A common question that comes up after I give my talk titled Why I Am Not an Evolutionist is, “If there are so many good scientific arguments against evolution, why is it so widely believed?”
I recently came across an article by Dr. William Lane Craig where he responds to this exact question. In his brilliant response he makes two key observations, which I will highlight here.
First, Dr. Craig points outs that the mainstream acceptance of the theory of evolution is not for scientific reasons; it’s accepted for philosophical reasons. More specifically, it’s believed because of a commitment to methodological naturalism. Craig says:
I think the short answer is that it’s the best naturalistic theory we’ve got. If, as a result of methodological naturalism, the pool of live explanatory options is limited to naturalistic hypotheses, then, at least until recently, the neo-Darwinian theory of biological evolution driven by the mechanisms of genetic mutation and natural selection was, as Alvin Plantinga puts it,the only game in town.” [Emphasis mine.]
Methodological naturalism simply means that scientists must assume philosophical naturalism—only natural causes exist—when doing science. Of course, this assumption excludes all supernatural explanations a priori. Therefore, for anyone holding to methodological naturalism, creationism and intelligent design are not on the table as possible explanations. Even if all the scientific evidence pointed away from evolution and towards intelligent design, they would still need to cling to the theory of evolution because it’s the only possible naturalistic explanation. It’s the only game in town.
Second, Craig offers a helpful reminder. He says, “It’s helpful to remind ourselves that the word ‘evolution’ is an accordion word that can be expanded or contracted to suit the occasion.”
Evolution is an equivocal word. This means that it can have more than one meaning. For instance, it can mean anything from simple, biological change over time—change in allele frequency—to universal, common descent of all organisms from a single, common ancestor. The former is accepted by virtually everyone, including the staunchest young earth creationist. The latter, on the other hand, has many highly qualified biologists questioning whether the mechanism of natural selection acting on random mutations is up to the task.
So when the question arises as to why evolution is so widely believed, we need to find out what the questioner means by evolution. In one sense, evolution is believed because it’s true; organisms change over time. In another sense, it’s believed because it’s the only theory in play given their commitment to methodological naturalism.
So while evolution in an innocuous sense is well-established, belief in evolution in [other senses] is not universal among scientists, and the dominance of neo-Darwinism heretofore is due to the constraints of methodological naturalism and the want of a better naturalistic alternative.
Reflection on moral guilt (see yesterday's post) leads us to discover another feature of moral obligations. Moral guilt seems to alienate people from one another. If one fails to live up to one’s obligation to uphold the laws of the land, alienation from individuals or even from a group of individuals will ensue. For example, someone who takes innocent life will experience alienation from that person’s loved ones, maybe a spouse or child. Such persons will be angry and may direct hatred toward the murderer. In addition, the murderer will be alienated from society-at-large and subsequently locked away. However, such alienation can be alleviated. Moral guilt can be removed by forgiveness from the appropriate party. Implicit in this discussion is the social nature of moral obligations.
The instantiation of moral obligations is internally related to personhood. Moral obligations only obtain between persons. In contrast, we don't have obligations to inanimate objects. If I see a piece of wood lying on the ground, I'm not necessarily obligated to refrain from taking a hammer to it and breaking it into pieces. The proponent of naturalism may reply that if the piece of wood in question were part of someone’s house, then I would be obligated not to destroy it, and thus, I would be obligated to an inanimate object. However, my obligation obtains only in virtue of that piece of wood’s relationship to a person. My obligation is not to the wood itself but to the person, namely the owner of the house to which the wood is attached.
The proponent of naturalism may respond in a second way, arguing we have moral obligations to non-persons because we have obligations to creatures in the animal kingdom. We are obligated to care for and not harm animals. My first response is a question: Are we obligated to animals in the same way we're obligated to human persons? The answer must clearly be no. Certainly there is a distinction between killing an innocent cow to eat and killing an innocent human to eat. If hungry packs of wolves were killing deer populations in a particular region of woods, would we send in the military to intervene? No. Indeed, we refer to such action as killing but refrain from using moral terms like murder. However, when we see human genocide, the world community recognizes an obligation to act.
