Monday, 11 June 2012

The modified William Lane Craig moral proof

The text below is based on an original reply posted to an article on the Ethical Realism blog. JW Gray's article focused on two major problems with William Lane Craig's "proof" of god, which he (Gray) paraphrased as:
  1. Either we must be reductionistic materialists or theists.
  2. Reductionistic materialism can’t account for intrinsic values.
  3. Theism can account for intrinsic values.
  4. Intrinsic values exist.
  5. Therefore, God exists.
The problems raised by Gray are:
  1. Craig presents a false dilemma (the first premise), and
  2. Craig presents a reductio ad absurdum argument (by seemingly forcing people who disagree with the fifth premise to feel obliged to abandon the fourth premise).
While it's true that there is a false dilemma, since there are other options beyond being a theist or a reductionist materialist, the claim of a reductio ad absurdum argument is based on a similarly false assumption - that everyone does or should agree with Craig's premise 4 (as paraphrased).  Gray agrees with premise 4 and argues that Craig's error lies in premise 1, where the false dilemma is presented.

I feel that there are indeed major issues with Craig's argument, but that the primary problem is that all four premises (as paraphrased) are unsupportable.  (Gray does actually make reference to this when he writes that the "(p)remises of an argument should be more plausible than the conclusion.")
Something that is of particular interest to me is that there’s a noticeable leap in Craig's argument from “theism” (being the belief in some sort of divine entity or entities) to an assumption of the existence of a specifically Christian God.  This is not just a figment of Gray's imagination ... the article by Craig that Gray is paraphrasing includes the following in his concluding remarks:
Theism is thus a morally advantageous belief, and this, in the absence of any theoretical argument establishing atheism to be the case, provides practical grounds to believe in God  ...
If ... we hold  ... that objective moral values and duties do exist, then we have good grounds for believing in the existence of God. In addition, we have powerful practical reasons for embracing theism in view of the morally bracing effects which belief in moral accountability produces.
Craig is cheating a little here.  He's credited as being a philosopher of theology, which allows him to use the word "believe" in two different senses simultaneously, or at least argue using one sense with one audience and another with a different argument.

Philosophical belief is "the attitude we have, roughly, whenever we take something to be the case or regard it as true".  Theological belief is something quite different, being linked to the idea of faith.
I can believe that a bus will arrive in the next five minutes, but I don't necessarily have faith associated with that belief.  Similarly, I might find that I believe something subconsciously, something that was taught to me as a child by someone I considered to be an authority at the time.  When quizzed on that belief, I would answer with what I thought to be true, for example if asked about the origin of the Angles (of Anglo-Saxon fame), I would have until quite recently identified Angles as a southern tribe of Celts.  That belief was wrong.  I accept it was wrong, and now can (hopefully correctly) identify Angles as being a Germanic tribe from a region just south of modern Denmark.

Theological belief is distinct from this mundane belief not only in so much as it is clung to with great tenacity, but also in that it is interwoven with the believer's world-view.  A theological type belief is more akin to a belief in gravity, although it's possibly more likely that an average physicist would be more willing to revise views on gravity than your average Christian theologian would be to revise an opinion on the existence of God.

Personally, I use "believe" in two senses, firstly to refer to things that I used to think were true, but now know to be incorrect.  My belief with regard to Angles is such an example.  Another example is that I used to believe that St Paul's Cathedral in London miraculously survived the Great Fire of London, as well as the London Blitz, probably because someone I respected at the time told me that convincingly.  My informer might have been confused because the London Blitz was also called "The Second Great Fire of London" - or it could be because miracle seekers would particularly like the idea that this beautiful piece of architecture survived miraculously not once, but twice.

The point is that it doesn't make sense to say that I used to "know" that the Angles were a tribe of Celts or that St Paul's Cathedral survived the (first) Great Fire of London, since this was a false belief.  Currently, I might say that I know something which I later find to be false.  The thing that I currently "know" will then turn into something which I "believed".

The other use of "believe" is to refer to things which I am not sure about.  I use the term this way sparingly, and try to either say "As far as I know, this is the case" or "I reckon this".  Informally though, "believe" works fine.

Which version of "belief" is Craig using in the quoted text?  Philosophical belief or theological belief?  Something previously thought to be true but since discovered to be false or something about which one is currently uncertain?  My suspicion that he is using the word so that "good grounds for believing in the existence of god" is interchangeable (in his mind) with "a good proof of the existence of god" is borne out by Craig's three part "proof" discussed shortly.
Craig's rush from "theism" into the existence of God makes his argument a fallacious one, in which he affirms the consequent.  He argues that because one has an explanation which (apparently) works, then that explanation is necessarily true.  Craig does this in a two step process, first by implicitly redefining “theism” to mean something along the lines of “acknowledging the factual existence of divine entities”, rather than “belief in divine entities”.  Then he argues that this single explanation for intrinsic values (the existence of a divine entity) is both true and comprehensive.

