Today I interview one of the most handsome living philosophers, Erik Wielenberg. Among other things, we discuss:
- ethical non-naturalism vs. theistic ethics
- burden of proof
- evolution and moral skepticism
Download CPBD episode 029 with Erik Wielenberg. Total time is 30:26.
Erik Wielenberg links:
- Erik at DePauw University
- Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe
- God and the Reach of Reason
- “In Defense of Non-Natural, Non-Theistic Moral Realism“
- “On the Evolutionary Debunking of Morality“
Links for things we discussed:
- Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods
- Street, “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value“
- Joyce, The Evolution of Morality
- Joyce, The Myth of Morality
- Ruse, Taking Darwin Seriously
LUKE: Dr. Erik Wielenberg is an associate professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Indiana. He has published over a dozen journal articles on ethics and philosophy of religion and has also written two books: “God and the Reach of Reason” and “Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe”. Dr. Wielenberg, welcome to the show.
ERIK: Thanks a lot. Thanks for having me.
LUKE: First, Erik, would you share with us your faith journey? Were you raised religiously?
ERIK: Sure. I think my story or journey is probably pretty typical for atheists or agnostics. Which is, I was raised religiously. I was raised in the Lutheran tradition, and as I grew up, started to have doubts. I think that’s very common. I can remember being 10, 11, 12 – somewhere in that age range – sitting in Sunday school, and as we were being told various things, sort of looking around at the other kids and wondering, “Are we all buying this? Am I the only one who has doubts about what we’re being told here?”
But I sort of was in the church for a while and I remember, when I was younger, I certainly at some point believed. I remember as a young kid sort of praying at night, but then I think the conviction or the belief sort of faded away as doubts arose. And I think my parents tried to raise me in the church, but then as I got older, as they do with many things, they sort of left it to me to decide whether to stay or what to do in that regard. So I sort of drifted away.
And then in college and later on, as I thought about it more, it did seem like… I guess I didn’t see a compelling reason to think there was a God of the sort posited by Christianity. And I think also the existence of the evil we find in our world… I guess one other aspect of it, I would mention, has to do with studying the philosophy of religion. So really in grad school is when I first started studying philosophy of religion seriously, and then toward the end of grad school I spent a year at Notre Dame.
Before that time I would say I had sort of what you might describe as Richard Dawkins-type tendencies. In particular, as you’re no doubt aware, Dawkins is not just skeptical of religious belief, but he thinks that it’s pretty stupid and that people who have those sorts of beliefs tend to be stupid. And he doesn’t really hide that attitude. So I would say, as a younger, less wise person, I had those sorts of tendencies.
But studying philosophy of religion has really beaten that out of me, and I think that’s a good thing. When you read people like Aquinas and C.S. Lewis, or contemporary thinkers – Alvin Plantinga – and just see what’s going on in philosophy of religion these days, I think you can see that theism isn’t for dummies, it’s not a silly view, and that those thinkers… they’re smarter than most of us and they’re certainly smarter than me. Though my atheism remains, the Dawkins-like tendencies have been lost through studying philosophy of religion.
LUKE: That’s cool. That happened to me as well. It’s very difficult to think theists are stupid after reading people like Alvin Plantinga.
ERIK: Yes, exactly.
LUKE: Well, today, Eric, I want to speak to you specifically about a recent paper you published in “Faith and Philosophy” called “In Defense of Non-Natural Non-Theistic Moral Realism.” One way to summarize your paper would be to say something like, “God is not required for morality. If we’re going to posit something non-physical to explain why rape is objectively wrong, why not just posit the existence of moral brute facts rather than positing the existence of a tri-omni personal creator god as a brute fact, which is both more complicated and opens itself to all the usual criticisms of theistic ethics.” So is that roughly what you’re saying?
ERIK: Yes. That’s a big part of it. At the heart of the paper is the idea that there are what I call “basic ethical facts.” And those are ethical facts that are, as you said, brute, meaning that they have no explanation or foundation outside of themselves. They’re also substantive. That is to say they’re not mere tautologies. They have content.
So another important conclusion I argue for in the paper is that when you examine the various God-based approaches to morality that have been presented, it turns out they’re committed to the existence of basic ethical facts. And I’d say that that’s an important result, because views of that sort – theistic approaches to morality – they’re often presented as views in which God functions as the foundation or grounding for morality.
