Sunday, June 10, 2012

Poke it with a stick - Dr. Craig's argument to Objective Moral Values

This is my fourth post reviewing, line-by-line, the 1995 debate on "Does God Exist" between Dr. William Lane Craig and Massimo Pigliucci, held at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The other three are: Dr. Craig's opening words,
the origin of the universe and the complex order in the universe.

Today I'll tackle Dr. Craig's third argument - the existence of "Objective moral values in the world". I originally thought that this would take more line-by-line criticism, since it seemed that many of his statements were worth addressing individually. Instead, I realized that the whole argument relies solely on an unproven premiss and circularity, so I scaled it down considerably.

I consider Dr. Craig to be at his polemical best so far when he makes this argument, because he draws clear battle lines between the theist and atheist position. The implication is made that atheists accept behavior that is clearly immoral to the theist - an obvious but effective play to the theist' (presumed) sense of superiority. In spite of not providing any evidence that the theist position has a basis in reality - he hasn't and he won't - his rhetoric is sure to strike a chord with believers. In a sense, his whole third argument is one long ad hominem attack on baby-eating atheists.

Dr. Craig:

Third Argument

3. Objective moral values in the world. If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist. Many theists and atheists alike concur on this point. Michael Ruse, a noted agnostic philosopher of science, explains,

The position of the modern evolutionist is that . . . morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says 'Love thy neighbor as thyself,' they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory.{11}

Dr. Craig begins by claiming that
If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
I couldn't agree with him more on both points!

Setting aside my snide comment for a moment, this argument hinges on the existence of both "God" and "objective moral values" to have any meaning, You couldn't slide this by a neutral, attentive and informed high school logic class, but he usually does it with ease when confronted with atheists who are less experienced debaters, and who do not know the material well. Since there is no formal judge in this debate, Dr. Craig scores points with the audience because of the crisp and confident way he delivers the claim, in spite of its obvious shortcomings. I assume that audiences attending his debates are predominantly theist by the same proportion that the American public is - say 90:10. I will also guess that he can depend on the majority of the audience taking as a given that some subset of the laws, ethics and social conventions we adhere to are "objective moral values" - and that the reason they can be called objective is that they come from a higher power. Heck - even I suspect that morality comes from a higher power - but in my atheistic view, that higher power is the weight and momentum of a species that constantly adapts its behavior in order to better perpetuate the species.

The Doctor attempts to bolster his case:

Friedrich Nietzsche, the great atheist of the last century who proclaimed the death of God, understood that the death of God meant the destruction of all meaning and value in life.

I think that Friedrich Nietzsche was right.

Here, Dr. Craig is doing some fine word-smithing, intended for his target demographic. First, he outright calls Nietzsche an atheist. Although I'm quite happy to think that he may have been, it's not clear that he was. From Wikipedia:
The statement "God is dead", occurring in several of Nietzsche's works (notably in The Gay Science), has become one of his best-known remarks. On the basis of it, most commentators[116] regard Nietzsche as an atheist; others (such as Kaufmann) suggest that this statement reflects a more subtle understanding of divinity.
Then, by claiming that Nietzsche "understood that the death of God meant the destruction of all meaning and value in life" - he paints another picture of atheists that believers probably find repugnant. They want life to have meaning. They assume meaning and purpose come from God. Particularly for the disadvantaged, the hope that their existence is part of a higher purpose is seductive. Nihilism - the idea that life has no intrinsic purpose, is likely abhorrent to them. Yet, what Nietzsche also says is:
I praise, I do not reproach, [nihilism's] arrival. I believe it is one of the greatest crises, a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity. Whether man recovers from it, whether he becomes master of this crisis, is a question of his strength!"[120]According to Nietzsche, it is only when nihilism is overcome that a culture can have a true foundation upon which to thrive. He wished to hasten its coming only so that he could also hasten its ultimate departure.
He's not nearly as dark as Craig paints him, in fact "Central to his philosophy is the idea of "life-affirmation", which involves an honest questioning of all doctrines that drain life's expansive energies, however socially prevalent and radical those views might be".

In Craig's brief passage, Nietzsche is painted as "the other" (an atheist!) who holds a view antithetical to Christians, who assume that we are all part of God's plan. The "other" instead says that life in fact has no meaning. This misrepresentation of Nietzsche is effective if you don't care about misrepresenting the positions of dead philosophers, but doesn't really make any sense as a warrant to support an argument for the existence of God.

Dr. Craig continues:

But we must be very careful here. The question here is not: "Must we believe in God in order to live moral lives?" I'm not claiming that we must. Nor is the question: "Can we recognize objective moral values without believing in God?" I think that we can.

I'm not clear on why this paragraph is valuable to Dr. Craig's argument. Is he just making idle chatter?

More Dr. Craig:

Rather the question is: "If God does not exist, do objective moral values exist?" Like Prof. Ruse, I don't see any reason to think that in the absence of God, the morality evolved by homo sapiens is objective. And here I think Dr. Pigliucci would agree with me. He writes, "It has been pretty obvious since Darwin that we, indeed, are nothing but machines."{12} In the absence of God, we're just accidental by-products of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. On the atheistic view, some action, say, rape, may not be socially advantageous and so in the course of human development has become taboo; but that does absolutely nothing to prove that rape is really wrong. On the atheistic view, there's nothing really wrong with your raping someone. Thus, without God there is no absolute right and wrong which imposes itself on our conscience.