This is akin to saying:
  1. If I have ripped a branch from a tree, then a branch will have been ripped from a tree.
  2. A branch has been ripped from a tree.
  3. Therefore, I have ripped a branch from a tree.
Actually, no, admittedly some of the smaller branches were ripped off by me, but the larger branch in my backyard at the moment was ripped off by a storm.  The logic works sometimes, but is not necessarily true and is certainly not comprehensive.

Craig's affirmation of the consequent also appears in the 3 part version of his “proof”, a version which more adequately reveals other issues with his arguments.  The tripartite "proof" is (in his own words):
1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.
This version embodies the same problems as Gray's paraphrased "proof", in that the first two premises are far from controversial (premise 2 is Gray's paraphrased premise 4 and premise 1 is just a statement of opinion). 

What is more interesting is how Craig seems to want use this argument.  In my discussions with people interested in Ethics (the philosophical subject), it's quite obvious that many people seriously do believe that intrinsic values or objective moral values (and duties to a lesser extent) do exist.  It's not something which is limited to theists: Sam Harris, a quite vocal atheist, believes in the existence of objective morality and wrote a book defending the idea.  It seems to me that what Craig does is spike his argument with an apparently palatable, apparently obviously true second premise and spends his time arguing the first premise by redefinition and inversion.

Let's step through that.  We are presented with all three statements together.  We scan them and depending on our predispositions agree with or reject them.  Assume for the moment that we have already accepted the second premise.  Why have we already accepted the second premise so quickly, without even asking Craig to present us with evidence?

It's probably because anyone without an interest in philosophy who is not fundamentally broken (this excludes psychopaths, if you can find a psychopath who is committed to moral psychopathy, I'll update the blog accordingly) can think of something which they consider to be objectively wrong.  It could be murder, it could be rape, it could be abusing children, desecrating the dead or it could be something theological (such as failing to praise the correct deity).

Even some people with an interest in philosophy may agree that there are objective moral values, but these people will have a particular understanding of what an objective moral value is.  An objective moral value is a moral value which is independent of context, an objectively moral wrong is always wrong irrespective of context. It might be better to illustrate the point using an extreme example.

Is it wrong to kill a single innocent if by doing so you could save a thousand innocents?  If you say "yes", then you are a moral objectivist.  If you say "it depends on the larger context" or "I need more data to make a decision", you are probably a moral relativist (or possibly a moral universalist).  If you say "no", you are likely to be a moral consequentialist.

There is, however a subtlety that isn't amenable to the rough and tumble of a debate format.  I can agree that it is always wrong to act in order to kill an innocent, even though I might save a thousand innocents by doing so, and still act to kill the innocent, because it is also always wrong to let a thousand innocents die through inaction.  Since I am going to be wrong either way, I might as well be wrong with 999 more people surviving the experience (this is a form of meta-ethical pragmatism).  The point being that I can agree with the objective morality of never killing an innocent and, simultaneously, with never letting a thousand innocents die through my inaction - thus arriving at the moral consequentialist position.

On the other hand, I might be bound by the law.  The law takes a rather peculiar moral perspective on acts of commission and acts of omission.  Unless it's specifically my responsibility to save as many lives as I possibly can, I am not permitted to sacrifice one to save many.  If I am the Captain of a ship, I might have to close down an engine compartment and flood it with oxygen displacing gas, killing the lone inhabitant in order to ensure the safety of a much larger number of crew and passengers.  However, as the Captain of a ship, I am not permitted to push an obese member of the public from a footbridge in order to prevent a runaway train from plowing into an equally large number of innocent railway staff and passengers.  In one situation, I'd kill the one to save the thousand, in the other, I'd watch the disaster unfold with horror, along with my calorie-challenged friend.  In other words, although I still may agree with the objective morality of never killing an innocent nor letting a thousand innocents die, I could arrive at the moral relativist (or universalist) position.

So, in short, we can all (if we don't think about it too deeply) agree with Craig's premise 2 - there are objective moral values and duties - even if our final positions appear to be consequentialist, relativist or universalist.
Now we arrive at premise 1.  Craig can (and does) argue that “objective values” are things that flow naturally from the existence of a God to form and enforce them.  He does this by basically by arguing the reverse, in two separate ways.