But this description is misleading, because it turns out that on those views just as on mine, the foundation of morality is simply some collection of basic ethical facts. And that means that the defender of theistic ethics has no business criticizing a view like mine on the grounds that it posits brute moral facts, since we’re really both in the same boat in that regard.
LUKE: My take on the history here is that there were some really serious criticisms of theistic ethics, and then a lot of theists thought that Robert Adams avoided some of those criticisms with his 1999 book, “Finite and Infinite Goods.” But then that account of theistic ethics is one that posits brute moral facts, which of course, then if you’re going to adopt that as your moral theory, you can’t criticize others for positing brute moral facts.
ERIK: Yeah, I think that’s right. That’s the sort of case I’m trying to make. At least in this paper, it’s really not a criticism of Adams’ theory. And I try to criticize Adams’ theory in other places, but here the point is simply: there is a sort of weapon that theists often wield when they’re trying to criticize non-theistic approaches to morality, where they’ll say things like, “Well, look, on these non-theistic approaches you just have these ethical facts that are sort of floating and they have no foundation or grounding.”
And then the idea on their view, it’s all rooted in God. So I’m what I’m trying to bring out is that in fact, no – both theories really posit these facts that you might say are floating in the sense that they have no external foundation or grounding, so that it’s really misleading to say that on a theistic approach, God is this foundation for all of it.
LUKE: So, I think a lot of people will be surprised – both Christians and non-Christians alike – that what is maybe the most popular theistic account of theistic moral realism today, which would be Adams’ theory, posits brute moral facts that are not explained by God. Could you maybe give us a sketch of what Robert Adams’ theory is?
ERIK: Now there’s a lot to the theory. Let me focus on just one part of it and say a bit about how I think that part of the theory is committed to these brute moral facts. The theory has lots of parts. One part is, Adams presents a sort of sophisticated version of divine command theory. So the heart of it is the idea that human moral obligations are constituted by divine command. Now, when he’s explaining that theory, or that part of his theory, the divine command theory, he appeals to certain moral claims.
Let me give you some examples. Here are three of them that he appeals to when he’s trying to explicate his version of divine command theory.
So one is, that only good social relationships can generate morally good reasons to obey command. Another is that, the better the character of the commander, the more reason there is to obey his or her command.
And then a third one is the better the command itself, the more reason there is to obey it.
Now, he doesn’t provide any grounding or explanations for these moral claims. Instead, he appeals to them in the course of trying to provide a foundation for other moral claims, claims about human moral obligation.
So, in his theory, these claims are brute, they have no explanation. So it seems to me that they, and his theory, are basic ethical facts.
So what you get is an overall theory where some moral facts are explained in terms of God, but then you have these other moral facts, that are more foundational, more fundamental, and they’re not explained in terms of God, so they seem to be basic ethical facts.
LUKE: Well how does he really get away with that if some ethical facts are not grounded in God, then why can’t all ethical facts just not be grounded in God and there’s no need to posit God as an explanation for moral facts?
ERIK: Well that sums up the point I’m trying to make. Now I think from Adams’ point of view, what’s going on is that he’s interested in primarily in explicating goodness and moral obligation.
And so his focus is on trying to explain facts about goodness and facts about moral obligation involved with God.
I’m not sure what Adams’ would say about this point that I’m making.
But it maybe that he’s not particularly concerned actually, to ground all moral facts in God, but rather he’s focused primarily on a particular set of moral facts. Facts about goodness. Facts about moral obligation.
LUKE: And who are some of the theistic philosophers who specifically refer to Adams as representing their view of morality?
ERIK: One prominent example would be William Lane Craig. It’s interesting, Adams himself to my knowledge doesn’t seem to really press the case against non-theistic ethics.
In other words, he doesn’t seem to press the case that you actually need God as a foundation for morality.
Whereas William Craig of course, does. It’s one of his main theistic arguments. And so if you look at Craig’s writings and debates, the way that Adams enters Craig’s purview, seems to be that, Craig will often defer to Adams’ theory, as providing responses to various objections to theistic ethics.
