Ambiguity + tortured logic = god

Over time I have become more firmly sceptical (in the true sense of only giving credence on the basis of evidence, rather than refusing to believe even in the face of good evidence, like climate “scepticism”), and this naturally leads to atheism, since there is no good evidence for any of the many thousands of deities that have been dreamt up by people over the ages. I have therefore ended up having the odd argument (mostly online) with people who take a variety of different views. One thing I’ve noticed is that many of the arguments of the religious use vague or ambiguous terminology in the middle of very sweeping arguments.

Wanting to get a better grasp of how to handle such arguments, and to understand the process of argument itself that up until then I’d learned organically, I recently spent a few months tackling a free online course run under the auspices of coursera.org, entitled “How to Reason and Argue”. I found the course, run as a series of mini-lecture videos followed by quizzes, with longer quizzes at regular intervals and the opportunity to take part in online debates and a variety of Google Hangouts, very useful and interesting, and have been trying to use my new knowledge to be more precise and clear in argument, and also in analysing the arguments of others.

In particular, I recently watched a Cambridge Union Society debate from October 2011 on the following topic: This House believes that God is not a delusion. The debate was between William Lane Craig and Peter S Williams for the motion and Arif Ahmed and Andrew Copson against. Part of the argument for the motion (from Peter S Williams) was a sequence of 3 “logical” arguments for the existence of god, those being the moral, cosmological and ontological arguments. I was singularly unimpressed by them at the time, but didn’t have much opportunity to analyse them to see why. Now however, I have time to go over them a little more closely. The moral argument (with my objections interspersed) follows below. If you have any comments, particularly in defence of the argument or against my objections, I would very much like to hear them! The cosmological and ontological arguments will follow in subsequent posts.

The Moral Argument for the existence of God (with objections)

1) If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.

(Objection: Use of the word “objective” is ambiguous. Does it mean “regardless of context or situation”? If so, then even “it is wrong to kill” may not be an objective moral value, since there are situations in which to kill is arguably the moral course. If it means “universally agreed” then it derives its force from the fact of agreement, a collaborative societal act rather than an externally imposed commandment. Finally, if it is based upon an understanding of how human minds and bodies work, and observations that certain actions cause objectively identifiable suffering or harm, this again does not require an observer external to the universe to provide such objectivity).

(Objection: suppressed premise – it is unclear what properties of a supernatural being would be necessary or sufficient to allow the existence of objective moral values).

2) At least one objective moral value exists.

(Objection: Assertion without evidence, again problematic due to ambiguity of “objective”. However, I am prepared to accept that (depending on the definition of “objective”) such values may well exist, e.g. it is wrong to cause suffering gratuitously)

3) Therefore, God exists.

(Objection: Due to the problems with premises 1 and 2, the conclusion is at best unproven)

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7 Responses to Ambiguity + tortured logic = god

  1. Nice to see you back on the blog Eric, especially now you have “Reason-ology” on your CV 🙂

    1. I think “objective” in this context means (not subjective or unverifiable) hence i think the meaning was, verifiable moral values can only exist if their is a god. Which is nonsense also. Morals, like the more explicit laws, are human constructs that are defined within the context of a society. They can and do exist without the need for a god. Its the age old mistake of the religious to state that they only don’t break a moral code or a law through fear of some divine vengeance. I don’t break societies rules, moral or legal, because I don’t want to. The question to ask a Christian is, if it were confirmed that there were no God, would you feel free to start breaking the 10 commandments?
    The test to see if morals (and laws) are defined within a society could go like this:
    a. It is immoral and illegal to stab someone in the face.
    b. If, in some near future, they had their pain receptors chemically blocked for a short period and had repair nano-bots that heal any damage in their blood, what now. They don’t die, they don’t feel the pain. It can now only be a social faux pas, surely? Oops, so sorry, I seem to have stuck my knife in your face.
    c. Its only immoral (and illegal) because it does something socially unacceptable to a member of the community – causing pain or damage.

    2. I agree, at least one objective moral value exists. In fact there are many, verifiable moral values that exist as part of our social framework or codified in our laws. It doesn’t prove (1) though.

  2. Thanks James – good to be back! I’m not totally sure I’ve done Mr. Williams justice. Although he does display the premises and conclusion exactly as above, he does also then expand upon them in his argument. Unfortunately although I had time to work through the premises and conclusion themselves, I didn’t also re-watch all his argument, and it is a couple of months since I watched it the first time. However, I still see the key problem being the definition of “objective” since, depending on its definition, premise 1 fails in one or more ways.

    Generally the problem is that this sort of argument sets up a false dichotomy between utterly objective (and therefore not decidable by mere humans) on the one hand, and utterly subjective and therefore undecidable by anyone at all on the other, ignoring the vast swathes of decisions made by consensus within human societies all over the planet on an ongoing basis. It also ignores the splendid way in which science deals with this sort of “truth” problem, notably by not claiming to know the absolute truth, but merely to be the best model we currently have of what is observed. This is as true of a study of morality as it is of any other field of human enquiry.

  3. I am not so sure that the key problem is “Objective” in his statement. The statement without it:

    1) If God does not exist, then —x—- moral values do not exist.

    I agree though that various definitions or meanings of “Objective” could alter the way in which I object to the statement. Primarily though I challenge the principle that moral values only exist because people fear a paternal deity figure seeking revenge. The alternative view that I proposed was that society sets a code of laws and morals based on the environment it lives in. It is more likely that a moral code is derived from society needing to promote success of the whole over the individual (ensuring each individuals chance of survival) – the realisation that the “Tragedy of the commons” damages all including the villager who let his livestock over-graze the common land. (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/162/3859/1243.full)

    Was the statement (1) presented as an axiom or was it posited and then supported by further statements? It most certainly isn’t axiomatic and clearly cannot then lead on to (2) and (3). I’m afraid he “fell at the first”. To me this is the false dichotomy here, that God’s existence has a bearing on the existence of moral values.

    1) If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist. [False Dichotomy]
    2) At least one objective moral value exists. [Irrelevant and correct]
    3) Therefore, God exists. [Incorrect conclusion]

  4. 1) If God exists then he would create yellow cheese.
    2) At least one type of cheese is yellow.
    3) Therefore, God exists.

  5. As I said, he does go on to expand the point further – I haven’t gone back and re-watched yet to follow the thread completely. I agree that point 1 is untrue regardless of the definition of “objective”, but the way in which it is untrue varies depending on that definition, and its ambiguity leaves wriggle-room for the argument’s defenders to respond to individual criticisms with “that’s not what we meant by ‘objective’…” (which is of course why they use it, even if unconsciously).

  6. Right then. After a short delay (ahem), I’ve now gone back and re-watched. The usage Mr. Williams makes of “objective” is clearly the one we would have no objection to, i.e. not subjective; subject to verification. So far, so good. However, as one might expect, it is the link between this and the existence of a god that fails. First he quotes Sartre – “there can no longer be any good ‘a priori’, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it”. He might as well say “Maths, therefore God”. He then goes on to use the idea that because a “transcendent idea” is one that “prescribes [and] obligates”, and both “prescription” and “obligation” imply a personage (either to prescribe or to be obligated to), therefore God. This is no better – as we’ve come to expect, he’s trying to use etymology to prove something fundamental and universal, which is exceptionally weak. It’s the logical equivalent of “Thursday, therefore Thor”.

    Also, re-reading my original, I agree that “objective” wasn’t the problem itself, it just obscured what the actual problem was.

  7. Pingback: Ambiguity + tortured logic = god (part 2 of 3) | The DemiApiary

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