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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Atheism, Religion, and Ethics: A Discussion (Part 1)

I am very happy to post the first installment of my discussion with Ray, who has been interested in my posts on atheism and ethics. For some more background on how this discussion started, please see those posts and the combox discussions that ensued.

It began with my assertion that in the absence of God, there can be no objective source of morality/ethics/legal justice. These things will devolve into a more or less subjective determination of what is right for “me.” That might result in people trying to get along, but it will also result in people acting out of pure self-interest and being a law unto themselves with their own advantage as the goal. My main point leads to the conclusion that atheists who act ethically in the common sense of the word – abiding by what most people would call right or wrong – do so for the same basic reasons as those who act out of pure self-interest, and whatever can be said of those who act in an unethical manner (in the same common sense meaning of ethical), it cannot be said with authority that what they do is unethical. We can only disagree with it, but not call it “wrong” or “evil.”

Ray holds that objectively knowable ethics does emerge in the absence of God from human beings acting in the real world for particular goals. He begins his explanation with an analogy to chess. Here’s Ray:

Given the rules of chess, and a desire to win a chess game, then sacrificing your queen at the start of the game is an *objectively* bad strategy. In other words, "ought" doesn't arise from "is" - but "ought" does arise from "is" *and goals*. We have fixed 'rules of the game' in the laws of physics - we are not free to violate those conditions. Gravity and thermodynamics and conservation of energy can't be cheated. Humans also have goals, and - just as in chess - given fixed conditions and goals, *objectively* effective and ineffective strategies arise of necessity.

So far, all we've got are 'effective' and 'ineffective' - which is not the same as 'good' and 'bad' in the sense you're looking for. As you put it, "Wise strategies are employed by the evil and the good alike, and perhaps even more effectively by evil people than by the good." But if you have reservations over terminology - which I'm conceding for the nonce - then I do, too. I'd suggest swapping out "wise" in your sentence above for "shrewd" - since the word 'wise', in my experience, has a certain moral component or connotation to it as well.

I think your counterpoint can be summed up as, "different goals make for different strategies". Is that fair?
Yes that’s fair.

But we get ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with the beginning. Your analogy to chess actually conforms very well to a traditional understanding of the elements of human acts. In traditional terms of, for instance, Aristotle or Aquinas, all acts occur in a set of given circumstances and involve a particular end. Deliberation about the end under those circumstances yields a determination of the means to attain the end. Some means are well suited to the end, and others not. I have to agree with you so far, Ray, and say, Yes, sacrificing your queen early does not seem like a means well suited to winning at chess, given the circumstances of the rules and the desire to win.

The same could be said of any goal. If you needed to buy milk (goal) and the supermarket was 5 miles away, using a unicycle as a mode of transportation does not seem like a good strategy, objectively speaking. A car would make much more sense.

But circumstances and goals are seldom so simple. Not only do different goals make for different strategies, which is surely true, but so do different circumstances.

In terms of goals, it has to be considered that all things we do, we do for reasons beyond the activity at hand. We play chess to win, but we may play for other reasons at the same time. We buy milk to drink for enjoyment or nutrition, or to use in a recipe for cake. These further goals might render the act ethically evil: In chess, we might choose to play and win to humiliate our opponent, say, or to gain the glory of victory and the acclaim of chess fans; we might want to buy milk to make an enemy who is allergic to milk sick.

In terms of circumstances, wanting to win at chess may be unethical if one is a grand master and one’s opponent is a novice, where teaching the principles of the game might be a better goal. Now, one can want to win against a novice at the same time as wanting to teach the game, and it becomes a matter of which goal takes precedence.

Also, whether or not God exists is a circumstance that is sure to have an effect on most of our moral actions. If God does not exist, then it is difficult to say that it is wrong to beat the heck out of a novice just for fun, or to slip milk to someone allergic to it to make him sick. If the individual determines he has a good reason to do such things, how is it that someone else can call them objectively wrong?

To push your analogy a little further, you might say that acting in such a way is sure to be a bad strategy, objectively speaking, for making other people like you and want you around. Perhaps. However, what if that’s not one’s goal, at least with respect to those people who think such things are wrong? If God exists, then it would stand to reason that “pleasing God” (understood properly, which we haven’t gotten to yet) would be something that all reasonable people would want to do. Wrongness would come from the objective fact that treating other people badly would be a bad strategy for pleasing God. In the absence of God, the main person I need to please is myself, and would strategize accordingly.

But I think perhaps I went a little far, so let’s backtrack a bit. For now, I agree with the basic notion that in the reality of the world and with a particular goal, some strategies are objectively well suited to attain the goal, and others not.


