Why most Animals are not Philosophers: Fatal Flaws in Dr. Craig’s Moral Argument for God

thinking-monkey-rA moral agent is defined as any being able to make moral judgments and be subject to them. Moral agents must possess two faculties. They must be self-aware else they could not make judgments with respect to their own actions and so could not be held responsible. And in as much as moral judgments are stated as propositions, they must have a faculty of language. This is why non-human animals are not moral agents (or philosophers). These basic definitions expose a complex set of errors in both Dr. Craig’s defense of his Moral Argument for God as well as the secular philosophers he cites in support of it. I begin on page 172 of his book Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics where he states his syllogism:

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

Craig defends his first premise by asserting that atheism implies an undifferentiated equivalence between humans and all other animals. Beginning on page 174, he states:

On a naturalistic view moral values are just by-products of socio-biological evolution. Just as a troupe of baboons exhibit co-operative behavior and even altruistic, sacrificial behavior because evolution has determined it to be advantageous in the struggle for survival, so their primate cousins homo sapiens exhibit similar behavior for the same reason. … As a  result of  socio-biological pressures, there has evolved among homo sapiens a sort of “herd morality” which functions well in the perpetuation of our species in the struggle for survival.  But on the atheistic view there doesn’t seem to be anything about homo sapiens that makes this morality objectively true.

Crudely put, on the atheistic view human beings are just animals, and animals have no moral obligations to one another. (pg. 175)

Craig’s assertion that humans would be “just animals” under atheism is false. It could be true only if the faculties which distinguish us from other animals – self-awareness and language – were logically impossible under atheism. As long as we have those faculties, we are not “just animals” under any metaphysical view. And as long as we are human animals, we will be moral agents.

To clearly see the nature of Craig’s error we need only replace “moral obligations” with “language.” His argument then becomes “Crudely put, on the atheistic view human beings are just animals, and animals have no language.” Are we then to conclude that language would be impossible under atheism? That language itself is sufficient to prove the existence of God? His argument really has nothing to do with morality per se. It reduces to “an argument for God from human faculties not shared by other animals.”

When restated with precision, the vacuity of his argument becomes self-evident. He begins with the commonly accepted presumption that non-human animals are not moral agents, and then simply states a non sequitur where the second clause says nothing about the first: “Crudely put, on the atheistic view human beings are just animals, and non-human animals have no moral obligations to each other.” To simplify further:

Every A is B, and any B that is not A lacks the properties unique to A.

His argument is the quintessence of vacuity. Nothing follows from it. It’s nothing but the definition of a subset. It says nothing about the properties that distinguish A as a subset of B, and it certainly does not imply that those properties could not exist under atheism. It gives the illusion of being an argument only because Craig deftly omitted the necessary qualifying distinctions between “any B” and “any B that is not A.” Our moral faculty is one of the things that distinguishes us from the rest of the animals. This would be equally true under theism or atheism. It doesn’t just disappear under atheism merely because it is found only in a subset of animals. How could Craig fail to see this? Here is what he was really trying to say:

Every A is B, and no B has property P, so no A has property P.

Now we have exposed the root of his error. He implicitly asserted that “no B has property P,” that is, that no animals of any kind have moral obligations to each other under either theism or atheism. But that directly contradicts his presupposition that human animals are moral agents. Humans could not be “just animals” under atheism it they were not ontologically classed as a kind of animal independent of any metaphysical view. His argument rests first upon a false distinction between humans and other animals, as if humans were not accurately classed as “animals” under both theism and atheism, followed by a false equivalence that identifies them as “just animals” whereby he strips them of their unique faculties required for moral agency.

It’s easy to see why Craig found this argument seductive. In one fell swoop, it enabled him to prove God by simply stripping humans of the faculties required for moral agency. Everyone knows non-human animals are not moral agents so all we need do is equate humans with non-human animals and our proof is done before lunch, without even breaking a sweat on our intellectual brow. That makes for some easy work. Unfortunately, good philosophy is not known for being easy.

