How Not to Refute an Argument from Moral Law for God’s Existence

Jerry Coyne just posted an article titled, “Paul Bloom debunks the ‘Moral Law argument for God.’” I found myself getting irritated as I read the article because it’s obvious Coyne doesn’t know what he is talking about.

Before we get to Bloom’s findings, what is the “moral law argument”? It’s simply this: human altruism can’t be explained by any kind of evolution. What I mean is pure altruism, whereby an animal helps another animal not only unrelated to it, but not part of its social group, and helps in such a way that it sacrifices its own reproductive potential without getting anything back.  It’s unrequited altruism. That kind of behavior simply can’t evolve, at least by natural selection, because it reduces the fitness of the performer.

No. That is NOT “the moral law argument” defended by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. Coyne is attacking a straw man argument.

First, we need to be clear that there is no such thing as “the” moral law argument. There are many moral arguments. D’Souza, in his book, What’s So Great about Christianity?, defends an argument I’ve called the “Moral Laws Require a Moral Lawgiver” argument. I invite the reader to click that link, see my summary of that argument, and decide for themselves whether Coyne’s post has anything at all do with that argument.

Turning to Collins, I don’t have a copy of Collins’ book handy as I’m writing this post, but Collins explicitly says that he was convinced by C.S. Lewis’s moral argument. When reading Collins’ book, I remember thinking to myself, “Collins is pretty much making the same argument Lewis did; he’s just adding on some information about sociobiology.” It could be the case that Collins did make the absurd claim that atheism cannot explain moral emotions; I’d have to go re-read his book to find out. But, even if he did make such a claim, Coyne would still be guilty of attacking a straw man because there is much more to Lewis’s argument (and Collins’s defense of it) than an appeal to known facts about moral psychology (i.e., moral emotions). The focus of the argument is about the Moral Law, but Coyne writes as if Lewis, Collins, D’Souza had only talked about altruism and said nothing about moral ontology (or moral epistemology).

Let’s review what Lewis actually wrote, since a quick summary of Lewis’s argument (which is defended by Collins) will show that Coyne has simply missed the point of the argument. Lewis’s book, Mere Christianity, was originally delivered over the radio for BBC for a popular audience and only later printed as a book. So he didn’t present his argument in its logical form, with neatly labeled premises and a conclusion. Nevertheless, I think we can quite easily place his argument into is logical form. The first thing to note is that Lewis was making an explanatory argument, i.e., he was arguing that God (in his words, the “Religious View”) is the best explanation for certain known facts about the Moral Law.

Let’s begin with some definitions:

“materialist view”: the hypothesis that there is no Mind “behind” the universe (i.e., there is no Creator). The universe itself, as well as all the creatures inside it (including humans), are not the effect of a supernatural First Cause or intelligent Designer.

“Religious view”: the hypothesis that there is a Mind behind the universe which caused and designed the universe, partly to produce creatures that, like It, have minds.

Lewis includes three statements in the background information relevant to his explanatory argument.

1. The materialist view entails that there is no Mind “behind” the universe (i.e., there is no Creator). The universe itself, as well as all the creatures inside it (including humans), are not the effect of a supernatural First Cause or intelligent Designer. (21-22)
2. The Religious view entails that there is a Mind “behind” the universe (i.e., there is a Creator who is conscious, has purposes, and preferences). This Mind created and designed the universe partly to produce creatures that, like It, have minds. (22)
3. A Mind “behind” the universe could reveal Its existence to us by trying to get us to behave in a certain way. (24)

Lewis says that there are three facts about the Moral Law which need explanation.

1. Human beings have moral obligations which are grounded in the Moral Law.
2. Most human beings know at least the general principles of the Moral Law.
3. Most human beings experience moral emotions related to the Moral Law, such as guilt and obligation.

Using this distinction between background information and the evidence to be explained, Lewis’s argument becomes a straightforward explanatory argument.

(1.) The evidence relevant to the Religious view is known to be true. [Note: this evidence is composed of the three facts just listed above]
(2.) The materialist view has weak explanatory power, i.e., the evidence to be explained is very improbable if the materialist view is true.
(3.) The Religious view has strong explanatory power, i.e., the evidence to be explained is very probable if the Religious view is true.
(4.) So, the Religious view is the best explanation of the relevant evidence.
(5.) Therefore, the Religious view is probably true.