  1. The analogy to "natural law theory" is closer than it may appear. The idea of ends is important. As we've agreed, different goals make for very different strategies even when circumstances are identical.

    But there's another concept that can be 'ported over' from classical Christian philosophy - "human nature". I think we can also both agree that there's such a thing as 'human nature', that it means something to say, 'this person is a human being'.

    Then there's the fact that there's always a hierarchy of goals. Why reach into your pocket? To get your keys. Why get your keys? To start the car. Why start the car? So you can drive it to the grocery store. Why drive to the grocery store? To get some milk. Why get some milk? Etc. etc.

    So, might there be a commonality of goals among humans - especially really fundamental goals, like safety, food, love, etc. - that comes from them being human?

    Yes, there's a lot of diversity among humans, but compared to what's conceivable, it's striking how limited the range is. I'll take an example from biology - sex, in particular.

    We all know how humans reproduce (and I, for one, think being part of a species with men and women is very nice). But our reproductive scheme is far from the only possibility. Consider the insects.

    Consider, in particular, many beetles. They practice what's called - horrifyingly appropriately - traumatic insemination. The male literally stabs the female with a member that - well, just look at the pictures, if you want to risk nightmares. (And then there's other insects, like the mosquito, that mate only once; the female stores the sperm from that one act for later. Imagine a species that combined the two traits - they would be biologically adapted for what we would have to consider violent juvenile rape!)

    We wouldn't even have to be insects for something like this. Cats - fellow mammals - have a rather unfortunate arrangement where the male's unit has barbs on it, that do just what you'd imagine to the female. It appears that the damage stimulates ovulation.

    I think it's pretty obvious that the objective nature of human sexuality has strong implications about the goals of human sexual expression - or at the very least rules out large classes of sexual goals, so effectively that it's hard to even imagine them.

    That's probably enough for today. :)

    1. Yes I agree that there is such a thing as "human nature" and that all things are individuals of particular natures. But not everyone does. "Nature" as used here implies an objective reality that somehow exists without being concretely manifest in materiality except in individuals who only share or participate in a nature without being the whole totality of the nature. That is, you are human and so am I, but neither of us is Human Nature itself.

      Evolutionists tend to dispute the existence of natures because all things, particularly living things, are transitional forms. Things represent the present state in a continuum of change that began with the very first self-replicating organic molecule and which will persist until the last living thing dies. There is at best only one "nature" -- namely, "living thing" -- from amebas to blue whales, it's all just variety.

      I also think that the human form is fitting for a rational being. Our sexuality, based on our construction and our capacity to reason, is different from animals. It is not merely biological, and not merely bodily. Pope John Paul II would agree, if I read his Theology of the Body correctly. (I think we can refrain from detailed examples.)


      If God does not exist then it boggles the mind where natures come from (as evolutionists tend to insist), and the assertion that human sexuality is not merely biological and biological becomes somewhat unintelligible.

      Regarding the hierarchy of goals, yes, it stands to reason that most humans would have many goals in common with other humans. However, what really counts is the commonality of the Final End, the one thing toward which all of our chosen acts leads. Only if there is a God can there be a common Final End (God himself).

      If there is no God, then every human individual has a different final end from every other (namely, he is his own final end, unless some tyrant coerces people to making him their final end).

      Therefore, every human being's intermediate goals (that is, getting the keys, to drive the car, to get to the store, to get the milk, to get calcium, etc.) are inherently and inescapably ordered to different things. As such, as similar as they may be, they are nonetheless different goals because they are also means to goals not held in common.

    2. (contd)

      Evolution acknowledges that no individual instantiates only one form. Take a look at "ring species".

      The Larus gulls are several subspecies where variants live in a ring around the Arctic. The Herring Gull in the U.K. can interbreed with the American Herring Gull, and the American can interbreed with the Vega Gull in Russia. And so on, until you come to the Lesser Black-Backed Gull in the Netherlands. It basically can’t breed with the Herring Gull. Hybrids are extremely rare and don't seem to be fertile, like mules.

      So, is it a separate species? You could breed it with its relative to the East, and so on. But what if, say, the Vega Gull went extinct? Would you have separate species then? The Herring Gull seems to be a separate 'form' or 'nature' from the Lesser Black-Backed Gull... but the Vega Gull seems to partake - to some degree - of both their natures.

      And yet, they are gulls. Possibly, a few hundred thousand years from now, their descendants might be something else. But just because it's hard to draw a sharp boundary between 'day' and 'night' doesn't mean there's no clarity at all. High noon is 'day' and two in the morning is 'night', for example.

