Does God Exist?

William Lane Craig vs. Kai Nielsen

University of Western Ontario, Ontario, Canada – February 1991

William Lane Craig – Opening Statement

I feel privileged to be debating Dr. Nielsen. You'll probably never hear a more compelling argument presented on the atheist side, and I hope I can do just as well presenting the theistic side in this evening's debate.

Problem of Evil

The problem of evil is certainly the greatest obstacle to belief in the existence of God. When I ponder both the extent and the depth of evil in the world--whether due to man's inhumanity to man or natural catastrophes--, then I must confess that I find it hard to believe in God. No doubt, many of you feel the same way. Perhaps we should all become atheists. But that's a pretty big step to take. How can we be sure that God does not exist? Perhaps there's a reason God permits all the evil in the world. Perhaps it somehow fits in to the grand scheme of things, which we can only dimly perceive, if at all. How do we know?

As a Christian theist, I'm persuaded that the problem of evil, terrible as it is, does not constitute a disproof of the existence of God. On the contrary, I believe that Christian theism is, in fact, humanity's last best hope for a solution to the problem of evil. In order to explain why I think this way, it would be helpful to draw some distinctions to keep our thinking clear. First, we must distinguish between the intellectual problem of evil and the emotional problem of evil. The intellectual problem of evil concerns how to give a rational explanation of the coexistence of God and evil. The emotional problem of evil concerns how to dissolve people's dislike for a God who would permit suffering.

Intellectual Problem of Evil

Logical Version

Now let's look first at the intellectual problem of evil. There are two versions of this problem: first, the logical problem of evil and, secondly, the probabilistic problem of evil. According to the logical problem of evil, it is logically impossible for God and evil to coexist. If God exists, then evil cannot exist. If evil exists, then God cannot exist. Since evil exists, it follows that God does not exist.

However, the problem with this argument is that there is no reason to think that God and evil are logically incompatible. After all, there is no explicit contradiction between them. And if the atheist means that there is some implicit contradiction between God and evil, then he must be presupposing some hidden premises to bring out this implicit contradiction. But the problem is that no philosopher has been able to identify such premises. Therefore, the problem of evil fails to prove any inconsistency between God and evil.

But more than that, we can actually prove that God and evil are logically compatible. You see, the atheist presupposes that God cannot have morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evil in the world. But this assumption is not necessarily true. So long as it is even possible that God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil, it follows that God and evil are logically consistent. And therefore I am pleased to report to you that it is widely recognized among contemporary philosophers that the logical problem of evil has been dissolved. The coexistence of God and evil is logically possible.

Probabilistic Version

But we're not out of the woods yet, for we now confront the probabilistic problem of evil. According to this version of the problem, the coexistence of God and evil is logically possible, but nevertheless it is highly improbable. The extent and depth of evil in the world are so great that it is improbable that God could have morally sufficient reasons for permitting it. Therefore, given the evil in the world, it is improbable that God exists. This is a much more powerful argument, and therefore in tonight's debate I want to focus our attention on it.

In response to this version of the problem of evil, I want to make three points.

1. We are not in a good position to assess the probability of whether God has a morally sufficient reason for the evils that occur: As finite persons, we're limited in space, time, intelligence, and insight, but the omniscient and sovereign God, who sees the end from the beginning, providentially orders history so that His purposes are ultimately achieved through human free decisions. In order to achieve His ends, God may have to put up with evils along the way, which humans freely perpetrate. Evils which appear pointless to us within our limited framework may be seen to be justly permitted within God's wider framework. A brutal murder of an innocent man, for example, could produce a sort of ripple effect throughout history such that God's morally sufficient reason for permitting it might not emerge until centuries later or perhaps in another land. When you think of God's providence over the whole of history, then I think you can see how hopeless it is for limited observers to speculate on the probability that God could have a morally sufficient reason for permitting a particular evil. We're just not in a good position to assess such probabilities.

2. The Christian faith entails doctrines that increase the probability of the coexistence of God and evil. In so doing, these doctrines decrease any improbability of God's existence thought to issue from the existence of evil. What are some of these doctrines? Let me mention four.

A. The chief purpose of life is not happiness per se, but the knowledge of God. One reason the problem of evil seems so puzzling is that we tend to think that the goal of human life is happiness in this world. But on the Christian view this is false. Man's end is not happiness as such, but the knowledge of God--which in the end will bring true and everlasting human fulfillment. Many evils occur in life which seem utterly pointless with respect to producing human happiness, but they may not be unjustified with respect to producing the knowledge of God. Innocent human suffering provides an occasion for deeper dependency and trust in God, either on the part of the sufferer or perhaps those around him. Whether God's purpose is achieved through our suffering all depends on how we freely respond.
B. Mankind is in a state of rebellion against God and his purpose. Rather than submit to and worship God, people rebel against God and go their own way and so find themselves alienated from God, morally guilty before Him, and groping in spiritual darkness, pursuing false gods of their own making. The terrible human evils in the world are testimony to man's depravity in this state of alienation from God. The Christian isn't surprised at the human evils in the world. On the contrary, he expects them! The Bible says that God has given mankind over to the sin it has chosen. He does not interfere to stop it but lets human depravity run its course. This only serves to heighten mankind's moral responsibility before God as well as our wickedness and our need of forgiveness and moral cleansing.
C. The knowledge of God spills over into eternal life. In the Christian view, this life is not all there is. Jesus promised eternal life to all who place their trust in him as Savior and Lord. In the afterlife God will reward those who have borne their suffering in courage and trust with an eternal life of unspeakable joy. The apostle Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament, lived a life of incredible suffering, and yet he wrote: "We do not lose heart. For this slight, momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. For we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal" (II Cor. 4. 16-18). Paul imagines a scale, as it were, in which the sufferings of this life are placed on one side, while on the other side is placed the glory which God will bestow upon His children in heaven. The weight of glory is so great that the sufferings of this life literally cannot even be compared to it! Moreover, the longer we spend in eternity, the more the sufferings of this life shrink toward an infinitesimal moment. And that's why Paul could refer to them as a "slight" and "momentary" affliction. Despite what he suffered, his sufferings were simply overwhelmed by the ocean of divine eternity and joy which God lavishes upon those who trust him.
D. The knowledge of God is an incommensurable good. To know God, the source of infinite goodness and love, is an incomparable good--the fulfillment of human existence. The sufferings of this life cannot even be compared to it. Thus, the person who knows God--no matter what he suffers, no matter how awful his pain--can still say, "God is good to me" simply in virtue of the fact that he knows God, an incommensurable good.

These four Christian doctrines greatly reduce any improbability which evil would seem to throw upon the existence of God.

3. Relative to the full scope of the evidence, God's existence is probable. Probabilities are relative to the background information you consider. For example, suppose that Joe is a University of Western Ontario student. And now suppose that ninety percent of Western Ontario students ski. Relative to this information, it is highly probable that Joe skis. But then suppose we also learn that Joe is an amputee and that ninety-five percent of the amputees at the University of Western Ontario do not ski. Suddenly the probability of Joe's being a skier is dramatically reversed!

