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In his book Jesus Loves Canaanites Randall Rauser argues that our moral intuitions are evidence that God would not have commanded the killing of children in Old Testament passages.  I agree with this but I think this sort of argument can raise some interesting philosophical and theological issues.  Here is my take. 

The first theological question is whether he has this backwards.  That is shouldn’t our reading of scripture be guiding our moral intuitions rather than our moral intuitions guiding our reading of scripture?   In short, I think both Rauser and I agree that scripture says God’s law is written on our hearts Romans 2:14-16. (consider also other passages about the holy spirit helping us understand what to do etc.) so scripture itself tells us our conscience can be a good guide to morality.  Our conscience can guide our interpretation of scripture and scripture can guide our conscience.   

The second question involves the epistemic moral argument I subscribe to.   The argument might be thought of in terms of Plantinga’s argument against naturalism but limited to moral claims.  Basically, it argues that if naturalism and evolution are true then we have no way to reliably know what morality requires.   Some of the points Rauser makes suggests he may not subscribe to that argument. For example he says:

“So, for example, while Tom believes that the act of devotionally killing one’s child as an offering to God is possibly morally right (i.e. if God has commanded it), powerful moral intuitions support the conclusion that it is necessarily wrong (i.e. God could not command it).[54] For that reason, we believe that it could not possibly be a moral praiseworthy or laudatory (let alone required) action, and so we conclude that God did not command it and that conclusion is independent of the results of any survey of biblical data.”

Rauser, Randal. Jesus Loves Canaanites: Biblical Genocide in the Light of Moral Intuition (pp. 56-57). 2 Cup Press. Kindle Edition.

If we know what is morally right and wrong based on our intuitions, independent of the bible (and therefore even without the biblical claim that we have God’s law written on our heart) then why would we need scripture or Christianity to help us understand morality? Indeed if we are saying we will change our understanding of scripture based on our moral intuitions, Rauser would seem to be saying we know what morality requires better than we know what scripture requires.   But then how is scripture really helpful for living a righteous life?  And if we are just going to reinterpret scripture we consider bad morality why even pretend scripture is guiding our morality?  Instead, we are just quoting scripture when it agrees with our pre-existing view of the world and tossing it out when it doesn’t.   So why be concerned with the bible or religious teaching at all?  Rauser has a few approaches he could take in answering these questions but here I will offer my own approach, which I believe are largely consistent with Rauser’s stated views – although I don’t know if he actually endorses them. 

My answer is that without God or some supernatural entity guiding our moral intuitions we have no basis to think they are at all reliable.  But Randall seems to make an argument that our moral intuitions do have rational grounding.  And although he clearly takes the Christian perspective in writing this book, it seems his rational grounding of our moral intuitions is not dependent on Christianity or God. 

Rauser, likens moral skeptics to skeptics of the external world – which follow the lines Berkley and others who followed the lines of various cartesian skeptical arguments. (e.g., how do we know we are not dreaming, in a matrix, or a brain in a vat etc.?)  He first tries to give an example where someone believes without evidence – but I argue he is failing to recognize “subjective evidence” is in fact evidence here: 

He then offers arguments from Reid and GE Moore that we are justified in rejecting skepticism of the external world based on intuition.  He will later then use intuition as a justification for our moral beliefs.  Moral intuitionalism is a form or moral realism shared by prominent atheist philosophers such as Michael Huemer, and Russ Shaefer Landau.    Let’s look at how Rauser formulates the argument against skepticism of the external world.    