This summary of C.S. Lewis’s argument should make it immediately obvious that Lewis, at least, does NOT make the absurd claim that “human altruism can’t be explained by any kind of evolution” (my emphasis). Coyne, of course, is correct that evolution can explain human altruism. But that doesn’t refute Lewis’s argument. First, Coyne’s post is irrelevant to Lewis’s claims about moral obligations and moral knowledge/beliefs.

Second, even when it comes to Lewis’s point about moral emotions, such as guilt and obligation, Coyne still misses the mark. An explanatory argument, as the name implies, is an argument about which hypothesis gives the best explanation. It’s logically incorrect to claim an explanatory argument for some hypothesis A is refuted by the fact that some other hypothesis, B, can also explain the evidence. Even if that’s true–in other words, even if B can also explain the evidence–that’s irrelevant. All that matters is whether the explanatory argument’s comparative claim, that A is a better explanation than its competitors, is true.

This shows that Coyne needs to do more than simply show that evolution can explain moral emotions. He needs to directly refute the claim that God is the best explanation for moral emotions, either by showing that an evolutionary explanation is as good as a theistic explanation or by showing that an evolutionary explanation is better than a theistic explanation. Coyne doesn’t do either of those things, however. The closest Coyne comes to doing this is when he talks about how the evolutionary explanation is “more parsimonious” than the theistic explanation. That’s a good point as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough to successfully refute the explanatory argument. It doesn’t show that the parsimony of the evolutionary explanation is so great as to outweigh the (alleged) superior explanatory power of the theistic explanation.

 

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.

  • Steven Carr

    ‘ the hypothesis that (1) the universe is both uncaused and eternal; and (2) all living things are the result of random chance’

    I thought Lewis claimed that under naturalism, there was no such thing as random chance as the universe would then be deterministic.

    ‘the hypothesis that there is a Mind behind the universe which caused and designed the universe, partly to produce creatures that, like It, have minds.’

    And the hypothesis that the God of the Lottery wanted Mr A to win in week 1 and Mrs B to win in week 2 and Mrs C to win in week 3 explains perfectly why Mr A won in week 1 and Mrs B won in week 2 and Mrs C won in week 3.

    How does the idea that the lottery is driven by random chance better explain the undoubted facts of who won the lottery in those weeks than the almost perfect explanation provided by the idea that there is a lottery god who wanted those 3 people to win in that order?

    Of course, we could say that the idea that the lottery runs on chance is more ‘parsimonious’ than the lottery god idea.

    But parsimony, while a good point, is hardly a refutation of the lottery god hypothesis.

    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

      Hi Steven —

      I thought Lewis claimed that under naturalism, there was no such thing as random chance as the universe would then be deterministic.

      I don’t claim to be a C.S. Lewis scholar, but I’m pretty sure that his description of the “materialist view” in his book Mere Christianity is just as I described in my post.

      And the hypothesis that the God of the Lottery wanted Mr A to win in week 1 and Mrs B to win in week 2 and Mrs C to win in week 3 explains perfectly why Mr A won in week 1 and Mrs B won in week 2 and Mrs C won in week 3.

      How does the idea that the lottery is driven by random chance better explain the undoubted facts of who won the lottery in those weeks than the almost perfect explanation provided by the idea that there is a lottery god who wanted those 3 people to win in that order?

      I have two thoughts about this. First, it’s not clear to me that a sample size of three trials is sufficient to justify an inductive inference in this case. If the sample size is too small, then the claim that the lottery good explains these results isn’t justified. But this point is probably not what you wanted me to focus on, so let’s move on.

      Second, the best explanation is determined not just by how well a hypothesis predicts the data, but also by the intrinsic plausibility of the hypothesis. In your example, the Lottery God hypothesis is an ad hoc hypothesis. Apart from the evidence to be explained (the loterry winners of the three weeks), there is no independent reason to posit the existence of the Lottery God. Furthermore (and, IMO, even more important), the Lottery God hypothesis makes extremely specific claims and so is a “risky” hypothesis. The more specific claims made by a hypothesis, the less intrinsically plausible the hypothesis. (As a Bayesian, I would say the Lottery God hypothesis suffers from an extremely low, almost negligible, prior probability.) For example, why would the Lottery God want a lottery at all? If he did want a lottery, why would he want only one winner and only one lottery per week? If he did, why would he want Mr A rather than Mr Z? That massive implausibility is more than enough to outweigh the “evidence” provided by the lottery results.

      • Steve Ruble

        Our sample size of “species with a moral sense” is one (acknowledging that other species also possess a moral sense would seem to vitiate the argument), so if that criticism of Steven Carr’s argument works it would would seem to work against Lewis as well.

