Fundamental Reality XII: The Good, and the Not

It is not surprising that the Laws of Physics don't have anything to say about right and wrong, given that the world they describe is an abstraction from our own.  Physics describes the world in one aspect, as a pattern of interlocking relationships, but it doesn't tell us what are the actual entities in those relationships, and what their meaning and signficance is.

If there are any moral truths at all, then reality has to combine them with other facts in a unified way.  Physical truths and moral truths, considered in isolation, are just abstractions from the actual reality, but real situations contain elements of both.  Furthermore, since you can't derive an “Ought” statement from a a purely factual “Is” statement, the moral aspects of reality must be present in the fundamental principles of reality, whatever they are.  (Here I am using Hume's Is-Ought dictum in a manner which he would have thoroughly disapproved of!)  This type of argument is a form of the Argument from Ethics (also called the Moral Argument) for the existence of God.  It is similar to the Cosmological Argument except that it involves tracing back ethical reasons rather than physical causes.

Notice also that the concept of good is more fundamental than the concept of evil.  There is an asymmetry here.  In every situation where we identify something as evil, there is some good behind it which is perverted or threatened by that evil.  For example, if it is wrong to inflict unnecessary pain on a dog, that is because the dog is itself something good and valuable, so that something which harms it is an evil.  Existence, sensation, consciousness, will, and knowledge are all themselves inherently good and desirable things.  It is only when these things exist that evil can also exist, parasitically.

This lends support to something like the Platonic view of reality, in which all goodness is derivative from a fundamental type of goodness. Although aspects of a Kantian or Aristotelian outlook could be included as well, both men being theists after all.  (This “Platonic” view of Ethics should be distinguished from another idea attributed to Plato, that all abstract concepts correspond to their own “Platonic Form”.  Here I am only concerned only with the transcendent reality of goodness.)

But now observe that morality is at least a little bit like a mind, insofar as it approves or favors certain things, and disapproves or disfavors other things.  So a fundamental morality would have something analogous to will or desire, and in that respect it would be more like a mind than like an equation, as in Theism.

And indeed, if we are Monotheists, then it is not possible to have one Ultimate Fact, and a distinct Ultimate Goodness, as two separate and independent principles not joined together by any common tie.  They must be rooted in one and the same Ultimate Being.

Conversely, if we conclude for other reasons (e.g. the Argument from Consciousness) that the Ultimate Being is something like a mind, then this being's desires would be rooted in the fundamental nature of reality, and would therefore be objective in a way that our desires are not.  Such a being's desires would therefore potentially be capable of grounding morality, since there would be a notion of ought that transcends our own wishes and desires, and exists necessarily.

Before anyone even tries to throw the Euthyphro dilemma at me, let me observe that this dilemma was introduced into philosophy by Plato, as an (indirect, Socratic) argument for Platonic Monotheism!  When Socrates asked whether good actions are pious because the gods love them, or whether the gods love them because they are pious, he was highlighting an absurdity in the idea that morality could be connected to the collective will of multiple, finite beings who (like us) are not the most fundamental entity in the Universe.  How the dilemma mutated into its current existence as a standard tool in the arsenal of Atheism, I don't know.  But if God IS the fundamental principle of goodness, then he neither commands it arbitrarily, nor is he beholden to any more fundamental ethical principle outside of himself.  God is the Good; indeed in a certain sense he is the only Good, all other goods being images or reflections of his splendor.

If this conclusion is correct, this forms a secondary argument against Pantheism, since the world, and we ourselves if we examine our consciences, contain much evil.  Freedom from immorality is thus a necessary (but not sufficient) condition to be divine.

Of course, the evils in the world are also a powerful prima facie argument against the idea that the world comes from a being that is essentially good.  This is the Argument from Evil. How could a good God produce a creation which has any evil in it at all, let alone the amount which we see?  This isn't the place for an extended theodicy, but I think something must be said here lest the Argument from Ethics be drained of all credibility whatsoever.

If we view God as merely an impersonal source, out of which goodness flows, like water from the tap or light from the sun, then perhaps the problem is insoluable.  But if God is conceived of as being like a mind, then he is allowed to use long-term planning: in particular he can allow evil so long as it contributes to the greater good.  So if there is some good which cannot be had without evil (e.g. if it turns out that suffering is the best way to build character—a thesis I find, with some regret, to be quite plausible) then God might be expected to allow the evil in question.

