Wednesday, December 12, 2012

a faulty axiological argument for the existence of God

I was alerted, on my Twitter feed, to the existence of a five-minute Prager University video by Dr. Peter Kreeft (rhymes with "strafed"), professor of philosophy at Boston College, in which Dr. Kreeft attempts to prove the existence of God by arguing that good and evil enjoy objective existence. I will lay out Dr. Kreeft's argument, phase by phase, and then demonstrate why it resoundingly fails to prove God's existence.

1. The Argument

Dr. Kreeft's argument has two principal phases:

a. Establish that all non-objective (i.e., atheistic/naturalistic) explanations for the existence of morality are unsatisfactory.

b. Conclude from the failure of all naturalistic explanations that morality has an objective basis, which must be supernatural, i.e., God.

Establishing (a) is challenge enough, but much more depends on whether Dr. Kreeft can succeed at establishing (b) satisfactorily. In the video, Dr. Kreeft breaks (a) down into five parts. This five-part argument, a systematic rejection of several naturalistic explanations for the existence of morality, begins this way:

I'm going to argue for the existence of God from the premise that moral good and evil really exist. They are not simply a matter of personal taste-- not merely substitutes for I like and I don't like.

We can therefore call this an axiological argument for the existence of God. The term axiology refers to the study of value, i.e., ethics, morals, the Good, etc. Note, too, that Dr. Kreeft is aiming to establish that good and evil are objective realities, i.e., they reside in the world, independent of any particular person's perspective.

Dr. Kreeft continues:

Before I begin, let's get one misunderstanding out of the way. My argument does not mean that atheists can't be moral. Of course: atheists can behave morally, just as theists can behave immorally.

This is an important concession, but I'm not sure how relevant it is, given what Dr. Kreeft argues later: at the end of his spiel, Dr. Kreeft seems to imply that an atheist who believes morals to have an objective basis is actually a closet theist. This comes perilously close to the claim that there are no atheists, a claim that drives most atheists crazy. (It's a bit like defining religion so inclusively that even atheists turn out to be religious. I've been guilty of making that move myself.)

Here is the transcript (all typos are my responsibility) of the rest of Dr. Kreeft's axiological argument for God's existence:

Let's start, then, with a question about good and evil. Where do good and evil come from? Atheists typically propose a few possibilities. Among these are

-human nature, and

I will show you that none of these can be the ultimate source of morality.

Why not from evolution? Because any supposed morality that is evolving can change. If it can change for the good or the bad, there must be a standard above these changes to judge them as good or bad. For most of human history, more powerful societies enslaved weaker societies, and prospered. That's just the way it was, and no one questioned it. Now, we condemn slavery. But, based on a merely evolutionary model—that is, an ever-changing view of morality—who is to say that it won't be acceptable again one day? Slavery was once accepted, but it was not therefore acceptable: if you can't make that distinction between accepted and acceptable, you can't criticize slavery. And if you can make that distinction, you are admitting to objective morality.

What about reasoning? While reasoning is a powerful tool to help us discover and understand morality, it cannot be the source of morality. For example, criminals use reasoning to plan a murder, without their reason telling them that murder is wrong. And was it reasoning, or something higher than reasoning, that led those Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust? The answer is obvious: it was something higher than reasoning, because risking one's life to save a stranger was a very unreasonable thing to do.

Nor can conscience alone be the source of morality. Every person has his own conscience, and some people apparently have none. Heinrich Himmler, chief of the brutal Nazi SS, successfully appealed to his henchmen's consciences to help them do the "right" thing in murdering and torturing millions of Jews and others. How can you say your conscience is right and Himmler's is wrong, if conscience alone is the source of morality? The answer is: you can't.

Some people say human nature is the ultimate source of morality. But human nature can lead us to do all sorts of reprehensible things. In fact, human nature is the reason we need morality. Our human nature leads some of us to do real evil, and leads all of us to be selfish, unkind, petty, and egocentric. I doubt you would want to live in a world where human nature was given free rein.

Utilitarianism is the claim that what is morally right is determined by whatever creates the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But, to return to our slavery example, if 90% of the people would get great benefit from enslaving the other 10%, would that make slavery right? According to utilitarianism, it would!

We've seen where morality can't come from. Now, let's see where it does come from.

