bookmark_borderWhat is Christianity? Part 12

Sire’s First Two Objections
Shortly after the turn of the century, the Christian apologist James Sire revised his understanding of the concept of a “worldview” and wrote a book advocating this revised understanding: Naming the Elephant (hereafter: NTE).  Some of the the key changes that Sire makes to his conception of a “worldview” are defended in Chapter 5 of NTE.  In Chapter 1 of NTE, Sire summarizes the issues covered in Chapter 5 of NTE:
Is a worldview primarily an intellectual system, a way of life, or a story? (NTE, p.22)
One of his key conclusions from Chapter 5 is clearly stated in Chapter 7:
First, a worldview is not fundamentally a set of propositions or a web of beliefs. That is, it is not first and foremost a matter of the intellect.  (NTE, p.123)
In a previous post in this series,  I defended Sire’s earlier concept of a worldview against the objection that it unrealistically requires that a worldview consist of a carefully thought out complete and systematic philosophy of life.   I agree that this would be an unrealistic requirement or definition of “worldview”.   However, neither his previous definition of “worldview”, nor his previous description of the nature of worldviews had this implication, so there is no need to modify his previous definition or account based on this concern.
The second objection raised by Sire against his older conception of a worldview (covered in the previous post), is presented in a subsection of Chapter 5 called “The Right Questions” on pages 94 to 97 of NTE:
What is missing from my seven questions is not content but existential relevance.  (NTE, p.97, emphasis added)
Based on the comparisons Sire makes between his seven worldview questions and similar sets of questions proposed by Dilthey, Orr, Walsh & Middleton, this objection can be re-stated in terms of practical concerns:
Sire’s seven worldview questions lack a proper emphasis on practical and ethical concerns.
If this is a good interpretation of the objection, then I would concede that there is some truth to this objection.  Sire’s intention behind his seven basic worldview questions was to capture the basic and most important issues of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.  However, it seems to me that Sire’s seven questions do not do a great job of capturing the basic questions of ethics, so there is room for improvement by adding one or two basic questions of ethics and/or by revising one or two of his questions to make them more clearly questions of ethics or more clearly questions about practical concerns.
Question (6) attempts to get at the heart of ethics but fails to do so:
6. How do we know what is right and wrong?
This question is too narrow in two different ways.  First, it is focused on epistemology (“How do we know…”).  Other questions in Sire’s list deal with epistemology, so this one ought to be more about ethics.   Second, this question focuses on morality, but ethics is broader than just morality.  Here is my suggested alternative:
(6A)  How should I live my life?  (What are the main criteria for judging that a life is/was a good life, a well-lived life? What are the main obstacles to acheiving such a life?)
If we revise his question (6) to (6A), and if we understand that there are ethical aspects to questions (3) and (7), then Sire’s set of worldview questions would provide a proper emphasis on practical and ethical concerns.  Thus, the second objection represents only a minor problem that can be corrected with a minor change (or two) to Sire’s questions.
Worldview as a Way of Life?
The third objection that Sire raises against his older conception of worldviews, is that it makes more sense to understand a worldview as being “a way of life” (NTE, p.97) rather than to understand a worldview as being “a system of thought” (NTE, p.98) because of “the practical, lived reality of worldviews…” (NTE, p.100).
The sub-section of Chapter 5 where Sire presents this third objection is called “Worldview as a Way of Life” (NTE, p.98-100).  The first sentence in this sub-section is worth careful examination:
While worldviews have been overwhelmingly detected and expounded using intellectual categories, from the first there has been a recognition that they are inextricably tied to lived experience and behavior.   (NTE, p.98, emphasis added)
Recall a key conclusion of Chapter 5, which Sire states in Chapter 7:
First, a worldview is not fundamentally a set of propositions of a web of beliefs. That is, it is not first and foremost a matter of the intellect.  (NTE, p.123)
So, clearly Sire thinks it was a mistake to understand worldviews primarily in terms of “intellectual categories”, categories such as “beliefs” and “propositions”.  This is a mistake, according to Sire, because worldviews are “tied to lived experience and behavior.”
Sire appears to believe that there is a conflict between understanding worldviews in terms of “intellectual categories” and recognizing that worldviews are “tied to lived experience and behavior.”  Let’s consider a strong version of this view, namely the view that these are mutually exclusive claims:
(MEC) If X is best understood in terms of “intellectual categories” (such as “beliefs” or “propositions”), then X cannot be tied to lived experience and behavior.
It seems fairly obvious that (MEC) is false.  Consider the following belief:
(AIM)  Having an abortion is an instance of murdering an innocent child.
Some people hold this belief.  If someone holds this belief, they are likely to be reluctant to have an abortion, and are unlikely to encourage someone else to have an abortion, and will be reluctant to vote for a political candidate who is strongly pro-choice.
If someone frequently has abortions (and has no regrets about having them) or frequently encourages others to have abortions (and has no regrets about doing this) and has no reluctance about voting for a political candidate who is strongly pro-choice, then we would rightly doubt the claim that this person believed (AIM) to be true.  That is because beliefs have implications for choices and actions, and beliefs have an influence on a person’s choices and actions.
This is especially the case with ethical beliefs, and it is clearly the case with beliefs that people have concerning the most basic questions of ethics:
(6A)  How should I live my life?  (What are the main criteria for judging that a life is/was a good life, a well-lived life? What are the main obstacles to acheiving such a life?)
It is difficult, if not impossible, for a sane adult person to have no beliefs about these questions. If a person has some beliefs about these basic questions of ethics, then those beliefs will influence the choices that person makes and the behavior of that person.
In Sire’s older book The Universe Next Door, he describes the view of morality that is part of the worldview of Christian Theism:
7. Ethics is transcendent and is based on the character of God as good (holy and loving).
This proposition has already been considered as an implication of proposition 1 [i.e. 1. God is infinite and personal (triune), transcendent and immanent, omniscient, sovereign and good.] .  God is the source of the moral world as well as the physical world.  God is the good and expresses this in the laws and moral principles he has revealed in Scripture.  (TUND, p.35)
Theism…teaches that not only is there a moral universe, but there is an absolute standard by which all moral judgments are measured.  God himself–his character of goodness (holiness and love)–is the standard.  Furthermore, Christians and Jews hold that God has revealed his standard in the various laws and principles expressed in the Bible.  The Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, the apostle Paul’s ethical teaching–in these and many other ways God has expressed his character to us.  There is thus a standard of right and wrong, and people who want to know it can know it.  (TUND, p. 36)
If someone holds these various beliefs about right and wrong, then such a person is likely to consult the Bible when they are struggling with a moral issue or question, and such a person is likely to take seriously arguments based on the Bible concerning that and other moral issues.  If some person has no interest or concern about what the Bible teaches about various moral issues, and if that person never takes seriously any arguments about moral issues that are based on the Bible, then it would be perfectly reasonable to doubt the claim that this person holds the above beliefs about right and wrong.
Furthermore, if a person is firmly convinced that the Bible teaches that it is morally wrong to do X, and if that person holds the above BELIEFS about right and wrong, then we would expect that person to be reluctant to do X (or at least to feel bad about doing X), and we would expect that person to be reluctant to encourage others to do X (or at least to feel bad about doing so).
If some person has no reluctance about doing X and never appears to feel bad about doing X, and if that person often encourages others to do X and never appears to feel bad about encouraging others to do X, then it is quite reasonable to doubt the claim that this person firmly BELIEVES that the Bible teaches that it is morally wrong to do X and that this person holds the worldview-related BELIEFS about right and wrong found in Sire’s description of Christian theism.
Beliefs have implications, and a person’s beliefs influence how that person thinks and how that person feels, and how that person acts.  That is why worldview-related beliefs are important and significant, because they influence our thinking, our feelings, the choices we make, and the actions we take.
Richard Swinburne, one of the world’s leading defenders of the Christian faith, argues that there is a logical or conceptual tie between beliefs and actions:
Belief has consequences for action, for it is in part a matter of the way in which one seeks to achieve one’s purposes, the goals or ends one seeks to achieve.
Suppose that I seek to get to London, and I come to a junction in the road.  Then clearly if I believe that it is more probable that the road on my right leads to London than that the road on the left does, I shall take the road on the right.  (Faith and Reason, 2nd edition, p.9)
Clearly, the choices and actions that a person makes or takes are indications of the beliefs held by that person, and Sire appears to acknowledge this point:
…we can assess whether we ourselves (or anyone else) hold a particular worldview by observing how we or others act.  (NTE, p.98)
How we view life affects the life we live; it governs both the unconscious actions we engage in and the actions we ponder before acting.  (NTE, p.99)
In Chapter 6 of NTE, Sire explicitly ties worldview-related assumptions to actions and behavior:
Everyone has a worldview.  Whether we know it or not, we all operate from a set of assumptions about the world that remain to a large measure hidden in the unconscious recesses of our mind. …
I wake up in the morning, not asking myself who I am or where I am.  I am immediately aware of a whole host of perceptions that my mind orders into the recognition that it’s morning:  I’m home, I’m crawling out of bed.  In this immediate awareness I do not consciously ask or answer, What is the really real?  How do I know I am home?  or, How can I tell the difference between right and wrong?  Rather, my unconscious mind is using a network of presumptions about how to interpret for the conscious mind what is going on.  In some way all of the basic worldview questions are being answered by the way I am acting and behaving.  (NTE, p.107-108)
The “assumptions about the world”  and the “network of presumptions” that Sire speaks of here are BELIEFS held by the person in question.  So, in this passage Sire clearly implies that a person’s worldview-related BELIEFS guide their choices and actions.  Therefore, Sire agrees with Swinburne’s view that our beliefs are closely connected to, and influence, our choices and actions.
Therefore, since beliefs are an “intellectual category” and since our beliefs–especially our worldview-related beliefs–clearly impact and influence our choices and actions, it is clear that (MEC) is false.  Worldviews can be understood in terms of “intellectual categories” such as “beliefs” and “assumptions” and “propositions” and “presuppositions”, and this does NOT imply that worldviews are disconnected from “lived experience and behavior”.
To be continued…