For his theist audience, Craig appears to argue that if there is a God with all the necessary characteristics, then one would have a sound basis for objective values.  This is true and even I would agree with it, and I assume that even such vaunted figures as the Four Horsemen of Atheism would too.  We do so because there is an if-then.  At this point the unwary will be labouring under the misapprehension that premise 1 is true (when really a quite different premise is true, one with both instances of "not" removed) and will have already accepted that premise 2 is true, and is then presented with 3 which does indeed follow logically, if you’ve accepted 1 and 2.

For his atheist (or uncommitted) audience, Craig appears to be arguing something slightly different due to the curious wording of the premise.  He explains this in The New Atheism and Five Arguments for God:
In a pluralistic age, people are afraid of imposing their values on someone else. So premise 1 seems correct to them. Moral values and duties are not objective realities (that is, valid and binding independent of human opinion) but are merely subjective opinions ingrained into us by biological evolution and social conditioning. 
He makes the assumption that all atheists are moral relativists (or at least moral univeralists).   This is an unchallenged assumption.

Another assumption which seems to go unchallenged is hidden under the bland wording of premise 1. Unless you redefine “objective moral values and duties” to mean “the moral values and duties as laid down by God”, there’s no reason to believe that the premise is necessarily true. If you don’t require necessary truth for premise 1 or you are not challenged on it (and you accept premise 2), you can argue whatever you like:
1. If the Grand Pixie does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
3. Therefore, the Grand Pixie exists.
Noting the form of this argument, and the apparent rules which allow you to make unsupported assertions in premise 1, we could present the Kim Kardashian proof (I couldn’t think of anything less meaningful than Kim Kardashian, and I did try):
1. If God does not exist, then Kim Kardashian does not exist.
2. Kim Kardashian does exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.
This is, in fact, a better argument because premise 2 is now less contentious – sadly very few people appear to be unaware of the existence of Kim Kardashian, and those who are can follow the link provided to ascertain whether she exists or not, whereas there are schools of thought which deny the existence of “objective moral values and duties”, either totally or in part.  Theists could hardly deny the truth of premise 1, right?  They would have to agree that if there were no God, then nothing would exist, including Kim Kardashian.  

Admittedly, in the atheist camp, the argument is just as contentious with respect to the original first premise, but I do think that the scale of improvement in the second premise more than compensates for any lack of improvement in the first.


  1. The problems with Craig’s argument have been clearly explained above. Also this is not the only instance where Craig has produced such an argument. Craig has had much time to hone his debate skills, which becomes glaringly obvious when one carries out a YouTube search of his name. He is a skilled and slippery debater on a topic that he is well-versed in (one need only hear his CV read to them), and he now seems to have made a profession out of it.

    Craig’s become the guy atheists want to beat. He is the pin-up for religious ignorance. One could imagine his poster being used as a dartboard in many atheist homes. However atheists continue to fail miserably in their debates with him.

    Upon completion of a little research on Google today, I found many atheist blogs providing tips on how to beat Craig, and other pages on why nobody really stands much of a chance. It’s almost as if he has become a symbol of fear in some atheist camps.

    And here again Craig wins. Why? Well for two reasons Craig gains notoriety and power, and also because the focus dramatically shifts to atheists striving to beat Craig at his own game, about his own topic. One will never convince Craig that there isn’t a God, and as Wolpert said in his own debate against Craig, “I am not against people being religious”. Yet this is the genuine feeling that one walks away with, after any surfing of the Internet related to Craig, and more importantly after watching one of Craig’s debates. He is so adamant in his belief, the person debating him is left trying to disprove God with “evidence”, and fails to touch on any issues of genuine importance.

    So what are these issues of importance? Well this where I think Harris has got it right. Harris too, in my opinion, failed in his debate with Craig, but not because he fell into Craig’s “trap”, but because he chose not to engage with him, and one can never win a debate, by avoiding the issue at hand. Harris, similar to Wolpert, recognises the benefits that can be found in religious belief. The sense of comfort that people gain in being able to give an answer, where there really is none to be found. So Harris steers clear of trying to prove that there is no God. He focuses on the devastating effects that can come about, when one follows a religious doctrine, which support immorality.

    Weak Atheists (the likes of Dawkins and Dennett) don’t believe there isn’t a God, they simply recognise there isn’t enough evidence to prove his existence. The reason the Four Horsemen (some of the more infamous atheists) are speaking out against religion is not to steal away a person’s faith, but to bring to the forefront the immorality that can abound in a society, where one blindly follows a religious doctrine which encourages negative behaviour and thought.