      To the extent that we're both "tetrapodal jawed vertebrate notochord-possessing multicellular non-chloroplast mitochondrial eukaryotes", lizards and humans have a great deal in common. But that doesn't mean they're all just undifferentiated 'varieties' of 'living things'.

    3. It depends on what you mean by "species" I suppose, and it can be defined in various ways, but I think in a darwinist kind of worldview the meaning of the word really cannot be pinned down. In other words, I think I know what you mean by species from the context, but is that what a "species" really is? If species is just a synonym of some sort for "nature" then the problem of meaning is important.

      And wait -- how can there be "varieties" of things if they are "undifferentiated"? I personally don't buy evolution in the way its more militant proponents do, but if they're right, then there is only one thing ("living") and many varieties (differentiated), none of which are represent a permanent life form but a transitional state from a prior transitional state toward another transitional state and never were and never will be anything permanent.

    4. 'And wait -- how can there be "varieties" of things if they are "undifferentiated"?'

      I was specifically saying that species are differentiated, and I gave a rather elaborate example of the many objective differentiations and distinctions involved ("tetrapodal jawed vertebrate notochord-possessing multicellular non-chloroplast mitochondrial eukaryotes").

    5. Yes I know, I thought in your first comment you may have meant that I disputed that things were differentiated while at the same time affirming that there were varieties. No matter, we're in agreement on that point.

    6. Ah, thanks for the clarification, I misunderstood.

  2. Several different topics all mixed together here. I'm going to try to untangle things and respond to different parts in separate comments. First up... natures!

    Evolution acknowledges that individuals instantiate more general classes. Darwin's work was called "Origin of Species", after all. From this link:

    ...there is a huge group of species that have cells with a nucleus. These are called "eukaryotes". You then find that you can divide these up by whether or not they have mitochondria; and so on. Eventually you get down to a group of hair-possessing milk-giving amniote-possessing tetrapodal jawed vertebrate notochord-possessing multicellular non-chloroplast mitochondrial eukaryotes, also known as the "mammals". Then, within the mammals you find that you can separate out those that lay eggs, those that have pouches, and those that bear live young; and again you keep going, and eventually you end up with a group of tailless, forward-facing-eyes, grasping-paws, hair-possessing etcs. Then, if you look real close at quite minor characteristics (because the really big characteristics, like having mitochondria and being a vertebrate and giving live birth and so forth, have already been covered), you find that you can separate this group into humans, chimps, bonobos, and gorillas.

    Now, the fact that any individual material living thing doesn't exactly fulfill a particular definition of a species doesn't mean the categories themselves don't exist - albeit on a different ontological level. (For example, a 'waterfall' doesn't depend on the specific water molecules that make it up at any given instant; those are constantly changing. A waterfall is a process, something water does.)

    Consider the notion of a 'wild type' of a virus. Real viruses mutate at various rates and have different versions of the viral genes. Some variants are more common than others. The "most average" genome - the one with the most comments of the various genes - is called the "wild type". Note that there may not be any actual virus that has exactly the 'wild type' genome, but the "wild type" is kind of the 'center of gravity' of the cloud of variants. You can debate what the ontological status of a 'center of gravity' is, exactly - but in medicine you ignore the wild type at your peril, just as in engineering you ignore the center of gravity of your designs at your peril. They seem real enough to me.


    1. Should have read this before my earlier reply. Oh well. Yes, Darwin was using the word species in pretty much the way his contemporaries would understand it. But that's not what the word means now. Even Darwin, I personally believe, would have said that "species" means more or less the life forms as they presently are, and not any concrete or permanent thing (as I said above). Darwin is also not really representative of the current state of thought on evolution.

      Evolution occurs slowly. Over eons. It's difficult for us in our fast-paced world to imagine that what we call "horse" not only embraces a number of varieties ("sub-species") but is really only a transitional form from the prehistoric variety eons ago to God-knows-what eons from now neither of which could properly be called "horse."

      Yes, we need words for the things we see and interact with. For the phenomenon that living things have similarities and differences (the definition of species in Aristotelian metaphysics), the word "species" seems to work. I mean, we all know how the word works in conversation and all.

      I personally believe in a "horseness" (or horse nature) or "humanness" (human nature) that is individualized in matter as individual horses or humans (two kinds of species), which is something that darwinism would not really support.

      I don't believe I ever denied the existence of different things. That would be to deny reality. I am a firm believer in natures and the variety of things my eyes see.

      But. If I God does not exist Who created and guided the breeding and development of living things with forethought of what they are and what they can be, then "nature" would be a very difficult thing to pin down. If some atheists hold that there are natures, then that's fine, but atheism takes away the foundation that the word "nature" requires.

