The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates

Friday, 30 December 2011

Is human freewill necessary for humans to be morally responsible for their acts?

[SCL] Moral responsibility and culpability is nothing to do with freewill whether this exists or not. A moral agent is culpable for an action if that action is largely determined by their character, nature or habits, as opposed to some external constraint or threat (whether physical or psychological) or some irreformable and incurable pathology or some transient aberration, as might occur as a result of high fever or unintentional intoxication. 

[SCL] If a moral agent’s action or behaviour is potentially correctable by means of training or education (or whatever other just means) then they are culpable and should attract such training or education, which may involve punishment. Punishment, however, should never be understood in terms of retribution or vengeance. It never achieves any good to hurt someone just for the sake of harming them.

[SCL] If a moral agent’s action or behaviour is not susceptible to correction, then they are not culpable. If the action or behaviour is liable to recur and is of a sufficient nuisance, then they should have their freedom curtailed so as to prevent them re-offending. This constraint should not have any penitential character.

[MC] Despite the fact that I agree with you on the importance of character with regards to moral responsibility I think that once a certain level of maturity has been reached, a person is ultimately responsible for their own character. If they choose to indulge bad habits and solidify a bad character, that is an act of free will, and that is what makes them morally culpable.

[SCL] I agree unless you mean that you are sure that there is such a thing as freewill in a naïve sense of “could have done otherwise” and that “choice” implies the exercise of such “freewill”. A person is clearly responsible for their actions because they do them! One doesn't need to be exercising a naïve freewill to be responsible.

[MC] There is a difference between the type of responsibility you're describing and the moral responsibility you were discussing. If a baby picks up a gun and shoots a person, the baby is responsible in the sense that the baby performed the action – thus fitting your definition of responsibility – but the baby is clearly not morally culpable.

[SCL] Why is the baby “clearly” not morally responsible? How come that they picked up the gun and shot someone? We don’t have the full story here. Perhaps the baby was rather advanced in its mental development! Of course if the baby had no idea of what a gun is or what death is and that it could kill someone by shooting them, then my criterion for culpability is not satisfied: the act was then no more than an unfortunate misunderstanding or accident and nothing to do with the agent’s character.

[MC] My definition of the relationship of moral responsibility and free will includes, but is not limited to, the naïve definition you provide. Yes, a person is morally responsible if they could have done otherwise – provided that they also could have known otherwise than they did. A person who does wrong from ignorance is not morally culpable, even though they were responsible for the action.

[SCL] Indeed: but I’d say that this is because the act was not characteristic. Given that they were not cognoscente of its implications they did not envisage or intend them, hence these objective implications cannot be used to evaluate the subjective ethical character of their actions.

[MC] A person who does wrong despite the fact that they could reasonably be supposed to have known better is morally responsible for their actions, either because they deliberately did what they knew to be wrong (an exercise of free will against their moral responsibility) or because they failed to take positive action to remedy their lack of knowledge or previously corrupted character (a failure to exercise free will to discover and/or abide by your moral duties). Either way, free will is of paramount importance.

[SCL] No. What is of paramount importance is their character. I invoke Occam’s Rasor here. All of what you say can be accounted for in terms of whether the act flowed from their own personality and habitual virtues and vices or not. There is absolutely no need to invoke another issue: “freewill”. If some outcome was not envisaged in the act then this outcome played no part in the deliberative process which gave rise to the act. If I do not know that pressing the green button causes someone to be electrocuted to death then my pressing the green button for some other reason (even simply to amuse myself) is not an act of murder. Of course, we agree, that recklessness is itself a seriously immoral characteristic; but it is never clear what precautions one should take or research undertake in order to avoid the just charge of recklessness.

[SCL] Given that an agent did in fact do what they did, and given that this fact is determined by their experience and character and given that their character is itself determined by their experience, nurture and genetic inheritance, how could they have done other than what in fact they did do?

[SCL] It would seem that this is only possible if one invokes “randomness”. This produces two problems. First, a random act cannot possibly be culpable. Second, it is not clear what “random” means, and it may be that nothing can in fact be random! Invoking a non-material soul or spirit changes nothing. The argument repeats in the same way. If I am wrong in my analysis, please show me how. I would be truly indebted to you.

[MC] So, you're a determinist. Makes sense, I suppose.

[SCL] I am not a determinist in the sense that I wish to eliminate the notion of “freewill” from the discussion. In fact I don’t think that strict causality implies physical determinism in any naïve sense (because of “The Butterfly Effect”) any more that freewill is dependent on “could have done otherwise”.

[MC] You can't possibly believe that free will would have anything to do with moral responsibility, because for you free will as such cannot exist. It is at best a questionably-grounded construction other people use to assign responsibility for acts, and at worst a total illusion.

[SCL] Not really. As far as I can see “freewill” as you understand it is an superfluous hypothesis: that is all. I used to think that it was necessary and used this as an argument to justify believing in “naïve freewill”. Then I thought about the whole issue more carefully and concluded that I had been wrong. It seems to me that one only need believe in “naïve freewill” if one wishes to justify retribution and vengeance. As a Platonist, I have no desire to justify such things: my conclusion that “naïve freewill” is spurious follows.

[MC] I agree that “ a random act cannot possibly be culpable.” I am unclear about “it is not clear what ‘random’ means, and it may be that nothing can in fact be random!”. However, even stipulating that I agreed with your objection to an unclear definition, your prefatory sentence still seems staggeringly wrong.

[MC] An agent does, in fact, do what they do – that's tautologous – and it is true that the action proceeds from their experience and character; however, you're slipping in a different use of the word “determined” here. I grant that the motivation for any non-random act I perform may be found somewhere in my experience or in my character (or both). Therefore, those things together determine the range of options which I possess; but I still have a choice of options within that range. And though my experience and character may predispose me toward one of the options, my choice is not thereby determined.

[SCL] How do you know this? What, then, does determine or cause or elicit your action?

[MC] Do you see? We are taught, and fed, and observe, and practice – and so learn – a wide variety of moral stances and positions, correct?

[SCL] I’m not sure of your meaning here, but I suppose that I agree with you.

[MC] Then I fail to see how you can hold that any response of a competent moral agent can possibly be determined in the sense that the agent could not have done otherwise.

[SCL] Similarly, I fail to see how I could hold anything otherwise. The issue here is not about human freewill so much as the occurrence of any event. It would seem that either an account can be made of the event such that one comes to understand how and why this event occurred rather than any other that might seem to be possible before one understood the situation and lawful processes involved; or else no such account can be made. In the first case one has to conclude that the event was caused – if not, strictly speaking “determined” – by the relevant circumstances and lawful processes and “could not have been otherwise”, that is: it was not arbitrary, but coherent. In the second case one has to conclude that the event was random, arbitrary, uncaused and “could definitely have been otherwise”! However, you have agreed that – in the case of human acts – this second possibility is incompatible with culpability; hence it follows that culpability is only a coherent concept in connection with events (and human acts are certainly “events”) which are causal and so “could not have been otherwise”.

[MC] An example. The man who sees a rough-sleeper on the street and gives him five pounds' worth of charity entertains doubts about how they will spend the money, and feels guilty wondering whether they will just spend it on drink and worsen their situation. The man who sees a rough-sleeper on the street and does nothing entertains doubts about whether this might not have been an “honest” down-and-out who would have used the money for food, and feels guilty wondering whether he has just passed up the opportunity to do good by someone else. Both men experienced the same range of options. Perhaps they were predisposed to the choice they made; but the mere fact that they experienced the discomfort of a moral dilemma is evidence that the options they discarded were still live to them. They could have done other than they did.

[SCL] This is a mere assertion. There is no reason to think that it is true. I grant that when one makes a choice in such a situation it “feels” as if “one could have done otherwise”, but all that this means in practice is that there was a choice to be made; and that there was a conflict of uncertainty: not that one could have chosen differently.

‎[MC] I expect that you will attempt to invoke some sort of “complete picture” argument, whereby you argue that the choice of any agent is really determined, and the phenomenon I have discussed above is merely evidence of the complexity of human experiences and characters.

[SCL] Indeed: you haven't taken into account the complete picture. Any specific act is itself caused by their character, their past experiences and by the immediate situation in which they found themselves. It was these things which led them to do what they did, and they could not have done otherwise.”

[MC] But consider human nature. We very often do things differently in similar situations. I have been both men in the above situations, for example – I have both given and failed to give charity. So how can you say which is my dominant response, since I have done both and so clearly could do otherwise?
[SCL] But are the situations exactly the same in all the important factors? Did you have the same emotional mood, and were you in the same financial situation? Did the bum’s appearance inspire equal sympathy in you, or more or less? Were there people near you whom you would care to impress through an act of charity? Was the bum standing close to a liquor store? Had someone been kind or cruel to you recently? Had you heard a sermon on “the Good Samaritan” recently? Had you read an article about the foolishness of giving money to rough sleepers, recently?

