This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
First, even though I am an atheist, I have learned a lot from you by reading your responses in Q&A and watching your debates. Even though you sometimes make my blood boil with your views, there are several areas of agreement. One of these is your nominalist (or anti-realist) position concerning abstract objects, which you recently discussed in your Q & A on God and Infinity. My question, however, concerns the implications of your nominalist view, which I think leaves you in an uncomfortable position regarding your ontology of beauty and possibly your moral ontology.
When refuting scientism, you argue there are truths beyond the realm of science and included in these are aesthetic truths. This belief seems to have Platonic implications. In fact you imply this yourself in your first debate with Peter Atkins when you respond to his scientism by saying " ...'the beautiful' like 'the good' cannot be scientifically proven". With this statement, you explicitly make an ontological commitment to the existence of beauty as something that exists outside our perception. I can't see how your view on beauty is anything other than Platonic.
Now you must begin to see the issue. How can you reconcile your nominalism with your Platonic view on beauty? You can't be a nominalist for some properties and then be a realist when it comes to properties that you want to objectively exist. That's just cherry-picking. Any defeater you have for believing in the existence of properties or numbers will equally apply to the existence of the abstract object of beauty. Moreover, how can you take a Platonic position on beauty, when one of your motivations for taking the nominalist position is your belief that Platonism is irreconcilable with classical theism? Is beauty an aspect of God? How can that be if He is immaterial?
The contradiction between nominalism and a Platonic view of beauty is connected to your moral ontology. You have made your views on the grounding of moral values quite clear: God's character is "the good". The problem is that if you are an anti-realist and you deny that aesthetic truths are objective, then it becomes much more plausible that moral statements are not objectively true. The intuition that tells me that a man whose eyes are not aligned, whose nose is crooked, and whose face is proliferated with acne is an objectively ugly man is just as strong as my intuition that tells me that stealing for fun is objectively wrong. There is no reason to limit your anti-realism from extending to moral truths. This, as you probably realize, undermines the second premise of your "Objective Moral Values Argument": objective moral values exist.
It therefore seems you are in a predicament. If you reject the objectivity of aesthetic statements, you immediately undermine beliefs about the objectivity of moral statements. If you affirm aesthetic objectivity, you are immediately lead to Platonism which you have written is irreconcilable with classical theism. Do you see a way out of this predicament?
I would greatly treasure a response. I hope to meet you one day and discuss issues that we both find captivating.
Dr. William Lane Craig’s Response
I think the perceived predicament arises, Victor, from conflating two different senses in which the word “realism” is used in contemporary discussions. “Realism” as used by some philosophers, for example, Michael Dummett, is a sort of truth value (or alethic) realism. It holds simply that statements of a certain sort of discourse, for example, mathematical discourse or moral discourse, have objective truth values, that is to say, are objectively either true or false. This is very different from what we might call ontological realism, which holds that objects of a certain sort exist, for example, numbers or properties. Ontological anti-realists need not be alethic anti-realists—that is to say, one may deny, for example, that mathematical objects exist and yet hold mathematical statements to be objectively true or false. Indeed, I hazard to say that most ontological anti-realists are alethic realists.
My own view would be that statements belonging to moral, aesthetic, and mathematical discourse are objectively true or false even though there are no abstract objects like numbers and moral or aesthetic properties. So, for example, it is true that “1+1=2” even though there is no abstract entity denoted by “1+1;” and it is true that “Jan’s face is beautiful” even though there is no abstract object out there which is the property beautiful (indeed, I wouldn’t include even Jan’s face in my ontological inventory; Jan certainly exists, but in addition to her is there another object denoted by “her face”?), and it is true that “ISIS’s actions are cruel” even though there is no abstract object cruelty. You just don’t need such strange, causally effete, abstract entities in your ontology in order to be a realist about the truth value of such statements.
Now you do hint at an argument that alethic realism implies ontological realism. You say, “by saying ‘ ... “the beautiful” like “the good” cannot be scientifically proven’ . . . you explicitly make an ontological commitment to the existence of beauty as something that exists outside our perception.” Aha! What you’ve done is to presuppose a certain view about how we make ontological commitments. You assume that statements containing so-called singular terms (terms which are used to refer to individuals) like proper names, definite descriptions, and demonstratives like “this” and “that” cannot be true unless there are objects in the world which serve as the denotations or referents of those terms.
I completely disagree! It seems to be a datum of ordinary language that we frequently assert true statements which contain singular terms which do not denote existent objects. Consider the following examples:
- The weather in Atlanta will be hot today.
- Sherrie’s disappointment with her husband was deep and unassuageable.
- The price of the tickets is ten dollars.
- Wednesday falls between Tuesday and Thursday.
- His sincerity was touching.
- James couldn’t pay his mortgage.
- The view of the Jezreel Valley from atop Mt. Carmel was breath-taking.
- Your constant complaining is futile.
- Spassky’s forfeiture ended the match.
- He did it for my sake and the children’s.
It would be fantastic to think that all of the singular terms featured in these sentences have objects in the world corresponding to them. I think you agree with me here. But given your criterion of ontological commitment, then you will be forced to say that all of these sentences are false, which seems equally absurd.
What is wanted here, Victor, is a theory of reference that enables us to say that we successfully refer even in cases where there is no real world object that is the denotation of the terms we use. In my published work on God and abstract objects I have defended just such a theory of reference, which has been formulated by the Swedish philosopher Arvid Båve. This is not the place to go into such a theory; but you may consult my contribution to Beyond the Control of God? Six Views on the Problem of God and Abstract Objects, ed. Paul Gould (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).
So how do I reconcile my ontological anti-realism with my alethic realism about moral and aesthetic discourse? Certainly not by cherry-picking some properties to be real and others not! Rather I do so by denying the presupposed criterion of ontological commitment which would saddle us with such an inflationary ontology.
There is thus no predicament to find a way out of.
This post and other resources are available on Dr. William Lane Craig's website: www.reasonablefaith.org