God Or Moral Nihilism: The Ending Of The Meno


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.


What’s Left?

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

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.

Panentheism vs Transubstantiation

Now that the biologist genies are out of their bottle, can they settle the difference between an African and European swallow, so that we may proceed on our quest for the Holy Grail

Here is a response I wrote up a few days ago to respond to Prof. Cocks on his post on panentheism: 

I have to admit when I first read Professor Cocks' response to Garth Kindler I read pantheism as opposed to panentheism only to realize my error after posting my reply. However, I also quickly realized that my response was appropriate whether the good professor was sympathetic to pantheism or panentheism, because neither is viable if the concept/dogma of transubstantiation is true, a truth I would argue is key to understanding the Creator vis-à-vis his Creation.

Which brings me back to Spinoza again, because while Spinoza may have rejected being labeled as someone who embraced pantheism and claimed the more expansive panentheism, I'm not sure if that was really true, or really even at the core of what Spinoza was up to, I think he was rejecting Christianity and what is at the heart of it i.e., Christ presence upon consecration of the bread and wine in the Eucharist, and of course, for a Catholic thinker if you take that away everything else collapses.

Essentially what Spinoza was doing by putting forth his panenthesitic monism was attempting to mimic the essence of transubstantiation but rejecting the incarnated Christ and his continued presence thru the Eucharist. It's a brilliant attack on Catholic theology and the central role of the Catholic tradition in Western Civilization, one that many great minds have embraced since, but one that ultimately fails. It fails much as a counterfeit component might fail in a beautifully complex and designed device because the human mind that wrote the specs for the counterfeit component wasn’t up to operating on the same level as the device’s original specs writer. A flawed lens in a projector, perhaps?

So where does this leave us on the quest for the Holy Grail as we stand here at the Bridge of Death?

Battling biologists can you tell us the difference between an African and a European swallow?

Here's  a clue.

All these biologist

All these biologist explanations sound funny and childish compared with what philosophy and theology can say about human nature. Usually biologism is used by ignorants specialist to attack western conservatism. The left has chosen a naive view of evolution as the main weapon against conservatism, but the theory of natural selection applied to humans demonstrate that the conservative point of view is the only one that makes evolutionary sense, and therefore  the evolutionary study of the human mind is the  main weapon that conservatism has in the headquarters of the left. We should and we must use this weapon.

I believe that  a bad conception of science has deculturalized us. Scientist positivism, the notion that other knowledge is meaningless except science is a translation of the idiotic  "despise what we ignore" . This is the cause of the fanatic scientism , the true religion of our age. But science must be liberated from positivism. It must return to be what it ever was, the ground for philosopy and theology and whatever we can not yet explain and perhaps we may never fully explain.

It s a pity that current research in evolutionary psychology is focused in sexual attraction, cheat detection and other vane cuiriosities. David Sloan Wilson with his evolutionary study of religion is an exception. Religion is part of our nature, and the fundamentalist atheists, who have Saint Dawkins or Pope Al Gore in the minds, are the demonstration.  


By the way,  concerning differences between humans, two brother may differ a lot too. in some way, there is nothing more different tha two sons of a couple, and yet they are brothers.








@ Capo...

...I think he was rejecting Christianity and what is at the heart of it...

Spinoza had no use for religion, whether or not he was a pantheist in the strict sense.  In any case, pantheism is certainly at odds with a more refined notion of deity: the Christianized (Aquinas') version of the Aristotelian unmoved mover whose essence is pure Act (as opposed to all lesser manifestations whose essence is composed of various ratios of act/potency), and whose Being is outside of creation. 


Agreed Spinoza may have felt no use for religion( in this case Catholicism), but that doesn't mean he wasn't challenged by it to produce an alternative to the philosophical system intrinsic to it. In otherwords, since he found no use for religion wouldn't his philosophical system be driven to promote the 'no use for religion' postulate? He would be a very silly philosopher indeed to create a philosophical system that excluded himself

@Capodistrias: Spinoza and religion

Spinoza may have felt no use for religion (in this case Catholicism)...

Nor Judaism, for that matter.  In fact, the Jews ran him out of town.  In line with what you write, Strauss, for his part, argued that the Theological-Religious Treatise was addressed not so much to the Christians, as to those Christians prepared to abandon Christianity in favor of philosophy.

"The Treatise is addressed to Christians, not because Spinoza believed in the truth of Christianity or even in the superiority of Christianity to Judaism, but [to] accommodate oneself to the ruling opinions of one's time, and Christianity, not Judaism, was literally ruling. Or, in other words, Spinoza desired to convert to philosophy "as many as possible",and there were many more Christians in the world than there were Jews." [from Persecution and the Art of Writing]

Spinoza and The Adventures of Immanence


I recommend Y. Yovel's Spinoza and Other Heretics: The Marrano of Reason who  traces Spinoza's Marrano roots in Iberia and its mixing of Judaism and Christianity under the Inquisition as the source of his philosophy of immanence which in turned undermined both Judaism and Christianity. (Of course, again in Catholic thinking you take out one you've taken out the other.)

Yovel's second volume The Adventures of Immanence I can't recommend because even though the book store via Amazon assured me it was shipped with the first volume it was not in the package.

So it is somewhere, I just can't attest to where, I find that rather amusing as I write this.

@Memetic Warrior: Some Evolutionary Help

"My point start from the datum that humans are descendant from a very small population of less that a thousand peoples living in Africa 60.000 years ago."

Questionable data. Anthropologists generally date evolution of modern human physical form to about 100,000 years ago, human migration out of Africa as early as 1.8 million years ago evolving into homo erectus and neanderthalensis, humans splitting from apes at about 4.6 to 6.2 million years ago, homo erectus in China by 1-2 million years ago, homo heidelbergansis in Europe by 500,000 years ago during glacial period, evolving into neanderthal by 400,000 to 300,000 years ago.


But all these branches of humankind died in the mass extinction


But all these branches of humankind died in the mass extinction produced by the Toba eruption, according with the genetic data of both mitocontrial DNA, in the female line of the genealogic tree and the Y cromosome, in the male tree. We all descend from these few hundred survivors.

As I said, my explanation of morality is merely scientist. it is made for the conversion of moral nihilists. However,  It does in any way precludes a supernatural support for morality. Perhaps such a natural explanation is a part of the whole supernatural explanation that we can access rationally.  Of course it is subject to the moral axiom that survival is good , so it does not a foundationf for morality, but scientist accept this axiom.

Most of them. There are  ecologist that accept nature as the higest good, and the extinction of humankind as desirable. Anyway, even the scientist ecologist must accept that desire to survive is natural, and therefore, if they accept this explanation, then they must accept that traditional morality is natural.


Mass extinction

The impact of the Toba eruption is disputed. There is evidence that some branches such as Neanderthals in Europe were not eliminated.

Some scientists have also argued that genetic coalescence of the sort supposedly caused by this volcanic winter appear to have occurred previously, as much as 100,000 years ago, and does not necessarily indicate the collapse of population as a result of climate change associated with the eruption.

You need to research the topic more thoroughly. The objection stands. You are treating theory as fact.    


I think we are going far away

I think we are going far away from the topic of this essay.  My theory supposes an evolutionary bottleneck caused by wathever environent pressure. That is not dsputed that has happened. This pressure modified human natural morality from a primitive "do good when someone is watching you" to a God based morality "do good because Someone is watching you everytime" by selecting some mutations (see evolutuionary psychology) That permitted the survival of the group of mutants. since then, we are religious. This is only a naturalistic explanation that does not precludes a wider supernatural explanation that embraces these natural causes and effects.

Any other thing is decoration. The modification is small enough to have evolutionary sense.(It is parsimonious enough). It is surprising how you doubt at the data and not about the hypothesis.   If there are traces of other lines of humanity in us, such are neardentals, they are very tiny up to te ponint that no human have neither mitocondrial neither Y chromosome from these ancestors. 

Some evolutionary help

I agree with Mr Cocks on that Darwinian explanations add nothing essential to the discussion of the foundations of morality, but it can help moral nihilist int embracing the ultimate truth of value of human life. Not only Psychopaths are moral nihilists; Stalin was an loving grandfather, he was very goof with their familly, most of the time. To be good at someone does not proves to be good with others. Most people are practical moral nihilists. An evolutionary explanation, although it can not help into rationally demonstrate what is good and what is bad, it may help into accepting our impulses for Good and God, if he shows that these impulses are biologically inprinted in us. My point start from the datum that humans are descendant from a very small population of less that a thousand peoples living in Africa 60.000 years ago. That was the only surviving people after volcanic winter provoked by the eruption of the super-volcano Toba in Indonesia. So in a literal sense, we al humans are a family with more " blood" ties than a single group of chimpanzees ( the genetic variation between any two humans is less than what can be found bettwen two chimpanzees of a single group). The reason for survival of this few hundred people form the great extinction is unknown, but one of the reasons for sure was an increased mutual help. What is known in evolution is that similarity in the genetic information maintains stable the collaboration. Perhaps many of these people had some fortunate mutations that imprinted in the subconscious the notion of the value of human life or the notion that Someone in the beyond (a God or many) is watching them (This is higuly plausible, as I explain below). These notions, as I will show, enhanced selfless help for others of non kin, in eternal struggle with other more preexisting selfish impulses. The enhanced collaboration that this group had permitted the survival. They were in a literal sense, almost a family. maybe this mutation extended the notion of familly. and the familly notion has not abandoned us because we inherited this fortunate set-of mutations. They must have been strange people for the rest who died: They helped neighbours, instead of killing to dead for the very scarce resources. We know weird people that have hallucinations, that have strange impulses, that do weird things. Imagine that a catastrophe changes the environment so that it makes some of them very successful because they are complementary. If they are the only survivors, their descendants will inherit these hallucinations and impulses. these phenomena will be part of human nature from this moment on, for the rest of the History. In fact we hallucinate every second. We perceive a person as a person with all their moral implications. Instead, for a chicken, a person is something completely different. What we experience, our mind, is determined by our brain architecture, and this architecture depend on developmental genes, and these genes were selected depending on the success of the brain architecture, that is, our minds, that they produced, in the task of own survival in society So, if this is right, our higher sense of morality is inprinted in us. Maybe the sense that Someone in the Beyond is observing us is also an innate part of this moral sense. This last is interesting, because being observed by another human impel a primitive sense of self image to do good things. But when nobody watch us, many people do bad things. So the notion of Good and God did not evolved entirely in the course of the extinction event, but it builds from a more primitive notion of selfish “do good when yo are observed, do whatever you need when not”. So most of the people befrore the extinction event steal food, kill neighbours etc. Imagine some strange and crazy familly in the stone age that has the obsession that Someone is observing them every time. They would have been very unsuccessful in a normal environment. But when the Toba eruption began, they could have been very successful because their enhanced collaboration. After the volcanic winter, they give thanks to the someone that apparently helped them to survive. We are their descendants.

@ mw

My point start from the datum that humans are descendant from a very small population of less that a thousand peoples living in Africa 60.000 years ago.

The Darwinian associated “out of Africa” idea, like much we “know,” cannot be unquestioned. Darwinian evolution (speciation due to random genetic changes over time) is now dogma, but quite philosophically tenuous. Tradition has always taught that the lower can never be the cause of the higher, and it is really an inversion of logic to believe it could ever be so. Tradition also has it, in legend, that races and migrations were otherwise. Anthropologically, the record is rather minimalistic. In any case, if one were to compare the current inhabitants of Africa with representatives of more advanced cultures and civilizations, one would laugh at the notion that anything higher ever came “out of Africa.” Or maybe they did, and that is why they are no longer there.

In truth, life is an enigma. Biological evolution posits early, less-advanced forms moving upward into complexity. By supposition one therefore posits a first transition: non-life to life. But in reality, although we are all familiar with the final transition, no one has ever demonstrated a first, and from a strictly empirical standpoint there is really no reason to even argue a “first transition.” One wonders if it is simply a psychological phenomenon. That is, we “want” and even “need” to confront a beginning, otherwise we are plainly uncomfortable because then there are more questions than our science can answer.

So in a literal sense, we al humans are a family with more " blood" ties than a single group of chimpanzees ( the genetic variation between any two humans is less than what can be found between two chimpanzees of a single group).

One must not confuse quality with quantity. Counting genes tells us nothing about expression. It is like saying that Wagner and Black Sabbath both use similar notes, therefore the similarity must be greater than we first imagined. As I mentioned earlier, we all have two legs and at least half a brain, but the differences among the human groups are larger than many want to consider.

...our higher sense of morality is imprinted in us.

Thoughts are not the same thing as electo-chemical brain processes. An association does not suggest identity. Again, how can one explain qualitative differences between chemical hormonal processes? One may suggest that the moral feeling is a biological process, however moral action is also a judgment about what is correct behavior, and a judgment is not a biological process, but a conscious one. And no one has been able to adequately explain consciousness in bio-reductionist terms.


Some genes are regulatory, so

Some genes are regulatory, so the change in a gene can make a great difference. I dont say that we are equal, We are very different. I said that other species are much more diverse (Except the cheetahs, that are almost clones)  Genetic similarity makes collaboration stable because if an individual collaborate by a genetic tendency , it is higly probable that other individuals of the specie are collaborative too. Moreover an evolutionary bottleneck makes the selection of a genetic tendency to collaboration more probable because if there is a prexhistent adaptation for detection of kin signals and kin collaboration (to increase inclusive fitness), such signals will be present in most of the surviving individuals because they are genetically similar. Then the kin collaboration is extended to all the specie. Cheetahs usually do not collaborate in the human sense, but their evolutionary bottleneck made them the most peaceful of the felines. That probably is the most that selection can do for making a feline collaborative. Collaboration includes many different strategies. One of them is to invest efforts into detecting and punishing free riders. If this does not exist, collaboration is unstable. This can be demonstrated by evolutionary game theory. There are evidences that we suffered a process of autodomestication.  So our leap-forward to modern moral and religion did not made us more peaceful guys, but different. Probably the size of the average group grew. Within the group,  individual violence where reduced by religious beliefs but also by violent punishment. And violence between different groups remained

@Prof Cocks - Horses and Carts

Mr. Cocks wrote:

"Their relatively primitive religious beliefs are not the cause of their lack of development, but the result."

This may be a diversion from the main topic, but I'd say take a look over to the "Surviving Islamism" series "Part III". The argument that a lack of development or poverty or whatever it might be called causes people to develop or not develop a complex system of religious thought and belief, is very much putting the cart light-years before the horse, as the saying goes. To suggest otherwise flies in the face of the realities that exist and have existed across the world. Primitive and underdeveloped religious beliefs result in primitive and underdeveloped societies. Unless, of course, one believes in cultural relativism or moral equivalence. Each religion and form or sect of religious belief creates a different software within the human mind that says how one thinks of others, oneself, life, social and gender relationships, politics, government, clothing, work, innovation, literacy, etc. Ideas of the afterlife also create requiremnents for the pressures and priorities one feels or does not feel in living this life.

People often get confused by apparent "results" and start to talk about how environment, climate, or geography (Mann and Diamond) effect development. These ideas seem logical on the surface, but they are not: the ideas in the human mind create the world in which the human lives. If a person does not believe in the power of human ideas and thinks the answer is geography or climate, then one must consider, for example, N. Korea and S. Korea or Switzerland and France/Italy, for example. One need only look at the uniformity of the results in development, transparency, life expectancy, education, literacy, corruption, trust measurements, etc. across the world.

The countries at the top of these lists are generally the Lutheran Nordic countries (Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Denmark) and then Switzerland, Germany, and other mainline Protestant countries (UK and the UK colonies); then a few Buddhist/Confucian countries (Japan, Singapore, S. Korea) and also Israel with its practice of reformed (small "R") or secular Judaism created in Protestant Europe; as well as then the Catholic countries that were forced to deal with the Reformation (France, Belgium, Ireland); after that, come the Catholic countries that did not ever deal with a Reformation but are close to countries that did (Italy, Spain, Portugal) and then the countries in Eastern Europe that did once deal with the Reformation but were beaten down by Communism (Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary); then Catholic and Orthodox countries that never dealt with the Reformation and are far from any who did (the Balkans and all of Latin America; note, Chile, the country with the highest percentage of Protestants, also generally ranks the best in all of Latin America), which fall, in all cases, sometimes among or sometimes above the rest of the developing world. Among these come the rest of the Confucian/Buddhist countries and Hindu India. Then Muslim countries. Then animists everywhere. In Africa and Latin America these patterns also follow the same pattern. There is and never has been an animist people that has produced a society that is advanced by Western European standards. Religion, the deepest ideas that arise the human mind (and some are not very deep) directly creates culture and then the results (wealth or poverty), not the other way around.   

The patterns should be clear enough when one looks at any of the above described national statistics. As the below cited National Geographic article ends, “Twenty years ago everyone believed civilization was driven by ecological forces. I think what we are learning is that civilization is a product of the human mind.” It amazes me that this is not obvbious to everyone, but there are reasons from our own Western Christian tradition that provides us with the blind spot as to that thought. That article is written by Charles C. Mann, author of 1491. Considering the way he described Amer-Indians living in the Americas (still in the stoneage) as "advanced" in his book, I was very surprised to see that he seems to have realized such an idea.

In Part III of that other article here at the Brussels Journal, Peter Carl writes:

[T]he idea that religion has a formative and determinative effect on cultures and societies is not at all a radical or crazy idea. In fact it is commonly understood as being quite true. The idea is the basis for, among many other works, as stated above, Max Weber’s ground-breaking theories in “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” (1930). That book of Weber now forms what is considered to be the founding text in economic sociology – and sociology in general. In Weber’s footsteps, Clifford Geertz, “…for three decades...the single most influential cultural anthropologist in the United States…” and famed Princeton University anthropologist recognized “…the cultural dimension of the influence of religion…. [….] religion’s ability to transmit ‘patterns of meanings embodied in symbols… (by which humans) communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life.’”xvii The idea is also reflected in the French author and commentator on religion, Fredric Lenoire, and his attempt to explain Christianity for an often secular audience. In his book, “Le Christ philosophe” (2007), he explains how even when viewed for its philosophical value, as opposed to its purely religious meaning, Christianity has spurred and continues to spur on so much of all that is good and beautiful that surrounds us within Western culture and throughout the world. In more everyday genres, the same idea is posited in a recent National Geographic issue which wonders whether, at the 11,600 year old temple being excavated in what is now Southern Turkey, “…the human sense of the sacred – and the human love of a good spectacle – may have given rise to civilization itself.” As the archeologist, Klaus Schmitt, summarizes: “Twenty years ago everyone believed civilization was driven by ecological forces. I think what we are learning is that civilization is a product of the human mind.” Both Breivik’s (and Hitler’s) complete lack of civilization due to their animosity towards actual Christianity and their many unambiguous complaints against Christianity’s teachings including especially pacifism and equality, it appears on all counts, judging from the otherwise highly peaceful and egalitarian society found in Norway, prove Weber, Geertz, Lenoire, and Schmitt all quite right.


That's it. Otherwise, I very much enjoyed the article. It also applies to the thoughts about Nietzsche, Tille, Hitler, Kerrl, and Marx over in the Peter Carl article, with respect to moral nihilism. In any case, your article was a great generator of thoughts and conversation here. Much appreciated.

@Libratarian - neither carts nor horses

Libratarian has done a good job of reminding me that I was being too simplistic. Now that Libratarian has drawn my attention to this, I think my former explanation still holds for religious beliefs within a cultural community, although even that should probably be enlarged by the four quadrant model I mention below. We need some account for why, even within Protestant religious community, there can be an enormous difference of interpretation concerning the nature and existence of God and how we ought to live in light of this. For instance, we have Bibical literalism and rational theology. What particular theists within a religious tradition choose to believe and to emphasize will be related to whether they are concrete or formal operational, among other things.

I am not a Jared Diamond fan, but I do respect Thomas Sowell who mentions some of the elements Libratarian rejects.

I would want to argue neither for brute physical determinism (environmental) nor the utter primacy of abstract ideas alone.

The most plausible and helpful intellectual framework for thinking about this kind of thing is the four quadrants idea invented by Ken Wilber. It does a lot to minimize over-simplifications and false dichotomies, in this case, no horses or carts. The four quadrants are, on the left side, the subjective and the intersubjective (cultural). On the right, the objective and the interobjective (social). Culture here has to do with meanings and 'social' with the objectively measurable elements, such as economic factors.

An example of applying the four quadrants notion could be 'what contributes to my concept of what it means to be a man?' In the 'objective' quadrant would be biology. The biological facts about me have an effect on what I think it means to be a man. My reproductive organs,  my body shape, the hormones coursing through my body, etc. The interobjective quadrant would include my means of making a living. Am I shooting buffalo on the plains, or cooped up in an office cubicle? Intersubjectively we have the realm of culture and meaning. These are the ideas about manhood that we encounter in the surrounding culture, in the books we read, from our families, etc. Lastly, there is a subjective element. My own personal ideas about manhood that are likely to be somewhat idiosyncratic and have a biographical element.

The idea is that each quadrant influences the other. There is a mutual exchange of influence. My biology influences my personal ideas, my personal ideas can influence biology. Biology means that men have better upper body strength than women on average and I might choose to emphasize my manliness through weight training. The sorts of work available to me will alter the physical requirements necessary and my thoughts about myself. A Native American man's sense of self-worth might be closely linked with physical prowess due to the sorts of activities he will need to make a living. A computer programmer has different ideas about success as a man. These ideas exist in the general culture in which he lives, which is related to whether he is living in an pre-industrial, industrial, post-indiustrial society and then his own personal response to this culture - a culture that has done a lot to influence these responses.

Let's take a frivolous example for the sake of clarity. Why do many of my students wear blue jeans? They are fashionable (culture/intersubjective). They are durable (objective). They are mass produced in factories and are cheap (social/interobjective). Personal taste (subjective).

You can clearly see how each quadrant can influence the other. Fashion influences personal taste. Personal taste, en masse, can change fashion. The practicality (objective) of an item can influence whether you like that item. Is the item affordable and, even more importantly, available? If it isn't available, you are unlikely to develop a taste for it. But likewise, if nobody had a taste for blue jeans, they wouldn't be available. We don't mass produce items nobody will buy.

Another way of describing the four quadrants is I, We, It and Its. What's missing is You, which is a fairly major omission. However, as it stands, the four quadrants can be a useful way to minimize the partiality of truth/reductionism. Every theory is arguably a selection and interpretation that leaves other truths out, but we can try to minimize the damage.

Religion and personal development is a two-way street. It influences us and may tend to boost or hinder our intellectual and cultural development, and our intellectual and cultural development may hinder or boost our religious conceptions.

inter alia

I hope everyone will forgive me if my post appears disjointed. The dialogue has been exceptional thus far and my appreciation to MPresley, Capodistrias, and Traveller for their contributions and to Prof. Cocks for getting it all started with his excellent essay. But there are quite a few balls in the air now, or to shift the metaphor, many loose threads. This post expresses my own confusion and inferiority with respect to several of these and my need to think "out loud" for a moment. I beg all for your indulgence of any inadequacies of  thoughts or infelicities of expression.  

The underlying assumption for much of the discussion here is that God's essence is good, loving, and rational. Traveller expressed this view succinctly: "God, in my opinion, is first and foremost Rational and as followup He can only be Good." From this premise, we deduce that God's creation, the World, as a reflection of God's Being, must also be Good and Valuable. If then the World has intrinsic value, as Prof Cocks says, human life must also be assumed to have value and meaning. These become the foundational assumptions without which a system of morality in the Judaic/Christian tradition can't proceed and with which it can begin to evaluate actions and establish principles of conduct, in short, a system that becomes teachable. 

