Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Woodshedding the argument from evil

Christian apologist David Wood recently posted a series of comments on the argument from evil over at Reppert's blog:


I think these are worth reproducing in their own right:

David Wood said...

Whenever someone raises the question of an atheist foundation for morality (which is an important topic, considering that atheists are currently calling all sorts of things "evil"), you immediately change the subject to theistic foundations for morality. I think you're trying to imply that atheists and theists are in the same boat here. But we're not.

Consider the following imaginary conversation between an atheist and a theist, which roughly follows the Hitchens-Wilson debate:

ATHEIST: Christianity is evil!

THEIST: Why is it evil?

ATHEIST: Because all sorts of evil things have come from it!

THEIST: How do you identify those things as evil?

ATHEIST: Well, we've evolved some moral views, and some tendencies to do right and wrong.

THEIST: But why are certain tendencies "right" and others "wrong"? They both evolved.

ATHEIST: You're saying I can't do good things! You're saying that all atheists are immoral!

THEIST: No. I simply asked on what basis you distinguish between "right" evolved tendencies and "wrong" evolved tendencies. What foundation do you have for this distinction?

ATHEIST: Atheists can do good things too!

THEIST: I haven't denied this. I'm simply asking how you can say that some things are bad while others are good.

ATHEIST: But I can do good things just like a theist!

And so on, and so on.

Now let's look at a different conversation.

THEIST: Hey, stop murdering people!

MURDERER: Why should I?

THEIST: Because an all-powerful, all-knowing, wholly good being became a man, told us to love one another, died for our sins, and rose from the dead.

MURDERER: Well, is he "wholly good" because he lives up to a certain standard outside of himself? If so, then there is a standard outside of God.

THEIST: No, goodness is part of God's nature.

MURDERER: But his nature could have been otherwise! Would that other nature then have been "good"?

THEIST: No, God could not have been otherwise.

Here the conversation would become quite difficult, as theist and murderer attempt to understand how morality relates to God's nature. But this is quite different from the situation with the atheist, who can't so much as defend the concept of morality.

In other words, if theism is true, then an all-powerful, all-knowing, wholly good being has told us how we should live. We may wonder how morality relates to God, but surely God understands such things and actually knows what we should do. But if atheism is true, then some tendencies that evolved (I'm going with Hitchens here) tell us how we should live. But do these tendencies really know what is right and what is wrong? Isn't there a marked difference between the statements "God said it" and "It evolved this way"? Be honest. Even given all of your philosophical objections, wouldn't the former statement, if true, carry far more weight than the latter? If so, are atheists and theists really in the same boat?
4:16 PM

David Wood said...

I'm not sure why I'm answering you, since it will ruin any chance of the good conversation that we were about to have. (Sorry EA.) But here goes.

(1) In our debate, you spoke before I did, and you're the one who brought up arguments for the existence of God. If it's off topic, why did you bring it up? If you raised the subject, how did I change the subject? Since you brought up the topic, I can only assume that you really understand that it's relevant. You're only complaining now because you know you never gave a good answer.

(2) The topic of our debate was whether the extent of evil in the world makes the existence of God implausible. If you were making the logical argument from evil, that would be one thing. But you were making the evidential argument from evil. That is, you were claiming that evil is a certain amount of evidence against the existence of God. Hence, if you are going to show that the extent of evil makes the existence of God implausible, you must show that something about evil outweighs all evidence for God's existence. I brought up arguments for theism and asked you, quite reasonably, what it is about the argument from evil that makes it inherently better than all these other arguments. That seems like a relevant question. You never answered it, and you still haven't. Moreover, you're still complaining that I asked a completely relevant question.

(3) You note that I brought up the problem of defining evil for atheists. How is this "changing the subject"? If you're saying that God can't exist because of evil, don't I have a right to ask on what basis you're identifying evil, especially if I believe, as I do, that God is the ultimate foundation for distinguishing good from evil?

So here you accuse me of changing the subject based on (a) the fact that I brought up an issue that you first brought up and which was entirely relevant to the debate, and (b) the fact that I inquired into your foundation of morality, which your argument rested on.

Now let's compare this to what I said to Exapologist. The question raised was a simple one. Do atheists have a foundation for morality? Exapologist said (perhaps in reply, perhaps just as a related question): What foundation do theists have for morality? These are two different questions. We can answer either without appeal to the other.

