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This post is meant to clarify some important concepts that will be used in my next post, which will be dedicated to sketching an answer to the question, “What is the basis of morality?” I don’t think that anything that I will say in this current post is particularly controversial or profound (or original). For the most part, it is just some preliminary conceptual housekeeping that will help to lay the foundation for the substantive claims about the foundation of morality in my next post.
The reason for this series of posts is that, in many conversations that I’ve participated in about the basis of morality and, in particular, the role of God in accounting for objective morality, both with students and on the internet, I’ve come across many people claiming (or sometimes just assuming) that theism can account for objective morality but atheism cannot. Even though such assertions are made by people I respect, including some widely respected professional philosophers, I find them utterly without foundation. God in no way accounts for the existence of moral obligation and the correct account can have nothing to do with God, for reasons that I hope to elaborate on in the course of a series of posts to follow. So, I hope to explain my perspective and show why it is so odd to think that God could have anything to do with the foundation of morality.
I want to start by explaining what I take the question, “what is the basis of objective morality?” to mean. The question assumes that there are objective moral facts. So, in order to understand the question, we need to understand what kind of facts these facts are supposed to be and also understand what it means for them to be objective. I take it that there are two kinds of moral facts: Facts about moral value; i.e., goodness and badness, and facts about moral obligations; i.e., rightness and wrongness. Putative examples of facts about value would include the following: Human life is of supreme value; each individual person is a locus of value; happiness is good; pain is bad. Putative examples of facts about obligations include: It is wrong to kill; it is wrong to lie; we ought to love our neighbors.
What does it mean to say that these facts are objective? Well ‘objective’ is the opposite of ‘subjective’ and ‘subjective’ means ‘dependent on or relative to the mental states (including beliefs, desires, preferences, attitudes, etc.) of an individual person or persons.’ Thus, to say that moral facts are objective is to say that they are independent of (and not relative to) the mental states of any person or persons. So, a position that is committed to the objectivity of moral claims, in this sense, is in opposition to the view that moral claims are subjective and/or relative in the way that tastes and preferences are subjective/relative. Whether chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla is subjective in that it depends upon the mental states/preferences of individuals. Further, the claim that chocolate ice cream is good is relative to an observer; for some individuals it will be true, for others it will be false. The objectivity of morality, then, is opposed to any kind of subjectivity or relativity (including cultural relativity).
The upshot is that to assert that moral facts are objective is to assert that there exist true moral claims such that the truth of these claims does not depend on the beliefs or desires of any individual(s), nor is their truth in any other way relative to an observer(s). Thus, assume that, in a particular context, I am morally obligated to help a stranger in need. If this obligation is objective, then it holds of me regardless of my desires, beliefs etc. In particular, even if I don’t want to help and even if I don’t believe that people should help strangers in need, I am still obligated to help.
I have found, in discussions about such matters, that occasionally people confuse the notions of objectivity and absoluteness. Some people speak of “moral absolutes” and sometimes they use this term as synonymous with “objective moral facts.” This is not my understanding. As I understand the term, in the context of morality, ‘absolute’ means, roughly, ‘no exceptions.’ To say that a moral claim is absolute is to say that there are no exceptions to it; it applies to everyone, everywhere, regardless of context.
So, there are two questions we can ask: Are all moral claims absolute? Are there any moral claims that are absolute? I think that we can easily justify a negative answer to the first question; about the second question, I am not sure. However, I don’t think anything that I will be saying will at all depend on the answer to the second question. So, why do I think that not all moral claims are absolute? The best way to answer this is to think about an example. Let’s suppose that it is wrong to kill. I take it that this means that, as a general rule, we should avoid killing (I will elaborate on this below). But obviously I can assert that it is wrong to kill and still acknowledge that there are possible exceptions, that is, there might be some circumstances in which killing a person would be permissible or even required. Such examples are not hard to imagine: if another person is attacking me and I have good reason to suppose that he will kill me if I do not kill him, then, I think, it is (at least) permissible to kill him.
So, I don’t think that all moral claims are absolute in the sense of holding independent of context so that there are no exceptions. At the same time, I am unsure whether there are moral claims that are absolute. It is wrong to torture an infant strikes me as a decent possibility. But, again, I don’t think anything depends on whether there are such absolute moral claims (if you disagree, please let me know).
So, if we acknowledge, as I think we should, that at least some moral claims will hold in some contexts but not others, then what are we to make of moral claims? What is their status? Are they just suggestions? Let us return to the moral claim that it is wrong to kill. I understand this claim to be an assertion that there exists a prima facie obligation to refrain from killing and this obligation applies to all people in all contexts. That is, regardless of the person and regardless of the context, everyone is under a prima facie obligation to refrain from killing others.
To say that an obligation is prima facie is just to say that it is an obligation that holds unless it is overridden but other more serious obligations. Many obligations will have this character because, given the existence of competing obligations, a given obligation might be overridden. (It might be helpful to think of a prima facie obligation as something that holds in all contexts but which is at least in principle defeasible in all contexts. It is an obligation which holds without consideration of other obligations that might hold in a given context.) In many circumstances a person will find that she is under competing obligations. We all should avoid lying (at least we can assume so for the sake of this discussion), but in some circumstances this obligation will conflict with other obligations. Obviously this would occur if I need to lie to save the life of an innocent person. Now, in a context in which I have multiple, competing obligations (suppose, in a given case, there are two things that I ought to do but that they are opposed in the sense that if I do one thing, I cannot do the other), there might nonetheless be some one thing that I ought to do. It certainly is not the case that I ought to perform both of the actions that conflict with one another (after all, if they conflict, then I cannot do both). But one of the options might be the right thing to do while, given the context and the relative strength of the competing obligations, the other option is wrong. It is also reasonable to think that prima facie obligations have differing strengths. The obligation to tell the truth is arguably not as strong as the obligation to not cause unnecessary harm, for example. So, in a context in which these two obligations compete, the obligation to not cause harm would, presumably, carry the day. In addition, we should note that not all prima facie obligations will compete. Sometimes we find ourselves in situations in which we have multiple prima facie obligations to perform the same action.
In a context in which I have multiple prima facie obligations, the one action that I ought to perform (the one that wins the day, so to speak) is called the “all-things-considered obligation.” To say that all-things-considered, I am obligated to perform action A is just to say that, taking into consideration all of my obligations, A is the thing that I ought to do. And this means that, in that context, I am not obligated to do anything else that I might be prima facie obligated to do if doing so conflicts with my performance of A.