    2. Yeah, sorry, I screwed up the post order. In any case...

      An important concept in evolution is the notion of "fitness landscape". If you think of 'fitness' as the 'height', and variations in genotypes as the 'length' and 'breadth', then you can conceive of 'peaks' and 'valleys' that populations flow along. (In reality, of course, fitness landscapes have a lot more than 3 dimensions, but you get the idea.)

      Species in real life - groups of genomes - cluster around 'peaks', high levels of fitness relative to the local 'landscape'. The fact that there's noise and fuzziness in the data does not mean the 'peak' isn't there, though, and represents something real.

      Fitness landscapes do change over time, of course - just like real landscapes do, sometimes very quickly - but that doesn't mean they aren't real. The mountain you're climbing now will erode and become sediment; some of it may get subducted into magma, some might wind up in the ocean, etc. Does that mean the mountain you're climbing isn't real? Unless something is permanent, it can't be real?

      I'm much more of a Platonist, you understand, than an Aristotelean. I'm willing to grant that - in some sense - the number 3, or the Mandelbrot Set, 'exist'; though it's a very different ontological type of existence than the way the keyboard I'm typing this on 'exists'. Things outside the Platonic realm - 'actual' things like my keyboard - never partake of just one form. Every non-abstract object is an instantiation of multiple forms - my keyboard could be a computer peripheral, a shield or a weapon, an objet d'art, a doorstop, fuel for a fire, etc. etc. etc.

      You can't pin down an actual biological animal to just one species? So what? You can't pin down anything material to just one nature, whether God exists or not.

    3. Uses of things are not formal qualities of the thing. Yes, things have more than one formal component. But for Plato as for Aristotle there is the form of the thing itself -- a stone, for instance. There is the formal aspect of the shape -- carved, say, in the shape of a frog. The purpose for which it was made, which may differ from how it is ultimately used, would certainly influence the sculptor's work and choice of materials. But, the thing basically has only one form (frog-shaped doorstop) and one matter (stone, though it may be composite in the modern understanding of matter). It may have other formal aspects -- heat, for instance, or color or something of that nature. Plato would distinguish, I believe, between essential and accidental forms. A thing can have only one essential form, but several accidental.

      A keyboard, being a machine composed of parts, is a little different. Its component parts might be said to have their own essential and accidental forms apart from the whole. Its parts are not the same as the parts of an animal, since an animal is not built in the same sort of way.

      I think you are saying something like this: If "nature" or "species" means "the kind of thing it is" based on what we see, then I have to agree with you. Whether or not God exists is irrelevant to the fact that we see different "kinds of things" and so we see manifest "natures" and "species." But what about the person who says, that's all well and good, but all I see are individuals -- it's really a matter of semantics and not ontology that you use the word "species" to designate a group of some sort rather than individuals, and somewhat arbitrary where you draw the lines in its meaning. Is a zebra born without stripes a horse or a defective zebra or neither maybe? Is a horse born with three legs a different sort of thing that the kind with four? If not, what is the "horseness" that it has? Where is it? Are the number of legs irrelevant to horseness? Your notion of "species" seems to be rather biological, material and in actuality I am asking about an immaterial thing.

      So, my contention is more Platonic. He held that Ideas preexist things and are more perfect than material things. Ideas or forms -- the absolute perfect "horseness" -- must exist prior to any living horse in order for matter to be manifest as a real horse. So, the nature of a horse pertains to the Idea or form more than the fact that we see horses that can breed with each other. Ideas being immaterial go by the wayside when the Perfect Immaterial Being is denied. I simply apply the same standard of evidence atheists seem to use for the existence of God, and if they are right in their thinking, then nothing immaterial can exist either. Ideas can exist only in a mind. If there is such a thing as Ideas or natures or species understood in this way, then there has to be a mind that conceives them; but that mind can only be God; but God does not exist (some say); therefore there is nowhere for natures to exist; therefore natures do not exist.

      You might say, well, there exist different kinds of things, as we can all see with our own eyes. If Ideas/natures/species understood as above don't exist, it doesn't matter, because we still see what we see.

      And I say that Yes I see different kinds of things, too. But the differences are irrelevant even if dramatic in some cases, and the similarities are immense. Man is no more than a beast because he is hardly different from other critters. It's all individuals. Some individuals deserve to live more than others. We need a way of weeding out the unfit and securing benefits for the worthy. (I speak as I would if I were an atheist.)

      You see where it all goes. Justice, Goodness, Right -- these things are also Ideas, they are Forms, they are immaterial. And if immaterial things do not exist, neither do these.

