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Saturday, January 22, 2005

God Says So 

In response to my previous post, DarkSyde has posted another article on UTI on the question of morality and revelation. In that article, he attacks the premise that I have attempted to bring to bear against him on a number of occasions, the premise that all morality must be based on revelation.
The premise, even if true, is of questionable value in determining what is 'right' and what is 'wrong' in gray areas ... unless the deity gets off its ass and speaks up, eh? Otherwise, perception of right V wrong winds up depending on where you're standing. And BTW, we need to be able to do more than just interview the deity for answers. We need to test it continuously to make sure it's really what it claims it is. We don't want just any sleazy, lowlife, land-squid from Vega 3, sneaking onto the earth behind a dazzling array of hi-tech gadgetry, and fooling the primitive humans into thinking it's God by way of a Cosmic version of the Wizard-of-Oz con, do we?

But I am saying "God says so" does not give us anything in the way of absolute morality, let alone an absolute code of anything else. Because it's not "God says so", it's "I claim God says so" and those two items are not even close to the same thing. Religion is flexible enough that it can be used to justify or condemn damn near anything. It has been so used and continues to be.

He is of course exactly correct. “I claim God says so” is not an authoritative statement at all, and “God says so” is no more authoritative a statement of itself. If God did not actually say so then my claiming that He did does not affect anything other than perhaps my own credibility.

But DS is in the first place not addressing my original challenge, which is the question of how any statement at all can be made about right and wrong, if it’s not based on some authority to make such statements? How can any standard of better or worse be derived in a universe made up purely of material? If everything just “is”, how can we talk about what “ought” to be?

DS frequently compares the acquisition of moral perspectives to the acquisition of language, but that still doesn’t tell me what morals are. And we don’t send people to jail for bad grammar.

But there’s another aspect of DS’ claim that I am most interested in addressing here, and that is the “God says so” question, the revelation claim. The point of DS’ statement is that if God is the determiner of right and wrong, then wouldn’t he have told us very clearly and repeatedly what right and wrong is?

And I am absolutely sure that DS would know my answer to that question, but here it is anyway- He has. But what kind of message would you expect? Fifty foot high letters of fire on a mountain somewhere?

In the first place, sometimes people attacking Christianity will point out that the moral code prescribed by Christianity is very similar to that prescribed by most other religions, and they’re right. Jesus’ Golden Rule looks a lot like Confucian ethics and like the Kantian categorical imperative. This is the basic rule that every mother teaches her child – when your son pushes someone over on the playground, you say to him, “Now, would you like it if someone pushed you over?” As I expound in more detail here, rather than any kind of assault on Christianity, this should instead be seen as justifying it. The Bible teaches us that it is God that has implanted our moral character in us and therefore the moral code that we all hold is substantially the same. This is a constant testimony to us of God’s will for our lives. So if you were going to expect a deity to give His creation an understanding of right and wrong, what more effective way is there than to hardwire that sense right into people?

We express this understanding whenever we express revulsion at someone who violates this moral code. Everyone, even an atheist, is disgusted at the murder of a child. Why is that? Why do different people with radically different philosophies still feel the same revulsion at crimes against the innocent? Why do such different people feel the exact same indignation at crimes against themselves? If ethics are derived from philosophy, then our ethics ought to be very different when we hold such radically different philosophies. But I have never heard an atheist just shrug his shoulders and say “well, that’s survival of the fittest, I guess” when he gets mugged. So God has spoken, and he’s spoken undeniably and clearly and in a message that is far more compelling than anything He could have written or spoke verbally. We have His holiness written throughout our very being.

Further, if you’re looking for a verbal revelation, again we have to start with the question, what would you expect? What standards would such a revelation have to have?

It would have to be clear.
It would have to be detailed.
It would have to be understandable to us humans in the context of what we humans go through.
It would have to tell us humans what God has done in the past, what He’s doing now and what He will do in the future.
It would have to be preserved without error throughout history for all mankind to see.
It would have to be obviously the word of God, so that it contains within itself the proof that it was in fact the word of God.

This is precisely our doctrine of Scripture. DarkSyde would argue with me about many of these points, no doubt. I never said that everyone would agree that the Bible is what it is, and the Bible itself recognizes that many will refuse to hear it. But if human beings have any measure of freedom, then it must follow that some will refuse to hear. If they have no measure of freedom, then there’s no point in the whole thing anyway.

