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Mailbag: A Moral Argument from Evil?

Question:

Hi, MA team:

I’ve been working through an argument for God’s existence which takes as its starting point a conception of evil as wrongdoing or injustice. In other words, when we think about great evils, whether moral or natural, we tend to think of certain states of affairs that *ought not* obtain, or which depart from the way things should be, or which are simply not owed to us. All of these different conceptions, it seems to me, essentially boil down to two elements: 1) we treat the existence of evil as being ‘out of step’ with the character of the world, that is, as having a certain normative pull; and 2) such normative character points to an understanding of evil as in relation to some end or perfection, some maximum.

The argument I have in mind, then, proceeds thus:

1. To the extent that we understand evil as a wrongdoing or injustice — that is, as a departure from the way things should be, or as something not owed — we understand evil in relation to some end or perfection, some maximum.
2. But, given atheism, no such perfection or maximum exists.
3. Therefore, plausibly, theism is true.

I would be very interested in your thoughts, please. One possible objection that has been marshalled against my argument is the following (and I wonder how you would address it, provided that you think the argument works):

“I think most moral philosophers think premise 2 is false. Aristotle argued there is a highest human end (without God), so injustices are departures from that. Similarly, Kant argued that his “categorical imperative” is objectively true, not dependent upon God. Finally, I argue…that (1) is false: that evil is not a departure from some objective “maximum,” but rather deviations from a conception of fairness that is rational for human beings to adopt given human psychology.”

Thank you very much for your time,
Paulo Juarez

 

Reply: This is all very interesting stuff! Thanks for the query, and sorry for the delay getting back to you. This approach, to my thinking, has tremendous potential. The notion that the world is, in some very strong sense, not as it ought to be seems profoundly right, but also rather difficult to reconcile with naturalism. After all, in something like a fully determined world, why should anything be different from what it is? Evil in any robust sense makes more sense in a theistic world inhabited with creatures with meaningful agency who have used their agency wrongly. In God and Cosmos, Walls and I make the case that what’s worse even than the problem of evil is the inability of naturalism to account for the category of evil at all. When the problem of evil ceases being a problem for one’s worldview, so much the worse for one’s worldview.

You’re characterizing as an essential feature of evil a relation to some end or perfection or maximum. First a word on that. Personally I might disambiguate between these three notions. The second and third of them—perfection and maximum—seem to go well together in Anselmian theology. If the God of classical theism is construed along the lines of the greatest possible being, then his perfection is constituted by instantiating all the great-making properties to the maximally compossible degree. So, regarding goodness, God has as much goodness as is possible in light of his maximal power, knowledge, etc. Tom Morris and I did an article on this in the recent issue of the Christian Research Journal. I think that makes great sense.

When we speak of an “end” of something, however, I’m not as confident that we need speak of a perfection or maximum. Regarding human artifacts, for example, like a pencil, its end is to write well, or something like that. Or a car’s purpose or function is likely to transport us around. Aristotle thought teleology was shot through everything, but if it is, in lots of cases the telos in question has little to do with perfection or a maximum.

Now, if human beings in particular have a telos, and if Christianity is true, then you could more effectively argue that the goal, the purpose, the telos of human beings does involve perfection—at the culmination of the sanctification process when we’re entirely conformed to the image of Christ. That classical theism and orthodox Christianity feature the realistic hope of total moral transformation in this way enables the “performative” variant of moral apologetics that’s one of the four variants of the moral argument this website often discusses.

But you wish to characterize even natural evils as falling short of a perfection, which likely seems predicated on the idea that worlds admit of intrinsic maxima, and I rather doubt they do. Unlike the case of God, who does admit of intrinsic maxima, worlds likely don’t, which is related to why one of Guanilo’s criticisms of the ontological argument fails, since the criticism assumed that, say, islands admitted of intrinsic maxima when, in fact, they just don’t. How many palm trees are on the perfect island, for example? There’s no principled, nonarbitrary way to say.

So I’m of two minds about your argument. On the one hand, I think there’s something profoundly right about theism providing the best explanation of the category of evil—along with hope for its ultimate defeat (by relation with God, the ultimate Good, a good so incommensurably good that relation to him can make the sufferings of this world, however horrific, pale by comparison). On the other hand, characterization of evil as intrinsically connected to a maximum or perfection strains credulity a bit.