A well-worn example will help to clarify these concepts: Suppose that you are living in Amsterdam in 1942. A Nazi patrol knocks on your door and tells you that they have reason to believe that some people in your neighborhood are illegally harboring Jewish citizens who otherwise would be deported to concentration camps. If you are providing a refuge for a Jewish family, then you ought to lie to the Nazis and tell them that you know nothing of such things. Now, I think that it is reasonable to say the following about your obligations in this situation: You have the prima facie obligation to tell the truth (this is an obligation that we all have). However, you also have the prima facie obligation to protect the lives of the family hiding in your house. It is impossible to discharge both obligations since they compete. The obligation to save lives is more powerful, hence it trumps the obligation to tell the truth. Thus, all things considered, you ought to lie.
Let us return to the big picture: We want to know what the basis of moral obligation is. Here is how I understand this issue: If moral facts are objective, then they must have a source that is external to any particular person. So, what we are looking for is an external source of moral obligation. Now, many people find such a source in God, and some of these suggest that only God could be the source of moral obligation (some extend this claim to cover the value categories as well). I don’t think that God could be a source, for reasons some of which I have articulated on this blog and elsewhere. It is not my current task to defend this claim. However, if I am right about the source of moral obligation, it follows that God is unnecessary. I will expand a bit on these remarks in my next post.
This is a follow-up to my previous post about my on-going conversation with Randal Rauser and followers of his blog about whether the moral atrocities described in the Bible are evidence that the Bible is not a sacred text.
I have been attempting to defend the position that the fact that the Bible contains episodes in which God commands or approves of or brings about moral atrocities (such as genocide) is evidence that the Bible is not the word of God. My reasoning is fairly simple. Since God, if he exists, is omnibenevolent, he would abhor genocide (and slavery, and the killing of every person on Earth save one family, etc.). He would be horrified by the depiction of himself as commanding/approving of/bringing about such things. So, he cannot regard these texts as his Word and thus nor should we.
I should point out something that I made clear when the discussion at Randal’s blog began: Though I find it difficult to believe that the Bible is sacred, based on the depictions of God that I mentioned, I am humble enough to recognize that people that I admire, people that I care deeply about, and people that are manifestly smarter and better educated than I believe that the Bible is sacred. Thus I am more than willing to listen to those who disagree with my conclusion.
It is important to note that Rauser shares my moral intuition about the Biblical episodes in which God is portrayed as commanding, e.g., genocide. Randal believes that an omnibenevolent being would not make the commands attributed to God in 1 Samuel 15:3. He agrees that the command presented there is a genocidal command and that it is impossible that it accurately reflects the will of God. Of course, that does not mean that Rauser accepts my conclusion that the Bible is not sacred.
Rauser has been pushing back against my postition by offering a series of literary analogies, examples in which artists present moral atrocities in their texts but do not explicitly condemn them (or make their own views concerning these atrocities known in any other way). He has mentioned, for example The Red Badge of Courage. Stephen Crane, says Rauser, is not obligated to make his own views about the morality of warfare. Indeed, Crane’s novel is an indictment of war despite the fact that the author does not make his own views clear.
Another example that he provided is fictional: Suppose a group of editors decided to put together a collection of texts that collectively tell the history of the United States. Rauser calls this the American Omnibus
So imagine for the moment that the Americana Omnibus exists and there are many diverse reading communities that regularly read and study the text in a quest to understand what it means to be American. These reading communities disagree on how to read the text at various points and thus on just what it means to be American. Some read the text as supportive of manifest destiny, for example, while others read it as an indictment of manifest destiny. I am not an American, nor am I committed to studying the Americana Omnibus to discern what it really means to be an American. But recognizing the diversity and complexity that exists in the Omnibus and the diversity and complexity that is predictably mirrored in the text’s various reading communities, at the very least I will withhold any magisterial statements on whether the Americana Omnibus is “good” or “bad”, on whether it is worthwhile to form oneself as an American by reading it or not. I certainly wouldn’t call for the text to be trashed. Such a claim would reflect nothing more than my own hermeneutical dullness.
The problem with both of these examples is that they are importantly disanalogous to the Bible. It is not just that the Bible contains morally problematic episodes. It portrays God as commanding moral atrocities and bringing about moral atrocities. For the American Omnibus analogy to work, it would have to include depictions of the editors themselves as supporting or bringing about moral atrocities. Similarly, The Red Badge of Courage does not contain depictions of Stephen Crane doing horrible things and so it is not relevantly analogous to the Bible either.
Now, if the finished American Omnibus somehow did contain episodes in which the editors themselves were depicted as approving of or bringing about moral atrocities, surely they would want to do something about that, assuming, that is, that they are morally upright and believe the depictions to be in error. Presumably the editors would disassociate themselves from the work. Similarly, I maintain that God would disassociate himself from the moral atrocities that he is portrayed as commanding or bringing about in the Bible.
This suggests a principle (which Randal dubbed “JMAP,” “Jason’s Moral Artist Principle”) that lies behind my suggestion that the moral atrocities portrayed in the Bible are evidence that it is not sacred:
JMAP: A morally upright editor/compiler/author would disassociate himself from any any passages within his/her text which depict him/her as commanding/approving of/bringing about moral atrocities.
After initially misinterpreting my claim, Randal offered the following relevant scenario as a potential counterexample to this principle:
Imagine that Jones is a black man who is charged with raping and murdering a white woman. Jones happens to be an editor, and in the wake of the charge he flees town, goes underground, and edits and publishes a volume called The Guilt of Jones which collects all the evidence against him. Jones knows that some people will read the book and conclude that Jones is guilty of the crimes, and he contains within the book no repudiation of the evidence.
According to J-MAP, Jones’ action is not “morally upright” because he failed to condemn the false attributions in the edited volume. But this is an absurd charge, for Jones could easily have morally serious reasons consistent with his upright moral character for undertaking the publication of this volume. Imagine, for example, that he envisions that others will read the text and conclude the evidence is flimsy and the charge motivated by nothing more than racial prejudice. Imagine, in addition, that he believes many of those who initially read the volume and conclude he is guilty will later be forced to reconsider their own conclusion based on further evidence, and that this will serve as a spotlight illumining the racial prejudices within their own hearts.
Is this a counterexample to JMAP? I argued that it is not. I claimed that by publishing such a volume, Jones would be violating a duty he has to himself and his readers. To himself he has the duty to not present false and misleading information about his alleged crime without at least attempting to correct the record. To his readers he has the responsibility to present the entire truth about the allegations, at least to the best of his ability. That Jones might believe that some of his readers will conclude that the evidence is flimsy is not a reason to not present any exculpatory evidence that he has. After all, if readers would conclude that the evidence is flimsy, then by adding the exculpatory evidence, Jones could only be aiding their discovery of the truth. Surely presenting the entirety of the evidence is more likely to convince readers that the case is flimsy and based on prejudice.
Furthermore, regardless of what he might believe, if Jones does not include any attempt to refute or at least deny the charges, some readers are going to conclude that he is guilty (I can imagine many readers asking, “Why else would someone accused of such crimes publish a volume that detailed the evidence against him?”). This is a disservice to those readers. They deserve the truth, even if they are unable to process it because of their racial prejudice.
Rauser claimed that in asserting that Jones would have done something wrong, I have endorsed the absurd. He also claimed that I offered nothing to support my contention other than my own personal incredulity that a person in Jones circumstances would publish such a volume. But he is wrong on both counts. I offered arguments in comments to his posts similar to the one I provided above (actually my arguments at his site are much longer and more involved). Nor is it absurd to think that Jones has done wrong; that is, it is not absurd to believe that a writer of a non-fiction work (which is what Jones’ volume would be) has a duty to present the whole truth, at least to the best of his ability.
The most bizarre aspect of my exchange with Rauser concerns his charge that in dismissing the Jones example, I expressed confusion about how philosophical argument works. He claims that my response to the Jones example was to say that I found it highly improbable. But, says Rauser, the likelihood of the scenario is beside the point; the point is that it is possible for someone to act as Jones does in the example. That is enough to show that JMAP is false.
But Randal couldn’t be more wrong about this. For one thing, while it is true that I did say that I found it implausible that anyone would do what Jones is described as doing in the example, that was not intended as an argument that the example is irrelevant to JMAP. The example is irrelevant to JMAP, but that is not the reason.
Here is the reason: since JMAP is a moral principle, you cannot prove that it is false by describing a possible scenario in which someone violates it. That would be like claiming that abortion cannot be wrong because doctors abort pregnancies every day. JMAP says only that a morally upright person will disassociate himself from texts in which he is described as committing a moral atrocity. In other words, JMAP implies that not disassociating yourself from such texts is wrong. For the Jones example to be a counterexample to JMAP, it must be the case that, in publishing the volume, Jones does not commit a wrong. If it is wrong for Jones to publish the volume, then he is not morally upright in doing so. I agree that it is possible (though unlikely) that someone might do what Jones is described as doing. But that is not relevant. The question is whether doing so is wrong.
I argued above, and in comments on Randal’s blog, that if a person knows that the charges against someone are false, then it is wrong to publish a volume that contains descriptions of the evidence against him but contains no attempt to refute the evidence, present exculpatory evidence, or deny the charges. Randal did not respond to these arguments (indeed, he falsely claimed that I did not offer them). Instead he said that I was confused about how counterexamples work. He claimed that in describing the scenario, he had defeated JMAP; the mere possibility that someone might act as Jones is described as acting is enough to show that JMAP is not true. I, says Randal, don’t understand that this is how thought-experiments work.
But, as I said, the Jones example only works as a counterexample to JMAP if, in publishing the volume, Jones does no wrong. To repeat, I am not claiming that the implausibility of the Jones thought-experiment suffices to show that it cannot falsify JMAP. Rather, I am claiming that it does not falsify JMAP because Jones is not morally upright if he publishes the volume. So, I am not the one who is confused.
Now, Randal is more than welcome to argue against my claim that it is wrong for Jones to publish The Guilt of Jones. But he did not do that. Instead he chose to charge me with confusion.
Does the fact that a text contains passages in which the Supreme Being commands genocide give us any indication about the status (as sacred literature, e.g.) of the text in question?
I have been participating in a discussion on Randal Rauser’s blog about the significance of passages in the Bible that depict God as commanding genocide and approving of or bringing about other moral atrocities. The discussion, which has been going on for the better part of two weeks, began with an episode of Rauser’s podcast in which he interviews New Zealand philosopher and apologist Matthew Flannagan about Flannagan’s views on such Bible passages as Genesis 22:1-2 (in which God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac) and 1 Samuel 15:3 (in which Samuel tells Saul that God has commanded that he, Saul, kill all of the Amalekites, women and children included).
Flannagan, who has contributed comments to this blog and is a very good and well-respected Christian apologist, is a divine command theorist and thus faces a serious problem with respect to such passages. To his credit he does not shy away from these problems but faces them quite directly. His analysis is subtle and interesting. I, as I have indicated many times on this site and others, strongly reject the divine command theory, but I think that Flannagan’s attempt to defend it is admirable. (Check out his recent paper in Philo, “Is Ethical Naturalism more Plausible than Supernaturalism? A Response to Walter Sinnot-Armstrong” for an example of how far a good defense of the divine command theory can take us, if you are interested.)
In any event the podcast has ignited quite a vigorous debate concerning the Biblical passages in question (prompted by a rather impertinent comment by a commenter who writes under the name The Atheist Missionary, which Rauser strongly reacted against and which I, to some extent and with important caveats, defended).
Now, there are many distinct approaches one can take to the atrocities we find in the Bible. These range from arguing that once we fully understand the context surrounding the relevant episodes we will see that they are actually not atrocities (this, as I understand it, is the view of Paul Copan and William Lane Craig; they argue that God was justified in calling for the Amalekites to be wiped out, for example) to outright rejecting the Bible as a morally corrupt text. Rauser’s position is that the depiction of the Amalekite genocide, just to cite one example, really is a depiction of a moral atrocity, and that its presence in a sacred text must be understood as the product of errant voices. His view, to the extent that I understand it, is that we must understand the Bible in cultural context and through the lens of Christianity. The depiction of the Amalekite genocide, while it has a particular purpose in the context of the culture that produced it, is inconsonant with the Christian understanding of God. Unlike Paul Copan, for example, Rauser believes that it is impossible to harmonize the depiction of God commanding the Amalekite genocide with the Christian understanding of God.
