In Fall 2011, I taught Plato’s dialog, the Meno, to my upper-level Ethics class. What is relevant for our purposes is that the dialog addresses the question of the nature of justice and virtue. The character of Socrates suggests that if virtue can be taught, there must be teachers and students of this important topic. Since there are none, Socrates argues that virtue must be more like right opinion than knowledge, but that right opinion can be just as useful a guide to action as actual knowledge, though more unstable. But if this right opinion can’t be taught, how is it acquired? Socrates proposes that excellent rulers, prophets and soothsayers often speak the truth under divine inspiration. This means that though what they say is correct, they don’t really know what they are saying, or at least how they are managing to say it. Similarly, the virtuous are not able to articulate from where their right opinion stems because it too is divinely inspired and a gift from the gods.
The Meno addresses the origins and nature of moral knowledge. Contemporary moral theories offer advice concerning how to act in difficult situations, but they typically do not address why one should be motivated to be good in the first place, sometimes described as the elephant in the room. They also do not adopt a moral realist position. Moral realism is the notion that moral right and wrong identify real properties of the world about which one can be correct and incorrect. This requires the existence of objective value in the world.
The common student belief is that morality is a purely human invention, rather than discovery. They tend to suppose that there is no objective fact of the matter concerning morality and that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are socially constructed. If you cannot be right or wrong concerning moral matters then this means there is no truth of the matter, morality is a mere fiction and moral nihilism is implied. What is important about this common student belief is their belief is a reflection of their social milieu. Their parents, teachers and friends hold similar beliefs.
As far as I can tell, the notion that morality is a social construction is held even by most professional moral philosophers. Rather than being coy, I am claiming to know why. The professors know that to posit objective value in a universe described by the scientific materialism that they are professionally required to endorse is impossible without appeal to the divine. The other smaller group of philosophers are post-modern relativists and they claim not to think that anything is objectively true. The scientific materialists and the relativists do not want to face the nullity of their moral position and they definitely do not want anything to do with the divine.
Many of my students claimed to enjoy reading the Meno, but that they were disappointed by the ending. They felt that all their hard work had gone unrewarded. Claiming that the right opinion that contributes to virtue is from the divine is a cheat and a cop out, as though Socrates is merely hoping to hide the fact that he has no real explanation.
My reaction to this is to write what follows. Partly, I wanted to prove that Socrates’ answer, far from being a cop out, is simply the truth and partly I wanted to confront the students with the consequences of the beliefs they have absorbed from their social milieu. I wanted to make it clear, in as stark a way as possible, that the only choice they have is between a recognition of the divine foundation of morality or moral nihilism. The complacent belief that atheism and morality are consistent is not true. You can be a moral atheist, but only at the expense of rational consistency and hypocrisy. As you can see, this topic is hardly of academic interest only, applicable solely to juvenile learners.
In group discussion, I heard a student claiming that invoking God seems too easy. Another student pointed out that people also point to God as the origin of the universe simply because they don’t have a better explanation, she thought.
People hostile to religion suggest that religion is merely our attempt to explain things that we don’t understand. It is certainly true that pre-rational tribal people would often attempt to explain natural disasters as a judgment from the gods. However, pre-rational people made all sorts of errors of judgment, religion being just one of them. Their attempts at identifying scientific causal effects were also sometimes terrible. For instance, in medieval times in Europe, many people thought walnuts were good for the brain because walnuts look rather like brains. This doesn’t mean that all scientific explanations are thus invalidated. Unsurprisingly, primitive peoples have a primitive understanding of the divine.
I pointed out that people smarter than any of us have thought that God created the universe, including, for instance, Isaac Newton. A rational argument can be given for this assertion with regard to First Causes. But here we might add that modern physicists agree that the cause of the universe must exist outside the universe and cannot be physical, since space and time and anything physical did not exist. Many theologians were quick to embrace the Big Bang theory, since it fits so well with the notion of creation. Many scientists rejected the Big Bang for precisely that reason and reluctantly conceded the point only when the background radiation generated by the Big Bang was discovered by two radio astronomers, Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias. Using the most accurate microwave antenna telescope developed up to that point, they at first thought that the static they were hearing was the result of pigeon droppings. If scientists realize the theological implications of the Big Bang, then we are no longer in the arena of pre-rational superstitions.
Is Socrates appealing to God as a kind of Deus ex Machina to get Socrates out of trouble?
The existence of morality depends on the existence of value. If human life has no value, then killing human being is not morally wrong. So, where does value come from?
