Are Moral Truths Simply Brute Facts About the Universe?

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. Many atheistic philosophers, while they recognize the existence of such truths, attempt to explain them from “inside the room” by describing moral truths as “brute facts” of the cosmos. Like mathematical truths and the laws of logic, moral truths are described as “fixed features” of the universe. According to these naturalistic philosophers, humans don’t create such truths; we simply become aware of them after careful reflection. Moral laws, under this view, are every bit as binding on us as the laws of logic or math. By claiming moral truths are simply brute facts, atheists are able to explain their existence from “inside the room,” but this explanation, while it recognizes and affirms the existence of objective moral truth, fails to adequately explain its origin:

This Approach Fails to Account for Moral “Obligations”
It’s one thing to acknowledge a particular fact, but another to be obligated to submit to such a fact. Describing moral truth as a brute fact of the universe serves to identify and affirm moral truths without explaining why there are moral obligations. Philosophers David Baggett and Jerry Walls put it this way: “Naturalism can make good sense of why we might feel or believe that we have moral obligations, but it has a much harder time explaining moral obligations themselves, and its deterministic framework means that vital moral categories, to survive, have to be watered down and replaced.” The laws of mathematics and logic describe “what is,” but moral laws describe “what ought to be,” and moral claims and legal statutes represent obligations between persons.

This Approach Fails to Explain Why There Are Brute Facts
Those who describe the existence of objective moral truth claims as brute facts of the universe have only taken the first step in explaining their existence. When I discover a piece of evidence in a crime scene, it’s not enough for me to simply identify its existence. I’ve got to figure out how the evidence got in the scene in the first place. Why is it there? If moral truth is a brute fact of the universe, we should reasonably ask why this is the case and begin to examine what kind of universe would necessarily possess moral obligations in the first place.

This Approach Disconnects Morality from Mind
As philosopher John Rist observes, moral ideals are “objects of thoughts, not mere constructs or concepts.” This poses a problem for those who think transcendent moral truths are a brute fact of the universe. The notion of a transcendent, eternal “object of thought” without a transcendent, eternal “thinker of thoughts” is incomprehensible. Baggett and Walls put it this way: “The need for Platonic forms ultimately to be grounded in a mind that recognizes them is once again keenly felt. ‘Free floating metaphysical items’ do not have the ontological strength and stability that we think morality must have. Even if we discern these moral truths before we identify their deeper foundations, this only reminds us again that the order of knowing is distinct from the order of being.”

This Approach Suppresses Further Investigation
As with similar efforts to explain the reason for the universe’s existence (I also describe these in Chapter Two of God’s Crime Scene), explanations such as “that’s just the way it is,” or “that’s a pointless question” are largely unsatisfying and serve to suppress further investigation rather than lead us to the truth. Detectives who take this approach typically don’t solve many murders. If reasonable explanations are available, we ought not to ignore them in favor of “that’s just the way it is.”

Atheist philosophers who recognize the existence of objective, transcendent moral truths have a difficult task at hand. 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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12 replies
  1. Andy Ryan says:

    “This Approach Fails to Account for Moral “Obligations”

    Simply saying ‘God created us and he has a certain nature’ doesn’t account for moral obligations either. How do you get from the (claimed) IS of ‘God created us and he has a certain nature’ to any OUGHTS?

        • Mark says:

          No. We do not have oughts because He SAID we should have oughts.

          We have oughts because He IS.

          Given atheism, what ought we do, Andy?

          And why?

          • Andy Ryan says:

            “We have oughts because He IS.”

            Why? You say He IS – let’s say we allow that He is. Why does that mean there are oughts?

          • Mark says:

            Because our moral values (IS) come from His character, and our moral duties (OUGHT) come from His commands.

            Now answer my question, Andy. On atheism, what ought we do?

            And why?

          • Andy Ryan says:

            “Because our moral values (IS) come from His character, and our moral duties (OUGHT) come from His commands.”

            Sorry Mark but you’ve not answered the question.

            You’re saying God has a character. And you’re saying He makes commands. That’s two claims. Is x 2. You’ve not shown any oughts. Why does God making commands translate into us being obligated to carry them out?

