On Naturalism, God, and the Moral Universe

The main reason my blogging has been so light as of late is because I have spent the last five weeks writing a paper for my research writing class. Here is a rough draft of the product of those five weeks where I put forward an argument that shows that naturalism is inadequate to explain the existence of objective morality, and that by contrast, theism is better equipped to make sense of it. One reviewer pointed out that my favorite word is “however” and I am embarrased to see how much I use it to begin my topic sentences!

Ivan Fyodorovitch in The Brothers Karamozov claimed that if God does not exist everything is permissible. Accordingly, he believes that if God’s existence is false, our creation undirected, and the promise of immortality a fairy tale, then all things would be lawful, even cannibalism, and crime could be conceived as a rational duty. Such a claim is startling to our imaginations. Throughout history, writers and philosophers have wondered about the nature of morality and how it comes to have a place in our lives. Is it dependent on religion? Is it something that attends to natural processes? Does it transcend historical and cultural barriers? Is it objective or subjective? Christians like C.S. Lewis have famously defended the existence of God on the belief in a moral lawgiver for the Moral Law. Others have challenged this going back as far as Socrates questioning the logic of deities defining right and wrong. Recently the atheist philosopher Michael Martin (2000) and the Christian apologist Paul Copan (2000) had a public exchange about the viability of objective morality in a world with and without God.

For the purposes of this paper, I will assume that the idea that we are persons endowed with rights, responsibilities, dignity, meaning, and purpose presumes an objective morality. That is, moral obligations exist independently of our selves and we must conform to them in spite of what our upbringing, culture, or traditions may be in order to be moral people. It is my contention that this kind of moral obligation poses a substantial problem without the existence of God, because there is no firm metaphysical basis for its structure in a reality built upon purely natural causes. By contrast, the existence of God provides a better explanation for moral obligations by rooting them in his character, personhood and creative acts.

The main problem for objective moral obligations within a naturalistic worldview is that they are metaphysically strange. That is, in a world that is formed by its own evolutionary processes where there is no supernatural being or substance to act upon them, the idea that there would be standards of objective morality independent of those forces is so strange that they cannot be seriously entertained. The distinguished atheist philosopher J.L. Mackie (1977) agreed, and even went so far to say that objective values would be “utterly different than anything else in the universe” (p. 38). This presupposes that the reality of science is fundamentally different from the reality of morality, and therefore the means of science are inherently limited from discovering ethical knowledge. Bertrand Russell (1987) shared this view and stated rather frankly that ethics and science differ because science deals with the observable, while ethics deals with the emotional (p. 87). For Russell, this follows logically from the belief that the universe is material. If it is material then it is amoral, and whatever we might call “ethical knowledge” is simply that which depends upon our responses to our environment, whether it makes us happy or sad, or hopeful or fearful (p. 87-88).

Similarly, George Mavrodes (1986) agreed that moral feelings are not absurd in what he calls a “Rusellian world” (or a naturalist worldview, p. 218), but moral obligations are (p. 219). It is one thing to feel obligated to perform a duty, but it is an entirely different thing to be obligated to perform it despite whatever feelings we might have (p. 219). Since life within naturalism is not committed to anything fundamentally moral, but is instead, via natural selection, only committed to survival, it follows that our sense of moral obligation is a byproduct of our desire to survive. The idea of external moral obligations transcending the struggle for survival is categorically bizarre, and do not fit within the framework of naturalism in any intelligible way. Hence, morality is subjective.

To be sure, philosophers have tried to imagine a world where objective moral obligations are compatible with naturalism. This project involves denying the discontinuity between ethics and science, and presupposes that moral properties are constituted by natural properties. In the way water is one part oxygen and two parts hydrogen and a property of “wetness” emerges, it is imagined that objective moral obligations emerge from a similar kind of collocation of natural properties. Theoretically, in this view, science would have the resources to discover and explain moral features of our world. David Brink (1989) succinctly articulated this view when he said, “Naturalists claim that moral properties supervene on natural properties because moral properties are constituted by natural properties” (p. 160, emphasis his). Michael Martin (1997) made use of this view to refute the claim that morality must be necessarily subjective against the claims of Christian apologists, and criticized his fellow atheists for capitulating to it. To his knowledge no one has been able to come up with an argument demonstrating how this view could be logically impossible.

However, merely imagining something is not the same as proving it, and since it is asserted without argument, it can be rejected without argument. A burden of proof that derives from science’s commitment to empirical inquiry rests upon the ethical naturalist to demonstrate how moral properties are constituted by natural properties. And while it can be admitted that it is possible for objective moral properties to supervene upon certain natural properties, it in no way implies that it is plausible. In fact, it can be countered that such an idea would be immensely difficult to accept in light of other difficulties within the naturalistic account of the universe. Paul Copan (2000) noted that from beginning to end we must suppose that 1) something came from nothing, 2) that matter and energy coalesced into forms so intricate and finely tuned as to allow for the mere possibility of life, 3) that life emerged from non-living material, 4) that living organisms became conscious organisms, 5) that conscious organisms became morally aware organisms, and that 6) moral obligations emerged naturally and are brought to bear on our ways of life, which includes none other than the means of survival (p. 96-97).