Secondly, if our supposed obligations to animals are unlike our obligations to other persons, maybe they're not obligations at all. Given a theistic framework, our moral obligation to care for animals is not an obligation to the animals themselves but rather an obligation to the personal Creator who brought them into existence and has charged human persons to rule over and be good stewards of His created order.
The social nature of moral obligations makes sense of the first feature, moral incumbency. Imagine a teenager who is preparing to play scrabble. She opens the box containing the scrabble board and tiles and proceeds to dump the pieces on the kitchen table. However, her attention is quickly diverted by the sitcom playing on the living room television. She wanders in that direction. Now imagine that she returns to the kitchen table and discovers the following words formed by scrabble tiles: “Take out the trash.” If the teenager comes to discover the words were formed by her chance dumping of the pieces on the table, there would be no moral incumbency behind this command. However, if she discovered this was her dad’s humorous way to communicate his commands, the incumbency of her moral obligation to obey dad would press in on her. Thus, moral obligations obtain when there are at minimum two persons involved.
But one more thing must be said. Imagine this teenage girl discovered it was not dad who arranged the tiles but rather her six-year-old brother. The moral incumbency would not come into play because the younger brother is not a person with the requisite authority to make such commands. Thus, a moral obligation has incumbency when a command is issued by an appropriate authority.
Again, we turn to the naturalist for an account. How do moral obligations that arise by a chance collision of atoms obtain in the actual world? How would naturalism account for moral obligations, with their requisite social nature, in virtue of purely material and non-social processes? Impersonal forces cannot give rise to personal ones. Moreover, how could non-rational physical processes be the basis of authority for moral obligations? Thus, another feature of morality further presses in on the naturalist because given naturalism, there's no appropriate personal authority to ground moral obligations.
Given these four features of morality—immateriality, incumbency, guilt, sociability—what's the best explanation? Naturalism can't provide adequate ontological grounding for morality. Our moral obligations go much deeper than naturalism’s accounting. So, if moral obligations can't be properly grounded in a nonreligious view of the world, then we should move in the direction of a theistic worldview that offers us a much more plausible explanation.
 Robert Merrihew Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics (New York: Oxford Press, 1999), p. 239.
Persons who do not fulfill their moral obligations are subject to adverse judgment. If I choose to refrain from a morally obligatory act, I am guilty. But let's distinguish between two types of guilt. First, guilt may be thought of in terms of a subjective emotion moral agents experience when they fail to fulfill their obligations. The failure results in deep ethical pain or discomfort. Feelings such as regret, remorse, or resentment may accompany one’s moral failings.
While an account of guilty feelings may be useful, for my purposes I will only concern myself with a second sense of guilt. In this sense, guilt refers to an objective state-of-affairs. In virtue of an agent’s moral failings, he has done something wrong, and as such, deserves appropriate blame and just punishment. The guilty person in this sense may not recognize or admit guilt, but the objective fact of their guilt remains nonetheless. Guilty feelings may or may not accompany the agent’s actions, but they're not necessary in order to levy some punishment against an objectively guilty person.
Indeed, punishment is one of the things that distinguishes the rational ought from the moral ought. I may have a rational obligation to hold that 2 + 2 = 4, but if I fail to live up to it I'm not subject to punishment. However, if I fail to fulfill my moral obligation not to abuse young children, then appropriate punishment seems clearly justified. Rational wrongs require a correction of the error, while moral wrongs require the correction, or punishment, of the person.
We turn again to naturalism for an accounting of this feature of moral obligations. The naturalist may explain the existence of guilt with some kind of evolutionary account that claims it has survival value for the human species. Moral guilt compels continued cooperation among persons, and as a result, human beings are able to pass on their genes to the next generation. However, such an account only works by reducing obligations to feelings that somehow connect to patterns of action that help us survive. But remember, our primary concern is not with guilt feelings but an objective state of guilt resulting from a failure to fulfill moral obligations. Indeed, guilt feelings may not be absurd in a naturalistic world, but moral obligations that have no survival value would be absurd in such a world. Thus, moral guilt is another feature of morality that seems to resist naturalistic explanations.
