Friday, January 12, 2007

Moralists Anonymous

I have another post I've been working on, but I put it aside for this. This post is dedicated to one of my biggest fans, who posts quite often on my other blog, and even occasionally here: Anonymous. This guy is great, not so much that he's always the kindest comment poster or deepest thinker, but I am flattered that he takes time out from all his poetry writing, clever quipping and police informant work to drop in on my blog and give me his opinion. Lately, he had a lot to say in response to my post on slavery (scroll to the comments), but in the end, it apparently boiled down to an issue that I haven't addressed there, and probably never will, due to the nature of the blog.

The issue is the moral nature of God. Anonymous claimed, as many before him have done, that there is good reason to question whether or not God is morally right in His actions and overall interaction with humanity. For many people, this issue is raised as part of the Problem of Evil. Short version: (A) God is good. (B) God is all-powerful. (C) Evil exists. It is claimed that all three of these cannot be true, and if this is so, and rational people cannot reject (C), then (A) and/or (B) must be false, and Christianity cannot be based on truth. This is also related very closely to the problem of suffering, which is essentially the same, but with "evil" replaced by "suffering". Anyway, the point is that the nature of God becomes questionable in this light, and one must wonder what Bible believer can say about it.

I'm pretty sure I have addressed elsewhere the issue of questioning (B), but due to Anonymous' questioning, I think it might be time to shed some light on (A). Why does it sometimes appear to some that God is immoral, and how do Christians reconcile this? Why does God allow evil that seems like it would be simple enough for an all-powerful God to stop, and on top of that, why does the Bible condone things like slavery and capital punishment that many of us find morally distasteful? I'm not going to pretend to have the answer, although I may highlight my favorite theory before I wrap this up.

One of the very common ways to respond to the issue is to simply say "We have no right to judge God." This actually comes in a number of different forms, some of which blur the boundaries with other types of responses that I plan to discuss here. One form is that of the defaulted reverential approach to God, where one has simply been taught that God is Holy and wonderful and that one should never question God's goodness because...well, just because! What are you, some sort of heretic? A more abstract but actually in a way more reasoned approach is to simply point out that since God created the universe and the living creatures in it, they belong to Him, and he gets to do whatever He wants with them, and if you don't like it, go make your own universe! Maybe that's alright for some people in their own minds to take a position like this, but for someone who is not a believer to begin with, this approach will be sadly lacking in weight. Furthermore for those of us that are believers that want to have any sort of serious discussions of theology, there is a need for a reasoned approach. This isn't it.

As I said, there is a blurring of the boundaries between these different types of responses, and it may not be really clear why this is different, but another approach is to claim that morality is actually a creation of God, and since God made it, He has a certain amount of control over it. This is a strange and many-faceted idea that sometimes is approached from the other direction in a manner of speaking, when someone tries to argue that without God, there is no morality, period. The idea in such an approach is to suggest that the fact we can make moral judgments somehow verifies the existence of a higher moral standard, and that that standard can only be the almighty creator of the universe. Perhaps somebody can suggest to me a good book or essay to read on the subject because I frankly have never understood this position, and every time I've heard it, it seems to be stated as though it's self-evident. Putting that aside and getting back to the subect of God's "control" over morality, a good metaphor is that life is like a game where the rules exist in God's head. Whatever God does, He can bend the rules to fit his actions, or, more to the point due to God's omniscence, God has created the rules with loopholes for Himself. (That's an over-simplification, but I'm really convinced that the argument boils down to that in essence.) Those who don't like this argument seem to feel that it's a matter of hypocrisy that God doesn't have to obey moral law while His creation does, and there might be something to that. One thing that Christians in particular have claimed is that in the person of Jesus, God lived the life of a mortal, and in the thirty-odd years He spent on earth, He willingly subjected Himself to those laws. Whether that helps the argument or is even plausible to those who read the Gospels with a skeptical eye, who can say?

