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The Most Famous Debate on the Existence of God

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Filed under God, Morality

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On January 28, 1948, the BBC brought together two of the century's brightest minds for a radio debate about the existence of God. To be sure, the debaters were not just lightweight showboats, blowing off steam. The two men represented the cream of the intellectual crop.

Bertrand Russell was a renowned British philosopher, mathematician, historian, and perhaps the world's leading atheist at the time. He authored many skeptical essays and books, including the collection still popular today, Why I Am Not a Christian.

Fr. Frederick Charles (F.C.) Copleston was a Jesuit priest, philosopher, and historian of philosophy, best known for his magisterial eleven-volume History of Philosophy. He studied at Oxford and taught at many prestigious universities, including the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and in 1970 was made a Fellow of the British Academy (FBA).

(Interestingly, a year after debating Russell, Copleston debated logical positivism and the meaningfulness of religious language with the influential atheist philosopher A. J. Ayer. The full debate text is not available online, but you can read a scanned book version here.)

The 1948 debate between Russell and Copleston was split into three parts:

  1. The Argument from Contingency
  2. Religious Experience
  3. The Moral Argument

Below you'll find the entire debate text. The debate has been reprinted in several sources, but the following text was copied from Bertrand Russell on God and Religion, edited by Al Seckel.

After you finish reading, let us know:

Who do you think won each part of the debate?

 


 

NOTE: Brackets refer to missing audio. Also, in the transcript below, "C" is for Copleston and "R" is for Russell.

C: As we are going to discuss the existence of God, it might perhaps be as well to come to some provisional agreement as to what we understand by the term "God." I presume that we mean a supreme personal Being -- distinct from the world and Creator of the world. Would you agree -- provisionally at least -- to accept this statement as the meaning of the term "God"?

R: Yes, I accept this definition.

C: Well, my position is the affirmative position that such a Being actually exists, and that His existence can be proved philosophically. Perhaps you would tell me if your position is that of agnosticism or of atheism. I mean, would you say that the non-existence of God can be proved?

R: No, I should not say that: my position is agnostic.

C: Would you agree with me that the problem of God is a problem of great importance? For example, would you agree that if God does not exist, human beings and human history can have no other purpose than the purpose they choose to give themselves, which -- in practice -- is likely to mean the purpose which those impose who have the power to impose it?

R: Roughly speaking, yes, though I should have to place some limitation on your last clause.

C: Would you agree that if there is no God -- no absolute Being -- there can be no absolute values? I mean, would you agree that if there is no absolute good that the relativity of values results?

R: No, I think these questions are logically distinct. Take, for instance, G. E. Moore's Principia Ethica, where he maintains that there is a distinction of good and evil, that both of these are definite concepts. But he does not bring in the idea of God to support that contention.

C: Well, suppose we leave the question of good till later, till we come to the moral argument, and I give first a metaphysical argument. I'd like to put the main weight on the metaphysical argument based on Leibniz's argument from "Contingency" and then later we might discuss the moral argument. Suppose I give a brief statement on the metaphysical argument and that then we go on to discuss it?

R: That seems to me to be a very good plan.

PART I - The Argument from Contingency

C: Well, for clarity's sake, I'll divide the argument into distinct stages. First of all, I should say, we know that there are at least some beings in the world which do not contain in themselves the reason for their existence. For example, I depend on my parents, and now on the air, and on food, and so on. Now, secondly, the world is simply the real or imagined totality or aggregate of individual objects, none of which contain in themselves alone the reason of their existence. There isn't any world distinct from the objects which form it, any more than the human race is something apart from the members. Therefore, I should say, since objects or events exist, and since no object of experience contains within itself the reason of its existence, this reason, the totality of objects, must have a reason external to itself. And that reason must be an existent being.

Well, this being is either itself the reason for its own existence, or it is not. If it is, well and good. If not, then we must proceed further. But if we proceed to infinity in that sense, then there's no explanation of existence at all. So, I should say, in order to explain existence, we must come to a Being which contains within itself the reason for its own existence, that is to say, which cannot not exist.

R: This raises a great many points and it's not altogether easy to know where to begin, but I think that, perhaps, in answering your argument, the best point with which to begin is the question of a Necessary Being. The word "necessary" I should maintain, can only be applied significantly to propositions. And, in fact, only to such as are analytic -- that is to say -- such as it is self-contradictory to deny. I could only admit a Necessary Being if there were a being whose existence it is self-contradictory to deny. I should like to know whether you would accept Leibniz's division of propositions into truths of reason and truths of fact. The former -- the truths of reason -- being necessary.

C: Well, I certainly should not subscribe to what seems to be Leibniz's idea of truths of reason and truths of fact, since it would appear that, for him, there are in the long run only analytic propositions. [ It would seem that for Leibniz truths of fact are ultimately reducible to truths of reason. That is to say, to analytic propositions, at least for an omniscient mind. Well, I couldn't agree with that. For one thing it would fail to meet the requirements of the experience of freedom. ] I don't want to uphold the whole philosophy of Leibniz. I have made use of his argument from contingent to Necessary Being, basing the argument on the principle of sufficient reason, simply because it seems to me a brief and clear formulation of what is, in my opinion, the fundamental metaphysical argument for God's existence.

R: But, to my mind, a "necessary proposition" has got to be analytic. I don't see what else it can mean. And analytic propositions are always complex and logically somewhat late. "Irrational animals are animals" is an analytic proposition; but a proposition such as "This is an animal" can never be analytic. In fact, all the propositions that can be analytic are somewhat late in the build-up of propositions.

C: Take the proposition "if there is a contingent being then there is a Necessary Being." I consider that that proposition hypothetically expressed is a necessary proposition. If you are going to call every necessary proposition an analytic proposition, then -- in order to avoid a dispute in terminology -- I would agree to call it analytic, though I don't consider it a tautological proposition. But the proposition is a necessary proposition only on the supposition that there is a contingent being. That there is a contingent being actually existing has to be discovered by experience, and the proposition that there is a contingent being is certainly not an analytic proposition, though once you know, I should maintain, that there is a contingent being, it follows of necessity that there is a Necessary Being.

R: The difficulty of this argument is that I don't admit the idea of a Necessary Being and I don't admit that there is any particular meaning in calling other beings "contingent." These phrases don't for me have a significance except within a logic that I reject.

[ C: Do you mean that you reject these terms because they won't fit in with what is called "modern logic"?

R: Well, I can't find anything that they could mean. The word "necessary," it seems to me, is a useless word, except as applied to analytic propositions, not to things.

C: In the first place, what do you mean by "modern logic?" As far as I know, there are somewhat differing systems. In the second place, not all modern logicians surely would admit the meaninglessness of metaphysics. We both know, at any rate, one very eminent modern thinker whose knowledge of modern logic was profound, but who certainly did not think that metaphysics are meaningless or, in particular, that the problem of God is meaningless. Again, even if all modern logicians held that metaphysical terms are meaningless, it would not follow that they were right. The proposition that metaphysical terms are meaningless seems to me to be a proposition based on an assumed philosophy.

The dogmatic position behind it seems to be this: What will not go into my machine is non-existent, or it is meaningless; it is the expression of emotion. I am simply trying to point out that anybody who says that a particular system of modern logic is the sole criterion of meaning is saying something that is over-dogmatic; he is dogmatically insisting that a part of philosophy is the whole of philosophy. After all, ] ...a "contingent" being is a being which has not in itself the complete reason for its existence. That's what I mean by a contingent being. You know, as well as I do, that the existence of neither of us can be explained without reference to something or somebody outside us, our parents, for example. A "Necessary" Being, on the other hand means a being that must and cannot not exist. You may say that there is no such Being, but you will find it hard to convince me that you do not understand the terms I am using. If you do not understand them, then how can you be entitled to say that such a Being does not exist, if that is what you do say?

[ R: Well, there are points here that I don't propose to go into at length. I don't maintain the meaninglessness of metaphysics in general at all. I maintain the meaninglessness of certain particular terms -- not on any general ground, but simply because I've not been able to see an interpretation of those particular terms. It's not a general dogma -- it's a particular thing. But those points I will leave out for the moment. ]

Well, I will say that what you have been saying brings us back, it seems to me, to the Ontological Argument that there is a being whose essence involves existence, so that his existence is analytic. That seems to me to be impossible, and it raises, of course, the question what one means by existence, and as to this, I think a subject named can never be significantly said to exist but only a subject described. And that existence, in fact, quite definitely is not a predicate.

C: Well, you say, I believe, that it is bad grammar, or rather bad syntax to say for example "T. S. Eliot exists"; one ought to say, for example, "[He,] the author of Murder in the Cathedral, exists." Are you going to say that the proposition, "The cause of the world exists," is without meaning? You may say that the world has no cause; but I fail to see how you can say that the proposition that "the cause of the world exists" is meaningless. Put it in the form of a question: "Has the world a cause?" or "Does a cause of the world exist?" Most people surely would understand the question, even if they don't agree about the answer.

R: Well, certainly the question "Does the cause of the world exist?" is a question that has meaning. But if you say "Yes, God is the cause of the world" you're using God as a proper name; then "God exists" will not be a statement that has meaning; that is the position that I am maintaining. Because, therefore, it will follow that it cannot be an analytic proposition ever to say that this or that exists. Take for example, suppose you take as your subject "the existent round-square," it would look like an analytic proposition that "the existent round-square exists," but it doesn't exist.

C: No, it doesn't, then surely you can't say it doesn't exist unless you have a conception of what existence is. As to the phrase "existent round-square," I should say that it has no meaning at all.

R: I quite agree. Then I should say the same thing in another context in reference to a "Necessary Being."

C: Well, we seem to have arrived at an impasse. To say that a Necessary Being is a being that must exist and cannot not exist has for me a definite meaning. For you it has no meaning.

R: Well, we can press the point a little, I think. A Being that must exist and cannot not exist, would surely, according to you, be a Being whose essence involves existence.

C: Yes, a being the essence of which is to exist. But I should not be willing to argue the existence of God simply from the idea of His essence because I don't think we have any clear intuition of God's essence as yet. I think we have to argue from the world of experience to God.

R: Yes, I quite see the distinction. But, at the same time, for a being with sufficient knowledge, it would be true to say "Here is this being whose essence involves existence."

C: Yes, certainly if anybody saw God, he would see that God must exist.

R: So that I mean there is a being whose essence involves existence although we don't know that essence. We only know there is such a being.

C: Yes, I should add we don't know the essence a priori. It is only true a posteriori through our experience of the world that we come to a knowledge of the existence of that Being. And then one argues, the essence and existence must be identical. Because if God's essence and God's existence were not identical, then some sufficient reason for this existence would have to be found beyond God.

R: So it all turns on this question of sufficient reason, and I must say you haven't defined "sufficient reason" in a way that I can understand -- what do you mean by sufficient reason? You don't mean cause?

C: Not necessarily. Cause is a kind of sufficient reason. Only contingent being can have a cause. God is His own sufficient reason; but He is not cause of Himself. By sufficient reason in the full sense I mean an explanation adequate for the existence of some particular being.

R: But when is an explanation adequate? Suppose I am about to make a flame with a match. You may say that the adequate explanation of that is that I rub it on the box.

C: Well, for practical purposes -- but theoretically, that's only a partial explanation. An adequate explanation must ultimately be a total explanation, to which nothing further can be added.

R: Then I can only say you're looking for something which can't be got, and which one ought not to expect to get.

C: To say that one has not found it is one thing; to say that one should not look for it seems to me rather dogmatic.

[ R: Well, I don't know. I mean, the explanation of one thing is another thing which makes the other thing dependent on yet another, and you have to grasp this sorry scheme of things entire to do what you want, and that we can't do.

C: But are you going to say that we can't, or we shouldn't even raise the question of the existence of the whole of this sorry scheme of things -- of the whole universe?

R: Yes, I don't think there's any meaning in it at all. I think the word "universe" is a handy word in some connections, but I don't think it stands for anything that has a meaning.

C: If the word is meaningless, it can't be so very handy. In any case, I don't say that the universe is something different from the objects which compose it (I indicated that in my brief summary of the proof). ]
What I'm doing is to look for the reason, in this case the cause of the objects -- the real or imagined totality of which constitute what we call the universe. You say, I think that the universe -- or my existence if you prefer, or any other existence -- is unintelligible?

R: [ First may I take up the point that if a word is meaningless it can't be handy. That sounds well but isn't in fact correct. Take, say, such a word as "the" or "than." You can't point to any object that those words mean, but they are very useful words; I should say the same of "universe." But leaving that point, you ask whether I consider that the universe is unintelligible. ] I shouldn't say unintelligible -- I think it is without explanation. Intelligible, to my mind, is a different thing. Intelligible has to do with the thing itself intrinsically and not with its relations.

C: Well, my point is that what we call the world is intrinsically unintelligible, apart from the existence of God. You see, I don't believe that the infinity of the series of events -- I mean a horizontal series, so to speak -- if such an infinity could be proved, would be in the slightest degree relevant to the situation. If you add up chocolates you get chocolates after all and not a sheep. If you add up chocolates to infinity, you presumably get an infinite number of chocolates. So if you add up contingent beings to infinity, you still get contingent beings, not a Necessary Being. An infinite series of contingent beings will be, to my way of thinking, as unable to cause itself as one contingent being. However, you say, I think, that it is illegitimate to raise the question of what will explain the existence of any particular object.

