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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

God fails triple morality test


by Massimo Pigliucci

The other night I was with friends, enjoying a relaxing evening of Chinese takeout and a wine that was far too expensive to go with it, while we started watching favorite YouTube videos. One of them is ricky Gervais’ take on Noah’s Ark. If you haven’t seen it, you owe it to yourself, it’s a brilliant 15 minutes of hilarity at the expense of the Big Guy in the Sky, Old Testament version (for another priceless take on the same guy, you ought to watch this bit by Lewis Black).

Anyway, Gervais and Black got me thinking in terms of God and morality. I don’t mean the popular idea that morality comes from God. That was soundly refuted by Plato in the Euthyphro, and despite thousands of years of desperate theological pretzel twisting the refutation stands. I mean instead to turn the table and ask whether God himself is moral. Now of course this is an old trick up the atheist’s sleeve, usually based on a litany of God-endorsed horrors that appear in the Old Testament (and a few nasty things said by Jesus in the New version). But I wish to throw the light of ethical discourse on a single episode, the one that logically bridges Old and New Testament: what happens to Jesus, the Son of God.

In order to proceed I will set aside any qualms about moral relativism and related meta-ethical discussions, which have already been discussed several times at Rationally Speaking. What I will do instead is to briefly analyze God’s conduct toward his Son in the light of the three major approaches to moral reasoning: consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. Let’s see what happens.

Of course, in order for the discussion about ethics to proceed, we’ll have to make a few preliminary simplifying assumptions about history, metaphysics and logic. For instance, that the outline of the story of Jesus as recalled in the four canonical Gospels is even approximately true. Given a number of internal inconsistencies and the complete absence of independent historical sources, this is a pretty big, ahem, leap of faith. But we’ll make it for the sake of discussion.

A bit more problematic, perhaps, is the very idea of God’s Son. Having progeny was standard fare for the Greek-Roman gods, who mated human style both among themselves and with mortals. But in the case of the New Testament story we are faced with a biological impossibility: a human case of parthenogenesis. This raises the well known metaphysical issue of how an immaterial substance (God) could interact with a material one (Mary) in order to accomplish the deed — a problem similar to the one that gave endless headaches to Descartes. We are not told how God did it, but we are reassured that it was somehow performed via God’s Third Person, the enigmatic Holy Spirit.

However we work out the history and the metaphysics, there is also a problem of logic: God — in Christian doctrine — is supposed to be both one and three, which implies that He is also both the Father and the Son. Philosophical issues of personal identity aside, this seems to fly against one of the cardinal principles of classical logic: the law of non-contradiction says that ¬ (P ∧ ¬P), meaning that something cannot both be and not be something else (in this particular case, God cannot both be unitary and trinitary).

Again, for the sake of our discussion about the morality of God we will forgo any further examination of these historical, metaphysical and logical problems. Just keep ‘em in mind as further sources of philo-theological amusement.

Let’s then get started with what ought (logically, not morally) to be the easy case: deontological ethics. The most famous rendition of it is Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, but of course the Ten (and other) Commandments themselves are a classic theistic deontological code. Here we already run into deep trouble. The second formulation of Kant’s imperative (found in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals) states:
“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”
Jesus is only human in one sense, and divine in another (a second example of violation of the law of non-contradiction?), but still, you would think that the basic idea being expressed by Kant should apply to the case under examination. The problem is that, clearly, the Father is using his Son for a particular purpose (somewhat vaguely referred to as the “salvation” of humanity), i.e. He-F is using He-S as a means to an end, precisely the sort of thing Kant says is immoral. Strike one against the Almighty.

Let’s turn then to consequentialism, the idea — of which Bentham’s and Mill’s utilitarianism are the preeminent example — that what matters in ethics are only the consequences of one’s actions. Here, then, we need to look again at the concept of salvation, since the sacrifice of the Son was planned by the Father in order to save humanity. There is a huge and convoluted theological literature on this, but the Wikipedia definition seems good enough for our purposes:
“Salvation is the phenomenon of being saved from the undesirable condition of bondage or suffering experienced by the psyche or soul that has arisen as a result of unskillful or immoral actions generically referred to as sins.”
Yes, yes, I know, now we should deal with the equally problematic concepts of soul/psyche and sin. Not in this post, we won’t.

