentence ‘God does not exist’ does NOT assert a true statement, because it does NOT assert any statement at all, which is why, they would argue, we should all be atheists, why we should all reject the belief that ‘God exists’, as well as rejecting the belief that ‘God does not exist’.  Both beliefs should be rejected, not because they are false, but because they only appear to assert something about the world, they only appear to describe how things are, but in fact do not assert anything nor do they describe even a possible state of affairs.

So, if (3A) can reasonably be interpreted as asserting (3A”), then the conclusion of Craig’s argument does not rule out atheism, at least not atheism of the sort that was popular among philosophers in the 20th century.

I don’t know if this objection would hold up under close scrutiny, so I’m not going to insist on it.  Even if the objection works, Craig could discard this particular way of stating his MOVE argument and use one of the other ways of stating it.  That might be enough to avoid this objection.

There are at least three sorts of objections to the assumption that the sentence ‘God exists’ makes a coherent statement:

  • The sentence ‘God exists’ makes an incoherent statement, a statement that involves an internal logical contradiction, a self contradiction.
  • The divine attribute of ‘perfect goodness’ fails to describe an objective characteristic, thus making it logically impossible for anyone to be correctly and objectively identified as being ‘God’.
  • No evidence is relevant to confirming or disconfirming the truth of the sentence ‘God exists’, so this sentence does not actually assert a statement or description of how things are or might be.

In The Coherence of Theism, Richard Swinburne argues briefly against the Logical Positivist objection in the third bullet.  He spends much more time dealing with the problem of apparent logical  self-contradictions in the concept of ‘God’,  the objection in the first bullet.  In Chapter 11 he briefly makes a case for moral realism (or what he calls ‘moral objectivism’), a case which does not depend on either theism or atheism, and that case would take care of the second bullet.

Concerning the problem of apparent logical contradictions within the concept of ‘God’, Swinburne acknowledges that skeptics are correct about some of the contradictions that have been pointed out in the concept of ‘God’.  Swinburne gets around these correct objections by making modifications to some of the traditional divine attributes.

For example, Swinburne acknowledges that there is a contradiction between divine foreknowledge and human freedom.  But he points out a more important contradiction along the same lines between divine foreknowledge and divine freedom.  God, according to Swinburne’s analysis is perfectly free.  But if God knows everything that is going to happen in the future, then God knows everything that God will decide to do in the future, but then God would not be free to do anything else other than what he already knows he is going to do. Thus, God’s perfect freedom contradicts God’s unlimited knowledge or omniscience.

Swinburne gets around this problem by limiting the extent of God’s knowledge of the future.  God can know every little detail about the past and the present, but God does NOT have perfect and unlimited knowledge of the future, because God does not know with certainty today what God will himself decide to do tomorrow. In other words, God’s knowledge of the future is limited and constrained by God’s perfect freedom.

I think Swinburne was on the right track in trying to salvage the concept of ‘God’ from various apparent internal logical contradictions.  However, he did not go far enough, and thus left open various other potential logical contradictions.  It is very difficult if not impossible for a finite and imperfect human mind to anticipate all of the various complex logical relationships and interconnections between a set of several abstract concepts.  Swinburne is assuming that his careful examination of various historical objections to the concept of God would be sufficient to enable him to grasp all of the various possible logical implications and interactions between the several abstract concepts that constitute his definition or analysis of the concept of ‘God’.

The problem is, I believe, that when you add adjectives like “perfect” or “infinite” or “unlimited” to abstract characteristics like ‘knowledge’ or ‘power’ or ‘goodness’, the logical scope of those concepts is magnified tremendously.  In other words,  in pumping up these characteristics, one is bound to create logical contradictions between them.

Just as theists argue that there can only be ONE God, ONE supreme being, similarly there can only be ONE divine attribute that trumps all the other attributes.  If, for example, perfect freedom comes into conflict with perfect knowledge, then one of those attributes must be sacrificed for the other.  That is to say, one of the two conflicting attributes must be qualified or limited in relation to the other conflicting attribute.

Another similar philosophical problem occurs in the field of ethics. Mill’s Utilitarianism proposed a criterion for moral evaluation of actions.  An action was good or right if, in comparison with alternative actions, it would result in the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.   But this criterion is problematic, because it really contains two different criteria or values:  (1) the greatest happiness and (2) the greatest number.

But sometimes these two values or goals come into conflict with each other, and a hard choice must be made. Suppose you have to choose between one action A that would bring about a moderate amount of happiness for a large number of people and another action B that would bring about a large amount of happiness for a moderate number of people.  The principle of Utilitarianism does not help decide which of these two actions is best.  It fails to provide an answer because the two criteria in that principle point in opposite directions in this case.