R: It's quite all right if you mean by explaining it, simply finding a cause for it.

C: Well, why stop at one particular object? Why shouldn't one raise the question of the cause of the existence of all particular objects?

R: Because I see no reason to think there is any. The whole concept of cause is one we derive from our observation of particular things; I see no reason whatsoever to suppose that the total has any cause whatsoever.

[ C: Well, to say that there isn't any cause is not the same thing as saying that we shouldn't look for a cause. The statement that there isn't any cause should come, if it comes at all, at the end of the inquiry, not the beginning. In any case, if the total has no cause, then to my way of thinking it must be its own cause, which seems to me impossible. Moreover, the statement that the world is simply there if in answer to a question, presupposes that the question has meaning.

R: No, it doesn't need to be its own cause, what I'm saying is that the concept of cause is not applicable to the total.

C: Then you would agree with Sartre that the universe is what he calls "gratuitous"?

R: Well, the word "gratuitous" suggests that it might be something else; I should say that the universe is just there, and that's all.

C: Well, I can't see how you can rule out the legitimacy of asking the question how the total, or anything at all comes to be there. Why something rather than nothing, that is the question? The fact that we gain our knowledge of causality empirically, from particular causes, does not rule out the possibility of asking what the cause of the series is. If the word "cause" were meaningless or if it could be shown that Kant's view of the matter were correct, the question would be illegitimate I agree; but you don't seem to hold that the word "cause" is meaningless, and I do not suppose you are a Kantian. ]

R: I can illustrate what seems to me your fallacy. Every man who exists has a mother, and it seems to me your argument is that therefore the human race must have a mother, but obviously the human race hasn't a mother -- that's a different logical sphere.

C: Well, I can't really see a parity. If I were saying "every object has a phenomenal cause, therefore, the whole series has a phenomenal cause," there would be a parity; but I'm not saying that; I'm saying, every object has a phenomenal cause if you insist on the infinity of the series -- but the series of phenomenal causes is an insufficient explanation of the series. Therefore, the series has not a phenomenal cause but a transcendent cause.

R: Well, that's always assuming that not only every particular thing in the world, but the world as a whole must have a cause. For that assumption I see no ground whatever. If you'll give me a ground I will listen to it.

C: Well, the series of events is either caused or it's not caused. If it is caused, there must obviously be a cause outside the series. If it's not caused then it's sufficient to itself, and if it's sufficient to itself, it is what I call necessary. But it can't be necessary since each member is contingent, and we've agreed that the total has no reality apart from the members, therefore, it can't be necessary. [ Therefore, it can't be -- uncaused -- therefore it must have a cause. ] And I should like to observe in passing that the statement "the world is simply there and is inexplicable" can't be got out of logical analysis.

[ R: I don't want to seem arrogant, but it does seem to me that I can conceive things that you say the human mind can't conceive. As for things not having a cause, the physicists assure us that individual quantum transitions in atoms have no cause.

C: Well, I wonder now whether that isn't simply a temporary inference.

R: It may be, but it does show that physicists' minds can conceive it.

C: Yes, I agree, some scientists -- physicists -- are willing to allow for indetermination within a restricted field. But very many scientists are not so willing. I think that Professor Dingle, of London University, maintains that the Heisenberg uncertainty principle tells us something about the success (or the lack of it) of the present atomic theory in correlating observations, but not about nature in itself, and many physicists would accept this view. In any case, I don't see how physicists can fail to accept the theory in practice, even if they don't do so in theory. ]

I cannot see how science could be conducted on any other assumption than that of order and intelligibility in nature. The physicist presupposes, at least tacitly, that there is some sense in investigating nature and looking for the causes of events, just as the detective presupposes that there is some sense in looking for the cause of a murder. The metaphysician assumes that there is sense in looking for the reason or cause of phenomena, and, not being a Kantian, I consider that the metaphysician is as justified in his assumption as the physicist. When Sartre, for example, says the world is gratuitous, I think that he has not sufficiently considered what is implied by "gratuitous."

R: I think -- there seems to me a certain unwarrantable extension here; the physicist looks for causes; that does not necessarily imply that there are causes everywhere. A man may look for gold without assuming that there is gold everywhere; if he finds gold, well and good, if he doesn't he's had bad luck. The same is true when the physicists look for causes. As for Sartre, I don't profess to know what he means, and I shouldn't like to be thought to interpret him, but for my part, I do think the notion of the world having an explanation is a mistake. I don't see why one should expect it to have... [ and I think you say about what the scientist assumes is an over-statement.

C: Well, it seems to me that the scientist does make some such assumption. When he experiments to find out some particular truth, behind that experiment lies the assumption that the universe is not simply discontinuous. There is the possibility of finding out a truth by experiment. The experiment may be a bad one, it may lead to no result, or not to the result that he wants, but that at any rate there is the possibility, through experiment, of finding out the truth that he assumes. And that seems to me to assume an ordered and intelligible universe.

R: I think you're generalizing more than is necessary. Undoubtedly the scientist assumes that this sort of thing is likely to be found and will often be found. He does not assume that it will be found, and that's a very important matter in modem physics.

C: Well, I think he does assume or is bound to assume it tacitly in practice. It may be that, to quote Professor Haldane, "when I Iight the gas under the kettle, some of the water molecules will fly off as vapor, and there is no way of finding out which will do so," but it doesn't follow necessarily that the idea of chance must be introduced except in relation to our knowledge.

R: No it doesn't -- at least if I may believe what he says. He's finding out quite a lot of things -- the scientist is finding out quite a lot of things that are happening in the world, which are, at first, beginnings of causal chains -- first causes which haven't in themselves got causes. He does not assume that everything has a cause.

C: Surely that's a first cause within a certain selected field. It's a relatively first cause.

R: I don't think he'd say so. If there's a world in which most events, but not all, have causes, he will then be able to depict the probabilities and uncertainties by assuming that this particular event you're interested in probably has a cause. And since in any case you won't get more than probability that's good enough.

C: It may be that the scientist doesn't hope to obtain more than probability, but in raising the question he assumes that the question of explanation has a meaning. ]

But your general point then, Lord Russell, is that it's illegitimate even to ask the question of the cause of the world?

R: Yes, that's my position.

C: Well, if it's a question that for you has no meaning, it's of course very difficult to discuss it, isn't it?

R: Yes, it is very difficult. What do you say -- shall we pass on to some other issue?

PART II - Religious Experience

C: Let's. Well, perhaps I might say a word about religious experience, and then we can go on to moral experience. I don't regard religious experience as a strict proof of the existence of God, so the character of the discussion changes somewhat, but I think it's true to say that the best explanation of it is the existence of God. By religious experience I don't mean simply feeling good. I mean a loving, but unclear, awareness of some object which irresistibly seems to the experiencer as something transcending the self, something transcending all the normal objects of experience, something which cannot be pictured or conceptualized, but of the reality of which doubt is impossible -- at least during the experience. I should claim that cannot be explained adequately and without residue, simply subjectively. The actual basic experience at any rate is most easily explained on the hypotheses that there is actually some objective cause of that experience.

R: I should reply to that line of argument that the whole argument from our own mental states to something outside us, is a very tricky affair. Even where we all admit its validity, we only feel justified in doing so, I think, because of the consensus of mankind. If there's a crowd in a room and there's a clock in a room, they can all see the clock. The face that they can all see it tends to make them think that it's not an hallucination: whereas these religious experiences do tend to be very private.

C: Yes, they do. I'm speaking strictly of mystical experience proper, and I certainly don't include, by the way, what are called visions. I mean simply the experience, and I quite admit it's indefinable, of the transcendent object or of what seems to be a transcendent object. I remember Julian Huxley in some lecture saying that religious experience, or mystical experience, is as much a real experience as falling in love or appreciating poetry and art. Well, I believe that when we appreciate poetry and art we appreciate definite poems or a definite work of art. If we fall in love, well, we fall in love with somebody and not with nobody.

R: May I interrupt for a moment here. That is by no means always the case. Japanese novelists never consider that they have achieved a success unless large numbers of real people commit suicide for love of the imaginary heroine.

C: Well, I must take your word for these goings on in Japan. I haven't committed suicide, I'm glad to say, but I have been strongly influenced in the taking of two important steps in my life by two biographies. However, I must say I see little resemblance between the real influence of those books on me and the mystic experience proper, so far, that is, as an outsider can obtain an idea of that experience.

R: Well, I mean we wouldn't regard God as being on the same level as the characters in a work of fiction. You'll admit there's a distinction here?

C: I certainly should. But what I'd say is that the best explanation seems to be the not purely subjectivist explanation. Of course, a subjectivist explanation is possible in the case of certain people in whom there is little relation between the experience and life, in the case of deluded people and hallucinated people, and so on. But when you get what one might call the pure type, say St. Francis of Assisi, when you get an experience that results in an overflow of dynamic and creative love, the best explanation of that it seems to me is the actual existence of an objective cause of the experience.

R: Well, I'm not contending in a dogmatic way that there is not a God. What I'm contending is that we don't know that there is. I can only take what is recorded as I should take other records and I do find that a very great many things are reported, and I am sure you would not accept things about demons and devils and what not -- and they're reported in exactly the same tone of voice and with exactly the same conviction. And the mystic, if his vision is veridical, may be said to know that there are devils. But I don't know that there are.

C: But surely in the case of the devils there have been people speaking mainly of visions, appearance, angels or demons and so on. I should rule out the visual appearances, because I think they can be explained apart from the existence of the object which is supposed to be seen.

R: But don't you think there are abundant recorded cases of people who believe that they've heard Satan speaking to them in their hearts, in just the same way as the mystics assert God -- and I'm not talking now of an external vision, I'm talking of a purely mental experience. That seems to be an experience of the same sort as mystics' experience of God, and I don't seek that from what mystics tell us you can get any argument for God which is not equally an argument for Satan.

C: I quite agree, of course, that people have imagined or thought they have heard of seen Satan. And I have no wish in passing to deny the existence of Satan. But I do not think that people have claimed to have experienced Satan in the precise way in which mystics claim to have experienced God. Take the case of a non-Christian, Plotinus. He admits the experience is something inexpressible, the object is an object of love, and therefore, not an object that causes horror and disgust. And the effect of that experience is, I should say, borne out, or I mean the validity of th experience is borne out in the records of the life of Plotinus. At any rate it is more reasonable to suppose that he had that experience if we're willing to accept Porphyry's account of Plontinus' general kindness and benevolence.

R: The fact that a belief has a good moral effect upon a man is no evidence whatsoever in favor of its truth.

C: No, but if it could actually be proved that the belief was actually responsible for a good effect on a man's life, I should consider it a presumption in favor of some truth, at any rate of the positive part of the belief not of its entire validity. But in any case I am using the character of the life as evidence in favor of the mystic's veracity and sanity rather than as a proof of the truth of his beliefs.

R: But even that I don't think is any evidence. I've had experiences myself that have altered my character profoundly. And I thought at the time at any rate that it was altered for the good. Those experiences were important, but they did not involve the existence of something outside me, and I don't think that if I'd thought they did, the fact that they had a wholesome effect would have been any evidence that I was right.

C: No, but I think that the good effect would attest your veracity in describing your experience. Please remember that I'm not saying that a mystic's mediation or interpretation of his experience should be immune from discussion or criticism.

R: Obviously the character of a young man may be -- and often is -- immensely affected for good by reading about some great man in history, and it may happen that the great man is a myth and doesn't exist, but they boy is just as much affected for good as if he did. There have been such people. Plutarch's Lives take Lycurgus as an example, who certainly did not exist, but you might be very much influenced by reading Lycurgus under the impression that he had previously existed. You would then be influenced by an object that you'd loved, but it wouldn't be an existing object.

C: I agree with you on that, of course, that a man may be influenced by a character in fiction. Without going into the question of what it is precisely that influences him (I should say a real value) I think that the situation of that man and of the mystic are different. After all the man who is influenced by Lycurgus hasn't got the irresistible impression that he's experience in some way the ultimate reality.

R: I don't think you've quite got my point about these historical characters -- these unhistorical characters in history. I'm not assuming what you call an effect on the reason. I'm assuming that the young man reading about this person and believing him to be real loves him -- which is quite easy to happen, and yet he's loving a phantom.

C: In one sense he's loving a phantom that's perfectly true, in the sense, I mean, that he's loving X or Y who doesn't exist. But at the same time, it is not, I think, the phantom as such that the young man loves; he perceives a real value, an idea which he recognizes as objectively valid, and that's what excites his love.

R: Well, in the same sense we had before about the characters in fiction.

C: Yes, in one sense the man's loving a phantom -- perfectly true. But in another sense he's loving what he perceives to be a value.

PART III - The Moral Argument

R: But aren't you now saying in effect, I mean by God whatever is good or the sum total of what is good -- the system of what is good, and, therefore, when a young man loves anything that is good he is loving God. Is that what you're saying, because if so, it wants a bit of arguing.

