Luke Muehlhauser Misleads Audience At Colorado State University

Well. I hopped over to Common Sense Atheism today, where I found the transcript from Luke’s talk at Colorado State University, titled The Science Of Morality: No Gods Required.

First off, I wondered how it came to be that Luke – a newbie atheist who was a self-described irrational Christian just a few years ago – was granted the authority to educate students at a major university. What are his credentials? Should anybody with a popular blog be allowed to educate the populace in our public institutions? Lest any hasty inductors be tempted to cry ad hominem, allow me to clarify.

I’m not saying that credentials guarantee integrity and/or ability. I’m not saying that a lack of credentials guarantees a lack of integrity or ability, either. I’m not saying you shouldn’t believe Luke because he’s just another atheist blogger. There is no ad hominem strategy whatsoever in this delivery.

I’m saying I believe it is intellectually irresponsible and possibly even dangerous to allow popular – but unqualified – bloggers to give talks at a major university, where students should be getting their information from qualified professors. I am saying that in the interest of rigorous pursuit of truth, we need a system of checks and balances to make sure we aren’t misleading the students of this once-great nation, because tomorrow those students are going to be leading this once-great nation. I will also say that Luke did exactly that: though he certainly made some cogent remarks here and there, Luke misled the audience at Colorado State University on at least two specious claims that he’s already been called on here, here, here, and here, among other places. We’ll get to that, but for the sake of being charitable, allow me to state where I agree with Luke.

Beginning by drawing a distinction from the common theist claim that atheists can’t act morally – which he and I both agree is a false claim – Luke writes,

So maybe what [people] mean when they say you can’t have morality without God is that without God, nothing is REALLY right or REALLY wrong. Without God, it’s all just a matter of human opinion. Without God, it’s all just quarks and electrons bouncing around and there’s no OBJECTIVE VALUE in the world at all.

With the caveat of something like a moral field, I believe that is true as stated, and this is why I often declare that I would be an error theorist if I were an atheist. Luke continues,

…the phrase “OBJECTIVE moral value” means something like “moral value grounded in something beyond the attitudes of a person or persons.” Right? If what you’re calling “moral value” is just based off somebody’s personal attitudes, that’s called SUBJECTIVE morality. For example: If you say that what’s morally good for Ozzy Osbourne is whatever he thinks is good, and what’s morally good for Paris Hilton is whatever she thinks is good, that’s called Individual Subjectivism.

I believe that is also true as stated, but the ball begins slipping out of Luke’s hand right here:

Well, God-based morality says there’s this person named God, and whatever he thinks is good, is good. So this is another subjective theory! If God approved of rape, rape would be good. If God approved of racism, racism would be good. God-based morality is a SUBJECTIVE theory of morality, just by definition.

Wonderful in its simplicity, isn’t it? [/SARCASM]

Friends, this is either misleading negligence or willful dishonesty, and even though Luke has been corrected on this point before, I have no choice but to suspend judgment. I’m simply unaware of his motives, so I have no business speaking on them. Nonetheless, Luke’s use of the singular “God-based morality” implies that only one type of God-based morality exists: the kind that is grounded in the attitudes of a God or gods. Where is the evidence for this claim?

As it happens, I believe that claim is false, and sometimes I think of it in programming terms. Say you write some class of functions with specific parameters. Then – and only then – can it make sense to say there is something that all instances of the class “should” do. If there are no parameters, then it does not make sense to say there is something that instances of the class “should” or “should not” do. Thus, I argue that biblical theism->moral realism, and atheism->error theory.

Anyways, the salient point here is that Luke didn’t even mention that there is legitimate debate over these issues. He simply sets up the God-based morality he needs to make his point. IOW, he built a strawman and knocked it down, and that under the guise of rationalism at a major university. I don’t know about you, but I’m thoroughly disappointed.