But we can't answer the question "Does the extent of suffering in the world make the existence of God implausible?" without considering what you mean by evil and whether other evidence bears on the question. So, nice try.

P.S. Didn't you say I'm no longer worth your time, after calling me "idiot," "moron," etc.? I liked it better that way, for obvious reasons. Conversations with you degenerate quite quickly, and little ground it gained for anyone.
4:50 PM

David Wood said...

I agree that an atheist would have to make some metaphysical commitments in order to have a real ground for morality. I just can't think of any that would qualify. The most promising approach I see for atheists is to say that moral laws are similar to certain logical laws. Triangles have properties, whether or not any triangles exist. One might argue that "Do not kill" is similar to "The three angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees." If no people exist, then the moral laws don't obtain. But as soon as there is a group of people, some laws go into effect, just as some laws go into effect when there is a triangle.

I think this would only push the problem back one level. But utilitarianism is a lame foundation, and atheists need some metaphysics. So I think this would be the best direction to go.
5:10 PM

David Wood said...

It sounds like you're in substantial agreement with Vic.

Regarding the purpose of the question, I'm not sure what Vic has in mind, but there's more relevance to such questions than the Moral Argument for God. Two of the most common claims I hear from atheists right now are (1) God cannot exist because of evil, and (2) religion is bad. The question of an atheist ground for ethics is certainly relevant to both of these claims. And I would have to say that neither claim can really be defended on standard atheistic accounts of ethics. Would you be interested in going into more detail regarding your view?
5:17 PM

David Wood said...

Here's a scenario from the Hitchens-Wilson debate. I don't think Hitchens answered very well, and I think you would answer differently. I'd be interested in hearing your reply:

"Take the vilest atheist you ever heard of. Imagine yourself sitting at his bedside shortly before he passes away. He says, following Sinatra, 'I did it my way.' And then he adds, chuckling, 'Got away with it too.' In our thought experiment, the one rule is that you must say something to him, and whatever you say, it must flow directly from your shared atheism--and it must challenge the morality of his choices."
5:23 PM

David Wood said...

It seems that the list of necessary moral truths that could be derived on your view would be quite limited. Your example was "torturing babies for fun." Here you added a specific motive ("for fun"), and I suspect that such motives would usually be required.

For instance, you couldn't say that "killing babies" or "killing old people" are necessarily wrong. But you could say that killing old people "for fun" is necessarily wrong. (By the way, Richard Carrier disagrees with you even when it comes to torturing for fun. It's not, on his view, necessarily wrong.)

Now, since we need more from an ethical system than things like "don't torture babies for fun," how would you derive the rest of your moral precepts?

For instance, how would you rule in the following case. Our medical knowledge is increasing rapidly. With this knowledge, we can treat people who would have died otherwise (due to old age or diseases). But when we do so, we preserve bad genes that otherwise would have been eliminated from the gene pool, thereby causing problems for future generations. And we increase the number of old people in society, which causes a drain on the economy and lessens the overall happiness.

To be honest, I only say that the medical field should keep old people (or people with certain diseases) alive because of my commitment to the view that humans have inherent worth. I would never have said such a thing when I was an atheist.

So my question is this: when you cannot pronounce necessary moral truths (I'm not sure you can pronounce any, but let's assume you've got some), how do you keep your moral theory from degenerating into the standard atheistic utilitarianism?

To put it more bluntly, would your moral theory really amount to more than utilitarianism with a metaphysical cloak?
6:17 PM

David Wood said...

The point is this John. The universe, from your perspective, seems to revolve around you. If someone does something or achieves something, it must be thanks to you. (Unless, of course, you do something bad. Then it's everyone else's fault!) If someone takes some position, it must be because they're impressed with your arguments. Do you have any idea what people really think of you, John?
7:04 PM

David Wood said...

My difficulty is that I'm not sure how we can tell what the necessary moral truths are. You said that it's empirical. So human beings "discover" that slavery is wrong, because we realize that it conflicts with human flourishing. But what do you mean here? Do you mean the flourishing of each individual human, or the flourishing of the greatest number of people?