bookmark_borderWhat is Christianity? Part 11

Shortly after the turn of the century, the Christian apologist James Sire revised his understanding of the concept of a “worldview” and wrote a book advocating this revised understanding: Naming the Elephant (hereafter: NTE).  Some of the the key changes that Sire makes to his conception of a “worldview” are defended in Chapter 5 of NTE:
…the discussion so far has proceeded as if a worldview were a set of propositions or beliefs that serve as answers to a systematic set of [basic philosophical] questions.  This certainly is how I understood the notion of worldview as I wrote The Universe Next Door.  I still believe that this is a useful way to define the concept, but I have become aware that it both overemphasizes the systematic nature of worldviews and misses some other important aspects.  So what is inadequate?  And what is missing?  Those are the subjects of this chapter [i.e. Chapter 5].   (NTE, p.91)
In Chapter 1 of NTE, Sire summarizes the issues covered in Chapter 5 of NTE this way:
Is a worldview primarily an intellectual system, a way of life, or a story? (NTE, p.22)
One of his key conclusions from Chapter 5 is clearly stated in Chapter 7:
First, a worldview is not fundamentally a set of propositions or a web of beliefs. That is, it is not first and foremost a matter of the intellect.  (NTE, p.123)
If Sire is correct, then my cognitivist view of religion is wrong, and if my cognitivist view of religion is correct, then Sire’s revised understaning of the nature of worldviews is wrong.   So, I am attempting to defend Sire’s earlier conception of worldviews against his own objections, the objections that led him to revise his understanding and definition of the word “worldview”.
In the previous post in this series,  I defended Sire’s earlier concept of a worldview against the objection that it unrealistically requires that a worldview consist of a carefully thought out complete and systematic philosophy of life.   I agree that this would be an unrealistic requirement or definition of “worldview”.   However, neither his previous definition of “worldview”, nor his previous description of the nature of worldviews had this implication, so there is no need to modify his previous definition or account based on this concern.
The next objection raised by Sire against his older conception of a worldview, is presented in a subsection of Chapter 5 called “The Right Questions” on pages 94 to 97 of NTE.  Sire compares his seven basic questions (see the previous post for his list of questions) to questions proposed by others (mostly Christian theologians) who have attempted to analyze worldviews by means of a small set of such questions.  After briefly comparing his questions with the questions proposed by a few other key thinkers, Sire draws this conlcusion:
It appears, therefore, that my seven questions are in fact fairly comprehensive.  They include in some way the essence of all the questions others have formulated.  This should not be surprising, since the questions address ontology, epistemology, and ethics.  What else besides aesthetics is left?  
What is missing from my seven questions is not content but existential relevance.  True, the fourth question (“What happens to persons at death?”) is existential, but the others are not. …  (NTE, p.97, emphasis added)
Is there a problem with a lack of “existential relevance” in Sire’s previous account of worldviews?  Before we can answer this question, we first need to understand what “existential relevance” means.  The meaning of this phrase is best understood in terms of this specific context, namely in relationship to the contrast that Sire makes between his conception of “worldview” and that of others in this particular subsection of Chapter 5.
In the subsection of Chapter 5 called “The Right Questions” Sire begins by comparing his questions with a similar series of questions in a quote from Wilhelm Dilthey (emphasis added by me):
The riddle of existence . . . is always bound up organically with that of the world itself and with the question of what I am supposed to do in this world, why I am in it, and how my life in it will end.  Where did I come from?  Why do I exist?  What will become of me?  This is the most general question of all questions and the one that most concerns me. (NTE, p.95; quoted by David Naugle in Worldview: The History of a Concept, p.83)
I take it that the question “Why do I exist?” is NOT a scientific question.  This question would not be answered by explaining the biology of sexual reproduction and the historical circumstances that led to one’s parents having sexual intercourse, which then resulted in one’s conception and birth.  Such a scientific or causal explanation is not what is desired here.
Rather, this question is about the purpose or meaning of one’s life.  A clearer expression of the intended question would be “Why should I continue to exist, as opposed to killing myself?”  That is a question with “existential relevance”.  I have also emphasized the phrase  “the question of what I am supposed to do in this world” because, as we shall soon see, this is at least an important part of what Sire means by “existential relevance”, namely relevance to practical decisions concerning what actions one should take or what choices one should make.
Sire also considers another list of questions that James Orr asks in relation to the analysis of a worldview, and Sire makes a general comment about those questions:
James Orr notes that two types of causes–speculative and practical–are involved in the formation of worldviews.  Both “lie deep in the constitution of human nature.”  On the one hand, we want a comprehensive theoretical understanding of the “origin, purpose, and destiny” of the universe and our lives.  But we also want a practical understanding of these issues so that we can properly order our lives. …  (NTE, p.95, emphasis added by me)
Sire notes that Orr views the basic questions that define a worldview as encompassing both theoretical and practical issues.  This is another indication that “existential relevance” is closely related to practical issues and concerns.  (The first indication was the phrase quoted from Dilthey “…the question of what I am supposed to do in this world…”).  Also, among the list of questions from Orr quoted by Sire is this one: “By what ultimate principles ought man to be guided in the framing and ordering of his life?”  (NTE, p. 96)
I find the worldview questions that Sire quotes from the theologians Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton very appealing.  Walsh and Middleton ask only four basic questions, and two of them are, in my view, of particular importance:
(3) What’s wrong?  Or, what is the basic problem or obstacle that keeps me from fulfillment? …