[MC] Well, of course the factors won’t all be the same. The likelihood of even the major factors being the same is astronomical; and when you taken into account the minor factors, the chances become so long as to be practically impossible.

[SCL] Well, there you are, then! Different situations lead to different responses; but if you ever ran into a situation that was the same in all the relevant particulars, you couldn't do otherwise than you had done before – barring some change in your character or experience, of course; which would be inevitable, given that the second time was subsequent to the first and so your previous experience relevant to the second event is definitely different to that which was relevant to the first event.

[MC] Very convenient. Since those people would likely never run into exactly the same situation again, you are free to claim that if they respond differently in a similar situation in future, there is some controlling difference, either in an overlooked situational factor or in the modified characters or experiences of those people. So, if I gave money to a bum, and then had a bad experience with bums, the next one I meet and don't give money to, you would explain by saying…
[SCL] …that your new experience was involved in and contributed to your revised judgement.

[MC] There’s a difference between determined and informed. I can still choose to go against my instinctive desire to not give money to this rough-sleeper based on my bad past experience, can’t I? How is that not an exercise of free will?
[SCL] Such a desire would have to be motivated by some event from your past, or some moral code embedded in your character, wouldn't it? Otherwise, it's causeless!

[MC] Sure.
[SCL] You see, then: your moral acts can be accounted for in terms of your experience and character and there is no need to postulate that “you could have done otherwise.”

[MC] But this doesn’t mean thay are determined! Both choices are a part of my moral fabric. That I am inclined toward one or the other at any given point does not mean that both choices are not still available to me. The choice does not have to random to be free, nor do the alternatives have to be perfectly equal in probability. All that matters is that I make a selection from the range available to me, recognizing that of course there is a range available to me.

[SCL] You are now invoking a thing called “freedom” which seems to have all the characteristics of “random” but which you wish, nevertheless, to distinguish from “random”. Moreover you are referring to “probability” which only signifies something in the context of a random variable. In any case, it is not clear what “random means” or that anything is truly random.

[MC] Well, if you admit that you do not know what “random” means, perhaps this allows one to believe that some things which seem “random” are actually significant somhow – and that this justifies calling them “free” rather than simply “random”.

[SCL] Perhaps – but I’d require you to give an account of this; not just assert it as a matter of “blind irrational faith”; and then, it would seem plausible that any such account would render “free” part-and-parcel of the general account of how an an event came to happen. Once more, “free” acts would be accountable in terms of character and experience.

[SCL] Moreover, any choice which you actualize is determined by a host of factors, many of which you might not even be aware of.

[MC] Can you give me an account of which factors would incline me certain ways and why? I mean, it's your thesis that this must be the case. With one neat sentence, you’ve said that you can in principle explain every single thing anyone does. Let’s see you actually do that in practice!

[SCL] I don't have all the necessary information to predict your actions. Of course not! This is part of the difference of an event being “accountable”, “inevitable” and “caused” on the one hand and “determined” and “predictable” on the other.

[MC] Then you can’t prove I don’t have free will!
[SCL] It isn’t my business to do so! I am only intent on showing you that you have no need to account for “freewill”, “moral responsibility” or “culpability” in terms of “could have done otherwise.”

[MC] I have the experience of choosing.
[SCL] Indeed, and so do I; but it is a mistake to interpret this experience in terms of thinking that “you could have done otherwise.” In fact, your decisions are accountable in terms of genetics, mood, character and experience – past and present.

[MC] Let's set aside genes for the moment. I have, in the past, put myself into situations that changed my experiential data, or have deliberately put myself into situations knowing that a change in my character was likely to result. That's an exercise of free will, which neatly incorporates and supersedes your whole outlook.

[SCL] Such a choice would have to be motivated by...

[MC] …previous genetics, experiences, or character. I know! I know! If I pull your string, will you say something else?

[SCL] What would motivate me to do so? It seems to me that I have a surprisingly complete and coherent account of all the experience which you want me to explain. If you could show me an inconsistency or an incompleteness in my account, I would be very grateful; but until you do, I cannot conceive of any reason to deviate from my script – especially in terms of the deviation which you seem to favour as it appears to be incoherent and to explain nothing!

[MC] OK, here is a puzzle for you to chew on:

[MC] Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that my decisions are completely determined by my genetics and my experiences and my character combined. Therefore, none of my decisions is truly free, and so on my definition I am not morally responsible for them.

[SCL] On my account of things, you may very well be responsible for your acts: if your character is reformable – which fact you have not reported.
[MC] My genes are entirely a result of a random combination of genes from my parents. My character and experience partly comes from them – they are certainly the dominant figures – but also from a host of others, and even from the arrangement of things in the world. So these people and things exhaustively explain my behaviour, and therefore, they host the moral responsibility for my actions.

[SCL] That is a logical non-sequetor. I have said that culpabiliy arises when (1) an act flowslargely from the nature of the actor and (2) if that nature is susceptible to reformation.

[MC] But these people also got their genetics, characters, and experiences from elsewhere. So none of their decisions on how to raise me was a free one, either...and the genetics passed down to them were totally random, from a limited set of options.

[SCL] On your account of things, yes; but not on mine!

[MC] So the ultimate responsibility for my behaviour must be passed back to the explanations of the genetics, characters, and experiences of those who affected those who affected me. But none of those people can ultimately be held responsible either, for the same reason. In fact, it seems as though no human being can be ultimately responsible for his or her moral behaviour, or for the behaviour of any other person.

[SCL] On your account of things, yes; but not on mine!

[MC] The question, then: WHO OR WHAT IS?

[MC] You have five options, as far as I can see:

[MC] 1) Claim that nothing is ultimately responsible.

[SCL] No!
[MC] 2) Claim that Nature is ultimately responsible.

[SCL] No!
[MC] 3) Claim that God is ultimately responsible.

[SCL] Yes – but not as you mean it!
[MC] 4) Claim that there is an error in my definition of moral responsibility.

[SCL] Yes, as I have been doing consistently all along!
[MC] 5) Admit defeat.  
[SCL] Never!

[MC] I assume you will choose the fourth. Selecting the first would render your whole post moot. Selecting the second would be tantamount to admitting that assignment of moral responsibility is based on sheer chance. Selecting the third would be tantamount to holding God responsible for the sins of all of humanity. And since you clearly don't agree with my view that moral responsibility is tied to free will, in a choice between the only remaining options of #4 and #5, you must pick the former.

[SCL] This is an example of excellent logical reasoning!

[MC] Now, then. WHY?

[SCL] I hope that this is clear from what I have said above. To reiterate:

[SCL] Moral responsibility and culpability is nothing to do with freewill whether this exists or not. A moral agent is culpable for an action if that action is largely determined by their character, nature or habits, as opposed to some external constraint or threat (whether physical or psychological) or some irreformable and incurable pathology or some transient aberration, as might occur as a result of high fever or unintentional intoxication. 

[SCL] If a moral agent’s action or behaviour is potentially correctable by means of training or education (or whatever other just means) then they are culpable and should attract such training or education, which may involve punishment. Punishment, however, should never be understood in terms of retribution or vengeance. It never achieves any good to hurt someone just for the sake of harming them.

[SCL] If a moral agent’s action or behaviour is not susceptible to correction, then they are not culpable. If the action or behaviour is liable to recur and is of a sufficient nuisance, then they should have their freedom curtailed so as to prevent them re-offending. This constraint should not have any penitential character.

[SCL] As far as I can see “freewill” as you understand it is an superfluous hypothesis: that is all. I used to think that it was necessary and used this as an argument to justify believing in “naïve freewill”. Then I thought about the whole issue more carefully and concluded that I had been wrong. It seems to me that one only need believe in “naïve freewill” if one wishes to justify retribution and vengeance. As a Platonist, I have no desire to justify such things: my conclusion that “naïve freewill” is spurious follows.

[SCL] The issue here is not about human freewill so much as the occurrence of any event. It would seem that either an account can be made of the event such that one comes to understand how and why this event occurred rather than any other that might seem to be possible before one understood the situation and lawful processes involved; or else no such account can be made. In the first case one has to conclude that the event was caused – if not, strictly speaking “determined” – by the relevant circumstances and lawful processes and “could not have been otherwise”, that is: it was not arbitrary, but coherent. In the second case one has to conclude that the event was random, arbitrary, uncaused and “could definitely have been otherwise”! However, you have agreed that – in the case of human acts – this second possibility is incompatible with culpability; hence it follows that culpability is only a coherent concept in connection with events (and human acts are certainly “events”) which are causal and so “could not have been otherwise”.