“Many other philosophers have joined Reid in exploring common sense rebuttals to idealism and skepticism. For example, more than a century after Reid, the British philosopher G.E. Moore offered his own famous refutation of Berkeley’s kind of skepticism. In his essay “Proof of an External World,” Moore provides the following deliciously straightforward rebuttal to idealistic skepticism about the external world: “Here’s one hand and here’s another.”[56] In other words, Moore responds to the claim that we do not perceive anything outside of our minds by insisting that he perceives two hands outside his mind. The simple logic is that if Moore is actually now perceiving his hands “out there” in a world external to his mind, then it follows that there is a world out there external to our minds which we perceive. To be sure, Moore is not claiming that he can provide a general proof to satisfy the skeptic just as one may not be able to establish to the satisfaction of the skeptic that we are not now in a matrix.[57] For that reason, Moore anticipates that the skeptic will retort like this: “If you cannot prove your premiss that here is one hand and here is another, then you do not know it.”[58] Nonetheless, Moore flatly denies this conclusion. The fact that I cannot provide an argument to satisfy the skeptic does not prevent me from knowing that there is a hand external to my mind. Just as I don’t need to be able to convince the detective before I can know that I didn’t commit the murder, so I don’t need to be able to provide a universally compelling disproof of skepticism to believe—and indeed, to know—that it is false. The key, as Moore observes, is that “I can know things, which I cannot prove; and among things which I certainly did know, even if (as I think) I could not prove them, were the premisses of my two proofs.”[59] If Moore is right then it turns out that knowing depends less on being able to refute the skeptic to the skeptic’s satisfaction and more on simply paying close attention to the quality and nature of one’s own sense perceptual experience of the world, experience that simply overwhelms the skeptic’s claim.

Rauser, Randal. Jesus Loves Canaanites: Biblical Genocide in the Light of Moral Intuition (pp. 65-66). 2 Cup Press. Kindle Edition.

Ok many points can be made here.  First yes you can rationally believe something and even “know” it despite the fact that you can not convince others of it.    I have addressed this in other blogs.  But just because this is possible, that does not mean we always know things we can not prove.  Knowledge is traditionaly understood as justified true belief.  So you may be justified in believing something you can not prove.   However, observing that possibility does not greatly advance the view that we are in fact “justified” in believing in the external world in light of the skeptical arguments.    

I think Rauser goes a bit off course when he says “If Moore is right then it turns out that knowing depends less on being able to refute the skeptic to the skeptic’s satisfaction and more on simply paying close attention to the quality and nature of one’s own sense perceptual experience of the world, experience that simply overwhelms the skeptic’s claim.”  It is not because we are “paying close attention to the quality and nature” of our experience that we can know we have one hand and another.  It is not the case that if we are dreaming (or a brain in a vat) our hands would not appear to have this or that quality or nature which we can identify.   It is not like you can see you are recording because of a red dot in the view finder and can also see such a red dot in your dream if you look closely enough.  I don’t think that is what Moore was getting at.     What then is Moore getting at?

First, Moore is begging the question.    But despite that, he makes a point that leads into an important view of knowledge.  It is called the causal (or tracking) theory of knowledge. (Which have been promoted by prominent philosophers like Robert Nozick and goldman).   Moore can be understood as saying “in fact” my hands are reflecting light from the external world.  And, in fact, this light is detected by my eye and, in fact, this is causing me to observe something external to my body.  And this process is in fact *causing* my belief in the external world.  So his belief “tracks” the truth/reality of the matter.  Because his belief is caused by mechanisms that track the truth/reality they are “justified.”   Does he have good reason to believe the mechanisms he thinks track the truth actually track the truth in that way? Does he have good reason to exclude the dreaming possibility?   In other words does he have good reasons to accept his reasons?   Maybe not.  But that does not mean he doesn’t know the external world exists – at least not if he adopts a causal or tracking theory of knowledge.  Let me explain.     

The traditional definition of knowledge is “justified true belief.”  So there are three conditions that have to be met for you to “know” something.  It has to be true, you have to believe it, and you have to have a certain type of justification to hold that belief.   A belief is “true” if an only if it corresponds with reality.  And if his hand is, after all, part of the outside world, his claim is “true.”    He also “believes” it is true.  So the “true” and “belief” conditions are not at issue.  The issue is whether Moore’s belief in the external world is “justified.”

Moore’s proof can be understood as demonstrating his belief is “justified” because his reasons for holding it “track” reality.  So he believes his hands are part of the external world.  And his belief is “justified” because his belief is causally related to (or “tracks”) the truth of the external world.    Now does he know his belief tracks the external world in that way?  Maybe not.  He could say I don’t know that I am not a brain in a vat and therefore I can’t rule out the possibility the hand I seem to see is really not part of the external world.   But that would essentially be asking him if he is justified in believing his justification for believing in the external world.   That is, he believes in the external world for reason A, but you can ask well why do you believe reason A?  And he might give reason B.  And you could keep asking then why do you believe reason B?  etc., and we could have an infinite regress.    Moore in essence can say in order to know the external world exists I just need to be justified in believing  the external world exists.  I do not need to be justified in believing all the reasons that justify my belief in the external world.   So Moore can say I believe in the external world because here are two hands that are part of the external world.  Premise 1) I would not see these hands if they did not exist in an external world.  Premise 2) I see these hands.  Conclusion: The external world exists.  Do I need to prove premise one in order to know the conclusion?  That would be requiring that he give reasons for his reasons.  And if we need to do that infinitely to have knowledge then of course knowledge is impossible.   

That said the skeptic does still have what I consider a strong rebuttal that our beliefs should not be stronger than the reasons we have for holding them. So if our reasons do ultimately come down to us saying yeah we have no basis for believing this or that then the skeptic still makes a good point.   The fact that this requirement of infinite reasoning is as a practical matter impossible to meet in our finite existence, does not necessarily negate their point.  In fact, I believe the skeptical scenarios are a legitimate problem with “knowledge.”  Most epistemology writing does not solve the underlying problem but rather tries to redefine “knowledge” so they can avoid it.    That is what the causal theory (or tracking theory) of knowledge tries to do.   

The beauty of the causal theory (or tracking theory) of knowledge is you can say I don’t have to “know I know” there is an external world, in order to simply “know” there is an external world.   If my belief in the external world is, in fact, caused by reasons that are properly sensitive to the truth of the matter (i.e., sensitive to the reality of situation in question) and they are properly causing my belief then I am justified even if I can’t justify the reasons for my reasons etc.  As long as my beliefs are catching hold of the reality train at some point I can be justified even if I can’t describe all the cars pulling my car all the way up to the engine (which may be infinitely many cars ahead).     

Consider that someone may get confused if you ask, how do you know Abe Lincoln was born on February 12th?  Or how do you know some country, you never personally visited, exists?  They may not be able to fully explain all the reasons they believe Jamaica exists or that Abe Lincoln was born on February 12th, but they can still know those things.  On the causal theory they are “justified” in believing those things so long as the reasons they believe in them tracks the truth of the matter.  So I believe Jamaica exists because I read about it in various books and talked to people that visited it etc.  Can I defend all of those reasons to believe and thus “know I know”?   Do I know the people I talked to really visited Jamaica and the books really track to the existence of Jamaica?    Even if I couldn’t explain how I know all those reasons are good reasons I could still know Jamaica exists, if my belief was caused by at least some of the people, who say they went there, actually going there and the people who wrote about it in books did so for reasons that tracked the truth of Jamaica existing.    Thus my belief was caused by reasons that properly tracked the truth that Jamaica exists and was therefore justified.   

Now assume, I came to believe Abe Lincoln’s birthday was February 12th solely because I looked at how the tea leaf residue in the bottom of my otherwise empty cup were positioned.   Then I would not have a justified true belief that February 12th is Abe Lincoln’s birthday.  I may believe it, and it may be true that is his birthday, but how my tea leaves ended up positioned in my cup has no intelligible causal relationship/connection to that being the date of Abe Lincoln’s birth.  Therefore, on the causal theory of knowledge my reasons to believe do not “track the truth” of the matter and are thus unjustified.  

Now causal theories and tracking theories of knowledge have their own interesting problems.  But whether or not these theories can completely define knowledge, they do highlight some aspects of rational belief that are hard to deny.  Specifically, if someone believes X for evidential reason Y and we see no intelligible connection between the truth of X and Y it is very hard to say Y is a good evidential reason to believe X.   This is why most people agree that tasseography is not a good reason to hold a belief that Abe Lincoln was born on February 12th.    We also might agree that because I drank two cups of coffee today that is not a good reason to believe the democrats did well in the midterm elections.  If our evidence for believing something is not sensitive to the truth of the matter (or track the truth of the matter) then it is not a good reason to believe it.  Now tasseographists might disagree with me about the connection between the position of tea leaves and other events.  But even a tasseographist would likely agree, it is irrational to say “yes I agree my drinking two cups of coffee today is completely unconnected to whether democrats did well in the midterm, but I still believe my drinking two cups of coffee is a valid evidentiary reason to believe that the democrats will win the midterm election.”   