(4) What is the remedy?  Or, how is it possible to overcome this hindrance to my fulfillment? …  (NTE, p.96)
Like me, Walsh and Middleton conceive of worldviews in terms of problem-solving.  The basic problems being practical in nature: How should I live my life?  What do I need to do to live a good life or to live my life well?  These are basic questions in the sub-discipline of philosophy called ethics.
When Sire sums up the comparisons of his seven questions with the questions put forward by Dilthey, Orr, and Walsh & Middleton, he closely associates “existential concerns” with questions that have a “practical” focus:
With Dilthey, Orr, and to some extent, Walsh and Middleton, the questions focus on existential concerns.  They are all about us.  While the answers will involve God and nature, the emphasis is practical.  What are the implications for us as human beings looking for a satisfying life?  (NTE, p.97, emphasis added by me)
Based on the particular context of the comparisons made between Sire’s seven worldview questions and similar sets of questions proposed by Dilthey, Orr, Walsh & Middleton, we can clarify this objection to Sire’s seven worldview questions:
What is missing from my seven questions is not content but existential relevance.  (NTE, p.97)
This objection can be re-stated in terms of practical concerns:
Sire’s seven worldview questions lack a proper emphasis on practical and ethical concerns.
If this is a good interpretation of the objection, then I would concede that there is some truth to this objection.
Sire’s intention behind his seven basic worldview questions was to capture the basic and most important issues of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.  To the extent that Sire succeeded in this intention, his seven questions would include one or more basic questions of ethics, and in doing so he would have provided a proper emphasis on practical and ethical concerns.
However, it seems to me that Sire’s seven questions do not do a great job of capturing the basic questions of ethics, so there is room for improvement by adding one or two basic questions of ethics and/or by revising one or two of his questions to make them more clearly questions of ethics or more clearly questions about practical concerns.  I believe that some minor changes to Sire’s seven worldview questions would be sufficient to resolve this issue.
Three of Sire’s seven questions appear to be related to ethics (from NTE, p.94):
3. What is a human being?
6. How do we know what is right and wrong?
7. What is the meaning of human history?
Question (3) relates to metaphysics (e.g. Do human beings have souls or spirits?  What is the relationship between a human mind and a human brain?).  But question (3) is also related to ethics: Do human beings have free will?  Are human beings moral agents who can be worthy of moral praise or moral blame?  Do human beings have a right to life?  Is the life of a human being of more value than the life of a non-human animal, like a dog or a deer?
Question (6) attempts to get at the heart of ethics but fails to do so.  This question is too narrow in two different ways.  First, it is focused on epistemology (“How do we know…”).  Other questions in Sire’s list deal with epistemology, so this one ought to be more about ethics.   Second, this question focuses on morality, but ethics is broader than just morality.  The basic question of ethics is “How should I live my life?”.
One partial response to this question could be “You should live your life in a way that is morally good and morally responsible.”  But morality, even if it is an important aim for life, is not the ONLY thing that can make a life a good life or a bad one.  What about pleasure and creativity and obtaining knowledge?  In addition to being a fair person, and being a considerate person, and being an honest person, isn’t it also good to enjoy life? to make use of one’s imagination and creative abilities?  to learn about history and science and art?  Perhaps being morally good is more important than enjoying life or being creative or learning new things, but to live a life that is focused exclusively on morality seems like it would make a person rather narrow and uptight and unhappy and difficult to live around.  In any case, it begs important questions to simply assume that the only goal that one ought to aim at in life is to be a morally good person.
Question (6) is Sire’s attempt to get at the heart of ethics, and his intention was a good and proper one, but question (6) does not fully capture the heart of ethics because it is a bit too narrow.  If we broaden (6) just a bit, then that would help Sire’s seven questions to have a proper emphasis on practical or ethical concerns.  Here is my suggested alternative:
(6A)  How should I live my life?  (What are the main criteria for judging that a life is/was a good life, a well-lived life? What are the main obstacles to acheiving such a life?)
Questions of morality and right vs. wrong actions are obviously relevant to this general question, but so are other important values and considerations, such as pleasure, creativity, and knowledge.
Question (7) asks about the “meaning” of human history.  This question relates to ethics in that the goodness of a person’s life can be judged, in part, in relation to their contributions or impacts on human progress or on the acheivement of valueable goals that occur after the death of the person in question.
A military officer’s actions in a battle might help his country to win a war, but the winning of the war might happen years after that officer’s death.  The discoveries of a scientist might help other scientists to find a cure for cancer, but the cure might not be found until decades after the death of that scientist.  In such cases, we often think that there was some good or value in that person’s life because of the positive impact their actions had on the lives of others long after that person had died.
We want our lives to be meaningful and significant, and part of that desire involves a desire to have a significant impact on people and events beyond the limited scope of the people we meet and the events we experience in the limited time that we are alive.  These sorts of concerns and desires are all relevant to the basic question of ethics that I spelled out in question (6A).
Although Sire’s seven questions might not have done a great job in capturing the heart of ethics, I think if we revise his question (6) to (6A), and if we understand that there are ethical aspects to questions (3) and (7), then Sire’s set of worldview questions would provide a proper emphasis on practical and ethical concerns.  Thus, the objection that we were considering, represents only a minor problem that can be corrected with a minor change (or two) to Sire’s questions.  There is no need for a major revision to Sire’s seven questions.

