Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Euthyphro dilemma

 “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”
—Plato, Euthyphro

With these words, Socrates set forth a dilemma that still challenges theists today: Does God command what is good because it is good, or is it good because God commands it? The first horn implies that “good” has a value independent of God, and therefore God can’t be its source. The second horn implies that “goodness” is arbitrary, that the statement “God is good” is meaningless because a tautology (“God is good” = “God is God”), and that it argues from a putative fact to a statement of value.

Let’s recast the argument into formal logical terms:

1.   If God commands m because m is objectively good, then m’s goodness is independent of God.
2.   If m is good because God commands m, then m’s goodness is contingent: theoretically, He could have commanded ~m, and we would in that case call ~m “good”. Because it’s contingent, it can’t be objective in nature.
3.   Either God commands m because m is good, or m is good because God commands it.
4.   Therefore, either God did not create goodness, or goodness is arbitrary.

The dilemma is the logician’s attempt to impose a Hobson’s choice on the opponent: “Would you rather be eaten by a tiger or a lion?” Consider the schoolboy question, “If God is all-powerful, can He make a rock so big He can’t lift it?” Being unable to create the rock supposedly imposes one kind of limit on His power; being unable to lift the rock imposes another limit on it. This is actually a simple dilemma, since the two conclusions are the same: either way, God can’t be all-powerful, a conclusion that on the face of it would be uncomfortable to a Christian.

However, dilemmas must meet two conditions: 1) There must be only two sets of consequents possible; and 2) Each consequent must follow necessarily from its antecedent. If there’s a third possibility (an escape through a hidden third door), or either one of the consequents doesn’t unavoidably follow from its antecedent (the lion isn’t interested in eating you), then the dilemma falls apart. For instance, in our simple dilemma above, “all-powerful” is simply a way to describe power of unimaginable proportions … the kind of power that can call whole universes into being. If God can’t create a rock He can’t lift, so what? The real limit isn’t in God’s power but in the paradoxical nature of what’s being asked: He can’t create such a rock precisely because He’s all-powerful. The consequent doesn’t follow from the first antecedent, so the dilemma is false.

The thrust of the Euthyphro dilemma is not that God (in the sense of the Prime Mover or First Cause) doesn’t exist. Rather, it speaks to the question, “Are certain acts objectively right or wrong, or are we free to define ‘good’ and ‘evil’ as we see fit?” Theoretically, if God could have decided that rape, torture and murder were “good”, then there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those actions; morality then becomes a matter of subjective taste rather than objective fact.

However, even if we were to agree that morality is a matter of God’s subjective notions rather than an inherent quality of certain behaviors, it still doesn’t follow that His definitions of “right” and “wrong” are arbitrary. If we grant that God is intelligent, rational and purposive, then to say that God’s definitions of morality are arbitrary because subjective is to commit a fallacy of syntactical ambiguity; the two concepts aren’t tautologous. “Arbitrary” carries the notion that one picks something “out of a hat”, that there is no reason to choose A over B or B over A … one just does. If God has an overarching Purpose, and defining rape, torture and murder as wrong is better suited to achieving that Purpose than defining them as right, then the definitions aren’t arbitrary. But even if He decided that gay sex is an abomination simply because He’s disgusted by the very thought of it, the decision would still not be “arbitrary” as we understand the term. It might not be rational or logical, but it still wouldn’t be a product of random chance or whimsy.

“Okay,” the anti-Christian may reply, “but that still doesn’t address the tautological nature of the statement ‘God is good’. If ‘good’ happens to be whatever God says it is, then all the statement tells us is that God is consistent; it doesn’t really tell us anything else about God.”

This argument falls apart once we look at those behaviors which God has decided are good and evil. That God has decided that rape is evil tells us that He values both sexual integrity and the procreative act. That God has decided that torture is evil tells us that, however else He feels about suffering, He doesn’t inflict pain unnecessarily or for personal pleasure. That He has forbidden murder tells us He values life over death. From other moral points, we can deduce that He is faithful, honest, merciful, just, compassionate and generous. The argument, “‘God is good’ is a meaningless description,” only bears weight if words like “faithful”, “just”, “compassionate” and so forth are themselves devoid of meaning.

Perhaps, though, this isn’t the true argument. Perhaps by saying that “God is good” is rendered meaningless, since behavior isn’t moral or immoral outside of God’s dictates, the anti-Christian really proposes that God’s goodness has no greater intrinsic value than does Satan’s evil. This is a much more formidable argument. In an imaginary conversation, the anti-Christian asks, “Why should I honor my father and mother?” and God replies, “Because I said so, and because I have the power to reward you if you do and punish you if you don’t.” Even if we’re not so foolish as to rebel against such a God, the explanation itself is unsatisfactory.

One problem with such a proposition, though, is that evil is a parasite concept. That is to say, evil is known only in comparison to good. Indeed, an evil is often a spoiled good, a vice a ruined or corrupted virtue. We become aware of evil only when we know good as good and value it thus. Even Satan, the embodiment of evil, does not succeed in being evil to the same degree that God is good. Because evil’s value (if that’s the word I want) is derivative and not intrinsic, it can never have a value equal to good.

But the more fundamental problem is that nothing exists outside the dictates of God’s will. Speculation on alternative cosmoi where God dictates theft, murder, lies and/or infidelity as positive goods is pointless, as we live in this cosmos, where God has declared them evil. Since God exists outside the bounds of time, there never was and never will be a time when His dictate will cease or change. His omniscience makes Him not only objective but also the Source of objectivity. Because God’s sempiternal dictates define goodness, those definitions are objective in nature, not subjective. For this reason above all, the deduction that God’s definitions of good and evil are subjective because they are sourced in Him alone is a false conclusion.

The summation of the refutation is in the reverse of the order I have stated the arguments:
1.   Given that God’s omniscient Will makes His definitions objective in nature, the conclusion that they’re subjective because contingent on His Will is false.
2.   Because this conclusion is false, it doesn’t follow that His definitions of “good” are meaningless, or that the statement “God is good” is meaningless because a tautology.
3.   The conclusion that God’s definition of “good” is arbitrary is not a necessary deduction from anything given in the second horn of the dilemma; therefore, the second horn collapses.
4.   Therefore, the dilemma fails.

Beyond those already given, the ground-truth reason the “Euthyphro dilemma” fails is because Socrates, a pre-Christian monotheist, created it to deal with the anthropomorphic Greek gods. He was correct to point out that they could not be the ultimate source of moral knowledge: since they were little more than humans gifted with superhuman powers and beset with all-too-human limitations, the best they could do was retail what they knew but had not made. Had he lived in the Christian era, he might have heard St. Paul describe the “unknown god” memorialized in Athens with satisfaction, or at least piqued interest. The arguments I have made for Yahweh could never have been made for Zeus or his father Cronus.

The “Euthyphro dilemma” illustrates the cardinal danger the non-Christian faces when arguing against the Judeo-Christian God: the ever-present temptation to treat Him like the immortals of other mythoi, who were/are, in the end, creatures of the material universe as much as we are. “Yahweh” is not another name for Ra, Jupiter or Wotan.