Sunday, October 15, 2006

Steve Lovell Responds to John Loftus

I've taken this from the comment line to its own line.

Loftus' response (linked above) to my paper and subsequent comments is interesting.

I have attempted to defend a position I call Divine Nature Theory (DNT) which I will try to summarise here. DNT seeks to avoid the Euthyphro dilemma by saying that God's commands are rooted in his nature. This is intended to make morality dependant on God without making it arbitrary.

Questions then arise about how we come to our knowledge of morality and how we know that God is good.
My view is that God gave us the gift of conscience, and that we can (in general) trust our conscience even if we don't know that it was given to us by God.

In this way we can use our conscience to form moral beliefs ... including ultimately the belief that God is good. Here I've been charged with accepting an objectionable circularity. I admit the circularity, I only deny that it's objectionable.

Loftus comments that he thinks "inherent circularity in trying to defend the DNT points to the non-existence of God."

I'm not sure what exactly comes under the word "defend" here. The circularity appears in offering a justification of our belief that God is good which includes a description of the where our conscience has come from any why it's reliable. This justification is one that I offer within DNT and is a defence in the negative sense of showing how moral knowledge is possible on DNT. It is not a defense in the sense of an argument for DNT. Of course if there were no "negative" defense then a positive one would be out of the question ... but that's a different point.

Anyway, Loftus goes on to quote my common response here, which is an analogy with the evolutionary account of our senses. It goes like this ...

“It might be helpful to consider the similarities of a non-moral case: trusting our senses. One theory of why we should trust our senses is that natural selection would have eliminated species whose senses weren't reliable. But why should we accept this theory? Because it's confirmed by scientific data? But that data comes to us through our senses! The justification is circular.”

What would Loftus say if to me "the inherent "inherent circularity in trying to defend evolution points to the truth of creationism."?

If Loftus thinks the circularity involved in DNT counts against it, then surely this circularity is equally damaging to evolution.

Loftus' response here is:
"But is this really an analogous case for our moral faculties? We are able to justify our senses pragmatically, but that’s all. They seem to help us live and work and play in our world. Can we trust our senses to tell us what is real? No."

So the case is apparently not analogus because we cannot have anything but a pragmatic confidence in our senses. Does Loftus think that we can have more confidence (and not of a pragmatic kind) in our moral beliefs than in our beliefs based on our senses? If so, this is surely a very unusual position for an atheist.

I don't really see what else Loftus can mean by saying that the two cases aren't analogous. But perhaps his problem is just that while the analogy is a good one it can't do the work I want it to.
Presumably it wont do the work I want it to because beliefs based on our senses are trusted only pragmatically but I'm trying to defend a higher form of confidence for our moral beliefs.

Now I am trying to defend a higher form of confidence for our moral beliefs than a mere pragmatic confidence, but if this is Loftus' view then he has really given the game away ... since it would follow that on his view we can only have (at best) a pragmatic confidence in our moral beliefs, in other words our moral beliefs would be those we can get away with espousing. This doesn't seem to be a good way of arguing that Atheism can ground an objective morality just as well as Theism.

But perhaps Loftus is more confident in his moral beliefs than in those based on his senses. If so, I'd like to know where he thinks our moral beliefs come from and how such moral confidence is possible in a world of scepticism about both God and our senses.


Edwardtbabinski said...

Has anybody here read Marc Hauser's book, Moral Minds? or at least read reviews that synopsize that author's research and points? Dawkins included several good points from Hauser's book in his own recent work, The God Delusion, as did Frans de Waal in his recent debate book, Primates and Philosophers.

I wonder what Lewis's reaction would have been to Hauser's and de Waal's work? They both take the moral question beyond the "God did it" assumption, and ask questions based on research of which Lewis's generation was unaware.

Anonymous said...

The subject of objective morality is a difficult one, for sure. But I've argued that the theist doesn't have any better grounding for morals than I do, despite her protestations to the contrary. We're all in the same boat, except that I recognize this, whereas the theist does not. And I think it's healthier to see this, lest one go headlong into another "manifest Destiny" or to follow in the footsteps of a Kamakazi pilot of suicide bomber.

Anonymous said...


Your comments here only go to show what bad shape your position is in. You make it seem as though the reason that atheism is no worse at grounding ethics than is theism is because neither has the resources to ground anything objective at all.

As I said before, I rather doubt this is the best way of making your case ... and it certainly doesn't amount to a response to my presentation of DNT. I've admitted a circularity. For reasons I've explained, I don't find that circularity to be problematic. For reasons you haven't explained, you do find that circularity problematic.

For more on my views on this circularity see

Anonymous said...

What would Loftus say if to me "the inherent circularity in trying to defend evolution points to the truth of creationism."?

As you know there are differing accounts of both creation and evolution. But this is non-analogous too. I didn't argue that the circularity of the DNT led to the belief in atheism, or pantheism, or agnosticism. I said it points to the non-existence of theism. Whatever else may be the case is still not answered. Whereas if there is an inherent circularity in one account (or all accounts) of evolution you're saying that it points to one particular version of creation (since there are many), or maybe to creationism in general, where the specifics must be hammered out from there.

Loftus thinks the circularity involved in DNT counts against it, then surely this circularity is equally damaging to evolution.

There is a circularity to much, if not all, of our thinking in metaphysical views. That I'll admit. The question always seem to be whether a view is viciously circular. And a major test, if not THE test, for whether something is circular seems to be generally acknowledged to be whether or not there is some evidence that supports the view. And you're dealing with a concept that has no evidence to it. Regardless, deciding whether something is viciously circular is also a debate that takes place based upon Baeysian background factors.

I didn't argue you were wrong because it was circular. I said it was an indicator (or comfirmation) that your God doesn't exist.

Anonymous said...


First, I presume you didn't mean to deny the existence of theism, only the existence of God. I personally am very confident in the existence of theism, being a theist myself, but do occasionally doubt whether that theism is true, ie whether God exists. Anyway ...

Your position now appears to have shifted from what you were originally defending. Your original contention was that theism offers no better foundation for ethics than does atheism.

This would be an interesting assertion and one worth debating.

But your problem with my theistic ethics now seems to have reduced to the alleged non-existence of evidence for theism. The status of the evidence for theism is, of course, a matter of some debate. I thought your challenge to my theistic ethic was supposed to be independant of the outcome of that debate.

Do you think someone arguing that DNT can ground an objective ethic is obliged to first argue for God?

My view is that the existence of the Christian God would provide an adequate ground for an objective ethic. I don't think this so much as commits me to the existence of God never mind of to the existence of evidence for his existence. I do think God exists, and that the evidence is good, but that's logically separate from claiming that DNT shows how the existence of God could ground an objective ethic. For that reason, I don't think you've undermined the claim that DNT could be the basis of a viable objective ethic.

On the circularity point I think you're on slightly dodgy ground. I do think theres evidence for evolution. But I also think that all that evidence comes by way of the senses and that evolution is committed to explaining the reliability of our senses in evolutionary terms. So while there may be evidence for evolution it is not evidence that would allow you to avoid the circularity in question. Still, I don't think the atheist needs to avoid this circularity, it's just the sort of circularity you'd expect if evolution was true. The same goes for the circularity that arises for DNT.