As an aside, Luke’s definition of “subjective morality” renders desirism an equally subjective theory. Desires and aversions are attitudes towards propositions. The only difference is that as delineated thus far, desirism grounds morality in the subjective attitudes of all people instead of the subjective attitudes of any single person [desirism’s pertinence to animal desires has not yet been made clear]. I don’t have the citation directly handy, but I can guarantee you that Luke argues the same subjectivity. For example, he has claimed that if everybody desired to blast loud noise out of a boombox all day, that this would be moral. So then, what, exactly, is the difference between a person declaring as good that which fulfills their desires, vs. people declaring as good that which fulfills their desires? The former maps morality to the attitudes of a person, the latter maps morality to the attitudes of people. There is no correspondence to real-world fact. This is special pleading, plain and simple, but I digress.

Shifting his focus to William Lane Craig, Luke writes,

Well, [WLC] does it by using a different definition for what “objective morality” means. For Craig, “objective morality” means “morality grounded in something beyond the attitudes of a particular species of primate: homo sapiens.” Now, I think this is a bit sneaky, and kind of weird. Why would objective and subjective morality be defined in terms of the attitudes of a particular species of primate? That’s kind of strange.

Again, I agree wholeheartedly, and this is one of many reasons I’m generally not a fan of WLC’s arguments. Although, I would admonish Luke that his definition of objective morality is identical to Craig’s. After all, Luke just defined objective morality as “moral value grounded in something beyond the attitudes of a person or persons,” which is no different than Craig’s definition, since – as far as we know – all persons are Homo sapiens. Luke told the audience that Craig’s definition of objective morality is “sneaky,” yet his own definition is categorically equivalent! For the sake of maximizing clarity and avoiding charges of special pleading, I believe Luke should swap “person or persons” for “sentient being(s),” but again, I digress.

Here’s another point Luke has been corrected on many, many times, for example here and here: the God debate has not been decided. Yet, with flair and recklessness no less than the televangelist’s, Luke has the audacity to proclaim without evidence or argument that,

If you define “morally good” as “that which is commanded by God,” then nothing is morally good, because nothing is commanded by God, because God doesn’t exist.

As a theist, I find this annoying. As a respecter of logic and reason, I find it utterly deplorable. Luke effectively handwaves a millennia-old debate and foists his beliefs upon the impressionable minds at Colorado State University. Folks, this is no less deplorable than if WLC gave a talk in the same place and remarked that morality is whatever the Bible says, because God exists, and God wrote the Bible. I honestly believe that rational atheists and theists alike should condemn Luke for hypocritically preaching atheism and making claims about the real-world without real-world evidence to back them up. Do any atheist readers find this annoying or deplorable? If you share my concerns, please, by all means speak up, either here or at Common Sense Atheism. We can’t afford to replace one irrationality with another.

In his conclusion, Luke summarizes:

We DON’T need gods to have morality – and in fact, grounding your morality in God just makes morality SUBjective, because it’s grounded in the attitudes of a person.

That’s a three-tiered unjustified claim, and I fear that many in the audience probably swallowed it whole. After all, Luke is somewhat of a public figure, even if only in the small pond of (a)theist debate, and that’s going to carry some degree of authority. I won’t swallow any of it without question, though, and neither should you. IMHO, Luke should be asking questions and setting the stage for further debate, not simply asserting as truth what he believes to be true.

12 Comments

  1. Godless Randall says:

    ^Do any atheist readers find this annoying or deplorable? If you share my concerns, please, by all means speak up, either here or at Common Sense Atheism. ^

    yes and hey along the lines of what we talkd about last post i just want to let you know Luke is accusing you of calling for censorship on college campuses, and trolling. i didn’t think it was right so i spoke up and asked for the evidecne

    we’ll see what he says

  2. Matt says:

    I agree with your points about desirism but as to criticizing the university for permitting him to speak I think that this was an event organized by a club. The university is a forum for intellectual diversity and they allowed the club to organize an event and invite a speaker.