In the discussion at Rauser’s blog, I have defended a strong position: The passages in which God is depicted as commanding/bringing about/approving of moral atrocities are evidence that the Bible is not sacred. Importantly, I am not claiming that God should make it clear to us what his own view is concerning the moral atrocities depicted in the Bible. Rather, I am saying that God would be horrified by the fact that he is depicted as commanding moral atrocities (such as the Amalekite genocide).
If I was going to criticize my own position, I would point out two things: First, the Bible is not a single text, it is a collection of texts with multiple voices. Some commenters have pointed out this important fact, as has Randal. Of course, I acknowledge this. But I have suggested that the point is really not all that significant with respect to my claim. I could, after all, limit my claim to a conclusion about those texts that depict God as commanding moral atrocities. Furthermore, it is not I who decided to treat the Bible as one text (by, e.g., calling it THE Bible) nor who decided that the entire thing is sacred. Thus, I think my criticism withstands this objection. Anyone who treats the entirety of the Bible as a sacred text must come to terms with the passages that depict God as a moral monster. I maintain that God would be horrified by those passages and want to disassociate himself from the text(s).
Second, I would want to know what ‘sacred’ means. Presumably we don’t necessarily have to think that Bible is the Word of God in order to think that it is sacred. Interestingly, Randal has not taken this second tack. Instead, he has suggested that I am reacting against a particular interpretation of the text rather than the text itself. He has gone so far as to accuse my of engaging in the hermeneutic of a barbarian. He also suggests an analogy between God’s relationship to the Bible and an author’s (or editor’s) relationship to his or her text. Randal says that there is no reason to believe that an author should make his/her own views clear with respect to any moral atrocities depicted in their texts. Similarly, says Rauser, there is no reason to think that God must make his own view clear concerning the moral atrocities depicted in the Bible. In response I have pointed out that there is an important difference between texts that depict moral atrocities and texts that depict the author/editor/creator of that very text as commanding, approving of, or bringing about moral atrocities. It is the latter type that presents the clearest analogy to the Bible’s depiction of God bringing about/commanding moral atrocities (such as the slaughter of the Egyptian firstborn, the aforementioned Amalekite genocide, and the worldwide flood).
This is just a sketch of the broad features of the debate. If you are interested you can start here, then proceed through Randal’s first, second, third, and fourth responses to me and others who take similar positions to mine. If you want the short version, the third and fourth response should give you a good sense of the direction of the debate. To get the full effect, you need to read through the comments sections on each of Randal’s posts (which is where you will find my responses to his arguments).
I should say that I have enjoyed the discussion. I want to thank Randal Rauser for providing a forum where issues such as this can be discussed. Randal is highly intelligent, knowledgeable, and very well-informed about current and historical issues in theology and philosophy. He does not shrink from strong and pointed criticisms of his views, and for that he has my admiration.
[EDIT: This post has been edited so as to include an important 'not' in the final sentence. Sorry, Randal.]
I have been thinking a lot about the cosmological argument lately, in part because I am currently teaching it in my Introduction to Philosophy class and also because of some recent discussions at the Secular Outpost. My general view on cosmological arguments is that whatever the validity and/or soundness of the arguments (whether the Kalam, or arguments from contingency or any other version), the proper conclusion of such arguments can never be that God exists. That is, no cosmological argument implies that theism is true. I’m not prepared to fully develop and defend this view now, but a few brief remarks are in order:
This point is easiest to see with respect to the Kalam:
(1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
(2) The universe began to exist.
(C) The universe has a cause.
Nothing about the premises guarantees that the cause of the universe is God. Even if we follow William Lane Craig and believe that other considerations show that the cause must be personal, nothing implies that this person is God. God is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator. The person who created the universe, if indeed there is one, need have none of these features, which are essential characteristics of God.
In general, even if we are convinced that there must exist an uncaused cause or a necessary being, nothing forces us to believe that such being is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. So, the proper conclusion of a cosmological argument (CA) will always be something less than ‘God exists.’ And I take this to be a significant point.
In his, “The Cosmological Argument and the Epistemic Status of Belief in God” (reprinted in Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide, W. L. Craig, ed.), Stephen T. Davis presents a version of the CA with precisely the conclusion that I said a CA could never have. Here is Davis’ argument, which he calls the “generic cosmological argument” GCA:
(1) If the universe can be explained, then God exists.
(2) Everything can be explained.
(3) The universe is a thing.
(4) Therefore, the universe can be explained.
(5) Therefore, God exists.
I think that premise (1) is fairly obviously ridiculous and that, if we are being careful, we should not formulate a premise like it. Why? Because, as I said, God is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, creator. But nothing about the fact that the universe can be explained implies that the explanation of the universe involves an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent person. Indeed, nothing about the fact (assuming it is one) that the universe can be explained implies that this explanation involves a person. In other words, it is possible that the universe can be explained completely in terms of a non-personal force or forces. Furthermore, even if we had some reason to think that the explanation must appeal to the activity of a person, nothing forces us to believe that this person is omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent. The explanation of the universe could be that it was created by a supernatural omnipotent evil idiot.
But Davis thinks that Premise (1) is perfectly fine and he is a more successful philosopher than I am, so I had better give him the benefit of the doubt and carefully consider what he says in its defense. First, he admits that even if GCA is successful, it does not necessarily prove the existence of the God of theism. He does, however, think that, if successful, it does prove the existence of some kind of divine reality. In addition, he says,
Premise (1) simply claims that if there is any explanation of the existence of the universe, then God must exist and provide that explanation. This premise seems perfectly sensible because if God exists then the explanation for the existence of the universe is just this: “God created it.” And this seems about the only sort of explanation that could be given. If no God or Godlike creator of the universe exists, it seems that the universe will have no explanation whatsoever for its existence. Its existence will be what we might call a brute fact. It is just there, and that is all that can be said. (p. 83 of Craig)
This is really not very good. First, the fact, and I grant that it is one, that if God exists then the explanation for the existence of the universe is that God did it is really quite irrelevant for the truth of (1). All that it means is that God is a possible explanation for the universe, not that, if there is an explanation, God is it. There are other potential explanations. I mentioned a couple above: a non-personal force of some unknown kind, the activity of a supernatural being who is neither God nor divine. Suppose I asserted (1′) If the universe can be explained, then the Gnostic Demiurge exists, and then defended this with the following assertion: (D) if the Demiurge exists, then the explanation for the existence of the universe is just this: “the Demiurge did it.” Obviously (D) is not a reason to think that (1′) is true.