    4. What if ideas in minds refer to forms? I mean, let's face it, in some sense the Mandelbrot Set existed even before any human thought of it. Why does it need a God to 'think' it? How could the Mandelbrot Set be anything other than what it is? It seems at least as eternal, all by itself, as any God could be.

      Seriously, I've never seen a solid argument made for the concept you're appealing to (sometimes called 'scholastic realism').

    5. If "in some sense the Mandelbrot Set existed even before any human thought of it," what on earth do you mean by "existed"? I say it didn't. I say "3" doesn't exist, except in some mind actively thinking of it. All I'm saying is apply the reasoning of atheism about God to "3" and any other abstract immaterial concept.

      Or looked at another way, how is it that by positing its pre-existence prior to any known rational entity thinking of it, that you are not thereby positing God as a necessary precondition, even if you deny doing do?

    6. The Mandelbrot Set, as I said, doesn't 'exist' in the same sense that a keyboard exists. And yet... the fact is, it's the set of complex numbers C for which the iteration zn+1 = zn2 + C produces finite zn for all n when started at z0 = 0. That's true whether or not anyone's thinking of it.

      I mean, are you going to say that 1+1=2 isn't true unless someone's actively thinking about it? Do Euclidean parallel lines intersect unless someone's thinking about the parallel postulate?

      No, the truths of mathematics are independent of the minds that discover them. The Fourier transform was a valid mapping between the time and frequency domain before Fourier developed it.

      Certain consequences follow from certain postulates, whether or not a mind realizes those consequences follow, or has entertained those postulates. Parallel lines were incompatible with the postulates of elliptical geometry even before elliptical was discovered.

      Or, to put it more bluntly, the rules of logic exist whether or not anyone is thinking logically.

      But all "abstract immaterial concepts" are not created equal. (Joke; abstract immaterial concepts are eternal, not created.) Geometry doesn't cause anything in the world; it has no causal power. We find geometry useful in modeling the world, but it doesn't, say, make the world round.

      Material things, on the other hand, have causal power, and experience time.

      God, on the third hand, is supposed to be an abstract immaterial something that actually causes things in the real world, that interacts with time. I don't see how that's supposed to fit.

    7. Truth and existence are not absolutely the same thing. However, it is difficult to separate the existence of a mathematical truth in a mind thinking of it from it being true without any mind thinking of it, because some mind has to be thinking of it in order to consider the truth of it!

      Some immaterial things can be created. The human soul for instance. Also immaterial intellectual things such as the soul and God can be causes. If "triangularity" is not a cause of anything, it is only because it is not in itself an intellectual thing, and not because of its immateriality. In fact, our discussion of forms above also shows that, if you buy into forms at all, forms are the causes of the things being the kind of things that they are, whether or not they are intellectual.

      Of course, Aristotle identified different kinds of causes, and there needs to be an efficient cause as well as a formal one. Modern Baconian/Cartesian metaphysics denies formal and final causes, for instance.

      At any rate, if someone proposes eternal immaterial things of whatever sort because they can't imagine reality without them, it is difficult to see why that same person might say that God does not exist. And it's easy to see how people who deny the existence of God gravitate to material and mathematical explanations of all of reality and deny that there's any point to existence or things being what they are.

      But if God does not exist, then I must say that triangularity and the rules of math and logic exist only when they are being actively contemplated by a knowing mind. In other words, if three sheep are in a field, the shepherd might see triangularity in their arrangement. Without the shepherd, there will still be sheep in the field, but I would hold that the "triangularity" of their arrangement does not exist. If someone insists that triangularity is still part of the reality of the sheep in the field, it is only because he cannot imagine the situation without actually thinking about it, and in thinking about it, his mind creates the triangularity which is always present when he thinks about the spatial relations between three things. The existence of immaterial abstract concepts outside of the thinking mind cannot be proven because they are always being thought about and discussed in the attempt to construct the proof.

      Likewise, justice, right and wrong, good and evil, exist in the absence of God only in the mind contemplating them, and are defined by that mind in an idiosyncratic way (albeit often with some commonality to how others define them).

    8. The fact that a mind may think about or conceive truth does not mean that truth only exists in minds. Indeed, we can believe things that are not true, which demonstrates that thought and truth aren't the same thing.

      As to whether immaterial things can be created... that, er, hasn't been established yet, and seems to be a rather large side issue from what we're talking about now. Right now, all I'm worried about is immaterial things that so far as I can see are uncreated. Do you think "2+2=4" was created? If so, could it have been "2+2=fish" instead?