  3. Leah says:

    Hey CL,

    I agree that Luke didn’t give proper consideration to a theistic idea of morality that isn’t just based on God’s subjective premises, but I don’t think he was treating that argument as a defeater. Luke doesn’t think the subjectivity of a moral system refutes it, but WLC does, so Luke was trying to argue that god-preference-based-morality would not satisfy WLC. As you correctly pointed out, that is only a defeater of WLC if it corresponds with what WLC believes.

    The real problem I had with the speech is that I still don’t understand what definition of morality, if any, Luke finds important. I’ve been following his desirism posts, and I’m still not exactly sure what desirism is supposed to do. He’s correct that some moral systems are immediately self-contradicting, and some do not correspond with colloquial use of the word morality, but I still can’t tell whether he thinks that colloquial concept is important or what it ought to describe.

    –Leah @ Unequally Yoked

  4. bossmanham says:

    WLC doesn’t think subjectivity automatically means a moral theory isn’t true. He thinks it means it’s subjective. But he also thinks we sense an objective moral value, which is incompatible with SMV’s.

  5. cl says:

    Hey all. Thanks for the input. I haven’t spent much time in comment threads lately, including my own. Rather, I’ve been busy coming up with original posts. I think this might prove a more effective strategy for a few reasons.

    As far as the “call for censorship” thing, I suspect Luke may have been frustrated or just plain hasty in his conclusion. That I question the productivity of what appears to be an “anyone with a popular blog can say anything they want at CSU” policy does not entail a call for censorship on those who wish to discuss complex philosophical arguments. For example, I would have no objection to Luke’s error had Craig also been present to defend himself. Instead, we got a one-sided presentation of a flawed argument that had already been brought to his attention.

    Now, that said, there are types of speech that I do believe ought to be censored in any respectable public university. Should we allow hate speech at universities? I say no, and if you say that’s hostile to free speech, I’m not worried that you might be correct even in the least bit.

    Matt,

    …as to criticizing the university for permitting him to speak I think that this was an event organized by a club.

    I understood that a club produced the event before I made my criticism, and my criticism was not simply that they permitted Luke to speak.

    The university is a forum for intellectual diversity and they allowed the club to organize an event and invite a speaker.

    Again, I agree, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m all for diversity. I explained my concern as clear as possible above, so I won’t go into that again.

    On another note, what in particular do you find difficult to grasp in desirism?

    Leah,

    Good ta c ya. That rhymes with Leah. Yeah, I’m officially on a weird one this morning!

    I agree that Luke didn’t give proper consideration to a theistic idea of morality that isn’t just based on God’s subjective premises, but I don’t think he was treating that argument as a defeater.

    As in, you don’t think Luke offered his counterargument to WLC as a defeater for objective, God-based morality en total? If that’s what you mean, I’d have to say that I don’t know what Luke intended, and his intent wasn’t really part of my concern, which I hopefully clarified to everyone’s satisfaction above.

    Moreover, if the main topic was “The Science Of Morality,” then why devote over a quarter of it to complex philosophical arguments and drag apologetics into it? Why not just advance your own case for this “science of morality” and not even mention God? Then, if you are successful, you will have presented your case for a “science of morality” – quite literally – with no God or gods alluded to.

    Luke doesn’t think the subjectivity of a moral system refutes it, but WLC does, so Luke was trying to argue that god-preference-based-morality would not satisfy WLC. As you correctly pointed out, that is only a defeater of WLC if it corresponds with what WLC believes.

    I agree. The problem is, god-based-attitude-morality — recall that attitude is the word Luke uses — isn’t what WLC believes. Further, Luke makes clear that he actually means arbitrary attitude, as I’ll argue in today’s post.