bookmark_borderWhat is Christianity? Part 7

In the previous post in this series,  I argued that the Christian apologist James Sire makes a fundamental mistake in his book Naming the Elephant, by defining “a worldview” as being a kind of commitment.  A worldview is something that can be true (or false), but a commitment is NOT something that can be true (or false); therefore, a worldview is NOT a commitment.
One can have a strong belief or “intellectual commitment” towards a worldview, but in that case the worldview is the OBJECT of the commitment, not the commitment itself.  Although there are some other interesting points made by Sire in this book that are worth considering,  because Sire’s concept of  “a worldview” is fundamentally flawed, I’m going to set that book aside for now, and move on to consider another book by a different author who has also done much thinking about the concept of “a worldview”.
Ninian Smart is a recognized expert on religions, and in his book Worldviews: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Beliefs (3rd edition, 2000; hereafter: Worldviews), he advocates that the scholarly study of religion be conceived of, and engaged in, as “worldview analysis”.  An important part of “worldview analysis” is that it encompasses the examination of both traditional religions (e.g. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.) and secular ideologies (Marxism, Secular Humanism, etc.).  In terms of my purposes here, concerning clarification of the concept of “a worldview”, Smart makes the interesting and plausible claim that a worldview involves six “dimensions”:
The doctrinal or philosophical dimension
The narrative or mythic dimension
The ethical or legal [dimension]
The ritual or practical dimension
The experiential or emotional dimension
The social or organizational dimension
(Worldviews, p.8)
This six-dimensional approach to worldviews appears to be contrary to my cognitivist view of religions and worldviews, since only the first of the six dimensions (doctrinal or philosophical) appears to focus on beliefs or claims.  However, Smart’s six-dimensional approach seems quite sensible and plausible.  Of course religions and ideologies involve narratives/myths.  Of course religions and ideologies involve ethics or laws.  Of course religions and ideologies involve rituals or practices.  It seems undeniable that religions and ideologies generally manifest all six of these dimensions, and thus that beliefs and claims are only one small aspect of religions, ideologies, and worldviews.
If I am to maintain my cognitivist view of religions and worldviews, then I need to explain and justify my viewpoint in relation to Smart’s interesting and plausible six-dimensional approach to religions and worldviews.  It is tempting to just say that Smart is right that religions and worldviews have these six dimensions, but that I am only interested in the first dimension (the doctrinal or philosophical dimension).
The doctrines of a religion or worldview can be analyzed and evaluated in terms of truth (or falsehood).  The philosophical beliefs/claims of a religion or worldview can be analyzed and evaluated in terms of truth (or falsehood).  Since my concern is with the evaluation of the truth or falsehood of beliefs/claims that are “contained” in a religion or worldview,  I could just focus on the first dimension, and do so while acknowledging that there are other aspects of religions and worldviews that I am setting aside and ignoring.
But while this is a tempting route to take, I think it fails to recognize the central role that beliefs and claims play in religions and worldviews.  My task, then, is to try to maintain the centrality of beliefs and claims in religion and worldviews, while also recognizing that religions and worldviews generally do involve the six dimensions to which Smart draws our attention.
First, I wish to point out the apparent centrality of beliefs/claims in Smart’s discussion about the concepts of “a religion” and “a worldview”.  The very title of his book suggests the centrality of beliefs:
Worldviews: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Beliefs 
Note that Smart did NOT use any of the following alternative titles:
Worldviews: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Myths
Worldviews: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Laws
Worldviews: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Rituals
Worldviews: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Experiences
Worldviews: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Emotions
 Worldviews: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Organizations
Worldviews: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Institutions  
So, the very title of his book elevates “beliefs” above other aspects of religions and worldviews,  thus suggesting that the first dimension (the doctrinal or philosophical dimension) plays a more important role than the other dimensions, perhaps a central role.
Also, in the introduction, Smart says things that also suggest the centrality of “beliefs”.  Here is a comment from the very first paragraph of the Introduction:
…at the level of everyday life, a knowledge of worldviews is increasingly significant.  First, civilizations are importantly interwoven with them.  Whether you believe them or not is beside the point.  (Worldviews, p.1, emphasis added)
Smart immediately characterizes a worldview as something that can be believed (or not believed).   Smart does not speak here of rituals, experiences, or institutions; rather, he speaks of belief, which suggests he is focused on beliefs or claims involved in a religion or worldview, and thus is focused on the doctrinal or philosophical dimension of religions and worldviews.
Another comment from the very first paragraph also supports the centrality of beliefs/claims to religions and worldviews:
Second, religious values and more broadly those of worldviews are in debate among the humanities.  Anyone who reflects about human values has to take into some account the values of the religions. (Worldviews, p.1, emphasis added)
Although “religious values” could be taken to include the “ethical or legal dimension”, the word “values” encompasses more than just moral values; it encompasses any sort of norms and any sort of evaluation.  Also philosophy encompasses ethics, so the “ethical or legal dimension” clearly has significant overlap with the “doctrinal and philosophical dimension”.  (Perhaps “ethical” refers to fairly specific rules and norms of behavior while the “philosophical” dimension includes more general ideas and principles regarding morality and behavior.)
In any case, if “religious values” and “worldview values” are “in debate among the humanities”, then Smart is clearly talking about something that is intellectual or cognitive in nature.  He is presumably talking about claims or beliefs concerning how people ought to behave or what people ought to care about.  Once again, this is an indication of the importance or centrality of the doctrinal or philosophical dimension of religions and worldviews.
The second paragraph of the Introduction also suggests the importance or centrality of beliefs/claims in religions and worldviews:
The modern study of worldviews…explores feelings and ideas and tries to understand what exists inside the heads of people.  What people believe is an important aspect of reality whether or not what they believe is true.  (Worldviews, p.1-2)
Here Smart mentions “feelings and ideas” in summing up what is studied when one studies a worldview.  The study of “ideas” clearly relates to the doctrinal and philosophical dimension of a worldview.  It could also relate to  the mythical and ethical dimensions, but the ethical dimension, as I have previously mentioned, can be encompassed by the philosophical dimension.
The word “feelings” points to the experiential or emotional dimension.  However, in the very next sentence, Smart talks about “What people believe” and “whether or not what they believe is true”.  This language again points towards the doctrinal or philosophical dimension.  Experiences and emotions are not the sort of thing that can be true (or false).  Rituals are not the sort of thing that can be true (or false).  Organizations and institutions are not the sort of thing that can be true (or false).    While myths and stories can be thought of as being true (or false),  myths and religious stories are often believed to have significance apart from whether they are literally true (or false).
When Smart talks about “what exists inside the heads of people” this relates most directly to beliefs and feelings and experiences, but not directly to rituals, practices, organizations, or institutions.
The focus on “beliefs” continues at the end of the second paragraph:
To some extent anthropology tried to give objective accounts of foreign beliefs, but often the other cultures were treated as uncivilized or inferior.  To some extent there were attempts through comparative religion to describe foreign beliefs, and sometimes Christian missionaries managed warm accounts of other faiths.  (Worldviews, p.2)
In these sentences Smart equates other “worldviews” and “other faiths” with “foreign beliefs,”  not with “foreign rituals” , not with “foreign practices”, not with “foreign experiences”,  not with “foreign organizations”, not with “foreign institutions.”  So, at both the beginning and the end of the second paragraph of the Introduction, Smart focuses on beliefs/claims, and this suggests that the doctrinal or philosophical dimension of a religion or of a worldview is more important, more central, than the other dimensions.
In paragraph three of the Introduction, Smart discusses the importance of “epoche” or suspension of judgment when one is studying the worldview of another people or culture.  One should, Smart says, “suspend your own beliefs about the other (whether that be culture, or group, or individual)”(Worldviews, p. 2, emphasis added).  So, the modern study of religions and worlviews attempts to acheive objectivity by setting aside one’s own “point of view”.  Thus, one’s own beliefs and point of view can bias one’s understanding of other religions and other worldviews.  Presumably, this is because the beliefs one has as, say a Christian, may conflict with the beliefs held by people who have a different religion or worldview (say Islam or Buddhism or Marxism).  So, it apears that paragraph three of the Introduction also suggests that beliefs are central to religions and worldviews.
Paragraph four provides a brief characterization of “worldview analysis” and once again focuses on “beliefs”:
The study of religions and ideologies can be called “worldview analysis.”  In this we try to depict the history and nature of the symbols and beliefs that have helped form the structure of human consciousness and society.  This is the heart of the modern study of religion.  (Worldviews, p.2, emphasis added)
Note that Smart does NOT say that “worldview analysis” depicts the history and nature of “rituals” or “experiences” or “feelings” or “organizations” or “institutions”.  I will argue later that “symbols” have a very close connection with the beliefs and claims of a religion or worldview.
At the beginning of paragraph six, Smart talks about our understanding of “others’ beliefs and values”, and about exploring the “thoughts and values of others” in characterizing efforts to “explore other people’s religions”.  At the end of paragraph six, Smart talks about bias that existed in the early history of “the comparative study of religion”:
But such explorations were often somewhat supercilious in regard to alien faiths.  Westerners were often inclined to dub other beliefs as primitive.  (Worldviews, p.3, emphasis added)
He does not say that there was an inclination to dub “other experiences” as primitive, or “other rituals” as primitive, or “other institutions” as primitive.  Once again, Smart’s focus is on “beliefs”, thus suggesting that the doctrinal or philosophical dimension of a worldview is more important, more central than the other dimensions.
In short, in the opening paragraphs of the Introduction to Worldviews, Ninian Smart repeatedly talks about worldviews in terms of “beliefs”, “ideas”, “thoughts”, and, perhaps most importantly in terms of truth (or falsehood):
What people believe is an important aspect of reality whether or not what they believe is true (Worldviews, p.1-2)
This emphais on “beliefs” is also present in the very title of the book:
Worldviews: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Beliefs 
Therefore, although Smart argues that the modern study of religion should touch on at least six different dimensions, it also seems to be the case that he recognizes that “beliefs” or the doctrinal or philosophical dimension is of greater importance (or is more central) than the other dimensions or aspects of a religion or a worldview.
In the next post, I will start walking though the other five dimensions of worldviews, and examining how they relate to “beliefs” or to the doctrinal or philosophical dimension of worldviews.

