What is objective morality?

by Brian 24. January 2011 01:56

Let's start with what objective means given the word’s versatility. In philosophy, objective refers to existence apart from perception. An object independent of perception does not change with our feelings, interpretations, or prejudices. Applied to moral values; if they are objective, then they are discovered, not invented. Contrast this with subjective moral values which change from person to person, culture to culture, etc. If morality is objective, it is reasonable to ask: What is the mind-independent basis for objective morality and is this basis sufficiently binding? In other words, it is not enough to show some external ground for morality and then subjectively link that grounding with obligation. An obligation to a particular ethical system must transcend personal preference and have some significant grounding in the object of perception. 

On Christianity, moral values have their objective and universal basis in the immutable nature of God. He neither arbitrarily created the moral law, nor is there an external moral domain in which God is subject. Moral values are, because of who God is. Now there is a common misconception where it is thought all monotheists, such as Christians, are moral objectivists and all non-monotheists (agnostics, atheists, pantheists, etc.) are moral relativists. That is not the case. Whether an individual position is tenable or not; there are plenty of worldviews where it is thought morality finds its objectivity in something other than God. Some believe man’s survival is the objective foundation for ethics. The new atheists point to human flourishing. There are environmentalists who think the perpetuation of the earth’s biosphere is an objective foundation. Some eastern religions believe in a sort of Platonic realm which is the source of our moral perceptions. So it’s safe to say all sorts of worldviews hold a belief in objective morality. 

But are all of these various claims of objectivity binding? Take human self-interest as an objective foundation for ethics. I would argue there is a certain arbitrariness involved where the subscribers to this view subjectively decided human self-interest (which is real and objective) is universally binding. Compare this with our hypothetical environmentalist. Let’s say he is in favor of sterilizing the entire African continent because the cost incurred by the population is worth the benefit to the biosphere. So one group sees self-interest, and the libertarian right to be left alone, trumping an uncertain future for the biosphere. The other views things to the contrary. Who will adjudicate between these views and on what objective basis? You cannot appeal to the rule of the land because might does not necessarily make right. If country A holds the biosphere above people and invades and sterilizes country B who holds the individual higher, was country A’s act morally permissible? You and I might say the hypothetical act of Country A is wrong, but there would have to be an overriding ethic to make such a claim. 

This leads us to the moral nihilist who rejects the objectivity of morality altogether. Michael Ruse, who teaches in my hometown at Florida State University, appears to agree with moral nihilism or at best sees survival as an objective basis: 

Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth…Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says 'Love they neighbor as thyself,' they think they are referring above and beyond themselves…Nevertheless...such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction…and any deeper meaning is illusory…[1] 

If we are all chance-configured bags of atoms equipped with meat computers doing our best to survive on an insignificant planet orbiting one of three hundred sextillion stars in a universe winding down to heat-death, then Ruse makes sense. If I were an atheist, I would adopt moral nihilism and try to be a good person for utilitarian reasons (not to say as a Christian I do not make utilitarian choices.) So I agree, without God, there is no binding objective basis for morality.

Then there are those who opt out of this discussion altogether and simply claim to navigate moral waters by being reasonable and rational. Yet history shows this can be a misleading approach and few would argue Nazi scientists lacked the cognitive faculty for moral reasoning. In the interest of brevity, consider the conclusion by atheist Kai Neilson who said it well: “Pure practical reason, even with a good knowledge of the facts, will not take you to morality.” Those who claim to make moral judgments by just being reasonable are not being very articulate. For example, if someone asks you how to lose weight; you might say exercise and smaller portions are reasonable choices, but to merely say you should act reasonably does not really answer the question. Surely reason plays a part, but something else is needed to get you to morality. 