For example, the Euthyphro problem, a problem which Adams discusses at length. So it does seem like many theistic thinkers are aware of Adams’ view, and they’ll often sort of point to it, as OK, here’s this objection, but it’s been solved by Adams.
LUKE: Right. Well now, all moral theories face big problems, otherwise, philosophers wouldn’t be so divided about which theory of realism or antirealism is correct, but let’s look at some potential problems for your theory of non-natural ethics.
It seems like, if Adams theory of morality is true, then he has an account of how we can know moral facts, because he would say God told them to us, or worked them into our brain chemistry, kind of writing it on our hearts type of thing.
But if your theory of morality is true, how could it be that we know what is right or wrong? How could it be that we know these brute moral facts?
ERIK: Yeah. This is a big question. So let me mention what I think is one of the best books out there that really addresses that issue head-on, and that book is called Ethical Intuitionism, and it’s by Michael Huemer, who is a philosopher at the University of Colorado.
Huemer hold a non-naturalistic view of morality that I think is similar to mine. And he has lots of interesting stuff to say about moral epistemology that’s really the focus of that book.
Now my own work so far is primarily on I guess we would call the ontology of moral facts.
That is, I’ve been interested so far mainly in trying to figure out what sorts of things moral facts might be and in particular whether their existence would require the existence of God.
So I’m just sort of now getting into exploring how human beings might get knowledge of moral facts in my view. So let me saw a bit about my ideas so far.
So, as I see it, the toughest challenge here for a view like mine, is explaining how are moral beliefs might match up with or correspond to the non-natural moral facts.
Now this is a challenge because presumably on a view like mine there’s no causal connection between the moral facts and moral belief. And of course, in my view, there’s no God to make sure that our moral beliefs correspond to the moral facts.
So, I think in light of that, the big question is how might such a correlation occur? I actually have a paper on this coming out soon. The paper is called “On the Evolutionary Debunking of Morality”, available on my website.
Here’s a summary of the core idea of that model I developed in that paper. And it goes something like this…
We tend to believe that we’re surrounded by a moral barrier. So that, there are certain things that shouldn’t be done to us no matter what. For example, we tend to think we shouldn’t be killed for entertainment. That we shouldn’t be raped. That we shouldn’t be exploited and so on.
Now, the terminology that gets used to express this basic idea, certainly varies from one culture to another. But I think there’s good evidence that these kinds of beliefs are pretty widespread. In the west we tend to use the language of moral rights to talk about this sort of thing.
Now it seems to be it’s pretty easy to spin out a plausible evolutionary story about why being disposed to have beliefs like this might be part of human nature.
So very briefly, if you have these sorts of beliefs, you’ll be strong and motivated to resist being treated in ways that are disadvantageous for you from an evolutionary point of view.
So you’ll resist being exploited and raped and so on, which, evolutionary speaking, tends to be good. OK, so that says a bit about the moral beliefs. Let me try to bring some moral facts into the picture.
LUKE: Well, would you mind recommending some resources on reading up on that evolutionary account of morality? Like, I’m thinking of Street’s article, and Joyce’s Evolution of Morality.
ERIK: Yeah. So in fact, this paper that I mentioned is really a response to those sorts of arguments. So yeah, there’s Sharon Street’s paper. Joyce has a couple books.
And then you have people like Michael Ruse. These thinkers are all developing evolutionary explanation with human moral beliefs. Now it’s interesting that they then try to use that to argue for a kind of moral skepticism.
So the overall strategy of my paper is to resist those kinds of arguments. And then along the way I try to sketch at least a partial model of how human beings might get knowledge of certain moral facts.
And then the trick is to connect it up with the rights themselves and to tell the facts about moral rights. So there I’d say, when it comes to rights, there’s lots of theories about the sort of foundation of rights.
But one widely accepted idea is that if these moral rights are real then they supervene or depend on the presence of certain cognitive faculties.
And so it turns out, according to those theories, that if you’re sufficiently cognitively advanced to form the belief that you have these moral rights, then you actually have them. And this is because the moral rights will supervene or depend on the very cognitive faculties that generate your beliefs about rights.
So in that way, the beliefs about rights could correspond to rights themselves despite the absence of the causal connection between the rights and the beliefs, and despite the absence of a supernatural being.