In discussions of morality, we often use phrases like “John ought to do X” or “John ought not to do Y.” But what is this oughtness we refer to? What can be said of it to help us better understand the nature of morality? The oughtness of a moral obligation is what philosophers call incumbency, and as we explore the nature of moral incumbency, four observations arise that seem to resist naturalistic explanations.
First, the incumbency of moral obligations demands something from us and binds us to something. Moral obligations have an external force that presses in on us and compels us to act or refrain from acting in certain ways. We may be more acutely aware of this invisible demand when we're alone. For example, imagine I'm at a convenience store to purchase a Snickers candy bar, and the lone cashier informs me he has to use the restroom in the back of the store and subsequently departs from the cash register. Prior experience informs me this convenience store has no security cameras, and a quick observation helps me to determine no one else is in the store and no cars are in the parking lot. At this point a temptation to take the Snickers without paying for it may come rushing into my mind. However, the temptation is accompanied by a second experience, an awareness of what I ought to do. My awareness of an obligation not to take what does not belong to me presses in on me with such force that it compels right action. Therefore, I stand at the counter with my Snickers, waiting for the cashier to return.
The objector may claim that not everyone experiences this incumbency. But what follows from this? Certainly my experiences or feelings are irrelevant to the actual state-of-affairs. My claim is not that the experience of moral incumbency is universally felt, but that one’s incumbency to moral obligations obtains in the actual world.
Second, moral obligations are unconditional imperatives. They're incumbent upon us whether we desire them or not, agree to them or not, or recognize them or not. There's no opting out of our moral obligations. We simply must obey. And no one thinks you are excused if you choose not to fulfill them. Indeed, we're justified in considering such a person to be morally reprehensible or deficient and deserving of punishment. This is why fathers who don't desire and consequently refrain from paying child support are called “dead-beat dads” and sent to jail.
Third, this incumbency applies not only to one’s actions but to the underlying motives as well. I may have an obligation to help a little old lady across the street, but my obligation reaches deeper than just the action itself. I also have an obligation to be properly motivated in doing so. If I help the old lady across the street because I believe we ought to take care of weaker individuals in society or because I believe she has dignity and value in virtue of her being a human being, I am properly motivated. However, if I'm motivated by a desire to get some money from her in the end, I would be considered morally repugnant. Thus, moral obligations make demands not only on the observable action but on the unobservable motive as well.
Finally, moral obligations place demands on us prior to any action. It is neither necessary nor sufficient for one to be in the midst of action to experience the incumbency of obligations. We may simply reflect on a given behavior and experience the demands of our moral obligation. I reflect for a brief moment on the act of child abuse, and I am immediately aware that I ought to refrain from such behavior.
So what is the naturalist to make of moral incumbency? It would seem such a feature of moral obligations do not fit a naturalistic view of reality. Moral obligations have an invisible external force that makes demands not only on our actions but on our motives as well, and those demands come into play prior to any action. At the same time, such obligations may be counterproductive to our good. If naturalism is true, it would be very difficult to account for the fact of moral incumbency.
 I will expand on the notion of deserved punishment in tomorrow's post.
 Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), p. 166.
I’ve always found the argument from objective morality to God’s existence compelling. When we push deeper into our explanations of the nature of morality, I just don’t see how naturalism provides any kind of satisfactory account. In particular, four features of or related to our moral obligations seem irreducible to naturalistic explanations:
So for the next four days, I want to explore these features in order to strengthen our argument from morality to God.
Let's begin our discussion with the following question: “What is the ontological status of a moral obligation?” What constitutes a moral obligation? First, it seems moral obligations are immaterial substances. More specifically, a moral obligation is a relation of being obligated to perform or refrain from a particular action. Moral obligations are only instantiated between persons, and thus, they are a relation between two persons. More on this in part four, as we discuss the social nature of moral obligations.
But certainly an obligation is not a physical feature of the world. You do not trip over moral obligations in the hallway or bump into them on the street. They have no weight, and they do not extend into space. Yet we know them to be real. We feel their force everyday.
