Philosopher Peter Kreeft says that his Argument from Conscience (PDF) is one of only two arguments for the existence of God in the Bible. Its biblical pedigree doesn’t do it any favors, however, and it fares no better than the rest.
Kreeft summarizes the argument:
The simple, intuitive point of the argument from conscience is that everyone in the world knows, deep down, that he is absolutely obligated to be and do good, and this absolute obligation could come only from God. Thus everyone knows God, however obscurely, by this moral intuition, which we usually call conscience. Conscience is the voice of God in the soul.
Kreeft defines conscience as “the knowledge of my absolute obligation to goodness.”
Absolute obligation? Where did this come from? That’s not how I define the word, nor is it how the dictionary defines it. This qualifier exists only in Kreeft’s definition.
The bad people
What does Kreeft do with people like me who aren’t on board? He puts us into two bins: (1) those who have no conscience or a defective conscience and (2) those who know the truth of Kreeft’s words but repress this knowledge.
And what about the third bin, those who see obligation but not absolute obligation? There is no third bin. Kreeft says these people actually understand God’s will because the Bible says so. You know the kind—those people “who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them” (Rom. 1:18–19).
(Is it just me or does it seem circular to assume the existence of God in an argument about the existence of God? And is it just me or have I been labeled as someone “who suppresses the truth by their wickedness”?)
He continues with the assumption of absoluteness and says that one’s conscience has absolute moral authority. I appreciate that I’m compelled to listen to my conscience, but (again) where does the absoluteness come in?
Maybe we’re defining things differently. To me, an absolute obligation isn’t simply an important or strongly felt obligation. The key is its grounding. It’s more than grounded within me (such as, “it’s just wrong to chew with your mouth open”). It’s more than grounded within society (such as, “it’s illegal to pass a stop sign in a car without stopping completely”). It’s grounded in an absolute way that transcends both me and society.
I see no evidence that one’s conscience is an absolute moral authority. Kreeft provides none and simply asserts the claim.
Source of morals
Back to Kreeft’s argument, quoted in summary above. He imagines that he’s firmly established that the conscience is an absolute moral authority and moves on to the second premise: “the only possible source of absolute authority is an absolutely perfect will, a divine being.” But since he’s given no reason to imagine that the absolute authority he refers to exists, he has no argument.
Given the imagined absolute conscience, can ordinary people reliably access its absolute truth? Kreeft admits that they can’t but says that God has “revealed to us clear moral maps (Scripture and Church).” If our conscience tells us to reject these maps, that’s the indication of a faulty conscience.
Hold on—scripture and church are “clear moral maps”?
Nonsense. The Christian church is dividing faster than amoebas. There are now 42,000 denominations of Christianity and counting. Which one(s) are correct? Christians can’t even decide among themselves.
And let’s check the hypothesis that scripture is a clear moral map. Are Christians of a unified voice on the topic of abortion? Same-sex marriage? Euthanasia? Stem-cell research? Capital punishment? The use of torture? Any divisive social issue? Scripture is a sock puppet that you can make say just about anything you want, and Christians on all sides of these issues do just that.
I see two possibilities: (1) absolute morality exists though we can’t reliably access it or (2) there is no absolute morality but we have a shared (and imperfect) moral instinct. Kreeft’s argument has done nothing to justify the supernatural explanation. I recommend the natural one.
Secular schools can never be tolerated
because such schools have no religious instruction,
and a general moral instruction
without a religious foundation is built on air;
consequently, all character training and religion
must be derived from faith.
— Adolf Hitler
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 10/29/12.)
Image credit: Hans Gerwitz, flickr, CC