Christians Should Give Up On The Moral Argument
If atheism is true, there’s no basis for objective moral values and duties. And if everything’s ultimately reducible to physical processes and matter just behaving according to law, it seems pretty tough to build a moral foundation that doesn’t leave you as a total subjectivist.
Here’s what I mean: If there’s no good and no evil, like Richard Dawkins says in his book, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, then there is “no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference” in our universe. How’s that for a description of reality?
What this means is that if atheism’s true, then what’s “good” or what’s “evil” is basically just you saying what you happen to like or what you happen to not like. So as an atheist, you could say “I don’t happen to like the idea of human trafficking” or “I don’t prefer to be the victim of spousal abuse.” But you couldn’t have any kind of real, moral grounding to call it objectively evil—if atheism is true.
Mikel Del Rosario
Usually, for the moral argument to work, the Christian first has to paint his opponent as a normative relativist—as if that’s the only position available to opponents who reject your sort of substantive realism. I’m an atheist. I’m also not a normative relativist. Furthermore, Dawkins isn’t my voice. I have my own and thus, I will disagree with him about some things though as I show later, he’s not actually saying what Rosario thinks he’s saying.
Once setting aside the normative relativism you want us to accept, the next thing to do is to address the moral argument as usually formulated. To that we now turn. Thankfully, I’ve already addressed this argument before and at length.
Let’s consider the argument as commonly formulated:
P1 If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
P2 Objective moral values and duties do exist.
C Therefore, God exists.
Without providing any alternatives just yet, I’ll attack this argument directly. Starting with P1, it’s useful to point out the predilection that’s hiding in that sentence. How can you know that objective moral values and duties can’t exist even without a god? You can’t know that. Thus, you’re simply assuming that that’s the case; it follows that you’re imposing faith rather than knowledge. I agree with P2. P2 is the only sound premise in the argument. However, it is possible to have true premises and a false conclusion. That makes for an invalid argument. Let’s assume both premises are true. Though this would require a separate discussion, C is demonstrably false. The Judeo-Christian god doesn’t exist. God, according to Christianity, is triune. Thus, I can demonstrate that there’s no father or no son or no holy spirit. Those are my options. I am very adept at demonstrating the nonexistence of the father and the son based on the empirical methodology of history. By default, the holy spirit is cancelled out since they’re one. It follows that the argument is then invalid.
You argue that morality becomes relative if god doesn’t exist. Yet we seem to agree that it’s objective though, on my view, it can be demonstrated that the Judeo-Christian god doesn’t exist. The question is, how then is it objective without god? Can we offer an explanation? Ethics has become one of my focuses for precisely this reason and I’ve come across a few explanations that are compelling. Granted, some are incomplete. Some are less compelling than others. But the fact that an explanation is incomplete is no reason to reject it and it certainly doesn’t warrant certainty that there is no possible explanation. That’s precisely what Rosario claims, however: without god, not only can we not have objective morality, but we can’t offer an adequate explanation for its existence. This is false. Thus, relativism isn’t the consequence of morality without god.
Also, towards the end, he mentions moral ontology and seems to imply a distinction it has with moral epistemology. Relativism and objectivism do not have to be at odds. After all, even William Lane Craig acknowledges what I call moral classes (compare that to socioeconomic classes). For instance, the West has more moral knowledge than the Korowai in Papau, New Guinea and thus, Westerners are a higher moral class than the Korowai are. This relativistic knowledge rests on moral epistemology and not on moral ontology. Something can be objectively wrong though some culture or some person refuses to recognize it.
The Moral Argument for God rests on what Christine Korsgaard calls substantive realism—the view that states that “there are correct procedures for answering moral questions because there are moral truths or facts, which exist independently of those procedures, and which those procedures track.”1 Like Korsgaard, I agree that substantive realism begs the question since it assumes moral standards without providing a basis for them. What’s worse is that theistic substantive realism also assumes the existence of god and thus, further begs the question. It’s viciously circular. So, in light of this, what’s my alternative?