But what about those who claim a divine basis for objective morality is problematic. Religious groups argue, disagree, and fight with each other; all in the name of objective moral values handed down from on high. Even within a single religious camp, there is some disagreement about what is objectively right and wrong. Take the death penalty. Some Christians feel as I do that the Bible paints a clear narrative where man should not usurp God’s authority on when life begins and ends. Abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty are all morally wrong from my understanding. However, other Christians accept a pro-death-penalty exegesis of Scripture. Who’s right in the mind of God? Well, I think I am, but maybe I'm wrong! Critics confuse the epistemic problem (the knowing) with the ontological problem (the reality) and miss the point. God’s moral position on the death penalty is the correct one. Instead of sticking our heads in the sand because there is occasional disagreement, we ought to continually devote ourselves to understanding God’s position. If the God of Christianity does not exist, it’s senseless to point to ethical misunderstandings in the Church. It would make as much sense to argue about the worldwide chimney damage caused by Santa Claus. If the Christian God does exist, then this sort of critique is just a red herring.

Do we get to decide how binding an ethical system is regardless of its objective grounds? I suggest we do except in one and only one case - God. He is the exception. As the greatest conceivable being, creator of all things, and locus of moral value, mere created man does not get to decide if the moral values grounded in His nature are binding. As volitional creatures, we only get to decide if we are going to adhere to those values or not. In all other ethical systems, there is personal preference. Subjectivity is involved if it is human flourishing, self-interest, a green planet, or that which creates the most pleasure, happiness, profit, etc. There is no universally binding obligation to abide by these systems. If one system rejects the virtue of self-sacrifice based on the objective principle of man’s self-interest, why should I be obligated by this system and act selfishly? Some would say we have no choice but to abide by human self-interest since we are human. But this only makes sense if a man is the measure of all things. If a hyper-intelligent race of aliens were to come through our solar system and consume the entire human population like we consume cattle, would this be wrong? Who will adjudicate and on what objective basis?

In conclusion; universally binding objective moral values exist if and only if God exists.[2] Those who see objectivity apart from God, subjectively assign an obligatory value to the object of perception. When we see these systems in conflict and must appeal to a higher ethic, it should raise doubt about their status. If we live in the atheist's material universe, then there is no ultimate justice or final moral consequence. At death, all of our moral choices in life become irrelevant. Legacy does not help to resolve the problem. Once we are dead, the deep sleep of non-existence dissolves time and space leaving no gap between now and the mass extinction of man when the universe reaches maximum entropy. But if the Christian God exists, then our relationship to Him is essential to moral obligation. From a divine-command standpoint, as consequence approaches eternity, obligation approaches infinity. From a divine-nature perspective, we can know what is good, because we know He is good. And if we love Him, we will want to do what He commands. (John 14:23)

[1] Michael Ruse, "Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics," in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 262, 268-9.
[2] I am excluding any sort of unknown Platonic realm of moral perception here 

The Goldilocks Enigma

by Brian 7. November 2010 01:55

I recently finished a book by Paul Davies called The Cosmic Jackpot (Why our Universe is Just Right for Life). It is also published under the title: The Goldilocks Enigma. Davies is an internationally acclaimed physicist, cosmologist, and astrobiologist at Arizona State University and the winner of the 1995 Templeton Prize. Let me start by saying; I enjoyed the book despite some misgivings with the author’s conclusions and I liked Davies’ writing style. In this post I want to touch on what I thought were the significant takeaways.

The universe is fine-tuned for the existence of life. There are about twenty parameters in the Standard Model of physics and about another ten in astrophysics. The magnitude of many of these, and their relationships to one another, must be very precise in order for our bio-friendly universe to exist. The precision is so great; the chance-odds of variable (free) parameters coming together suitably for bio-friendliness is near zero. In fact, one particular parameter being just right by chance is less likely than winning an average state lottery – more than a dozen times in a row! I won’t go into the details here (you can read all about it in the book) but the bottom line is; most cosmologists, regardless of their worldview, recognize this as a highly confirmed observation of contemporary science. The challenge for those of a nontheistic persuasion is in how to shape their cosmology such that it resolves the enigma while leaving God out of the equation. To attempt this, cosmologists look to a handful of models according to Davies. These include:

