thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Fabulously absolute #4

with 8 comments

And God created Adam

And God created Adam

So what I am saying is this. It is wrong to argue that because God created the universe (or because God created us; or because God is that in which ‘we live, and move, and have our being’; or because God is Being itself; or because of any one of a number of statements or claims about how things are), we ought to love God (or obey God; or worship God; or…).

See Fabulously absolute #1, Fabulously absolute #2 and Fabulously absolute #3 – preferably in that order.

I say this because we need a very good reason to think that any statement or claim about what ‘is’ (or ‘was’) the case (God created the universe; God created us; God is that in which we live and move and have our being; God is Being itself) entails any statement or claim about what ‘ought to be’ the case (we ought to love God; we ought to obey God; we ought to worship God).

By the same token a statement like ‘Life evolved by the survival of the fittest’ does not entail ‘The fittest ought to survive’.

I have not yet come across anything remotely like a good reason to think any ‘is’ implies an ‘ought’.

If we think an ‘is’ statement does imply an ‘ought’ statement it is usually because we are assuming the truth of an additional ‘ought’ premise which is not actually there. For example:

Premise (i): God created the universe.

Missing premise (ii): We ought to love the entity which created the universe.

Conclusion (iii): We ought to love God.


Premise (iv): Life evolved by the survival of the fittest.

Missing premise (v): The way life evolved is the way life ought to be.

Conclusion (vi): The fittest ought to survive.

Moses receiving the Ten Commandments

Moses receiving the Ten Commandments

Missing premises like (ii) and (v) are not self-evident truths.

As far as the concept of an absolute ethical-cum-metaphysical monotheistic God is concerned, we are left with the alternative that God’s ‘is’-type attributes (created the universe; created us; is that in which we live and move and have our being; is Being itself) are independent of God’s ‘ought’-type attributes (ought to be loved; ought to be obeyed; ought to be worshipped).

To make what I’m saying absolutely clear, attributes like is the supreme lawgiver, is the source of goodness and is goodness itself are ‘ought’-type attributes, not ‘is’-type attributes. This is because they are firmly in the ethical domain.

To say that God is the supreme lawgiver is to say we ought to obey God’s commands. Otherwise it just means God is a source of grammatically well-formed sentences in the imperative mood, which we can choose whether or not to obey. If that was the case, then God is not the supreme lawgiver. We are, because it is we who are deciding whether or not to obey God’s commands.

Ditto God is the source of goodness. Goodness is not something we are morally free to choose or not to choose. Someone who thinks he or she is morally free to choose whether or not to do the good thing does not understand ‘morally’ or ‘good’. Certainly the goodness which God is claimed to be the source of is the kind of ‘goodness’ which makes moral demands on us.

Bimetallic coil reacting to heat

Bimetallic coil reacting to heat

The traditional concept of the absolute ethical-cum-metaphysical monotheistic God is therefore a bit like a bimetallic strip. The concept behaves the way it does because separate ethical and metaphysical essences have been riveted together.

It can be an unholy alliance. Think what edge a few metaphysical attributes can add to an entity with the ethical essence typically claimed for God. (See Fabulously absolute #1 for what ‘metaphysical’ covers.)

I am God, the source of goodness. You should love me and worship me and obey my commands. But if you do not, I can destroy you as I created you. I can destroy the universe or any part of it, as I created the universe. And do not think you can hide your innermost thoughts and intentions away from me, because I know everything about everything that is, was and will be…

The metaphysical attributes warp the ethical attributes to the point of negating them.

Small wonder that dualist world-views like those found in Gnosticism, Manichaeism and Catharism were persecuted as heresies by the early Roman Catholic Church. The concept of an absolute ethical-cum-metaphysical monotheistic God was too crucial to the Church’s own unholy alliance with the terrestrial Roman Empire and its successors. It was in the interest of neither party to permit any suspicion that the God of love and goodness which legitimised their power was rotten and tyrannical at its core.