C: I don't say, of course, that God is the sum-total or system of what is good in the pantheistic sense; I'm not a pantheist, but I do think that all goodness reflects God in some way and proceeds from Him, so that in a sense the man who loves what is truly good, loves God even if he doesn't advert to God. But still I agree that the validity of such an interpretation of a man's conduct depends on the recognition of God's existence, obviously.

R: Yes, but that's a point to be proved.

C: Quite so, but I regard the metaphysical argument as probative, but there we differ.

R: You see, I feel that some things are good and that other things are bad. I love the things that are good, that I think are good, and I hate the things that I think are bad. I don't say that these things are good because they participate in the Divine goodness.

C: Yes, but what's your justification for distinguishing between good and bad or how do you view the distinction between them?

R: I don't have any justification any more than I have when I distinguish between blue and yellow. What is my justification for distinguishing between blue and yellow? I can see they are different.

C: Well, that is an excellent justification, I agree. You distinguish blue and yellow by seeing them, so you distinguish good and bad by what faculty?

R: By my feelings.

C: By your feelings. Well, that's what I was asking. You think that good and evil have reference simply to feeling?

R: Well, why does one type of object look yellow and another look blue? I can more or less give an answer to that thanks to the physicists, and as to why I think one sort of thing good and another evil, probably there is an answer of the same sort, but it hasn't been gone into in the same way and I couldn't give it [to] you.

C: Well, let's take the behavior of the Commandant of Belsen. That appears to you as undesirable and evil and to me too. To Adolf Hitler we suppose it appeared as something good and desirable, I suppose you'd have to admit that for Hitler it was good and for you it is evil.

R: No, I shouldn't quite go so far as that. I mean, I think people can make mistakes in that as they can in other things. if you have jaundice you see things yellow that are not yellow. You're making a mistake.

C: Yes, one can make mistakes, but can you make a mistake if it's simply a question of reference to a feeling or emotion? Surely Hitler would be the only possible judge of what appealed to his emotions.

R: It would be quite right to say that it appealed to his emotions, but you can say various things about that among others, that if that sort of thing makes that sort of appeal to Hitler's emotions, then Hitler makes quite a different appeal to my emotions.

C: Granted. But there's no objective criterion outside feeling then for condemning the conduct of the Commandant of Belsen, in your view?

R: No more than there is for the color-blind person who's in exactly the same state. Why do we intellectually condemn the color-blind man? Isn't it because he's in the minority?

C: I would say because he is lacking in a thing which normally belongs to human nature.

R: Yes, but if he were in the majority, we shouldn't say that.

C: Then you'd say that there's no criterion outside feeling that will enable one to distinguish between the behavior of the Commandant of Belsen and the behavior, say, of Sir Stafford Cripps or the Archbishop of Canterbury.

R: The feeling is a little too simplified. You've got to take account of the effects of actions and your feelings toward those effects. You see, you can have an argument about it if you can say that certain sorts of occurrences are the sort you like and certain others the sort you don't like. Then you have to take account of the effects of actions. You can very well say that the effects of the actions of the Commandant of Belsen were painful and unpleasant.

C: They certainly were, I agree, very painful and unpleasant to all the people in the camp.

R: Yes, but not only to the people in the camp, but to outsiders contemplating them also.

C: Yes, quite true in imagination. But that's my point. I don't approve of them, and I know you don't approve of them, but I don't see what ground you have for not approving of them, because after all, to the Commandant of Belsen himself, they're pleasant, those actions.

R: Yes, but you see I don't need any more ground in that case than I do in the case of color perception. There are some people who think everything is yellow, there are people suffering from jaundice, and I don't agree with these people. I can't prove that the things are not yellow, there isn't any proof, but most people agree with him that they're not yellow, and most people agree with me that the Commandant of Belsen was making mistakes.

C: Well, do you accept any moral obligation?

R: Well, I should have to answer at considerable length to answer that. Practically speaking -- yes. Theoretically speaking I should have to define moral obligation rather carefully.

C: Well, do you think that the word "ought" simply has an emotional connotation?

R: No, I don't think that, because you see, as I was saying a moment ago, one has to take account of the effects, and I think right conduct is that which would probably produce the greatest possible balance in intrinsic value of all the acts possible in the circumstances, and you've got to take account of the probable effects of your action in considering what is right.

C: Well, I brought in moral obligation because I think that one can approach the question of God's existence in that way. The vast majority of the human race will make, and always have made, some distinction between right and wrong. The vast majority I think has some consciousness of an obligation in the moral sphere. It's my opinion that the perception of values and the consciousness of moral law and obligation are best explained through the hypothesis of a transcendent ground of value and of an author of the moral law. I do mean by "author of the moral law" an arbitrary author of the moral law. I think, in fact, that those modern atheists who have argued in a converse way "there is no God; therefore, there are no absolute values and no absolute law," are quite logical.

R: I don't like the word "absolute." I don't think there is anything absolute whatever. The moral law, for example, is always changing. At one period in the development of the human race, almost everybody thought cannibalism was a duty.

C: Well, I don't see that differences in particular moral judgments are any conclusive argument against the universality of the moral law. Let's assume for the moment that there are absolute moral values, even on that hypothesis it's only to be expected that different individuals and different groups should enjoy varying degrees of insight into those values.

R: I'm inclined to think that "ought," the feeling that one has about "ought" is an echo of what has been told one by one's parents or one's nurses.

C: Well, I wonder if you can explain away the idea of the "ought" merely in terms of nurses and parents. I really don't see how it can be conveyed to anybody in other terms than itself. It seems to be that if there is a moral order bearing upon the human conscience, that that moral order is unintelligible apart from the existence of God.

R: Then you have to say one or other of two things. Either God only speaks to a very small percentage of mankind -- which happens to include yourself -- or He deliberately says things are not true in talking to the consciences of savages.

C: Well, you see, I'm not suggesting that God actually dictates moral precepts to the conscience. The human being's ideas of the content of the moral law depends entirely to a large extent on education and environment, and a man has to use his reason in assessing the validity of the actual moral ideas of his social group. But the possibility of criticizing the accepted moral code presupposes that there is an objective standard, and there is an ideal moral order, which imposes itself (I mean the obligatory character of which can be recognized). I think that the recognition of this ideal moral order is part of the recognition of contingency. It implies the existence of a real foundation of God.

R: But the law-giver has always been, it seems to me, one's parents or someone like. There are plenty of terrestrial law-givers to account for it, and that would explain why people's consciences are so amazingly different in different times and places.

C: It helps to explain differences in the perception of particular moral values, which otherwise are inexplicable. It will help to explain changes in the matter of the moral law in the content of the precepts as accepted by this or that nation, or this or that individual. But the form of it, what Kant calls the categorical imperative, the "ought," I really don't see how that can possibly be conveyed to anybody by nurse or parent because there aren't any possible terms, so far as I can see, with which it can be explained. it can't be defined in other terms than itself, because once you've defined it in other terms than itself you've explained it away. It's no longer a moral "ought." It's something else.

R: Well, I think the sense of "ought" is the effect of somebody's imagined disapproval, it may be God's imagined disapproval, but it's somebody's imagined disapproval. And I think that is what is meant by "ought."

C: It seems to me to be external customs and taboos and things of that sort which can most easily be explained simply through environment and education, but all that seems to me to belong to what I call the matter of the law, the content. The idea of the "ought" as such can never be conveyed to a man by the tribal chief or by anybody else, because there are no other terms in which it could be conveyed. It seems to me entirely....

R: But I don't see any reason to say that -- I mean we all know about conditioned reflexes. We know that an animal, if punished habitually for a certain sort of act, after a time will refrain. I don't think the animal refrains from arguing within himself, "Master will be angry if I do this." He has a feeling that that's not the thing to do. That's what we can do with ourselves and nothing more.

C: I see no reason to suppose that an animal has a consciousness or moral obligation; and we certainly don't regard an animal as morally responsible for his acts of disobedience. But a man has a consciousness of obligation and of moral values. I see no reason to suppose that one could condition all men as one can "condition" an animal, and I don't suppose you'd really want to do so even if one could. If "behaviorism" were true, there would be no objective moral distinction between the emperor Nero and St. Francis of Assisi. I can't help feeling, Lord Russell, you know, that you regard the conduct of the Commandant of Belsen as morally reprehensible, and that you yourself would never under any circumstances act in that way, even if you thought, or had reason to think, that possibly the balance of the happiness of the human race might be increased through some people being treated in that abominable manner.

R: No. I wouldn't imitate the conduct of a mad dog. The fact that I wouldn't do it doesn't really bear on this question we're discussing.

C: No, but if you were making a utilitarian explanation of right and wrong in terms of consequences, it might be held, and I suppose some of the Nazis of the better type would have held that although it's lamentable to have to act in this way, yet the balance in the long run leads to greater happiness. I don't think you'd say that, would you? I think you'd say that sort of action is wrong -- and in itself, quite apart from whether the general balance of happiness is increased or not. Then, if you're prepared to say that, then I think you must have some criterion of feeling, at any rate. To me, that admission would ultimately result in the admission of an ultimate ground of value in God.

R: I think we are perhaps getting into confusion. It is not direct feeling about the act by which I should judge, but rather a feeling as to the effects. And I can't admit any circumstances in which certain kinds of behavior, such as you have been discussing, would do good. I can't imagine circumstances in which they would have a beneficial effect. I think the persons who think they do are deceiving themselves. But if there were circumstances in which they would have a beneficial effect, then I might be obliged, however reluctantly, to say -- "Well, I don't like these things, but I will acquiesce in them," just as I acquiesce in the Criminal Law, although I profoundly dislike punishment.

C: Well, perhaps it's time I summed up my position. I've argued two things. First, that the existence of God can be philosophically proved by a metaphysical argument; secondly, that it is only the existence of God that will make sense of man's moral experience and of religious experience. Personally, I think that your way of accounting for man's moral judgments leads inevitably to a contradiction between what your theory demands and your own spontaneous judgments. Moreover, your theory explains moral obligation away, and explaining away is not explanation.

As regards the metaphysical argument, we are apparently in agreement that what we call the world consists simply of contingent beings. That is, of beings no one of which can account for its own existence. You say that the series of events needs no explanation: I say that if there were no Necessary Being, no being which must exist and cannot not-exist, nothing would exist. The infinity of the series of contingent beings, even if proved, would be irrelevant. Something does exist; therefore, there must be something which accounts for this fact, a being which is outside the series of contingent beings. If you had admitted this, we could then have discussed whether that being is personal, good, and so on. On the actual point discussed, whether there is or is not a Necessary Being, I find myself, I think in agreement with the great majority of classical philosophers.

You maintain, I think, that existing beings are simply there, and that I have no justification for raising the question of the explanation of their existence. But I would like to point out that this position cannot be substantiated by logical analysis; it expresses a philosophy which itself stands in need of proof. I think we have reached an impasse because our ideas of philosophy are radically different; it seems to me that what I call a part of philosophy, that you call the whole, insofar at least as philosophy is rational.

It seems to me, if you will pardon my saying so, that besides your own logical system -- what you call "modern" in opposition to antiquated logic (a tendentious adjective) -- you maintain a philosophy which cannot be substantiated by logical analysis. After all, the problem of God's existence is an existential problem whereas logical analysis does not deal directly with problems of existence. So it seems to me, to declare that the terms involved in one set of problems are meaningless because they are not required in dealing with another set of problems, is to settle from the beginning the nature and extent of philosophy, and that is itself a philosophical act which stands in need of justification.

R: Well, I should like to say just a few words by way of summary on my side. First, as to the metaphysical argument: I don't admit the connotations of such a term as "contingent" or the possibility of explanation in Father Copleston's sense. I think the word "contingent" inevitably suggests the possibility of something that wouldn't have this what you might call accidental character of just being there, and I don't think is true except int he purely causal sense. You can sometimes give a causal explanation of one thing as being the effect of something else, but that is merely referring one thing to another thing and there's no -- to my mind -- explanation in Father Copleston's sense of anything at all, nor is there any meaning in calling things "contingent" because there isn't anything else they could be.

That's what I should say about that, but I should like to say a few words about Father Copleston's accusation that I regard logic as all philosophy -- that is by no means the case. I don't by any means regard logic as all philosophy. I think logic is an essential part of philosophy and logic has to be used in philosophy, and in that I think he and I are at one. When the logic that he uses was new -- namely, in the time of Aristotle, there had to be a great deal of fuss made about it; Aristotle made a lot of fuss about that logic. Nowadays it's become old and respectable, and you don't have to make so much fuss about it. The logic that I believe in is comparatively new, and therefore I have to imitate Aristotle in making a fuss about it; but it's not that I think it's all philosophy by any means -- I don't think so. I think it's an important part of philosophy, and when I say that, I don't find a meaning for this or that word, that is a position of detail based upon what I've found out about that particular word, from thinking about it. It's not a general position that all words that are used in metaphysics are nonsense, or anything like that which I don't really hold.

