Fabulously absolute #2
Careful readers of this blog will have noticed that, despite both its fine words, my previous post did not actually get to the point. I talked about clarifying a problem I had always had with the concept of God but only got as far as laying a few foundations. I hope this sequel (or its sequel, or its sequel’s sequel…) delivers on the promise.
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.
Last time we introduced the concept of a purely ‘metaphysical’ God, the concept of a purely ‘ethical’ God, and the concept of a God which is both metaphysical and ethical. (This was after dismissing the concept of a God which was neither metaphysical nor ethical as irrelevant to the discussion.)
The domain of the purely metaphysical God is of what is. The domain of the purely ethical God is of what ought to be. The domain of the metaphysical plus ethical God is of both what is and what ought to be.
We are ultimately free to think what we like about a purely metaphysical God. I mean free in an ethical sense. We are not morally obliged to worship a purely metaphysical God. We have no moral obligation to a metaphysical God, nor to what a metaphysical God may have created, nor to any part of that creation – insofar as it is the creation of that metaphysical God. We may of course have moral obligations to a part of the creation of a metaphysical God for other reasons – for example because that part is our child or our neighbour or a fellow human being or a sentient non-human animal – but not because he, she or it is part of the metaphysical God’s creation.
The minute we are tempted to think we have a moral obligation to a God or any part of a God’s creation because it is that God’s creation we are ceasing to think of that God as a purely metaphysical God. We are seeing the God as having an ethical dimension as well – a category four God.
To say we are ultimately free in an ethical sense to think what we like about a purely metaphysical God does not mean we are free in a logical or cognitive or epistemological sense. For example if we have no evidence that a metaphysical God physically created the universe, we are not free (in a logical or cognitive or epistemological sense) to say we know that that God physically created the universe. We can say we think the God physically created the universe, or we think of the universe as having been created by a God, or we see the universe as the creation of a God. But to say we know it is to use ‘know’ in a rather idiosyncratic sense.
We now turn to a purely ethical God. This is a God with moral authority but no power. All we can get from this God is the certainty that we are good or bad, or that we are doing the right thing or the wrong thing. This God might be our reward for being good, but it has no power to provide any reward outside itself.
The minute we see this ethical God as having or needing a shred of power or efficacy, we are seeing it as having a metaphysical dimension as well – as a category four God. The purely ethical God did not create the universe or any part of it. This purely ethical God did not create us and has no power over us.
It is interesting to consider how potent a purely ethical God like this could be.
Although the God itself can have no power over a person, the moral imperative it promotes or represents can have power over a person. We cannot therefore say a purely ethical God is completely harmless.
A purely ethical God representing an ethic detrimental to me – for example an ethic favouring a tribe I do not belong to – cannot itself harm me, but its human adherents certainly could. Think Joshua’s God but without remote demolition skills.
So certainly a purely ethical God could influence people to do harm. The question though is how likely this is.
For example how would we know this purely ethical God is communicating to us? We said above that we can get from this God the certainty that we are good or bad, or that we are doing the right thing or the wrong thing. But that presupposes we know it is this God which is communicating to us, and not an impostor – or not ourselves, or some part of ourselves of which we might be aware or unaware.
I cannot see how a purely ethical God could even write commandments on a tablet of stone. All it could do is communicate its thinking to a sentient and rational being. And we have no reason to assume there are not other deities or forces in the picture – eg an absolute purely metaphysical God or one or more non-absolute metaphysical Gods or spirits who might have all sorts of reasons for wanting to influence our behaviour by making us think we are being guided by an absolute ethical God.
Or other people, or other groups of people, think they are guided by other absolute ethical Gods whose guidance conflicts with the guidance we are getting from ‘our’ absolute ethical God, and with each others’. Either there is only one absolute ethical God or there is no absolute ethical God. There cannot be more than one.
So how do we know? An absolute purely ethical God cannot, by definition, do tricks like summoning up a swarm of locusts if we disobey its commandments.
There is undoubtedly a lot more to be said on this subject, but for now the concept of an absolute purely ethical God seems to me to reduce to something like a principle of conscience, or a universal imperative, or an overriding aspiration.
In relation to that principle or imperative or aspiration, an individual who believes in the existence and/or significance of an absolute purely ethical God seems to me to have two choices.
One is to have an overwhelmingly and exclusively personal relationship with that absolute purely ethical God. I know (in the Jungian sense: see Fabulously absolute #1) my God is telling me what is right and good. All other imperatives which other people might think they are receiving from what they think are their own absolute purely ethical Gods are only true if they concur with what my God is telling me about what is right and good. The morality of this approach is dubious to say the least, an unsavoury cocktail of egomania, self-righteousness and denial.
The other choice is to assume rather more modestly that even if there is an absolute purely ethical God there is no special reason why I should be right about how I think he, she or it is guiding me. So the nearest thing to evidence that I can have of what that absolute purely ethical God’s guidance is, is what I truly and honestly think is right and good, removing as much self-interest as I can from the equation, and applying as much doubt and as much universality as I can muster.
Now that seems to me a fairly sound concept of God – but its soundness comes more from the effort expended in applying it rather than the concept itself. It is a ladder one can finally throw away.
I still didn’t quite get to the main point, although I hope I managed to build a bit more onto the foundations. Maybe next time…
© Chris Lawrence 2010.