Augustine of Hippo was once a Manichaean

Augustine of Hippo was once a Manichaean

But, you may think, what if the ethical strip is in control of the metaphysical strip? What if all that omnipotence and omniscience are in the service of love and goodness? Surely that is what our traditional absolute monotheistic God is like, not the dissimulating, power-crazed despot I’ve just described?

If only. The problem is the problem of evil – and by ‘evil’ here I’m focusing particularly on suffering. It is a cliché I know, but no less profound for that. If God is an absolute metaphysical God then he, she or it at least had the power to prevent suffering being part of the make-up of the world, if no longer having the power to intervene now to prevent individual instances of suffering.

We can search the ‘Faith and Spirituality’ shelves of our bookshops in vain for clues to this puzzle. God lets us suffer so as to punish us? (So what about the innocent? What about animals? Why do criminals need to be caught?) God is testing us? (What about animals again? What if we pass the test but still go on suffering? What about the terror and shame of the libidinous priest’s next young victim?)

It is perhaps worth mentioning for completeness Buddhism’s take on suffering. This is even though Buddhism does not necessarily subscribe to an absolute ethical and/or metaphysical God. Buddhism teaches that suffering is caused by craving (tanha), which can be a deluded clinging to a certain sense of existence, to selfhood, or to the things or phenomena that we consider the cause of happiness or unhappiness. Suffering will end when craving ends and delusion is eliminated. Sorry to seem flippant, but tell that to the impala as it is strangled by a leopard.

The point is that the problem of suffering is wholly created by the assumption of an absolute ethical-cum-metaphysical monotheistic God. Take away that assumption and the problem goes away. Suffering itself does not go away alas, but at least we can stop trying to justify it – which seems like progress to me.

However much we try to keep the concept of an absolute ethical-cum-metaphysical monotheistic God on the side of the angels, it still dips into tyranny.

I’d better come clean:

Explicit premise (vii): All things capable of tyranny ought to be avoided.

© Chris Lawrence 2010.


Written by Chris Lawrence

24 July 2010 at 11:15 am

8 Responses

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  1. Chris – I feel I must tell you that I finally get the point of why you argue so persistently and vehemently against making an ethical god out of a metaphysical god. It’s not just a practical question of whether god is a psychological projection used to justify greed and self-service to the detriment of others or if it is used to buttress sometimes great heroism and generosity.

    It’s the essence of the idea, isn’t it? Being good because “god” demands it is a miserable reason for being good, even if there were a god doling out rewards and punishments at the end of our lives.

    I also strongly suspect that being good because I’m obeying god and being good because I myself actively choose what I think is good are not the same “good.” For myself, at least, it makes a substantial difference.

    This is a liberating insight for me. So once again, I want to say thank you. Really, Chris. A big thank you.



    1 August 2010 at 4:12 pm

    • Thanks Terry. It absolutely is the essence of the idea.

      The idea that one can deduce ethical imperatives from substantive, metaphysical claims about features of God, is, to me, circular at best. Until someone shows me how it can be sound to deduce an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ I shall stick to the view that it’s unsound.

      There seems to be a presumption that in the special case of God the inference is OK. But that’s circular – effectively it’s defining God as a special kind of entity about which it is true that his/her/its metaphysical attributes entail ethical attributes. But that’s bizarre.

      It’s a bit like defining a ‘squircle’ as a geometric figure which is both a square and a circle and then saying: ‘You see, a circle can be a square!’

      I’ve just revisited the original 1981 Granada TV production of Brideshead Revisited and – great production of a great author’s great novel though it is – it does rather leave a bad taste in the mouth.

      It’s the idea that it is a great sin to set up a ‘rival God’ to the ‘real God’ (in this case the God promoted by the Roman Catholic Church), and for that the sinner will burn in Hell. And that this kind of thinking is not only acceptable but also profound in some polysyllabic way.

      Ultimately the ‘rival God’ is one’s own autonomy. If the ‘real God’ is something else, then it can only be a product marketed by a political organisation. If you discount all the politics, including all the claims of revelation which ultimately you can only reject or take on trust, then the ‘rival God’ and the ‘real God’ merge into one. Anything else seems like madness to me.