In ethics, when you have multiple basic values or goals or criteria to use in evaluating the goodness or rightness of an action, the most reasonable strategy seems to be to give differnt weights or priorities to different values or goals.  In other words, when one needs to employ multiple values or criteria to make an evaluation, one should set up some sort of hierarchy of values/goals.  What is the most important value or objective?  What is the second most important value or goal?

Take for example, the following classic moral dilemma:  “If  you lived in Germany when Hitler was in power, and some Jews were hiding in your house, if a Nazi official came to your front door and asked you if you had seen any Jews in the neighborhood recently, should you lie to protect the lives of the Jews hiding in your house, or tell the truth which would almost certainly result in the Jews being taken to a concentration camp and murdered?”  Although some people think that it is always wrong to lie, most sane people recognize that in this situation the moral duty to tell the truth is outweighed by the duty to protect human lives.

Truth telling is not as important as life saving.  The above scenario is only a dilemma for stupid people who fail to recognize the obvious truth that moral principles and values can sometimes come into conflict, and thus that moral principles and values need to be arranged into a hierarchy so that we are not stuck without any guidance when two rules or two values do come into conflict.

It seems to me that if one is to have any realistic hope of constructing a concept of God that will not run into various internal logical contradictions,one must set up a hierarchy of divine attributes.  For Swinburne,  perfect freedom was more important, more basic to his concept of God than the divine attribute of omniscience. So, Swinburne allows the attribute of perfect freedom to limit the attribute of omniscience.  Setting up an overarching hierarchy of divine attributes seems to be the only possible way of making sure that one avoids internal logical contradictions or incohernce in the concept of ‘God’ and in the claim that ‘God exists’.

Only ONE divine attribute can be supreme. Only one divine attribute can be utterly and completely unlimited, and all the other attributes must be subject to limitation by that supreme attribute. Only ONE attribute can be second in importance, and all other attributes, besides the supreme attribute and the secondary attribute, would be subject to limitation in relation to those top two divine attributes, and so on.


  • Michael Newsham

    You don’t often see Immanuel Kant referred to as a stupid person in the course of a philosophical argument!

    • Bradley Bowen

      One of Kant’s key ideas in ethics is that moral values or principles are essentially universal, like the laws of physics.

      Truth-telling cannot be a moral duty just for Mondays, but not also for Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, etc. Also, truth-telling cannot be a duty just for men, but not also for women, boys, and girls. We cannot make truth-telling a duty for the 20th century but not for the 21st century, and so on.

      So, moral duties and moral principles are analogous to divine attributes. God cannot just be knowledgable about baseball but ignorant about football. God cannot just be kind and loving towards the Jews and cruel and uncaring towards gentiles. God cannot have the power to cure cancer but not have the power to restore missing limbs. God cannot be omnipotent and omniscient on Mondays, but be as weak and as ignorant as an ordinary human being on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

      God has knowledge, power, freedom, and goodness, but not just in a small measure. The scope of God’s knowledge is infinite and unlimited, as is God’s power and freedom and goodness, according to Christian philosophers and theologians. But by making each of God’s attributes infinite and unlimited, we generate logical contradictions between these attributes.

      Moral duties and principles are, in a sense, infinite and unlimited too. There is no spatial limitation on moral duties, as there is in the case of laws. Laws are constrained in space by jurisdiction. There is no temporal limitation on moral duties, as there is in the case of laws. Laws are constrained in time based on when the law is enacted and when the law is repealed or when the government which created and enforced the law ceases to exist.

      Because moral duties and principles have this unlimited character, they can easily come into conflict with each other. Just as the unlimited scope of divine attributes leads to logical conflicts between the attributes.

  • Zebram Zee

    Have you ever had a post on moral intuitions? We think we have morality because we feel some sort of ‘moral intuitions’. Maybe you can have a post on that, and why you think moral intuitions actually exist.

  • J.S. Mill

    My “moral truths” run like this.

    1. Might makes right; victors write the history books.

    2. Political power comes out of the barrel of a gun; pacifists never ran a country.

    3. If I can get away with it, with no consequences to me, it is right and just.

    4. Always and forever, Take Care of #1. Others won’t save you, you save you.

    5. There is no god, never has been a god, never will be a god. ET, yeah; god, no.

    For example, the dilemma described above, ”If you lived in Germany when Hitler was in power, and some Jews were hiding in your house, if a Nazi official came to your front door and asked you if you had seen any Jews in the neighborhood recently, should you lie to protect the lives of the Jews hiding in your house, or tell
    the truth which would almost certainly result in the Jews being taken to a concentration camp and murdered?”
    I will add the proviso that if the Nazis found out I was lying, I would go to a concentration camp and be murdered too.