Arthur Conan Doyle’s character of Sherlock Holmes argued that once all other possible alternatives have been eliminated, whatever remains, however unlikely, must be the explanation. There have been no successful scientific/naturalistic explanations for the existence of value in the universe. All serious attempts that I am aware of involve reintroducing non-natural sources of value but not admitting it. That means: either value does not exist, or the source of value is nonphysical, i.e., spiritual. No other candidates for the source of value exist.
Why has science been unsuccessful in identifying the source of value? Science cannot and will never identify ‘value’ simply as a matter of logic. Science, in principle, can examine anything physical. If value were a physical property of things, we could measure it; perhaps with our value-ometer. In fact, philosophy exists just because some topics cannot be illuminated by the scientific method, such as the nature of knowledge, truth, goodness, beauty and mind. Arguably, our advances in science haven’t contributed to any advance in these areas.
Scientists are supposed to be devoted to truth and yet they cannot use science to defend the value of truth. The pursuit of science cannot be scientifically justified. Even scientists depend on the non-natural.
The invention of the scientific method involved using formal, i.e., mental/conceptual, models that were purely mental constructions to force nature to reveal its truths. As Francis Bacon put it, nature must be put on the rack to reveal its secrets. Newton’s discovery of inertia involved a non-existing frictionless space. No such environment exists in reality. However, through this theoretical, mental postulate, he could figure out the nature of inertia with real world applications.
Science represents a great advance in the mental life of humankind. Scientific theories exist in our minds. However, the human mind is invisible to science. If we imagine that science is the only method of finding out the truths of reality, then the human mind must be considered nonexistent! The very thing that made science possible, is now attacked by science.
Logical Positivists attempted to argue that only nouns that had a scientific reference had meaning. They were hoping to stop us from talking about God. Their theory implied that only scientific truths were true and meaningful. However, the claim that only scientific truths are true is not verifiable using science, so their own theory fails the test of meaningfulness.
Who needs God? Morality is a social construction
If morality is a social construction, then morality does not exist. Just because we call some things ‘good’ and others ‘evil’ doesn’t mean that good and evil refer to anything. If something doesn’t exist, then we should stop talking about it. In the nineteenth century, people talked about the ether. The ether was supposed to be the substance underlying the physical universe; a kind of substrate through which, for instance, the Earth moves. It was supposed to be tasteless, colorless, and invisible. An experiment using mirrors and photons was devised. The idea was that the Earth moves through the ether in one direction, so relative to us, the ether is flowing more in one direction than the other. This flow ought to slow down a photon swimming against the current, so to speak. The experiment proved that the speed of light was unaffected by the direction of the photons. Now if something has no affect on anything at all and is invisible and not detectable either directly or indirectly, then this is basically saying that something doesn’t exist. Ether was discarded as a meaningful concept.
One difference between ether and morality is that the belief in morality does have visible affects. But so does the belief in Father Christmas. Little children put out milk and cookies for this imaginary person. This doesn’t mean Father Christmas exists. Likewise, a belief about good and evil may affect our behavior, but it doesn’t mean good and evil refer to anything real.
If morality doesn’t exist for real, then neither can morality be a useful fiction. Something can only be useful (have extrinsic value) if the thing that it is useful for is actually valuable i.e., intrinsically valuable. If we say that the false belief in morality makes us happy and is therefore good, we are introducing a moral category again; the notion that anything that makes human beings happy is good and anything that makes us unhappy is bad. We arrive at the morally good and bad once again.
All people who think that morality is a social construction and is good/useful, have reintroduced moral realism; the notion that good and evil actually exist. This is a contradiction and therefore cannot be true. You cannot believe that morality is merely a social construction and in moral realism.
If you claim to believe that morality is a social construction, then you are a moral nihilist. All us adults know that Father Christmas doesn’t really exist and you’re effectively claiming that morality doesn’t either. That means you must have no opinion about concentration camps, Hitler, death squads, mass terror or your own torture and murder. If morality does not exist, except for pretend, then you cannot object to someone murdering you. The fact that you don’t want to die is only relevant if morality exists and morality requires another person to respect your wishes and desires. If you claim that your wishes and desires are nonetheless important, then you will be unable to say why my wishes and desires are not important too. If you must respect my wishes and desires, then you are behaving morally. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
On pain of contradiction, morality is not a social construction. Morality is also invisible to science because science cannot see value. Anything invisible to science must either not exist at all, or it must be nonphysical. Our name for the nonphysical aspects of reality is the spiritual, i.e., the divine, transcendent, God.