Now, as I said, above Davis recognizes the problem that his argument cannot prove that God (the god of theism) exists (or at least he recognizes part of the problem), hence his use of “God or Godlike creator.” But this is very slippery. If he is going to be completely clear, he needs to change premise (1) to read “If the universe can be explained, then God or a Godlike creator exists.” And the proper conclusion would be, “God or a Godlike being exists.” But now this is not an argument for theism, it is an argument for theism or some theism-like view. Even so, we still have a few problems. First, how much like God does this Godlike being have to be. Suppose, as I suggested earlier, that the explanation of the universe is that it was created by the Demiurge or by an evil omnipotent idiot (a being I’ll call Fod). Is Fod really Godlike? The demiurge of gnosticism pretty clearly is not. Would we say that Fod worshipers, if any existed, hold a view that is very much like theism? I doubt it. So, I don’t think that even “God or a Godlike being exists” is the proper conclusion of this argument. Rather, at best it is “A creator exists.” That is interesting, but much weaker than Davis’ original conclusion.
However, we still haven’t dealt with the possibility of a non-personal force. Without some argument that the explanation for the universe must involve the activity of a person, we had better weaken Davis’ Premise (1) and conclusion even further:
(1) If the universe can be explained, then either God exists or some other creator exists or some non-personal universe-generating force exists.
(5) Therefore, either God exists or some other creator exists or some non-personal universe-generating force exists.
This is pretty weak tea. And it is consistent with my view that no cosmological argument has, as its proper conclusion, the claim that God exists.
The primary reason that I wanted to write this post has to do with something that Davis says toward the end of the article. He considers the following objection to the GCA: “If GCA is a successful argument, the “god” or necessary being that it proves exists is not the God of theism or even any lesser god-like sentient being, but rather the universe, or physical matter itself” (88). In reply Davis says that it does not seem sensible to think that the universe is a necessary being but admits that he cannot prove it. He points to an argument from Richard Taylor that something can be both everlasting and contingent. (This, by the way is a very interesting claim, which warrants more consideration that I can give it here.) But his considered view on this issue is given in the following:
And a truly telling point against the objection to the GCA that we are considering is this:even if the universe were everlasting, it would still make sense to ask: Why should it exist at all? That is, why is there a reality at all? Why is there anything rather than nothing? There is no absurdity at all in the idea of there being nothing at all, no universe. . . . It follows that there is nothing about the universe that implies or even suggests that it is a necessary being. (89)
I am particularly interested in Davis’ claim that “there is no absurdity at all in the idea of there being nothing at all, no universe.” Now, this claim is ambiguous (an issue I will deal with below) but at first blush, Davis is admitting something that is devastating to his argument.
Davis is here indicating that there is nothing absurd in the idea that nothing exists. He is also inferring that since there is nothing absurd about the idea that nothing exists, there is nothing absurd about the idea that the universe does not exist. He is also relying on a general principle something like this: (A) If there is nothing absurd about the idea that something, s, does not exist, then there is nothing about s that implies or suggests that s is a necessary being. The problem is that all of this applies to God just as much as it does to the universe.
Davis is claiming that we can consistently suppose that nothing exists. Well, this supposition entails that God does not exist. In other words, when we suppose that nothing exists, we are supposing that God does not exist. So, if there is nothing absurd about the idea that nothing exists, there must be nothing absurd about the idea that God does not exist. Thus, by principle (A), there is nothing about God that implies or suggests that God is a necessary being.
So long as we allow that there is nothing absurd in the idea that nothing exists, I don’t see how we can escape this conclusion. Now, perhaps when Davis says, “there is no absurdity at all in the idea of there being nothing at all, no universe” he does not mean that there is no absurdity in the idea of there being nothing at all, full stop. After all, there is that comma and “no universe.” As I indicated above, I think that this statement is ambiguous. I have been reading Davis as claiming that the idea that nothing at all exists is not absurd. But perhaps all he means is that the idea that the universe does not exist is not absurd. If so, he faces a different problem.
Either he claims that there is some absurdity in the idea that nothing at all exists or he claims that there is no absurdity in the idea that nothing at all exists. If the latter, then he must admit that there is no absurdity in the idea that God does not exist and my conclusions above stand. If the former, he needs to explain what is is absurd about the idea that nothing at all exists. He might say that this is absurd because it implies that God does not exist. But then he needs to show why the idea that God does not exist is absurd. Presumably he will say that it is absurd because God is a necessary being. But this is a petitio principii if there ever was one. If we grant that God’s existence is necessary, then there is something absurd about the idea that God does not exist. But the same can be said about the universe. So, how do we know that God’s non-existence is absurd but the non-existence of the universe is not absurd?
The reason Davis gave us for thinking that the universe is not a necessary being, on this reading, is the fact that there is nothing absurd about the idea that the universe does not exist. If that is the only reason, then to suggest that there is something absurd about the idea that God does not exist because God is a necessary being is to beg the question. I have to assume that God is a necessary being in order to see the absurdity of the suggestion that God does not exist. Davis either needs some other reason for supposing that the idea that God does not exist is absurd, or else he needs some other reason for thinking that God is a necessary being.
As I was teaching the Euthyphro dilemma the other day, a question occurred to me that I don’t remember thinking about before: Why would God create morality?
The divine command theory claims that God’s commands constitute moral obligations. Thus God could have made it the case that there are no moral obligations by refraining from issuing commands. In order for there to be moral obligations, God must command something. So, why did he do it? It seems to unnecessarily complicate matters. What plan does he have that necessitates morality?
Even if there are no moral obligations, there might be actions that God wants us to do. Assuming the proper incentive structure, we would have reason to do the things that God wants us to do. From the perspective of the divine plan, what does making an action morally wrong add that is not already present in the action’s being something that God wants us to do?
Modern divine command theorists say that God’s commands flow from his essential nature. Since God is loving, we can know that he would never command horrible things, like the torture of a small child.