            “On atheism, what ought we do?”

            The question doesn’t make sense to me. You might as well say “On [not believing in Geocentricity] what ought we do?”

          • Andy Ryan says:

            Mark, atheism isn’t a philosophy, so your question doesn’t make sense. It’s like saying ‘On theism, what is good?’. Theism just means you believe in God, and in itself says nothing about good or bad. For that you need to specify a specific philosophical worldview like Christianity or Islam.

            Likewise, atheism just means a lack of belief in God. If you want to know what’s good under Humanism – a secular philosophy – then you’ll find answers to your question.

            Now could you address my questions in my previous post.

          • Mark says:

            Let’s try this again. If there is no God, if atheists are correct, then how does one determine what is right and what is wrong? And why should anyone be good (whatever that is)?

            How do YOU distinguish between right and wrong, Andy?

  2. Terry L says:

    One cannot know what an object ought to do until one knows the purpose of that object. The rudder on a ship ought to steer the ship in the direction desired by the pilot. The engine on a car ought to make the car move. But what is the purpose of man?

    It also seems that purpose must be related to a person. A car has no purposes of its own… it is the owner/driver that gives the car purpose. The ship’s rudder doesn’t care if it is actually steering a great ship, or hanging as a decoration in an office somewhere.

    So what ought men to do? To know this, we must know our purpose, and we must know from whom our purpose comes.

    The atheist would have to say either that we have no purpose, or that our purpose comes from ourselves or other men. But all of these options are less than satisfactory.

    If we have no purpose, then we may do as we please, but let’s not pretend that morality has any meaning if this is true. Whether you bandage a child’s scraped knee, or cut of their leg, all actions are amoral and equally “good” or “evil”, because morality, goodness, and evil do not exist. I know of no one who lives as if this is true… and if one does, they are quickly locked up or killed!

    If we create our own purpose, then what is “good” is what furthers our own purposes… even if that means maiming and killing others to accomplish our goals. For who would have the authority, or the right to tell us that our purpose was evil?

    If other men set our purpose, then to whom do we look, and why? Hitler? Hugh Hefner? Mother Teresa? Bill Gates? Bush? Obama? Trump? What right have they to assign my purpose?

    Only if our purpose comes from a being transcendent to us, with the right to assign purpose to us, and being the very definition of Goodness does morality make any sense at all.

    • Andy Ryan says:

      “The ship’s rudder doesn’t care if it is actually steering a great ship, or hanging as a decoration in an office somewhere”

      I don’t find analogies that use inanimate objects convincing. Few people would say a cat is no different to a screwdriver, and even fewer would say a person is like a ship’s propeller. As soon as we start using ‘moral agents’ or self-aware animals like man, we reject this kind of reasoning – if a couple produced a child simply to use his organs as ‘spare parts’ we wouldn’t say that was the child’s ‘purpose’. Or if we did, we wouldn’t say that meant the child was obligated to give up his organs to his parents.

      I’m guessing you amy well reply to this either “Yes, but WHY is a person different from a propeller” or “Yes, but WHY shouldn’t the child give up his organs”. If you do, you’re missing the point – for you analogy to work you have to suggest the person is like a propeller and the child should give up his organs.

      Of course you can also say: “But the parents didn’t make the child – God did”.

      The problem here is that a) It suggests the parents had no free will in making the child, and worse b) It just shows that the pointlessness of any analogy to explain why God making us creates our purpose – any time you liken it to anyone making anything else, one could reply “Yes, but that person didn’t ultimately make that thing – God did”.

      “The atheist would have to say either that we have no purpose, or that our purpose comes from ourselves or other men. But all of these options are less than satisfactory.”

      How satisfactory you find something has little bearing on whether it’s true or not. Perhaps you mean satisfactory as in ‘convincing’ or ‘logically sound’. Saying “God made you for a purpose” doesn’t strike me as satisfactory either, in any sense of the word.

      “What right have they to assign my purpose?”
      What right has your God got? Did he give himself this right? Does it logically flow from some other principle? Where did the principle come from – God again?


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