Transcendence, Moral Facts, and the God of Theism: Critiquing Vuletic (2002)
In a recent Internet paper, Mark I. Vuletic has set out to show that, contrary to the beliefs of many religious believers, it is not the case that God's existence is implied by the existence of moral facts. In this essay, I wish to respond to Vuletic's arguments on this issue in two sections. In the first section, I will take up his two preliminary responses to the theistic Moral Argument. Additionally, I show that contrary to his assumptions, theories that lead us to strange results cannot rightly be considered false simply due to that fact, and, moreover, the theistic hypothesis cannot even be said to lead to these types of results. Lastly, it is shown (in the second section) why, even if theists cannot explain these moral truths better than naturalists can, there is still good reason to think the objective morality we find in the actual world fits better with theism than with naturalism.
Problem I: The "How's" and the "Why's"
Vuletic begins his essay with two brief, preemptive strikes against any theistic argument from transcendent objective morality. First, he claims that secular ethical systems, if true, give us an account of objective morality where moral truths are in no way transcendent. And secondly, he wonders why anyone should believe moral facts (transcendental or not) exist in the first place. Now, I agree with Vuletic that we can bypass these issues (as he did in his essay) and still ably discuss the merits of theism and naturalism when it comes to hypothetical, but perhaps actual, transcendent moral facts. In doing so, the modesty of my thesis increases; I am merely arguing for this conditional: If transcendental moral facts exist, there exists evidence for theism over naturalism. Having said this, I still wish to present some comments concerning Vuletic's two initial points. Frankly, regardless of whether either of these arguments succeed against an argument from transcendental moral facts to theism, neither one provides the naturalist a viable way around the more general and quite plausible inference to theism from objective morality. There is in fact excellent reason to believe that moral laws are real and, moreover, even if these are not transcendental realities, their existence still undermines the truth of naturalism in favor of theism. With this said, allow me to further flesh out this duo of replies as such:
(i) As was mentioned, Vuletic says that if any of the major ethical systems are correct (e.g. utilitarianism, Kantianism, etc.), then the argument from moral facts to God cannot even get off the ground. This is because, such systems provide us an objective morality without any transcendental moral facts. In assessing this contention, we first should inquire as to what Vuletic has in mind when he speaks of "transcendental moral facts." It is not so clear, but it seems he takes such facts, if they exist, to be immaterial entities, seemingly propositions like, "Murder is wrong." Now, I think this first opening argument from Vuletic is doubly problematic. Take any such ethical system and make this query: Are the principles underlying the system in some way dependent on human thought or invention or are such facts a human discovery? If the former, then not only does the theory explain away transcendental moral facts, it explains away objective moral facts altogether. Morality would be like traffic laws; the rules could change according to human whim. If, on the other hand, humans discovered the facts that make up such an ethical stance, then there are certain moral principles that exist independently of, and are discernible by, human minds. If we know utilitarianism to be true, for instance, then human knowers would have come upon roughly the following fact:
(F) Right actions are those that produce the greatest good for the community.
Now, in considering the initial problem with Vuletic's first argument, we can put aside the question of whether such a fact, if real, would be a transcendental or immaterial entity. The question comes up, nonetheless, as to why such a moral universe exists. That is, given the existence of such objective moral truths, there would appear to be a rather finely-tuned moral order set in place in the world. Right and wrong, good and bad, and so on, just happen to pertain to certain actions and occurrences. But how and why did some such events come to be ethically good or bad? And, even more, why did there ever come to exist beings to whom such principles apply? The second problem lies in the very existence of moral properties themselves. For any theory of ethics to be considered true (or even viable), that theory must allow for and take into account the fact that human beings have an intrinsic dignity and moral worth far above that of any other earthly creature. But it is rather challenging to see how naturalism can allow for such things. Just as mental properties seem out of place or "queer" in a naturalist ontology, so do moral properties. How is it that nonphysical qualities have come to exist in a naturalistic world dominated by physical objects and blind processes? Theism has no problem in this regard, for on that model, there exists an essentially morally perfect Being who is the eternal source of moral properties. Thus, we see that even if moral facts themselves are nontranscendental in nature, their reality presents notable obstacles for naturalists. Vuletic's assumption that, "it is incumbent upon believers to refute all of these theories if they wish to show that even materialism, much less atheism, is inconsistent with the existence of moral facts" is a false one. (ii) Vuletic, in his second preliminary argument, expresses doubt towards moral realism. He says: "it is uncertain whether there are such things as moral facts at all." I do not care to enter into this issue too deeply for it seems easily resolved. To such skepticism, we might merely respond with an inquiry, for example: Were the terrorist acts of September 11 objectively evil or not? The answer, of course, is that the actions were obviously an example of genuine moral evil. Moral realism, therefore, must be true. Vuletic's second consideration fails to undermine confidence in any argument for theism from morality.