If it's the latter, then you're stuck with the moral dilemmas. I'm not even sure you could say that slavery is wrong on such a view. That is, suppose slavery, though bad for slaves, ultimately contributes to a greater overall human flourishing. On the other hand, if you're talking about what will help each individual human to flourish, then there are conflicts of interest. For instance, it might help me to flourish if I have a slave to take care of various tasks that distract me. But it wouldn't be good for the slave.
7:43 PM

David Wood said...
Exapologist said:

"The basic metaphysic requires abstract objects, such as normative properties of the good and the bad. But my own form of 'naturalism' requires that only contingent entities must be grounded in the physical. But since abstract objects are timeless, spaceless, necessary existents, they need no causal or explanatory ground in terms of the physical, since they never 'arose' at all."

So you believe in abstract objects?
8:50 PM

David Wood said...
So you believe in a timeless, uncaused ground of morality that exists independently of the physical world. On this we are in full agreement. (And you are not far from the Kingdom of God.)

Do you have some independent reasons for believing in these abstract objects? Or does your reasoning run as follows:

(1) If a transcendent ground of morality does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
(2) Objective moral values exist.
(3) Therefore, a transcendent ground of morality exists.
11:55 PM

David Wood said...
But which of these reasons accounts for your belief in a ground of morality?
12:21 AM

David Wood said...
XA (I think that's cooler than EA) said:

"I treat certain moral intuitions, moral statements, practices, etc., as data, and then I posit the existence of theoretical entities (in this case, moral properties) to partially explain the data, as they play an indispendabile role in my moral theory."

A jump to non-physical, theoretical entities is somewhat extreme, yet you feel it is necessary, for some reason that doesn't convinvce most other atheists.

Nearly all atheist philosophers are reductive or non-reductive physicalists. But you find physicalism altogether inadequate.

You said that you posit theoretical entities based on the data of your moral intuitions. But other atheists have the same data, and they are content to appeal to the physical world.

Take Hitchens, for instance. He has all the same intuitions as you. Then he simply says, "My intuitions evolved."

But you're not willing to say this, which means you are for some reason taking moral intuitions much more seriously than Hitchens. That is, for you, these intuitions are not so easily explained, and appeal must be made to something other than evolution.

Is it because you believe, based on your intuitions, that morality is objective? If so, then why wouldn't the following argument be an accurate representation of your reasoning:

(1) If a transcendent ground of morality does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
(2) Objective moral values exist.
(3) Therefore, a transcendent ground of morality exists.
7:51 AM

David Wood said...
Sorry I'm late. I'm taking a summer course in French.

X-A said:

"Lots of philosophers I know who are atheists accept the existence of at least some sorts of abstracta."

But surely not in the sense you're using. Empiricists generally reject abstracta because we don't have sense-data for them. And physicalists will only hold to a very limited notion of abstracta.

But you're basing a moral theory on such theoretical entities.

Now I have a question. You said that slavery is necessarily wrong because it is at odds with human flourishing. Which of the following is your claim:

(1) So long as we grant that whatever is in accord with human flourishing is right, then we may empirically derive moral principles based on our commitment; or

(2) It is necessarily the case that whatever is in accord with human flourishing is right.

In other words, is the idea that human flourishing is the goal itself an abstractum? Or must we first grant this and then derive ethical principles?
2:43 PM

David Wood said...
(1) I said that empiricists generally reject abstracta (which is true) and that physicalists typically subscribe to a very limited notion of abstracta (which is true). The point was that even those who appeal to abstracta rarely do so in the manner you're using. That is, saying "slavery is necessarily wrong" is quite different from saying "the three angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees."

(2) Granting that "human flourishing" is a property, in what sense is "human flourishing is necessarily good" a property?

(3) I understand, given belief that human flourishing is good, how one might say that we can discover empirically that slavery is therefore bad. However, how does one go about empirically discovering that human flourishing is necessarily good? It seems that such a statement would really amount to nothing more than "I like human flourishing so much that I'm going to say it's necessarily good."

It seems that all you could really say here is that just about everyone would agree that human flourishing is good. But that's far from showing that it's necessarily so.
3:33 PM

David Wood said...
X-A said: "Re:(1): I'm not following. The way you put it with your geometry and your moral propositions, it sounds like you're taking 'abstract objects' as synonymous with 'a priori propositions', which is a misuse of the term."

