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GCU Dancer on the Midway
Paul Wright's blog
Q: When is a person like a rock? A: When there's no God 
24th Jun 2010, 12:48 am
river soul world
C. Michael Patton writes honestly about the day he lost his faith, and how it came back again. One paragraph of his struck me: "My new affair with atheism, carried with it the sudden burden of ultimate meaninglessness. People were no different than the rocks if there is no God. Not one thing has claim to be more value than another."

It's a popular line of thought, but so far as I can tell, not well founded. If you think Patton was right, you think that the statements:
1. There is no God.
2. People are of greater moral value than rocks.
are incompatible: if one is true, the other cannot be. But, on the face of it, I see no reason to think that. To make an argument, you'd need to introduce other, related, statements and back them up. (If you spend a lot of time debating this sort of stuff, you'll noticed I've taken a leaf from William Lane Craig's book. My response is pretty similar to his response to the logical Argument from Evil, where he points out that his opponents have just made statements without showing how the statements are logically related).

I mentioned this in the comments on Patton's post, and have been discussing it with The 27th Comrade. Comrade makes the weaker claim that "If God doesn't exist, it is not necessarily true that people are not rocks". He then goes on to claim that a person's value can only depend on a transcendent, immutable opinion; and that without God, there can be no objective moral values.

But I see no reason why, if there are moral facts independent of human opinions, they would be defined by the opinions of a (non-human) person. I also don't see how this makes values objective, since that word usually means "independent of anyone's opinion".

On the horns of a dilemma

At this point, I mentioned the Euthyphro dilemma (which I apparently introduced to William: I'm glad someone's learning something from my ramblings). If God sets what is moral by his opinions, they seem arbitrary: God could have made anything moral by fiat. If God's moral opinions reflect some other independent facts (as my opinion that "the sky is blue" does, say), while God may well know the facts better than we do, the facts would still be facts if he did not exist.

If you've had some evangelism training, you'll know there's a popular response to the dilemma, which is to say that goodness is part of God's essential nature: not external to him, but not something he chooses. Craig adds that we understand what words like "good" mean without reference to God; it is informative, rather than tautologous, to learn that "God is essentially good". But it seems then that any being which had the morally good properties God is claimed to have would be good, whether or not that being existed. As John D says, "All that Craig is doing is ascribing certain moral properties to God, but it is these moral properties that provide the foundation for morality, not God. He is talking about necessary moral truths, not necessary theistic truths. In other words, morality is still not 'up to God', it merely inheres in him."

Comrade seems to have got diverted by my examples of horrifying things God could have made good by fiat. I was unclear here, and unfortunately I chose as examples some of the horrifying things the Christian God actually does in the Bible, which Comrade then felt compelled to defend (I often run into this problem with theists: with hindsight, I should have avoided the sensitive subject of racism when talking to robhu about complementarianism, but I had trouble thinking of an example of discrimination which evangelicals don't already think is a good thing). But that wasn't my point, which was rather that, if morality is based solely on God's opinion, there's no reason to suppose that God's opinion is anything like what we mean by "good" (notice that Craig is cannier here).

Comrade asserts that (edited: if there is no God) we have no basis to judge anything that has evolved as wrong, referring to Orgel's Second Rule: "evolution is cleverer than you are". But again, I see no more reason to identify "what has evolved" with "good" than I do to identify "God's opinion" with "good". Evolution may be clever, but clever isn't the same as good.

The psychology of moral arguments

What I take from this is that some people want different things from moral values than I do. Some people just intuitively feel that if there isn't a God, they can't get those things. What they seem to want is:

  • Moral values must be "objective": this means they cannot be pure opinion, unless it's the opinion of someone they can always trust and who has much higher status than them.
  • Moral values must be unchanging.
  • Moral values must be "grounded": this word is often used. It's not clear what it means for morality to be grounded, but it gives us a strong visual image of grounded objects (at least, I assume you're also seeing a tree with an extensive root system underground), so suppose it does well as an intuition pump. God is supposed to be pretty solid, in non-physical sort of way: I hear he's a bit like a rock.
Comments 
24th Jun 2010, 12:21 am (UTC)
I'm using this comment for footnotes: we've been into the Moral Argument before, here and here. The first link is about Jeffrey Amos's comprehensive post on the subject, which is required reading, I think.

