Posts Tagged ‘atheism’

Ungodly Answers

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

I've recently posted a couple of entries that bear upon belief in G_d. In one, I noted how it is that we may have a legitimate sense that some events are guided by a purpose, which purpose is not that of any human being, yet is after all also not that of gods either. More recently, I challenged the notion that morality must or even can originate in commandments of G_d.

It isn't my intention to produce a parade of entries about G_d, nor to deal with the subject comprehensively in this 'blog. But the theme of G_d has been on my mind enough to provoke this one further entry. Like the previous two entries, this one will critique an argument for the existence of G_d, but will not attempt a disproof of that existence. I would be surprised if any of the reasoning that I provide in this entry were novel, but I hope that my exposition will be helpful.

One of the reasons that people believe in G_d is that they believe that She provides an explanation for the existence of the universe.

Part of the problem here is in being a bit careless about to what one refers with the word universe; that word has multiple meanings.[1] It would be abusive to presume that a theïst were using one of the narrower meanings — a currently closed set of interacting energy and matter — and show how that which we inhabit could have been creäted by previous mindless processes within some larger cosmological system. The theïst would naturally and rightly insist that by universe he meant that larger system.

For purposes of this sort of discussion, I think that, by universe, we really ought to mean reälity. However, a lot of theïsts want to assert that G_d is outside of what they call the universe. Now, saying X is outside of reälity is really saying that there is no X, that there's no more than an idea which is not instantiated. Plainly, when theïsts say that G_d is outside of what they call the universe, they don't mean that She is unreal; they must mean to divide reälity into at least two parts, one of which is G_d, and the other of which is something that they call the universe. Likewise, for those who more generally claim that G_d not is not entirely contained by what they call the universe, though all or part of it might be within Her; they do not mean that the remainder of G_d is unreal!

What they're claiming is that, at one time, reälity was just G_d, and then She brought that which they call the universe into existence, perhaps external to Herself or perhaps within Her (in which case we might speak and write of two parts, one of them being the universe, and the other being the rest of G_d) or perhaps partially internal to Her and partially external.

But if, instead of asking what brought the universe into existence, we ask what brought reälity into existence, then we've not yet got an answer. We have G_d, sitting there, unexplained.

Now, most theïsts are of the view that there was no time when G_d did not exist. Perhaps they imagine that an eternity has already passed; perhaps they imagine that time had a beginning, and G_d were there. Either way, if that is an acceptable claim about G_d, then it is not clear why it would not be an acceptable claim for an impersonal cosmological system. Likewise for just winking into existence ex nihilo after the passage of some time, if such a proposition (entailing the passage of time with nothing to change!) were coherent.

And a claim that G_d is the Great Mystery (accompanied perhaps by a beatific smile) is no explanation at all.

The introduction of the idea of G_d simply begged the question of whence it all came. The begging of the question is compounded if reälity is imagined as in two parts, one of which is G_d and the other is taken to be defined as creäted. Separating reälity into two parts, one G_d and the other called the universe allowed this group of theïsts to confuse and to be confused.

The question of why the universe should be lawful — why there's logic and math and why various things have physical properties and so forth — is often mistaken for a question distinct from that of whence came reälity. But any thing exists exactly to the extent that it has properties; in a sense, a thing is what it does. When we describe what a thing does, when we give its properties; this is no more or less than describing its laws; the most general laws describe the widest collections of things. (A friend once objected that logic did not seem to be a property of any thing; I told him that logic corresponds to properties of everything.) While it would seem that the universe might in many cases have very different laws, the idea of a law-less universe is incoherent.

[1] Some or all of these meanings have been noted by cosmologist John D. Barrow in The Book of Universes. Unfortunately, in other discussion, Barrow himself is sometimes unclear as to which definition he is employing.

Good Lord!

Sunday, 23 August 2015

[This entry is a reworking of a less carefully written entry that I posted to Facebook on 26 March.]