Now that is a sort of a teaser. That’s the short version and for the full version, obviously many questions and so on, will arise. The full version of the story is in that paper that I mentioned earlier.
LUKE: Oh that is cool, I look forward to reading that paper. That’s a huge issue in my own moral thinking is this Darwinian dilemma.
LUKE: Well I want to ask you a question about your book “Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe”.
LUKE: You give in that book a list of activities that you think have intrinsic value. And here I’ll quote you: “My list would include falling in love, engaging in intellectually stimulating activity, being creative, experiencing pleasure and teaching. And how can I justify my list of intrinsically worthwhile activities? I am afraid I have no philosophical proof, but many of the things we know are such that we cannot give proof. Claims about what is intrinsically good are the axioms of ethical theory. They are the starting points, the first principles. As such, they are unlikely to be the sorts of things that can be proved. Nevertheless, it is perfectly consistent to say that some activities are intrinsically valuable and that we know what some of them are.”
But this seems is not different than Alvin Plantinga saying, “I know somethings about God in a properly basic way, such as God created this or it seems to me God is reconciling humanity to Himself. I have no philosophical proof for this, but we know may things for which we cannot give proof. Such claims are the starting points, the first principles. Nevertheless it is perfectly consistent for me to say that God does these things and that we know it.”
Why would we take your argument about morality any more seriously than Plantinga’s argument about God?
ERIK: Yes, a couple of things. One of them is, Plantinga’s argument is worth taking seriously in the sense of it is worth considering and thinking about what he has to say, and in fact there actually are certain parallels.
I think your question is good and that brings out the certain parallels between my approach and Plantinga’s which is, Plantinga, he is trying to defend the idea that belief in God can be properly basic. So that some people can know that God exists in a direct way, even if they have no argument or proof for that conclusion.
And that is the same sort of case, I am trying to make with, at least some moral claims. Not all of them but for these foundational ones. So it’s, “Hey, Wielenberg, where do you get off making that case but also rejecting Plantinga’s case?”
ERIK: I do think it is crucial to see that if there aren’t some things that can be known, even though we cannot prove them. Some things that we know simply because they are obviously true, then it seems to me the knowledge of any sort is going to be impossible.
Without some starting points we can’t get anywhere. So I say that the claims, for example that pain is intrinsically bad, or that love is intrinsically good, are obviously true and can be known even if they cannot be proven. Plantinga says something similar about the claim that God exists. So what is the difference between my claims and Plantinga’s?
I would say that there are two differences. First, the intrinsic badness of pain seems obvious to me, the existence of God doesn’t, sort of a mundane point. Now perhaps there are people out there to whom it isn’t obvious that pain is intrinsically bad. Perhaps there are even people out there to whom it isn’t obvious that contradictions can’t be true.
Fair enough. I mean each of us simply has to start with how things seem to us. However, I think more can be said, which is this, as Plantinga himself acknowledged it, we sometimes have reasons to doubt claims that seem obviously true to us.
So this idea that you can know something simply because it is obviously true, that doesn’t imply that that belief can’t be thrown into doubt, or overridden by some other sort of consideration. It’s not a claim about infallibility. And in cases of that sort, we lose our warrant for believing the defeated claim. And so in the case of the claim that God exists, I think they are actually are defeaters, that’s where obviously Plantinga, and I disagree.
For example, I think the nature and distribution of the evil we find in the world is a defeater for the belief that a perfect God exists. So certain fundamental moral claim seems obviously true to me, and as far as I can see there aren’t any defeaters for such claims. By contrast, the claim that God exists, doesn’t seem obviously true to me, and in any case I think there actually are defeaters for that claim.
LUKE: Right. And so there are lots of defeaters we might think of where the existence of the God of classical theism in here. Here we could list all the usual atheistic arguments about evil, and divine hiddenness and the demographics of theism, and the potential incoherence of classical theism. Whereas its more difficult to think of a defeater for the claim that pain is intrinsically bad.
ERIK: That’s the idea. And I mean, of course one feature of my view is it does suggest the strategy for objecting which is, “OK, try to find a defeater.” And so there, that’s in fact why a lot of my work in ethics is sort of defensive. I’m really not of my business is in trying to prove, these foundational moral claims, because I just don’t know how that would go.