  6. Matt says:

    I’m late to the whole desirism game having discovered his blog only in the last few months and have been trying to play catchup. I’ve been trying to dig through the podcasts but there’s so much distracting conversation going on. I have to admit it is entertaining sometimes but for someone trying to get up to date on the argument it can be frustrating. Basically, I admit that if I were to bring these issues before Luke and Alonzo they would probably just tell me to keep listening to the podcasts and to read Alonzo’s book. So far, and in my continued reading/listening any of these may be addressed, I have the following issues with desirism:

    1. I think your criticism that desirism being based on subjective desires of people makes it, by Luke’s definition, a subjective moral theory. That’s what I meant in my comment about agreeing with you on desirism.

    2. I’m not sure any objective moral system is philosophically coherent or has sufficiently addressed possible objections. They all are based on a statement that seems invented simply for the practice of that moral theory. For desirism I have yet to see how its claim that the practice of morality is by definition promoting desires that fulfill other desires is an objective statement because a virtue ethicist can simply say that morality is the practice of promoting virtues and neither person really has a reason to believe that their morality is somehow more real other than it lets them practice their theory. It seems what all moral theorists do is work off their moral intuition and go backwards to come up with a “predictive” theory that just fits the datapoints given them by their intuition. I feel DCT fails because centering morality on God gives us the same problem simply inventing a statement that lets you practice your theory. I say that as a Christian and a Sunday school teacher. Unlike most people I’m okay with volunteerism though it would make me happy to have something I feel is an objective reason to look to God for morality.

    3. I know this has been brought up before, but I have yet to completely understand desirism’s side on this issue. I do not yet see how desirism is not just utilitarianism using different language. Desire fulfillment can simply be a better word than happiness and desirism seems, despite Alonzo’s objection, to really be maximizing desire fulfillment.

    Anyway, I may find information form the desirist camp that explains these issues to me as I continue to catch up and read fun little sci-fi stories about aliens with weird fetishes on planets with single digit populations.

  7. Tory says:

    God, I do find this Luke character nauseating; I use to read a lot of philosophy of religion a few years back, and a fair bit of ethics too, and I have to say I’d never heard of Luke Muehlhauser or this Alonzo character – why? Because in the intrepid realm of academic endeavor these guys are absolute nobodies. I remember someone pointing his blog out and finding myself perusing his podcast – very interesting – but the guy himself…..why on earth is he indulged? I remember him saying he wants to ‘contribute to ethics’ – what audacity. Men and women study all their lives gaining the necessary knowledge and credentials and then proffer their ideas to the academic community; this nobody thinks he can just barge in, having read a book a two, and blather on about something he has an interest in. One word sums him up: dilettante.

    Oh, and his person being entertained at a major university? Absolutely laughable, how pathetic.
    I’m trained in history, with two degrees in the discipline, in no way is Luke paralleled to myself in regards to philosophy and yet he’s up there with the big boys of the discipline running his mouth of. Analogously I’m far better qualified in history than he philosophy and yet no professional historian would give me the time of day (and nor should they) let alone let me lecture to a bunch of undergraduates.

  8. cl says:

    Matt,

    As far as catching up over there, you might find my CSA index helpful, if you haven’t already seen it. I commented on all the major desirism posts this year. I still need to add November and December but other than that I’m logged through early October.

    I think your criticism that desirism being based on subjective desires of people makes it, by Luke’s definition, a subjective moral theory. That’s what I meant in my comment about agreeing with you on desirism.

    That’s reassuring. I’m working on a post about this right now.

    For desirism I have yet to see how its claim that the practice of morality is by definition promoting desires that fulfill other desires is an objective statement because a virtue ethicist can simply say that morality is the practice of promoting virtues and neither person really has a reason to believe that their morality is somehow more real other than it lets them practice their theory.

    Yeah, I pretty much agree.

    It seems what all moral theorists do is work off their moral intuition and go backwards to come up with a “predictive” theory that just fits the datapoints given them by their intuition.