bookmark_borderDoes William Lane Craig Actually Believe in Evil?

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Taylor Carr republished on The Secular Outpost with permission. The original post may be found on his blog, The Godless Skeptic.

If it’s right for someone to permit some event, then his action is just right… On my view, the wrongness of an action is determined by its being forbidden by God. An action is morally permissible if it is not forbidden by God. Now obviously God didn’t forbid permitting the Haitian earthquake, so it has the right-making property of being permitted by God.

-William Lane Craig

The above quote is from a debate between Michael Tooley and William Lane Craig. In the debate, Professor Tooley focuses largely on the evidential problem of evil, which forms the context of this quote. Craig disputes Tooley’s ideas on balancing right-making and wrong-making properties to determine the overall morality of an action, instead declaring that whatever god allows is what’s right. There are no exceptions, he wants to emphasize, which he indicates by his bold remark about the 2010 Haitian earthquake being right simply because god permitted it to occur.

Let’s consider the implications of these statements. According to Craig, anything that has happened has been right for god to allow, since rightness is, by definition, whatever god allows. This doesn’t just mean the Haitian earthquake, but also includes the centuries of bloodshed known as the Crusades, the horrible tortures during the Inquisition, the terrible suffering of the Black Death, the slaughter of Native Americans, the ruthless regimes of Stalin and Pol Pot, the mass rapes committed during the Bosnian War, Hitler’s extermination of millions of Jews, the child abuse epidemic within the Catholic Church, and much, much more. It will not do to credit any of these to human will because, as Craig explains, whatever god permits is right. There is no wiggle room. To entertain that allowing these atrocities was anything but right for god would be to suggest that there are moral ambiguities or moral evils which god could commit, and Craig can’t have that.

This raises the question, then, about what evil actually means on Dr. Craig’s worldview. He says that wrong action is whatever is forbidden by god, but if god exists, he has historically allowed rape, murder, torture, child molestation, slavery, racism, sexism, cannibalism, genocide, injustice, and a litany of other ills. Is there anything that god could not or would not allow? It seems hard to imagine what he could be withholding from our world, so perhaps it’s not any of the acts themselves that he would forbid, but just a certain severity of them. God only allows the amount of evil that’s necessary for us to be free agents. Craig has claimed this in several debates.

However, it’s difficult to make a persuasive case for this when looking at some of the atrocities of history, particularly the ones I’ve already elaborated on. It also implies that god has some puzzling priorities. Is free will that worth it to god that he would allow six million Jews to die in Nazi Germany? Add to that the deaths from the other mentioned atrocities, as well as additional unmentioned ones, and the death toll climbs staggeringly high. There are over 774,000 words in the Bible. In order for god to give us free will, more than ten times that number of human beings have had to suffer and die in agonizingly cruel and reprehensible ways. Craig encourages us to trust our intuitions about the existence of objective moral values, yet we’re supposed to suppress them when they tell us that there is too much pain and evil in this world for a perfectly good god to be running things.

It could be argued that prioritizing free will over the prevention of suffering and evil is itself an evil. In fact, we recognize something like this when we prevent our children from doing things that would be otherwise harmful to themselves or to others. We stop them from exercising their free will, while we simultaneously teach them why what they want to do is wrong, so that some day when they mature, they will hopefully make better decisions. We don’t just talk the talk, we make them walk the walk, too, if we are responsible parents. Until they mature, they won’t appreciate the wide array of complex issues in the moral sphere. Now, if god exists, and if his grasp on morality is far more perfect than ours, why would he not be like the understanding parent who guides her children in more than just words, knowing that they don’t see what she sees?

When responding to the problem of evil in his debates, Dr. Craig very often raises the possibility of unknown reasons god might have for allowing the existence of some evils. The atheist, he challenges, must prove that god can have no such reasons in order to claim that there are unnecessary evils, and of course Craig doesn’t think this can be done, since we are all limited in our capacity for knowledge. It could very well be that there is nothing god would not allow, and that therefore there is no such thing as evil for god. In a sense, this looks like what Craig believes. He might say god could not contradict his own nature, but if his nature already allows for acts of rape, murder, torture, child abuse, etc., what reason is there to think that anything could contradict god’s nature?

William Lane Craig is a Divine Command Theorist. He believes, as he’s explained in numerous debates, that god’s nature is good, and that his commands flow from his nature. But, like I just stated, things like rape, murder, torture, child abuse, and so forth, are apparently consistent with god’s nature. After all, if god permits something, it must be right for god. To say these things are inconsistent with the divine nature would be to say that they would not be allowed by god. However, they certainly have happened in our history and continue to happen. So now the troubling question. If god’s nature is consistent with these heinous acts – if he has permitted them to take place – why would we think he might not command us to commit any of them? If Dr. Craig is right about god only allowing the minimal amount of evil for free will to exist, and having hidden reasons for allowing apparently unnecessary evils, and historically having permitted only that which is right for him to permit, then what stands in the way of god commanding us to commit acts of rape, murder, or child abuse, if they will fulfill some godly purpose?

Craig is known for sometimes quoting Dostoevsky – “without god, everything is permitted” (this quote is not exactly accurate, though). But here we start to see that it’s actually Dr. Craig’s worldview that seems to permit everything. In fact, even the apostle Paul said as much in 1 Corinthians 10:23 – “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable” (NAS). Paul encouraged the believers of his day to eat meat sacrificed to idols, because they knew idols were just wood and stone. But if eating the meat might cause a fellow believer to stumble, Paul said, you should not do it. In other words, if your conscience is clear before god, everything is permitted… just don’t lead others into temptation. Paul’s opinion on circumcision is very similar; fine for some, bad for others.

Another quote Craig is well known for presenting in debates is from Michael Ruse. Without god, “ethics is illusory,” Bill cries emphatically to his opponents. On th
e contrary, though, it would seem that with all the unbelievably hurtful and immoral acts god has permitted down the course of history, ethics is inescapably illusory on Dr. Craig’s worldview. God’s nature is consistent with allowing every conceivable evil, and his commands, flowing from that nature, come with no guarantee of being any different. If we’re to believe the traditional account of the fall of Lucifer, god even allowed the emergence and continued existence of Satan, the embodiment of pure evil. With so ambiguous a nature, there is literally no reason to think god would never command any act that we would normally regard as evil. 


