Answering Jerry Coyne and Jason Thibodeau on the Euthyphro Dilemma

Maryann, Matt, Tom and Jerry (missing:  Jason)

I’m writing this blog post to get in on the most recent Euthyphro Dilemma dilemma between atheist biologist Jerry Coyne and my fellow Christian Apologetics bloggers Matt Flannagan of MandM and Tom Gilson of Thinking Christian [timely and relevant digression:  Coyne’s fellow atheist biologist Richard Dawkins continues to break an eighth commandment (quoted in The God Delusion) by refusing to test his 747 Gambit in debate with William Lane Craig…I’m still feeling some disappointment].

First, some back-story to get you caught-up…btw, (6) and (5) are out of order because Thibodeau posted before Coyne’s most recent reply:

*Jerry Coyne posted an (1) opinion titled “As atheists know, you can be good without God” on the USAToday Forum in July/August.

*Tom Gilson (2) replied to it on his blog Thinking Christian, August 4. 

*Matt Flannagan (3) also replied on MandM, October 10 (excellent!). 

*Coyne (4) replied to Gilson (Thinking Christian) on Coyne’s blog, October 20. 

*Coyne’s (6) most recent reply (Oct 24) mentions both Flannagan (MandM) and Gilson (Thinking Christian) in order to share (5) Jason Thibodeau’s “The Euthyphro Dilemma is Robust” (Oct 21) (a reply to Flannagan on Thibodeau’s blog).

1.  Ontology vs. Epistemology.

First it is important to distinguish between two problems going on here.  It is one thing to ask “To what in reality does this theory correspond?” (ontology) and another thing to ask “What justifies believing this theory?” (epistemology). 

The Euthyphro Dilemma (below) deals with ontology (how/whether ‘the good’ in general ‘corresponds’ to reality), whereas the Moral Monster Objection deals with epistemology (how we ‘justify’ believing a particular theory in Ethics).

So, it is possible to show the Euthyphro Dilemma to be a false one—to deal with an ontological question—without ever answering any questions dealing with epistemological objections like Moral Monster (or while answering them falsely).

Likewise, it is possible to agree with Jerry Coyne, as Christians do, that we can do/be good without believing in God (Paul reflects the same epistemology in Romans 2:14-15).  However, we are not always good and we do not always do good, so we are not the sort of being to which moral truth corresponds; we are not the sort of being described by moral truth.  When we do/are as we ought to do/be—regardless whether or not we believe God exists—our goodness, if true goodness, corresponds to a good being that is ‘always’ good (God), or it corresponds to nothing (is not real, has no ontology).  That is just another way of discussing William Lane Craig’s argument in Question 44, referred to by Gilson.  Dr. Craig, although he does subscribe to a version of Divine Command Theory not represented by Coyne, does NOT invoke the Divine Command Theory in Question 44, as Coyne falsely claims, Coyne saying it is “too stupid to address”.  Clearly he did not even read Question 44.

2.  The Euthyphro Dilemma and Arbitrariness

Simply put, the Euthyphro Dilemma (from Socrates’ dialogue with Euthyphro) asks whether the good is dependent on God’s commands (a made up, and so fictional, arbitrary good), or whether it is independent of God’s commands, because God’s commands depend on the good (so, no need for a God to ground it—it is higher than God’s commands—and so to what in reality does it correspond?).  This was resolved a long time ago by Aquinas, who explained that God commands in accordance with his good nature—he is that good being to which his commands correspond.  Critics then ask “But what dictates God’s nature?”—If not God, then God is not omnipotent.  If God, then the good is arbitrary.  The answer is that 1) God exists necessarily, as do all his attributes, so his nature, including goodness, is not dictated (he is the Uncaused Cause and his essence and existence are identical), though he is capable of choice, of creation and so forth, and, 2) Aquinas explains that “‘To be able to sin is to be able to fall short in action, which is repugnant to the omnipotence of God. Therefore it is that God cannot sin, because of His omnipotence.’[28]” (quoted by Steve Lovell).  Sin is only chosen out of weakness, and being omnipotent, being good, though he has the choice, God will never choose sin, and so in that sense is unable to sin.  On a related note, when Thibodeau writes that “it is possible for an all-loving God to command that we torture kids and thus, on the DCT, it is possible that torturing kids is right,” he is confused.  That it is possible (in one sense) for God to sin does not mean it is possible that sin is right.  And to enjoy watching innocent babies suffer (Thibodeau again) is sin (see my epistemology on the Golden Rule below).

