May 10, 2015
Though I’m a Christian of some sort, I believe moral agnosticism is the only honest response to the question of whether or not objective moral values exist. On my worldview, objective moral values are nothing more than God’s decrees. Sure, as a theist, I believe God and His decrees exist, and in fact I can “test” the truth of their existence by noting the results when I follow them and when I don’t, but I’m of the opinion that the question is not empirically resolvable – in short because you need to know if the valuer exists before you can know if their values exist.
Under my definition of values as parameters for behavior, the question “do objective values exist?” cannot be definitively answered unless we know whether or not God or some “Creator” exists because the parameters in question – God’s decrees – are nothing more than organized intent, and though the intent has an ontological foundation in God, the intent itself is arguably not ontologically objective. In other words, the intent doesn’t exist ontologically, only the intenter does.
In response to those ideas, Jeff Lowder wrote:
There are good reasons to think that we can know if objective values exist without knowing if God exists.
1. In order to determine if objective values exist, one must first:
(a) have a rigorous definition of “objective values”;
(b) determine whether ontologically objective values require an ontological foundation; and
(c) determine if there are nontheistic ontological foundations available.
2. If objectivity is defined epistemologically, we do not need to know if God exists in order to know if objective values exist.
3. If objectivity is defined ontologically, we do not need to know if God exists in order to know if objective values exist. This is because:
(a) it’s far from obvious that ontologically objective moral values require an ontological foundation; and
(b) if they do, nontheistic foundations are available.
4. Therefore, we do not need to know if God exists in order to know if objective values exist.
Along similar lines, at Reppert’s, Jeff recently said:
[N]o one has successfully demonstrated a logical contradiction between God’s non-existence and objective morality.
Are these true statements?
I agree with 1(a), that we need a rigorous definition of “objective values” in order to proceed, and I think Jeff provides that. We must know what we’re looking for before we can find it. I can accept 1(b) and 1(c) for the sake of brevity, but neither 1(a), 1(b) or 1(c) are good reasons to think we can know if objective values exist without knowing if God exists.
What about 2? If we define “objectivity” epistemologically, do we need to know if God exists in order to know if objective values exist? I’d say no, we’d only need to identify a single instance of an ubiquitous moral value. But what if we define “objectivity” ontologically? Jeff says even then we don’t need to know if God exists, because 3(a) “it’s far from obvious that ontologically objective moral values require an ontological foundation,” and 3(b) “if they do, nontheistic foundations are available.”
With regard to 3(a), I disagree. Wouldn’t an “ontologically objective moral value” be a thing that we could isolate, like the Higgs Boson? To me, it seems not only obvious but required that ontologically objective values have an ontological foundation, because the adjective ontologically denotes something that exists in actuality, in the same way atoms do.
As an aside, I accept the claim “if God exists, ontologically objective moral values exist.” To make an analogy, a program’s source code is nothing more than a set of rules that governs the behavior of bytes. I’d say the code I wrote earlier today is ontologically objective in the sense that it would continue to exist and continue to govern the behavior of bytes even if all human beings suddenly disappeared off planet Earth right now. Can anybody disagree with that?
Similarly, if God exists, God’s decrees – God’s “source code” if you will – is nothing more than a set of rules that governs the behavior of people. God’s source code is a set of organized intentions designed to produce a desired – read, valuable – outcome. In other words, if we could know with certainty that God existed, isn’t it certain that ontologically objective moral values exist? I’d say even the staunchest atheist must admit that God’s decrees are ontologically objective moral values in the sense Lowder describes.
However, is the opposite true? If we could know atheism was true with certainty, would it be certain that objective moral values do not exist? In other words, does atheism necessarily entail error theory, nihilism, that everything is permitted, etc.? I’d say yes, whether we define “objective moral values” epistemologically or ontologically.
If we define “objective moral values” epistemologically under atheism, it seems self-evident that objective moral values don’t exist. Look around the world! Different cultures have clashing moralities. If we define “objective moral values” ontologically under atheism, it also seems self-evident that they don’t exist. In order for “objective moral values” to exist ontologically on the atheist worldview, they would need to be grounded to something that isn’t dependent on the mental states of people. But, under atheism, the mental states of people are the only entities capable of processing questions about moral values. Under atheism, all morality is subject to the mental states of persons.
Therefore, I assert that we have demonstrated a logical contradiction between God’s non-existence and objective morality, as defined by Lowder and accepted by myself.
3(b) is a bare naked assertion. Going back to 2, natural selection can’t be expected to produce epistemologically objective moral values, as natural selection simply selects for whatever traits expedite survival at a given point in time. In one part of the world at one time, the selected trait might be “harmony in the tribe” but in another part it might be “kill others in the tribe.” So it’s hard to simply accept Jeff’s assertion about nontheistic foundations, since he neither demonstrates their logical possibility nor supplies a single example of one.
Hence, the path to 4 is not a clear shot and this progression doesn’t work.