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Suppose that God exists, exists necessarily, contains the reason for his existence in his own nature, and that everything other than God owes its existence to God. This is granting quite a bit, and there are reasonable objections to all of the items on this list. However, for know I want to grant all of this for the sake of argument because I think we can shown that, even if such a God exists, it does not follow that God is the terminus of all explanation. More specifically, I will argue that even if theism is true in all of its details, there are still facts that theism cannot explain.

The argument is fairly simple but to understand it, we have to be very clear and precise by what we mean by ‘Theism.’ I shall take theism to be equivalent to the following:

Theism: There exists an omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent creator who exists necessarily and by his own nature.

I maintain that even if theism is true, there still exist facts that theism cannot explain. Here is a list of some of these facts:

  • that the creator of the universe is omni-benevolent rather than omni-malevolent,  mostly good, or even indifferent
  • that the creator of the universe is omnipotent rather than merely very very powerful
  • that the creator of the universe is omniscient rather than merely very knowledgable

Do these facts require explanation? I believe they do. It is certainly conceivable that the creator of the universe could have been other than omni-benevolent. It is conceivable that the creator could have been merely knowledgeable enough to create a universe but would not be in a position to know everything about every aspect of the created universe. It is conceivable that the creator has tremendous but limited power. So it seems clear that these are facts that could have been otherwise; thus we need an explanation for why these facts in particular hold rather than a different set of facts.

It is helpful here to use the device (which I use often) of imagining different kinds of gods that might have played the role that God plays according to theism. So, here are some possible gods:

Yod: An omnipotent, omniscient, creator who exists necessarily and by his own nature. (The only difference between Yod and God is that Yod is only contingently omni-benevolent, while God is necessarily so.)

Asura: An omnipotent, omniscient, omni-malevolent creator who exists necessarily and by his own nature.

Elo: A very powerful (but not omnipotent), omniscient, omni-benevolent creator who exists necessarily and by his own nature.

Heway: A very powerful (but not omnipotent), very knowledgeable (but not omniscient) creator who exists necessarily and by his own nature.

And the list goes on . . .

So, one question that theism cannot answer can be stated thus: Why is it that, out of all the conceivable necessarily self-existent beings, God is the one that actually happens to exist?

That theism cannot answer this is clear: As Randal Rasuer has claimed (see my two most recent posts), theists build aseity into the very concept of God. That God exists a se is not something that theism explains, it is something that theism takes for granted because it is part of the definition of God. The same goes for his omniscience, omnipotence, etc.

In my most recent post, I quoted Randal Rauser saying the following:

And so for the person who wonders “But why should anything exist at all?” the answer comes: “Because the omnipotent, necessarily existent God brought it into being.”

But this answer does not answer this question: Why does there exist an omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent creator rather than one who lacks one or all of these properties? So God, even if he exists, is not the terminus of explanation.

I have a paper that has just been announced at The Secular Web (infidels.org) called “Do Atheists Need a Moral Theory to be Moral Realists?”

It might not surprise you to learn that my answer to that question is “no.” If you read the paper and have comments or complaints, feel free to offer them here.

I recently came across a response to my October post on the Euthyphro Dilemma, which I thought it worth responding to. The response, written by philosopher Brian Zamulinski, was itself written in October, but I missed it until just a few days ago. In it Zamulinski says that my arguments defending the strength of the Euthyphro objection to the divine command theory are unsuccessful:

To repeat, Adam’s reformulated divine command theory is that morality is constituted by the commands of an essentially loving God.  Now, if E (for “entity”) essentially possesses P (for “property”), then E possesses P in all possible worlds in which E exists.  So, by hypothesis, God is loving in every world in which He exists.  God is not just contingently loving, that is, loving in at least one possible world in which He exists

On the basis of an analogy, Thibodeau claims that “we may know with certainty that an all-loving being will not issue a command to torture children, but, given that he is omnipotent, it remains the case that he can issue such a command.”  The analogy is to someone who will not but who could jump from the Empire State Building.  The analogy is irrelevant because the possible jumper is only a contingent jumper.  For the parallel to hold, it must be possible for an essentially non-jumping person to jump.  Thus, Thibodeau equivocates between an essentially loving being and a contingently loving being.  Thibodeau has a second objection that also fails:  it begs the question in that it presupposes that a non-loving being can create morality.

