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Ethical Supernaturalism is still more Plausible than Naturalism: Carrier’s Preliminary Objections

August 20th, 2014 by Matt

Last year I had an article Is Ethical Naturalism more plausible than Supernaturalism: A reply to Walter Sinnott Armstrong published in the journal Philo. In the comments section a reader asked me to comment on a response to that article published by classical historian Richard Carrier. This post will be the first of several where I do so.Carrier

In, Is Ethical Naturalism more Plausible than Supernaturalism, I did two things. Firstly, I briefly explicated a conditional that has recently been proposed explicitly by William Lane Craig but which is also defended by several others, and secondly I rebutted several arguments raised against this conditional by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. Carrier argues my rebuttals fail, but before he does so he offers three preliminary arguments against the positive thesis I was defending against Armstrong. It is these that I will address in this post.

The Contention

The conditional I explicated as follows:

Craig’s contention is that if theism is true then we can plausibly explain the nature of moral obligation by identifying obligations with God’s commands, analogous to the way “we explain the nature of water by identifying it with H2O, or explain the nature of heat by identifying it with molecular motion.” By “God” Craig means a necessarily existent, all-powerful, all-knowing, loving and just, immaterial person who created and providentially orders the universe.[1]

Note three things.

First, this is a conditional, if affirms that if theism is true then then we can plausibly explain the nature of moral obligation by identifying obligations with God’s commands.

Second, I define the concept of God used in this conditional as a necessarily existent, all-powerful, all-knowing, loving and just, immaterial person who created and providentially orders the universe.

Third, this conditional specifies the kind of grounding relationship I am addressing, one where the relationship between God’s commands and moral obligations is one of identity. It’s the same kind of relationship as H20 has to water. It does not affirm a thesis about moral motivation: that we are motivated to do what is right by God’s say so, nor does it affirm  a thesis about moral epistemology: that we need to believe in God or his commands to recognise moral obligations.

Fourth, I don’t in the article offer any positive argument for this conditional. I explicate what the conditional is and defend it against a series of objections.

These three points are important because much of Carrier’s argument proceeds by ignoring them, beginning with his preliminary objections.

Carrier’s Preliminary Objections

Objection 1: There is no evidence for God’s existence.

Carrier’s first objection is that “we have no evidence that there even is the requisite God”[2]. This objection misses its target. I emphasized repeatedly in my paper that I was rebutting objections to a conditional proposition. The contention is that: If God exists then a divine command theory is plausible account of the nature of moral obligation.  Conditional statements of form “if P then Q” have what logicians call an “antecedent” and a “consequent”. P is the antecedent; in my paper the antecedent is the claim, “God exists”. In a conditional statement one talks about what occurs if the antecedent is true. Q is the consequent; in the example above the consequent is the proposition “it’s plausible to identify moral obligations commands with God’s commands”. The consequent is what is said to be true if the antecedent is correct.

It’s a basic point in the logic of conditionals that the truth of the conditional does not presuppose or depend on the truth of the antecedent. What matters is whether the consequent would be the case if the antecedent were. Let me illustrate this with an example. Take the claim, “If I was shot in the head yesterday I would not be here today”. That’s a true conditional: I don’t need to prove I was actually shot in the head or that I am not here today to show it is true. All I have to know is that if people are shot in the head they aren’t around the next day. Similarly, consider the conditional: “If it is raining then the grass will be wet”. This conditional remains true even on a hot day with no rain in sight. Even on such a day it will be true that if it rains the grass will get wet.

So contrary to what Carrier suggests here I don’t need to prove that God exists or provide evidence for God’s existence to defend this conditional.  Lack of evidence for its antecedent does nothing to show that the conditional is false. Carrier’s first objection therefore is simply fallacious.

Suppose, however, I hadn’t defended a conditional, but simply affirmed the consequent. Carrier’s argument would still fail for two reasons:

First, contrary to what Carrier assumes a DCT is compatible with atheism and agnosticism. As I pointed out in my paper an “agnostic could accept a divine command theory is the most plausible account of the nature of moral obligation, deny God exists; and conclude, therefore, that moral obligations do not really exist and embrace an error theory.” In, fact one of the leading philosophical defenders of atheism in the 20th century, J L Mackie, arguably did this.  A DCT entails theism only if it’s conjoined with moral realism: the claim that moral obligations exist.[3]

Second, if we accept moral realism, as Carrier does, the objection that “we have no evidence that there even is the requisite God” is circular. “One of the most generally accepted reasons for believing in the existence of anything is that its existence is implied by the theory that seems to account most adequately for some subject matter”.[4] If the best account of the nature of moral obligations is that those obligations are God’s commands, then the existence of moral obligations provides evidence for the existence of God. We will have a straightforward argument from the best explanation for theism. Consequently, one can only claim that there is no evidence for God’s existence if one has already ruled the divine command theory out as the most plausible account of the nature of moral obligations. To appeal to the lack of evidence for God’s existence as grounds for rejecting a divine command theory is to reason in a circle.