What would a rational consequentialist say about the outcome of Jesus’ sacrifice, measured in terms of humanity’s salvation? Well, we are not given a timeline for the expected results to materialize (though there are passages in the New Testament where Jesus pretty clearly seems to indicate that the reckoning was expected to take place within the lifetime of some of his followers — needless to say, it didn’t). Still, judging from the amount of misery, death and destruction that human beings have inflicted upon each other in the course of the past 2,000 years (even accounting for Steven Pinker’s claim that violence has gone down of late), I’d say the sacrifice hasn’t worked out very well. And that’s without considering the countless sins of a sexual nature that seem to so obsess Republican politicians these days. It seems safe to conclude that God’s actions toward his Son are a moral failure also according to consequentialism.

We are then left only with virtue ethics, which can be traced to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Assessing individual moral actions isn’t the point of virtue ethics, as it is about having a good character, from which the proper actions follow. If we scan a table of Aristotelian virtues, however, it is hard to see how God’s character can be made to look good. For instance, beginning at the top of the table, clearly God was rash in his confidence of the positive outcomes to be elicited from the sacrifice of his Son. He is also self-indulgent in the kind of pain he allowed to be inflicted for the cause. In terms of honor, God comes across as a bit vane for pretending to save an entire species of free thinking creatures with a single act. The guy also seems irascible (too much anger), boastful (too much self-expression), boorish (deficient in conversation), cantankerous (bad social conduct), shameless, and somewhat malicious. All things considered, not at all a pretty picture, virtue ethics-wise.

Of course, consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics are not the only ways to look at the moral question. Perhaps there is an ethical school by which standards God comes across as the good guy, but I sincerely doubt it. Indeed, one of the things that strikes me as downright bizarre in people who worship the Old Testament fellow (which, technically, includes all Jews, Christians and Muslims) is precisely the fact that most of His followers are infinitely more moral than their God — and would readily realize that if they were not blinded by their faith. As Lewis Black puts it in the segment linked to above, “I would love to have the faith ... but I have thoughts. And that can really fuck up the faith thing. Just ask any Catholic priest.” Amen.

49 comments:

  1. You already know, I suppose, what the church will say to the content of this piece of heresy: you cannot judge God on earthly standards. However, being an earthling myself, I wonder if this personality thing, God is himself and two others, cannot be solved by applying simple psychologic reasoning and declaring him a schizophrenic? By coincidence this would solve the relilability and validity problem of claims made by God with respect to the salvation of human kind as well, 't was a simple error...

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    1. No, not schizophrenia (which is delusional "split" thought, but Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) aka multiple personality).

      Since DID is typically the result of a traumatic stressor one can only wonder what was the precipitator for the Yahweh god.

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  2. I have even heard it said that perhaps God (Imaginary Friend) is Tri-Polar, and because we lack a spiritual equivalent of the medication used to treat Bi-Polarism, we are unable to treat them (Trinity).

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  3. Just to expand on Michael Klein's "earthly standards" point, I remember from my Maimonides reading in a philosophy class that he used Aristotelian virtue ethics to conclude that since virtues are particular to a being's nature, and god's nature is unknowable to us, we could not evaluate god's morality.

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    1. Timothy,

      If one were to take that primrose path, one could not use adjectives such as 'good', 'beneficent', and other cognate constructions to describe either 'god' or its actions since any possible signification of the terms would have been eviscerated. This is especially problematic if one wishes- as many ostensibly do- to define 'god', amongst other things, as omnibenevolent.

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    2. Yes, Eamon, that's right. Maimonides didn't think you could ever ascribe positive features to god. At the same time, he (problematically) thought you could ascribe negative features to it - but, those things are beside the point. If virtue theory thinks virtues are those traits that lead to the actor's flourishing, then I don't see how you could assess the actor's (virtue-ethics) morality when we know so little about what it would take to make He-F flourish. Massimo evidently thinks the virtue ethicists in the Maimonides tradition were wrong, and I think it'd be interesting to see why.

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    3. Having imbibed some Maimonidean philosophy myself (in a religious - rather than academic - context, during a youthful experiment with Judaism), I'll say this much:

      Maimonides' theology was never coherent to begin with. One moment (in his commentary on the Mishnah), he asserts that God is omniscient and providential, and the next (in Guide for the Perplexed) that God is too unlike us to judge morally. So is God personal or impersonal? Make up your mind, Moshe!

