Science & Faith
8/21/13 at 09:36 AM 0 Comments

Two Versions of the Moral Argument for God: Which is Best?

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William Lane Craig is well known for advancing many arguments for God's existence, including the moral argument. Here is the moral argument as formulated by Craig:

  • Premise 1: If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
  • Premise 2: Objective moral values do exist.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, God exists.
Dr. Steve Meyer

Stephen Meyer offers a different version of the moral argument in the DVD curriculum TrueU: Does God Exist?

  • 
The existence of God provides the only coherent explanation for the conditions of an objective and meaningful system of morality.
  • Moreover, because the actions of all people reveal that they presuppose an objective and meaningful moral code, only a belief in God’s existence allows people to live consistently with their moral belief system.

If you wish to compare the two forms of the moral argument and weigh their worth, you might start by watching William Lane Craig debate mathematician Herb Silverman on the topic: Does God Exist? (March 23, 2010). Audio and video here.

Craig and Silverman spend much of their time arguing for and against the moral argument for God's existence. Silverman conflates the epistemological and ontological aspects of morality (as does Hitchens in his 2009 debate with Craig at Biola University), while Craig patiently corrects the error. How so? Silverman says the equivalent of "hey, I'm an atheist and I know that rape is wrong without any alleged god telling me so." Craig agrees that Silverman can know rape is wrong independent of a particular religious text (this is an epistemological issue), but maintains that Silverman's atheistic worldview does not provide a basis for objective moral values, such as "rape is wrong" (this is an ontological issue). Silverman's attempt to dismantle the moral argument for God only unwittingly reinforced one of its premises. I leave it to the reader to decide which premise Silverman's objection actually helped support despite Silverman's intentions otherwise. Audio and video here.

To make Craig-Meyer comparison easier, Craig's argument can be paraphrased:

  • Premise 1: If God does not exist, then the conditions necessary for the existence of objective and meaningful moral values do not exist.
  • Premise 2: But objective and meaningful moral values do exist.
  • Conclusion: So God must exist (in whom are located the conditions necessary for the existence of objective and meaningful moral values).

The first sentence in Meyer's argument above is a positive restatement of Craig's initial claim (premise 1). Craig casts his first premise negatively in order to offer a traditionally formulated valid deduction with premises that are easy to support with evidence and that terminates in the conclusion "God exists." Craig's argument takes the logically valid form known in the field of logic as modus tollens. If the premises of a valid deductive argument are true, then the conclusion must also be true. To provide great confidence in the conclusion "God exists," all you have to do is offer strong support for Craig's two premises.

Here is how Craig's argument takes the valid deductive form known as modus tollens:

  • Premise 1: If P, then Q.
  • Premise 2: Not Q.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, not P.

Key to the argumentative structure above: P = God does not exist; Q = objective moral values do not exist; Not P = God does exist (which is the opposite of "God does not exist").

One might ask: Why not formulate the moral argument in the logically valid form known as modus ponens, as outlined below?

  • Alternative Premise 1: If objective moral values do exist, God must exist.
  • Premise 2: Objective moral values do exist.
  • Conclusion: Therefore God exists.

Answer: You can make a much stronger case for God by supporting Craig's premise 1 than the alternative premise 1 above. See Craig's book Reasonable Faith for more information on this.

Now that we have reviewed some basic logic, let's return to the question of which version of the moral argument for God's existence is best: Craig's or Meyer's? While Craig's first premise is a stark "all or nothing" conditional claim about reality (if God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist), Meyer's first claim is supported by the explanatory power one gets by postulating God's existence for the sake of argument, and is expressed as explanatory "coherence," which means "consistency." Here is Meyer's first statement again so you can see what I'm talking about:

The existence of God provides the only coherent explanation for the conditions of an objective and meaningful system of morality.

Both Meyer and Craig offer similar reasons for accepting each of their initial claims. Without God, Meyer and Craig both argue, all one can say (if one assumes an unguided evolutionary origins account) is that moral values are merely social conventions that could have been otherwise (e.g., rape could have ended up being "good") if evolutionary history had taken another path other than it did (or if future evolution so redirects humans). But, as Meyer argues next, "the actions of all people reveal that they presuppose an objective and meaningful moral code" (which is similar to how Craig supports his second premise). So, Meyer concludes, "only a belief in God’s existence allows people to live consistently with their moral belief system." This is a more modest conclusion than Craig's "therefore God exists." Meyer's argument leads the audience to a position where they can begin to grasp good reasons to believe "God exists" based on their own moral experience.

If you watch the TrueU DVD in which Meyer develops his case for God based on scientific evidence (big bang cosmology, DNA, etc.) and experiential moral evidence (moral argument for God), you will note the following component of his moral argument:

The first necessary condition for the existence of objective morality: An objective transcendent standard. Note how the following three worldviews either support (or don't support) this first necessary condition for the objective morality that our own experience shouts at us:

  • Theism. God’s moral standards for us are not arbitrary (not lacking good reasons), but are rooted in God’s character and design plan for humans. On this view, morality is based on a standard that is above (transcends) the various practices of human societies. Proper functioning of our moral capabilities is only possible when we do it God’s way.
  • Pantheism (the view that everything is God) lacks a transcendent moral standard, and thus fails to provide a necessary condition for the sort of objective morality that we experience. This is so because pantheism denies all dualisms (fundamental distinctions), including “good and evil.”
  • Atheism combined with evolutionary biology. This popular viewpoint also denies a transcendent moral standard. Here is one influential statement of this position: “Morality… is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends.... In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.” Michael Ruse and E. O. Wilson.

OK, how about the bottom line: Which is the better moral argument for God: Craig's or Meyer's?

The answer to which is best depends upon the audience (and more). An audience less familiar with formal logic will more easily understand Meyer's argument (most people on earth). Also, because Meyer's conclusion is more modest (God very likely exists) it is easier to support, regardless of the logical literacy of the audience. But, if you are addressing a logically literate audience that is open to considering the evidence for Craig's two premises, then I would go with Craig's formulation of the moral argument. Also, Craig's argument is easier to remember.

If you enjoyed thinking about logic and the reasons for God with me here, then you would enjoy the TrueU curriculum. You might also benefit from the Reasoning course that I teach at The College at Southwestern. This course is part of a "great books" (Plato, Aristotle, etc.) undergraduate college B.A. Humanities program that is located on the campus of that has the first (or second, depending upon how one measures enrollment) largest seminary in the world. My first day of class this semester is tomorrow. We begin the class with an introduction to the moral argument as formulated by Meyer (in TrueU) and Craig (in his book Reasonable Faith). Welcome to class (virtually). In this course I use a University of Oxford Press textbook on reasoning/logic alongside Meyer's TrueU DVDs and Craig's book Reasonable Faith.

Dr. Mike Keas
Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science

The College at Southwestern

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