Sunday, May 31, 2009

God may be great, but is he good? Plato's Euthyphro

I'm well under way with these essays. Only another month's work should see them ready. Here's a finished one.

One of the problems with a god who is transcendant and also personal, a problem felt heavily not only by Christian theologians but also the Islamic faylasufs, is the problem of free will and its essential opposite, predestination. Interestingly, this is a problem not only for humans, but for the god or gods. So Christians might ask, is God making me sin or am I sinning against God's wishes? If God is making me, then I have no reason to feel any shame [but nor should I feel pride in doing good things, as this also is God's responsibility, not mine]. On the other hand, if I'm free to do what I want, how do I know that what I'm doing is something God approves of? I feel pride in my actions, I'm winning the praise of others, but what about God? Are God and the good one and the same? We often hear that God is good, but is this an equation of precise identity? And if not, which is more important, God or the good? Is God constrained by the good, or is the good constrained by God?

The problem's a very old one, dating to well before the advent of Christianity, and it was addressed head on in an early Platonic dialogue, the justly famous Euthyphro.

In this dialogue Socrates encounters Euthyphro outside the court-house, where Socrates is facing a charge of impiety [he is later to be found guilty and sentenced to death]. Euthyphro, an expert in religious law and lore, is there, we discover, to prosecute his own father on a charge of murder.

Socrates is keen, or at least pretends to be, to probe Euthyphro on this life and death issue of piety and impiety:

Soc. And what is piety, and what is impiety?
Euth. Piety is doing as I am doing; that is to say, prosecuting any one who is guilty of
murder, sacrilege, or of any similar crime-whether he be your father or mother, or whoever
he may be-that makes no difference; and not to prosecute them is impiety. And please to
consider, Socrates, what a notable proof I will give you of the truth of my words, a proof
which I have already given to others:-of the principle, I mean, that the impious, whoever he
may be, ought not to go unpunished. For do not men regard Zeus as the best and most
righteous of the gods?-and yet they admit that he bound his father (Cronos) because he
wickedly devoured his sons, and that he too had punished his own father (Uranus)

for a similar reason, in a nameless manner. And yet when I proceed against my father, they
are angry with me. So inconsistent are they in their way of talking when the gods are
concerned, and when I am concerned.
It should be noted that the murder Euthyphro accuses his father of is a murky affair. The victim was a farm labourer, a dependent of Euthyphro's family. He had slain one of the family's domestic servants in an argument. Euthyphro's father had tied him up, thrown him in a ditch, and then sent to Athens for advice as to the next step to be taken. The messenger was delayed, and by the time he got back, the bound and neglected labourer was dead. Certainly there is blame to be attached, but Socrates is taken aback at Euthyphro's certitude about how the gods view his father's act – that is, as an act of impiety.

Euthyphro's response above, that he is following the example of the gods, prompts Socrates to express doubts about these tales of the gods, a scepticism which, he speculates, might be the reason for his being accused of impiety. Euthyphro assures him that all the stories of the gods are true, whereupon Socrates returns to the general category of piety. He wants a more catch-all definition than 'doing as I do', or 'doing as the gods do'. The next definition Euthyphro comes up with is that piety is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety that which is not dear to them.

However, as both interlocutors agree, the gods are often in discord, and when they argue, it's always about Big Issues; right and wrong, justice and injustice. And the same goes for humans. So, as Socrates points out, the gods appear to be on both sides, arguing for 'right' one minute, and 'wrong' the next. So it's impossible to tell whether piety or impiety is dear to the gods – which way they will go on any particular Big Issue.

Socrates next gets Euthyphro to agree that the gods don't argue about whether just actions should be rewarded or unjust actions punished; they accept that's how it should be, as do mortals. Instead they argue the particulars of cases, whether such-and-such an action was right or wrong. So Socrates amends Euthyphro's definition to say that piety is that which is dear to all the gods, impiety that which is hateful to them all, and any action or thing about which they're in dispute is neither pious nor impious. He then asks a question which greatly perplexes Euthyphro. He asks – but are these acts loved by the gods because they are pious, or are they pious because they are loved by the gods?

