Monday, May 15, 2023

Philosopher Paul Gould Considers Erik Wielenberg's "Brute Fact Atheism"


Although it may come as a surprise to some, many theists and atheists agree that objective moral facts exists.  That is to say that there are at least some objective moral truths that hold "independent of minds and speakers..."1  However, this raises the question asked by philosopher Paul Gould in his latest book A Good and True Story:

"...what best explains the reality of objective morality?  What grounds it or makes it true?"2

One explanation is that nothing grounds morality and that morality is just a brute fact.  Moral facts just exist and there is not explanation.  One popular version of this view is expressed by the Dr. Erik Wilenberg in his book Robust ethics.  In his work, Wilenberg argues that objective moral facts are abstract objects.  As Dr. Gould explains, abstract objects are "funny sorts of things:"3

"They exist just like more familiar concrete objects such as tables, chairs, and the like, but they do so outside space and time.  To endorse belief in these abstract things is to endorse Platonism, in honor of Plato and his theory of Eternal Forms.  Wielenberg defends what we might call a kind of of Platonic Atheism.  We could also call Wielenberg's view a kind of Brute Fact Atheism since moral facts are brute or unexplained.  According to Brute Fact or Platonic Atheism, then, there is the physical universe and an abstract realm of moral facts.  This view is a philosophically viable option.  As Wielenberg points out, explanations must stop somewhere, so why not with brute moral facts?"4

And while Gould concedes that Wielenberg's view is a "philosophically viable option," he ultimately rejects it as the best explanation for objective moral facts for 4 reasons.  Gould explains:

"First, it seems utterly mysterious how properties in the abstract realm - for example, being good, being evil, being right, being wrong - hook up to various things and actions in the physical world.  Why is it that my childhood act of stealing office supplies hooks up with the abstract property being wrong instead of being right?  The answer, at the end of the day, is that it just does.  Period.  But this makes Brute Fact Atheism less attractive than the alternatives, for now the amount of brute facts needed to make the theory work has multiplied.  Not only does it offer no explanation for the objective moral order; it also offers no explanation for how the moral and natural orders connect.

Second, Brute Fact Atheism can't explain the authority or obligatoriness of moral duties.  Why is it that we have an obligation to be honest?  What explains this 'oughtness"?  Obligations and duties attach, it seems, to persons, not things.  I'm not obligated to the chair I'm currently sitting on.  I don't owe it anything.  Suppose I'm thinking about jumping off a roof for fun and, in my infinite wisdom, consider landing on a chair to soften the impact.  Suppose too that if I jump, I'll likely break the chair (and suppose I see this likelihood).  As I consider this (foolish) action, an action I regularly contemplated as a kid, we might ask: Would I owe it to the chair to refrain from jumping?  No.  I'm not obligated to things.  I am, on the other hand, obligated to people.  I'm obligated to myself to not do stupid and unsafe things like jumping off roofs.  And I'm obligated - in this case to my wife and kids - to not put them in a position of needing to care for me when that leg breaks.  Obligations naturally attach to persons, not things.  In this way, theism - belief in a personal being worthy of worship - better accommodates the obligatoriness of moral duties by locating a proper ultimate source of moral authority.

Third, Brute Fact Atheism cannot account for the guilt we feel when we do wrong.  Suppose I had a magical ring that made me invisible.  Why be moral?...If I cheated, lied, even raped and murdered, no one would know it was me.  Yet I'd still feel guilty.  I'll bet you would too...If there is a moral law but no moral lawgiver, then why do I have this sense of guilt when I do wrong - even if no one can see what I do?  This need to rectify our moral failures is best explained if there are both a moral law and a moral lawgiver.

Finally, Brute Fact Atheism cannot account for why we have mental capacities that track moral truths.  If the grand, naturalistic, evolutionary story explains why we have the cognitive capacities that we have, then we have no good reason to trust what our mental lives tell us.  After all, evolution selects traits for survival, not truth.  Thus, we have no reason to think that our cognitive capacities are aimed at truth, and we have no reason to think that our moral beliefs track truth.  In other words, the fact that we do have moral knowledge is hard to explain given Brute Fact Atheism.  On the other hand, if God exists, we have good reasons to think that our cognitive faculties are in fact reliable for tracking moral truths; arguably, God wants us to know moral truths, and thus he ensured (through either natural or supernatural processes) that our cognitive faculties develop such that they are capable of tracking moral truths."5

For these reasons, Dr. Gould concludes "that Brute Fact Atheism doesn't best explain objective morality."6

To learn more about Dr. Gould and his latest book A Good and True Story, check out our interview with him on the Apologetics315 Podcast here.

Courage and Godspeed,

1. Paul M. Gould, A Good and True Story, p. 94. 
2. Ibid, p. 94.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid; For those interested in seeing Dr. Wielenberg defend his view, check out this debate with Dr. William Lane Craig.
5. Ibid. 

Related Posts

Article: Can Moral Objectivism Do Without God? by Peter S. Williams

Article: C.S. Lewis and 8 Reasons for Believing in Objective Morality

Kenneth Samples on Objective Moral Values

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