One may be left wondering, “But why is God’s nature good?  Which theory in Ethics best describes God’s nature—egoism, utilitarianism, the categorical imperative, what?  And if we can explain that using good reasons, don’t we have an account of the good that is independent of God?”  First, whatever theory we come up with (epistemology), we must always ask “Is this true?  Does this describe something in reality?” (ontology).  Second, I think one reason the Arbitrariness objection persists is that no one (to my knowledge—correct me if I am wrong) ever attempts to actually answer “Which theory in Ethics best describes God’s nature?” (understandably to avoid losing ground when debating ontology by slipping into epistemology).  However, to that end:  This is my epistemology (the first half is on the Golden Rule, the second half refers to ontology).  This is my ontology (though Aquinas said it first, I only make reference to Hume, and I part ways with Dr. Craig on the is-ought distinction) (here is a brief discussion with Matt Flannagan on my position).  This longer post sums it up and refers back to other posts.  The first objection I hear is that the Golden Rule is found in every major religion and culture and so is not dependent on God.  Again—we agree we can be good without believing in God.  But if there is no God, no theory in Ethics can be true or correspond to anything in reality, not even the Golden Rule.  If you say it is true and corresponds when we do fulfill the Golden Rule, then you are saying it is only ever momentarily true—so what makes it the way we all ought to be, all of the time?  There must be a being ‘to’ which it is true all of the time in order for it to be true ‘for’ everyone.

If the Judeo-Christian concept of God is a Moral Monster and no good God exists, there is not a single theory in Ethics that corresponds to an always-good being in reality (there is no true theory).  If you think there is still the possibility of a good God existing that is not the Judeo-Christian God, just ask yourself:  What is the evidence?  Christians have evidence of God fulfilling the Golden Rule in taking on flesh and switching perspectives with us on the cross.  Crazy, sure—but no other religion has such a demonstration.  The New Atheists who claim there can be a “real” good without a correspondent good being—their epistemology hovers over an abysmal ontology.  Coyne and Thibodeau understandably leave out the nihilist alternative of the atheist existentialists (Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, Heidegger, et cetera) that without a God to which a ‘real’ good may correspond, there is no good beyond what we choose/create/will (there is no moral truth).  They leave it out for the same reason they reject their (straw man) understanding and representation of Divine Command Theory.  Atheists and essentialist Christians all agree that if you (even God) have to make it up (command/dictate it into being), it isn’t ‘true’.  So either the atheist existentialists are right that there is no God, and so there is no good, or essentialist Christians are right that God commands in accordance with his good nature. 

3.  Loose-ends…

So, the ontological questions in the Euthyphro Dilemma are resolved.  The epistemological questions are a completely separate issue.  I referred above to my epistemology (the Golden Rule) and I will defer to others who have addressed the Moral Monster objection elsewhere with different outcomes (William Lane Craig, Matt Flannagan, Paul Copan, et cetera).  I have only briefly (in my opinion) researched it.  I will only say here that to resort to the Moral Monster objection to avoid admitting your moral theory has no ontology is intellectually dishonest.

Lastly, a note on the ‘evolution’ spin.  I believe we evolved (note that I am about to read Jay Richards’ “God and Evolution” given to me by Wintery Knight), and that we evolved a moral sense just as we evolved the ability to reason in general.  If there is moral truth, it did not evolve into being—we merely evolved the ability, or hunger, to apprehend it (even if we still do not recognize the being that ultimately satisfies that hunger).  Any theory in Ethics that grounds its ontology in evolution is a sandcastle for the tides.  Matt Flannagan addressed that issue quite well in his article above (3).

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About Maryann

Maryann Spikes is the past President of the Christian Apologetics Alliance. She blogs at Ichthus77, and loves apologetics and philosophy. In particular she loves to study all things Euthyphro Dilemma and Golden Rule. A para-educator (autism) for five years, she holds a Certificate in Christian Apologetics from Biola University, an AA in Humanities via Modesto Junior College, and moonlights as a freelancer. You can follow her on Twitter @Ichthus77, connect with the Ichthus77 community on Facebook, or look her up on Google+.
This entry was posted in Divine Essentialism, Euthyphro Dilemma, Gettier Problem, Golden Rule, Is-Ought Fallacy, Justified True Belief, Natural Law and Divine Command, William Lane Craig. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Answering Jerry Coyne and Jason Thibodeau on the Euthyphro Dilemma

  1. Anonymous says:

    “Coyne’s fellow atheist biologist Richard Dawkins continues to break an eighth commandment (quoted in The God Delusion) by refusing to test his 747 Gambit in debate with William Lane Craig…I’m still feeling some disappointment].”

    How do you make the leap from his refusal to publicly debate Craig to his censorship/suppression of opposing views? Both views are in the literature, and he's not suppressing Craig's right to make those claims. I don't see how his decision not to debate Craig corresponds to breaking this “commandment”. Craig has no right to expect that Dawkins will debate him.

  2. Anonymous says:

    You fail to address this question:

    “One may be left wondering, “But why is God’s nature good?””

