Craig’s moral argument

William Lane Craig has given the following argument for years:

[I]f there is no God, then what’s so special about human beings? They’re just accidental by-products of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth, lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe, and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. On the atheistic view, some action, say, rape, may not be socially advantageous and so in the course of human development has become taboo. But that does absolutely nothing to prove that rape is really morally wrong. On the atheistic view, if you can escape the social consequences, there’s nothing really wrong with your raping someone. And thus without God there is no absolute right and wrong which imposes itself on our conscience.

If find the argument strikingly odd. I really mean what I just said, it’s not code for calling the argument “obviously wrong”. The argument has a sort of dream-like or fairy tale logic to it, like “if you blow out the lamp the kingdom will fall”. The basic insight is that “what is physical” is divided from “what is normative/ moral” in such a way that one cannot derive the one from the other. Very well. But then why is it that moral or normative being needs to be reduced to a divine cause? Why not just say that moral and physical being are different and that’s that? The most striking way to illustrate this might be to turn the argument around: take the normative as a given,  insist that one cannot derive physical being from it, and then say that this suffices to prove that God must be the cause of physical being. If this argument is radically defective, why is Craig’s argument any better?

Craig can get away with arguments like this since there is a background premise that everyone is assuming: either naturalism or supernaturalism is true,  but our ideas of the natural are so hopeless that Craig is allowed to merely point out something that is different from physical being and immediately conclude that this not only proves the existence of the supernatural, but even that being which is the greatest possible in the supernatural order. But this says far more about the weakness of our account of nature than it does about the power of the moral argument. Craig does have a valuable point, namely that the physical cannot exhaust the real. But this does not prove the existence of God or even make such existence reasonable, it more removes one impediment to the existence of God, namely, the refusal to allow any non-physical reality. Moral experience allows us a way to see that the physical cannot exhaust the real (so does our experience with mathematical things) but one needs to do a great deal more work before this can speak to the fundamental point of disagreement between theism and atheism.

The problem is that given our hopeless understanding of nature, atheists are backed into corners they don’t need to get backed into and theists are left powerless to do anything with the god they think they have found.



  1. Paul Boire said,

    October 31, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    I am by no means a sophisticated thomist with exhaustive answers, but I found your comments concerning Craig’s moral argument, interesting. . I tried to press the point with an atheistic philosopher a while back that if atheism were true then there are no ends or purposes. Therefore no moral order is possible. No moral wrong is possible. Even evolution requires that there be a God if people whoud try to comment upon evolution in terms say of things like a ‘higher order’ species who should cooperate, as some atheists have attempted to argue.

    At the core with atheism is the removal of the ultimate principle of intelligibility, God, leaving the possibility of only not-even-accidental physical events, including this post. This, I agree doesn’t of itself prove the existence of God, but I pressed the point that atheism precludes any kind of intelligibility; any claim to any morality or good.

    Even the ordering of our lives and sciences under mindless , purposeless atheistic premises is reduced to an unintelligible brute fact and our sense of intelligent direction is just a meaningless orderless series of events that we think we are thinking to be ordered. I find the argument supporting the unreliability of reason if all is just physical, mindless stuff acceptable as well, again with our sense of order presentable as a not even accidental unintelligible thing. Thanks so much for the wonderful blog which constantly provides such excellent insights.

  2. Matt said,

    October 31, 2011 at 11:11 pm

    Hi James,

    I’ve been a silent reader of your blog for awhile.

    What if the argument was abductive? Perhaps if you take moral realism as a given it is more likely given theism than atheism. The scope is pretty narrow here. It only works if you consider the only options as atheism or theism, but it seems that is all most of Craig’s debates are about.

    • November 1, 2011 at 9:04 am

      if you take moral realism as a given it is more likely given theism than atheism

      That’s right, but I still don’t see how the argument is supposed to work. What is there about the normative or moral that makes everyone think that God must be involved with it? Apparently, the physical lacks this sort of immediate “divine reference”. Why is that?

      Consider the opposite possibility which is apparently intuitively false, that is, we look at the moral and say “well, clearly, given that the normative exists, we don’t need God” (someone might think, for example, that we don’t need God to rule us because we can get by just fine on the moral law). Why is there more reason to Craig’s inference than this one?

      • Matt said,

        November 4, 2011 at 2:43 pm

        Good point. Sorry for my slow reply.

        I think that the moral argument really has secret arguments behind it. It really rests on the concept of purpose. Perhaps it should be something like “Objective morality requires a universe with a purpose and a universe with purpose is more likely on theism than atheism.” That would be a bigger mouthful to get across in a debate though.

        Personally I think the moral argument is weaker than Craig’s other ones. For one thing, his opponent can simply say that there is no objective morality, also, I’m not sure how objective morality exists even with Christianity. In what way are we explicitly obligated to follow what God had in mind when creating the universe other than for fear of punishment or a subjective decision to love God?

      • November 4, 2011 at 3:36 pm

        Right, I think the argument has to be brought back to some sense of meaning or purpose: Victor Frankl’s argument in chapter 5 of Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning (on conscience) would be a good start. Frankl is neglected in moral philosophy, to the eternal discredit of moral philosophers.

  3. Gian said,

    November 1, 2011 at 12:54 am

    Are the non-atheistic and also non-theist views totally discounted from the current philosophic discourse?
    I refer to views such as Advaitic monism of Hindus, and similar Hegelian views.

    • November 1, 2011 at 9:09 am

      In order to bridge from the theist/atheist dichotomy to those views, we would have to have a pretty thorough analysis of the principle of contradiction, and the various ways in which it is reasonable to try to transcend it.

  4. Crude said,

    November 1, 2011 at 11:28 pm

    This reminds me of a conversation I had a few years ago, where I found out a person thought that the only two options in philosophy of mind were reductive materialism and cartesian dualism. Not that they thought all positions ultimately reduced to one or the other upon investigation – they were honestly unaware of any other alternatives whatsoever.

  5. Hans said,

    November 22, 2011 at 5:18 am

    It still would seem as if Craig is right to infer that if there is no God then Objective moral values and duties do not exist. For they are by definition transcendental. Or am I saying something wrong here?

    • November 22, 2011 at 10:43 am

      I agree that they are necessarily transendent in the sense that moral being is divided absolutely from physical being. But “to be divided from/ transcend the physical” is not the same thing as “to be divine”. We transcend the physical, after all – which Craig himself would certainly insist on.

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