This is why William Lane Craig’s excuses fail when he attempts to distinguish between what theists believe about god’s nature being good and how Divine Command Theory is often understood as positing that good is whatever god commands. On either account, goodness has no normative force, no distinctive essence. God will be just as good to allow someone to feed the starving emaciated children of Haiti as he will be to allow the Duvaliers and others to exterminate them in the cruelest ways. God will be just as good to command the feeding of five thousand as he will be to command the genocide of entire peoples (Deut. 2:34, Joshua 6:21, 1 Samuel 15:2-3). On Craig’s view, there is to be no real distinction between these extremes that the overwhelming majority of us would recognize in clear terms of right and wrong. So long as god has prescribed or permitted them, none of it should be called evil. 

Only what god forbids is wrong. But when he forbids the same acts he has otherwise allowed, we see the uselessness of such a framework. Morality is reduced to a matter of “do as I say, not as I do”. As previously stated, even if we suppose god has hidden reasons for commanding what he does, the fact that his nature is consistent with allowing every conceivable evil makes it fairly dubious that all those reasons are justifying reasons. Particularly in the case of animal suffering, there seems to be an evil that is without justification. Apologists often assert that god allows human suffering to bring us closer to him, but animals do not participate in relationships with god, according to Christian doctrine. Their suffering, then, would seem to be unnecessary.

There is something that appears insufficient to me about this distinction between what god allows and forbids, too. Philosophers and ethicists test the strength of their moral theories by holding them up to our moral experience and moral intuitions. I don’t think any of us can argue that we perceive certain actions as being right and certain actions as being wrong. There are grey areas, to be sure, but we can also distinguish between many different acts and form judgments accordingly. In other words, good moral theories have some capability to predict or elaborate what actions will be right or wrong in hypothetical scenarios. Dr. Craig’s Divine Command Theory lacks this capability, in my opinion. It cannot judge an action even when all of its consequences and causes are taken into account. The only time it will be able to make a judgment is when that additional information exists: does god will the action or does he forbid it? Scripture can be no help, since god has willed and forbidden murder at various times, for example, and – to bring things back around to where we started – history also records the terrible things god has permitted.

In conclusion, I’m not convinced that William Lane Craig actually believes in evil, despite his insistence that he does. At best, it must be a pale vestige of what he demands of the atheist – a bizarre sort of wrongness that rests on the nature of a morally ambiguous being that has historically contradicted our most basic moral intuitions. What can it mean to call rape evil under Craig’s view of morality? It can’t mean that god’s nature is inconsistent with rape, because he has allowed it for centuries, and god cannot permit what is wrong. It can’t mean that god disapproves of rape, because it is consistent with his nature. The most it can apparently mean is “god says no to rape in this instance”. Why this instance? Why say no at all? Perhaps he has some hidden reason. Or perhaps the hidden truth is that ethics is illusory on Dr. Craig’s worldview.

bookmark_borderCraig, Koons, and Divine Command Theory

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Taylor Carr republished on The Secular Outpost with permission. The original post may be found on his blog, The Godless Skeptic.

In a recent episode of the Reasonable Faith podcast, William Lane Craig offers his thoughts on a 2012 paper by Jeremy Koons, Can God’s Goodness Save the Divine Command Theory from Euthyphro? Koons’ paper is another in a growing number of critiques aimed at the divine command meta-ethics advocated by figures like Craig, Robert Adams, and William Alston. Though a simple sort of divine command theory (DCT) received a devastating blow centuries ago from the famous Euthyphro dilemma put forward in Plato, modern defenders have adapted the DCT to resist the challenge presented by the dilemma. If good actions are merely those in accordance with god’s commands, then goodness is arbitrary, since god could command anything and it would be good. However, Alston and others who adopt a modified DCT argue against this arbitrariness on the basis of the perfectly good nature of god. God could no more command infanticide, they say, than he could make a rock too heavy for himself to lift, because it would be in contradiction to his nature as god.
Does this move work? Craig believes it exposes the Euthyphro as a false dilemma, presenting a third option that is not identical to the other two options. Yet adding a third possibility to a dilemma does not necessarily mean the challenge underlying it is broken. It could rather indicate that we actually face a trilemma, which could be just as problematic as the original dilemma. This, I think, is where Professor Koon’s paper is of real value. The question behind it is whether or not this move of DCT works any better than the two options typically posed by the Euthyphro. Craig firmly contends that it is better, but his arguments don’t seem to warrant such conviction.
One of Craig’s main criticisms is that Koons sets up a new dilemma that is just as flawed as the original. He says:
What he will ask now is: are these properties like loving-kindness, impartiality, generosity good because God possesses them or does God possess them because they are good? He imagines this as a dilemma. It seems to me there is no dilemma there at all. The divine command theorist, and Alston in particular, is very clear. These properties are good because God possesses them.
No doubt, this is what theological non-voluntarists like Craig, Adams, and Alston want to assert. But in his paper, Koons provides a puzzling quote from Alston that almost seems to suggest the opposite:
Note that on this view we are not debarred from saying what is supremely good about God. God is not good, qua bare particular or undifferentiated thisness. God is good by virtue of being loving, just, merciful and so on.
Craig seems to interpret the attention Koons gives to this quote as an accusation of contradiction. I don’t think is what Koons is getting at, though, especially since he clarifies shortly thereafter that “Alston’s particularism requires that God’s goodness be logically prior to the goodness of the moral virtues. And we will see that this view is incoherent”. It looks more like Koons is spelling out where he intends to direct his critique, and he directs it precisely where it should be directed, according to Craig.
All the same, Craig tries to resolve the apparent conflict by reference to the distinction Koons draws between explanations-why and explanations-what. Koons uses the contra-factual example of how even if the electron’s negative charge were a brute fact that could not be further explained, it would still be possible to explain what a negative charge is. Thus, explanations-why may run out, but it need not mean there can be no explanation-what. Coming off of this distinction, Craig attempts to argue that this is exactly what divine command theorists like Alston are saying:

When you get to God you’ve reached the metaphysical and moral ultimate, the explanatory stopping point. But that doesn’t mean you can’t explain what goodness is or wherein the goodness of God consists. As Alston says, you can still explain to people that God is loving, kind, merciful, generous, and so forth.

