I’ve said that probabilistic arguments for God don’t do much to convince a committed atheist. But the Argument from Moral Knowledge can be reformulated so that it is not merely probabilistic. In other words, the standard atheist picture (humans arose through evolution unaided by God) precludes knowledge of objective morals.
How so? This requires discussion of Gettier cases. Prior to 1963, when Ed Gettier published the paper “Is Knowledge Justified True Belief?” philosophers in the Euro-American tradition believed, going all the way back to Plato, that knowledge is justified true belief. But Gettier presented examples that showed this is not always the case.
I present one adapted from Alvin Goldman because the examples in Gettier’s paper are less fun and, I think, needlessly complex. Suppose Catherine the Great is touring the countryside of Crimea. She sees a barn. It is a barn, and she comes to believe it is a barn. Neither her vision nor her mind are impaired, so she must be justified in this belief. But it just so happens that her lover Potemkin had set up cleverly painted barn façades along her parade route to make Crimea appear more prosperous. All the other barns in the region are not actually barns at all! She has a justified true belief, “There is a barn.” But the truth of that belief is so coincidental, her belief so divorced from the wider context that she cannot be said to know “There is a barn.”
Examples can be multiplied: a stopped clock that you walk by at just the right time for it to be accurate, not-quite-mistaken identities, etc. But let us move on to the case of moral knowledge under evolutionary naturalism. Suppose that evolution has honed our rational faculties to track the moral facts. The deliverances of our faculties would then be true, for that is what we have stipulated. We would be justified in our moral beliefs because what better justification can we have besides the fact that we are thinking carefully about the moral facts that bear on a situation? But our moral beliefs would not be moral knowledge because the truth of our moral beliefs would just be a fluke, a coincidence. Evolution selects for survival and reproduction, not moral behavior or beliefs, so we could be looking at a metaphorical “barn façade” as easily as a “barn.” We have no way to stand outside ourselves and appreciate the wider context.
Where is the beleaguered atheist to go from here? There are several options:
- Theism: God could reasonably hone our faculties to track the moral facts; God facilitates our moral knowledge.
- (Neo-)Platonism: There is a Form of the Good from which all the other Forms, our souls, and then the physical world emanate. Our ability to reflect upon the entities higher in the Great Chain of Being explains our moral knowledge.
- Karma: Most all Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions endorse the view that our actions and/or intentions generate karma, which determines what kind of being we are reborn as (human, animal, heavenly being, etc.). In Buddhism and Jainism, karma is overwhelmingly construed as mechanistic, like physics, unguided by God. If morality just is the rules of karma, it makes sense that we would be able to reflect upon the processes that gave rise to our minds and bodies.
- New Theory of Knowledge: Show some Gettier cases do allow for knowledge. Or that our everyday knowledge collapses into Gettier cases, perhaps because of skeptical worries (the Matrix, Cartesian demons, etc.), so practically speaking, we can’t exclude Gettier-case beliefs from our knowledge.
- Moral Non-Realism: Give up on objective morals. Because why embellish your worldview with these occult moral facts when you can’t know them?
Surprisingly enough, the most plausible option for me is Moral Non-Realism. I’ll later explain why.