Are Moral Truths An Illusion?

In my new book, God’s Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for A Divinely Created Universe, I describe eight pieces of evidence “in the room” of the natural universe and ask a simple question: Can this evidence be explained by staying “inside the room” or is a better explanation “outside the room” of naturalism? One important piece of evidence I consider in this effort is the existence of objective, transcendent moral truths. Some philosophers and scientists deny the existence of moral truth altogether. As Richard Dawkins has famously asserted: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

Nihilists (derived from the Latin word nihil, meaning “nothing”) reject the idea any moral claim could be either true or false. Some nihilists believe moral claims don’t actually describe what the universe is like, but instead describe how humans feel about events occurring in the universe.

For example, the statement, “Jesse tortured his victim,” is true or false because it describes an event in the universe. But the statement, “It was morally wrong for Jesse to torture his victim,” does not describe an event. Instead, this second statement merely expresses an attitude about the event. The second statement cannot, according to this view, be classified as either true or false.

In addition, “Logical Positivist” nihilists argue against moral truth claims because such features of the universe cannot be verified or confirmed by observation or perception. Since we cannot verify (or falsify) the sentence, “It was morally wrong for Jesse to torture his victim” with our empirical senses, or through some process of empirical testing, they believe the sentence is meaningless. While this approach certainly eliminates the need to account for the evidence of moral truth by rejecting this kind of truth altogether, it suffers from several explanatory liabilities:

This Approach Is More Evasive Than Explanatory
Like efforts to redefine free will or consciousness, this approach to moral truth simply evades the question altogether. When detectives enter a crime scene and encounter a piece of evidence, we’re not allowed to avoid the evidence by redefining or ignoring it. Moral truth cannot be similarly ignored or redefined. All of us have a strong inclination to make moral judgments, even those of us who deny morality is a real feature of the universe. Simply denying the existence of moral truth does not effectively eradicate it.

This Approach Inappropriately Elevates Empirical Observation
Many truths can’t be verified through empirical processes of examination. They can’t be accessed through those routes. Truths related to logic and mathematics, for example, must be embraced prior to any empirical, scientific examination. In addition, the assertion: “The only meaningful claims are those we can verify with our senses,” is itself a claim we cannot verify with our senses. It is a self-refuting assertion violating its own foundation. There are many truths we accept even though we cannot verify them empirically. Moral truths are but one example. Professor of Philosophy, Emmet Barcalow puts it this way: “most philosophers today reject the view that a sentence is meaningless if it is used to attribute properties whose presence cannot be detected by means of empirical observation and testing. So even if sentences attributing the property of being morally wrong to things cannot be verified or confirmed by appeal to observation, it doesn’t follow that they’re meaningless. It only means that they’re not verifiable or confirmable. They still could be true or false. And then it would only follow that we cannot appeal to observation to verify or confirm the truth of a claim attributing a moral property to something.”

Efforts to avoid accounting for the existence of objective, transcendent moral truth by denying their existence amount to little more than linguistic exercises in futility. Moral truths are not an illusion or series of meaningless expressions. Atheist philosophers who recognize and admit the existence of objective, transcendent moral truths have a difficult task at hand, however. How can such transcendent truths and personal obligations be grounded in something other than a Transcendent Personal Being? The better explanation is a transcendent, all-powerful Being “outside the room” of the natural universe. If such a powerful Being exists, He would certainly have the power to eliminate moral imperfection. This kind of Being could adequately ground the objective, transcendent moral truths we all recognize. This short blog is an excerpt from God’s Crime Scene. For more information, refer to Chapter Seven – Law and Order: Is Morality More Than An Opinion?

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity and God’s Crime Scene.

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24 replies
  1. Andy Ryan says:

    “All of us have a strong inclination to make moral judgments, even those of us who deny morality is a real feature of the universe. Simply denying the existence of moral truth does not effectively eradicate it.”

    No, it just requires an explanation for humans’ instincts and inclinations towards pro-social behaviour. And that such behaviour has been selected for over hundreds of thousands of years seems quite compelling. It’s possible to breed such instincts into animals such as foxes in quite a short time, so there’s no reason to think it couldn’t happen naturally over many more generations.

    “Moral truths are not an illusion or series of meaningless expressions”

    People can have a conversation comparing the merits of two films, based on a (perhaps unspoken) shared criteria over what makes a good film. This doesn’t mean that such a thing as an ‘objectively superior’ film exists. Yet their conversation does have meaning.

    So no, it doesn’t follow that conversations or pronouncements about morality are meaningless unless ‘moral truths’ exists. All it requires is for the people involved to have shared values and shared respect for notions such as property law, equality etc. And as I just alluded to, such shared values are to be expected in a pro-social species such as ourselves.