You can keep asking why the good is good, but eventually a stopping point must be reached, for theists and atheists alike. But, says Bill, you can continue to talk about what the good is in relation to the characteristics of god. However, this is where Professor Koons really has a bone to pick with DCT.
Koons observes that when the divine command theorist poses this explanation-what – that god is, per Alston, “good by virtue of being loving, just, merciful and so on” – this reverses the order of explanation employed by defenders of DCT that gets them to knowledge of the goodness of god. Usually, one thinks of god’s characteristics to derive the conclusion that he is the supreme good. It’s because god is loving, just, merciful, and so on that he is perfectly good. Proponents of DCT argue the opposite, that we start by intuiting that god just is all-good, and then derive the goodness of his characteristics from there. The problem with this is that it leaves astoundingly little content to the goodness of god. How do we conclude that god is good before knowing anything about who he is?Craig proceeds to call for a necessary distinction between moral semantics and moral ontology. DCT, he says, is not a semantic theory or a theory of the meaning of ethical sentences, but is rather about the ontological grounding of moral values. Koons has made a category mistake, Bill asserts, because insisting on the meaninglessness or unintelligibility of the good is not a successful way to refute a theory concerned with moral ontology.
It’s well known that Robert Adams once took DCT to be a theory of meaning, but the sharp divide Craig often wishes to draw between moral semantics and moral ontology is something to which not all ethicists commit. Particularly when it comes to theistic meta-ethics, it seems that semantics and ontology are more bound up than modern defenders of DCT will admit. In his 2004 paper, A Semantic Attack on Divine-Command Metaethics, Stephen Maitzen objects strongly to this sharp distinction on both religious tradition and logical grounds:
According to a tradition whose philosophical expression dates at least to Anselm, God exists of metaphysical necessity, i.e., in all possible worlds, and he possesses his intrinsic properties not accidentally but essentially. Moreover, even atheists have acknowledged the good rea­sons for thinking that if God exists then he exists (and possesses the same intrinsic properties) in all possible worlds; indeed, some atheists, such as J.N. Findlay, base their alleged disproofs of God’s existence on the plausible assumption that God exists necessarily if he exists at all. If these Ansel­mian assumptions are correct, then all of the following sentences have the same truth-conditions:(S1) ‘God exists.’
(S2) ‘God is omniscient.’
(S3) ‘God is omnipotent.’
(S4) ‘God is morally good. ‘
Since S4 is an ethical sentence, an attribution of a moral property to an ob ject, it belongs to the domain of sentences DCM [Divine Command Metaethics] needs to explain. If DCM gives only the truth-conditions, and not also the meaning, of S4, then it tells us nothing about S4 that is not just as true of the other three, presumably non-ethical, sentences. What is worse, if DCM gives only the truth-condi­tions of S4, then some entirely non-metaethical theory – a theory, say, giving the truth-conditions for attributions of omniscience – would tell us all that DCM tells us about that ethical sentence, in which case it is hard to see what would make DCM a metaethical theory, at least with respect to the moral attributes of God. So DCM had better concern not just the truth-conditions of ethical sentences but also their meaning.
 Here we see more of the vacuousness of god’s goodness under DCT. As Koons seems to be driving at, Maitzen argues that divine command meta-ethics can only be trivial in what it accomplishes. If we begin by intuiting the goodness of god, establishing the goodness of any other characteristics of god from that basis looks bleak indeed. The goodness of god would not necessarily mean all god’s attributes are good-making. Is immateriality good because god has it? What about timelessness? Omniscience? These attributes seem non-moral, yet it doesn’t appear that one has any means for distinguishing between them and the allegedly good-making attributes of god. On DCT, we just are not able to talk sensibly of the good-making properties of god, or of how those properties ground moral values.
To an extent, Craig wants to bite the bullet here. Goodness, he explains in the podcast, “is one of these primitives that really ultimately can’t be defined.” This is addressed by Koons in his paper, though, when he notes that this view, which comes from G.E. Moore, “merely meant that one could not analytically reduce the Good to other non-normative or non-moral concepts.” The good is not absolutely inexplicable, but it cannot be neatly reduced in terms of definition to a non-moral proposition. So, the question remains of how effectively Craig, Alston, and Adams have accounted for the goodness of god in their theory, and whether their account is better than any of the competing accounts.It’s interesting to note how tempting it seems to be for theists to explain the goodness of god in light of god’s particular characteristics. Near the end of the podcast, Craig identifies why he thinks god is a plausible explanatory ultimate for a moral theory. God, he says, is “worthy of worship.” But why is this anymore indicative of god’s perfect goodness than is his immaterial nature, his omnipresence, etc? It would not be far-fetched for one to make the case that worship has a moral component to it, let alone what it means to be worthy of worship. So is it perhaps that Craig and Alston are intuiting the goodness of god from his good-making properties, their denials notwithstanding? It certainly looks like a more sensible way of conceiving of the goodness of god than what modern DCT advocates claim to be doing. The alternative essentially seems to rest entirely on the mere assertion of belief that god is good. Who would fault anyone for needing more than that to devote as intimate an act as worship to another being?
Bibliography
Craig, The Euthyphro Dilemma Once Again, ReasonableFaith.org (Jan 4, 2015).
Koons, Can God’s Goodness Save the Divine Command Theory from Euthyphro? European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 4/1 (Spring 2012), pp. 177-195.
Maitzen, A Semantic Attack on Divine-Command MetaethicsSophia Vol. 43, No. 2 (Oct 2004).

 

bookmark_borderKai Nielsen on Natural Law and Divine Command Theory

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Taylor Carr republished on The Secular Outpost with permission. The original post may be found on his blog, The Godless Skeptic.

It’s common to hear theists make the claim that there cannot be a moral law without a moral law-giver. C.S. Lewis, Ravi Zacharias, and several other prominent defenders of the Christian faith have given voice to this position in their writings and lectures. The association of religion with morality goes back a long ways in history, at least as far as Plato, but the most notable articulator of it in Christian thought is perhaps Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century friar and theologian. Aquinas’ view that morality must be grounded in god has been influential in both Catholic and Protestant circles and is reflected in two traditions known as natural law theory and divine command theory.The Canadian philosopher Kai Nielsen critiques both traditions in an essay featured in his book Atheism & Philosophy. On natural law theory – the view that we come to an understanding of the good through reason, in accordance with the “eternal law” of god – Professor Nielsen raises four main objections.
1. Natural law suffers from the same problems of justification as other moral theories. Nielsen writes:
For such a certain knowledge of good and evil, we require moral principles that can be seen to be self-evident to us or natural moral laws of whose truths we can be certain. But since natural moral laws are only self-evident in themselves (assuming we know what that means) and since it is God’s reason and not man’s that is the source of the moral law, we poor mortals can have no rational certitude that the precepts claimed to be natural laws are really natural laws. [p. 201]
2. Natural law begs the question with regard to what human beings are made for, or what they are in their essential nature – that is, creations of a god. Nielsen notes that this is a background assumption for which science has offered no support. Even if some day we discover that there are, in fact, certain characteristics held in common by all human beings, it does not follow that these must be in place for us to be properly called humans.
3. Proponents of natural law theory contend that conflicts and confusions on what things are good stem from a corruption of our natural inclinations due to sin or to ‘dark habits’. As Nielsen points out, though, we can rightly wonder what criteria are used to determine when a habit is dark or sinful. “What actually happens,” he observes, “is that those moral beliefs that are incompatible with Catholic doctrine, and as a result are called corrupt and sinful, are simply arbitrarily labeled as ‘unnatural’ and ‘abnormal.'” This shifts the focus from natural law conceptions to some other criteria allegedly rejected by natural law theorists, such as our own personal assessments of human nature or a statistical judgment of what is humanly ‘natural’, bringing us again to the question of what makes any of our natural inclinations right versus corrupt.
4. Natural law fallaciously attempts to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’ Again, from Nielsen:

To discover what our natural inclinations are is simply to discover a fact about ourselves; to discover what purposes we have is simply to discover another fact about ourselves, but that we ought to have these inclinations or purposes or that it is desirable that we have them does not follow from statements asserting that people have such and such inclinations or purposes. These statements can very well be true but no moral or normative conclusions follow from them.

Natural law is often invoked in defense of Catholic doctrines, particularly when it comes to the Church’s positions on homosexuality and birth control. But what of the Protestant alternative? Unsurprisingly, Nielsen doesn’t think divine command theory – the view that good is what god commands, as god is himself the highest good – fares any better.

…a radically Reformationist ethic, divorcing itself from natural moral law conceptions, breaks down because something’s being commanded cannot eo ipso make something good. Jews and Christians think it can because they take God to be good and to be a being who always wills what is good. ‘God is good’ no doubt has the status of a tautology in Christian thought, but if so ‘God is good’ still is not a statement of identity and we must first understand what ‘good’ means (including what criteria it has) before we can properly use ‘God is good’ and ‘God is Perfectly Good.’