·         The Absurd Universe – the universe is just a brute fact, so accept it. The infinitesimal probability of it being life-permitting is irrelevant as we wouldn’t be here to discuss it otherwise. This is also referred to as the Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP) and Davies says this may in fact be the majority view among scientists. But I would agree with Davies; this view is the easy way out “to the point of being a cop-out.” If the universe is absurd, cosmologists need not look any further for deeper meaning.  I also find WAP to be a disingenuous position. To illustrate using a popular analogy: Take a WAP proponent and put him up in front of a dozen expert sharpshooters. If after the rifles go off, and he finds himself still standing; which thoughts do you think will go through his mind? Will his thoughts favor chance: “Gee, even though it seems too unlikely to be true, the sharpshooters must have all missed, otherwise I wouldn’t be here to ponder my surprise“… or will his thoughts favor purpose: “This was planned; either to miss me intentionally or the weapons were all loaded with blanks.” Which seems more plausible? You be the judge.[i]


·         The Unique Universe – the universe has to be the way it is including its bio-friendliness. This is also called the Strong Anthropic Principle (SAP). This view says all of the thirty some-odd parameters are tied to a unifying principle yet to be discovered. Proponents of this view are typically the ones looking for a theory-of-everything (TOE). They believe the TOE will by its very nature reveal why the parameters are configured as they are and why life is a necessary byproduct. The fact bio-friendliness is part of the universe’s landscape is just a mystery under this model. Despite having more backbone than WAP, this view has several obvious problems. First, to say we will discover a theory of everything where life is a necessary byproduct appears blatantly improvised to circumvent the fine-tuning problem. It is also an appeal to future scientific discovery. It’s not much better than saying scientists will eventually prove the moon is made of green cheese, therefore we should provisionally hold the moon is made of green cheese. Furthermore, if there is a TOE, where did it come from? It would have to be God’s creative starting point or a brute fact of reality. If the TOE is not telic, not part of God’s creative plan, then why should life necessarily obtain? Why not a maximally chaotic universe or endless tetrahedrons of stuff floating around, or a pure vacuum universe of space-time? There are a potential-infinite number of alternatives. But complex, diverse, conscious life? Can someone say “ad hoc?”


·         The Multiverse – our visible universe is just one of a very large (or infinite) ensemble of parallel or neighboring universes. If these sibling universes are all absolutely identical to ours, then the multiverse does nothing to solve the fine-tuning problem. So cosmologists prefer the idea of variability where the parameters of the sibling universes are freely and randomly distributed across a vast[ii] or infinite array. If the array is large enough and diverse, the multiverse turns WAP into SAP as there would have to be some configurations with conscious observers. Even though Davies finds the multiverse hypothesis dubious, he says it is a growing minority view among physicists.[iii] It also seems to be the most popular view in science fiction and in the media.

Sibling universes in the multiverse are beyond the horizon of our observable universe, and therefore beyond the range of direct observation. At first, the multiverse hypothesis seems to completely lack testability. Yet Davies describes an interesting approach to at least falsify the theory.[iv] It works like this: A bio-friendly universe does not require infinitely precise values but satisfactory values within a range for each parameter. Above or below each range you have a life prohibiting universe. Within each range there is an ideal value most suitable for life [v]. If our universe is truly one of many (or infinite) bio-friendly universes in a randomized ensemble, then one should expect the parameters in our universe to be randomly distributed in each range. Without any sort of telic dimension to the multiverse, it is unreasonable to assume the values would be anything but randomly distributed.

If however we observe in our universe some values are extremely close to ideal or many values are very close, then random distribution becomes less likely and the appearance of tampering emerges. Tampering in this case would falsify the multiverse hypothesis as an ecbatic process. More research is needed to determine the exact ranges and ideal values before a test like this will be convincing. Davies does point out the amount of dark matter in the universe is about ten times better for life than what is satisfactory and this seems to bother him a bit. But a provisional factor of ten hardly demands telos, so it will be interesting to see where this all leads. In my opinion, assuming ontic vagueness at the quantum level combined with chaotic amplification; God does not appear to create with (what we consider) perfect precision or sharpness. So an eventual find of random distribution would provide little explanation either way. However, a large enough set of very close ideal values should falsify the multiverse.