Secondly, the moral philosophy associated with the Platonic view is not quite so unconducive to the existence of evil as it is supposed.  I said above that God is the only Good; all other things are good only as they participate in his goodness.  That means that any created thing, not being God, could potentially be turned away from God and become evil.  For human beings in particular, the possible temptation to idolatry, seeking our final goodness in created things rather than in the (necessarily invisible) Creator, is built into the very nature of a world containing lesser goods, reflecting God's more perfect yet less accessible goodness.  Indeed, the better a created thing is, the more easily it can be turned into an idol.

God could, of course, act to prevent anything from “going bad” in this way, but since the whole point of Creation is to make a Universe which is, to some extent, independent from God, this would plausibly sabotage the artistic integrity of his work.  Even in the realm of fiction, few of us are interested in reading stories where nothing bad ever happens.

Finally, note that the existence of evil is part of the very premises of the Argument from Ethics!  When you indignantly condemn the evil in the world, are you appealing to real objective ethical truths or merely to your own personal private sensibilities?  If the world really contains evil, then it contains moral facts, and the Argument from Ethics says that the fundamental reality must be capable of grounding ethical truths.  Then who are you, O man, to think you know more about goodness than Reality itself does?

On the other hand, if you say it is merely your own subjective feeling about the world adapted to the needs of primate communites, then you undercut not only the Argument from Ethics but also the Argument from Evil along with it.  In that case, God is merely indulging his own personal preferences in creating a world with butterflies and mosquitos, cancer and laughter.  Then who are you, O ape, to judge Reality based on your own standard of right and wrong?

Next: Surprised by Something

I am a postdoctoral researcher studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my first postdoc at UC Santa Barbara.
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15 Responses to Fundamental Reality XII: The Good, and the Not

1. John-Michael Salinas says:

Great!

2. I've said it before - I'm really enjoying your blog thanks.

But I disagree (with you and most other people) about Euthyphro's dilemma. Even if we say "God IS the fundamental principle of goodness, then he neither commands it arbitrarily, nor is he beholden to any more fundamental ethical principle outside of himself." we still haven't answered the question of whether God commands because it is good or it is good because God commands.

We can pose the question differently - could God have made murder "right"? The answer is presumably that he couldn't, because his character wouldn't allow it. But that suggests we know his character must necessarily oppose lethal violence - which means his character had to conform to that moral value.

So I would argue that God is subject to a moral law, just as he is subject to the laws of logic (presumably God couldn't make 1 + 1 = 3 unless he changed the definitions). But God is none the worse for that - in fact he would be less if he wasn't logical!

So then does the moral argument fail because there is an ethic apart from God? Not at all. God is still needed for two reasons.

1. The universe could have been amoral, and would be if the atheists are right. But God made it moral - i.e. there are ethical truths and we can know them.

2. Humans can work out logic & mathematics and discover science, but our ability to work out ethics is sadly impaired. We need God to set us on a right course - a course we couldn't be on without him.

That's how I'm thinking about these things at present.

3. St. Bernal says:

God's hand on us is so remarkably light. We seem to be useless to him without the freedom to evil. So be it.

4. Aron Wall says:

Eric,
Does a triangle have 3 sides because it has 3 angles, or does it have 3 angles becasue it has 3 sides?

Lethal violence isn't a good example, because apparently God's character doesn't always oppose it! But of course murder is wrong most of the time, apart from special circumstances, so let's ask about that case---e.g. could God command that we kill old ladies just for fun? Absolutely not, because "God is love" and murder (meaning killing not justified by special circumstances) is inconsistent with God's character.

But this does not imply that there is an "ethic" that exists apart from God, because God's character is not something that exists apart from God himself. It is not something which he obtained from some even more fundamental type of reality, but part of his very essence, which is necessary and unchangable. "I am who I am."

I would say the exact same thing about logic, by the way. Both logic and ethics are ultimately descriptions of who God is.

Your versions of the "Moral Argument" are completely different beasts. With regards to (1), I don't know what you mean by an "amoral" universe, in which there are no moral truths. You say that you believe in a standard of ethics apart from God, so why can't that standard be what grounds moral truths? With regard to (2) it is an interesting question how we come to know moral truths (just as it is an interesting question how we come to know logical truths) but I would resist the suggestion that they are completely undetectable apart from some revelation which arbitrarily inserts them into human beings. I think that some type of ethical knowledge is bound up into our identity as evolved social primates endowed with a mind that can reason and a spirit that can intuit spiritual truths.

Of course, I agree that revelation is helpful for learning about ethics, but it is not necessary. See Romans 2:12-15.