Similarly, if all you consider for background information is the evil in the world, then it's hardly surprising that God's existence appears improbable relative to that. But the real question is whether God's existence is improbable relative to the total evidence available. I'm persuaded that when you consider the total evidence, God's existence is probable.

Now rather than rehearse the many different arguments for the existence of God at this point, let me just mention one. And that is that God provides the best explanation for objective moral values in the world.

If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist. Many theists and atheists alike concur on this point. Without God, there is no absolute good which imposes itself on our conscience. Professor Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science and an atheist at the University of Guelph, explains,

The position of the modern evolutionist is that humans have an awareness of morality because such an awareness of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate when someone says, 'Love thy neighbor as thyself,' they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory.1


Or consider the late J. L. Mackie, professor of philosophy at Oxford University and one of the most influential atheists of our time. According to Mackie, "If . . . there are . . . objective values, they make the existence of a god more probable than it would have been without them. Thus we have . . . a defensible argument from morality to the existence of a god."2 In order to avoid God's existence, Mackie therefore declined to admit that moral values exist. He wrote, "It is easy to explain this moral sense as a natural product of biological and social evolution rather than as having been implanted by an author of nature."3

But if that is the case, then objective ethics goes out the window along with theism. Then human beings would have no intrinsic moral value. For example, in India, women were expected to be burned alive on the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands. The British put an end to this practice. But Michael Ruse, in discussing this practice, says quite forthrightly and consistently, "Obviously, such a practice is totally alien to Western customs and morality. In fact, we think that widow sacrifice is totally immoral. Clearly there is nothing particularly objective about this morality, nor is it something one would expect to find the inevitable product of natural selection."4 In other words, everything simply becomes relative, and there are no objective absolute values.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the great atheist of the last century who proclaimed the death of God, understood this all too well. "The end of Christianity," wrote Nietzsche, "means the advent of nihilism." Only the man who is able to live beyond good and evil will acquire mastery in the coming age of nihilism, which stands already at the door. I think the specter of Friedrich Nietzsche must haunt every atheist. For if there is no God, then why wouldn't nihilism be true?

Notice carefully what we're asking. The question is not, "Must we believe in God to live moral lives?" I would say, "No." Nor is the question, "Can we recognize objective moral values without believing in God?" I would say we could. Nor is the question, "Can we formulate a coherent system of ethics without reference to God?" That is perfectly possible. Rather, the question is, "Do objective moral values exist if God does not exist?" I don't see any reason to think that, in the absence of God, human beings would have objective moral value. After all, if there is no God, what is so special about human beings? They're just accidental by-products of nature, which have evolved relatively recently on in infinitesimal speck of dust, lost somewhere in the heart of a hostile and mindless universe, and are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. And if push came to shove, I think Professor Nielsen would agree with this. Although he says that he holds to objective moral values, he's using those terms in an idiosyncratic way. To say that objective moral values exist is to assert that statements of moral value like "Rape is wrong" are true independently of whether anyone believes them or not. But Professor Nielsen declines to discuss the truth of moral statements. And so he, like Ruse and J. L. Mackie, cannot seem to affirm the objective value of human beings.

But the fact is that objective values do exist, and we all know it. There is no more reason to deny the objective reality of moral values than there is to deny the objective reality of the physical world. In particular, it is evident that evil exists. Some things are really wrong! And thus, paradoxically, evil actually serves to establish the existence of God. For if objective values cannot exist without God, and objective values do exist--as is evident from the reality of evil--, then it follows inescapably that God exists. Thus, although evil in one sense calls into question God's existence, in a more fundamental sense it demonstrates God's existence, since evil could not exist without God.

These [arguments] are only part of the evidence that God exists. The prominent philosopher Alvin Plantinga recently expounded two dozen or so arguments for God's existence.5 The cumulative force of these arguments makes it probable that God exists.

In summary, if my three theses are correct, then evil does not render improbable the existence of the Christian God. On the contrary, considering the full scope of the evidence, God's existence is probable. And, thus, the intellectual problem of evil fails to overthrow God's existence.

Emotional Problem of Evil

But that takes us to the emotional problem of evil. I think that most people who reject God because of the evil in the world don't do so because of intellectual difficulties. Rather, it's an emotional problem: they just don't like a God who permits suffering, and therefore they want nothing to do with Him. Theirs is simply an atheism of rejection. Does the Christian faith have something to say to these people?

It certainly does! It tells us that God is not a distant Creator or an impersonal Ground of Being, but a loving Father Who shares our sufferings and hurts with us. Professor Plantinga has written,

As the Christian sees things, God does not stand idly by, cooling observing the suffering of his creatures. He enters into and shares our suffering. He endures the anguish of seeing his Son, the second Person of the Trinity, consigned to the bitterly cruel and shameful death of the cross. . . Christ was prepared to endure the agonies of hell itself . . . in order to overcome sin and death and the evils that afflict our world and to confer on us a life more glorious than we can imagine. . . he was prepared to suffer on our behalf, to accept suffering of which we can form no conception.6

You see, Jesus endured a suffering beyond all comparison because he bore the punishment for the sins of the whole world. None of us can comprehend that suffering. Though he was innocent, he voluntarily took upon himself the punishment that we deserved. And why? Simply because he loves us. When we comprehend his love and sacrifice for us, this puts the problem of evil in a new perspective. For now we see clearly that the problem of evil is really our problem of evil. Filled with sin and morally guilty before God, we face the question, not of how God can justify Himself to us, but how we can be justified before Him.

So, paradoxically, even though the problem of evil is the greatest objection to the existence of God, at the end of the day, God is the only solution to the problem of evil.

Kai Nielsen – Opening Statement

I'm rather perplexed about how to go about this. The way that Dr. Craig defines the problem that we should worry about tonight is very different than the way I would--and not because I'm an atheist and he's a Christian believer, but we come at the problem from very, very different perspectives independently of that.

Problem of Evil

Dr. Craig, in looking at my writings (and I appreciate that he holds them in such high esteem), might have reflected on the fact that I never discuss the problem of evil, or, if I do, only incidentally. I never remember discussing it in detail. And the reason I don't is because, unlike many, many atheists, and unlike Dr. Craig, I've never thought that the problem of evil is the greatest obstacle to belief in God. I think of some of the independent reasons or proofs for believing in God--either by way of revelation or accepting certain things on faith--that Plantinga or somebody else comes up with (though I wasn't particularly convinced of Dr. Craig's treatment of these problems), that you can juggle around the premises, modifying them in one way or another. As the great logician Quine says, by modifying certain premises of a great inconsistency or alleged inconsistency in certain ways, you can usually avoid this inconsistency.