    “If such a powerful Being exists, He would certainly have the power to eliminate moral imperfection. This kind of Being could adequately ground the objective, transcendent moral truths we all recognize. ”

    You’ve not shown that at all. You’ve not shown that even makes sense. You link to another article by you where you claim: “Moral truth is a reflection of God’s nature”

    Why does God’s nature create moral truths? How are you getting from the ‘IS’ of God’s nature to the ‘OUGHTS’ of moral obligations? I’m afraid that positing a God is no help in accounting for moral truths, even if you had established such truths existed.

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    • toby says:

      Why does God’s nature create moral truths? How are you getting from the ‘IS’ of God’s nature to the ‘OUGHTS’ of moral obligations?

      It seems that they’ll have to resort to divine command theory or some such thing to get their oughts. “He says so! And he says so because he is good and wouldn’t command things that aren’t!” It then looks as if god is the celestial dictator that Hitchens liked to mention. “Do this or else suffer the worst of consequences!”

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      • Jeremy says:

        if the ‘is’ of Gods nature is Good, then he ought to show us the truth or he is holding something back from us which would be evil. Have you ever known a dictator to warn a people out of love. But you seem to want to paint the christian God as evil. So if the christian God is real and you find Him to be evil would you want to be with him for eternity Hitchens said no, what do you say?

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        • Andy Ryan says:

          If it was in God’s nature to hold it back from us, then by definition that would NOT be evil, by your logic, right? If God’s doing it, whatever that is, then it can’t be evil, by your reckoning – right?

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          • Jeremy says:

            Andy

            “If it was in God’s nature to hold it back from us, then by definition that would NOT be evil, by your logic, right?” NO I think that would be evil, but the God of the Bible never claims to hold anything back and never says that he hasnt revealed everything especially the truth of his goodness.

            “If God’s doing it, whatever that is, then it can’t be evil, by your reckoning – right”
            I would say that’s right because he is in his nature only good. which doesn’t mean that he doesn’t allow pain, but not all pain is evil, the acts that perpetrated the pain may be though or they may be good acts that cause pain. I will grant that there could be an evil god but I would suspect the pain we are living in now would be unfathomable or the pain that awaits is just indescribable and I can think up some pretty indescribable hells. Since you believe that God is not the Good God I believe in and he ends up being the true God will you follow him or tell him no just like Hitchens claimed that he would do.

        • toby says:

          then he ought to show us the truth or he is holding something back from us which would be evil.

          Bah! Aren’t we his creations and hence he can do whatever he wishes with us? Or “he has morally sufficient reasons to allow evil (or withhold things from us)” because “he’ll make it all right in the end according to his plan.”

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          • Jeremy says:

            toby

            “Aren’t we his creations and hence he can do whatever he wishes with us?” Sure, I don’t see why he couldn’t do what he wants with us, and its well within his power to create beings that don’t do evil. but if they aren’t given the capacity to do evil, aren’t they limited in there ability to make choices.

            “he has morally sufficient reasons to allow evil (or withhold things from us)” because “he’ll make it all right in the end according to his plan.”

            well if God who claims to be all knowing doesn’t in the end set right all the evil done to a person, then he would not be a Good God much less an omnipotent one. I mean the only hope that I have for the people that ive hurt is that God is real, because if hes not those people will never be whole again, moreover it doesn’t really matter who I hurt because when they are dead they wont even know that I ever hurt them which means that pain isn’t even real.

  2. Andy Ryan says:

    Jeremy: ” I will grant that there could be an evil god”

    Well all the other apologists here disagree with you – Terry L, Frank himself etc. They all claim ‘evil’ only make sense as being opposed to God’s nature. Basically, if God is doing it it can’t be evil by definition. Therefore an evil God is literally impossible – even if you try to posit a hypothetical God that just tortures us on earth from dawn to dusk. Calling such a being evil would make no sense according to any of these apologists.

    Do you disagree with them?

    Reply
    • Jeremy says:

      Andy

      Let me clarify, there could be an evil god but that is not the God of the christian Bible, and if that evil god does exist it exists seperate from the God of the bible which makes the God of the Bible not exist as the God of the Bible claims to be the only living God So if I find out the evil god exists then the God of the Bible isnt real. The problem is ive never heard of an evil god claiming to be existing. so you then have to deal with deal with God that does claim to exist and if you find Him to be evil then I cant help that and neither can He, which is not to say that He is not omipotent, He limits his control over you and I.

