An Imperfect Argument

I finally got around to watching the “Does Good Come From God?” debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig. There are a number of interesting aspects of this debate – Sam’s thoughts on it are here – but I want to challenge Dr. Craig’s foundational assumption, which I thought could have been more clearly undermined. Every apologist that wants to argue that morals come from God need to answer the Euthyphro dilemma: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” In other words, if God commands an evil act would it be good? If not, the good is clearly independent of God.

To escape this Dr. Craig asserts that God by his nature is perfect and good and cannot issue an evil commandment. But that just begs the question of what it means for something’s nature to be comprised of moral goodness. If kindness is by nature good then God – the divine commander in Craig’s view – is unnecessary for morality; we only need to refer to the good itself. Good by Craig’s logic is more fundamental than God – thus, Good doesn’t come from God.

Possibly even more problematic for his view is how “goodness” is defined by nature. If love and kindness is self-evidently a property of perfection and goodness, why again is God necessary for moral foundation? Staying true to theological tradition, his answer just pushes the question back a step. Let’s look at this game Craig plays: (I interjected some questions after Craig’s points – Craig never argues his positive case beyond these contentions) Seeing his arguments in print have a way of exposing their deficiency.

Where does good come from?

Craig: “Objective moral values are grounded in God.”

Skeptic: What if God commands something evil?

Craig: “Far from being arbitrary, God’s commandments must be consistent with his holy and loving nature.”

Skeptic: How do you know God’s nature is good?

Craig: “As St. Anselm saw, God is by definition the greatest conceivable being and therefore, the highest good.”

Skeptic: How convenient, but what defines goodness?

Craig: “He is by nature loving, generous, faithful, kind, and so forth.”

Skeptic: But why are those attributes morally “good”? Why aren’t hatred, jealousy, and cruelty “good”?

Craig: [God] is not merely perfectly good; he is the locus and paradigm of moral value. God’s own holy and loving nature provides the absolute standard against which all actions are measured.”

Skeptic: You haven’t answered anything.

All these theological gymnastics illustrate the absurdity of the religious project. How does Craig or anyone else know that God is perfect or good by nature? How do we know perfection or goodness are defined in the way Craig says they are? If God’s nature (whatever that even means) was evil, would love still be good? If God really did issue morally obligatory commandments how would we be certain of their divine origin? As Dr. Harris points out throughout the debate, the bible repeatedly gets major questions of morality wrong (e.g. slavery) so we don’t have any obvious source to learn His commandments.

This improvisational fiction is not unique to Craig. The latest issue of Time magazine chronicles the debate between evangelicals on whether hell really exists or not and if so what its nature is. No one seems to notice that no one has any clue. If it wasn’t so consequential, Time might as well have reported on the debate between my alarm clock and my iPod.

  1. Bill
    April 21, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    C.S. Lewis attempts to address the idea of good in bad in the first chapter of his book Mere Christianity. He believes that all humans inherently know what is good and what is bad, without having to be taught it. Lewis calls this knowledge the Law of Nature. He believes that human behavior is governed by this Law of Nature-that as a result, we all know how we should behave and when we don’t, we not only know it, but we feel badly (guilt).

    Can you refute this Dan? (Outside of the rare pathological sociopath,of course)

    Can you prove that this response is learned? Or is it just “common sense”? And if so, where did this common sense come from? Why does it seem so hardwired into us?

    If my memory serves me, Lewis was an athiest, but his realization of this Law of Nature (Moral Law, Rule of Decent Behavior) led him to believe that there is a good and just God. The following chapters in Mere Christianity build his case for this belief.

    Being an athiest is easy. Challenging this inner sense and Lewis’s arguments that use it to build a case for God is not. I read his book many years ago and for many years after it had been the basis of my hope. As an agnostic, a silly hope is all I have, of course, because definitively knowing the answers to the question of a God is impossible. However, Lewis, at the time, was the only one who ever came close to having some sort of a logical explanation.

    • April 21, 2011 at 5:55 pm

      That’s a big topic and I can’t refute everything in a short reply. But all humans definitely don’t know what is good and bad in all cases inherently, which is why all humans don’t agree on all moral questions and why our moral instincts sometimes make mistakes. Many people have a moral instinct against homosexuality or various types of “otherness” but we can learn by rational inspection that treating others equally is morally preferable. I’m not sure why you dismiss psychopathy and other cognitive defects – they seem to demonstrate pretty strongly that any moral instincts have a natural rather than supernatural basis.