As regards the moral argument, I do find that when one studies anthropology or history, there are people who think it their duty to perform acts which I think abominable, and I certainly can't, therefore, attribute Divine origin to the matter of moral obligation, which Father Copleston doesn't ask me to; but I think even the form of moral obligation, when it takes the form of enjoining you to eat your father or what not, doesn't seem to me to be such a very beautiful and noble thing; and, therefore, I cannot attribute a Divine origin to this sense of moral obligation, which I think is quite easily accounted for in quite other ways.

 

(Transcript credit: Reason Broadcast)

Brandon Vogt

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Brandon Vogt is a bestselling author, blogger, and speaker. He's also the founder of StrangeNotions.com. Brandon has been featured by several media outlets including NPR, CBS, FoxNews, SiriusXM, and EWTN. He converted to Catholicism in 2008, and since then has released several books, including The Church and New Media (Our Sunday Visitor, 2011), Saints and Social Justice (Our Sunday Visitor, 2014), and RETURN (Numinous Books, 2015). He works as the Content Director for Bishop Robert Barron's Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Brandon lives with his wife, Kathleen, and their five children in Central Florida. Follow him at BrandonVogt.com or connect through Twitter at @BrandonVogt.

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  • Great stuff.

    Argument from Contingency.

    I think Russell nails a good point in terms of identifying the fallacy (of composition?) in stating that just since each member in the set of contingent things has a cause, we cannot extrapolate that the set itself has a cause.

    We accept the objects and events we observe have causes because we have observations of these causes and so on. These are actually re-arrangements of matter and energy in four dimensions. We simply cannot extrapolate this into an supposed ultimate transcendent context where notions of dimension are unknown, we lose the basis for our inference.

    • "I think Russell nails a good point in terms of identifying the fallacy (of composition?) in stating that just since each member in the set of contingent things has a cause, we cannot extrapolate that the set itself has a cause."

      I don't think Russell nailed the point, though I also think Copleston failed to nail a good reply. It's true that just because every man has a mother, that doesn't mean "humanity" has a mother. But it's also true that a wall made completely of red Lego bricks will invariably be red.

      So the "fallacy of composition" is only applicable in some cases. It only holds that, "Collections of individual parts don't necessarily have the same attributes as those individual parts."

      But this, of course, is not what Copleston and other theists argue when offering the cosmological argument. They suggest that the universe doesn't necessarily have to be contingent, just because everything (or most things) within the universe are contingent. But they suggest, nevertheless, that it is contingent just as a wall of red Lego bricks is nevertheless red, even granting the "fallacy of composition."

      Dr. Edward Feser has a helpful article debunking the "fallacy of composition" criticism here: http://www.strangenotions.com/fallacy-of-composition/

      • You haven't dealt with my distinction that justifies the challenge on the fallacy of composition. There is a difference between the contingency of states of matter vs the existence of all matter. You cannot from observation that arrangements of matter depend on previous arrangements to the existence of all matter therefore depends on something other than all matter.

        A better analogy would be "all red lego bricks assembled by mechanized industrial processes, therefor this wall of red lego brick was assembled by a mechanized industrial process"

        • "There is a difference between the contingency of states of matter vs the existence of all matter. You cannot from observation that arrangements of matter depend on previous arrangements to the existence of all matter therefore depends on something other than all matter."

          Sorry, I'm afraid I can't make sense out of either of these two sentences, even after reading them a few times each. Can you perhaps clarify or elaborate?

          • The fact that all states of matter depend on previous states of matter is a different question from all matter depends on something non matter.

            One of the problems of the argument from contingency is that it tries to extrapolate from change in states of matter to the origin of all matter. There is no reason to make that inference.

          • "The fact that all states of matter depend on previous states of matter is a different question from all matter depends on something non matter."

            Brian, do you think matter exists necessarily?

          • Mike

            checkmate?

          • I have no idea. I wouldn't know where to begin to assess this question. I don't presume to know.

          • Rob Abney

            Something does exist; therefore, there must be something which accounts for this fact, a being which is outside the series of contingent beings. If you had admitted this, we could then have discussed whether that being is personal, good, and so on. On the actual point discussed, whether there is or is not a Necessary Being, I find myself, I think in agreement with the great majority of classical philosophers.

            This is where Fr Copleston concludes that Lord Russell will not even admit to the foundation of his argument, it is a very familiar argument here at SN.

          • MNb

            I agree that there must be something which accounts for the fact that something does exist. I dispute that that something must be a being that can be good, personal and so on. Quantum Fields do fine as the First Account, FIrst Explanation or whatever your favourite term is.

          • Rob Abney

            Is it widely accepted in the scientific community that quantum fields cause their own existence?

          • MNb

            It's widely accepted in the scientific community that "quantum fields cause their own existence" is a meaningless phrase. In the first place quantum fields are not causal but probabilistic. In the second place it's no clear if we can meaningfully say that quantum fields exist - if the word "to exist" applies to them. In the third place the concept of quantum fields itself is controversial because there is not enough empirical evidence.
            Of course rejecting quantum fields for these reasons is nothing but

            https://www.logicallyfallacious.com/tools/lp/Bo/LogicalFallacies/56/Argument-from-Ignorance

            The thing is that quantum fields as the First Account yield testable predictions, while an immaterial being doesn't.

          • MNb

            Sorry - BV has decided to remove my comment on the interview. That's his full right of course (you won't hear me whine about injustice) but it makes it totally unattractive for me to contribute anything on this blog.
            So I will ignore your reaction.

          • Rob Abney

            Ok, I was planning to ask for your opinion on the BVG theorem.

          • Rob Abney

            It looks like your comment is still up and in fact BV has responded to you.

          • Precisely.

            Theists need to establish that the cosmos is contingent. Rather that just asking people to admit it because it seems intuitive.

          • Rob Abney

            The BGV theorem proves, if not with certainty at least beyond a reasonable doubt, that the universe had a beginning. That establishes that it is contingent. It was discovered more than 50 years after this debate, still we don't seem to be able to approach the next step in this discussion.
            https://arxiv.org/PS_cache/gr-qc/pdf/0110/0110012v2.pdf

          • David Nickol

            Can you personally do all of the mathematical calculations in the paper to which you provide a link?

          • Rob Abney

            I don't understand the relevance of such a question, tell me why it matters if I can or not please.

          • David Nickol

            You are presenting this paper as a proof of something. Do you understand the paper yourself, or do you just take other people's word for the alleged fact that the paper proves the universe had a beginning?

            I think that all of us (or almost all of us) engaging in these kinds of discussions are relying on the knowledge and opinions of others. That is perfectly okay, since we are not cosmologists who understand technical papers. So, for example, a great many of us will rely on someone like Sean Carroll as an authority. I see no problem at all with that. However, to rely on the BVG theorem and provide a link to it seems to imply that you can personally vouch for the paper. If you can't yourself evaluate the paper, then it is somewhat disingenuous to present it as evidence.

          • Rob Abney

            Sorry, but that's a ridiculous standard to propose, although I can personally vouch for the paper because I read it thoroughly.

          • David Nickol

            The question was whether or not you can work out the equations. Can you? What is your highest level of formal training in mathematics. I personally (as an English major) got very close to calculus, but never took a course in it and can't work calculus problems today, although I have dabbled with learning a little math beyond what I took in college.

            I do not think it is at all ridiculous to expect a person who presents a scientific paper as evidence to be able to understand the paper himself or herself. Understanding a paper such as the one you linked to requires understanding the math. Do you understand the math?

          • Rob Abney

            Yes, I understand the math; I couldn't have come up with it myself but I can follow their presentation. I can also accept that the results are most likely free from miscalculation since it was published in a peer-reviewed journal.

          • David Nickol

            Okay, thanks. If you can read and follow the paper, then you certainly have a right to present it as evidence for your viewpoint.

          • Something having a beginning is not the same as being contingent.

            In this context it is also not clear that the term "beginning" has the same meaning. It is clear that we cannot say anything prior to the singularity with respect to the universe. BUT that also means we cannot say it did not "exist".

            Generally what we mean by "beginning" is at T1 the X had not commenced (or existed if you like) and at T2, X did exist. But absent time there is not T1, there is only T2. So is this a beginning? If we are not talking about a beginning in time or space how can we be saying there was a "beginning".

            The problem is we are trying here to use our intuitions that apply in a four dimensional context. BGV is not arrived at by intuition but by math and the math says nothing about contingency. It is clear on BGV that any discussion of a prior state to the singularity is unwarranted.

          • And yet Sean Carroll is not convinced:

            So I’d like to talk about the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem since Dr. Craig emphasizes it. The rough translation is that in some universes, not all, the space-time description that we have as a classical space-time breaks down at some point in the past. Where Dr. Craig says that the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem implies the universe had a beginning, that is false. That is not what it says. What it says is that our ability to describe the universe classically, that is to say, not including the effects of quantum mechanics, gives out. That may be because there’s a beginning or it may be because the universe is eternal, either because the assumptions of the theorem were violated or because quantum mechanics becomes important.

          • Michael Murray

            Neither is Vilenkin

            . . . of course there is no such thing as absolute certainty in science, especially in matters like the creation of the universe. Note for example that the BGV theorem uses a classical picture of spacetime. In the regime where gravity becomes essentially quantum, we may not even know the right questions to ask.

            Read more: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/honesty-transparency-full-disclosure-and-bgv-theorem#ixzz4W3WE6vP3

          • It looks like cosmologists Guth, Vilenkin and Carroll are saying the theorem doesn't say what Craig, not a cosmologist, wants it to say. I think I'll stick with their interpretation!

          • Michael Murray

            He has a bit more discussion here which is interesting.

            http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2014/02/24/post-debate-reflections/

          • Rob Abney

            Since science is never infallible there will always be those who are rightly unconvinced of a finding, but he should propose a theorem instead of relying on appeal to authority.

          • Carroll, Guth, Vilenkin are the relevant authorities, and they apparently don't share your (and Craig's, I'm assuming, since you quoted him) interpretation

            Read Michael Murray's links here, they are very illuminating

          • Rob Abney

            Did you read Murray's link to Craig's page?

          • The point here is that it is evident that in the very early universe, i.e. the singularity, we lose our ability to make inferences. Mathematical, intuitive, or philosophical, inferences rely on some framework. At the singularity we lose these frameworks.

            So we are just in no position to speak of some prior or transcendent state of affairs beyond or before the singularity and to conclude what this state of affairs was and that it caused material of the singularity to exist is pure speculation.

          • Rob Abney

            it is evident that in the very early universe, i.e. the singularity, we lose our ability to make inferences

            Do we lose the ability to infer that nothing can come from nothing?
            We are in a position to speak of some prior/transcendent state of affairs because that is the only state that is reasonably possible considering what we know through science. Once you accept that as reasonably possible then you can begin to ask what that state of affairs is.

          • "Do we lose the ability to infer that nothing can come from nothing"

            No I don't think so.

            "some prior/transcendent state of affairs"

            Well this is just the thing. I don't think we can conclude that in any way. It may be that there is some prior or transcendent state of affairs but if there is, we have no evidence of it.

            I can certainly agree it hasn't been ruled out, but there is no evidence that implies it. But that does not mean it is reasonably possible. We have not reason to believe it is possible or impossible. We can't apply reason to this question because we have nothing to reason about.

            Indeed there is speculation of what it might be but it is incredibly vague. Theists response is basically to say there must have been some kind of transcendent cause whose nature is completely unknown, who caused the singularity by some completely unknown process and that this cause was some kind of a mind in some completely unknown way. And that this entity is best called a "god". And that it need not have a cause, for some unknown reason. We have no way to investigate this one way or another.

            But another is to say some kind of transcendent cause whose nature is completely unknown, that caused the singularity by some completely unknown process and that this
            was not a mind, and that it need not have a cause, for some unknown reason. We have no way to investigate this either.

            Another option is that the singularity itself does not require an explanation. It is a brute fact of the Cosmos. That time and space are contingent on different manifestations of it. We have no way to investigate this either.

            Another option is that all of this is a simulation. That the true reality is completely different and unimaginable to us. If this is the case, that cosmos might be caused by a god or not too.

            There may be other possibilities, all of those above may be impossible.

          • Rob Abney

            BGA: it is evident that in the very early universe, i.e. the singularity, we lose our ability to make inferences
            RA: "Do we lose the ability to infer that nothing can come from nothing"
            BGA: No I don't think so.

            Despite the many ways that you claim that we cannot know, you still confirm this one point, that we can reasonably assume that nothing comes from nothing. This should at least narrow down the possibilities that you would consider, unless you simply insist on clinging to the idea that you cannot know.

          • No. this abstract statement implies nothing about causation or possibilities of the origins of material reality.

          • Rob Abney

            It's a small distinction that can be made to establish some knowledge of the creation process. It doesn't prove anything but if you simply dismiss it, after agreeing with it, then you deny yourself the possibility of reasonably knowing anything.

          • Peter

            God is not a sorcerer and it is not necessary to believe that he transcendentally conjured up the big bang. Any argument against a prior transcendental state as a means of disproving God is therefore meaningless. Big bang creationism may be a favourite target of atheists but attacking it is way off the mark.