From the Middle Ages on down, Christian theologians have found ways for dissolving both the probabilistic and logical problems of evil in the world which are to various degrees satisfactory and not totally implausible. For me, there isn't a problem of the solution to evil. Evil, as Dr. Craig said, is there, unavoidable, inescapable. The question is how you fight it, how you minimize it, how you struggle against it. For the atheist, there isn't such a thing as the problem of evil. There is just evil in the world that we struggle against endlessly, and that's it.

Moral Values Without God

My problem, and perhaps this is where we do begin to meet, is that you can in a perfectly reasonable way give a conception of objective values. I don't know what "absolute values" means, but the sense of "objective, justifiable, reasonable moral values" can be given quite independently of any understanding of God or belief in God or the like. Now Craig didn't care about this problem, but many Christians--particularly fideistic Christians--do. Many Christians are much more perplexed about knowing the existence of God or proving the existence of God. They are very suspicious, and I think there are good reasons for this. There is a strong and widespread tendency (I think of Kierkegaard or Haman or Pascal) both among the intelligentsia and other people to believe that in a world without God, nothing matters. (It's the Nietzsche thing.) In a world without God, everything is permitted; our lives will be fragmented and pointless. Our morality itself will be pointless. We can't know that anything is good or bad. And so they feel pressed to postulate the existence of God in order to solve this problem.

What I want to say to those of you who are skeptical about the existence of God is that you don't need any of that. You can make perfectly good sense of your lives and of your moral beliefs without belief in God. Maybe God exists; maybe he does not. Maybe we can prove that he exists; maybe we can't. I don't think we can. I don't even think the concept of God is very coherent, for it's not anthropomorphic. But maybe I'm wrong about that. I'll give you all of this for the evening. I'll grant that you can prove the existence of God--something I don't believe for a moment. I'll give you the fact that the concept of God is coherent. What I want to try to convince you of is that God or no God, you can make sense of your lives without belief in God.

Now, as I've said, some people believe that if God is dead, nothing matters, and our lives will be fragmented. I know that some--indeed, many--people believe that. But that some people believe that in some cultures does not mean that it is necessary. We know, for example, that there are some old and distinguished religions unlike Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--for example, Buddhism--with many adherents who have neither God nor worship. Yet Buddhists, as far as I can see, have been able to make sense of their lives and find a sense of objective value. Even within our culture, while many people feel that they cannot make sense of their lives without God, many like myself do. They are not only intelligentsia but ordinary people in various cultures. In Canada and the United States, people get very hung up about God. In Iceland and Denmark people find this very peculiar. (It has something to do with the level of wealth and education of the society.) You may feel you cannot make sense of your life without God, but a lot of people do.

But now I want to turn from a sociological observation to a moral and conceptual observation. Even if you do feel that way, I want to try to begin to persuade you that you needn't feel that way. The first thing you should come to recognize is that there can be purposes in life that are perfectly intact even if there is no purpose to life. If there is no God or telos of any sort, there is no purpose to life; you weren't made for a purpose. But even if you weren't made for a purpose, you could find plenty of purposes in life, things worth doing and having and believing and struggling for. Some religious people will say, "That's all right for little individual small purposes, but you can't have any overarching purpose in life without belief in God. You can little, fairly trivial things, but no really deep and pervading conception of a purpose in life without God." But that's not true. There are many atheists who have had such overarching purposes. They've fought relentlessly "the plague" (to use Camus' metaphor). They've sought to lessen the sum total of human suffering, of human degradation, of blighted hopes; they've positively sought to bring about a world with more happiness in it and more understanding of each other--more human flourishing, more human solidarity, a brotherhood and sisterhood. They've sought, in short, to bring about a classless, raceless, genderless world. Those big purposes?overarching purposes in life?are perfectly available to anyone who is an atheist as well as to someone who is a theist. I don't deny that believers haven't done that, but you don't need God to have either small purposes in life or an overarching purpose in life.

Someone might say, "Oh, that's fine enough, but the atheist really doesn't have any foundation, basis, or ground for doing this, while the believer does." Well, there are two lines (neither of which Dr. Craig mentioned) that have typically been taken in trying to show that the believer has a basis that the atheist does not. The one particularly popular in Protestant circles is to say that something is good or bad depending on whether God wills, commands, or ordains it. If God commands it or ordains it, it is obligatory or good or desirable. If he forbids it, it is wrong. This is called the "divine-command theory."

The first thing to see [about this is the fact] that something is commanded doesn't make [it] good or bad. I could tell you if you were all smoking in here, "Stop smoking," or if none of you were smoking, I could say, "Light up." My command, even if I had the authority to make the command, doesn't justify the command. There has to be some independent reason for doing the command. It's not just my commanding it that does it. So [the fact] that something is commanded doesn't make it desirable or undesirable, obligatory or non-obligatory. Someone will say, "But it's God's commanding it that makes all the difference." Fair enough, so far. But it isn't because God is all-powerful that makes it desirable or good or bad. When God said to Job, "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?" all that God shows there is his power. But power is compatible with evil. That a being is powerful doesn't mean that you should obey that being except out of fear. It doesn't give you a moral reason to obey the being.

"But God is all-knowing; he has perfect knowledge [whereas] we do not," which is true by definition. If there is such a God, this doesn't give you any reason for doing it because perfect knowledge is compatible with perfect evil. "Well, it's because God is all-good." Now I ask you Christians, "How do you know that God is all-good?" I know you believe it, you accept it, but how do you know it? Probably, the most common answer is this: "Well, you read the Scriptures, and you see the kind of exemplar that Jesus was, his death on the cross, and so on." You forget things like "He who is not with me is against me." But you selectively read the Bible, and there are plenty of passages in which Jesus shows himself to be an incredible exemplar. But notice that to see that he is an exemplar already presupposes that you have a prior understanding of what is good and bad. Because you have an understanding of what is good and bad, you see Jesus to be a desirable exemplar. So you have an independent moral understanding and knowledge which doesn't rest on your belief in God.

Suppose somebody says, "Look, God is the perfect Good by definition." Some philosophers used to call this an analytic truth--like "Puppies are young dogs." But if you didn't know what "young" meant, you couldn't even know what "puppy" meant. If you didn't know what "good" meant, you couldn't even know what "God" meant. You have to have some understanding of "good" to judge that God is the perfect Good. So again, you need a moral criterion that is your own and doesn't come from God. It may come causally from God, but it doesn't come in a justificatory sense, which is the relevant thing in arguing about morality.

If you think this is too much logic-chopping--or quasi-logic chopping (and the thing is actually more complex than I've been able to show), let me give you a far more simple reason to see that belief in morality and making sense of morality is independent of belief in God. Suppose that you believe in God and that you have children; you recognize that your children depend on you, and there are certain things that you owe them--protection, care, and love. You love your children; you want to protect them and care for them. But you're also a believer. Suppose that--for good or bad reasons--you lose your faith. Have you the slightest reason to stop loving your children, to stop caring for your children, to stop protecting your children? Not in the slightest. If you had reason to care for and love your children before, you're going to have as much reason after you've lost your faith. And that's a far simpler to show how morality is quite independent of religion.