Korsgaards’s view—a view that I share—is procedural realism, which states that “there are answers to moral questions because there are correct procedures for arriving at them.”2 You can consider for example Kant’s CI procedure, a few of which are compatible with human moral behavior. This is a point argued forcefully in my recent essay on the possibility of a pluralistic moral algorithm.3 Also, the view is compatible with societal norms, moral universals, and the emergence of law at different times throughout history. If the procedures come before the answers, then there’s no need to assume that we know the answers before we find them. It follows that Adam Smith’s problem-solution idea is another procedure we can consult. I expound on that idea and formulate a working model that aligns with our moral behavior.4 Given what I’ve surveyed, it should be obvious to anyone that the apple has fallen far from the relativist tree.
Lastly, there’s something I need to correct in Rosario’s quote. He misquoted Dawkins and misunderstood what Dawkins is saying. Dawkins said the following:
"The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”5
He’s not speaking of this relativism Rosario invokes. He’s clearly alluding to nihilism—both existential (made obvious by “no purpose”) and moral (made obvious by “no evil, no good”). Those are completely different views; they have no place in Rosario’s presentation. Apologists fancy themselves philosophers, but in my experience they’re always missing a key characteristic in every good philosopher: an attention to detail. To confuse relativism for nihilism is an egregious error.
Notes & Works Cited
1 Korsgaard, Christine M., and Onora Neill.The Sources of Normativity, p.36-37. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.
3 The notion of a pluralistic moral algorithm and consequently, an individualistic moral algorithm can be related to procedural realism. Procedural realism states that “there are answers to moral questions because there are correct procedures for arriving at them.”Korsgaard adds that because people are rational agents, they have an ideal person they want to become and they thus guide their actions accordingly. What’s most important on her view is that moral agents self-legislate. Self-legislation aligns perfectly with the notion of both an individualistic and a pluralistic moral algorithm. It also aligns perfectly with Kant’s autonomy formulation of his categorical imperative which states that one should act in such a way that one’s will can regard itself at the same time as making universal laws through its maxims. Arguably, something much simpler than Kant’s formulation can be at play when speaking of autonomy and self-legislation. However, Kant’s formulation of the Kingdom of Ends takes us from individualistic to pluralistic because the formulation states that one should act as if one were through one’s maxims a law-making member of a kingdom of ends.
4 See Here
5 Dawkins, Richard. River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, p.120. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1995. Print.
There is No Problem of Good
So, becoming an atheist doesn’t seem to help us make better sense of evil. But even more than this, the atheist position’s got another problem to deal with: The Problem of Good. In other words, naturalism has the challenge of providing a sufficient moral grounding for goodness itself—in addition to making sense of evil in the world. And that’s a pretty tall order for a philosophy with absolutely no room for God.
— Mikel Del Rosario
In my experience, a lot of Christians seem to think that an inverse argument defeats an argument. In other words, if one can simply turn an argument on its head, it’s defeated. Before showing you why there’s no Problem of Good, I want to point out that it is based on a false analogy.
The Problem of Evil cites an incongruity between an omnibenevolent, loving deity and the existence of evil in the world. The Problem of Good, on the other hand, cites a supposed incompatibility between naturalism and the existence of good—as if naturalism is somehow equivalent to a perfect, all-loving deity. The analogy is simply false.
The strongest version of The Problem of Evil doesn’t point at all evil but at gratuitous evil. In other words, even in a world where god existed, it’s reasonable to expect murderers. However, in a world where god exists, can one expect genital mutilation as a religious practice (note: I am not caricaturing Judaic circumcision but rather highlighting the practice as seen in extremist Islam)? In a world where god exists, can one expect child sex rings? Some evil is too gratuitous to be compatible with such a deity.
