Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Open Forum Response: Can one use reason alone to make moral decisions?

A Quick Introduction.

Not long ago, I had the privilege of speaking to a Christian student group at Christopher Newport University. The topic for the evening was “The Problem of Evil and Suffering.” Much of material for the talk came from the piece I wrote on "
The Three Faces of Evil and the Christian Response."

This posting emerges from a question I received during the Q & A time. The question was posed by a philosophy student, who is also a Christian, concerning something he was gleaning from his lecture notes in a moral philosophy class. I thought this question was very fitting and very important to the context of my talk for the evening. Let me also state that it is a question that I firmly believe that we apologists need to be able to respond to with precision. The question is as follows: “Do you believe that it is possible to use logic to make moral decisions.”

In this posting I will attempt to provide you with one way of responding to this question.  In essence this essay will be my response to this question during the question and answer session. My answer will be directed at the nerve of the question; which is the futile attempt to bypass a moral Lawgiver in one’s moral decision making and thus stick a dagger in the heart of the moral argument for the existence of God.

What, if any categories are present in the question?

Allow me to restate the question in order to set the table for the approach to the question: “Is it possible to come moral decisions using logical reasoning alone?”  In this question, there are two (2) categories present. The first is a moral category which is the end result of the question.  The second is a category of logic or reason, which is the means to the end of the goal.  Tying it all in one big package it should sound like this:  If I can use sound logical reasoning to make my moral and ethical decision, then who needs a “moral lawgiver (i.e, God)? 

Is it possible to make sound moral decisions using logical reasoning?  What is involved in using sound logic?  Allow me to build my case by giving us a short summary of the laws of logic.

What is involved in the use logic?

Logic is “the study of right reason or valid inferences and the attending fallacies formal and informal.”[1]   Such a study is not without laws for reasoning rightly.  Many of us know these laws to be known as the laws of logic.  Aside of the cohesive and coherence theories for testing truth, there are essentially four laws that I will give a quick description here.

The first law is the cardinal law of logic, and is often disputed one by those embracing philosophical and moral relativism.  This law is known as the  law of noncontradiction (A ≠ non A), which states one cannot make a statement that is both true and false at the same time and expect it to be true for both parties.

The second law is known as the law of identity (A=A).  This law states that something is what it is by its very definition.  A car is a car.  A truck is a truck.  A bachelor by definition is a man who has never been married.  It does not matter what the television program on ABC says about the definition of a bachelor.   A widower is a man who has been married, but is no longer married because his wife is deceased.

A third law pertains to the law of the excluded middle term.  This law states that a statement is either true or false.[2]  Think of this law as claiming that there is no middle ground for a statement being somewhere between being true and being false. Every statement has to be one or the other. That’s why it’s called the law of excluded middle.  It is because it excludes any middle ground between truth and falsity.

So we have the law of non contradiction, the law of identity, and law of the excluded middle term.  Some folks, myself included, bring a fourth law known as the law of rational inference.  This law simply presents the case that words mean what they mean.  Let me give you a quick example.

Suppose I were to tell you that I was going to rob the XYZ First National Savings Bank.  Let’s also assume, that you happen to do your banking at this same bank.  What would you be thinking if I told you that I was going to rob your bank?

You would mostly likely call the police, and possibly have them set a trap to catch me in the act. You would at least do something to prevent me from stealing money (your money) from your bank.  Words mean what they mean, even in a post modern society, especially when they affect us.

Now that we know the laws, let me bring the answer to question in for a landing.

Bringing the Answer to Rest.

Let me go back and state this student’s question again for us. “is it possible to come moral decisions using logical reasoning alone?”

Addressing the question posed at the Q & A, it is one that emerges from a moral theory called moral integration theory.  Moral integration theory is a moral theory being thrown around by those seeking globalization and a globalized ethic.[3]  Thankfully the student was not embracing it.

So in order to answer this question from the floor, it becomes necessary expose the underlying presuppositions within the question.  How do we do this?  One way is asking a question that hits the nerve of the issue.  That question is “since we have discussed the laws of logic and we can agree that they are absolute, where do the laws of logic come from?”

