by Steven B. Cowan –
Many arguments for God’s existence appeal to objective features of the physical universe as their starting points. For example, the cosmological argument (the “where did-it-all-come-from” argument) begins with the existence of the universe and seeks an explanation for why something exists rather than nothing. The argument concludes that the existence of God is the best explanation. The teleological or design argument starts with the observation that there are features of the world (the fine-tuning of the universe for life or the existence of biological organisms) that show indications of intelligent design. That being the case, there must be an intelligent designer (i.e., God) who is responsible for those designed features.1
There are several other types of arguments for God’s existence, however. Some of them start not with aspects of the physical universe, but with certain items of human knowledge. Two such arguments are the moral argument and what I will call the epistemic argument. This article will explain and defend both of these arguments for God’s existence.
THE MORAL ARGUMENT2
Most readers will probably recall the infamous serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer. Most may not be aware, however, that he was a devout atheist and believer in Darwinian evolution. After his arrest and trial, he admitted that these beliefs led him to commit his horrible crimes:
If you don’t. . .think that there is a God to be accountable to, then. . .what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges? That’s how I thought anyway. I always believed the theory of evolution as truth, that we all just came from the slime. When we. . .died, you know, that was it, there was nothing. 3
After he was arrested, Dahmer had an overwhelming sense of shame over what he had done, a conviction that it was terribly wrong. He found that he could not explain this sense of right and wrong against the background of an atheistic worldview. So, Dahmer came to embrace the Christian God. In his final public interview, he said, “I’ve since come to believe that the Lord Jesus Christ is truly God, and I believe that I, as well as everyone else, will be accountable to him.”4 He came to grips with the fact that there truly were objective moral values, and that they depend upon God for their existence. Dahmer discovered the moral argument for God’s existence. This argument may be summarized as follows:
Premise (1): If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
Premise (2): Objective moral values exist.
Conclusion: God exists.
This, or something like it, is the sequence of reasoning that Jeffrey Dahmer used to reach the conclusion that God exists. Let’s examine this argument in more detail. The argument is clearly valid. That is, if the premises of the argument are true, then the conclusion follows logically. So, what we need to know is whether or not there are good reasons to accept the two premises of the argument.
Are There Objective Moral Values?
We will start with premise (2). It would seem that most of us have an innate knowledge of basic moral truths. We intuitively know that some things are right and some things are wrong. Of course, not everyone agrees. Some people embrace moral relativism , the view that morality is simply a matter of personal or cultural preference. My experience has been that most of those who adopt moral relativism do so with out thinking a whole lot about it, adopting it because it’s popular or seems more tolerant. They are drawn to it perhaps because of the widespread disagreement on some difficult moral issues (e.g., abortion, homo sexuality, etc.). But, if we focus our attention on simpler, more clear-cut cases, relativism seems very implausible.
Here is a clear-cut case of an objective moral principle : It is wrong to torture children for the fun of it. Every sane person who carefully ponders this statement knows that torturing children for the fun of it is morally wrong. The person who disagrees is like the color-blind person who cannot see a certain shade of color : He is sadly defective. As Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl explain, “Those who deny obvious moral rules-who say that murder and rape are morally benign, that cruelty is not a vice, and that cowardice is a virtue-do not merely have a different moral point of view; they have something wrong with them.”5 So, it is clear that there are at least some objective (non-relative) moral values. This means that the second premise of the moral argument should be accepted as true.
Does Morality Depend on God?
The question before us now is: how do we explain the existence of these moral values? Where do they come from? What makes them true? What we are asking, essentially, is what worldview would allow us to make the most sense of objective morality? Premise (1) of the moral argument claims that only theism (the belief that God exists and is the creator of everything else) can provide an adequate explanation for objective morality.