      The innate morality you sense is more plausibly due to evolution not a deity, which also explains why it is so often flawed. One of the biggest flaws is how we treat “out-groups” compared to “in-groups” that make perfect sense evolutionarily but less so if God created all humans in His image.

      Seems like all apologists love to claim they used to be atheists but were persuaded by something or another – it’s irrelevant to whether the arguments themselves are actually persuasive. Lewis himself makes some wild claims that I wouldn’t readily call logical, but that’s another story. He certainly thinks your agnosticism is unfounded and you should be fully convinced of the truth of Christianity. I’m not so clear on the relevance of your distinction between atheism and agnosticism or how Lewis has solved Plato’s famous challenge.

  2. Bill
    April 21, 2011 at 7:58 pm

    I don’t disagree with your arguments and I am not at all claiming that Lewis had it right. What I am suggesting is that he, at the very least, in attempting to tie human thought and behavior to a god, made a leap toward logic that far surpassed the traditional dogma of blind faith. I found his argument more compelling than anything else I had read and was interested in how someone goes from atheism to a belief in God, when my own personal journey took me in the opposite direction. You are right in that this is ultimately irrelevant to the persuasiveness of the argument, but nonetheless, there is an argument whose substance is worth considering-and why I urged you to challenge it.

    While your challenge bears merit, the ability to grapple with moral issues is different than the simple recognition of right from wrong. To muddle the two together and make assumptions on the latter by demonstrating the inconsistencies in the former is a stretch. For example, while many may debate on the morality of homosexuality, most everyone would be repelled by violence toward homosexuals. Moral argument involves higher order thinking which is often learned or indoctrinated, making it subject to imperfection and debate, whereas the simple recognition of right or wrong (as it pertains to personal behavior toward others) is often not debated. However, I do believe that this innate ability can be skewed by learned morality, but believe that the incongruency this creates is the cause of great inner conflict. I witness this in those who practice a religious fundamentalism that preaches a rigid set of morality rather than supporting the simple code of innate ethics (as Jesus did). Their “falls from grace”, their anger, their self-righteousness, all seem to me symptoms of an inner conflict.

    Certainly the innate law of nature which Lewis alludes to can more plausibly be attributed to evolution. I’d have to go back and see if he addresses this, but it is an interesting debate. Why would this quality evolve? What evolutionary purpose does it really serve? Does this quality help to preserve the species in some way? Without it, would we become extinct? Is biological evolution capable of such sophisticated processes or is there divine intervention?

    Certainly these are up for debate. I am not capable of knowing the answers at this time, which is why I am agnostic, but do note the value in considering all sides. For this, despite his flaws, I am simply recognizing Lewis as one of the most logical proponents of theism. It should be noted that I have yet to come across an athiest who provides a truly convincing argument either.

    • April 21, 2011 at 9:09 pm

      Quick note: there is nothing in atheism (a term I often use, but remind myself to stay away from) that conflicts with agnosticism. I really don’t want to go down this road on this blog post so I’ll leave all that aside.

      There is a generous literature on the evolution of morality and it’s been observed in multiple species, most notably chimpanzees and bonobos our closest relatives. For a great treatment of the topic check out Matt Ridley’s “The Origins of Virtue.”

      But onto your point about innate ethics, I still don’t see how you can argue “humans inherently know what is good and what is bad, without having to be taught it.” Is personal revenge instinctually morally acceptable? What if someone kills your family member? It’s not too obvious that instinct and the correct moral choice converge on that question. So, is it “wrong” to kill someone? What if they’re suffering with a terminal illness and ask you to? Is it “right” to treat one’s children better (i.e. less equally) than other children? Does instinct settle these questions? Does it even let us “recognize” what is good and bad?

      Our moral intuition is often suspect. You’d expect that people should care more about more people than fewer, right? After all, 1 million people dying is worse than 1 person dying. You could say instinct tells me that, but then what do you make of Paul Slovic’s research that shows that humans care more about a single life than whole populations. How many millions die everyday of preventable diseases when you don’t loose a wink of sleep, but baby Jessica falls down a well and nothing else seems more important? You’d think a deity wouldn’t make foreigners so easy to dehumanize. Humans have been around for over 100,000 years and slavery still exists on this planet – how dull are our God given consciences?

      Even Jesus’s moral code is a bit bizarre and at least not morally intuitive: Love your enemies as yourself. Leave all your worldly possessions. In the Mere Christianity you speak so highly of C.S. Lewis himself said this of Jesus: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell.”

