Questions on Greatest Being Theology, Certainty, & the Moral Argument
Dr. Craig answers follow-up questions to some recent Questions of the Week.
Questions on Greatest Being Theology, Certainty, and the Moral Argument
Kevin Harris: Some questions from ReasonableFaith.org from all over the world. This is a follow-up to a question-of-the-week:
Dr. Craig, I have a follow-up question about this week’s featured question. You say that a God who commands rape, mass murder, and forced conversion is like a square circle. Why do you think this? The concept of a God who in his nature likes rape, mass murder, and forced conversion does not seem to be logically inconsistent. Where is the inconsistency?
Dr. Craig: I think that such a being could not be God because God is the greatest conceivable being – a maximally great being, a being that is worthy of worship. That is what we mean by “God.” Any being that was not worthy of worship, that is not maximally great, would not qualify as God. And a being who commands murder, rape, and forced conversion is not maximally great or worthy of worship. So this is not God.
He says, “Where is the inconsistency?” Well, he needs to understand one isn’t talking here about strict logically inconsistency. There is nothing strictly logically inconsistent about saying the prime minister is a prime number. Nevertheless that is metaphysically impossible. There is no possible world in which the prime minister is a prime number. Similarly, to say that God likes rape, mass murder, and forced conversion doesn’t involve a strict logical contradiction but I think nevertheless it is metaphysically impossible for the reason I just mentioned. So he needs to understand the difference between strict and broad logical possibility. When philosophers talk about metaphysical possibility or impossibility they are talking about broad logical possibility or impossibility, not strict or narrow logical possibility or impossibility.
Kevin Harris: Let me give you another illustration, Bill. I once heard a philosopher try to illustrate this and he said, “If I took a nickel out of my pocket and flipped it in the air and when it landed on the ground it became an elephant, that is not a logical impossibility.” It is not going to happen but it is logically possible.
Dr. Craig: Right. There is no logical contradiction.
Kevin Harris: I was going to ask you – does greatest being theology serve as a grid or a test which to examine God and God’s attributes?
Dr. Craig: I think it really does. I would say that among Christian philosophers of religion today, this does seem to be one of the criteria which guides systematic theology about God. One would be the data of revelation found in Scripture, but then the other guide would be perfect being theology. You will construe what Scripture teaches in terms that would be consistent with God’s being the greatest conceivable being.
Kevin Harris: Maybe you can take an opportunity to dispel this notion of using philosophy instead of Scripture? You are applying both – the revelation of Scripture and . . .
Dr. Craig: I think that is the way the systematic theologian works. There are two guides to doing adequate systematic theology. One would be the raw data of Scripture – what does the Bible teach? But the biblical data are often underdeterminitive. For example, the Bible says that God is eternal, but it doesn’t make clear whether that means God is infinite and everlasting throughout time or whether it means that God transcends time altogether. That is a philosophical question. Similarly, the Bible says that God is almighty. But it doesn’t really give a philosophical analysis of what it means to be omnipotent. That is a philosophical question. One will construe these biblical attributes in such a way as to be consistent with the idea of God as a maximally great being. Not just having, for example, a lot of power, but rather having as much power as is broadly logically possible.
Kevin Harris: It seems like God gives us permission to do this when I read the Proverbs. It says it is a matter of God to conceal a matter but it is a matter of kings to find that out. We are to seek wisdom. We can certainly be seekers and participants with God. You know what I mean?
Dr. Craig: Yeah, that is an interesting application of that verse.
Kevin Harris: Here is another question, Dr. Craig:
Greetings. In your debate with Christopher DiCarlo, he asked if you could estimate your level of confidence in your belief in God, and that if your belief was as likely as a universe with no God, or if it was higher. You said your belief was higher than 50/50 but that you had no way of measuring whether it was highly probable or not. Wouldn’t this seem to be of utmost importance to the question and what you have spent your life debating? How on Earth are we to accept that you find the existence of a God more probable when you have no way of knowing what more probable means?
Dr. Craig: Well, wait a minute. I never said I don’t have any idea of what more probable means. For something to be more probable than not means you have a greater than 50% chance of being true. Right? That’s what it means to be “more probable.” What I’ve refused to do is to quantify it and to say I am 75% certain or it is 83% certain that God exists or 99% certain. I think anybody who does try to put those kind of numbers on it is being disingenuous, and you ought to be very suspicious. The fact is we can talk, I think, in only rough terms about this, and saying “I think it is very probable that God exists” or “more probable than not.” Things of that sort. I think that is quite acceptable.
