It’s incredibly easy to fall into the trap of conceptual confusion in philosophy – or really anything in general. This can have some pretty wide-ranging side effects – consider the free-will debate. That’s as a conceptually confused debate if there ever was one.
The Euthyphro dilemma is a pretty well-worn workhorse in the philosophy of religion world – I won’t spend a ton of time explaining exactly what it is for that reason.
The standard reply is that neither of the horns is correct – something is good because God is good, and said things goodness is a reflection of His goodness. Here I want to leave the philosophy of religion world for a bit and head into a theological direction.
First, we have to have working definitions of good and evil. This is trickier than it sounds – but let’s say that good is that which allows for the flourishing of living things. I think that’s a decent definition. How about evil? Those of a more materialist bent are likely to not really think that there is such a thing as evil in the classical sense – but for the sake of argument, let’s say that evil, as classically stated (by, say, Augustine) is the absence of good. This has some interesting ramifications.
Classical Christian thought holds that creation is by nature good – evil is not itself a created thing but a kind of ontological shadow. It doesn’t have a positive existence of its own. Good, however, does – God created and said that it was good. Creation and created things are good. Evil is not a created thing.
So how does this apply to the Euthyphro problem? Well, perhaps this: something is good because God created it – by definition, if it’s a created thing, it is good. Is something good because God likes it or does God like it because it is good? Neither – something is good because it God’s creation.
I have a feeling this does less to answer the supposed dilemma than I hope – but at any rate, this is a more theologically-minded kind-of answer to the issue at hand,
Tomorrow I head off to basic training for the U.S. Army. I’ll be taking care of helicopter weapons/electrical/computer systems. Basically a mechanic and an electrician. 9 weeks there, 6 months of AIT (advanced individual training) and then duty station. With luck, I’ll have time in AIT to post here and there, since AIT is more like a 9-to-5 job. It’s been good blogging this year. Hopefully I’ll be able to continue this little project in the future.
‘To be free is to be able to flourish as the kind of being one is, and so to attain the ontological good toward which one’s nature is oriented; freedom is the unhindered realization of a complex nature in its proper end (natural and supernatural), and this is consummate liberty and happiness.’ (‘David Bentley Hart, ‘The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?’ p. 70-71)
So conceived, freedom is both a lot more and a lot less than simple volition – the term ‘free-will’ seems to not be of much help. Freedom isn’t just one more thing that you have – and I think that’s why so much of the debate about freedom goes in circles. It simply can’t be defined as one more quality among others that a person possesses.
It’s more of an anthropological (broadly) question, I guess – and it’s also teleological. Obviously, if one doesn’t think that there is a human nature that is oriented to some good, then freedom can only be volition (which, as seen in the previous post, is more limiting than freeing), if there can be any concept of freedom at all. It seems to me that if one takes a materialistic line which denies human nature in the metaphysical sense, then one is pretty much left with no account of freedom, at least as far as I can tell.
Maximos the Confessor developed some pretty interesting thoughts on freedom and the will – he made a distinction between the gnomic and the natural aspects of the will in human nature. The natural is basically the creature living in accordance with the principle of its nature, working towards the fulfillment of its being – which the Christian tradition says is unity with God. Again, teleological. Gnomic willing is basically what most people would describe as ‘free will’. It’s simply deliberating over a course of action. What Hart noted in the previous post, however, is that the gnomic willing really only imprisons us – if I choose X, my choosing X comes at the expense of choosing Y later on. Our ‘free choice’ results only in fewer options to choose from later. Our natural nature, natural will, is aligned to God – after the Fall, our knowledge of God is lost and replaced by knowledge of good and evil (Bonhoeffer develops this theme a lot in ‘Creation and Fall/Temptation: Two Biblical Studies’), and as such, our gnomic will, our deliberation, has to decide from among options what to do, because our natural (pre-fall) knowledge of God is lost. This, as stated above, simply leads to imprisonment by choosing X at the expense of Y:
‘All possible choices are external to the will that chooses; they shape it from without, defining it before it has even chosen. Moreover these possibilities are exclusive of one another: one makes a possible course of action real by rendering other courses of action impossible. And, as we all know, one can choose foolishly, or maliciously, or with a divided will. Freedom, so understood, would consist in no more than a certain kind of largely vacuous and limited potentiality dependent on other limited and limiting potentialities.’ (ibid)
In a nutshell: human freedom, apart from knowledge of God, leads only to imprisonment. The more one aligns themselves with God, the more free they become, but Christian freedom is of a different flavour than most – Christian freedom is freedom for obedience, to quote Donald Bloesch.