ἐννόησον γὰρ τὸ τοιόνδε· ἆρα τὸ ὅσιον ὅτι ὅσιόν ἐστιν φιλεῖται ὑπὸ τῶν θεῶν, ἢ ὅτι φιλεῖται ὅσιόν ἐστιν;[1]

as related by Platon
in Εὐθύφρων [Euthyphro] 10a

A classic question is of whether goodness — in the sense of that which is moral or otherwise objectively to be desired — determines the will of G_d, or is determined by the will of G_d.[2]

The notion that whatever G_d wills is, ipso facto, good is called the Divine Command theory of goodness. A fair number of people profess to believe this theory, but few people actually do. One way of testing belief would be to ask, for various X, whether it would be bad for G_d to do X. For example, whether it would be bad for G_d to create innocent souls, and then, beginning immediately, subject them to an eternity of unrelieved suffering. A person who reached for some theoretical greater good somehow achieved wouldn't be accepting that G_d's will were ipso facto good; a person who cried out that G_d would not do such a thing because it were evil wouldn't be accepting that G_d's will were ipso facto good. Only a person who could honestly declare that it would not be bad for G_d to do any X would accept the Divine Command theory.

Phil Robertson's infamous speech, in which he presents a hypothetical scenario within which ghastly things are done to an atheïst famly,[3] is an exemplar of an attempt to advance a Divine Command theory that violates the essential feature of that theory. Robertson presumes that atheïsm in turn implies moral nihilism. But he also presumes that none of the things done to the family could be good; that presumption implies that even G_d could not make them good. Robertson expects his audience — even the non-believers in his audience — to be able to see that these assaults are actively wrong. Indeed, he is apparently prepared to bet that, in spite of their unbelief, atheïsts undergoing such trials would form an opinion that something about this just ain’t right.

Well, if G_d cannot make a thing good merely by willing it to be good, then fundamental goodness is independent of the will of G_d. And if goodness is independent of the will of G_d, then the case for goodness is independent of the will of G_d. If G_d should not do things because they are evil, then men and women should not do them because they are evil, for pretty much the same reason as G_d should not, whatever that reason might be.

Possibly G_d might be more morally discerning than ordinary persons. But ordinary persons plainly have great difficulty recognizing whatever principles are communicated by G_d, which is why there is so much disagreement amongst theïsts about alleged communications. Faith is not a mechanism of discernment; it is guessing without the guidance of evidence, and a leap of Faith can carry one in any direction. If we are not to make uneducated guesses about morality, then we must hope that some human beings amongst us can make a case that does not itself rely in its foundations upon unproved assertions about what G_d declares — a case, thus, that can be made to atheïsts.

[Insertion (2015:08/31): (Hypothetically, it might be proved that G_d were more morally discerning and had made some moral declaration the basis of which were not understood by other persons. Still, if that proof were not apprehensible to atheïsts, then it would not be a proof by which human beings could reasonably be guided. And I certainly haven't encountered such a proof.)]

That's not to say that the will of G_d would be irrelevant to a manifestation of ethical principles; the will of other persons can be important to such manifestations (as, for example, when I think myself morally required not to hurt the feelings of a child); and G_d would perhaps be the most important of persons. But the fundamentals would be prior to the desires of all persons.

Actually, those of us who believe that morals are prior to the will of anyone have a hard time seeing any real difference between taking morality to be no more than the commands of G_d and taking morality to be no more than the commands of some other powerful party of persons. For us, that looks like no morality at all, just the rule of a bully or of bullies.[4]

And, really, a belief in a morality greater than the demands of any person is what underlies the emotional commitment of so many atheïsts to their atheïsm. They believe that G_d would be good, and that G_d therefore could not cause nor allow certain things to happen; but they see those things happen, and so conclude that G_d is not there. It is an implicit and often unrecognized commitment to morality that makes these people atheïsts. (A potential counter-argument to this case for atheïsm might be found in claiming that some greater good were served by the ills observed.)

