Posts Tagged ‘gods’

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]

Socrates
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.

The Instituted Unconscious

Monday, 22 June 2015

An institution is a constructed,[0] persistent organizing practice or relationship within a culture. When most people hear or read the word institution, they think first of a sort of an organization, somewhat like a firm though typically for some purpose other than pursuit of pecuniary profit. But, really, the scope is much wider, which is how one may, for example, speak or write of the institution of marriage.

Economists and other social thinkers recognize as institutions a great many practices and relationships that most people don't conceptualize as such. For example, languages are institutions; markets are institutions, and monies are institutions within those institutions; professional codes of ethics are institutions; and so forth.

Any given society is exactly a society, rather than merely some selection of people, to the extent that it is characterized by institutions.

Institutions can be hard to see as institutions; they can be hard to see at all. That which pervasively informs our thinking can be invisible for lack of contrast. The fact that a competent social thinker will recognize institutions that most people over-look does not mean that any given social thinker will recognize all the institutions of the society that he or she observes, or in which he or she participates. Rather, I do not think that any social thinker manages to attain such a profound awareness. If there is a meaning to most here, then I think that none of us sees most of the institutions. We participate in them, we use them, but we are unconscious of them.

Although one might imagine some outside agency acting to preserve an institution, more typically a practice or relationship will be persistent to the extent that it is self-perpetuating. It might be self-perpetuating in some fairly direct manner, or it might be thus simply by conferring some advantage on those who adopt it. Something that behaves in a self-perpetuating manner can seem to be purposeful. There are, in fact, some who would insist that a thing that behaves in a self-perpetuating manner truly is purposeful, but I don't want to enter into that debate here. Whether it be purpose or something that merely seems like purpose, there may not be any person to whom one could point and properly say that the purpose were his or were hers. Perhaps no individual wants the institution perpetuated — in some cases[1] participants may actually want an end to the institution — but acting through people the institution perpetuates itself.

So my claim is that we live and act within a rich frame-work of practices and relationships, largely unrecognized, that affect and effect events as if with purposes distinct from our own.

This concept may be related to various things.

In Jungian theory, there is postulated a collective unconscious, which is a set of structures of the unconscious mind, shared amongst animals to the extent that they are biologically related. In general, these structures include instincts; in humans, they also include symbols (called archetypes). Jung believed that the collective unconscious were dormant in the zygote; so that a person whose biological parents were of one ethnic group but who were raised from birth by members of another would have the collective unconscious of the biological parents, rather than of the family in which he or she were raised. I assert that this collective unconscious does not exist; but that something rather like it does, with the very important difference that it is transmitted experientially. The actual collective unconscious is the aforementioned unrecognized institutional frame-work.

Evolutionary psychology, also known as sociobiology, has sought to explain behavior (including human behavior) in terms of some habits leading to more reproductive success than do others. That much is surely part of a proper explanation of human behavior, but these theorists have had a propensity to insist or to presume that the mechanism of transmission is in the DNA of the chromosomes or of the mitochondria. (In this commitment, they have been rather like the Jungians.) After entirely too much delay, some of them acknowledged that cultures as such could be affected by evolutionary pressures. They developed the notion that Richard Dawkins called the meme,[2] and that EO Wilson grotesquely called the culgen (or something like that),[3] which was that of a culturally transmitted, self-perpetuating pattern, somewhat analogous to the chromosomal and mitochondrial genes. These patterns are institutions, viewed individually. We would be consciously aware of some of these patterns, but by no means of all.

Some people are convinced that all events are effected to some purpose, a thought typically expressed as Everything happens for a reason. This claim surely goes too far, but one could see how observing many events that seemed to happen towards a purpose, which purpose was not that of any one of us, could suggest a theory that all reälized outcomes were in some sense intended.

Others do not necessarily think that all events are effected to some purpose; but, perceiving in some events apparent purposefulness that cannot plausibly be imputed to any ordinary person, take this apparent purposefulness as evidence that events have been or are being guided an extraordinary person — G_d. As a metaphor, this works rather well, though the impersonal G_d of Spinoza would be a better fit for the institutional framework; but, in any case, the apparent purposefulness is not good evidence for the involvement of a literal G_d.

Where many believers have been too quick to see the work of G_d, many non-believers have been too quick to see mere chance-coïncidence. But teasing-out the difference between that which is mere accident from that which works to the purposes or quasi-purposes of a frame-work of unrecognized parts is at best extremely difficult, if not impossible. A pattern can be found in any data set, and from it the number of super-patterns that may potentially be extrapolated are infinite. Additionally, most of us want to find significance in our lives, which biases us to see not only purposes but purposes of particular sorts behind events.


[0 (2017:07/07)] A discussion of rather different matters impelled me to recognize that I needed to distinguish institutions from unconstructed, persistent organizing practices or relationships within a culture.

[1] For example, sub-optimal Cournot-Nash equilibria.

[2] Largely due to laziness and misunderstanding, this word came thereafter to have its popular meaning of any sort of widely spread expression.

[3] It's appalling how little philological sense is now had by otherwise educated people.