5. Declan says:

I hope it's not too late to comment here, a few questions:

1.While I find Hume's Is-Ought problem intuitive, how would positing the existence of God resolve it?

It seems to me that the standard protestant position is that if God commands X, then we have an obligation to X. (A divine command theory) But doesn't it derive an Ought (we should X) from an Is (God commands X) just like how naturalistic meta-ethical theories do?

E.g. Desire Utilitarianism is the view that the maximization of the fulfillment of desires Is good. Then we Ought to maximize the fulfillment of desires. Now the theist would object that on naturalism, there isn't a good answer to the question "Why should we maximize the fulfilment of desires?". There seems to be a prior obligation that states:"We ought to do what is good".

But if we posit God, then we would run into the same difficulties since someone can always ask "Why should we obey God's commands?" My initial answer would be because we are the creation of a creator who is all good, all powerful and all loving. But then a further question could be asked :"Why should creation obey its creator?" Again, there seems to be an irreducible prior obligation for creation to obey its creator.

Therefore it seems as though invoking God as an explanation of moral obligations doesn't seem to fare any better than naturalistic meta-ethical theories. But to me, my intuition tells me that there's something wrong with my argument , but I don't know how to flesh it out. What are your thoughts on this?

2.I read your previous post in the series about why you thought Lewis' Argument from Reason (AFR) fails, because you said that true beliefs are adaptive beliefs. But how would we know that? The naturalist believes that evolution produces beliefs that are false yet adaptive, and a big example they would give is religious belief.

3. I like your whole series on fundamental reality and I agree wholeheartedly that at the end of the day, no argument that stems from philosophy is compelling. However, you mentioned that you are an evidentialist, as am I. I'm currently wrestling hard with the fact that there are many problems with the theistic arguments involved since many reasonable philosophers can disagree with the premises. Yet my central "evidence" for Christianity is similar to yours: The historical argument for the resurrection of Jesus. But I understand that such an argument is meaningless to the methodological naturalist who would argue, like Hume has, that miracles are so improbable that any naturalistic explanation, however improbable, will be more likely than a supernatural explanation. I understand that background knowledge is key here, so this is where background knowledge is key, and where the philosophical arguments come in.

Do you think that, in the event that you are convinced that these philosophical arguments fail, that as reasonable evidentialists we should abandon faith in Christ and be reasonable agnostics?

6. Scott Church says:

Hi Declan,

Here are a few thoughts. I hope they help!

1) While I find Hume's Is-Ought problem intuitive, how would positing the existence of God resolve it?

I see your point, but it appears to be based on a misunderstanding. The Is-Ought problem doesn't posit a difference between moral obligations and any valid proposition such as "God commands X." The difference is between moral obligations and physical things. Moral obligations are a matter of values and purpose. When we say "thou shalt not kill" for instance, we generally understand that to mean sentient life (human life in particular) because because we deem it to be precious. Few of us would think twice about swatting mosquitoes. We are angered by those who are abusive toward that which we treasure and/or neglectful of priorities we deem important that they've been entrusted with. This raises a dilemma for naturalism because values and purposes are judgments, not things, and as such exist only in the thoughts and feelings of intelligent minds. God is such a mind... the material world is not. Fireplace bricks don't love or hate.

Sam Harris once commented that if morality matters at all, it must matter to "some conscious system" (Harris, 2011). Apart from God or the supernatural, we are the only such systems known to exist and nature doesn't distinguish any of us from anyone else. We are free to have moral values and live by them of course, but our values reside subjectively in our minds alone. They're no more objectively true than our preferences in music or hamburger condiments. If a terrorist or serial killer decides to hold radically different ones we cannot meaningfully accuse them of wrongdoing without appealing to an authoritative conscious system beyond us all to adjudicate. Naturalism is committed to the proposition that no such conscious system exists.

Richard Dawkins once stated that the ultimate foundation of all reality is "blind, pitiless indifference" (Dawkins, 1996). If naturalists are to avoid the Is-Ought dilemma they must demonstrate how blind, pitiless indifference can render anything precious, including human well-being and happiness. No one has ever done this. [For a more thorough examination see Linville (2009).]

2) How would we know that [true beliefs are adaptive beliefs]? The naturalist believes that evolution produces beliefs that are false yet adaptive, and a big example they would give is religious belief.

