Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The future of godless ethics

Is atheism demoralizing? Does it undermine morality? Of course, there are plenty of atheists with robust ethical codes who try their best to live up to them. But is this enough? Layman at Christian Cadre thinks not.

43 comments:

exapologist said...

I'm still waiting to see a plausible *theistic* account of morality.

Anonymous said...

Seconded.

Alex said...

Theism actually has very good footing for maintaining a foundation for morality.

If there is a personal creator from whom all existence flows and this God possesses an eternal unchanging character, then all reality that flows from God must use it's character as the ultimate standard by which all things are measured.

If one denies the reality of a personal God, one must also deny an solid unchanging moral standard. If one wishes to affirm an objective moral standard I can see no other way of substantiating that belief other than appealing to the character of a personal God.

stunney said...

Morality presupposes personhood.

Kant's moral philosophy takes moral value as residing in the fact that rational beings or persons are ends in themselves.

So it strikes me that it's at least not unreasonable to believe that an ontologically and explanatorily ultimate reality which is personal and necessarily endowed with supreme rationality and moral value or goodness---recall Kant's doctrine that the only thing which is unqualifiedly good is a good will----is a more probable hypothesis than any alternative which posits that the ontologically and explanatorily ultimate reality is completely devoid of rationality and value.

Anonymous said...

Alex: "If one denies the reality of a personal God, one must also deny an solid unchanging moral standard."

Where does this claim come from? Many thinkers (e.g. Aristotle) have had no belief in a personal god but have nonetheless maintained that there are universal moral standards.

Alex: "...all reality that flows from God must use it's character as the ultimate standard by which all things are measured..."

This is a nice illustration of the circular reasoning inherent in many theist accounts of morality. Why "must" we use God as the ultimate moral standard? Are we under some moral obligation to do this? If so, where does this primordial moral obligation come from?

Alex said...

Anon: "Where does this claim come from? Many thinkers (e.g. Aristotle) have had no belief in a personal god but have nonetheless maintained that there are universal moral standards."

I must admit I have not read any Aristotle... yet. I'd love to hear how someone sustains a cogent argument that an objective morality could possibly exist without a personal God. In my mind, morality is by necessity rooted in personal beings. One cannot commit a moral offense against a rock. We can only have moral infractions as they relate to personal agents. Having said this, I see no reason to believe there is an objective standard that is and will always be true regardless of a particular persons feelings towards it, unless our ultimate source is, in-fact, personal and that our imperfect standard of morality are reflections of His perfect character.

Anon: "This is a nice illustration of the circular reasoning inherent in many theist accounts of morality."

Yes my previous answer was circular. It assumes God as the starting point. However this really shouldn't be a problem for the discussion at hand. The challenge was to give a theistic account of morality, not to prove theism is correct. To my mind theism's account of a moral standard is far more plausible than any other system that suggests that an objective moral quality could somehow exist outside of a personal creator. I have yet to hear an atheist account of an objective moral standard that doesn't simply break down into relativism.

Anon: "Why "must" we use God as the ultimate moral standard?"
If there is no other reality outside of God, as the theists believe, then if we do not use God as our moral standard all we are left with is death. You see, ultimately morality boils down to this: We either align ourselves with the greater Reality from which we derive, or we reject this Reality and turn inward making our own standard the law by which we live. Problem is, our own standard has no life that was not first given by the God we now reject. Our own standard is death. Our own standard is sin.

Anon: "Are we under some moral obligation to do this?"
Good question. Nope. You are under no obligation to do this at all. It's just that by not surrendering our rebellion we are throwing in our lot with a reality we cannot sustain.

Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Alex,
The hypothesis that our morality is determined by evolutionary biology does not rest on circular reasoning. As you admit, your argument that morality must be dependent on God is circular. So, how do you defend subsequently saying the following?
"To my mind theism's account of a moral standard is far more plausible..."

How can it be if it can't even pass the smell test?

"
Yes my previous answer was circular. It assumes God as the starting point. However this really shouldn't be a problem for the discussion at hand."


I disagree, I think it's central to the discussion at hand!

Of course, we don't need to even get into the "God" issue yet. I feel theists are backed far way from even getting near that subject. There still needs to be a sound case put forward that we need to have a purely objective moral standard as opposed to a species consistent, evolutionary-based subjective moral standard. There's no need for a grand arbiter of ethics if our natural programming has evolved a basic set of moral principles that are generally advantageous (although as Paul talks about on the Cadre blog thread, the formation of morality via evolution is far more complex than that). To me its clear that from a purely objective standpoint, morality is completely relative. However, that doesn't mean that I haven't evolved to "feel" that an objective moral standard exists. Mind is not separate from the body; I think what evolution has allowed my brain to let me think.

Hence there is no danger that an atheistic world will degenerate into moral chaos. We simply can't undo billions of years of evolutionary psychology with one reasoned thought,
"Gee, maybe there is no objective moral standard?"

Similarly, one's appendix or earlobe doesn't suddenly disappear the moment that we, on a rational level, realise that they are purposeless, vestigial hangovers from natural selection.

Alex said...

Incitatus,
The hypothesis that our morality is determined by evolutionary biology does not rest on circular reasoning.

I disagree:

1. There is no God
2. Morality must me be derived from behavioral conditioning due to natural selection.
3. Therefore, we have a moral code and God is not needed.

I would like to point out that this sort of morality is not the sort of morality we are talking about here. What you have ended up with in this argument is a system of conduct that helps an agent navigate the social structures of it's environment. One cannot say whether or not this particular social structure is morally right or wrong. All one can say is "their way of behaving seems to work for them".

