Sunday, March 24, 2019

God, Logic and Nothing

Bestselling author David Berlinski has his own take on the famous philosophical question raised in Plato’s Euthyphro: What makes a good thing good? Two alternatives are posed: (1) the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy; or (2) the pious is holy because it is beloved of the gods.

Berlinski approaches the issue this way:

“To the question what makes the laws of moral life true, there are three answers: God, logic, and nothing. Each is inadequate.”

Now, you just know I’m going to disagree with that last statement, right?

Making His Case

But first let’s allow Dr. Berlinski to make his case a little more fully. From The Devil’s Delusion (2009):
“If moral laws reflect the will of God, then he might presumably change his mind, and tomorrow issue a new set of commandments encouraging rape, plunder, murder, or the worship of false idols. Many devoutly religious men and women would say that this is his perfect right. He is God, after all. But if tomorrow God were to encourage rape as a very good thing, would rape become a good thing, or would we conclude, along with Richard Dawkins, that considering his poor life choices, God is a repellent figure and to hell with him?”

“If, on the other hand, God chooses the right or the good because it is right or good, then the power of his imperative has its source in the law, and not in his will. ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ we may imagine God saying to the ancient Hebrews, ‘because it is wrong. I am here only to convey the message.’
If this is so, then God must be demoted to what is plainly a constabulary role. Logic prevails, or if not logic, then something in the laws of right and wrong that enforces their binding sense.”

“There remains nothing as a possibility in thought, if only by a process of elimination, and nothing is the preferred possibility in moral thought for the same reason it is the preferred possibility in physical thought: If logic is unavailing, then better nothing than God.
Nothing in moral philosophy has a familiar face. It is the position expounded both by freshmen in philosophy classes and all the enemies of humanity. We do not believe in any absolute moral truths, my students have always told me, although truths about grading seem a remarkably curious exception. Who could fail to hear the inner voice connecting this form of moral relativism to Himmler’s? He, too, was a great believer in nothing.”
Ha. Typically snide Berlinski finish there.


Now, I’m not about to engage with Plato’s original back-and-forth between Socrates and Euthyphro. You can do that if you’re so inclined. I’m interested in Berlinski’s version, which has its own twist on the old argument. (Plato’s possible options didn’t include nihilism.)

You may have detected a little bait-and-switch in Berlinski’s setting out of the original Platonic proposition. I suspect this is probably inadvertent. He says there are three possible answers: God, logic, and nothing. That’s the bait. The switch is in his first explanatory paragraph, where he substitutes the wording “the will of God” for “God”. He does this again in explaining the “logic” possibility: “the power of his imperative has its source in the law, and not in his will” [italics mine].

I believe the “God” answer is the correct one, despite the philosophical difficulties it initially appears to create. The defect is in Berlinski’s framing of the question. God’s will is certainly the most powerful will in existence, to the point where many argue it is the ONLY effective will in the universe. But in reducing God to the mere exercise of all-powerful will, Berlinski has missed something absolutely crucial which the Christian does not.

Not Will, Character

As I say, this is probably not intentional. As a secularist, Berlinski can hardly be expected to see in his reductionism what the Christian sees: that moral laws reflect not just the will of God, but the character of God.

God is not merely implacable force or incontestable intent. He is a unified personality of absolute integrity. His character cannot change, though for the sake of argument and from the human perspective, it truly does not matter whether we say “cannot” or “does not”. The fact is that no change in God’s established character has ever occurred, no change occurs today and no change will ever occur. The question, “What if he changes his mind?” has no meaning. He won’t. What God approves of and disapproves of does not change, and he tells us so. His tactics may change, and often do, but they always remain consistent with an essential character that fundamentally doesn’t.

The God who revealed himself to Moses gave him this name: “I am,” or “I am what I am,” or “I will be what I will be.” Implicit in this statement is not just God’s eternal nature but his unchanging character.

The Immutability of God

But we don’t need to worry about deriving implications, or whether we are deriving the correct ones. We have scripture’s plain statements about the unchanging nature of God’s character from one end to the other. We get them in the form of doctrine, history, poetry and prophecy:
  • From Samuel: “The Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.”
  • From the Psalms: “Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end.”

    “Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens.”
  • From Malachi: “I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.”
  • From Acts: “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”
  • From Hebrews: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
  • From James: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
A Case That Makes Itself

If we make the case that moral laws reflect not just the will but the unchanging character of God, the difficulty with “Is God bigger than good or is good bigger than God?” disappears. It becomes irrelevant. The Christian God cannot reasonably be conceived at all apart from his revealed character. Asking whether God is logical or good or right is tantamount to asking whether he is himself, which is precisely the way he describes himself to Moses. He is what he is. There is no better way to put it.

Furthermore, it is reasonable to ask whether, outside of the revelation the Christian God has given of himself, it is even possible for us to talk sensibly about morality at all. One can theorize all one likes about how, in the absence of divine revelation, humanity might have arrived at its conception of good, or logic, or right. But these are only theories. They have no authority at all. The Christian simply replies, “But that’s not how it happened.” And if we accept what we read in Genesis as fact, there has been not even a moment in human history, from its very beginning, when human beings were without some sort of revelation of God inextricably associated with the idea of morality, whether we are talking about Adam in the Garden of Eden with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or Noah building an ark because of coming righteous judgment, or Moses before the burning bush faced with the prospect that God’s promises made to Abraham were coming due for at least partial fulfillment, or any point in between or subsequent to them.

Severing the Inseverable

To talk about the Christian God and morality as if the two can be somehow sliced apart and set against each other is a total non sequitur. A crafty old pagan like Plato would never have attempted something so silly. After all, in Euthyphro, the “dilemma” only exists because the original argument between Socrates and Euthyphro is both theoretical and polytheistic at its core. Where multiple gods disagree, of course questions about morality and its place relative to the various members of the pantheon may reasonably assert themselves. But to apply the same theoretical argument to a very specific, unified God with a well-defined, fully integrated character is a complete non-starter.

So what makes the laws of moral life true, Dr. Berlinski? God does. He cannot help it. They are him and he is them, and any attempt to pry them apart ends in incoherence.


  1. I am always amazed by the fact that in the typical (philosophical, or casual) discussion involving God an extremely important fact is never even considered and therefore is not addressed.

    Typically God is thought of as this hyper intelligent being who intellectually figured out how to produce the type of world we see leading to certain rules and regulations. But, what amazingly is completely ignored is the fact that God also has created this highly intangible property and quality of existence called feelings and emotions. God therefore has feelings and reacts to them as we do. He therefore is also the expert psychologist who can deal with mental and emotional issues and heal such intangible illnesses as well. His decisions are therefore not solely based on the aptitudes of a super computer but also on how he feels about issues and relationships. This fact is totally ignored by the typical run of the mill atheist and agnostic resulting in their totally flawed analysis as to why and how things happen in creation. Simply put, if you tick someone off or endear yourself to someone then expect to get a corresponding reaction. No convoluted and absurd philosophical contortions are needed for that.