A further difficulty could be raised by Alvin Plantinga’s (1993) evolutionary argument against naturalism, which argued that there is no reason to believe our cognitive faculties would be reliable for forming true beliefs if they arose through an unguided evolutionary process (p. 218). They might contribute to our adaptive behavior, but that does not guarantee that they would be concerned with true belief. What evolution guarantees is that our behavior will be particularly concerned with self-preservation. Similarly, if this argument holds, there would be no reason to trust our moral senses. Our moral senses developed not with the aim of discovering true moral beliefs, but out of the necessity to contribute to our survival and reproduction. Our beliefs about morality may be completely false and our behavior completely immoral, but if what we do turns out to be adaptive we will all the more fit. Natural selection, then, cares nothing for truth or morality; it only is concerned with adaptation (p. 219). So while a natural ontology of objective morals is conceivable, there is no good reason to suppose we have the faculties to reliably apprehend a moral epistemology. By way of contrast, it is not only possible, but is also probable that we would only sense moral obligation by our emotions (as Russell argued) even if there were objective moral values so constituted by natural properties.

Theism, by contrast, offers a worldview where the ontological foundation of morality is rooted in God’s personhood. Since God is a necessary being, so are his personal attributes. And since it is within his personal attributes to be perfectly good, objective moral obligation necessarily flows from his eternal being through his commands. Like the ethical naturalist who says morality is a brute fact of reality, the theist can say morality is a brute fact of God’s reality, though unlike the ethical naturalist, the theist is not committed to an empirical inquiry to demonstrate how this could be. Theism is not necessarily invested in the means of science to prove its conclusions. It may have something in common with Platonism that imagines the form of the Good over and above the material world, but this still falls in the category of the supernatural, something that is outside the realm of science.

However, theism is not without its own explanatory power. The context whereby we find ourselves within theism is that human beings are made in the image of God in a universe fashioned according to his designs. Moral realities exist externally to us, and we posses by virtue of our creation the cognitive apparatuses necessary to apprehend them. Moreover, we are obliged to conform to these moral obligations because they flow from a personal being. Personhood is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for moral obligations to obtain. Keith Yandell pointed to a salient feature of our existence when he said “nothing which is not a person is a moral agent. Morality concerns only persons (as cited in Copan, 1999, p. 52). Our personhood images God’s personhood and our rights and responsibilities subsist by virtue of his creative act. So natural is this connection that the authors of the Declaration of Independence wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (emphasis mine).

But there is a special problem that emerges when morality is tied to the existence of God. Socrates inquired in Plato’s Euthyphro, “The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved by the gods” (para. 10a). This so-called “Euthyphro dilemma” presents us with two horns. If something is moral simply because God says so, it is theoretically possible for anything, including cruelty for its own sake, to be morally acceptable. This makes morality arbitrary. If something is moral apart from God, then morality is autonomous and there is no reason to suppose that it is underpinned by God’s existence. Similarly, if we try to avoid the dilemma by stating that God’s commands are tied to his essentially good character we only move the problem one step back. Michael Martin (1997) reformulated the dilemma in the form of a question to fit God’s character: “Is God’s character the way it is because it is good or is God’s character good simply because it is God’s character? Is there an independent standard of good or does God’s character set the standard?” If God’s character sets the standard, then it is conceivable that God’s character could be cruel and unjust, and this by definition would be considered “good.” Yet if we maintain that it is inconceivable that God’s character could be cruel and unjust, then we are forced to admit that God exhibits adherence to some standard of goodness independent of his character. Either way, P cannot be good because God approves of it, and at the same time, God approve of P because it is good.

However, this insight can also apply to ethical naturalism. We can revise Martin’s question this way: what makes the moral properties emergent from natural properties good? Are they good because they emerge naturally, or do they naturally emerge because they are good? If it is the latter, ethical naturalism is false because there would need to be a supernatural standard of goodness independent of natural properties to bring them about. If it is the former, then morality is as arbitrary as it would be in theism. Furthermore, it would also be subjective, because nature is always changing through its evolutionary process and there is no reason to suppose that the natural properties that underpin moral properties will stay the same. Copan (1999) rightfully criticized the investigation of the Euthyphro dilemma as futile since it compels an infinite regress. The only useful point that can be drawn from it is that “we must eventually arrive at some self-sufficient and self-explanatory stopping point beyond which the discussion can go no further” (p. 62).

One way to conceive of moral truths is to think of them in the same vein as logical truths. Martin (2000) suggested that “the wrongness of actions such as wanton cruelty and the murder of innocent people are analytic in a broad sense of the term.” Martin’s response is interesting, and I quote him at length:

One reason behind the theistic resistance to the view that morality is independent of God is that it would allegedly compromise God’s omnipotence. If morality is not based on God, then it is assumed that God’s power is lessened. However, there are many theists who do not suppose logic is dependent on God. Indeed, they make perfect sense of godless worlds tin which logical principles such as the law of noncontradiction hold. But then it is unclear why they cannot make perfect sense of godless worlds in which objective moral principles hold. In neither case is God’s power affected. He can do everything that is logically possible for him to do. It is logically impossible for Him to make both P and ~P true. However, since He is essentially good, He cannot inflict gratuitous torture on infants…. This existence of independent standards is quite compatible with the admission that God’s nature is essentially logical and essentially moral and, consequently, that God could act neither illogically nor immorally (p.85).

