thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Fabulously absolute #2

with 8 comments

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.

David Hume

David Hume

The point is linked to the old isought divide, applied to the concept of God. It is worth quoting from David Hume’s 1739 A Treatise of Human Nature (Book III, Part I, Section I):

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.

The Fall of Jericho

The Fall of Jericho

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.


Written by Chris Lawrence

11 July 2010 at 2:10 pm

8 Responses

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  1. Chris –

    Well, I’ve been thinking about this for about 18 hours now, and here is my question: I agree that morality/ethics requires our “choice to be good, to do the right thing, to love.” The choice is absolutely essential – it isn’t enough simply to have behaved in a certain way: morality involves an actual decision to behave that way. But how do you recognize (define, choose, decide) what is good and right and loving? How do you tell the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, loving and indifference? In other words, how do you decide what to choose?

    I’m not suggesting that good can be identified by a set of specific rules or laws. The choices are much too complex for concrete rules to work universally. But are there any principles by which you distinguish good and bad, love and indifference, right and wrong?

    The best I have been able to come up with in my life so far is that morality requires that I respect the nature of being. I don’t usually put it that way to myself because it doesn’t resonate quite as profoundly as “to love, to live as far as possible with integrity and truth.” But the core idea for me is a respect for being. Which seems to me to put me firmly in the camp of deriving value (and ultimately “ought”) from IS. It’s just that my IS doesn’t include a supreme and infinite god residing above us all in his supernatural world.

    I hope I have managed to make my question coherent. Because I am extraordinarily interested in hearing your thoughts on it.

    Many thanks – as always



    14 July 2010 at 4:57 pm

    • Thanks again Terry.

      Indeed – it’s a very fundamental question.

      First of all I would say that initially the choice is to make the decision to choose. So first of all (in terms of logical sequence) there is no problem of content – no problem of ‘what to choose?’.

      Then once that first choice is made (to be good, to do the right thing, to love) – I think one is on one’s own. One can only do what one thinks is best, in the knowledge that one might well get it wrong.

      I think I understand the idea of respecting the nature of being. I have a worry though about making anything – even something as absolute and metaphysical as being itself – the cornerstone or seed or yardstick of ethics. The worry is that whatever it is, one can always question it. One can always ask: is it (morally) right to make respect for the nature of being the cornerstone of one’s ethics?

      That is not a nonsensical question. And one could well answer: yes. But that means one has applied some other ‘higher’ principle to decide that (in this case) respecting the nature of being is the best principle to apply.

      What I’m trying to say is that I think it is always better to leave whatever principle one adopts open to doubt – to be replaced or amended or embellished if a better one comes along. Which doesn’t mean the principle is valueless – far from it. But it does mean it is not the principle. The principle, if you like, is that any principle is provisional.

      This means the ‘ought’ is coming from that initial decision (to be good, to do the right thing, to love), not from the principle. One is saying: I ought to apply the principle of respect for being, because I have not yet found a better one. The ought comes from the decision to apply the principle, not from the principle itself.

      Another possible way of expressing the same point: whatever ‘is’ an individual X chooses to use or apply as the source of X’s own morality, it is always possible that another individual Y could come along who is ethically superior, even though Y applies a quite different ‘is’, or no ‘is’ at all.

      This doesn’t mean the search for ethical principles is valueless. The search is the key thing.

      Does this make any sense? Meaty conversation!


      Chris Lawrence

      14 July 2010 at 7:21 pm

      • Chris – Thank you for your comment which has taken me to the somewhat surprising conclusion that we may be fundamentally in agreement.

        Okay, the first decision is to choose – to want to make the ethical/moral decision. So the “ought” comes first from the decision to be good, not from the principle by which we determine what is good. I hadn’t made that distinction before.

        So how do we know what good is? One of the striking things about both your answer and mine is that neither of us trusts absolutes. You start out saying “I think what I think…”, which I think points to the same thing I was getting at when I said that “the best I have been able to come up with so far…” I’m not at all sure that respecting the nature of being is a fool-proof foundation for moral decisions. We know far too little about being, and our understanding keeps expanding. And I’m uncomfortable with excluding “potential being,” or even “non-being.” I just have no idea how to incorporate them into any ethical system. As you say, there is always the possibility that a principle will be embellished or even replaced with a better one.

        So yes, as Sartre said, we must always be open to the possibility that however much we may want to be doing the right thing, and however great a sacrifice we make in that pursuit, we might be wrong. I think that’s a risk in the human condition.

        I do think that perhaps in my earlier comment when I referred to being as having “intrinsic value,” you may have thought I meant “absolute value.” I do think being has absolute value, but I don’t think that absolutely, if you know what I mean. In fact, I would say (although I am beginning here to reach the point of absurdity) that even deciding to choose the good is an intrinsic value, but I don’t think it absolutely.

        I’m not quite sure what Tony said which you apparently thought I agree with. I have been very much intrigued with the implications of his position that matter/energy is the single convertible entity out of which the universe is made, and the implications that has particularly for the mind-body problem. But Tony’s background in philosophy and theology is much greater than mine, and he does not write for the neophyte. I often misconstrue what he is saying, even when I read him quite carefully.

        Thank you as ever for this discussion. I’ve learned something that matters.



        15 July 2010 at 3:32 pm

        • Yet more thanks Terry.

          Yes I think I would go along with ‘even deciding to choose the good is an intrinsic value’. I think that’s what I’m saying. It’s like a loop, but a virtuous circle, not a vicious one.