In my original post, I gave two arguments for the conclusion that the Euthyphro Dilemma defeats to the divine command theory (DCT) because it shows that the DCT implies that morality is arbitrary and contingent. My first argument was supposed to show that even an all-loving being is able to make cruel commands, and thus that the DCT implies that it is metaphysically possible that a cruel act such as torturing a child is morally obligatory. The second says, essentially, that even if we thought that an all-loving being cannot command torture, this does not help the DCT since it is possible that there exists a divine commander who enjoys (and commands) cruelty for its own sake. If it is possible that such a being (whom I called Asura) exists, then it is possible that torturing children is morally obligatory. Zamulinski says that both of these arguments fail; the first because I have misunderstood or misinterpreted Adams version of the divine command theory, the second because I have begged the question. In this post I will respond to the second of Zamulinski’s criticisms and I will follow up with a later post that will address his first criticism.

For now what I am particularly interested in is the following statement:

Thibodeau has a second objection that also fails:  it begs the question in that it presupposes that a non-loving being can create morality.

This claim strikes me as incredibly odd. Why, if Adams is permitted to assume that an all-loving being can create morality, am I not permitted to assume that a non-loving being can do the same thing? Now, it is true that I actually don’t believe that a non-loving being can create morality, I am assuming it only for the sake of creating a reductio of the divine command theory. But I cannot see that there is any problem with this assumption.

Adams version of the divine command theory assumes something that I believe is false: that an all-loving being can create morality. I believe this is false because I believe that no person, loving or otherwise, could have control over moral facts (that is, have the capacity to change moral facts or to bring them into existence). But I am not and was not trying to make this point. My point was only to draw out the absurd consequences of the divine command theory. My tack was to say that if we are permitted to assume that an all-loving being can create morality, then surely we are permitted to assume that a non-loving being can create morality. Zamulinski has not shown that this is an unreasonable argumentative move.

If we knew how God is able to create morality, then maybe we would be in a position to say that a non-loving being cannot do it (or at least that we are not warranted in supposing that he can). Maybe being all-loving endows God with some special capabilities that a non-all-loving being would not have. But has Adams actually shown how God creates morality? Well, the divine command theory says that God does it by issuing commands. But a non-loving omnipotent being can certainly issue commands. Then is there some reason to believe that the commands of a non-loving being would be ineffective, that they wouldn’t actually create morality even though God’s commands can? If this is what Adams or Zamulinski or anyone else believes, then we need an argument for it. We need to know why it is that being all-loving endows God with the capacity to create morality; we need to know how it works. There is no such argument that I am aware of. As it stands, given that Asura (the evil Creator from my example) is at least as powerful as God, it is reasonable to think that if there is something that God can do, then Asura can do it as well.

The structure of my argument, to which Zamulinski objects, is as follows:

(1)    If God can create morality, then so can Asura.

(2)    There is some possible world in which Asura commands the torture of children

Thus, (3) In that world, the torture of children is morally obligatory.

Thus, (4) There is some world in which the torture of children is morally obligatory.

Therefore, (5) It is metaphysically possible that the torture of children is morally obligatory.

I cannot see how premise (1) begs the question. The question is not, “Can a non-loving deity create morality?” but “Does the divine command theory have the consequence that morality is arbitrary and contingent?” Remember, Adams modification of the divine command theory was motivated by a need for a reply to the Euthyphro Dilemma, not because it is somehow difficult to believe that a being who is not all loving can create moral properties.

Again, my working assumption is that if there is some feat that God (assuming he exists) can accomplish, then, absent any obvious reason to think otherwise, we are justified in believing that any being that is omnipotent will be able to accomplish the same task. It is worth pointing out, however, that Adams’ God is limited in the things that he can do. According to Zamulinski, God cannot command the torture of children, for example. Thus, a being who is not essentially limited, in the way that Zamulinski, Adams, and Matthew Flannagan all agree that God is, can do more than God can do.

With this in mind, I will now reformulate my argument to explicitly refer to a being who is essentially unlimited rather than to the non-loving being Asura:

Conisder the supernatural being who we’ll call Yod: Yod is the omniscient, omnipotent, all-loving creator. In fact the only way in which Yod differs from God is that Yod is not essentially all-loving. There are worlds in which Yod is all-loving, but there are also worlds in which he is not. Yod is not essentially all-loving because he is omnipotent. Being omnipotent, it is possible for him to do anything, including issue cruel commands, such as that children be tortured. Issuing such a command may entail changing his character traits, but being omnipotent means being unlimited, which in turn entails not being limited by one’s own character traits. Since Yod is omnipotent, he can change his own character. Thus there is no problem in supposing that Yod, even though he is actually all-loving (and thus has not actually commanded the torture of children), can command the torture of children. Since Yod can command torture, there is some possible world in which he does command torture and thus, if the divine command theory is true, there is some possible world in which torturing children is morally obligatory.

Notice that this version of the argument does not assume that a non-loving being can create morality, it assumes that an all-loving being who is not essentially loving can create morality. This is not so far from Adams’ presupposition that an essentially loving being can create morality. And until we have some argument that shows why only an essentially loving being can create morality, if Adams’ presupposition is allowable, mine must be as well.

Notice also that I have claimed that Yod’s being omnipotent requires that he not be essentially loving. This observation, which is the basis of my claim that an omnipotent being is able to command torture, will be expanded and defended in my next post.

I came across this article by Matt Flannagan criticizing a recent article by Jerry Coyne about secular morality (thanks to Jeffery Jay Lowder at the Secular Outpost). Coyne seems to want to make two distinct points: One, that atheists have a well-developed moral sense and thus you don’t need God to be a good person; and two, that morality cannot come from God. Flannagan makes some good observations about the relevance of the distinction between having a moral sense and being under a genuine moral obligation and shows that Coyne doesn’t always acknowledge this distinction. However, Flannagan himself is guilty of misunderstanding Coyne’s argument about the Euthyphro dilemma and he wants to downplay some of the serious problems that the dilemma creates for God-based moral theories. I’ll quote the relevant portion of Flannagan’s article:

The only time Coyne is remotely on point is when he argues that if moral obligations are constituted by God’s commands then morality becomes arbitrary; anything at all could be deemed ‘right’ as long as God has commanded it – even stealing or infanticide. Coyne suggests this argument is devastating and has known to be so by philosophers for hundreds of years.

In fact, since Adams’ publication, this argument has been subject to extensive criticism in the philosophical literature. So much so that today even Adams’ leading critics grant that it fails. Adams contended that moral obligations are, in fact, the commands of a loving and just God; therefore, it is possible for infanticide or theft to be right only if a fully informed, loving and just person could command things like infanticide and stealing. The assumption that this is possible seems dubious. The very reason Coyne cites examples such as infanticide and theft is because he considers them to be paradigms of conduct that no morally good person could ever knowingly entertain or endorse.

Coyne seems vaguely aware of the response, stating “Of course, you can argue that God would never sanction something like that because he’s a completely moral being, but then you’re still using some idea of morality that is independent of God.” Here he again falls into confusion. What his response shows is that people can have ideas about and recognise what counts as loving and just independently of their beliefs about God and his commands. Now this is true but this does not show that moral obligations can exist independently of the commands of a loving and just God. Coyne again fails to grasp the basic distinctions involved in discussions of God and morality.

I think Flannagan is wrong in his interpretation of Coyne’s argument. And I know that he is wrong about what Adam’s leading critics say about the validity of the arbitrariness objection that stems from the Euthyprho Dilemma. (One need only consult the work of Michael Martin, Erik Wielenberg, Mark C. Murphy, or even Richard Swinburne, to see that this is so). Regardless of what the academic consensus is, it is fairly easy to show that the arbitrariness objection is very powerful. But first, I want to address Flannagan’s misinterpretation of Coyne’s argument.