    Which is clearly not equivalent to the second question you raise in that paragraph (Which theory in Ethics best describes God's nature?). What is it for God's nature to be good? If it's just to be in line with his commands, then well, it seems like the good is left as something which is arbitrary.

    In any case, I'm terribly disappointed by the general attitude amongst apologists (and New Atheists) to focus on folks who have no training in moral philosophy when defending DCT. While Coyne might not have a coherent theory of morality, why should we expect a biologist to have one?

    And this:

    “So either the atheist existentialists are right that there is no God, and so there is no good, or essentialist Christians are right that God commands in accordance with his good nature.”

    Is a ridiculously false dichotomy that could be resolved by spending a semester in an introduction to metaethics class. You would do much better to look towards contemporary metaethics than the New Atheists for the possibility of atheist ethics.

    Moreover, I think your general skepticism about the possibility of non-religious ethics isn't warranted. You cite Heidegger, Sartre, Camus etc. but you should look to Derek Parfit, David Enoch, and many others who do exceptional work in moral philosophy. In the conclusion of Derek Parfit's excellent Reasons and Persons, he states that “Non-Religious Ethics is at a very early stage. We cannot yet predict whether as in Mathematics, we will reach agreement. Since we cannot know how Ethics will develop it is not irrational to have high hopes” (454).

  3. Anonymous says:

    One last point, it seems like you assume this:

    “There must be a being ‘to’ which it is true all of the time in order for it to be true ‘for’ everyone.”

    But I'm not sure if you intend this as a general point about all facts, or only about moral facts. But this is a philosophically contentious assumption either way. If it's a general point about all facts, then you have that there could be no truths without God. This is a hard point to argue, but I'm not sure if you want to leap right into the philosophical literature on truth. Maybe Russell's “Problems of Philosophy” would be a good to place to get your toes wet on how things can be true without God.

    If you think that it's solely something about moral facts, that they require an eternal observer, it's hard to see how this assumption isn't ad hoc.

  4. Maryann says:

    Anonymous (1st reply), How best to follow that commandment than subject one's beliefs to testing by the strongest opponent, especially when invited to do so? To reject such an invitation is to reject the opportunity to follow the commandment. Dr. Dawkins has cut himself off from dissent, period. “The Ultimate 747 Gambit is a very serious argument against the existence of God and one to which I have yet to hear a theologian give a convincing answer, despite numerous opportunities and invitations to do so,” says Dawkins in the video in the link below: http://ichthus77.blogspot.com/2011/10/richard-dawkins-empty-chair.html Dr. Dawkins ought to at least 'attempt' to back that up.

    (2nd reply) “Why is God's nature good?” is actually equivalent to the second question. If not, it is equivalent to asking “What caused the Uncaused Cause?”

    I expect 'everyone' (regardless their degree or lack thereof) who makes claims about morality (or anything else), to have coherent claims (preferrably correspondent…but at 'least' coherent).

    Another dichotomy you will call false: EITHER nihilists and Christian essentialists are right that if we have to make it up (or if it has to evolve into being), it isn't true meaning, OR naturalists and Christian essentialists are right that because we hunger for true meaning, there 'is' true meaning.

    I think there can be a secular Ethics, I just think it hovers over an abyss, corresponding to nothing. Shadow puppets, complete w/ congratulatory back-slaps.

    (3rd reply) If a belief does not correspond to reality (whatever aspect of reality it is assumed to be directly “about”), it is not a fact. Not all facts are (assumed to be) “about” God directly. A fact about how we “ought” to be, still must correspond to something that “is” how we “ought” to be. It doesn't take much meditation to arrive at what sort of being that fact would be “about”.

    Thankyou, Anonymous.

  5. Anonymous says:

    “How best to follow that commandment than subject one's beliefs to testing by the strongest opponent, especially when invited to do so? To reject such an invitation is to reject the opportunity to follow the commandment. Dr. Dawkins has cut himself off from dissent, period.”

    That doesn't follow at all. Dawkins could read Craig's reply in Craig's own books, papers or publishing, and have found it wanting. Craig can mail Dawkins a manuscript, publish in journals that Dawkins follows. Public debate is not the only venue for intellectual engagement, and acting like it's the best venue to do so is remarkably naive about public debates and intellectual engagement as a whole. In fact, these sorts of debates seem to track who's the better rhetorician, than who has the better argument. It's a pity that apologists place such a heavy emphasis on this format.

    “Why is God's nature good?” is actually equivalent to the second question. If not, it is equivalent to asking “What caused the Uncaused Cause?””

    Whoah, slow down there. “Why is God's nature good?” is clearly a distinct question from “Which theory of applied ethics correctly tracks God's nature?”. You and Craig assert that God is essentially good, I want to know what grounds the fact that God's nature is good. This isn't a causal question — it's one about truth making.