There are at least two tacks being taken here. One, that God and Objective Moral Values exist and are inextricably related; two, a subtly anti-evolutionist we-are-the-product-of-direct-creation-by-God-and-not-sullied-by-the-unholy-action-of-eons-of-evolution-that-does-not-have-us-as-its-sole-objective tack. Dr. Craig says that "In the absence of God, we're just accidental by-products of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time."

Yeah - and that's not an awesome, exhilarating and humbling realization how?

Seriously, the "accidental by-products of nature" trope is effective if you believe that you are the crown of creation, but Dr. Craig is closer to telling the truth than some of his demo are comfortable with. Strictly speaking, we are not accidental in terms of incremental changes over time. We are a successful adaptation descended from another successful adaptation, on nearly ad infinitum. I think he uses the adjective "accidental" to further appall believers who really want to feel that they are the apple of God's eye.

Next, Dr. Craig makes his most blatantly bare assertion:

But the problem is that objective values do exist, and deep down we all know it. There's no more reason to deny the objective reality of moral values than the objective reality of the physical world. Actions like rape, cruelty, and child abuse aren't just socially unacceptable behavior--they're moral abominations. Some things are really wrong. Similarly love, equality, and self-sacrifice are really good.

...and Reality replies:
  • Dr. Craig: "Objective Moral Values Exist". Reality: "Based on what?"
  • Dr. Craig: "...deep down we all know it". Reality: "What humans 'deep down know' is irrelevant".
  • Dr. Craig: "There's no more reason to deny the objective reality of moral values than the objective reality of the physical world.". Reality: "I'm waiting for evidence - when can I expect it?"
  • Dr. Craig: "Actions like rape, cruelty, and child abuse aren't just socially unacceptable behavior--they're moral abominations. ". Reality: "I couldn't agree with you more - but you're avoiding citations from your holy book that sanction murder, rape, killing children, and ignoring the subjective nature of even the ten commandments"
  • Dr. Craig: "Some things are really wrong." Reality: "No offense Doc, but I didn't need you to tell me that."
  • Dr. Craig: "Similarly love, equality, and self-sacrifice are really good." Reality: "You're really a risk-taker, aren't you? How could we have known this without your ground-breaking explanation?"
Dr. Craig attempts to drive this nail home:

Thus, we can summarize this third consideration as follows:
1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
2. Objective values do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.

At this point, it's fair to say that Dr. Craig hasn't made any progress in justifying this argument as support for the proposition that God exists. Objective Moral Values were never defined, and are never shown to exist; the existence of God is the subject of the debate, and can't be used in association with Objective Moral Values to prove itself unless an unbreakable link between is established. This, of course, is not done. On balance, the argument fails abysmally. I do think the fact that he delivers this argument, pulls on your heart strings, makes bare assertions and uses undefined terms in the space of a minute or two, and doesn't bat an eye, crack a smile, or exhibit a facial tick that might be interpreted as a "tell" - well, there's still a lot to admire here. He's not really lying, but he could be related to "Baghdad Bob".

A final thought on Objective Moral Values, whatever they are. The Christian will assume that they are the Ten Commandments, because they were obtained directly from God. Further, the words of the Old and New Testaments can be presumed to be the word of God as well, and thus arbiter of Objective Moral Values. Dr. Craig never has to say this in this portion of the debate, because he knows believers have a general disposition to accept this uncritically. Non-believers are critical, however, and for good reason. Take the Ten Commandments. Read it for yourselves, and realize on first glance that most of this is useless. You can say that "Thou shalt not kill" (or "thou shalt not murder" - depending on which version of the Bible you choose to read), "Neither shalt thou commit adultery", "Neither shalt thou steal", "Neither shalt thou bear false witness against thy neighbour" are all sound principles for civil society, and several others are sound for preventing descent into immoral behavior, but these ten are insufficient for life, many are unenforceable, and many require the existence of God to be even seen as plausible.

Instead, as much as literalists and fundamentalists might holler, there is a better way of behaving morally in the world, particularly compared to the ambiguity, inconsistency, and/or contradictory dictates of the Bible. Without spending more than a few minutes, I can suggest: "Have respect for your well being so that you can be healthy enough to feed, house, clothe, administer first aid to, love, respect and nurture your wife, your parents, your siblings and your offspring is the first commandment. When this is fulfilled, extend it to your neighbors; when this is fulfilled, extend it to your community; when this is fulfilled, spread it throughout the world." God - if he, she or it existed, could have written these words - or something beautiful and more concise - on the moon in letters miles high so that we could be reminded of them every day of our lives. He, she or it didn't do that. THAT alone is enough reason to disbelieve any claim that God exists.

Next time - The historical facts concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. \

Edit 1 - 6/10/2012 - eliminated redundant criticisms of the unproven propositions "God" and "Objective Moral Values exist" - and their reliance on each other as a proof of the existence of God

Edit 2 - 6/10/2012 - further redacted redundant criticisms and general wordiness.

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