Why the arguments for atheism are moral arguments, and why that matters

At ST Ia Q2 A3, where Aquinas offers his well-known “five ways” of proving God’s existence, he notes and replies to two objections. To paraphrase, the first is that “infinite goodness” is incompatible with the existence of “evil”; the second, that citing God is “superfluous” as an explanation for the world’s existence. It’s pretty evident that the problem of evil and the superfluity of God qua explanation are posed as the most common objections even today to classical theism. Aquinas presents them, in effect, as metaphysical objections and answers them accordingly. But I shall argue instead that they are, at bottom, moral objections. If I’m right, that has great significance for natural theology and apologetics.

My claim that people pose the problem of evil as a basically moral objection to classical theism ought to be uncontroversial. The most common way of pressing the objection is to argue that God’s permitting some people to suffer horribly beyond their deserts, when he could prevent it, is immoral. That is taken to be incompatible with God’s being perfectly good, a quality classical theists ascribe to God. Of course, another way to pose the problem of evil as an objection is to argue that, although a perfectly good God might well want to prevent such suffering, he is powerless to do so. That is taken to be incompatible with omnipotence, another attribute classical theists ascribe to God. But that way of pressing the objection is fairly easy to answer. Although an omnipotent God could well have created a world in which suffering does not far outstrip deserts, God has not done so; given the natural order God has willed, it is logically impossible to prevent such presumptively disproportionate suffering without divine intervention so regular as to destroy the natural order of things. And omnipotence neither need nor should be thought to include the ability to do the logically impossible. So much is, or ought to be, obvious. Of course, the standard reply to that defense is to argue that God is immoral for creating and sustaining such a natural order in the first place when, as granted, God have done otherwise. But that’s essentially the same as the first way of pressing the problem of evil as an objection to classical theism.

My claim that the superfluity objection is also, at bottom, a moral one is much more controversial. Most of what follows provides my argument for it.

Metaphysical (as distinct from methodological) naturalists typically hold that the sorts of explanation of the world’s existence proffered by classical theists—chiefly, by means of a posteriori cosmological and teleological reasoning—cannot do the sort of work that explanations in general are supposed to do. If so, then citing God as creator and/or designer of the world fails to explain anything; therefore, there is no reason to hold that God as explicans exists. But what does it mean to say that theistic explanation of the world’s existence doesn’t do the sort of work that explanations are supposed to do?

Classical theists should not, and the most intelligent among them do not, argue that presenting God as creator and/or designer does better explanatory work than the natural sciences. Those sciences have their own explanatory aims and canons which, though not immune to revision, remain exactly as they are whether or not classical theism is true. The theistic argument is, rather, that citing God as explicans does a different sort of explanatory work than natural science. The naturalist reply is that no such alleged “explanation” should be counted as explanation. What is the argument for that reply?

To explain something is to account for why it thus and not otherwise. In order do that, one must show that the explicandum would have been different if the explicans had been different. But classical theism does not claim that the world would have been different if God did not exist; the claim is that the world would not exist at all if God did not exist. That requires holding, among other things, that the world can and should be conceived as a certain totality which counts as an explicandum, such that only the action of something not comprised by that totality could account, in some non-trivial way, for why just that totality exists. But it will not do to characterize said totality simply as the physical universe studied by natural science, even at some hypothetical state before the Big Bang. For all we know, the primordial universe might have been the product of something else which could not qualify as the God of classical theism, but which might turn out to be identifiable by means of natural science—if not our science, then somebody else’s. No, the totality that divine activity supposedly explains must be the totality-of-things-that-happen. Call that ‘T’. Granted we do not know its full extent, T certainly exists. But such a totality, the naturalist would say, cannot admit of non-trivial explanation. We can explain its existence simply by noting that each of its constituents exist; but that would be trivial, and certainly not what the classical theist is after. And the reason we cannot have what the theist is after is that the theist cannot say what would have been different about T if God did not exist. T remains just as it is, whatever it is, whether or not God exists. Hence, goes the argument, citing divine activity to explain T’s existence does not and could not really explain anything. There is no non-trivial explanation of T’s existence. As Laplace said, there is no need of the God-hypothesis. It is superfluous.