Reality Based Philosophy

Philosophy becomes both better and easier when it is based on reality, on facts that can be objectively verified. The first task of any serious philosopher is to review the facts and to ask relevant questions that have the potential of being answered in a verifiable way. I am not proposing the verificationist epistemology which says that we should only accept statements as true if they can be scientifically verified. That idea is self-refuting if taken as an absolute rule because the rule itself cannot be scientifically verified. There may well be questions that can only be answered by the postulation of abstract metaphysical entities or properties, but that comes only as a last resort. This is merely the commonsensical understanding that we must begin with what we actually know and can verify. It is folly of the first order to begin with the presumption of speculative, unverifiable, abstract metaphysical entities, especially when they are presumed only as a means of satisfying the desire to prove the existence of some other speculative, unverifiable, abstract metaphysical entity such as God. Yet this is where Dr. Craig begins – with the postulation of a “curious, non-physical property of moral goodness:”

If there is no God, then it’s hard to see any reason for thinking that the herd morality evolved by homo sapiens is objectively true or that the property of moral goodness supervenes on certain natural states of creatures. (pg. 176)

Why think that on an atheistic view of the world the curious, non-physical property of moral goodness would supervene on a human female’s nursing her infant? Why, given naturalism, would the strange, non-physical property of moral badness supervene on a man’s leaving a shop carrying certain items for which he has not left the currency demanded by the shop owner? (pg. 177)

The “curious, non-physical property of moral goodness?” Property of what? Since he begins with the postulation of a non-physical property the only possible answer is that it is grounded in a non-physical, i.e. metaphysical, entity such as God. His conclusion is built into his premise. At first glance, it may look like he is merely begging the question but that is not correct. If he could prove that there is a metaphysical property of “moral goodness” his argument would at least not be vacuous. So the real issue is this: How does he prove that there is a metaphysical property called “moral goodness?” The unfortunate answer is that he does not even try to prove it. He knows he can’t so he only tries to show that it is more plausible than the alternatives, but he fails (rather spectacularly) in that respect too. He begins by merely implying that it is a consequence of the definition of objectivity (pg. 173):

To say that something is objective is to say that it is independent of what people think or perceive. By contrast, to say that something is subjective is just to say that it is not objective; that is to say, it is dependent on what human persons think or perceive.

To say that there are objective moral values is to say that something is good or evil independently of whether any human being believes it to be so. … God is necessary for the objective reality of moral values and duties.

His definition of objectivity is correct as far as it goes, but it is woefully superficial and there is nothing in it that suggests metaphysical entities must “exist” to ground abstract truths. It appears that Craig is relying on the naive realism of his philosophically uninformed audience to conflate “objectivity” with “metaphysical ontological reality.” He then builds on this conflation and merely asserts that everyone but the “morally handicapped” directly apprehend a “realm of objective moral values:”

I take it that in moral experience we do apprehend a realm of objective moral values and duties, just as in sensory experience we apprehend a realm of objectively existing physical objects.

Most of us think that in moral experience we do apprehend objective values and obligations. Ruse himself confesses in another context, “The man who says that it is morally acceptable to rape little children is just as mistaken as the man who says, 2 + 2 = 5.” … People who fail to see this are just morally handicapped, and there is no reason to allow their impaired vision to call into question what we see clearly.

Craig’s “argument” is nothing but a naked assertion. His invention of a “realm of objective moral values and duties” analogous to physical reality is entirely inappropriate because our moral “perceptions” are nothing like our perceptions of physical reality which are organically grounded in our sense organs and are objectively verifiable through consilience with a variety of senses (touch, taste, sight, etc.) which are shared by other observers. His citation of Ruse’s reference to objective mathematical truths hits much closer to the mark. We don’t need to postulate a “mathematical realm” grounded in an abstract metaphysical entity to understand the objective nature of mathematics. It is based on logic and facts. Speculating about the existence of such “realms” adds nothing to our understanding of either mathematics or morality. Sure, some people think that mathematical truths need to be grounded in something like a “cosmic mind” or Platonic Idealism, but that’s an open question that philosophers have been debating for millennia. No compelling argument for the actual existence of God could be founded on such speculative and uncertain philosophy. It is little more than the weaving of wind.

Craig’s invention of a speculative metaphysical “realm of objective moral values” is vain. It is self-serving. It profits nothing but to satisfy his desire to prove the existence of God. It does not help us to understand the nature of morality in any way at all. To accomplish that, we must begin with the definition of an objective moral agent.