More plausible, I think, is the claim that evil, as an instance of the way the world shouldn’t be, reflects a missing of the mark (even if the mark isn’t best cast as a perfection). Not every imperfection is an instance of evil, but every evil does seem to be a radical missing of some normative state of affairs. So I’d likely be inclined to recast your argument more like this:

  1. To the extent that we understand evil as a wrongdoing or injustice — that is, as a departure from the way things should be, or as something not owed — we understand evil in relation to some end or standard.
  2. Theism provides the best explanation for such normatively binding ends.
  3. Therefore, plausibly, theism is true.

This still remains too brief and needs more fleshing out, but it’s the direction I’d encourage. And maybe I’m wrong! Perhaps you can still convince me of the need and plausibility of those categories I excised. But for now, my suggestion, for whatever it’s worth, is this: Leave behind the ontologically heavy notions of perfections and maxima and just refer to the intuitively strong idea that evil reflects something that is not the way the world ought to be. Then make the case that classical theism and orthodox Christianity can provide the better explanation of such normatively binding ends that make sense of how the world, people, etc. “ought to be.” On naturalism, assuming determinism at the macro level, it’s awfully difficult to distinguish between the way the world is and how it ought to be. That’s a very high price to pay for the committed naturalist, involving an eschewal of deep moral intuitions.

As for the Kantian and Thomistic concerns, I don’t think you have as much to worry with there as some might say you do. In various places in Kant’s works, he gives a variant of a moral argument for God’s existence. It tends to be a version of either the performative or rational argument (as discussed on this site and in God and Cosmos), but it’s undoubtedly there. Just recently I’ve been reading his Lectures on Ethics (which students of his put together based on his lectures). Here’s a telling passage (one among many!): “The ideal of the Gospels is complete in every respect. Here we have the greatest purity and the greatest happiness. It sets out the principles of morality in all their holiness. It commands man to be holy, but as he is imperfect it gives him a prop, namely, divine aid.” Even the categorical imperative is, to Kant’s thinking, connected in various and powerful ways to God, not least in Kant’s insistence we should think of all moral duties as duties to God for the sake of grounding their rational stability.

Regarding Aristotle, you might wish to read John Hare’s chapter on him in God and Morality. Our highest telos, for Aristotle, is contemplating the divine. So it’s actually not the case that the highest human good, for Aristotle, was independent of God. Naturalists who try to adopt him to their cause are misguided, for a number of reasons. Here’s one: Aristotle’s focus on what’s natural was by way of contrast with the artificial, not the supernatural. At any rate, much more could be said there (and has been said elsewhere), but take a look at Hare if you get a chance.

Thanks so much for the chance to reflect on this, and feel free to stick to your guns and defend your approach. Keep up the great work! Blessings!

Dave Baggett

 

 

Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 3: The God of the Old Testament versus the God of the New?

By David Baggett 

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

Marcion (born ca. 100) took troubling Old Testament passages and rejected them along with the “lesser” Creator God of the Jews, the God of justice and wrath. Marcion considered the God of the New Testament quite different from that of the Old, but was he right? Did Jesus attempt to distance himself from the God portrayed in the Old Testament? Is there a wide gap between the worldview of ancient Israelites and the teaching of Jesus?

Peter Enns doesn’t think the Gospel permits, condones, or supports the rhetoric of tribal violence in the OT, but he denies being a Marcionite. Eric Seibert, too, writes that not everything in the “good book” is either good, or good for us, while still repudiating Marcionism. They reject the notion that there are two distinct Gods in view; they claim that the testaments portray God differently.

Both Enns and Seibert claim that their interpretive frame of reference is Jesus of Nazareth. F&C say this is praiseworthy, but that we are presented with a limited picture of Jesus and one that ignores authoritative affirmations by NT writers and speakers about Yahweh and his actions in the OT.

Seibert argues that the OT is part of the reason the Bible has been used by some to justify violence, colonialism, and the abuse of women. The OT writers, he thinks, often appropriated the values and beliefs of their own ancient Near Eastern context, including its ethnocentrism and patriarchy, which don’t reflect the character of a compassionate, merciful God.

Seibert distinguishes between the textual God (the author’s literary representation) and the actual God (the living reality), especially in the OT, where the gap between them is sometimes wide. The OT authors made assumptions we should reject, looking to Christ instead and construing God’s judgment as eschatological and not temporal, and that end-time judgment need not be violent.

Seibert urges us to read the Bible carefully, conversantly, and critically—not compliantly. For example, carefully follow the rule of love, a commitment to justice and valuing people. Remember some OT voices challenge “virtuous violence.” It can be read as subverting a picture of pitting bad Canaanites against good Israelites. Another strategy is to read with the victims and their families. Read the Bible from the margins, from the outsider’s point of view. Seibert also thinks we should name the killing of the Canaanites “genocide.”