You say: "Gee, maybe there is no objective moral standard?" And this here is the heart of the matter between us. Do you not see that you cannot just stop there? If you choose to pull up anchor and accept a reality where our morality is nothing more than a statement of our preferences, then by extension you also must accept a reality where your reasoning is just an expression of your chemical makup. All your argumentation has no further foundation in reality other than "your brain reacting".

It would seem you and I have nothing more to talk about. If you are willing to say that our moral assertions are meaningless banter that reflect nothing more than a chemical stimulus in a biological organism, then I have no reason to continue this conversation with you. You reduce not only our moral statements, but our reasoning to a bag of chemicals reacting on towards inevitable death. Call it the poverty of my imagination if you will, but I cannot see why you wish to continue to engage me if you are so sold on the idea that mindless matter in motion is the best explanation for our reality.

If there is no God. If mindless "matter" is all there is then it follows that:

1. There is no objective morality
2. "mind" is a completely determined effect of matter in motion
3. ANY sort of 'freedom" is impossible

I commend you that you have the courage to follow atheism to it's logical end. I personally find these conclusions unlivable. How do you accept the idea that you really have no influence on your life as you experience it? How do you process the notion that the deep thinking you put into these writings is not really "you" doing something, but simply matter reacting and generating an experience that you call you? Does it bother you at all that a moment of moral outrage that you may feel really is an amoral reaction? Does it at all frustrate you that your deepest, most heartfelt emotions are ultimately meaningless reactions that you only "perceive" as meaningful?

JD Walters said...

I find it very interesting that atheists try to refute the argument that atheism has no coherent account of morality by simply insisting that "atheists have no trouble being moral people or believing in objective morality without believing in a personal God as well." What they fail to appreciate is that this is a claim about psychology, not metaphysics. Psychologically, it may very well be that atheists are able to lead moral lives. Whether there is a coherent justification for morality in an atheistic scheme is a completely different question. People can get by mentally speaking with all sorts of inconsistencies and lacunae in their belief systems. That does not mean that these lacunae do not exist.

Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Alex,
You said,
"1. There is no God
2. Morality must me be derived from behavioral conditioning due to natural selection.
3. Therefore, we have a moral code and God is not needed.


The argument above is certainly circular, but it isn't the one I proffered. The one I put forward was simply,
"Morality is derived from behavioral conditioning and natural selection."

God isn't mentioned and doesn't need to be. I'm an agnostic and acknowledge on an academic level that God's existence cann neither be proven nor disproven. His non-existence is not a prerequisite for hypothesis.

Alex said...

Incitatus,
"The argument above is certainly circular, but it isn't the one I proffered."

Fair enough. However, I'm not so sure we could even call "behavioral conditioning" morality. The logical end of this sort of morality becomes simply a pragmatic manipulation of the people around you to meet your ends. The problem I have with this is that is goes against what we often consider "moral".

My natural impulses strongly urge me to do things that most any reasonable person would admit is immoral. My immoral urges are often much stronger than what I know to be the moral action. I have the ability to choose which option I go with. I use reason to play out the scenarios of both choices before I act. If I am able to reason that I could go with the "immoral" impulse (that is much stronger) and get away with it, is there anything that should stop me from pursuing this end?

A normative reason to do one action or the other is disturbingly absent from a naturalistic moral formulation. There is indeed no true 'right' or 'wrong'. All you have are impulses and your ability to chose which one will best suit your purposes.

Another problem I see with this view is that it retains the "the ability to reason", "the "ability to choose" (freedom) and the fact that there is a "you" experiencing any of this. All these things are attributes of your experience that a mindless material universe seems to contradict.

If you feel the need to accept a naturalistic morality to make it fit in with your scientific profession, then it would seem you must also accept the rest of the package as well; at which point you've basically written yourself out of the picture.

You are more than that brother. Every experience you perceive defies the atheism you are toying with. Think about it.

Matt M said...

Alex.

Quick question.

There are two individuals: A and B.

A is borderline psycotic and would skiv you, given the chance. Yet he's never once commited an act you'd considered immoral because he's under 24-hour surveilance and the threat of extreme punishment.

B is a pretty decent chap, living a fairly ordinary life. The kind of guy you wouldn't mind having a drink with, etc. Yet - out of weakness - he's commited a few minor immoral acts in his lifetime, going on to regret each one and trying to make up for them.

Which of the two is the most moral in your eyes, and why?

Steelman said...

Alex said: "My natural impulses strongly urge me to do things that most any reasonable person would admit is immoral. My immoral urges are often much stronger than what I know to be the moral action."

Your natural impulses also strongly urge you to do things which most any reasonable person would admit are moral, yes?
And you can use reason to deduce the consequences of any given action if you allow yourself to be motivated by emotion, but not ruled by emotion.

Alex said: "I have the ability to choose which option I go with. I use reason to play out the scenarios of both choices before I act. If I am able to reason that I could go with the "immoral" impulse (that is much stronger) and get away with it, is there anything that should stop me from pursuing this end?"

It seems you're a consequentialist in practice, then, just not one that takes the long view. That's why you need a book to tell you right from wrong?

Alex said: "A normative reason to do one action or the other is disturbingly absent from a naturalistic moral formulation. There is indeed no true 'right' or 'wrong'. All you have are impulses and your ability to chose which one will best suit your purposes."