To see why, let’s consider how morality would fare in the worldview known as naturalism. This is the view that all that exists is the natural, physical world . According to naturalism, everything that exists is the result of time, chance, and evolution. There is no purpose or reason why the world exists or why human beings exists; everything is simply a “cosmic accident.” Given this view of reality, many naturalists conclude that there could be no such thing as objective morality. One leading atheist, J.L. Mackie, wrote, “Moral properties constitute so odd a cluster of qualities and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events without an all-powerful god to create them.”6 Richard Dawkins, an outspoken evolutionary biologist , agrees:
In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt , other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom , no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.7
Again, according to naturalism, all that exists is the physical universe which sprang from a cosmic accident-the “Big Bang”-several billion years ago without an intelligent cause. It follows from this that human beings are nothing special. We are as much a “cosmic accident” as the universe itself. We just happened to evolve from the slime for no rhyme or reason. And the human race, together with the entire universe , is ultimately destined for extinction. Given this picture of the world, what basis is there for affirming the existence of objective moral values? If we are able to say that it is wrong to take human life without a just cause, then we have to have a reason to believe that human beings are special. But, naturalism seems to provide us no reason to say that human beings are any more special than cock roaches or dandelions.
This is not to say that naturalists do not attempt to con struct moral theories or provide an account of objective morality. Some, like the 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, argue on the basis of naturalism for the moral view that “might makes right.” However, this is really just a version of the moral relativism that we criticized in the previous section. Others try to argue for a genuinely objective morality on the basis of naturalism, but it is widely acknowledged that these attempts fail.8
Theism, however, makes perfect sense of objective morality. If God-an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and personal being-exists, then that implies that we were made for a good purpose and have been endowed with intrinsic value as creatures made in God’s image (see Genesis 1:26-27) . This allows us to say that human beings are truly special and morally significant. As Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland explains,
Morality is more at home and less ad hoc in a theistic universe than in an atheistic universe. This is because God is a postulated entity who is Himself good. He has the property of good ness. Men are made in his image and to be a human being is to be a member of a natural kind that is not merely defined biologically, but is also defined in terms of moral properties . I have intrinsic value or worth as I reflect the intrinsic value of God and His worth. 9
So, since we know that objective moral values exist, and we know that the existence of moral values depends upon God, it follows that God exists.
Before we leave the moral argument, though, we need to address a possible objection that could be raised. It is called the Euthyphro Dilemma. This objection goes back to the Greek philosopher Socrates. A man named Euthyphro maintained that what is holy (i.e. moral) is whatever the gods like. Socrates then asked Euthyphro a difficult question: “Is something holy because the gods like it, or do the gods like it because it is holy?” In a similar vein, someone today might ask, “Is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?”
The dilemma for the theist who wants to ground morality in the existence of God should be apparent. On the one hand, if we say that something is good because God commands it, then good and bad (right and wrong) are entirely arbitrary. On this view, if God had said that murder or rape or stealing are good, then they would be good! On the other hand, if God commands something because it is good, then morality is independent of God after all and the first premise of the moral argument is false.
The problem with the Euthyphro dilemma, however, is that it is a false dilemma There is a third alternative. The theist needs to say neither that God commands something because it is good, nor that something is good because God commands it. Instead, he can say that something is good insofar as it reflects God’s necessarily good nature. Mark Linville explains,
Much of the Christian theological tradition maintains that it is not God’s arbitrary will that is the standard but, rather, God’s fixed nature. . . An appeal to God’s nature rather than his arbitrary will allows us to maintain that God wills right actions because they are right: his will expresses his nature and his nature is the source of morality. And because morality finds its source in God’s nature, such a reply will not thereby commit us to saying that morality rests upon something independent of God. 10
So, the Euthyphro dilemma fails to undermine our confidence that morality depends upon the existence of God.