Now it is true that relevant evidence might in fact have no connection to the question of reality we consider it relevant to.  For example maybe someone was driving a red car just like mine outside the bank and it has no connection with me possibly robbing the bank.  But if a person isn’t sure it is not my car they still may think it may have been my car then that might still rationally be considered some evidence against me.  But this is the important point.   If you are sure that it was not my red car but someone else’s red car, and you believe it being there had nothing to do with the bank robbery in question, then it would be irrational for you to think the red car being there is good reason to believe I robbed the bank. 

Ok that took a while but these nuances are important to grasp before we get to the examples Rauser uses and how they would affect the moral argument.   Let’s see how he ties skepticism about the external world with skepticism about morality:

 “In the same way that we find ourselves carried along by the basic deliverances of our sense perception, so we find ourselves carried along by the basic deliverances of our moral intuition/ perception. In the same way that our experience of seeing the sun and feeling its warmth on our skin gives rise to the immediate and irresistible belief in an external world that we perceive, a world that includes a sun that shines and gives warmth, so our experience of contemplating particular instances of human moral action such as “God commanded Tom to hack apart his son in a devotional sacrifice” gives rise to an immediate perception regarding the moral status of the act: No, this is wrong! And just as the idealist’s arguments for skepticism about the external world will be insufficient to overcome our conviction that the external world exists, so the moral skeptic’s arguments that there is no objective moral value beyond our personal opinions may very well prove insufficient to overcome our immediate, intuitive sense that some actions like devotional child sacrifice are always wrong.”

Rauser, Randal. Jesus Loves Canaanites: Biblical Genocide in the Light of Moral Intuition (pp. 63-64). 2 Cup Press. Kindle Edition.

Ok so first our “moral perceptions” are not like our five empirical senses in very important ways.  For one we have a model of how our empirical senses work.  We think we “see” when light from the external world connects with an object and then our eye etc.  The same is true of sound.  We believe that sound waves cause air to vibrate and that contacts our ear drums etc.  If we were to believe we were dreaming these perceptions we would no longer think we actually saw or felt a sun that exists in the external world.  We would see that the mechanism that we think causes our belief about things like the sun or our hands was not at work, and so having a dream where we sense the sun or our hands is not a reason to actually believe the sun we thought we saw in a dream actually exists.  Of course, what we seem to perceive in dreams might exist in some world!   It is at least theoretically possible that there is a world in some galaxy that corresponds with what we sense in dreams.   Such a world would have anxious people walking through school halls late and lacking proper clothing etc.  But there is not even an intelligible theory of how our dream experiences would, track with such a possible existing world.  We believe our dreams are caused by things other than and independent from this other possibly existing world.     We don’t even have a theory of how our dream experience could be sensitive to the truth of this possibly existing world.  So it seems irrational to think our dream experiences actually track the truth of an external world.   Just like it seems irrational to think the position of our tea leaves tracks the truth/reality of when Abe Lincoln was born. 

So what is the explanation of how our “moral senses” track the objective reality of moral truth?  Without any sort of explanation it seems we would be in much the same boat as the person who believes their dream tracks some far off objectively real world.   It seems very much a case of special pleading.  You don’t think what appears to be senses in dreams correspond with a real objective reality, but you do about your moral senses even though in neither case can someone offer any sort of causal model of how the two might even possibly connect/relate. 

Ok perception is not accurate but what about “intuition”?  I agree intuition seems the better description but it still has the same problem.   What is the connection between moral reality of what should happen and our beliefs about what should happen?  What is interesting is that naturalistic/scientific proposals abound about how we came to hold the beliefs about morality that we do.  For example, cooperation lead to increased survival.  Or certain other behaviors lead to more or less “fitness.”  The problem with these explanations is they never explain how that connects/tracks with “moral truth.”  The objective moral truth plays no role in what caused our beliefs.  We know this because those theories don’t even require that there be an actual moral truth!   Those theories work just fine if moral anti-realism is true.   So all of these theories are exactly like the tasseography in the sense that the reasons we hold the belief does not track the truth in any intelligible way.       