Given that transcendent moral facts exist (remember that I am assuming this in order to argue for the aforementioned conditional), we do well to ask for an explanation of their existence. Why are there these moral facts rather than none at all? Vuletic recognizes that naturalism has really no answer to this question. Now if theism can offer a plausible explanation of their reality, then we would have an additional reason to adopt theism over naturalism. William Hasker correctly claims: "explanation is one of the desiderata normally expected of a worldview, and the superiority of a particular worldview in explaining important matters can legitimately be cited in its favor." Vuletic, though, thinks that any theistic account will inevitably end in failure. He begins by stating that theists are forced to claim either that God has created moral facts or that such truths simply "emanate" from God. While I agree that the former deserves rejection, the latter (in some refined form) is, I think, a viable option for the theist. Vuletic, though, rejects this explanation on the grounds that it multiplies the "mysteries" involved. We now have allegedly several anomalies to be explained (transcendental moral facts, a mysterious God, and God's way of grounding moral facts) instead of just one (transcendental moral facts). According to Vuletic, one cannot accept explanations that appeal to the "inexplicable and incomprehensible."
For the moment, let us put aside questions of whether the supernaturalist's theory really is so nonplusing. Let us assume that these unfathomable quandaries do result. Is this fact sufficient to show the theistic account implausible? It appears not. We can see the mistaken nature of Vuletic's critique when we apply it to certain other phenomena that, if real, would require an explicitly theistic explanation regardless of any new intellectual challenges that such an explanation might produce. Take, for example, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. If this event truly took place, then surely we know that there is at least one empirical event for which God's activity is the best explanation. But notice that divine intervention would be the most plausible account here even despite any new curiosities it might bring up. We could concede that God's existence is utterly mysterious as is His method of resurrecting the dead and yet we would still recognize that divine activity is needed to explain the occurrence. So, we find that a theistic hypothesis would be required even with its added mystery. Vuletic's objection is then surely not sufficient to defeat a theistic explanation of any sort, one concerning morals or anything else. But, then again, I am not the only one who recognizes this. Indeed do not skeptics (including Vuletic, I presume) invariably tell us that if they saw a blatant manifestation of God--say John 3:16 written out in the stars--they would surely become theists? But notice that most of these "freethinkers" would admit that the theistic hypothesis would be the best one even if it did bring about new intellectual puzzles. The implausibility of Vuletic's counterargument comes through all the more when we see that, if he is correct then this Gospel skywriting is better seen as a brute fact with literally no explanation behind it than it is seen as an act of God! The brute event explanation, after all, would leave us with just one puzzle (the skywriting) while the theistic account gives us three (skywriting, God, and how God produces skywriting). However, we know that such an appeal to brute facts is simply outlandish here, especially when contrasted with a Christian theistic explanation. We must admit, then, that a theory that adds mysteries cannot be considered an inadequate theory just because it adds mysteries. Vuletic is forced to come up with alternative criticisms in order to show the theist's perspective unworthy of adherence. Until then, we are justified in thinking that since theism explains transcendental moral facts and naturalism does not, then such moral facts would provide support for theism and shed doubt on naturalism.
But we can go further in critiquing the problems Vuletic sets forth. It is worth pondering whether the theist's explanation does actually generate the sorts of confusions he tells us of. Do these alleged mysteries really plague the theist's case? First, is the God of theism truly as "mysterious" as the impersonal moral truths hypothetically posited by Vuletic? I see not one reason to think so; at least, Vuletic provides no argument demonstrating that this is so. Rather, it seems theists traditionally think of God as having the reason for His existence within Himself. In critiquing an identical objection made by Thomas Nagel, Groothuis writes:
Vuletic should tell us why such an idea is implausible or incoherent, or else he cannot rightfully claim that God is inexplicable. The first mystery dissolves. What of the "causation" problem Vuletic mentions? He says that, "No one understands what it would mean for a god to emanate transcendental moral facts any more than they understand what it would mean for a rock to emanate the number 5." As I said above, it is plausible to think of these moral facts, if they exist, as propositions like, "Murder is wrong." But, interestingly, we typically think of propositions as being grounded in minds. The implication, of course, is straightforward: theists can plausibly explain the relation between moral laws and God as the former stemming from the intellect of the latter. What is strange or "mysterious" about this proposal? It appears nothing. To think of propositions as being grounded in God's mind has been considered a tenable position among several noteworthy philosophers from Plantinga to Quentin Smith. Smith, one of today's renowned atheist philosophers (and something of a Secular Web hero at that), even uses this divine intellection model to develop a "rationally acceptable" theistic proof. It is, of course, up to Vuletic to set forth reasons why we should find this theistic conceptualism rationally unacceptable. Without this, the second mystery dissolves similarly. Now with these two apparent curiosities clarified, we find that the original one disappears, as well. If neither God nor the way in which God grounds transcendental moral facts are mysterious, then certainly theism has a handy explanation of such moral facts. Transcendent moral facts are no longer inexplicable and the original problem is thus a problem no longer.