Coyne does not make the mistake that Flannagan accuses him of; he is not just saying that in order to judge God’s commands as moral or immoral we would have to have a moral sense that is independent of God. Rather, he is saying that we would need a standard of moral obligation that is independent of God. What Coyne has done is condense a bit of argumentative interaction between the purveyor of the Euthyphro objection and the defender of the divine command theory (DCT). One aspect of the Euthyphro objection is that, if the DCT is true, then morality is arbitrary. If the DCT is true, God can make any action (even something universally regarded as horrendous such as torturing small children) morally right just by commanding that we do it. But this conflicts strongly with our moral intuitions: it seems natural to believe that something as awful as torturing children could not possibly be morally right. But the DCT implies that this action, along with any act that causes unwarranted and horrendous suffering, could possibly be right (Note: the notion of possibility at use here is metaphysical possibility, not epistemic; more on this below.) One divine command theorist response to this is to say that a loving and moral God would never issue commands the require us to needlessly cause people to suffer (this is the response that Coyne mentions).

There are a few problems with this response. The most important (and the one that I think that Coyne had in mind) is that if we are to understand the reply to mean that a moral God would not issue immoral commands, then this in essence capitulates to the Euthyphro objection. That is to say, the response implies that there is a standard of morality that is independent of God against which he and his commands can be judged. But if morality is independent of God, then the DCT is false.

Consider: If God’s commands are the standard of right and wrong, then it makes no sense to say that one of his commands is immoral. Say he commands that every person kills at least one dog in their lifetime just for fun. If his commands establish the moral facts, that, e.g., an action is morally right (or wrong, as the case may be), then his command that we kill a dog establishes that killing dogs is obligatory. And it makes no sense to say that this command is immoral because killing dogs is morally wrong. On the DCT, under this scenario, killing dogs would be morally obligatory, full stop, just because God commanded that we do it. Thus, if the DCT is true, it is logically impossible for God to command us to do something that it would be morally wrong for us to do. The fact that God commanded us to do it establishes that it is morally right. The very important upshot of this for the purposes of the current discussion is that, on the DCT it is a logically necessary fact that every action that God commands us to do is a morally right action.

So now, if we say that God is a morally good being and that therefore he won’t issue immoral commands, we are assuming that there is a standard of morality that is independent of God. For according to what standard are God’s commands to be judged? We just saw that on the DCT, it is logically impossible for God to command us to perform an action that is immoral; but that is just because an action is morally right just in virtue of God’s commanding it. And this means that no matter what commands God issues, including that we kill dogs or torture children, those things would be morally right. So, if we want to say that God won’t issue those kinds of commands because he is moral, then we have to assume some standard, independent of God, according to which an act can be judged as moral or immoral. And this means that we would have to reject the DCT.

This is the point that Coyne was making when he said, “you can argue that God would never sanction something like that because he’s a completely moral being, but then you’re still using some idea of morality that is independent of God.”

Notice that this has nothing to do with appealing to a moral sense that is independent of God. The point is a logical one and does not depend on us having a moral sense or on there actually being genuine moral value. So I think Flannagan just misinterprets the gist of Coyne’s objection in the above quoted passage.

In any event, as Flannagan indicated, the debate does not end here because the divine command theorist may concede the point but still insist that all he needs is that God is all-loving, and he will get the same consequence (or at least one that is close enough); namely that God will not issue commands that require us to cause horrible pain and suffering (or do anything that we all agree would be horrendous). If developed in the appropriate direction, this reply can lead to a fully developed response to the arbitrariness objection. That response goes something like this: “God is necessarily an all-loving being. The commands that he issues flow naturally from his essential nature. Thus it would be impossible for an all-loving being to issue commands to kill, maim, or unjustly harm. So, in fact, it is not possible, on the DCT, that torturing children is morally right because, on the DCT, it is not possible for God to issue a command that we torture children.”

There are two problems with this response. The first problem is that when we are talking about what is metaphysically possible, we are talking about what can happen, not what will happen. So, if I want to know whether it is possible (in the relevant sense) for my friend to jump off of the Empire State building, I need to know only whether he can do it. It is irrelevant to this question whether or not my friend will do it. He may be an unusually content, satisfied, and happy person by nature who has absolutely no inclination toward suicide. I may conclude therefore, that he will not jump from the Empire State building. But it remains the case that he can do it. Similarly, we may know with certainty that an all-loving being will not issue a command to torture children, but, given that he is omnipotent, it remains the case that he can issue such a command. And if he can do it, then it is possible for him to do it. So, it is possible for an all-loving God to command that we torture kids and thus, on the DCT, it is possible that torturing kids is right.