You see if there is foundational starting point for logic, known as the laws of logic, then there must be a starting point that guides the capacity that we have to think logically and critically.  The same goes for morals that are grounded in some kind of ethical framework.  Here is where the problem lies.  

This is where the fundamental nerve of the question seeks to rip the heart out of the moral law argument!   If there is no starting point for my logical capabilities, then I become my own logician and standard for my moral thinking.  At the same, if there is no moral Lawgiver, then there is no moral law.  What are the end results?  Those results bring to light three significant problems that manifest themselves logically problematic, morally bankrupt, and existentially dangerous.  

The first problem is a logical one.  Atheists, verificationists and “Nones”  (skeptics hereafter) are trying to tell us that one only needs to use logical reasoning in order to come to their moral conclusions.  Breaking this down, if God does not exist, then it is totally reasonable, to them and for them, to come to moral conclusions using their own logical capacities.  But is this really true?  Are the logical categories, which they espouse, congruent with moral categories and the moral standard in which they subject themselves and everyone else?  Or are the categories of reason and morals mutually exclusive from one another; and based upon an objective standard?  

Earlier I posed a question as to where is the origin for the laws of logic.  Some skeptics would agree that those laws are absolute, but would disagree on the origin.[4]  But like the origin for the laws of logic, the origin for morals and ethics is inescapable.  

From the Christian worldview context, ethics and morals are based upon an absolute moral Lawgiver.  That same Absolute Being we call God is also the origin for our capacities to reason coherently and cohesively under the laws of logic.  However the skeptics all say “No!” and in that “No!” there is the emphatic denial of absolute moral categories.  In their “moralizing,” they take what is understood to be sound logical reasoning, and smuggle in moral categories that only belong to a biblical worldview.  So where do morals and ethics come from?  Depending upon the worldview an absolute moral “lawgiver” cannot be avoided.

This second problem simply stated creates a slippery slope on what ethical moral actions are reasonably right and reasonably wrong.  

While denying God, and smuggling in moral terms only sourced only in a biblical worldview, one is forced to acknowledge God or reject God, and become their own moral lawgiver.  Sure a skeptic can do morally “good deeds”, and these actions can appear very reasonable.  However how does one determine one moral action as being morally right?  How can one skeptic say that it is is immoral to torture babies and another to hold a converse view from the same philosophically naturalistic worldview?  Why is it good to show mercy to one and not show mercy to another?  The last I knew, this was something only attributed to a perfectly absolute and moral God.[5]  In essence what this means is the skeptic becomes their own “God” in making their moral pronouncements and decisions.  

This is the slippery slope that leads us to the third problem, the existential ramifications of “reasonably moral” decisions devoid of a moral Lawgiver.  What do we see from history is that we will find that we will not have learned from our mistakes if things keep going in the direction they are going.  This leads us to the third problem.

Indeed this third problem is an existential one.  What does it mean when we abandon the standards of sound reasoning in our morality given to us by an absolute God?  What does it look like when we make ourselves the final source for ethics and morals via the means of our fallen reasoning capacities?  

It was the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who asserted that the twentieth century man would come of age. By this he meant that the atheist of the twentieth century would realize the consequences of living in a world without God, for without God there are no absolute moral values. Man is free to play God and create his own morality.[6]  We don’t have to look too far back into history to see that he was right in this.  But what about today?  What about some of the decisions in this nation of recent days? I think it is very clear that we can look in our “own backyard” to see what happens when ethics and reason based upon and absolute framework are jettisoned for a rationale of doing “what is right in our own eyes”[7], in our very own nation.

Allow me to paint two scenarios for us.  There are plenty of others, but I would like to just get a glimpse of two that could become cultural norms in pockets of this nation unless God’s people step up and follow the Lord come what may.   These two issues are sanctity issues. 

The first deals with the being a sanctity of life.  Oddly enough, I am not talking about the sanctity of life in the womb but the sanctity of a life that has lived and is now wanting or being pressured to die.  What has been going on for years in Denmark with the acceptance of legalized euthanasia has now become legal in the states of Oregon, Massachusetts, and Washington (not DC).  Where is the sound reasoning in these laws and whose moral standard are these decisions based upon?  Whose moral framework is being exercised here?