[1] For consider such as this: Is that which is hallowed loved by the gods because it is hallowed, or is it hallowed because it is loved by the gods?

[2] Of course, one may more generally write and speak in terms that allow for multiple gods (as did Platon). This allows for consideration of disagreement amongst gods, but otherwise adds nothing but verbal awkwardness, and irrelevant discomfort for monotheïsts. Since I expect a greater share of my readers will be monotheïsts rather than polytheïsts, I'll concern myself less with the discomfort of the latter.

[3] “I’ll make a bet with you. Two guys break into an atheist's home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say, ‘Isn't it great that I don't have to worry about being judged? Isn't it great that there's nothing wrong with this? There's no right or wrong, now is it dude?’

“Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, ‘Wouldn't it be something if this was something wrong with this? But you're the one who says there is no God, there's no right, there's no wrong, so we're just having fun. We're sick in the head, have a nice day.’

“If it happened to them, they probably would say, ‘something about this just ain't right.’”

[4] See my entry of 20 February 2008 for discussion of the notion that rights are creäted by powerful parties. It is unsurprising that the typical response of classical liberals and the typical response of conservatives to atheïsm should differ one from the other, given that classical liberals and conservatives have very different notions about a need for bullies in human society.

Whispers between the Lines

Saturday, 17 October 2009

There is a passage[1] in Locke's Essay Concerning Humane Understanding of which I took special note from the first time that I read it:

5. That men should keep their compacts is certainly a great and undeniable rule in morality. But yet, if a Christian, who has the view of happiness and misery in another life, be asked why a man must keep his word, he will give this as a reason:—Because God, who has the power of eternal life and death, requires it of us. But if a Hobbist be asked why? he will answer:—Because the public requires it, and the Leviathan will punish you if you do not. And if one of the old philosophers had been asked, he would have answered:—Because it was dishonest, below the dignity of a man, and opposite to virtue, the highest perfection of human nature, to do otherwise.
The reason that this passage stood-out and stands-out for me is that it contains a fundamentally sympathetic statement of a godless morality, and indeed fairly clearly exhibits the parallel between the might of G_d making ostensible right for the Christian, and the might of the State making ostensible right for the Hobbsean.[2] Locke's philosophy, epistemological and ethical, is heavily informed by a belief in a loving G_d, yet here Locke seems to reveal sufficient subtlety to do rather well without that G_d.

There's another striking passage[3] in that same work:

50. If we look upon those superior beings above us, who enjoy perfect happiness, we shall have reason to judge that they are more steadily determined in their choice of good than we; and yet we have no reason to think they are less happy, or less free, than we are. And if it were fit for such poor finite creatures as we are to pronounce what infinite wisdom and goodness could do, I think we might say, that God himself cannot choose what is not good; the freedom of the Almighty hinders not his being determined by what is best.

51. A constant determination to a pursuit of happiness no abridgment of liberty. But to give a right view of this mistaken part of liberty let me ask,—Would any one be a changeling, because he is less determined by wise considerations than a wise man? Is it worth the name of freedom to be at liberty to play the fool, and draw shame and misery upon a man's self? If to break loose from the conduct of reason, and to want that restraint of examination and judgment which keeps us from choosing or doing the worse, be liberty, true liberty, madmen and fools are the only freemen: but yet, I think, nobody would choose to be mad for the sake of such liberty, but he that is mad already. The constant desire of happiness, and the constraint it puts upon us to act for it, nobody, I think, accounts an abridgment of liberty, or at least an abridgment of liberty to be complained of. God Almighty himself is under the necessity of being happy; and the more any intelligent being is so, the nearer is its approach to infinite perfection and happiness. That, in this state of ignorance, we short-sighted creatures might not mistake true felicity, we are endowed with a power to suspend any particular desire, and keep it from determining the will, and engaging us in action. This is standing still, where we are not sufficiently assured of the way: examination is consulting a guide. The determination of the will upon inquiry, is following the direction of that guide: and he that has a power to act or not to act, according as such determination directs, is a free agent: such determination abridges not that power wherein liberty consists. He that has his chains knocked off, and the prison doors set open to him, is perfectly at liberty, because he may either go or stay, as he best likes; though his preference be determined to stay, by the darkness of the night, or illness of the weather, or want of other lodging. He ceases not to be free; though the desire of some convenience to be had there absolutely determines his preference, and makes him stay in his prison.
Now, regardless of whether we agree that a being can be free and yet determined by something (not, as I believe, a contradiction if that something is internalized in the determined being), the fact remains that a G_d of this sort is more law-driven than many would conceive G_d to be.