I rely on John D to digest cutting edge philosophy into chunks that non-philosophers like me can handle. His series on Wes Morriston on Theistic Morality is again worth reading.

24th Jun 2010, 07:14 am (UTC)
27th Jun 2010, 06:46 pm (UTC)
I'm working through it now. You're right, it's interesting (to me, of course: I make no claims as to its objective interest value).
24th Jun 2010, 08:33 am (UTC)
carried with it the sudden burden of ultimate meaninglessness

When people make this sort of argument, it always strikes me as purest wishful thinking. "If there is no God, then { everything is meaningless | humans are no 'better' than rocks | etc }, and I don't want that to be the case, so I will believe in God".

The more alert proponents of such arguments tend to write "and I feel strongly that { life does have meaning | objective moral values do exist | etc }" so that it won't be totally obvious from the literal meaning of their written words that the thinking is wishful, but it nonetheless often seems to me that that's what the underlying thought process is likely to have been. (How would you have a strong inner feeling that life has meaning anyway?) The less alert don't even bother dressing it up, and are happy to use wishful-thinking arguments explicitly, apparently with no awareness that they themselves would dismiss the same arguments as obviously invalid if they were used in favour of any more tangible proposition.
24th Jun 2010, 09:18 am (UTC)
Oh, very very well put.

OTOH, I suppose I am in favour of choosing to find SOME meaning in life, even without objective evidence; but that I'd prefer to find one more universal and with less baggage than "follow God", such as "be excellent to each other".
(no subject) - Anonymous - Expand
24th Jun 2010, 09:10 am (UTC)
That all sounds very convincing to me...
24th Jun 2010, 09:44 am (UTC)
I've yet to hear any good definitions of "moral" that aren't relative. So far as I can tell the word pretty much means "That way which I would prefer the world to be" or "That way which I think the world should be" (which basically boils down to the same thing).
24th Jun 2010, 10:03 am (UTC)
Anonymous
If you think it's the way the world should be (rather than just the way you should be) you're claiming non-relativity, aren't you? You're claiming that other people should follow your ideas of how they should behave.

(The key word in what you wrote is 'should'.)