      If the former, and He's potent enough to prevent atrocious events, like those of the Holocaust/Shoah, then it's fair game to judge God morally (especially if He actively causes those atrocious events); if the latter (or if God is personal, but impotent), then no wonder the rabbinic inquisitors used to burn M's books, because his theology is heretical according to both rabbinic tradition and to his own writings (e.g. his legal code, the Mishneh Torah, which list the types of heresies and their capital punishments).

      Anyway, as an atheist today, this topic is more of geeky curiosity to me than anything else.

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  4. Massimo,

    Re: 'The problem is that, clearly, the Father is using his Son for a particular purpose (somewhat vaguely referred to as the “salvation” of humanity), i.e. He-F is using He-S as a means to an end, precisely the sort of thing Kant says is immoral.'

    One could plausibly argue (I say this tentatively considering the concept of the Holy Trinity is hardly plausible) that Jesus voluntarily submitted to God's determined plan of sacrifice. Thus, God did not use Jesus 'merely as a means' to an end but rather he treated him also as end himself.

    Having said that, however, God certain has used people as merely a means to an end. See, for example, Romans 9:10-13 (cf. Malachi 1:2-3):

    --

    Not only that, but Rebekah's children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God's purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ Just as it is written: ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.

    --

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  5. "This raises the well known metaphysical issue of how an immaterial substance (God) could interact with a material one (Mary) in order to accomplish the deed — a problem similar to the one that gave endless headaches to Descartes."

    Well, most Christians are already making the assumption that miracles occur or have occurred. In making that assumption, they agree that the physical universe is not entirely causally closed. (There are ways to "allow" miracles without causal non-closure, but they all seem pretty sketchy to me.)

    So if we're assuming, like most Christians would, that the universe is not causally closed, and specifically that God can intervene in it, it doesn't seem like a big problem how an immaterial substance could affect a material one and cause changes in the physical world.

    Basically, what I'm saying is, there's no point attacking the possibility of a virgin birth when you could just attack the idea of miracles in general (which many have done).

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  6. "I don’t mean the popular idea that morality comes from God. That was soundly refuted by Plato in the Euthyphro, and despite thousands of years of desperate theological pretzel twisting the refutation stands."

    Of the many instances in the literature where philosophers claim to have addressed the Euthyphro dilemma, which attempt do you consider to be the best?

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    1. None, really. A good list and recap of the counter-argument is actually found on the proper Wiki page:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euthyphro_dilemma#Responses_to_the_dilemma

      Perhaps Swinburne's?

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    2. No, because Swinburne thinks there is such a thing as the analyticity of moral truths when in point of logical fact there are no such things as "moral truths".

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  7. Fun post -- I referred folks here with my post called: Yahweh viewed through 3 moral calculators where I agree and hint our delusional view of how we make moral choices.

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  8. "However we work out the history and the metaphysics, there is also a problem of logic: God — in Christian doctrine — is supposed to be both one and three, which implies that He is also both the Father and the Son."
    I happen to be living in a Christian fundamentalist community which clearly sees god as composed of three parts, and in fact, really see the father as the one god with all the magical omnipotence (all seeing, all knowing, and eternal), Jesus as a liaison and mediator between God, the Father, and mankind existing in a material plane, and finally, the Holy Spirit - which mans can incorporate into himself through the spiritual presence of Jesus, and sort of the essence throughout God and heaven.
    What I'm saying is that God(the Daddy) is pretty much The Lord of All That Is and, for all intents and purposes, is what they are referring to whence they speaketh His Name YWHW/God/the Father.
    He is the main dude but cannot come into contact with sin, therefore, Jesus must encompass both material flesh - in order to interact with mans, and Holy Spirit, in order to resist temptation and perform miracles. Goddaddy is analogous to will, H. Spirit the moral imperative of goodness, and baby Jesus is the agent , or method, that acts out Holy will.

    I'm not entirely sure this is officially what scripture maintains in theory, but in practice, they employ a sort of wave-particle type duality where Jesus can be properly seen as God or as a virtuous man depending upon what characteristic is being measured, LOL FFS.

    He is the trustee that runs the company for the absent CEO, who apparently eschews all the trappings of privilege yet pulls rank just often enough to remind them who is shepherd, I mean boss, a master of power politics playing cruel and vicarious games .... sigh.

    The whole shebang is immoral on so many levels, which merely begins tentatively with a completely fabricated and capricious crisis among the ungrateful slaves/personnel.