    Presumably you believe the sentence “God is good” is true. I'm asking what makes the sentence true, is it God's nature? Or is it God's commands?

    So you introduce the following disjunction, which I find confusing, since you introduced a lot of new language which has several technical connotations:

    “EITHER nihilists and Christian essentialists are right that if we have to make it up (or if it has to evolve into being), it isn't true meaning, OR naturalists and Christian essentialists are right that because we hunger for true meaning, there 'is' true meaning.”

    What do you mean by “true meaning” here? And to what are you talking about with the phrase “making it up”? Do you mean morality? I'm kind of puzzled. Even if we make something up, there can still be true facts about the things which are made up (eg. That Hamlet vowed vengeance upon his uncle), and the things which are made up can still have true meaning, in most senses of the word “meaning”.

    I also don't get the second half of your disjunct — in particular the bit about “that because we hunger for true meaning, there 'is' true meaning.”. Is the desire for true meaning causing true meaning to come into being? Or is just the grounds for the truth of their being true meaning? And if it's true meaning about morality, then why do we need God for this?

    “I think there can be a secular Ethics, I just think it hovers over an abyss, corresponding to nothing. Shadow puppets, complete w/ congratulatory back-slaps.”

    My point wasn't about whether or not there could be a secular ethical theory, simpliciter, but whether there could be a true secular ethical theory. You seem to assume dogmatically that there can be no such thing (in this very quotation!). Professional philosophers don't. You should really take some courses on this point, from philosophers at a reputable institution. Maybe read some of Mark Schroeder's books, or Parfit's. I think that several sorts of theories are plausible – including naturalism, and certain kinds of constructivism.

    You have some interesting thoughts about these matters, but they need to be focused. You should try out an MA at a philosophy program.

  6. Maryann says:

    Anonymous (4th reply) It can't 'always' be about rhetoric–a grasping at straws for why atheists do poorly in debate, tantamount to “the sun was in my eyes”.

    “Why is God's nature good?” is an epistemological question–I gave my epistemology above (Golden Rule). Still, an epistemology w/ no ontology corresponds to nothing…it's an ought that “isn't”. So it cannot be independent of a correspondent, always-good being. Any other meaning of that question is equivalent to “What caused the Uncaused Cause?” You said, “Presumably you believe the sentence 'God is good' is true. I'm asking what makes the sentence true, is it God's nature? Or is it God's commands?” God wills/commands in accordance with his good nature–he does what he is (summed up by the Golden Rule). I said as much in the original post. You are claiming I haven't said it–I am now repeating myself in different words for the third time if you count the original post.

    Meaning, as in…the meaning of life. The answer to Why? The existence of the conscience (hunger for justice, et cetera) is a clue to the existence of the being that is how we ought to be (and satisfies that hunger). The hunger does not create the nourishment–it is a clue to the existence of nourishment (at least long enough to evolve a hunger for it). Why do we need God for this? you ask. That is like asking why we need reality for a fact to correspond.

    I will go all the way to PhD, Lord-willing. When I get there I will speak the lingo better, but will they still be preferring shadow puppets?

  7. Anonymous says:

    “It can't 'always' be about rhetoric–a grasping at straws for why atheists do poorly in debate, tantamount to “the sun was in my eyes”.”

    I never said it is always about rhetoric–just that it doesn't seem like the best way for intellectual engagement to occur, since quality as a rhetorician (and speaker) is emphasized in a public debate. So, Craig is a convincing speaker, but I personally find his arguments appallingly bad.

    Do you disagree that intellectual engagement can occur in other formats? If not, then how is Dawkins being hypocritical.

    Anyways, I'm going to split my posts between this discussion and the one about your response to the Euthyphro.

  8. Anonymous says:

    This line of reasoning is fairly confused:

    “”Why is God's nature good?” is an epistemological question–I gave my epistemology above (Golden Rule). Still, an epistemology w/ no ontology corresponds to nothing…it's an ought that “isn't”. So it cannot be independent of a correspondent, always-good being.”

    I don't see it as an epistemological question — the corresponding epistemological question is “How do we know that God's nature is good?”. What I'm asking is a question about God's nature, “What is it about God that makes him good?”

    So, when you state that your answer is that: “God wills/commands in accordance with his good nature–he does what he is (summed up by the Golden Rule)” it presupposes that God's nature is such that it is good, which is fine, but it doesn't answer what it is that makes God's nature good. So my question hasn't been answered yet.

    As to your points about meaning:

    “Meaning, as in…the meaning of life. The answer to Why? The existence of the conscience (hunger for justice, et cetera) is a clue to the existence of the being that is how we ought to be (and satisfies that hunger).”