Wittgenstein suggested that the meaning of the world lies outside the world. However, by ‘world,’ he meant physical reality. He argued that even after you have discovered every (scientific) fact about the world, you would be no closer to discovering the meaning and value of the world. Again, one possibility is that the world has no meaning.
I would argue that Wittgenstein’s mistake is in imagining that we are somehow not in the world. Some people complain that the universe doesn’t care about us; whether we exist or not. Well, if your mother or father, girlfriend or boyfriend, husband or wife cares whether you exist, then the universe cares since we are ‘the universe’ too. If we aren’t in the world, or in the universe and part of the world and part of the universe, where are we exactly? All the results of human interaction are part of ‘the world’ too. So love, beauty, goodness, truth, knowledge, consciousness, morality exist at the very least because we exist and we experience all those things.
So we could know all the scientific facts about the world and still get no closer to understanding morality. Assuming that morality exists for the moment, what is the source of our knowledge of right and wrong then?
The Argument from Religion - A Transcendental Argument
Morality can’t be found from a scientific examination of nature. So if morality is not in nature it must be beyond nature – the supernatural.
Where does value come from? It’s not found in the world reduced to scientific facts. Nonetheless, it’s found in the world as we actually experience it. We find value in all sorts of things. We value our friendships, and hopefully at least some of our family members. We value certain books, films, projects, beautiful days, ‘nature,’ and music. So value exists. We experience it. A transcendental argument asks – what must the world be like for this experience to be possible? There must be more to the world than scientific facts. The value of the world that we discover must have its basis in something else.
We know that pre-rational people exist. Pre-rational people, as I’m defining it, are concrete operational or worse. (Worse would be preoperational/magical and sensorimotor/archaic). At the concrete operational stage, we are not capable of genuine abstract reasoning. Rational people are capable, at least, of defending their assertions with true and relevant reasons. This doesn’t guarantee they are right, unless they can show that believing the opposite generates a contradiction. There is no guarantee that you are right, but true and relevant reasons make it more likely that you are right rather than merely guessing, or offering false and/or irrelevant considerations.
For argument’s sake, let’s imagine for a moment that not only pre-rational and rational people exist, but that post-rational people exist too. This means people who are capable of rational thought, but they can do something else. They can experience aspects of the larger spiritual environment that we cannot. The world of a rational person is quite different from the world of a pre-rational person. The world of a rational person contains, potentially, the truths of mathematics and logic. The world of a pre-rational person does not. Neither can the pre-rational person be made to understand the world of a rational person. If the pre-rational person could, they would be rational, or at least capable of rational thought which is all that I’m requiring for someone to count as rational.
The rational person can try to explain how things look to the pre-rational. They will not succeed. Either you can see the validity of a logical argument, or you cannot. If I say if p, then q, p, therefore q and you say ‘no it’s not,’ all I can do is stare at you. A rational person can try to justify themselves by pointing out that rational people were responsible for inventing heavier than air flight, or getting astronauts to the moon. The pre-rational can accept these achievements without understanding how they were achieved.
I am arguing that this is the situation of the rational person with regard to the post-rational. The environment of the rational person includes the conclusions of abstract proofs and arguments. (In a way, these are already ‘super-natural’ in the sense of beyond nature.) The environment of the post-rational person includes things like Plato’s Form of the Good. Plato claims to have experienced the source of all reality. This source was unutterably beautiful and good. The reality, goodness and beauty of the Form of the Good was clearer and more evident in his experience than anything he had ever experienced prior to that. The physical universe is experienced as emanating from the Form of the Good. The Form of the Good is experienced as good and the source of goodness. Anything that it creates is also good. Something good does not create the bad. ‘God created the world and saw that it was good.’ The highest reaches of our soul are experienced as having a direct connection with this Form. The value of the things in the world is derived from the intrinsic goodness of the source of creation. If the creator is present in this world, then this world partakes of that intrinsic value.
A merely rational person might respond that that’s not much of an argument. Where’s the logical proof? Where’s the theory? The best a rational person can do concerning the divine is to rule out anything that is illogical. Rationality is a tool for dissecting and examining reality. It is not itself creative. All rationality can do is take what we experience and subject it to analysis. The post-rational person can do better than that. I am not producing a mere theory of the divine, I have experienced it directly, they might say. The best you, the merely rational can do, is talk. Even if your talk is true, it’s one thing to say true things about the USA and another thing to experience it directly, as I found out when I came to the U.S. The post-rational person transcends but includes rationality. They know if p, then, q, p, therefore q (modus ponens). The rational person is left in a state of confusion similar to the pre-rational person relative to the rational. The rational person is in no doubt of the truth of modus ponens but has no means to show it to the pre-rational. The post-rational has no doubt about their experience of the divine, which they know to be more real than what we normally mistake for ultimate reality, but has no real means to communicate it to someone not at that level.