    So what I would say is this. Atheists in your many, stop trying to defeat Craig, and focus upon the more important issues, like the atrocities in the Middle East.

    On an endnote, to add support to what I have said. Dawkins recently wrote an article to explain why he has consistently refused to accept Craig’s invitation to debate with him. Dawkins: A shining beacon of a reason in a world of insanity. Below is the link to his article….

  2. Thanks Anonymous,

    I agree that there is a potential problem with giving Craig too much attention, but it's probably well past the time where he could be ignored as yet another crackpot. Now that comments like "WLC puts the fear of God into atheists" are out there and versions of it spoken by people like Harris, it is time to look closely at the arguments and see just why they seem convincing.

    Fortunately I have little sway in the Middle East (nor do the other parts of the world with less coverage but more pain and suffering seem to pay much attention to what I have to say), so I can devote some time to looking at why WLC seems to be a problem. If by doing so, I might save some time for those who can redirect their rationality towards fixing the problems of the world, then I am doing my bit :)

    BTW the corrosive effects of religion that the Four Horsemen seem to be addressing, in my humble opinion, are in the area of science, not morality. That may be my own bias, since I think religion has little to do with any real morality, but am convinced that religious thought is incompatible with proper science.

  3. I don’t totally understand how you can contend that, when you consider the arguments against religion that the different members of the “Four Horsemen” have made, also after you look more closely at the members.

    The second half of Dawkin’s text “The God Delusion” is dedicated to explaining why one does not require a religion to be moral, and explaining through Science why people are moral, for example his “altruistic gene”. He has entire chapters that describe what he perceives as immoral actions performed, and immoral ideas held, by those who are religious. He is clearly outraged by the negative repercussions and immorality that is encouraged because of religious faith.

    Harris wrote a text called “The Moral Landscape”, in which he regularly criticizes religion because of its association as being the vestibule for objective morals, and yet being responsible for innumerable moral atrocities.

    Also the latest member, Ayaan Hirsi Magan is apparently a feminist, activist, writer and politician who is openly critical of Islam due, once again, to the immorality of the religion. She has also written texts that describe this immorality.

  4. Thanks again.

    A problem with regard to morality and religion is that many of the horrible things that are done in the name of the religion aren't actually from the religion per se. Maltreatment of women, for example, seems to be more of a cultural thing than a religious thing. As a specific example, honor killings are conducted by Christians as well as Muslims and the common factor seems to be their culture, as opposed to their religion.

    Indeed, religion can be used to justify many horrible things. But so can ideology and nationalism.

  5. Let’s take Christianity as an example, because it would seem almost too easy and obvious to consider Islam. Christianity is a perfect example of where Religion is the cause of an overwhelming number of immoral acts, ideas, and beliefs.

    If we start with the bible and the central premise of a Christian’s belief system, we see that their faith is based on the idea that only those who worship their God will go to “heaven”, whereas everybody else, even those who profess religious faith, however have the misfortune of worshipping the wrong God, will burn in a the depths of a fiery hell. Is this not a perfect example a fundamental immorality? It doesn’t matter if a person lives a good life, loves their wife, fulfills their responsibilities, is kind to others, never has a bad word to say about anybody or anything, is a loving and doting father, that person is going to hell, because he doesn’t believe in a Christian God.

    On the other side of this, if you are a rapist and murderer, but beg for forgiveness from God and repent your sins on your deathbed, then you do get to go to heaven. Do I need to say more?

    This leads into another element of Christianity, which is immoral. In their belief system, the son of God was sacrificed (hmmm human sacrifice…..) for “our” sins. So now we have human sacrifice and a very convenient scapegoat for humans. Christianity has managed to abolish the concept of responsibility and enabled anyone who is this way inclined to act immorally, but then simply ask for God’s forgiveness, because a long time ago, he killed his son.

    Christianity is a system, which lays out the possibility, even supports the notion, for people to only act right, in order to evade punishment from the all-seeing man in the sky. God is forever watching, listening to our every thought and word, so we have to love him, and fear him at the same time. We have to act right, because Big Brother is watching. It’s compulsory; there is no way around it. Remember if you don’t, you are going to hell.

    Christianity also puts forward the belief that God is the reason for our moral values and responsibilities. Without God, and his 10 Commandments, we would have no objective morality. The only thing this has accomplished is it has once again removed an individual’s obligation to act morally. It suggests that people have no innate sense of right or wrong, no internal self-regulation. Without God, the world would be a cesspool of grotesque, drooling, amoral buffoons, who would as soon kill each other, as steal their food.