Similarly, but with some deeper theological implications, there are those who claim that God, a being of a higher order and quite different from us in many ways, does obey moral law, but has a completely different set of moral laws that apply to Him. Generally, this is hard to explain in the particular case of God, but perhaps can be illustrated in a different way. Let's talk fleas. Most people would not think it immoral of a person to buy a flea collar for their pet. The flea collar kills fleas, but we recognize that the fleas are detrimental to the health of the pet, and for the pet's sake, should be eliminated. If the pet chose to wear it or managed to remove it, either way, most people would not think such an action on the part of the pet would be immoral. Now despite the fact that the pet and the owner are unhappy with the flea, nobody would particularly feel that the flea was immoral for biting the pet (or the owner, for that matter) since that is the way it survives, and cannot be expected to do otherwise. Also, the flea has no comprehension of why it is unwanted (if indeed it is aware of it at all!)

So, as the difference between fleas, pets, and pet owners implies different moralities not just in degree, but in kind, so God exists in a state where His morality is perhaps as unrecognizable to us as ours is to a flea. And the comparison is perhaps appropriate, as many have wondered about the morality of God creating fleas in the first place. It may be that God has created fleas (and evil and suffering in many other forms) for reasons that we simply cannot fathom, not being God. I think a likely objection to this view is that if God's morality is of a kind that is not related to ours in such a fantastic manner, how can one even know that God is moral? Really, we'd just be guessing and/or taking God's word for it. While that objection is basically true, this may nonetheless be the case, like it or not.

Now, my preferred manner of viewing the morality of God is that God's morality is of a higher order than ours, but not so much of a different type. The distinction between this position and the last one is that while we often do not understand the moral aim of any choice God makes, it is not because it is intrinsically unknowable. The issue for God is that God sees the big picture. My children don't understand why it's not good to eat nothing but candy all the time. They're too young to understand nutrition. Frankly, I don't understand nutrition either, but I'm mature enough to recognize that there is a right and wrong way to choose foods, even if I don't always do it. My kids could grow up to become nutritionists or doctors, and have a much better grasp on the concept, the potential is there. Now while we can't "grow up" and become God, I think that God has knowledge that leads Him to do things that is often beyond our current grasp.

One of the biggest things that I feel that God understands better than any person alive is the concept of death. There's a bit of a trend I've seen lately, perhaps started by Steve Wells in his blog , to point out that if one goes through the Bible, we see God killing more people than Satan. I am personally of the belief that when God (and perhaps Satan as well?) kills a person, it is a different matter than when a human kills another. This is not a matter of God having the right to kill because He created life (a fairly popular response), but God having the right to kill because He and He alone, being omniscient, knows the full implications of ending any particular life at any particular time. One of these days, I'm going to have to do a post on my view of the spiritual aspect of murder, I have what I think is an interesting personal take on the matter. Why do I take away my kids' candy before dinner? Because I know something that they don't. Why does God take away a life or allow some other form of suffering? Because God knows something we don't. People can complain that God allowed a man like Hitler to exist, and then turn around and complain the He allowed a baby to die. We may not be aware that had that baby grown to adulthood, he would have become a man far worse than Hitler, and it was better that he died before setting off down the path that led to that end. Wildly theoretical, I know, but not at all impossible.

A person might object to this sort of speculation as being the same sort of grasping at straws that "blind faith" breeds, and heck, they might be right. However, I have met many atheists that have a similar view of materialistic science. If we only knew more about the universe, they assure us, then we'd have no need for God or miracles or an afterlife. Well, how do they know that? The same way that I know that God is moral. The more I investigate, the more I understand, and as yet, nothing has given me strong reason to think otherwise. And anyway, I do have faith in science in that way as well (well, short the part about not needing God), and I don't think it's wrong. I think science can tell us everything we will ever need to know about the physical universe, if we only investigate carefully. I simply feel that the physical universe is not all there is. There is God, there is the spiritual aspect of our world, and there is a morality, both of man and God that shapes it all in ways that we only partly understand.