      Material things can be modeled by forms, and that modeling is useful to us, but it's the material thing being modeled, not the model driving the material thing. For centuries, we thought Euclidean geometry was it. Then we discovered that reality isn't accurately modeled by Euclidean geometry; it's just a useful approximation in many circumstances. Reality didn't change, but our model did.

      And you find it difficult to see how one can allow for immaterial things of one type without allowing for immaterial things of all types... but I just see that as parsimony. We can see that mathematical truths exist in some sense. Souls require a bit more... er... substantiation.

      "Without the shepherd, there will still be sheep in the field, but I would hold that the "triangularity" of their arrangement does not exist."

      Um... so if a tree falls and no one's around to hear it, no sound is emitted, right?

    9. If something like triangularity or a mathematical truth requires to be thought of to exist, that does not mean all things thought of are true (in the sense you mean). I don't think I said or implied that.

      "If" 2+2=4 is created (and I didn't say it was), that does not mean that 2+2 could = fish or anything else.

      I also didn't say that the existence of one immaterial kind of thing implies the existence of all types. I was implying that the abstract concepts you assert as eternal and immaterial and so on are attributes of God.

      I am a theist, and believe in the existence of all the abstract truths that you assert, but it just seems to me that God is Truth Itself, and if it is the case like you say true immaterial things like the triangularity of 3 sheep in a field exist when no one is thinking about them, then what you are basically proposing is the existence of God, who is the Truth of the true thing whose existence you assert. What triangularity is to three sheep in the field, so is Truth Itself (=God) to all of the immaterial abstract truths you can think of.

      Or put another way, prove triangularity (or some such thing) exists outside of a rational mind (including God) thinking of it -- something eternal, universally true, immutable, irresistible, omnipresent, etc., etc. (hint, hint) -- with the same level of evidence atheists demand of the proof of the existence of God.

    10. I'm going to be rather busy doing family stuff over the next few days (July 4 holiday coming up) but I can address some of this now and will return around Thursday.

      You seem to be saying that if I concede the existence of "one immaterial kind of thing" - something "eternal, universally true, immutable", that implies I must then accept that all such things are aspects of the same thing, and that thing is, in fact, an agent that can do things and make choices.

      That rather large leap is problematic... but it's also beside the point.

      I don't have to go that far. You and I both accept that things like mathematical truth exist in some sense. If we accept that, then that has certain consequences, even if we don't go so far as an agent being at the root of everything.

    11. OK, great, I think it's time to reboot the discussion at the beginning. Email me and we'll start a new post.

      But, I'm really just saying this. You say that "4" is the relationship between a quantity of two and another quantity of two and is independent of any mind thinking about it; and that triangularity is likewise the relationship between any three things in space. You say they're both true. I say there is a similar relationship between all true things, which we can call Truth Itself. You might see a problematic leap, but what if some true things require an active mind to be true -- I have to think about this some more, but say for example, the past, which can only exist as memory in a mind, or the fact that all true things have to be accounted for in some way in order for there to be a relationship of Truth Itself between them. Those are first-blush examples, I need to think of it, maybe I'm wrong, but that's where I was going.

    12. I'll work on the next step shortly, and email it along. But before we move on, just a couple points.

      I'm not really a fan of Philip K. Dick's fiction, but he said something once that I found to be insightful. "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."

      Let's say that a farmer can recognize that three sheep are in a triangular pattern - and you seem to agree that's a truth about reality. Now, when the farmer stops thinking about that, nothing about external reality has changed. Therefore, the sheep are still in a triangular pattern, and that must still be a truth about reality, right? Just because the farmer's stopped actively believing that doesn't mean the triangle has gone away.

      As to the idea that "the past... can only exist as memory in a mind", I'd say that Relativity - particularly the fact that people can disagree about the order in which things happen - argues against that rather strongly. Indeed, it's rather hard to account for relativity of simultaneity unless one accepts something like the block universe. As Einstein himself stated, "People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."

    13. I see your point... but regarding the sheep, even if the farmer stops thinking about it, "you" haven't, and if we say, "what if no one" is thinking about it, we have to isolate our own thoughts from that... Anyway, you don't have to convince me, because I agree with you, but I might not agree with you if I were an atheist.

      Funny, but God is the ultimate solution to Relativity. In God, all times are simply "now," which is one theological definition of eternity, which is outside of time as we experience it. But if Philip K. Dick is right, then I'm not sure Einstein is (if either fellow actually said either thing), because it can't be mere illusion but reality in the fact that we each experience only the now, we remember only the past, and we anticipate only the future, and our experience is pretty consistent and universal.