What are moral laws? Unlike the laws of physics or the laws of mathematics, which tell us what is, the laws of morality tell us what ought to be. But like physical laws, they direct and order something, and that something is right human behavior. But since morality doesn't exist physically—there are no moral or immoral atoms or cells or genes—its cause has to be something that exists apart from the physical world. That thing must therefore be above nature, or supernatural. The very existence of morality proves the existence of something beyond nature and beyond man. Just as a design suggests a designer, moral commands suggest a moral commander. Moral laws must come from a moral lawgiver. Well, that sounds pretty much like what we know as God.

So the consequence of this argument is that, whenever you appeal to morality, you are appealing to God, whether you know it or not. You're talking about something religious, even if you think you're an atheist.

I'm Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, for Prager University.

2. My Critique

My first reaction to this video was that an axiological argument for the existence of God has to be one of the more bizarre attempts at proving God's existence that I've seen. St. Anselm's ontological proof for the existence of God, while flawed, strikes me as more rigorously logical than Dr. Kreeft's strange undertaking. St. Thomas Aquinas's cosmological proofs—the so-called Five Ways—also strike me as more tightly reasoned than this morality-centered approach, although they, too, are flawed.

My objections to Dr. Kreeft's arguments can be summed up thus:

1. In attempting to refute a mere subset of the total number of naturalistic arguments for the existence/ultimate source of good and evil, Dr. Kreeft has failed to address all the possible arguments and thus cannot proceed directly to the supernatural.

2. Many, if not most, of Dr. Kreeft's objections merely reject possibilities because they are distasteful, not for any rigidly logical reason. These are aesthetic objections, not logical objections.

3. Even if we consider Dr. Kreeft successful in having refuted all the naturalistic arguments for the existence/ultimate source of morality, Dr. Kreeft has failed to demonstrate that a theistic source for morality is the only remaining option. Buddhism builds its system of morality not upon theism, but upon the basic empirical fact of dukkha (suffering, unsatisfactoriness) and the relational, processual, intercausal nature of reality. No god is needed in this moral framework.

Science has also been exploring the question of morality. You might want to take a look at Robert Wright's talk with Dr. Steven Pinker over at (see here). Fast-forward to about minute 34, then listen as Pinker and Wright talk about the notion of objective "moral laws" (i.e., moral realism, the idea that moral laws have objective existence), which enjoy an almost Platonic status, toward which evolving organisms are converging over time—laws that govern, say, cooperative survival strategies, tendencies toward reciprocal behavior, various pancultural forms of the Golden Rule, etc. Nowhere in that discussion is God explicitly invoked.

4. At several points in his argument, Dr. Kreeft assumes what he wishes to prove. A good example of that fallacious move occurs here, early in his argument:

For most of human history, more powerful societies enslaved weaker societies, and prospered. That's just the way it was, and no one questioned it. Now, we condemn slavery. But, based on a merely evolutionary model—that is, an ever-changing view of morality—who is to say that it won't be acceptable again one day? Slavery was once accepted, but it was not therefore acceptable: if you can't make that distinction between accepted and acceptable, you can't criticize slavery. And if you can make that distinction, you are admitting to objective morality.

The notion that "slavery was once accepted, but it was not therefore acceptable" is the crucial phrase here: Dr. Kreeft is merely asserting, not arguing. He offers no support, that I can see, for his contention that slavery wasn't acceptable back in the old days: obviously it was acceptable, or it would never have been practiced! To say that slavery was never acceptable is to say it was never acceptable from a God's-eye point of view—and that's precisely where Dr. Kreeft is assuming what he wishes to prove.

5. Dr. Kreeft's argument suffers from the same problem that plagues most arguments for an objective morality: whose morality, from which culture, is the morality? There are so many moralities out there, and not all of them share certain basic tenets like "killing/murder is bad." This is Cultural Anthropology 101, folks: moralities may overlap, but as with Wittgenstein's notion of family resemblances, distant-cousin moral systems may have little to nothing in common.

6. If we assume that Dr. Kreeft has successfully made the case for theism, Dr. Kreeft still faces all the logical and moral objections to theism itself. To wit: how moral is a jealous and vindictive God? Is the petty, bloodthirsty God of the Old Testament (a God who, in Christian reckoning, sacrifices his son in the New Testament) truly worthy of worship? What about the logical problems that burden most traditional concepts of God? Divine foreknowledge is incompatible with human freedom, for example, and we associate freedom with responsible, moral action. Etc., etc.