        What curve do you get if you plot intrinsic plausibility against specificity? Is a god who controls everything more intrinsically plausible than a god who controls only one thing? What about a god who only controls some things?

        I think a nice part of Steven Carr’s analogy is that in both cases – lottery or the evolution of morality – we have can a good sense of *how the process worked* without knowing *exactly what happened*. You can evaluate the plausibility of many more steps of the explanation, and none of the steps seem to have a high intrinsic implausibility. But when one brings in a god, one typically eliminates all attempts at breaking down the explanation into easy-to-swallow components: the god must be swallowed whole, or not at all.

        • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

          Re: sample size: this confuses the different theories of probability used in the different cases. In the case of the Lottery God, I understood the example to be using a statistical theory of probability. Sample size is relevant to that theory. In the case of Lewis’s moral argument, there is no appeal to the statistical theory of probability.

          In fact, Lewis doesn’t use probability at all in defending his moral argument. I’ve added that on for clarity and for charity. In so doing, I was using the epistemic theory of probability. Sample size isn’t applicable to that theory.

          Of course, one could drop the probability talk altogether and instead reframe Lewis’s argument in terms of expectation and surprise. (For example, on Lewis’s view, the Moral Law is expected on the assumption that the Religious view is true, while very surprising on the assumption that the materialist view is true.) But the same criticisms would still apply to Coyne’s post.

      • Steven Carr

        I refer you to http://infidels.org/library/modern/nicholas_tattersall/miracles.html

        ‘All things and events are so completely interlocked that no one of them can claim can claim the slightest independence from ‘the whole show’

        According to Internet Infidels, this means Lewis believed naturalism meant determinism, when he also claimed naturalism meant random chance.

        Apparently people behave altruistically it is because they were created to make free will decisions so they would behave in they way Lewis’s god designed them to behave.

        How can you tell when human beings are behaving in the way Lewis’s god created them to behave without begging the question?

        I may as well say that the lottery balls are behaving in the way the lottery god designed them to behave one week, and then if my prediction goes wrong, say they are not behaving as the lottery god intended them to behave.

        Then I have an unfalsifiable theory – and can call it ‘Christian apologetics’.

        • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

          Hi Steven — Thanks for this. I see your point. My reference to “random chance” was probably too quick. (There’s a reason why I phrased things the way I did in my original post, but I think in doing so I oversimplified Lewis’s position. And the materialism vs. determinism issue is really a tangent to his moral argument, I think.) I’ll edit the original post so that it defines the “materialist view” as follows: “The materialist view entails that there is no Mind “behind” the universe (i.e., there is no Creator). The universe itself, as well as all the creatures inside it (including humans), are not the effect of a supernatural First Cause or intelligent Designer.”

  • Hierophant2

    “Coyne, of course, is correct that evolution can explain human altruism.”

    Actually, the adaptationist view has been suitably debunked by Zamulinski (Evolutionary Intuitionism, 2007). No known mechanism of evolution can lead to the fixation of moral instincts. The only credible materialistic theory is that morality is the by-product of an adaptation. This is far more credible than the supernatural explanation, which is not an explanation.

  • Bradley Bowen

    Jeff Lowder quotes from a post by Jerry Coyne. Here is the first part of the quote:

    Before we get to Bloom’s findings, what is the “moral law argument”? It’s simply this: human altruism can’t be explained by any kind of evolution.

    =====================
    This obviously has little to do with the ‘moral law argument’.

    Also, in The Existence of God, Swinburne has a moral argument for God which assumes that human being evolved from more primitive animals.

    The fact that there are “conscious beings with moral awareness” (EOG, p.218) is evidence for the existence of God, according to Swinburne. The laws of physics and the initial conditions of the physical universe were such that it was possible for creatures to naturally arise which would be “conscious beings with moral awareness”. Furthermore, on Swinburne’s view, the physical universe was so constituted that it was likely that such creatures would, eventually, come into existence, or at least that creatures with the required cognitive capacities for consciousness and moral awareness would be likely to come into existence.

    Swinburne argues that a Godless universe even if it was a complex physical universe that was full of physical objects that operated in accordance with laws of nature that are based on fairly simple regularities, even in such a universe it is unlikely that creatures would naturally arise that were “conscious beings with moral awareness”. But if there is a God, then it is likely that God would want there to be such creatures and would arrange the physical universe so that it either contained such creatures from the start or such that the physical universe would naturally produce such creatures (over an extended period of time).


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