  3. Let's start a small sub-discussion about this:

    'If God does not exist then it boggles the mind where natures come from'

    As I noted just now, I'm willing to grant a sort of Platonic reality to abstract things like the number 3, or the Mandelbrot Set, or the quicksort algorithm, or even notions like the 'fitness landscape' I expounded on above.

    But unlike classical Platonism, I don't claim that the 'real' world, of actual material objects and so forth, is 'less real' than the abstract realm. I think they both definitely exist, but in different ways.

    The relationship between them is complicated, in that, as I said, no physical object instantiates just one abstract form. Every physical object has a degree to which it fits any particular form, and while that degree can be zero, it never reaches perfect concordance.

    It's hard to argue that the existence of God adds anything to the "Platonish" realm I've described. Would '3' not be '3' if God didn't exist? I know Thomism holds that such concepts are thoughts in the mind of God, but I've got to admit I've never seen the necessity for that concept.

    So, a 'nature' can be understood as a specific point in a giant abstract multi-dimensional eternal phase space.

    1. Hm. I think if nothing else, whether or not "natures" exist in the absence of God depends on what one means by "nature" to begin with. There is no necessity to settle on one definition, and there is no definition that would not also apply to individuals, making every individual a unique species in some sense of the word, such as your last definition.

      It seems to me that this last definition is somewhat impossible. "Nature" cannot be a specific point -- specific points can only be concrete individuals, if I understood what you're saying correctly, and anything that is common to all those individuals could not be a specific point because of the potential variability among individuals that is embraced by "nature." "Nature" can only be a phase space and not a point in it, and as such it isn't a real thing but an idea of the relation of individuals to each other. Or maybe I misunderstand.

  4. "If God exists, then it would stand to reason that 'pleasing God' (understood properly, which we haven’t gotten to yet) would be something that all reasonable people would want to do...In the absence of God, the main person I need to please is myself, and would strategize accordingly."

    Sorry - not getting this. Why, if it's reasonable not to care about other humans, would it not also be reasonable not to care about God?

    1. I'd ask the question the other way around: If it's reasonable not to care about God, would it not also be reasonable not to care about other humans? I'd say Yes, and all the more reasonable to not care about the lesser being if its reasonable not to care about the higher one.

      Not sure if the causality implied in your question is valid: It might be reasonable to still care about God (or the higher being to be compared) even if it's reasonable to not care about humans (or the lesser being). It's reasonable not to care about mosquitos (in the sense of having concern for their welfare), but reasonableness of not caring decreases with higher and higher beings.

      I'm not sure if it's ever truly reasonable to not care about other humans. Making assumptions of course that I know what you mean by "reasonable" and "care about."

    2. Let me try again. Really I have two questions:

      1. Why does taking God out of the picture mean that "the main person I need to please is myself"? Just now you said something about higher and lower entities, but surely you don't think that each person is a higher entity than every other person. Why, then, would the removal of God lead to "I must please myself first" and not "I must please everything like me first"?

      2. Why does God being around make God the first priority? Just because God is a higher entity? (If so, that sort of screws up your ability to answer #1!) Or what?

    3. 1. I'm not an atheist. What I say after I say "if God does not exist" is what I would hold if I were an atheist. If God does not exist, then I may just wish to please others first. Nothing precludes an individual from concluding so. It would be individual, however. I say there is no moral necessity to please others -- it might be desirable under certain circumstances (such as "others" including people with the power to coerce my actions), but there is no universal and objective reason that pleasing others really matters (unless I personally deem that it does for me).

      If God does not exist, then yes, quite obviously, there are higher and lower humans. I don't actually believe that, but if it were so that God does not exist, then it would be impossible to conclude otherwise based on empirical data. And even if we were to say that no one is higher or lower, then we must nonetheless conclude that some are more important "to me" than others. The one most important to me would be myself. It would be a fact, although some might wish to consider others are more important than themselves. There is nothing to stop such people, but there is also no necessity to agree with them, either moral or otherwise.

      When I say "necessity" I don't mean absolute necessity. Like, there's no absolute necessity to affirm that 2+2=4 -- one can always say with one's voice, "No, 2+2=5" -- but there is a necessity of right reason and logic.

      The removal of God takes away the value of self-sacrifice to benefit others (though some might do so anyway), and the moral implications of not helping or even harming others to benefit oneself. I mean, if there is no God, then there is no way to say in a universal sense "XYZ is wrong, evil, unethical, or immoral," unless you're talking about your own actions.

