Atheistic Moral Realism – Part 9

I have argued previously that Craig’s first two objections to AMR are weak at best. The third objection might not be as weak as the previous two. However, the third objection is the most unclear of the three, so if it turns out to be a strong objection, that will be because we help Craig to clearly formulate his third objection.

William Craig’s third objection to AMR is given in a single brief paragraph:

Third, it is fantastically improbable that just the sort of creatures would emerge from the blind evolutionary process who correspond to the abstractly existing realm of moral values. This would be an utterly incredible coincidence. It is almost as though the moral realm knew that we were coming. It is far more plausible that both the natural realm and the moral realm are under the hegemony or authority of a divine designer and lawgiver than to think that these two entirely independent orders of reality just happened to mesh. (WIAC, p.76-77)

Because the objection is stated in just four sentences, it is less than clear what the premises of this argument assert.

What, for example, does Craig mean by “creatures…who correspond to the abstractly existing realm of moral values”? What specifically does he mean by the closely related phrase “two entirely independent orders of reality…mesh”? Before we can evaluate Craig’s objection, we need to be clear about the nature of the alleged “coincidence” to which he is pointing, but his vague and skimpy characterization of this “coincidence” makes it difficult to identify the basic premise or assumption of his argument.

I can only make some educated guesses at what “coincidence” Craig has in mind here:

A. Human beings naturally evolved with free will, and thus were moral agents who are potentially subject to moral duties and obligations.
B. Human beings naturally evolved to have minds that are capable of discovering and understanding objective moral truths.
C. Human beings naturally evolved to have a moral conscience, to have a significant degree of motivation to act in accordance with objective moral duties and obligations.

I suppose Craig might have all three of these points in mind, given that objective moral values would have significance for humans only if all three of these conditions were met: humans have free will; humans are able to discover moral truths; humans have some inclination to act in accordance with objective moral values.

If these are the sort of things that Craig had in mind, then the issue is: Why would the natural process of evolution bring about all three of these necessary conditions for morality to be of significance in human lives? A perfectly good creator would have reason to bring about the existence of creatures that satisfied these conditions, for the very purpose of having creatures for which morality and immorality were real possibilities. But the random and blind forces of evolution would seem to have no such guiding purposes. Natural selection merely favors characteristics that help a species to be good at surviving and passing their DNA to the next generation; good and evil, and right and wrong, have no role to play in such a random, natural process.

One response to this objection that comes to mind, is to try to show that these three aspects of humans have some significant survival value, that they help humans to survive and reproduce more often than if we lacked these three characteristics. For example, altruistic actions, where an individual creature is motivated to put its own life at risk in order to protect its young or the young of its group from a predator, seem to have survival value, in terms of passing on DNA to future generations.

If the sacrifice of one adult in a herd or group preserves the lives of some of the young of that group from being killed by a predator, then that may be a successful strategy for the survival of that species, including passing on the DNA which in turn preserves the tendency of adults to engage in such altruistic behavior. Thus, altruism, an important tendency or motivation that makes morally good behavior a real possibility, can be given an evolutionary explanation.

Let’s suppose that human free will and the capacity of human minds to grasp objective moral truths can also be given a plausible evolutionary explanation. If such explanations were available or became available, would that be sufficient to silence Craig’s third objection to AMR?

I have a feeling that some Christian apologists and philosophers would respond to such evolutionary explanations for the origin of morality in humans along the lines of Richard Swinburne’s divine providence argument. If evolution does provide a good explanation for the origin of morality among humans, then this points back to the existence of God, for a highly intelligent designer would be required to explain how just the right amount and kinds of physical matter and energy and natural laws were present at the start of this universe to make it likely that creatures who were fully capable of being morally good and morally bad arose out of purely random natural processes.

But then, to move to that view of evolution, a view put forward by Swinburne in his case for God, would be, I think, to discard the argument from “coincidence” presented by Craig.

  • Angra Mainyu

    A perfectly good creator would have reason to bring about the existence of creatures that satisfied these conditions, for the very purpose of having creatures for which morality and immorality were real possibilities.

    One problem with that is that that looks at some of the features of the moral agents we observe, but not all of them.

    A creator who is a moral agent and also has the knowledge and power to rule his creation effortlessly would have good reasons, if he chooses to create moral agents, to make moral agents with a perfect sense of right and wrong, so that the agents always know, in any situation, what’s right and what is not right. Indeed, he seems to have compelling reasons, since as far as we can tell, there are no good reasons for creating agents with flawed moral senses when one can make them with flawless ones, all other things equal.