From this point of view, it will not do to cite some version of “the principle of sufficent reason” as a premise in an argument for the claim that something not comprised by T accounts for T’s existence as a totality. There’s already “reason enough” for T’s existence as a totality: that of each of its constitutents. But that is hardly germane. What the theist must do instead is show that T is the sort of entity whose existence calls for another sort of explanation altogether. Yet how is the theist to do that? The only way he can do it is to show that, whatever the extent of T as a totality, its constituents cannot, either individually or collectively, account for the general causal regularities that must be cited in some explanation of how things happen as they do—i.e., the constituents of T cannot account for the “laws of nature.” But that sort of explanation would have to show that such laws would have been different if God as creator and/or designer did not exist. And that in turn would have to cite some sort of causal regularity. But given that such regularities are supposed to be part of what’s being explained, such an explanation cannot qualify as an explanation at all.

It might seem that the way for the theist to begin countering that line is to point out that it premises scientism: the thesis that only what can be known scientifically can be known at all. He can then go on to argue that there is no good reason to believe scientism. And he would be quite right. Humans have always known various things non-scientifically, and no scientific argument for scientism can be given. But that will not suffice by itself. For the naturalist can always argue that, even if scientism is false, his point about explanation remains untouched. Even if there are things natural science cannot explain, and thus cannot know, that’s no reason to believe that T’s existence can be explained in some other way. Unless and until the theist can show that his “explanation” of T’s existence does what explanations do, he hasn’t explained anything.

As I’ve suggested, the debate is really about the nature of explanation. It is evident that there are successful explanations in the contexts of ordinary life and natural science, but it is by no means evident that there can be a kind of explanation which doesn’t tell us how things would have gone differently if the explicans did not exist. To be sure, the theist must say that, if God did not exist, then T would not either—a conditional statement which, if true, is very important indeed. But that doesn’t tell us that things would have been different if God did not exist; it only tells us that there would have been no “things” to be either the same or different if God did not exist. Absent some account of explanation which shows that such a peculiar result can function as explanations do, the theist has not established that he’s explained anything. Nor will it do for the theist to insist that T is the sort of thing whose existence is explicable; for the only “sorts” of things we are familiar with are the sorts of things already comprised by T.

The only honest way for the theist to proceed is to argue that the question “Why does T exist?” is meaningful in such a way that one could reasonably entertain a non-trivial answer to it. That would show that we cannot rule out T’s existence being explicable in terms of something which T does not comprise. And the only way to develop such an argument is to show that (a) one cannot rule out that T’s existence embodies an intention, because (b) intentional explanations need not be thought reducible to causal explanations, which perforce cite natural regularities. That kind of argument has been given from time to time. In my hoary PhD thesis, I developed along such lines a book-length argument that it’s more reasonable to allow for a unitary explicans of T’s existence than to rule out the possibility of such an explicans on epistemological grounds. I still would argue to that effect.

As I’ve discovered over the years, however, the naturalist objection to that move is an essentially moral one. In ordinary life, natural science, and especially in formal disciplines such as logic and mathematics, there are reliable, agreed-upon methods for evaluating explanations as successful or unsuccessful. Prima facie at least, there are no such methods in natural theology—a discipline that not even the majority of religious believers find helpful. Given as much, naturalists typically argue that one ought not to expect people to find any of the putative explanations of natural theology cogent as explanations. Expecting people to do so is, in fact, morally defective. For such “explanations” necessarily transcend the sorts of considerations that it’s reasonable to count as evidence; expecting people to go beyond the evidence in forming their beliefs is expecting what’s unreasonable; and expecting from people what’s unreasonable is a sign of disreputable motives that are themselves all too evident in the history of religion.

To judge from the recent literature of the “new atheism,” which is really the old atheism with shoddier arguments, that’s the kind of objection, other than that from the problem of evil, which motivates people to be atheists. I have no doubt, of course, that some atheists are such because they very much don’t want to consider the implications for their lives if Christianity or some other form of classical theism is true. But that only serves to supply theists with a moral argument against atheism that is too ad hominem to be worth pressing. The real interest of the moral arguments against theism is that they steer the debate into a channel where the theist is on firmer ground.

