Thursday, October 05, 2006

Some previous dialogue on the Euthyphro

Since the Euthyphro dilemma has reared its head in a discussion, I thought I would track back to some previous dialogue involving Steve Lovell on the subject.


Jason said...


I apologize for the lateness of the reply--between one thing and another, the previous thread seems to have moved off the bottom of the main page before I got back around to checking it. (Or possibly I misremembered what the comment tally was, and thought there was still no reply when scanning past it.) In any case, I didn't realize there had been an answer until Victor linked back to the discussion several months later. (early Oct 2006)

I have a very large number of things on the desk this morning (Fri Oct 6, 2006), but I will try to work up an answer this weekend, or this afternoon after work. Thank you, in the meanwhile, for taking the time to make such an in-depth reply in defense of your paper. {bow!}


Jason said...

Righteo then, the reply to Steve. It's going to be tough. (If anyone's eyes are glazing over already, take that as a sign and move along. It won't get any better.)

1.) Your paper at seems to be missing; neither Victor's link nor the link actually at leads to it, but to a dead page instead.

(I mention this for provenance sake only, since my crit wasn't so much with the paper, as it was with certain principles I think are being put into application during your replies to John Loftus et al.)

2.) For whatever it may be worth, I am myself an advocate of DNT, including over against the Euthyphro dilemma. As such, I think I can agree without reservation to the 3 elements you listed.

3.) That being said (and this is something of an aside), I am an opponent to DCT. I do not for an instant believe DNT is a variant of DCT. DCT lands squarely on one of the horns of the Euthyphro, and any variant of the DCT, no matter how it might be dressed up, is by tautology DCT and so lands on that horn, too.

I mention this, not because I can clearly remember you were trying to identify DNT with DCT, and not because it was ever much of a topic in the comments, but because the description of your paper makes the identification. Either the description was written by a strong Calvinist who totally misunderstood your paper, or else the whole discussion is misleading in the extreme. DCT=DCT=Euthyphro horn. A variant of DCT is still DCT; and if I thought DNT was a variant of DCT (which I don't), I would be obligated to admit that DNT doesn't avoid the horn at all. (Which in turn is why opponents are going to be hot to make that identification themselves, if they can.) I can clearly see you doing convenient squinting elsewhere in your replies (to put it bluntly), so I can't help suspecting you may be engaging in convenient squinting here, too. (Possibly not; on the currently available evidence I can't be sure, and apparently I wasn't entirely sure when I finished your article either. Thus, kind of an aside.)

4.) It is abundantly clear from the wording of what I shall call the Paragraph of Contention (written originally in reply to John Loftus, which begins "The circularity in question is this" and ends "And there, it seems, is our circularity"), as well as from your plentiful descriptions and references to it afterward (to me, to John, and to Steven) that you consider this paragraph: (a) to be representative of the "certain kind of circularity" in your paper; (b) to be a justification attempt from beginning to end; and (c) to represent a complete argument.

5.) It is also abundantly clear, from your attempts to defend the paragraph from objections to its circularity (especially though not only to me), that you think that if you just don't follow the argument out to conclusion then there is no problem; it is only an 'explanation' then.

This would look more impressive if you hadn't given us an argument which does clearly go out to conclusion. But even if it didn't, I can honestly only call it irresponsible not to consider the implications if it _was_ (as it _is_) followed out to conclusion. Pretending the argument isn't being followed out to conclusion is no way to defend it from criticism. If I complain about its vicious circularity as an argument, you agree it would be a terrible argument not to be accepted by anyone, if it was being used for justification. (I would say for anything else, either.) But you treat me (and Steven, and John) as though this notion of justification was being foisted on your argument by us with no sanction; when we are only following out your own constant wording regarding the argument.

The main difference, is that we do not accept a squint that conveniently ignores the result ("putting it off for a long while" as you say).