    Now for some real sarcasm and irony, I have to go and sing in choir in 2-1/2 hrs, where I get to proclaim my wonder and awe and gratitude for the blood that was spilled and the torture that was inflicted upon that two-faced fu- I mean fellow because we are condemned to eternal mindless cruelty for something we didn't do.

    I'm a recovering alcoholic, and the irony is that it is a Christian organization that has finally been able to help this lifelong hard-core atheist.

    I insist that the 'morality' of God in sending His 'Son' to suffer blah blah, cannot be separated from the immorality of the creating evil (Isaiah) and then entrapping mans in a situation that was pre-determined to fail in the first place.

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    1. Mikmik,

      How can one expect to conduct a rational discourse when one drops irrational bombs such as you do in your comment?

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    2. LOL, so you do appreciate irony!

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    3. How does this group explain how the godly half caste was able to withstand daily contact with the sinful when his father could not?

      Did this bastard half-caste only have half his father's powers while on earth? Was he half-omniscient? half omnibenevolent? half-eternal? half unchanging? half impotent? If he only had half his father's godly quotient how could anyone tell whether what he preached half right or half wrong?

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  9. If I may, Massimo, I'd like t address this paragraph:
    What would a rational consequentialist say about the outcome of Jesus’ sacrifice, measured in terms of humanity’s salvation? Well, we are not given a timeline for the expected results to materialize (though there are passages in the New Testament where Jesus pretty clearly seems to indicate that the reckoning was expected to take place within the lifetime of some of his followers — needless to say, it didn’t). Still, judging from the amount of misery, death and destruction that human beings have inflicted upon each other in the course of the past 2,000 years (even accounting for Steven Pinker’s claim that violence has gone down of late), I’d say the sacrifice hasn’t worked out very well. And that’s without considering the countless sins of a sexual nature that seem to so obsess Republican politicians these days. It seems safe to conclude that God’s actions toward his Son are a moral failure also according to consequentialism.

    It seems to me that Christians skirt this issue two ways. First, it is unknown how many are saved until judgement day occurs, so it isn't possible to estimate the relative numbers of saved souls to the unsaved until then.
    Second, we only know that if we incur Jesus' favor in some way, we're in! We know that the new testament is vague and non-specific enough to state that good works are enough, good works is not enough, you must repent - change your ways - when you accept Jesus as savior, and also that you only need accept and believe that Jesus is your savior and that we cannot possibly mortally attain a sinless manner of living, so that is at best secondary. Therefore, it can be argued that almost everyone can, or will, qualify for Heaven.

    Salvation is also characterized as a 'gift' given by the grace of God, that all you have to do is accept it, or, more in light of most fundamentalists explanations around, that we have to actively reject this gift in order not to receive it! This is why 'they' keep insisting that us atheists are rejecting God, obviously, I guess!
    So, if there aren't many successes in outcome of salvation, it is not God's fault, He made the ultimate sacrifice in order to open the doors to heaven, His Son had to suffer and die for 40 hours, I mean, wow, how heroic!

    All sarcasm aside, there is no way that you can use absolute numbers to evaluate the result of 'the sacrifice', they can insist that it accomplished everything it was intended to.
    God forgives all sin, if you ask nicely enough, lol, so one thing we've been taught here is that all you have to do is genuinely repent and ask for forgiveness minutes before you die. (Hence, deathbed confessions of Darwin et al....)

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  10. >>So, if there aren't many successes in outcome of salvation, it is not God's fault<<

    If god's omnipotent, he could have done something to achieve better consequences - he should have done something to achieve consequences better than humanly imaginable. He obviously didn't.

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    1. Look, if God had a shred of sanity, He could have done many simple things to achieve the best consequences humanly imaginable. In fact, He still could, given that He is omnipotent.

      Now, as far as you are in a position to understand whether He has accomplished results beyond human understanding to the point that it is trivial for you to evaluate the outcome, as is implied by your use of the word 'obviously,' I must necessarily conclude that you are not human!

      But, on the other hand, since this is exactly the method of apologists when they claim that, "God works in mysterious ways," ie beyond human understanding, and that they conclude, in opposition to you, this is a valid argument, would you therefore concede that Christians are not just beyond human understanding, but yours as well? I think this is an important concept that should not be overlooked!