S.
(no subject) - Anonymous - Expand
24th Jun 2010, 09:58 am (UTC) - Q: When is a Person Like Anything Else? A: When There is No God
Anonymous
Hello, Paul Wright: I like your blog. There are things to correct, however, in how you got what I was saying at Pen and Parchment. Also, I see that I did not get an answer to the question that I asked, and that you seem to think is central here, bothered as it is with the moral question that you like.
Comrade makes the weaker claim that "If God doesn't exist, it is not necessarily true that people are not rocks". He then goes on to claim that a person's value can only depend on a transcendent, immutable opinion; and that without God, there can be no objective moral values.
As oft-repeated at the other blog by me, it is not objective values per se, but rather objective anything. What I am saying is that there is no objective truth, unless there is an entity that we understand to be God. That there are no objective moral values, for example, is just something that follows from the absence of objective anything, given that there is no God. Like I said on the other side, absent an authority whose opinion is necessarily true, we lack axioms; we lack an opinion in light of which right and wrong can be known.
But I see no reason why, if there are moral facts independent of human opinions, they would be defined by the opinions of a (non-human) person.
Once again, it is not moral facts per se; it is facts generally-speaking. If you have a human whose word you deem incontrovertibly-true—the Roman Catholics, for instance, have the Pope, and many old monarchies had their sovereigns, and the Romans, I believe, had the Cæsar, and the Japanese had the Emperor—you can have a human whose opinion anchors truth; whose opinion defines what is objectively true. It doesn’t have to be a transcendent person; but there is a direct link between having this (shall we call it) priviledge and divinity. It just follows, at any rate, that absent such an entity—who we understand to be God—every opinion is subjective. Do you not agree with this? If not, why not? How do you have objective truths—about morals, values, the meaning of “red”, and the point of life—from a situation where, by definition, there is no entity to set that? (You can here make the claim that the objective truths “set themselves,” and embrace the attendant contradictions.) Also, I hope you realise the problem posed for your position (in the event that you do defend it) by the fact (d’après Wittgenstein (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/private-language/)) that we cannot have a single-user language; so it follows necessarily that all language-using entities agree that there are some objective truths. Therefore, if it also true that objective truths need to be set by an entity (we shall not deal here with whether that entity is human), then it follows that all language-using entities agree that there exists a sufficiently-priviledged entity. (You, like my ancestors, can just label this entity “The Ancients”, and move the problem to their domain.)
I also don't see how this makes values objective, since that word usually means "independent of anyone's opinion".
I spent quite some time on the other blog pointing out that the opinion of this entity—of God—would be necessarily different from your opinion (if you are not God). You did not refute my claim that modern understanding of “That’s your opinion” is wrong, because it is fallaciously taken to be equivalent to “Your opinion isn’t the truth.” The truth can be an opinion (such as my opinion that this blog post is the result of design by a mind of admirable amounts of intelligence; whether or not I can account for it based on a genetic algorithm due). Also, my point all along is that “objective” does not mean “Independent of anyone’s opinion”. What you are saying is essentially “You are wrong, because you are wrong.” I am saying that “objective” means “Dependent on a transcendent opinion”, which I (d’apès Sir Isaac Newton) would call “God’s opinion.” Objective truth is not independent of God’s opinion. [continued; apologies for the prolixity]
24th Jun 2010, 10:01 am (UTC) - Re: Q: When is a Person Like Anything Else? A: When There is No God
Anonymous
If God sets what is moral by his opinions, they seem arbitrary: God could have made anything moral by fiat.
That’s not my position. (Leaving aside the “objective moral,” again, and going with “objective anything”.) God, for example, could never (and can never) make it objectively true that He doesn’t exist. (This, among other things, is why the atheist is in a harder place than any of us gibbering, uneducated, knuckle-dragging animists.) And since He exists, it follows that, for example, if it is also a moral obligation to love Him, He cannot make it moral (for example), by fiat, to not love Him. God acts in accordance with Himself. (In this is a lot of assurance for those who, like St. Paul, have trusted Him “to keep that which [they] have committed unto Him against that Day.”)
If God seems arbitrary, that does nothing to affect the objectivity of His opinion. To us God cannot be anything other than arbitrary. But then, all axioms are necessarily and irreducibly-arbitrary. (Indeed, if you draw a functor between logical structures and information theory, the Kolmogorov complexity of axioms would match “maximally-random”, which I guess would map to “irreducibly-arbitrary”.)

If God's moral opinions reflect some other independent facts … the facts would still be facts if he did not exist.
They would not; just as Gödel’s theorems would not exist if the laws of logical structures to which they refer (“about which they have opinions”) did not exist. Ipsum esse subsistens, and so on. When God refers to truths about Himself, the human mind listening inevitably falls into an infinite loop. We are not well-kitted for understanding things like God too well; “I Am who I Am” is a valid definition, but being tightly-recursive, we are allowed to know only little of it. (The limits of our ape brains just strongly underline the futility of trying to be “rational”; without even being able to know if it is true that “It is irrational to be rational.”) God’s opinion sets the facts; it doesn’t reflect them. This is why, absent such an entity of transcendent opinion, these facts are never ever set. Since you like Euthyphro, the pious is set by the gods, and they like it necessarily because it reflects them.

… it is informative, rather than tautologous, to learn that "God is essentially good".
I am of the view that we understand good by natural revelation, and it points to God. When we are told “God is good”, it is informative in the sense of further revelation; just as “Meet John, that long-lost brother of yours” presupposes an understanding of “that long-lost brother of yours”, even as it introduces that self-same long-lost brother of yours, “John.”

Comrade seems to have got diverted by my examples of horrifying things God could have made good by fiat.
As I explained (but got no response, here or there), those things were not made good by God. Bad things—things we know to be bad, and which are objectively-bad—are so precisely because God also thinks they are bad. Do you understand this now, Paul (or, at least, my position on it)?

