Self-Contradictory Moral Relativists

How do moral relativists contradict themselves? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

This is not a blog against moral relativism so much as against moral relativists. I will in this blog accept that hypothetically moral relativism could be true. It could be true that there is nothing good or evil but thinking makes it so. It could be that good and evil are just subejctive ideas we have with no real grounding in reality.

I think that’s all nonsense, but I’m not arguing against that here.

What I am arguing against is the position of many people who espouse moral relativism. What I’m discussing happens on a regular basis and they never seem to see the contradiction. The people I know that espouse moral relativism the most often turn and post about all the evil things they think God does or God allows.

What will happen is you’ll have a thread on Facebook or some place like that and you will see someone say that the God of the Old Testament is an evil villain for putting people to death. Okay. They’re allowed to have that opinion. That’s a separate piece to argue against, but that is not the point here. Then in the replies to their claim, they will go and espouse moral relativism and say that there is no good or evil.

So let’s make this clear.

If you are a moral relativist, it is inconsistent to speak about something being good or evil and at the same time say that there is no good or evil. What you’re really saying ultimately is that God doesn’t exist because He does things you don’t like. In other words, the only God you’ll agree exists is one that agrees entirely with you. I would hope most of us would realize that if God exists, odds are we have a lot of claims wrong about reality and He knows better.

Now you could hypothetically say that if moral realism is true, then Christianity has a problem with the problem of evil. I don’t think we do, but at least you’re being consistent then and saying “On your view of moral realism, this is a problem.” Despite that, I wonder how it is that you can recognize the evil that you complain about anyway.

Let’s also be clear on something else. When we say that God is needed to know what the good is, that does not mean you need explicit knowledge of God in some way to know what goodness is. Goodness is part of general revelation and is there for everyone to know about. You need God to ground the good, but you do not need God to know the good.

If you want to be a moral relativist, that is your choice, but please do not be inconsistent and talk about the problem of evil or the evil things God does or anything like that. At the same time, be consistent and say that there is nothing truly good either. Good luck also living that worldview consistently. I don’t think it’s possible and every time I see a moral relativist complain about evil, I take it as further confirmation that it’s not tenable.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: Faith vs Fact Part 4

How does Coyne handle it when faith strikes back? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Today we’re going to cover chapter 4 where Faith Strikes Back as Coyne says. I was very pleased to see that he dealt with the Kalam Cosmological Argument of Bill Craig by…

Well, okay. He didn’t deal with that. But hey, you can’t expect him to deal with everything.

Instead, he chose to focus on the Thomistic arguments and he dealt there with…

Okay. So he didn’t deal with those.

About the only arguments you see are ID and the moral argument. Even then, the moral argument is definitely misunderstood. As I am not someone who considers myself a proponent of ID, I will leave that to those who are.

Naturally, we start with a god of the gaps argument, yet I wonder why this is always brought up. In the medieval period, people were looking for natural arguments for why things happened just as much as we were. Did they get them right all the time? No. Of course not. Just like we don’t. In fact, when they filled in a “gap” that led them to have more of awe. It was a mindset that would look and say “I never would have thought about doing it that way.” I suspect this is also one reason why that a requirement for a law I understand a scientist uses is that it is to be beautiful.

On page 153, Coyne tells us that natural theology represents the attempts to discern God’s ways, or find evidence for His existence, by observing nature alone. It does not rely on revelation or Scripture. I do not agree with Philipse who says it’s an attempt to argue for a specific religious view. Let’s consider the Thomistic arguments for instance, the main arguments I’d use in natural theology that all come from an Aristotelian worldview. Could Aquinas use those to argue for the Christian deity? Yes. Averroes and Avicenna could use them to argue for Allah. Moses Maimonides could have used them to argue for a Jewish concept. This is not a problem.

You see, you’re not going to sit down in an armchair and just ponder reality and stand up and conclude “Yes! I get it! God revealed Himself in Jesus Christ!” You won’t stand up and say “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His prophet!” You won’t exuberantly shout “Moses is the greatest prophet of all.” All of these take not just philosophical understanding, but historical understanding as well. Just thinking by itself cannot get you to Christianity just like it could not get you to any scientific theory in itself. You won’t sit down and stand up elated to find out that we all evolved from a lower species. (You could come up and think that after pondering evidence you’d read recently, but without scientific evidence, you won’t reach a scientific conclusion.)