Brucker said...

Due to someone leaving a comment on my other blog, I realized that I had actually touched on this subject there in passing. An example of God doing something that seems immoral but has a higher meaning is discussed here.

Francois Tremblay said...

Hey Brucker, how would you like to restart your questions of the day? I have pretty much used all of the ones you posted already.

Brucker said...

I'm in a bit of personal transitional period right now, ask me in a week or so.

Francois Tremblay said...

All right.

Brucker said...

Okay, I tossed you a few. Let me know if any of them are unacceptable.

Francois Tremblay said...

Yea, they're good. Did you want me to post them, or will you?

Na said...

I don't think the flea and pet analogy works because they are both amoral, whereas with god and humans we we're starting from a position that we know one has morals (being members of that group ourselves) and we accept for the sake of the argument that the other does as well. This is more like comparing the properties of things B and C that both physically exist, with A and B, where A doesn't exist. It's not really a difference of kind.

The bigger picture reasoning you frame us as the action of a child prevented from doing something that isn't good for us. But in god's attempt to "prevent" suffering, he causes extreme amounts. This leads to my real problem with this; that it can be used to justify any awful act. Anything, however nasty can be called good because we suppose a bigger picture. By extension people are then able to do horrific things themselves without any need for justification beyond that they believe their dogma demands it, and so sanctions it through the blind acceptance of a bigger picture.

You say we can't "grow up and become God", but this design is apparently his. Do you have any thoughts as to why god didn't design us to be his equal? If god is the best thing it is possible to be, isn't creating us in this state like forcing disabilities on a fetus which needn't of had any?

You also say "that had that baby grown to adulthood, he would have become a man far worse than Hitler", fine, but what happened to free will?

I don't think that atheists' belief that we lack of a need for god or miracles or an afterlife is at all reliant on a greater knowledge of the universe, the fact that they are atheists and we don't presently have knowledge greater than we presently have :) shows that. Atheists say that as our knowledge of the universe gets greater, natural explanations are continually being found in the places presumed to be explainable only through the supernatural. I don't think you can compare the belief that science will continue to do future what it has continued to do previously, with the belief that something that to date has no more empirical evidence than Thor and by definition is the most unlikely thing, or (at best) the most unlikely that can exist, is moral; this is a feeling about a feeling. The atheist is making a projection based on the facts.

Brucker said...

I'm not sure what you're saying about the flea/dog/human/God analogy; if you're suggesting that fleas have no concept of right and wrong, I'll grant that it's likely I pushed the analogy too far, but when it comes to dogs, I do think there is a level of self-awareness and differentiation between right and wrong in the mind of a dog, although it's likely to be simpler than a human's view on the matter.

I see what you're saying about putting God's moral reasoning on a higher level possibly implying justification for anything, but I think there are at least two things to be noted about it. First, I don't think it means that we can never question God about, "Why did this happen?" Sure, you could potentially say about any suposedly evil thing that, "It was God's will, and it is not our place to question," but I think that's a cop-out. If the assumption is that God had a bigger reason in mind when creating something or allowing an event to come to pass, then there seems little reason that we need be completely in the dark about the matter. It's been my experience, like a lot of Christians I know, that if there is something worrying you that is of personal importance, praying to God will more often than not produce sufficient explanation.

Secondly, while I realize the potential for abuse is there, I don't believe that this rationalization extends to any person claiming to act on behalf of God. "I shot that abortion doctor because what he did was an abomination to God!" Okay, but what about "Thou shalt not kill." (Exodus 20:13) or "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord." (Romans 12:19)? I don't believe people can (legitimately) claim to be serving God's purposes when they do things that explicitly go against His commands.

I really don't see why it makes any sense that God would make creatures with the potential to be as powerful as Himself. What purpose would it serve? And as for free will, I briefly discuss it here, where my position is, as always, that people can have free will, and yet the future can be known.

