The problem of evil is often presented to Christians as the objection to the existence of God. Sometimes it is presented as a logical problem — the existence of an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God is logically inconsistent with the existence of evil — but more often these days it is presented as a matter of probabilities — it is very unlikely that an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God exists in light of the degree, distribution and intensity of evil and suffering.
However, the biggest problem of evil is the one that is faced by the atheist who, in their quest for a non-mysterious, suitably “natural” world, excises the existence of objective moral facts that stand apart from species, culture and individual opinion. It seems to me that this creates huge problems for the atheist given that the existence of objective moral facts is better grounded than the non-existence of God or the truth of naturalism (whatever that is).
This week Brenda asserted (or strongly suggested) that the only way to know objective moral facts is through the scientific method. So I presented a fact that it seems to me to be objective, standing apart from species, culture and individual opinion: “Rape is evil.” Surely this is an objective moral fact. And if it is, and one holds an atheistic worldview that does not allow for objective moral facts, then one ought to repudiate their atheism rather than the objective moral fact. So it seems to me anyways.
Brenda replied as follows to this putative objective moral fact: “I absolutely believe it is wrong to rape. Everything about my culture tells me it is wrong. But… I do not know that it is wrong to rape. I just don’t see how moral realism is possible.”
I am struck by this statement. I take it that believing “absolutely” means something like “with maximal conviction”. There are many things I believe with less than maximal conviction which I also would say that I know. Consider “Ottawa is the capital of Canada.” I believe this to be true and I believe that I know it to be true. But I also believe I could conceivably be wrong about that and thus my conviction is not absolute. So if we can say about matters of less than maximal conviction that we know them, shouldn’t we be willing to say about matters of maximal conviction that we know them?
Apparently what inhibits Brenda from taking this reasonable step is the fact that, as she says, “I just don’t see how moral realism is possible.” This perplexes me deeply since there are all sorts of examples where our theories fail to explain adequately a fact that we nonetheless accept without a blush.
Philosophers of perception for centuries have disputed how it can be that we have sense perception of the external world, and all the theories presently on offer are unsatisfactory in certain respects. (All one has to do is read up in the adverbial theory, sense data theory, and theory of appearing to get confirmation on this.) And yet we don’t conclude that sense perception is impossible! Without a pause I say “the apple on the table is red.”
And when the physicist encounters the duality of light, appearing as it does to manifest the properties of a wave and a particle, the physicist does not deny these results or proclaim his resolve henceforth to live in the darkness. Rather, he accepts that he does not know how this can be but yet insists that, for all he knows at present, it must be.
So finally we come to moral facts. “Rape is evil.” Isn’t the objective factuality of this statement worn on its sleeve? And isn’t the most reasonable response, even if we don’t quite see how or in what sense moral realism is true, nonetheless to insist that it simply must be? Shouldn’t we let our moral perception take the reins at this point and allow our theories to come up from the rear? If we do this in sense perception and scientific enquiry, why would we not extend it to moral perception, even if that counts against a reductive, naturalistic, atheistic worldview?