Natural theology was said to be extremely popular after science arose according to Coyne, which leaves me wondering what kind of reading he has really done. Aristotle and Aquinas are both in this tradition and their ways of thinking were extremely popular. Coyne considers the most famous argument to be the Watchmaker one of Paley. This is quite likely true to be the most famous one, but that does not mean that it was the best one. I personally think that after Descartes natural theology started going the wrong way by viewing the universe in a mechanistic sense. (It would help Coyne to read the rest of Paley beyond the Watchmaker argument. It’s a shame that Paley’s entirely brilliant legacy has been reduced to one argument.)

Coyne also tells us that Hume refuted the case for miracles and Kant the logical arguments for God. Unfortunately, examples are lacking here. How did Kant refute these arguments? Which arguments were refuted? We don’t know. I have already said with Hume that Coyne has not bothered to check a work like Earman’s Hume’s Abject Failure. In this one, the agnostic Earman says that if Hume’s argument was followed consistently, that it would lead to not just the negation of miracles, but the negation of marvels as well. In other words, modern science would be killed if followed consistently. Hume’s own argument was dealt with in his day also by the story of a tropical prince who lived in a world where the climate was always warm and being told to believe that there was such a thing as ice. Also, as said before, Coyne ignores the work of Keener. David Johnson of Cornell University Press says about Hume’s argument that:

“The view that there is in Hume’s essay, or in what can be reconstructed from it, any argument or reply or objection that is even superficially good, much less, powerful, or devastating, is simply a philosophical myth. The most willing hearers who have been swayed by Hume on this matter have been held captive by nothing other than Hume’s great eloquence.” (Page 169)

As I said further in my review of Keener, Hume had a problem with racism that affected his argument too.

On pages 223-4, we have a quote from Hume:

“I am apt to suspect the Negroes and in general all of the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No indigenous manufacturers amongst them, no arts, no sciences.”

Some could answer “Okay. Hume was a racist. It doesn’t mean he’s wrong.” On its face, no. It doesn’t. There is something important here. Hume is automatically excluding the testimony of anyone that is not amongst his circle of people he considers educated. Who are the educated? Those are the ones who don’t believe in miracles. If anyone believes in them, surely he cannot be educated. He must be some backwater person. Therefore, all educated people don’t believe in miracles. It is a lovely piece of circular reasoning.

Hume goes on to say

“Not to mention our colonies, there are Negro slaves dispersed all over Europe, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity, tho’ low people without education will start up amongst us [whites], and distinguish themselves in every profession. IN Jamaica indeed they talk of one Negro as a man of parts and learning, but ’tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.”

To say “‘Tis likely” indicates that Hume has heard a claim and has not bothered to really investigate it. He has just made an assumption based on his prior notion of the black race. Keener, however, does know who the Jamaican is and says “The Jamaican whom Hume compares with a parrot stimulating speech was Francis Williams, a Cambridge graduate whose poetry in Latin was well known.”

Sound like an uneducated parrot with slender accomplishments to anyone else? I didn’t think so.

With Kant, well without getting any specific arguments from Kant, it’s hard to respond. I guess Coyne just wants us to take Kant by faith. All the arguments have been refuted because Kant says so even though we’re not told where he says so or in what work.

To return to the God of the Gaps, Coyne ironically had started off this section with a quote by Ingersoll.

No one infers a god from the simple, from the known, from what is understood, but from the complex, from the unknown, and incomprehensible. Our ignorance is God; what we know is science.

And yet he quotes Bonhoeffer saying

How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (And that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not what we don’t know.

Bonhoeffer was a theist and was pointing out the problem with the argument. Coyne is speaking about what laymen think and do, but he is not dealing with the real scholars in the field who are arguing otherwise.

On page 157 when he talks about natural theology, he says it is always used to give evidence for that person’s God. He applies this to morality asking how can we know who the origin of this morality is and that he has never seen advocates of natural theology answer this question.

I can only think he’s never asked someone who is a serious advocate of natural theology. I think Edward Feser would answer this question quite easily. I’ll go ahead. You don’t know. All you know is that it is consistent with what you believe. To find out which religion is true, you go to history. Feser himself does this in The Last Superstition. He makes a brief apologia for the resurrection of Jesus to establish Christianity while pointing to William Lane Craig as someone more authoritative.

