Monday 21 February 2011

Moral argument fails to impress

In the second instalment of my review of Evidence for God edited by Dembski & Licona, I look at "The Moral Argument for God's Existence" by Paul Copan.*

The short form:

In a fairly blustering manner Copan merely asserts that objective moral values are built in to humans because they are made in the image of God. He refers obliquely to Alvin Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism but doesn't offer much else. To him the only options are moral absolutism on the one hand and moral relativism on the other. (He should read Sam Harris.)

The longer form:

Copan is using the same argument as William Lane Craig:
  1. If objective moral values exist, then God exists.
  2. Objective moral values do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
This is a tired old argument that fails in both its premises (it's also poorly — and circularly — worded.) For a start, Copan doesn't define objective moral values in any other way than existing "whether or not a person or culture believes in them" (p 20.) This says nothing about their source. Copan simply assumes that humans are aware of these values because humans "have been made in the image of God" (p 21.) As usual for proponents of this argument he doesn't explain what this is supposed to mean. Premise 1 is an example of begging the question, in which the premise contains the assumption it's attempting to prove: by objective, Copan and Craig mean transcendent or god-given, because that's what they think is meant by "existing whether or not a person or culture believes in them".

But there's no reason to suppose that so-called objective moral values exist independent of what people believe. We know that humans tend to detect agency, and do so even when — in some cases — no agents are present. They evolved as such because detecting agency gave them a survival advantage — it's better to detect agents when no agents are present, than not to detect them when they are. This propensity for attributing agency led early humans into animism, and then into varieties of theism. So the idea of a "supreme agent" comes rather easily to a culture steeped in the necessary detection of agency, and that superior agent is naturally assumed to have intentions and desires regarding the beings over which it is supreme.

The truth, however, is that moral values are not handed down from above, but built up from within the evolving culture itself, as matters of social glue, co-operation for common benefit, and mutual flourishing. Organised religion seeks to codify these values in order to offer shortcuts to moral decision-making, unfortunately tending to set the values in stone, often with disastrous results.

But back to the book. In several places Copan contradicts himself. He places objective morality and relative morality as opposites with nothing in between, yet quotes Samuel Johnson as saying, "The fact that there is such a thing as twilight does not mean that we cannot distinguish between day and night" (p 22.) He goes on to maintain that without objective moral values we cannot know right from wrong. He also maintains that "normally functioning human beings" are aware of objective moral values, and then uses Jeffrey Dahmer — a psychopath — as an example of what happens if you don't believe in them. He's already said that atheists can be moral, yet here he's equating them with psychopaths?

This is really unimpressive. We're only two chapters in, and I can only assume Dembski and Licona put the weakest arguments first, and that the strong ones are later in the book. I hope so, else this review is going to be an extremely tedious project.

*A version of Copan's chapter is available here: