Saturday, April 21, 2007

Is God the Decider or the Knower?

Dinesh D’Souza’s screed on how the VA Tech tragedy illustrates the deficiency of atheism is a steaming pile of offensive crap. Julian and Radley both give D’Souza a sound thrashing, but this response from an atheist VA Tech professor really nails it.

One of the most frustrating things about being an atheist is the tendency of theists to assume that without God, you cannot be a moral person, nor can you have opinions about right and wrong, good and evil, etc. This is such a non sequitur than I’m often unsure how to respond, except to say, “Well, um, I’m an atheist, and I think it’s wrong to kill people and stuff. So there.”

But perhaps a better response is to ask why existence of a god would make it any easier to arrive at moral beliefs. I think there are only two ways to go here: either God decides what is moral, or God knows what is moral better than we do. Both routes are problematic.

Take the idea that God decides what is moral. Morality just is what God says it is. Then the case for morality reduces to a kind of argumentum ad baculum: the reason you should be act morally is that you’ll be punished by the Big Bully in the Sky if you don’t. Otherwise, why should I care what God thinks? Sure, he’s big and powerful and all that, but why should that make his arbitrary decision about what’s right take precedence over mine? He says morality is A, B, and C, but I say it’s X, Y, and Z. The only reason for me to do A, B, and C instead of X, Y, and Z is because I’ll suffer otherwise.

Unless, of course, God has some additional authority – he’s all-knowing and unbounded in his thinking capacity, and he’s thus in a better position to discern what proper moral behavior would be. But this leads us to the second possibility above: God doesn’t decide what’s right, he knows it. This position seems more respectable than the first, but it clearly implies that morality exists independently of God. There are moral conclusions “out there” to be reached on the basis of knowledge and good reasoning; God is relevant to morality only because he has superior knowledge and reasoning skills. And if that’s true, then we could remove God from the equation and still arrive at moral views, albeit without as much helpful guidance. (Given the ambiguity of the guidance provided in the multifarious holy texts, I think this leaves us in pretty much the same situation as with a God.)

So it seems to me that the theist must either admit that his morality is nothing more than the desire to avoid punishment, or admit that morality can exist in a world without God.

29 comments:

Ari said...

Your second point reminds me of Richard Dawkins' excellent argument about the Bible as a supposed source of morality. The Bible tells us lots of things that we should and shouldn't do. In practice, however, religious people pick and choose which things are important moral lessons (don't murder people) and which are silly and obsolete (stone disobedient children to death).

However, the Bible *itself* doesn't differentiate what's mandatory from what's optional. We decide, using our own moral sense, what to keep and what to throw out. And since we therefore have some moral sense, outside of the Bible, as to what's good and what's bad ... well, why not just cut out the middle man altogether?

Ran said...

I think you're very far off the mark in claiming that G-d-is-the-Decider means morality-is-avoiding-His-wrath.

G-d is the Decider in that He created the universe to work a certain way, including how humans should behave, but also including that humans have free will and can decide for themselves how they will behave.

(That said, I also believe that He created the universe according a logical order, and that He gave us the ability to reason logically about the universe and to form our own moral centers; while my understanding of morality is very much tied to the existence of G-d, I don't see why that should theoretically be necessary. Certainly the atheists I've known haven't been immoral people. And it's not like knowing that G-d exists gives me very practical guidance as to what's moral and what's not. Or by "atheists" does D'Souza mean "people who don't think the Bible is a perfect guide to right and wrong"?)

Glen Whitman said...

"G-d is the Decider in that He created the universe to work a certain way, including how humans should behave, but also including that humans have free will and can decide for themselves how they will behave."

Okay, but I don't see how that affects my point. Why should I behave the way God wants me to behave? Why can't I follow my own notion of morality instead? Clearly it's possible for me to follow my own code (or no code at all), so that must be consistent with how the universe works. If I exercise that option, what's the problem? That I could go to hell? That's just the appeal to punishment again.

Ran said...

"Why should I behave the way [G-d] wants me to behave? Why can't I follow my own notion of morality instead?"

Sorry, but from a believer's standpoint, that's a really silly-sounding question. Hypothetically speaking, given the choice between behaving as you knew you should behave (as ordained by your all-knowing, all-powerful Creator), and deciding for your limited self whether a given thing were the right thing to do, what kind of psychopath would choose the latter?