An ethical system is easily derived from assumptions about God's Nature. But just as obviously, the kind of system and the ethics practiced will depend on what are assumed to be God's qualities. There is no definitive, compelling evidence that God is either rational or irrational. Indeed it strikes me as peculiar in one sense to ascribe a deliberative process of reasoning to Him. God need merely act, not think. Of course, the question comes back to the inner character or being whence spring His acts. The ethics of a dog eat dog world driven by self-interest and self-preservation derive from the observation of a Nature that is bloody and ravenous in tooth and claw. This views leads, in turn, to a conception of deity as, at worst, cruel, vindictive, revengeful, and jealous or, at best, distant, indifferent, and uncaring. The ethical system based on an absolutely arbitrary, willful, and capricious, tyrannical conception of God places no value on human life and finds nothing morally wrong in killing human beings if done in obedience to divine Will. The only imperative in this system is total, unreasoning, unquestioning submission. Ethical conduct consists of the precept, "May I always act towards my enemy as he would act towards me but before he has a chance."

We know of such systems operating in the world today in which everything and everyone are subject to the whims of a deity who is called loving, merciful, and compassionate by his followers. But these attributions are reminiscent of the ancient practice among worshipers of addressing their particular deity in the most flattering terms, thereby ascribing to the god those very qualities most lacking in his character for fear of provoking his true personality. With this in mind, we conclude that the qualities proclaimed for him are precisely those he most lacks.   

The dispute about the universality of morals or the general applicability of an ethical system comes down to one's definition of man and how he is to be distinguished. MPresley believes the Western view of "humanity" to be naive in ignoring the myriad differences prevailing among humans. A definition of humanity must go beyond mere physiology. In reading the comments, I was reminded of Remi Brague's essay, "The Denial of Humanity" which addresses this very matter. Examining various ancient and medieval texts from diverse cultures and historical periods, Braque concludes that philosophers have agreed in denying "humanity" to certain beings while being forced to admit them as "human." But "the human figure is not the face of man." The salient feature in all these texts, says Brague, is that the man of reason is "most worthy of his own humanity." Reason differentiates the species man from all others in the genre animal. Or put another way, a non-reasonable animal is not a man.

According to Brague, the concept of reason in these texts is "two-pronged" including both theoretical reason and practical, moral reason. One is not a man if one is incapable of grasping the intelligibles (Plato's "supra-celestial truths" or those insights gained from "post rational experiences"?) or if one behaves in a bestial fashion. For some  "religious determinations," those who are not religious are excluded from humanity. "The question arises of whether religiousity is conceived, roughy speaking, as the presence of a moral sense (I would add, divinely inspired) or as the presence of intellectual illumination. In other words, if we are dealing with an ethical or philosophical religion."

As I understand it, this question is also the crux of our debate. Religiosity, to use Brague's term, may be considered a predilection in man towards ethical conduct and rationalization, a matter of nature rather than nurture. It may or may not entail the proposition of a Deity. Religiosity based on the proposition of a deity derives its ethical dimension on the predicates of that God, for better or worse, and regards the revelation of that deity, however manifested, as its justification. In contrast, religiosity that posits ethical rules on reason requires no deity as its source. Illumination is then turned inward on man's nurture as a reasoning animal.

In summary, it seems to me that morality deriving from God is arbitrary and problematic. It is dependent on assumptions about God's being and relationship to his creation. God may be Good, God may be Bad, God may be indifferent, and the morality will vary accordingly. In contrast, morality derived from reason is one that strives to make man "most worthy of his humanity." Whether this morality is consistent with the nature of Creation and its Creator or is opposed and arises in spite of Creation and Creator is irrelevant. Its value results from its practical effects in improving human existence.

To a certain degree, morality in this context may be viewed as a "purely human invention." Certainly in a savage, cruel world ruled by a capricious uncaring deity, such morality would have to be invented by man for humanity to avoid behaving as just another unreasonable animal concerned only with survival. This does not mean that all morality is relative or that there can be no objective criteria for moral judgments. I think we have all made clear in our comments our rejection of moral relativism. Nor does it mean, as MPresley has suggested, that any universality to morality is limited to a few basic, fundamental principles such murder or incest and "higher strata" are out of bounds because they are socially or culturally determined. Applying Goedel's Theorem, I think a universal morality is one that is consistent rather than complete. Objectively then, an ethical system denying women the same rights as men is inconsistent and thus unreasonable. But such a system is permissible though unreasonable when based on a fiat from God. And therein lies the problem

@Garth Kindler re: Inter Alia

Your level of development will determine your view of God. If you are pre-rational, your conception of God will be pre-rational. If you are rational, your conception of God is capable of being rational. Some liberals imagine that if a fundamentalist could be persuaded to give up their supposedly literalist understanding of Biblical, Koranic, etc., texts, then the fundamentalist would become an enlightened atheistic liberal. I suppose this could happen in some rare instances where one's religious beliefs are at a lower level than one's general cognitive capabilities. However, in most cases, the person will be concrete operational, or lower, and incapable of formal operational, rational cognition. You may have just removed their last barrier against absolute license and dissipation and you may find them embracing a might makes right perspective.

I would suggest that Kindler's beef is not so much with God or religion, but with the level of development of people who happen to be religious believers. Their relatively primitive religious beliefs are not the cause of their lack of development, but the result.

Psychologists tell us that only ten percent of the US population is formal operational, and this is in a country which has compulsory, relatively well-funded public education. It will be far lower in many developing countries. Most people in the world are theists. Most people in the world are not rational. Hence, the many retrograde and unsatisfactory moral and religious beliefs of most people.

A rational person whose moral development is consistent with their cognitive development, say, Kohlberg's 'post-conventional' level, is likely to agree about most moral issues regardless of whether he or she is a theist or atheist. In fact, the formal operational atheist and f.o. theist will have more in common with each other than their pre-rational brethren.

Pure reason cannot prove life has value. It can only do its thing once intrinsic value has been established. You can simply assume life has value, a la Goedel's Theorem, and treat life's value as a necessary supposition for morality to exist. But then, in my view, you will need to contemplate what must be true of the world in order for objective value to exist and a world without some equivalent of Plato's Form of the Good cannot account for objective value. Objective value is necessary because morality can't be useful for attaining the end of promoting human welfare, if human welfare is not in fact valuable. We do not regard something as 'useful' if what that thing does is worthless.

@ Garthe Kindler

I like your comment and I am pleased you introduced Brague in the discussion, a very valuable philosopher.

My basic idea's about God are guided by the enormous complexity of His Creation.

We don't even know the extent of His Creation.

How many universes are there?

How many sentient species are there in our universe, and in possible other universes?

Why did He bother with us, tiny microscopic specs on His creative pallet? And why would we be important, in fact so important that He gave us the possibility to be against Him and to demolish His Creation?

That's where I came to the test-conclusion.

Before I talked about the Absolute Rationality of God. One of the main proofs of His rationality is the constant, or the constant number, of chaos. Every chaotic situation has the same Constant number, the Feigenbaum constant: 4,669. More about this in this book  (Ian Stewart, Does God Play Dice? The Mathematics of Chaos)

Which means that real absolute chaos doesn't exist. 

This was my proof of God's Rationality, He doesn't allow absolute chaos in His Creation.

This Rationality led me to believe that a Super Rational God had a purpose, which one?

I have from the very beginning of my thinking life accepted that I have no clue who or what is God, except The Creator. This Creator is the Original Mathematician Who allows us to slowly permeate in His realm of Creativity by our puny mathematical efforts. This allowance is crucial for my way of thinking: God wants us to know Him.

Why? And why did He create such tiny limited creatures who, notwithstanding the task at hand i.e. knowing God, have obtained tools, their minds, to approach God's realm. And all this with a limited life span for those tiny creatures.

For me this means that God has questions. For me it means that He Himself wants to know the outcome of this.