On page 162, Coyne gives a criticism of fine-tuning when we argue that the universe is designed well for life as we know it here. He asks why life should be based on matter at all. Why not simply souls? The answer is that He in fact did that. He created countless angels, but if He wanted to create another kind of being, it needed to be something beyond being+spirit. That’s where matter comes in and material beings need a material place to live.

For the multiverse theory, I am open to the possibility of a multiverse, but I do not see how this is a defeater for theism. Theists have long been asking to have this one universe explained. How does it explain one to say that there are many? It would be like saying you had solved a case of one murder by saying “Oh. There are a hundred other murder victims over here as well. Case closed.” If there’s more than one universe or even a system producing universes, then I want to know what is responsible for that. How did that come about? That just pushes the problem back further.

Coyne also goes to Philipse again who tells us that if we can’t answer a question, that undermines all of natural theology, but why should this be? This would be like saying we can’t answer a scientific question undermines all of science. If you have ignorance in theology, that means your whole enterprise is doomed, but if you have ignorance in science, that’s okay and is in fact a virtue. Coyne is wanting to treat theology like natural science saying that it should have predictive power. Well why should that be the case? It’s not as if God is a material being that will respond to events in a mechanistic way.

Let’s say something along those lines about prayer experiments. They’re bogus. Even if they come out positive, you could never control all the variables. You can say one group of patients isn’t being prayed for by people, but how could you know that? In our day and age, most everyone in the hospital could have loved ones who will pray for them and then put up requests on the internet to have others be praying for them. We can’t know who all is praying and who is devout and sincere in their prayers and matters of that sort. I consider it a curiosity to discuss, but God is a free-will being and we don’t know all the variables nor could we possibly control for them.

I’d like to start looking at his arguments concerning morality on page 170. Before we read about Coyne on philosophy, let’s remember this quote of his:

Another problem is that scientists like me are intimidated by philosophical jargon, and hence didn’t interrupt the monologues to ask for clarification for fear of looking stupid. I therefore spent a fair amount of time Googling stuff like “epistemology” and “ontology” (I can never get those terms straight since I rarely use them).

So remember, you’re getting your philosophy here from someone who is intimidated by philosophical jargon and doesn’t interrupt for fear of looking stupid and googles stuff like epistemology and ontology.

This is also the same guy who has spoken about religion stepping outside of its field….

When he talks about universal morality, Coyne tells us that there are some people who do lack empathy. (He has not made an argument yet saying that empathy is the basis for morality. You do not need empathy to have morality or to know morality.) He also argues that there are still many great evils that go on and that have gone on. That we have changed shows that universal morality does not come from God.

It’s kind of cute isn’t it?

No Coyne. The claim is not that moral customs are unalterable, but that there are moral truths that exist. (This is called ontology by the way, the study of being) We can be inaccurate in our knowledge of them and how we know them. (This study of knowledge is called epistemology.) In fact, this would be upheld Biblically as the greatest passage on this is found in Romans 2 and this just after Romans 1 telling how humans transgressed the moral law. The idea is there are some things you can’t not know. As soon as you come to know what a human being is and what the taking of an innocent life is, you know murder is wrong. This is not based on a feeling about murder but on the action of murder itself. The way around this is to redefine the terms.

Sure. I don’t kill innocent human beings, but those unborn in the womb aren’t human beings, so it’s okay to kill them. Sure. I don’t kill innocent human beings, but those Jews in the holocaust are not only not human, but they are not innocent because they are responsible for all the suffering in our society. In these ways, people can avoid saying that they are breaking a moral law that they find because their victims just don’t count. Let’s finish this portion on morality for now with one piece he has on page 177.

He says the God hypothesis doesn’t explain why slavery, disdain for women, and torture were considered proper but are now seen as immoral.

Perhaps he’s never heard of a doctrine called sin.

They were because as Romans tells us, man fell from what he knew he ought to do. Want to see why women are lifted up? Look at the book that says men and women both are in the image of God. Look at the group also that went against slavery in the Roman Empire. Christians would regularly buy slaves just for the purpose of setting them free. What united both of these? The idea that mankind is in the image of God. Can Coyne offer us anything on materialism that will be a basis for equality?