The question here, of course, is one of priority. Which came first, piety [roughly equivalent to our morality] or the gods? Do we do what is right because it is right [and the gods too are subordinate to right and wrong], or do we do what is right because the god – when they're in agreement - will it as right [in which case we must be constantly trying to determine the will of the gods]? The crucial nature of this question, for all religions and for all believers, cannot be underestimated. To put things monotheistically, if God simply determines the good, or if goodness is an attribute or defining characteristic of God, then it would be as pointless to praise God as it would be to praise [or blame] a cat for having fur, or a fly for producing maggots. If, on the other hand, the good is something antecedent to God, something which God strives to achieve along with the rest of us, then this puts something of a dent in God's omnipotence and all-round Supremacy.

This issue has indeed proved a headache for all three major monotheistic religions. Different positions have been taken on it, and many lives have been taken as one side or another has gained power. The position of Plato is clear enough, both in the Euthyphro and the Timaeus. He gives priority to piety, justice and all the general 'forms' of virtue. Interestingly, the writer or writers of Genesis also seem to give the good a prior existence to God. In the very first chapter the phrase 'God saw that it was good' is written several times. The chapter begins with a satisfying crescendo, 'And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good'. I wonder who he was trying to please?

To return to the Euthyphro, Socrates continuing treatment of the relationship of piety to the gods, and to justice in general, of which he sees piety as a subset, only succeeds in bewildering Euthyphro all the more, until he's reduced to agreeing with whatever Socrates suggests to him - a familiar pattern in Plato's dialogues. When he finally gets Euthphyro to assert himself once more, Euthyphro can only come up with an elaboration on a previous statement of the nature of piety:

Euth. I have told you already, Socrates, that to learn all these things accurately will be very
tiresome. Let me simply say that piety or holiness is learning, how to please the gods in
word and deed, by prayers and sacrifices. Such piety, is the salvation of families and states,
just as the impious, which is unpleasing to the gods, is their ruin and destruction.

Socrates is very disappointed with this answer. Why would prayers and sacrifices be pleasing to the gods, who have no need of them? Or if they need them, how could they be omnipotent? Are offerings and supplications good in themselves? We appear to be back at the starting point, and Socrates prepares to begin the exploration from scratch. Euthyphro is having none of this, and begs off; he has a court case to attend to. Whether his confidence in his cause has been affected by the dialogue is anyone's guess.

The implications of Socrates' central question, though, should be clear to all believers. If morality is just the will of God or the gods, that doesn't help us much, as nobody seems quite to know what that will is. There are interpreters, mediators between the god or gods and ourselves, who try to teach us this will, but they notoriously contradict each other, just as the sacred writings of the deities are full of apparent contradictions. If morality is separate from the gods then we have to work it out for ourselves, just as, presumably, the gods do. Either way we appear to be on our own, morality-wise, no matter how fervently we believe.


Monday, May 11, 2009

the end of the journey: chez nous

I've continued reading Journey of the Magi, and sure enough it has only irritated me the more. In this passage he gets more blatant, and ridiculous.

Freedom without divine laws results in, to paraphrase Shakespeare, humanity preying on itself like monsters of the deep; and progress has brought us to the brink of doing to the world what God promised he would never do to it again himself.
First, to exonerate Shakespeare. The beauty, and to some the frustration, of the reflections expressed in Shakespeare's plays is that none of them can be pinned on the bard himself. The words belong to Albany, in King Lear, who mordantly asserts that, without the 'visible spirits' sent down from the heavens to tame us 'humanity must perforce prey on itself, like monsters of the deep' - and yes, he uses the plural, just as Gloucester does when he famously says, 'as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport' - which gives an idea of what he thinks of divine law, a view not dissimilar to that of Mark Twain. King Lear is a pagan play, so what is asserted here about 'divine law' is hard to ascertain, suffice to say that humanity needs taming - something we can perhaps all agree on.
As to progress, that long-suffering whipping-boy, if we define it, uncapitalized, as positive change, or improvement, it reflects a thoroughly human and indispensable striving. The notion that we're on the eve of destruction, going to hell in a handcart etc, is as old as civilization itself, and hardly needs any effort expended on it here.
It might be pointed out, though, that divine laws, whatever they are, are inimical to the notion of progress, because of course they're eternal, as divine stuff tends to be. How can anything which is eternal change? This is, of course, a big problem, bigger than is recognised, for all proponents of 'divine law'. If you think biblical injunctions, or sharia laws, really are divine, then you're stuck with them for ever and ever. Hardly any wonder then that so many experts on divine law, imams and rabbis and so forth, have sprung up over the centuries to 're-interpret' the laws for changing times. Not that they've done a particularly impressive job - sharia law, in particular, continues to be a gross insult to anyone who has any respect for human rights [that construction of miserable, despised human beings].
Of course, there are no divine laws. Roberts should have written 'freedom without laws leads to humanity preying on itself', as, basically, Hobbes asserted. But that would've been way too prosaic, I suppose.