    Above I have addressed the immorality that results from the bible’s teachings. One I have failed yet to mention, is the narcissism that results from those pre-mentioned beliefs. God loves ME. God will forgive MY sins. God will save ME. But remember, only ME, not you heretics, or Buddhist-loving monks, just ME.

    It’s interesting that God himself is not constrained by the same moral values and responsibility he espouses. He appears to regularly visit suffering on people, even within the bible, which is the guide book for any practicing Christian. However maybe he limits suffering only to those who aren’t Christian. So now we move on to the immorality that is found within today’s society because of Christian faith.

    1. I think you run into fundamental problems when trying to address the morality of someone's belief system in the way you've done here. You're looking at metaethical issues as if they were ethical issues.

      Imagine for a moment that the god as described in the Bible exists (and that his internal contradictions could be resolved somehow). Now that he exists, he does in fact define what is good and what is bad. He is the one who hands out the prizes and punishments, and he is well within his rights to distribute them as he sees fit - even if that means eternal reward for the rapist and eternal punishment for the noble non-believer. He's also well within his rights to torture and temporarily sacrifice an element of himself if he thinks it's a good idea. You can stop imagining now, if you like.

      What you might have stumbled upon here is the reason why so many theists seem to think in terms of atheists willing the non-existence of their god - as if, at some level, we know their god exists, but would prefer that he didn't. An atheist will just see the inconsistent justice, auto-torture, constant surveillance and notion of the total amorality of humanity as being a bit silly.

      A theist, on the other hand, might believe and not like what she sees. She might, at some level, understand that a universe without this contradictory, jealous, vengeful and capricious god would actually be preferable. A disconcerting thought when you take the constant surveillance into account!

  6. Part 2.

    Of course two points I can make straight away, I would imagine without needing to elaborate, is the Catholic belief that condoms are inappropriate, therefore any practicing Catholic is supposed to not use them. This leads to unwanted pregnancies and STDs, and if by some misfortunate circumstance a Catholic girl becomes pregnant, Abortion is not an option for her either. What a logical religion we have before us, a God who asks its followers not to use contraception, as Sex is only for procreation, which is not a reality of modern society, and then takes away the only chance for the mistake to be corrected. I guess his forgiveness doesn’t spread as far as we thought.

    The next obvious point is Christianity’s treatment of homosexuals and in addition a homosexual couple’s right to marry. I feel it unnecessary and even below me to have to speak as to the immorality of such ridiculous beliefs. Homosexuality is not a choice. These people aren’t sinful. In fact, the homosexual men I have been fortunate enough to be friends with have been some of the kindest, moral and good people I have ever known.

    We also still have conflict in the education system revolving around the revelations of evolution. In the Christian’s mind evolution undermines God and is simply a mere attempt by Atheist scientists to steer people away from their faith. So out of fear of evolution, fundamental Christians have created Creationism. This teaching denies evolution. I find it hard to understand how anybody, upon seeing the proof of evolution, can deny it, but it is a sad reality of Christianity attempting to live by a book that holds no place in a modern society. There are now schools who teach only Creationism, no evolution, teachers who are scared to teach evolution for fear of a backlash from the community, and consequently entire groups of children who are not being allowed to make their own minds up, about what to believe.

    Christianity leads to ignorance, cruelty, immorality and a bleak view of the world. Just think of all of those people who have the misfortune of being born into the wrong culture and practicing the wrong religion, who have only an eternal torment to look forward to.

    I’ll finish with a list of recent wars in which religion acted as the catalyst for the violence that followed. This is taken directly from Sam Harris’s text, The End of Faith (p.26)

    “Indeed, religion is as much a living spring of violence today as it was at any time in the past. The recent conflicts in Palestine (Jews v. Muslims), the Balkans (Orthodox Serbians v. Catholic Croatians; Orthodox Serbians v. Bosnian and Albanian Muslims), Northern Ireland (Protestants v. Catholics), Kashmir (Muslims v. Hindus), Sudan (Muslims v. Christians and animists), Nigeria (Muslims v. Christians), Ethiopia and Eritrea (Muslims v. Christians), Sri Lanka (Sinhalese Buddhists v. Tamil Hindus), Indonesia (Muslims v. Timorese Christians), and the Caucasus (Orthodox Russians v. Chechen Muslims; Muslim Azerbaijanis v. Catholic and Orthodox Armenians) are merely a few cases in point. In these places religion has been the explicit cause of literally millions of deaths in the last ten years.”


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