    In particular, an ‘Adam’ explanation would not help, since on Christianity, Yahweh creates the souls of new people, not their parents, and in any case, Adam’s wrongdoing (or Eve’s, whatever) would not justify making flawed moral agents (not to mention the lack of a good reason to make agents that would do evil in the first place, on compatibilism; Craig claims compatibilism is false, but one needn’t follow him on that. Still, the point about flawed moral senses does not require taking a stance on compatibilism).

    So, if there is a creator that is a moral agent, what we observe leads us to the conclusion that it’s not God, either due to limited power or knowledge, or due to a lack of moral perfection.

    Granted, someone might say that there are mysterious justifying reasons which we have no epistemic access to, but that’s not a proper reply. For that matter, someone might say that maybe a morally perfect creator has good mysterious reasons to make all humans endure over a million years of hellfire and then be destroyed, and even lie to humans about it, or something along those lines, and that would be an improper reply as well, but improper in a similar fashion.

    The point is that what we observe in the world is not what we would expect to observe if God existed – and that’s without counting the argument from suffering and/or moral evil in general.

    • Bradley Bowen

      Angra Mainyu said:

      A creator who is a moral agent and also has the knowledge and power to rule his creation effortlessly would have good reasons, if he chooses to create moral agents, to make moral agents with a perfect sense of right and wrong, so that the agents always know, in any situation, what’s right and what is not right.


      That seems a bit too strong. A ‘perfect sense of right and wrong’ would require omniscience, or something like omniscience. I think Aquinas’ view that a good God would create an abundance of different kinds of beings makes sense, so we need to allow for a good God to make creatures who are limited in knowledge, including knowledge of right and wrong.

      Nevertheless, humans do appear to be seriously deficient in this area, both in terms of knowing or understanding moral obligations and duties and in reasoning well when applying moral principles to particular circumstances, as well as simply being motivated to do what is good and right. God could have made human beings much better at moral understanding and moral reasoning and more strongly inclined to act in accordance with morality, without having to make us omniscient.

      Also, God could have given us much better moral guidance in terms of divine revelation. The scriptures of the major worlds religions fail to provide clear and solid guidance on discovery of moral principles, on the moral reasoning required to properly apply moral principles to particular circumstances, and on how to shape our moral characters to be more inclined to live in keeping with ‘objective moral values’.

      The Bible, for example, includes the command ‘Thou shalt not kill’ but then in the same breath tells us to execute human beings for adultery, for worship of any god other than Jehovah, for practicing witchcraft, for insulting one’s parent’s, for sex between men.

      Conservative Catholics refer to liberal democrats as promoting a ‘culture of death’, and view themselves as promoting a ‘culture of life’ which views all human lives as having great intrisic value. But the god of the OT shows no such respect for human life, and commands the nation of Israel to mercilessly slaughter the men, women, children, and even the animals of the inhabitants of Palestine in order to steal their land.

      With shit like this being advertized as divine revelation, is it any wonder that people in this country are not very good at recognizing basic principles of morality, or reasoning well from those principles in applying them to particular cases, or in being motivated to live in accordance with ‘objective moral values’?

      • Angra Mainyu


        Thanks for the comment. I don’t think that a perfect sense of right and wrong, at least as I understand it, would require omniscience, or something like it, though it would require a lot of knowledge.
        However, I realize I may have been unclear, because ‘in any situation’ may be understood as ranging over all possible situations, whereas I had in mind situations relevant to the agent’s behavior, or other situations that the agent contemplates.

        In any case, I don’t think that the claim is too strong, for if the creator can make a moral agent whose moral sense is perfect in that sense, why would be the justification for making a moral agent with a flawed such sense?

        Still, perhaps ‘perfect’ is not clear enough for the purposes of this context, nor is it required to make a claim as strong as that, so more specifically, I would claim that if a moral agent that has the power and knowledge to rule the world effortlessly would have good reasons – and I would say plausibly morally compelling reasons, assuming that she chooses to create other moral agents -, if she chooses to create moral agents, to make them so that if A is one such agent, then at least:

        1. Agent A’s sense of right and wrong never makes mistaken moral assessments about hypothetical scenarios.
        2. Agent A’s sense of right and wrong never makes mistaken moral assessments about actual scenarios, given the amount of information available to A.
        For instance, let’s say that A is not omniscient, but given the amount of information available to her, she assigns probability P to the event that agent B did X, and probability 1-P to the event that agent B did not do X.
        Then, the probabilistic assessments are correct given the amount of information available to her.
        Moreover, A also correctly ascertains whether B behaved immorally (or in a morally neutral or praiseworthy manner) if agent B did X, and also in the case in which B did not do X.
        3. Agent A’s sense of right and wrong is always capable of making a moral assessment of any situation relevant to A’s own behavior. That includes of course counting the correct probabilistic assessments of different outcomes, etc.

