Friday, February 23, 2018

Review of Craig-Wielenberg Debate on Morality

There was a debate held tonight at N.C. State University in Raleigh, NC, between Christian philosopher William Lane Craig and Eric Wielenberg, an academic philosopher at DePaul (not 100% sure about which school). The debate format featured an opening, two responses, and a closing, followed by a Q-and-A. Two responses felt like a bit much, as the participants ended up repeating each other somewhat. The question was something like: What is the most plausible foundation for objective moral values and duties? Craig offered the theistic solution, while Wielenberg argued for what he called “godless normative realism.” What follows is my scattered and only slightly cleaned-up notes, plus some concluding evaluation.

Craig opening: Godless normative realism is just Moral Platonism (akin to mathematical Platonism); conceptual reality for most, but Platonists must say there are real abstract objects. When the right physical situations occur, these abstract objects supervene on the situations. What this means is that moral duties are superveniences on physical objects and situations. What Wielenberg needs is a rationally compelling argument against the presumption against Platonism (or a knockdown argument for Platonism). No rationally compelling arguments against the presumption against Platonism exist. Theists do not face such a problem, since God is a concrete, not abstract, object. Supervenience account seems unintelligible. Wielenberg claims physical objects cause the abstract objects to supervene on physical situations; Craig says this is super-duper-venience (utterly mysterious). How can this happen? Wielenberg appeals to theistic causation as an example; this won’t work due to the difference of concrete objects, as listed above. Another problem is as-follows: What if these physical objects pick out some other abstract object instead of the right one? Some are only contingently caused. That is, what if the physical object, when one is a brain-state like love, picks out the abstract object of the square root of 4? What accounts for the correct physical-abstract pairing? Wielenberg appeals to divine concurrence as an example.. This fails due to God’s being a personal agent. Wielenberg does not have agency here. He postulates decisive moral reasons for acting constitutes obligations. However, this eliminates supererogation (moral heroes going above and beyond the call of duty). This also is only for instrumental actions (or conditional obligation, “If you want to act morally, then do this”). In other words, godless normative realism can only get you that such-and-such is moral and that if you want tobe moral, do such-and-such; it cannot get you the further fact that you ought to do such-and-such. This view also subverts moral duties by undermining freedom of the will, according to Craig. Mental supervenes on the physical; you are a machine; machines are not obligated to do anything. There is no enduring self. Thus no one can be held accountable for particular acts. Moral knowledge is also impossible, due to Plantinga’s EAAN. The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, in brief, states that if naturalism and evolution were true, then our cognitive faculties are aimed at survival, not necessarily truth. If this is the case, then, probably, we have a defeater for every belief we hold (this is because, for all we would know, our entire belief set is held for survival purposes only, and only incidentally gets at the truth rarely, if at all. But if you have a defeater for every belief, then you have a defeater for evolutionary naturalism. This also applies to knowledge from evolutionary naturalism about morality!

Wielenberg opening: He gives a story about a suffering child and one’s obligation to save them. He claims that moral features of things are fundamental features of reality. Craig’s view has all the same problems as his does, so why should these problems count against Wielenberg? First, the causal connection problem attends to theistic causal views. Second, what explains why there is a necessary connection between an act commanded by God and an obligation to do that thing? Third, how to the possible worlds know how to generate God? Fourth, dualism posits things not accounted for in physics. Fifth, no argument by Craig for no self. Sixth, it could be that mental states and physical states are identical and thus accounted for. Seventh, physical and immaterial interactions are also problematic. Eighth, as to moral supererogation, Christianity has the same problem (e.g., love one another). His view can be tweaked by having exclusionary permission. This is the view that there is value in performing our own goals for our lives (if they are moral); in these cases, acting on moral reasons anyway is supererogatory. It is implausible that God’s commands are what constitute moral obligations, since we can just see that someone in need ought to be helped, for example. Next, people must be aware of the commands and of the authority of the one giving the commandment. Craig’s view makes moral obligations inexplicable.