We can't... and that is precisely the point. If the ground of all reality is a rational, loving omnipotent Creator then it stands to reason that He might create rational beings in His own image and enter into relationship with them. But if it's blind, pitiless indifference, we're left having to figure out how our reason and conscious intelligence could result from a hand grenade explosion of accidents. To be sure, evolution has equipped us with reasoning abilities that are often reliable. But it hasn't given us any reason to expect them to be universally so or capable of addressing every mystery we may encounter, apart from whether that advances our adaptability more than any false belief might. But more to the point... this cuts both ways. The same evolutionary processes that allegedly produced religion also gave us those reasoning abilities, and with them the atheist's belief in scientism and materialism. Arbitrarily labeling the former a "delusion" (Dawkins, 2008) and the latter "truth" is special pleading at its worst. Especially since no one has ever produced anything in support of either claim beyond natural history anecdotes and a handful of indirect psychological studies... all of which have been carefully cherry-picked.

Ultimately, what we have here is a textbook example of a Genetic Fallacy,

a) Individual A asserts that X is true.
b) The origin of Individual A's belief in X can be explained.
c) Therefore, X is false (or true, depending on the whims of the one making the argument).

This sort of reasoning is bread and butter with my atheist friends, all of whom routinely equivocate back and forth between both variants. In one breath I'm told that religion is a delusion because it's a product of evolution, and in the next that it's morally obsolete because evolution equipped us with a sense of moral values.

3) No argument that stems from philosophy is compelling...

Whether arguments that stem from philosophy are compelling depends on one's definition of that word. If we mean formally demonstrated (as in mathematical proofs) then no, they are not. But metaphysical questions about God or materialism aren't of that sort. An argument that's compelling in any practical sense need only increase the likelihood of its conclusions relative to those of its competitors. While some of the traditional arguments for God's existence are lacking in this sense, the best of the current ones are anything but. Whether "reasonable philosophers" like them or not is irrelevant. I've read enough materialists to know that few are free of their own biases (not to mention being illiterate in other fields directly relevant to their claims), and in this respect materialistic scientists fare little better. Even if we were to grant otherwise, this is nothing more than an Authoritarian Fallacy). For what it's worth, I have yet to meet an atheist who could offer me anything but "just-so" stories, textbook logical fallacies, denial of the laws of physics and even New Age mysticism and urban legends.

As for miracles, Hume's argument is weak at best. From a Bayesian standpoint the likelihood of God's existence given miracle events and/or reports, P(G|M), will be proportional to P(G)/P(M), where P(M) is the background probability of miracle events and/or reports given naturalism, and P(G) is the background probability of God's existence apart from their consideration. Now assigning actual values to these quantities is a fool's errand. But even so, given everything we know of science, philosophy, history, and our own experience it is anything but clear that P(G) is astronomically smaller than P(M). The presumption of such is yet another "just-so" story. It's difficult to see how an argument like this could be made without presuming materialism from the get-go, thereby rendering it circular.

When all is said and done, I like the way Alfred North Whitehead put it;

"Scientists animated by the purpose of finding meaning in a purposeless universe make an interesting field of study."

How true... :-)

REFERENCES

Dawkins, R. (1996). River out of Eden: A Darwinian view of life. Basic Books. Available online at http://www.amazon.com/River-Out-Eden-Darwinian-Science/dp/0465069908/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1435189240&sr=8-1&keywords=dawkins+eden. Accessed June 24, 2015.

Dawkins, R. (2008). The God Delusion. Random House. Available online at http://www.amazon.com/God-Delusion-Richard-Dawkins/dp/0618918248/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1435256027&sr=8-1&keywords=god+delusion. Accessed June 25, 2015.

Linville, M. (2009). The Moral Argument. In The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, eds. W.L. Craig and J.P. Moreland. Wiley-Blackwell. Pg. 391. Available online at http://www.amazon.com/Blackwell-Companion-Natural-Theology/dp/1444350854/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1435258363&sr=8-1&keywords=natural+theology. Accessed June 25, 2015.

Harris, S. (2011). "Who Says Science has Nothing to Say About Morality?" Sponsored by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason. Sheldonian Theatre, University of Oxford, April 2011. Video available online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mm2Jrr0tRXk. Accessed June 25, 2015.

7. Aron Wall says:

Declan,

1a. All Christians believe that if God commands something, we have an obligation to do it; but that is not the same as divine command theory. Divine command theory says in addition that this is the ultimate reason why things are morally obligatory, and that if God had chosen not to provide us with moral commands, we would not have any obligations. I do not believe divine command theory, because I believe that our moral obligations are grounded in God's unchanging nature, not in his particular commands to us.