            It is perfectly possible that there are natural forces, as yet unknown, which caused the big bang. Quantum time reversal is a candidate since it allows for a beginning in the direction of the arrow of time. Just as God used the big bang to create the quarks and gluons which led to life, so too did he use quantum forces to create the big bang. And just as the big bang created conditions of extreme fine-tuning, so too would quantum forces have created a fine-tuned big bang.

            It is pointless trying to find God at the beginning of creation because we will just find nature; it is nature that is used by God to create. Where we find God is in the intelligent fine-tuning of creation, which is becoming more and more apparent as scientific discoveries progress.

          • Peter

            Science is progressively establishing that the cosmos is contingent. The fine-tuning for life becomes more apparent with every new discovery. The big one will be when we discover how organic compounds turn into self replicating molecules. Whatever the process involved, the fine-tuning will be so extreme as to remove any doubt that the universe has a purpose. A purpose-driven universe is contingent upon its purpose.

          • I'm not prepared to go that far but I think this argument has some merit. I think we would really need some evidence on how these constants were arrived at. It is either necessity, chance, or design. I think we have no way to place probabilities. We have multiverse theory and theism that advance arguments, but I think we have really no way to assess likelihoods.

          • Peter

            What's important in my mind is not so much discovering how the constants are arrived at as discovering how they operate with such precision to create life from non-life. The hoyle state is a masterpiece of fine-tuning in its own right, but I imagine it would be crude compared with the fine-tuning which sparks matter into life.

            Eventually, helped along the way by cosmic observations from advanced telescopes, we will discover the processes and the fine-tuning involved. We will at that point be in the right position to ask ourselves the question of whether it's chance or design, and the answer most forcefully will come down in favour of the latter.

          • Knowing how the constants arose is central only to trying to make inferences about what the fact of their precision means.

            If the constants are the way they are due to natural forces, i.e. multiverse theory is true, they are necessarily that way for other reasons (along the lines of the contours of a particular puddle being impossibly precise, but do not indicate design.)

            If the constants are not, but could have been calibrated differently this would greatly suggest design, possibly by a mind.

            I see no evidence that these constants or the universe is directed towards life. It seems quite the opposite, they result in a universe that is almost completely inhospitable to life.

            The origin of life seems to be chemical and evitable in this universe, requiring an enormous amount of time and very specific circumstance. Circumstances that are so rare (as far as we can tell) that it is very difficult to conclude that it was directed for this purpose.

            It is like finding a weed growing in an old Ford Taurus and saying that Ford must have designed this car so that this weed could live on it.

          • Rob Abney

            It is like finding a weed growing in an old Ford Taurus and saying that Ford must have designed this car so that this weed could live on it.

            That analogy is very limited in representing the fine tuning argument.
            Instead of a weed, which can grow anywhere, it would need to be a species that does not exist anywhere else that we know of in the universe. And it would only be able to exist in that Ford Taurus.
            Edit: less snarky, sorry,

          • Well, no, but I think we can only take the analogy so far. Basically, while we might accept the fine tuning is evidence of design, the idea that the design was for life is pretty much killed by the overwhelming hostility of life of the universe.

            So while it may be the case that it can arise under very specific circumstances from time to time, this doesn't indicate that the purpose of the universe was life.

          • Peter

            This notion of very special circumstances is misleading. Are stars very special circumstances? Are nebulae very special circumstances? No, they are very common and they are responsible for the building blocks of life. The mechanisms for the building blocks of life exist and operate everywhere. The galaxy is awash with complex organic molecules.

            Your argument is a kind of reverse god-of-the-gaps argument - we only know of one instance in the universe where there is life and therefore life is very unlikely in the universe, and a universe where life is unlikely is not a universe whose purpose it is to create it.

            That's why we need to wait for the next generation of terrestrial and orbital telescopes, to identify organic compounds which are even more complex and maybe also signs of life itself in exoplanetary atmospheres. I personally cannot wait.

          • Peter

            The evidence is plain to see that the material evolution of the universe is towards greater complexity, towards the creation of heavier elements and from them the formation of complex organic compounds which are the building blocks of life. Our knowledge stops there because we currently lack the technology to make the necessary cosmic observations. Nevertheless, the direction the universe is moving in materially is clear to all but the most hardened of sceptics.

            There is no deviation from this path, no reverse or parallel evolution of matter. At all points and at all times, the universe is moving in this one direction, towards greater material complexity which culminates in life. The universe is not inhospitable to life; it is one great cosmic factory for the production of the ingredients for life. We haven't worked out yet how the end product is made, but we will before long. And when we do we will see the big picture and realise that it is a grand design.

          • "The evidence is plain to see that the material evolution of the universe
            is towards greater complexity..."

            I do not think this is the case. Complexity often arises out of biological evolution, but this is not always the case.

            The clear tendency of the universe is towards disorder, this is entropy and it's cause is well understood.

            "Nevertheless, the direction the universe is moving in materially is clear to all but the most hardened of skeptics."

            I think this is the case, but that course is not towards life, if anything it is towards annihilating any life that arises as will certainly be the case for all life in the universe. The universe is moving towards disorder and a heat death and will, it would seem exist eternally in the future with no life and no possibility of life.

            "The universe is not inhospitable to life;"

            It is overwhelmingly. Virtually none of the universe can support life and the few places that will become fewer and fewer. This is completely contrary to what we would expect if the universe was designed by a being who can fine tune the laws of nature for life.

          • Peter

            You are right to mention entropy because it is the engine which drives the universe to produce local complexity which leads to life. It is another example of fine-tuning.

            The heat death canard, on the other hand, forever popular among atheists, is questionable. Do you have sound evidence that it is true? Did the discovery of the higgs boson not cast doubt on an eternal universe by raising the possibility that it will end at some point? In the light of this, it is not misleading to continue proclaiming heat death as an established fact?

            Another favourite canard of atheists is the claim that the universe is inhospitable to life. The problem is that the premise behind the claim is wrong. The universe does not exist merely to support life. The universe exists to create life.

            If life had been created in another universe and then transported into this one, it is obvious that this universe would be largely incapable of supporting it. But that is not what happened. This universe is responsible for creating life from scratch. It may be largely inhospitable to supporting life but it is perfectly hospitable to the processes which lead to life.

          • Entropy is not an engine and it does not lead to complexity but disorder. A pile off ash smoke and gas is not more complex than a library.

            Heat death is not a canard but the accepted result of natural laws under the most robust model science has. Yes tons of scientific evidence. Sure, there is always room for doubt, but it is either heat death or Big Crunch.

            You can say what you want. But life can't survive more than seconds I most of the universe. Human life even less. The hostility of the universe to life is extremely surprising on theism.

          • Peter

            If life could survive in most of the universe, the universe would not be capable of creating it in the first place. Only a universe which is mostly hostile to life can create life.

            Stars and supernovae which are hostile to life are needed to synthesise the heavy elements. Cold molecular clouds and hot protoplanetary discs which are hostile to life are necessary for the irradiation of the elements into complex organic compounds. Meteors and comets which are hostile to life are instrumental in delivering those molecules to a planetary surface.

            A furnace is necessary for making the steel for a car, yet if you put the finished car back in the furnace it will be instantly destroyed. The furnace is definitely hostile, yet at the same time indispensable, to the car. A hostile universe is indispensable to our existence.

          • "Only a universe which is mostly hostile to life can create life."

            Nonsense. On theism, the Universe could simply be no more than the earth, a planet teeming with life. This would support the thesis that the point of the universe is life.

            "Stars and supernovae which are hostile to life are needed to synthesise the heavy elements..."

            On naturalism yes, on theism this is not required at all. God can just create things to work as he wants.

            Its as if you are saying that if God exists, he is limited by the laws of nature, rather than the other way round. This is how naturalism works, not theism.

          • Peter

            You just said that God can create things to work as he wants. So what if God had wanted to create life across the entire universe and had chosen naturalism with its specific laws to achieve it?

            What if he'd done it in this way so that the intelligent life which results can eventually work it out for themselves and, in doing so, come to know their Creator? The cosmos increasingly looks like it is designed by an intelligence mind.

          • Afraid I'm not interested in what if's. The scale of the universe is such that it is not at all what we expect it to be like if the god of Christianity exists.

            I do not see this evidence you are referencing.

          • Peter

            The scale of the universe is perfectly consistent with an all-powerful Creator who desires a bountiful universe and for that purpose endows it with the capability to create and sustain life. You see no evidence because you do not want to see, but in future the evidence will only intensify.

          • Lazarus

            Maybe this is the only way to create. Maybe there is no other way.
            Maybe this is what "omnipotence" means.

          • Maybe, but the God is not the explanation for the order in the universe of why say the contents are so specific why lif developed or the laws of nature themselves. There is some god independent explanation for them.

            I thought omnipotence meant can do anything non contradictory. If it means can do anything non contradictory that follows the independent necessary laws of nature, They lose all design arguments and I'd start asking if thenlaws of nature are god independent, why not objective morality? Why not the existence of material reality as in caused?

          • Peter

            Again you are falling into the creationist trap and are displaying a misconceived view of God as Creator. God is not a sorcerer. He is not the explanation for the specific conditions of the universe in the sense that he magically conjured them into existence. Of course there could be a natural explanation for them. God uses nature to create.

            You cannot go on trying to deny God's existence by forever insisting that he did not supernaturally or transcendentally magic the early universe into being. I can understand that you have had big bang creationists to contend with and that this is the reason for your outlook. Just because you cannot find God at the beginning of the universe does not mean that he does not exist or is any less likely to exist.

          • Doug Shaver

            Science is progressively establishing that the cosmos is contingent. The fine-tuning for life becomes more apparent with every new discovery.

            The fine-tuning argument presupposes that the constants to which it refers are contingent. The existence of the constants does not prove their contingency.

      • Valid arguments for the existence of God begin with the existence of an entity within one’s personal experience and conclude that there must exist a being beyond one’s personal human experience. The cosmological argument fails for two reasons. 1) the universe is not an entity and 2) the universe is not within anyone’s personal experience. It is a mathematical set.
        By way of illustration, someone in Indiana could argue to the existence of God based on the existence of a hog in Indiana, but could not argue to the existence of God based on the existence of all the hogs in Indiana.
        The problem with the red Lego wall analogy is that redness is of the nature of the Legos. The existence of God can be proven precisely because existence is not of the nature of any entity within our experience.
        Although one knows the meaning of contingency at the material level, one does not adequately understand existential contingency until he concludes that there must exist a being whose nature is to exist. Consequently existential contingency cannot be the starting point of an argument for the existence of God.

  • Moral argument.

    I agree with Russell that what we understand to be moral oughts are subjective intuitions about the consequences of actions, best explained by culture and, I would say, biology.

    The premises that there are ultimate or absolute moral oughts is not established, nor that the only source of these is a god.

    • "I agree with Russell that what we understand to be moral oughts are subjective intuitions about the consequences of actions, best explained by culture and, I would say, biology."

      I think we've discussed this before, so forgive me if I'm treading old ground.

      It seems you're saying that moral duties (i.e., "oughts") are simply intuitions that emerge from instincts and biological urges. If I'm misunderstanding you, please correct me.

      But if I do understand you correctly, do you think there's any situation in which we ought not to obey our instincts and urges? If so, when? And why?

      • "It seems you're saying that moral duties (i.e., "oughts") are simply intuitions that emerge from instincts and biological urges"

        And all relevant human cultural and social events. No the oughts aren't these, the foundation of them are. We have instincts of self preservation for comfort, social interaction, security, sex. These lead to both short term urges and long term goals. We often balance these, this balancing is essentially all moral consideration.

        • Brian, thanks for the reply, however you did not answer my three questions. I'll pose them again:

          Do you think there's any situation in which we ought not to obey our instincts and urges? If so, when? And why?

          "We often balance these, this balancing is essentially all moral consideration."

          I agree with this. We regularly experience instincts competing against each other. For example, I just read a story about the shooting at the Fort Lauderdale airport. One man, as soon as he heard gunshots, raced over to a terrified woman, jumped on her, and as he covered her body with his, he whispered, "I will protect you."

          Thankfully, the gunmen did not hit either of them. However, there must have been multiple instincts pulsing through that man's body before he chose to act the way he did: the instinct for survival ("Run away! Save yourself!"); the instinct for heroism ("Go after the killer! Take him down!"); the instinct for self-sacrifice ("Protect others! Guard the innocent!"). I'm sure there were more.

          But it's obvious these instincts can't all be followed. In fact some flatly contradict others. One (or more) has to be emphasized higher than others to strike the right moral balance, to play the right moral note.

          So here's my question: what *ought* the man have done? Which instinct, at that moment, should he have heeded above all others? And by what standard do you make that determination?

          I'm genuinely curious how you'd answer these questions, along with my original ones from the last comment.

          • David Nickol

            One man, as soon as he heard gunshots, raced over to a terrified woman, jumped on her, and as he covered her body with his, he whispered, "I will protect you."

            It is interesting to imagine this story if you change the genders. In a potentially deadly situation, a woman shields a man (a complete stranger) with her body and says, "I will protect you." What actually happened is a "feel-good" story because men are supposed to protect women. But a woman certainly could protect a man just as well under the circumstances, and I suspect we would react quite differently to the story. Might not the protected man feel guilty or humiliated? It would make a big difference if the woman were a police officer, in which case it could be seen as her duty to protect others. But what if the woman were a civilian and the man she protected a police officer? That would be very odd.