There is remarkable agreement among those at the higher reaches of many world religions. High level Buddhists, Catholic monks, Kabbalists, Sufis, all describe ultimate reality in similar terms and much of what they say can be summed up in the cliché, ‘all is one.’
If all is one, then my treating you badly is really treating myself badly. Instead, I should love my neighbor as myself, because in some deep sense, my neighbor is myself.
Now, the best a psychologist can do, or a rational philosopher, is to point out that ‘studies show,’ as they say, that selfish people are more miserable than the unselfish, i.e., less moral people are more miserable than more moral people. The psychologists don’t know why. The religious mystics have an answer – that acting morally is to act consistently with the way things really are. Any deviation from reality will be punished, so to speak, with misery. Just as eating gravel will not provide me with nutrition no matter what my beliefs on the subject.
People who meditate can tell you that there are levels and aspects of consciousness not normally experienced by the great mass of people. Buddhists claim that the aspect of consciousness that we call our ego is simply a persona we use to interact in the world. It is not the real you. The real you stretches from its connections with inanimate matter to God. There are untapped potentials in the human soul that some of us have experienced and some have not. We may not have experienced these higher levels ourselves, but our connection to these higher levels still exists. Our soul transcends what many of us might think about it. So when we hear the truths of morality from a Jesus, a Buddha or a Plato we can still recognize them, even though we can’t remember/recognize exactly the levels of consciousness they are accessing. We don’t know how we recognize that what they are saying is good and beautiful. We just know that it is. We can have the right opinion on moral matters, without having the knowledge as to the divine basis for these right opinions. None of us are truly divorced from the divine, regardless of our personal beliefs and thus we are capable of recognizing the truth when we see and hear it.
Socrates has pondered whether being good is teachable. If we are talking about being really really good, on the level of Jesus or Buddha, the answer is ‘not really.’ They can point us in the right direction, but even the mystics agree that there are no sure paths to enlightenment. You can’t exactly teach being post-rational. You can model it and you can provide guidance, but there are no guarantees, just as with reaching a rational level of development.
It is no accident that our great moral teachers – Plato and Jesus in the West and Buddha in the East were mystics. They themselves claimed that their superior moral understanding came from what I am calling a post-rational level of consciousness. The notion that this could be merely coincidental is bizarre.
Your choice is God or moral nihilism. There is no other candidate for the source of morality that doesn’t involve reintroducing moral categories that rely on moral realism in through the back door, having been denied entry through the front.
If you choose moral nihilism, just remember what you are choosing. That guy with a knife is just waiting for an excuse to eat your liver.
Isn’t the fact that at least one of the main assumptions of morality is unproveable terminal for morality?
At a merely rational level, we cannot prove human life is valuable. At the post-rational, we can. If we are only rational, are we justified in going ahead with this assertion anyway? Again, the assumption would qualify as right opinion rather than knowledge.
Goedel’s Theorem applies to all axiomatic systems capable of generating simple arithmetic. An axiom is “a statement or proposition on which an abstractly defined structure is based.” Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead were in the middle of attempting to prove that mathematics is true. They were trying to prove the validity of the foundations of mathematics when Goedel came up with his theorem proving that it is impossible to do this. Russell and Whitehead had to abandon their effort.
Goedel’s Theorem states that any axiomatic system capable of generating simple arithmetic can either be consistent, but incomplete; or inconsistent and complete. However, it is impossible for such an axiomatic system to be consistent and complete.
This is because any axiomatic system must have foundational assumptions that cannot be proven true from within the axiomatic system. A + P. A = axiomatic system. P = proposition lying outside the axiomatic system.
This means that if certain assumptions are regarded as true and self-evident in mathematics, treated as self-evident because they have not been proven true by mathematics, then you can derive all the other mathematical truths from these assumptions. What math can’t do is to turn around and prove these assumptions are true. Math cannot be an internally consistent closed system capable of encompassing all mathematical truths.
Now, math is definitely true. It certainly works. But at least a few axioms must be assumed to be true to get mathematics off the ground. You can see how you can’t make an assumption, derive a ‘truth’ from it, and then use this derived truth to prove the assumption. You only know the derived truth is true because of the truth of the assumption. The truth of the derived truth depends on the truth of the assumption which you are now questioning! This is circular.