I feel almost guilty about getting stuck into Roberts like this, searching for 'gotcha' moments, or passages. I remember Glenn Gould, the pianist, saying that he gave up concert performances because he felt that the audience was only there to hear him fail, to wait for that 'gotcha' moment when the whole performance might collapse on a bum note. Roberts' book, which he sees as an entertainment, is contradictory, muddled, funny, angry and occasionally inspired. He has apparently written acclaimed reportage on both gulf wars, and he has some of the footloose, rambling quality of a Hunter S Thompson. Also, I read on his website that he has gone blind in both eyes, a fate I don't even want to begin to imagine. Yet I also feel something like a duty to challenge sentences such as the one quoted above. To not let people get away with hazy-lazy religious talk, to show up the emptiness at its heart. Human laws are imperfect, but they're all we have, and if we accept they're always going to be only human, we'll accept the challenge of constantly modifying them. Unlike the mysteriously misplaced ones given to Moses, they're not written in stone.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Twitter - winning the war against eloquence

Having had a lot of time off from blogging, I'm even more out of date than usual. Some months ago, after listening to a radio segment about Twitter, I wrote the following, and since then Twitter seems to have taken over the world. Of course, it seems to be essentially a networking vehicle, and I'm the world's worst networker, and a completely isolated, pathetic soul. Anyway, here's my piece, for my own amusement.

Being a dweller in the most pathetic Beckettian solitude, I'd never heard of Twitter before this morning, when I listened to a Radio National program called Future Tense - more moderne than moderne.
According to the program's hype, Twitter is rapidly replacing Facebook etc as the latest thing in networking - not exactly my forte.
A very brightly speaking young gent was interviewed, and he enthused about the level playing field that Twitter is - largely because all communications are limited to 140 characters. The advantage of this, according to our interviewee, is that eloquent people - this is the term he used - don't have an unfair advantage. You begin to get a sense of why it's called Twitter. He also pointed out that [presumably articulate] people don't get a chance to hijack the space and 'debate politics' or some such subject.
So, lpf or lcd? What do they actually talk about on such sites? I'm sure that, at a pinch, you can say something substantial with 140 characters, but why do I get the impression that the push is against substantiality? That Twitter is a dumbing down of Facebook which is a dumbing down of Blogging which is a....
I know it's nowhere near as linear as this, and that imposing restraints can sometimes lead to greater creativity, but really the move is not towards greater creativity but towards more bums on seats. A democratisation which has its downside. I can well imagine that the next great networking service might be Twitch, in which those who can't read or write will also be included [it could even be used to bridge the language barrier by simply eliminating language, or creating a new universal one, in which each touch of the keyboard represents a gesture or emotion. We can all Twitch, and someone will be Twitching all the way to the bank. Good luck to them.


Thursday, May 07, 2009

I return - to a religious mishmash

Jesus the cutely meditating Essene Nazarean

Thought I'd lost my blog there.

I've been awol for a while, trying to write essays for The Faith Hope, The Book.

