“It is written:
I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.
Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For, since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.”1
I have always disdained the dialogues of Plato for their format. Recognizing similar tendencies from my own childhood Walter Mitty fantasies, the protagonist and hero, in this case Socrates, always seems to have the equivalent of bowling pins for interlocutors. Euthyphro certainly constitutes one such lame antagonist; noticeable when one isolates his responses from the great Socrates. Euthyphro might have even been a real person and therefore, a real pushover. But in my experience, one’s ideological adversaries tend to have a more substantive and detailed rationales for their opinions, even if their reasoning will be found to be fallacious and spurious.
“The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy; or holy because it is beloved of the gods.” [Socrates] 2
To put the question posed in modern vernacular, “Are moral acts willed by God because they are good, or are they good because they are willed by God?”3 One of the common sophist tricks and deceits is to contrive a question with presumably only two equally abhorrent options, suckering the respondent into not thinking beyond this box of the dichotomy. But, there just might exist alternatives beyond the snare. Even coin flips sometimes can land on its side (1 in 6,000 for the U.S. nickel).
The other problem behind these rational inquiries is the presumption that Reason can, if wielded by a pristinely competent and honest practitioner, can ascertain all answers and understanding. As much as I believe in and enjoy the use of reason, I have come to realize its natural limits. (And our and my natural limits to reason!)
Through reason’s natural proclivity for infinite regress, Richard Dawkins thinks he can disprove the hypothesis of God. If God created the universe, who created God? And by extension, who created the person, who created God? And who created the person, who created the person, who created God…? The problem with the argument is that the alternative is no less rationally absurd and inexplicable. How did something come into being from nothingness? The naturalist might like to obfuscate the question by reducing existence, through the Big Bang theory, to a singularity. However, the existence of that singularity cannot be explained through reason. Whether we live in a theistic or a non-theistic universe, they are both rationally absurd and incomprehensible. (There are other theories of existence, less rationally credible. But they don’t escape from the rational conundrum.) And yet, here we are! Our existence is an empirical fact. And it is categorically impossible for such existence to derive from reason.
Another one of those paradoxes, (and I thank fellow madman Nietzsche (‘Beyond Good and Evil”) through which the conundrum was conceived), is that the virtue of truthfulness (intellectual integrity) cannot be derive through reason. For, in order to incontrovertibly arrive at the conclusion that truthfulness is a virtue, one must employ it in the first place. In other words, truthfulness must be an axiomatic epistemological attribute (one must, as a necessary foundational value, be truthful in one’s inquiry of such matters), in order to reason that truthfulness is a necessary foundational value. It becomes a circularity and therefore, rationally incoherent.
This is not to suggest throwing out reason and living out one’s life through leap of faith, apart from reason. Christ and the Apostle Paul certainly deployed its use. 4 The framework of civilization, let alone civilization itself, would soon regress to the proverbial caveman all-against-all existence. Law and moral authority of civil authorities requires rational consistency; a dearth of which is undermining the credibility of the judiciary. However, it is an inescapable conclusion of the insufficiency of Reason alone to explain all; even were the thinker pristine in virtue and acumen.
Behind this sophist snare, of the kind that Christ was not unfamiliar (Luke 20), include the apparent conundrums.
If the Good is whatever the god or deity commands, all that which constitutes the Good is an arbitrary value. (Even Good itself, has been argued is of arbitrary validity.5) If the Good is to be defined as an objective measure beyond God’s edict, then God is not omnipotent. He is subject to that which is greater. Secondly, God cannot be both virtuous and omnipotent. For omnipotence, in the minds of these detractors, means being able to do even what is evil. The underlying heart of these questions intends to demonstrate that morality can exist apart from God.
“What is right and wrong depends on God’s commands such that his commands alone are what make actions right or wrong. There is no reason for what is right and wrong and morality is arbitrary.
God commands us to perform certain actions and refrain from others because certain actions are right and others are wrong and being fully rational he knows what is right and wrong and being completely good he issues commands to humanity that conform to his moral knowledge. Yet morality is autonomous from God’s commands and is something to which God must conform. Thus God is not omnipotent over morality.”6
There is a “quarreling about words”7 quality to this discourse. However, current Evangelical nostrums on this matter, significantly detract from their relevance in the wider world. And these shibboleths do not even correspond to the arguments contained within Scriptures to which they allege allegiance. One response is to suggest that His commands emanate out of His own nature and character, which is presumed Good.
The third option is that good is based on God’s nature. God appeals to nothing other than his own character for the standard of what is good, and then reveals what is good to us. It is wrong to lie because God cannot lie (Titus 1:2), not because God had to discover lying was wrong or that he arbitrarily declared it to be wrong. This means that God does not arbitrarily declare something to be good (ignoring his own nature) or say that something is good by nature (recognizing a standard outside of himself).3
This perspective (Modified Divine Command Theory8) attempts to avoid the charge of caprice and arbitrariness by moving goodness from mere will of God as from that emanating from the character of God. God will not command evil because it is unthinkable or overwhelmingly abhorrent for His to do so because of His nature. It doesn’t succeed on the former and makes worsens the conception of God.