The God of Jesus Is the God of Moses

F&C make a few replies. First, it is true that we should think more deeply about difficult, ethically troubling OT passages rather than gloss over them. And notable scholars have been doing just that. F&C also agree we should be distressed by professing Christians’ abuse of scripture, using such texts to justify the subjugation of women, the horrors of the slave trade, and the oppression of people groups. At the same time, they would note all the moral gains brought about by Bible-reading Christians—moral reforms, protection of indigenous peoples from colonial powers, literacy, human rights, women’s rights, civil rights, abolition of slavery, etc.

Second, Seibert’s negative comment that the church “grandly proclaims” the Bible to be God’s Word is rather unfair. Jesus himself does so! Likewise Paul. Ironically, while Seibert claims that Jesus is the hermeneutical key to his ethic, he does not actually adopt Jesus’s own attitude toward scripture.

Third, we must be careful not to appeal to Jesus’s authority selectively. Jesus regularly engaged in denouncements and threats of judgment, both temporal and final. And Jesus takes for granted the general theological outlook of the OT.

Fourth, we must not pit Jesus’s teaching (or a certain understanding of it) against the affirmations elsewhere in the NT. The problem for both Enns and Seibert is that Jesus and the NT writers don’t actually read the OT in a nonviolent way. None of them shrink from the God of the OT, or from an assumption that the relevant OT texts were historical.

To impose a nonviolent or pacifistic grid on the words and actions of God/Jesus requires significant hermeneutical gymnastics—an approach that creates an interpretive straitjacket. To proclaim an absolute pacifism and a rejection of any association between God and violent action requires dismissing or ignoring Jesus’s own authoritative statements, vast tracts of scripture pertaining to divine judgment, like the prophetic books and the book of Revelation. It’s also to ignore God’s ordaining of the state to bear the sword.

Note that the NT is filled with words about divine justice. Paul said those who refuse to love the Lord are “accursed”; he even wished that those troubling Judaizers would go the whole way and mutilate themselves. He called them “dogs,” and Jesus used similar language about those who despise the sacred things of God, calling them “dogs” and “swine,” and did so in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, in which he speaks of loving enemies! Even expressions of satisfaction at divine wrath and judgment can be justified (Rev. 16:6), and this does not oppose Jesus’s call to love and pray for our enemies, indeed to desire their salvation.

“Behold then the kindness and the severity of God” (Rom. 11:22). Reading the scriptures with discernment shouldn’t mean an undiscerning selectivity that ignores the very stance of the NT and Jesus himself. Even the chief OT text describing the God of Israel as “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in loving kindness and truth” (Ex. 34:6) immediately is followed by, “He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished.”

Jesus and his earliest followers took for granted the same unchanging character of the God of the Hebrew scriptures. F&C finish this chapter with a flourish: “To assume that Jesus rejected divine temporal judgment in the Old Testament Scriptures runs contrary to Jesus’s own assumption of the historicity of these events, his own wrathful pronouncements, and his strong identification with the Old Testament worldview. So we should carefully study and qualify the nature of violence in Scripture, but we must not do violence to Scripture in the process.”

Other Chapter Summaries Available Here 

Image: “Jesus holding the Book of Life” by Waiting for the Word. CC License. 

Mailbag: The Devil Made Us Smarter?

By David Baggett 

A reader of the site asked for help responding to this:

“The devil gave humans critical thinking which God didn’t want us to have. God wanted us to not eat from the tree of knowledge so we could be thought-slaves for eternity, but the devil did us a favor and turned the tables there with a single conversation. The devil killed a grand total of 10 people in the Bible, while God killed somewhere around 2.3 million. He understands human nature but doesn’t judge you for being human. He accepts god’s unwanted children unconditionally.”

It appears these lines come from Martin Ristov, although I’m unfamiliar with the person. It appears to be motivated by a fair bit of anger at the biblical God, similar in invective and spirit to the New Atheists. The idea seems to be that, in a moral comparison between God and Satan, the devil wins. Satan is responsible for giving us critical thinking, liberates us from being thought-slaves, has done comparatively little damage (killing just ten folks in the Bible), doesn’t judge people for being human, and accepts those God rejects. God, in contrast, wanted us to be thought-slaves, killed millions, judges us for being human, and is conditional in his acceptance.

The comparison with the New Atheists is ironic in a sense, since the New Atheists claim not to believe in God, whereas this person doesn’t seem to deny God’s existence, but rather his love and character. Still, certain adamant secularists seem mad at God at the same time as denying His existence. C. S. Lewis is well known for admitting, post-conversion, that as an atheist he both denied God’s existence and was very angry with God.