You mention twice (once to me) that "the dialectic has been misunderstood". I beg to differ. I have understood the dialectic very well, and am stating it straight out. You are the one who wants us to ignore the implications of the dialectic, by pretending the argument can be examined only in pieces here and there as convenience suggests, in order that the pieces may be considered _explanations_ rather than _justifications_ (as if that was remotely feasible when you yourself use the reference 'justification' in both portions of the PoC, not even counting constantly thereafter.)

6.) Your main defense of the defense (so to speak), is to appeal to a sort of tu quoque: well, the atheists can't do any better either on this other topic, for instance; but you're willing to accept that, too.

That _might_ work fine against them; it doesn't work against me. I'm not obligated to accept circular arguments put up by atheists for their own use; and I don't accept double-talk from them about how it's really an explanation if we just put off the end of it for a while. On the contrary, I shoot them down when I find them doing that. It isn't because the arguments are atheistic or being propounded by atheists. It's because the arguments are crappy; and the explanation justification (to coin a phrase) is thimblerigging in order to try to get some of the merely apparent power of the false argument to apply anyway.

7a.) You ask how your little argument (rephrased by you as "(1) Being forgiving and kind are virtues. (2) God is forgiving and kind. (3) Therefore, God is good.") reduces down to (as I said it did) "Part of my reason for believing God is good, is because God is good."

My answer, is that even if this does somehow technically escapes circularity by convenience of grammar, it doesn't matter, because the conclusion is venially trivial.

The form of the argument is such that (2) and (3) end up being practical restatements of each other, which might (perhaps) be fine if (2) was non-contested, but the opponent will simply go back to (2)--which you yourself have only conclusively proven to be equal to "God is Good!"

Put another way: we do in fact all know very well that when you say "is forgiving and kind" you mean "is good". This is, as you agree, perfectly obvious to everyone; all of us agree on it. Why are you surprised then, that when you assert (2) "God is forgiving and kind", we read (2) "God is good"?!

So either the argument is circular, or else it might as well be for all practical purposes.

(Which means, I suppose, that now you will try to find a way to squint an explanation out of it instead of promoting it, as you did to Steven Carr, as a justification attempt. This should be amusing; also illuminating as to how a putative 'explanation' is supposed to work without tacitly appealing to a conclusion. Good luck...)

7b.) All of which is aside from the fact that the result is palpably _not_ what is needed for the kind of intrinsic goodness standing behind the DNT (and thus behind our moral faculties). _I_ am forgiving and kind; but I am not thereby intrinsically good in an objectively grounding fashion, and I strenuously doubt you would think I was either. Among other things, it would instantly concede to our opponents that they can be objective grounds of morality themselves simply by being forgiving and kind--which of course is what they not infrequently claim.

Put another way: if you sheerly assert (1), then anyone can sheerly assert (1). Any atheist can assert that being forgiving and kind are virtues. Either we agree that his mere assertion counts as objective moral grounding, or we don't. Personally, I don't. I suspect you don't either. Once you go this route, though, you have effectively disposed of the claim that God is the only one Who can provide our moral grounding. Which, I suppose, would be a fascinating way of getting around the Euthyphro; except that it doesn't. It only lands humans on the DCT horn, instead of gods or God.

In any case, I recall you were supposed to be making a case for DNT. Why was that again? For trivial inquiry? True, by our own sheer assertion we can conclude God is by His own inherent nature good, but so what?

I _thought_ I recalled that the importance of DNT was supposed to be for purposes of grounding _our_ moral faculties. Am I misremembering that?

If I'm not misremembering that, then why are you bringing in this argument for God's nature being good?--assuming it had any appreciable weight at all (which it doesn't), even aside from the evident admission it involves that humans can be objective moral grounds ourselves, which our atheist opponents are going to eat up like cake, ignoring subsequently anything relevant you meant to appeal to by means of DNT.

Why are you arguing for God's goodness? To establish DNT (though you say later you aren't arguing for it, only defending it against objections. The first objection, then, would be that it isn't an argument to conclusion, but only your sheer assertion! You'll have to make it an argument to defend against _that_ objection!) Why do you want to establish DNT? To ground our moral faculties, How are you establishing DNT? By appeal to our moral faculties.