Suppose someone still presses me: "What sort of ground for objective moral values do you have? It's not so much what we mean by objective moral values, but what kind of ground we could have for claiming them. How do you prove or establish that something is good or bad, right or wrong?" That is a problem that is equally a problem for the believer and the non-believer. The divine-command theory won't work. Now the other theory that is used, mostly in Catholic and Anglican circles (but not exclusively), is to appeal to "the natural moral law." The natural moral law is something which is presumably implanted in our hearts. Now I'm perfectly prepared to say that, although I don't think it's a law or that it emanates from God or is exceptionless, there are lots of moral truisms. I don't disparage them by calling them moral truisms. [They are] things like "unnecessary suffering is a bad thing"; "rape is bad," "keeping your promises is good"; "integrity is good"; "truth is something to be valued." Things of this sort, which I call moral truisms, have often been thought to be part of the moral law. They are as available to me or to any atheist as they are to the believer. Now what you do in the way of justifying them is to start with these moral truisms; you can be more confident of correctness or, if you will, the truth7 of these moral utterances; [that is,] they are justified. They are more justified than any skeptical philosophical theory--J. L. Mackie's or anyone else's that would lead you to question them. What you do in the way of justification is what the philosopher Rawls calls trying to get your moral beliefs into "wide-perfective equilibrium." You start with these moral truisms--the things you are most confident in--and stick them together with everything else you know about the world (e.g., about human nature, about society), with every bit of knowledge you have; and you get a coherent pattern. [Then] you get this coherent pattern; you get a kind of inter-subjective agreement about this as we do (or least it is arguable that we do).

Mackie treats the problem of objective values as some kind of ontological question. It needn't be an ontological question. It's a question about whether certain moral values are rationally acceptable. That's the crucial question--just like the crucial question is not about the meaning of truth (Tarski settled that--or if not Tarski, Davidson, to talk technical jargon for a moment), but how you justify certain claims to be true, and you justify them roughly in this coherentist pattern. You do this exactly with moral values as any other kind of values. And moral values are as objective, as far as I can see, as scientific conceptions and are justified in much the same way. There is no reason whatsoever to have a deep kind of nihilistic skepticism. Nietzsche is good fun when you're an adolescent, but there's no reason to think that without God somehow nihilism is nearing our door. That's pure romanticism; that's atheism taking in religion's dirty linen (and a lot of atheists do that). Not all atheists are subjectivists like Ruse or like Mackie; some are, but many of them are not.

So I've indicated to you a way that you can make sense of your moral lives and give a foundation that is a coherentist foundation for moral values quite independently of the existence of God, whether or not God exists.


Suppose someone says to me, "But one thing, Nielsen, if you're an atheist, one of the things you are going to be is a denier of immortality.8 If at the end, death is your [ultimate] lot, then doesn't this undermine all of our values?" No, I say--just the reverse. If something like love between people is important, that it comes to the end with our death makes that love all the more important because it is finite, because it comes to an end. The same thing is true about happiness or the very achievement of your projects and the like. So it would be nice if there were some reason to believe in our immortality. As far as I can see, there isn't the slightest reason to believe in immortality.

So I believe that you can give a sense of objective values without invoking God. And if you can operate with a simpler conception, then operate with a simpler conception. Don't multiply conceptions or entities beyond need.

William Lane Craig – First Rebuttal

In my first speech, I defended three theses concerning the problem of evil. Dr. Nielsen has not cared to dispute the first two or, in a sense, even the third (that relative to the total evidence God's existence is probable). But he does dispute my moral argument for the existence of God.

Moral Argument

I argued:

1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
2. Evil exists.
3. Therefore, objective moral values exist.
4. Therefore, God exists.

Let's look at how he takes issue with this argument and see how his objections stand.

First, he suggests that we can make sense of our lives morally even if we don't believe in God. We can have a purpose in life even if there is no purpose of life. Now I have two responses to this.

First of all, I have never denied that you can have subjective purposes in life, but what I am arguing is that there is no objective basis to assume the moral worth of your purpose in life on an atheistic view. All purposes in life you choose are morally equal--whether you want to live a life as a doctor caring for the poor or choose instead to be a Ferdinand Marcos. There's no objective basis for assessing the moral worth of those purposes.

Professor J.P. Moreland, in his debate with Dr. Nielsen entitled Does God Exist?, points this out very well. He writes,

The radical nature of [Nielsen's] thesis . . . is that if there is no moral truth to be discovered and if I have simply to choose the moral point of view because that type of life is what I find worthwhile for myself, then the decision is arbitrary, rationally speaking. And the difference between, say, Mother Teresa and Hitler is roughly the same as the difference between a trumpet player or a baseball player. There is no rational factor or truth of the matter at stake.9

Secondly, this leads to moral relativism, as I explained. Think of the Hindu practice of burning widows alive. In their ethical system this was all right. On what objective basis can that practice be condemned as wrong simply because we don't share it in the democratic West? Or to use another example provided by Michael Ruse. He, in an essay entitled "Is Rape Wrong on Andromeda?", asks whether or not rape would be wrong for an intelligent race on some other planet. And he says, "Not necessarily!" He writes, "We cannot automatically assume that extraterrestrials would think rape immoral." Why?

Because although the immorality of rape is a human constant, we cannot thereby assume that it would be a constant for other organisms including extraterrestrial intelligent organisms. Certainly if we look elsewhere in the animal world, we see that acts which look very much like rape occur on a regular basis. Furthermore, there are good biological reasons why this sort of behavior frequently occurs. If a male animal is prepared to attempt rape on occasion, then he is more likely to reproduce than otherwise.10

Now this raises two very troublesome questions:

(1) How should these extraterrestrials (who consider rape to be moral) behave toward us? Suppose they are sufficiently similar to mammals to be able to copulate with human females; and suppose they came to earth and began to rape throughout the earth. If we protested, "But we humans don't think that that's right!" They would reply, "Your morality is an ephemeral product of the evolutionary process, just as are your other adaptations. It has no existence beyond this, and any deeper meaning is illusory." In fact, suppose these creatures were as superior to us as we are to cattle and horses and they decided to farm the earth to use us for food or laboring animals. What could you say to possibly show them that what they are doing is morally wrong? They have their own coherent system of morality. Why should they adopt the human point of view? On the atheistic view, I can't think of any reason why human beings should be regarded as the source of all objective moral value.

(2) The second troublesome question it raises is, "Why shouldn't then I rape if I feel like it? Extraterrestrials do it. Animals do it. It's biologically advantageous. Why shouldn't I do it? On the atheistic view, I can see no answer to that question. We may have the feelings as human beings that rape is wrong, but on the standpoint of the modern evolutionist, this is simply a biological-adaptation mechanism inculcated into us by millions of years of biological and social evolution. There is no reason to regard these values as absolutely right and wrong.

And thus it seems to me that it is not enough to talk about having these moral truisms, as Dr. Nielsen does. He says, "We justify our moral truisms by putting them together into a coherent pattern." What that means is you take your moral feelings--the intuitions you have--and you try to put them into a package that is internally consistent, that makes sense.