Welcome to the jungle, Alex. Tigers that eat little baby antelope aren't any more or less moral than cute, fuzzy bunnies that don't. The difference between us and other animals is that we have the mental capacity to consider the future consequences of our actions (i.e., morals). There are no objective moral facts as far as I can see. That doesn't mean that people can't construct good moral standards to follow which benefit themselves and others.

You've never been able to refute my claim that those who profess to be in possession of an objective moral standard cannot in any way prove such a standard exists. Loving Christians and hateful Christians can both use the same book of scriptures, the same "objective moral standard" that you declare exists, to justify their behavior. Just look at the slavery debate that split the Baptists at the outset of the American Civil War.

Theism does not provide an objective moral standard, it simply has the ability to set a standard that adherents agree to believe as true. Any such standard can be subjectively judged as good or bad. For instance, I think militant Jihad is a very bad standard, while Jihadists call it a moral obligation. Peaceful Muslims find Christian proselytizing a threat to their faith and culture, a bad standard, while Christian missionaries consider it a moral obligation. Who is right? Who is adhering to God's objective moral standard?

Alex said: "Another problem I see with this view is that it retains the "the ability to reason", "the "ability to choose" (freedom) and the fact that there is a "you" experiencing any of this. All these things are attributes of your experience that a mindless material universe seems to contradict."

I've been following your posts and comments, Alex, and I've never seen you write anything that supports that last statement.

Jason Pratt said...

Incidentally,

A few days from now (probably Sunday morning May 27th), I will be beginning a series on the metaphysics of ethics over at the Christian Cadre. (Chris Price, aka Layman, is out of pocket with his wife and new baby.)

Many of the issues in this thread will be addressed, as it happens.

I put it that way ("as it happens"), because for the most part I will be picking up a text I wrote in late '99, early 2000, and reformatting it a bit for publication on the Cadre journal. I am however glad to see that I am sympathetically anticipating sceptical _and_ theistic complaints represented in this thread; and I especially hope Exap (whom I am very fond of {bowing in his direction!}) will attend, especially since I am eventually going to be _very_ critical of theistic attempts at providing ethical grounding.

Fun topic for a Christian apologist, yo!? {g}

As to whether any "plausible *theistic* account of morality" will be eventually provided, that remains to be seen. Watching me complain about theistic ethical grounding attempts ought to be worth _some_ diversion for a while, however, anyway. {g} (Though in fairness I will also disclose that I won't be getting to that topic first. You'll have to wait for it.)

Meanwhile, I appreciate the good thread here on all sides; and God's peace on all of you.

JRP

PS: I hate trying to do html, because I'm not very good at it. You can follow Victor's link (Paul someone-or-other and I have a good discussion in the comments), and then go to the home page to see if it's up yet. Bill Kesatie (aka BK) has done his own followup first, and it should be near the top of the page; but it's a bit different than the kind of thing I'll be doing soon (God willing an' th' creek don't rise, as we say here in West Tennessee. {g})

exapologist said...

Alex said: If one denies the reality of a personal God, one must also deny an solid unchanging moral standard. If one wishes to affirm an objective moral standard I can see no other way of substantiating that belief other than appealing to the character of a personal God.

EA: So we have at least one claim here -- in particular, a conditional. If we take out the stuff about denying and substantiating the existence of the relevant entities, and just talk about the existence/non-existence of the entities themselves, we get:

1. If a personal God does not exist, then an unchanging moral standard does not exist.

I'm not sure why we should think that (1) is true.
For I can conceive of a case in which a personal God does not exist, and yet an unchanging moral standard exists. So, for example, suppose Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne is right that moral truths are necessary truths, akin to truths of mathematics and logic. Suppose further that Swinburne is correct that God's existence isn't logically necessary, but rather only factually necessary -- i.e., there are possible worlds in which he does not exist, but given that he does exist, he's an independent, free-standing being who is omnipotent, omniscient, everlasting, etc. This seems coherent (for a defense, see Swinburne's book, The Coherence of Theism). If so, then there is at least one possible world in which (a) God does not exist, and yet (b) an objective, unchanging moral standard exists. If so, then (1) is false.

Steve Lovell said...

@Exap: Nice try, but that doesn't follow. It only follows that the conditional expressed in (1) is not a necessary truth, and even that only follows if we allow both that moral truths are necessary truths and that God's existence is not logically necessary. There's lots of room for the Christian to deny both premises, or instead to accept them but be seriously unimpressed by the conclusion that you can legitimately reach from them.

Still, I agree that this is Swinburne's position, and it's one that leads him to say that ethics is not dependent on God. However, I'm certainly yet to be convinced that moral truths could be necessary truths if the naturalist is correct.

Suppose we envisage these necessary truths in a Platonic fashion. The question then naturally arises as to what those Platonic forms have to do with us. On my view, the locus of essential moral truths is God's nature, and since we are created by God it isn't too hard to see how moral truths might apply to us, but how can we evolve (in a naturalistically acceptable fashion) an awareness of these Platonic objects?

Or perhaps the necessary moral truths are more like analytic truths (Like "All batchelors are unmarried men"), so that we can see that they are true just by understanding their constituent terms. But that just seems false, doesn't it? Certainly does to me.

Steve

exapologist said...

Hello Steve,

You're certainly correct that the counterexample only works if (1) is construed as a necessary truth (or at least if it turns out that the possible world I describe is the actual world). and not in terms of the ordinarily conditional that I stated. So, to put (1) more carefully:

(1') Necessarily, If a personal God does not exist, then an unchanging moral standard does not exist.