        I know that many people disagree, but while I’m reasonably familiar with different theodicies, I do not think any of them succeeds in providing any justification for an agent with such power and knowledge to make moral agents whose sense of right and wrong does not meet at least such conditions. Also, I do not think that skeptical theism is tenable.

        But if one thinks that’s too strong, one can go for a more modest claim (as the previous one, based by intuitive moral assessments, but that’s how we normally assess moral matters; clearly, some people might reply that they intuit otherwise, but one may make that point and ask readers to assess the question by their own lights), like the claim that it would not be justified for a creator like that to make a moral agent with a moral sense that makes mistaken assessments, when making one with a moral sense that makes no such mistakes is available (in that case, perhaps the created agent might not know what the proper answer is sometimes, but at least she would know that she does not know, and she would not believe that something is morally right when it’s not, etc.)

      • Angra Mainyu

        Also, good points about the Bible: incidentally, it seems that it follows from mainstream versions of said doctrine that Yahweh created angels and Adam and Eve with a sense of right and wrong that would meet the conditions I mentioned above, or at least the weakest condition.

        Yet, now Yahweh creates souls with a far worse moral sense.

        This is not due to inheritance of the so-called ‘original sin’, since the soul is not inherited from the parents, but created each time by Yahweh (side note: a point raised, in the case of Catholicism, by a poster who goes by the nickname “Bomb#20“ in this thread, in which other objections to Catholicism are raised; some of them would apply to a number of other versions of Christianity too). I do think Yahweh’s actions are immoral in that case, though I don’t think that that’s in any way the worst actions he does, going by the story – but the claims about moral agents above are more general and not limited to Christianity.

  • Angra Mainyu

    I’d like to point to another, different kind of problem in Craig’s argument, namely the fact that he considers ‘objective moral values’ to be some ‘entirely independent’ order of reality that meshes with evolution.

    Craig’s definition of ‘objective moral values’, while particularly obscure, does not entail any of the sort, but only that whether a moral statement is true (or proposition, judgment, or however one slices it) does not depend on whether people believe it to be true, apparently.

    In any case, the only thing that his appeal to moral intuitions in the context of his defense of the second premise of the metaethical argument (i.e., ‘objective moral values and duties do exist) could support is that, for instance, if A says ‘Action X was immoral’ (or some other such claim) and B says ‘It is not the case action X was immoral’, and they’re talking about the same X, one of them is mistaken (though there may be some tolerance for borderline cases, but no need to get into that).

    But that’s all he gets, not the “abstracting existing moral values”, or indeed any entity ‘moral value’ that is ‘out there’ so to speak.
    In fact, in the past, Craig used the example of color in part 3 of his moral argument, illustrating what he meant by ‘objective moral values’ using the case of color green and red.
    The example is for once clear, and I would like to quote him, but unfortunately I don’t have links, since I can’t find the color comparison in the transcript of the argument today (quite unfortunate, because quoting that would be pretty relevant).

    In any case, he was comparing, to illustrate objectivity (not morality, of course), the case of a person who failed to see the moral difference between that the Holocaust and a good policy with that of a color blind person who can’t see the difference between green and red.

    Now, if one takes a look at Craig’s defense of his metaethical argument here, in particular to the examples of aliens from another planet, and of very different entities emerging from the evolutionary process, he claims that if there were such entities, then there would be no “objective moral values”. Yet, he gives no argument in support of that.
    For example, if some aliens have perceptions like our perception of red and green (if there no inverted color spectrum, etc., and reasonable similarity among human perception; I think this is true plus I want to simplify, but it’s not key to my main point here), but associated with very different wavelengths, that would not entail that there is no objective fact of the matter (in the colloquial sense of the terms) as to whether, say, a driver ran a red light, or the light was green or yellow. Side note: if someone disagrees with my view of the colloquial sense of ‘objective fact of the matter’, still we needn’t even get into that. The fact remains that if the driver claims that the light was, say, green, and a witness claims it was not green, one of them is not making a true statement, and the other one is. But that’s apparently all it takes for statements to be objective, going by Craig’s own appeal to intuitions in support of the claim that there are objective moral values.