1b. You see, the goal of metaphysics is to explain everything with as few things as possible. If some quality X cannot be explained in terms of things without quality X, we have two options. We can either deny that X really exists, or we can say that X is a primary, fundamental part of the basic structure of the universe, i.e. an aspect of whatever reality it is which explains everything else.

Thus, my basic argument is that, if we can't derive morality from any purely nonmoral facts, then either (a) morality does not have an objective foundation, or (b) morality is present at the bottom layer of reality (which in a Monotheistic worldview, is God). Does this make sense?

So I'm not trying to provide a "purely factual" description of God's character, and then try to deduce from that that we have moral obligations. Instead I am arguing that ethics must be a fundamental quality of the universe, and then asking what the ulimate reality would have to look like if that were the case. I argued that the ultimate reality would have certain mind-like qualities, and therefore that this view would imply Theism.

The picture here is that, at the level of God, there is no distinction between Is and Ought. It is only in created reality that this distinction exists.

2. All reasoning begins with the assumption that human reasoning is sometimes valid. But it cannot begin with the assumption that ALL reasoning is valid, because that would be too strong: we know that people sometimes make mistakes in their reasoning. Both Naturalism and Theism are compatible with Reason being sometimes valid, and that is sufficient to start with. When faced with a candidate type of reasoning, we can then ask whether the world looks like we would expect if that type of reasoning were valid, or not.

But I agree that many Naturalists are much too quick to dismiss things like religion based on Evo Psych arguments, without sufficient inquiry about whether other forms of inquiry they value might be eliminated by the same process. There is indeed a danger of sawing off the branch one is sitting on! In principle, there is nothing logically contradictory in saying that human beings tend to form true beliefs by Process A, and false beliefs by Process B, and that one used Process A to find this out. But one has to show that B is bad, you can't just assume it. As a proponent of undivided looking, I think there is typically more to B than they let on.

3. Methodological naturalism is foolish. The best that can be said about it is that at least it is honest. Honest about being completely prejudiced! A better principle is that we don't actually know what kind of universe we live in until we check, by using observations.

When we talk about "philosophical arguments", we have to make it clear whether we mean (i) a particular kind of argument, i.e. metaphysical reasoning of the sort I do in this series, or (ii) every kind of argument which might be relevant to a reasonable person in deciding what to believe. One of the rules of Philosophy, as a discipline, is that there aren't really any restrictions on the kinds of arguments you can make. (You can even say that your reasons for believing in something are impossible to communicate to anyone else, as long as you are prepared to communicate to others your reasons for thinking that that might be true!)

So, if it turns out that natural theology of a particular kind doesn't work, then no big deal. But if ALL of the arguments for Christianity were unpersuasive (or if, on balance, the arguments against it were stronger than the arguments for it) then yes I would consider myself compelled to abandon Christianity. That is what it means to be an evidentialist. However, I think that the historical evidence for Christianity is strong and I also believe that God communicates truth by his Holy Spirit to those who are seeking it. And for the sake of any spectators, I will repeat what I said to you before by email privately:

"Doubts and worries often strip Christians of their joy even when they are in very little danger of coming to disbelieve. Unless an occasion for doubt is based on solid evidence (of a kind which actually requires refutation), the best thing to do when you find yourself worrying too much is to just set it aside, recharge with things you find relaxing and spirtual, and focus on how amazing God is."

8. Declan says:

Thanks Aron and Scott.

1.What do you think of non-theistic moral realism; I've heard an ethical philosopher talk about how some form of utilitarianism can ground morality.

He starts off by saying that pain is intrinsically bad; No one wants to feel pain, so we can agree that it is intrinsically bad. If we reject solipsism, then we can conclude that it is a far worse thing for one person to suffer versus for ten people to suffer, because we can empathize.

So in that sense, a naturalist can say that a wrong thing to do would be to maximize pain because pain is intrinsically bad.

My own undeveloped objections to this is that on naturalism it doesn't answer the question of:"Why should we maximize pleasure and minimize pain?" , to which the naturalist might reply:"Because pleasure is good and pain is bad, it is the right thing to do". Which sounds similar to the theistic explanation, because if we ask "Why should we obey God's commands?" Our answer would be "Because he is THE good, it is just the right thing to do".