            The point of the above is that it is difficult to come up with a single answer to what ought to be done in such a situation, and there are all kinds of considerations that are not strictly moral ones (gender roles being one) on what determines the "right" thing to do. I don't think it is exactly a moral question as to whether it is a man who ought to protect a woman. It's more like etiquette.

          • David Nickol

            We are in France during World War II, and a woman in the French Resistance pretends to be in love with a high-level Nazi in order to gain valuable information and save the lives of her fellow countrymen. In order to be convincing, she must have sex with the Nazi official. May she do it, even to save lives? Catholic morality would forbid it, since sex outside of marriage is intrinsically wrong. Yet wouldn't most of us think of such a woman as heroic and approve of her actions? I think that according to Catholic morality, she would be guilty of fornication, even if it were true that she felt nothing but disgust while engaging in sex.

          • "We are in France during World War II, and a woman in the French Resistance pretends to be in love with a high-level Nazi in order to gain valuable information and save the lives of her fellow countrymen. In order to be convincing, she must have sex with the Nazi official. May she do it, even to save lives?"

            No. We should never willfully commit evil, even to bring about good.

            "Catholic morality would forbid it, since sex outside of marriage is intrinsically wrong."

            That is true.

            "Yet wouldn't most of us think of such a woman as heroic and approve of her actions?"

            Those are two different questions. Heroism is not equal to moral perfection. We call someone heroic when they display elevated virtue, whether it be courage, selflessness, faith, temperance, etc. The woman in your example would be heroic in reference to the courage and willingness to risk her own life for the sake of others, both of which undergirded her actions. We all agree on that, and her actions would certainly be understandable and perhaps excusable because of them.

            However, this doesn't mean we necessarily approve of her actions, the particular ways by which she tried to save lives.

            For example, we can certainly envision a scenario in which she achieves the same purpose without illicitly sleeping with someone who is not her spouse.

            Either way, someone can be both heroic and morally imperfect. Since I have Harry Potter on my mind, after the last comment, Dumbledore would be an exquisite example.

            "I think that according to Catholic morality, she would be guilty of fornication, even if it were true that she felt nothing but disgust while engaging in sex."

            That's true. The act of fornication is objectively discernible: either you sleep with someone who is not your spouse, or you don't. However, one's culpability for that act depends on a range of circumstances. If one is under pressure or duress, such as the woman in your example, her culpability for that sin might be mitigated or even disappear. That's such an important distinction, and it's one I find many people miss.

            But all of this discussion is tangential to the main question at hand. You seem to be worried about which approach would be morally best for this hypothetical woman. But what's under discussion is whether she is morally obliged to act in one (or more) ways, and not others, regardless of how difficult it is to determine those ways--or if we're capable of determining them at all.

          • Doug Shaver

            We should never willfully commit evil, even to bring about good.

            That seems to entail a denial of the concept of necessary evil. Am I understanding correctly?

          • "That seems to entail a denial of the concept of necessary evil. Am I understanding correctly?"

            I would have to understand what you mean by "necessary evil'" before answering. Can you explain?

            Also, perhaps you could provide an example to help illustrate your question.

          • Doug Shaver

            I would have to understand what you mean by "necessary evil'" before answering.

            I mean an evil act that is made morally permissible by the situation in which it is done. An example would be killing in self-defense. Another would be a nation's engagement in a war against foreign aggression.

          • Well, the classic example is this, we are twenty jews hiding under the floorboards as the SS enters to search.

            We are confident that they will not find us, unless they hear us or something. (They have checked many times in the past.)

            But this time there is a baby with us and it sick. It will cry it always does, especially when the door is closed or something.

            Basically this is the situation. You strangle the baby and the other 19 live, or you don't and all twenty will be killed.

            Amend the facts as you like so that this problem is basically certain. What do you do?

          • Rob Abney

            This "crying baby" incident was portrayed in a movie, In Darkness. I won't disclose what happened to that baby.
            http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1417075/

          • yes, also a very special episode of MASH. She killed the baby and Hawk-eye had a nervous breakdown.

            It is also discussed in an interesting episode of Radio Lab. There were scenarios presented to subjects in FMRI and they watched different parts of the brain light up. Some for when it was moral to intervene clearly, a different area when it would be immoral to intervene (both were the two varieties of the Trolley scenario).

            But when the baby scenario lit up, both areas were active. Suggesting we are morally conflicted. That there is no obvious moral choice.

            (I'm not so sure on these results as FMRI has been very controversial lately.)

          • ClayJames

            I would not kill the baby. I think the answer to this question depends on one´s view of life after death and the reality of moral obligation and duties.

            If I believed that naturalism is true, I would probably do everything possible to not be caught, tortured and killed.

          • David Nickol

            I believe there is a Catholic answer to the dilemma. It would always be wrong to deliberately kill the baby under such circumstances. However, the "law of double effect" can rear its ugly head in this situation. It could be argued that it would be acceptable to keep the baby silent by any of a number of available means, for example covering its mouth or rendering it unconscious. If this risks the baby's life, the risk is acceptable, because the only desired outcome is the baby's silence. The death of the baby is not willed.

          • Ok, so why is it better on theism for all twenty to die rather than just one, who was going to die anyway?

          • ClayJames

            Why do you assume that given theism, the most important thing is to stay alive? If we realize that there are more important moral duties then it easily follows that we should not kill an innocent human life in order to save our life or the lives of 19 other people. This does not mean that you don't do everything in your power (that is morally permissible) to prevent your death, however unlikely it is to succeed.

            If I believed naturalism was true, I would have no problem with someone saying that we should kill the baby in that example.

          • David Nickol

            Why do you assume that given theism, the most important thing is to stay alive?

            I note that in the situation being discussed, it is (or plausibly could be) one person who has the opportunity to silence the baby and save his or her own life, and the lives of 19 others. It is one thing to sacrifice one's own life by not trying to silence the baby, but it is another thing to decide to give up one's own life and the lives of the other 19, any or all of whom may have numerous friends and family dependent on them.

            I wonder if, throughout the last couple of millennia, this hypothetical scenario had instead been a common occurrence, if there would not have been (long ago) a "loophole" found licitly to save the group. We would be in deep trouble if the Fifth Commandment actually meant "Thou shalt not kill." There are any number of exceptions to that alleged rule in Catholic moral theology, and I suspect there would be a "practical" solution if the dilemma had arisen again and again.

            Above I already suggested one possible approach. It would be licit, given the principle of double effect, to cover the baby's mouth (stopping its breathing) with the sole intention of keeping the baby quiet. Of course, a few minutes of this would kill the baby, but that would not be the intention. The good of quieting the baby to provide safety for the group would be the purpose of the action. The risk of killing the baby would be acceptable given the extreme circumstances. It might very well be that after a brief time of being silenced (and not breathing) the baby would pass out (without dying) and cease to be an immediate threat.

          • ClayJames

            I think the correct moral decision is to not kill the baby whether it is only your life on the line or the life of 18 other strangers (even though I will admit it would be more morraly reprehensible if you were doing this to only save your own life). I would not think it is immoral to kill the person that is going to do the killing, but I wouldn´t kill an innocent human life.

            I don´t necessarily disagree with your comments regarding regarding the principle of double effect.

          • "Why do you assume that given theism, the most important thing is to stay alive?"

            I don't. I guess you are saying that it is worse for a human to kill an innocent to save 19 lives than let 20 die and not kill the innocent that was going to die one way or the other. I am asking how this assessment is made? How do you know this course is the moral one and the other is immoral? Why is this other moral duty more important than those 19 lives?

            "If I believed naturalism was true, I would have no problem with someone saying that we should kill the baby in that example."

            Well as a naturalist I can tell you that this is not my view. I would not hold the person as immoral regardless of the choice they made, I feel there is no good choice, both are equally bad. It is one that is pretty much impossible to choose. Its Sophie's choice.

            But as a theist you do not have this option, there must be a right answer. Sounds like you have decided not killing is the right one, but you don't know why, you are deferring to god's command not to lie?

          • ClayJames

            Why is this other moral duty more important than those 19 lives?

            Because there is a huge difference between letting someone die and killing someone. In your example, you are not morally responsible for those 20 people dying and you must do everything in your power to stop that unless that entail severely harming an innocent human life.

            Well as a naturalist I can tell you that this is not my view.

            I understand that is not your view, but that view is perfectly acceptable on naturalism.

            But as a theist you do not have this option, there must be a right answer. Sounds like you have decided not killing is the right one, but you don't know why, you are deferring to god's command not to lie?

            I am refering to god´s command not to kill, our own moral knowledge regarding killing, the severity of killing and logically taking this information in order to come to a conclusion. I am not exactly sure what you are asking here.

          • Peter

            The way I look at it is through the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. Many people go through life avoiding sin in the hope and expectation of attaining salvation. Yet on judgement day they are shocked to find that they are not saved. Many others, on the other hand, are not so diligent in avoiding sin and are resigned to the likelihood of eternal damnation. Yet on judgement day they are amazed to discover that they are saved.

            In the obscenity of a world where the richest eight men own as much as the poorest half of humanity (3.6 billion people), this parable has more relevance than ever before.

          • David Nickol

            So you are saying Jesus will send to hell people who thought they were doing the right thing?

          • Peter

            Going through life merely to avoid sin while actually doing nothing is no guarantee of attaining salvation. Such people would not be doing the right thing because they would be doing nothing at all. They avoid doing anything, good or bad, and that's the point. They approach judgement with confidence in the belief that they have done nothing wrong.

            Contrast that with the people who actually do things. They may have done wrong things in their lives, made mistakes many times, but they would also have done good things, many good and heroic things out of charity and compassion. They would know they are sinners and tremble at the prospect of being judged.

          • It is interesting to imagine this story if you change the genders.

            I agree it might be interesting, but I struggle to see how this is relevant to the point of the example. Either way, man or woman, almost all of us agree that people "ought" to behave in certain ways, in certain situations.

            Obviously the specific "ought" may be hard to discern. It usually depends on context and a whole slew of variables. For instance, I ought not to tackle a man standing behind me in the grocery line. However, suppose that man has a gun and is threatening to shoot the cashier, and I'm the only one who can prevent that shooting. In that case, hopefully we would all agree that I "ought" to try to tackle him.

            (But then again, other variables would surely come into play. If I was not strong enough to tackle him, or if it seemed likely that I if I tried to tackle him but failed, that would incite even more anger and violence, then I ought not to do it.)

            The point here is not which specific action people should take in certain situations--we can have healthy debate about that, and you're absolutely correct that the action differs based on person (including gender), situation, external variables, etc.

            The point is that most of agree that we nevertheless should act in some ways but not others (even if we subtly disagree about which acts fall into each group.)

            And the moment you admit that someone should or should not act in a particular way (i.e., ought or ought not), you're assuming a moral standard by which you make that determination.

            That moral standard must ultimately be subjective or objective. It must either be grounded in human feelings and opinions, or in something that transcends humans, such as nature or God.

            "What actually happened is a "feel-good" story because men are supposed to protect women."

            I agree! But again, this gives away the game. Saying someone is "supposed to" act in a certain way admits the reality of moral oughts. And once you admit moral oughts, you're presuming some moral standard. My question is: what's that standard?

            "The point of the above is that it is difficult to come up with a single answer to what ought to be done in such a situation"

            I'm not sure I agree with this. Yet even if it was true, most people would acknowledge that even if we can't determine the best or ideal moral response in a given situation, either due to lack of time or lack of knowledge, we can still judge some responses morally better than others.

            To use the gunman example, I think we would all agree that the man hearing gunfire ought not to grab the nearest child and use him as a human shield.

            But this presents two problems from those who deny objective morality. First, any gradation of "better" or "worse" requires a standard by which to determine whether an action is better or worse. If morality is merely subjective, there would be no such standard beyond personal opinion. No actions would be "better" or "worse", they would just be different, just as my preference for chocolate is not better or worse than your preference for vanilla, just different.

            A second problem is that if morality is relative, there's actually good reason to prefer saving your own life above everyone else's. In fact, the evolutionary materialist, if he's being honest, would have to praise anyone increasing their odds of survival, even at the cost of others (and even at the cost of innocent children.)

            However, I hope we agree this would be barbaric and deplorable. The moral absolutist has a good basis for this assessment. I don't think the subjectivist does.

            "I don't think it is exactly a moral question as to whether it is a man who ought to protect a woman. It's more like etiquette."

            I think you've misunderstood me. I never claimed that the airport hero ought to have protected the woman only because he was a man and she was a woman. The main reason he's a moral hero is because he put his own life at risk to potentially save another person's life, regardless of gender.

            There's no need to muddy the example with gender discussion. It would have worked just as well had the genders been flipped. We would give the same moral praise to a woman who, in a violent situation, throws herself in front of a elderly man or a young boy. In fact, it's this very situation that's at the heart of the bestselling fiction series of all time, Harry Potter. Hopefully we'd all agree that Harry's mom acted in a morally heroic manner.