On the other hand, nearly all theists believe that God allows evil things to happen while simultaneously accepting the claim that God would prevent any gratuitous instance of evil. In other words, theists are committed to the following principle:
(E) Every instance of evil that occurs is such that either (a) its occurrence is necessary to prevent the occurrence of something equally bad or worse, or else (b) its occurrence is necessary to bring about some greater good.
If there is any instance of evil that does not satisfy either (a) or (b) (or both), then it is gratuitous. A perfectly loving God would eliminate any unnecessary evil.
Thus, what a theist believes is that if a person suffers, it is better that they suffered than had they not suffered because either (a) their suffering was logically required to prevent something worse from happening, or else (b) their suffering was logically required to bring about some greater good.
Suppose I have a close friend or family member who is addicted to heroin. He comes to me broke and suffering from severe withdrawals because he has been unable to purchase the drug or acquire it through other means. He asks to borrow some money and it is obvious to me that he intends to use the money to buy more heroin. Now, I submit that the right thing to do is to refuse to give him the money. I should do this even though I know that if my friend does not get his fix, he will continue to suffer greatly as his withdrawal symptoms get worse. This is because it would be better for my fried to go through the withdrawal on the path to losing his addiction than to relieve his suffering temporarily by feeding the addiction. That is, I should allow my friend to suffer because it is in his best interests to suffer (even if he doesn’t agree that it is). For the purposes of this discussion, the important uphsot of this example is that it is not the case that if I love someone, then I will prevent any instance of their suffering that I can prevent. However, we can even go further. Indeed, it is plausible that the best thing for me to do in this instance is to take my friend to a detox clinic where he can endure his withdrawal symptoms in a controlled environment. That is, the best thing to do is something that will cause my friend more suffering.
So, in general, it is not the case that if I love someone, I want to prevent every instance of their suffering. Rather, what I want is what is best for them. And, in at least some cases, what is best for them is that they suffer. Now, typically what is best for a person is that their suffering is minimized (at least that is what I think we have most reason to believe; I am not sure that a theist can accept this claim), but at least sometimes, a loving person will allow those they love to suffer.
Here is what is important for the present argument: That God is loving does not imply that he will want to prevent all suffering; it implies that he wants what is best for us. This is what underlies principle (E).
Now, if we are not in a position to know whether, for any instance of apparently gratuitous suffering, the suffer is better off than she would have been had she not suffered, then we are not in a position to know whether a loving God would command torture.
Atheists typically believe that cases of apparently gratuitous suffering really are cases of gratuitous suffering. The suffering endured by a dying cancer patient appears gratuitous. There does not appear to be any greater good such the the patient’s suffering is necessary to bring about that good; nor does there appear to be any evil equal to or greater than the patient’s suffering that the suffering is necessary to prevent. The atheist says that things are exactly as they appear; such an instance of suffering is gratuitous. The theist, however, has to believe that appearances are deceiving. The theist believes that the patient’s suffering is not gratuitous because he believes that God exists and that God is loving.
Given this, what reason can a theist give for believing that God would not command the torture of an infant? That God loves the infant? Well, we just saw that, in general, being loving does not entail wanting to prevent every instance of suffering. Rather, it entails wanting what is best for the beloved. So that God loves the child is not evidence that God does not want the child to be tortured. If the torture of the child will bring about what is best, then God, being loving, will command it.
So, what the theist needs is a reason for thinking that it is never best that children be tortured. Without that, we cannot know that God would not command the torture of an infant. But can the theist provide such a reason? I don’t see how. If theists are willing to believe that the cancer patient’s suffering is not gratuitous, that somehow the world is better off for that instance of severe pain, how can theists consistently maintain that they know that an instance of infant torture is gratuitous?
It is common for theists, during discussions of the problem of evil, to point out that, given our epistemic limitations, we are not in a position to know that God does not have reasons for failing to prevent the many horrendous and apparently gratuitous evils in our world (the name for this position is Skeptical Theism). Well, the same would seem to apply to any instance of child torture. If our epistemic situation is so limited that we cannot know that God does not have reasons for permitting the slaughter of children, then it must be so limited that we cannot know whether child torture is sometimes necessary to bring about some greater good or prevent something equally bad or worse. Thus, the theist cannot know that a loving God will not command the torture of infants.
This is a follow-up to my last post on the question of whether there are phenomena that theism can account for but which naturalism cannot. The Cosmological Argument can be thought of as an argument not just for the existence of God, but for the claim that a theistic worldview has the resources to explain something that a naturalistic worldview cannot explain (in its simplest form, this something is the fact that there exists something rather than nothing). I don’t think this is so and I am going to try to explain why.
Here is the Kalam cosmological argument.
(1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
(2) The Universe began to exist.
(3) The universe has a cause.
First, premise (1) is odd. Why say that everything that begins to exist has a cause, rather than everything, full stop? The answer is that the attempt to use the alternative,
(1*) Everything that exists has a cause
has an obvious and unfortunate consequence for theism: it implies that it is false. Since God is supposed to be uncaused, (1*) cannot be true (if (1*) is true, then there is no uncaused God, so theism is false). So, we get (1) as a means of avoiding begging the question against theism.
It is important to see that (1) depends upon a more general principle, the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) [I am just going to assume here that if PSR is false, then for that very reason, we should be skeptical of (1). But I would be happy to pursue this if anyone is interested]. PSR says (in one of its simpler formulations) that for everything that exists, there is a reason that it exists, in other words, there is an explanation for the existence of everything. Now, making the reasonable inference that, in the material realm, the explanation for the existence of anything will be in terms of causes, we can assume that if the PSR is true, everything that exists has a cause. But this supports (1*) doesn’t it? Well, the problem, again, is that this inference only works if we ignore the possibility that there exist non-material things. The explanation for their existence might not be in terms of causes. So we shouldn’t assume that everything that exists has a cause. However, certainly material things have causes, at least as far as we know. And, as far as we know, every material thing had a beginning. Roughly then, (there are a few other considerations that I will ignore here), that is one way of getting to (1) from the PSR.
But the PSR does imply that everything that exists has an explanation. So while it might be unreasonable to ask what the cause of God is (since, if he exists, he is immaterial, and so might not have a cause), that does not mean that it is unreasonable to ask for the explanation of God. So, if the PSR is true, then, if God exists, there is an explanation for the existence of God.