  3. Bill
    April 22, 2011 at 5:07 am

    I’ll have to check out Ridley. Until then, I’m unconvinced either way. Again, you seem to be tying complex moral choices/moral codes to natural instincts/innate knowledge in a way that the flaws of the former directly remove the legitimacy of the latter. I think the two are very different. I addressed that point in my last post.

    As to the teachings of Jesus, taken at face value, yes they are bizarre. I wonder though, was he was just “pushing the envelope”- was he intentionally provocative? To force a point through an ostentatious, and often facetious statement, is often a productive way to provoke thoughtful change. Of course we’ll never know.

  4. Bill
    April 22, 2011 at 5:21 am

    One other point. Why is it that evolution and divine intervention (I’ll call it that for a lack of better wording) have to be mutually exclusive. Why is it one or the other? Certainly extremists on both sides have polarized the two, but I wonder if that is a mistake? Instinctually, I say it is.

    • April 22, 2011 at 4:08 pm

      You’re unconvinced of what? That evolution could possibly account for innate morality? Check out the book along with other stuff [E.O. Wilson is interesting]. It just seems odd that your default position is that morality is better explained by supernatural causes rather than natural ones. Seems like a big leap to me unless I saw some pretty compelling evidence (it just so happens that there is none that I know of). In contrast, creatures throughout the animal kingdom show rudimentary signs of morality and altruistic behavior which makes sense in the light of evolution. Additionally, our moral reasoning is often flawed as I briefly explained – why a divinely given moral compass would be faulty is perplexing, but makes sense if it was evolved.

      To be honest, I’m not exactly sure as to what you’re claiming. You wrote, “humans inherently know what is good and what is bad, without having to be taught it.” I provided evidence that shows that to be occasionally false. I didn’t just show how our moral codes/choices are imperfect, but our instincts themselves – we’re naturally xenophobic, we’re naturally more likely to favor ourselves and our families above all others despite Jesus’s instructions, we’re naturally more likely to feel empathy toward one identifiable sufferer than to increasing numbers of the needy. These all are innate moral impulses, but are morally controversial. They also happen to make perfect sense if they evolved by natural selection, but less so if divinely implanted.

      No one said evolution and divine intervention “have to be mutually exclusive.” Magic could be real – there is just no good reason to think so. If it turns out that a celestial tinkerer dabbled in our genomes then so be it – I’m open to the evidence; no one seems to ever offer any. It’s not “extreme” to ask for evidence before believing a proposition. Of course, superstition is probably innate too.

  5. Bill
    April 22, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    I’m not arguing from the side of blindly believing Lewis, but rather from the side of considering his argument. I am unconvinced that evolution alone can account for innate morality and I provided questions worth considering before drawing a precise conclusion. While I don’t see your evidence as substantial enough to answer these questions or to debunk Lewis, this most certainly should not imply that my default position is one that supports supernatural causes. In fact, it is just the opposite. I tend to believe as you do and my agnosticism is the result of such beliefs. It follows then, that because there is no clear evidence that refutes Lewis, I am not prepared to accept atheism either.

    Further, pointing out the contradictions of Jesus does not strengthen your argument against a god unless you provide evidence that Jesus was in fact divine, or that the words of Jesus, as written in the bible, were actually his or divinely inspired. I believe neither (someday google the Jesus Seminar/Westar Institute). Perhaps Jesus was just another man guilty of contradictions or perhaps he was truly divine-so what? You rightly asked, “How does anyone know that God is perfect or good by nature? How do we know perfection or goodness are defined in the way someone says they are?” So why, if by asking these questions you believe that the idea of perfection is presumptuous, do you then expect that Jesus should be perfect in his words and actions, that the innate or instinctual knowledge of good and evil be perfect and uniform amongst humanity (ie. sociopathy), and that this law of nature be held to a different standard than evolution- which by most accounts appears to be quite imperfect and mutatable? It is from these thoughts that I drew my last comment on the exclusivity of evolution and divinity, and remarked on the extremism which sees only a stark divide between evolution and divinity. You dismissed my questions by simply calling for evidence and pointing out the obvious that asking for evidence is not “extreme”. Of course we should ask for evidence and hold evidence as our only standard for accepting information, however, the lack of evidence should not prevent us, in the meantime, from looking at this debate from all angles, regardless of how intangible they may seem.

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