The problem for atheists is all of their explanations about what is moral do not seem to track to (or be sensitive to) moral reality.  They have explanations that these beliefs about morality helped us survive and reproduce etc.  But that is like saying we believe that we dream we are in the sun because these neurons are triggered and that creates the sensation of being in the sun.  In the case of dreams we see that is unrelated to actually being in the sun and so do not think that dream experience is a valid reason to think we are in fact in the sun.  But when it comes to morality they just try to talk past this issue. 

But let’s pursue this.  To properly appreciate the skeptics argument it is best not to assume situations where you are awake (as GE Moore does) but instead  consider situations where we assume you are dreaming.   I have had dreams that I believe were influenced by the objective world around me.  I may have even dreamt I was in the sun when in fact I was laying in the sun.  It is at least possible that my being in the sun caused me to have the dream experience of being in the sun.   But in that case my reasons to believe I was in the sun when I was dreaming at least tracks to an intelligible explanation where the truth of being in the sun plays an important role. 

Consider this situation.  Someone wakes up and sees that there is a faint sunlight in an otherwise mostly dark room.   Now he just woke up and based on the time he knows the sun just recently rose.  He also had a dream experience that he was in sunlight, but it may be unclear if he had the dream experience before or after the sun rose.  But let’s say the dream experience did in fact happen after the sun rose so there was a dim beam touching his calf at the time he had the dream.     Now let’s say he believes the dream experience justifies his belief that sunlight was in fact touching him at the time he had the dream experience. 

 So did he “know” the sun was touching him at the time of the dream experience?  It would have been true that the sun was touching him at the time of the experience.  In fact there was a dim beam of light touching his calf.    He also believed the sun was touching him in his dream state.  But is he justified in believing that the sun was touching him based on the experience?  I think most of us would say no.  But ok let’s indulge the possibility that the sunlight may have caused the dream experience.  You can increase the amount of sunlight as you wish.  I think at some point many people would say ok it is possible that a certain amount of sunlight may have been a causative factor in his having the dream experience he did.   But whether the actual sun caused the experience is key here right?  Consider two different views:

  1. He says yes I think the sun touching me was a causative factor in my having the dream experience, therefore my dream experience justifies my belief that I was in fact in sunlight at the time of the dream experience. 


2. He says no I do not believe the actual sunlight on my calf had any effect on my dream experience of being in the sun.  Yet I still believe I was actually in the sun at the time of my dream experience because I had the dream experience and it was very vivid!  The experience simply overwhelms any doubts.   

In the first case we may think the person is wrong about the actual sunlight causing his dream, but if true his view is at least in some sort of ballpark of being rational.  But the second situation is someone that seems completely irrational.   Most of the atheist theories of how we came to hold the moral beliefs we do are like the second case.  They do not require any moral reality, at all, let alone a link between moral reality and our beliefs about morality.    When we consider that morality is addressing how things “should be” it is difficult to even imagine how this non-material thing could possibly be interacting with us in naturalistic way that causes our moral beliefs. 

Atheists have argued against Plantinga by saying that we can take our beliefs a mostly true because true beliefs would promote survival.  I think this may have some traction when we are talking about physical things and thus dealing with Plantinga’s more general argument.  Perhaps implicit in beliefs about evolution is the belief that having true beliefs about physical things promotes survival.  I think that is where Plantinga has his debate.  But I think I can grant that argument because moral truths have no physical indicia.   Morality deals with what should be and what should be is not a physical thing that could possibly be physically interacting with us causing our beliefs.   I have addressed this in some other blogs.

Now “moral naturalists” disagree with me on that.  They are a type of moral realist that thinks we can know what is moral based on simply looking at natural facts about what is.  But even if I concede that, they still have a huge problem.  They offer no explanation of how that works.  I can concede that a certain collection natural facts simply is a moral evil.  Just like water is H2O.  But without any sort of idea how we are categorizing some sets of facts as good and others as evil, and how that relates to the truth of the matter based on moral reality, this view is a dead end for people that want to live a moral life. 