I have to refer to Prof. Cocks question here about the presence of God inside or outside the Creation.

Some years ago I asked the opinion of a much better mathematician than I am if he could see the problem of an eternal God?

The question refers to the fact that the ancient Jewish and Christian philosophers simply concluded that God was eternal since He was the Creator and HAD to exist before His Creation. The eternal God was a simple solution to that problem, except, and this is something I didn't  read anywhere but I am convinced that other people must have thought about this, except that if God was eternal, he was also eternal in the past. This means that, since He was infinitely there with no starting point in the past, the present couldn't exist for Him. 

There is only one explanation for this. God's Creation was the beginning of time as we know it, in short God created also time as we know it, ergo God exists outside our time and as such there is a big chance that He exists outside His Creation, since God IS and cannot be limited by His own created time.

This brings us back to the above "Why".

Why did God spend so much effort in this Creation, what was His Purpose?

I think we have the answers in front of our noses, it's up to us to accept them.

The only divine gift we really have is Love, either mystic or between humans.

Every literate functional human being will be moved beyond his own daily life occupations by a well written or filmed love story. Every human being living through a real love story is uplifted beyond his daily life and routine and does everything to keep that love going, if he is an intelligent person. There is no way to explain that, physicians and chemists are trying but there is really no way to predict the love waves between human beings or from mystics.

Therefor I think it's safe to think that Love is God's gift to humankind and part of His programming of humans.

If love is the most important factor in a human's make-up, as taught by Jezus in all kinds of different ways until his ultimate proof of His Love by His ultimate Sacrifice, it follows that there is a Purpose behind. 

This Purpose explains for me the continuous Creator's Interest in His Creation. The Ultimate Rational Being doesn't start a Creative Process with a zillion free parameters without wanting to know the outcome. 


I think the discussion of the Purpose and the Test is for another time if anybody is interested.



@ Richard Cocks

Thank you, Sir, for a most stimulating, informative, and engaging reply. I was especially struck by your statement:

"In my view, right and wrong do not derive from God’s Will, but from His intrinsic goodness and our participation in this goodness which can be experienced directly only in mystical post-rational experience. His intrinsic goodness is not a matter of will or commands."

Without wishing to introduce another "non sequitur" or wander too far afield, do I hear an echo of Franz Rosenzweig in this view? Rosenzweig struggled with the contradiction of God creating out of caprice or out of compulsion. The "absolute caprice of the Creator," which Rosenzweig says early Christian and Jewish theology and Arab Scholasticism insisted upon, poses a danger in that it separates the Creator from his creation, the World. Caprice knows no necessity and leads equally to justice or injustice. It is arises in the moment, the individual instant and so, as the embodiment of all its moments, it is self denying and self abnegating.

Creation of the world by caprice would disallow any interest in the world by God. He might as easily not have created this world or he might have created a different one. In any instance, it would be a matter of complete indifference to him. God would not have any vested interest in the world or man's existence in it. Creation, the World, Man's place in it lose thereby any intrinsic integrity or meaning of their own. Their continuation becomes momentary, entirely dependent on the whim of the deity. Causality and all other "natural laws" are replaced with magic. 

In opposition, Rosenzweig asserted that God's revelation of himself, his creation, means that the three elements of God, World and Man and interrelated and connected, "emerge from themselves, belong to one another, and meet one another...." He further believes that the interpenetration and interdependence of these elements refute the notion of God creating from caprice. God's creativity is his essential attribute. God creates because it is his nature and essence to do so.  

Is this essential attribute also what you mean by God's intrinsic goodness, that it is not a matter of His choice or decision but is rather at the very nature of His being and so is not a matter of will or commands? Am I correct to think of "our participation" in the intrinsic nature of God as a result of our existing in this World and therefore, in Rosenzweig's terms, part of the interpenetration and interdependence of these elements. Indeed is not our participation only possible because we are part of the World, God's creation? And is it not the case that the "mystical post-rational experience" which awakens in us a sense of our participation arises most often from a sudden revelation or insight into the oneness of Nature, what the Zen Buddhists call satori, and the American Transcendentalist Emerson described as becoming a transparent eyeball?      

Then Creation is or must be the revelation of possibilities. It must allow the opportunity for the negative and the positive, the wrong and the right, good and evil, and all other opposites. The World and Man must comprehend choices among alternatives; otherwise it is not creation but compulsion. Ethics is thus necessary only in the context of human choices and not divine.

@ Prof. Cocks & Garthe Kindler

I would think that the Superior Rationality of God leads directly to the conclusion of Good.

God, in my opinion, is first and foremost Rational and as followup He can only be Good. God wouldn't be complete without the Bad aspect, represented in the Christian/Jewish Bible by the Devil, but without that God wouldn't be complete.

The fight between Good and Bad by the Supreme Rational Being can only be won by Good but the Fight is essential.


@Garth Kindler re: Rosenzweig

I must admit I find your description of Rosenzweig's view most attractive. My answer would be yes to nearly everything you say. One might say that God's essence is love and love made manifest is better than love which remains merely potential or 'in principle' only. So creation is a product of God's essential nature. I like your emphasis on free will in your last paragraph. Love is not love unless it is freely given. So if creation is an act of love, of an extension and perfection of love, then the act must be voluntary which need be neither capricious nor determined. I have to admit this is a new thought to me stimulated by your comments. Thanks!

I do tend to be drawn to panentheism, though a colleague of mine who I regard as my intellectual superior has tried to persuade me otherwise.

I also like one interpretation of the Trinitarian doctrine, that the Father is the Source, the Son is creation, and the Holy Spirit is the love connecting the two, but I'm not wedded to it and I would want to recognize Christ as the Son also: God incarnate, but adding the possibly heretical notion that creation is also God incarnate.

Love is connection, in both thought, feeling and action. The interpenetration you describe, I would argue is reality. When we hate, we feel ourselves to be separate and alienated from that person we reject. If Nature is One, then hatred is based on an illusion and love the reality. At a merely rational level, the unity of all is only a theory. However, the truth of the theory can be discovered by living in accordance with it and by the pain we discover when we deviate from it.

I'm merely adding a few thoughts and putting some of your thoughts into my own words. I really liked your post. Thanks again.

Rosenzweig and Panentheism

Professer Cocks stated:


"I also like one interpretation of the Trinitarian doctrine, that the Father is the Source, the Son is creation, and the Holy Spirit is the love connecting the two, but I'm not wedded to it and I would want to recognize Christ as the Son also: God incarnate, but adding the possibly heretical notion that creation is also God incarnate."


Close to Church Trinitarian Doctrine, but later assertion that creation may also be God incarnate is not possibly herectical but most assuredly is, and this is where GK's discussion of Rosenweig introduces one of the most appealing and destructive concepts in theology : panentheism. If one is tempted to take a bite out that apple, please, take and ruin a weekend and wander thru the writings of Spinoza or Teilhard de Chardin.


As for Rosenzweig, the absolute caprice of the Creator he attributes to early Christian and Jewish theology is a caricature of Jewish and Christian theology and allows Rosenzweig to reinvent the debate which he apparently desires to steer dead on towards a panentheistic nirvana void of a Creator who exists outside creation. Impossible; which can bring us back to Spinoza, one of the first modern philosphers to try such a trick, possessor of a brilliant mind, immensely important in the history of philosophy, but ultimately an absolutely mediocre philosopher.


Question for Capodistrias

Our notions about seemingly remote metaphysical and spiritual matters can end up influencing how we go about living our lives. Gnosticism, for instance, denotes a hatred and contempt for creation, since an evil god is credited with its existence. This seems destined to have nothing but negative effects on how we feel about life.

What do you think hangs in the balance in our choice between believing in a Creator who is separate from his Creation and one who creates the created out of an extension of his own being? I am asking this in all sincerity in the interest of learning. I am not planning to answer my own question or asking a loaded question. In other words, there is a good chance that I may be persuaded by your answer.