But there are two things wrong with this. First, what about somebody who has a coherent package that has mutually exclusive values from yours? Think of the extraterrestrials or the Hindus prior to British colonization. You can have coherent moral systems that are incompatible. On his view, there is no way to adjudicate which one is right or wrong. Indeed, there really is no truth about which one is right or wrong. And secondly, why adopt a moral point of view at all? Why not simply be a nihilist and claim, as Ruse and Mackie do, that these moral feelings that we have are simply the products of biological and social evolution? So Nielsen really can't justify his moral beliefs. He has these moral intuitions, and I said in my first speech that certainly without God we can build systems of morality. We can recognize objective moral values without God. But what we cannot do, I think, is consistently hold that human beings retain objective moral value in the absence of God.

Now Nielsen responds at this point, "But look, what basis do you, Christian believer, have for affirming objective moral values? If you say it's just divine commands, that's arbitrary." I wouldn't say it's based on divine commands. I would say it's rooted in God's nature, which is what Plato called "the Good." It is rooted in God's very character. But Dr. Nielsen says, "But you still have to judge then that God is good. How do you know that God is good?" Here I think he is clearly confusing the order of knowing with the order of being. In order to recognize that God is good, I may have to have some prior knowledge of what the good is in order to see that God is good. But that does not affect the fact that in the order of being, values derive their source from God's being. He's confused the order of knowing with the order of being. Simply because you can recognize moral values without belief in God, you cannot infer from this that therefore objective moral values can exist without God. So I would say that we have fundamental moral intuitions. In fact, the Bible says that God has planted these on the heart of every human person so that we intuitively recognize objective moral values. These values are rooted ontologically in the being and nature of God himself.


Finally, he raises the issue of immortality and says, "Death doesn't undermine moral values. In fact, things that we value become all the more precious." Well, in one sense he's right. It's the absence of God that undermines the objectivity of moral values, not death. But let's suppose that there are objective moral values. What would be undermined by the lack of immortality? I think two things.

First, I think there would be no reason to adopt the moral point of view. Since you're going to die, everyone ends up the same. It doesn't make any difference whether you live as a Hitler or a Mother Teresa. There is no relationship between your moral living and your ultimate fate. And so in that sense, death undermines the reason for adopting the moral point of view rather that just being an egoist and living for self.

Second, there's no basis for self-sacrifice on this point of view. Why should an atheist, who knows everything is going to end in death, do things that are morally right that go against self-interest? For example, a few years ago there was a terrible mid-winter air disaster in Washington, DC, as a plane crashed into a bridge spanning the Potomac River, spilling its passengers into the icy waters. And as the helicopters came to rescue these people, attention focused on one man who again and again passed by the rope ladder rather than be pulled to safety himself. Seven times he did this, and when they came again, he was gone. The whole nation turned its eyes to this man in respect and admiration for the noble act of self-sacrifice that he did. And yet on the atheistic view, that man wasn't noble. He did the stupidest thing possible. He should have gone for the rope ladder first, pushed others away, if necessary, in order to survive! But to give up all the brief existence he will ever have for others he didn't even know? Why? It seems to me, then, that it's not simply the absence of God that undermines objective moral values, but ethical living is also undermined by the atheistic point of view because you then have no reason to adopt the moral point of view and you have no basis for acts of self-sacrifice.

By contrast, on the Christian view, where you have both God and immortality, you have the necessary presuppositions for the affirmation of objective moral values and for consistent living of the ethical life.

Kai Nielsen – First Rebuttal

Moral Values Without God

Dr. Craig says that if you use the coherentist methodology that I use (and many other moral philosophers do as well), that one ends up in moral relativism. I think that's entirely questionable. Take the rape case. He says, "Suppose that for some extraterrestrial beings, rape was lauded by them as a desirable thing." That might possibly be. First, I want to say one thing: the morality that we're concerned with is morality for human beings with certain natures. As the legal philosopher H. L. A. Hart said, if we grew exoskeletons, our concept of harm would shift. I'm only interested in morality for human beings as we recognize them or they could become.

Dr. Craig says, "Suppose these extraterrestrial beings, with quite different conceptions from us, came to interact with us. We regard rape as evil. (At least we say we do. I hope we do.) And they don't. What could we say?" It's a perfect example for a coherentist argument. I could say to them (assuming they speak the same language), "Look, do you regard suffering as a bad thing? Do you regard human degradation--degradation of persons like yourselves and us humans--as a bad thing?" If they say so, I can fairly easily show them that their belief about rape being desirable is a mistaken belief using the standard methodology that I've shown. I can give them a very good reason, not merely a subjective reason. Suppose they say, "We don't see anything wrong with suffering. We don't see anything wrong with pain or human degradation." If they say that, then, as Wittgenstein said, I couldn't "find my feet" with such people. It would be like people in science who said they wouldn't pay attention to a properly-conducted experiment. If you've really got people who said that, there would be nothing you could say to them. But this would be equally true for the believer. You've got people who are entirely out of the moral ballgame, as we understand it. There is not way of reasoning with them. But because there is no way of reasoning with such extraterrestrials if they had that conception--they don't even have a conception of morality (just as the person who doesn't have a conception of science and pays no attention to a well-conducted experiment), then Craig could say, "What they're really asking is ?Why be moral?' And you, Nielsen, or any atheist can't give an answer to ?why be moral?'"

Hobbes gave a very straightforward answer: if we human beings are not moral (most of the time at least), life would be "nasty, brutish, and short." It comes to just that. Morality may not pay in every instance for every individual; self-interest and morality can sometimes conflict. But if people are generally not moral, their lives would be through-and-through miserable. It's not the only reason for being moral, but it is one reason--an extremely powerful reason. It is completely objective, and it has nothing to do with belief in God, and it doesn't rest on such a problematical conception as belief in God.

Craig says, "Dr. Nielsen, you somehow think that human beings are the only source of moral value." I don't know what the source of moral value is. I know that we human beings care about certain things; we value certain things. We can make sense of those values.

He asks, "Why do you think rape is wrong? Or why do you think if there were some catastrophe in the world, that you should help people?" Well, the answer seems to be very simple. We care about each other. We love each other. How did we come to do this? We came to do this, if we're lucky, through our parents or certain kinds of social interaction with other human beings.

He says I confuse the order of knowing with the order of being. I think he repeatedly commits something like the genetic fallacy. I don't care how we came about these things. The point is that we do regard things like love and caring as things which are intrinsically valuable. If one tries to prove these are intrinsically valuable, one goes around in a circle. There's no proving them.

Another way of looking at it is this: if God didn't exist, wouldn't suffering be evil? If you believe in God, and suppose you are deceived in this belief--that there is no God, suffering is still evil; happiness and human understanding and human solidarity are still good. This shows you that you can both know these things and these would be good. They don't become good because God is good. They're good in and of themselves. We can recognize these things to be good. (Or if you don't like the verb recognize because its too cognitive, we can appreciate these things to be good.) We can be more confident about this than about any arcane religious beliefs we have which are incredibly problematic when we look at the world (particularly the present-day world). There is consensus about these underlying moral conceptions. There is very little consensus about religious beliefs if you look at them across the board.