The triangle is the abstract object. We know it's an abstract object because it has certain properties that hold whether an actual triangle exists or not. You've argued for moral properties. But surely these cannot be verified in the same manner that we verify the properties of a triangle. In fact, I can't think of any way to verify them as properties of abstract objects.

X-A said: "Re:(2): 'Human flourishing is necessarily good' isn't a property at all, but a proposition. However, the property of human flourishing has the essential property of being good, on my view."

Consider the following propositions:

(1) Human flourishing has the essential property of being good.

(2) Sex has the essential property of being good.

(3) Rejecting God has the essential property of being good.

(4) Torturing old ladies has the essential property of being good.

I assume you would reject (2)-(4). But it seems that the only ground for doing so is (a) you agree with (1) but not with the others, or (b) most people would agree with (1) more than with the others. But surely we can't be deciding what is necessary based on personal preference or majority vote. Which brings us to . . .

E-A said: "Re:(3): One doesn't go about discovering empirically that human flourishing is necessarily good. As I said in a couple of earlier comments, I take that to be a priori."

Here I just don't understand what you mean by "a priori." "Tom is a married bachelor" is a priori false. "I've got a square circle in my pocket" is a priori false. "If Tom is a bachelor, then he's unmarried" is a priori true. Now here are some more propositions:

(5) Human flourishing is good a priori.

(6) Animal flourishing is good a priori.

(7) Mosquito flourishing is good a priori.

(8) Cancer flourishing is good a priori.

Would you grant (6)? How about (7)? How about(8)? My point here is this. To say that slavery is necessarily wrong, in our conversation, presupposes your claim that human flourishing is good a priori. But this claim itself presupposes a certain value of human beings, one which makes us more valuable than, say, cancer cells. Do we have to add, then, that human beings are more important than other living organisms, a priori? If so, it seems that we're just taking whatever we want to say and adding "a priori" to it, and I'm not sure this is a realistic approach.

(P.S. I said in a comment before we started that I think this is the best approach for atheists who want a ground of morality. When I was an atheist, I rejected the idea of objective moral values, and I think that's the correct view if atheism is true. Nevertheless, for atheists who want a foundation, I'd say you're on the most plausible track. I think it's full of holes, but it's still better than the "Evolution made it so" response.)
6:21 PM

David Wood said...
X-A said: I accept (1), on the grounds that flourishing is good as such.

What about (2)? Well, it depends. Some kinds of sex don't contribute to human flourishing --- e.g., abusive sex. However, plenty of instances of sex contribute to human flourishing. That's known a posteriori, since it was an empirical discovery (albeit a relatively simple one) that certain kinds of sex contribute to human flourishing.

What about (3)? That's going to depend on empirical research as to whether it contributes to human flourishing.

That leaves us with (4). This is another one of those simple empirical discoveries that something doesn't contribute to human flourishing; as such, it's bad.

I'm not sure why you would have thought that those sorts of decisions would lack a principled basis on my theory. It's a part of my theory that flourishing is good, and what hinders it is bad. If so, then I have an objective basis for these sorts of judgements.

The point of those additional propositions was that we can say that they have the essential property of being good just as easily as we can say that human flourishing has the essential property of being good. Someone could easily make it a part of his moral theory that sex is good, or that rejecting God is good, or even that torturing old ladies is good. For a more realistic example, take the claim “pleasure has the property of being essentially good.” Note here that I’m not saying that pleasure is good because it’s in accord with human flourishing (as I wasn’t saying that with the other propositions). I’m saying it has the property in itself. I could then construct a moral theory based on my claim that pleasure is essentially good. I then define sex as necessarily good. Someone asks me, “How can you say that sex is necessarily good? That just doesn’t make sense!” To which I reply, “Well, according to my theory, pleasure is good a priori. And sex is pleasurable. Hence, sex is necessarily good.” I still wonder why, using your method, I couldn’t define practically anything as essentially good.

X-A said: As a side note, I want to say that I find it fascinating that you find this theory so odd. This theory is kissing cousins with natural law theory, which has been one of the dominant ethical theories for Christians since at least the time of Aquinas (the ideas of which are rooted in Aristotle's notion of flourishing).

I think all ethical theories have problems. Theories don’t get a free ride just because they’re promoted by Christians.