Why most Animals are not Moral Agents

There would be no need for a moral theory if there were no moral agents, so any moral theory must begin with the definition of moral agency. This is very simple. As stated above, a moral agent is any being able to make moral judgments and be subject to them. Moral agents must possess two faculties. They must be self-aware and have a faculty of language. This is why non-human animals are not moral agents (or philosophers). The defining characteristics of moral agency are objective. It is easy to test if a being is self-aware and has language. All we need to do is ask questions that require self-awareness to answer.

It appears that Craig has never thought deeply about the essential faculties required for moral agency. He mentions the term “moral agent” but once in his book and no where does he define it therein. This lacuna is a sinkhole that swallows his whole argument since it depends critically upon the unexamined question: Why are most animals not moral agents? Why did he not ask this most basic question? I see two reasons. First, it would not serve his purpose. Second, he is apparently beholden to archaic philosophical categories that have misled and confused moral philosophers for millennia. Specifically, he implicitly defines the essential faculty required for moral agency as “free will” which is difficult to define and impossible to objectively verify. We see this in his debate with Sam Harris, Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural?, where he presented the same argument as above (troupe of baboons and all) and defended it as follows:

A person is not morally responsible for an action which he is unable to avoid. For example, if somebody shoves you into another person, you’re not responsible for bumping into him. You had no choice. But Sam Harris believes that all of our actions are causally determined and that there is no free will. Dr. Harris rejects not only libertarian accounts of free will but also compatibilistic accounts of freedom. But, if there is no free will, then no one is morally responsible for anything!

In the absence of the ability to do otherwise, there is no moral responsibility. In the absence of freedom of the will, we are just puppets or electro-chemical machines. And puppets do not have moral responsibilities. Machines are not moral agents. But on Dr. Harris’s view, there is no freedom of the will, either in a libertarian or a compatibilistic sense, and therefore, there is no moral responsibility.

This is similar to the error we encountered above, only now Craig is equating all animals, including humans, with “electro-chemical machines.” And everyone knows mere machines are not moral agents! And why are they not moral agents? Craig says it is because they have no “free will.” And what is free will? The most relevant answer in this context is “a metaphysical pole about which philosophers have been fruitlessly twisting for millennia.” There is an acute irony in his appeal to free will in his proof of God since many philosophers have seen it as proof of the very opposite, that God and free will cannot both exist because free will appears to be logically incompatible with omniscience. The irony intensifies when one learns that Craig knows all about the profound challenges free will poses to both theism and atheism. Indeed, he wrote more than one book on this topic. He surveyed its 2,500 year history in The Problem of Divine Foreknowledge and Future Contingents from Aristotle to Suarez which starts with Aristotle’s attempt to find a way around the fatalism implied by logic itself. He then moves to Augustine and the profound problem of theological fatalism implied by God’s foreknowledge for which no consensus solution has yet been found. If anyone knows that “free will” is not self-evidently compatible with theism, Craig’s the man. Indeed, some Christians see his peculiar solution – Molinism – as not only wrong, but as a heresy inspired by the Devil himself. At best it is a fringe position. The irony now is as painful as it is preposterous. For Craig to appeal to free will as impossible under atheism while ignoring the problems it presents to theism is quite duplicitous. It is difficult to find a charitable interpretation in this case. Once again, he appears to be relying on the philosophical ignorance of his audience to carry his argument.

If there is one fallacy that subsumes all others in Craig’s arguments, it is the fallacy of equivocation. He consistently equivocates on the whole topic of the debate. He is supposed to be arguing for theism contra atheism, but he is actually arguing against naturalism, and not just any kind of naturalism, but its most extreme form as materialistic reductionism! Sure, there are plenty of atheists that hold that view, but that is irrelevant because atheism itself does not imply nor necessitate it. Atheism is nothing but a denial of theism. It is consistent with a wide variety of metaphysical theories, and an atheist can be just as “spiritual” as anyone else if so inclined. Theism is a very specific metaphysical view that posits a personal God who is a supervening agent. Atheism is nothing but the rejection of that view.