Since bio-friendliness is so highly improbable, the vast majority of siblings in the multiverse ensemble would be life-prohibiting. But if there is an actual infinite set then anything goes. There would be an infinite number of identical universes with a guy just like me typing this exact sentence right at this moment[vi]. Actual-infinites are really problematic. Davies writes that instead there may be a very large finite set in the ensemble – roughly 1e500 siblings. Now I find this to be an ad hoc aspect of the hypothesis. An infinite set leads to absurdity and finite sets less than an extremely large number will not suffice to address the enigma. So proponents of this model come in with a convenient estimate of 1e500. Where is the principle of parsimony here? We know not to multiply entities beyond necessity, but apparently here 1e500 is okay because that is what’s necessary to make their theory work! But I’m not sure the count matters that much when anything more than one is prodigal. Why should we believe in the existence of any sibling universes beyond the horizon of our observable one? There are mathematical models for how they might be, but that’s a far cry from a physical interpretation or any kind of verification.

Probably the most humorous aspect of the multiverse theory, at least as Davies describes it, is the reality of fake universes. Some cosmologists believe that in a vast multiverse ensemble the odds are far greater that life would be simulated rather than real. In other words, it is far more economical to simulate a billion lives in a computer than to accommodate a billion real lives. In a randomly distributed set of universes, economics supposedly matters. Therefore, accordingly, our universe is far more likely to be a simulation than real! So you and I are probably living in something like the movie: The Matrix. I personally didn’t find this convincing at all and I only mention it here to show the great lengths some cosmologists will go. Most people would say the fake universe perspective takes more faith than theism.

·         The Life Principle (LP) – The universe necessarily produces life. This is similar to SAP in that a theory-of-everything (TOE) will describe how life is inevitable, but it differs in that there would be an underlying teleology or purpose. Conscious observers are not a coincidental byproduct in this model, but the intention, the end-product. According to Davies, this teleology is not theistic, but an alpha-principle, a brute fact starting point. Davies thinks the LP “builds purpose into the workings of the cosmos at a fundamental (rather than an incidental) level without positing a preexisting agent to inject purpose miraculously.” Really? I’m not sure how this is any better than the God-hypothesis from a scientific or theistic standpoint. The idea of an alpha-principle intending life seems less plausible than one where God intends life. Intention is more at home with mind than laws of physics. Davies also seems to misstep theologically. God did not have to inject purpose into the universe. The universe was created with purpose; at least according to Christian theology. In the end, how do we differentiate between the LP and God’s creative plan?


Davies goes on to conjoin the LP with the multiverse to suggest “only universes with a life principle get observed.” But I’m not sure why he even bothers to bring in the multiverse at this point. It adds no explanatory power at the cost of multiplying entities. In other words, the Life-Principle would not be the product of randomizing parameters. To be telic, it would have to be an antecedent principle in place at the point of inflation when the parameters are randomized. Otherwise the LP is nothing more than a category for bio-friendly siblings in the multiverse. After considering the Life Principle, I thought surely things cannot get more contrived. But I was mistaken.


·         The Self-explaining Universe – the universe explains itself as a causal loop. Davies describes a universe evolving towards maximal information density where at some point it reaches consciousness – sort of like Skynet becoming self-aware at 2:14 am Eastern Time on August 29th, 1997 in Terminator II. Then, using some kind of backwards-in-time causation, the universe loops back on itself so that it never has a starting point. The need for an explanation supposedly dissolves away into the cosmic loop. This is basically Barrow and Tippler’s Final Anthropic Principle (FAP) reheated. There’s just not much to say about this other than it seems desperate, bizarre and barely worthy for science fiction. An appeal to backwards-in-time causation is problematic, to say the least. Perhaps someday I will invent a time machine; write up the plans; build it; then go back in time and give myself the knowledge to build a time machine – creating the knowledge from nothing. Seriously though, how are we to distinguish between a self-created, self-explaining, necessary, cosmic mind and…God? In any event, I really don’t understand Davies’ affinity for this idea and his comment: “only self-consistent loops capable of understanding themselves can create themselves” makes no sense to me.