Regarding the problem of evil, the theist can and ought to argue that the atheist has no moral legs to stand on. If a given atheist is an emotivist or some other sort of non-cognitivist in moral philosophy, he has no reason to believe that there are objectively binding moral norms which God fails to satisfy. If a given atheist is a utilitarian or some other sort of consequentialist in moral philosophy, he has no reason to believe that God’s utility calculations, if there is a God, are inferior to his own. If a given atheist is some sort of deontologist in moral philosophy, he must show several things: that the moral norms he believes bind humans absolutely do so even though there is no God; that even if there were a God, those norms would bind God in pretty much the same fashion as us; and that God, if there were a God, could not be said to observe them. All that is, at the very least, a tall order.

Regarding explanation and evidence, the atheist needs to show more than merely that it’s unreasonable to expect people in general to find classical-theist natural theology persuasive. That people in general do not find such theology persuasive is easily accounted for by factors other than the objective quality of its arguments. Most people lack the happy combination of time, talent, and education to study and evaluate such arguments, so that whatever the reasons this-or-that person might have for believing in God, they cannot be faulted for leaving natural theology alone. For that reason, classical-theist philosophers don’t expect most people to follow and evaluate their arguments. So the debate is really among philosophers, and the question whether one ought to go beyond what’s generally recognized as evidence is a debate in moral philosophy and psychology.

About that debate, I shall conclude by noting that the atheist has a lot more work to do than simply pointing out that something called “religion” violates his moral norms. There are many different forms of religion, and some are more capable of moral self-reformation than others. But what is such “moral self-reformation” supposed to amount to? Before a charge of immorality can be made to stick, there has to be antecedent and common agreement about what morality requires. A person who wants to press a moral argument against theism, but who believes that the universe is morally indifferent and that no transcendent lawgiver underwrites morality, is burdened with showing that the moral norms he upholds are objectively binding as such. For unless and until he can do that, his moral arguments against theism can do no more than beg the question.

Laws or wills?

The following are excerpts from my latest post at FCA. Go there to see the unusually lengthy combox thread:

Is there any law that dictates what the most basic laws of physics are? Are the laws of the universe self-ratifying, or are they in need of some grounding principle to account for their exact correlations?

If there is no rational ordering principle for the basic laws of physics, they are irrational. If they “just are,” independent of some basic principle that correlates them, then they are inexplicable. That is, if there is nothing by which or in terms of which we can explain the most basic laws, we therefore lack a real explanation of those laws. …

On the one hand, theists assert that God best explains the nomological order of the cosmos. On the other hand, atheists assert that the universe can just as coherently fill the role of “most basic cause.” The key argument against the alleged sufficiency of God as an ultimate explanation for everything else, is that God Himself seems to require an explanation. If the universe’s most basic laws require God, then why doesn’t God require something to explain His nature? We’ve all got to have some most basic premise, so if theists can have God as their metaphysical bedrock, why can’t atheists have the cosmos as their bedrock? …

…the late Fr. Stanley Jaki argued for decades that Gödel’s theorems had huge consequences for the world of physics, and noted sardonically for nearly as long how little attention had been paid Gödel by the inhabitants of that world. “Herein lies the ultimate bearing of Gödel’s theorem on physics,” Jaki explains in “A Late Awakening to Gödel in Physics”. …

It does not mean at all the end of physics. It means only the death knell on endeavours that aim at a final theory according to which the physical world is what it is and cannot be anything else. Gödel’s theorem does not mean that physicists cannot come up with a theory of everything or TOE in short. They can hit upon a theory which at the moment of its formulation would give an explanation of all known physical phenomena. But in terms of Gödel’s theorem such a theory cannot be taken for something which is necessarily true.

