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  Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Can You Spell "Good" Without "God"?

Back to Pierre Hadot again... Like his insights into the relationship between love and philosophy, his insights into the spiritual beliefs of Socrates and Plato (their notion of wisdom as divine and philosophy's pursuit of wisdom as living faith) are illuminating (and seem to me to resonate deeply with the Preacher's definition of faith):

Plato thus establishes an insurmountable distance between philosophy and wisdom. Philosophy is defined by what it lacks--that is, by a transcendent norm which escapes it yet which it nevertheless possesses within itself in some way, as in the famous, and very Platonic, words of Pascal: "You would not seek me if you had not already found me." As Plotinus was to say, "If something were totally deprived of the good, it would never seek the good."

But aren't all norms transcendent? That is, wouldn't the ultimate definition of right and wrong have to rest on something beyond the natural realm? There's no empirical basis for right and wrong, no way to derive pure morality via experimentation or theorizing. It's possible to determine the best course of action to achieve an outcome, to define the most effective means to reach an end, but that outcome or end must be given. (The scientific derivation of norms is most often attempted via Darwin's theories, but those attempts end in absurdity. His theories describe the process by which species are changed by their environment, not some inexorable process of improvement. Species are not improving toward perfection, they're adapting to their environment--any notion of improvement is only valid in the context of that environment.)

So if the outcome or end by which morality is to be defined must be given, from whence will it be given? That's the role of dogma--something that's given, that cannot be derived or proven, and that serves as the start of a chain of logical or moral reasoning. For instance, the scientific method of experimentation relies on the dogma of cause and effect; the independence and governance of the United States relies on the dogma of the self-evident truths in the "Declaration of Independence"; and ancient philosophy relied on the dogma of wisdom (sophia).

The impossibility of deriving a fully valid morality without relying on dogma is easily demonstrated by a young child who keeps asking "Why?" Or to use another example, people have developed distinct moral systems based on notions like utility, justice, or inalienable rights. Each of those systems appears valid and is internally consistent, but there will be cases where they come into conflict with each other, and only a dogma of right and wrong can resolve those conflicts. Since dogma by definition cannot be derived or proven, it would have to come down to us from some higher power, which is my point here: It's impossible to define a fully valid morality without some notion of transcendent divinity (in whatever form).

Thinkers from Plotinus to Augustine to Calvin to Pascal would say that the very fact that humans have developed morality is sufficient evidence of the existence of God, that there's no way that we could have developed such a concept on our own. That's a persuasive argument, but I think that Freud for one could make a convincing case for how the concept of morality could develop solely out of human nature. But any such morality won't withstand careful examination. We must recognize that we can't rely on morality that doesn't ultmiately derive from God. Not believing in God is a reasonable choice, but given that choice, there can be no transcedent claims to morality.

8:21:59 AM     What do you think? ()

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