Yet at the same time I'm convinced that when someone speaks of the world having lots of evil, there seems to be this implicit belief that the world should've been different from how it currently is, and it seems difficult for naturalism to account for this. But I also can't wrap my head around why a utilitarian reasoning would not derive moral facts from non moral facts, and why God as an explanation of moral facts is more advantageous.

3.I agree that on paper, methodological naturalism sounds prejudicial. But AFAIK, during the whole evolution-creation debate in the US, many Christian scientists were open about how science operates on the basis of methodological naturalism. I read your God of The Gaps post and found your explanation helpful, but being in a developing country whose culture is filled with "hauntings", ghost photographs and many other superstitious beliefs, I realize that I often am a methodological naturalist when it comes to these things.

When someone presents to me a picture from two different cameras of an extra "hand" appearing in the picture at a haunted destination, I automatically assume that it is far more likely that there was probably a problem with both of these cameras due to the poor lighting condition compared to there actually being a supernatural explanation behind it. Yet when I look at the evidence for the resurrection, I find myself concluding that naturalistic explanations just fall short of the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead. Am I practicing double standards here?

My only solution was to say that if I had good philosophical arguments for God's existence (or that naturalism was false), then using Bayesian reasoning (which I'm not too sure I'm doing correctly!), I can still conclude that it is more likely that God raised Jesus from the dead than not.

However, I was thinking if the witness of the holy spirit (And the Bible teaches that it is God's spirit that converts us afterall) would be a rational reason to believe in the conclusion that God raised Jesus from the dead, yet the naturalist would say that this "Holy spirit" epistemology is simply another word for pure bias and doesn't count as evidence as all. So as an evidentialist, do you think the Holy spirit communicating to you can count as evidence?

And you have no idea how this blog has encouraged me in this terrible situation I'm in! I certainly believe that this is God's providence at work, but I don't know if that counts as evidence for God's existence! :D Thank you again for replying

9. Declan says:

woops I think I wasn't too clear in (3)

Basically, what I wanted to know is:
1. Does Jesus' resurrection count as evidence in and of itself of God's existence, or do you first have to establish God's existence before the argument can count as evidence?

2.Can the holy spirit count as "evidence"? Assuming we're not talking about supernatural experiences with visions etc.

10. Scott Church says:

Hi Declan,

Far from being "undeveloped," your answer to non-theistic moral realism actually hits the nail square on the head. Why should we maximize pleasure and minimize pain? To say that pleasure is good and pain is bad is just more special pleading that argues in a circle. Sooner or later every one of these materialistic moral grounding schemes runs headlong into the same two issues...

First, good and evil are not nouns. They're words we use to describe the degree to which any given thing or behavior aligns with what we consider valuable, meaningful, or productive. To say that God, or anything else, is THE good, is like saying that fire is THE hot, or ice is THE cold. It's a misuse of language. This may seem like nit-picking but it's astounding how much philosophical nonsense and confusion have been spread throughout history due to this sort of thing. Good is not a thing in its own right apart from what we consider precious.

Which brings us to the second point... bedrock reality. Through science, philosophy, theology and other disciplines we seek an understanding of the universe and our place in it. We explain natural phenomena in terms of rational laws and boundary conditions based on observations, and these are in turn explained by other laws and boundary conditions derived in a similar manner. Each link in the chain deepens our knowledge at the expense of raising even more questions that need answers. An infinite regress looms and we're still no closer to the fundamental mystery: Why is there something rather than nothing? Eventually we must come to some bedrock reality--a fundamental, self-existent fact or facts that has no explanation. Things just are that way. Broadly speaking, this bedrock reality may assume one of two forms: mind or matter. To that end, note the use of the words consider and precious in the above definition of Good. Both imply the existence of a mind capable of caring--a person. Persons give a shit... mere stuff cannot, even in principle.

To theists like us the bedrock reality is a God who created us and called us into relationship with Him as only a mind can do. Standards of good and evil follow directly and necessarily from His love for us and His considered purposes in creating us and the world. Materialism on the other hand, asserts that bedrock reality is lifeless, unthinking stuff. The only minds that can exist in such a universe are the product of accidents. None are any less accidental than another, and as such no more objectively fundamental as a moral authority. Moral relativism or nihilism follow directly and necessarily.

Utilitarianism, social Darwinism, platonic moral realism... it make no difference what theory of non-theistic moral realism we're talking about. All have the same goal: to prove that a universe based on blind, pitiless indifference that cannot consider anything at all cares as much about our sorry asses as we do. It is, always has been, and always will be a fools errand.