    I don't think questions like “What is the meaning of life?” and “Why?” are well-formed questions, or questions that philosophy can answer. You can try to convince me otherwise, but honestly, I'm with Hume on this sort of stuff. It's poor poetry.

    Now, I should have responded to this last night, but to be honest, it didn't make much sense to me:

    “A fact about how we “ought” to be, still must correspond to something that “is” how we “ought” to be. It doesn't take much meditation to arrive at what sort of being that fact would be “about”.”

    This is a pretty big assumption – and one that I don't see as warranted. One plausible view is that there are facts about whether or not something is good (it's a feature of the world either natural or non-natural;), and good things (acts, states, character) are simply those which we ought to pursue. Thus we ought to pursue the good, and good things are features of the world.

  9. Maryann says:

    Anonymous–All Dawkins has done is played the Moral Monster card in explanation of why he would not debate Craig. He has not replied to any of Craig's repeatedly published refutation of the 747 Gambit. He has not 'engaged' Craig in any format. He has pretended that Craig was not a worthy opponent to his views and feigned being too busy. Anyway…I'm still recovering from my disappointment that he did not show up like Harris and Hitchens, who behaved much more honorably.

    “Why is God's nature good?” or “Which theory in Ethics best describes God's nature?” is an epistemological question (which I answered with the Golden Rule–see link above) because it deals with justification for our beliefs (or what we think we know) about the good, as opposed to correspondence (ontology).

    If you don't think “What is the meaning of life?” or “Why?” can be answered and that all attempts are poor poetry, why do you not think the same of a secular Ethics? These questions are IDENTICAL (I do not agree with WLC/others that they are different). The answer to both ways of asking is the same…the Golden Rule.

    What do you mean by “states” (what are morally relevant states not including acts or character)? What makes them (how do we know they are) good things we ought pursue (epistemological question)? Is their value assigned subjectively, or do they have objectively good value–would they be good if there were no subject left in reality (ontological question)?

  10. Anonymous says:

    “Why is God's nature good?” or “Which theory in Ethics best describes God's nature?” is an epistemological question (which I answered with the Golden Rule–see link above) because it deals with justification for our beliefs (or what we think we know) about the good, as opposed to correspondence (ontology)”

    Why is it so hard to answer my question? I have clearly stated it in a manner that is not equivalent to the question “Which ethical theory best describes God's nature?” I have, for the third time, asked the following question: “What is it that makes God's nature good?” or “In virtue of what is the sentence “God's nature is good” true?” It is clearly a question about the ontology, and not as you seem to have repeatedly mistaken, epistemology.

    “If you don't think “What is the meaning of life?” or “Why?” can be answered and that all attempts are poor poetry, why do you not think the same of a secular Ethics?”

    Because secular ethical theories typically respond to well formed questions, such as “How should I live my life?” or “Which course of actions is right?” or “What is it for someone to be morally responsible?”

    “What do you mean by “states” (what are morally relevant states not including acts or character)?”

    Things such as states of affairs–typically social arrangements. For example, institutionalized slavery is not something that is good.

    “What makes them (how do we know they are) good things we ought pursue (epistemological question)?”

    Proponents of this sort of theory typically think that these are the sorts of things we can have fallible a priori knowledge about. Things which are good are typically known to be good either through conceptual analysis (eg. a murder just is a wrongful killing, and thus any murder is wrong) or some kind of faculty of rational intuition.

    As to what makes good things things that we ought to do, that's something which is knowable a priori through conceptual analysis. If you think that you shouldn't do good things, you're confused about the meaning of the word good.

    “Is their value assigned subjectively, or do they have objectively good value–would they be good if there were no subject left in reality (ontological question)?”

    Objective. But your question doesn't track the objective/subjective distinction. If I were to have murdered someone, that would always be wrong. But there need not be any agent around for that proposition to be true.

  11. Anonymous says:

    “All Dawkins has done is played the Moral Monster card in explanation of why he would not debate Craig. He has not replied to any of Craig's repeatedly published refutation of the 747 Gambit. He has not 'engaged' Craig in any format. He has pretended that Craig was not a worthy opponent to his views and feigned being too busy.”

    Perhaps Dawkins didn't think that Craig's objections were worthy of a reply. I should also note that a quick search reveals that I can't find a single publication by Craig that explicitly addresses the ultimate 747 gambit. In fact, a quick google has your blog in the top results. I thought Craig would trumpet his defeat of the argument, or at least I could find some record of it if has been published several times.

    Also — Dawkins has addressed objections from notable theologians and philosophers on this point. Perhaps Craig's criticisms weren't novel, after all many other acclaimed theist philosophers have attempted rebuttals. In any case, you still haven't shown any evidence that Dawkins is violating his commandment. Engaging with Craig doesn't mean writing a reply, especially if Craig isn't doing anything that Dawkins hasn't seen elsewhere, and addressed elsewhere.