Kevin Harris: He says,
It appears your entire position is lost in relativism and greater evidence for what you argue against that if atheism is true then everything is relative and nothing matters.
Dr. Craig: How could he possibly draw that inference? I’ve argued that theism is more probable than atheism. How could that possibly be construed as relativism and saying that nothing matters? Quite the contrary. I argued in that debate that if God does not exist then life is ultimately absurd. Therefore this question if vitally important to human beings. In fact, I argued that it is so important that if the scales of probability were just evenly balanced 50/50 that the rational thing to do is to believe in God. It would seem to be perfectly irrational to prefer death, futility, and meaninglessness to happiness, joy, and significance. So I’m persuaded that even if the scales of the evidence were evenly balanced that the rational thing to do would be to believe in God. I agree with Pascal in that sense.
Kevin Harris: He says,
Why, if this is the most crucial part of your position, that some being exists and can save us from this nihilism, why can’t you show your arguments map to reality and can be weighed, as DiCarlo points out?
Dr. Craig: I do think they map to reality. The whole point of the arguments was that these arguments make it more probable than not that God does exist: that there is a Creator of the universe, there is a Designer of the universe, there is an absolute good who is the foundation of moral values, and so forth. What I just think would be disingenuous to do would be to try to put specific figures to these. Anybody who thinks you can do that, I think, is just being dishonest.
Kevin Harris: Has anybody ever tried that you know of?
Dr. Craig: Richard Swinburne is the big Bayes Theorem man, but I don’t remember if Swinburne actually puts figures to how probable he thinks God is. He would agree that God’s existence is more probable than not. One of the interesting things that Tim McGrew (a philosopher at the University of Western Michigan) has pointed out is that these even weak arguments can be part of a cumulative case where the combination of several arguments, each of which does not make God’s existence more probable than not, can in combination with each other make God’s existence considerably more probable than not.
Kevin Harris: The value of a cumulative case.
Dr. Craig: Yes. As in a court of law. Any single piece of evidence the prosecution might adduce might not be enough to convict, but it would be the cumulative force of all the evidence together that will lead the jury to convict. To know with confidence that the accused is guilty, does the jury need to be able to say, “It was 72% probable that the accused is guilty? No, no! It was 89% probable.” Of course not. The jury is simply asked to say is he guilty, in a criminal case, beyond reasonable doubt.
Kevin Harris: It seems that some things are susceptible to being quantified. We can quantify some things. But other things are not so easily quantifiable. We can say a 30% chance of rain based on models.
Dr. Craig: I think even that is not accurate. I think that would be a good example of where these meteorologists are just kind of pulling out numbers. To give figures like this, you really need to be doing things where you have sort of like lotteries and you have specific numbers, for example, that there are a certain proportion of red balls mixed with a certain proportion of white balls and when they are mixed together what is the probability that in three choices you would pick a certain color. There you could quantify because you are working with specific numbers. But when you are dealing with weather, I think as we all know those weather forecasts are just broad sort of estimates.
Kevin Harris: It doesn’t seem to me that it is necessary to try to quantify probability of your belief in God. You wouldn’t do that to your wife! She does the dishes 40% of the time, so you add all that up. [laughter]
Dr. Craig: Or what is the probability that she loves you? You wouldn’t quantify that. I am just really surprised that this person who writes in would think that this is really an important and missing element in this case that I am building for God’s existence. I just couldn’t disagree more.
Kevin Harris: This person, I guarantee you, is not applying that standard to most of the things he or she probably goes about life for.
Dr. Craig: That is exactly right. One couldn’t live life requiring probability judgments that would be quantified in this way.
Kevin Harris: Here is a question on the moral argument, Dr. Craig. Once again the syllogism:
1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
3. Therefore God exists.
Let me now outline the problem as I see it. The social-biological evolution objection is claiming something very strong, namely, that our moral experiences are a byproduct of evolution.
Dr. Craig: I want to stop right there. Notice what he is admitting: this objection is making a very strong claim – that evolution explains not merely the adaptation of our hands and our eyes and other organs in our body, but it can be used to explain moral experience. That is a very strong and conjectural claim. Therefore, I think it would require an extraordinary amount of evidence if we are to believe it is true. Let’s go ahead.