I think much of what’s going on here is attributable to looking at theology from the outside. Christians are inclined to believe God is loving; in fact, love isn’t just what God expresses, it’s who He is. God has expressed His love most clearly through Christ, and the whole of salvation history culminates in Him. Jesus went to the cross while we were sinners in order to save us. God’s love is His most important attribute, and every part of biblical revelation should be understood through this guiding hermeneutic. If, instead, one reads the Bible through a different lens, a very different conclusion can be drawn; but to read it in such a way is to wrongly divide the word of truth. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil isn’t denied the first people, on this skewed and exegetically deficient reading, because of the importance of avoiding defining good and evil for oneself in whatever subjective way one wanst, but rather because God wants to keep us from knowledge. Rather than Jesus being the Logos and the foundation for all clear thinking, critical thinking gets cast as a gift from the benevolent hand of Satan. We are thus furnished with a stark example of what incommensurable paradigms look like, and how far afield eisegetical, prooftexting mishandlings of the biblical text get us.

A comparison and contrast between God and Satan also sounds much more dualistic than Christianity actually is. Unlike, say, Zoroastrianism and certain other theologies, Christianity doesn’t put God and Satan into equal and opposite positions. Satan is a creation of God. There’s only one God, one locus of value, one Creator of the world, one Sustainer of all that exists, one Being who exists a se. Much of what often gets rejected is not classical theism, but some diminished demi-god, like the finite and morally impoverished gods of the Greek pantheon. The idea that Satan is really the good guy after all shows that the person speaking has some rather big misunderstandings, either inadvertent or intentional. The force behind systemic evils and gross injustices and all manner of cruelty and corruption is actually the good and benevolent force? The one animating the actions of Roman soldiers nailing Jesus to the cross was the good guy? This strains credulity to the breaking point, and raises a serious question about conversational cooperation.

The one who willingly suffered for the salvation of the world, who took our sin upon himself, who was willing to endure the shame and punishment that we rightly deserved—and to do so out of His great love for us—drinking death and shame to its dregs that He might effect ultimate victory over evil and set the world to rights—He’s the bad guy? The one who offers to each of us the experience of ultimate goodness that can make all the temporal sufferings of this fleeting life pale into insignificance in light of the eternal glory to come—He’s the real devil? I suspect this is a paradigmatic instance of what was prophesied: that the day would come when good would be called evil, and evil good.

Image: By Antonio Tempesta (Italy, Florence, 1555-1630) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Trinity: Knowing the Loving God, an Essay for Trinity Sunday

by B. T. Scalise

Immutability is one of those technical theological words or attributes of God that some believe was contrived by theologians. Put simply, immutability means unchangeable or unalterable, and it is a classical attribute of God. This attribute, however, is not generated by theologians but directly derived from Scripture. Hebrews 6:17-18 states, “In the same way, God, wishing even more greatly to show to the heirs of promise the immutability of His intention, mediated it by an oath in order that through two immutability things — for God to lie is impossible by these immutable things — we refugees might have strong comfort in order to attain the hope which is set before us” (trans. mine, italicized words represent words implied by translation). Similarly, Malachi 3:6 records, “For I, Yahweh, do not change, and you, sons of Jacob, are not exterminated” (trans. mine from MT).

Perhaps more important is the belief that we can truly relate to God, which is the magnificent truth of the greatest commandment: “You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5). When God’s unchangeableness is paired with the mutual love shared between God and humanity (John 3:16), a tension presents itself. To love is to relate, but in all relating — it seems — is some measure of change.

If we were to relate to a rock, or a tree, we would be sorely disappointed since there is no mutual relating, and why is this so? We could change our attitude towards the rock, but the rock will never adjust itself — how could it? — to relate to us. This relationship is a one-way gig; we adjust to relate to the rock, but it never adjusts itself to relate to us. Love for a rock is bound to go unrequited. Few of us, I suppose, would believe this to be a good relationship; indeed, if my father were to relate to me in such a way — always expecting me to change, but never himself changing — I suspect that I would find the relationship malformed. At the least, we might not find him personable or relatable. Thus, the theory of Aristotle that the Divine (God) is the Unmoved Mover leaves us with a rather mechanical and non-relatable God.

Both God’s immutability and His relationality are equally important and non-negotiables, so we must find a way to uphold them together. To do this, we will employ the nature of the Trinity using Maximus the Confessor as our foundational thinker while deploying John Zizioulas’ commentary on Maximus. The key to success in this endeavor will be to discuss how God can be unchangeable while also showing how God adjusts (and in this sense is changeable) so as to relate to us.

