Response to Pigliucci’s article on “Gods and Morality”

Response to Pigliucci's article on "Gods and Morality"

Dr. Craig's former debate opponent, Massimo Pigliucci, wrote an article on "Gods and Morality". Dr. Craig wonders why these articles keep missing the main point!

Transcript Response to Pigliucci's Article on ‘Gods and Morality’

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, a professor at Sydney University in New York, whom you have debated, has written at article in the Washington Post, October 15, 2012, Dr. Massimo Pigliucci. The article is entitled “Gods and Morality.”[1] Your debate with Dr. Pigliucci was several years ago.[2] What was the topic?

Dr. Craig: I think it was the existence of God. We debated at the University of Georgia in Athens years ago. That was the debate to which I wore the famous – or infamous – sweater, the moral compass, that has the big compass right on the chest. And we had a debate that included a debate over the moral argument. And I must say, reading this editorial in the Washington Post, I don't think that Professor Pigliucci profited very much from our debate. He seems to be making the same mistakes over again.

Kevin Harris: Gods and morality – this jumps right to something we've done podcasts on and that you've written on: the Euthyphro dilemma.

Dr. Craig: Yes.

Kevin Harris: Let's talk about the overview of this argument, and that is, he starts it off by saying: “One of the most common and profound misconceptions about faith is that God is necessary to be moral and to find meaning in life.” Well, is that a misconception?

Dr. Craig: I think the whole misconception is actually on Professor Pigliucci’s part. He misconceives what the moral argument is trying to prove, and therefore sets up a straw man that he knocks down. He thinks that the moral argument is an argument about faith, that you need to believe in God in order to determine what you ought to do, what's right and wrong for you to do. That in order to know what is moral you have to believe in God. And that's not what the moral argument says. That's a question of religious epistemology – how do you know what your moral duties are? The moral argument is an argument about moral ontology. That is to say, what is the foundation in reality for moral values and duties? Are they objective or are they merely subjective illusions of human consciousness? And if they are objective, what is their foundation? So the misconception is on Professor Pigliucci's part, if he thinks that the natural theologian is arguing that in order to find out what your moral duties are, what is good or evil, you have to believe in God in order to find that out, hen he's misconceived. He's misconceived the moral argument.

Kevin Harris: The fact that atheists or people who don't believe in God can still recognize and act upon moral values and duties is different than what actually grounds moral values and duties, the justification for moral values and duties.

Dr. Craig: Right, it's the difference between the order of being and the order of knowing. In the order of knowing you don't have to know that God exists in order to know what your objective moral duties and values are. But in the order of being, there God comes first as prior, he is the foundation for the existence of objective moral values and duties. And the Bible actually teaches, Kevin, that you don't need to believe in God in order to recognize right and wrong, good and evil. Paul in Romans chapter two says that the moral law of God is written on the hearts of all men, so that even those who do not have the Mosaic law – Gentiles – know instinctively, he says, what the law of God requires of them because God's moral law is written on people's hearts. So as Christians we don't believe at all that you need to believe in God in order to find out what is good and evil, what is right and wrong for you. On the contrary this is written on your heart by God.

Kevin Harris: Dr. Pigliucci then brings up Plato's Euthyphro dilemma as saying that this, from Plato, is the “definitive refutation of the idea that gods are necessary for morality.”

Dr. Craig: I was surprised at that. This dilemma is far from recognized as definitive among professional philosophers. There have been reams written by theistic ethicists or meta-ethicists on the Euthyphro dilemma. And I think it's a false dilemma. It can be rather easily avoided. I think that Plato would say that the gods looked to what he called The Good, which for him is a sort of abstraction. It's not a personal being. It is an idea, a concept – The Good. And the gods looked to that (as we do) to find out the content of what is good, and that serves as the ontological foundation of what is good and evil.[3] Where Christian theologians differed from Plato was that they identified God as The Good. They said, “Yes, you are right Plato, there does need to be a Good, there needs to be a moral absolute behind which you cannot go, an ultimate court of appeal, but the Good is God.” God is The Good in Christian theology. And so they identified Plato's Good with God himself.

Kevin Harris: One more time, just run over the Euthyphro dilemma, again, with anyone who's not familiar with it.

Dr. Craig: Right. Pigliucci fairly states the dilemma, which is what makes his response to it all the more peculiar. He correctly states the dilemma, but then he attacks a straw man instead of the dilemma. He states the dilemma as this: is something right because the gods say it is, or do the gods say that something is right because it is? Now that's the dilemma, that is a correct statement of the dilemma. And what's interesting about this dilemma, Kevin, is that the alternatives are not mutually exhaustive, or jointly exhaustive. They are not contradictories. It’s not like saying, “either A or not A.” This is more like saying, “either A or B,” and a person can come along and say, “well, what about C or D?” In other words, because it's not offering contradictories as the alternatives – A or not A – it's open to saying, well maybe there's a third alternative to saying . . .

Kevin Harris: And that splits the horns?

Dr. Craig: Yes, that's called splitting the horns of the dilemma. You show that it's a false dilemma, that these aren't the only two choices. So I would agree with him that it's not the case that something is right just because God says it is, that God just makes up what is right and wrong arbitrarily. This is called voluntarism. And that has been defended by a few Christian theologians. William of Ockham, for example, was a voluntarist. He thought that the good is rooted simply in the will of God. I think Islam, really, would be a form of voluntarism, too. For Islamic theology God's omnipotence trumps everything, even his own nature, so that God can just make up anything and it will be the good. But the vast majority of Christian theologians and philosophers have not embraced voluntarism – this is really a false option that Christians would not accept. But that doesn't mean that they embrace the other horn of the dilemma which says that the gods say something is right because it is; that is to say, it is independent of God, that God looks to The Good, a sort of standard outside of himself, and that's the basis for what is right and wrong and the basis for God's commandments. Christians, traditionally, would not agree with that, either. They would say that both of these alternatives are incorrect, but that there is a third option. And that would be that God is the good, and therefore something is right because of the way God is, because God is the good.