          • "That moral standard must ultimately be subjective or objective. It must either be grounded in human feelings and opinions, or in something that transcends humans, such as nature or God."

            Do you consider consequential ethical systems to be objective? I'm assuming that, in practice, most of the atheists around here take a consequentialist approach to ethical questions (e.g. we ought to affirm, praise, and conduct ourselves according to norms that are conducive to happiness and prosperity in our communities).

            There are plenty of counterarguments you could bring to this, but in your view, what do you think is wrong with my using this standard to condemn the guy who uses a child as a human shield?

          • Barry the Baptist

            When you say that "the evolutionary materialist, if he's being honest, would have to praise anyone increasing their odds of survival," are you implying that there is moral philosophy to be gotten from evolutionary theory?

            Also, what form of materialism are you addressing?

          • Doug Shaver

            In fact, the evolutionary materialist, if he's being honest, would have to praise anyone increasing their odds of survival, even at the cost of others (and even at the cost of innocent children.)

            Since I accept evolution and am a materialist, I assume I am an evolutionary materialist. I disagree about having to "praise anyone increasing their odds of survival, even at the cost of others (and even at the cost of innocent children.)" I have no inkling, though, of what you think I am being dishonest about. Could you elaborate?

          • "Do you think there's any situation in which we ought not to obey our instincts and urges? If so, when? And why?"

            Yes, when our instinct or urge would lead us to an outcome, which, all relevant factors considered, places us in a worse situation with respect to our long-term personal goals and values. When this happens is very fact specific, but, for example, I may have an urge to eat some cake, but I know if I do it will be harmful to my health. I value my long-term health more than my instant gratification, thus I should not give in to this urge. I think it is fair to say that I ought not eat the cake. But this is always relative, I ought not eat the cake, IF, I want to remain healthy. If I do not care if I am healthy or not, this ought disappears.

            "So here's my question: what *ought* the man have done?"

            I don't know. I don't think there is a correct answer to this one. I think all of his options would have been morally justified.

          • ClayJames

            Yes, when our instinct or urge would lead us to an outcome, which, all relevant factors considered, places us in a worse situation with respect to our long-term personal goals and values. When this happens is very fact specific, but, for example, I may have an urge to eat some cake, but I know if I do it will be harmful to my health. I value my long-term health more than my instant gratification, thus I should not give in to this urge. I think it is fair to say that I ought not eat the cake. But this is always relative, I ought not eat the cake, IF, I want to remain healthy. If I do not care if I am healthy or not, this ought disappears.

            Or, for example, you have an urge to help your fellow man but you realize that in this situation you should not obey this urge. You value your own well being and happiness over just about everything and are a privileged member of a flawed society where, in this specific situation, actually stealing, killing or hurting your fellow man can further your short term and long term goals with little to no negative side effects. I think it is fair to say that in this situation you should steal, kill and hurt, IF, you want to increase your well being.

          • If those were your values yes, and some people do behave that way.

            Indeed I think it can be very moral in some circumstances to kill steal and hurt others and I am sure you would agree.

            But as is quite obvious, there are good reasons not to steal, kill or harm others except for in very specific circumstances.

            The most obvious being that my well-being is very much tied to the well being of others. I very much want to live in a society with no killing or stealing. So I support measures that minimize them. I recognize that my actions hurt others and I have empathy and when others hurt, it also hurts me. I feel bad. I feel much worse if I hurt them.

            This is actually a very useful way to think about things. Otherwise, I don't see any way to identify a theory of morality. It would just be arbitrary. The oughts are just facts that exists as part of nature, whether or not they hurt others or not. Indeed, as is suggested in scripture. Sometimes the oughts mean genocide. Or relegating huge sections of humanity to whatever Hell is.

          • ClayJames

            Indeed I think it can be very moral in some circumstances to kill steal and hurt others and I am sure you would agree.

            Agreed, but I don´t think you are going far enough. I think doing those things is not necessarily immoral in the case of self defense but given naturalism, I would think those things are not immoral in every case that would help someone reach their goals. You mentioned living in a society where you would not want to be victims of violence and also about having empathy towards others but you can imagine a situation where harming others would do nothing to put you in danger of being harmed in the future. This might the case if you were a privileged member of a flawed society. You would also agree that feelings of empathy, similar to other urges, can be overlooked if the action fits the above criteria.

            So yes, I think that it is not immoral to kill, steal and hurt others, but the situations where one ought to do this given naturalism, are a lot more numerous than you might be willing to accept.

          • Self Defence is a reason to do the act in furtherance of personal goals too. So you are correct

            Certainly someone's personal circumstances enormously affect their determination of moral decisions.

            I honestly do not see the distinction to are making here between privileged actors in a flawed society, or what your criticism is of the moral framework I've indicated.

          • ClayJames

            The criticism is not necessarily about you but about the lack of consistency that I usually see in this view of morality. When morality is grounded on our own personal goals and well being, we must equally accept that behaving altruistically is beneficial for us most of the time as well as accepting that not behaving altruistically is also beneficial for us some of the time. In my experience, naturalists have no problem accepting the former but completely resist the latter. My comment about privilege and flawed societies has to with the fact that these are variables in the distribution of social and anti-social behavior. The more privilege a person has and the more flawed of a society they live in, the more it is morally acceptable, in your moral framework, to behave against the well being of a society.

          • "When morality is grounded on our own personal goals and well being, we
            must equally accept that behaving altruistically is beneficial for us
            most of the time as well as accepting that not behaving altruistically
            is also beneficial for us some of the time"

            Well I agree with this.

            "My comment about privilege and flawed societies has to with the fact
            that these are variables in the distribution of social and anti-social
            behavior"

            Absolutely.

            "The more privilege a person has and the more flawed of a society they
            live in, the more it is morally acceptable, in your moral framework, to
            behave against the well being of a society."

            Absolutely not. The well-being of society and the well-being of individuals is essentially what moral dilemma are.

            I am just going to quote Star Trek at this point. Sometimes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one, sometimes the other way around.

            It depends on the needs. If the needs of the many are the survival of hundreds on the ship vs. the survival of one person, it is a very morally justified to sacrifice yourself or one person to save the rest. If the needs of the many is to maintain their careers and freedom by not stealing a starship and to maintain security by not having thefts, vs one person's life, and the guilt of not acting to save that person, it is different.

          • ClayJames

            I am just going to quote Star Trek at this point. Sometimes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one, sometimes the other way around.

            But the moral framework that I am holding that is completely consistent and an accurate reflection of reality given naturalism, is that my own well being determines what is moral. Therefore, if helping society furthers that goal, then helping society is moral. If hurting society furthers that goal, then hurting society is moral.

            So furthering the needs of the many should only be the goal if it furthers the needs of the self. Based on this moral framework, the ciriticism you gave does not apply.

            My questions to you would be :
            1. Why is this moral framework invalid given naturalism?
            2. If it is not invalid, why should someone not behave according to this moral framwork?

          • "is that my own well being determines what is moral"

            in a way yes, but the immediate outcome of this is, to maximize my well-being, I need a society where everyone wants to maximize everyone else needs to maximize human well-being. But generally no I don't dispute this.

            I think the criticism I levelled was against the statement that 'The more privilege a person has and the more flawed of a society they live in, the more it is morally acceptable, in your moral framework, to behave against the well being of a society"

            I do not agree with this.

            "My questions to you would be :
            1. Why is this moral framework invalid given naturalism?
            2. If it is not invalid, why should someone not behave according to this moral framwork?"

            I think the moral framework I have outlined is "valid" given naturalism and should be followed.

            I think the moral argument for the existence of god does not work because the premises that there are no moral absolutes. I think a moral framework that prioritizes consistency with the nature or orders from a non-existent deity over the consequences for humans is wrong and dangerous.

          • Doug Shaver

            But the moral framework that I am holding that is completely consistent and an accurate reflection of reality given naturalism, is that my own well being determines what is moral. Therefore, if helping society furthers that goal, then helping society is moral. If hurting society furthers that goal, then hurting society is moral.

            Such a moral framework would be consistent with naturalism, yes, but it is not entailed by naturalism. You seem to be assuming that under any naturalistic moral code, my moral obligations are determined solely by what I perceive to be my personal interests: If I judge it to be good for me, then it's good, period, end of discussion. I don't see how that follows.

          • Doug Shaver

            You value your own well being and happiness over just about everything and are a privileged member of a flawed society where, in this specific situation, actually stealing, killing or hurting your fellow man can further your short term and long term goals with little to no negative side effects.

            If my society is so flawed that I can be so immoral without negative consequences, then it is not rational for me to conform to its standards. The rational course of action for me would be to work for my society's reformation.

  • Vincent Herzog

    This is not intended as a knock-down objection, but for a laugh: that awkward moment when Russell says we reject solipsism only because everyone else does.

    • David Nickol

      It does not seem to me that Russell is talking about solipsism. Here is an often-cited quote from Russell:

      As against solipsism it is to be said, in the first place, that it is psychologically impossible to believe, and is rejected in fact even by those who mean to accept it. I once received a letter from an eminent logician, Mrs. Christine Ladd-Franklin, saying that she was a solipsist, and was surprised that there were no others. Coming from a logician and a solipsist, her surprise surprised me.

      This remark does not seem to be consistent with the idea that "we reject solipsism only because everyone else does." I take him to be saying that certain experiences are agreed to be "real" and "out there" because they are all shared in common and acknowledged to be so. We don't reject solipsism as a result of this; we reject it prior to this (because it is "psychologically impossible to believe"). But religious experiences (in Russell's opinion) are not shared in common but are internal to each individual.

      Now, I am very suspicious about the following:

      Japanese novelists never consider that they have achieved a success unless large numbers of real people commit suicide for love of the imaginary heroine.

      It is certainly not a key point in the argument, but I think if it were true (in 1948) there would be some evidence for it. I can't find any.

      • Vincent Herzog

        Hi, David. As I said, my comment really was for levity and not to do any damage to Russell. It's funny because Russell wasn't quite being careful, and the quotation you provided indicates that if I had ribbed him for it, he might have found it funny, too!

        You're right that he wasn't, strictly speaking, talking about solipsism, but about what justification we might have for avoiding it, and at first he is speaking quite globally (not sure how you do the gray indent):
        "R: I should reply to that line of argument that the whole argument from our own mental states to something outside us, is a very tricky affair."

        So, it's funny when he next jumps to "all admit(ing) its validity" (quite like Ladd-Franklin) and indeed only *because* we all admit it: "Even where we all admit its validity, we only feel justified in doing so, I think, because of the consensus of mankind."

        That said, I think Russell's point that it is psychologically impossible to believe solipsism is not insignificant, much as it is not insignificant that contradictions can't be believed, and may even have bearing on the debate, but I need to step away from the computer. I hope to come back and say a little more about why that's so interesting.

        • David Nickol

          One of my philosophy professors in college (decades ago) told the class that when he was a student, Bertrand Russell had read a paper he had written, and he met Russell in person to discuss it. As my professor told it, Russell told him to work on his prose style. Russell's advice was, "Read Shakespeare, the King James Bible . . . and my works."

          • Vincent Herzog

            Not bad advice! He sure knew how to deliver a punchline.

            So, it's difficult not to think the ball was dropped in the religious experience debate, but I understand why Copleston couldn't pursue his line of argument further if Russell was only digging his heals into the emotivist view of moral beliefs and of valuing. If Copleston could not get Russell to agree that the experience of valuing can reliably correspond to the being of what is valued, then (it seems to me) that he could not get Russell to actually encounter and render an account for the phenomenon in question, namely, the experience, not of intense emotional attachment (accompanied by intense pleasure, apparently veridical sense-data, extensive propositional content, and/or whatever else we might throw in), but instead of boundless, ineffable Love. Grated, it's pretty tough to talk and think about the ineffable....

            In a minor concession, Russell allows that even visions could give the one who had the religious experience reason for belief, and since he doesn't seem scruple about which religious experiences would give such a grounding (although Copleston wishes he would scruple a bit more), I guess we can assume that he would allow that the sort of experience Copleston has in mind would be evidence, too—but only for the one who had the experience. I wonder, though, if (regarding religous experience) Copleston might have been heading down the same road Russell does (regarding solipsism) in your quotation: it might be that Copleston was urging that, in both cases, the entirely subjective explanation is "psychologocally impossible," and significantly so.

            Descartes held that it was impossible that his concept of the infinite be explained by anything other than God, because (he asserted) that concept was a positive concept and not merely the negation of finitude. I am familiar with (and find myself agreeing with) objections to Descartes's premise that his concept of inifinity is positive, but I am not familiar with (or don't recall) the approach of denying that a positive conception of infinity would indeed need to be explained by none other than an infinite cause, and presently that seems to be to be an ill-advised approach. A positive concept of infinity would seem to require an actually infinite cause—and that's just the cause of a concept. All the more, would an experience of a living, personal, infinite Love need some infinite explanation.

            Of course, we might deny someone had such an experience, much as many believe that Descartes was mistaken in asserting that his conception of the infinite was indeed a positive concept, but if such any experience *were* had by someone, it's difficult to conceive of anything less than an infinite, personal Love explaining it.