  12. Maryann says:

    “Why is it so hard to answer my question?” This is getting comical! See the original post for my ontology and my epistemology.

    I don't think “What is the meaning of life?” (or Why?) is less well-formed than “How should I live my life?” You must first have the “Why?” answered in order to answer the “How?”

    When you go on to school me with “Proponents of this sort of…” through to “…meaning of the word good.” — I am already familiar with this line of 'reasoning'. My questions were an attempt to get you to think honestly about the implications of what you 'seem' to be supporting. Because you now want to weasel your way out of actually taking a position, it is becoming clear to me you are arguing merely for the sake of argument. Mortal life is too short. Take a risk and claim something you actually believe, or admit you are still feeling your way around.

    Perhaps you misunderstand where I am going w/ my subjective/objective question? “…there need not be an agent.” Morality is necessarily social–no agents, no morality. For the naturalist, when social agents are no more, then morality is no more. So in what sense can there be moral truth even if there are no agents? To what would it correspond?

  13. Anonymous says:

    “This is getting comical! See the original post for my ontology and my epistemology.”

    This is clearly not worth carrying on any further. You have repeatedly ignored the rephrasing of the question. Best of luck in your future endeavours. I hope that you'll genuinely attempt to engage with moral philosophy at some point.

  14. Maryann says:

    Thanks, Anonymous. You, too.

  15. Jason T. says:

    Maryann,
    Thanks for including my post in your analysis. I'm sure you won't be surprised that I disagree with your conclusions.
    You say,
    “Aquinas explains that “‘To be able to sin is to be able to fall short in action, which is repugnant to the omnipotence of God. Therefore it is that God cannot sin, because of His omnipotence.’[28]” (quoted by Steve Lovell). Sin is only chosen out of weakness, and being omnipotent, being good, though he has the choice, God will never choose sin, and so in that sense is unable to sin”

    This is an implausible account of sin (understood as committing a morally wrong act). There are many actions that we fall short at but our falling short does not constitute sin. For example, I cannot hit a major league fastball, that doesn't constitute sin. Furthermore, there are many actions that are wrong and yet are performed completely successfully. That the decision of the US to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was successful (in its execution and in bringing about the desired effect) does not entail that it was not morally wrong.

    To capture the wrongness of sin, your analysis has to include more than that sin is a falling short.

  16. Maryann says:

    Jason…Aquinas was not attempting to give a full definition of sin, he was attempting to explain why God is still omnipotent though he can never sin, and so only mentioned the 'falling short' aspect of sin. He was not saying that sin is 'every form' of falling short. Anyway…here is the part of my post that addresses something in yours:

    1) God exists necessarily, as do all his attributes, so his nature, including goodness, is not dictated (he is the Uncaused Cause and his essence and existence are identical), though he is capable of choice, of creation and so forth, and, 2) Aquinas explains that “‘To be able to sin is to be able to fall short in action, which is repugnant to the omnipotence of God. Therefore it is that God cannot sin, because of His omnipotence.’[28]” (quoted by Steve Lovell). Sin is only chosen out of weakness, and being omnipotent, being good, though he has the choice, God will never choose sin, and so in that sense is unable to sin. On a related note, when [ you ] write that “it is possible for an all-loving God to command that we torture kids and thus, on the DCT, it is possible that torturing kids is right,” you are confused. That it is possible (in one sense) for God to sin does not mean it is possible that sin is right. And to enjoy watching innocent babies suffer ([ you ] again) is sin (see my epistemology on the Golden Rule [linked above]).

    Any thoughts on that?

  17. Maryann says:

    Jason–in case I need to be more direct, sin is falling short of the Golden Rule (that which describes God's being/doing).

  18. Jason T. says:

    To be more precise, what I should have said is that falling short is neither necessary nor sufficient for committing a morally wrong act. The only thing that I actually need is that it is not necessary.
    Remember, Aquinas is saying that God cannot sin because of his omnipotence: “to be able to sin is to be able to fall short in action, which is repugnant to the omnipotence of God.” My point is that an agent can completely successfully accomplish an evil act (so there is no falling short whatsoever). The example of bombing Hiroshima was supposed to be an example of that, but if you don't like it, I'm sure I can think of many others. So, being all powerful may mean that you will never fall short, but that is irrelevant to whether you commit sin.

    Now, you have altered Aquinas' view by claiming that the falling short is falling short of the Golden Rule. But failing to abide by the Golden Rule is not repugnant to omnipotence. An all-powerful being certainly could violate the Golden Rule (see my discussion of the evil deity, Asura). So, I don't think your amending of Aquinas is going to do you any good.