However, naturalism requires that we confine our moral discussion to physical properties. Indeed, moral obligations would have to reduce to some kind of physical property. But physical properties do not constitute anything about moral obligations, let alone morality in general. Moral obligations seem, on almost any reading, to be about something other than physical or material reality. A naturalistic view cannot provide an ontology of immaterial substances and thus does not have the resources to account for moral obligations.
 Dallas Willard, “Naturalism’s Incapacity to Capture the Good Will” in Philosophia Christi 4, (2002): 9.
The Supreme Court decision yesterday won’t just affect marriage. Giving the government the power to redefine a pre-political institution changes the relationship of the government to all of our rights. As Jay Richards says in “Why a Limited Government Must Recognize Natural Marriage,” “You can’t make war on the natural law and then appeal to it for help.”
The arguments for redefining marriage have been all about individual rights, but the move would actually undermine the foundation of individual rights. Here’s why. A limited government doesn’t try to redefine reality as the Orwellian governments of the 20th century did (including the fictional government of George Orwell’s 1984). A limited government recognizes and defends realities outside its jurisdiction. Our government doesn’t bestow rights on us as individuals. We get our rights from God. A just and limited state simply recognizes and protects this pre-political reality. But a government that gets in the habit of ignoring other pre-political realities is primed to ignore the reality of unalienable human rights.
The individual and his inherent rights are a pre-political reality. Marriage is another. The institution of marriage transcends every political system….
Appealing to nature and nature’s God to defend individual rights and equality, which most cultures have not recognized, while ignoring the universal testimony of nature and culture on marriage, is like sawing off the branch you’re sitting on. Put another way, you can’t make war on the natural law and then appeal to it for help.
So, just as government can’t redefine our rights as individuals made in the image of God, it has no authority to redefine marriage. Communism was totalitarian because it tried to redefine the individual, to create a new “Communist Man.” We’re now struggling with another totalitarian impulse to redefine reality.… If the state can redefine a universal institution rooted in human nature, what can’t it redefine?
Invoking a right doesn’t create a right. Rights come from our nature, from reality, from the way things are. In the case of marriage, we are dealing with a biological reality first and foremost. A government that puts itself in charge of redefining such things is a menace to human rights and human institutions.
Make no mistake, the right on which the Supreme Court is basing its decision is not a natural right to equal protection under the law (no one has ever been denied a marriage license because of his sexual orientation); it’s a right to make marriage whatever we wish it to be—a right they’ve created on their own. As Justice Roberts said, “The fundamental right to marry does not include a right to make a State change its definition of marriage.” The Supreme Court yesterday trampled a pre-political reality in order to create a new “right” that five of the nine justices personally prefer. Today, they happen to prefer having two-person marriage. But once the two complementary sexes of spouses are irrelevant, there’s no principled reason to limit the number of spouses to two.
Indeed, there are no limits at all on a government that isn’t bound to respect and submit to realities outside of itself. We’ll just have to wait and see where five justices’ future personal whims take us.
Nancy Pearcey notes something important about transgenderism (and the worldview of a culture that celebrates it):
The worldview implicit in the transgender movement is that our physical bodies have no particular value – that our biology is irrelevant to who we are as persons….
It is a worldview that drives a wedge between one's body and one's sense of self, which exerts a self-alienating, fragmenting effect on the human personality….
The autonomous self will not tolerate having its options limited by anything it did not choose – not even its own body….
This radical autonomy may be promoted as liberation, but it is a devastatingly disrespectful view of the physical body. The implication is that your body is not part of your authentic self….
Today we are seeing the real-world results of this denial. Transgenderism treats the scientific facts of human biology as having no intrinsic purpose or significance. It treats the body as nothing but a piece of matter that gives people no clue about who they are as persons. It is a self-alienating worldview that teaches people that their identity as male or female has no inherent purpose or dignity….
Liberals often portray the morality of the Bible as negative and restrictive. But in reality, Biblical morality honors humans as embodied beings. It respects our identity as male and female, thus leading to integrity and wholeness. The root of the word integrity means whole, integrated, unified – our minds and emotions in tune with our physical body.
A Biblical worldview offers a positive message that respects the whole person and is motivated by love and compassion.