The second issue is related to the sanctity of marriage, which has been a long heated battle for several administrations over the years.  Just recently, saying the last few years, laws being passed in Maine, Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, Washington and a few others, that allow same-sex couples to be “married.”  Even Minnesota, this past election prevented the failure of passing a law against same sex marriage.  Where is the sound reasoning in these laws and whose moral standard are these decisions based upon?  Whose moral framework is being exercised here?

Do you see how this is problematic?  Can we honestly think that we can use our reasoning capacities devoid of the One who gave us the ability to use them and make sound moral judgments?  Let me wrap this up.


Whenever we think that we can jettison God as the absolute moral Lawgiver, we run the risk of creating a “God” we have in our own minds.  The skeptic can reject the existence of God, but in their moralizing and reasoning, they are forced to exercise their own moral (amoral/immoral) decisions.  When they exercise their “absolute moral framework” they run into a slippery slope of showing mercy, or being moral, by their definition, to whom they choose.   The end result is a dangerous slippery slope that clearly demonstrates that we have not learned from the past century.   

So my answer to this question is no, one cannot come to moral decisions using logical reasoning alone.  The only way that can be done is IF there is a moral absolute Lawgiver, who has given us the capacity to reason and do it logically, then my answer would a resounding YES.  But throw that moral absolute Lawgiver aside and heaven help us with the conclusions that can manifest itself on our fallen reasoning apart from that absolute moral Lawgiver we know as God.

"Thank you for your question. It is one that I think we all need to pay heed to in the coming days."


[1] Norman L. Geisler and Ronald M. Brooks.  Come Let Us Reason: An Introduction to Logical Thinking (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), 12.

[2] Wikipedia has a good entry on this law, found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_excluded_middle.  This law is not to be confused with the fallacy of the excluded middle, which essentially tries to make the argument that just because there are some things in common, it does not make the case for all things in common.  For example, Just because Jesus and Mohammad had great followings and were founders of large religions, it does not mean that they the same as far as their pointing people to “God.”  Just go to their respective places of burial and see who is in their grave and who is not.

[3] For more information on moral integration please see http://www.patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/2009/07/moral-integration-or-the-pros-and-cons-of-moral-absolutism-and-ethical-pluralism/.  Vojko Strahovnik also has a paper online in Google Docs (PDF) were he defends this view in pursuit of a global ethic.  Search “moral integration” and it will come right up.  

[4] See this great debate, Is the Foundation for Morality Natural or Supernatural?  a debate between William Lane Craig and Sam Harris (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcwJiF9nVjE)

[5] Exodus 33:19, And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.”

[6]Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. VII (New York: Doubleday, 1963), 405-406.

[7] See Judges 17:6; 21:25

"Thank you for your question. It is a very important question that I think we all need to pay heed to in the coming days."

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Skeptic’s Faulty Syllogism in the Search for Meaning

It is amazing to see the logic that some skeptics and in particular atheists use in their attempts to debunk the existence of God.  As a frequent Facebook flyer, I have some friends who are atheists that have engaged me in some spirited conversations.  Every so often I will return the favor and visit their pages to see what kind of vitriol they are sending out against a theistic worldview.  Sometimes I will peruse and find something that will give me a spark to put forth a blog response.  The following syllogism is one such spark.[1]

My skeptical friend's syllogism runs as follows:

Premise 1:  Any life without meaning is absurd.
Premise 2:  Meaning can only be provided by a God higher than one’s self.
Premise 3:  God, if he exists, has no God higher than himself.
Conclusion 1:  God’s life is meaningless
Conclusion 2:  God’s life is absurd.

One of the fascinating things is that the individual putting the syllogism together starts with a very logical premise.  In his second premise, he makes a hasty assumption that causes this argument to self destruct.  The third premise really asks another question which I will tackle in just a moment.  Lastly, the conclusions (1 and 2) are just his opinion.  The funny thing to all this is this:  if God did not exist, I would agree with him.  However there are plenty of reasons for this argument to be blown up base on the illogical trail that he follows.

Let’s look at it shall we...

Breaking down the argument.

Premise 1:  Any life without meaning is absurd.