    Now, Craig’s claim about the aliens would suggest, in the case of color if the analogy holds, that similarly there would be no objective color if aliens with such different visual systems exists like the one outlined above exist (more precisely, color statements or propositions; Craig speaks obscurely on this too), in the sense of ‘objective’ that is relevant in his argument, against his old example. But then again, it’s clear that if such aliens with such different visual systems existed, it would remain the case that if the driver says that the light was green, and the witness says it was not, one of them is making a true statement, and the other one is not.

    So, in brief, Craig not made a case for why different evolutionary results in the case of morality would preclude “objective moral values” in the sense of his argument, but would not be a problem for objective color. He’s not shown why the cases are relevantly dissimilar

    • Bradley Bowen

      Thank you for your interesting comments. It is very important to get clear about what Craig means by ‘objective moral values’. Otherwise, we cannot evaluate his claims and reasoning about AMR. Your discussion about colors and color blindness raises questions about what this means.

      Another analogy that might be worth thinking about is mathematical truths. We believe that some mathematical claims are ‘objective’ truths, and would be true even if no human being believed or acknowledged them to be true.

      Some of us are also inclined to think of numbers and other mathematical concepts in terms of abstractly existing entities which have no causal powers.

      Given the similiarities between mathematical truths and ‘objective moral values’ wouldn’t Craig’s agrument apply equally well to mathematics? Is is a fantastic improbability that the random natural process of evolution happened to produce creatures who are capable of understanding numbers and mathematical relationships, and who are inclined to make use of objective mathematical truths in making decisions and in guiding our lives? Is this another wildly improbable meshing of the natural world with abstractly existing entities?

      If Craig’s reasoning applies equally well to mathematics as to morality, then this casts doubt on his reasoning, because although mathematical entities are not natural entities with causal powers, they are, nevertheless, relevant to our lives, even to our survival as a species.

      Knowledge is power, and knowledge of mathematics is particularly powerful. Thus, KNOWLEDGE of mathematics has a causal impact on the history of the human species, even though mathematical entities lack size, weight, speed, mass, location, gravitational force, etc. We may have evolved as a species that can grasp mathematical truths because such knowledge helps us to survive and to thrive.

      • Angra Mainyu

        I would say that in the colloquial sense of ‘objective’ that should be relevant in metaethical contexts (which might or might not be the sense in which Craig is using the term), there is an objective fact of the matter as to, say, whether 2 + 2 = 4 (it does, of course), and as to whether the strong Goldbach’s conjecture is true (I think it probably is, but I can’t prove it).

        I do not think, however, that numbers are abstract entities, in the sense of ‘entities’ that should be used in an ontology. I would not include any of that in an ontology; I think that ‘there are infinitely many integers’ is true, but I do not think that we’re talking about the same domain as if I say ‘there are infinitely many galaxies’ (which might or might not be true, for all I know), and I’m not inclined to include it in an ontology.

        So, in a way, I tend to partially agree with Craig’s take on that – he would not include numbers, propositions, etc., in an ontology -, but I would disagree if he thinks (I’m unsure) that, because of that, statements like ‘2 + 2 = 4‘, or ‘There are infinitely many integers’, etc., are not true and/or that there is no objective fact of the matter in the colloquial sense of that expression, etc.

        Granted, many philosophers disagree not only with Craig’s take on that, or with mine. If you go with a Platonistic account, someone may try that argument as well.

        A potential reply from the perspective of a theist would be to go the way Plantinga goes, and raise an evolutionary argument against naturalism, which makes a much stronger claim than Craig’s claim that it would be ‘fantastically improbable’ that there would be a correspondence like that.

        An alternative potential reply (by the theist) would be to say that even if, say, mathematical knowledge would generally be useful to an entity that develops a big brain as an evolutionary adaptation (so, intelligent aliens would converge on that), the same cannot be said of morality, since it’s [allegedly] plausible that aliens would evolve in a different environment and tracking different properties in other agents and being differently motivated to act would be overall conducive to their reproductive success.

        Then, mirroring Craig’s aliens’ examples, but adapting them to this idea of an “abstractly existing realm of moral values”, a theist might ask: why should we think that we humans got access to that realm, rather than some aliens? What if every entity, human or alien, got it wrong?

        A comprehensive analysis of that alternative potential reply would take too long for this context, I think, but I’m all for pressing the point about mathematics if you like; maybe we would get at least a tiny bit more clarity from Craig, if he replied.

