Malignant Demon, Atheism and Search For Truth

Critique“Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind,” rhetorically asked Charles Darwin, “if there are any convictions in such a mind?” (Darwin 1881) In Darwin’s July 3rd 1881 letter to William Graham, we encounter a problem of epistemological uncertainty of our cognitive faculties. Darwin believed that Graham had accurately portrayed his conviction that “the Universe [was] not the result of chance.” He further explained,

“But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy”(ibid.).

Darwin’s unpleasant doubt is the incarnation of the Cartesian malignant Demon. In evolutionary biology, Rene Descartes’ malignant demon took on flesh and dwelt among us. This malignant demon is an “exceedingly potent and deceitful” being that  “has employed all his artifice to deceive” us to believe that we are experiencing an external world while in actual reality we are experiencing “nothing better than the illusions of dreams” (Descartes 1901, 224). Deceitfulness and falseness came through malignant Demon. Continue reading

Argumentum ad Malum


“It’s not that I don’t accept God, you must understand,” said Ivan Karamazov, one of Fyodor Dostoevsky novel’s characters in The Brothers Karamazov, to his younger brother, Alyosha,  “it’s the world created by Him I don’t and cannot accept.”(Dostoevsky 2007, 257) The world created by God is overflowing with horrifying and repugnant evils. Ivan vividly captured some of the moral evil committed by the Turks and Circassians in Bulgaria:

They burn villages, murder, outrage women and children, they nail their prisoners by the ears to the fences, leave them so till morning, and in the morning they hang them — all sorts of things you can’t imagine. People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel. The tiger only tears and gnaws, that’s all he can do. He would never think of nailing people by the ears, even if he were able to do it. These Turks took a pleasure in torturing children, too; cutting the unborn child from the mothers womb, and tossing babies up in the air and catching them on the points of their bayonets before their mothers’ eyes. Doing it before the mothers’ eyes was what gave zest to the amusement. (2007, 260)

Evils such as these are morally abhorrent. It is painful to imagine that humans are capable of inflicting such inhumane deeds that are far worse than those of  mindless beasts. Arising in any morally sane person is  intuitive repulsive attitude towards such evils.

From such revulsion, atheists have argued that the existence of such evils is the problem for theists. Atheists have looked into the problem of evil’s abyss for far too long. Our intuitive revulsion toward such evils is the abyss looking back at them.  The queerness of our intuitive revulsion of such  evils from a naturalistic perspective is a problem for atheists.

In a naturalistic worldview, our intuitive revulsion toward such evils is nothing but social instincts acquired to aid the survivability of our species. The deeds Ivan mentioned, for example, are neither good nor evil because our species could have acquired different instincts to which such deeds were not intuitively repulsive (Darwin 1877, 99-100).

Repulsive Ivan’s Turks artistically deeds may sound, Richard Dawkins rightly argued from a naturalistic perspective that,

“nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous—indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.”(Dawkins 1995: 112)

Nature just is. “[Y]ou won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice” Dawkins correctly explained, since there is “at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”(149) We are intuitively revolted by such acts because it is of biological worth. Our intuitive revulsion to such evils, in naturalistic worldview, is illusory.

Darwin, Charles (1877) The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, Part One (Second edition 1989, revised and augmented ed) New York: New York University Press.

Dawkins, Richard (1995). River Out of Eden: A Darwin View of Life. Weidenfeld & Nicolson
The Orion Publishing Group

Dostoevsky, Fyodor (2007) The Karamazov Brothers. Wordsworth Editions Ltd. (First published in 1880)

Mackie’s Error Theory

screen-capture-1“There are no objective values.”  So starts the first chapter of J.L. Mackie’s book, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, where he argues that there are no objective, universally prescriptive moral facts.

His view is a cognitivist view, which means that our moral judgments express believes that have truth-value, but it is not an example of moral realism.  Mackie argued that all of our moral judgments and beliefs are false.  This is why it is called “Error Theory.”  How does he argue for this position?

His argument combines a conceptual claim about our moral judgments and an ontological claim about the existence of moral facts.

1) Conceptual claim: Our moral concepts are concepts of universally prescriptive, categorical facts in the world.

2) Ontological claim: There are no such facts in the world.

Since there is nothing in the world that corresponds to our beliefs about moral facts, our moral beliefs and claims are all false.  That is why Mackie’s view is called Error Theory, because we are literally in error.