This relates to my opening questions because, if the basic laws of the universe are one day found to be consistent, they will for that reason be unprovable. If, however, they are proved, they will for that reason be inconsistent. Indeed, the “extra step” of proving the basic laws’ coherence is none other than the human articulation of that proof (i.e., nothing less than an axiom “extrinsic” to the set of basic laws). As such, the universe’s basic structure lacks the metaphysical self-sufficiency and ontological necessity that characterize God Almighty. …

God does not stand in need of further explanation, since, first, He is a personal event, and therefore presupposes an agency that formal systems lack, and, second, His Triune “structure” need not be proved, since there is nothing logically deducible about free personal actions. The perichoretic structure of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not a formal set of axioms: it is an eternal utterance and eternal echo of an eternal Word of Living Love. Apart from the divine agency itself, there is no formal, logical reason why the Father begets the Son in the Spirit, and, hence, there is no need for an extrinsic grounding principle for the ordo divinitatis (aka, “the Triune set”).

Nor is there any logical necessity in the creation of the world: it is a free effulgence of the Triune goodness. This is why we will never discover logically necessary physical laws (cue Gödel’s incompleteness theorems again): the laws of physics are consistent, but not intrinsically, deductively, apodeictically provable. Moreover, they are not even provable as such without reference to their intelligible ratification by the Mind of God. …

God did not obey a basic “law” in existing triunely or in creating anything, but He did execute His own will without remainder. Nature, by contrast, lacks a will and can only follow its basic laws––laws, which, once more, insist upon being accounted for. …

Your mouth bone is connected to your stomach bone…


A tomato to snuff a cigarette?


Begin with a turnip…


Development of Doctrine IV

Both here and at Sacramentum Vitae, I’ve been involved in a long-running debate about the development of doctrine with conservative scholars from each of the three major Christian traditions.  (By ‘conservative’ I mean those who believe that the “faith once given to the saints” is definitive, fully and publicly identifiable in Tradition and Scripture, and may neither be added to nor subtracted from.) Unsurprisingly, though for quite varied reasons, many of those scholars are hostile to the Second Vatican Council’s claim, in Dei Verbum (emphasis added), that the

tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit.  For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.

When I began writing about DD a few years ago, I believed that that a mutually fruitful understanding of DD could be reached across confessional lines on scholarly grounds alone. I now find that belief naïve. The purpose of this post is secondarily to explain why, and primarily to move the issue to the level I believe it needs to reach.

Continue reading

Good thing for the Scholastics…

A blogger named unBeguiled, with whom I have interacted before (e.g., concerning nothingness and existence), recently cited page 109 Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition:

“Angels, not being material, are pure forms or essences on Aquinas’s view, but even with them their essence needs to be combined with existence in order for them to be real, so that they too are composite.”

He then complained:

Putting aside whether parsing the nature of angels could ever be rational, how could anything be both “pure” but also a “composite”? Professor Feser’s muddled book is rife with this sort of linguistic deviance.

In response, one reader added:

Angels are pure “essences”? What does that even mean?

I can’t help thinking about Gen. Jack Ripper in Dr Strangelove and his obsession with Purity of Essence and the need to protect it by starting a nuclear war.

The passion people pour into meaningless phrases continues to amaze me.

Sigh. You’d think the Middle Ages had never happened. Good thing for those hoary old Scholastics they never had to face down such mighty objections.

Two is a pure form, a purely formal object, the essence of which is strictly independent of any material instantiation of it. Once “2” gets written on paper or typed onto a computer screen, however, it is “dematerialized” and thus becomes a composite of a ‘2’-essence and a materially specific existence. Every instance of “2” instantiates the essence of 2, but no composite instantiation of it in material existence exhausts the essence of two, since it can always be instantiated in its essential purity by some other material instance. That is, we can’t say this instance of 2 is “more truly” 2 than that instance of it; they both enjoy the identically pure essence of 2, but do so in materially, compositely specific ways as they happen to exist. Hence, while a written “2” enjoys a composite existence, it does so by virtue of the pure essence of 2 informing the matter involved.

The same goes, although even more vividly, for all formal operations, such as addition, subtraction, modus ponens, and so forth. Every instance of such formally pure operations enjoys a composite existence when it is dematerialized, but no physical set of instantiations can exhaust the essentially pure formality of any such operation. Hence, any physically instance of a formal operation partakes of a formally pure reality that exceeds the power of physical computation. Any instance of, say, addition could always be challenged and revised as but a covert case of “quaddition.” Kripke, Goodman, the grue problem, etc.

To get the full story, read James Ross’s “Immaterial Aspects of Thought” here