God is One in nature, Three in persons; this is the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. When Scripture says that God does not change, the question we must ask is whether this should be taken as absolute immutability (Unmoved Mover) or qualified immutability. It also should not be missed that, if we look closely at the contexts of the Scriptures cited earlier, it is God’s intention for Israel (Malachi 3:6) or for the future of the church (Hebrews 6:17-18) and God’s complementing oath that are described as immutable, not God directly. These texts are cited frequently as metaphysical statements about God’s total being, but the contexts look less supportive of using them that way. Although this contextual fact is important, we will nevertheless assume that God is immutable (unchangeable) in some respect. For Maximus the Confessor, God is both changeable and unchangeable, which, prima facie, looks inherently contradictory. However, Maximus explains that God is unchangeable in regards to nature (what God is), but changeable with respect to the Persons (Father, Son, Spirit). John Zizioulas clarifies Maximus’ thought:

Maximus uses . . . a distinction between logos [what/nature] and tropos [how/Persons]: in every being there is a permanent and unchangeable aspect and an adjustable one. In the Incarnation, the logos physeos [nature] remains fixed [unchanging], but the tropos [Persons] adjusts being to an intention or purpose or manner of communion [changing]. In other words, the love of God bridges the gulf of otherness by affecting the changeable and adjustable aspect of being, and this applies equally to God and to the world: God bridges the gulf by adjusting his own tropos, that is, the how he is . . . . This amounts to a ‘tropic identity’, that is, to an ontology of tropos, of the ‘how’ things are. This is a matter of ontology, because the tropos of being is an inseparable aspect of being, as primary ontologically as substance or nature.[1]

This may be difficult to follow, but the point we want to draw from Zizioulas is that God must adjust or be changeable if we desire to speak meaningfully of God relating to us. If God does not adjust to have communion with us, that is, to relate to us, then all our talk of God desiring to have relationship with us is meaningless. What type of insight can we gather by returning to Hebrews 6:17-18 and Micah 3:6 with these points in view?

Hebrews 6:17-18 tells us that God gives us confidence based on two immutable (unchangeable) truths: 1) that God’s faithful intention is unchangeable, and 2) that oaths are unbreakable, especially ones taken by God. If we had to pick only one attribute that explains why this is the case, we might choose God’s goodness (or maybe veracity). It is God’s nature that is good, but it is the Persons (Father, Son, Spirit) that make this goodness communal with us. God’s nature is good, and that goodness becomes faithfulness to us by the Son’s (and Spirit’s) relating and sharing it with us. The Trinity’s communal faithfulness, that is, the love the Father, Son, and Spirit share, is adjusted outward when They create the world. The goodness/faithfulness remains the same; with whom the communion includes is extended. Namely, it is extended to us creatures; it is adjusted to embrace us. Persons are capable of adjusting themselves to embrace others; nature, like the rock example above, is not.

The Trinity’s communal faithfulness, that is, the love the Father, Son, and Spirit share, is adjusted outward when They create the world.

Micah 3:6 is discussing God’s continued faithfulness to Israel despite their failings (vv. 1-6): “I, Yahweh, do not change, and you, sons of Jacob, are not exterminated.” The implication is that God’s faithfulness to Jacob and God’s promises to him and his posterity is keeping the sons of Jacob from being exterminated. God’s nature is one of inherent goodness or faithfulness. God, through the promises made to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, extends that faithfulness to Israel. Again, only persons are capable of adjusting themselves to have communion with others. It is the Persons, therefore, the Father, Son, and Spirit, who embrace others, and, in so doing, intimately relate to us.

A practical takeaway from this is that the more personal someone (even an animal) is or becomes, the more she or he will make room for deep, intimate relationships. God the Trinity is the Communion of the relationships mutually shared among the Father, Son, and Spirit. The Trinity makes room for relating to humans so that those who trust the Lord Jesus will have fellowship with the Father, Son, and Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14; 1 John 1:3). To be like God, then, we should make room for intimate relationships both with God and with others, but what more is this than fulfilling the two greatest commands: “ . . . love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind . . . [and] the second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt. 22:37-39). The Trinity makes room for relating to humans so that those who trust the Lord Jesus will have fellowship with the Father, Son, and Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14; 1 John 1:3). To be like God, then, we should make room for intimate relationships both with God and with others, but what more is this than fulfilling the two greatest commands: “ . . . love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind . . . [and] the second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt. 22:37-39).

It is correct to say God is immutable, but when we place this statement together with God loving and relating to us as Trinity, we need to consider this a qualified immutability. Again, the Trinity is immutable in His essentially loving nature and changeable regarding the Persons “making room” for others. Who and what God is does not change, but He does change to relate to new creatures who respond to His overtures of love and come into communion with Him.

