A Counter-possible Objection to Natural Theology

Here’s an interesting argument I stumbled across recently, written by somebody I know, through a skype group, named Lance: The ‘what if God commanded something horrific?’ objection to DCT and W.L. Craig’s moral argument. I was inclined to be dismissive of the argument at first, but it does make at least one very interesting move. The move goes something like this: some Christians, perhaps especially those who defend some version of the Ontological argument (as Dr. Craig does), believe that God’s existence is both metaphysically and logically necessary. Now, if God’s existence is logically necessary, then his non-existence is not logically possible, ergo counter-possible. Consider, however, the following claim:

  1. If God did not exist, then objective moral values and duties would not exist.

This turn of phrase will no doubt sound familiar to those who have been exposed to Dr. Craig’s moral argument for the existence of God. He has, after all, argued it in these words a countless number of times. The trouble, however, is that the antecedent of this conditional is not only counter-factual, but counter-possible. A counter-possible conditional is a conditional whose antecedent is not true in any logically possible world (sometimes these invite philosophers to speak about logically impossible worlds, but we can avoid such language for our purposes).

To the suggestion that according to divine command theory had God commanded the torture of innocent persons it would then be a good thing, Dr. Craig has apparently argued that the conditional in question is a counter-possible one, and therefore one for which the truth value assignment is evacuated of any significance. Thus the statement “if God had commanded the torture of innocent persons, then it would be morally right and obligatory to torture innocent persons” is true, but so also is the statement “if God had commanded the torture of innocent persons, then it would be morally wrong to torture innocent persons (and we would have an obligation to refrain from such an act).” Thus, Dr. Craig insists, the value of the moral argument cannot be impugned on the basis of counter-possible considerations, since counter-possible conditionals are all only ever vacuously true.

This, then, is where the charge is introduced: “the problem with this answer is that, if every counterpossible is only vacuously true, then all of natural theology would be vacuous and uninformative.” The suggestion goes that Atheists will be inclined to believe that the statement “if God existed then objective moral values and duties would exist” is not only counter-factual, but also counter-possible. I should note in passing that Craig does not explicitly maintain the above conditional to be true, but merely maintains that “if God did not exist then objective moral values and duties could not exist.” After all, Craig does believe there is a logically possible world in which God did not create anything, and therefore in which no actions are morally obligatory, no moral injunctions are issued, and so forth. However, coming back on point, the suggestion is that Craig’s moral argument for the existence of God rests, for the Atheist, on what is clearly, from the Atheist’s perspective, a counter-possible. Therefore, it is as (vacuously) true to say that “if God did not exist then objective moral values and duties would not exist” as it is to say that “if God did not exist then objective moral values and duties would exist.”

The reason the Atheist must insist that Craig’s major premise is counter-possible is that Craig supports a version of the ontological argument, and so seems to implicitly accept an Anselmian view of God’s necessity such that the word God involves in its meaning ‘(logically) necessary existence.’ Thus, if there is any logically possible world in which God does not exist, then God does not exist in any logically possible world. Since the Atheist believes that the actual world is such that God does not exist, it follows that there is no logically possible world in which God does exist. Thus, the premise’s antecedent being counter-possible, the conditional is at best vacuously true.

The author also goes on to argue that God’s commanding the torture of innocent people, or some other morally unconscionable act, is not logically impossible. He suggests that in order for this to be logically impossible it must either (i) entail a contradiction, or (ii) involve some sort of conceptual inconsistency. I admit to finding no difference between (i) and (ii), but he seems to think there is one. I confess to not understanding his argument against the possibility of (ii), which the reader is free to read for herself, but I think a contradiction can be clearly shown, so I won’t concern myself with addressing (ii).

Finally, the most interesting part of the article is when our author suggests that this insight “bleeds into the rest of natural theology.” He argues that all arguments for God’s existence seem, in some way, to rely on what the atheist will have to consider counter-possible conditionals.

It’s hard to see how “God is the best explanation for the origin of the universe” could be true, when “if God were to not exist the universe still would” is true as well.

I will divide my responses into three sections. First, I will respond to the suggestion that the moral argument for God’s existence is in trouble. Second, I will respond to the suggestion that all of natural theology relies implicitly upon what the atheist should consider counter-possible conditionals. Third, I will respond to the suggestion, most important of all, that it is not logically impossible for God to act contrary to his nature by commanding that which is morally unjustifiable.

The Moral Argument

In response it should be noted that most atheists do not accept that God’s existence is logically necessary or else that his existence is logically impossible. Thus, simply by reason of the fact that Craig is addressing a particular audience, it may be legitimate for him to put his beliefs about God’s necessity aside and simply concede to the average atheist that God may or may not exist. Thus, insofar as the audience being addressed should determine which presuppositions are taken for granted by the argument, the moral argument seems impervious to the criticism. 