Craig’s arguments against naturalism are fundamentally irrelevant because naturalism is not logically inconsistent with theism. There is the position of Howard Van Till, emeritus professor of Physics at Calvin College, who sees the universe as being created by God with functional integrity so no appeal to the supernatural is needed to explain any of its features, including life, consciousness, and morality. There is Christian Physicalism promoted by Nancey Murphy, professor of Christian Theology at at Fuller Theological Seminary, who rejects substance dualism and says that the “higher human capacities such as morality, free will, and religious awareness emerge from our neurobiological complexity.” And there are many other possibilities, as Craig well knows. Why then does he constantly appeal to naturalism and evolution as if they proved his case? I see two answers. First, it’s all he’s got to work with. Second, it easily sways his philosophically ignorant audience.  Just look at how he typically portrays the consequences of atheism (pg. 173, compare with the first quote from his book above):

If theism is false, why think that human beings have objective moral value? After all, on the naturalistic view, there’s nothing special about human beings. They’re just accidental byproducts of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth, lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe, and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time.

As shown above (in gruesome detail) the essence of his argument is that under atheism humans are “just animals” because they evolved just like all the other animals, and all the other animals have no moral obligations. I bring it up again because it contains a second fallacy: evolution is not logically inconsistent with theism! There are countless Christians who accept it as a fact. Even the Pope acknowledges its validity. Craig’s appeal to evolution is nothing but a red herring – a huge dripping wet red herring that he dragged across three full pages of his book.

Craig’s problem is that he shows no understanding of the meaning of moral agency. If we begin with the objective definition, philosophically inscrutable ideas like “free will” and the “curious, non-physical property of moral goodness” are instantly seen as irrelevant, misleading, and fruitless. Suppose we could create an android with self-awareness and a faculty of language. It would pass the Turing Test and would be a moral agent indistinguishable from any other. The fact that its brain would operate on physical principles, just like the brain of human animals, is quite irrelevant.

The Integrity Being and Knowing

As discussed in my article On Integrity as the Highest Value, the concept of integrity unifies all science, philosophy, and knowledge. Ontology is based on the integrity of being. Logic is based on the integrity of thought. Epistemology is based on the integrity of knowledge. The concept of integrity is the universal solvent that loosens the most impenetrable philosophical conundrums. Case in point: morality is fundamentally ontological. It is based on what it means for something to be, to exist. As a first approximation, anything that threatens the integrity of being is judged to be evil, and anything that enhances the integrity of being is judged to be good. Moral judgments are objective because the integrity of being is an objective fact, and so we have objective definitions for both moral agency and moral judgments. I outline these ideas in my article The Logic of Love: A Natural Theory of Morality.

This now brings us to the most fundamental error in Dr. Craig’s Moral Argument for God.

Dr. Craig is forced to literally disintegrate the fundamental integral relation between ontology and epistemology to defend his moral theory. In his article Keeping Moral Epistemology and Moral Ontology Distinct, which is based on his argument from page 176 of his book, he states:

I’m convinced that keeping the distinction between moral epistemology and moral ontology clear is the most important task in formulating and defending a moral argument for God’s existence of the type I defend. A proponent of that argument will agree quite readily (and even insist) that we do not need to know or even believe that God exists in order to discern objective moral values or to recognize our moral duties. Affirming the ontological foundations of objective moral values and duties in God similarly says nothing about how we come to know those values and duties. The theist can be genuinely open to whatever epistemological theories his secular counterpart proposes for how we come to know objective values and duties.

Dr. Craig’s essential error is his idea that “the ontological foundations of objective moral values and duties in God … says nothing about how we come to know those values and duties.” This is highly problematic for three reasons. First, is such a move ever needed in any other field of inquiry, scientific or philosophical? Is there any justification for it, or is it special pleading designed for this special case? Second, we would never be talking about the abstract philosophical “ontological foundations” of moral values if we didn’t already have a compelling epistemological foundation for how we know them. Third, epistemology and ontology are mutually dependent as explained by Hugh G. Gauch, Jr. in his book Scientific Method in Practice (quote available online):

In ordinary discourse, ontology, epistemology, and logic are reasonably distinct and recognizable topics within philosophy. But at the point where discourse begins, those topics fuse together. The reason is that epistemology presumes ontology, because what we know depends on what exists. But also ontology presumes epistemology, because what we can become aware of depends on our sensory and cognitive faculties. And logic is operating in any rational discourse.