Notes:

[1] John Zizioulas, Communion & Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church, ed. Paul McPartlan, rep. (2006; London: T & T Clark, 2009), 24 – 25; Maximus the Confessor, Ambigua 1, 5, and 67. Maximus uses the Greek phrasing of τροπος ὑπαξεως (tropos hypaxeōs: mode of existence) and πως εἰναι (pōs einai: how being exists) to explain. Grammatical brackets mine.

Image: By PJParkinson (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Podcast: Brian Scalise on the Nature of Love in Islam and Christianity

On this week’s podcast, we hear from Dr. Brian Scalise. Dr. Scalise is an adjunct professor at Liberty University. He teaches New Testament Greek and recently taught an intensive to graduate students on Islam.  A few weeks ago on the podcast,  Dr. Scalise explained the difference a Christian versus Islamic understanding of God makes for our understanding of love. This week, we’re going to be returning to that topic. (If you haven’t listened to the first podcast with Brian, it may help to do that first. You can find it here.) In this lecture, Dr. Scalise carefully explains why the Christian Trinity provides an account of love that is richer and fuller than what is possible from an Islamic perspective.

 

Photo: “Pompeo Batoni 003” by Pompeo Batoni – [1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – 

Podcast: David Baggett on the Love of God and the Doctrine of Election

This week we will be talking again with Dr. David Baggett, co-author of Good God and professor of apologetics at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, about the doctrine of election and the love of God. Besides the main topic, we will hit on a number of related issues, like love and the necessity of free will, and the role that philosophy ought to play (if any) in interpreting the Bible.

Most of this discussion takes place with a critique of Calvinism. Because conversations like these can be so divisive, Dr. Baggett wanted to give a brief statement to explain his motivation and to set the tone for the discussion. Here’s the statement:

I hope nothing here causes any discord or division; they’re just some reflections I have about the nature of God as essentially loving and what that seems to imply, and to my thinking they comport with the best biblical exegesis available, though I don’t claim to be a biblical scholar. To me this focus on God’s essentially loving nature seems a crucial part of moral apologetics, but I really do sincerely hope that those who may disagree with me on some of these issues don’t take any offense. It’s surely not intended. Christians of diverse stripes agree on much more than what they disagree about, and as Lewis once said, sometimes one of our disagreements is the importance of our disagreements. At times I’ve overstated the differences, and regret that, but here it’s my intention just to lay out how I see things, how some of the pieces fit together, and folks can do with it as they will. And if they disagree, that’s fine. There’s mental space and ample prerogative to do so, and I won’t be offended. But irrespective of our differences, as believers we all need to learn to love one another, and I only hope what I say here contributes to that rather than detracts from it. These discussions are important, but we’ve got to strive to avoid their becoming needlessly divisive.

 


Photo: “God’s Open Door Church (air conditioned) by Tom Hart. CC License. 

Podcast: Dr. Brian Scalise on the Doctrine of God and the Ethics of Love in Islam and Christianity

This week on the podcast, we are continuing a discussion with Dr. Brian Scalise. Dr. Scalise has written his dissertation on the different views of God in Christianity and Islam. Important differences for our view of love and ethics follow from the different views of God in each religion. When we build a worldview from the notion that God is absolutely one with no distinction, as in Islam, we get a deficient ethic and view of love. The Christian trinity, on the other hand, provides a robust foundation for a substantive morality and understanding of love. Since God is one nature with three persons, it turns out that God essentially loves others. And it is this key difference that we will be exploring this week. Dr. Scalise will help us see the implications of this difference by pointing out that the highest command in Christianity is to love the Lord while, in Islam, the highest command is to submit to Allah. We’ll also touch briefly on Islam and the Euthyphro Dilemma.


Photo: “Islam” by E. Musiak. CC License.

Mark Linville’s Argument from Evolutionary Naturalism, Part II

By David Baggett

Part I

Part III (coming soon)

Part IV (coming soon)

AEN and “greedy reductionism”

The first premise (if EN is true, then human morality is a by-product of natural selection) is widely rejected. Plenty suggest that the sociobiological assumptions of an argument such as AEN have been “widely discredited,” guilty of a “greedy reductionism.” Some ideas are just better than others. The point applies forcefully in our assessment of AEN. The argument, as stated, seems to assume that our “moral beliefs” have an evolutionary explanation. We have various moral beliefs, but it’s implausible to think that any fairly determinate belief has somehow been fashioned at the genetic level and then lodged, intact, within the human brain. Further, do all of these traits find their explanation in the selection pressures that were at work when we came down from the trees? Isn’t it possible that certain moral beliefs are widespread because they simply make sense? Our evolution may have provided us with the intellectual tools needed for building cathedrals, playing chess, and drawing up social contracts, but might not these activities be more or less autonomous as far as the genes are concerned?

Perhaps greedy reductionism is an extreme to avoid, but Linville suggests another extreme to avoid is the idea that natural selection has had nothing to do with the distribution of widespread moral beliefs. To appeal to natural selection to explain incisors and libidos but to exclude the deepest springs of human behavior from such an account would seem rather a tenuous position to hold. Moral behavior is not the sort of thing likely to be overlooked by natural selection because of the important role that it plays in survival and reproductive success. The notion we’re born entirely a blank slate, completely malleable, seems wrong—and tantamount to denying any validity to evolutionary psychology.

If instincts refer to basic predispositions, drives, or programs, then humans have instincts, but the more interesting of these are, by and large, “open instincts” or “programs with a gap.” The gap, where it exists, leaves it to the intelligence—rational reflection and culture in general in the case of humans—of the individual or the species to fill in the details. Migratory waterfowl come equipped with a basic drive to follow the sun south in the winter, but the programming itself need not specify the details of the itinerary. The development of ethical precepts of which Kitcher speaks may well be the result of careful deliberation and rational reflection, but perhaps these are in response to proclivities that come with our programming.

Sharon Street distinguishes between basic evaluative tendencies and full-fledged evaluative judgments. The latter include our specific moral beliefs that might be formulated as moral principles or rules, and they may be explained by appeal to a variety of influences, cultural and otherwise. The former are “proto” forms of evaluative judgment that are unreflective and nonlinguistic impulses towards certain behaviors that seem “called for.” She argues that “relentless selection pressures” have had a direct and “tremendous” influence on our basic evaluative tendencies and these, in turn, have had a major, but not necessarily overriding, indirect effect on our actual moral beliefs or full-fledged evaluative judgments.

If such programming and predispositions provide our basic moral orientation, then it is within their scaffolds that all moral reflection takes place. Our reflective beliefs about the duties of parenthood or of friendship, for instance, arise from more basic parental and altruistic drives that predate and are presupposed by all such reflection. While this evolutionary account provides a role for reason, that reason is in effect, to borrow from Hume, the slave of the passions. Those passions, Street’s basic evaluative tendencies, are almost certainly not cultural artifacts.

Human culture is responsible for great accomplishments that assuredly are not the direct product of our evolution. And these may well include complex systems of moral precepts. Perhaps human social contracts are good tricks in that they solve problems posed by some combination of genetics plus environment plus intelligence. Rationality is employed, but it is an instrumental rationality.

Linville is now in a position to revise his claim in the first premise. Human morality is a product of natural selection in that a fundamental moral orientation—Street’s basic evaluative tendencies and Midgley’s “programming”—is in place because it was adaptive for our ancestors given the contingencies of the evolutionary landscape. The program provides general directives or tendencies. The gap allows room for rational reflection regarding our moral beliefs, but their very rationality is conditional or hypothetical: given the program that has been bequeathed to us by our genes, some policies are better than others. The program itself is precisely as it is due to its adaptive value given the contingencies of the evolutionary landscape. However big the gap, it’s found within the scope of our programming that is directly explained by appeal to natural selection. Moral reasoning would then appear to be means-end reasoning, where the ends have been laid down for us by natural selection.

So, counterfactually, had the programming been relevantly different, so would the range of intelligent choices. There may be some forced moves through evolutionary design space, but Darwin did not think that any determinate set of moral precepts or dictates of conscience was among them. Darwin says, for example, if we’d been raised in the same conditions as hive bees, our unmarried females would think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and nobody would think of interfering. Here we’re being asked to imagine a world in which our fundamental moral orientation (Midgley’s open instincts) is different. Darwin appears to countenance the possibility of a species that is prompted, even on reflection, to behave in ways that are inequitable and, from our standpoint, unjust. If rational and moral reflection takes its cue from a more primitive predisposition, then have we any reason for supposing that such reflection, the product of culture, would inevitably settle on equitable treatment?

If humans as a species have come to regard equitable arrangements as fair or just, then perhaps this is only because their initial programming was wired as it was given the circumstances of human evolution. We have the actual moral orientation that we do because it was adaptive. Had the circumstances been different, some other set would have conferred fitness. Is there any plausible reason to suppose that such a moral orientation is adaptive because its resultant moral beliefs are true?