An image I have been using in some of my classes is a kind of updated Plato's Cave. Let's say we think of the Godhead as the light in a film projector. The light passes through a film (the Forms) which alters the light stemming from the projector, although not the Source of the light. The film would be Plotinus' Nous. It then passes through a prism which breaks the light into many colors. The prism would be the Psyche or World Soul. Finally, the light hits the projection screen. The light has gone through many changes, but is still continuous with the light from the Source. It is still One, though the images on the screen look many and separate.

Do you think that such thinking might lead to errors in how we think or act in our lives? How would a moral traditional Christian conception perhaps lead us in a more fruitful direction?

RE: Prof. Cocks' Question?

"What do you think hangs in the balance in our choice between believing in a Creator who is separate from his Creation and one who creates the created out of an extension of his own being?"


Professor I can't answer your question, because I believe I hold both to be true.


As to parts b & c.


"Do you think that such thinking might lead to errors in how we think or act in our lives?"

I do think such thinking might lead to errors in how we think or act in our lives, but then I think errors in how we think or act in our lives are a given, unavoidable, and occassionally providential.

I like your image alot, can we show more than one film?


"How would a moral traditional Christian conception perhaps lead us in a more fruitful direction?"

I might have to say a Rosary before tackling that one.


Re: Capodistrias's answer to my question

I'm glad you like the film projector metaphor. That's a nice piece of subtlety of your own concerning the unavoidableness of error. If you agree with the first quote, then we seem to be agreed all round. Here I am ready to be corrected and I am met with nothing but patience, humility and humor! Your last plan of action sounds an excellent one. I'll say one too.

@Rosenzweig and Panentheism

Capodistrias is defending the position of my intellectually superior friend, that I mentioned. This may well be right. I certainly abhor pantheism which seems to end up with the strange assertion that the universe is God and that's all God is. Panentheism, as everybody here knows, suggests that there is an aspect of God lying outside time and space. This we might call the Father, the Source, or the Godhead. So, there is an aspect of the Creator existing outside creation.

The problem as I see it with a Creator who lies entirely outside of creation is that this seems to imply that the universe is not divine and thus does not participate in God's goodness. Separation would not be an illusion, but the reality. We seem one big step on the path to Gnosticism. Pretty much every mystic, as far as I know, suggests that his or her insight reveals the divine nature of existence. Everything is far more beautiful and good and wonderful than our usual modes of consciousness make us think. I'm thinking along the lines of 'a universe in a grain of sand.' I can get morality out of such a conception of God, but have difficulty with an entirely separate God.

St. Luke says about God - it is in him we live and move and have our being. Capodistrias would surely say this means 'originally forming us, and continually sustaining us'. I tend to take it at face value.

My colleague thinks that if God withdrew from the universe the universe would cease to exist. This sounds awfully like it implies the possibility that we are thoughts in the mind of God, in which case we are indivisible from Him.

If the universe could not exist without the continual sustaining presence of God (or is that just effort?) then we seem to be getting pretty close to the two views converging.

To conclude, may be it is right that the Creator lies outside Creation, but in that case, I have a lot more difficulty deriving morality from God and we seem to be back to being vulnerable to the argument from the Euthrypho that Garth Kindler mentions.

Would anybody like to have a go at deriving morality from a God lying entirely outside Creation? To answer my own question a little, as I say in the essay, Creation is good if the Creator is good. Maybe that's sufficient, but I don't like to think of all those mystics being wrong and I still like my position of love/connection being part of the basis for morality as mentioned in my reply to traveller.

@ Professor Richard Cocks

Thank you, I enjoyed reading your essay.

Being a pragmatic business traveller I have accumulated some simple knowledge about people world wide and came to very simple conclusions.

Everywhere I went and that covers most of our globe, I found the same desires, the same basic private behavior, even when cultures were totally different, and the same joys and sadness.

I also found basically the same rights and wrongs, slightly different in valuepoints because of different cultures.

My simple conclusion was that human beings were programmed in the same way, slightly altered by climate, culture and local religions.

If there was a program there had to be a Programmer. I admit that the reasoning was simple but it answered my questions.

Having drawn that conclusion I came to the Why.

The Why is rather complicated because of the semantics involved and I hate semantics because of its imbedded inaccuracy.

Why is something "right" and Why is something "wrong"? Why do we talk about "good" and "bad"?

I had to go back to my Programmer which was all I had and ask myself what His Purpose was to create all this and go through all the inherent pain involved in His Program?

There was only one conclusion I could come to in my arrogance, not excluding other options but I didn't see any, we were a "Test Creation". A Test to see if with a certain amount of "Good versus Bad" Programming we would survive as Creation or we would perish?

The Good versus Bad choice I saw as a means to reach extreme happiness or sadness, one doesn't work without the other. Only Good, without Bad, would wring the neck of Happiness.

So yes, I have no problem with divine origins of Morals and Ethics, but I came to that conclusion in a different simple-minded way. 


@traveller and @mpresley

Thank you traveller for joining the discussion. I'm glad you liked the essay.

I agree with Plato that we want to be happy and choosing the good leads to that end. You are right that it would mean nothing if the bad were not available as an alternative. Love is meaningless unless not love is an option. I ask my students whether they would want to be with their boyfriend or girlfriend if they knew that the only reason the boyfriend or girlfriend didn't leave them was that they were being electrocuted everytime they made the attempt. A forced love would be worthless.

If one wants love to exist, then one has to permit the existence of not love; or at least the illusion of it. So as you say, for the 'experiment' to continue Good and Bad must exist.

As to everyone being essentially the same, I agree with traveller to a large degree when you say:

"Everywhere I went and that covers most of our globe, I found the same desires, the same basic private behavior, even when cultures were totally different, and the same joys and sadness."

However, I agree with mpresley that there are important differences too. And as mpresley says, liberalism and neo-conservatism tend to gloss over those differences to very bad effect. But I tend to attribute many of those important differences to varying levels of development. Within a culture there are likely to be some who are relatively enlightened and some complete barbarians, but each culture will have a general level consisting of the average level of development attained. Things like a good education system will contribute a lot to what that average level will be. Near total illiteracy, for instance, will simply prevent a culture from getting very far. And then there are things like strong tribal affiliations making democracy more or less unworkable. Lastly, there are the cultural habits Thomas Sowell describes in Conquests and Cultures, such as tendencies toward thrift and hard work, or otherwise.

But all these things are changeable and malleable. Different cultures have gained ascendency at different times; the Chinese, Mesopotamian, the Egyptians, so genetics don't seem like a strong candidate for explaining the differences.


...so genetics don't seem like a strong candidate for explaining the differences.

Perhaps my critique is not that "morality" is not universal.  Clearly the ground is.  It is just that modifications of what are considered right and wrong, and that flow from the ground are specific to groups.  In any case, although much of what we are is biological, I would never want to support biological reductionism, which is wrongheaded.  Humans have a capacity to partake in spirit, and I am convinced by the Aristotelians and Scholastics that what is below can never support or be responsible for what is above.  Man has always been mostly below.  It is our job to climb up, if we can.


Everywhere I went and that covers most of our globe, I found the same desires, the same basic private behavior, even when cultures were totally different [sic], and the same joys and sadness.

If this were really the case, that is if it is all more or less the same everywhere, then there wouldn't be marked differences at all. One can paint with too broad a brush, and falsely presume that since all humans have two legs, all humans are therefore fundamentally the same. And in any case, how could cultures ever be "totally different" (your words) if the basic material from whence they derive is "the same" (your words)? What ever could account for it?  Simply climate? 

We all have a desire for food, shelter, clothing, love, and so forth. But my experience has been a bit different from yours. Different people can learn to live together-sometimes. But given enough disequilibrium, it will not last very long before a reversion to type occurs. Those groups possessing a higher IQ, and who are capable of mimicry plus adaptability, do better at it. Other groups, such as most blacks in the US for example, have never been able to adapt to the dominate culture. Under modern liberalism, the dominant culture has therefore attempted to adapt to them, with less than satisfactory results.