      Thanks again,

      Chris Lawrence

      7 August 2010 at 9:01 am

      • Chris – Thank you for your comment elaborating my comment. I think what finally brought me up short about the supposed ethics demanded by a metaphysical god is that once one says “it’s God’s command,” there is no need to explain any further. But this is a very childish reason for behavior: “Daddy says I have to…” I asked someone recently why we should love everyone without exception – including such lovelies as Hitler and Stalin. He said “because Jesus commands it.”

        That’s not good enough for me. Loving someone because I find them intrinsically lovable and loving someone because I’m commanded to are not equivalent kinds of love.

        I have long held the same view of Brideshead Revisited as you describe. It was a marvellous book – absolutely authentic – and the tv series was a brilliant production. It describes perfectly – believe me, I know first hand – the basic teaching of Roman Catholicism. You are taught that you can never leave, and in the end, you can never stop believing. On your death bed, if you are lucky, you will have the opportunity to call for the priest. As you possibly know, non-practicing Catholics are never referred to as “non-Catholics.” They are only lapsed Catholics.

        Now off to ponder a few more thoughts on reductionism in science.

        Thank you again.

        Terry Sissons

        7 August 2010 at 5:33 pm

        • Chris –

          I was thinking about the irony involved in the admonition to love others because God commands it. I have long thought I want to be loved for myself not because somebody is doing what God says. But I never thought of it as a separation of the “ought” and “is.” It isn’t what Hume had in mind, but it strikes me as ironic that the “is” (ie: the persons we are supposed to love) is separate from the “ought” (ie: God who is passing out the commands.) In a self-interested sense, I would prefer to think that the reason why someone “ought” to be loved is because s/he “is” what s/he is.

          (Though in fairness, I must admit that in fact it often doesn’t seem to me to actually work out that way. People often do really love each other and believing in God doesn’t seem to turn the loved ones into mere objects.)

          So much for my foray into philosophy. You might rightly suggest I stick to psychology.

          Thank you for listening.


          Terry Sissons

          8 August 2010 at 4:38 pm

  2. Chris – Okay, I withdraw my question in the comment above. It’s not that I’m not interested in what you might say – I always am – but I realize you have already answered it. If I understand, you don’t know the source of our moral principles, except that they seem to have evolved with our evolution.

    I find myself increasingly agreeing with this. Morality is an evolving process. I don’t think it can be codified into a single set of unchanging principles. And certainly not in a set of concrete laws – written in stone or otherwise.

    Thank you for listening. It keeps me thinking, which if nothing else, I find to be an immensely rewarding enterprise.


    Terry Sissons

    25 July 2010 at 9:47 am

    • Thanks Terry. A lot of useful feedback in both your comments to help me sharpen up what I think I’m trying to say!

      I don’t think I’m denying that kind, generous & heroic people can be motivated by the idea of a loving God. In fact that squares with my own experience. I’d even go so far as to say it may be more difficult to be completely unselfish without belief in a loving God for support.

      This could seem to contradict what I said at the end of my previous post, about it being a ‘tragic irony’ that the concept of an ethical-cum-metaphysical absolute monotheistic God is only safe in the hands of good people – when good people are the very people who should not need it.

      But I don’t think it is a real contradiction. The link between ethics and religion is still very ingrained. The idea that ethics can transcend religious faith is an unfamiliar and scary one for many people. The idea that ethics should transcend religious faith can seem blasphemous to one to whom the concept of blasphemy is real. To elevate one’s own ethical perspective above that of God’s commandments can seem like the worst act of pride.

      From where I sit religious faith looks like a bubble of one-way mirror glass. From inside all there is, and every way of experiencing and knowing what there is, is provided by what is inside the bubble and what gets reflected back from the inside surface of the bubble. If you are inside the bubble there is nothing outside the bubble. There is certainly goodness – real goodness – inside the bubble. And real evil outside the bubble.