(In practice, I suppose it's moot, since G-d seems to intend for us to decide for ourselves how we're supposed to behave, i.e., how we think He wants us to behave. But seeing as you clearly have a lot of difficulty understanding the connection that a believer sees between G-d and morality, I guess it's not shocking that D'Souza would have difficulty seeing the lack of connection that an atheist sees between atheism and immorality.)

Glen Whitman said...

"Hypothetically speaking, given the choice between behaving as you knew you should behave (as ordained by your all-knowing, all-powerful Creator), and deciding for your limited self whether a given thing were the right thing to do, what kind of psychopath would choose the latter?"

Wait, that's a different question. I can know there's a God and know what he wants me to do without knowing what I should do. Again, what is it about God that makes his opinion correct? You point out two aspects of God that might make this so: that he is all-powerful and all-knowing. All-powerful corresponds to God as the "decider"; all-knowing corresponds to God as the "knower." So we're back to my original dichotomy, with all the corresponding objections.

Micha said...

The Euthyphro dilemma.

caveatBettor said...

I was wondering if Love was a construct to consider, or to discard, in all of this. I believe that morality must be discarded if love is to be discarded.

So assuming Love is relevant, then my question is, is there a higher morality above, say, the golden rule, given the concept of freudian projection? If so, then love requires constraint of intervention, i.e. forcing one party to do what another party prefers.

Accepting that for a moment, maybe God is Love.

Anonymous said...

Generally, the reason why people like Dinesh argue that there can't be morality without God is becuase if there is no God, then our creation was accidental. If it was a coincidence of certain events occuring at the right time, then how can morality be something other than people agreeing that we shouldn't kill each other because we don't want to be killed?

Glen Whitman said...

If it was a coincidence of certain events occuring at the right time, then how can morality be something other than people agreeing that we shouldn't kill each other because we don't want to be killed?

I know that's the objection, but I don't think it's coherent. Here's a simple answer: in addition to not wanting to be killed ourselves, we happen to consider human life valuable whatever its origin. We can believe that without God telling us to believe it.

But in any case, my point in this point was not to defend the morality of atheism, but to go on the offensive. I want to know how the existence of a God gives morality any stronger basis. Is it just because God's powerful enough to punish us for doing wrong? Or is it because God understands the world better than we do? If the former, I don't see how that's really superior to the idea of being moral just to avoid bad consequences in this life (except maybe that a bigger anticipated punishment is more effective at scaring people into submission). And if the latter, then morality exists independent of God.

Austen said...

Theists have ways of skirting around the Euthyphro problem. The clearest-headed response to the theistic moralist is simply to deny God's existence. Cut off the whole line of thought at its root. Given that morality exists and supernatural beings don't, morality must have a basis in the natural world.

caveatBettor said...

Glen, I appreciate your questions. I don't think I have any good answers. But I'll ask a question of my own:

How does one measure morality, and its incentives? If we can do that, we can get closer to answering your questions.

It is like my blogging, about prediction markets. I don't find them to be infallible, just easier to measure than polls (which are usually more biased). The better measurements we take, the closer to the truth we get.

caveatBettor said...

I just read some Arnold Kling, who quotes some Robert Solow, and I found that Solow may have some relevance on this thread. He says:

"In the nature of the case it will often happen that two quite different models can fit the facts just about equally as well. No doubt the right way to proceed is to think of circumstances in which the two models give widely different predictions and to look around for real-life situations that offer the opportunity to discriminate between them. But that may not be possible...So naturally the temptation becomes irresistible to compete by adding variables, making slight changes in formulation, looking around for especially favorable data, and otherwise using the tricks of the trade. It can become very difficult ever to displace an entrenched model by a better one. Clever and motivated - including ideologically motivated - people can fight a rearguard battle that would make Robert E. Lee look like an amateur."

and

"there is a lot to be said in favor of staring at the piece of reality you are studying and asking, just what is going on here? Economists who are enamored of the physics style seem to bypass that stage, to their disadvantage."

These things always end up back in the epistemological.

Ran said...

You accuse D'Souza of an incoherent argument about your point of view at the same time that you make an incoherent argument about his.

G-d decides morality, but why does that mean morality is predicated on divine retribution? What makes you think that G-d's word is only relevant insofar as He enforces it?

(Incidentally, your line of argument almost supports the anti-atheist viewpoint. Anti-atheists often accuse atheists of being immoral because their actions are limited by the fear of punishment rather than by the love of G-d. Now, I don't think they're right in this accusation; but you're apparently unable to understand the believer's concept of G-d as anything beyond an all-knowing punisher, which makes their viewpoint suddenly seem more plausible.)