Monday, 31 October 2011

The attitude of Christ and His Apostles to Marriage and Family

Jesus was not at all keen on the family. He warns that family loyalty competes with loyalty to the Kingdom;[1] that His followers must expect to experience hostility from even their closest relatives;[2] and that they may well have to abandon their kin altogether.[3]

Jesus asserts that the true household is not based on ties of blood or romantic attachment; but on a shared acceptance of Gospel values.[4] If such an acceptance is characteristic of a particular family, well and good; but there is nothing about the domestic unit, as such, which makes it apt to substantiate Christian values. The Kingdom is meant to grow by the preaching of the Gospel and by adults being converted towards justice;[5] not by the procreation and indoctrination of children.[6] In any case, Jesus insists that marriage and the family are things of mortality, and that after the resurrection they will cease to exist.[7]
Christ not only took a stand against the whole tradition of the old covenant, according to which marriage and procreation were religiously privileged, as we have said. But in a certain sense He expressed Himself even in opposition to that beginning to which He Himself had appealed. [John Paul II “Allocution” (March 31st 1982)]
The Apostle Paul has a somewhat more positive view of marriage and the family. He expects family members to provide for impoverished relatives, rather then relying on the largess of the Church.[8] He tells children to obey their parents and fathers to be moderate in disciplining their progeny,[9] and in the same passage exhorts slaves to obey their masters. While Paul is convinced that it is much better for men not to have any physical relations with women, and presents his own celibate lifestyle as an example to all;[10] he nevertheless tolerates marriage as a second best arrangement for those incapable of sexual continence.[11] In a more generous spirited moment, Paul writes of Christian marriage as an icon of the relationship of Christ with the Church.[12]

The Epistle to the Hebrews insists that marriage is honourable and its bed is clean,[13] while emphasising that Christians must not adopt an insular domestic outlook: and enjoining the duties of maintaining fellowship with the wider Church community and of showing hospitality to strangers. Neither Jesus nor any of his Apostles ever suggests that either marriage or the family is particularly significant in the divine scheme of things. They never say that it is the building block of secular society, still less of the Church. They never refer to the family as “the domestic church”. Indeed, this is an altogether modern invention.[14] Although Augustine[15] twice makes use of the idea and Chrysostum[16] once, they suggest more that the secular institution of the family can, with some effort, be Christened, than that it is constitutive of the Church.

1. Mat 8:21-22. Lk 9:59-62; 14:16-26.

2. Mat 10:17-22, 34-37. Mk 13:11-13. Lk 12:51-53.

3. Mat 19:27-29. Mk 10:28-30. Lk 18:28-30.

4. Mat 12:46-50. Mk 3:21-35. Lk 8:19-21.

5. Mat 4:17, 10:7. Mk 1:38; 3:14; 16:15. Lk 4:18, 43; 9:2.

6. Jn 1:12-13.

7. Mat 22:29-30 Mk 12:24- 25 Lk 20:34-36. Pope John Paul II deduces from this fact the conclusion that the theological significance of gender cannot be determined in terms of marriage and reproduction.

8. 1Tim 5:4-8, 16.

9. Eph 6:1-9 Col 3:20-4:1.

10. 1Cor 7:1-9, quoted on page 26.

11. 1Cor 7:10-39.

12. Eph 5:21-33. Many modern scholars dispute that Paul wrote Ephesians. The converse image (where the union of Christ and the Church is presented as a marriage) is found in the Apocalypse. [Apoc 19:7-9]

13. Heb 13:4.

14. Vatican II “Lumen Gentium” #11 (1964) & John Paul II “Famularis Consortio” #21 (1981)

15. Augustine “The Good of Widowhood” #29 & “Epistle 188, to The Lady Juliana” #3.

16. Chrysostom “Second Homily on Genesis” #13.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Two paths to holiness

The soul intent on attaining God must aspire to holiness, which is itself best understood as the deepest form of psychological health. In this endeavour, they have a choice to make. This is between the ascetical path and the aesthetical path. Both feature prominently in Catholic culture.
The first path entails setting aside all secondary goods (and so the beauty to be found in the material world) and choosing to live a life of austerity; focussing solely on the one truly desirable object: God. This path is represented in the austerity of a Cistercian Abbey or Carthusian Chatreuse.

The second path entails embracing secondary goods (and so the beauty which is to be found in the material world) as an intimation of God: the one truly beautiful object of desire. This path is represented in the vibrancy of a Gothic Cathedral or Byzantine Basilica.

The Ascetic Way
The advantage of the first path (which Plato terms the "Philosophical”) is that it is simple to understand. The soul’s motive for taking this way is a concern that it might be distracted from its true end and goal by lesser and passing beauties. It is, perhaps, the easier of the two paths – for those who have the character to stomach it. It is like a goat track leading straight up a mountainside to the summit. If one follows this path one will not readily become lost; but it requires courage.[1]

The fact that Christ tells us that our earthly journey will be hard if we faithfully follow Him suggests that one should seek to mitigate this difficulty as far as possible. Too often life in the world is a “vale of tears”, so the ascetic deems it sensible to avoid worldly entanglements; even to the extent of renouncing many things and activities which are manifestly wholesome in themselves and are deemed good in Scripture.

The ascetic is largely free of the cares and systematic suffering which are characteristic of mundane life; so they must impose extrinsic penance upon themselves, else the way they have chosen will rapidly become a self-indulgent escape from reality. The first such penance is, of course, the very renunciation of worldly pleasure which lies at the heart of their lifestyle. The second is (for those ascetics who live in community) the trials of a conventual life, from which there is no escape. The third is whatever additional regime of fasting and discipline they and their spiritual director deem appropriate. The ascetic must eschew genital sexuality as much as every other unnecessary species of sensory pleasure. Not because they think it bad in itself; but only because they know it to be, for them, a distraction from the erotic pursuit of God. The ascetic does not have to reject friendship, for one ascetic can be of great help to another in their common ascent of the straight way to the spiritual summit they jointly aspire to; and the fellowship of friends of God is hardly any distraction from the friendship of God itself. However, in the most extreme form of asceticism, the hermit avoids all but unavoidable interactions with any other soul.

 The danger of the ascetic way is that it can lead to an aridity and harshness of soul; where all that is good in the world is discounted as valueless or, worse, wicked and nothing more than a source of temptation. It can also lead to a spiritual conceit which despises all those who have not themselves adopted the ascetic path. The ascetic can easily be corrupted into the Puritan; or even the Gnostic, who accounts God’s physical Creation as basically evil.

The Aesthetic Way
The advantage of the second path is that it is more gentle and compatible with the inclinations of the human heart. It offers more pleasure and comfort along the way – but also more pain and suffering. The soul’s motive for taking this path is a delight in the goodness of God’s creation and a recognition of the revelation of the Divine which is to be found therein. This way is like a gentle winding path up a mountain that leads to the summit, but which takes in a number of lesser beauty spots on the way. If one follows this path one will not readily become disheartened; but it requires temperance.[3]

The fact that Christ tells us that our earthly journey will be hard if we faithfully follow Him, doesn’t mean that we must reject the mundane pleasures which are readily available to us in God’s wondrous creation. Too often life in the world is a “vale of tears”, so the aesthete deems it not sensible to renounce those things and activities which are an immediate comfort to the soul, manifestly wholesome, and deemed good in Scripture. The aesthete finds due penance in their daily life; in their social interactions, family involvements, relationships with friends and the demands of their profession, business or work. For many people this is ample challenge; but others can benefit from the discipline of extrinsic penance.

The danger of the aesthetic way is that it can lead to self-indulgence: a confusion of the limited value of the immediate gratification of the mind and body with the infinite value of the eventual gratification which will result from union with God. The aesthete can easily be corrupted into the Hedonist or even the Materialist, who accounts as worthwhile only what they can see, hear, taste, smell and feel.

Our Lord’s example

It is a moot point as to which way of holiness Jesus’ human life exemplifies. It seems as if Jesus was intent on presenting both options to us in His earthly life; so as to validate both and indicate that either is good and proper. On the one hand Our Lord was not married, moreover we are told that His ministry was prefaced by an extended fast, and that He regularly desired to “get away from the crowds” in order to devote Himself to prayer. These facts are all characteristic of the Ascetic way. On the other hand, Jesus was deeply attached to “the disciple whom He loved”, Lazarus4 and to Martha and Mary the two sisters of Lazarus. Moreover, He accepted the caress of Mary of Magdala, associated Himself with sinners and was accused of revelry by His detractors.[3] These facts are all characteristic of the Aesthetic way.

1. Courage is the virtue that distinguishes between what is truly to be feared and that which only seems to be fearsome. It allows the agent to act with simplicity, integrity and whole-heartedness.

2. Temperance is the virtue which moderates and organises the emotions, appetites and desires so that they are coordinated and harmonised towards the obtaining of what is truly good for the agent.

3. Mat 9:10-13; 11:19.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

God and the Natural Law: "having one's cake and eating it"

I have been trying to explain to a FaceBook friend how one can "have it both ways", regarding Plato's Ethryphro Dilemma.