      But there is also real goodness outside the bubble and real evil inside.

      In terms of this image – and it is only an image – what I’m saying is that I think the bubble is sustained by falsehood, and it would be better if it burst.

      Of course it is possible that the bubble is reflective on both sides – ie I think I can see inside but what I see may itself be a reflection of what is outside. I may well also be inside my own ‘godless’ bubble.

      As far as the source of morality is concerned, yes I think that could be as close as we can get to right now: ie that our moral sense is the way it is because of the way we have evolved – as sentient, rational & social beings.

      We cannot derive moral principles from the way things are or the way we have evolved. But the way things are and the way we have evolved supply content for those principles.

      Because we are sentient beings we can feel pain. Because we are conscious and/or self-conscious and/or social beings (plus maybe other attributes) we know that other humans and non-human animals also feel pain. This knowledge feeds into the principle that we should not cause pain to other sentient beings, but it does not determine it. We have to decide – implicitly or explicitly – not to cause pain. (And the fact that we can decide is also because of the way we have evolved…)

      Thanks again,

      Chris Lawrence

      25 July 2010 at 11:03 am

      • Thank you, Chris, for your amplification. For myself, I’m still thinking about the utility of throwing out the idea of god altogether. I personally have reached the point in my life where the concept leaves me cold at best. (It certainly does not produce any feelings of awe, which the universe itself sometimes does.) In fact, I bridle even at substitutes for “god,” like “the sacred”.

        Like you, (though with an obviously very different background) I do not know how influenced I am by my own history. I cannot hear the word God without all the associations of milleniums falling down upon my head, and I want to run away. It certainly does not inspire.

        But for some people, that does not seem to be so.

        As for moral principles, I’m still thinking. Not convinced by Hume. But certainly not convinced by the Ten Commandments. Or Kant. Or even the Golden Rule. The application of ethical/moral principles is always relative to the situation. But no fundamental principles by which to negotiate those deep dark waters? Are there no universal principles which cultures have all seemed to gravitate towards? I think there may be. But I’m not ready to argue the case.

        Which is what makes your posts and comments so stimulating.

        Thank you.

        Terry Sissons

        25 July 2010 at 3:08 pm

  3. Ah! this is just the one I’ve been waiting for! Thank you.

    Now I need to give myself a little time to think whether I agree as fully as my first response suggests. It is such a radical thought for someone with my background. Some of the kindest, most generous, most heroic people I have known were motivated by an idea of a loving God. Nor have I been all that impressed by any higher standard on average among non-believers, although I have personally known enough atheists to know that belief is not a pre-requisite for kindness, generosity, and heroism equal to that of believers.

    So as you know, I have more or less thought of belief in God as a projection – for better or worse – and so not an essential problem, or indeed solution.

    But as I have been reading your posts on the subject, I have begun to worry that letting “God” tell us what to do (however Good and Loving that God may be) is an escape from taking personal responsibility for our choices. One of the things I liked about the French existentialists was their insistence that we are responsible for our choices – that we can’t blame anybody else or put that responsibility on anybody else (eg: “I was only following orders,”) including God.

    And it seems to me that submitting to tyranny of any kind is an abnegation of that inescapable responsibility.

    BUT I do have a question about your premise vii: “Anything capable of tyranny ought to be avoided.”


    I agree, of course. Tyranny whether it takes place in Guantanamo or the local church or is carried out by the 9-year-old boy down the street with his sling shot aimed at the family cat.

    But it sounds suspiciously like a moral principle to me. Which gets me back to the best foundation for moral behavior that I can think of: that we need to respect what IS.

    (I do have to admit, though, that when I start to analyze it, I have some profound problems with respecting what IS, as well. I mean really serious problems. Because if you take it to its logical conclusion, one might legitimately argue for never trying to change anything whatsoever. Even the crazy electrical wires connected to my wall light.)

    Thank you again, Chris. I enjoy your posts hugely.

    Terry Sissons

    24 July 2010 at 3:35 pm

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