Today is a great day to be a Christian theist! The goldilocks enigma is a real problem for the nontheist and cosmologists like Davies, Hawking, and Penrose are all over the map in terms of how to deal with it. There remains little consensus after several decades of theorizing. Davies and others criticize the God-hypothesis and Intelligent Design by saying it is no better than WAP and stifles scientific enquiry. But that is simply not the case. Though absurdity does tend to remove the foundation for science, a rational and orderly God does not. Einstein said: The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. But to the theist, this is not a surprise at all. In conclusion, The Cosmic Jackpot was still a good book and I recommend it. But the problem of fine tuning is not just scientific, but philosophical. When Davies stuck to science, I found his writing informative and interesting. When he moved into areas outside his expertise, things took a turn for the worse. Einstein also rightly agreed: “the man of science is a poor philosopher.”  



[i] Keep in mind; a hypothetical set of twelve sharpshooters all missing by chance is dozens or perhaps hundreds of orders of magnitude more likely than the chance-odds of the Goldilocks enigma.

[ii] One estimate is 1e500 universes

[iii] The mathematical physicist Roger Penrose would concur with Davies the multiverse does not enjoy scientific confirmation and that it resides on the “border of science and metaphysics.”

[iv] It’s great when you come across a novel idea in a book that makes it worth reading. To me, this was such an idea.

[v] Some will argue “life” as used in this discussion is carbon-biased. But it’s important to remember many of the parameters are required to be fine-tuned for our universe to exist at all at this point with stars, galaxies, etc. You need stars and star-death for the bulk of the periodic table to exist.

[vi] In fact there would be an infinite number of universes with two me-clones sitting side by side typing; and three me-clones; and an infinite number of universes where each clone types alternate letters, etc. etc. the absurdness goes on and on ad infinitum




First Something

by Brian 17. October 2010 01:11
A good friend of mine told me about a question his teenage son raised the other day. This particular question has been asked many times throughout history and it is one I frequently hear and read about: If the universe was created, who or what created God? Often theists dismiss the issue by saying: God is eternal and uncreated – as if this will resolve the problem for adults or even middle school kids. It is true, contingent entities have an antecedent explanation or cause and noncontingent entities do not. But for many of us, merely placing God in the noncontingent category and everything else in the contingent category seems like an intellectual shell game.
Given arguments for God’s existence based on contemporary cosmology, a more refined question along the same line emerges: If God doesn’t need a reason or cause for His existence, then why does the universe? In other words, if we are willing to accept something could be necessary and uncaused, then why not the universe? Of course if the universe had a beginning, the question is moot. If you want to delve into whether or not the universe began to exist; William Lane Craig presents an excellent case in this technical article.  Since theories past, present and probably future come and go leaving us with something like the standard Big Bang model and an ultimate beginning, perhaps the question is put to bed – or is it?
Nontheistic cosmologists have been working for decades to get around the uncomfortable implication of the universe beginning to exist. They have hypothesized all sorts of alternatives. Stephen Hawking has recently posited a necessary First-Law (Physics with a capital ‘P’) where the observable universe or universes necessarily obtain out of nothing. There are multiverses, pocket universes, bubble universes; the list goes on. Regardless of the specifics of these theories, they all attempt to do one thing; posit a natural and noncontingent first-something from which our observable universe is part of or emerges from. By doing so, they avoid an ultimate beginning falling outside a naturalistic framework of understanding. More to the point, these theories attempt to skirt a supernatural explanation. I will refer to their first-something as the Universe (capital ‘U’). 
The Christian apologist might simply direct the honest seeker towards Craig and others and say: The evidence strongly suggests an ultimate beginning of the Universe; things that begin to exist have a cause; therefore, the Universe has a cause. This cause transcended space and time and had immense creative power. This may be credible to some (myself included), but not everyone. The problem with this approach is the speculative theories offered by nontheists to deny an ultimate beginning have created a lot of noise and obfuscation. In the current climate, it is difficult to persuade the casual seeker by discussing cosmology. It’s an uphill battle when you hear soundbites from the major media claiming the universe sprang into existence out of nothing but Physics alone. One really has to delve into a lot of data and theory to form an intellectually responsible position. What I want to present here is a basic apologetic for general consumption and one you can share in a few minutes.
The idea starts out with an unarguable truth: The fact anything exists at all, rather than nothing, entails a first-something. This is a basic metaphysical principle very few would disagree with (theists and nontheists alike.)[i] As far back as Parmenides, the metaphysical assertion “from nothing, nothing comes” has been one of the most confirmed and accepted principles of ontology. Given this principle and the absurdity of an infinite causal regress; the fact anything exists at all entails a first-something, uncaused and uncreated, otherwise nothing would exist. So now on to the second step of the apologetic…
The first-something is without an external ground or cause and is a bare fact unswayed by our unanswered questions of how, what or why. As I mentioned, nontheistic cosmologists say the Universe is the first-something. Theists say God is the first-something. These options form an exhaustive disjunction; forcing a choice. The first-something is God or the Universe.[ii] The question: Who or what created God? is absurd if God is the first-something. Likewise, the question: Who or what created the Universe? is meaningless if the Universe is the first-something. The real question we face is: Who or what is the first-something; God or the Universe?
The third and final part of the apologetic is to show God is the more plausible first-something by contrasting the plausibility of the two disjuncts. We may even start at par, leaving out all experiential and religious experience, with two immeasurable entities beyond the event horizon of the Big Bang, beyond direct observation. The points below help to lead an honest seeker towards the more plausible choice:
1. Matter and energy reveal a wholesale winding down as described in the second law of thermodynamics. Noncontingent entities do not wind down or dissipate. Why should we apply to the wider unobservable Universe that which we cannot apply to the observable universe? On the other hand, abstract objects (like numbers) as conceptual entities do not wind down or dissipate. If an ultimate Mind is the source and locus of abstract entities it would seem to have a permanence not found in matter.
2. Theistic and nontheistic cosmologists agree the observable universe is fine-tuned for the existence of life.[iii] When faced with a choice between the Universe and God as the first-something, which choice is more congruent with the reality of fine-tuning? Purposeless matter cannot intend life. Intentionality is more at home with mind than matter. On the Universe view, conscious observers are accidental byproducts. But where is our sense of economy here? Why such an astounding, complex and downright bizarre byproduct? No, conscious observers, with minds, are more congruent with a First-mind than with a First-matter.
In conclusion, the fact anything exists at all entails a first-something. We are faced with the question: Is the first-something God or the Universe?  This is a real dilemma one cannot escape and is based on solid metaphysical grounds. I believe God is the more plausible choice based on at least the two points above. An atheist coworker when confronted with this challenge chose the Universe as the first-something and told me we should “just accept it in all of its beauty and complexity for the gift that it is.” Such a slip of the tongue needed no response.