Mackie argues for (1) by showing that many philosophers in the Western tradition have defended objective moral values.  While acknowledging that many thinkers are moral subjectivists he says “the main tradition of European moral philosophy includes the contrary claim, that there are objective values of just the sort I have denied,” (p. 30).  He cites philosophers like Plato, Kant, Sidgwick, Aristotle, Samuel Clarke, Hutcheson, Richard Price, and says Hume noticed the prevalence of the objectivist tradition as well.  He also argues that the objectivist tradition has a firm basis in ordinary thought.  When many people ask if a certain action is wrong, they are not asking what they feel about the action or what benefit they think it will give them, they are asking if the action itself is wrong.  Mackie also claims that existentialism and its influence on people shows that people tend to objectify their concerns.  People who cease to believe that objective moral facts or values exist tend to begin believing that nothing matters at all; that life has no purpose.  This suggests that those people were objectifying their moral judgments so that they were something external to them, not just aspects of their own ideas, thoughts, and desires (p. 34).

Mackie argues for (2) in a few different ways, but the argument I will focus on here is the argument from queerness.

If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.  Correspondingly, if we were aware of them, it would have to be by some special faculty or moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else. (p. 38)

In order to argue that moral facts do not exist, Mackie combines a metaphysical argument with an epistemological argument.  The metaphysical argument is that moral facts would be very “queer” properties unlike any other kinds of properties we know.  Moral facts are the kinds of things that have a demand for an action built into them.  They are prescriptive facts telling us how we ought to act.  The facts that we are all acquainted with, however, are prescriptively inert.  The facts or properties that we are all familiar with, physical properties, do not have demands for certain actions built into them.  They do not tell us how things ought to be, they just tell us how things are.  They are descriptive rather than prescriptive. These physical properties, which are descriptive properties that tell us how things are, are the kinds of properties that we are very well acquainted with and they are explicable on naturalism.  Moral properties, which are prescriptive properties that tell us how things ought to be, are strange and not easily explainable on naturalism, since the moral properties themselves would not be natural.

The epistemological argument is that we would need a special faculty that was able to detect these moral properties.  We have different faculties for detecting things in the world, and these faculties are how we gain knowledge about the world.  For example, our eyes pick up light and allow us to see, our noses detect scents in the air and allow us to smell, our ears detect the vibrations in the air and allow us to hear sound.  Through these different faculties we detect different things in the world and learn about them.  But what kind of faculty would we need to have in order to detect non-physical, universally prescriptive moral facts?  It is not clear what on earth this faculty could be or how we can gain knowledge of moral facts through it.  So Mackie concludes from this that we have good reason to reject the actual existence of moral facts.

To sum up, Mackie claims that our moral concepts are concepts of universally prescriptive facts, but these facts do not exist in the world, so our moral concepts are literally false.  He argues against their existence by showing that such facts would be metaphysically “queer” on naturalism and it is not clear how we would even know their existence.

I think Mackie’s moral theory is likely to be true if naturalism is true.  If someone is a naturalist, he would have to deny moral facts because they are not the kinds of things that would be natural.  If someone thinks that moral facts do exist, then he has reason to reject naturalism.


(1) Mackie, J. L. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Middelessex: Penguin, 1990. Print.

(2) Miller, Alexander. An Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2003. Print.

About Guest Contributor

KyleKyle Hendricks is a blogger of  Into the Harvest, a blog that reflects his thoughts on Philosophy of Religion and Theology.

Kyle is an awesomely gifted and careful Christian thinker. He graduated from The University of Missouri-Columbia with a B.A. in philosophy and is doing his M.A. program in philosophy at Biola University. Kyle works part-time for Stand to Reason.

Tooley, Plantinga and the Deontological Argument from Evil Part II

Edited: Matthew Flannagan

In my last post, Tooley, Plantinga and the Deontological Argument from Evil Part I, I sketched Tooley’s distinction between a deontological and an axiological argument from evil and argued that Tooley rejects the axiological version because it rests on controversial ethical claims that are likely to be rejected by many theists. I outlined Tooley’s deontological version and explored the moral assumptions it is based on and Plantinga’s criticism of these.

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Tooley, Plantinga and the Deontological Argument from Evil Part I

Edited: Matthew Flannagan

This two-part series criticises the deontological argument from evil proposed by Micheal Tooley in The Knowledge of God, the print debate between him and Alvin Plantinga.1 My critique proceeds in four parts. Initially I will sketch Tooley’s distinction between a deontological and an axiological argument from evil and will argue that Tooley rejects the axiological version because it rests on “controversial ethical claims;”2 claims that are “likely to be rejected by many theists.”3 Then I will outline Tooley’s deontological version and focus on the moral assumptions upon which it is based and Plantinga’s criticism of these. This will conclude Part I of the series. Continue reading

Atheist Tooley’s Problem Of Evil Refuted

William Lane Craig April 2010 News Letter

William Lane Craig

Michael Tooley has developed a very complicated argument against God’s existence based on concrete examples of terrible evils in the world like the famous Lisbon earthquake. Alvin Plantinga has remarked that Tooley has thereby done us a service, for if an argument as carefully developed as his fails, it’s very unlikely that any better argument from evil against God’s existence will be found. Here is part of my response to Dr. Tooley’s argument:

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