    Yes, that happens to be exactly what I think Alonzo – and to a lesser extent, Luke – are doing. Every one of Alonzo’s “applied desirism” posts starts with something that Alonzo and people like Alonzo don’t like, then ends by showering condemnation on whoever disagrees. No science required. See for example his post Trivial Hobbies.

    I feel DCT fails because centering morality on God gives us the same problem simply inventing a statement that lets you practice your theory. I say that as a Christian and a Sunday school teacher.

    I think what you mean there is DCT in the sense where one person says, “God told me this” and another says, “God told me that” and then they get in a fight. Right? If so, I would agree that that type of DCT seems counterproductive. However, would you question the productivity of direct obedience to the God of the Bible, as in out from under the auspices of divine hiddenness? If God really is all-knowing and all-loving, then that type of DCT simply cannot fail – of course, man’s willful disobedience obviously notwithstanding.

    I do not yet see how desirism is not just utilitarianism using different language. Desire fulfillment can simply be a better word than happiness and desirism seems, despite Alonzo’s objection, to really be maximizing desire fulfillment.

    I couldn’t agree more. If you go through the index you’ll see that countless people make this objection, from the beginning of the year until now. I am still not convinced that Luke and Alonzo aren’t smuggling a categorical imperative in the back door. It’s frustrating though, because they won’t stick their balls out and just say, “Everyone should have desires that fulfill other desires.” I think they know that’s going to be a hard claim to justify. So, we end up with these weird sort of passive condemnation statements: “people generally have reason to condemn X,” etc., which are just equivocations for when the desirist definition of good breaks down.

    Tory,

    I really don’t have that much of a problem with Luke to be honest. Sure, he makes personal attacks and blacklists my questions, and yeah, it’s discouraging that he made it personal, but whatever, it’s nothing for me to judge him about. I only roast him because he talks such a big game about fairness and “applying the same standard” to one’s own beliefs. I don’t even have a problem with CSU letting him speak per se, but I do think that there should have been some sort of peer review that would have caught the WLC error. Or, as I said, if WLC was there to defend himself.

    Still, that said, yeah, I agree with you… I find much of the talk about morality at CSA to be high-talk with nothing to back it up.

  9. Matt says:

    Thanks for the link. I’ll check out the other posts and spend some time studying.

    Differing opinion on what God wants doesn’t bother me that much about DCT. What I meant is that DCT fails because, like other theories, you’re simply defining morality for the sake of having a theory of morality. DCT does this when it just says “morality is grounded in God’s nature.” A theist can just assert that to make morality about God. An atheist can simply say “morality is grounded in the desires of individuals.” We may be compelled to accept the logical conclusions of our definitions of morality, but I don’t know what compels us to accept one definition over the other -including DCT. I guess the only goal we would have is “is the theory logically coherent?”

  10. cl says:

    Matt,

    What I meant is that DCT fails because, like other theories, you’re simply defining morality for the sake of having a theory of morality. DCT does this when it just says “morality is grounded in God’s nature.” A theist can just assert that to make morality about God. An atheist can simply say “morality is grounded in the desires of individuals.”

    I think I understand what you mean now. You’re saying that, from the perspective of humans here on Earth – who have not solved these problems with any sort of objective finality – saying “God is the ground” is categorically equivalent to saying “Desires are the ground.” If that’s what you mean, I’m not sure whether I agree or not. I mean, I can understand where Luke and Alonzo are coming from. They really do believe that God does not exist. Therefore, for them, and many other atheists like them, “Desires are the ground” is the obvious choice. Conversely, many believers – myself included – really do believe God exists, which makes DCT the obvious choice.

    However, you raise an interesting point:

    I guess the only goal we would have is “is the theory logically coherent?”

    From a philosophical angle, I think that’s our only option, and I think it’s quite easy to see which is superior here. Consider:

    1) If moral facts exist, the God of the Bible would have perfect knowledge of them;

    2) If the God of the Bible is truly omni-benevolent, such a God would base decrees on perfect knowledge of moral facts;

    3) Is such a God is eternal and unchanging, we have permanent, perfect decrees based on moral facts;

    4) The decrees of such a God would be the most efficient and errorproof theory of morality possible.