THE EPISTEMIC ARGUMENT
The moral argument begins with our conviction that we have a special kind of knowledge, namely, moral knowledge. Another strong argument for God’s existence starts simply with the fact that we have knowledge at all. This argument I will call the epistemic argument (from the Greek episteme = “knowledge”) . Human beings are endowed with various cognitive faculties faculties that produce beliefs in our minds. Examples of such cognitive faculties include our intellect (i.e., our ability to reason and draw conclusions from data) and our five senses (seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and tasting). These faculties enable us to acquire many beliefs such as “2+2+4,” “Red things are colored things,” “Grass is green,” and “George Bush is the current U.S. President.” But, how reliable are these faculties? Do they provide us with true and accurate beliefs about reality? Or are they deceptive and misleading? Once again the answer depends upon what worldview one holds. The epistemic argument may be formulated this way :
Premise (1): If God does not exist, then we can have no confidence that our cognitive faculties are reliable.
Premise (2): Our cognitive faculties are reliable. Conclusion: God exists.
As with the moral argument, we will examine each of the premises of this argument.
Do We Have Knowledge?
As noted above, human beings have many beliefs about many types of things. To believe a proposition, of course, is to believe that it is true. Accordingly, we not only believe things, we think that we know things. I know that 2+2=4. I know that grass is green. I know that George Bush is the current U.S. President. More generally, I know – at least I think I know – that my five senses provide me with reliable information about the world in which I live. If I look with my eyes and see what appears to be an oak tree outside my living room window, then I know that there is an oak tree my living room window. If I walk into the kitchen and smell chili cooking, then I know that there is chili cooking on the stove.
Now any philosopher worth his salt will tell you that it is notoriously difficult-perhaps impossible-to prove that we know these things. It is logically possible, is it not, that right now I (and you) are trapped in some kind of virtual reality like that in the movie The Matrix? If we were in the matrix, it would be impossible to prove it; and it is hard to see how we could ever prove that we are not in the matrix. Nevertheless, none of us believes that we are in the matrix, and I dare say that we know we are not-knowing something and proving that we know it are not the same thing. Unless you believe that absolute certainty is required for knowledge (it’s not), then we ought to be able to know some things even if we cannot prove that we know them.
A hardcore skeptic might not be convinced. He might insist on pushing the question, “How do you know?, ” insisting that we prove that we know we’re not in the matrix and that we know all the other common sense beliefs we have about the world . But let’s not worry about the hardcore skeptic. He’s a rare bird anyway. Most people believe that we have at least some knowledge-that our strong convictions that “2+2=4” and “George Bush is the current President” are genuine items of knowledge. So, we will take it for granted that we have knowledge, including knowledge of the world in which we live that comes through our senses.
Does Knowledge Depend on God?
This is the more controversial question. However, some careful reflection will show that the answer is yes: if God does not exist, then our confidence that we have genuine knowledge of anything at all is foolish. One philosopher who has helped to show this is the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga. 11
Consider what the naturalist has to believe about the origin of our cognitive faculties. The naturalist believes that human beings and all of their natural abilities and faculties are the result of Darwinian natural selection. This means that our cognitive faculties (those faculties that provide us with beliefs) are also the result of natural selection. But, naturalistic evolution is a “blind” process. It is not guided by any intelligence. If it is possible to speak at all of a “purpose” for evolution, that purpose has to do with survival. Specifically, organisms evolve through natural selection with the “aim” of enabling the survival of that organism and/or its species. This means that human beings developed all of the traits they have because those traits made human beings better fitted for survival. This would include our belief-forming faculties. We acquired intellects and senses because those faculties contributed to our survival. We did not develop such faculties for the purpose of discovering and knowing the truth about the world. It is important to realize that evolution is indifferent to truth and falsehood per se. What evolution “cares” about is survival. This fact is supported by the fact that false beliefs can contribute to an organism’s survival just as well as true beliefs. To make this point, Plantinga tells the following story:
Paul is a prehistoric hominid; the exigencies of survival call for him to display tiger-avoidance behavior. There will be many behaviors that are appropriate: fleeing, for example, or climbing a steep rock face, or crawling into a hole to small to admit the tiger, or leaping into a handy lake. Pick any such appropriate specific behavior B. Paul engages in B, we think, because, sensible fellow that he is, he has an aversion to being eaten and believes that B is a good means of thwarting the tigers intentions. But clearly this avoidance behavior could be the result of a thousand other belief-desire combinations . . . .Perhaps Paul very much likes the idea of being eaten, but whenever he sees a tiger, always runs off looking for a better prospect because he thinks it unlikely that the tiger he sees will eat him. This will get his body parts in the right place so far as survival is concerned, without involving much by way of true belief. 12
The point is that an organism does not necessarily have to have true beliefs about the world in order to survive in a dangerous environment. False beliefs can do just as well. And since evolution could care less whether survival-conducive beliefs are true or false, it would seem to follow that we would have no good reason to trust any of the deliverances of our cognitive faculties. For all we know, we are like Paul-holding all or mostly false beliefs generated by cognitive faculties whose only function is to enable us to survive. Thus, if naturalism is true, we can have no confidence that our cognitive faculties are reliable. Which means that we can have no confidence that we really know anything.