Best. :-)

11. Aron Wall says:

Declan,
1. No, you do not have to establish God's existence before considering the historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection. We may reason like this:

(a) If God exists (G), then there is at least one being with the power to raise people from the dead.
(b) If Naturalism (N) is true, then it is very likely that there is no being with the power to raise people from the dead.

Therefore, any evidence R that somebody rose from the dead (e.g. the reports in the New Testament) is also evidence that G is true. And so long as the evidence for the Resurrection exceeds any prior improbability associated with G, then R becomes evidence for G over N. As an equation:

In other words, you take the prior probability of Theism times the likelihood of the Resurrection data given Theism, and you compare it to the prior probability of Naturalism times the likelihood ratio of the Resurrection data using Naturalism. That gives you the odds of Theism vs Naturalism after taking the evidence into account.

If you think you have good reason to believe in God even before taking into account R, then that's all the better. But even if you don't, you can still come to believe in God on the basis of R, as long as you don't assign too low of a prior probability P(G), due to P(R|N) being small.

2. In Bayesianism, any observation can count as evidence for a proposition X, so long as it is more likely to be observed if X is true than if X is false. How strong that evidence is, depends on just how strong the ratio of odds is. Generally speaking, it's hard to justify precise statements about the exact probabilities, but at least one can at least use it as a framework for deciding which types of things should count as evidence.

Something like the "testimony of the Holy Spirit" can definitely count for an evidentialist, so long as:
a) it refers to some experience X which you have had (or, perhaps, that somebody you trust has experienced, but that would be more complicated...)
b) you think it is more likely that you would have that experience if God existed, than if God did not exist.

Anything can count as evidence, so long as it meets criteria like these.

Some examples might be when God seems to speak to my heart with a specific answer to a problem that was concerning me, in a way that does not seem to come from my own self, or a sudden sense of joy and truth when contemplating some Christian doctrine. I've also had a few much more intense mystical experiences, though I probably wouldn't use the word visions.

3. To be clear, I think it's perfectly reasonable to require a higher standard of evidence for more implausible seeming claims, such as (for example) ghosts with the ability to register on photographic plates. But the bar shouldn't be placed too high; with enough evidence, it should be possible to persuade you even of the ghosts.

What distinguishes God from the ghosts? You could say one of two things here and still be consistent:

i) there is more evidence for God than for ghosts, and so God meets your standard of evidence while ghosts do not, or
ii) the prior probability of God is a lot greater than ghosts, for philosophical or other reasons.

I think both (i) and (ii) happen to be correct. What you have to resist is people browbeating you by saying "In order to be consistent, you have to either accept ALL supernatural claims or NONE!" It is perfectly reasonable to reply "No, I will decide which claims to accept on the basis of thinking about each one, not on the basis of categorical rules."

(Of course, it is also possible for a Christian to believe in both God and ghosts, but I don't, since I've never seen any particularly substantial evidence for haunting claims, perhaps due to insufficient research. I suspect that, except in cases where God grants special permission, there is no ability for living people to make contact with dead people. But angels and demons I do believe in, so my worldview does have a little bit of room for supernatural interactions with beings besides God. But there's a lot of silly claims out there, and usually I would respond to nonreligious claims of supernatural power much as a Naturalist would.)

Scott,
While I agree with your comments on "bedrock reality", I'm not so dismissive of Platonic moral realism as you are. I did use the phrases "the good" and "Platonism" in my post above, after all. What do you think of my 3rd claim in Is it possible to be good without God? There I argued that there must be some valid reasons to believe in moral realism prior to believing in God, or else the Moral Argument for the existence of God is without force.

Also, calling God the Good (or various other normally abstract qualities such as Life and Truth and Love) seems to be biblical (Matt 19:17 and parallels, John 11:25, 14:6, 1 John 4:8), and deeply rooted in God's claim, not to be a thing that exists, but rather the fundamental nature of existence itself, "I am who I am". If it makes sense for God to be Existence, then I think it also makes sense for him to be Goodness. But I guess it's easier to persuade people of this philosophically who have actually had religious experiences of God's holiness, and have some feeling about what it means to say that God has intrinsic authority by his nature, rather than extrinsic authority based on something outside of himself.