      Note, however, that according to the philosopher Jayj Jacobs' list in his
      CODSWALLOP DETECTOR
      & CRITIQUE OF IMPURE REASON
      , it may indeed be possible to ascertain the reasoning of certain subsets of humanity that is both rational and not rational at the very same time!:
      Contraryism: The belief that only the generally unaccepted is worthy. Different and antithetical is better. The faith that conventional wisdom, and common sense, are always wrong.

      Ladies and gentlemen and Timothy, we have accidentally uncovered the crux of the misunderstanding between Christians and not Christians. In order to communicate with Christians, we must both make sense, and not make sense, at the same time.

      Now, as Massimo Pigliucci has already shown - "this seems to fly against one of the cardinal principles of classical logic: the law of non-contradiction says that ¬ (P ∧ ¬P), meaning that something cannot both be and not be something else", it is threfore logically impossible to use rational argument in response to Christian claims of truth, a priori.


      (It dawns on me that parody is an actual instance of 'making sense' and 'not making sense' at the same time, and is a very powerful answer to Christianity/codswallup)
      ;)

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    2. >>Now, as far as you are in a position to understand whether He has accomplished results beyond human understanding to the point that it is trivial for you to evaluate the outcome, as is implied by your use of the word 'obviously,' I must necessarily conclude that you are not human!<<

      If you meant this quoted paragraph as "parody," well then, haha, but if you meant it seriously, I find myself agreeing once again with Eamon. You're implying there are consequences we can't evaluate, which is irrelevant to the issue that the consequences we can evaluate could have been drastically better if there were an omnipotent deity. Yes, I said they could have been unimaginably better, because they could have been, but your tangent off that point is... what, exactly?

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  11. I wish I could remember where to find an apocryphal biblical account of Cain's argument with God about why he killed Abel.

    Can anyone help me out?

    Cain basically turns the tables on God and blames God for making him (Cain) as he is (a murderer).

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    1. Midrash Tanhuma, Gn. Ch. 9:

      Then Cain said: “I killed him, true, but You created me with the evil urge in me. You watch over everything and You let me kill him. You killed him! You didn’t accept my sacrifice and I was jealous.”

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    2. Hard to argue with Cain, isn't it (i.e. if one accepts the premises of classical theism)? which demonstrates how little the concept of God* adds to moral/ethical discussion.

      * or perhaps of nature and determinism in the secular version (e.g. "But my genes made me do it!").

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  12. Massimo
    with all due respect I think you waste your time in such details. The theological fact is that anyone who believes in blood sacrifice atonement substitution blah blah has already descended half way to insanity. That's the only explanation for believing in a Jebus who explicitly endorsed the OT, which explicitly endorses genocide as the holy tool of Holy God. Blech!

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    1. There is also the problem that the Gospel Jesus could not accurately quote passages the his father was supposed to have written, or cause to be written, in the Jewish scriptures. Apparently he did not know how to write, either, as he left no written record of his message. He even failed to recruit followers who were literate enough to write down his teachings by dictation. Are these failings all due to the human half of this god-man? If so, how can anyone realistically decide which of this god-man's actions and pronouncements are human and which are divine?

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    2. How do you know he wrote nothing? Maybe it's no longer extant! Are you seriously trying to impose modern standards on an ancient oral culture?

      Besides, Matthew could write and you should do some research on the ancient scribal system. How long are skeptics going to effectively wipe out all of ancient history just because they are determined to attack Christianity?

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  13. The Euthyphro is a false dilemma. Plato himself saw the third option (in rather pagan terms). That is, God IS the good. God's very nature comprises "the good". As such, God is in keeping with God's own nature and self-consistency.

    I suggest clearing that up before proceeding.

    Kevin H

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    1. So you're saying that Plato arrived at the conclusion that the gods love the pious because the gods are good?

      If so, then I don't remember that, but admittedly it's been a while since I read Euthyphro.

      So, taken at face value, how do we know that the gods are good? Perhaps they (or some of them) are a bit devious (which is how I recall Greek mythology). Or, translated into monotheistic terms, perhaps "God's a bit of a bastard" (to quote a TV show that I recently enjoyed).

      That seems to me to be the basic problem with the second horn of the dilemma (or divine-command theory). It prescribes a form of ethical subjectivism, only with God positioned as the Subject - an imaginary one, in my opinion, but one that is fraught with all of the problems of theodicy.

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    2. Kevin,

      Is the 'is' employed in the sentence 'God is the good' the 'is' of predication or the 'is' of identity?