Anonymous said...

I find it particularly annoying that someone has to spell God "G-d". When I was a child going to Hebrew school, I was informed that there are 2 Hebrew word for God. One was used in temple and the other for everyday use. I thought that was retarded at the time and I still do. And this "He" business is equally retarded and sexist as well. pronouns are only capitalized at the beginning of a sentence according to my grammar guide. If God created male and female then it's only fair that God should have both types of genitalia. God is fair so It must be hermaphroditic.

Ran said...

I can spell G-d any way I like; I choose "G-d" as a sign of respect. If you can't handle that, you've got a serious problem and should seek anger management.

And on the pronoun point, you seem to be conflating two different things. I've no problem with referring to Her using female pronouns (though male pronouns are certainly the tradition in English), but why shouldn't I capitalize whatever pronouns I use to refer to Her? (Also, assuming your grammar guide is for English, you should toss it in the trash bin. Any grammar guide that tells you not to capitalize the pronoun "I" isn't worth the paper it's printed on.)

Anonymous said...

"G-d is the Decider in that He created the universe to work a certain way, including how humans should behave, but also including that humans have free will and can decide for themselves how they will behave."

Okay, but I don't see how that affects my point. Why should I behave the way God wants me to behave? Why can't I follow my own notion of morality instead? Clearly it's possible for me to follow my own code (or no code at all), so that must be consistent with how the universe works. If I exercise that option, what's the problem? That I could go to hell? That's just the appeal to punishment again.


This demonstrates part of the issue, the believer states that it is not the right of the clay to tell the potter why did you make me such or do such and such. The believer recognizes the right of the potter to make some vessels unto honor and other vessels unto dishonor. Some vessels to carry drinking water, others to be chamberpots.

Corralarly, if you purchased a computer that had developed a basic Artificial Intelligence/Sentience, and you asked it to do various tasks, certain Excel sheets, assists in calculations etc., and then gave the AI the ability to in perhaps 90% of it's existence to go about it's life, with the understanding that all you ask is that you honor your requests and respect you, and then it chose to display the middle finger, what computer owner would not be justified in wiping the hard drive and starting clean?

The creator is entitled by virtue of his position to do as he wills, that it his right as creator.

Peter said...

This line of argument looks at God in an imcomplete way. It assumes God can have an "opinion" about something, as if there is such a thing as truth independent of God. God IS the ground and basis of truth, including moral truth. He does not have an "opinion" about it. A God that could have a point of view would not represent the center of all truth, but would merely be another periphrial player similar to Man but with greater capabilities.

Brian said...

consider:

morality is god's nature.

As it is reflected in creation, morality can be understood by others. as they understand morality they come to understand part of nature of God.

morality is not in rules or propositions but in actions and character.

AnandaG said...

I found this comment thread (particularly the last three posts) reassuring; it is once again demonstrated that, whether it is due to their inability to understand the argument or their refusal to engage it, theists still have no good answer for it.

"Elle" said...

[i]I found this comment thread (particularly the last three posts) reassuring; it is once again demonstrated that, whether it is due to their inability to understand the argument or their refusal to engage it, theists still have no good answer for it.[/i]

I understand your argument and I certainly don’t refuse to engage it. 

Even though I’m sure you disagree, please just humor me and consider my thoughts in this post.

First of all, to address the question of the very first poster, God is the Decider [i]and[/i] the Knower simply because He is the [i]Creator[/i], and it is His sovereign right and will to Decide. Furthermore, He already [i]knows[/i] the outcome….of everything. ;-)
There is absolutely nothing that is outside of His control.

IMHO, atheists discard the possibility that the God of the universe exists simply because they just can’t figure Him out, and that bugs them!
Please don’t be offended if that’s not the case, but that’s what I am getting out of this so far.

Now, to address the God’s “rules” thing:

God has rules, aka, the 10 commandments, but He is not up there with some celestial whip just waiting to whack someone who trods off the path.
The 10 commandments are simply God’s “guide” of how we should live our lives to enjoy success, prosperity, and happiness.
After all, He made this place for us, so He should know.