There is big dissensus among religious believers themselves. Many religious believers, unlike Drs. Craig and Plantinga, think that it's foolish to even try to prove the existence of God. They think that's a complete mistake even though they believe in God. Some have different conceptions of God. There are different religions other than Christianity. Some, as I pointed out to you, don't even have a conception of God. There is an enormous amount of dissensus about this--and with no clear ground for clarifying who is right and who is wrong. On the other hand, the sort of "moral truisms" and the way we can use those to proceed to settle moral issues is far more objective than that.

Problem of Evil

Let me turn to the problem of evil because I didn't really talk about it. I told you I don't see why, if I didn't have some reason to believe in God, I couldn't conjure up some reason. I could finally use the first one that Craig did. "God is mysterious. His powers are beyond our powers. How could we comprehend God's ways to man? So we'll accept evil and figure ?God knows the reason.'" Yes, you can do that if you have some reason to believe. But if you don't have any antecedent reason to believe and you look at the world that we see (an observation that Hume made a long time ago), you would never conclude that this world was made by the Christian God. You'd think that some kind of imperfect apprentice-god made it if anyone made it. It's only because you have some other reason to believe in God that you might be able to think, "The problem of evil doesn't disprove the existence of God." It doesn't if there are these other reasons. It doesn't even then because you can always talk about mystery.

One thing I saw in his positive arguments was where he said, "One of the crucial things for us is the value of the knowledge of God." It's often said that what's so incredibly important about knowing God and knowing his nature is that this leads us to a belief in a life of eternal bliss. I don't see anything so intrinsically valuable about knowledge of God. It's because belief in God leads us to a chance of life everlasting that it seems desirable, and that takes us back to happiness or something very like happiness.

Let me put it this way. Perhaps God could not have avoided creating a world in which there would be evil because he needed to allow us to in some sense be free. (This was stated in the second argument.) If we weren't free, if we couldn't do evil, then we would lack an essential quality of moral being. So an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God couldn't create a world which was perfectly good. He couldn't have made man perfectly good. That assumes that only one kind of analysis of free will is correct and no analysis of compatibilism could be accepted. This is not obvious. But let that go. Even if God couldn't have made us perfect beings and still allow us to be free, why did he make us such swine? We really do perfectly terrible things in this world. How is this possible for a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good? Why so much evil? I grant you that there could be a little evil, but why so much? Then you'd fall back on the first thing--"God is utterly mysterious." Once you say that, you can avoid all argument: "His ways are not our ways." You can say that, but you're not going to convince me or anybody who doesn't believe in the existence of God.

Secondly, what about animal suffering? What about the suffering of deformed children who have no capacity to act rightly or wrongly? They suffer incredibly. Animals suffer incredibly in this world. Why did an all-good, all-powerful God allow that? Or, moreover, why did God create human beings (or the world) at all? To worship him? That looks like a pretty egoistic reason.

William Lane Craig – Second Rebuttal

Moral Argument

Let's talk again about whether objective values exist if God does not exist. I don't think Professor Nielsen answered my responses adequately.

I first suggested that the distinction "purpose of life/purpose in life" provides no basis to assess the moral worth of the purpose in life that we choose. It becomes purely arbitrary. And I did not see any response to that point.

I then said it leads to moral relativism and gave the examples of extraterrestrials and rape. His response is that we're only concerned with morality for human beings. But obviously the illustration of the extraterrestrials is meant to show that this is purely relative, that there is no necessity of an objective affirmation of moral value for human beings. The extraterrestrials are simply a hypothesis to reveal that relativism. He said he could convince them of objective values by saying, "Do you regard human"--and then he caught himself and said, "Do you regard degradation as a bad thing?" That was an important slip because these extraterrestrials might well say, "No, we don't regard human degradation or suffering as a bad thing," any more than we regard mosquito suffering as a bad thing. The point is that I can't see any objective moral basis on which these extraterrestrials should be concerned about how they behave toward human beings. And Dr. Nielsen then more or less admits it. He says, "You can't reason with them. You can't prove it to them." And that's exactly my point. There is no objective basis for human morality on an atheistic worldview. They would not regard rape as degrading, so that it wouldn't help to convince them that degradation is wrong because in their moral system it's not degrading.

Dr. Nielsen says, "But what about divine commands?" And I said that these were based on God's nature. He doesn't come back on that point.

I said he confused the order of knowing with the order of being. He doesn't really defend his point there, but he says, "I have a reason why we should be moral." He says, "It's in our self-interest to be moral." I was really surprised to hear that coming from him. That sort of purely self-interested motivation for morality is, I think, fatal to the atheistic position because for someone who is sufficiently powerful not to be worried about what others do, self-interest can only lead to a sort of self-aggrandizing hedonism. It leads to the kind of life of a Marcos, a Papa Doc Duvalier, a Mbbutu, and so forth. Self-interest will never be able to justify an ethic of compassion. And so I think that was a fatal admission on Dr. Nielsen's part for the atheistic worldview.

He says, "But if there were no God, wouldn't suffering still be evil?" No, I don't see why it would. Why would human suffering be evil any more than the suffering of mice or insects is evil? Without God as the absolute standard, I don't see that human values are any different than these other biological adaptations.

He suggested that we just start with moral truisms. I said that you can have different, conflicting patterns, and I did not see a response to that. I also said there's no reason to adopt the moral point of view at all, to which we get this fatal self-interest response.

Let me just say in addition to this that there are a couple of elements of Nielsen's philosophy that are especially incompatible with human beings' having objective moral value. First would be his materialism. On Dr. Nielsen's view, there is no distinction between body and soul, or mind and body. Human beings are not essentially different than just animals, so that there isn't anything in them other than chemicals. We're just bags of water on skeletons, in essence,--very complex, but there is nothing distinct from the material body. When a bomb destroys a human being, it simply rearranges the atoms that once were a little girl.

Second would be Nielsen's determinism. Flowing out of his materialism is his denial of free will. But in order to be morally significant, choices have to be free. If our moral choices are simply the result of stimuli we receive through the five senses, then our moral choices are no more significant than a tree's growing a limb.

Last is his nominalism. He denies that there is any objective, sort of Platonic realm of moral values. But moral values clearly aren't physical things; so I don't see where in the world he gets objective moral values into his metaphysics.

So on those three grounds--his materialism, his determinism, and his nominalism, it seems to me that there is simply no reason to think that without God there is objective moral value.


Remember the points about immortality as well. I said there's no reason to adopt the moral point of view because we all die and end up the same way. And, secondly, there is no basis for self-sacrifice on the atheistic point of view, and he hasn't responded to that yet.

