This is the first installment of a weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
Dear Dr. Craig,
I am currently studying for 2 University degrees (Philosophy and Biology) in Sydney, Australia. As I am sure your aware from your recent tour of Australia my country tends to lean toward a secular approach more so than your home country. While I am by no means a Christian, I do find, time and again, that even the teachers’ presupposition of an atheistic worldview bleeds through their approach to discourse and find myself consistently challenging the ‘authority’ as it were. In turn resulting in an un-intended theistic outcome. For this reason I have decided to first complete both disciplines and if my theistic outcome prevails then seriously consider deliberating upon the truths of different religions and see if I can hold any consistently without intellectual debt.
That said I recently gave an argument or two suggesting the objectivity of moral goodness in a tutorial refuting a fellow students ardent moral relativism. Instead of engaging the arguments I presented, he simply addressed me with the following Van Inwagen-esque suggestions:
“Before I even consider your argument you must prove reality exists.”
“I’m suggesting that knowledge of even a table is nonsensical as senses are the only way we can experience ‘reality’ and so the axiom that T=T is founded on belief that our experiences are infallible when they are demonstratively not so, and so can’t be considered objective knowledge. All of which ties back to my idea of morality - if we cannot agree that a table objectively exists, how can we suggest that morality does?”
“So you can state, and back up with appropriate proof, that mereological nihilism is 100% false? If you can, I’d love to hear your proof, otherwise you are simply choosing to ignore it and many other theories in order to strengthen your own belief system.”
“Without knowledge, we cannot have objectivity.”
“Why interact with your premises when your underlying fundamental beliefs are not proven?”
As you can see from the above quotes of student “B”, the debate about objective morality strangely and very quickly descended into an argument about some form of mereological nihilism insofar as I can discern. I was not deterred from my validity and soundness of my morality arguments. However, when the teacher also noted that the students above points do need to be addressed prior to considering any such arguments, I was really stumped.
It seems, to me, ludicrous to have to affirm that both you and I and indeed the world we live in exists as composites to be able to address objective morality!
Thus I have two questions:
1. Do I have to incorporate a counter-consideration of mereological nihilism in order to put forth an argument for objective morality?
2. In any case, could you please address the ‘other students’ (and teachers affirmations) listed above for my future reference.
Any response would be greatly appreciated as this has been seriously troubling me on my path if for no reason other than that it seems absurd.
Dr. William Lane Craig’s Response
I must be missing something here! What your friend and professor say seems so obviously wrongheaded that one is bewildered that they could believe such a thing.
The ostensible question here (for readers who lack Taylor’s background) has to do with whether or not composite objects exist, that is to say, are there really objects like chairs and tables and people, or are there just fundamental particles (like quarks) arranged chair-wise and table-wise, etc.? This is an ontological question that keeps metaphysicians up at night. The view that composite objects do not exist is called mereological nihilism. Now the claim of Taylor’s friend and teacher seems to be that Taylor must settle this ontological question in order to affirm that objective moral values exist.
This seems to be a bizarre claim. If moral values were composite objects made up of fundamental particles, then one could understand the demand. But since it would be nuts to think that moral values are composite material objects, the demand is nugatory.
The only way in which I could see the relevance of mereological nihilism to moral objectivism is if one were to claim that on mereological nihilism, people have no objective moral value because there are no people (since they would be composite objects)! Therefore, there are no moral agents. Such an argument, however, assumes that persons are material objects, which the dualist may reject. So this argument would have force only against the materialist. But then the argument might actually give the materialist good grounds for rejecting mereological nihilism. For I know that I am a moral agent; if mereological nihilism is true, then I am not a moral agent; therefore mereological nihilism is not true. So far from requiring a prior decision about mereological nihilism, moral objectivism may actually provide good grounds for deciding about mereological nihilism.
In any case, your friend doesn’t seem to be arguing in that way. I don’t see anything in his remarks that suggests that a mereological nihilist cannot consistently hold to moral objectivism. So here’s a good counter-argument to his claim that you must make up your mind about mereological nihilism before making up your mind about moral objectivism:
1. Some who hold to mereological nihilism hold rationally to moral objectivism (e.g., van Inwagen1).
2. Some who reject mereological nihilism hold rationally to moral objectivism (e.g., Plantinga).
3. If you can hold or reject mereological nihilism and hold rationally to moral objectivism, then a decision concerning mereological nihilism is not necessary in order to hold rationally to moral objectivism.
4. So a decision concerning mereological nihilism is not necessary in order to hold rationally to moral objectivism.
Unless your friend is ready to shoulder the enormous burden of proof of showing that van Inwagen or Plantinga is irrational (good luck!), he’s going to have to say that it doesn’t matter whether you hold to mereological nihilism or not; rather what matters is that you made a decision concerning the issue. So long as you made a decision, you can be a moral objectivist, regardless of what you have decided. But if that’s what he’s saying, then all you have to do is simply announce your decision to him, and whatever you’ve decided, your belief in objective moral values is just fine!
In any case, why think that in order to be a rational moral objectivist you have to have made a decision one way or the other concerning mereological nihilism? The problems don’t seem at all parallel. The philosophical conundrums raised by composition (such as identity and intrinsic change) just do not arise with regard to the reality of moral values. So what is it about being undecided about questions of composition that keeps me from rationally holding that child molestation is objectively wrong? Your friend owes you an argument here.
Taylor, here’s what I think is really going on: in order to justify his moral relativism your friend is playing the skeptic card. He’s saying that if you can’t even rely on your five senses to tell you that tables exist, how can you rely on your moral sense to tell you that objective moral values exist? Philosophical debates over mereological nihilism are being misappropriated to try to justify this skepticism. Your friend mistakenly thinks that the difficulty in deciding philosophical questions about composition is due to the failure of our five senses. This only exposes the superficiality of his grasp of these debates. A person like van Inwagen is very clear that his denial of the existence of chairs doesn’t mean that chairs are illusory or that there is something the matter with our five senses. His reservations about whether chairs are bona fide objects are metaphysical not perceptual. The answer to the question, “if we cannot agree that a table objectively exists, how can we suggest that morality does?” is that our inability to decide questions of composition has nothing to do with the reliability of our senses but with metaphysical issues which do not arise in debates over the existence of objective moral values.
Notice your fiend’s typical skeptical mistake of equating knowledge with certainty: unless you can prove “that mereological nihilism is 100% false, . . . you are simply choosing to ignore it and many other theories in order to strengthen your own belief system.” Your friend’s unsophisticated skepticism destroys itself. Just ask him, “How do you know that ‘senses are the only way we can experience “reality”’? How do you know that the Law of Identity ‘that T=T is founded on belief that our experiences are infallible’?” Tell him, “Unless you can prove that moral objectivism is 100% false, . . . you are simply choosing to ignore it and many other theories in order to strengthen your own relativistic belief system.” Repeat his words to him: “Why interact with your objections when your underlying fundamental beliefs are not proven?”
What your friend is engaged in is not serious philosophy; it is amateurish abuse of philosophy.
This post and other resources are available on Dr. William Lane Craig's website: www.reasonablefaith.org