Objection 2: Circular Argument

Carrier’s use of a circular argument is ironic given that the second major objection he raises is that my explication of this conditional involves a circular argument:

Flannagan’s thesis imagines that, in effect, if God is a “necessarily existent, all-powerful, all-knowing, loving and just, immaterial person who created and providentially orders the universe,” then what he concludes is morally right would indeed be morally right. That may be sound, but it’s circular, because it presumes (without argument) that “loving and just” decisions are morally right[5]

I think Carrier here subtly misconstrues the conditional I was defending. But not only does Carrier misconstrue my position, his claim that it is circular reasoning is false. To propose a circular argument one has to offer an argument for a conclusion where the conclusion is tacitly assumed in the premises. But as I stated in my article, I was defending a contention against various objections.  The contention I defended is not an argument: it was a single conditional proposition. Seeing as it’s not an argument and has no premises it can’t possibly be a circular argument, and can’t assume anything in the premises.

However, even if my contention did express an argument, which it didn’t, Carrier’s objection fails to show it is circular.  As Carrier construes the argument, the conclusion of my argument is that what “[God] concludes is morally right would indeed be morally right”, yet the premise I apparently assume is “that loving and just actions are morally right”. An astute reader will note that this premise is not the same as the conclusion. Consequently, the argument Carrier mistakenly attributes to me is in fact not circular at all. Hence, even if I had offered the argument he says, and I didn’t, it would not be a circular argument because the argument he attributes to me isn’t circular.

Objection 3: The Bible is immoral.

This brings me to Carrier’s last preliminary objection that: “within the Bible there is a vast plethora of not only contradictory moral advice, but many moral commandments that we now all deem fundamentally immoral.”[6] While I disagree with Carrier’s take on the Bible, even if one granted it, this argument again misses its target. The conditional stated above asserts that if God exists then it is plausible to identify our moral obligations with his commands. This is compatible with the Bible containing immoral commands. The fact that the Bible records God commanding something immoral does not entail that God did command something immoral, unless one also accepts the further premise that whatever the Bible teaches is true. While some divine command theorists do believe this, that position is not part of or entailed by a divine command theory itself, and one could consistently be a divine command theorist without holding this further premise. So as a critique of divine command theory per se, Carrier’s argument fails.

Carrier’s claim does create a problem if the acceptance of a divine command theory is combined with a commitment to biblical inerrancy. But the problem would be with biblical inerrancy, not with DCT. Carrier’s third objection therefore changes the subject.

My conclusion, then, is that none of Carrier’s preliminary objections are successful, in that not only do they not provide any reason for rejecting Craig’s conditional, in fact they don’t address the conditional at all. The first tells us Carrier’s opinions about arguments for God’s existence, but tells us nothing about whether if God exists a divine command theory is plausible, and as a criticism of DCT simply assumes the issue at hand. The second addresses an argument I never made, and even then seems to misunderstand what a circular argument is, and the third changes the subject to the question of biblical inerrancy, again ignoring the question of whether if God exists a divine command theory is plausible.

[1] Matthew Flannagan, “Is Ethical Naturalism more Plausible than Super- naturalism? A Reply to Walter Sinnott-Armstrong,” Philo 15, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 2012), 19.

[2] Richard Carrier, “On the Facts as we Know them, Ethical Naturalism is all there is: A Reply to Matthew Flannagan” Philo 15, no. 2 (Fall-Winter 2012), 201

[3] J L Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. (New York: Penguin Books, 1977) 229-231

[4] See Robert Adam’s “Moral Arguments For Theistic Belief

[5] Richard Carrier, “On the Facts as we Know them, Ethical Naturalism is all there is: A Reply to Matthew Flannagan” Philo 15, no. 2 (Fall-Winter 2012), 201-202

[6]Ibid 201


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“Telling the Big Story” (or how not to engage culture with theology)

May 4th, 2014 by Matt

One thing that tends to make my eyes glaze over is the mantra, expressed so frequently by some evangelicals in New Zealand,  that we live in a post-modern society and so theology should, instead of involving the rational defense of truth, be focused on “telling the big story” or “sharing the narrative”, and we should invite others to partake and find meaning.

William Lane Craig, expresses well some of the reservations I have with this position in the video below.

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Open Letter to Maurice Williamson

May 2nd, 2014 by Matt

Dear Maurice Williamson,

Maurice Williamson and his "big gay rainbow"I hear you are having some troubles in the media at the moment. Apparently there are moral questions swirling around you about honest disclosure, potential abuse of power, unduly influencing the police in favour of a person who donated money to you, and so on.