In addition, as our writer himself notes, Craig and others may wish to distinguish between metaphysical and logical necessity, and argue that God is metaphysically necessary without being logically necessary, thus making the major premise of the moral argument merely counter-factual and not counter-possible (and, of course, from the atheist’s perspective, not even counter-factual). That distinction has always struck me as vacuous, so I cannot myself make good sense of how this line of argument would go. I simply make note of it because I too think that Dr. Craig and/or others may wish to argue this way. I note in passing an amusing observation: the writer at one point lets slip his overly ambitious agenda when he suggests that this dialectical avenue “could give Craig that bit of wiggle room he needs to avoid the collapse of his world view.” It is important to keep in view that it is only his argument(s) which is(are) at risk of collapsing, and not his worldview as such.

It could also be noted that, to return to ‘talk of impossible worlds,’ some philosophers have proposed that some logically impossible worlds are closer to the actual world than are others, just as some logically possible worlds are closer to the actual world than are others. Thus, one might just argue that the logically impossible world in which God exists, commands something morally unconscionable and we ought not do as God commands is ‘closer’ to the actual world than the impossible world in which God exists, commands something morally unconscionable and we ought to do as God commands. The trouble with this response is that a critic might argue that a divine command theory view might entail that the latter impossible world is closer to the actual world than the former. I think that qualifies as a fair counter-response, so I’m inclined to let that sit.

I myself maintain, as somebody who both sees the value of the moral argument for the existence of God, and who believes that God is both logically and metaphysically necessary, that the moral argument can be used legitimately in the form it is used by Dr. Craig, even by one such as myself. I believe this is so precisely because (i) atheists, agnostics and theists who reject natural theology do not all agree with me that God’s existence is logically necessary, (ii) because I can rephrase the argument to avoid its being counter-possible on my view. For example, suppose I argue that “if moral values and duties exist, then God exists.” While I think that God’s existence is necessary, I do not think that the existence of moral values or duties are necessary and, I note, neither does Dr. Craig.

Natural Theology and Counter-possibles

There are a number of responses due here. First, clearly, if an atheist believes that the existence of God is logically impossible then no arguments for God’s existence can even get off the ground. All arguments for God’s existence presume the intelligibility of theism in principle. However, there may be arguments for believing in the existence of God which are not strictly part of any natural theology. For example, one might argue on epistemic or existential grounds that one ‘ought’ to believe in God. Those arguments, presumably, would still deserve a hearing, even if all the arguments of natural theology were to be dialectically disqualified.

However, it doesn’t seem to me that all the arguments of natural theology really require counter-possible premises. Consider a cosmological argument of the following variety:

  1. Every contingent being has a sufficient cause (a cause which is metaphysically sufficient to bring it about).
  2. The aggregate of all contingent beings is itself a contingent being.
  3. This contingent being has a sufficient cause.
  4. If this contingent being has a sufficient cause, then that cause is not a contingent being.
  5. The cause of this contingent being is an incontingent being.

This argument, as far as I can tell, does not at any point involve explicit or implicit appeal to what the atheist will consider a counter-possible, unless the atheist is perceptive enough to realize that atheism logically entails that premise 1 or premise 2 is necessarily false. At least, atheism entails this unless premise 5 is considered too weak to establish theism. If the latter is the case, then a non-question begging cumulative case seems to be in principle possible.

Moreover, Lance said, as I quoted him as saying above, that “it’s hard to see how “God is the best explanation for the origin of the universe” could be true, when “if God were to not exist the universe still would” is true as well.” However, I don’t see why one couldn’t simply argue that one explanation may be better than another if, all things being equal, it relies upon or entails fewer brute facts. In this way one could argue that theism, even if counter-possible, is a better explanation than atheism insofar as it offers an explanation for that which atheism does not. That concession, even if made, would be meaningless however, precisely because, being counter-possible, the explanation would be vacuously ‘better.’

God and Goodness

Finally the most trivial argument in the article is that God can possibly act contrary to his nature. What is essential to understand here is that God’s existence is necessary, God’s essence involves, among other things, existence, and God’s essence is necessary. In other words, there is no logically possible world in which God exists and in which his essence is not identical to his essence in every other logically possible world. In fact, God’s essence or ‘nature’ can be seen as the set of conditions for theism to be true. For Theism to be true simply means that exactly one being exemplifies the divine nature. The divine nature involves necessary existence. The divine nature involves all the superlative attributes. The divine nature thus involves not mere accidental moral perfection, but necessary moral perfection. In fact, according to standard Anselmian and Thomistic theology, all the predicates which apply to the divine nature do so (by analogy) in such a way that the divine nature is itself the paradigm of any attribute which corresponds to a superlative. Thus, to say that God is wise is to say that God’s nature is the measure against which all other things can be said to be wise. To say that God exists is to say that God’s nature is the paradigmatic existent. To say that God is good is to say that God’s nature is identical to ‘the Good’. To say that God is omniscient is to say, as Aquinas does say, that to know anything true is to think God’s thoughts after him.

On this theology, it is as much a contradiction to suggest that God could command evil as it is to suggest that God could fail to exist. The beautiful irony, therefore, about this last charge against Dr. Craig’s ‘divine command’ conception of God’s goodness, is that it fundamentally misunderstands the very theology which, having been presumed previously, led to the wonderfully insightful observation that the atheist should believe Craig’s major premise to be a counter-possible. Thus, on the one hand the theology seems to make Craig’s major premise in the moral argument a counter-possible, and on the other hand this very same theology makes it logically impossible for God to commit or command evil.

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About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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