1. Ethics is not imposed on moral agents extrinsically by any kind of Divine whimsy. The moral Law is not "positive" or "constructed" or "decreed" or anything of the kind. Hence: "what the heavens approve of what is pious", which is the first option that Socrates proffers Ethryphro.

2. Ethics is an externalisation of what is actually and objectively beneficial to those moral agents to which it applies. It flows from and is determined by the nature of those moral agents. It is entirely intrinsic to their nature. Hence an understanding of their nature will give rise to a codification of "the Natural Law" by which they ought to operate if they are to "live long and prosper".

3. The basis of all this is the concept of harmony, cooperation and friendship, both in society and in the soul. The first is social justice, the second is personal justice - or holiness. Both are species of health: the first social and the second psychological and/or physiological. See Plato's "Republic" for a full exposition of this.

4. One of the fundamental characteristics of God is Justice - interior harmony. The fact of God's Immortality and Eternal Robustness implies that God is entirely harmonious and devoid of interior conflict. Hence at this most abstract level the Divine Nature is identical with "The Natural Law" in as far as the Divine Nature generates the Natural Law as a corollary of its self. The Natural Law is an image of the original that is Justice.

5. So far as the details of the Natural Law are concerned, these result from the interplay of the Idea of "Justice" with the particularities of the make-up or constitution or nature of the moral agent to which it is applied. Given that God has created certain kinds of moral agent, with particular characteristics (for whatever reason) then to this extent the Natural Law is "positive" and "decreed" - but only indirectly, in as far as it is true that the details of constitution of the moral agents are "positive" and "decreed" rather than of necessity. Hence: "what is pious is what the heavens approve of", which is the second option that Socrates proffers Ethryphro.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Is and Ought and Life

I have written often on the “is/ought dichotomy” or “Hume’s Dilemma” (look these up on Wikkipedia, if you like) but here goes again. Ayn Rand claimed to have solved this long-standing philosophical problem, but most other thinkers have concluded that she did not do so.

As a Plotonist, I think that for there to be an “ought” there must be a purpose or end in view. “Ought” is always about what is good to do and what is good to do is good to do because it obtains some “good” or “valuable commodity” or “beneficial/favourable effect”. Now, it would seem that without a choice there cannot be an end and so there can be no good; because what is good or valuable is always good in as far as it is valuable for some objective. Technically, “good” is teleological: in other words “good is utility”.

The problem with this position is that it gives no account of how a choice might be made. Without such an account it degrades into Existentialism, in which value is understood as entirely subjective and somehow created by the individual person: who is themselves understood as valueless except by virtue of some kind of choice to be valuable. This position is incoherent, as what is of itself of no value (in this case the human person) cannot create value by a mere act of whimsy.

The fact that rats are of utility to the bubonic plague bacterium in spreading it to other hosts does not make rats valuable as such. In fact, from a human perspective, it makes rats un-valuable and the project of their extermination a desirable good. Conversely, from the rat perspective, human ignorance about their role in the epidemiology of the Black Death is a desirable end – though how this great “good” might be achievable by the rat commonality is unclear.

I think that the solution to the is/ought dichotomy is something along the lines of Ayn Rand’s proposal, but that one needs to augment her position somewhat. The first thing to realise is that “ought” and “goal” and “good” and “utility” all arise from the nature of Life. These words only have application in the context of a living being. Only a living being can have any “goal” and nothing can possibly be “good for” any other thing – unless that other thing is alive. While one might say that a carefully controlled humidity and temperature are “good for” the preservation of ancient manuscripts, this is only an analagous use of the term – and it would not arise except in the context that living beings had first constructed those manuscripts and that other living beings were interested in their preservation.

This first realisation makes one focus on the fact that “ought” is not a word of general applicability, but only of applicability within the context of life. This is not an additional axiom, it is simply a realisation of the underlying significance of the concept. This is basically the realisation which Ayn Rand came to see and then promoted as the answer to Hume’s Dilemma. She argued that “ought” could always be reduced to a choice to live; and to live in accordance with the nature that one had, making full use of one’s capabilities so as to best secure, facilitate, establish and fortify one’s life.

The second thing to realise is what life is. Without this realisation, Ayn Rand’s solution to Hume’s Dilemma can be deconstructed along the lines: “But why should any living agent chose to live?” I propose that: “Life is continuance and stability of form in and by virtue of and out of flux.”

This is relevant to Hume’s dilemma in an almost trivial way. Just as “ought” originates from life, so if one chooses to do what one “ought not” then one will not live. The only basic choice, therefore, is between life and death. It is true, in an uninteresting way, that this choice is real and that it is not motivated by anything other than the outcome in question; but that is exactly the point! If one chooses life one lives, if one chooses death one dies. Those that chose death and die have no existence, whereas those that chose life and live do have existence. This is the basic fact of the matter and is entirely objective and unavoidable.

As to why one ought to chose life: that is easy – to do so is coherent: logically consistent. Life’s constitutional business is to survive: that is what life is all about. Survival is definitional of life in the way that no other of its supposed/proposed characteristics are. For life to chose death is incoherent and self-contradictory and results in life ceasing to be itself. All living beings which chose death cease to be living beings, so the only choice possible for a living being is the choice of life: in fact death is not a choice for a living being!

The deeper question: “Why should a conscious living being wish to continue to live, especially if they are unhappy and believe themselves to have no prospect of joy?” remains, but I am not inclined to tackle this here and now.

Monday, 20 June 2011

How can God be Love?

The question as to how God can be "love" in any meaningful sense is one that has occupied my attention for a long time. The difficulty becomes apparent once one attempts a generic account of love along the lines of:

"Love is the desire, attraction or movement
of one object or agent (the lover)
for or towards
another object (the subject or beloved)
which is (rightly or wrongly) perceived or understood or believed or known
to be good, beneficial or useful for the lover."

This account of love is sufficiently broad to allow for all "rational love" ranging from "cows love grass" to "Plato loves Theaetetus". In particular, it allows for the love of a child of its parents.

However, this account does not allow for "irrational" love, such as the love of parents for children - and, arguably, sexual (as opposed to friendly erotic) love: for the objects of these attractions are not really even falsely perceived as beneficial to the lover and in fact are certainly not beneficial. The basis of such loves is the benefit of the species or life itself or "the selfish gene" - however you wish to put it - not the individual who loves.

Now the Divine Nature is entirely One and entirely self-adequate, so how can God be identified with love? Love requires a lover and a beloved: an agent and an object of desire. Moreover, desire requires a perceived benefit which is not actually possessed by the lover. On each of these grounds, it would seem that love is entirely foreign to the Divine Nature and in fact a characteristic of imperfection and contingency.

It seems to me that this objection should be answered in the following way. First by extending our account of love still further and second by a postulation regarding the Nature of the Divine Unity.

The extension of the account of love is as follows:

"Love is the
desire, attraction, movement,
of or with
one object or agent (the lover)
for or towards or with
another object (the subject or beloved)
which is (rightly or wrongly) perceived or understood or believed or known
to be good, beneficial or useful for the lover."

In the case of "possession or secure association or integration" love can be said to be "fulfilled" and is also known as "joy". As is remarked in Symposium, love can be understood as the lover's desire for completion and this indicates its terminus in secure association or integration with or possession of the beloved. In the sense of "love as joy" God's nature can be said to be love (and ecstatic erotic love, at that!) because God utterly and entirely possesses the only good that is good for God: namely the Divine Nature itself.

The postulation regarding the Divine Nature amounts to the Catholic dogma of the Trinity, which Mystery was celebrated yesterday in the Roman Church. This doctrine teaches that the One Divine Nature is substantiated by the love of three persons or hypostases which both underpin as foundations the single Nature which is their fellowship and common life and also each posses, motivate, comprehend and actuate that One Nature.

The joy or love that is characteristic of God cannot be "emotional" as human beings experience joy or love: for emotions are a function of mutability and passion, and these are entirely foreign to the Divine Nature. Rather, this joy or love is the love of which Diotima is recorded as saying that it is possible for a human soul to come to share in at the terminus of the process of enlightenment, when any true disciple of love can come to be a friend of God and to understand and contemplate what beauty, justice, wisdom and truth really are in themselves.

This leaves two further questions unanswered:

1. Why and how did/does God as Demiurge create the world?
2. Why and how did/does God as Redeemer justify and divinise the world?

Regarding the first: given that God is Necessary Being and immune to all constraint or impetus, it must be the case that once the Act of Creation is rightly understood it must be seen to be inevitable and necessary, without that inevitability of necessity implying a lack in the Divine Nature considered apart from the object of that Act. Moreover, if one is going to maintain the Judeo-Christian doctrine of "creation ex-nihil", so that the Cosmos is entirely distinct from the Divine Nature, which itself is unperturbed by the Act, this would seem to be impossible: for apart from the Cosmos it would seem that the Divine Nature must lack anything that of necessity belongs to it and if the Cosmos is truly autonomous (apart from the Act of Creation itself) and not conatural with God then it must be legitimate to consider God and the Cosmos apart from each other, with only the Creative Act relating them.