I think that about covers my objections to Dr. Kreeft's argument. Basically, I feel that the professor has failed to make the move from "No naturalistic explanation for morality is satisfactory" to "Only theism can explain the existence of morality." His objections to naturalistic explanations are more aesthetic than logical; he fails to answer all the naturalistic arguments for the existence of morality; he fails to provide a compelling case that theism is the only inevitable alternative in the face of naturalism's failures (cf. Buddhism and science on morality); he assumes what he wishes to prove; he fails to deal adequately with the diversity of moral systems; and finally, even if he has succeeded in making the case for God, he faces a mountain of logical and moral objections to theism itself.

That any argument for the existence of God can hold water is doubtful at best. Over the course of human history, no argument has yet proven universally acceptable, and this axiological approach strikes me as one of the stranger—not to mention weaker—attempts at supporting theism.

My thanks to my brother Sean for nudging me to write this post.



Charles said...

Just watched the video. Interesting. His arguments against evolution, human nature, and utilitarianism seem to make sense, but I am not convinced by his arguments against reason and conscience.

In terms of reason, I don't think he defines "reason" the same way I do. When he says that the Gentiles who decided to help the Jews during the Holocaust were not acting reasonably, that tells me he is equating "acting reasonably" to "acting out of a sense of self-preservation." In fact, that seems to be a more evolution-based type of reason (selfish genes and all that).

In terms of conscience, I find the Himmler argument pretty weak, too. Just because Himmler appealed to the consciences of his underlings, that doesn't mean he was necessarily following his own conscience. He could have been (and I think in fact he was) ignoring his conscience and manipulating his subordinates into doing what he wanted them to do by conflating "unquestioning sense of duty" with "conscience"--two things that are not only not the same, they are diametrically opposed.

Anyway, I am not really armed with the language to discuss these issues. I'll be interested to read your post later to see what I missed.

Charles said...

Wow, that was quick!

Much more detailed than my analysis, of course. I figured that the jump from "no naturalistic explanation" to "only supernatural explanation" would be the sticking point. But, like you, I don't think he even managed to make it to the "no naturalistic explanation" stage.

Kevin Kim said...


I like what you had to say about reason. I think Dr. Kreeft does something fishy with the words "reason" and "reasonable"-- perhaps a sort of illicit conflation of the terms, as if "reasonable" were synonymous with "logical."

I also think you make good points re: Kreeft's treatment of conscience. I agree the Himmler argument is weak, and for the reason you provide.

At first, I disagreed with your claim that an "unquestioning sense of duty" is diametrically opposed to "conscience," but if the operative word here is "unquestioning," then I suppose you're on solid ground. Had you not included that word, I'd have argued that Immanuel Kant would disagree with you: from a Kantian perspective, duty and conscience dovetail neatly (cf. his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals).

SJHoneywell said...

My objection is far simpler than yours. His claim that "no" naturalistic explanation works is really just an extended argument from ignorance. Even if he can rightly claim that we have no naturalistic explanation, it doesn't mean that there are no possible naturalistic explanations. The exhaustion of our current possibilities don't mean that a god wins by default.

He also fails to logic away possible combinations of the causes he lists.

Further, the refutations he offers here seem very straw man-y. His argument against reason, for instance, is feeble. The reasoning of murderers fails to tell them that murder is wrong? That's an incredible stretch. My guess is that plenty of murderers know it's immoral. That they know this and commit murder anyway would be true regardless of the source of morality, evidenced by the fact that murders occur.

Finally, he's left out at least one option that certainly plays a part in a great deal of morality: self-interest. I don't wish to have my stuff stolen, so a social contract that condemns theft benefits me. It benefits me more, in fact, than theft and risking being caught and the resultant penalty do. That other people make a different determination is simply that they have chosen differently.

His argument against human nature is, I think, typical of someone who follows a religion that teaches that all of us are born evil and broken and require the supernatural to make us whole again.

Kevin Kim said...

Good points, Steve. I'm glad this post is provoking such thoughtful comments.

Kstylick said...

This is quite an interesting argument. God's existence is a widely debated/questioned topic. I guess no one would really or could really say what the right answer for that is. Each of us could believe whatever we like but it can't be confirmed. In the end I believe God exist. : )

Charles said...

Yes, "unquestioning" was indeed the operative word in that phrase.