For the person facing moral questions on a daily basis this view is useless.  It is like telling a person that needs to clean a flooded basement “I bet there will one day be a machine we can use to easily and thoroughly clean this in under an hour with very little effort.”    Ok maybe that is true, but for right now that is not helpful in the least.    It is unclear what I am supposed to do with the idea that maybe we can someday figure out how moral properties reduce to natural properties.  Maybe someday we will be able to build flying saucers that can fly us around the world in minutes!  For those of us that need to get somewhere today it is no help.  Until there is some idea of how that works “moral naturalism” is a dead end for someone trying to know how to live a moral life. 

Christianity not only provides a framework for how we would rationally know right from wrong, it also gives us useful information on how we know what is and is not moral as we live our lives.   

I know this blog is already too long but I would like to offer one more example courtesy of a philosopher named John Pollock.    Consider a situation where you are in a factory and see widgets that all appear to be red.     Now a guide tells you that all the widgets appear red due to a special lighting in the factory.  He says that the lighting would make the widgets appear red regardless of their actual color.  By actual color I mean how they would appear in normal white daylight.   Assume never see the widgets with a different light source.   Do you believe the widgets are actually red?  Well that might depend on how much you believe your guide.  If you believe what he says about the light in the factory it would seem you are not justified in believing the widgets are actually red.  If you don’t really believe the lighting could actually make them all appear red as they appear to you then you might be justified in thinking they are actually red. 

Consider these two views:

Person A believes what the guide says and so believes that regardless of the objects actual color they would still appear the same redness as they do.  Nevertheless person A believes the widgets are actually red because of “the experience” he has of them appearing red. 

Person B does not believe the guide.  He thinks that there is no way the objects would all appear so red based on the lighting alone.  He believes that if they were not actually red they would not appear as they do. 

Now it seems to me that person A is irrational.   But person A might tell person B we both believe the widgets are red because they appear red to us.  But person B might say yes that is true but our basis for trusting that what appears a certain way, is actually as it appears is different in important respects.   Namely I think my experience is of seeing red is connected to (tracks) the objective reality of this widget being red in a way that you deny. 

I think this is exactly what happens concerning the moral argument.  I get asked don’t I agree it would would be “bad” if humans went extinct or needlessly suffered?  Or it that it is good if we flourish? And yes I agree with those conclusions but I think my moral intuition is connected to (tracks) moral truth in a way atheists.  Namely I think a creator designed my moral intuition in a way that tracks moral truth.  They deny this designer.   The atheist explanation of how we came to hold these beliefs intuitions does not require that these moral truths are even true – and indeed there is a very significant relationship between belief in moral anti-realism and atheism.    

Once I recognized that these non-religious explanations of our moral intuitions have no intelligible causal link with moral reality I could not unlearn it.  I simply can’t be the person that fully believes that there is an objectively existing world in some galaxy that corresponds with my dream experiences when I have no explanation of how that would even work.  If the explanations of my dreams involves no causal articulable connection to this other world that may objectively exist in some other galaxy then I can’t see how that experience is evidence such a world exists.    That is true regardless of how vivid or compelling the dream experience seems.    The same is true for my moral experiences.    They may be very strong experiences/feelings but if none of the theories connects them with moral reality I just don’t think it is rational to say they are good evidence of what moral reality requires.  I can’t just pretend I didn’t see that step getting skipped over. 

Now that does not mean moral realism is false.  Saying moral realism is false would be like saying we know there are no other objective worlds where people have experiences in other galaxies.  I don’t think this argument does that.  I think it is therefore wrong to think this argument supports the view that moral anti-realism is more likely.  It raises what I consider insurmountable difficulties for atheist moral realists, but rejecting moral realism seems uncalled for.  Moreover, the various moral anti-realist positions have huge problems of their own.     I talked about a few of them here.  https://trueandreasonable.co/2019/06/25/ad-hoc-reasoning-suits-moral-subjectivism-and-anti-realism/

I a drafted a blog dealing with error theory/nihilism.  I have at least one more blog on Rauser’s book and then I will post that.