To treat the statement ‘god is good’ as an expression of identity would be to commit what G.E. Moore labeled the naturalistic fallacy. While this fallacy is often tossed about in criticisms of naturalistic ethics, there seems to be disappointingly little attention paid to the chapter on “Metaphysical Ethics” in the Principia Ethica, where Moore explains how it also applies to ethics founded on metaphysical truths, i.e. the existence of a god. Some theistic thinkers have taken this problem into account and argue that though good and god are not technically synonymous, there is nonetheless some relation between the two.
As Nielsen points out, however, this still leaves us without an understanding of what ‘good’ means. Even in tautological statements like ‘Wives are women’ and ‘Triangles are three-sided’, we know what women are and we know what it means to be three-sided. If ‘god is good’ is not an expression of identity, if it is not guilty of the naturalistic fallacy, then how are we to understand, much less believe, what is being asserted when we don’t understand what ‘good’ means? Nielsen puts it forcefully: “Morality does not presuppose religion; religion presupposes morality.”

 

bookmark_borderThe Perfect Goodness of God – Again

I have been struggling for weeks to try to re-state Richard Swinburne’s argument concerning the coherence of the idea of there being a perfectly good person (from Chapter 11 of The Coherence of Theism, hereafter: COT). I think I can now at least point the way as to how to do this. The overarching argument goes like this:
1. The statement ‘There is a perfectly free and omniscient person’ is a coherent statement.
2. The statement ‘There is a perfectly free and omniscient person’ entails the statement ‘There is a perfectly good person.’
3. Whenever a coherent statement entails another statement, the entailed statement is also a coherent statement.
Therefore:
4. The statement ‘There is a perfectly good person’ is a coherent statement.
Swinburne argues for (1) in previous chapters of COT, and I will not challenge that premise here. Premise (3) seems right to me, and the logic of this argument is fine. As far as Chapter 11 is concerned, the question at issue is whether (2) is true. It is the argument for (2) that I have been struggling to re-state.
Swinburne does not spell out a definition of ‘perfectly good person’ but he states various necessary conditions, which, presumably, when taken together, amount to a sufficient condition:
A person P is a perfectly good person IF AND ONLY IF:
(a) P always does the morally best action, in circumstances where there is such an action, and
(b) P always does at least one equal best action, in circumstances where there are such actions, and
(c) P always does at least one morally good action, in circumstances where there is no morally best action and no equal best action, and
(d) P never does a morally bad action.
The entailment claim that Swinburne makes in (2) can be put in terms of a conditional statement:
2A. IF there is a perfectly free and omniscient person, THEN there is a perfectly good person.
If (2A) can be shown to be true, then (2) will be shown to be true, so long as we understand the conditional statement to mean that the antecedent entails the consequent. But because the concept of a ‘perfectly good’ person involves at least four different necessary conditions, a line of reasoning to show that (2A) is true would be rather complicated, too complicated for my taste and ability. So, I think the best approach is to use the basic strategy of mathematics and modern philosophy: analysis. We can deal with each of the necessary conditions one at a time.
Let’s focus on just the first necessary condition for being a perfectly good person:
(a) P always does the morally best action, in circumstances where there is such an action.
So, rather than try to prove (2A), I will make a more modest effort to prove the following conditional claim:
(2B) IF there is a perfectly free and omniscient person, THEN there is a person who always does the morally best action, in circumstances where there is such an action.
One can use conditional derivation to prove a conditional statement.  You start out by supposing the antecedent to be true, and then work at trying to prove the consequent to be true.
PFO1. There is a person P who is perfectly free and omniscient.  [supposition for conditional derivation]
PFO2. If there is a person P who is perfectly free and omniscient, then there is a perfectly free person P such that if P is in circumstance C and action A is the morally best action for P in C, then P knows that P is in C, P is in C, P knows that A is the morally best action for P in C, and P is able to do A in C. [this is a necessary truth that is based on the meaning of ‘omniscient’ and on the principle that ‘ought implies can’]
PFO3. There is a perfectly free person P such that if P is in circumstance C and action A is the morally best action for P in C, then P knows that P is in C, P is in C, P knows that A is the morally best action for P in C, and P is able to do A in C.  [deduced from (PFO1) and (PFO2)]
PFO4. There is a perfectly free person P such that if P is in circumstance C and action A is the morally best action for P in C, then P believes that P is in C, P is in C, P believes that A is the morally best action for P in C, and P is able to do A in C.  [deduced from  (PFO3) based on the meaning of ‘knows’]
PFO5.  If there is a perfectly free person P and P believes that P is in circumstance C, P is in C, P believes that A is the morally best action for P in C, and P is able to do A in C, then P will do A in C.   [a necessary truth based on the meaning of ‘perfectly free’ peson]
 PFO6. There is a perfectly free person P such that if P is in circumstance C, and A is the morally best action for P in C, then P will do A in C.  [deduced from (PFO4) and (PFO5)]
PFO7.  There is a person P who always does the morally best action, in circumstances where there is such an action.  [deduced from (PFO6)]
PFO8.  If there is a person P who is perfectly free and omniscient, then there is a person P who always does the morally best action, in circumstances where there is such an action. [ conditional derivation from (PFO1) through (PFO7)]
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Proving Conditional Statements vs Proving Entailments
I believe my logic is OK, but my philosophy of logic is not, at least not here.
Proving a conditional statment by conditional derivation does not prove that the antecedent entails the consequent.
In conditional derivation, you may use a given (something known to be true) in order to derive the consequent from the antecedent.  But a given might only be a logically contingent factual claim.
Given: Q (a true factual claim)
Show that ‘IF P THEN Q’
1.  P    [supposition for a conditional derivation]
2.  Q  [ a given, a known fact]
3.  IF P THEN Q  [based on conditional derivation (1) through (2)]
Q could be a logically contingent factual claim, such as  ‘Obama was re-elected in 2012’.
P could be any statement you like, such as ‘The Space Needle is in Seattle”.  So, conditional derivation allows one to prove the following conditional statment:
4. IF the Space Needle is in Seattle, THEN Obama was re-elected in 2012.
Clearly, it is NOT the case that the antecedent of this statement entails the consequent. It is logically possible for the Space Needle to be in Seattle and for Obama to have failed to be re-elected in 2012.  The truth of the former claim does not guarantee the truth of the latter claim.
In my conditional derivation above, I did not use any logically contingent facts; I used only necessary truths as premises (other than the initial supposition).  However, that does not put my proof in the clear.  For one can prove a conditional statement using only necessary truths (other than the supposition of the antecedent) and still fail to establish an entailment.
Q might be a necessary truth, such as ‘All triangles have three sides’.
Show that ‘IF P, THEN Q’.
1a. P  [a supposition for conditional derivation]
2a. Q [a necessary truth]
3a. IF P, THEN Q.  [based on conditional derivation (1) through (2)]
P may, once again, be any statement you like, such as ‘Zebras have stripes’.
The above proof would thus show the following conditional statement to be true:
4a. IF zebras have stripes, THEN all triangles have three sides.
Clearly, the antecedent of (4a) does NOT entail the consequent of (4a).  The two statements are logically unrelated to each other.
I believe that the reasoning I gave above does (setting aside objections to the necessary truth claims) show that the statement ‘There is a person who is perfectly free and omniscient’  entails the statement ‘There is a perfectly good person’, but a conditional derivation of the related conditional statement is NOT sufficient to prove this, so there must be other constraints that I have observed here, but which I am not currently able to point out.