Craig response: Frames the issues of Wielenberg’s responses to Craig: 1. Craig’s view arbitrarily singles out divine commands: Craig denies this; there can be multiple sources, but commands are the highest in the order. God issues general commands to all of humanity; in any specific situation it is up to us to apply that general principle. 2. Craig’s view implies non-believers have no obligations since they are not aware. On Christianity, God has written the law on their hearts, so that they do have such obligations. 3. Craig’s view makes morally wrong acts inexplicable, since God commands them to do what he knows they won’t do. Didn’t catch fully his response here. No powerful objections by Wielenberg to first contention. Second: So’s-your-old-man response. The alleged problem with the view of Wielenberg is unresolved. Second, if opponent can show any relevant difference, then the strategy collapses. Next, even given moral Platonism, there are still formidable objections: first, the account of supervenience seems unintelligible; Wielenberg says it is also obscure how non-physical entities can be causally connected to physical entities. It’s not as obscure though! We have experience of our own causal connection, even if we don’t know how it works. Craig can’t know why God’s commanding gives us a powerful reason to do it, Wielenberg claims. Theists are not naturalists, so this is not relevant. After all, on Wielenberg’s view, obtaining reasons that direct one to a moral action is the naturalistic one. Craig responds that possible worlds do not instantiate God, so something of a category error has been committed. Supererogation: the tweak contradicts his own view; it is no longer godless natural realism accounting for morality, but this new principle. Freedom of the will: reductionism has been largely rejected by philosophers of mind. Moral knowledge is impossible: EAAN: needs to be addressed.

Wielenberg’s response: Craig’s view needs to make sense of morality as well or better than Wielenberg’s view, and it’s not clear he has. So the tu quoque is relevant, says Wielenberg. He doubles down on lack of theory being the equalizer. Great-making properties: how do these actually cause God to be great? Mental states are not brain states according to Craig. Wielenberg claims this is inaccurate; that philosophers of mind don’t reject the view as Craig says. We don’t know how souls can possess agency, so there’s no special problem for Wielenberg. EAAN: unguided evolution has made rational creatures, so EAAN is doubtful. Be perfect is a Christian obligation to show there is no supererogation. As for Craig’s intuitive remarks, psychopaths refute this. Wielenberg discusses, basically, Molinism. Craig’s idea: I deserve punishment, so God commands me to help; if I can be punished, then command is not needed; if command is violated, then that can’t be a reason for the command (deserving of punishment). The million Holocausts objection to God’s presence needed: if you could lift a finger and prevent a million Holocausts, it is evident, morally, you should do it, even if you receive no command.

Craig’s second: Craig’s view is arbitrary; we do experience duties, but this doesn’t reveal to us the ultimate source. Psychopaths: if they don’t know the difference for real, they are not culpable. Craig did not say by issuing commands God is able to hold those who do wrong responsible; rather, able to those who do evil acts, so no circularity. A problem with Wielenberg’s account is the kind of causal connection, not primarily how it works. Great-making properties: this is a misconceived objection, same as possible worlds, since great-making properties are just things it’s better for a perfect being to have than to lack, not things that “generate” God. “Christianity has no supererogation”: perfect obedience does not entail there are no supererogatory acts. Freedom of the will: mental states and brain states have different properties, meaning mental states are not reducible. Mental states cannot cause anything not already determined by brain states. Causal agency is necessary for free will. Physical states do not have brain states. Wielenberg denies initial premise of EAAN. This is question-begging.

Wielenberg second: Craig’s great-making God must just be so, which is a tu quoque. Supererogation: Craig didn’t address this. Craig’s phil of mind claims are controversial. Craig appealed to Plantinga’s EAAN, which solves nothing. Consider that the lighter is reliable. In the same way, unguided evolution produces mostly true beliefs. The million Holocausts objection again. Craig says an order is needed. Reiterating evil act circularity objection. Psychopaths objection pressed again. Combined with Craig’s evil/wrong distinction, so that psychopaths should be punished, but if they don’t perceive the wrong, they shouldn’t be.

Craig closing: First, theism provides sound foundation of objective moral values (God as concrete object). Second, it provides for objective moral duties. Objections have been morphing throughout, not consistent. Several powerful objections to godless normative realism. Correction on EAAN.

Wielenberg closing: Million Holocausts again. Craig’s view predicts no morally wrong actions. Now introduces pointless evil; evildoing merits punishment. Psychopaths are plausible exceptions to what Craig says, which means they don’t have obligations; however they are evildoers; Craig’s view requires that psychopaths then do have moral obligations.

Evaluation: I will try to keep this brief. I thought Wielenberg did well; better, in fact, than the average Craig opponent. However, I thought his criticisms of Craig were more often than not based on misunderstandings, and what was perhaps his best critique of Craig wasn’t fully articulated until the closing statement, which was unfortunate. Craig seemed to get the best of Wielenberg several times—especially with respect to the EAAN. I will say, before going back to earlier points in the debate, Wielenberg’s handling of the EAAN was his poorest aspect. In response to the EAAN, Wielenberg claims we can just look around at the kind of things naturalism has produced, to see if they have regularly true beliefs. This is both question-begging and circular! Question-begging because he assumes naturalism is true—which is the very thing under question! The whole point of the EAAN is to figure out if it’s true—you can’t very well respond to an argument for its falsehood by saying, “Well, since naturalism is true, we know that evolution and naturalism do yield true beliefs on a good enough scale!” It’s circular because it turns out that one would have to be using his cognitive faculties to know that the cognitive faculties around him were functioning toward truth, in general.