    What Aquinas wanted was to claim that God cannot sin because sin involves falling short where “falling short” is understood as a failure of power. What you want is that God cannot sin because sin involves falling short of the Golden Rule. But that kind of falling short does not involve a failure of power.

  19. Maryann says:

    Again, Aquinas did not consider “falling short” to be the definition of sin, but only an aspect of sin. He spoke of sin here: http://www.ccel.org/a/aquinas/summa/FS/FS071.html#FSQ71A6THEP1 Check that out. When he speaks of the eternal law, he may as well be saying the Golden Rule. I am not altering his view. He also says, “The natural law is what is contained in the Law and the Gospel…by which everyone is commanded to do to others as he would be done by.” Summa I-II, question 94, reply to objection 1. It is not “all” falling short–it is falling short of the Golden Rule. That God cannot choose to sin means God cannot have moral weakness–which is a strength. If 'any' being were to violate the Golden Rule it would be an example of weakness and would rule out the possibility of that being's being omnipotent–which is why an evil god does not (cannot) exist.

  20. Anon, when Craig claims Gods nature is good he is using “is” in the sense of identity, he is claiming God is identical with goodness. It actually makes no sense to ask questions like “why is X identical to X”

    There is a related question which does make sense and that's the question of why claim God is identical with good, but this question has received an answer repeatedly, Craig is following the theory of Robert Adam's who gives a detailed book long argument as to why when we analysis the concept of goodness, God best answers the role it lays down. Your welcome to read the book. But to simply ask why is X identical to itself really makes little sense.

  21. Jason T. says:

    Maryann,
    You say, “If 'any' being were to violate the Golden Rule it would be an example of weakness”

    I don't want to just pound the table, but no. Moral strength is not a issue or power. Power concerns what effects one is able to bring about. A being that can bring about bad effects in addition to good effects is a more powerful being than one that can just bring about good effects.

    Consider: The Mud Rule: “Do unto others whatever brings them the most pain.” God cannot follow the Mud Rule, but Asura can and never fails to. I could, using reasoning parallel to your own, claim that since Asura is omnipotent and failing to act according to the Mud Rule is a weakness (it involves a failure of evil), Asura cannot fail to act according to the Mud Rule.

    An omnipotent being cannot fail to act according to the Mud Rule, because failing to do so is a weakness of evil nature.

    If you want to claim that acting according to the Golden Rule is entailed by Omnipotence, then you need to provide an argument. What you are doing is just relying on an ambiguity in the word 'strength.' We do speak of moral strength but this use is not about powers. Just as speaking of evil strength would not be to speak about powers.

  22. Jason T. says:

    Matt,
    If an identity statement is informative, the why question does make sense: “Why is Superman identical to Clark Kent” really means something like “How did it come to be that Superman appears in this other guise as a mild-mannered reporter?”

    But, I think are correct that we have to give the question an alternative gloss.

    However, If Adams is correct that God is the Good, then we can ask another related question: “Did God make it the case that He is identical to the Good?” (Superman did make it the case that he is identical to a mild-mannered reporter). The question gets at the heart of the Euthyphro problem: the question is whether God has control over the good.

    According to the Divine Command theory, God does have control over moral wrongnesss (since his commands decide what is right and what is wrong); but on Adams view about the Good, I don't think it makes sense to say that God has control over the Good.

  23. Jason T. says:

    Correction: My second sentence should read “Moral strength is not an issue of power.”

  24. Thanks Matt.

    Jason, you say “Moral strength is not an issue of power” but what sort of power do you think omnipotence 'is'? Horsepower? Is it about how much God can benchpress? Someone who is described by the Golden Rule has much more 'strength of character' than someone who more often chooses an alternative out of 'weakness of will'. It doesn't matter how much physical strength or social influence is on display if that display comes as a result of being a (weak) slave to your vice. The power to do good trumps the power to do evil, because evil is merely a privation of good. True power is displayed in accordance with the good.

    You say, “A being that can bring about bad effects in addition to good effects is a more powerful being than one that can just bring about good effects.”

    That is like saying “A being that can do things wrong/weakly in addition to doing things right/strongly is a more powerful being than one that can just do things right/strongly.”

    To fail to do things wrong/weakly is actually a sign of doing things right/strongly.

    As for your reply to Matt, I think that was addressed in the original post. It is not a sign of God lacking omnipotence that he cannot cause/determine himself–he is the Uncaused (Final!) Cause and needs no cause. He didn't cause himself to be logical and good. He just is that way. He can no more cause the good, than he can cause himself, because the two are identical. He commands in accordance with his good nature–that is the resolution of the Euthyphro Dilemma. His commands do not create a new good, they conform to his good nature.

  25. Jason T. says:

    “Jason, you say “Moral strength is not an issue of power” but what sort of power do you think omnipotence 'is'? Horsepower? Is it about how much God can benchpress?”