    “Moral facts” would mean something like, “Knowledge of the full consequences of any given act on any given agent(s). Of course, there are hooks here: if all those premises are true, we can only partake in the benefits of this by full submission to God’s decrees. For some people – in fact probably for all people – this is going to entail varying degrees of discomfort. There’s also the hook of, “What if God doesn’t exist?” Well, that’s easy: if God doesn’t exist, then any theory of morality based on God becomes a useful fiction at best. However, the upside is that we would have something like a “morality calculator” that never broke, and our system could be fairly called objective [from a human pov]. IOW, God couldn’t ever approve of lying if somehow lying tended to fulfill other desires. In the same way we can choose to disregard God’s objective laws of physics and jump off a building, we can also choose to disregard God’s objective moral standards and live however we see fit. We can do either to our own peril, but this fact doesn’t preclude the objectivity of either.

    Next, consider:

    1) If moral facts exist, desirism provides the most accurate interpretation and best means of predicting them [the desires fulfilled / thwarted model];

    2) Morally good desires are desires that tend to fulfill other desires;

    3) Morally evil desires are desires that tend to thwart other desires.

    I honestly shudder to think of the difficulties here. The whole thing is still grounded in people’s attitudes. Desires are subjective. Humanity lacks practical means for the evaluation of all desires that exist in any given moral calculation. Desires cannot fulfill or thwart other desires because they are brain states. An evil desire will tend to fulfill other desires, if those other desires are themselves evil. If you haven’t read it yet, I still think Cartesian’s Nazi example provides the best illustration of that last principle to date. Luke and Alonzo claim they’ve successfully rebutted the 1000 sadists problem [of which Cartesian’s example is a variant], but I strongly disagree. Another hook here is that a state of affairs could arise in which we have every Dick, Joe and Bill spouting off on morality and their opinions of what “people generally” have reason to condemn. Whereas with DCT, we wouldn’t have that problem.

    I know which seems more logically coherent to me. Not to mention more practical.

  11. Matt says:

    You seem to understand what I meant and are able to explain it better than I did. I would have to say that this “categorical equivalence” problem between DCT and Desirism would still apply even if God exists because to my knowledge his existence does not in itself require us to ground morality in his nature. I may do it out of love as a Christian, but I still don’t know if it makes sense from a philosophical perspective based simply on the assertion that he exists.

    I think the logical coherence route is probably best if you can get the atheist to put aside the “but God doesn’t exist” objection for a bit.

    The more I’ve been reading about desirism the more I’ve come up with some issues with it. These are a bit more nit-picky I guess.

    1. We don’t always desire to know the truth. Could desire to believe a lie ever be a good desire if it fulfilled more desires? I know Luke and Alonzo believe that God’s existence is a lie but most people seem to desire God on some level. Would that mean that desiring to spread atheism is a bad desire?

    2. Do hidden unconscious desires that motivate superficial desires get measured? I say I desire a Republican in the Whitehouse but my unconscious desire just wants to form a group identity based on subjective values we have put together to tell the “in group” from the “out group.” Part of that is swearing allegiance to the Republican party. Let’s say 90% of the country does that (September 11th just happened). Is having a Republican president a good desire or do we? This could be any popular world leader. If our chosen leader wins our subconscious desire is not fulfilled because it is based on the desire for group identity but our overt desire is fulfilled. Do you take those concepts into consideration when considering what is a good desire. If fulfilling an overt desire thwarts a subconscious desire which is the better desire? Think like promoting a band because you like the unique identity you get from being a fan of the band but then when you get your friends to listen to them they become popular and you lose that identity.

  12. Matt says:

    Sorry I edited my last comment poorly. The sentence “Is having a Republican president a good desire or do we” should conclude “fulfill the desire for political group identity”

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