Of course, Linville writes, one might reply to this line of argument by insisting that a wedge be driven between Street’s “basic evaluative tendencies” and her “full-fledged moral judgments.” Following Dennett and others, might we not suggest that, with the advent of culture it became possible for us to “snap” Wilson’s “genetic leash” and strike out on our own? Perhaps, then, morality is autonomous, engaging in reflection that is independent of the drives of human nature.

Linville thinks such a reply implausible. Our considered judgments regarding various duties and the like find their wellspring in our psychology, which appears to be what it is because of the circumstances of evolution in each case. So Linville thinks there’s reason to accept the first premise of AEN. This leaves us with whether or not there’s any reason to suppose that there is a relevant dependence relation between the processes of belief formation and the would-be truth makers for such beliefs. To sharpen the question: Is there reason to suppose that the belief-producing mechanisms of our moral beliefs are truth-aimed? Is there a plausible defense of the Dependence Thesis available to the naturalist?

Photo: “Charles Darwin bicentennial” by C. Roffey. CC License. 

Podcast: Dr. Fred Smith on Worldview and the Implications for Morality (Part 1 of 2)

This week we’ll be hearing from Dr. Fred Smith. Dr. Smith is not only a tremendous scholar, but he is also an excellent communicator. He is able to make very complex ideas easy to understand. And I think you’ll agree with that assessment as you listen to what he has to say.

The topic of discussion of this week has to do with worldview and its implications for ethics. Dr. Smith has spent a significant amount of time thinking about how worldviews shape us and he has recently published a book, Developing a Biblical Worldview.

In this first part of a two part series, Dr. Smith will explain exactly what a worldview is and then give some examples of how worldview shapes a person’s understanding of morality. In order to do that, Dr. Smith will give a thumbnail sketch of a variety of worldviews, including naturalism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Mormonism and show how these worldviews seem to generate a deficient view of morality.

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If you’re interested in checking out Dr. Smith’s new book, you can find it here:

 

 

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Photo: “Tower Optical binocular” By Ellie. CC License. 

Plantinga’s “Advice to Christian Philosophers” and Moral Philosophy

In a famous essay by Alvin Plantinga, he argues that Christian philosophers should do philosophy as Christians. Christian philosophers have their own concerns, problems, and methods, and they need not run on the tracks the rest of the philosophical community has laid. This is not to say, of course, that Christian philosophy happens in a vacuum. Plantinga suggests Christian philosophers engage and take seriously the philosophy and ideas of others, but not at the expense of developing and defending a truly Christian philosophy. Christian philosophers ought to be breaking new ground and moving both the Christian and philosophical world along  in the process. As an example of an area where Christian philosophers could be working on their project, Plantinga suggests the area of ethics:

These, then, are my examples; I could have chosen others. In ethics, for example: perhaps the chief theoretical concern, from the theistic perspective, is the question how are right and wrong, good and bad, duty, permission and obligation related to God and to his will and to his creative activity? This question doesn’t arise, naturally enough, from a non–theistic perspective; and so, naturally enough, non-theist ethicists do not address it. But it is perhaps the most important question for a Christian ethicist to tackle.

Plantinga’s point is that when doing moral philosophy, Christian philosophers should not confine themselves to working within the paradigm given to them by their peers. That paradigm is not even asking the right questions in the first place.  Instead, they should seek to develop a moral philosophy that arises from Christian commitments.

At the end of his essay, Plantinga says,

We who are Christians and propose to be philosophers must not rest content with being philosophers who happen, incidentally, to be Christians; we must strive to be Christian philosophers. We must therefore pursue our projects with integrity, independence, and Christian boldness.

Plantinga’s incredible work in epistemology and the problem of evil have demonstrated that Plantinga is in no way a hypocrite;  he has taken his own advice. Plantinga’s work is not only distinctively Christian, it is also just excellent philosophy by anyone’s lights. For example, in his work on the logical problem of evil, Plantinga has done what few philosophers have ever done: persuade almost all those who started out disagreeing with him that they were wrong. Because of his excellent Christian philosophy, Plnatinga has been a major contributor to the revival of Christian philosophy so that now Christian philosophers have a greater opportunity to follow his advice. As Christian ethicists and moral philosophers do their work, they too ought to take Plantinga’s advice and perhaps they can continue to turn the philosophical world upside down. Or, perhaps it best to say that when Christian philosophers really act like Christian philosophers, they won’t so much as turn the world upside down as right-side up.

If you’d like, you can read all of Plantinga’s “Advice to Christian Philosophers” here. 

Photo: “St. Paul Preaching in Athens” by Lawrence OP. CC License.