Then we get the truth-conditions relevant to my suggested counterexample. For then (1') is true iff there is no possible world at which the antecedent is true and the consequent is false, in which case my apparent counterexample applies.

Now I certainly agree with you that Christians aren't commited to (1'), as you nicely point out -- for all we know a priori, the relationship beteen God and morality could be spelled out in any number of ways. However, my comments were directed at some remarks made by Alex, who does seem to be asserting (1'), given his language of the passage I originally quoted (with emphasis added to the terms that suggest a modal construal of the conditional):

"If one denies the reality of a personal God, one *must* also deny an solid unchanging moral standard. If one wishes to affirm an objective moral standard I *can see no other way* of substantiating that belief other than appealing to the character of a personal God."

If so, then my counterexample is relevant, no?

Now you make another nice point that (to paraphrase) my counterexample only works if in fact God is not a necessary being, and the relationship between an objective (as opposed to a subjective or an intersubjective) set of moral facts is necessary (and even there, not just necessary in Plantinga's sense of "world-indexed" properties or facts). This is of course true. To undercut (as opposed to rebut) the force of Alex's claim for myself, though, all I have to do is trot out a thought experiment that is possible *for all I know* -- i.e., a snenario that I can't rule out as impossible; it need not be a scenario that I know, or am prima facie justified, in taking to be possible. Compare: To resist the logical problem of evil, Platinga offers his free will defense, according to which it's possible that every creaturely essence suffers from transworld depravity. Now as many have pointed out (e.g., Keith DeRose, Hawthorne and Howard-Snyder, Bergmann, etc.), the free will defense doesn't prove, or prima facie justify, that it's really metaphysically possible that every creaturely essence is transworld depraved. However, such people also point out that it doesn't matter. For Plantinga is is merely making a defensive move -- he's claiming that his thought experiment is possible *for all we know* -- i.e., we *can't rule it out* as impossible, given all we know -- and that is all he needs to rationally resist the logical problem of evil.

You go on to ask how necessary moral truths could apply to us if there is no god. Well, given that they're necessary truths that say what people should or shouldn't do given that people exist, then given that people exist, how could they *not* apply to us? Compare: suppose that it's a necessary truth that all blue things are colored. Well, in worlds that lack blue things, there will be no blue things that are colored. But in worlds in which there are blue things, how could it not be that they lack the property of being colored. Similarly, suppose that it's a necessary truth that it's morally wrong to torture babies for fun. Well, in worlds in which there are no babies, or people at all, then truth will still be true, but vacuous. However, in worlds in which there are babies, how could it *not* apply?

I'm not sure whether moral truths, if necessary, are analytic or synthetic. However, even if they are analytic, I'm not sure why one should think that they should be as obvious as your example about bachelors. There are lots of analytic truths that aren't obvious, even after much thought. Think of long derivations in quantified modal logic, for example.

exapologist said...

At the end of my last post, I went along with the way you were taking my claims about moral truths as analytic (or perhaps synthetic). But on second thought, I'm not sure I would want to construe it that way. For then it makes it sound as though I'm commited to a view according to which necessary moral truths are known -- or at least knowable -- *a priori*. But that implication doesn't follow from my view that moral truths are *necessary truths*. Since at least Kripke's and Putnam's seminal work, we know that not all necessary truths are a priori (e.g., that water = H20). So perhaps necessary moral truthst are among those knowable only a posteriori. I'm not sure what view I have about these matters, and so I don't want to commit to any particular view here.

Tom Freeman said...

Hi Steve

I agree that the idea of Platonic moral truths comes with a certain obscurity - but no less (IMHO) than saying that "the locus of essential moral truths is God's nature, and since we are created by God it isn't too hard to see how moral truths might apply to us".

(At least, if morality is taken to be something more than a personal opinion.)

How do you see this working? Is there a meta-ethical principle to the effect that 'To act rightly is to act in accordance with one's creator's nature?' Would that be a necessary truth?

exapologist said...

At this point, I think we are at least brushing up to issues regarding the relationship between God and abstract objects -- but not quite directly. Perhaps no one will directly raise this issue here unless pushed, so since I'm interested in this issue, I'd like to push it: are there people here who think that there are abstract objects (properties, propositions, possible worlds, laws of logic, etc.), and that these somehow point to God as their "ground"? In other words, do any here hold to some form of theistic conceptualism or theistic activism? If so, I'd like to say that if you push on that view, you're not going to like where that line of thought ends. I think it's demonstrable that such a view is incoherent. I could be wrong, of course, and if I am, I'd like to be disabused of that opinion.

So I'd like to pursue this line of thought, because I think it would get to the bottom of a lot of things on this blog.

Steve Lovell said...

First, going back to the question of whether anyone has presented a plausible theistic account of morality. I'm still to see many comments here on my paper at apollos, to which Victor has regularly linked when the topic of the Euthyphro dilemma has arisen. John Loftus went strangly quiet and Jason and I finally discovered that we agree despite the initial appearances.

@Tom: What I'm complaining about in Platonism isn't so much the obscurity of the platonic objects themselves as the difficulty in understanding why they would have anything to do with we humans. What would have brought us into contact with them? or them into contact with us? If theism is true, the question of how we and these truths become related isn't so hard to answer, even if we don't explicity endorse a theistic ethic putting these "Platonic Objects" somehow "in" God or identify them with his thoughts/attributes. Let's put it this way: Suppose we evolved in a naturalistic fashion. This evolutionary process would have carried on in just the same way whatever were the case in the Platonic realm. How then could we find ourselves with the capacity to know the truths fixed by these "Platonic States of Affaris"? I'll have to think a little more to be able to respond to Exap's comment about the moral facts themselves applying to us because they refer to us, but even granting that, there's a massive epistemological problem in combining Platonism with naturalism.