This leads me to read all sorts of stuff I wouldn't usually read. Journey of the Magi by Paul William Roberts, has some good humorous bits in it, but it's an odd and unconvincing mixture, part travel novel, part speculative thingy [about inter alia the influence of Zoroastrianism on Judeaism and so Christianity], part satori, part mockery of Marco Polo, part spruik for Zoroastrianism and eastern-style Christianity as opposed to the nasty materialist Roman Catholics, and I'm becoming less and less interested in the evidence-free dogmatism - for example, on Zoroaster, he writes:
It is... worth repeating the traditional account of the prophet's life - since there is no doubt that he lived one, and lived it under very human conditions, too.
He then goes on to point out that nobody knows when and where the guy lived, and that claims about the dates of his life vary by a millenium or so! In fact nothing is known about his life, and he seems to be as shadowy a figure as Homer. The 'no doubt' claim is simply absurd. What's more, Roberts also has no doubt that Jesus was a 'pure Essene rabbi' - having read three quarters of the book now, I'm still waiting for a skerrick of evidence to support this. Many of Roberts' conjectures are interesting and even ingenious, and certainly he knows far more about Judaic and early Christian history than I do, but I detect a clear bias. Organised religion generally repels him, but he's drawn to the unorthodox, idiosyncratic religions, or dimensions of religion, such as Sufism, Zoroastrianism, Eastern Christianity and Essene Judaism. He depicts Christianity as being hijacked in the west by an orthodox, power-hungry clique who divested of its real essence. He writes of Eastern Christianity as the Truth and Western Christianity as the Lie. Naturally this doesn't convince me, as I don't find anything 'true' about religion, though it might be sometimes appropriate to talk about authenticity versus cynicism or disingenuousness. Clearly though it's the authoritarianism of established religion that gets my goat, while I find individual mystics merely quaint, or sad - and sometimes, admittedly, impressive, For example, I'm not sure if Leonard Cohen would want to call himself a mystic but he has that aura of calm and strength about him which is just what you need from a guru, and it clearly engenders great respect and love. And does no harm that I can think of, which is far more than you can say about organised religion.

So I've been reading the passages in Roberts' book which deal with the histories of these religious movements with increasing skepticism, and boredom. And when I got to this infuriating passage I really wondered whether it was worth continuing. He is writing about his differences with Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Barbara Thiering:

As brilliant as many of her interpretations are, Thiering's major shortcoming is her inability to realize that the "Eastern" gnostic, or Magian, or Nazarean Essenes were not superstitious fools: they opposed Pauline Judaeo-Christianity for the very reason that, by removing doctrines and practices regarding the subjective experience of "Truth", it would end up as little more than the secular humanism Thiering herself seems to have arrived at - besides creating a society governed increasingly by political or personal expediency rather than eternal spiritual values and truths.
Now this really is a load of tosh. What are these 'eternal spiritual values and truths'? Apparently they're arrived at through doctrines and practices dealing with the subjective experience of truth. Basically he's lost himself in a mire of theological claptrap - amazing how you can do that in one short paragraph - and the onus is on him, as it is upon any theological spruiker, to let us know what these eternal spiritual values are. As for the political and personal expediency that, he intimates, flows from secular humanism, we've all heard that one before. It conveniently ignores the fact that all our laws are secular, and those that haven't been, historically, have generally been bad laws. Even if you look at the decalogue, the commandments that are most convincing and 'eternal'-seeming are the least 'spiritual' - thou shalt not lie, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal. That's because they're based on a common-sense understanding of how we are to best survive and thrive as social beings.
I've been reading Geoffrey Robertson's important book Crimes Against Humanity, and in it he traces the history of human rights since the Universal Declaration, that monument to secular humanism, came out in 1948. As he points out, many nations with poor human rights records signed up to the document cynically believing it to be a paper tiger, but the tiger is beginning to grow some baby teeth. I think it has largely defeated claims about western bias and 'Asian values' and it still stands, in fact more so than ever, as a model to aim for, and to measure performance against. Enforcement is of course the primary problem, but the human rights model, it seems to me, has a solid basis in our practical understanding of what it is to lead a life of value. Whether they embody 'spiritual values', I don't know, as I've never understood what that word means, but they do embody 'eternal' values, at least for as long as human beings go on being human.


pavlov's cat