            Yet, Fr. Copleston points out that many have reported such an experience, and we have every reason to believe that they are not only manifestly honest in character, but discerning when it comes to the sort of experience they had (i.e., able to distinguish it from an emotional, imaginative, or conceptual experience).

            This isn't airtight. Just getting the thoughts out. I do wonder where Fr. Copleston would have taken his line of argument.

          • Wow! Surprising comment.

            I could be wrong, but I believe Dawkins said something similar. He thought kids should be taught the Bible in school, not because it's true but (1) to understand English literary references and (2) to encounter beautiful prose and poetry.

          • Doug Shaver

            Isaac Asimov, whose atheism was nowhere near as publicly strident as Dawkins's, said much the same thing in the introduction to his Asimov's Guide to the Bible (1968).

        • Alexandra

          Hello Vincent,

          Nice comments. I hope this encourages you to comment more here ;) :

          ...(not sure how you do the gray indent)

          How to blockquote
          You type the word blockquote in between
          then type your quote
          then type blockquote in between again but add a slash in front if the b, like this: /blockquote - to end the blockquote

          It's using HTML tags.
          So you tag- quote - end tag

          https://help.disqus.com/customer/portal/articles/466253-what-html-tags-are-allowed-within-comments

          • Vincent Herzog

            Thanks!

  • A great debate by two very intelligent philosophers. It's hard for me to find a clear winner here though. The first part seemed kind of a draw. In the second part I'd say that Russell came off stronger. The third Copleston did. If this is truly the most famous debate about the issue, I've been sadly ignorant until now.

    • Doug Shaver

      If this is truly the most famous debate about the issue, I've been sadly ignorant until now.

      Don't berate yourself. Brandon's post triggered a vague recollection of seeing one reference to it in something I read a few years ago. Considering all the reading I've done on this issue, I think I'd have heard more than that about it if it were as famous as advertised.

      • That was my experience too, so that's me being gently facetious.

        • Doug Shaver

          so that's me being gently facetious.

          Fair enough. Sorry I didn't pick that up.

      • "I think I'd have heard more than that about it if it were as famous as advertised."

        Can you think of another time when two of the world's leading Christian and atheist philosophers debated the existence of God?

        The only two debates that I would say come close in terms of "fame" or prestige would be William Lane Craig's exchanges with Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, though Craig is not one of the world's top ten philosophers (as Copleston surely was at the time) and the latter two are nowhere in the same class as Russell.

        • Doug Shaver

          I don't consider the fame of an event to be the same as the fame of its participants. However, noting that it's not entirely unreasonable to assume such an equivalence, I'll yield the point and confess to having been a bit pedantic.

  • Lazarus

    Thank you for this, Brandon. I have never read the entire debate before now. It was a treat, a special piece of history.

  • Steven Dillon

    Classic, thanks for sharing. As it stands, I think the Leibnizian argument needs some reworking or clarification at least, such as with respect to the question of what grounds God's contingent act to cause contingent being. But, what struck me this time around of reading it is that granting all of its premises, the argument shows at most that there is a God who causes all things insofar as they are contingent. It does not show that there is a God who causes all things in every respect. For example, this God may cause human beings insofar as they are contingent, but it does not cause them insofar as they are human. I think the other arguments suffer from the undemonstrated presumption of monotheism as well, especially the argument from religious experience. Really enjoyable read though, wish there were more debates like it.

    • Rob Abney

      God may cause human beings insofar as they are contingent, but it does not cause them insofar as they are human

      Are you referring to primary cause vs. secondary causes?

      • Steven Dillon

        Oh, no I mean primary causation. Each God is the primary cause of all things, only in his or her own way. So, for example, there is the God who primarily causes all things insofar as they come to be, or change. Traditionally, he has been known as Poseidon. Poseidon's sphere of activity is much broader than is popularly thought, but it is because it encompasses change per se that it has been thought to include, at the very bottom and as an image, the ever changing element of water. Likewise, the God that Leibniz argues for is the primary cause of all things insofar as they are contingent, etc.

  • Paul Brandon Rimmer

    It's a great debate. I remember listening to it when I was in college (Arapahoe Community College had a cassette tape copy of the debate).

  • MNb

    "Who do you think won each part of the debate?"
    is this question typical for theists or typical for Americans? I ask this because I'm a European non-believer and am always surprised by this obsession to declare a winner. For one thing it ignores the quite simple fact that philosophical topics, like scientific ones, shouldn't be decided by means of debates, where rhetorical skills play such an important role.
    So my answer is: I don't care.

    Still I'd like to point out one grave error by Copleston because Russell let it pass.

    "Yes, I agree, some scientists -- physicists -- are willing to allow for indetermination within a restricted field."
    This is simply incorrect. Quantum Mechanics, thanks to

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Correspondence_principle

    describes everything Classical Physics describes as well. However Classical Physics, which is causal, does not describe everything described by Quantum Mechanics and its indetermination (or rather probabilism, the term I prefer). How come is easy to understand when you realize that causality is nothing but a special case of probabilism, namely with correlation 0 or 1.
    Quantum Mechanics is a theory of everything (in our natural reality) and that poses a serious problem for every argument that assumes causality. Sure it's possible to reformulate such arguments in terms of probability (iso causality), but then you end with a god playing dice, as Einstein already realized.
    I've yet to meet the first apologist who wants to walk that road.

    • "'Yes, I agree, some scientists -- physicists -- are willing to allow for indetermination within a restricted field.' This is simply incorrect."

      I'm not sure how you'd begin to refute this. Copleston is simply describing the belief of some scientists. If you are bold enough to say his assessment is "simply incorrect," then you must provide good reason to think that no scientist in the world--not even one--allows for indetermination within a restricted field.

      I don't think you've done that, which isn't surprising since I don't think it's even possible for anyone to do that.

      "Quantum Mechanics, thanks to [the correspondence principle], describes everything Classical Physics describes as well."

      I believe this is true, however what follows from it? How does it disprove Copleston's claim?

      "Physics, which is causal, does not describe everything described by Quantum Mechanics and its indetermination (or rather probabilism, the term I prefer)."

      Just a point of clarification. Perhaps by "Physics" you mean "Classical physics," and if so then I agree.

      Otherwise, quantum mechanics is a sub-discipline of physics. It makes no sense to contrast "Physics, which is causal" with "Quantum Mechanics."

      "How come is [sic] easy to understand when you realize that causality is nothing but a special case of probabilism, namely with correlation 0 or 1."

      I don't understand how causality is "nothing but a special case of probabilism." Perhaps you can clarify?

      "Quantum Mechanics is a theory of everything (in our natural reality) and that poses a serious problem for every argument that assumes causality."

      Quantum mechanics is not a theory at all, much less a theory of everything. It's a sub-discipline of physics. Within quantum mechanics there are indeed several specific theories, though none come close to accounting for everything, much less everything in the natural world. Perhaps you had a specific theory in mind though?

      Either way, I don't see how quantum mechanics poses a serious problem for causal arguments.

      "I've yet to meet the first apologist who wants to walk that road."

      I wouldn't consider myself an apologist, but you've now met a faithful Catholic willing to walk that road with you!

      • Doug Shaver

        I wouldn't consider myself an apologist

        Why not?

  • I like the fact that both of these people are articulating the key points of their respective positions so clearly. I want to pick at Copleston's features of the moral argument:

    His claim is that you need god to explain the existence of "The idea of the "ought" as such can never be conveyed to a man by the tribal chief or by anybody else, because there are no other terms in which it could be conveyed."

    This, however, simply seems to be another way of saying that humans have the ability (and disposition) to "internalize" the approval or disapproval of others with respect to their actions, which would account the apparent psychological force of what Russel describes as "somebody's imagined disapproval".

    Is this inaccurate, or are theists actually claiming that the disposition to internalize the norms and rules that one is taught actually requires god to explain?

    • Doug Shaver

      Is this inaccurate, or are theists actually claiming that the disposition to internalize the norms and rules that one is taught actually requires god to explain?

      As I understand them, they claim that some moral principles are matters of fact, not opinion, in exactly the same way that heliocentrism is a matter of fact, not opinion, The factuality of those principles is what they think we need God to explain.

      • I certainly agree that this is true, but (edit:) Copleston's seems to be arguing something more specific. He's not just asserting moral realism.

        "The vast majority of the human race will make, and always have made, some distinction between right and wrong. The vast majority I think has some consciousness of an obligation in the moral sphere. It's my opinion that the perception of values and the consciousness of moral law and obligation are best explained through the hypothesis of a transcendent ground of value and of an author of the moral law."

        He's saying that the hypothesis-- that moral principles were written into the fabric of reality by an all powerful god-- is the most sensible explanation for the human experience of having moral obligations. I am pushing for clarity about 1) what we think the human experience of having moral obligations actually is, and 2) whether or not moral realism is actually the only explanation for it.

        • Doug Shaver

          but Charles seems to be arguing something more specific.

          You mean Copleston?

          I am pushing for clarity about 1) what we think the human experience of having moral obligations actually is

          It depends on whom you’re including in that “we.” As I understand the typical moral realist, which I presume Copleston was, what we experience is a kind of perception, just like our visual or auditory experiences. If I see a material object, then assuming nothing pathological is going on, it must be the case that a real material object is actually there, because if it weren’t real, then I wouldn’t be seeing it. Furthermore, I can reasonably believe that any other person who is not the victim of a visual impairment will also see it, and anyone who claims not to see it is either delusional or lying.

          and 2) whether or not moral realism is actually the only explanation for it.

          It probably is, if the impetus for our moral thinking actually is a kind of perception much like vision or hearing. We could not perceive any moral principles, in that sense, if the principles did not exist independently of our minds.

          • Apologies, yes, I mean Copleston.

            "If I see a material object, then assuming nothing pathological is going on, it must be the case that a real material object is actually there, because if it weren’t real, then I wouldn’t be seeing it."

            To follow up on this line of argument, I believe the response is to say that there are many types of perception that you can be trained. For example, the way that you perceive these pixels on a screen is heavily contingent on whether you have been instructed in English. Similarly, a chess master is able to perceive features of a chess position that are invisible to a novice player, presumably as a result of his experience and the instruction he has received. I'd say the secular argument is that our perception of moral obligations is similar.

            You could argue that the meaning of English words and the strategically relevant patterns in a chess board do have an existence external to the mind of any individual person (contingent on the English language and the game of chess existing). But I don't think anybody would say that the only way to explain what a chess master sees when he looks at a chess position is to postulate the existence of a chess spirit that authored the laws that govern chess strategy.

          • Doug Shaver

            To follow up on this line of argument, I believe the response is to say that there are many types of perception that you can be trained.

            If I were a moral realist, I’d have a rejoinder to that.

            For example, the way that you perceive these pixels on a screen is heavily contingent on whether you have been instructed in English. Similarly, a chess master is able to perceive features of a chess position that are invisible to a novice player, presumably as a result of his experience and the instruction he has received. I'd say the secular argument is that our perception of moral obligations is similar.

            Moral realism is a kind of Platonism, probably as tweaked by Aristotle, and it isn’t embraced just by religious folks. Plenty of atheists are Platonists, at least to the extent that they believe in moral objectivism.

            In the philosophical literature, moral objectivism is often used interchangeably with moral realism, since realism entails objectivism, and objectivism almost entails realism. It’s possible to be an objectivist without being a realist, but it isn’t easy.

            I think your analogy with perceiving pixels on a computer screen conflates different kinds of perception. Any illiterate can see the pixels, and that is all there is to their visual perception. To perceive meaning in the pixels because of their patterns of spatial arrangement requires further knowledge such as instruction in the English language. And intermediately, if I were to see a screen filled with writing in any language other than English, I would know, because of various things I had learned, that it had a meaning, even if I didn’t know what that meaning was. And as for that meaning—many Aristotelians (maybe all, I’m just not sure) say that the true meaning of any word, in any language, really exists in the same space-time-independent realm where all other abstractions really exist. This is related to, and perhaps derived from, Aristotle’s notion of essences.

          • If I were a moral realist, I’d have a rejoinder to that.

            Yes, this discussion does seem to be constrained by the lack of a moral realist position in any of its participants. Nevertheless, I appreciate your humoring me :)

            I think your analogy with perceiving pixels on a computer screen conflates different kinds of perception.

            I'd say the same about most arguments for moral realism :P. Moral realists, at least in my reading, will speak of a sort of inescapable force of perception. One can't fail to perceive the moral law any more than one could fail to perceive their hand if they held it in front of their face.

            The example of language illustrates that this sort of perceptual force exists even in cases where the thing perceived isn't objectively real, at least in the same way that my hand is. If you are an literate English speaker and you encounter an English word, written or spoken, you can't fail to perceive its particular English meaning.

            Do you think the moral argument for God presupposes a Platonist/Aristotelian metaphysics?

          • Doug Shaver

            Do you think the moral argument for God presupposes a Platonist/Aristotelian metaphysics?

            De facto, it seems to, in the sense that nearly everyone who advances it apparently does presuppose a Platonist/Aristotelian metaphysics. Whether the presupposition is logically necessary, I'm not sure. To find the answer would take time and intellectual energy that I'd rather spend on other problems.