      “They all claim ‘evil’ only make sense as being opposed to God’s nature. Basically, if God is doing it it can’t be evil by definition. Therefore an evil God is literally impossible – even if you try to posit a hypothetical God that just tortures us on earth from dawn to dusk”

      But they are talking about the God of the BIble which is the one I believe in, and I think they are right. But you seem to want to talk about the same God yet call him evil which is not in his nature, and you seem to want claim He is evil because He allows suffering.

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      • Andy Ryan says:

        No Jeremy – Terry, Frank and the rest deny that an evil God could exist in any possible reality. They say our definition of evil must necessarily come from an opposition to the nature of whatever God exists. If there’s no God at all then the concept of evil would be incoherent, by their reckoning. As a separate point, they believe the Christian God exists, and therefore HIS nature is the one that defines good and therefore also bad for us.

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        • Jeremy says:

          Andy

          “No Jeremy – Terry, Frank and the rest deny that an evil God could exist in any possible reality.”

          I understand what they are saying and I agree with them. The reason I agree with them is because the God of the Bible makes specific claims to be the only one. Now you may see that as circular reasoning ” Gods the only God because he says so” and you would be right, but if its a true statement because there is no other God then it is a brute fact that He exists. If He exists and is everything He says he is then He isnt evil. Now if you dont want to agree that He is deserving of the God status that He claims for himself then thats on you, you get to make that decision.

          ” If there’s no God at all then the concept of evil would be incoherent, by their reckoning.”
          It is incoherent, because as Dawkins has said, if there is no God then there is only pittyless indifference. what’s interesting is I agree with Dawkins, but forgive me if im wrong, I dont think you do.

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          • Andy Ryan says:

            No Jeremy, you still don’t understand. It’s got nothing to do with their belief in the Christian God – they’re saying it doesn’t matter whose God is real, He would have to be good by definition. Regardless of which God he is. It’s got nothing to do with the claims of the biblical God. They argue any concept of good must come from whatever God exists.

            Dawkins said the universe cares nothing for us. He wasn’t saying we can’t or don’t care for each other.

          • Andy says:

            Andy

            I understand perfectly, Turek et. al believe in one God that is incapable of committing evil because it is part of His nature. From that line of thinking one would have to accept that what ever God does is Good and although He permits suffering that doesnt make it necessarily evil because God says so, which is why I put the circular reasoning part in my last reply. Now this part is crucial if there were an evil god and he said something was good that was clearly not and he knew that it was evil, then that makes him a seperate god from the God of the Bible, as the one of the Bible cant do immoral things. One of them has to be true or neither( but thats another discussion), and then you have to demonstrate and evil god seperate from the God of the Bible exists. You can talk about the same God as them and call him evil, but you then have to demonstrate that he is, rather than say that he is the evil God and that such a thing is possible.

    • Andy Ryan says:

      “Now this part is crucial if there were an evil god and he said something was good that was clearly not and he knew that it was evil, then that makes him a seperate god from the God of the Bible”

      No Jeremy, you’re still not getting their argument.

      They’re saying that the concept of an evil God makes no sense. By their reckoning there’s no way one could say “That God said something was good that was clearly not” – if it genuinely was God (albeit not the God of the bible) then it wouldn’t make sense to say that the God said something was good that ‘clearly wasn’t’. For saying it wasn’t actually good would require a standard of goodness separate from that God, when the only standard we can possibly have for what is good comes from God in the first place.

      Their ‘whatever God does is good’ argument doesn’t come from the Bible or our interpretation of the Biblical God. It comes from them saying that logically any standard of ‘Good’ must come from whichever God is the creator. If that creator God turned out to be a vicious, sadistic God, then vicious sadism must necessarily be a ‘Good’ trait.

      Reply
  3. Jeremy says:

    Andy

    I do get it trust me, I agree that if God is real then anything that He does is necessarily good because it is his nature. when I first started this post I said that he could be an evil god, but that doesnt mean that I believe there is soley because logic dictates a good God if true goodness exists. You seem to want to argue that evil doesnt exist because even if we thought something were evil and God said it wasnt then it cant be evil, which is also to say if god says sadism is good then it is, thus no evil. Which I have to ask, do you think an evil God exists? Does goodness truly exist? if so how do you know that? Can true goodness exist in an evil God?

    Since your making the statement that if God says sadism is good then it is, would you accept that that is true if you came to know that God is real?

    Reply
    • Andy Ryan says:

      “You seem to want to argue that evil doesnt exist because even if we thought something were evil and God said it wasnt then it cant be evil, which is also to say if god says sadism is good then it is, thus no evil.”