It seems to me Craig was pretty right on in his critique of Wielenberg’s account. Additionally, he did fairly well against Wielenberg’s critiques. I wanted to address a couple. First, Wielenberg didn’t seem to appreciate fully the distinction between objective moral values and duties. If you do evil (value), you should be punished. But God’s commands constitute your duties, so God gives a command (duty). Thus, evildoers are punished. But what about non-believers? These people do not recognize God’s authority and do not know about God’s commands. Craig’s intended meaning becomes clear: he means normally functioning people do receive God’s commands in the form of general moral knowledge on the heart. So what about psychopaths?

The psychopath objection ultimately was Wielenberg’s best, in my opinion. Eventually, the idea is this: Craig says that evildoers have commands by God that give them an obligation that they flout—otherwise, they would get away with murder. Psychopaths do evil, so on Craig’s view, they get a command and now have an obligation not to do it. But, plausibly, psychopaths do not know the difference between right and wrong and so, on Craig’s view, do not have an obligation. So now psychopaths both do and do not have an obligation, and anything that generates a contradiction is absurd.

The answer to this for Craig came out in the Q-and-A: Craig means this as a normally functioning thing. He doesn’t mean this for the mentally disabled, or infants, or psychopaths (if indeed they truly do not perceive right and wrong at all). Thus they simply have no moral obligation, and no contradiction is generated.

As for the “Million Holocaust” objection, I think this is answered by asking a single question. Recall the objection is that if you could stop a million Holocausts by raising a single finger, you would have an obligation to do so, even in the absence of a command by God. Since God’s commands are what constitute moral obligation, there must be something wrong with Craig’s view.

It seems to me the answer is clear: ask the question, “Why?” Why is it we would be obligated to help? Suppose Wielenberg answers, “Because if you can help prevent people from dying then, all things being equal, you should,” then Craig can plausibly claim this just is what is meant by general commands from God. Preserve life. Love people. These two general commands clearly find application here.

What about, finally, Wielenberg’s claim that in order to be obligated by an authority one must recognize that authority? Craig quite accurately pointed out this isn’t true. He appealed to an example by Matt Flannagan that I will paraphrase loosely here: suppose you are walking along a large farm and come to a gate. This gate is closed, and has a sign that says “No admittance. Violators will be punished.” You don’t know who placed the sign, but you are aware that there is a rule and there is a rule-giver, and this is plausibly enough to place an obligation on you not to enter (it would be disingenuous to enter on the grounds that you weren’t familiar with the authority who wrote it, and so didn’t find the sign to be conveying obligatory acts). The same goes for morality.

In the final analysis, I found Wielenberg to be a nice guy who has some interesting thoughts, and he did better than your average Craig opponent. With the exception of the EAAN (where he appeared to be dealing with it for the first time, at places), he appeared to be familiar with Craig’s arguments and responses. However, Craig countered almost every single objection, and provided devastating (I think) objections of his own. He further shared the Gospel message in the Q-and-A portion! I enjoyed it, and I hope others did, too!


  1. Almost done watching this now. Wielenberg seems to just say the same thing over and over.

    1. Sorry I didn't see this earlier! Yes, that does seem to be the case!

  2. Thanks for your comments. Highly entertaining debate, glad they could prepare response ahead of time. I wanted to point out one of your comments and disagree with your interpretation of Craig's position: "If you do evil (value), you should be punished. But God’s commands constitute your duties, so God gives a command (duty)." Craig's view is not that evildoers should be punished, but that wrongdoers should be punished. But God imposes moral obligations on evildoers to hold them accountable so that they can recognize their need for grace and thus achieve union with God. Craig explained this during the Q&A period.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, here, and the clarification!


  3. The one objection I found interesting was Wielenberg's drawing a parallel between the interaction problem Craig brought up for Wielenberg's view (that it is impossible to see how moral value supervenes on physical circumstances i.e. Kid on fire and bucket of water example)with Craig's own problem as a dualist in the philosophy of mind. The problem with Wielenberg's alleged parallel is that the theist has a way out if the interaction problem was in fact fatal which Wielenberg wouldn't have. The Theist can simply take the idealist route, and ala Berkeley dispose of the mind body problem. Wielenberg has no such option that I can see, and in my opinion this undercuts his claim that his view can account for things better.

    1. Thanks for this and sorry for the late reply, Blake! Yes, idealism would work. I think that'd be a bit too esoteric, and unnecessary, for Craig's audience, especially given Craig points out the asymmetry in that at least we appear to have the experience *that* it works! However, you're surely right: if idealism is true, a theistic observer should work in a way not available to an atheist.


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