X-A said: On my view, "'Goodness' denotes whatever contributes to flourishing" is a reference-fixing description; as such it's continent yet a priori. On the other hand, "Sex contributes to human flourishing" is a necessary a posteriori proposition. From this one and the reference-fixing description, we can deduce that sex is good.

So, just as you can point to a ball and say, “That’s what I mean by ‘red,’” you can point to whatever contributes to human flourishing and say, “That’s what I mean by ‘good.’” Granted. But when you use terms like “necessary” and “a priori,” I assume that you’re using them as other people use them. Hence, when you said that human flourishing is a priori good, I assumed that you meant that human flourishing is either analytically or synthetically a priori good, and I didn’t see how it was either. But now, as I’ve said more than once, it seems that you’re just defining human flourishing as good and saying, “It’s good a priori, since I’ve defined it that way.” And I’ll say again that what you’re doing isn’t very different from saying, “I like human flourishing a lot! Say ‘Yes” to human flourishing! Down with whatever doesn’t contribute to human flourishing!”

X-A said: I *grant* that the flourishing of any member of any species is *good*; what's *right* or *wrong* depends on what we proscribe as a community (on the condition, once again, that it's in conformity with what is good).

So now you’ve granted that the flourishing of cancer is a priori good, and that the flourishing of humanity is a priori good. So if Bob gets cancer, it’s a priori good for the cancer. To say that we should put Bob through chemotherapy presupposes that humans are more valuable than cancer cells. Is there a scale of a priori goods? Is the order of the scale itself a priori? Or do we select the ordering based on personal preference?

X-A said: David: If so, it seems that we're just taking whatever we want to say and adding "a priori" to it, and I'm not sure this is a realistic approach.

Me: In light of my discussion above, we can now see why my account doesn't suffer from this charge of arbitrariness.

No, we can’t. But perhaps the longer account you're planning on writing would help.
12:54 PM

David Wood said...

I accept the I.O.U.

Just to clarify something from earlier, I said:

"To say that slavery is necessarily wrong, in our conversation, presupposes your claim that human flourishing is good a priori."

You responded:

"In any case, though, whether something is necessarily right or wrong certainly does *not* depend on whether certain propositions about what is good are a priori or not. That's just a flat-out non-sequitur."

I said "in our conversation," i.e. in the context of your moral theory. Certainly something is not right or wrong based on the failure of a particular moral theory. But if we are discussing whether something is right or wrong in the light of a specific theory, then we can talk about it being right or wrong based on that theory.
5:03 PM


  1. I read the exchange at dangerous idea and I must admit that I'm quite a fan of David Wood.

  2. I just posted on this topic yesterday. The dialog over at dangerous idea is awesome!

    If you guys want more on this topic, please check out my post from yesterday. There is a comment from an atheist that responded to.

    Here are some of his statements from his comment, and prepare to throw the orange "contradiction" penalty flag when you read them!

    “And yet we atheists seem largely to agree on what is right and what is wrong, something your black-and-white world view can not explain.”

    “No. Morals arose in our species through evolution as a social species.”

    “I do not hold god to any standard.”

    “But any person or god that would order genocide can not be considered good.”

    I am not going to lie to you. I was snarky with him. And who wouldn't be? Anyway, if you want for of this topic, check out my post. I also have a link to the Craig - Nielsen debate on this same topic of morality on atheism.

  3. Anyone know if David Wood is Reformed or not?

  4. Annoyed Pinoy: I don't believe so. In his debate with John Loftus (available online) he uses a free will theodicy which to me is incompatible with compatibilism...hehe :-)

    Then again, James White speaks highly of him so maybe I'm wrong!

  5. Speaking of atheists who believe moral properties exist, has anyone checked out this guy's stuff:


    He claims to be a "desire utilitarian," and has quite a few articles that summarize his philosophy on morality and ethics. Perhaps I am outgrowing Debunking Christianity...it just isn't as entertaining anymore.

  6. If my 2 cents matter, I'd have to say Wood isn't reformed. I listened to his debate with Loftus, and though I liked it, Wood definitely didn't sound reformed.

    Now can someone explain to me, while we're on the subject, why Loftus wore that hat? Or was it just me seeing a hat? He looked like an American Zorro to me.