Kevin Harris: Where Plato in the Euthyphro said “gods” (small g) we can insert “God” and the principle would be the same.

Dr. Craig: Yes, I don't think that makes any difference. Whether you're a polytheist or a theist, the atheist will press the same dilemma against theism by just capitalizing the word “God” and putting it in the singular. So Pigliucci never really responds to the option which most Christian theologians and philosophers would give to Plato's question. Instead he says things like this: “if . . . morality is independent of the gods . . . [then] they can figure out what is right and wrong, [and] so can we. . . . No middle man . . . [is] needed, thank you very much.” Gods are unnecessary in order for us to figure out the right thing to do. Well, that's a straw man.

Kevin Harris: You can bypass God.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, that's a straw man. We agree. You can figure out what to do, what is right and wrong, without believing in God. That's the epistemological question again. The question is: is there right and wrong, is there objective good and evil, if there is no God? And Pigliucci doesn't even address that question in here. Instead he's attacking this straw man.

Kevin Harris: But he debated you; he's go to know there's a third option.

Dr. Craig: He's got to know this. And he's got to know that the Euthyphro dilemma isn't about figuring out the content of the good, or what your moral duties are. It's about the ontological basis of the good. And so this whole editorial is misconstrued because what he's trying to say is, in the last paragraph:[4] “the smart thing to do is to learn from the best of what science and philosophy can tell us in order to make the most informed decisions.” And we needn't disagree with that because the argument isn't about how to make smart decisions, morally speaking. It isn't about, “How do you learn the content of your moral duties?” It's about the foundation in reality for right and wrong, good and evil. And he doesn't even address that question at all in this editorial.

Kevin Harris: And the third option that God is The Good would preclude anything like The Good is therefore arbitrary and God could will that murder was moral, the moral thing to do.

Dr. Craig: That's right because here the character of God is essential to God. God is necessarily kind, loving, fair, just, and so forth. These are essential to God's nature so it's not possible for God to be different in nature than he is. These are essential properties; God is like this in every possible world in which he exists. And since God is a being which is worthy of worship, by definition the very concept of God entails that God is morally perfect and therefore good. It makes no sense to talk about a God who is evil because the very concept of God is the concept of a being which is worthy of worship. And only a morally perfect being is worthy of worship. If the being had any sort of moral flaws in his character he might be admirable, but he wouldn't be worthy of worship, as God is. So when you think about the concept of God, I think that you can see that God has to be absolutely good since there is nothing greater than God, nothing beyond God. God is identified in Christian theology as the good, the summum bonum – the greatest good – and is also the ens realissimum, the most real being. The metaphysical pinnacle of being and the ethical pinnacle of goodness coincide in the being of God.

Kevin Harris: Pigliucci wraps up this article by saying the best way to figure out the good, and the moral direction and the moral course in our lives, is what he calls “sci-phi,” which is a combination of science and philosophy. When you combine science and philosophy that will give you the answers to any moral dilemma and determines the existence of morality itself.

Dr. Craig: Well, now, he doesn't say that, though. See, that's what bothers me about the article. He never addresses the ontological question. His whole concern is how do you figure out the right thing to do . . .

Kevin Harris: Oh, you're right!

Dr. Craig: . . . and he says the smart thing to do is to use philosophy and science, and that will help us to figure out the right things to do. Well, now, I don't think that's true – I think that revelation, theology, is also a helpful source of knowledge. But I'm not going to argue that point because that's irrelevant. That's epistemology, that's moral epistemology, and to get into that would be to chase a red herring down some rabbit trail (to mix metaphors) and to distract ourselves from the central question: what is the ontological foundation for the existence of moral value and duty? And that is a question which Pigliucci never tackles.

Kevin Harris: Wow, he really doesn't say that science and philosophy can give us the objective nature of morality, only how to figure it out, how to figure out what to do.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, the question is purely epistemological for him and as such it erects a straw man. It is irrelevant to the original Euthyphro dilemma, which is about why is something right or good, not how do you figure out what the right and the good is.

Kevin Harris: Well, Bill, at least he brings in philosophy, here.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, Pigliucci is different than a lot of these other science popularizers like Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins.

Kevin Harris: They are very popular with the internet subculture and community.

Dr. Craig: Right, and have a very condescending attitude toward people who work in philosophy. What Pigliucci did was, having already earned a doctorate in biology, he went on to do doctoral studies in philosophy. So he has dual doctorates as I do. His are in biology and in philosophy. And so I like Pigliucci in that he speaks very highly of philosophical inquiry and its necessity toward an intellectually well-rounded and reflective life.[5] As you say he adopts what he calls “sci-phi,” not science fiction but science-philosophy, as the means of getting at truth and guiding our lives. And I think that's part of what's right. I would want to say “theo-sci-phi,” throw in some theology as well to round out the picture.

Kevin Harris: This would really keep him out of hardcore scientism that we see so much.

Dr. Craig: Yes, and he's written some other editorials where he has really blasted people like Krauss and some of these other scientistic types who are very ignorant of the importance of philosophy, and of their own philosophical presuppositions, which continually trip them up. So Pigliucci has been very helpful in helping to reprimand his fellow secularists when they begin to make scientistic claims which are philosophically unjustified.[6]

[1] A copy of this article can be found at (accessed February 18, 2014).

[2] For a transcript of this debate, see (accessed February 18, 2014).

[3] 5:10

[4] 10:05

[5] 15:03

[6] Total Running Time: 16:30 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)