(I’ve just experienced a déjà-vu; why is there so little documentation about this phenomenon?)

[continued; further apologies for the obscene and disrespectful length—I’m glad there are no objective rules against long comments … right?]
24th Jun 2010, 08:31 pm (UTC) - Re: Q: When is a Person Like Anything Else? A: When There is No God
It just follows, at any rate, that absent such an entity—who we understand to be God—every opinion is subjective. Do you not agree with this? If not, why not?

Of course not: it does not "follow" because you have not presented an argument, by which I mean a series of premises which lead to a conclusion. First you have asserted that human rulers can define what is true, then you have contradicted yourself by saying that only divine persons can do so. As it happens, neither of these assertions are well grounded: there is no reason to suppose that human rulers cannot be mistaken, let alone that they can establish truth by their words; and no reason to suppose that applying terms like "divinity" or "transcendent" improves matters.

In your claims that all truth must flow from the opinions of a person, I was reminded of the final scenes of Orwell's 1984: all truth flows from Big Brother, through the Party, and if they say 2 + 2 = 5, well then, so it is. But in fact, 2 + 2 is not 5: neither Big Brother nor God can make it so, and the answer remains 4 regardless of whether God exists.

You should probably read The Simple Truth: it's quite short, and I think you're asking where the magic is, or at rather, claiming that without God, there can be no magic. I hope the story illustrates the error of this way of thinking.

I am saying that “objective” means “Dependent on a transcendent opinion

Then your use of the word differs radically from most people's, so that you will have difficulty making yourself understood.

Edited at 2010-06-24 09:12 pm (UTC)
24th Jun 2010, 08:42 pm (UTC) - Re: Q: When is a Person Like Anything Else? A: When There is No God
God, for example, could never (and can never) make it objectively true that He doesn’t exist.

But I didn't claim that he could. I said that, if your claim that God determines what is morally right by his opinion is true, then he could make anything moral by fiat. But again, you contradict yourself, since you then claim that God could not make it moral not to love him: why could he not do this, if your claim that morality (like everything else) is entirely God's opinion is correct? God could certainly be of the opinion that it wasn't moral to love him: he could suffer from low self-esteem, for example.

As I explained (but got no response, here or there), those things were not made good by God.

I don't claim they were: I claim that on your view, they could have been. As I said, you can pick other examples which don't involve things you think God has done to punish people if it makes this point clearer. For example, on your view that the pious is set by the gods, God could decide that lying, theft or rape was morally right, for example.

Edited at 2010-06-24 11:39 pm (UTC)
24th Jun 2010, 02:38 pm (UTC) - My new affair with atheism, carried with it the sudden burden of ultimate meaninglessness
Anonymous
Well, so what. That could be an argument for wanting to believe in God. It is no kind of argument for actually beliving in God.

Also, surely if you are the sort of person who believes that morality stems from God, then the assertion "no god => people of no more moral value than rocks" is indeed logically perfectly coherent (except you've just used a word that you argue has no meaning in that context, but it can probably be rephrased to get round that).

Moeraki: I've bin there, you know: http://www.flickr.com/photos/belette/sets/72157594299326864/ Sorry there is only on pic. Speaking of which: http://www.odt.co.nz/opinion/100-years-ago/40262/stoat-attacks-man-hoeing-turnips
27th Jun 2010, 06:29 pm (UTC)
Comrade, I've started over with a top-level comment, because I'd like to try to draw the disparate threads on truth together, by summarising what I take to be our positions. (I hope get back to design later, but that's a separate thread).

First, yours:

A. Objective truths, including moral (and logical?) truths, are just what God wills that they are.
B. God cannot change his own nature, therefore at least some of the truths he wills could not have been otherwise.
C. All objective truths require a personal authority which wills their existence, namely God, therefore cannot be objective truths if God does not exist.

Is that a fair summary?