    Yep. That is precisely the kind of thing that omnipotence concerns. Power is the capacity to bring about effects. And an omnipotent being has maximal power; so an omnipotent being can do anything (anything that is logically possible).

    Matt can help you out with this. According to Matt, God does not have full omnipotence since He is limited by his essential nature. For Matt (and he is certainly not alone here), the reason God cannot command torture is that He is essentially loving and fully informed (a loving being will never command torture). It has absolutely nothing to do with omnipotence (indeed, as I said, for Matt, God is nto fully omnipotent).

  26. Maryann says:

    My last reply was an attempt to explain that your view of omnipotence is limited. It is not 'merely' about physical power. Think of the old illustration you may have heard in Psych 101 about the elephant who stayed put because he was used to staying put, even after they took the chains off. All that strength, will no willpower. And when you say “Power is the capacity to bring about effects”–the effects matter (but the intention behind them matters more–for example, 'accidentally' bringing about an effect doesn't count, and bringing about a good effect with evil intentions counts 'against' you–et cetera). The effects that count in the sentance “Power is the capacity to bring about effects”–from what I've already mentioned–only include effects that are 1) intended, and 2) good. The way you are talking, “power” is the ultimate effect/good…but you have no argument for this.

    You said an omnipotent being can do anything that is logically possible, but then you imply (without meaning to) that the 'logically possible' qualification makes that omnipotence limited (logically God does not contradict his essential nature)–which is it? Or do you disagree w/ your understanding of Matt's position?

    Also note that an evil God can never exist because evil is the privation of good and cannot exist w/o good, whereas good 'can' exist w/o evil. (Disclaimer: Just like with 'falling short'–I don't mean to imply that 'all' privation is evil or that the definition of evil is “privation”.)

  27. Jason T. says:

    I don't think that an omnipotent being can be limited. Or rather, the only limitations on an omnipotent being are logical limitations.

    Now God (on Matt's well-thought out view that I happen to disagree with) is limited by his essential nature; there are things that Matt's God cannot do (such as command torture). Thus, for Matt, God is not an omnipotent being. And I am pretty sure that Matt admits this (help us out here, Matt).

    As for Augustine's notion that evil is just a privation of good; I have never found that to be at all convincing. It is really nothing more than a device that allows Augustine to maintain his belief in an All-loving creator. But it's not really even a device that he needs. And in any event, it is an idea that is designed to convince precisely nobody; the only reason anyone would be convinced by it is if they are searching for a theodicy.

    Evil has substantive existence. Pain is a real thing; it is not just the absence of pleasure. In fact, I think Schopenhauer was closer to the truth when he said that good is really just a privation of evil.

    In any event, as for the arguments, I submit that you would have a hard time defending Augustine over Schopenhauer. Why is it that we should believe that evil is merely a privation of good?

  28. Maryann says:

    Jason, Augustine was replying to the dualism of the Manichaeans. More on the 'privation' thing here:
    http://ichthus77.blogspot.com/2008/01/on-non-duality-of-good-and-evil.html

    Excerpts from that link: “Evil is not a “thing” (or substance). Evil is a privation, or absence of good. Evil exists in another entity (as rust exists in a car or rot exists in a tree), but does not exist in itself. Nothing can be totally evil (in a metaphysical sense). One cannot have a totally rusted car or a totally moth-eaten garment. For if it were completely destroyed, then it would not exist at all. …

    “When the theist says that evil is no “thing” (substance) he is not saying evil is “nothing” (that is, unreal). Evil is a real privation. Blindness is real—it is the real privation of sight. Likewise it is real to be maimed—it is a genuine lack of limb or sense organ.

    “Evil is not mere absence, however. Arms and eyes are absent in stones, but we would not say that stones are deprived of arms and eyes. A privation is more than an absence; it is an absence of some form or perfection that should be there (by its very nature),” (329-330).

    “…as Augustine pointed out in reply to the Manichaeans, evil is measured by good and not the reverse. For when we take all that we call evil away from something, then what is left is better (for example, remove all rust from a car and one has a better car). But when we take all that is good from something, then nothing is left. Good, therefore, is the positive and evil is the privation, or lack of good,” (330-331).

    Excerpts taken from Geisler and Feinberg's “Introduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective”.

    In my own words, a falling short (sin), or privation (evil) [sin=evil], of the way things are supposed to be (the good), cannot exist unless there really is a way things are supposed to be. So–first exists the way things are supposed to be, without which a falling short (sin), or privation (evil), is impossible (again, sin=evil). That good–that 'way'–is God. God, because he is omnipotent, cannot fall short of himself, cannot be a privation of himself, cannot depart from the way things are supposed to be (himself). Such falling short, privation, departing–all of those things are weakness.

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