      2. Answering this requires a good understanding of what is meant by "God." Shall we discuss the first part of the Summa of Aquinas first? I say this because I have gotten into discussions with atheists and had to agree with them that what they meant by "God" does not exist. Not just "a" higher entity, but The Highest Entity by an infinite degree above the next highest. But what I said about higher and lower does apply -- I believe it is more important to have care for dogs than for houseflies, and for humans than for dogs.

      Simply put (if I ever put anything simply, I don't know), if God exists, then he is the greatest good possible for a human being, and the greatest good of all human beings, greater than life itself, who knows us as individuals infinitely better than we know ourselves, who loves each of us (even the worst of us) more than we have the capacity to comprehend, who in his knowledge of and love for us and in his infinite wisdom allows us to act freely and our lives to offer us pleasures and pains that all work to our benefit if we live our lives well (that is a complicated concept to work through, but not irrational by any means). And that is not all, but I said "simply".... But put it together and two conclusions are:
      A) God is the one thing that all human acts of all human individuals should be ordered to as the greatest good, and that it would be unreasonable to put any good whatsoever in a higher priority -- that is, the only reasonable thing to do would be to "Love God above all things."
      B) his equal infinite love for each of us means that if "I" mistreat another human being, I mistreat someone that God loves as much as he loves me, and A) is thereby thwarted -- that is the only reasonable thing to do would be to "Love others as myself."

      Without God, there is no foundation for saying anything is immoral or evil, except one's own personal judgment of the matter.

    4. "what I said about higher and lower does apply"

      Sorry, this is just not consistent with:

      "I may just wish to please others first. Nothing precludes an individual from concluding so. It would be individual, however. I say there is no moral necessity to please others"

      It may be more important, on your position, to show more care for the creatures that god loves more and those may be the "higher" creatures. But if you wouldn't see the reason to do that in the absence of god, it's simply wrong to say that you're really concerned about them in virtue of being higher creatures.

      Also, your (B) does not follow from your (A): if you mistreat someone else so that you yourself receive a greater benefit than the hindrance you impose on the other person, god (as you describe it) should be satisfied with that; it's a net gain. (In fact, it would be perverse not to do this: if you would inconvenience yourself for the sake of another's greater gain, then "love others as myself" should compel you to do the reverse when the circumstances are right.)

    5. Well, Eli, you kind of prove one of my sub-points. Let me explain. I find it interesting that you must realize that I'm kind of working two positions, one being "IF" I were an atheist and the other the fact that I'm not. And yet you seem to have taken one phrase where I'm quite clearly speaking as a theist and compare it with another where I am speaking very explicitly "if" I were an atheist. You find inconsistency between the two positions.


      If God does not exist, moral principles (such as what I said about higher and lower beings) would not be universally compelling. At least I would not see them as compelling.

      As to B and A. I'm sorry, but I disagree with your assessment of what God (as I described him) would be pleased with. My description of God was explicitly incomplete, but it was also sufficient. Iit does not follow at all that God would be concerned more about a balance sheet of detriment and benefit in the human race as the human race estimates it, rather than the motive and the harm caused, the very truth of which he sees better than the humans involved.

      On the other hand, your reasoning could be totally sound, depending on what you mean by saying "God," and since I don't know what that is precisely, I really can't say that you're wrong. But if your reasoning is sound then I would disagree with the concept of God at work.

      But let me make an observation. First an analogy, which describes how I understand you. Let's say I steal $1,000 from my neighbor and invest in and turn it into $10,000. Harm him, bigger benefit for me, net benefit of $9,000 or so for the human race. Not perfect, but the kind of thing you're talking about?

      It does not seem you have adequately considered the notion of the kind and scope of infinite good that God is -- no human benefit gained by harming another human (no matter how humongous in human estimation) can hope to begin to compare to the tiniest thread of Goodness that is God.

      Also, you seem to limit the harm done in attaining the benefit to the material value of the harm. In other words, in my example, the harm to my neighbor consists solely in the $1000 I stole. But it is not. There is the betrayal of friendship. The violation of private affairs. The using of someone else to make money. The hardships endured by my neighbor as a consequence (kid dies because medicine could not be bought, for instance). Deprivation of the $9,000 profit. And there's evil effects on me, too, becoming a thief and a user and a betrayer and all that. Society is diminished as well.

      In a certain sense, the evil done by stealing from my neighbor is incalculable, or at the very least the gain received is paltry in comparison.

      So if God is a balance-sheet kind of guy, I think the things he's got on the divine balance sheet may be totally different than the things on ours.

      But. If God does not exist, then the whole balance sheet utilitarian thing makes way more sense. I think an atheist state would be more concerned about the human balance sheet than God is.