Anyway, what brings all this to mind is that, lately, I have been reading (albeït in somewhat desultory manner) The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World by Matthew Stewart. Chapter 15 (The Haunting) contains a section entitled Stopping Locke, which ends thus

Locke's vague conjecture that matter might be able to think, of course, is Spinoza's avowed doctrine. […] Leibniz's magesterial refutation of the founder of British empiricism, in brief, is a covert assault [Spinoza]. Furthermore, [in Leibniz's mind] Locke — like Descartes before him — is really just a feeble imitation of Spinoza: he leaves in doubt that which his dark master pitilessly destroys.


Leibniz's unstated intuition that Locke was something of a Spinozist, incidentally, is probably more insightful than is generally allowed in modern interpretations of the great empiricist's work. Locke wrote much of his Essay while living in exile in Holland from 1683 to 1688, during which time he purchased all of Spinoza's works and mingled in circles that included some suspiciously freethinking characters. Furthermore, the parallels between his work and that of Spinoza extend well beyond those suggested by Leibniz. To be sure, as a conciliation-minded member of the Christian establishment, Locke toned down or obfuscated some of the more radical implications of his Spinozism — a task for which his inimitably wobbly prose was particularly well suited.
I would hardly agree that Locke's prose were wobbly, let alone that it were inimitably so; in fact, I don't think that a person given to wobbly writing would be capable of the sort of perspicacious thinking that got Locke as far along as his did. But the point remains that some of what I noted in Locke, such as in the two paragraphs of the Essay that I quoted, demonstrates that Locke represented some of the same tendencies as did Spinoza. Any notion that Locke borrowed heavily from Spinoza would have to confront what was already indicated by Locke's background and writings before he fled to Holland (and, earlier, before Spinoza had published anything); none-the-less, it would hardly be surprising if Leibniz indeed feared that Locke were in effect an agent of Spinoza's philosophy.

[1] Book I Chapter II ¶5, in the 1894 edition edited by Alexander Campbell Fraser (which is the edition that I read).

[2] The Hobbsean will assert that the State makes possible a manner of living whose goodness is not itself derived from the dictates of the State. Many Christians would want to make a similar claim for the goodness of the manner of living made possible by G_d. However, if pressed, most of them would not answer as did Ευθύφρων in the fable by the old philosopher Πλάτων; rather, they would feel compelled to hold that not simply instances of goodness but the distinction of goodness were creäted by the power of G_d. But Locke himself proves an apparent exception to my characterization. (See above.)

[3] Book II Chapter XXI ¶50-1.

Radical Reformation

Saturday, 10 January 2009

These days, with the weather colder and often wetter, when out-of-doors I generally wear my Peterman duster and my Jaxon nubuck leather safari hat. Throw-in the L.L Bean Wellington boots, and you have what the Woman of Interest calls my mouse-boy outfit. (I am not, never have been, and never plan to be a cowboy, but I have had mice and plan again to have mice.)

Meanwhile, I still have the Wolverinesque sideburns.

To-day, I was walking past the Hillcrest CVS/pharmacy, with the sideburns, duster, and hat (but wearing Skecher's trainers). A couple of fellows, in all seriousness, asked me if I were Amish. I told them that I was not, but one said to the other He's one of those. and asked me what I was. I'm an atheist. The fellow seemed to take that as confirmation of what he'd thought. Perhaps he uses an odd taxonomy.