Monday, July 7, 2008

The on-going need for natural theology

If you're curious about your faith, about how it makes sense, coheres, is consonant with reason, do yourself a favor and read an article in the current issue of Christianity Today by William Lane Craig, entitled God Is Not Dead Yet. While a young student I studied William Alston, Richard Swinburne, and Alvin Plantinga with great rigor. Plantinga's epistemological system, built on the cornerstone of a concept known as warrant, was particularly influential in the late '80s and early '90s.

All of these philosophers work in the English analytical mode of philosophy. Analytical philosophy finds its roots in British empirical thought as practiced by Locke, Hume, Hobbes, et. al. The American vein of this school is called pragmatism, exemplified by Charles Sanders Peirce (not a misspelling), William James, John Dewey, Quine, et. al.

I especially like Craig's philosophical take on the phenomenon known as post-modernism, which he begins by asking, "don't we live in a postmodern culture in which appeals to such apologetic arguments are no longer effective?" In such a milieu rational arguments for God are not supposed to be effective. A typical Christian response to this phenomenon is that, as Christians, "we should simply share our narrative and invite people to participate in it".

"This sort of thinking is guilty of a disastrous misdiagnosis of contemporary culture. The idea that we live in a postmodern culture is a myth. In fact, a postmodern culture is an impossibility; it would be utterly unlivable. People are not relativistic when it comes to matters of science, engineering, and technology; rather, they are relativistic and pluralistic in matters of religion and ethics. But, of course, that's not postmodernism; that's modernism! That's just old-line verificationism, which held that anything you can't prove with your five senses is a matter of personal taste. We live in a culture that remains deeply modernist."
It is precisely because Dawkins, Harris, and Christopher Hitchens employ this old-line verficationism, which amounts to serving us moldy Enlightenment left-overs, that their reasoning is logically fallacious on a number of grounds. They all stand guilty of unwarranted assault on the straw men of their own manufacture, who they prefer kicking instead of tackling the issues at hand, like ones laid out in Craig's article.

This tidbit, taken from the third dialogue of the Marquis de Sade's La Philosophie dans le boudoir, written in 1795, is a good indication of the line of argumentation still in play, wherein Dolmancé says,

"Now, if we can show that man owes his existence to nothing but the remorseless tides of Nature; if man is thus proven as ancient as the world itself, that he is no different to the oak, to the crops, to the minerals that are in the earth's belly, which remain only to reproduce, since reproduction is essential to the existence of the planet, which it, in turn, owes to nothing whatsoever; if it is shown that God, held by morons to be the maker of all we know, is just the dead end of human reason, an illusion made at that point when that reason can go no further; if it is proven that the existence of God is impossible, in that relentless Nature herself wields the power it pleases cretins to attribute to that God; if it is made clear that, supposing this useless deity were to exist, he would be the ultimate absurdity since he would have only once come into action, and have been contemptibly redundant throughout the million centuries thereafter; and that, supposing that his ways are as portrayed by religion, he would be the most abominable of all creatures, since he permits Evil to flourish when his supreme powers could repress it; if, as I say, all this is proven without doubt to be true - as it unquestionably is - then, Eugenie, do you still believe in the need for this virtue, this piety which binds man to an imbecilic and deficient, an atrocious and hateful Creator?"
The entire book is about the corruption and violation of fifteen year-old Eugénie, who has been brought up to be a person of virtue. In de Sade's demented narrative, young Eugénie spends a day being defiled by a trio of wealthy perverts, which consists of the twenty-six year-old Madame de Saint-Ange, her younger brother, who is also her lover, Le Chevalier, and the speaker of the piece above, Dolmancé, a thirty-six year-old homosexual, who will only use a female unnaturally.

If, indeed, we can show that God is nothing but the dead end of human reason, then another literary figure, that of Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov, who's influence on those around him is felt in Book 11 Chapter 4 of The Brothers Karamazov, specifically in the person of his brother Dmitri (a.k.a. Mitya), who tries to explain to Alyosha the science of ethics, thus showing the chasm between ethics and true morality, not that they are mutually exclusive, but that morality is fundamental to ethics, which is but the human attempt to apply morality:

"That I am sorry to lose God? It's chemistry, brother, chemistry! There's no help for it, your reverence, you must make way for chemistry. . . That's the sore point with all of them [materialist philosophers/scientific socialists, like Ratikin, who reduce morality to ethics]. But they conceal it. They tell lies. They pretend. . . 'But what will become of men then?' I asked him [Ratikin], 'without God and immortal life? All things are lawful then, they can do what they like?' 'Didn't you know?' he said laughing, 'a clever man can do what he likes,' he said. 'A clever man knows his way about . . .'"

So, we return to Craig's article, namely "The moral argument. A number of ethicists, such as Robert Adams, William Alston, Mark Linville, Paul Copan, John Hare, Stephen Evans, and others have defended 'divine command' theories of ethics, which support various moral arguments for God's existence. One such argument:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.