        I think that pressing the point of color can also be useful, for two reasons:

        a. It’s a case in which one actually should expect different visual systems in different species, and yet, one can make an argument for color objectivity mirroring Craig’s argument for moral objectivity, and that may be used to raise some objections, as I suggested in one of my other posts in this thread (side note and shameless self-promotion: I posted one brief argument like that on my blog).

        b. Actually, as I mentioned before, Craig himself used to give colors as an example of objectivity, and precisely in order to illustrate what he meant by ‘objective’ in his argument..

        Unfortunately, while his original podcast on the metaethical argument used the color analogy (I downloaded the .mp3 file from his site in 2009, where it was freely available for download; I still do have the audio file), the present-day version of his argument does not seem to have the color analogy anymore – at least, I’ve not been able to find it in the transcripts at his website.

  • Angra Mainyu

    More on the alien issue. Let’s consider the following scenario:

    Some aliens from another planet in the Milky Way (coming from Andromeda as in the example considered by Craig might be too difficult even for them, but this is a side issue here anyway) and decide to “farm the Earth and use us for food” (one of the variants given by Craig is like that, even though they’re from Andromeda in his example. It’s improbable that they would want to farm us like that if not for other reason just because it’s inefficient, but rape is far more improbable; still, that is not really the issue).

    We can see that some of those aliens are green, and some red. Now, the aliens also have a very different visual system, which does not perceive light in the wavelengths associated with ‘green’ differently from the wavelengths associated with ‘red’. So, they see no such difference in their own species. But even then, we can tell that some of them are red, and others are green, and if they were to claim in English that they’re all the same color, they would be making a false claim.
    Now, if they were to farm us, would they be acting immorally?

    We can split the scenario in two variants:
    1. They have something somewhat similar to our moral sense in the way it feels to them, but it does not associate a negative evaluation with the act on their part of farming humans or other beings no more intelligent than humans. It’s a sense that works mostly in association with contracts that they make with one another.
    2. They do not have an analog to a moral sense, feelings of guilt, etc.; they’re not inclined to violence towards each other, though, and generally they have a stable society.

    Maybe we do not know enough about exobiology to conclude that something like 1. or 2. would be stable (maybe 1. is more likely, though there are alternatives for non-social aliens, say an advanced AI or something like that), but we surely do not know enough to rule that out.

    Craig does not consider cases, but seems to imply that any aliens who would do that would be acting immorally if God exists regardless of whether 1. or 2. obtain, but not if he does not exist and our moral sense is a product of our evolutionary process.
    But Craig does not give seem to give any arguments for that conclusion.
    In fact, it seems that, by Craig’s own theory/i> aliens like that plausibly would not behave immorally if they were to farm us, since Craig claims that our moral obligations are God’s commands, and the same would apply to those aliens, but without a moral sense that would negatively evaluate farming humans, how could it be that God commanded them not to farm humans?

    Alternatively, let’s consider the following scenario:

    In this case, the attacker is a single alien, which is a super-intelligent cyborg of sorts. It was designed billions of years ago by some aliens that resulted from an evolutionary process, but they messed up in the designed and the cyborg turned on them, killing them all.
    Now, the cyborg does not have anything akin to a sense of right and wrong. It does not want to eat us, or rape us. But it wants all of the resources of our planetary system, and does not find any reason to make an exception for Earth.
    So, the cyborg attacks. It’s not even fazed by pleas for mercy or claims that its actions are immoral, and destroys us with a combination of biological weapons, a few nukes here and there, and millions of advanced and lethal drones (aerial drones, ground drones, submarines, etc.).

    Did the cyborg behave immorally?

    Now, if Craig’s theory were right and creature’s moral obligations are God’s commands, then it seems clear that the cyborg did not have a moral obligation not to wipe us out (after all, without a moral sense, he received no such command). But that would not refute the second premise of his argument. So, a question is: why would alien examples be a problem at all for objective moral values and duties in the sense relevant to the second premise of the metaethical argument if God does not exist, given that they’re not a problem if he does?

    Someone might claim that such aliens (cyborg or not) are metaphysically impossible, or that at least they’re nomologically impossible and God wouldn’t miraculously make them, either, but any such claim would have to be argued for.
    In fact, such claims would entail that, as a matter of facts, there are no aliens of the sort (or anything like that) in the entire universe, and that any intelligent aliens have a moral sense (not an analog, etc.). But that would be a wide-ranging claim about exobiology. If Craig means to make or imply such a claim, he ought to make that clear, and defend it. Else, he should address the alien objection and explain how it is that God commanded those aliens not to attack.

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