For now, let’s move on to the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. Keep in mind that Coyne has told us he has to google terms like epistemology and yet he wants to tackle an epistemological argument from Alvin Plantinga, and you can think he’s wrong in his argument, but he is no slouch in the field. For Coyne to enter into this is like saying because you’ve googled the rules of Chess, you’re ready to take on the grand master. Yet Coyne is convinced that Plantinga’s view is so clearly wrong it’s a wonder why it’s popular.

Coyne says we could never have true beliefs according to Plantinga’s argument without God’s interference. That’s not the argument. We could have true beliefs, but we would have no reason to think that they are true. Evolution programs me for survival and not necessarily true beliefs. If those beliefs help me with survival, then fine if they happen to be true, but the goal is still survival. If so, then I have a defeater for thinking that my beliefs are true, including the belief that I am a product of mindless evolution.

Coyne also thinks the most important truth we can be aware of in Plantinga’s argument is the existence of the Christian God and Jesus, yet I am skeptical of a claim that Plantinga would consider Jesus to be among our properly basic beliefs. I think Plantinga is making an argument for theism that is indeed consistent with his version of theism, but is not specifically meant for that version. Much of what we have is just mockery of it as if sin is a ludicrous concept to affect our view of God. Why should I not think this? If Scripture is true, there is a righteous judge that will judge us. Which of us would like to accept that?

There are many more who have looked at Plantinga’s argument and can say more about it. I have no reason to think Coyne has treated it well. At this, let’s return to morality and we’ll start that with a look at scientism. Let’s start with some definitions he gives on page 186.

Truth as conformity to fact.

Fact as something confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.

Knowledge is the public acceptance of facts.

So much wrong here, but the centerpiece is facts so let’s go there.

In the time of Galileo we could not say it was a fact that the Earth goes around the sun. (We couldn’t say we evolved is a fact either.)

If truth is conformity to fact, we could not say that it’s true that the Earth goes around the sun.

And since it was not a fact, then no one could have knowledge of that. Now in essence, the last part could be accurate, but Coyne overlooked the definition as justified true belief. Even if you include the Gettier problem, knowledge is at least that.

Also, Coyne says knowledge must be factual and publicly recognized so private revelation can’t count. This seems over the top. If I wake up before Allie and start reading the Bible, do I need public verification to say I have knowledge that I read Scripture this morning?

These are all questions I have concerning the claim.

It gets worse. On page 189 we are told there are no objective moral truths. Morality rests on preferences. (And in the same paragraph we have a condemnation of slavery in the Old Testament and the conquest of the Canaanites. Never underestimate the fundamentalist ability to contradict so quickly.)

But if truth is conformity to fact then to say there are no moral facts is to say there are no moral claims confirmed to such a degree it would be perverse to deny them.

So do we want to say that don’t murder innocent humans has not been established? It is wrong to rape has not been established? Coyne wants to say the Canaanite conquest is wrong, but He can’t. He can’t speak of moral progress or even an evolved morality. His basic argument would be God is wrong because He does stuff I don’t like, which could be just as valid as saying “Christianity is wrong because it teaches monogamy while I prefer polyamory.” (I am using that as a for instance and not at all saying he either condemns monogamy or favors polyamory.)

So we have epistemological and moral relativism both, and this in a book about faith vs fact.

Keeping this going on 190, he says he disagrees with Sam Harris and says “If there are no objective truths, then morality isn’t a way of knowing, but simply a guide to rational behavior.”

But how can it be a guide to rational behavior? Isn’t rational behavior that which is in accordance with reason? And if there are no moral truths to reason to, how can it be more rational to throw a life preserver to a drowning child than it is to throw a boulder at him? Rational entails there are behaviors that lead to acting in accordance to these truths, but Coyne has denied these truths. Huh?

Perhaps Coyne should have stuck with science….

Naturally, in all of this Coyne thinks Euthyphro is a great defeater showing that people derive morality not from God but from secular institutions.

This would have been interesting since Euthyphro was charging his father with impiety, a crime against the gods. Nice to know a secular institution was concerned about this. In the ancient world, this separation of church and state did not exist. Every action was religious and it affected the state. There were state gods to be worshiped, namely later on the Emperor himself. Euthyphro is not a question about how we come to moral knowledge, but rather what that moral knowledge itself is, and it is never denied that there is a holy. (And I would add it was answered by Aristotle who chose to define the good in the Nicomachean Ethics.)