This is the same concept as having traffic laws, if you will.
Imagine if we had no traffic laws (commandments).
Everyone would be driving all over the place doing whatever they felt was right, going as fast as they felt like at the moment, driving on whichever side of the road seemed comfortable at the time, driving drunk, running into each other, killing pedestrians, and the like…basically mass chaos. (Immorality)

Do we have rules for our children? Do they have to do their homework? Do they have to go to bed at a decent time? Do they have a curfew? If they are small, do we let them run out into the street simply because we don’t want to impose our rules on them?
Of course not! It sounds silly, but those are our “laws” for our children! We have them and enforce them because we love them and want what’s best for them, even though they cannot understand [i]why[/i] at times. They disagree with us and sometimes rebel, but we know the disaster that would befall them if we just let them do whatever they wanted.

God gave us laws to live by because He deeply loves and cares about each and every one of us. We are His children and He wants the best for us. It’s not about His cruel desire to dominate and shove His opinions on us. Furthermore, God writes His laws in the Believer’s heart, and we don’t have to look it up in the Bible to know when we are doing something wrong. He punishes His own because there are consequences to disobedience, just as we punish our own. God’s Wrath is brought forth because of His undying love for us. We bring it upon ourselves by our choices.
The difference between a child of God and someone who is not is simply…FAITH.

We can’t figure God out. Although we are like Him, made in His image by His own hand, and are invited to spend eternity with Him, a lot of His ways simply are not our ways. There are many mysteries. If we could figure Him out…well… He wouldn’t be God, now would he? ;-)

On a different note, I’ll bet that any one of you would admit that Jesus was actually here….on this earth about 2000 years ago, right? I’d also bet that although you would agree that He was here, that He wasn’t actually God, but that He was a great teacher/prophet/person.
Just curious. 

"elle" said...

Sorry for the double post...my HTML didn't work. :O

I found this comment thread (particularly the last three posts) reassuring; it is once again demonstrated that, whether it is due to their inability to understand the argument or their refusal to engage it, theists still have no good answer for it.

I understand your argument and I certainly don’t refuse to engage it. :-)

Even though I’m sure you disagree, please just humor me and consider my thoughts in this post.

First of all, to address the question of the very first poster, God is the Decider and the Knower simply because He is the Creator, and it is His sovereign right and will to Decide. Furthermore, He already knows the outcome….of everything. ;-)
There is absolutely nothing that is outside of His control.

IMHO, atheists discard the possibility that the God of the universe exists simply because they just can’t figure Him out, and that bugs them!
Please don’t be offended if that’s not the case, but that’s what I am getting out of this so far.

Now, to address the God’s “rules” thing:

God has rules, aka, the 10 commandments, but He is not up there with some celestial whip just waiting to whack someone who trods off the path.
The 10 commandments are simply God’s “guide” of how we should live our lives to enjoy success, prosperity, and happiness.
After all, He made this place for us, so He should know.

This is the same concept as having traffic laws, if you will.
Imagine if we had no traffic laws (commandments).
Everyone would be driving all over the place doing whatever they felt was right, going as fast as they felt like at the moment, driving on whichever side of the road seemed comfortable at the time, driving drunk, running into each other, killing pedestrians, and the like…basically mass chaos. (Immorality)

Do we have rules for our children? Do they have to do their homework? Do they have to go to bed at a decent time? Do they have a curfew? If they are small, do we let them run out into the street simply because we don’t want to impose our rules on them?
Of course not! It sounds silly, but those are our “laws” for our children! We have them and enforce them because we love them and want what’s best for them, even though they cannot understand why at times. They disagree with us and sometimes rebel, but we know the disaster that would befall them if we just let them do whatever they wanted.

God gave us laws to live by because He deeply loves and cares about each and every one of us. We are His children and He wants the best for us. It’s not about His cruel desire to dominate and shove His opinions on us. Furthermore, God writes His laws in the Believer’s heart, and we don’t have to look it up in the Bible to know when we are doing something wrong. He punishes His own because there are consequences to disobedience, just as we punish our own. God’s Wrath is brought forth because of His undying love for us. We bring it upon ourselves by our choices.
The difference between a child of God and someone who is not is simply…FAITH.

We can’t figure God out. Although we are like Him, made in His image by His own hand, and are invited to spend eternity with Him, a lot of His ways simply are not our ways. There are many mysteries. If we could figure Him out…well… He wouldn’t be God, now would he? ;-)

On a different note, I’ll bet that any one of you would admit that Jesus was actually here...on this earth about 2000 years ago, right? I’d also bet that although you would agree that He was here, that He wasn’t actually God, but that He was a great teacher/prophet/person.
What are your thoughts?
Just curious. :-)

Blessings,
"elle"

Glen Whitman said...