Ergo: you are justifying a justification ability. I'm hardly making this up out of thin air; though you seem intent on tossing it over our shoulder into thin air!

8.) Part of my complaint was, and is, that your particular justification attempt in the PoC involves justifying our justification abilities. This is not "an entirely separate matter" from the PoC: even if you selectively squint two explanations out of its circular justification (by ignoring half of the circle at a time), one of those halves still begins by saying "Do we have a justification for the accepting the deliveries of our conscience?" I suppose if you totally ignore that this 'conscience' is what you were using to justify a belief in something else in the other half of the argument, it can look like an entirely separate matter. Otherwise, I suppose I would agree that this does not count as an attempt at justifying a justification ability. In which case I wonder why you're bothering to make this 'explanation' at all. If we pretend the other half of your circular argument doesn't exist, then why were we bothering to ask this question again? What practical use is there in asking and answering it? Why should we care whether "our conscience can be trusted"?

The answer seems blatantly obvious to me, because I'm not conveniently squinting past the first part of that viciously circular argument, where you yourself gave the link of importance. With that gone, what importance are you substituting instead? None that I can see anywhere else in your reply.

If you give your explanation no importance other than what you yourself connect to it in the PoC, then it seems specious to complain about _us_ linking your 'explanation' to the circular argument as a whole.

9.) You write, "[Jason] seems to think I reason as follows:" and then give argument (1-6).

Yes, frankly, I do. I think you're doing it whenever you think you can get away with it, and then trying to deny it when you get caught doing it. I think that you're so committed to it, that even when you try to deny you're doing it, you're still doing everything you can to appeal to some kind of phantom weight the argument seems to provide.

Why else would you go on to say of this argument, not only that you think this argument is terrible and no one should be persuaded of its conclusion, but that you think the argument is valid with true premises and _as such_ provides a further elucidation of DNT??!

Granted, the argument is valid!--granted, I happen to think the premises are true! But a circular argument's fallacy doesn't lie in these things. Which you know very well, which is why you agree with me this is a terrible argument. THAT MEANS IT IS NOT TO BE USED--PERIOD!!!

But you _insist_ on trying to use it! Specifically, as a useful elucidation of DNT, which (though you expect no atheist to be persuaded by it), might be of some effect in moving a Christian toward accepting DNT.

What kind of 'moving' are you thinking of a Christian doing,then, in regard to appreciating the 'elucidation' of this _argument_ _as such_, that _DOESN'T_ involve them being _persuaded_ by it? When you said it shouldn't be supposed to persuade _anyone_, then _anyone_ should mean _ANYONE_--including Christians!

And what kind of 'elucidation' _are_ you talking about? Good grief, the thing doesn't 'elucidate' DNT! It _asserts_ DNT--back up in premise (1)! You could have stopped there with "(1) God is good" and given as much 'elucidation' to 'move' Christians toward DNT!

Except then it wouldn't be some (safely) vague kind of feeling of plausible movement. It would just have been you asserting DNT is true. And I think you know very well that this might _not_ fly very well--even among us Christians.

And _that's_ why there has to be an _argument_--even when you _know_ the argument is rot. _That's_ why you _didn't_ say, 'Well, of course, as an argument this is rot; no one should believe it. Nevertheless, as an advocate of DNT, I posit "(1) God is good" to be true, and I think that this by itself provides... um... further... elucidation... of DNT...'

It gives me no pleasure to point this out. I shouldn't have had to do it. I'm sorry it had to be done.

But I don’t squint. And for very love's sake, I would _never_ try to 'move' the one whom I love the most in this world, under God, by such a method, whether or not she is Christian. I would consider that to be the very portrait of treachery to her. God's Wounds!--that apologetics in our day should come to _this_... {sigh}

Having said that: remember that I also said, of your paper, that I considered it a fairly high-quality discussion of the issue; and I think you're actually correct about DNT (so long as you aren't in fact trying to position it as a variant of DCT); and I think you're on the right track. I wouldn't have said that, if I hadn't meant it.