We’ve gotten a little bit side-tracked, so let’s get back to the main thread of the argument. There are actually two points to be made here. First, even if the CA is a sound argument, and even if it is true that God created the universe, none of that tells us what the explanation for the universe is. That is, saying that God did does not explain how it was done. If there is nothing more to the explanation that the claim that God did it, then what is the difference between saying that God did it and saying that it was magic?
The second point is that since the CA relies on the PSR, there is no reason to think that it is only the universe’s existence that presents a fundamental mystery that cries out for explanation. If the question is, “why is there something rather than nothing?” then theists should ask why there is a God.
So, what I am saying here is this: If the problem that theists point to is that there is no naturalistic account of the existence of the universe (or, even more broadly, why there exists something rather than nothing), then the theist does not have an answer to this problem either. The naturalist *might* always have to assume the existence of something in order to provide explanations, but so must the theist. The theist must fall back on the existence of God, something that is not explained by theism. Now, of course I am aware that theists have tried to avoid this. There is a long theological history to the claim that God contains the reason for his own existence. But, as I argued recently, that claim, even if it makes sense and it is true, does not tell what this reason is. The claim that God exists a se tells us nothing more than that there is a reason for God’s existence and that it is contained in his nature; it does not tell us what the reason is.
So, it is false that theism has an explanation for the existence of the universe. Thus, the argument that says that theism is to be preferred over atheism because the former can account for something that the latter cannot is a bad argument since the premise is false.
There are several arguments for the existence of God which share a common structure and similar premises that I would like to examine. These arguments point to some feature of our world and claim that there is no naturalistic explanation for this feature and that therefore, naturalism is false. There are supposed to be arguments for the existence of God, which is part of what I find odd about them. That naturalism or materialism cannot account for something is, at best, indirect evidence for theism. That we cannot account for some phenomenon under a naturalistic paradigm, even if it is true, does not imply that the correct explanation will involve the activity of a personal divine being. I will expand on this and other problems that I see with this style of argument in this post.
To start, here is a list of some examples of the kind of argument I am talking about, with a few relevant and interesting links:
- The Argument from Reason (see Victor Reppert’s blog for more)
- The Argument from Beauty
- The Cosmological Argument (Essentially, cosmological arguments involve the claim that theism can account for the existence of the universe while naturalism cannot. Take a look at a couple of apologist bloggers discussing the argument here and here.)
- The Design Argument (naturalism cannot account for the complexity (or certain kinds of complexity) of (parts of) the universe. Jeffery Lowder has an excellent analysis of a recent version of this kind of argument here.)
- The Argument from Morality
- The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (naturalism cannot account for the reliability of our cognitive faculties.)
Now, most of these are not names for a single argument, but rather families of arguments. There is not one Argument from Morality, for example. Rather, there are a host of arguments that suggest that the existence of objective morality (or some related notion) is a reason to believe that God exists. Such is the case with most of the arguments on this list.
It is also worth pointing out that not all versions of each of the above arguments are formulated in terms of the claim that naturalism cannot account for the respective phenomena. There are popular versions of the argument from morality, for example, that do not depend on any claim that naturalism cannot account for morality. Watch this short (and rather annoying, I grant) video from William Lane Craig for an example. Craig doesn’t say here that naturalism can’t account for objective morality. However, when Craig and other apologists attempt to defend the key premise of this argument (If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist), they typically point to alleged facts about what naturalism implies about morality and value. (see my paper “Do Atheists Need a Moral Theory to be Moral Realists?” for more on this). In this post, I am directing my comments to those versions of these arguments that implicitly or explicitly rely on something like the following inference:
Naturalism cannot account for (insert difficult to account for phenomenon here). But (difficult to account for phenomenon) does exist (or is real, or did/does occur). Theism can account for it. Thus theism has an advantage over naturalism.[*EDIT* Commonly, something like the following additional conclusion is added: To be consistent, naturalists have to give up belief in (difficult to account for phenomenon)].
There are three general problems with these arguments. The first, and most obvious (at least it should be most obvious) is that the fact that we currently lack an explanation for some phenomenon does not mean that we have to give up believing in the phenomenon. That we lack a naturalistic account of morality (even if this is true) does not mean that naturalists have to disbelieve in objective morality. After all, the correct naturalistic account may be just around the corner. Apologists who wield these arguments seem to think that if your worldview does not currently account for some phenomenon, then you have to either disbelieve in the phenomena or reject your worldview and embrace one that can account for it. But this is not so, as we can see when we look at parallel examples that have no obvious connection to religious beliefs.
Biologists do not currently understand precisely how salmon, after years of living in the ocean hundreds of miles away from the streams of their births, are able to find their home streams in which to spawn at the end of their life cycle. So we do not yet have a satisfactory naturalistic explanation of this biological phenomenon. Does that mean that naturalists have to disbelieve in it, or give up naturalism in order to be consistent? The suggestion is clearly ridiculous. As is the claim that since there is no current naturalistic account of objective morality or human reason or beauty, etc., naturalists cannot consistently believe in these things. Human knowledge is not at an end; we continue to develop our understanding of reality and will do so indefinitely. The fact that we cannot currently account for something is not a reason to either disbelieve in that thing or to reject our worldview. It is a reason to keep looking for the right explanation.
Second, nothing about the falsity of naturalism implies the truth of theism. It is true that if metaphysical naturalism is true, then theism is false. But to go from the falsity of naturalism to the truth of theism would be to commit the fallacy of denying the antecedent. So, even if it were true that there are no naturalistic explanations of phenomena that we all agree are real (rationality, for example), this would not imply that theism is true. It is perfectly consistent to be a non-naturalistic atheist (Schopenhauer is a great example). Indeed, I do not espouse metaphysical naturalism. My view is that naturalism is best understood as a methodological principle. And there are good reasons to adopt this principle, as a commenter named Keith pointed out in my recent post about the EAAN. In a future post, I will have more to say about how odd it is that when apologists criticize atheism, they consistently attack naturalism rather than the claim that there is no God.
The third problem is the most destructive to this kind of argument. It just is not true that theism can account for the phenomena mentioned in any of the arguments. With all of these arguments listed above, proponents claim that there are theistic explanations of the relevant phenomena, but they either never provide the explanation or else the explanation they do provide is wrong or fundamentally flawed. In my next post, I will use the cosmological argument as an example to explain what I mean.