    My answer: Too bad, Jews! Take care of #1. Let ‘em die!

    • Bradley Bowen

      Is your real name “Willard Mitt Romney”? If not, I suggest that you run for the GOP presidential nomination. The GOP is looking for a fine upstanding citizen like yourself to run the country…into the ground.

  • Brett Stewart

    I think you misunderstand the divine attribute of omnipotence. Omnipotence does not mean absolute freedom to do anything, it means the ability to do whatever is chosen. So once God chooses to do something, he may do it. The fact that he knows perfectly well that he will do what he chooses do not contradict his omnipotence.

    • Bradley Bowen

      I don’t think I said anything about omnipotence. Can you quote what sentences you are talking about?

      The logical contradiction in the traditional conception of God that I pointed to was the contradiction between God’s perfect freedom and God’s omniscience.

      If God knows for certain everything that he will choose to do in the future, then God is not free to do anything else other than what he already knows he is going to do. So, if God has perfect knowledge of the future, then God does not have any freedom of choice. Conversely, if God has perfect freedom in the future, then God cannot now have perfect knowledge of the future.

      • Brett Stewart

        I assumed by God’s perfect freedom, you were referring to his omnipotence. Omnipotence is a divine attribute or, as you put it, part of the concept of God. I haven’t ever read perfect freedom as a divine attribute before.

        But the mistake you are making referring to “God…in the future”. To God there is no sense of future. He can see fourth dimensionally as we see the first three. If the whole span of time is present to God simultaneously, then there is no logical contradiction.


        • Chris

          I fail to see how the would-be simultaneity of time solves the paradox of God having perfect freedom and omniscience. The phrase “in the future” is just casual language usage, not an essential aspect of the paradox. Simultaneity of time could well be a paradox in and of itself, or even self-contradictory, and so merely an additional problem, rather than a solution.

          • Brett Stewart

            I did not mean that all time is itself simultaneous but that God can sense all time as if it were simultaneous. (I have to admit that I lack a good adverb.) The ability to know all of time is part of God’s omniscience. You can also say that God does not experience the universe moment to moment but that he is outside time.
            The reason why there is no contradiction any decision of God is not tied to a specific time, but it is his decision for all time. So any decision that God makes is necessarily the same decision in the future.
            This makes sense practically too. If you know everything that will happen perfectly and can understand it then you can make an optimal decision for every time in the future. If you change your mind in the future, then either your decision wasn’t optimal or you didn’t know what would happen. Either way, it is a contradiction of the premises.
            The idea of a changing God is more of a Greek conception and I don’t think that is what you intended.

          • Bradley Bowen

            Richard Swinburne argues that the concept of God being outside of time is incoherent, and I agree with Swinburne.

            This concept of God leads to backwards causation, a logical problem with time travel. Let’s say that my life is horrible, filled with pain and misery, and so I pray to God saying, “I wish that I had never been born, and God I know that with you all things are possible, so I’m asking you to prevent my parents from conceiving me, even though that already happened in the past.” God, being infinitely loving wants to fulfill my prayer request, so God

          • Brett Stewart

            But God can’t do self-contradictory things, right? He can’t create objects that infinite strength cannot lift because such an object is self-contradictory. Nor do I think he can create a being that is the cause of its own non-existence.

          • Bradley Bowen

            Correct. God cannot do self-contradictory things.

            But if God existed outside of time, then God could do self-contradictory things, therefore God does NOT exist outside of time.

            Here is another logical contradiction that results from the assumption that God exists outside of time…

            Simultaneity is a transitive relationship. If A is simultaneous with B, and B is simultaeous with C, it follows that A is simultaneous with C.

            If God exists outside of time, then God’s perception of my birth is simultaneous with my birth, and God’s perception of my death is simultaneous with my death. But God’s perception of my birth and God’s perception of my death are simultaneous, therefore my birth is simultaneous with my death. But this is absurd. My birth is NOT simultaneous with my death.

            Therefore, the assumption that God exists outside of time leads to this contradiction: my birth is simultaneous with my death AND my birth is NOT simultaneous with my death.

            So, the assumption that God exists outside of time entails a contradiction, but contradictions are logically impossible, therefore it is NOT the case that God exists outside of time.

          • Brett Stewart

            Self-contradictory things cannot exist, a priori. God cannot answer your prayer to non-exist because it is self-contradictory, not because he is constrained by time.
            I don’t follow your second argument. In my understanding of physics, time is basically just a fourth dimension. So considering just the first dimension, I can perceive the beginning and end of a line simultaneously, but that does not mean the beginning and end of the line must have the same x-coordinate.
            Similarly, God can perceive the whole time axis, but that does not mean that every event on the axis must exist at the same time.
            Have I missed something?