But if it’s posited as a flaw in my moral philosophy that there is no undisputable revelation from God regarding right and wrong, then it must be accepted as an answer to that flaw when not just one but two such revelations can be produced. The atheist may choose not to accept those revelations as valid, but he could say that about anything. And he still hasn’t answered the question of where his own rock-solid moral convictions come from, which in their basic elements are the same as everyone else’s, if we are all just purely physical products of a blind natural process.

So it’s true, that the statement “I claim God says so” is not authoritative, and neither is the statement “God says so”, since the second claim is really substantially the same as the first. I claim no authority based on either of those statements. If I tell my congregation “God says so”, and they look up in the Bible and discover that God has not said so, they can and will tell me that I am wrong.

But if God has actually said so, then it is an authoritative statement, and all are bound to listen. This is the question before us- has God actually said so? And if there is no God to say so, then there is no good or evil, no right or wrong, and DarkSyde will have to just accept it if someone knocks him down and takes his money some day. It's just survival of the fittest.

Comments:
But DS is in the first place not addressing my original challenge, which is the question of how any statement at all can be made about right and wrong, if it’s not based on some authority to make such statements?Matt I've said repeatedly that my morals are quirky, at times conflicting, idea viruses that I acquired during child hood and have refined throughout my life. There is no 'metric' in which I measure things, no 'authority' from which these feelings spring. The exact neurological events which take place in detai I do not know, but no one else does either. Nevertheless, the result of that acquisition process is that I feel 'bad', or I feel 'good' etc.
They're entirely plastic, enculturated memes, irrational at times, and so are everyone elses. Where we find consensus between our respective moral memes we make laws, or employ a judgement of 'good' or 'bad'. It's entirely subjective. Like customs or language.
 
DS,
And I have repeatedly pointed out the utter contradiction involved with you saying things like that. Whenever you're confronted with this dilemma, you handle it this way, but any other time and you make moral pronouncements with all the certainty of Moses on Sinai. You willingly and frequently castigate anyone who violates your ethical standards, and there's noting vague or relativistic in the way you condemn people.

You're like someone who denies the existence of the sun, and then uses its light to tell one thing from another. You just wrote a post about the "neocons" and all of their moral failings, and it had all of the relativism of an Ayatollah! You have absolute morals, DS, you just won't admit it. Are you willing to entertain the possibility that perhaps the neocons lying to you is a good thing? Maybe their "arrogance", "hubris", "ferocity" or any of the other _moral perjoratives_ you use to castigate them, like the same terms you use to attack "dishonest" creation scientists, the "deeply held cultural bigotry" of the social conservatives in another post, and so on throughout your whole blog, are in fact good and moral things? Perhaps it's your commitment to honesty and fairness which is really evil?

Ridiculous. Either admit your absolutist moral beliefs and start to figure out where they come from, or stop making any and all moral pronouncements on your blog. 90% of your blog is about ethics, not science. 90% of the statements you make, including all of the ones I reference above, are all statements about things which you yourself say here cannot even be shown to exist.

That is to say, until you figure out this issue, DS, most of what you talk about is complete fantasy.
 
Matt I don't know a simpler way to say it. I'm a moral relativist. (And so are you BTW, because your morals are relative to whose intepretation of the Bible you believe, and whose you do not.)

Honestly, I'd be careful about accusing others of indulging in fantasy, when your entire moral code and your entire belief in God[s] hinges on the poorly translated myths of a band of bronze aged nomadic herders in the ANE. I see the same argument, identically, from Muslims, Jews, Hindus, you name it. The only difference being that they reserves as their absolute authority and different sky pixies than you do. When you understand why I don't but the claim a Hindu lays to the origin of morality, you'll understand why I don't buy yours.

It's fine if you want to believe that a deity 'implanted' your moral character. The fact is however that a person's morals are a function of enculturation, this idea is easily demonstrated as valid by noting the positive and negative correlations between the moral codes in their culture and their own precepts they acquire, and this isn't controversial.
 
And that's the other way you deal with this contradiction in your own philosophy, by changing the subject and making totally false charges and insulting attackes that have nothing to do with the question at hand.

Moral absolutism and relativism have nothing to do with whether my views ever change or not, or even how I get my views. The question has to do with whether an absolute right or wrong exists somewhere, or whether we all just make it up as we go along. You assert the latter, which contradicts every single strongly worded statement you've ever made about anyone doing anything of which you disapprove.
 
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