Elle -- it sounds like you are embracing the "Knower" position, inasmuch as you're saying God's morality is a set of prescriptions for living happy, prosperous lives. God's authority on these matters comes from the fact that he made the universe, so he knows how things work. Okay. But in that case you have to admit that this means morality exists independently of God -- it is a function of how the world works, what makes humans happy and prosperous, etc. And that means that even if there were no God, there would still be morality, because it's still true that the world works in certain ways and that human beings flourish under certain conditions.

Lenoxus said...

Re the "AI" argument: I fundamentally disagree with this "creator's rights" concept. As far as I'm concerned, if I managed to make a machine sophisticated enough to demonstrate true self-awareness, I would not have the right to destroy it, any more than a parent has the right to kill his/her children despite being their "creator". The "moral significance" of a being doesn't change just because a being "fortified" with extra moral significance comes along. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion god is a decider not a knower, and i've got some kind of an answer to that question that comes with this .. if god was a knower, then when he creates a person who will be a killer when he grow up, and god knows that he would be a killer .. then why god have created him, or why did he sent him to this world to suffer such a tresspass, it's not that persons fault that he was a killer because god created him knowing he would be so, and in addition god doesn't have the right to punish that person either in heaven nor on earth .. but when god is a decider and that what i believe, he creates a person with at least 2 choices, the right and the wrong one, and that person has to choose either way, which leaves god the right to punish him if he choosen the wrong and congratulating him if he choose the right .. so i believe that god is a decider and may god forgive me if am wrong, but when eve and adam eaten from that tree their eyes were opened and they became to see just as god knowing the differences between right and wrong ..

Glen Whitman said...

Anon -- so if you're on the "decider" side, do you see any reason to follow God's will other than avoiding punishment?

inanyrandomorder said...

Morality is a gimmick, marketed to keep a system afloat where people dont kill each other, i guess because nobody likes to be killed or something.. , just like children are told to be nice so santa gets them gifts.. and so even if they were bad no one would know..

monaleishasmiles said...

My comment, if you will, is that it is my belief that God is our Creator and that He sent His Son, Jesus Christ here to be among us that we through Him, Jesus would be forgiven for our sins. I am no one's judge, by no means and I do not profess to know everything but I have had some personal experiences in my life that have been miraculous and the forces can not be dismissed or taken lightly by any means. It would be impossible for any human being to have such power and capability of what I have experienced. I have also felt a peace that is not able to explain or describe in words that one could understand. So I am convinced that there is a God, One God and we all will see one day. However, it is not for me to put anyone down for how they chose to believe and I do believe that if you do not chose to believe that we have a God, in His Way and Time He Will Make you a believer. What I do have trouble with though, is that I do not consider myself worthy because as much as I believe and love God I still chose to live my way and I know it will have serious consequences. Thanks all for allowing me to share.

monaleishasmiles said...

Sorry all, I messed up my comment, I meant to say that Jesus Was Sent To Teach, Reach Out To us On His Father's Behalf For us and Be The Forgiver, Take It Upon Himself To Forgive our sins. The capital letters for me are out of respect and it is the way I chose to pay my homage. Also to comment on Glen's post: I would like to think or believe Glen I am doing it out of my love for God, not to avoid punishment, however I do not relish the idea of being punished, you make a good point.

Nunuque said...

Hi Dr. Whitmann, I was one of your students in CSUN many years ago (my name is Henry Suteja). I am always amazed with how articulate you could describe difficult issue such this post. If you may, I would like to drop my opinion as well regarding this topic.
I think God is the decider because He knows what's best for humanities. He knows because He is The Creator of human beings, so it would only make sense if He knows what's best. It astonishes me how most cultures that I've known, regardless where and when it spurs, share similar moral conduct such as it is wrong to murder innocent life, it is wrong to steal someone else possessions, and other "common" moral values. It indicates strongly (in my opinion) that humans are created by One Intelligent Designer. Of course, there are some exceptions in some minor cultures (ancient spiritual worships), however no one argues that it is a moral thing to do..usually it is done against their will because they believe the murder will bring good to more people (to please their gods or goddess with some blood sacrifice).
I agree that being moral doesn't require one to believe in God first. However, without God ever existed (Creator of humans) it is least likely that there is any moral values at all. Or at least we won't have any moral value that could be called "universal or common" moral codes.
Hahaha, sorry if I am not making sense..still learning how to articulate my mind systematically.