[i] Sometimes skeptics suggest things do come from nothing, like virtual particles spontaneously popping into existence in a quantum vacuum. But such an environment is actually something and in no way violates the principle. Others may argue for an infinite regress of causes (either by eternal past events or some sort of cyclical loop - but these ideas do not have much support in philosophy or science.) 
[ii] I ignore in the phrase “God and the Universe” any sort of pantheism and all of the insipid suggestions from skeptics like: Zeus, gods, super-intellects, aliens, flying spaghetti monsters, etc. If one really wants to include pantheism one might alter the disjunction between Mind and non-Mind (matter).
[iii] There are about twenty or so parameters in the Standard Model of particle physics today, many of which if varied even minutely would result in a universe unsuitable for life. Cosmologists try to get around this problem via the prodigal idea of a multiverse and the observer effect. The multiverse is a metascientific theory since we cannot observe anything beyond the horizon of our local universe. Furthermore, cosmologists who appeal to the multiverse to account for fune-tuning, fail to recognize the mathematical limit (universal improbability bound) fine-tuning entails. Anything less likely than one in 1e150 is not just highly improbable, but practically impossible to occur with specificity. A practical example is flipping an honest coin 500 times. After doing so you would have an improbable event greater that one in 1e150. For all intents and purposes, it is impossible (because the odds are so small) that anyone at any time could present the sequence in advance of flipping the coin.This is true even if you tried this in every location of the universe since the beginning of time. 

About the author

I am a Christian, husband, father of two daughters, a partner and lead architect of EasyTerritory, armchair apologist and philosopher, writer of hand-crafted electronic music, avid kiteboarder and a kid around anything that flies (rockets, planes, copters, boomerangs)

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