12. Scott Church says:

I agree completely Aron... perhaps it was hasty of me to include Platonic moral realism in my short list. It wasn't my intention to be overly rigid about language either. I was only trying to show that good and evil are conceptually meaningless apart from the hearts and minds of persons. We can say that in some sense God is "the Good," or as John says, that He is Love (1 John 4:8) because goodness and love are part of His personhood. They're defined by values inherent in His nature and Will. I suppose we could say that moral prepositions are Platonically real in the sense of being logically consistent. Given some set of values {V} and existential conditions {E} we might say that a set of moral values {V} obtain. That is, {V} => {V} (I'm not sure my syntax is right). But even so, without at least one existing mind/person that embraces {V} this is nothing more than a trivial logic exercise that tells us nothing about real world.

The question we really should be asking isn't whether moral precepts are Platonically real, but whether bedrock reality is a person, or lifeless matter. Only in the former case is it meaningful to speak of absolute moral values.

If the bedrock reality is God we can say that goodness and love objectively exist because He loves us and He created us for a purpose. But if it's the physical universe then everything, including us, is an accident... a byproduct of blind chance. Materialists base their worldview on this yet speak of moral values as though they exist independent of our accidental selves, the way bowling balls or needle-nose pliers do. In The Moral Landscape Sam Harris claims that morality can be unambiguously determined via neuroimaging of brain states associated with maximal happiness and suffering. It isn't subjective in the least, he says... it's science. In the 2011 talk I cited above he stated that if [we] question his definition of good and evil, then not only does he not know what we're talking about, he's pretty sure we don't know what we're talking about either. In other words if we disagree with him on any moral topic we more than just bad, we're irrational. This is more or less typical of atheistic morality in that it begins, and ends, with the assumption that good and evil are defined by happiness and suffering. The whole framework begs the question.

As for being good without God I think your 3rd claim is entirely valid, but to me the real force of it is existential rather than formal. To wit, we all share an innate sense of objective Right and Wrong. We may disagree on many of the details, perhaps violently, but there are common themes (e.g. the golden rule) that few would dispute. This is so deeply ingrained in us that it's debatable whether we could maintain our humanity without it. If a worldview requires us to deny things that are so fundamental to who we are, a compelling case can be made that those things are objectively grounded in a reality beyond us. And to the extent that moral values require personhood, that reality must be God.

This argument is compelling because it speaks to our hearts and lives in a way that is indisputably real. But at the same time, it doesn't definitively rule out materialism. What if we really are just accidents in a blind, pitilessly indifferent physical universe? What if our moral sensibilities are nothing more than evolutionary adaptations? The evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson says that they're nothing more than a trick of our genes intended to improve our chances of survival. If so, they have no more grounded meaning than hunger, lust, or any other bodily impulse. Sickening and nihilistic as this is, it does lead to a consistent worldview, whether atheists can follow it to its conclusions or not. This is what Nietzsche meant when he claimed that God is dead because we killed Him. He had nothing but contempt for the sappy humanists of his day who thought they could dispense with God and still cling to all the emotional and spiritual blessings that are based on His existence. In that regard he was far more courageous a thinker than atheists like Sam Harris who think we can toss God and fill in the void with neuroimaging and warmed-over Zen meditation practices.

Ultimately, it all comes down to this: Moral values are precisely that... values. Value is a mental concept, not a property we can objectively measure in things the way we do rest mass or electric dipole moment. Unless atheists can come up with an equation of state and suitable boundary conditions that leads to the fruits of the Holy Spirit, their claims regarding objective moral values are just exercises in circular reasoning.

The Holy Spirit is a person... the Higgs boson isn't. Praise God for that! :-)

13. Athnamas says:

If we identify the ultimate standard for goodness with God's nature, then it seems we are identifying it with certain properties of God (e.g., being loving, being just). If so, then the dilemma resurfaces: is God good because he has those properties, or are those properties good because God has them?

14. Aron Wall says:

Athnamas,
I do not think it is possible for a world to exist in which injustice and cruelty are (ceteris paribus) good while justice and mercy are evil. So, it is like asking whether a shape is a triangle because it has three sides, or whether it has three sides because it is a triangle. Surely it is both? So I am not sure that questions like that are well-posed.

This issue comes up in the Meno (see the discussion of the swarm of "bees"). By calling a bunch of different things "virtues", we obviously are recongizing that there is some factor of goodness which they all have in common, even if it may be difficult to define exactly what that common factor is. (Although, Christian theology has generally regarded love as being the most basic virtue, and also the best description of God's character.)

15. Mactoul says:

Aron,
"Methodological naturalism is foolish"
Aren't you confusing methodological naturalism with naturalism?
Isn't physics just methodological naturalism? Otherwise the correct answer to any physics question could be "God did it".