@Exap: I agree that if Swinburne's position is right then your modalised-(1') is false. But it still doesn't follow that the non-modal-(1) is false. Also, I think I disagree about epistemic situation in relation to the modalities of God and morality and your comparison with the Plantinga and the problem of evil.

In the Ethics/God situation, you were arguing for that the conditional (1) is not true necessarily.

(1) If God does not exist, then there is no unchanging moral standard.

To convince us this, you need to demonstrate that there is a possible world in which there is no God but in which there is an unchanging moral standard. You certainly haven't done that. If you're saying merely that no-one has (on this blog at any rate) demonstrated the necessary truth of (1), then your logic becomes relevant again.

I'm trying to figure out whether I accept the conditional myself. I certainly think that:
(1'') If there were no God, then there would be no unchanging moral standard.
But I'm not so sure about
(1''') If there is no God, then there is no unchanging moral stanard.

Compare:
(BB) If there had been no Big Bang, we wouldn't exist.
(BB') If the Big Bang Theory is False, we don't exist.

Adherents to Big Bang theory are committed to (BB) but not (BB'). Adherents of theistic ethics could, in a similar way reject (1'''). Still, I'm kind of tempted by (1''').

@Exap (Again): Okay. So the necessary moral truths are known a posteriori. That's rather odd. It's coherent but distinctly odd. Do I really need to investigate the world to know that rape is morally wrong? Even supposing I do, it really wouldn't be that obvious what investigations I should do and how is a moral conclusion going to result from the investigation if we didn't begin with a moral assumption going into the investigation? Perhaps the moral assumption going in would be only analytic? Perhaps it would be at the "meta-level". Whatever the answer, we seem merely to have pushed the question back a step, to somewhere that the "necessary a posteriori" account simply will not suffice. Some further story is required.

@Exap (Yet Again): I think the relationship between God and abstract objects is a really interesting and really difficult issue. I've never been able to get my own thoughts in terribly good order on this. In general terms, I'd like to endorse something along the lines of the following:

Abstract objects are God's concepts.
Necessary truths are the "analytic" relations between God's concepts.

Roughly, I endorse psychologism, only the defining agent is God not the individual. You could think of this as like an "Ideal Observer Theory" only that the Ideal Observer is not a mere fiction, and not being a mere fiction can do real explanatory work.

I'd like to explore this more, and my ideas are rather embryonic, so don't expect me to offer detailed defences!

exapologist said...

Hi Steve,

It looks like we're in agreement about what the relevant claims are, what would be required for a demonstrative counterexample to (1'), and the modest, defensive role my scenario plays. On all of this, I think we're on the same page.

My views about the relationship between God and abstract objects are tentative and not worked out in detail as well, and so it's nice to know that we can pursue this issue in an exploratory way.

Here's the worry I have with views use God as a causal ground for abstracta: if one takes properties to be abstract objects, then I worry that being omnipotent is a property, in which case God would have to cause the property in order to have it, which doesn't seem plausible to me. SImilar worries seem to apply to other of God's essential properties. If so, then iat least some abstracta aren't due to God's causal activity. And if some can exist without God's causal activity, I worry that there aren't principled grounds for saying that God is required to explain other abstracta.

In any case, this is a gisty way of stating my main worry about accounts that try to ground abstracta in God. Perhaps, though, there's a plausble account in the offing? If so, I would be happy to learn of it.

Best,

EA

Steve Lovell said...

zExap,

Your worry about Gods own properties seems a fair one. It's related to Aristotle's classic "Third Man" argument. That argument is supposed to show that on Platonism it would be incoherent to say that "(the property of) redness is red". This is because on the Platonist view being red is a relation between the red object and the property of redness, and that nothing can stand in this relationship to itself. The relationship is presumably best worded as "instantiates" or "exemplifies". On this ground, Aristotle argued that if redness is red then it can only be so by exemplifing some "higher order property of redness", and that an infinite regress then threatens. The argument is referred to as the Third Man argument because Aristotle uses the property of "being a man" as his example, and the "higher level property" would be a "third man" (in addition to the man and the property).

Your worry, then, is this ...

(1) Unless R(God, Abstract Entity X), Abstract Entity X will not exist
(2) Therefore, Unless R(God, The Property of Omnipotence), The Property of Omnipotence Will not Exist
(3) Necessarily, If the property of omnipotence did not exist, nothing could be omniponent.
(4) Therefore, Unless R(God, The Property of Omnipotence), nothing could be omnipotent
(5) Therefore, If God is Omnipotent R(God, The Property of Omnipotence)

I guess then your worry is that (5) will give us metaphysically impossible relationships. But this will depend on how (5) is fleshed out. The other thing you might worry is that some accounts would seem to allow that R(God, Abstract Object) obtains contingently when the abstract object may stand in some necessary relations.

Now, I believe that Thomistic thinking has always said things like "God necessarily wills his own existence". It also says that God is identical to his essence. I tend to think that if these problems have solutions, they lie in this general area. This isn't very helpful, however, as I get stuck as soon as I try to figure out what on earth it might mean to say that God's essence is identical to His existence.

Another broad point you raise is that whatever we say about the relationship between God and abstract objects, why couldn't we just give an equivalent account replacing "God" with "Man". I actually think that there are many such accounts around. However, these broadly "Protagorian" views result in psychologism and relativism. The difference is that when we apply these accounts to God:
(a) There is only one God not many
(b) God is infinite and unchanging
(c) There may be room to say that what is prescriptive for we humans is only descriptive of God

Broadly, these are my reasons for endorsing a theistic version of "Protagorian" views.

Not sure if that helps or if I'm just rambling.

Steve

exapologist said...

Steve,

I like the way you relate the issue to the Third Man argument -- I hadn't connected the two before.

My views are similar to yours about the costs and benefits of the Thomistic solution of collapsing the essence/existence distinction.

Are there any books and/or papers you'd recommend on this topic?

Best,

EA

Steve Lovell said...

My background is in analytic philosophy and reading up on "divine simplicity" was never going to be a good use of my time.

I remember coming across some interesting looking things in papers by Eleanor Stump, with Norman Kretzman I think. They authored a paper specifically on the Euthyphro Dilemma which used this doctrine in a Lewisian fashion to bat the problem away. I expect they have written other relevant things too. I recall coming across some interesting papers by Thomas Mann too. I wouldn't be surprised if there's some good stuff by Brian Davies too.

Steve

exapologist said...

Hi Steve,

My background is in analytic philosophy as well, so I sympathize with the lack of motivation to follow the literature on thomistic accounts of divine simplicity, etc.

Thanks also for the references. I'll track down the relevant papers from those authors.

For myself, I feel pushed to some form of realism about abstracta by traditional considerations (e.g., positing universals to best explain the phenomena of resemblance, predication, and abstract reference), as well as contemporary Quinean "indispensability arguments" (e.g., for realism about numbers and possible worlds, etc.).

On the other hand, the literature I've read on theistic activism (Plantinga's stuff, Menzel and Morris' paper, Matt Davidson's "A Demonstration Against Theistic Activism") push me to some account that doesn't ground them in a god.

At least at this point, it seems to me that abstract objects are necessarily existent entities. This seems to be required to make sense of such things as, e.g., that mathematical truths are necessary truths.

Steve Lovell said...

Exap,

In addition to misspelling "Eleonore", I also misremembered the forename of another author. It was William E. Mann (and Thomas V Morris replied). Digging in some of my anthologies, I actually have a paper by Davies, and the suggestions for further reading in the same anthology include several papers by Stump and Kretzmann. The anthology in question is Philosophy of Religion: a guide and anthology Brain Davies (ed) OUP 2000. I could reproduce his suggested reading list here if it's of interest.

Davies' own reading of the doctrine of divine simplicity is interesting; he takes it mostly as a result of the via negativa (or however that should be spelled, so henceforth VN), and of the radical distinction between creature and creator. Although his arguments mostly seem good, since they are rooted in the VN it's difficult to know how much metaphysical content the doctrine really has on his view and so whether this reading could sustain the philosophical weight we'd like to place upon it.

Steve

exapologist said...

Hi Steve,

I have that anthology, but haven't gone through those papers. It's good to know I can save a trip to the bookstore. I'll check out the suggested reading list as well.

All the best,

EA

Jason Pratt said...

Exap:

The creek rose, so I haven't gotten very far in doing the series of posts at CC yet; but I'm glad Victor redated this discussion because (what with the creek rising and all {g}) I'd lost track of it.

Since the creek is still up, so to speak, I won't add in much between the discussion you and Steve are having (though I'm appreciating it a lot on both sides)--incidentally, I do agree with Steve that DNT is the correct answer to the Euthyphro, but we seem to disagree pretty strongly with each other on almost everything after that, except maybe where we agreed that circular arguments are terrible and not to be accepted for a moment {g!}--but you asked a bit of a poll question, and since I'm checking in I thought I'd answer:

{{I'm interested in this issue, I'd like to push it: are there people here who think that there are abstract objects (properties, propositions, possible worlds, laws of logic, etc.), and that these somehow point to God as their "ground"?}}

I think I'm on record around here somewhere (though not in the current thread), as holding the position that whatever existence 'abstract objects' may have, is derivatively dependent on actuals of some sort, and not necessarily on 'active rational' actuals, either (though an actively rational entity would be necessary to discover those relationships).

Abstractions tend to be descriptions of relationships between actuals, or descriptions _of_ something anyway (where not of relationships per se).

This position seems to run (sort of ironically!) against the Platonism I have occasionally been described as advocating. So, to give an example, I am not of the position that 'laws of logic' somehow point to God as their ground simply by their 'existence' per se.

More pertinently for the current discussion, neither would I (or do I) argue that a moral law abstractly exists independently of humanity and then from this argue that its existence points to God's existence as its ground. (And it isn't where I am going in my delayed series of Cadre posts, either. {g})

Back to the sidelines for now; thanks again to Victor for handily redating the discussion! {bowing in Steve's and Exap's directions both}

JRP

Sturgeon's Lawyer said...

Morality must me be derived from behavioral conditioning due to natural selection.

This is a thoroughgoing misunderstanding of the argument evolutionary psychology provides for moral behavior in people and other animals.

The basic concept is this: emotions evolved to promote the survival of -- not animals, but their genes -- in a particular environment.

"Survival," for genes, means continued replication.

That a parent will sacrifice its own good for that of its children makes sense, because the children are the genes' best hope of survival.

But the parent does not think "Oh, this child carries my genes." Rather, the parent desires the survival of the child more than its own. Genes which build animals that will sacrifice themselves for their children tend to be passed on to the next generation more effectively than genes which build animals that protect themselves at their childrens' expense: thus, evolution favors animals that desire their childrens' survival. When we see a bird protecting its chicks from a hawk, we call that "mother love." We have no actual idea what the bird feels, but we can be sure that it feels something that makes the chicks important to it.

Because we are a social species, the environment we evolved to survive in includes other humans. Evolution favors cooperation in social animals ... up to a point; an environment full of cooperators favors cheaters, animals that take advantage of others' cooperation. Once you have cheaters, though, the environment is different again; it will favor animals that can detect cheaters and refuse to cooperate with them.

In evolutionary terms, our sense of morality is all of the above: a sense of what cooperation is, a sense of what cheating is, and a sense of how to deal with cheaters.

This is a grotesque oversimplification, of course, but I hope you can see that "behavioral conditioning due to natural selection" fails to capture what's being talked about.

Sturgeon's Lawyer said...

The real problem with all these discussions, however, is this.

As Lewis often stated, you can't get a "should" from an "is."

Using God as a basis for unchanging or "objective" moral principles is a violation of that principle.

To put it differently, it is an argument from authority: We define God (or God defines God's self) as "good," therefore behavior that pleases God is moral. It is not only possible but easy to imagine a God Who is what we would call evil, (this is one form of Gnosticism) or amoral (one form of Theism). Therefore, the mere existence of God does not mandate morality.

Indeed, as a Christian one can doubt the morality of God at times. We read God's demands to slaughter and enslave the Canaanites down to the youngest child and most of us will say, "This is wrong." My own resolution for the dilemma is to deny that God actually gave such a command; I believe that the Bible is 100% true, but not necessarily 100% factual. But a literalist will have to conclude that "God is not bound by our morality" or some such.

Indeed, this is the point of the "potter and clay" analogy, as well as God's response to Job: whatever basis God has, we have no ability to judge Him, no ground to stand upon where we can see what He's up to. God says, in effect, "Do as I say, not as I do."

So we cannot meaningfully say that God is moral or immoral. Thus, our claims that our morality derives from God are appeals to authority, not to an absolute moral standard. We are saying, "Because this standard" -- the one set by Scripture -- "exists, and is given by God, it must be right." Through appeal to authority, we derive a should from an is.

None of this is an argument against Christianity, of course; but it shows that the basis for our morality is, in fact, no less circular or arbitrary than the atheists'.

Steve Lovell said...

Strictly speaking it's false to say that you can't get an ought from an is. Consider the following

(1) Jack wants to go to London.
(2) The best way to get to London is to take the train.
(3) Therefore, in the absence of other factors, Jack ought to take the train.

(1) The purpose of this watch is to tell the time accurately.
(2) This watch cannot tell the time accurately unless it contains a battery.
(3) Therefore, this watch ought to contain a battery.

Now, there is a more limited sense in which it's true that one can't get an "ought" from an "is". This is simply that if the "is" premises contain nothing evaluative or teleological (like a purpose or desire), then you can't deduce anything evaluative.

What follows from this fact? Some of the comments that Sturgeon's Lawyer has made were such strong assertions of the is-ought gap that you'd imagine he takes this to mean that "oughts" are not based on reality (what "is").

In reality, there is nothing in this doctrine to prevent a theistic ethic (or many a non-theistic ethic) from being true. Of course one does not "prove" that certain things are immoral simply by noting that God forbid's them, one also needs the bridging premise that what God forbids you to do is immoral to do. This bridging premise is itself a consequence of (many) theistic ethical systems, and those systems are no worse for that.

Steve

Jason Pratt said...

Hopping back in again...

SL: {{It is not only possible but easy to imagine a God Who is what we would call evil, (this is one form of Gnosticism) or amoral (one form of Theism). Therefore, the mere existence of God does not mandate morality.

Indeed, _as a Christian_ [original emphasis] one can doubt the morality of God at times. [...] So we cannot meaningfully say that God is moral or immoral. Thus, our claims that our morality derives from God are appeals to authority, not to an absolute moral standard.}}

While I actually agree with a large portion of SL's comment, in principle and on occasion even in practice, I wish to highlight this as a crying weakness of specifically _Christian_ apologetics. What SL is complaining about, and rightly so, has to do with mere monotheism. It has nothing at all to do with trinitarian theism.

_AS A CHRISTIAN_, if we are orthodox Christians, we may doubt accounts of God's actions as being rightly attributed to Him, even in scripture (if it comes to that); but _as_ orthodox trinitarian Christians it is absolutely improper for us to reduce morality to Divine Command Theory. That is _not_ the ground of morality, if what we believe about the foundation of all reality is true.

I realize SL was critiquing a reduction to DCT himself; more power to him. But to critique the moral grounding of specifically _Christian_ theism by this route, is a total category error.

What annoys and grieves me is that this total category error is nevertheless routinely appealed to _by_ specifically Christian theists as though it applied one way or another, pro or con, to trinitarian theism. It's like hearing people debate the pros and cons of Lamarckism and having gradualistic neo-Darwinists agree that Lamarckist critiques, pro or con, are proper and necessary for apologizing in favor of grad-NDT. There are admittedly points of topical contact, but they are _not_ the same kind of theory at all.