Nearly two decades ago, Alvin Plantinga developed an argument against naturalism (the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, EAAN) that purports to show that naturalism and evolution are incompatible. You can find a version of this argument, as well as Plantinga’s responses to several objections in this paper.
It has become commonplace for apologists to lean heavily on this argument and to suggest that naturalism cannot account for the reliability of human cognitive powers. William Lane Craig makes such an argument in this op-ed article. It should be noted that Plantinga’s argument, if correct, shows only that naturalism together with evolutionary theory cannot both be true; one or the other can be maintained, but not both together. However, given that evolutionary theory is the most widely accepted naturalistic account of human origins and development, it has become commonplace for the argument to be stated more simply as the claim that naturalism cannot account for the reliability of our cognitive faculties.
As readers of this blog might know, I have no interest in defending metaphysical naturalism. I suspect that it is probably true, but I grant the possibility that it is false and I see no reason to defend it against all comers. Naturalism is best understood as a methodological commitment; we should try to explain as much as we can, as best as we can without having to resort to phenomena that transcend the natural world. In general, commitment to any metaphysical account of ultimate reality is more of a hindrance to the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom than a help. Since the state of our knowledge about reality is characterized by a great deal of ignorance and half-understood theory, I think that it is best to be humble.
So, my interest in Plantinga’s argument has to do not with whether it defeats naturalism, but in its use as an argument for the existence of God. Plantinga thinks, as do many apologists, that theism can account for the reliability of our cognitive faculties. As with many beliefs of a religious nature, I think that this one is the result of a failure of imagination. In the article “Naturalism Defeated” (linked to above), Plantinga says this:
Now according to traditional Christian (and Jewish and Muslim) thought, we human beings have been created in the image of God. This means, among other things, that he created us with the capacity for achieving knowledge—knowledge of our environment by way of perception, of other people by way of something like what Thomas Reid calls sympathy, of the past by memory and testimony, of mathematics and logic by reason, of morality, our own mental life, God himself, and much more. (pp 2-3)
But is it true that we should expect God to create creatures with reliable cognitive faculties? Why would we think so? If God had a good reason to create humans with unreliable faculties, then wouldn’t he do that? Perhaps there is some greater good that God can only realize by creating creatures with deficient cognitive faculties. How can we know that there isn’t? I suppose it is open to the theist to insist that God does not have a reason to create humans with unreliable cognitive faculties, but how would they know? It is certainly possible that God does have such a reason and that, given our epistemic position, we are unable to know what this reason is. I conclude, therefore, that there is no reason to suppose that God does not have such a reason. If he does have such a reason, then, if theism is true, our cognitive faculties are not reliable. Thus, theism does not account for the reliability of our cognitive faculties.
Perhaps you notice an affinity between the above argument and a certain kind of response to the problem of evil known as skeptical theism. Skeptical theism maintains that, given our epistemic situation, there is no reason to believe that we are in a position to know what reasons God might or might not have to engage in certain activities (such as, for example, refraining from saving children from tornadoes or deranged gunmen). Because we cannot know what reasons God might have, we are not in a position to say with confidence that God does not have a reason for permitting any instance of evil, no matter how gratuitous that particular evil might seem to us.
[Here is a very good discussion between three Christian philosophes about the problem of evil. They begin discussing skeptical theism at about the 16 minute mark.]
Regardless of whether a particular theist adopts a robust version of skeptical theism, many, if not most, agree that at some point in a response to the problem of evil, we will have to rely on the fact that we cannot discern all of God’s reasons. But if it is true that God might have reasons beyond our ken for engaging in some activity, then how can we know that God does not have good reasons for creating creatures with unreliable cognitive powers?
It is important to note that even theists who do not espouse skeptical theism are faced with a problem here. How does the theist get around this inference: For all we know God has very good reasons for wanting human cognitive powers to be less than reliable. Thus, if theism is true, for all we know, human cognitive faculties are not reliable.
The natural first question for a divine command theorist is whether God has the power to make horrible acts obligatory just by commanding that we perform them. So, some question such as this:
Can God make it the case that gratuitously torturing an infant is morally obligatory?
Following the work of Robert Adams, Edward Wierenga, and others, the standard response of divine command theorists has become something like this:
Since he is omnibenevolent, God would not command that we gratuitously torture infants.
Now it is important to note that this response only says that God would not issue such a command, it does not really answer the question. What we want to know is whether making gratuitous torture morally obligatory is something that God can do. Sure, God may be constrained by his love in such a way that some commands are beyond his capacity to issue (though how that squares with his omnipotence is an interesting question), but, regardless, he has the power to utter the words “Thou shalt torture an infant for no reason.” I know he has this power because humans have this power and God has the power to do anything that it is logically possible to do. So, we want to know, what would happen if God issued this command? Would gratuitous torture be obligatory?
Rather than pursue this tack, I want to suggest a slightly different direction to the inquiry. Let us now ask,
Is it logically possible to make an action morally obligatory just by commanding that it be performed?
The divine command theory says yes, there is one being for whom this is logically possible: God. God can (and has) made actions morally obligatory by commanding that we do them.
Is it logically possible to make treating one’s neighbor as one would like to be treated morally obligatory?
Again, the divine command theorist says yes, does he not? Some will even claim that God has done this.
Is it logically possible to make the gratuitous torture of an infant morally obligatory just by commanding that it be done?
How does the divine command theorist respond? This is a genuine question and I am curious to hear responses from those who espouse the theory. For now, however, I will continue the dialogue by making some educated guesses. The divine command theorist responds:
Such a thing is not logically possible. God would never give such a command.
Now the questions is:
Is it impossible to make the torture of infants morally obligatory because, since he is all-loving, God will not command that we torture infants, or is it impossible for to make infant torture morally obligatory because it is not logically possible for infant torture to be morally obligatory?
If the answer is (b) infant torture cannot be made obligatory because it is not logically possible for infant torture to be morally obligatory, then there is standard of wrongness that is independent of God and the divine command theory is false. (b) implies that, for some actions, it is just not logically possible that they are obligatory; no divine command is necessary.
If the answer is (a) infant torture cannot be made obligatory because God will not issue such a command, the next question is:
Suppose there exists a deity that has all the powers that God has but who is not constrained by omnibenevolence. If such a deity issues a command to gratuitously torture infants, would that make it obligatory to torture infants?
If the divine command theory is to escape the arbitrariness charge, the answer to this question had better be no. But the the question is why not?