By objective values and duties, one means values and duties that are valid and binding independent of human opinion. A good many atheists and theists alike concur with premise (1). For given a naturalistic worldview, human beings are just animals, and activity that we count as murder, torture, and rape is natural and morally neutral in the animal kingdom. Moreover, if there is no one to command or prohibit certain actions, how can we have moral obligations or prohibitions?

Premise (2) might seem more disputable, but it will probably come as a surprise to most laypeople to learn that (2) is widely accepted among philosophers. For any argument against objective morals will tend to be based on premises that are less evident than the reality of moral values themselves, as apprehended in our moral experience. Most philosophers therefore do recognize objective moral distinctions.

Nontheists will typically counter the moral argument with a dilemma: Is something good because God wills it, or does God will something because it is good? The first alternative makes good and evil arbitrary, whereas the second makes the good independent of God. Fortunately, the dilemma is a false one. Theists have traditionally taken a third alternative: God wills something because he is good. That is to say, what Plato called 'the Good' is the moral nature of God himself. God is by nature loving, kind, impartial, and so on. He is the paradigm of goodness. Therefore, the good is not independent of God.

Moreover, God's commandments are a necessary expression of his nature. His commands to us are therefore not arbitrary but are necessary reflections of his character. This gives us an adequate foundation for the affirmation of objective moral values and duties."

The nontheistic quandry about what we might call the Good is nothing new. It is the subject of Plato's dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro, entitled, oddly enough, Euthyphro. Writing about good and evil, Sharon points us to some good news handed down by the Supreme Court of South Dakota. Apparently, withholding the truth is understood by some to be a constitutional guarantee. Somehow, I do not think other medical practioners are unduly burdened by being legally required to tell their patients about risks and consequences of various procedures, nor is their right free speech abridged.


  1. Here is a question that I struggle with:

    If God's nature is perfect "goodness" such that He necessarily commands what is best for His creation, then is He ever free to not command it? I believe He is free, but I don't know how to reconcile that with His commandments flowing from necessity.

  2. You bring up a very good, even acute, question. I won't pretend to be able to answer the question in any definitive way. If I were able to do so I would be applying my philosophical acumen somewhere other than the blogosphere.

    As far as we, God's creatures, are concerned, goodness does not just flow from God, it is not an attribute of God, it is indicative of God. In other words, God isn't merely good, God is goodness itself, just as God is love. So, from where we stand God can do none other than command what is good.

    Nonetheless, because God is, well, God, He is no way bound by any necessity imposed upon Him from without, like goodness. So, for God to command what is not good would contradict God's very being, not merely the contravention of an attribute, like the case of a normally sober person who gets drunk.

    God is not caparicious. This is the whole point of Pope Benedict's Regensburg address, in which God is not merely the God of reason, but is Logos, reason itself, the ground of reason. Goodness, of course, ties into rationality, which ties into love. Love is the reason behind all there is.

  3. If I were able to do so I would be applying my philosophical acumen somewhere other than the blogosphere.

    I'm actually thankful for those philosophers who do apply their acumen to the blogosphere, so that I may have easy access to it. Alexander Pruss is a good example.

    As far as we, God's creatures, are concerned, goodness does not just flow from God, it is not an attribute of God, it is indicative of God. In other words, God isn't merely good, God is goodness itself, just as God is love. So, from where we stand God can do none other than command what is good.

    This is precisely my problem with the new atheists. They don't recognize that this is the God that we worship. They treat God as a kind of being rather than Being itself, "I Am". Until they choose to address the God we actually believe in I refuse to give them the time of day.

    Nonetheless, because God is, well, God, He is no way bound by any necessity imposed upon Him from without, like goodness.

    My problem is whenever we use the term *necessary* with respect to God we are binding His will. I haven't come across any good theological arguments that deal directly with this issue. I'm not saying they don't exist, I just haven't heard them. Maybe I just need to be more comfortable with the mysteriousness of the Divine.

  4. First off, thank you for the encouragement, it is always appreciated.

    You are correct as regards the New Atheists, who employ old arguments, that they construct a straw-god and light him on fire. Not only does this straw god bear no resemblance of the God who is Love, the God who is fully revealed in Jesus Christ, it doesn't even really bear resemblance to the God of the philosophers, which is the God that arguments from necessity points us toward.

    I think we can both agree that when we apply the term necessity to God, we are not talking about God being bound by anything external to God. Thank you for helping me clarify what I was trying to address in my previous reply, namely that when we apply necessity to God we are talking about something like God not contradicting His own nature. So, this moves the locus of necessity from external to internal.

    Another possibility is that we have introduced a false dilemma. To wit: Is it that case that God cannot command anything except that which is good, or that He will not? I would suggest that this is not the best approach to this problem.

    Therefore, I think unraveling the knot in which I bound up love, rationality, and goodness is the best approach because it avoids the false dilemma and pushes us away from the God of the philosophers and toward the God of revelation.