      That’s not my argument – it’s the apologist argument. It’s the logic of the other Christians posting here. It’s the outcome of Divine Command Theory.

      Reply
      • Jeremy says:

        Andy

        That’s not my argument – it’s the apologist argument. It’s the logic of the other Christians posting here. It’s the outcome of Divine Command Theory.

        Right, from their logic God cannot logically be good and exist if he says things that are evil, are good! That being said is there such a thing as good and evil. Because on their terms God does nothing evil, permits suffering but does nothing evil! The deceitful God you claim that they are talking about is illogical in the since that he cant be good and commit deceit. You might say that hes not deceiving anybody, we have just dreamed up this fairy tale God that exists but that would also go against the nature of an evil god to allow us any hope of goodness. You have to remember that an evil God is not just a little evil he is completely evil. Maybe we should change the terminology to instead of good we say right, and instead of evil we say wrong. I think we understand what exactly is being said but think those terms are more accurate. I get what your saying, I really do. You think the apologists claim on divine comand theory, God cant do wrong therefore nothing God does is wrong, is their claim. I agree but that also insists that God does right because God is right. the ‘is’ part is the nature not something that He choses its what He is, his nature. His nature cannot logically be tainted with wrong doing as it would allow for evil to be an adversary. God has no adversary not even himself as logically He can not allow Himself to do wrong, if he is to remian consistant and Godly. To have an adversary means He can be overcome. Why did you not answer any of my questions.

        Reply
        • Andy Ryan says:

          “Right, from their logic God cannot logically be good and exist if he says things that are evil, are good!”

          Still not right Jeremy. From their viewpoint, whatever God says is good must by definition be good. Regardless of how evil it may SEEM to you, it has to be good if it comes from God.

          “He cannot be good and commit deceit”

          No, he could commit deceit – we’d just have to then say deceit was a virtue.

          Reply
          • Jeremy says:

            Andy

            “Still not right Jeremy. From their viewpoint, whatever God says is good must by definition be good. Regardless of how evil it may SEEM to you, it has to be good if it comes from God.”

            I still understand what your saying. It doesnt matter how it seems to me and Im not arguing that God’s goodness has to measure up to my standard and neither is Frank et. al. They’re arguing that logically God can only do good things because only good things come from Him, as it is his nature. Sure if God says sadism is Good then it is which makes it morally objective and we have no right to say other wise ( which was in my original post). That being said, since it doesnt matter what we think of God and what he says is right or wrong. Are their objective morals even if an evil ‘ good’ God exists? Should we care what they are? If a good God exists how is he going to convince us that He is good? Should he be able to convince us?

    • toby says:

      You seem to want to argue that evil doesnt exist because even if we thought something were evil and God said it wasnt then it cant be evil, which is also to say if god says sadism is good then it is, thus no evil.
      I say that because theists believe that that god has a plan and knows the beginning to the end then the theist can’t claim that anything is evil. If god had a purpose for a genocide, then that genocide can’t be evil.

      Reply
      • Jeremy says:

        Toby

        If god had a purpose for a genocide, then that genocide can’t be evil.

        If God decides that a people no longer needs to exist on this planet is it ok for God to remove them. Moreover if God decides to remove them as they are a danger to the rest of the people is that ok. Its not about whether or not God is evil but rather is it wrong for God to use genocide to serve a purpose, especially if God knows these people will not accept Him EVER, so he choses to move them into their eternity of being without Him.

        Reply
        • toby says:

          If god had a purpose for a genocide, then that genocide can’t be evil.

          That’s my point. You can have an intuition that sometime is objectively moral until you’re blue in the face, but if a god has a plan and that “evil” act is a part of it, then the theist can’t call it evil. It’s god’s will that it must happen so it must be good. All will be right in the end. So the theist saying that the atheist has no grounds for calling anything good or bad is a bit like the pot and the kettle.

          Reply
          • Jeremy says:

            Toby

            “All will be right in the end.”

            crucial part of your statement right here. God has to be able to justify the genocide which He can if He is the foundation for the objective morals we talk about, because within his nature He is objectively moral. so whether we think it right, He ‘is’ right. If he is not objectively moral then its just his opinion, and there for cannot be God, He just happens to have more power than we do, though he may have good intent especially the Christian God, He claimed to be the only God and if He’s not then He is a liar.

            “So the theist saying that the atheist has no grounds for calling anything good or bad is a bit like the pot and the kettle black”

            with regards to what. not sure what you mean? If you understand that God existing gives us a foundation for objective morals the theist can absolutely say there are good and bad things. The big question is if a so called evil God exists that still means that objective morals exist do they not? The only way for objective morals not to exist is to not have a God, right?

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