Another example: take the Chinese Kunqu opera style, and contrast it to the Western opera. It is not “basically the same” in spite of being performed by individuals with two feet, all possessing “similar” desire. And we might cite the indigenous African opera, if we could. 

I do not want to come across as mean spirited, since everyone here is sincere, I believe. But when it comes to views of “humanity,” I find that Westerners under the spell of liberalism have a very naïve and wishful-thinking type view of the world, its people, and its differences.

If there is a universality to morality, it manifests at a most fundamental level: the prohibition against murder, incest, and probably theft.  Once we get to a higher strata, such as discussions of, say usury, or the role of women, all bets are off.  Again, I do not think morality is an artifact.  But that it is specific to types, in the whole.

@ mpresley

I lived nearly 30 years in different cultures, of which 25 years in islamic countries, plus 10 years supplementary travels to islamic countries.

The private literate people are basically the same all over the world, except for cultural/religious differences, but the private feeling of good and bad exists and is universal. That's where my conclusion came from. Illiterate people are basically following the local religious big mouths and don't have their own basic feelings anymore as they are drowned by the environment they live in.

Although I met some strong characters amongst the illiterate people who had very clear idea's about good and bad, which were amazingly similar to our Western feelings but much clearer in black and white without our "grey Western area's".

The main difference between the Christian/Jewish European culture and the rest of the world is the categorical and explicit Christian/Jewish religious teachings with a clearly defined set of rules, definitely helped by Roman rigor, reinforcing the programming of the individuals.

On this subject it's quite interesting to read/study the Mahabaratha or the assembly of Sanskrit original Hindu writings, mainly composed as an epic but with a lot of philosophical input.

I don't like the India of today, but those writings are quite amazing, although lacking the rigorous rules of the Christian/Jewish philosophy.

The Chinese opera is the culmination of the form and beauty which primes over the content, which is an expression of the Chinese Confucian culture, based on form and hierarchy, with a lot of hidden content, very well hidden from the population.

beauty and art

The Chinese opera is the culmination of the form and beauty which primes over the content, which is an expression of the Chinese Confucian culture, based on form and hierarchy, with a lot of hidden content, very well hidden from the population.

Without getting too off topic, as these threads always do (it is just the nature of conversation), I can appreciate this analysis.  The highest expressions convey a similarity of emotion that certainly encompasses the Western inner (emotional) experience.  For instance, in one of the most famous, The Peony Pavillion, the character Du Liniang expresses nothing different than any young woman might feel, and who has not known an imp such as Spring Fragrance?

What is different, is not the feeling of emotion, which is probably universal, but the outward form, which is distinctly alien, although certainly an expression of true artistic beauty, plus, an expression that towers over whatever we might ever find in, say, a modern production of Wagner.  In Kunqu the Chinese preserve tradition.  In Western opera the goal, it seems, is to destroy it.

Not the "spell of liberalism"

its source was the Divine inspiration of Christianity. And the most fundamental level in which universal morality manfests itself is not in prohibition of an act against Creation but in partaking in Creation, the most obvious of which is the love and union of a man and woman and the conception of a child.

Since we're talking culture, I think some Polish guy referenced the above sentiment: "The Culture of Life."

a double reply

@ Capodistrias: " Am I being too simple in assuming you are arguing against the notion of morality as universal?"

@ Richard Cocks: "Like Capodistrias, however, I am a little worried about your interest in limiting the universality of ethics."

Morality, what is right and wrong, is most clearly defined within closed groups. Indeed, that was always the case from tradition, and from tradition the tenants of moral conduct were never considered contingent, artificial, or attributable to the vagaries of positive law determined ad hoc. Instead, the moral law was brought forth by a god-king, or in some instances a priest, and its origin was divine. Within a traditional organic setting there was always general agreement on proper behavior, and specifics were hardly ever debated since there was not much to debate. [As an aside, this is one of the important innovations of Plato—his task, through Socrates, was to conduct a critical analysis of these sorts of questions in contrast to the received wisdom of the poets, who themselves were inspired. Now, Socrates was certainly inspired, but his tool was reason. It was a dangerous endeavor inasmuch as any conclusions (if there ever were conclusions) may have fully supported tradition, but there was no guarantee of it.]

The problem of the moral code really only arises whenever disparate groups interact. In these situations, a once divine derivation of moral law is now open to competition. Christianity was a rejection certain aspects of Jewish law, an incorporation and modification of other aspects. Islam, while somehow related, is a different situation altogether. From a practical standpoint it is better for groups to be both politically and geographically autonomous, since often the practical applications of their respective moral teachings are incommensurate, at least once one moves beyond a very basic set of rules such as the prohibition against murder, incest and theft.

However the practical aspect of cultural divisions and their interactions is not really the theme of the article, as I read it, so I may have moved off topic. It is, instead, whether the moral law can be considered natural (and hence discoverable by reason along with being supernaturally revealed), or whether it is an artifact. There is no doubt in my mind that it is both natural, a divine manifestation directed toward the end of man, and its understanding is necessary for living the good life. What I doubt, however, is whether men composed of different natures can ever understand (much less adapt to) what ill-fits their respective natures.

Who these men are, and what constitutes their nature is another topic for another day.

To conclude, if I were younger I would take Professor Cocks' class, and be better for it I am sure.

@mpresley double reply

Concerning taking my class, that's very kind of you indeed.

You say:

From a practical standpoint it is better for groups to be both politically and geographically autonomous, since often the practical applications of their respective moral teachings are incommensurate, at least once one moves beyond a very basic set of rules such as the prohibition against murder, incest and theft.

I agree. In addition, I find it very puzzling how different countries and cultures develop different tendencies concerning honesty and corruption. I don't know why corruption becomes ubiquitous in one setting and is relatively rare in another. Keeping the two settings distinct as a preventative measure concerning the more honest culture seems a good idea.

God and Ethics

While I truly sympathize with the author's goal and, like him, despair of the moral relativity prevalent today, I'm less eager to agree that the choice is between God and moral nihilism or that moral values must be "derived from the intrinsic goodness of the source of creation", i.e. God.

I believe it was in the  Euthyphro that Socrates asked whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods." If the latter, then what is holy or good or true depends on the caprice of the deity and so we end with the nihilism of islam in which obedience to divine tyranny is paramount and rational, ethical, human decisions are heretical. The resultng psychopathic behavior is evident around the world wherever morality springs from such spiritual roots. But if the former be true, that the gods love what is holy, then isn't Socrates implying the value of what is holy (or good or true or moral) is independent of God?

Bertrand Russell made a similar argument. If right and wrong derive from God's Will, then for God himself, the values are indistinguishable, and it is no longer meaningful to call God Good. But if God is Good, then the values of right/wrong, good/bad have some meaning independent of God's commands since His commands are judged as good and not bad independently of his having made them. In their essence, Russell concludes, these values are logically anterior to  God. Thus ethics has a validity and value apart from any theistic system.

is God good?

Whenever we posit attributes of God, they are rightly only offered up analogically.  Good and bad must always be viewed within the human dimension.

@Garth Kindler

I’m glad we share an aversion to relativism.

I am not defending the view that Russell or Socrates is attacking, so I regard references to both as a non sequitur.

One commentator on Plato claimed that the character of Socrates is willing to argue sophistically when faced with cynical sophists. Socrates will use their own tactics against them, often to catch them in a contradiction. When, however, Socrates is dealing with a young man who is earnestly trying to discover the truth, Socrates avoids all sophisms. Socrates’s comments in the Euthryphro seem to fall into the former category.

The position I have argued for appeals to neither side of what I regard as a false dichotomy. As you say, my position is the one you have quoted “moral values must be "derived from the intrinsic goodness of the source of creation", i.e. God.” The world and life are good and valuable, and ‘all is one.’ From this I can derive the notion that murder is wrong. It’s wrong because life is valuable and it’s wrong because in treating my own life as valuable and the life of someone else as not valuable, I am making a distinction that I can’t defend.