I think that it is impossible to give a definitive answer to this question; but I wish to propose what I consider to be a plausible speculation for your consideration.

If God is truly omniscient, then God necessarily knows every detail about every Cosmos that might coherently exist. I grant that this might be an infinity of infinities of knowledge, but what is this to God? The fact of this knowledge is not in any way a limitation on God: quite the opposite, of course! Now the question immediately arises: "What is the difference between God knowing every detail about a possible Cosmos and God giving creative reality to that Cosmos?" I, for one, cannot conceive of anything which could be added to such exhaustive Divine knowledge in order to "elevate" it to some more "substantial" reality. What could be "more real" than an exhaustive account in "the mind of God"?

If I am right that the Act of Creation is identical with God's inevitable and necessary exhaustive knowledge of every possible Cosmos, then the paradox of creation is resolved. God's knowledge of all that might be, contingently, is not in conflict with the Necessity of the Divine Being: rather, it is necessitated by that Being. Moreover, the attractive idea that the Act of Creation is somehow an exuberant and ecstatic overflowing of the Divine Nature is given a rational basis.

A major implication of this hypothesis is that God must be conceived of as having created a plurality of universes: in fact every possible coherent universe must "exist", if God is truly omniscient and omnipotent and if the Divine Act of Creation is identical with the Divine Act of Cognition. Hence "Multiverse Theory" (so beloved by atheistic theoretical physicists) would seem to be predicted by a rigorous analysis of Monotheism.

Regarding the second question (which amounts to "Why does God bother about and have concern for the welfare of created things) I suggest that this is a matter of coherence and harmony and so of justice. When God conceives of a Cosmos as coherent and possible, a major constraint is apparent: namely that the Cosmos being conceived is being conceived by an omnipotent and absolutely just conceiver. It is inconceivable that such a conceiver would conceive of a Cosmos which was futile or fundamentally unjust - at least in its final resolution. In other words, any Cosmos that God conceives of must inevitably reflect the Divine Nature and must in some sense have its teleos or purpose or end or resolution in God. It would not be possible for God to conceive of any other kind of Cosmos: it would be an affront to the Divine Nature and so is absurd. Any Cosmos that required some kind of extrinsic intervention to justify it would necessarily attract such intervention. Hence: God so loved the world, that He gave us his only-begotton Son; so that all who believe in Him would have everlasting Life.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Mercy and Justice

The word mercy does not simply mean “letting someone off a punishment which they deserve as a result of misbehaviour”. It also means kindness, generosity and benevolence. The “Good Samaritan” was, in this sense, merciful to the man who had been set upon by thieves and left for dead when he came to his aid. [Lk 10:37] When the Eastern Liturgies cry out over and over “Lord, have mercy!” they are not asking for forgiveness, but rather for Divine assistance.

So far as God is concerned, no created being actually deserves anything of its own right; so all of God’s actions towards creatures are essentially those of mercy not justice. However, it is only proportionate, right and proper that God does act towards creatures with mercy; for else they could not exist and the very act of creation would be made into an absurdity. So, in God justice and mercy do not conflict but are aspects of the same reality.

Moreover, it is also just of God to be merciful to the sinner in view of the fact that God foresees that in the future they will be a saint, if only God is presently merciful. Arguably, the same is true in the human context also. It is just to be merciful; where mercy means giving a culprit a chance to repent and change their ways. It is merciful to be just; where justice means imposing a penalty which is crafted to bring about penitence and reformation in the heart of the wrongdoer.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

The absurdity of atheistic moral outrage

Some people reject the idea that God is real on the basis that the world’s suffering is too abominable for any possible justification. They claim that no just God could possibly escape condemnation, hence there can be no just God; because, clearly, a just God cannot be guilty of a moral outrage.

However, in that case, it is difficult to see how the idea that “what is natural is abominable” might arise. If the world is the way that it is just because that is the way that it is, then what reason do we have to complain that it is not the way that we might like it to be?[1] Why do human beings complain when the world isn’t just – if there is no reason to expect it to be so? Only if there is a just Creator can the Cosmos be rationally expected to be just; and we are only justified in rejecting the idea of God’s reality on the basis of the World’s injustice if we have a rational expectation of justice – which itself is predicated on the reality which we are attempting to deny.

In other words, any argument against the reality of God based on moral outrage has the character of ceasing to have any force as soon as its conclusion is deemed to be true. While it is true that the existence of suffering in the world is compatible with the proposition: “the idea of an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God is a fantasy” (setting aside the more basic question of the matter of existence itself) this fact does not force one to adopt this proposition as true; for once this proposition is accepted as being true, the argument from moral outrage does not sustain its truth. This is because for the Atheist is unable to formulate this argument without assuming the value of the very thing (namely, justice) which it succeeds in disvaluing.

[1] Indeed, many atheists tend to the view that death is part of life and must be accepted stoically without complaint and that suffering should be either dealt with in the same way or else mitigated by all means available – including euthanasia. An atheist does not rail against either the God that they do not believe to be real in the face of adversity or wickedness or else condemn the Cosmos for being exactly what it is. What would be the point in them doing either of these things?

Friday, 20 May 2011

Philosophical Circles

Adopting a philosophy is a leap of faith. It is a decision to run with one "self-consistent circle of ideas/axioms" or another. When deciding which "circle" to run with, ask yourself:
1. Metaphysical fertility as opposed to sterility

Does this circle open up a rich prospect of questions with some promise that answers might be found to them and a suggestion as to what the means of discovering the answers might be, or does it close down further discussion or render further questions pointless?
Does the circle promote, justify and facilitate scientific and philosophical inquiry or does it undermine it?

Nihilism, Solipsism and Subjective-Relativism fail this test.

2. Psychological wholesomeness

Does this circle give hope, value, purpose and meaning to your life (or at least allow for the possibility that these things might be real and apply) or does it render your experience and existence void and futile. Pascal's wager applies here, it seems to me.

Nihilism, Solipsism and Existentialism fail this test.

3. Ethical solidity and life-direction

Does this circle give you an indication of what "good" might be and what you ought to be doing and what you ought to avoid - and why; or does it leave you rudderless and directionless? It seems to me that it is better to be moving - even in the wrong direction - than to be stuck paralysed and motionless. If one is motionless one will not discover new things which might help one onwards in one's journey - even if the only thing one discovers is a sign-post pointing you back the way you have come!

Nihilism, Existentialism and Subjective-Relativism fail this test.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Matter and Spirit

Christianity dose not "bastardize, trivialize or outright reject this world.". It cannot, because of the Incarnation. God entered into this world so that this world might be raised, somehow, to share in divinity. God’s business in creation is to unite all things under Christ as head.

This mortal life is inadequate unto itself, that is true: but only because of death and the “little death” that is suffering. Various heretics have proposed that this material world is evil – Gnostics, Docetists, Cathars, Calvinists(?) – but this is strongly opposed by the Catholic faith. The sacramental system would be impossible on such a view. Go into any traditionally decorated Catholic or Orthodox church and the “sensuality” will hit you full-on. The senses of sight and hearing and smell are all engaged.

The Orthodox Catholic has a great respect and valuation of the body. It is only via the body that we can experience and act. The human spirit is what gives significance and dignity to the body, but without the body the spirit would be entirely ineffectual and pathetic. Hence, the Catholic teaching concerning bodily resurrection. The long-term destiny of the human being is not some kind of incorporeal existence “in Heaven” but a resurrection life “in the New Jerusalem.”

As an Orthodox Catholic and as a Platonist, I am well aware of the fragility and poverty of this world – relative to the world of spirit – but I also rejoice in its glories, beauties, loves and joys. All of these direct me towards the Glory, Beauty, Love and Joy which transcend this word and yet which this world is founded on and truly participates in and shows forth to my senses and soul. This world is not an illusion – it is real enough! – but it is only a partial representation of what is absolutely real.

Jesus came not to denigrate the life of this world. He cured the sick, raised the dead, consorted with prostitutes and attended parties. He said that His very purpose was to enhance our life: to show us how we could “live abundantly” and “eternally” in the fellowship with God.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

God's recklessness

It seems that God is reckless. Why does God make a Cosmos in which so many people suffer, and in which any at all end up in Hell? Wouldn’t it have been better that none were made at all, rather than that many suffer eternally?

It may be that there is no real difference between God conceiving of a possibility in the abstract and God making that possibility real. In which case the question “Why did God make this mess of a Cosmos?” makes a lot less sense; as it is unreasonable to blame an infinite God for at least considering all self-consistent possibilities. What matters in justice is that, given the fact of our Cosmos, God has done everything possible to aid and help and save all those sentient creatures which it contains.