We see, then, that none of Vuletic's criticisms of the theistic view succeed on this front. The consequences of such a hypothesis that he finds incomprehensible are not truly incomprehensible--and even if they were, this would not be enough to show the theist's explanation wanting. To be sure, the naturalist may have a superior explanation or he may have some good way of showing the theistic view unacceptable. It's just that Vuletic has provided neither of these.
Problem II: Eager Anticipation
Even on the assumption that theism is no better at explaining the reality of these moral facts than is naturalism, it does not necessarily follow that these two perspectives are on equal footing when it comes to transcendent morality. Vuletic states that: "some believers have a rejoinder: while theism may not render the mere existence of transcendent moral facts more probable than atheism, at least it explains why these moral facts have anything to do with humans." However, problems arise when Vuletic attempts to formulate this argument more specifically. He puts the theist's alleged contention like this: "If there is a god . . . one can expect that god to create transcendental moral facts governing rational beings; but if there is no god, then it must just be a huge coincidence that these moral facts apply to rational beings." So, Vuletic believes most theists would hold that even if theism does not make the existence of moral facts more probable than does naturalism, it does make it more probable than naturalism that transcendental moral facts would govern the activity of rational beings rather than that of nonrational beings, such as beasts or stones. In putting the theist's supposed response in this form, Vuletic is able to put forth a rather easy answer. He notes that it is not surprising that these principles uniquely "apply to" (i.e., govern) human kind, for they are the only beings having the requisite rationality to follow such rules. So, no atheistic explanation is needed as to why moral prescriptions specially "apply" to humans and no others. This first criticism becomes irrelevant, however, when we recognize that the Christian, in his revised argument, is not at all asking why humans, of all creatures, are the only ones obligated to exercise moral responsibility. It will be readily agreed that humans are the only ones so obligated, as they are the sole creatures capable of such agency. Rather, the real problems are more poignant and more numerous: Why did there come to exist beings (moral agents) who have the moral constitution and cognitive faculties so as to be able to discern these moral truths, have it within their ability to comply with them, and feel obligated to so comply? Call this the Problem of Anticipation. To quote William Lane Craig, it seems:
In a recent essay on Richard Swinburne's analysis of moral truths, Gregory Ganssle has noted that Swinburne's view runs into this same problem. Interestingly, even agnostic philosopher, Paul Draper (another Secular Web favorite) in his comments to Ganssle, expresses his agreement that this sort of anticipation problem does in fact add to the evidence for theism. Draper quips: "your ideas don't just strengthen the fine-tuning argument. To use religious terminology, they save it!" Christianity thus has the explanation quite ready. It is the handiwork of a divine Designer that brought about the intricate match between human moral agents and moral facts. Naturalists, on the other hand, are forced to say that all of this came about as one large-scale accident. It is not challenging to assess which worldview provides the more compelling account. Arrows and bulls-eyes don't meet by happenstance. Vuletic's second rebuttal to his straw-man version of the argument is as such: "even if transcendental moral facts can, in principle, apply to falling stones and hungry cheetahs, nothing inherent in the hypothesis that there is a god requires that god to create transcendental moral facts that apply to rational beings." The argument unsurprisingly does not touch the actual contention of most sophisticated theists at this point. Again, Vuletic has failed to see that the issue here is to ask what worldview best explains the intricate mesh between this transcendent moral realm and the contingent physical realm full of moral agents and patients. Why did there ever come about physical beings who so finely conform to this nonspatial, nontemporal reality? It is this correspondence that cries out for a teleological explanation: a divine, personal Designer--One quite interested in ensuring that humans are moral beings (another mark of the biblical God)--whose existence would make theism quite probable while making naturalism quite false.
Vuletic, in concluding his paper, states, "The only reason I can fathom for why believers might think transcendental moral facts are better explained by theism than by atheism is because . . . believers have been psychologically conditioned to feel [this way]." I think I have shown otherwise; there are in fact good intellectual grounds for this opinion on the part of believers. We have found herein that an appeal to the God of monotheism rids us of many a conundrum when it comes to the subject of transcendental moral facts. The mystery of how it is that such entities can exist is cleared up when we find that God, as an eternal mind, can ground their reality through His eternal thought. Likewise, the odd and surprising alignment of the physical and transcendental/moral realms is neither odd nor surprising given the existence of a morally perfect, omniscient Designer such as the God of the Bible. We have found, in contrast, that naturalism, in lacking these theistic resources, inevitably lacks the explanatory power of theism when it comes to such morality. On such a hypothesis, moral facts and their detailed mesh with the world's creatures remain altogether mysterious. The truth of our conditional therefore remains standing: If transcendental moral facts exist, there exists evidence for theism over naturalism.
 Mark Vuletic, "Is Atheism Consistent With Morality?"
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