And I still do. You're a (more-or-less) orthodox Christian. You have a stronger reason than any other group in human history has ever had, or ever will have, or ever can have, to establish DNT as an objective moral standard that avoids the Euthyphro. You just have to figure out how to establish that establishment (so to speak).

Appealing to our moral faculties, though, cannot be the way; because it's our moral faculties' reliability that you want to ground with the DNT. And that's why you're in all this other bloody mess.

So, strike that off the list, and try something else.

Jason Pratt

Jason said...

Well, I was driving around up in Western Kentucky yesterday, listening to Chesterton with one part of my head (for entertainment), and thinking on three or four other things more-or-less simultaneously; among which, was trying to figure out a better compliment to give Steve’s defenses than how I ended the previous comment. There _are_ things to be said in favor of it; it’s just that I’m having a hard time figuring out how to put them into words, even after disentangling the aspects I think are crippling (not to say actively or semi-actively misleading). I have a lot of respect for Steve Lovell; I think he’s a good person trying to do a _very_ difficult job. I did not enjoy writing what I did, and I want to do better by him if I can.

I’m pretty sure I can see what he was _trying_ to do. I’m doubtful he can get there from here (so to speak), but I would at least like to clear away some things and look at the path as straightly as I can in his favor.

Unfortunately, I’m sick today; and have to do payroll, among other things (two drawings, a formal writeup on a quote to Hawaii, etc.) So it may be later this week before I can give him a more positive run-through. Run-over. (rats, none of those look very positive... {s}) _It isn’t all bad_ is what I’m trying to say. I’ll try to say that more clearly later. Sorry.

Steve Lovell said...


Thanks for your lengthy response to my last post on this issue. I'm not sure I can respond to everything all at once and I'm not convinced that you'll like what I do have to say. Let me begin with a couple of preliminary points ...

(1) I suspect that we both have very different theories of knowledge.
(2) I think we are talking at cross purposes.

Not sure where to go with (1) other than to attempt to spell out my entire epistemology. In brief:
I accept a position that may be termed either a qualified foundationalism or a qualified coherentism. I think Cartesian scepticism cannot be answered on its own terms.
Since we do have knowledge, I think we should reject Descartes terms. We should either accept certain sources of knowledge as reliable (note I have not said infallible Mr Carr) without justification or we should accept circular justifications. In a sense I do both of these. Roughly speaking, I think that for a position to count as knowledge, it has to be the product of a "reliable cognitive process" (this is a broadly foundationalist picture). However, once we begin to reflect on our own our beliefs we'll soon start wondering about the mechanisms which produced them and whether they were reliable. To count as knowledge these reflections must themselves be the result of reliable processes (and so on ad infinitum if required). Now this big set of reflections will involve interlinked beliefs. Amongst these are beliefs about our belief forming systems and their reliability. All these beliefs need to cohere well together. If they don't then something is wrong. If we believe evolution but also believe that evolution would make for unreliable cognitive faculties, then we're in trouble. In so far as we have a complete epistemology and story about how our faculties came to be reliable the best we can hope for is a circular story. But if the circular story is formed by the use of reliable faculties that's okay.
You may say we have no way of knowing that those faculties are reliable and I'll "squint". I'll say, if they are reliable we certainly do have a way of knowing that they are ... ie by using them. But that will hardly be enough to pursuade you that they're reliable. But that's okay as you already think they are and I'm not trying to refute Cartesian scepticism which simply cannot be refuted.

I admit that the above is kind of sketchy, and that lots of people will find it lacking, but I can't see my way to any other epistemology. I'll happily tweak around the edges, but in general terms I think something along the above lines has to be correct. Well, either that or outright scepticism.

(2) is easier to explain, and will hopefully fit nicely with the above. None of my position is an attempt to justify our belief in the reliability of our conscience. That has to be accepted as basic. Basic in the sense that we acknowledge that arguments for it will ultimately be circular, but not in the sense of having no explanation. DNT is an attempt to explain how it is possible for us to have a reliable consience and yet for God to be the source of moral obligation. The answer is that God gave us our conscience.

But this answer is NOT supposed to be a justification of belief in the reliability of conscience.

Am I "squinting"?

The reason that this is relevant is that Kai Nielsen has offered some Euthyphro like arguments against theistic ethics which seem to assume that if we can make any sort of justified moral judgement (including that God is good) without using "God is good" and/or "God says so-and-so" in the justification of the judgement, then God cannot be the basis of morality.

But I only think that God is metaphysically the basis of morality, and I think that his gift of conscience to us makes moral knowledge possible. But to say that God therefore the epistemic basis of morality would be misleading, as it implies to many that you would have to come across God in your thinking before you come across morality, which is false. What I am attempting to do is show how that falsity is consistent with a God based metaphysic for ethics.

My admittedly circular arguments don't help pursuade people of DNT by being pursuasive qua arguments (which they aren't) but by displaying the logic of a position.

I also stick to my tu quoque argument. Evolution is supposed to explain how our senses get to give us reliable information. But since much of the evidence for evolution comes via our senses, their is a form of circularity here. I don't think that makes for a good objection to evolution however.

It would be circular to argue as follows:

(1) If Evolution is true then Creatures with unreliable faculties would have died out.
(2) Evolution is true.
(3) Therefore, creatures with unreliabile faculties have died out.
(4) Therefore our faculties are not unreliable, but reliable.
(5) Therefore if our faculties seem to point to the truth of evolution we should believe them
(6) Our faculties do seem to point to the truth of evolution.
(7) Therefore we ought to believe evolution.

Again, this is a terrible argument for evolution. At least it's terrible if (1)-(4) are supposed to be doing any work. However, the argument (5) - (7) isn't too bad considered in isolation.

According to the sane evolutionist (if such a creature exists), (1)-(4) help us understand how come we are creatures capable of the reasoning (5)-(7). The argument as a whole might help someone towards evolution because it helps them see how to fit certain bits of epistemology into the evolutionary picture not because the argument is persuasive qua argument.

Terrible arguments are not to be used qua arguments, that does not mean they should not be used at all. I'm using them to help elicidate a position.

Another issue between us is the relevance of saying that God is good "by nature", hence DNT. For me the relevance of this is that it prevents us from saying that God could have commanded just anything, because he can only issue commands that it is consistent with his nature to issue, and if he is in his nature (ie necessarily) the possessor of certain attributes then their are certain things which he cannot command. God's necessary possession of these attributes, along with his (rather large) role in creation is what makes him a source of moral obligation for us.

I feel like I'm just saying the same things over and over, and you - no doubt - feel the same. I do feel that it may ultimately go down to our differences of epistemology.

It may be that you accept a refutation of Cartesian scepticism that I find unpersuasive. I gave up trying to refute it a long time ago. As a result I live with a degree of both scepticism and circularity that some people may find objectionable. I think nearly all claims to knowledge are provisional and that very nearly all deductive arguments for substantive conclusions must contain a substantive, and therefore concievably false, premise.

This I call critical realism. You may call it squinting if you prefer.

Victor Reppert said...

Steve: Good to hear from you.

Jason said...


Honestly, I don't know what to say. I was more-or-less on board with you (sometimes more, sometimes less {s}), until I got to:

{{My admittedly circular arguments don't help persuade people of DNT by being persuasive qua arguments (which they aren't) but by displaying the logic of a position.}}


{{Terrible arguments are not to be used qua arguments, that does not mean they should not be used at all. I'm using them to help elucidate a position.}}

_This_ is what your critical realism comes to? Emulating the procedure of someone who, when faced with people stumbling over "(6) Our faculties do seem to point to the truth of evolution", helps move them (back?) toward evolution by appending an avowedly terrible argument (1)-(4), that by your own admission does no work and renders the whole larger argument just as terrible? Notwithstanding that the whole argument has now been rendered unpersuasive as an argument, you think that it somehow still serves to be persuasive by displaying the (terrible!) _logic_ of the position.

And since it works for the advocate of such an argument, in the sense of somehow moving people to accept not only (6) but (7), then why not for you, too.

My stomach is literally cramping whenever I think of you doing this. (Where's Victor's Maalox...? {wry grimace}) Well, I'm sick enough at my stomach from other things anyway. I don't need to be trying to answer this in my condition. And frankly, I'm glad this particular thread has moved off the bottom. I would rather not have Loftus and Babinski and Carr et al see a Christian making this kind of defense for his position.

Thanks for taking the time to answer anyway. I won't bother your debate with Loftus elsewhere.


Steve Lovell said...


I know you said you're not going to engage any further, but in case you do ...

You still seem to be missing the basic distinction between elucidating a position and offering an argument for it.

When I "present" these (admittedly) circular arguments I don't present them as arguments. They are supposed to show certain propositions to which DNT is committed and the logical relationships between those propositions. It is in this sense that they elucidate the logic of my position. Perhaps the problem is just over the use of the word "argument". I'm happy to accept the phrase "series of logically related propositions" ... it's just that people (understandably) accuse me of offering these circular "arguments" ... and in a certain interpretation of that phrase I do.

But consider the the following "argument" ...

(1) If God created me then God exists
(2) God created me.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

It's not very persuasive. Most people would describe it as circular. But it certainly manages to explain something of what the theist believes and how some of those beliefs are related. By showing how those beliefs are related it might help people to accept theism ... not because they are pursaded by the argument qua argument but because it allows them to see how the various commitments of theism hang together. The same goes for my "arguments" for DNT.

Hope your stomach cramps ease up.


Jason said...

{{Hope your stomach cramps ease up.}}

Thanks. I was down for about two days with a bad stomach virus (probably brought on by a chronic illness of mine, which surged up, predictably, around the first week of October, though the onset was delayed by about a week for certain reasons.) Still about half sick. But I wanted to check in.

Do you remember several comments back, when you gave the three-point _description_ of what DNT entails? _That_ is what I consider to be a helpful and proper elucidation. You may also remember that I wrote "I think I can agree without reservation to the 3 elements you listed."

If it comes to that, I also wrote, concerning one of your presented argumentation forms, that I agreed with its premises, and allowed that that logic was valid. Nevertheless, I would never use that to try to 'elucidate' the position. Why? Because _it's a terrible argument_.

Elucidation of the sort given in your 3-element description, may be what you're trying to do with the argumentation format, too. But then I have to ask: why present it as an argument at all?

The obvious answer would seem to be, because arguments are stronger in some ways, _as_ arguments, than a mere description of a position.

To this I would have to reply, yes--but only if they are good arguments, not terrible ones. Making use of a terrible argument in order to borrow the strength of a good argument, relies on the terrible argument being misperceived as a good argument. And _intentionally_ doing this, to anyone...

Maybe it would help if you could spend some time explaining just what exactly the relevant and significant distinction is, between giving 'a series of propositions and the logical relationships between them' and giving 'an argument'.

But even then, I think there are other serious problems going on somewhere in the background--not necessarily related to our epistemologies (I was, and still am, too sick to post up anything on that, but from reading what you gave we seem to be pretty close.) For instance, the three-element "argument" you gave in the previous comment.

My problem isn't so much that element 2 tacitly presumes an intervening presumption (namely that God exists); nor that someone might call element 2 into question. (Almost no one would call element 1 into question, except negative pantheists perhaps, or sceptics only interested in being contentiously ornery. {coughcoughEBhack}{g})

My problem is that you seem to think it might be a good thing for someone to be helped to accept theism by such a way of demonstrating how 'the various committments of theism [logically] hang together [y'know, exactly like in an argument. Except not.]'

Granted, it's a matter of definite fact that some people believe theism is true thanks to reasoning such as this. But really, if all you're looking for is pragmatic effectiveness, even this would seem to be problematic. When most people realize they've been believing theism to be true on _this_ kind of logical relationship of the propositions--don't they punt?? (Either theism or logic pretty much altogether?)