Humanity, at least the larger and saner part of it, abhors the idea of being determined; of lacking Free Will. In the few arguments that I have had over Calvinism, what is the core heart cry of my interlocutors over the Doctrine of Sovereign Grace is the primal dread of only being a programmable robot.9 The thought of the mecha David in A. I. destroying all his duplicate copies because it violates his primordial need for uniqueness encapsulates the horror about such a reality. Although neuroscience and psychiatry, and those who occupy the Commanding Heights of philosophy of mind subscribe to the idea of physiological determinism (genetics and neurotransmitter), the belief system by which they operate are disguised and muted; knowing that their reception would be as repulsive and repudiated as that of religious determinism.
If humanity bears the image of God; that is, if we share a common psychological structure as our Maker, however that is constituted; why would we ascribe to God features, which we would find in ourselves, abhorrent? Would not God similarly find the idea of lacking true Free Will reprehensible? This philosophical god would be the god of the algorithm. And indeed, if this determined god ultimately lacks genuine choice, the qualities of morality, good and evil lack intrinsic coherence and meaning.
“Since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself.”11
The problem with the paradigm ‘moral acts are willed by God because they are good’ is that of adjudication. Those who suggest an external standard of Good could exist apart from God could very well be correct. However, the question yet remains, who is worthy in virtue and wisdom to determine what that external standard is and whether God complies. Those who believe they could fill such shoes, are foolishly arrogant and/or ignorant of the difficulties in ascertaining such. Any such self-appointee would quickly find themselves targeted under the same skepticism and scorn by others who have their own ideas of the ‘ought’. The history of humanity attests to this reality; with incessant rebellion and disobedience to civil and other authority; whether justified or unjustified.
Other than an omnipotent, omniscient Creator of the heavens and the earth, what other legitimate and workable alternative is there? Once one begins to go down the road of charging arbitrariness behind any form of authoritative ethics, no one need morally respect any ethical system or those who impose it. The French Revolution highlighted the implausibility of attaining a universal consensus through Reason as faction after faction cannibalized each other. And even if a consensus could be reached, it doesn’t necessitate that it knows the Good. Other than subjectivism, relativism and moral nihilism, whose practicable effects are lawlessness, chaos, misery and destruction; any who dares to define the Good will be similarly charged with caprice and arbitrariness by their peers and inferiors. This does answer the central dilemma. However, it illuminates the unwinnable sophistry in the question.
There is a third option, although it might appear as mere modification of existing options. That is, that God embodies the Good (“I am the way and the truth and the life.”12); both in being God and concurrently, in an objective sense. That is, God never required discovering the Good. But from eternity past, He always knew and embraced the Good. And that Good will prove objectively, with the light of omniscience, intellectual and moral integrity and virtue to be the Good. Reason might scream, from the argument of infinite regress, when did God determine that objective Good. But like the absurdity of existence without possibility of rational theistic or naturalist explanation; it just is.
A mere assertion hardly constitutes rational proof of this proposition. However, it does show that the Euthyphro coin can land on its side. It does resolve the respective charges of arbitrary caprice on the one hand and lack of omnipotence on the other.
And reason is like Newtonian Physics. It breaks down at the infinite extremes.
In response to one conjury that denies the possibility of God being both omnipotent and virtuous; this argument works only if God be a god of the algorithm. That is, by His internal constitution; His programming, so to speak, He cannot categorically sin. And many a Christian adherent have made such claims themselves; possibly to secure themselves in His reliability for goodness, as if by logical supposition. However, our God is a personal god, with Free Will to sin at any time. In this, He remains omnipotent. It is just that He constantly elects to do the Good. This is a personal universe and our safety and security lies ultimately in the virtue, wisdom and power of a personal God, not in a logical deduction.
From the perspective of insignificant, weak mortals, dependence on a overwhelmingly powerful God, who theoretically could drop or abuse us
- 1 Corinthians 1:19-21
- Plato, “Euthyphro”, c. 380 B.C., Transl. Benjamin Jowett
- Matt Slick, “What is the Euthyphro dilemma?” http://carm.org/euthyphro-dilemma
- Matthew 23:16-22, Romans 2
- Nietzsche makes such argument in his book “Beyond Good and Evil”. However, he seems not to realize that he has substituted the Good in Judeo-Christian and Classical sense with as standard of good of his own; that of life-affirming. As judgment is an inherent psychological component of sentient beings, it is impossible not to judge by some criteria.
- Mark Timmons, “Moral Theory: An Introduction”, 2002, pp 28-29.
- 2 Timothy 2:14
- Robert Merrihew Adams, “A Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness”, From Religion and Morality, 1975, pp 318-347
- Sovereign Grace issues
- Sam Harris, “Free Will”, 2012 gives a sophomoric and simple-minded overview of the thesis. However, all extant sub-hypothesis as to how this works are contradicted within their own ideological community and the Benjamin Libet family of experiments is profoundly flaw on their philosophical (and non-scientific) conception of ‘Free Will’. However, that is a topic of another project.
- Hebrews 6:13
- John 14:6