Martin is quite right to argue that God’s sovereignty is not threatened in this fashion. Saying God cannot do the logically impossible is like saying God cannot do nonsense, which only exhibits his greatness.

However, even if moral truths are conceived as analytic truths, we can still make a good argument from the fact of morality to the existence of God. Gregory Ganssle (2000) argued that these moral truths would only obtain in a world specifically tailored for them to obtain. This would entail a world populated with moral agents who would necessarily have to be personal agents; the kind of world we live in, for example. The fine-tuning of our universe not only shows that the probability of such a universe arising in naturalistic atheism is despairingly low; it also shows that theism is more plausible in explaining its origins. As Ganssle says, “What my moral fine-tuning argument does is strengthen the claim that there is something interesting about your universe. It is one of the few that resulted in the exact kind of beings that match up to moral truths” (p. 111).

From considering all of this we have seen that naturalism has many excruciatingly difficult problems in explaining the origins of a moral universe. It fails to give an account of 1) how morality properties supervene upon natural properties, 2) how our cognitive faculties could be generally reliable in apprehending moral truths, and 3) how our universe could arise with such precision that it could be inhabited by moral agents. We have also seen how theism is able to provide the resources to explain our universe, why we have moral obligations, and why atheists can still be moral people: they might not believe in God, but they cannot not be made in the image of God. If they were not, Ivan would be right… cannibalism would be permissible.


Brink, D. (1989). Moral realism and the foundations of ethics. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. This is cited in the literature as a definitive text defending “ethical naturalism,” or the idea that moral properties supervene on natural properties. Brink is Professor in and Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of California, San Diego.

Copan, P. (1999). Can Michael Martin be a moral realist? Sic et non. Philosophia Christi, 1(2), 45-72. A critique of Michael Martin’s Internet essay “Atheism, Christian theism, and rape” the inaugural journal issue of the Evangelical Philosophical Society.

Copan, P. (2000). Atheistic goodness revisited: a personal reply to Michael Martin. Philosophia Christi, 1(2), 91-104. A reply to Michael Martin’s rebuttal of Copans “Can Michael Martin be a moral realist” where he charges Martin with the naturalistic fallacy. Paul Copan is a professor of philosophy at Palm Beach Atlantic University.

Ganssle, G. (2000). Necessary moral truths and the need for explanation. Philosophia Christi, 1(2), 105-112. This article contains a version of the fine-tuning argument that suggests that God ordained creation to exhibit moral properties and creatures that had the cognitive faculties to apprehend them. Ganssle is a professor of philosophy at Yale University.

Mackie, J. (1977). Ethics: inventing right and wrong. Harmondsworth, NY: Penguin. The seminal book on atheistic ethics defending the thesis that morality is necessarily subjective. Mackie was an Australian philosopher who taught at Oxford University and the University of York.

Martin, M. (1997). Atheism, Christian theism, and rape. Retrieved November 10, 2008, from The Secular Web: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/michael_martin/rape.html. This is Martin’s challenge to Christian apologists to defy atheism’s right to presume objective morality and to defend the idea of God commanding ethical obligations with the Bible in view. Martin is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Boston University.

Martin, M. (2000). A response to Paul Copan’s critique of atheistic objective morality. Philosophia Christi, 2(1), 75-89. Martin’s response to Copan’s critique which includes an appeal to morality as necessary truths much like the laws of logic. Martin is an emeritus professor at Boston University.

Mavrodes, G. (1986) Religion and the queerness of morality. In Audi, R. & Wainwright, J. (Eds.). (1986). Rationality, religious belief & moral commitment. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. An essay in a volume containing essays on the philosophy of religion that defends the idea that objective moral obligations are metaphysically strange in a naturalistic worldview. Mavrodes is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Michigan.

Plantinga, A. (1993). Warrant and proper function. New York: Oxford University Press. The seminal book on epistemic warrant in a theistic framework, which contains his famous evolutionary argument against naturalism. Plantinga is the John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame.

Russell, B. (1987). On ethics, sex, and marriage. (Al Seckel, ed.). Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books. A collection of essays from one of the 20th century’s most famous philosophers who was equally famous for his social commentary, political activism, and atheism.


One thought on “On Naturalism, God, and the Moral Universe

  1. Elton says:

    Here is a set of morality not based on a non-human higher power: http://www.uua.org/visitors/6798.shtml. The UU congregation members, as with other beliefs, has chosen to follow an authority who validated the morality, and that the congregation submits to this authority.

    Since there is no God in UU, the people in the congregation must decide on the morality and validate it. The congregational members, as individuals who contributed to the construction of this morality, thus become the giver of this morality. The givers of the UU principles would become analogous to the God of other religions (giver of morality.) The laws becomes the supreme power over time as the law givers die. You are left with a belief system where the doctrines/laws are supreme.

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