But even if we could somehow respond to this concern, there is still a second problem. This problem stems not from a concern about what it is possible for God to do, but what is possible period. Consider:

The following is possible:

        (A) There exists an all-powerful creator that enjoys watching sentient beings suffer.

As I’ve done in the past, let’s call this horrible deity, ‘Asura.’

Given that (A) is possible, the following is also possible:

                (T) Asura commands that parents torture their babies.

To translate this into possible world semantics, we’ll say that there is a possible world (call it WA) in which (A) and (T) are true. If the DCT is true, it follows that in WA the following is true:

                (O) Torturing babies is morally obligatory for parents.

What all of this means is that it is possible that it is obligatory to torture babies.  And it’s important to note that I am not saying that it is epistemically possible, that for all we know torturing babies is obligatory (on the contrary, I think we know that torturing babies is wrong). Rather, I am saying that, if the DCT is true, then it follows that it is metaphysically possible that torturing babies is the right thing to do.

There are two relevant conclusions to draw from this: First, it shows that the arbitrariness objection cannot be answered via the claim that God is necessarily a loving being. Second, it demonstrates once again that the DCT has consequences that are fundamentally contrary to our moral intuitions. We cannot imagine that torturing babies could be right.  Torturing babies is wrong everywhere, every time, in all possible worlds. That is to say, torturing babies is necessarily wrong. Since it implies that it is possible for torturing babies to be obligatory, the DCT conflicts strongly with our moral intuitions.

So, contrary to Flannagan’s dismissal of it, the arbitrariness objection to the divine command theory is very much alive.

There are many ways for an argument in favor of theism to go wrong. The most common problem, though one that frequently goes unrecognized, has to do with the ambiguity of the term ‘God.’ To demonstrate this problem consider the following: Suppose that scientists, after years of trying to discover a mechanism that explains the origins of life on Earth, finally throw up their hands and conclude that we are never going to find a naturalistic explanation. We can even suppose, though it may be difficult to imagine what such evidence would look like, that they have positive evidence that life cannot have originated on Earth via the known chemical and physical processes.

Would this conclusion be reason to believe that God must have had something to do with life’s origins? Well, it depends on what you mean by ‘God.’ If ‘God’ simply refers to that process that gave rise to life on Earth, then the answer is yes. But, of course, this is not what anyone means by ‘God.’ The conclusion of the above imagined scenario is, properly stated, that we shouldn’t expect a naturalistic explanation for the origins of life. But this negative conclusion tells us next to nothing about the actual explanation (assuming there is one). It does not tell us that that which gave rise to life is a being, a conscious being, a loving being, an all-loving being, an all-powerful being, an all-knowing being, inspired the Bible, created the universe, created the planet Earth, spoke the universe into existence, cares about human life, or has any of the other myriad features that those who believe in God believe that he possesses. All that this imagined scenario would license us to conclude is that that which gave rise to life is of an unknown and probably non-natural process. And even if (a very big if) we had evidence that there was a conscious entity involved in the creation of life, this still would not be evidence that God exists, because, for all that we would know, this conscious entity could be less than all-powerful, not the creator of the universe, not all-loving (may not even be loving at all), less than all-knowing, and have nothing whatsoever to do with the Bible or any other religious text. So, to put it mildly, it would be a huge leap from the conclusion of the above imagined (and not very plausible) scenario to the further conclusion that God exists.

At the Huffington Post, Rabbi Adam Jacobs has posted an article, “A Reasonable Argument for God’s Existence” that contains a version of the teleological argument and which he thinks establishes that belief in God is more reasonable than disbelief. He argues that since there is currently no viable naturalistic explanation for how life originated on Earth, and since there is reason to doubt that we are anywhere close to finding such an explanation, we ought to conclude that life is the result of the intervention of some non-natural conscious intelligence. Jacobs sums up:

I posit to you that all the evidence points, in an obvious and inextricable way, to a supernatural explanation for the origin of life. If there are no known naturalistic explanations and the likelihood that “chance” played any role is wildly minute, then it is a perfectly reasonable position to take that a conscious super-intelligence (that some of us call God) was the architect of life on this planet. Everyone agrees to the appearance of design. It is illogical to assume its non-design in the absence of evidence to the contrary.