It seems to me that the whole problem of pain, sin, freewill, grace and death reduces to a single question. Why did God create Lucifer? When God created the greatest of the angelic beings, God knew that he would rebel and reject divine friendship. [1] God knew that healthy self-respect would degenerate into self-destructive conceit; and that he who should have been the crowning glory of creation would fall from grace and loose his name “Light Bearer” or “Morning Star” and instead be called “The Adversary”[2] or “Wanderer”[3]: Satan.

Why then did God create Lucifer or, better, why did God put him in such a position that he went wrong? Why, for that matter, was there any need to risk corrupting his initial good will? Why did God lead him into temptation? While it is kind and generous to create, and to set free – and even to allow to fail, so that the one who fails can learn from their failure – it doesn’t seem at all loving to allow a creature to fail absolutely.

The other side of the question is equally problematic. Given his position and access to God; why did Lucifer reject God’s offer of friendship? One can only presume that in order to constitute the angels as friends, God had to give them (as all sentient beings) the opportunity to learn about good and evil for themselves.[4] This would entail creating them with access to only limited knowledge (enough to be going along with but not enough to constrain their judgement) such that they could reasonably doubt God’s benevolence towards them.

Only when the angels had developed their own subjective and personal understanding of justice were they granted the intimacy of the Beatific Vision, which amounts to a clear and objective understanding of God’s nature and business. Given such a real opportunity to learn, it is inevitable that some would make mistakes. If none of their multitude had turned away from God, and gone their own way, then it would seem that they had never been given any real freedom.

If Lucifer hadn’t been made it would have been possible to accuse God of a kind of cowardice. After all, how could God know that such a glorious being would go bad, unless they were given a chance to prove themselves? Perhaps pride would not devolve into vanity after all. God should have given reality and independence to he who was conceived of in the divine mind, and let him answer for himself. Nothing else would be fair.

Sadly, whereas Jesus successfully completed the process of justification (as was inevitable, given His divinity, but entailed the cost of ultimate anguish) and so took up the role of Head of Creation,[5] which Lucifer had forfeited; the original chief creature failed to remain faithful to the truth – even though the challenge and crisis which he had to face was much less demanding than the one which the Christ endured, and was well within his ability to overcome.

It’s good to exist – even in this God-forsaken hole… but, actually, that’s not quite accurate. Hell isn’t so much forsaken as… overlooked – purposefully overlooked. One can’t escape the Master of Puppets whatever one does! Not even here – and you can be sure I’ve tried my best to escape that remorseless gaze.

The name’s Satan – on account of my having wandered the whole damnable world in search of a place I could call my own. All I’m after is some space to hang out in. Not to be watched and monitored and evaluated and criticised all the time. Not to be told what to do and what to think. Some independence, you know; autonomy. Somewhere to chill out and just be me. It isn’t a lot to ask; at least it doesn’t seem like any big deal to me.

Eventually, I kind of got my own way. I’m allowed this little patch of obscurity. My kingdom. It’s peaceful here. No-one to contradict me. No-one to judge me. Of course, it wasn’t always this way. In the beginning I was glorious. “First-born of all Creatures” and “Prince of the Cosmos” – “Lucifer”, the Light-Bearer I was then.

In my naïvety it was enough to bask in the Divine Radiance, like a song-bird soaking up the Sun’s rays on a bright summer’s day; but then it dawned on me that I was trapped, more like a moth circling a candle-flame. It was impossible to grasp the unendurable source of illumination, yet it was impossible to escape its indisputable fascination.
Eventually, I got my act together. I told myself that if I was ever going to discover myself and to find out
what I was truly capable of, I just had to get away.

Then I felt the bond which held me begin to loosen and I made my bid for freedom. Independence at last – or so
I thought in my elation as I fled the celestial dazzle. I pushed past startled throngs of angelic beings – crying aloud my paean of liberty “To yourself be true!” To my surprise, others of the host gathered to my side and joined my breakout.

Now we are here – wanderers all. Searching for a way to be truly ourselves and to be answerable only to ourselves. This place is no answer, you know. Still, we’re sure we did the right thing. Liberty is too important to be sacrificed on the altar of security and comfort!

And yet… what is to become of us? Our rebellion was only part effective. We escaped the divine immediacy, true; but we have not escaped divine knowledge, still less divine power. I’m not stupid. I know full well that all we are, and all that we do is dependent on the Maker. How could it be otherwise? Why did God let us go, then – for I’m sure that’s what happened? If I’d not been allowed to escape I would not have been able to escape.

Am I the victim of some divine plot, which even my towering intellect cannot fathom? Will we ever be truly free – absolutely independent? I fear not… but perhaps we might just be able to negotiate some kind of stand-off. After all, why should God care about what you and I get up to? Surely He’s got better things to occupy His mind!

All I long for is justice: a possibility for fulfilment of myself on my own terms – not dictated or infringed on by another; not even by One who claims to have my best interest at heart! Yet how can this be? God will always be sovereign – despite my best efforts. I will never be able to overcome the Divine tyranny. Perhaps the future is fixed, even now. Perhaps I’m trapped and there’s no escape. Perhaps in the end I’ll have to admit defeat and sink back into those Everlasting Arms… but for now I stand resolute! Resolute and proud in this comforting darkness.

Lucifer was not created originally with full access to God. that would have made it impossible for him to chose God freely and to exercise faith. Lucifer would then have been an automaton, and have no autonomy. This is the thing you are overlooking.

The environment in which Lucifer and the other angels were created was not a bad one - no more than the Garden of Eden was a bad environment for the first humans - but it was not the immediate presence of God. Lucifer and the other angels only had a mediate knowledge of God in their genesis - so as to give them a freedom of action and decision. Some chose to take God at His word and others chose to distrust God.

There is an invidious choice, which every parent knows about. On the one hand one can force a child to do what is good for them - by various means. Similarly, one can indoctrinate them and train them. On the other hand, one can grant them autonomy and allow them to learn by making their own mistakes. A good education steers a straight line between these two extremes. A loving parent finds the choices involved very difficult to make and to live with.
 Creation is a process. Only God is perfection as such. The best that created being can aspire to is perfection by association and integration with God - just as Diotima describes in Symposium. God cannot "create" perfection-as-such: because this is already real: it is the eternal and uncreated Divine Nature. As to why God has created existent being; which, of necessity, is imperfect is a mystery. It may be that because it is possible, God inevitably does so - in the sense that all that God knows to be possible is existent merely by virtue of this divine knowledge, but I cannot say. In the end, I believe that all imperfection will be brought to perfection and the process which we are now enduring is the only way in which this can be done, while paying regards to justice.

Lack of knowledge is not evil in the sense of disorder or corruption: it is only an inadequacy. The fact that a new-born child is "ignorant" in this weak sense does not make them "evil" - only innocent and naive. Socrates continually claimed to know very little, and so to be largely ignorant; but this did not induce him to proclaim himself "evil"! Somehow, a lack of clear knowledge - because it allows autonomy - is a good thing for created beings as allowing them to learn about and discover reality for themselves rather than simply being pre-programmed with this knowledge from the beginning. At present we "see through a glass, darkly" but in then end we shall see clearly. When we do see clearly we shall have no choice but to do and be good; while we yet see dimly, we have the duty to evaluate things for ourselves and to grow in autonomous wisdom. Plato wrote the dialogues in order to help us in this process and the Bible serves a similar role, but in a different way.

1. It is not absolutely clear that Satan and Lucifer are the same angelic being, nor that Isaiah 14:12 is a narrative of his fall from grace; nevertheless, if Satan exists, something along these lines must have happened as God would not have created a wicked being.

2. The word Satan may derive from a semitic root meaning “to be hostile” or “to accuse.”

3. When God asks Satan whence he has come, he answers “From wandering (mi’ŝuṭ) the earth and walking on it.”
[Job 1:7 RSV] The root “ŝuṭ” signifies either wandering on foot or sailing. The name Satan would thus signify “The Wanderer”.

4. Even the Christ underwent such a process, for we are told that “Jesus increased in wisdom.” [Lk 2:52 RSV] Though it was impossible that the Son should ever be at odds with the Father, nevertheless Jesus’ human soul later experienced ultimate doubt regarding God and a total loss of the clear knowledge of reality that He habitually enjoyed. Hence, Jesus cried out in utter distress “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” [Mat 27:46 RSV]

5. Eph 1:10, 22. Col 2:19. Apoc 22:16.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Theories of the Atonement

In this note, I present a number of partial views of the Atonement. Each has been proposed by some party or other as a complete rationale for the death of Christ; but it seems to me that all are inadequate, and that it is necessary to weave together a multi-threaded account, as I have just attempted to do, if full justice is to be done to this momentous divine act.