      That is, by using 'is' do you: (1) mean to assert an identity relationship between 'God' (whatever that utterance signifies) and 'the good' in the same way we mean to draw an identity relationship between Clark Kent and Superman when we assert 'Clark Kent is Superman', such that whatever is assert truly about one is asserted truly about the other, or (2) rather intend to predicate some property, viz., 'being good', to 'God' in the way we would predicate a property in the normal way, e.g., 'The emerald is green'?

      If (1), it is not at all clear what the utterance 'the good' denotes, but whatever it denotes, in all likelihood 'God' cannot be said to be identical to it. Presumably, and charitably, 'the good' is a concept which denotes an abstract set the members of which are all the actions that all rational agents at all times would identify as morally praiseworthy / inscrutable. If this is the case, 'God' cannot be identical to 'the good' as 'God' is standardly conceived as a concrete object who is not composed of any proper parts. In other words, you do not mean to assert that 'God' is an abstract set of all and only those actions deemed morally inscrutable, do you?

      If (2), Euthyphro's dilemma stands: Does 'God' do / command x because x is good or is x good because 'God' does / commands x?

      If you intend to assert something else entirely, I would very much like to know what that something else is.

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    3. "The Euthyphro is a false dilemma...God's very nature comprises "the good". As such, God is in keeping with God's own nature and self-consistency."

      That doesn't escape the dilemma. It still sits on the horns: either (1) this god's nature is good because it is good, so the definition is independent of god's nature; or (2) this gods's nature is good because what it's nature says is good is good, which is still a subjective position (a la divine command theory).

      It doesn't get anywhere, and it looks like a cheap sleight of hand to try to separate this god's "nature" from it's "thinking".

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    4. Plato recognized that the very nature or essence of (God) can comprise the Good. There is nothing more ultimate than God (ontologically, yet God is consistent with his nature (epistemologically). C.S. Lewis added that "evil" is parasitic on "the good". Evil doesn't exist purely or apart from good, but is a perversion or twisting of that which is good. Therefore, "the Good is higher up and further back...". This splits the horns of the dilemma.

      How or why God has acted in history (the Caananites, etc.) is an internal question for another time.

      As to "is", (2) is closer to identifying the nature or essence of God, i.e. that is just how God is! God's nature comprises what can be called "the good" and God expresses that via commands and prescriptions, etc. (this is a form of the Divine Command Theory). So God's commands are not arbitrary, nor does God go outside of himself for a moral standard.

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  14. Hey Massimo,
    This is all very clever and cute, but it feels phony and it’s like a slap in the face to Quakers, Catholics, Methodists, Jews and Muslims who would otherwise appreciate your scientific, political and social point-of-view because it’s often full of heart and humor and it’s sometimes even smart. In fact after visiting your blog for over a year now I think your political and social outlook is closer to most Quakers than most members of the skeptic community.

    Woody Guthrie has a song called Jesus Christ where he talks about the cops and the lawyers hanging him in the air. It ends with a verse that goes something like this, “This song was written in New York City home of rich man preacher and slave and if Jesus was to preach what he preached in Galilee they would put Jesus Christ in his grave”. That says more about the life and death of Jesus than anything you’ve written here.

    Your criticism above about violating the law of non-contradiction is similar to Jerry Coyne’s statement in USA today regarding free will,

    “. . . we are biological creatures, collections of molecules that must obey the laws of physics. All the success of science rests on the regularity of those laws, which determine the behavior of every molecule in the universe”.

    Where does it say that reality and the universe have to obey our logic and our laws? It’s amazing that it often does, but it’s unscientific to say that it has to. You ought to know that science never proves anything. That’s the difference between science and math. Math (and logic) is a closed system with no inherent reference to the natural world. You can prove something mathematically; but in science you have to refer the results back to a real world problem to see if they hold true. You have to experiment to see where the logic breaks down. Reality is complicated; that’s why theories are never proven, we just build up a body of evidence that makes us reasonably certain the theory is true. I could be mistaken but as far as I know Schrodinger’s Cat describes quantum theory and depending on your point-of-view and interpretation it seems to violate the law of non-contradiction.