I said "at least two" above because this is a third point about God's moral reasoning and action: that I built my understanding of this concept based on an argument given to me by an agnostoic concerning science and miracles. I think it's a leap of logic to say that "The atheist is making a projection based on the facts." Not that I disagree with that basic statement, but that I question the logical implication following that statement. Due to the nature of science being a materialistic study of natural phenomena, you're probably safe in guessing that "Science will never find a phenomenon that can only be explained by supernatural means." But it's a very different thing to say, "Science will eventually come to a perfectly logical, physical explanation for everything in the universe."

Let's take Unified Field Theory as an example. Scientists have been getting closer and closer to figuring it out throughout the last century, but it still has not been fully integrated (or whatever term one would use for it). Now, while I suspect that in our lifetimes we will see, if not a final solution to the problem, a huge step forward that leaves only minor details to be worked into it, logically I will admit (and I don't see why scientists could not also admit) that it's entirely possible that no solution exists! A full understanding of the nature of the universe may simply be beyond human understanding for some reason (that probably will itself be beyond human understanding)!

Na said...
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Na said...
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Na said...

I don't think there is any reason to think that any other animal other than humans are capable of moral thinking, I think for a start language and empathy are prerequisites to morality. Without the recursive thinking language allows it is impossible to have a moral thought. Without empathy morality is meaningless. However, I was actually having ago a the idea of different kinds of morality. You say your view is that god essentially has a more developed morality, a feature of which is that he is able justifiably do things that otherwise would be clearly immoral. But I don't why there is any reason to believe this, and I think it only proves useful to anyone when god does something that can't be understood by us as anything but morally reprehensible, which I think is not only a cop-out but dangerous. And by extension to not believe this, but preach it as truth would itself be immoral. Though to believe it and it not be so, allows a person to get away with simply being delusional, or horribly mislead.

I think prayer can probably make you feel like you're doing something, when you can't think of anything else to do. But I feel it is often used in place of action, which can be detrimental to everyone. An example of this that comes to mind is Perry's prayer rally in Texas not so long ago.

In response to the paragraph starting "Secondly", the devout could argue things like the commandments are only meant to apply to other true believers, or questions whether actions are really your own if you are not doing it for yourself, but as a instrument of god. This kind of thing is built into a book that is supposedly the law to life but "has to be" interpreted to be understood, because there is no way to say one interpretation is more or less valid than another, and all you have is a conviction in what feels like the right interpretation to you.

Na said...

Whose company would you prefer, another adult human or - as you used in your earlier analogy - a flea (or dog)?
What purpose does it serve to make creatures without the potential to be as powerful as himself? And not to do so is to purposely create thinking and feeling beings to watch them suffer.

All you say about free will is that you are willing accept the illusion of choice as actual choice, and this definition of free will doesn't have the problems that the term "free will" as it is commonly understood has. Essentially you are using doublespeak to try and hide the problem. It's like saying that you believe that the term "war" means "love" and by doing so you've solved the problem of war.
However, as a reminder, you were claiming that god could kill a baby and be justified because he knows it would become a bad man. By doing so he doesn't just have the problem of free will I was just referring to, but even if we were to ignore that god knowing the future creates a problem for free will, this still has the problem that god doesn't grant people the right to live life solely determined by their own free will. It also suggests that god fucks up.

It wouldn't matter if science did have an explanation to everything. After all, all science ultimately does is give us a natural explanation backed up by proofs. You already have to take an anti-science position to believe in the soul, the afterlife or god. But religion doesn't try to be compatible with science, it tries to be an alternative. And it uses all kinds of cheap tricks. I remember reading one book that claimed that you could do literally anything if you had faith, that you could walk through a wall like a ghost. And if you find that you can't, it's because you don't have enough faith that you can. There are many religious people who can look at this and see no problem with it. But a person who sticks to a purely scientific view of the world, cannot help but see this as the ridiculous nonsense it is.
I think it also might be worth looking at this link
from 15:07 for a look at the reason why starting from a positive claim like the religious do, and starting from the null hypothesis like atheists do, is not equal.