On naturalism, however, this is what you would expect. If humans are susceptible to functional and structural abnormalities and thus susceptible to various psychological shortcomings, it is reasonable to expect a pedophile, a psychopath murderer, and so on. In a world without god, one’s personality isn’t due to a divine soul but rather to whatever state the brain is in; furthermore, one’s personality is subject to change because of neuroplasticity and the possibility of damage or adverse effects from sleep deprivation, drug and/or alcohol abuse, and so on. We would also expect some people to be born defective. Thus, evil is explained quite simply on naturalism.
How about good? That’s also not a problem. Earlier I showed that it’s based on a false analogy; however, another thing that’s clear is that it’s a variant of the Moral arguments for god. Instead of saying that morality has no grounding if not in god, this argument states that good can’t arise naturally. The notion is simply false. If evil can arise naturally due to neurological, psychological, and, one might add, genetic abnormalities, good is simply the default state in the absence of the aforementioned. Altruism arises in nature. Empathy, cooperation, and a care for kin arise in nature as well, so it’s no surprise they exist in a social animal like humans. Such cooperation is the very basis of nuclear families and ultimately societies. There have been and are societies and cultures that have had no contact with even the notion of the Judeo-Christian god, so a believer would be hard pressed to explain how those people are good. To say they have in them a god-infused soul or primordial goodness is to beg the question. The naturalist need only remind you that kindness toward each other is expected. If this is truly the only life one has, assuming said person is normal, why would you lead a life of discord, lack of empathy, and so on? It’s simply not conducive to your continued survival or well-being.
Given this brief survey, it’s safe to conclude that there’s no Problem of Good. Good and evil are to be expected in a world of psychological beings subject to neurobiological and genetic plasticity. Evil, however, is incongruent with your beliefs and given the vast literature on the subject, it’s a tough philosophical problem to address. On my view, if one simply presses against my amygdala, I’ll be dubbed evil.
For as long as evil has existed, people have wondered about its source, and you don’t have to be too much of a scientific reductionist to conclude that the first place to look is the brain. There’s not a thing you’ve ever done, thought or felt in your life that isn’t ultimately traceable to a particular webwork of nerve cells firing in a particular way, allowing the machine that is you to function as it does. So if the machine is busted — if the operating system in your head fires in crazy ways — are you fully responsible for the behavior that follows?1
If you damage or impair my orbifrontal region, I might display an inordinate lust for children.
In a celebrated 2003 case published in the Archives of Neurology, for example, a 40-year-old Virginia schoolteacher with no history of pedophilia developed a sudden interest in child pornography and began making sexual overtures to his stepdaughter. His wife reported his behavior, and he was arrested and assigned to a 12-step program for sex offenders. He flunked out of the course — he couldn’t stop propositioning staff members — and was sentenced to prison. Only a day before he was set to surrender, however, he appeared in a local emergency room with an explosive headache and a range of other neurological symptoms. Doctors scanned his brain and found a tumor the size of an egg in the right orbitofrontal cortex, the region that processes decisionmaking and other so-called executive functions. The tumor was removed and the compulsive sexuality vanished along with it. Less than a year later, the tumor returned — and so, almost in lockstep, did his urges.2
Simpleton apologetics is never well-thought out. People like Rosario and certainly bloggers like yourself seek to misrepresent competing views—to reduce them in such a way as to make them appear ridiculous. Yet naturalism, despite your wishes, isn’t ridiculous. It’s, in fact, far more cogent than your beliefs. Your beliefs are actually ridiculous and persist only because you’ve simplified them the way modern Christians are fond of doing. “God is good” is a modern phrase that finds its roots in selective reading. If taken as is and when adding the fact that there’s no way to read the entire Bible as allegory, it’s impossible to believe that your god is good. He, on many occasions, purportedly murdered children callously for no reason other than the fact that their parents worshiped other deities or committed some act he considered abominable. Therein lies the most demented aspect of Christianity: the belief in inherited sin; the notion that a child can pay ransom for the crimes of his forefathers. The problems are completely on your end. It’s high time you accept that.
