Either a reader called my attention to the articles discussed below, or I found them on my own; I am aged and forgetful. If someone pointed them out to me, my belated thanks. Both articles deal with what is claimed to be the best argument for God’s existence—one based on the existence of moral agents, i.e., us.
I’m always a sucker for “best arguments” arguments: they are a box that I cannot help but enter. So when I heard about a post on Jefferey Jay Lowder’s Patheos site The Secular Outpost that was written two years ago—a post called “The best argument for God’s Existence: The argument from moral agency”—I could not help but enter. Lowder, who examined a series of arguments for God back then, is the founder of one of the first atheist internet sites, Internet Infidels.
Lowder’s piece is really a summary of a longer (and much more confusing) paper by Philosopher Paul Draper, “Cosmic fine-tuning and terrestrial suffering: Parallel problems for naturalism and theism,” (reference and free download below), published in The American Philosophical Quarterly. I’ve read the longer one, and Lowder’s summary is accurate but much easier to read, so I’ll deal with that. If you want to read the original paper, you’re going to have to wade through stuff like this:
This is philosophy of religion, and I have to agree with Peter Boghossian that the bulk of work in that field (indeed, nearly all of it) is worthless. I am a fan of philosophy as a whole, or at least branches of it (especially the philosophy of science and ethical philosophy), and don’t think it’s worthless by any means, but I have no use for the philosophy of religion. Look at the above: the author is telling us that it’s likely that God, had he created the Universe, would have created a multiverse (that’s what Draper means by “many worlds”)! If you want a real laugh, go see why God would have been likely to create many universes. It’s garbage: pure mental masturbation. But such is the philosophy of religion, for it’s the philosophy of a nonexistent construct. It’s like a field called “the philosophy of fairies.”
But on to the “best argument for God”. Here’s how Draper’s argument goes, as summarized by Lowder:
1. There are moral agents in the world, i.e., us. By “moral agents,” Draper means that humans have a code of morality and can freely make moral choices.
2. A naturalistic theory of our origins is less likely to explain our status as moral agents than is the existence of God, who made us moral agents.
3. Moral agency requires moral responsibility.
4. To be morally responsible, one must have libertarian free will, that is, at any time one must be able to choose between moral actions and immoral or neutral ones.
5. Such libertarian free will is much more likely to exist under theism than under naturalism.
6. Therefore, moral agency is a strong argument for God.
Draper and Lowder drag the “fine tuning” argument into this issue, but it’s not necessary. Draper’s paper was written before physicists had provided a number of possible naturalistic solutions to the fine-tuning argument (see here or here, for instance), and, at any rate, even if you accept fine-tuning as an argument for God, it doesn’t do anything except make the “existence of moral agents” claim (#2 above) even less likely under naturalism. The argument for God based on morality remains the same.
I’m surprised that Lowder considers the argument above so good. This is what he says about it:
I’ve thought about this argument often since I first read Draper’s paper many years ago. I’m inclined to believe this is the strongest argument–by far–for theism I have ever read. It is surprising that so many theists continue to press boilerplate fine-tuning arguments when the argument from moral agency is so vastly superior (or, at least, so it seems to me). It is equally surprising that the argument has not garnered the critical attention of atheist philosophers.
But to me the argument falls down like a deck of cards, for its train of logic is weak. For one thing, it presumes that theism has at least a reasonable probability; that is, that there’s enough independent evidence for God that we can somehow put it into Bayesian probability statements with an appreciable value. But I don’t see such evidence, and so one must begin without assuming the possibility of God, which is begging the question. The purpose of Draper’s argument is to show that the data ineluctably drive us to the conclusion that God exists, for naturalism simply can’t explain moral agency, free will, and the like. If it can, then I see no need to consider theism, even if we don’t fully understand the evolutionary or psychological origins of morality. God doesn’t become a reasonable alternative hypothesis until there’s at least a soupçon of evidence for God. We’ve had centuries to acquire that evidence, yet none has surfaced. One might as well argue that the existence of creative space aliens accounts for our status as moral agents.