Problem of Evil

He did say some things about the problem of evil. Let me just respond to these--first, with regard to the probabilistic problem of evil. The question here is not whether God is mysterious. That was a misunderstanding. My point was that, because of our limitations in space and history, we may not see God's purposes emerge in our lifetime. Therefore we're not in a good position to assess the probabilities of why He permitted a certain evil. But I see no basis on the atheistic view for thinking that it's improbable that God could have morally sufficient reasons for the evils that occur.

Why does so much evil occur? Again, I would write this off to human free will. As for animal suffering, this is probably due simply to the laws of nature--geological, meteorological sorts of laws that God has put into action. But remember that when humans suffer from these sorts of natural disasters, they will be recompensed in the afterlife.

My time is up, but I don't think that the debate here is focused on the problem of evil. It seems to me to be focusing in on this area of objective moral values without God. And I see no hope for an objective moral basis for the affirmation of human values apart from God himself.

Kai Nielsen – Second Rebuttal

Problem of Evil

It's perfectly correct that the debate didn't focus on the problem of evil because I want to say there isn't a problem of evil if there's no reason to believe in God, and we can make sense of our lives without believing in God. I also said that, as far as I can see, if someone really has other reasons for believing in God, he probably can make sense, from his perspective, of the problem of evil.

I didn't particularly find Craig's arguments very convincing. I'll talk a little bit about them, but I don't want to waste a lot of time (at least from my perspective) about this. I'll move from the very last things he said.

Take animal suffering. There are certain laws of nature that God somehow created or is responsible for, and because of those, there is animal suffering. If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-wise, all-good (and here with animals there is, presumably, no question about free will), he could have made laws of nature that didn't entail that suffering. And there's an enormous amount of suffering. That we don't see God's complete purpose doesn't mean, as MacIntyre once said, we've seen enough to know there's a lot of evil in the world which is not explained except by postulating God. It's not the sort of thing that would lead us to believe in the God of Christianity just by looking at the world.


In one of his last points, he said in response to me that I didn't meet his point that if there is no immortality, we all end up the same way. What difference does it make how we end up? What makes a difference is about how we live here and now. And those things are important to us just now. Think about love. In light of the fact that you're going to die, does this mean that the love between persons means nothing? Not at all.

Moral Values Without God

Let me turn to a really central misunderstanding, and I'm surprised, if he's ever read my book Why Should I Be Moral?, that he would make this mistake. There's a complete difference between giving a moral justification (a justification inside of morality) and a pragmatic justification for accepting the whole institution of morality. I wasn't at all defending hedonism, self-interest inside of morality; I've criticized that extensively. I've said, "Suppose somebody says, 'Why accept the moral point of view at all?' he's not asking for a moral reason. He's asking for a non-moral reason." And I'm saying we can give him a non-moral reason. (We can tell him to go get lost, too.) But if somebody says, "Why should I pay any attention to science?" he's not asking for a scientific reason. He's asking for a pragmatic reason to pay attention to science, and we can give him a reason for that. I say we can give a self-interested reason for "why be moral" outside of morality, but when we're justifying moral beliefs, we don't appeal to self-interest--or not in any essential way. That's a complete confusion. The slightest readings of my books would never have allowed him to make that point.

My next point has to do with Craig's saying, "Take extraterrestrials again. Suppose they regard suffering as bad--not human suffering." Again, using my same method, I could say, "What's the difference between you and humans?" If they said, "We're more rational," so what? What does that have to do with suffering? I'd say, "If suffering is bad for you, why isn't it bad for human beings as well?" We can argue with them and if both parties are sufficiently rational, there is no reason to think that one couldn't achieve agreement, but one might not. Again I say that morality is principally for humans, but if we ever came across this situation, we could still argue with them.

Similarly, suppose the extraterrestrial says, "I don't see anything particularly bad about degradation." Then we can concretely speak to him about what degradation really comes to, of what happens to a woman when she's raped, and so forth. If these beings are willing to think about this, it would be very hard for them to continue, I think, to argue that degradation is not evil.

If, finally, they didn't, if we couldn't "find feet" with them, this doesn't mean values are subjective. It means that values, maybe, are inter-subjective to human beings and beings who have rationality, who know what it is to suffer and experience pain and the like.

He says that I don't meet his objection that moral purposes in life all are perfectly arbitrary without God. I don't see the slightest reason for that. Some of them are arbitrary if they are silly and thoughtless purposes. Some purposes, if they are integrated, carefully thought-out, related to everything else we know, reflective (where human beings work through long traditions, including working with Christian traditions, in which you put together everything you know and think carefully about these purposes), are perfectly objective. And they are the only kind you can give much sense to. Craig seems to think that to have objective values is for values to have some strange objective quality--some abstract object like numbers, maybe. Many have tried to make sense of this. (And here Mackie is very powerful.) No one has been able to make much sense of this--God or no God. G. E. Moore believed in objective values and was an atheist. Perhaps you can do that, but the point is this. Objective values in that sense are a completely incoherent notion. We don't know what we're talking about. And moreover, if there were such values, we don't need them. We could make perfectly good sense of our lives and justify our moral beliefs without them.

He says, "But that still does not address the difference between the order of knowing and the order of being." Well, it addresses it in this sense. That question of the ontology of values is an incredibly opaque one. Anybody who has studied the problem rather carefully knows how difficult it is. It's very, very unclear whether we even know what it would mean for values to be objective in that sense. And in doing that, we are bringing in a lot of baggage that achieves nothing. If we would stick with the kind of justification I talk about, we could have something that was humanly objective without any appeal to God or, for that matter, to the pseudo-abstract entity "the Good."

William Lane Craig – Concluding Statement

Moral Values without God

Let me summarize the issues in the debate as I understand them thus far. Dr. Nielsen has argued that we can make sense of our lives without appeal to God. Now I certainly agree that we can develop ethical modes of behavior without reference to God. I agree that we can recognize objective moral values without reference to God. I agree that atheists can live moral lives and don't need God for that. But what I do not see is that in the absence of God, human beings are the source or the locus of objective moral value. On the atheistic view, they are simply complex, evolutionary vomit that will eventually be swallowed up by the same cosmic process that coughed them up in the first place. And I don't see any reason to think that this species is the source of objective moral values in the universe.

Now, when I demanded the basis for this, I really didn't see anything that Dr. Nielsen had given. He just starts with these moral truisms. In a sense what he is saying is that you just take them by faith; you just believe in these things by faith, but you don't ask why they are objectively true. But that's what I want to do. I want to ask the meta-ethical question: what's the basis for these? I gave the example of the extraterrestrials to show that somebody could not regard us as the objective source of value. He would say, "But why isn't it bad for human beings to suffer?" Well, they just might think of us as unimportant evolutionary by-products--the same way we do of insects or something of that sort. I'm not suggesting that their values would be objective either. I mean, in a sense, a higher race might regard them also as not valuable. The whole thing grows into ethical chaos and moral relativism.

Dr. Nielsen says, "Think of how degrading rape is." Yes, for humans but remember we're speculating on a race that doesn't regard this as degrading and would therefore think this is morally permissible.