1 Kluger, Jeffrey. "Evil Brains: Can Science Understand Them?". Time. 3 May 2013.
The Moral Algorithm
There are two ways in which morality can be viewed as an algorithm. One way is individualistic, which will be briefly discussed. The other way is pluralistic. Prior to moving forward, it will be useful to define what an algorithm is. It is a set of rules that defines a series of operations such that each rule is definite and effective and such that the series ends in a finite span of time.1 From an individualistic view, some knowledge of the philosophy of mind is necessary—in particular, a knowledge of Computation Theory of Mind (CTM).
Hilary Putman was the first to propose CTM—which is the view that likens the mind to a computer.2 Since its inception, CTM has been developed further. A notable contribution, for example, is Guilio Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness.3 If one assumes that CTM is correct, then the mind is computational. If the mind is computational, there might exist a number of algorithms within the mind. The moral algorithm would be among these algorithms. An interesting feature of morality is that the moral agent doesn’t think about moral action. The algorithm develops along with an individual’s theory of mind and as it develops, it learns to put out the correct solutions with increasing accuracy. This is because the algorithm starts off at an initial state in where it’s first input is received. This roughly correlates with parents teaching children right from wrong and instilling their cultural values into them. Harold Stone stated that “for people to follow the rules of an algorithm, the rules must be formulated so that they can be followed in a robot-like manner, that is, without the need for thought.”4 Therefore, an individualistic moral algorithm would be one built for automated reasoning, which roughly aligns with how humans reason when concerning morality. Far from the careful exercise of deduction or mathematical abduction, moral behavior does appear automated. It appears intuitive if not impulsive. Whether or not the mind aligns with CTM Is an open question. Assuming that’s the case, whether or not morality is an algorithm in the mind is another open question. Therefore, it is better to approach the idea of a moral algorithm from a pluralistic angle.
Algorithms, for one, are given instructions—an initial input. If applied to an individual, then this works just as well for a group. Without intending to endorse normative relativism5, it is interesting that cultures differ from one another in their moral values. Though they differ, however, a moral algorithm, assuming it is given sufficient distribution (D), it will eventually sift out moral values that aren’t conducive to the good of the individual or the group. With that said, if the moral algorithm is viewed as an instance of crowdsourcing, as pluralistic, then it will be self-improving. A good example of a self-improving algorithm is the one belonging to Google’s search engine.6 An advantage of crowdsourcing is that it rules out the idiosyncrasies of certain individuals and groups.7 Marcus, a character in Rebecca Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, states the following:
There’s some ideal algorithm for working it out, for assigning weights to different opinions. Maybe we should give more weight to people who have lived lives that they find gratifying and that others find admirable. And, of course, for this to work the crowd has to be huge; it has to contain all these disparate vantage points, everybody who’s starting from their own chained-up position in the cave [Plato’s cave analogy8]. It has to contain, in principle, everybody. I mean, if you’re including just men, or just landowners, or just people above a certain IQ, then the results aren’t going to be robust.9
The crowd this algorithm can draw from consists of over seven billion individuals and thousands of groups—cultural, religious, ethnic, etc. In theory, the algorithm has significant D stemming from billions of individual agents and thousands of groups. Furthermore, it won’t face the issue of unknown D since the contents of morality are generally understood. That is to say that even a run-of-the-mill psychopath understands right from wrong though he chooses not to adhere to moral norms. Given that it has substantial D, it’s running time has already been optimized. The next step is machine learning nature, which is pivotal to self-improvement.10 Also, the algorithm can use extraneous information to improve performance. Thus, the moral algorithm can use information gathered from a group like the Nazis to improve performance. This would be a perfect example of unacceptable behavior. Unlike Goldstein’s EASE (Ethical Answers Search Engine), which like the individualistic moral algorithm, is one built for automated reasoning, the pluralistic moral algorithm would be one built for data processing. Like Google’s search engine, it will use data to self-improve.