          As to how or why we are (or can be) like this, I have no idea. Except I suspect we ‘just’ evolved to be like this.

          As far as Tony and yourself are concerned, I get the impression that Tony wants to insist that all there is is matter and energy and that therefore that is the only place our sense of the sacred can reside or relate to. So being/matter/energy is the source of value. But this could well be a wrong impression on my part.

          When you talked of the ‘IS’ as having ‘intrinsic value’, that seemed similar, though not necessarily identical. The position I was trying to compare to his, or yours, or his and yours, was that of being and/or matter and/or energy not having (or being the source of) intrinsic value or sacredness, but the closest thing to sacredness or highest (or intrinsic) value being what we choose when we choose the good. That is to say it’s in the act or decision or orientation, not in anything that ‘is’.

          But as I say, I may have been seeing a parallel that wasn’t really there!

          By the way, you’ve mentioned existentialism & Sartre. I don’t go along with the whole of existentialism. (Heidegger usually leaves me in an angry stew of bafflement and torpor.) But existentialism does contain for me a fundamental truth, which I like to think is also contained within the best of Absurdism. Maybe a topic for another day…

          Thanks again,

          Chris Lawrence

          17 July 2010 at 8:51 am

          • Chris – You suggest that perhaps we just evolved to be the kind of moral beings we are. I can’t but believe that is part of the equation: behaviour that we consider to be moral contributes to survival. But not always, which may be why what we consider immoral behaviour also is part of our repertoire.

            Insofar as that might be the case, I find myself wondering whether our definitions of moral and immoral behaviour need to change. St. Augustine of Hippo thought up the idea of original sin which seems to be inherited and marks us all in order to explain evil in the world. But perhaps it is our definition of evil that is the problem. We don’t see “evil” in other organisms because we don’t give them the capacity for making the kind of choices required to be culpably sinful. But there is a lot of behaviour that would qualify as “evil” if we applied the same moral standards to their behaviour as to ours.

            I read Sartre and Camus and Simone de Beauvoir before beginning my graduate studies in psychology. I still have their books on my shelves, but have not turned the pages for decades. I have only the vaguest idea of Heidegger’s position and don’t ever remember reading him – probably because he was a Nazi, which would have been sufficient reason at the time for me to dismiss him outright. I did decide that existentialism was attempting to answer important questions, but decided in the end they were missing something. And that, I confess, is almost the sum total of my knowledge on the subject.

            Still “Absurdism” sounds promising…

            Seriously – thank you for the clarifications and feedback.


            Terry Sissons

            18 July 2010 at 4:18 pm

  2. Thank you, Chris

    Wow! I think I’m going to need a little time to think about this one.

    It’s going to take some processing to clarify my questions so that I can at least understand how you reach what seems to me such an astonishing conclusion.

    I mean, you aren’t even an existentialist! I’m fascinated.

    Thank you again.


    13 July 2010 at 10:46 pm

  3. Chris – You do make a purely ethical God seem fairly irrelevant. So it looks as if one must deal with Hume’s is/ought question if one is going to give a meaningful ethical dimension to God at all.

    Actually, although in theory “ought” is meant to arise from “is,” it seems to me that in practice most of the time, people in power decide on the “ought” they wish to impose and so craft their metaphysical god to reflect the ought. What is presented then is a God who makes such-and-such demands or laws, but that doesn’t seem to me to be the order in which the “ought” is really initiated.

    But yet – and this is what I would most like your view about – it seems to me that the IS of things(or at least the IS of things as we perceive them, rightly or wrongly) does have implications for OUGHT. If I am in a store, for instance, and perceive that the price of food is a legitimate reflection of its initial cost plus a reasonable profit for the store, then there is a different OUGHT than if I am in a store and perceive that the cost of food is making the store owner very rich while starving a significant number of people.

    I do understand that the next question is why we think we “ought” or “ought not” to enrich ourselves at the dire expense of others. And then the question behind that one, and so on until we get to the ultimate why “ought” we do anything. What other answer is there, at that point, except that we ARE what we ARE, that IS is of intrinsic value? This isn’t exactly a metaphysical god, but it is an IS.

    This position doesn’t lead to nice neat rules of behaviour. It even makes knowing the moral/ethical choice sometimes incredibly difficult. But I can’t see any other potential anchor for ethics/morality.

    Although I am familiar with Hume’s basic premise, I have never read his whole argument, and perhaps he does not conclude that ought cannot arise out of is. If he’s doesn’t, then I have misunderstood him altogether.

    Am I making any sense? Please feel free simply to say “whew!” In any case, I don’t want to distract your Fabulously absolute line of thought.

    As always, thank you for making thinking so much fun.



    13 July 2010 at 4:23 pm

    • Thanks again Terry.

      Very briefly (!) – my understanding of Hume is also that yes he did think an ought could not be deduced from an is.

      On the bigger question, I think I think we don’t actually have an anchor for ethics/morality, except our implicit or explicit choice either to give ourselves a specific anchor or to be without an anchor.

      It’s possible that this is where I differ from both yourself and Tony. I agree that ultimately all we have is that we ARE what we ARE, and that that is an IS. But (wash my mouth out with soap and water) I don’t think I think that that IS has ‘intrinsic value’. When we pare everything else away, the only thing that seems to me to be something with intrinsic value is our choice to be good, to do the right thing, to love.

      Part at least of its ‘intrinsic value’ is that we do not have any other reason for making that choice.

      Does that make any sense?


      Chris Lawrence

      13 July 2010 at 7:40 pm

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