Don’t let judgmental people like Prime Minister John Key discriminate against you any longer. Such people clearly believe they can make moral judgments about what is appropriate and impose them onto you. Stand up to the bigots.

Here is my advice to you.

Call a press conference and do the following:

  1. Point out that the moral rules about lying and bribing being an abomination come from that archaic book, The Bible. While you are at it, make a sarcastic jab about how some people think you will go to hell for doing such things, then mock this belief with silly jokes about the physics of hell.
  2. Observe that there was recently a rainbow in New Zealand somewhere and opine that this proves that God approves of your actions.

Do this and I am certain you will be hailed as a man of great moral insight. All will agree that you have given a decisive answer to the serious moral questions raised about your conduct. Perhaps David Farrar will blog about it on Kiwiblog, you’ll get offers to stand for Governor in several states in America, and someone in Hollywood might even offer you a spot on their show to obtain your insight.

We all know, after all, that serious moral questions can be adequately set aside by engaging in these kind of tactics, and given your well known moral insight and wisdom, that’s all you need to do. You have led the nation utilising such wisdom and discernment in the past, I am sure you can do it again.

All the best,

Matthew Flannagan

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Shawn Bawulski and the Problem of Hell: Part One

April 26th, 2014 by Matt

The traditional conception of hell understands the punishment of the finally impenitent to be conscious eternal torment. The punishment of hell is eternal in the sense of it being of unending duration and it involves conscious torment. Annihilationists, on the other hand, argue the traditional view is contrary to scripture. They contend that, in scripture, the punishment of hell is eternal destruction, which involves the total and irreversible destruction of the wicked. Hell is eternal in the sense that the ultimate punishment inflicted in hell, death, is permanent; one is dead forever and is never resurrected or reincarnated to live another life.

HellMuch of the debate over this in evangelical circles is exegetical. It focuses on the meanings of biblical phrases such as “eternal fire,” “eternal destruction,” “death,” “perish,” “everlasting contempt,” “eternal punishment,” “unquenchable fire,” “second death,” “killing the body, “soul,” “lake of fire,” “the smoke of their torment rises forever,” “blackest darkness [that] has been reserved forever,” “outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth”, and so on. Traditionalists take these passages to refer to eternal conscious torment where as annihilationists argue that, in their contexts, they signify permanent destruction of the wicked.

In his article, “Annihilationism, Traditionalism and the problem of Hell”[1], Shawn Bawulski brackets these exegetical issues and focuses on the ability of each conception to answer an objection to the concept of hell. He dubs this objection as “the logical problem of hell”. His conclusion is that traditionalism offers a more plausible answer to this objection than annihilationism does. I think Bawulski’s arguments for this conclusion fails. Here, however, I will simply comment on the “problem of hell” as he articulates it.

Bawulski’s elucidates the problem of hell as follows:

(A) Justice demands that punishment for sins must be proportionate to their seriousness; it is unjust for punishment of sins to be disproportionate to their seriousness.
(B) No human sin or lifetime of human sinning can be infinite in seriousness.
(C ) Hell is infinite punishment.
(D) To punish human sins with hell is to punish human sins disproportionately to their seriousness. (From (B) and (C)).
(E) Therefore, hell is an unjust punishment for human sins.[2]

This argument turns on the notion of “infinity.” Bawulski notes: “The language of infinitude in this discussion can be vague and slippery” and the argument “has the liability of possibly equivocating” and can, be used in at least two different senses. The first sense, is the sense Bawulski officially states [Read more →]

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True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism – in Paperback

March 31st, 2014 by Madeleine

True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New AtheismThe paperback version of the Kindle book, True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenges of Atheism,  which Matt wrote a chapter for, recently arrived from the publishers. This release has been re-released as True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism (the link takes you to the book’s official website).

True Reason is still edited by Tom Gilson and Carson Weitnauer and is still published by Kregal Publications; however, this edition has been updated and expanded and it has two additional chapters. The table of contents is as follows:

  1. The Party of Reason?
    Tom Gilson
  2. The Irony of Atheism
    Carson Weitnauer
  3. Dawkins’s Delusion
    William Lane Craig
  4. Richard Dawkins’s Illusions
    Chuck Edwards
  5. Unreason at the Head of Project Reason
    Tom Gilson
  6. John Loftus and the “Outsider-Insider Test for Faith”
    David Marshall
  7. Atheism and the Argument from Reason*
    Lenny Esposito
  8. The Explanatory Emptiness of Naturalism
    David Wood
  9. Reason in a Christian Context
    Peter Grice
  10. The Marriage of Faith and Reason
    David Marshall
  11. Faith and Reason in Historical Perspective*
    David Marshall and Timothy McGrew
  12. A Sun to See By—Christianity, Meaning, and Morality
    Samuel J. Youngs
  13. Are Science and Christianity at Odds?
    Sean McDowell
  14. God and Science Do Mix
    Tom Gilson
  15. The Problem of Evil and Reasonable Christian Responses
    John DePoe
  16. Historical Evidences for the Gospels
    Randy Hardman
  17. Did God Command the Genocide of the Canaanites?
    Matthew Flannagan
  18. Christianity and Slavery
    Glenn Sunshine
  19. Epilogue
    Carson Weitnauer

*Chapters Seven and Eleven are new additions in the second edition, not included in the Kindle version of True Reason.

