Neil Shenvi - Apologetics

The Moral Argument - part 4

This is the manuscript from a talk that I gave to Ratio Christi at NCState. The slides from the talk can be found on YouTube here.

This is part 4 of a five-part talk on the moral argument for God's existence. In part 3, I defended the second premise of the moral argument: the claim that objective moral values and duties do in fact exist. In this section, I'd like to introduce what I call the transcendental-moral argument for God's existence, which I think is even more powerful than the moral argument in its standard form. The transcendental-moral argument focuses on one particular activity -the pursuit of the truth. All of us, as human beings, tend to instinctively seek after the truth for its own sake. We don't seek to know the truth only if we think the truth will make us happy or improve our marriage or whiten our teeth. We value the truth intrinsically, for what it is, not for what it can do for us. Moreover, most of us feel that seeking the truth is our obligation; it is something we all ought to do, whether or not the truth happens to make us happy. But the transcendental-moral argument asks whether either of these propositions are true if God does not exist. Let's look at the argument in more detail.

The argument has two premises and a conclusion. The first premise is that, if a truth-loving God does not exist, then seeking the truth is neither intrinsically good nor morally obligatory. The second premise is that truth-seeking is intrinsically good and morally obligatory. But if both premises are true, then it follows logically that a truth-loving God must exist. So how do we defend these two premises? First, let's look at the premise that a truth-loving God is needed explain the intrinsic value and obligatory nature of truth-seeking. Why do I say that? First, it is extremely hard to imagine any naturalistic theory of morality that can regard truth as intrinsically rather than instrumentally valuable. Something is instrumentally valuable if it is good insofar as it leads to some other ultimate good. Something is intrinsically valuable if it is good simply for what it is in itself, not for what it can produce. For example, if human flourishing is the ultimate good, as it is for most naturalistic theories of morality, then truth is only good insofar as it leads to human flourishing. Truth is not good if it does not produce human flourishing. Let me quote my friend Vlad Chituc, an atheist blogger, at some length. He writes the following on his blog: "Saying knowledge is an inherent good certainly sounds appealing, but it's much more difficult to justify in practice. Having anything as an inherent good is a tough sell in a naturalistic framework. In this type of system, anything else [that is, besides human flourishing] can only be instrumentally good, not inherently good. It seems clear to me that knowledge is an instrumental good in this case, which means we should only be be pursuing it if it makes the world a better place."

This observation leads immediately to the second problem. Even if we claim that moral duties can be grounded within a naturalistic framework, it seems that truth-seeking cannot be one of these moral duties since truth-seeking sometimes is evil. Here's one obvious example, although it's easy to think of others. Imagine your grandmother is a Christian and is lying on her deathbed. She says "I'm sad to die, but I'm so happy to finally see the God who loves and rescued me." Now, assuming for the sake of argument that atheism is true, is she obligated to seek that truth? Apparently not, because knowing the truth would diminish her flourishing without producing any tangible good. Moreover, if she asks a passing atheist whether atheism is true, it seems that an atheist is morally obligated to lie to her lest he diminish her flourishing. So naturalism cannot claim either than truth is intrinsically good or that we have an obligation to seek the truth.

But can Christianity ground the intrinsic goodness and obligatory character of truth seeking? Yes. Here are just a few verses from the Bible in which God emphatically affirms that he loves the truth and that we are commanded to seek it. Jesus himself declared "I am the way, the truth, and the life" and "you shall know the truth and it shall set you free." So if Christianity is true, then clearly we can affirm the intrinsic goodness and obligatory nature of truth-seeking.

So it seems that premise 1 is true; if a truth-loving God (such as the biblical God) does not exist, then truth seeking is neither intrinsically good nor morally obligatory. But is premise 2 true? Is truth seeking intrinsically good and morally obligatory.

I've already discussed the fact that almost all of us operate on the assumption that both of these facts are true: truth is good and we ought to seek it. But let's say that an atheist wants to deny premise 2 so that he can deny the conclusion of the argument. While that is certainly possible, there is a high price to pay. An atheist who denies that truth-seeking is intrinsically good or morally obligatory will immediately have to stop telling religious believers, or anyone else, to "seek the truth" or to "abandon your religious delusions." Indeed, he will have to admit that truth-seeking is just his own personal preference, like football or bluegrass music. That is a bitter pill to swallow for most free-thinkers who tend to regard truth-seeking as the highest ideal. Therefore, we arrive at an interesting paradox. An atheist really has no basis for saying to the Christian "Abandon Christianity and seek the truth." As a Christian, I could answer "Why? I am happy as a Christian and it has made me an objectively kinder, more loving, and more generous person. If atheism is true, why should I seek the truth? Is the truth intrinsically good? Am I obligated to seek it?" On the other hand, as a Christian, I can tell all people to seek the truth because God loves the truth and because it is our duty to seek it. And that truth, as Jesus said, will set us free.

That concludes the fourth section of this talk. In the next section, I'll ask the question: "If the moral argument is sound, why do we reject it?"

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If anyone reading this essay has questions about it or about Christianity in general, feel free to e-mail me at Neil -AT- I also highly recommend the book The Reason for God by Tim Keller. It is phenomenal. Free sermons treating many of the topics covered by this book can be found here.

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