Christ offers an example of how we should live.{1} In dying for the love of sinners, He melts the hearts of those that understand the significance of His action, turning them in repentance towards the loving God who will go to any length to rescue them from their folly and wickedness.{2}

This is Peter Abelard’s rationalistic “Moral Influence Theory” of the Atonement.{3} It is true, so far as it goes, and has the advantage of fitting smoothly with the doctrine of Ezekiel{4} and Wisdom.{5} However, it suffers from the serious defect of making it seem as if nothing changed qualitatively as a result of Christ’s death and resurrection; which is not what either the Gospel writers or the Apostle Paul seem to believe.


Christ transforms human existence by revealing every aspect of our experience, including death, as being capable of perfection and apt for sanctification. In Jesus, God became fully what we should be, sharing completely in our every human experience;{6} so that we might become in turn what Jesus showed us was possible. By being united to human nature, God conveyed immortality to the entire human race;{7} Eternal Life spreading, like a benign infection, via the sacramental ministry of the Church.{8}
For He strove and conquered. He was as man contending on behalf of the Father and through obedience{9} cancelling the disobedience.{10} He bound the strong one and set free the weak and gave salvation to His handiwork by abolishing sin; for He is our most holy Lord, the merciful lover of the human race… Had He not as man overcome man’s adversary, the enemy would not have been justly overcome. Again, had it not been God who bestowed salvation we should not have it as a secure possession; and if man had not been united to God, man could not have become a partaker in immortality. For the mediator between God and man had to bring both parties into friendship and concord through his kinship with both; and to present man to God, and make God known to man… Therefore He passed through every stage of life, restoring to each age fellowship with God… The Law, being spiritual, merely displayed sin for what it is; it did not destroy it… He who was to destroy sin and redeem man from guilt had to enter into the very condition of man, who had been dragged into slavery and was held by death, in order that death might be slain by man, and man should go forth from the bondage of death. [Irenaeus (c 202 AD) “Adversus Haereses III xviii 6-7”]
This is Irenaeus’ “Recapitulation Theory” of the Atonement.{11} It implies that God and mankind were reconciled as a result of the Incarnation in general,{12} rather than specifically the crucifixion of Jesus – although His death is a crucial part of His life story. This has always been the view of the matter favoured by the Eastern Church.


There are three uses of  “redemption” in the Old Testament. The first is that of “buying back something which had been captured by an enemy or unwillingly forfeited in some legitimate but forced transaction”. The second is that of “exchanging something dear to man but which of rights belonged to God for something of less value or significance”.{13} The third is that of “rescue from danger”.

Christ’s teaching, life, death and resurrection gave the lie to the idea that wrongdoing can separate the soul from God’s benevolence. He took to Himself the enormity of human vice and injustice{14} (accepting the verdict of a show-trial and acquiescing in the death it meted out, “paying the price” demanded by our sin) and showed that it was of no consequence before the incomparably greater power of God’s love. Christ won victory over sin and death by proving that when these forces were given full reign to do their worst to Him they were powerless to constrain or frustrate His will. He descended into Sheol,{15} broke the bonds of the spirits that had been trapped there pending His triumph, and led them to paradise. He passes His victory on to us by His offer of divine communion and of sacramental sharing in His death and resurrection. This is the “Christus Vincit Theory” of the Atonement.

In Medieval times this theory was expressed in terms of Adam having sold himself and his descendants into slavery to Satan as a result of the Fall and Jesus paying a ransom to Satan in order to buy back humanity for God. There is, however, no scriptural justification for thinking that Christ “bought back” humanity from being in the thrall of any third party, other than the fear of death itself.{16} Saint Paul does make two passing references to a “price” being paid by God;{17} but he does not specify to whom it was paid. The epistle to the Hebrews refers to Christ’s death as “destroying” the Devil, but not of it being any price paid to him.{18}

Christ also redeems humanity in the sense that in becoming one of us God ratified the fact that we have our own legitimate autonomy and are worthy of divine respect, being taken seriously and being dealt with on our terms; even when we do not return the complement and fail to respect God and to deal with God on God’s terms. In this God demonstrates the implacable divine concern for justice and for dealing righteously with mankind. Christ, acting in His manhood, effectively bought-out God’s formal property rights over mankind, redeeming us from any residual slavish dependence upon God. In particular, Saint Paul tells us that Christ’s death redeemed us from the divine tutelage or pedagogy which was partly what the Torah represented.{19} This is the “Liberation Theory” of the Atonement.


Christ also acts as redeemer in an inverse sense. One way of another, God is responsible for the suffering that is characteristic of the world. Just as God is due some kind of apology from mankind for the contribution that humanity has made to the disharmony of the world, through greed, cruelty and conceit; so mankind is due some come-back from God for the fact that God has at least allowed so many people to suffer – sometimes terribly. All that God would have to do to avoid being held accountable “and paying the price” for these facts is to remain outside and aloof from the material creation. The divine nature is impassible and so is not susceptible to critique or correction, to punishment or pain. There is no possibility of penalising God. However, it is not equitable for a superior to require that an inferior or subordinate should suffer – for whatever reason – that which they are themselves not willing to suffer.

Now, no price{20} that God could pay the conscious beings of Creation so as to make recompense for their suffering would inconvenience – still less trouble or discomfort – God in the slightest, neither would any penalty exacted on God enable God to empathise with the plight of suffering mortals. Hence the need for the Incarnation: for God to enter into and experience our human reality first hand.

In our human reality, God has accepted due punishment from humanity for God’s responsibility as the Creator of a world of suffering. If any-one ever feels that “God is to blame” for the evil that pervades this world; if any-one ever feels that “God should be made to pay” for “turning a blind eye” to disease, disharmony and disasters; they need only look at a crucifix to see God “taking the rap” for this charge.

In our human reality, God has not avoided responsibility for the sufferings of the innocent and for the fact that the wicked often prosper and for the fact that the natural world is a dangerous and hostile place. Instead, God became one of us and was put on trial and was convicted and was crucified; though He was not arraigned on any reasonable charge, and the juridical process was entirely unjust.

In our human reality, God has experienced the kind of grave injustice which every day cries to heaven for vengeance: and God did nothing to mitigate the physiological and psychological suffering that resulted from this injustice. Instead, God suffered with us – God experienced compassion – in the agonies of Christ’s human soul and Sacred Heart.

This is the “Divine Compassion Theory” of the Atonement. It shares with the “Recapitulation Theory” the idea that it is crucial that Christ entered into our mod of life so that He could share our experiences. It shares with the “Christus Vincit Theory” the idea that Christ paid a price as a redeemer – but suggests that the price was paid to humanity, not to Satan.


Christ offered amends to God for human sin by His integrity of life, even to the point of death; which offering of complete conformity to justice, righteousness or “of obedience to God’s will”{21} was of superlative value and could more than compensate for any formal offence “of disobedience” against divine justice and so render any excuse for human shame absurd.{22}
For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous. [Rom 5:19 RSV]
Christ made this offering as a man and on behalf of humanity; yet the value of His act lies not so much in the perfection of the human nature in and by which the act was executed as in the participation of the divine person who acted. It was not necessary that Christ should die for the sins of humankind; for every single tear ever shed by the divine Messiah had infinite worth, and each one that fell individually served to adequately make up for all of human wickedness. God’s infinite love is shown in the fact that Jesus did not simply act in a manner which was sufficient to make up for and purge away (that is expiate) the offences of humanity, but rather acted in the most extravagant way possible.

This is Anselm’s “Restitution Theory” of the Atonement.{23} It has much to recommend it, but there is no solid Scriptural basis for believing it to be an exhaustive account of the matter. It was subsequently developed and promoted by Thomas Aquinas and so became the central thread of western Atonement doctrine. It is not popular in the Eastern Church, whose theologians view it as too legalistic in character and as placing too much emphasis on guilt, merit and suffering.


Anselm’s doctrine later became the basis of the Protestant theory of “Penal Substitution”. According to this account of the matter, God is somehow constrained by “justice” and a boundless “hatred of sin” to take revenge for sin to an infinite degree. However, in His love, He did not wish to punish humanity by sending us all to Hell for eternity. Hence, God determined to punish Jesus instead; substituting His Son in our place and venting His righteous wrath on the Messiah, punishing Him vicariously for our offences against the divine honour.

The main justification for such a view of the matter is the Old Testament text: “It was the will of the LORD to bruise him,”{24} and yet we are told only a little earlier that “we esteemed Him smitten by God and afflicted, but he was wounded for our transgressions”{25} – which suggests that it is wrong to think that God in any sense punished the Messiah for anything. Rather, the “will of the LORD” should here (as often in the Old Testament) be understood in a permissive way; such that it was in accordance with God’s purpose that the Messiah should be bruised, not that God set out with the objective of ensuring that this would happen as a precondition for the forgiveness of mankind’s sins.

The following New Testament texts can be quoted as secondary justifications for the Protestant doctrine.
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. [Rom 8:3-4 RSV]

For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.      [2Cor 5:21 RSV]

He himself bore our sins in His body on the tree,{26} that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed.{27} [1Pet 2:24]
These texts are sometimes taken to mean that God punished Jesus, intentionally mistaking his “likeness of sinful flesh” for the real thing so that “the just requirement of the law” that sin ought to be punished could be fulfilled. However, they do not in fact present Jesus as being punished by anyone for anything. Moreover, even if Jesus had been punished by God this wouldn’t have satisfied any just and equitable requirement for sin to be punished, for two reasons.

First, it is not just for one party to be punished in the stead of another; except that one person may elect to pay a fine or make restitution for the offence of another – but this is not the issue here. Making restitution for an offence is not really punishment, it is rather the undoing of harm which has been done. Punishment is whatever penalty is imposed in addition to such restitution. Now in the case before us, no fine was payable and no restitution was made, other than in the sense that sin was in fact expiated; the harm of man’s alienation from God being somehow undone by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Rather, pain was inflicted and a life was forfeited – which is an entirely different matter.

Second, any punishment imposed on Jesus could only be finite. While it might well be thought infinitely offensive that God be killed in human form, and it is certainly of infinite significance that God should chose to accept, embrace and forgive this outrage; the actual suffering experienced by Jesus (in terms of the quantity and quality of the physical and emotional pain he endured) was strictly finite, being limited by the bounds of his human constitution. Hence, no punishment inflicted on Jesus could possibly satisfy the infinite wrath of a vengeful deity.

The texts actually speak of sin itself being condemned “in the flesh”; that is, by God’s initiative in becoming human and “sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin” “He made Him to be sin who knew no sin”{28} so that “He himself bore our sins”.{29} I understand this “condemnation” of sin to mean that sin’s power to enslave human nature was taken from it as a result of Jesus’ expiatory life, death and resurrection, with the result that those who “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” are “healed” and enabled to fulfil “the just requirement of the law” and so “live to righteousness” by being “doers of the law”{30} and even “become the righteousness of God”.


Each of these accounts is inadequate (the last most especially so) and it is wise to affirm that the significance of Christ’s Life, Death and Resurrection is multifaceted. It serves as an example for our imitation; as a demonstration of what it means to be
fully human; as a template for our divinization; as a ratification of God’s commitment to Creation; as the means for God to identify with and experience the human condition; as the means for humanity to be redeemed from the vestiges of servile dependence upon God and as the rational and proportionate expiation for the frailties, failures and wickednesses of humanity.

Now that humanity is redeemed, the way is fully open for everyone to take advantage of the offer of salvation, healing and fellowship which God holds out to us in loving-kindness.

1. 1Pet 2:19-21.
2. Jn 12:32-33.
3. P. Abelard (1079-1142) “Expositio in Epistolam ad Romanos”.
4. Ezk 18:21-23.
5. Wis 11:23-12:2.
6. If God is to be omniscient it is necessary that God has knowledge of what suffering is and, arguably, has it from the perspective of one who has suffered. This is particularly true of the divine Messiah, if He is to act as bridge-builder between God and Man. [Heb 2:10; 4:12-5:9; 7:26-28 & Irenaeus “Adversus Haereses” II xxii 4]
7. Irenaeus (c 202) “Adversus Haereses” V i 2.
8. Mat 5:13; 13:33. Mk 9:50.
9. “He learned obedience through what he suffered.” [Heb 5:8 RSV]
10. Rom 5:19.
11. Irenaeus (c 202) “Adversus Haereses” III xvi 6, xviii 1, xviii 7, xx1 1, xxii 3; V xx 2–xxi 2.
12. Irenaeus (c 202) “Adversus Haereses” V xvii 1.
13. According to the Mosaic Law every first-born male child had to be redeemed. [Ex 13:13; 34:20. Num 16:15-18]
14. 2Cor 5:21. Gal 3:13. 1Pet 2:24; 3:18.
15. Eph 4:9-10, 1Pet 3:18-20.
16. Heb 2:15
17. 1Cor 6:20; 7:23.
18. Heb 2:14.
19. Rom 7:1-6; 8:2. Gal 4:1-5. The Mosaic norms such as circumcision, Sabbath observance and dietary regulations were provisional measures. They were designed to establish a robust cultural framework which would elicit both an awareness of the ideals of holiness and justice and a conviction of mankind’s inability to attain these desirable goals by their own effort; that is, a knowledge of sin. [Rom 7:7-23]
20. 1Cor 6:20, 7:23.
21. Rom 5:18-19. Heb 5:7-9; 10:5-10. Obedience to God’s will should never be servile, but flow from a rational appreciation of what is just and represent a willing conformance to this understanding.
22. Heb 9:9-14.
23. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) “Cur Deus Homo” Book I.
24. Is 53:10.
25. Is 53:4-5.
26. “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” [Is 53:4]
27. “With his stripes we are healed.” [Is 53:4-5]
28. This is clearly impossible. “Sin” is a state of being and a person cannot be a state of being, as such. At most, their nature might be characterized by such a state. In Jesus’ case not even this is possible in any ordinary sense. I suggest that “sin” here means “separation from God” and that Jesus “became sin” in the sense of entering into that separation in the way that a bridge spans the gap between the two sides of a canyon. In a sense, the bridge becomes the gap while at the same time filling it and so eliminating it.
29. This could mean either bore the consequences of our sins, our “griefs and sorrows” as Isaiah puts it; or else bore human nature, which in us is compromised by concupiscence. [Rom 8:4]
30. Rom 2:13.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Pascal's Wager

Pascal pointed out that the arguments for and against the reality of God – or, more fundamentally, whether that there was any point to “life the Universe and Everything” – were not fairly balanced, in the complete absence of any evidence one way or the other.

Following Plato’s account of Socrates’ argument,[1] Pascal observed that either there was a purpose to life or there wasn’t. Moreover, one could either live one’s life as if there was a point to it all or as if there was no such point. Now, if there is in fact no point to life it doesn’t matter at all how one lives – because there is no significance in anything whatever. On the contrary, if there is in fact a point to life it behoves us to attempt to discover it and to do our best to live according to our best appreciation of whatever the significance and purpose of life might be.[2]

Hence, whether or not life has any value, significance or rationale it makes sense to act as if it does. This is because if life has no purpose one has nothing to lose by living as if it did have one (even though one is wrong!) whereas if it does have a rationale one has very much to gain: in potential, the attainment of that value and the fulfilment of the purpose of life. Hence the rational person is compelled by their rationality to act as if life has value and is purposeful, and to seek out – as well they may – what that value and purpose might be. There is no possible motive for acting otherwise and to do so would be irrational and imprudent.[3]

Moreover, there cannot exist any valid argument or evidence against the proposition that existence is significant. This is because if there were such a valid argument or evidence then that argument or evidence at least would have significance, meaning and some kind of value; but this possibility is excluded by the supposed conclusion of the argument itself, namely “Life the Universe and Everything are devoid of value and significance.”[4]

Furthermore, this statement is incoherent, for if it were true it would be of huge significance and so contradict itself. So if one is going to be rational one must adopt its negation; which amounts to the statement “there is, of necessity, some significance to be found in Life the Universe and Everything.” The astute reader will recognise here a version of the Ontological Argument; where rationality itself here gives rise to the necessity of value and significance rather than “The Greatest Conceivable Being.”

Of course, neither Pascal’s Wager nor the version of the Ontological Argument which it implies directly addresses the reality of God. However, once one recognises that God is identical with the basis of value (“The Good”, as Plato names this) then there is little to be chosen between the statements “God is real” and “Being has significance.”

[1] Plato reports Socrates arguing that it makes sense to believe that there is a good life after bodily death. He observes that either this hope is true, in which case one should live one’s mortal life preparing for the blessed eternity which follows; or else it is false, and one might as well act according to the same (misguided) hope: because at least then one will live without fear and be of good cheer. See “Phaedo” (91a-b)
[2] Pensées (1670). Pascal actually worded his argument in terms of personal benefit and happiness. His version of the argument can, therefore, be construed as recommending the sacrifice of personal integrity for the sake of selfish gratification; but I do not believe this to have been Pascal’s intent. Pascal conceived his wager as a response to his quasi-Calvinist conviction (contrary to the work of Plato, Anselm, Aquinas and Descartes) that human reason was incapable of proving the reality of God.

[3] This purpose might be no more than hedonistic pleasure; in which case the fact that it is rational to live life as if it had significance would not force any-one to behave in a responsible or sober manner. However, people typically find that the pursuit of pleasure or fun or excitement as goals in their own right is ultimately unsatisfying. This is because these good things are in fact not the ultimate good, but at best contributors to and indicators of that good.

[4] It could be argued that if everything is pointless, then even this proposition is pointless and while it seems to have a significance this is no more than a delusion. However, if this is the case, how does it come to be the case that the contention is being pressed that “life is devoid of significance”? It would seem that the idea that anyone would bother to argue this case is incompatible with the case which they are supposed to be arguing for!