Read the author’s bios here.

The blurb from Amazon is as follows:

Today’s New Atheists proclaim themselves our culture’s party of reason. It is a claim they cannot sustain. Reason is the New Atheists’ weakness, not their strength and in fact, the Christian faith is a far better place to look for True Reason.

In sixteen carefully constructed essays by more than a dozen Christian thinkers including William Lane Craig, Sean McDowell, and Timothy McGrew,True Reason unmasks the frequent irrationality displayed by leading atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. The authors go on to show the great extent to which the Christian faith has historically supported sound reasoning, and that Christian thinkers, past and present, have demonstrated real excellence in reasoned, rational thinking.

Making their case accessible to the first-time inquirer as well as the serious student, this top-flight team of writers presents a sound defense and a strong introduction to the true reason uniquely found in Christianity.

You can buy the paperback version of True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism on Amazon here.

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Nonsense on Stilts: Non-Discrimination Rights

March 29th, 2014 by Matt

When the Human Rights Act was passed in 1993 I supported the writing of non-discrimination rights into law. At that time I, like many New Zealanders, believed that people had a right to not be discriminated against that the government should protect. Since then, reflecting on the issue has lead me to change my mind. I am now inclined to think that non-discrimination rights do not exist, they are “nonsense on stilts”. Laws which purport to recognise and protect them are recognising and protecting something that does not exist.

My position now is that discrimination is not wrong, it is morally neutral. It is justified and reasonable to discriminate on certain grounds in certain contexts, and it is unjustified to do so in other contexts. When it is unjustified, what makes it so are factors that have nothing to do with discrimination; these factors would be problematic if applied equally.

Jake the muss: not a skinny asian womanBefore elaborating my reasons for being sceptical about such rights, let us be clear as to what denying non-discrimination rights does not mean. It does not mean I believe that it is permissible for people to refuse to serve ethnic minorities because one holds to false sterotypes and has unwarranted hatred towards those minorities. Nor does it mean I support depriving women or African Americans of the vote. Likewise I do not support racist lynchings or gay bashings.

A sceptic about anti-discrimination rights can oppose all these things and still not be committed to supporting the existence of anti-discrimination rights. All that is entailed by my scepticism is that these thing are not wrong because they violate a right to not discriminate, and its clear to me that this is true; they are wrong for other reasons.

Discriminating against minorities in the manner suggested above is wrong because we have duties to not stereotype and treat people with contempt. If we treated everyone equally in this way it would still be wrong. Similarly, racist lynchings are wrong because they involve kidnapping, assault and homicide. If people were equal-opportunity lynchers who indiscriminately lynched people of all races, sexes, lifestyles and degrees of ability, it would still be wrong for them to do so. Depriving people of the vote is wrong because people have a right to vote, the right is not attached to sex or race, and so on. The point is that the wrongness of these sorts of practices can be adequately explained, and I think is more plausibly explained, without recourse to an alleged right to not be discriminated against. An appeal to “discrimination” misdiagnoses the moral problems with the action complained of.

Why Discrimination is Not Wrong
It is not wrong to discriminate. To discriminate against one person in favour of another is to treat the former less favourably than the latter. The problem is that, so defined, discrimination is clearly not wrong. In fact, discrimination is essential to any moral thinking at all.

To make a moral judgement condemning a particular action involves adopting a less favourable stance towards those who perform that action. We condemn particular actions, and if a person doing those actions lacks an adequate excuse we blame and censure that person for what he or she did. We expect the person to feel guilty and to make appropriate apology and reparations. On the other hand to judge an action is right [Read more →]

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Dialogue with Randal Rauser

March 13th, 2014 by Matt

When I was in Baltimore last November I caught up with fellow theologian and blogger Randal Rauser. Randal is professor of Theology at Taylor Seminary in Edmonton Canada.

Randal and I have had some spirited but cordial exchanges in the past, including a panel discussion at the Society of Biblical Literature in 2010.While we do not always agree I find him to be a very astute critic of my work.

Randal Rauser and Matthew Flannagan

Randal asked to interview me in Baltimore on the topic “Matthew Flannagan on God, ethics, and divine commands” so the readers of his blog could get a take on the positions I have staked out. The interview is now available at the link above.

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