Imagine I say – “I never lie.” I then say “you should therefore believe me when I say that the universe will one day collapse.” I have given you no reason to believe me other than the assertion that ‘I never lie.’
Imagine that you then try to prove that it is true that “I never lie,” by appealing to the truth of the statement that ‘the universe will collapse.’ The only reason you have for thinking ‘the universe will collapse’ is true is by treating the assertion that “I never lie” as true and self-evident. Since the truth of ‘the universe will collapse’ is derived from the truth of ‘I never lie,’ you can’t turn around and used the derived truth of ‘the universe will collapse’ to prove the truth of ‘I never lie.’
C. S. Lewis says in The Abolition of Man, if you don’t treat some truths as self-evident, no truths can be known. You must believe that knowledge is possible if you seek to know anything. If you don’t assume knowledge is possible, then you can’t even know whether knowing anything is possible or not! But you can’t turn around and prove that knowledge is possible by pointing to some knowledge X, because your believing knowledge X is dependent on your assumption that knowledge is possible.
The Connection between Goedel’s Theorem and Morality
Some moral truth must be assumed to be true before any moral value can be derived. I must assume at least that ‘human life is valuable’ before morality can establish anything. I can try to prove ‘human life is valuable’ at a rational level, but at some point I will still have to assume something else. Once we assume the truth of ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ we can derive pretty much the whole of the rest of morality.
This may seem to put morality on shaky footing by making it rest on an unproven assumption, but in this regard it is no different from mathematics.
I can try to prove that ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ is true by saying that you want people to treat you with fairness, justice, politeness, honesty, caring, concern, consideration, therefore it’s only fair if you extend this same attitude towards other people. But then I am appealing to fairness – the truth of which is an unproven assumption.
Or I could say that you should treat me with care and consideration and I should treat you like garbage because my wishes are important and yours are not. I can’t prove that that is true except by appealing to the truth of egotism and selfishness. If I treat those as axiomatic we get quite a different set of (im)moral injunctions.
Or you could start with the supposed axiomatic truth that morality is a fiction. Notice, you haven’t proved this to be true, you’ve just assumed it. But once it is assumed, all kinds of beastly behavior can now be countenanced.
If you think morality is a fiction because its founding principle(s) cannot be proven, then you arguably must also reject physics, math, chemistry, music theory, and any other systems involving abstract knowledge. But then you couldn’t know anything to be true, including your assertion that morality is a fiction, because you must assume knowledge is possible – an unproven assumption.
I can be in a serious car accident, wake up in hospital and try to check my eyesight by attempting to count my fingers. Or, I can check my fingers by using my eyesight. In the first case I treat my fingers as fixed and self-evident and treat my eyesight as requiring proof. Or, I can check my fingers, by treating my eyesight as fixed and self-evident. But I can’t hope to discover the truth of anything if I don’t treat one of them as fixed and self-evident. It is always possible that both my eyesight and fingers are damaged, in which case I will need to rely on something else as fixed and self-evident, say the testimony of the doctors. But if I treat the testimony of the doctors as also requiring proof, I need to eventually rely on the truth of something. Something which I treat as a fixed measuring stick if I am to know anything.
God or Moral Nihilism
So your choices are God or moral nihilism. Social constructionism and Darwinian evolutionary theory can only allow you to say that we think and act like morality exists, not that morality does exist. Social construction and Darwinism certainly have nothing to say about the truth of morality. In fact, they suppose the opposite. In the first case, we just made it up, like Father Christmas. That’s called moral nihilism. The second case, Darwinians might try to say that morality is useful in promoting survival, but since they cannot establish that surviving has any intrinsic value, they cannot logically point to the extrinsic value of morality. Nothing has extrinsic value if nothing has intrinsic value and since the existence of intrinsic value is precisely what needs explaining in morality, Darwin and his followers have nothing interesting to say on the topic.
If you choose moral nihilism, as I have said, then the torturer will be right in to start removing your fingers. Why? Because it’s fun and you can have nothing to say on the subject. If moral nihilism is true, then your life has no value and neither does anybody else’s. We can go back to gassing the Jews, human sacrifice, and seeing how loud we can get torture victims to scream and any other psychotic things you can think of.
Plus you are admitting to being a hypocrite, since nobody other than psychopaths actually acts according to the beliefs of moral nihilism. Your current behavior, by contrast would make God smile by comparison.