          • Bradley Bowen

            Brett – Sorry I dropped the ball on this discussion.

            You said:

            “Self-contradictory things cannot exist, a priori. God cannot answer your prayer to non-exist because it is self-contradictory, not because he is constrained by time.”

            We agree that even an omnipotent being cannot bring about a logical contradiction, such as a four-sided triangle or a married bachelor.

            But what is the contradiction that you see in the prayer request? If the contradiction is generated by backwards causation, then I don’t think your reply works, because it seems to me that ‘God exists outside of time’ implies that backwards causation is possible.

            Here is my thinking:

            1. If God exists outside of time, then backwards causation is possible.
            2. Backwards causation is NOT possible.
            3. It is NOT the case that God exists outside of time.

          • Brett Stewart

            As Doc Brown would say, “Marty, you’re not thinking fourth dimensionally”.

            Every thing must have some immediate cause, and an immediate cause must exist (logically*) prior to its effect. If a thing never exists, then it cannot be prior to anything. Therefore a non-existent thing cannot be a cause.

            If you suppose that God can answer your prayer to never exist, then you are supposing two contradictory things: A) you are the cause of a prayer to God and B) you do not exist.

            * “Logically prior” does not necessarily imply temporally prior, e.g., the cause of Marty being in 1955 is Doc Brown in 1985.

        • Bradley Bowen

          Brett Stewart said:

          Omnipotence is a divine attribute or, as you put it, part of the concept of God. I haven’t ever read perfect freedom as a divine attribute before.


          It is part of the concept of God, according to Richard Swinburne in The Coherence of Theism.

          I’m not sure how much the great Christian philosophers discussed ‘perfect freedom’ in those terms, but the idea is, at least, implied by various other divine attributes: impassibility, aseity, personhood, wisdom, and bodilessness (God as a spirit).

          Central to the idea of freedom is the idea of making ones decisions or choices without being forced, compelled, or caused by forces outside of ones control to make a certain decision or choice. Aseity, impassibility, and bodilessness all relate to God being uninfluenced in his choices in the way that human beings are influenced by desires, fears, aversions, impulses, instincts, emotions, etc. God is, according to Anselm, Aquinas, and other great Christian philosophers above it all. God cannot be tempted. God cannot be bullied. God cannot be overwhelmed by feelings. Why not? Because God has perfect freedom. God is perfectly wise or perfectly rational, because God does not get pushed around by desires, impulses, fears, etc.

          So, even if Anselm, Aquinas, and other leading Christian thinkers did not explicitly speak in terms of the attribute of ‘perfect freedom’, the divine attributes that they do discuss and accept appear to be based upon or motivated by the idea of God having a degree of freedom that is not possible for embodied human beings.

          • Brett Stewart

            I agree with you. But I think your definition of perfect free will is just a restatement of omniscience and omnipotence. And I as I stated earlier a being with omniscience and omnipotence that changes is a contradiction.

  • william stockton

    God alone is perfect.
    Yet, Is there any rational ground to say that if there is a perfect, omnipotent god, there can be no choice made by this god which would bring about a more perfect outcome? In addition, there would be no motivation by this god to create anything. Logical choices of a rational being we would expect this being to maximize perfection. If perfection is neither greater nor less, then we would conclude there to be no motivation by this god. In addition, we can say with even more clarity, a perfect god cannot logically create imperfection as a means to produce more perfection.
    Therefore, I would conclude if there is a perfect god, this god would not have any logical reason to create anything. A choice (by god) to create implies the decision will produce a better result than if nothing is created. That is paradoxical to the original statement that god alone is perfect.

    • Brett Stewart

      I think I see what you mean, which is that it is logically contradictory to add to a perfection. And God, being perfection, should not need to add to his own perfection nor can he.

      But the Christian answer to this reasoning is that God is not alone but is a trio of persons united into one God through perfect love. God did not need to create the universe to increase his perfection. But nevertheless he did create us to share in his love.

      This understanding underpins the whole understanding of the relationship between God and man. He did not create the universe (including us) in a state of imperfection, because, as you say, he cannot create imperfection. But he also did not create robots that are forced to love and worship him. Coerced love is not real love, right? That means he necessarily created us with the ability to freely choose to love him or not love him. In other words, we must have free will. Hence choosing to not love him by doing wrong is not an imperfection created by God. Free will is a necessary corollary to the fact that we were created to share his love, and we misuse it to choose wrong.

      That is more than you were probably asking about, but it is hard to reply to your argument without bringing up free will, etc.


  • minutemanIII

    God is the unstoppable force and creator of all things. God can create an immovable object. What happens when the unstoppable force meets the unmovable object.

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