And so my strategy is, more along the lines of, “Well they seem right to me. What are the objections? Let’s try to respond to those.” And in fact, you might agree and you might even see a bit of a parallel to Plantinga, because Plantinga I think, if you look at his body of work, there actually isn’t all that much in the way of trying to provide these decisive arguments for God’s existence.
ERIK: You do get the sense that it seem right to him and then he is trying to defend the view against various sorts of objections.
LUKE: Right. Now in the debate over the existence of God and then also, in the debate over the existence of moral values – n each debate, who do you think carries the burden of proof?
ERIK: Yeah. That’s a good question. I guess in the debate over moral values, to me it does seem that the commonsense view is that you know certain things are right and wrong in a robust way, so that’s some sort of moral realism. To me that seems to be the natural starting point.
In the case of God as I say, to me the existence of God doesn’t seem true, it doesn’t seem to carry the Prima Facie plausibility. So, I guess in the debate over the existence of God, it’s actually unclear to me where the burden of proof lies. And in fact that of course, I guess is one of the contested issues.
LUKE: Well, but if you are saying that moral realism would be the default position because its the commonsense view. I mean, pretty obviously in the history of the world commonsense view about God is that some kind of supernatural being or beings exist.
ERIK: I would say the commonsense view, that doesn’t mean it is the most popular view historically is not to poll people and find out what most people believe. It actually is more…
You start with the way things seem to you. So I think you are right that if it’s a question of “what’s most popular belief?” Then maybe moral realism and theism historically have been the most popular.
But if its a question of me as an individual philosopher, when I’m trying to think these things through. There moral realism to me, seems more plausible than the existence of God does. However, Plantinga clearly sees things differently. And so I think it may be perfectly reasonable for Plantinga, given the way things seem to him, to approach the debate of the existence of God in something like the way I am approaching the debate about morality.
So, yeah, that’s why I think it’s actually hard to say, is there some rule about who has the burden of proof? I’m not actually sure that there is.
LUKE: So, I’ll give you a chance to argue against the approach to burden of proof that seems most intuitive to me at the moment, and that would be…
LUKE: … whoever’s making the positive existence claim has the burden of proof, right? And so, if somebody says “The moon exists”, they have the burden of proof to provide evidence for the existence of the moon. And then, well, it turns out that evidence is very easy to come by.
But then when you say “Falling in love has intrinsic value.” The burden of proof would be on the person who’s claiming that and it’s difficult to think of what evidence one could provide for that. And same with the existence of a Tri-Omni Creator God.
ERIK: One question that arises is just, I mean, you’ve mentioned the moon but, you know. Suppose you and I sit at a table and there’s a cup on the table, we can both see it. And I say “Well, look there’s a cup here.” I guess I’m wondering if there’s a burden of proof there. Or would you say in that case it’s just, that it’s so easy to provide evidence or I just say “Look, don’t you see the cup?”
LUKE: I would say two things. I would say one, it’s pretty easy to provide something that we would both consider significant evidence for the existence of the cup. But then also I would say, and I think this causes a lot of confusion in the debate over the burden of proof – I would say that most of the time we don’t make that our battle. I mean, I’m just not very interested in demonstrating to you that the cup exists or that other minds exist.
So the reason that I don’t enter that debate is not because I don’t have the burden of proof but because I just don’t care about arguing about that issue.
ERIK: OK. Presumably it’s because the existence of the cup is just obvious to both of us.
LUKE: Well, not even that. It’s just, I mean, there’s some things that are not very obvious but I’m not going to, you know, I have limited time in my life. I am not going to dedicate my life to demonstrating the truth of general relativity. That’s somebody else’s battle. And even though I accept that, I’m not going to make that my battle because I don’t have time to be an expert on everything.
Even though I think that the burden of proof is on somebody who, like me, asserts that general relativity is a generally a very plausible theory of the universe.
ERIK: You know, to argue persuasively against this sort of general principle, I mean, I have to think about this more. But I guess I’m wondering … I mean, there may be these sort of more pragmatic reasons about why, who wants to argue about whether there’s a cup here and lots of things that you just don’t want to spend your time arguing about.