I then argued with regard to Dr. Nielsen's moral truisms that you can have different coherent systems of morality that are mutually exclusive. And on his view there is no way to adjudicate between those different coherent systems. I think we've yet to hear a refutation of that point.

Secondly, I said that there's no reason to adopt the moral point of view whatsoever, and here he says his appeal is to self-interest. I do understand his point, I beg your pardon! I understand he's giving a non-moral reason, a pragmatic reason. But what I'm suggesting is that for a sufficiently powerful person that pragmatic reason holds no water whatsoever. For a Papa Doc Duvalier, self-interest doesn't motivate him to adopt the moral point of view. He's powerful enough to live for an egoistical point of view. So he can spurn these moral truisms if he wants to.

Then I said that on Nielsen's view, his materialism, determinism, and nominalism all make it evident that human beings are not the source of objective moral value. He reiterates that he doesn't believe in abstract objects called values. Neither do I. I don't believe in Platonic values. But if you reject those and moral values aren't physical things either, then what are they? I don't see that they exist on the atheistic worldview.


Then we talked about immortality, and I said there are two reasons why immortality undermines ethical living. First, there's no reason to adopt the moral point of view; you're all going to end up the same. Secondly, there is no basis for self-sacrifice. He says, "But we live here and now, and we should adopt moral values because of the way we live here and now." But my point was there's no reason to adopt that moral point of view if it's not in your self-interest to do so. If you can get away with it, there is no moral sanction. Your ultimate fate, on his view, is unrelated to whether you do right or wrong.

As for self-sacrifice, I think it's evident that those sorts of acts are folly on an atheistic point of view.

Problem of Evil

What, then, about the problem of evil? I suggested we're not in a good position to judge whether God has morally sufficient reasons because of our limitations. I didn't see a comeback on that in the last speech.

And then I said that Christian doctrines increase the probability of God and evil. He says God could have made better laws of nature than the ones that don't involve suffering. Well, how do we know? How do we know this wasn't the world in which it allowed for the maximum latitude for human freedom rather than God perhaps intervening all the time to prevent evils or some such thing? We know that in the afterlife, according to Christianity, God will more than recompense anyone for what he's had to suffer here. All God is morally obligated to do is to create a good world, not the best world. And this is, on balance, a good world (or everyone would commit suicide). So it seems to me that there's no real problem of evil that counteracts theism. On the contrary, I think we've seen on the basis of our intuition of objective moral values in the world, especially made evident by evil, that it follows that God does exist.

Kai Nielsen – Concluding Statement

Moral Values Without God

Dr. Craig says that my materialism, my determinism, my nominalism get in the way to giving any reasonable sense to objective values. I don't see that that's at all true. Take the materialism first. That we are material beings, animals of a complicated sort, doesn't mean that we're not animals of a very unique and distinct sort with very distinct capacities--incredible capacities that no other animals have. So the fact we have this material basis says nothing about whether we can form and construct and make sense of or justify our values, have the intelligence, the reflection, the sensitivity, the sentiments that engage--even if those are all material. That's a kind of genetic fallacy.

Now what about determinism? He completely ignores a well-developed theory, which could well be mistaken, which says that determinism and freedom are compatible. There's a perfectly straightforward sense in which you can be free and determined. That is to say, I could tell you, "If I wanted to, I could have talked about the problem of evil, but I chose to talk about making sense of morality without God." In other words, I am free to do this; I chose to do something because I wanted to do something. All "cans" are constitutionally "iffy," to use a bit of jargon. That account may have some difficulties in it, but it's a very developed account; it's very nuanced. And you can both believe in freedom in a straightforward sense and determinism.

Regarding the nominalism, I've never called myself a nominalist though I have nominalist predilections, but I'm certainly not a Platonist. And what I want to say is when he asserts these objective values as abstract entities, he just asserts them. He doesn't even explain to us how we can possibly know them or why we need God to know them or why we need God for their existence. Many people--G. E. Moore, for example--believe that these things could exist without God. He's made no connection between them and God except the general connection that if God exists, he created everything. But the point is, if you speak counterfactually, even if God didn't exist, there are these objective values; they would still be something you should believe in--if there are such things as objective values. I want to say that such objective values are a piece of hoax. I think Mackie is perfectly right. We can't even make sense of them. Then we draw a conclusion that nihilism or relativism is true. What I have been concerned to show to you is that nihilism or relativism does not follow from that defense of the ontological rejection of objective values. And I've tried to give you a perfectly common-sense way in which values can be objective.

Craig says, "There could be a number of coherent systems that are mutually incompatible"--not on the account I'm talking about. I'm talking about wide-perfective equilibrium. If there were two coherent systems which were incompatible, not both of them could be in wide-perfective equilibrium. We would have to ask which of these coherent systems was most fully coherent. Or if they interacted in a certain manner, we would have a way of working from the two beliefs which had some overlapping conceptions (such as the case of the extraterrestrials and rape) to argue more extensively for one account to the other. In no case do we simply rest, with the kind of account I'm giving you, on a different incommensurable, separate, distinct coherent system. That's not the model at all. That's the kind of model from geometry where you have self-enclosed systems. The systems are not self-enclosed. The point is that we are constantly repairing a ship at sea by working with values, correcting them in the various ways I showed. All of that can make sense and does make sense in a perfectly godless world.

Craig asserts over and over again--without any kind of argument at all, as far as I can see--that without God there can be no objective values. He hasn't shown that. If it makes sense to speak of objective values, there could be objective values without God. He hasn't been able to show how this notion even makes sense. It's an incredibly obscure notion. What is it for values to exist? What kind of existence do they have? Certainly not a concrete existence. If they simply exist like numbers, then you could ask, "Why value these objective values?" You could similarly ask. "If God has a certain nature, why should you care about that nature?" And, again, that would be a matter of your own individual reflective judgment.


1 Michael Ruse, "Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics," in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 262-269.

2 J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), pp. 115-116.

3 Ibid., pp. 117-118.

4 Michael Ruse, "Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics," in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 262-269.

5 Alvin Plantinga, "Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments," Lecture presented at the 33rd Annual Philosophy Conference, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois, October 23-25, 1986.

6 Alvin Plantinga, "," in Alvin Plantinga, ed. James Tomberlin and Petr van Inwagen, Profiles 5 (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1985), p. 36.

7 I don't like to use the word "truth" with respect to ethics for purely technical reasons, but it has a perfectly harmless sense if you say that moral utterances are true. It's just that I don't want talk about any kind of correspondence that nobody understands--particularly with regard to moral and mathematical utterances.

8 Now that isn't strictly true; one famous atheist believed in immortality--J.M.E. McTaggart. But I think it's a rather silly notion one way or the other. Most atheists without exception don't believe in immorality.

9 J. P. Moreland and Kai Nielsen, Does God Exist? (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), pp. 117.

10 Ruse, "Is Rape Wrong on Andromeda?" pp. 236-237.