This is the only true premise in the whole syllogism (argument).  The reason it is true is because it assumes that life has the possibility of having meaning.  By saying that any life without meaning is absurd assume the contrary; that life is not absurd if there is meaning to life.  It was the philosopher Socrates who once said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”[2]  If there is no meaning to life then it is absurd even to think that anything in life would have meaning or be meaningful.  In fact if anyone were to think that everything in life is meaningless, then they are truly living a self-defeating philosophy of life.   “Kick this around” without spinning the argument on its head and it is not too difficult to see that the premise can be and is in its isolated sense true.[3]  But that is were it ends.  Why?  Because the  waters start to get muddy with his second premise.
Premise 2:  Meaning can only be provided by a God higher than one's self.

Here he makes the assumption that God’s existence brings meaning to life.  In this premise notice that he also tries to put a qualifying on what God he is trying to define by adding the phrase “higher than one’s self.”  This is neither logically nor existentially plausible.  Let me see if I can sum what I mean here.

When I  make the statement that this premise is not logically plausible, I am critiquing the part of the statement “a God higher than one’s self.”  Does he think that if one creates a god out of wood or stone that the (created) god is higher than its creator (the man)? Does he really want to go there?

Let me see if I can illustrate this. Let’s imagine that a pagan in the deepest darkest recesses of the globe decides one day to make a "god".  He takes his machete, chops down the biggest and best tree he can find.  After carving all the bark off the tree, he starts cutting and carving muscles, engraving a bunch of eyes going round the circumference of the trunk, and big teeth, to make the (create) a god that is strong, all seeing, and fierce.  Once he is finished, he lifts up this new god erect, and makes offerings to it from the first fruits of the hunt or the produce and then . . . bows down and worships it. Who is higher than who?  Hmmm, sounds a lot like the old prophet Isaiah’s words

14 Surely he cuts cedars for himself, and takes a cypress or an     oak and raises it for himself among the trees of the forest. He plants a fir, and the rain makes it grow. 15 Then it becomes something for a man to burn, so he takes one of them and warms himself; he also makes a fire to bake bread. He also makes a god and worships it; he makes it a graven image and falls down before it. 16 Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he eats meat as he roasts a roast and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, “Aha! I am warm, I have seen the fire.” 17 But the rest of it he makes into a god, his graven image. He falls down before it and worships; he also prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god.” [4]

In all sincerity this premise is absurd.  Why?  Let's look at it again.  "Meaning can only be provided by a God higher than one's self."  Is the tree cut down by the pagan, really higher than the man (the pagan in this case) in the created order of things?  No!  It is the happy pagan, in spite of his worldview,  who knows within his heart of hearts that there is the one true God; but he creates this "god" as an idol of mind in his not wanting to follow the one true God.

So what is the premise appearing to assume?  It gives this writer the picture that my atheist friend is saying, that if God "exists"OR assuming that God exists; this "God" is no different than the mythological deities of the polytheistic religions; no different than an imaginary God who moves things around in a relentless and cruel fashion.  There is no source for finding any meaning in any of these interpretations of "God."

If this is the case, there is a second problem with his second premise.

Since the second premise is making an assumption that God exists, which by the way I believe to be true, we can assume that this God is not some deity like I have very briefly described in the preceding paragraph.   Assuming that God searches out those to fellowship with Him, is it God that really “provides meaning” or is it something else?  You see when I was at the Reason Rally this past March, I was asked by one the cordial atheists, "Why do you worship the Christian God and not some other god?  What makes the Christian God the right one?" Assuming that the Judeo-Christian God, who reveals Himself in Scripture, searches out those to fellowship with Him [5], is it God who really “provides meaning” or is it something else related to the Judeo-Christian God that brings meaning?

All the other deities of the other world religions are impersonal.  In Islam, Allah moves events and people around like a cosmic chess player, according to his will (kismet - fate).  The pantheon of deities in the eastern religions are also impersonal.  The worshiper of these deities does not have a relationship with them but worships them out of blind obedience to the religious authorities and the sacred writings.  So the question still stands, where does meaning really come from?