(The differences between the two sets of theories are very different, of course, and I don't mean the two sets to be analogically compared in a positive fashion. I'm only bringing up a pithy example for illustration: Richard Dawkins may be an idiot in many regards, but he _does_ by God {g} know his saltationism and Lamarckism from his grad-NDT; and while he may stumble occasionally in critiquing the others and promoting his own notion, he does _NOT_ routinely confute them together.)

Orthodox Christians are supposed to be saying that the single Independent Fact on which all reality is based is itself an interpersonal relationship; and apologizing in that favor. Otherwise, we might as well be Muslims or Arians or modalists or Mormon cosmological tritheists, or something else. Whatever difficulties there are for orthodox Christian moral grounding, are difficulties in the proposition of having a single IF being itself an interpersonal relationship.

But, be those problems as they may, it is blatantly ridiculous to claim, _of_ that claim, that morality is therefore grounded either in some standard above God to which He Himself is dependent and obligated to cooperate with (on pain of sin, rebellion, immorality), or else that morality is grounded in God's Divine Say-So. This is the sort of thing necessary to field-goal between the horns of the Euthyphro Dilemma. Not incidentally, it is also the ultimately point of contact between an is/ought distinction.

Could we please then _NOT_ treat Christian theism as though we are Muslim apologists, at least on _this_ topic??

Thank you; back to the sidelines again. {s}

JRP

Blue Devil Knight said...

I can get an ought from an is:

1. Socrates is a man.
2. Therefore, either Socrates is a man or I ought to kill babies.

Voila!

Steve Lovell said...

BDK,

Your argument is of course perfectly valid. The word "ought" doesn't appear in premise and does appear in the conclusion. Bravo, you have in that very thin sense derived an ought from an is.

However, I don't think (and nor do you), that you have succeeded in getting an ought from an is in any interesting sense.

Indeed, if you had "got an ought" from the premise the "ought" in question would presumably be that you "ought to kill babies". But you clearly haven't "got that ought" from your premise.

So, what's your point? Are you taking a side-swipe at my derivations above? If so, you'll need to spell out your issue with those derivations more clearly.

But perhaps I'm taking you too seriously, and you didn't actually intend to contribute anything to the discussion beyond a poor (taste) joke. I that case, I apologise for taking you seriously, and promise not to do it again.

Steve

John W. Loftus said...

Steve, I thought we were done with our conversation. As I remembered it you drop the ball. If I remembered wrong or if I got too busy to continue, my apologies. I summed up our discussion here when I wrote: "In an explanation to me Lovell points to an analogous case: “It might be helpful to consider the similarities of a non-moral case: trusting our senses. One theory of why we should trust our senses is that natural selection would have eliminated species whose senses weren't reliable. But why should we accept this theory? Because it's confirmed by scientific data? But that data comes to us through our senses! The justification is circular.”

But is this really an analogous case for our moral faculties? We are able to justify our senses pragmatically, but that’s all. They seem to help us live and work and play in our world. Can we trust our senses to tell us what is real? No. Reality is filtered through our human senses. With the senses of a dog, a porpoise, a snake, or a bird, reality would look and feel different to us. There is so much light and so much sound that we cannot see and hear it’s amazing. We know there is much more to see than what we can see, and we know there is much more to hear than what we can hear. But if we saw and heard it all, it might be likened to "white noise." About the only thing we can trust our senses to tell us is that we have them and that we sense something, and therefore we conclude that something is there. So in a like manner our moral faculties merely help us live and work and play in a pragmatic sense in this world. But what Lovell needs to explain is whether or not we can trust them to tell us something about God, just like I wonder whether our five senses can be trusted to tell us what is truly real."

Was that the end of it all? What did you say in response?

Steve Lovell said...

John,

As I recall, our last interaction was this one. I haven't looked at your blog, though, so I might have missed something.

Steve

John W. Loftus said...

I see where we left off now, and I do apologize. Let me start over by answering the question you had asked.

You said, "I'd like to know where he thinks our moral beliefs come from and how such moral confidence is possible in a world of scepticism about both God and our senses."

After some thinking I am attempting to do so beginning here, and
here. But I doubt that I will say anything new that you haven't already considered.

Steve Lovell said...

John,

Does this mean that you my DNT/Evolution Analogy is bad because you think we are more certain of our moral beliefs than of (other) beliefs that come by way of the senses?

This was the point of my question about your own theories. If that isn't why you think my analogy fails, then as creditable as the development of your own views may be, it would be rather beside the point.

Steve

exapologist said...

Hi Steve,

I found an excellent paper on theistic activism and divine simplicity that I thought you would like to see. It's entitled, “A Theistic Argument Against Platonism (and in Support of Truthmakers and Divine Simplicity)", by Christian philosophers Michael Bergman and Jeffrey Brower. Perhaps you've read it?

In any case, while they offer what they take to be a demontration against the compatibility of Christian theism and any form of realism about universals, they offer an account of truthmaker theory that they take to handle all the data that push people to realism about universals, and is also compatible with a strong doctrine of divine simplicity.

The linke to the paper is:

http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~brower/Papers/Theism%20and%20Platonism.pdf

Brower's homepage also includes links to his recent and forthcoming papers on divine simplicity. The link to his homepage is:
http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~brower/Research.htm

Best,

EA

Steve Lovell said...

Exap,

Thanks for the references. From an initial glace it looks interesting stuff. It'll be a while until I get round to reading them, but perhaps we could resurrect our discussion at a later date.

Steve

exapologist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
exapologist said...

Hi Steve,

That sounds great.

All the best,

-EA