Secondly, mine:

1. Objective truths are true regardless of anyone's opinion on the matter.
2. There are such truths. For example, the truth of simple physical statements like "The cat is on the mat" do not depend on my opinion, or, as far as I can see, on anyone else's.
3. Such truths do not require an "authority" which makes them true: rather, the statement "The cat is on the mat" is true if and only if the cat is on the mat. The cat being on the mat is what makes the statement true.
4. I don't know whether any first order (i.e. normative, rather than meta-ethical) moral statements fall into this category.
4a. But whether or not any such statements are objectively true is orthogonal to whether or not God exists: even if God does exist, the Euthyphro and Morriston's arguments seem to show that theistic moral realists can't avoid either saying they'd be happy to worship an omnipotent fiend (as C.S. Lewis puts it) or accepting some sort of moral platonism.

I think there are some possible points of agreement between us, but they depend on whether I have understood you correctly.

I agree that, were God to exist, he could "make" at least some statements true in the sense that he could say "Let the cat be on the mat!" and lo, the cat would be on the mat.

Nevertheless, as I say in 3, even in this case, the statement that "the cat is on the mat" is true by virtue of the fact of the cat being on the mat. I can similarly "make" the statement true if I pick up the cat and place it on the mat, and I'm not God.

God's omnipotence would mean he could place more cats on more mats than I can, of course, but I take it that your A and C are not merely claims of God's power over cats. I think you're saying that "the cat is on the mat" is true not by virtue of the cat being on the mat, but by virtue of God willing it to be true. Is this correct? It seems a very odd view, if so: are you saying there could be a situation in which the cat was on the mat but the statement "The cat is on the mat" was false because God had not used the authority you say he has to make it true?

Also, I note that what I've said so far is about the metaphysics of truth, if you like: the question of "what makes something true?" Many of your responses focus instead on epistemology: the question of "how can we know that the cat is in fact on the mat?" On the epistemic question, I agree that we rely on authorities all the time, and that, if we had convincing evidence that an omniscient being was talking to us and not deceiving us, that would be an excellent epistemic authority.

But note that such epistemic authorities serve as reliable reporters: the newsreader does not make the news true. So I take it that your claim is more than that God is an omniscient and reliable reporter. Is that right?

One final question: what makes it true that "God cannot change his own nature"?

Edited at 2010-06-27 06:33 pm (UTC)
4th Jul 2010, 09:33 pm (UTC) - What’s the Objective Truth About Your Blog Title?
Anonymous
Sorry, Paul. I had something of a crisis over here for about a week, and got out of the game. I guess I am back.
Meanwhile, I have no assurance that I got my apology accepted for the earlier infelicity (to put it very gently). All the same, I am truly sorry, and I mean that.

Now, this new thread.
Objective truths, including moral (and logical?) truths, are just what God wills that they are.
More like there are objective truths, which we can only know by seeking for the truths that remain so because the one who asserts that they are so is beyond being over-ridden. (After a bit of trying to massage the point, I’m trying this angle.) This is why I brought up the “foundationalism” issue—because the axioms, the properly-basic beliefs, are beyond questioning and (dis)proof the way God is in this case—but it ended up being a terrible example.
God cannot change his own nature, therefore at least some of the truths he wills could not have been otherwise.
More like: God cannot be different. This is decidedly agnostic—no pun—about God’s Will, about whether He wills that He were a Heraclitean Flux on High. I understand your need to bring omnipotency in; so I will still speak of it as well: yes, some of the truths He wills could have been otherwise. Now, come in with: therefore He doesn’t set objective truths, which doesn’t follow. But come in with it anyway.
All objective truths require a personal authority which wills their existence, namely God, therefore cannot be objective truths if God does not exist.
Personal? Um … probably not. But still: more like all objective truths are only objective truths (whether or not they are also subjective truths, for subjective truths ∈ objective truths) because there is an authority who declares them to be truths. This authority is priviledged, and treated as defining truth. Cf. your appeal to “standard usage of the word” and “that is what modern philosophers use it as” and “philosophers consider it his best work”. I could expand this list to millions of examples, with each of the meanings of each of your words in each of your sentences being a single member of the example set. I don’t argue with Merriam & Webster.
Now, if we find an authority, we have found God—unless there is an authority above this authority. The authority above whom none is: this we understand to be God.
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