I guess I’m wondering whether there would be cases where… You know, we’re both outside and it’s just pouring rain [laughs] and if someone comes along and denies the existence of rain, in a case like that, I’m actually inclined to say that “Gee, maybe that’s the person who got the burden of making the argument.”
So, given a certain epistemic situation it might actually be that, look, the existence of something is just so obvious that if I were to, in a certain inane way, assert “Hey, it’s raining!” [laughs] I’m not sure I carry much of a burden there. So I’m actually wondering whether that rule is, you know, holds as a general principle.
LUKE: OK. Cool! Well, I think that gives people at least two approaches to burden of proof that they can think about. But I’d like to return to your work. Erik, it seems to me that your ideas about morality lie beyond the usual paradigms of naturalism versus supernaturalism and might fall into a category that we would call just non-naturalism? Well, first of all. What is non-naturalism? And then, how is non-naturalism any better off, ontologically or epistemologically than super-naturalism?
ERIK: When it comes to your morality I think that naturalism and supernaturalism, at least on their face, they actually have something in common. Which is that they’re both presented as reductive theories of morality where the basic idea is to say, we’ve got the following category of morality, moral facts. And if we think that, first of all, there are moral facts, what sort of a thing are they? How do they fit into the universe?
And naturalism and supernaturalism in a way what they’re both trying to do actually is demystify moral facts. And so the naturalist is trying to say, typically something like “Well, these moral facts, they actually just turn out to be more familiar natural facts, they can be studied by empirical science and so there’s nothing weird or mysterious about them.”
Whereas the supernaturalist often presents his theory or her theory as making a similar kind of case except they’ll want to say “Well, these moral facts, they turn out to be facts about God or about some supernatural entity or some relation to God.” And so in both cases, what they’re trying to do is say “Look, these moral facts are really just this other kind of fact. And if we can understand this other kind of fact then the sort of mystery and weirdness of morality seems to go away.”
Then non-naturalism is the non-reductive view and that’s the view that says “Look, these moral facts are just their own kind of thing. They can’t be reduced to some other kind of fact. They’re the fundamental category of fact.”
LUKE: With the exception of Robert Adams view of morality which doesn’t quite reduce everything.
ERIK: Yeah, supernaturalism is typically billed as this reductive view but again, the case I’m making is that if you get into the details, the nitty-gritty of some of those theories, they’re actually only partially reductive where they reduce some of the moral facts but then there’s this sort of leftover residue.
LUKE: Right. Metaphysical residue.
ERIK: Yeah, exactly. Gunk. Moral gunk that can’t be cleaned up.
LUKE: We just hate things that can’t be explained.
ERIK: Yes. [laughs] Yeah. So, the main advantage of non-naturalism over supernaturalism is actually ontological. Instead of that of the main argument of my Faith and Philosophy paper is right, then both naturalism and supernaturalism are committed to the existence of what I call the basic ethical facts. But of course supernaturalism is also committed to the existence of God.
But in my view there’s good reason to be skeptical of the existence of God and so that’s a disadvantage for supernaturalism, a disadvantage that my view lacks. So really it’s like both views, if I’m right, are committed to these basic ethical facts but then the supernaturalist view is also committed to the existence of God. So all the troubles about that are inherited by the supernaturalist approach.
ERIK: Now, systemalogically, not sure actually where it breaks there, I guess it actually seems to me that anybody who thinks there are moral facts, you know. Whatever camp you’re in, whatever realist camp you’re in, is going to have some explaining to do. So I guess, again, when it comes to non-naturalism I would refer to a point in Huemer’s book “Ethical Intuitionism”, definitely worth considering. And again, I’m just trying to work out my own theory in that area. And so there again, I point to that paper I mentioned before on the evolutionary debunking of morality.
LUKE: Well, and it’s important to note that the evolutionary dilemma for ethical knowledge applies just as much to the naturalist as to the non-naturalist.
ERIK: Yeah. That’s right.
LUKE: Well, Erik, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Thanks for coming on the show.
ERIK: Luke, thanks a lot. I do appreciate it. I definitely appreciate this opportunity to talk about my ideas. Thanks a lot.