So no matter how genuinely we think we are apprehending right and wrong, good and bad, we might all genuinely be mistaken, fooled by evolution as it were. So now it appears that we are in a stalemate with regards to whether our moral experiences are authentic or not.
Dr. Craig: Wait a minute. Why does it follow that we are in a stalemate just because of the possibility or the suggestion that our moral experiences might be explained through evolution? That is like saying, “It is possible that I am a brain in a vat wired up with electrodes by a mad scientist to think that I am here in this room conversing with Kevin Harris when in fact nothing around me that I experience is real.” Yeah, that is possible. I could even be stimulated by the mad scientist to think it is impossible that all of my perceptions are illusory and that I am a brain in a vat. But why does the mere possibility of that undermine the testimony of my five senses – that you are here, that things around me are real? You would need to have some very powerful warrant, some powerful argument, for thinking you are a brain in a vat. Similarly, as he says, this socio-biological claim is making a very strong claim and therefore we’d need to have some very powerful warrant or justification. It is not enough just to say it is possible.
Kevin Harris: He says,
Simply put the argument so far has shown that if God does not exist then morality is illusory. But if God does exist then morality is not illusory. How then can we progress? How can we say that morality is not illusory and affirm that God exists? It seems that appealing to moral experience presupposes that morality is not illusory. Yes, I admit that my moral experience tells me that actions really are right and wrong, but that is exactly what I would expect to experience if morality was illusory. Simply appealing to moral experience to show that there is an objective realm of moral values and duties just won’t do. As the experience I have is exactly what I would expect to see if morality was illusory.
Dr. Craig: Kevin, that is just like saying, “Yes, I admit that my sense experiences tell me that there are physical objects around me. But that is exactly what I would expect to experience if the physical objects around me were illusory. Simply appealing to my sense experience to show that there is a world of physical objects around me won’t do as the experience is exactly what I would expect to see if the physical world were illusory.” It is exactly parallel. That fails to understand that in the absence of some defeater I have no reason to deny what my senses or moral experiences tell me.
It is certainly correct that if I were a brain in a vat then I would expect to see these illusions around me. But that doesn’t mean I have no good reason to think that I am really in a physical world surrounded by physical objects.
I am sure this is the source of his difficulty – he rightly discerns that you cannot defeat skepticism by arguing from your experiences to their veridicality. That is the lesson of Descartes, right? Descartes said Maybe I am just a mind without a body. Maybe I am even being deceived by an evil demon to hallucinate these things around me. That winds up in skepticism. There isn’t any way to infer from your experiences that you have veridical perceptions of the world around you. But as modern epistemologists emphasize, these are properly basic beliefs, not inferential beliefs. We are not presenting an argument for the existence of the external world from sense experience. Any such argument is doomed to failure – to try to argue to the reality of the external world from your sense experience. Similarly, you are not going to be able to argue from moral experience to the reality of a realm of moral values and duties. Rather, the claim is that I have an experience, either of the external world or moral values, and this is a properly basic belief for me grounded in the way things appear to me. I am perfectly rational and, I think, can even be said to know that these things are true in the absence of some defeater or some good reason to think that my sense experiences are utterly illusory or my moral experience is utterly illusory. It is not enough to show that I am sometimes mistaken. When you look at the stick in the jar of water, it looks bent but we know it is not. Our senses sometimes deceive us. We can be morally wrong. Sometimes cultures or people have thought things were morally all right and really they were wrong. So we are not claiming that our apprehensions or basic beliefs are infallible. But the skeptic about the external world or the moral world is having to say that our experiences are utterly and 100% delusory. There is just no good reason to think such a thing.
So in the absence of some kind of a defeater for these very strong skeptical claims, I am perfectly rational in going with the way reality appears to me in my experience. So the moral argument is not in any way question begging. You don’t need to have a belief in God in order to believe that your moral experiences are veridical.
Kevin Harris: That is what he thinks. He thinks, My only answer to this dilemma [that he has constructed] is that I already have to believe in God.
Dr. Craig: Yes, which then would be circular. But the very fact that the majority of non-believing ethicists and philosophers think that premise (2) is true shows that you can be justified in believing that objective moral values and duties exist without presupposing the existence of God.