Huh, if we were to put God on the same level of worship as the Muslim worshiping Allah or those putting vegetables out for a god in the pantheon of deities from the east, we would have to say, that is not true.

What do we do to find meaning and purpose in life?  Where do we go to find meaning and purpose in life?  Can a house or a fancy car bring meaning and purpose in life?  No.  Can a lot of money bring meaning and purpose in life?  How much is too much money?  When John D. Rockefeller was asked “how much would be enough?” he answered “just a little bit more.” What an ironic answer, coming from America’s wealthiest businessman who at the height of his financial success personally accounted for almost 2% of total US GDP!

So it is not in material wealth where meaning is found.  Sure man can worship his material wealth, but like the happy pagan creating his deity, man's wealth is not higher than himself.  It is not in monetary wealth.  Sure man can worship money, but money is created by man and so is his wealth.  Just ask Rockefeller. 

Let's cut to the chase. May suggest to you that meaning comes from relationships?  Relationships with our spouse, or a member of the opposite sex, or our fellow man may or may not bring forth a meaningful relationship. But we do seek meaning in those relationships.  So relationships are the avenue by which we search out to find meaning and purpose for our lives.  Why do we do this?

Because inanimate objects are impersonal and when we are left to ourselves we are only looking for meaning for our lives within ourselves when it is all said and done.  The God of the Judeo Christian faith is a personal God and we find our meaning and purpose in a relationship with Him through His Son Jesus Christ.  Sure you can find meaning in relationships and friendships with your fellow human beings, but you know what?  People will let you down.

The pagan deities let their worshipers down.  May I suggest to you that God, being the relational God, desires and initiates the relationship and He will never let you down.  Meaning is found in a personal relationship, where one knows God through the spiritual disciplines of Bible study, devotional prayer time, fellowship and worship, to name a few.  You that you cannot have that kind of relationship with your car nor the contents of your wallet that are all lower on the chain than man.

So my atheist friend's premise really "misses the target" in defending his argument.  In fact from here the rest syllogism is a moot point.  But I need to show the short comings of the third premise before wrapping this up.  

Premise 3:  God, if he exists, has no God higher than himself.

If we look at the statement of this premise by itself, it is true.  If God exists, and for those who believe He does that statement is true.  The second part can be assumed to be true by the believer based upon all kinds of evidence available to us that bolsters our faith.  It isn't blind faith we see things like the arguments for a First Cause, the design argument and the moral law argument that the God who exists has no god higher than Himself.

Someone might ask, if God is the First Cause of all that is created, what caused God?  While a premise might be from a conclusion of a prior syllogism, this one is not the case.  It is an assumption based upon  the prior two premises, based upon the phrase, "if he exists."  The atheist's assumption is that there is no God.  So the "if" clause in this premise is a non issue.

When I have used the word "God"in the context of this posting I am speaking of a God who is personal, infinite in power, knowledge, and presence and yet He is transcendent.   God is the First Uncaused Cause that has nothing or no one before Him.  God is the only entity in existence, the reason for whose existence is in Himself... Necessary being.  God created everything but nothing created God, because God is uncreated.  I could delve more into this but that is for another posting.

So what does this say about the conclusions:  God’s life is meaningless and God’s life is absurd?  What is his premises say, never really reach the conclusions.  If this were a logical syllogism, empirically and existentially, and God did not exist, then I would agree with him.  However this syllogism is a self-defeating argument that never reaches the  conclusions.  I can’t even say “close but no cigar.”    I won't even give it an "A" for effort.


[1] A syllogism is another name for a logical argument that possesses more than one premise and comes to a conclusion.  (E.g., Premise 1:  A bachelor by definition is an unmarried man, Premise 2:  Bill is an unmarried man;  Conclusion: Therefore Bill is a bachelor.)  A syllogism may have more than one premise, but as you will see here in this discussion I will show that the syllogism from this atheist is logically and existentially self defeating.

[2} Socrates, in Plato, Dialogues, Apology; Greek philosopher in Athens (469 BC - 399 BC)

[3]  Imagine for a moment after reading Jacques Derrida's works on deconstruction and meaninglessness wondering if he found is work meaningful.  
[4]  Isaiah 44:14-17.

[5]  John 4:22-26.