In my view, right and wrong do not derive from God’s Will, but from His intrinsic goodness and our participation in this goodness which can be experienced directly only in mystical post-rational experience. His intrinsic goodness is not a matter of will or commands.

If you succeed in showing that morality cannot be grounded in religious experience in the way I have described, you have not thereby succeeded in showing that any alternative exists. Russell has not provided us with a means of salvaging ethics without embracing theism. He has only attempted, derivatively, to attack the theistic basis of ethics. Since Russell provides no alternative basis for the existence of intrinsic value in the universe, rejecting theism leaves us with moral nihilism, as I have been suggesting.

Since my position does not depend on the caprice of the gods, I am immune from comparisons with Islamic fundamentalists, at least as argued here. If God exists, he is at least as smart as me and you; thus he is rational. If we start with God’s goodness and his rationality, then we can reject any moral argument that is irrational. The pathology you are identifying is the same one addressed in my essay. Our understanding of religious matters is limited by our own cognitive development. We can both point to horrors committed by atheists (Stalin) and those committed by theists (Islamic terrorists). I don’t see that that gets us anywhere. To repeat my point in the essay, mistakes, moral or otherwise, made by religious believers invalidates religion no more than mistakes by scientists invalidates science.


"I suggest that the fundamental ground for morality must be inclusive to the group, but as its axioms expand, its universal applicability becomes limited accordingly."

Limited "somewhere" between those stuck in the cave and the mystics?  Frankly, I don't understand limited universal applicability? Am I being too simple in assuming you are arguing against the notion of morality as universal? It is late and I may be missing something, somewhere. Thank you for your added comments. 

brief comments

Thank you for the article. I am happy to find another university professor showing the way, because I didn't think there were many out there. In reading several ideas arose:

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.

Socrates proposes that excellent rulers, prophets and soothsayers often speak the truth under divine inspiration.

Perhaps it is an obvious point, but one sometimes overlooked or not thought about, that Plato was first a teacher. He taught the nature of truth, and in spite of the fact that his arguments seem very straightforward, to the point of simplicity, they are hardly simple.

It is interesting to speculate on the origins of the Socratic epistemology. Professor Cocks' quotes can be referenced to Socrates' own initiation into knowing. I use the word initiation carefully, since that is what is was, although this too is often overlooked in our casual reading. Socrates was schooled by the witch Diotima, apparently a priestess of Zeus. In Plato's Banquet, Diotima revealed a “middle way” (analogous to right opinion) on the path toward understanding aesthetics. By implication, if knowledge is divine, or from the gods, then mortals necessarily must approach knowledge (the understanding of essence, or the forms) via an intermediary, the daemonic man (or in this case, the daemonic woman).

If you cannot be right or wrong concerning moral matters then this means there is no truth of the matter...

As the author states, this sort of thinking turns on a crass materialism, and is bad philosophy: to even state that “there is no truth” is rather self-refuting. Nevertheless it is our thinking, and is all too prevalent. Where to begin? First, scholastic nominalism offered an initial theoretical push, and ever since the Enlightenment our notions of what constitutes knowledge have been tied to attempts to formulate all knowledge steeped within an overriding empiricism. This scientism, certainly wrongheaded, can be said to have triumphed over an older (and in my humble view more correct) Aristotelian world view. By the time the project was introduced into the “social sciences” by Hobbes, the result was to destroy not only a coherent view of what men are, but what they should become.

Under the older traditional view, the end of man was considered principal. This flowed from Aristotle's classification of causation (a classification Christianized by Aquinas) that included form and matter, act and potency, existence and essence. It was an “organic” teleological understanding wherein man integrally fit within a greater organic unity: we recall that for Aristotle the city was logically prior to the citizen.

With the coming modern science, final cause was abandoned for the mere efficient, and along with it came a loss of purpose. No one had any idea what one's end might be, and more importantly, the end was quickly seen as chimera, and philosophically untenable.

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.

This is because it is, frankly, difficult to begin to approach classical and scholastic conceptions of God. Consider Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and Aquinas. Their original arguments are subtle, but today glossed, and hardly ever rightly understood. So we encounter questions such as, “if everything has a cause, who caused God?” And because we have abandoned tradition, few educators are in a position to explain the difference between causal series per se versus per accidens.

There is remarkable agreement among those at the higher reaches of many world religions [who] all describe ultimate reality in similar terms and much of what they say can be summed up in the cliché, ‘all is one.’

I believe that what we may term “higher mind” is probably univocal. However, I am also quite unhappy with this sort of formulation in popular thought (not saying that this is how it is presented here, or in your class—I'm talking generally), since mysticism aims at transcendence, but those of us stuck in the Platonic cave know only the shadows. A foundation of moral thinking grounded in a universal mysticism is problematic for all but mystics. This is because there is much real difference within the exoteric explication of various religious teachings, and this difference is not easily resolved. For instance, we may cite the so-called Spanish neoscholastics, such as Bartolome de las Casas, who abandoned a traditional notion of Aristotelian types when he argued that, since Jesus died for all mankind, even “savages” possessed natural right. But we know that to entertain the natural savage within a more civilized order is asking for problems.

I must assume at least that ‘human life is valuable’ before morality can establish anything.

The problem we face, today, is our wont to presume universality in morality. But we don't have the intellectual way out, for if we presume that morality is not universal, how can we accept it without reservation, and how can we not presume it is contingent? I suggest that the fundamental ground for morality must be inclusive to the group, but as its axioms expand, its universal applicability becomes limited accordingly. Aristotle taught that human nature was not univocal in all its aspects. Plato before him argued as much. This is not to state that morality is arbitrary at all, but rather that it should be based upon natural law. That is, what is right by nature. As Plato would say, virtue is giving to one what is his due according to his nature.


Thank you for your comments. It sounds like we agree about a lot. I particularly agree with your comments concerning Aristotle and ends. Like Capodistrias, however, I am a little worried about your interest in limiting the universality of ethics. The universality of Jesus’ injunction to love your neighbor as yourself seems clear, especially in light of the story of the Good Samaritan. Ethnocentrism restricts moral concern to members of your group; whatever group it is with which you identify. This is arguably irrational because one is not able to explain why people living outside your sphere of moral concern do not also deserve to be recognized as moral agents. This is not to argue that everyone is the same, or that everyone is at the same level of cultural or cognitive development. It is moral to try to maintain the integrity of national boundaries in order to preserve your way of life, the customs and values generally shared by members of a country. But, we cannot solve the problem of what to do with our nuclear waste by dumping it in Canada, because, after all, they are only Canadians. Even Canadians (!) deserve moral concern; but just what that involves may be debatable in particular cases.


"Even Canadians (!) deserve moral concern; but just what that involves may be debatable in particular cases."

Spoken as a true Upstater, very funny.


Yes. Once we have established that morality exists, that there is intrinsic value in the world, then we are in a position to morally evaluate particular actions or principles. It looks like Anders Breivik is a paranoid schizophrenic, in which case we can’t really attribute any rational or divine basis for his actions. But if we assume for argument’s sake that he was of sound mind, then he would not qualify as a moral nihilist. He identified what seems to be a problem in many European countries; an ethnic minority brought in from other parts of the world that is hostile to local customs and values and is in some cases unemployable. His solution, to start shooting people, was morally incorrect. The position I advocate is moral realism, or moral absolutism, namely, that there is a real good and a real evil, combined with epistemic fallibilism. The latter position is one that suggests that although there is a truth to moral matters, we sometimes get it wrong. Breivik is either insane, or he got it wrong about how he should act, but he probably isn’t a nihilist, which you, Capodistrias, are probably suggesting.

@Professor RC

I tend to think of Breivik as insane, driven there by an implicit embrace of moral nihilism in the course of his descent into madness. Otherwise, if we assume for argument's sake that he was of sound mind then I would think the shock and the horror of what he was doing would have stopped him from proceeding after the first victim. In short, I find it hard to get by the fact that he was a nut case and it was simply tragic that Trond Berntsen, who no doubt acted on the truth of what you argue above, wasn't better armed to take him out.