At Virginia Tech, on Wednesday evening March 21, there was a debate on the question "Does God Probably Exist?" I wanted to post comments on two of the arguments given.
One argument given was the "fine-tuning argument". One of the debaters was studying high-level academic philosophy, and they stated it thus:
Given the fine-tuning evidence, a life-permitting Universe (LPM) is very, very epistemically unlikely under the non-existence of a fine-tuner, and is not unlikely if a fine-tuner exists.
The skeptical side had replies to this, but they didn't give my favorite. We only observe one Universe. For Universes, we have a sample size of one. You cannot tell anything about probability, "likelihood", with a sample size of one. The only grounds we have for judging what is "likely" or "unlikely" in nature is what we observe IN nature. For events IN the Universe, we can judge that common events are "likely", and uncommon events are "unlikely". To say that the Universe itself is "very, very unlikely" is a category mistake; it is attempting to apply a concept- (probability)- where it simply does not apply. With a sample size of one, all we can say is that the Universe is "likely enough" to have happened once. I.E., the Universe is "likely enough" to be possible.
It is actually not unlikely, not at all surprising, that the Universe we observe is one that allows us to exist as living beings to observe it. Given that we do exist and observe it from inside it, it must be one that allows our existence, with "probability one". It would be miraculous, something in serious need of supernatural explanation, if the Universe we observed was NOT one that allowed our existence.
The fact that we can IMAGINE other Universes, even imagine them in full mathematical detail, is not EVIDENCE that these imagined alternate Universes actually exist. It is not even evidence that these imagined alternate Universes are possible. Our mathematical imagination does not give us a larger sample size, it does not let us legitimately estimate "probability" for the Universe as a whole.
Another argument given was the "moral argument". Our visiting philosophy student gave it in this form: 1) There are objective axiomatic moral facts that obtain. 2) Either the world alone or the world and a perfectly moral person best explain these facts. 3) It is the case that the world and a perfectly moral person best explain these facts. Therefore, the world and a perfectly moral person best explain these facts. His partner on the panel gave a less formal version; he just couldn't imagine or explain how there could be moral laws without a moral lawgiver, and "God" was the only person who would have sufficient authority to serve that role. He admitted that atheists could be moral people, could consistently act in a moral way, but their ethics were not grounded, did not have adequate "foundations", without a cosmic lawgiver behind them.
There are many things wrong with this argument. I have written essays on the ways that ethics can, and can not, be "objective"; see
http://www.atheistnexus.org/profiles/blogs/defining-five-terms ... I have written on what "foundations" secular ethics can have; see
... But what needs to be challenged is the idea that religion provides any sort of good "foundation" or "grounding" or "justification" for ethics.
Religious folk misunderstand morality at its roots. Religion teaches a child's view of ethics, that "being good" means "obeying your parent". Just as religious faith is believing what you are told, so religious morality is doing what you are told. Religious morality consists of obeying the alleged will of God, an invisible "Cosmic Parent", as reported by your chosen authority. But obedience is not morality, and morality is not obedience. We can all think of famous people who did good things while rebelling against authority, and others who did evil things while obeying authority.
Religious folk may be Good Samaritans or suicide bombers, it depends entirely on what their chosen authority orders them to do. If a believer, or a community of same, wishes to make war or keep slaves or oppress women, all they have to do is persuade themselves that their god approves. This seems not to be hard, and no god has ever popped up to tell believers that they were wrong. They do not have a code of morality except by the convenience of the priesthood. What they have is a code of obedience, which is not the same thing.
If there WERE any Cosmic Parent, it would not need human messengers; it could speak directly to whomever it wished. If a divine being wants me to do something, they should tell me, not you. If they have a message for all humankind, they could write it on the face of the Moon, in letters five miles wide. They could deliver their message in any number of ways that were beyond the ability of human beings to counterfeit. But instead we have human beings claiming to speak for God; "This is right, and that is wrong, and I know this because I had a vision that God spoke to me and said so." As Thomas Paine wrote, this man "may be deceived, or he may have dreamed it, or he may be an impostor and may lie." Religion does not actually have a Cosmic Lawgiver to give us; what they have are stories about a Cosmic Lawgiver, delivered by some human being or other. But it seems to me unlikely that any REAL god, capable of speaking directly and un-counterfeitably, would choose to communicate indirectly through human beings in a way that looks like untreated schizophrenia. Any alleged "revelation" DELIVERED BY HUMAN BEINGS is presumptively fraudulent.
Religious morality is based on faith. Faith is, ultimately, believing what you are told, by someone whom you have chosen to regard as an authority. Your chosen authority tells you about invisible things, Heaven and Hell and God, and about what this God wants you to do and not do.
Faith is required, to believe that this invisible god actually exists, that he/she/it wants your obedience, and that for some reason this god cannot or will not speak to you directly, but WILL speak to this self-proclaimed authority. You must have faith that your chosen authority is actually hearing from this god and not from some other invisible spirit, some mischievous or malevolent ghost or demon. You must have faith that your prophet is not making it all up out of whole cloth, and is reporting accurately what this invisible spirit is saying. If your chosen prophet lived centuries ago, you have to hope that the words of this prophet were recorded, copied, and translated accurately for, as Jeremiah said, "actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely". (Jer. 8:8) All this has to be decided subjectively. Religious morality is inherently subjective and culturally relative, because it depends crucially on faith.
So, sorry, but religion does not, and cannot, supply us with adequate "foundations" for ethics.