It is impossible to understand the objective ground of morality (ontology) without understanding how we know if something is moral (epistemology). The two aspects must be fully unified in any intellectually satisfying moral theory. And so the fundamental question is this: How do we know if something is moral? The answer, with which Dr. Craig agrees when he says he would “appeal to all the same mechanisms that you appeal to in order to explain how you know” the truth of moral judgments, is the Golden Rule. That is how any sentient being determines if something is moral. We put ourselves in the place of the other and ask if we would want to be subject to our own actions. This is fundamentally ontological. We imagine being the other person and judge how our actions would affect our integrity of being. This is the principle of moral symmetry, as noted also by Harvard professor of Philosophy Robert Nozick in his book Invariances: The Structure of the Objective World, where he develops a unified scientific and philosophical definition of objectivity as “invariance under transformations.” I discuss this at length in my article The Logic of Love: A Natural Theory of Morality.

Why is it so important for Dr. Craig to keep moral ontology separate from moral epistemology? It is because he desires to use moral values, or rather, the inscrutable metaphysical property of moral goodness, to prove the existence of God. This forces him to hide the root of our moral intuitions which obviously has nothing to do with any god or any other speculative metaphysical entity. He desires to ontologically ground objective morality in “God’s nature and God’s commands.” This is his Divine Command Theory. It is fraught with fatal philosophical problems and is, in my estimation, fundamentally irrational because it breaks the connection between the nature of an action, what it is (moral ontology), and how we know if it is right or wrong (moral epistemology).

Conclusion

This article has reviewed the essential features of Dr. Craig’s Moral Argument for God and found numerous flaws of a most fundamental nature. Here they are in the order they were discussed:

  1. Craig asserted that humans would be “just animals” under the atheistic view by falsely equating them with non-human animals. He simply stripped them of the properties required for moral agency by making a false distinction between humans and all animals followed by a false equivalence between humans and non-human animals.
  2. Craig begins his moral theory by postulating a speculative, unverifiable, abstract metaphysical property of “moral goodness” for the express purpose of proving the existence of the speculative, unverifiable, abstract metaphysical entity called “God.” This is the fallacy of special pleading. It is self-serving. It is based on an archaic anti-scientific style of philosophy that has been proven vain. He did not base his theory on any objectively verifiable facts.
  3. Craig never explained why the concept of objectivity implied the “existence” of metaphysical moral properties that could only be grounded in a metaphysical entity. He appears to rely on the philosophical ignorance of his audience to carry his point.
  4. Craig supported his second premise by merely asserting that everyone but the “morally handicapped” directly apprehend a “realm of objective moral values and duties” equivalent to physical reality.
  5. Craig never defined the fundamental concept of moral agency, and showed no awareness of what it means or why it is important to the philosophical discussion of morality.
  6. Craig asserted that free will is incompatible with atheism but never mentions the profound problems it poses for theism despite the fact that he has written more than one book on this issue and holds to a minority view as a solution. Again, he appears to rely on the philosophical ignorance of his audience to carry his argument.
  7. Craig consistently equivocates between atheism, naturalism, and metaphysical materialism.
  8. Craig consistently presents evolution as a reason why humans would be equivalent to non-human animals, but evolution is irrelevant because it is not inconsistent with theism. (Woe to theism if it were!) His constant appeal to evolution is a red herring.
  9. Craig disintegrates the fundamental integral relation between ontology and epistemology. He breaks the connection between the nature of an action, what it is (moral ontology), and how we know if it is right or wrong (moral epistemology).

These errors  allow for but one conclusion. Dr. William Lane Craig’s Moral Argument for God does not merely fail. It is an attempt to prove a speculative metaphysical entity by appealing to speculative metaphysical properties using a variety of logical fallacies and duplicitous rhetorical techniques, so it does not have sufficient content to even be called “wrong.” It is so far removed from any legitimate philosophy we must resort to the famous quote of Wolfgan Pauli reserved for incoherent unscientific theories, “Not only is it not right, it’s not even wrong!”

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2 Comments

  1. Posted January 22, 2013 at 4:43 am | Permalink

    Why don’t you EMAIL him your objections – he has “questions of the week” and such; I’m sure he would be very glad to consider your objection and give a response to it.

  2. Posted February 22, 2014 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    Doesn’t his 2nd premise also beg the question? It seems to me that the assertion that objective moral values and duties do exist is not at all a settled matter.

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