The notion of a pluralistic moral algorithm and consequently, an individualistic moral algorithm can be related to procedural realism. Procedural realism states that “there are answers to moral questions because there are correct procedures for arriving at them.”11 Korsgaard adds that because people are rational agents, they have an ideal person they want to become and they thus guide their actions accordingly. What’s most important on her view is that moral agents self-legislate.12 Self-legislation aligns perfectly with the notion of both an individualistic and a pluralistic moral algorithm. It also aligns perfectly with Kant’s autonomy formulation of his categorical imperative which states that one should act in such a way that one’s will can regard itself at the same time as making universal laws through its maxims.13 Arguably, something much simpler than Kant’s formulation can be at play when speaking of autonomy and self-legislation. However, Kant’s formulation of the Kingdom of Ends takes us from individualistic to pluralistic because the formulation states that one should act as if one were through one’s maxims a law-making member of a kingdom of ends.14 Morality, as a self-correcting algorithm, will, like Goldstein stated, cancel out the peculiar views some individuals hold. Thus, an agent can’t will an immoral law—let alone an immoral universal law. Self-governance, like knowledge, would be subsumed by crowdsourcing—thus becoming the self-government of the people rather than just this or that individual. This is Kant’s Kingdom of Ends.
Ultimately, though morality can be considered an individualistic algorithm, it is best to view it as a pluralistic algorithm. In other words, it isn’t agent-specific but rather species-specific. Compelling arguments can be made defending an individualistic moral algorithm, especially in light of CMT. However, even if CMT isn’t the case, given how people have crowdsourced knowledge and given that humanity can be viewed as something akin to a computer network that allows for the sharing of data among individuals, a pluralistic moral algorithm could be the case even if an individualistic moral algorithm is not. That is to say that a pluralistic moral algorithm doesn’t require an individualistic algorithm to emerge. A pluralistic moral algorithm can easily explain moral universals; furthermore, it can explain the common discomfort one feels when being exposed to moral values that differ drastically from one’s own. In other words, disapproval and approval can be explained from the lens of a pluralistic moral algorithm. From that, it need not follow that there is a pluralistic moral algorithm, which processes moral data so to speak. Nevertheless, morality does appear to have an inherent feature of self-improvement, which could arise from agent-specific autonomy, individual self-legislation, and the self-legislation of the general population. This idea can also transfer to law, which also features self-improvement (e.g. Constitutional amendments).
1 Harold S. Stone. Introduction to Computer Organization and Data Structures, 1972, McGraw-Hill, New York. Cf in particular the first chapter titled: Algorithms, Turing Machines, and Programs.
2 "The Computational Theory of Mind." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 1 Jul 2003
3 Tononi Guilio. "Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness: An Updated Account." Archives Italiennes de Biologie, 150: 290-326, 2012
4 Ibid. 
5 Pecorino Philip. "Chapter 8 Ethics: Normative Ethical Relativism." Queensborough Community College. 2000
6 Goldstein, Rebecca. Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy won’t Go Away, p.105. New York: Pantheon Books, 2014. Print.
7 Ibid.  (p.102)
8 Cohen, Marc. "The Allegory of the Cave." University of Washington. 2006
9 Ibid. 
10 Ailon Nir, et. al. "Self-Improving Algorithms." SIAM Journal on Computing (SICOMP), 40(2),pp. 350-375. 2011
11 Korsgaard, Christine M., and Onora Neill.The Sources of Normativity, p.36-27. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.
12 Ibid. 
13 Pecorino Philip. “Chapter 8 Ethics: The Categorical Imperative.” Queensborough Community College. 2000
14 Ibid. 
The truth about science vs. religion: 4 reasons why intelligent design falls flat
The devil’s in the details
Of course I believe in evolution. And I believe in God, too. I believe that evolution is how God created life.”
You hear this a lot from progressive and moderate religious believers. They believe in some sort of creator god, but they heartily reject the extreme, fundamentalist, science-rejecting versions of their religions (as well they should). They want their beliefs to reflect reality – including the reality of the confirmed fact of evolution. So they try to reconcile the two by saying that that evolution is real, exactly as the scientists describe it — and that God made it happen. They insist that you don’t have to deny evolution to believe in God.