Here’s my refutation of the above, point by point (I use the same numbers as above):
1. Yes, people do have a moral code and consider themselves moral agents.
2. There are perfectly adequate explanations for morality involving both evolution and secular reason. We have some evolutionary evidence, for instance, for rudiments of morality in our relatives like capuchin monkeys, as well as in less related species like dogs. And even rats were recently found to show a form of empathy toward caged fellow rats, releasing them from confinement even when they got no reward for so doing. In most of these cases the behaviors that look “protomoral” must have evolved independently, since they’re not highly correlated with the tree of evolutionary relatedness.
For example, capuchins show a sense of fairness, but chimpanzees do not, so protomorality probably evolved at least twice independently in primates. And it appears in animals that live socially, as one might expect if morality is partly an adaptation to facilitate living in groups. (Orangutans, for instance, which are solitary, show far fewer protosocial behaviors than do chimps or gorillas, who live in groups.)
Indeed, humans are not born with a fully-fledged code of morality. As Paul Bloom has shown, we are born with a sense of empathy only towards those with whom we’re familiar, like parents. We’re selfish towards strangers. Empathy and altruism towards unfamiliar individuals develop later—through learning. This is exactly what you’d expect if empathy was evolved through reciprocal altruism. In that case, you’d help out only those whom you recognize, for those would be members of your group (for millions of years, humans lived in small groups of a few dozen individuals at best). You would have evolved to be wary towards strangers, which is what we see in babies.
Further, there are secular explanations, based on reason, why humans would learn to develop a code of conduct if they live in groups and can recognize individuals. (Interestingly, rats are empathic only toward members of their own breed, and won’t free caged rats from other strains.) There are of course good reasons for people to develop ways of behaving that lead to a harmonious society. Those ways involve reason rather than genetic evolution, and can be passed on by cultural evolution. The immense increase in morality in our world in the last five centuries, documented in Steve Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature, cannot depend on genetic evolution, simply because those changes have appeared so quicky. Recognition of the moral equality of gays, for instance, has happened largely within my own lifetime. Such changes must depend on cognition and learning. If they reflect God’s will, then God is pretty mercurial and changeable!
3 and 4. I don’t believe in moral responsibility because, as Draper notes correctly (and contra Dennett and others), I think that true moral responsibility requires libertarian free will. How can we hold someone morally responsible for making the wrong choice if she had no ability to choose otherwise? So while I believe in holding people responsible for their acts for purely social reasons (deterrence of others, rehabilitation, and removing miscreants from society), I don’t believe in holding them morally responsible.
The above depends on my belief that we don’t have libertarian free will. Nearly all rationalists agree that we lack that faculty, even Dan Dennett, who has confected his own meaning of “free will.” (How Dennett comports determinism with moral responsibility has always baffled me.)
5. Since we don’t have libertarian free will, there’s no need to argue that it’s best explained by theism. If we had it, it would indeed be a kind of miracle, defying the laws of physics, and therefore would require a metaphysical explanation. (The only exception would be if “free will” is completely indeterminate, as through quantum-mechanical events in the brain. In such cases, given the configuration of molecules in our brain at a given moment, it might be possible that we could have behaved otherwise. But that doesn’t mean that we could have consciously chosen to behave otherwise. For even in those “quantum” cases behaviors can hardly result from “conscious choice,” and could never been seen as making us morally responsible.
6. Since morality has a perfectly reasonable naturalistic explanation (involving both evolution and rationality); and science is increasingly eroding the notion of libertarian free will (few now accept it except for theists); and because we have no independent evidence for a god, then the existence of “moral agents” is not even a remotely compelling argument for God, much less a knockout punch. If it is, then the existence of empathic rats is also a very powerful argument for God. For how do we know that rats aren’t made in God’s image?
Draper, P. 2004. Cosmic fine-tuning and terrestrial suffering: Parallel problems for naturalism and theism, Amer. Philosophical Quarterly 41:311-321