• A Good Theistic Argument?

    Chris Hallquist has blogged on The argument from moral agency. The argument was formulated by an agnostic philosopher and praised by two atheist bloggers, which stirred my curiosity. What is the argument?

    In a nutshell, the argument is that moral agents (those who can choose for right or for wrong) have a good chance of existing under the God hypothesis but a really awful chance of existing if God does not exist (Draper uses the fine-tuning data to help support this view).

    Knowing how likely it is for moral agents to exist under atheism requires knowing (1) how likely it is to have a universe that can support life (2) how likely a planet that can support life is (3) how often life originates and (4) how often life evolves into moral agents after it originates. What does science say? The science on each of these is very sketchy and uncertain. It is my considered opinion that 1-4 is each very, very improbable. However, I also see good reason to think that each one of them has had a gazillion chances to be actualized in the reality we inhabit. Sentient species may not evolve very often, but there have been billions upon billions of species that have evolved over the course of life’s history, and no doubt many more will evolve before the sun burns out. Life may not originate from a chemical reaction very often, but the earth’s early oceans were doubtlessly creating billions of chemical reactions every day for millions of years before life got started. Life friendly planets may be rare, but then again there are trillions upon trillions upon trillions of planets out there (millions of stars in every galaxy and an estimated 100 billion galaxies, and I’ve even seen estimates as high as 500 billion). Last week, we saw that it is fairly certain we inhabit just one universe among a large plethora of universes. And that last one is really important, because chaotic inflation may produce infinite universes (or at least an incredibly large number of universes). Infinite universes = infinite planets, infinite opportunties for life to arise, and so on, making it certain that it would happen somewhere in the vastness of eternity. A really gigantic (but not infinite) number of universes would still pump up the chances of having moral agents by quite a bit.

    So, the probability of moral agents under naturalism changes quite a bit when you take into account what we know about reality. How much does it change? Again, it’s hard to stick any exact numbers on this type of thing, but I can’t see any good reason to think moral agents are less probable under atheism than theism once we take into account the vastness of reality. We could pretend the likelihood of each one of those factors is “one out of a hundred billion,” but we’ve got good reason to think each of them has had or will have over a hundred billion chances to happen. Therefore, it will happen. No god required.

    Category: Uncategorized


    Article by: Nicholas Covington

    I used to blog at Answers in Genesis BUSTED! I took the creationist organization Answers in Genesis to pieces. I am the author of Atheism and Naturalism and Extraordinary Claims, Extraordinary Evidence, and the Resurrection of Jesus. I am an armchair philosopher with interests in Ethics, Epistemology (that's philosophy of knowledge), Philosophy of Religion, and Skepticism in general.


    1. As someone who has studied probability at the graduate level, it makes me happy to see a “layperson” (or maybe I’m assuming too much) who understands this concept. Nice explanation.

      In a universe with trillions upon trillions upon trillions of “attempts,” even something that has an infinitesimally small probability of occurring is nearly guaranteed to occur at least once.

      1. I appreciate that! As an amateur philosopher, I try hard to understand probability theory. As I see it, probability is an integral piece to almost all human reasoning.

        1. I am no philosopher, but I can’t imagine trying to understand facts about the universe without a basic understanding of probability. So I’d heartily recommend it!

      2. Hey Joco! Since you’ve studied probability at the graduate level, can you answer a question that I have about probability as regards all of these claims from apologist about the immense probability against life forming in the universe, for example the fine tuning argument? I didn’t think probability could be retro calculated. For example, if I take a pair of die and start rolling them and recording the result each time in sequence and I do this let’s just say a million times, then I go back and say what is the probability that I would have rolled that exact sequence, the answer (maybe you can calculate it-I don’t know how to) would be astronomical odds against it, right?

        1. Well, you CAN calculate that probability (and it would indeed be very, very small), but the question is if it’s relevant to the argument. The difference lies in whether we should be considering unconditional or conditional probabilities.

          I’m not sure how best to express this, but here’s an example. Suppose we set up a computer program to simulate 10 dice rolls. Every sequence of dice rolls has an equal probability of occurring, and there are 6^10 = 60,466,176 possible sequences, so the unconditional probability of any specific sequence is about 1 in 60 million.

          Say we’re only interested in two particular sequences: 6341634532 and 3245152635. So we tell the program, “If you get one of these sequences, tell me which one you get. Otherwise, shut down.”

          Then we run the program, and it spits out a number. Before we even look at the number, we know it is either 6341634532 or 3245152635; otherwise, it wouldn’t have spit out a number at all. Thus, conditional on producing output, the chance that the exact sequence rolled was 3245152635 is 50%.

          The theistic argument is analogous to, “a) The chance of the sequence 3245152635 occurring is infinitesimally small. b) 3245152635 occurred. c) Therefore, there must have been divine intervention.” The a) part is technically true, as is b). But c) completely ignores the fact that we KNOW intelligent life arose on this planet, i.e., that the computer produced a number.

          But their argument is even worse than that. They seem to think the computer program only ran once. But the universe is incomprehensibly immense – there are billions upon billions upon billions of planets in it, and we happen to be on one of them. This would be analogous to running that computer program millions and millions of times. If you did that, it’s nearly certain that the program is going to spit out at least a few numbers. And in order for intelligent life to arise – i.e., for “us” to be “here” – it only has to spit out a number ONCE.

          Not sure how much that helps, but it’s one way of looking at it.

    2. Moral agency requires intelligence. We know of exactly one intelligent species. Moral agency is evident everywhere within said species (us) Therefore, of our tiny sample, first, moral agency arises at a rate of 100%, and second, this sample is too small to conclude anything at all from, and third, if there is no god, then moral agency can arise without same; if there is a god, then moral agency can arise as a result of creation; so the moral agency argument proves nothing whatsoever — it provides no knife to slice the knot.

      The depth and complexity of any argument is of no significance when its axioms are flawed. Even a cursory look at this problem space reveals it holds no answer to the question of god/no god. It’s just hot air.

      1. On top of that, the Judeo-Christian idea of “moral agency” is horrific and clearly immoral by modern secular standards. The people who abuse this fallacious “argument from morality” typically refuse to even define what “morality” means, let alone acknowledge that their sacred text says that murdering the elderly and children is moral, keeping slaves is moral, and killing people who leave the faith is moral. If there is some way to define “moral behavior” objectively, then one thing on which rational people can agree is that what their god tells them is definitely not it.

        Even leaving that aside, the “improbability of intelligent (and therefore moral) agents” is completely fallacious and reflects a piss-poor understanding of probability. Suppose that on average, intelligent life arises on 2 out of every 100 trillion planets. Then if, A PRIORI, we pick one out of a collection of 100 trillion planets, the chance of intelligent life arising on that planet is infinitesimally small.

        But we KNOW that we live on a planet on which intelligent life HAS arisen. GIVEN THAT WE EXIST, it MUST be the case that we are on such a planet. Thus, in this example, the probability that we are on a specific one of these two planets is 50%.

        The argument “the probability of intelligent life arising without god is infinitesimally small, and therefore there must be a god” is tantamount to saying, “The probability that I would be a white male born in New York with black hair who would grow to be exactly 5’11-7/8″ tall without someone specifically causing that to happen is infinitesimally small, and therefore someone must have specifically caused me.”

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *