The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates

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.