This argument suffers from the exact flaw I mentioned above. Notice, first, an interesting move: Jacobs says that some of us call the super-intelligent being who created life on Earth God. Fair enough. But I would venture to say that if it turned out that the super-intelligent creator was also uncaring, not omniscient, not omni-benevolent, not the inspiration for the Bible or any other religious text, and not even very interested in humanity, that very few would continue to call this being God. That some of us call the supernatural intelligence responsible for creating life “God” is really quite irrelevant to the question of whether Jacob’s argument proves that God exists. What we choose to call that force(s) through which life originated on this planet is neither here nor there with respect to the question of whether there is a all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful creator.

On the traditional monotheistic understanding, God is a being that is

  • transcendent (this would include being non-physical and non-natural)
  • the creator of everything (except Himself)
  • all-powerful
  • all-knowing
  • concerned with human life (i.e., takes an active interest in human affairs)
  • loving (perhaps even omni-benevolent)

We could add to this list, but let’s leave it at that. By way of contrast we’ll compare this notion to a related one of my own invention, that of a being who I have previously called Asura:

Asura is

  • transcendent (this would include being non-physical and non-natural)
  • the creator of everything (except Himself)
  • all-powerful
  • all-knowing
  • concerned with human life (i.e., takes an active interest in human affairs)
  • evil, nearly omni-malevolent (that is he despises almost everyone)

What Rabbi Jacobs’ does is take the first two characteristics of this list and argues that there is something that satisfies certain aspects of these characteristics. Jacobs’ argues, in effect, that there is a non-natural creator of life. But being non-natural is not the same as being transcendent and being the creator of life is not the same as being the creator of everything. So, his conclusion, if it were true, would not even establish that there is a being that satisfies the first two items of the list of God’s characteristics. Despite this, Jacobs takes this to be an argument for the existence of God. This is completely unwarranted. If it were warranted, then, since Asura is just as capable as God of creating life, it would also be an argument for the existence of Asura, and I doubt that he would be willing to grant that.

We can put this in the form of a dilemma. Either Jacob’s argument makes belief in God reasonable or else it does not. If it does make belief in God reasonable, then it also makes belief in Asura (an evil deity) reasonable. And, since belief in Asura entails the belief that God does not exist, Jacobs’ argument would also make disbelief in God reasonable. If it does not make belief in God reasonable, then it is not relevant to arguments concerning the rationality of belief in God.

There are other problems with his argument. I am sure that there are scientists who would strongly disagree with Jacobs’ assessment of the prospects of discovering a naturalistic explanation for the origins of life. However, I am not an expert and will not offer an opinion on this matter. But I would like to point out one more philosophical flaw with the argument. To simplify, we can boil  Jacobs’ argument down to the following: There is no naturalistic explanation for life’s origins. Thus, the only viable explanation is that God is responsible.

This argument suffers from a pernicious double standard. Scientists have been at work trying to explain how life originated but, says Jacobs, “the few hypotheses they do have are shredded to ribbons by their colleagues within the scientific community.” Again, I’m not an expert so I am not qualified to determine whether this is an accurate depiction of the state of the scientific investigation. However, I would like to note that theologians have not really offered much of an explanation of their own. Rabbi Jacobs explanation seems to be little more the claim that God did it. But perplexing phenomena are not made less perplexing merely through the supposition that God did it.

The theological explanation offered by Jacobs is nowhere near as rigorous as he expects the naturalistic explanation to be. And there are at least as many gaping holes in his explanation as any naturalistic one. For example, How, exactly, did God create life? What did He do? When did He do it? Was there a process involved? If so, what was it?

Perhaps it is meaningless to ask such questions of a non-naturalistic explanation. But, if so, then how does it qualify as an explanation? Explanations are supposed to shed light on some heretofore inexplicable phenomena. But “God did it” sheds no more light on the origins of life than the claim that is was magic.


Jason Thibodeau

thibodeau.jason@gmail.com
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