But, we do know some things. Our cognitive faculties are reliable-at least this is what we firmly believe. This means that it is highly likely that God exists. If theism is true, then our cognitive faculties are created by an intelligent, benevolent God-a God who no doubt intends that our cognitive faculties function reliably to provide us with true beliefs. So, if we have any knowledge at all, then theism seems to be the best explanation for that fact. Only God’s existence gives us an adequate explanation for the reliability of our cognitive faculties.
Human beings are knowers. We have knowledge of many things and of many kinds of things. One of the kind of things we know are objective moral values. Other things we know are the common sense beliefs produced by our ordinary cognitive faculties (sight, hearing, etc.). The fact that we know these things drives us, as we have seen, to acknowledge the existence of God, the Supreme knower, who has made it possible for any person to know him who is willing to search for him with all his heart.
Steven B. Cowan (Ph.D.) is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Apologetics at Southeastern Bible College and the editor of Areopagus Journal.
1 Both of these arguments for God’s existence are discussed elsewhere in this journal by Gregory E. Ganssle, “The Universe Points to God,” pp. 6-11.
2 The material in this section is partly adapted from my “The Question of Moral Values,” in The Big Argument: Does God Exist? (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2005), 165-177.
3 Quote from the transcript of an interview with Jeffrey Dahmer on
Dateline NBC, broadcast Nov. 29, 1994.
4 Dateline NBC, broadcast Nov. 29, 1994.
5 Francis J. Beckwith and Greg01y Koukl, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 59.
6 J.L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), 1 15.
7 Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American
(Nov., 1995): 85.
8 For example, one often-made naturalist case for objective morality suggests that objective moral values are simply brute facts. Morality is just part of the “furniture of the universe” that came into existence for no apparent reason along with atoms, stars and planets. The problem with this suggestion is that it cannot explain why moral values-as mere brute facts-would have anything to do with human beings. Why
should we care about these brute moral values? An important character istics of morality is prescriptivity. Moral values prescribe behavior and thus bind our consciences. But why should moral values, if they are simply brute facts, bind my conscience? Moreover, the idea that m01°al values are just brute facts about the universe implies that moral values could exist even if no persons existed. But, since moral values are pre scriptive and thus bind our consciences, there are such things as moral obligations and rights. And moral obligations and rights are had by people.
9 J.P. Moreland and Kai Nielsen, Does God Exist? The Great Debate
(Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990), 119.
10 Mark Linville, Is Everything Permitted?, 50-51 (emphasis his).
11 See Alvin Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function (Oxford University Press, 1993), 216-237. In fairness, Plantinga does not exact ly provide an argument for God’s existence. He simply argues that nat uralism cannot provide a secure basis for the reliability of our cognitive faculties and is, in fact, self-defeating. But, with the addition of the premise that our faculties are reliable, his argument can be transf01med into a direct argument for theism.
12 Ibid., 225.