It’s like Coyne just wants to toss out every pet objection without studying it.

Kind of like he wants to reply to objections he hasn’t studied either.

So what about claims that there are other ways of knowing like saying “My wife loves me” and that’s not based on science. Well Coyne wants to say it is. Why? It’s evidence-based. Unfortunately, the claim of love from my wife is more like the claim of love from God. Both are claims that we receive a claim and we judge it to be true based on the evidence that we see and we live accordingly. Coyne is still living in this world where he thinks that faith means belief without evidence so no wonder he gets everything else wrong.

On page 200 in defending scientism (Since every claim that is evidence-based is supposedly science) he says the claim only comes from the faithful that atheists practice scientism.

Massimo Pigliucci would be very surprised to learn he became one of the faithful.

On 209, Coyne quotes his friend Dan Barker (That explains a lot) in saying theology is a subject without an object.

But wait.

If that’s true, then critiques about how God should have made the universe or revealed Himself or the very problem of evil no longer work because this is all theology. It doesn’t mean God exists, but it means there must be some knowledge of what he’d be like if He did. I can have knowledge of what a unicorn would be like without believing they exist.
We all do theology. Some of us, like Coyne, just do it poorly.

He’s also wrong that it’s just theologians quoting other theologians. Metaphysics studies God for instance and all of Aquinas’s arguments are empirical.

There is an attempt to show Christianity is not responsible for the rise of science. Naturally, he refers to everyone’s favorite historian, Richard Carrier. Perhaps he should have mentioned how with Carrier, this science in ancient Greeks also rose as monotheism was becoming a more viable worldview. Science fits in just fine in a monotheistic context. It doesn’t do so well in a polytheistic context. The Christian church carried this on as soon as they were not being persecuted by the emperor. It’s just anathema to Coyne to think that Christianity could possibly be responsible for science.

Finally, to say the church impeded free inquiry, I would challenge Coyne with what one thinker on the topic says when he’s presented with this idea that the medieval church was anti-science.

I love to totally stump them by asking them to present me with the name of one – just one – scientist burned, persecuted or oppressed for their science in the Middle Ages. They always fail to come up with any. They usually try to crowbar Galileo back into the Middle Ages, which is amusing considering he was a contemporary of Descartes. When asked why they have failed to produce any such scientists given the Church was apparently so busily oppressing them, they often resort to claiming that the Evil Old Church did such a good job of oppression that everyone was too scared to practice science. By the time I produce a laundry list of Medieval scientists – like Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, John Peckham, Duns Scotus, Thomas Bradwardine, Walter Burley, William Heytesbury, Richard Swineshead, John Dumbleton, Richard of Wallingford, Nicholas Oresme, Jean Buridan and Nicholas of Cusa – and ask why these men were happily pursuing science in the Middle Ages without molestation from the Church, my opponents have usually run away to hide and scratch their heads in puzzlement at what just went wrong.

So Coyne will say I’ve just found another Christian fundamentalist who agrees with me. Not quite. The quote is from Tim O’Neill and is found here. How does he describe himself?

Wry, dry, rather sarcastic, eccentric, occasionally arrogant Irish-Australian atheist bastard.

Yes. This is an atheist kicking this nonsense to the curb. Coyne can talk about the persecution of Galileo and Bruno, but there is more going on in both cases. Galileo was demanding that his ideas be accepted immediately and was a scientist speaking on theology. It also didn’t help that he wrote a dialogue where he pictured the Pope as a simpleton. Galileo lived in a house arrest for the rest of his life where he freely pursued his studies and had a pension paid for him. Bruno was a tragedy, but it was more for his crazy theology than for his crazy science. (Yes. He was right about the Earth going around the sun, but much more of his stuff was just bizarre.) Now should that have happened? No. But it was not because of doing science. Also, this is already out of the medieval period so it can’t be based on the Dark Ages.

It’s a shame Coyne never really took on any major arguments for faith of any kind. If you come here and you’re a new atheist, you’re left thinking a devastating blow has been given. If you come here and you’re a historical and philosophical reader, you leave scratching your head wondering how on Earth Coyne thinks this is a response.

In Christ,
Nick Peters