Brucker said...

Ah, another good comment left without response! Let's see here...

While I'll admit that trying to consider the morality of a flea is probably a stretch, I do think that one can consider the moral sense of most mammals, including a dog. You can question how deep a dog's morality really runs, but I feel secure that a properly domesticated dog knows that there are things that it should and should not do, and I don't think it's a stretch to suppose that a dog is capable of some crude form of empathy.

But I'm not sure that it really matters, because what I'm suggesting with the flea/dog/man/god metaphor is just one of several possible ways of looking at God's morality, and I personally prefer the viewpoint of God having morality of the same kind but different degree. (I'm probably going to end up repeating myself here, oh well...)

You speak of God being justified in doing things that are "clearly immoral", but what if it's not so clear? Christians in general seem to be fine with God's moral actions, and while of course some are of the stripe "If God does it, it must by definition be right." I don't think all are basing their agreement on such a principle. For myself, I am of the opinion that God's omniscience allows him to see the bigger picture of his actions; if he kills a man, he does it because he knows the world is truly better off without him.

Prayer is a funny thing, because as many people have said, prayer may be effective, but its purpose is not to change God, as God does not change. I think from such a POV, the purpose of prayer is to lead the person praying to action themselves. If all someone does is pray, then I would agree with you that its a bit of a cop-out.

Sure, I see what you're saying about personal moral actions being subject to interpretation, but I'm not sure what point you're trying to make by it. This isn't a problem unique to Christianity; even atheists' morality is about personal interpretation of right and wrong (if not even moreso than a believer). Anyway, what I'm saying is that *I* am not going to buy such rationalization, whether or not any individual might employ it.

Brucker said...

You ask what purpose it serves for God to make beings without the potential to be as powerful as him. I don't see the purpose of allowing it. Take the case of my own children: I hope that they will find ways to excel in their lives and be the best people they can be, but that doesn't mean that I necessarily expect them to exceed me at any particular aspect. I'm a mathematician, and if neither of my daughters become mathematicians, I don't think that means they will suffer due to inferiority to me in that area. But things like that are only part of the picture, and miss the distinct uniqueness of God's nature. I hope that my children will be good at loving their mother, but as her husband, I expect that it is my unique duty to love her more than any other person in the world. (Whether or not I succeed is definitely questionable, but a separate issue.) I don't see that this should cause suffering on the part of my children in any way.

I don't feel that it is an "illusion" of choice. I sincerely believe that foreknowledge and free will can exist side by side. Let me use another coin toss example that's a favorite of mine. I'm going to toss a coin when I finish writing this paragraph. (Parenthetical note from the future: it will come up tails.) I don't know whether it will come up heads or tails, and as far as I am aware, it has the freedom to do either with equal probability. Isn't that still freedom even if I grant you foreknowledge by going back to earlier in the paragraph and inserting a parenthetical note, which I will? Time to toss: tails. Where's the contradiction? Still I'd be curious as to what you meant by "...god fucks up."

Why would believing in "the soul, the afterlife or God" be anti-science? Science doesn't say that these things do not exist; at best it says that they are not verifiable, which is not the be-all and end-all of existence. (I wrote a post about the soul which may or may not add something to the discussion here.) You're right that religion doesn't try to be compatible with science, at least generally; I think there are those who try to force religious ideas into a scientific mold (e.g. Intelligent Design) and are quite mislead in doing so. Maybe that's what you're trying to point out with the clip you linked to, which I haven't watched yet, but will now. ... Interesting, he makes some good points. The null hypothesis is of course an important part of scientific inquiry of any sort, and indeed, atheism can be seen as the null hypothesis of religion. I think I've lost sight of the point of all of this, though.