    Violating the law of non-contradiction is of course cause for concern. I once read a philosopher state that tradition and dogma are signs immaturity in every field of human experience. I believe it. I also think you should take the beam out of your own eye before you go pointing out the speck in your neighbor’s. I've yet to hear you give a fair description of Christian ethics. In your series on ethics you assume Christian ethics is all about laws handed down by God, then you use Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma to dismiss it and move on. But St Paul said people aren’t saved by the law, but by love. And what about forgiveness and love thy enemy and the kind of empathy that is expressed in “do unto others”? In Malik’s review of “The Moral Landscape” he implies that moral norms “emerge through a process of social engagement and collective conversation”. Where in your series on morality did you mention that? Christian ethics on the other hand seem to be very much concerned with that kind of thing; and that's how Baptist preacher ended up winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

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    1. Re: "Where does it say that reality and the universe have to obey our logic and our laws?"

      Of course and not of course, it says it both nowhere and everywhere at the same time and not at the same time. So, what you say in your post is both right and wrong. So, since you are right, you are not wrong, but since you are wrong, you are not right. So, I guess, you are right and not right and wrong and not wrong.

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    2. Hey Eamon,
      The so called laws of nature are our creations, they are approximations of what appears to be happening . . . If the Universe had to obey the laws that we have written down, there would be no need to experiment. The idea that brain has to behave in a certain way - the way Jerry Coyne thinks it ought to behave is a good example of scientistic dogma that often appears in these pages . . . So actually I think I am write . . . but I do like the poetic way in which you put that . . .

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    3. Patrick,

      The principle of non-contradiction (PNC) is true in a way physical laws (such as the laws of thermodynamics) are not. The PNC is not predicated upon any scientific methodology or generalization from observed phenomena.

      Rather, it is true analytically, which, crudely, is to say true formally or by virtue of the meanings of the relevant terms. Anyways, as I really have no interest in debating the merits of the PNC here, suffice it to say that that the PNC is true is seems much clearer to me than that any contentious argument proffered by yourself is true.

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    4. Eamon,
      I don't give a damn about PNC either. My point was it doesn't matter if these dogmas adhere to the rules of logic . . . Pointing out that these dogmas are illogical is silly and needlessly insults people who share many common values with Massimo. My argument isn't meant to be contentious . . . I just don’t think Massimo is as clear as he thinks he is regarding ethics. The first part of his series was particularly confused and lays it out as if ethics is just some guy thinking about what he ought to do. Nowhere does he consider it a social dialogue. It is through that dialogue more than anything else (and not via logic as Massimo stated) that we develop a fuller understanding of values.

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  15. Hey Massimo,
    When I first read this post where you are bashing the Christian God and all . . . It felt the way it often does that you’re standing over and above Christianity and just picking apart its dogma. That the dogma violates the law of contradiction is meaningless since even quantum theory seems illogical. But it’s meaningless also because it’s dogma. Someday it will go away. The same way the science of eugenics came and went. Religion isn’t as simple as science, it's a part of our culture and it expresses who we are as a people so it’s understandable that it takes longer to weed out the its dogma. But there is more to Christianity than that. Many of its expressions come much much closer to the heart of ethics and morality than what you came up in your multi-part series on ethics. It is ironic, but not surprising I suppose, that I don’t recall you mentioning love or forgiveness anywhere in that series.
    One definition of reason is to make ones thoughts (and/or feelings) conform to the world outside yourself. It is to know the world the way it is, rather than the way you might want it to be. In this way it’s self-transcending. I like the way Buckminster Fuller describes love because he makes me think it can be self-transcending:
    “Love is omni-inclusive, progressively exquisite, understanding and tender and compassionately attuned to other than self.”

    Martin Luther King, Jr. did a great moral work. It was one of the great achievements in all of history. He took two groups of people, separated by fear and hate and brought them together. He pointed out that blacks had a false sense of inferiority and whites had a false sense of superiority. He gave white people no reason to fear him. He didn’t make them feel they had to apologize for being white. He appealed to their better nature. Of course he was hated and ultimately murdered, but because of this great act of love and reason our culture is nowhere near as segregated as it was in the 50’s.

    In your first essay on ethics you concluded that ethical reasoning is determining the rules and outcomes that logically emerge from a particular set of assumptions. The type of logical reasoning you’re describing helps to discover the implications and develop a set of laws that embrace and safeguard our values. But what ethical reasoning actually is, is determining the set of assumptions that you take for granted. Your sense that it has to do with wellbeing is also what Sam Harris claims. A lot of people including Kenan Malik pointed out that this was not derived scientifically. It’s an aesthetic judgment (similar in many ways to the Fascist claim that the state is the ultimate good). Kant described aesthetic judgments as that which satisfies the mind, which is (I imagine) a lot like an “eminently sensible position” (which is how you characterized the assumptions you’d be starting with). Aesthetic judgments are not the same as moral judgments. They are at most the start of a dialogue.

    In this dialoge Kenan Malik and group of scientists, religious folks and philosophers ultimately come to the conclusion that ethical reasoning is a dialogue (a lot like the one MLK began)

    http://www.kenanmalik.com/tv/analysis_value.html

    Here is a part of Kenan Malik’s summary:

    Democracy is not about end results - it's about the means by which to achieve them. Democracy does not tell us what values are good, or how we may come upon them. But it does provide a method of debating such questions. And it provides a means of implementing change. This is why, in many cases, democracy will lead to unpalatable results. It is also why in the long run values that emerge through a democratic process are likely to be both more humane and more robust than those imposed from without. Democracy allows us to get away from the idea of values as eternally fixed, and yet to see them as potentially universal.

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  16. "...the law of non-contradiction says that ¬ (P & ¬P), meaning that something cannot both be and not be something else (in this particular case, God cannot both be unitary and trinitary)."

    My understanding is that non-contradiction says that something cannot be and not be the same thing, not necessarily "something else", simultaneously. I agree that being unitary and trinitary would violate non-contradiction, but not because of the description provided by Massimo above, but because being 1, containing the property 1, etc, entails not being 3.

    Going by the description in the quote, we can have an animal that simultaneously is a dog and is not a cat without any contradiction.

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  17. Yes, but you can't be a dog and not a dog at the same time. So my description stands: Fido cannot be both a dog and not a dog.

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    1. I must be misunderstanding something here, because your example seems to fit my description.

      You said non-contradiction means that you "cannot be and not something *else*." I read that as saying that you cannot be one thing and not a different thing simultaneously. My description says that you cannot be and not be the *same* thing. where am I going wrong here?

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    2. Probably poor wording on my part. I meant that A (Fido) cannot both be (B) and not be (~B) a dog. A=something, B=something else. Without this qualification we are talking about the principle of identity (A=A), not of non-contradiction.

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    3. Ah, no biggie. I just thought I was missing something. Thanks!

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  18. Patrick,

    I would like to add that your willingness to eviscerate fundamental principles of logic in order to substantiate (as you mistakenly assume you are doing) your particular form of unreason.

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    1. Correction:

      Patrick,

      I would like to add that your willingness to eviscerate fundamental principles of logic in order to substantiate (as you mistakenly assume you are doing) your particular form of unreason is illuminating.

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    2. Eamon,
      When making an argument it’s good to not violate logical norms. My point was that the universe doesn’t have to obey them and pointing out that religious dogma doesn’t follow logic is silly and unproductive. Massimo just did a series on ethics and it never occurred to him to mention that values are developed via a social dialogue. It’s unfair to be so dismissive of Christianity when perhaps the greatest moralist of our time Dr King was a devout Christian. Anyway, I am sorry that that you got so stuck on the whole PNC thang. It was really just an aside. Had I known it was going to cause you so much trouble and illumination, I would have left it out . . .

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  19. Aren't Christian apologists all consequentialists? That is, on the ultimate "refuge" for the problem of evil question, the claim that god is inscrutable? In essence, the claim is that god is a consequentialist and we don't know the consequences driving him.

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    1. Despite any consequentialists, the Problem of Evil is no longer considered seriously in professional philosophy as a disproof of God, thanks in part to Alvin Plantinga. God could have good moral reasons for allowing evil (God permits but does not promote evil, etc.). It's still a thorny problem, but cannot be used to disprove God.

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  20. an oldie but such a goldie:

    Our God, some contend, is immutable,
    And their faith is, indeed, irrefutable:
    When He does what He should,
    It's because "He is good,"
    When he doesn't, "His ways are inscrutable."
    -Laurence Perrine

    "Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana". Groucho I believe,

    some A’s think religion is poison. they fight long and hard. what’s hard to understand about that? fighting for truth and freedom? if they are crackpots or whatever, that will come out. if they are cogent, that will come out.

    Pilate: "What is Truth?"
    Joe: "Truth is Tribal, so fuck off Pilate"
    Pilate: "Take him away and kick his bollocks to pulp"
    Jesus: "Go Pilate, yay"
    Pilate: "next!"

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