This is well worth reading:
‘Sam Harris claims that free will is an illusion. What we ordinarily believe in this neighborhood, he says, is completely mistaken: “You will do whatever it is you do, and it is meaningless to assert that you could have done otherwise”; “we know that determinism, in every sense relevant to human behavior, is true.” Doesn’t that imply that we human beings are not responsible for what we do? Harris is willing to bite the bullet: “we can no longer locate a plausible hook upon which to hang our conventional notions of personal responsibility.” Indeed, he thinks that the illusion of free will is itself an illusion: what he means by this is that when we introspect very carefully we find that we don’t really believe what we think we believe about free will.’
It seems odd to me that realism actually has opponents. Realism here is the idea that there is a reality independent of us or our perceptions – and that we can both experience and know reality-in-itself. The biggest opposing view, idealism (and by extension anti-realism), seems content to say that since all we experience is the content of our minds, we can’t know reality-in-itself. There’s obviously different kinds of idealism but that’s the basic gist. In the following paragraphs, Gilson provides some sharp commentary on the differences between realism/idealism:
‘We must always remember that the impossibilities in which idealism tries to entangle realism are the inventions of idealism. When it challenges us to compare the thing known with the thing in itself, it merely manifests the internal sickness which consumes it. For the realist there is no “noumenon” as the realist understands the term. Since knowledge presupposes the presence to the intellect of the thing itself, there is no reason to assume, behind the thing in thought, the presence of a mysterious and unknowable duplicate, which would be the thing of the thing in thought. Knowing is not apprehending a thing as it is in thought, but, in and thought, apprehending the thing as it is.
To be able to conclude that we must necessarily go from thought to things, and cannot proceed otherwise, it is not enough to assert that everything is given in thought. The fact is, we do proceed otherwise. The awakening of the intelligence coincides with the apprehension of things, which, as soon as they are perceived, are classified according to their most evident similarities. This fact, which has nothing to do with any theory, is something that theory has to take account of. Realism does precisely that, and in this respect is following common sense. That is why every form of realism is a philosophy of common sense.’
‘This is also why the realist never expects his knowledge to engender an object without which his knowledge would not exist. Like the idealist, he uses his power of reflection, but keeping it within the limits of a reality given from without. Therefore the starting point of his reflections has to be being, which in effect is for us the beginning of knowledge: res sunt . If we go deeper into the nature of the object given us, we direct ourselves towards one of the sciences, which will be completed by a metaphysical of nature. If we go deeper into the conditions under which the object is given us, we shall be turning towards a psychology, which will reach completion in a metaphysics of knowledge. The two methods are not only compatible, they are complementary, because they rest on the primitive unity of the subject and object in the act of knowledge, and any complete philosophy implies an awareness of their unity.
There is nothing, therefore, to stop the realist going, by way of reflective analysis, from the object as given in knowledge to the intellect and the knowing subject. Quite the contrary, this is the only way he has of assuring himself of the existence and nature of the knowing subject. Res sunt, ergo cognosco, ergo sum res cognoscens [Things exist, therefore I know, therefore I am a knowing subject]. What distinguishes the realist from the idealist is not that one refuses to undertake this analysis whereas the other is willing to, but that the realist refuses to take the final term of his analysis for a principle generating the thing being analyzed. Because the analysis of knowledge leads us to the conclusion “I think,” it does not follow that this “I think” is the first principle of knowledge. Because every representation is, in fact, a thought, it does not follow that it is only a thought, or that an “I think” conditions all my representations.’
- Etienne Gilson, (http://www.disf.org/en/documentation/07-Gilson.asp)
I wondered why anyone would take the route of idealism/creative anti-realism (ICR) for a long time. Then it occurred to me that maybe there are more anthropological reasons for taking that route. Hume is famous for saying that there is no self, just a bundle of perceptions. If there is no self, then one can’t really have knowledge – and it seems to be a short leap from there to saying that reality is simply perception or something along those lines. Even if there is reality ‘out there’ it wouldn’t matter.
But then I thought more. It seemed like all that was really getting off on the wrong foot – when we know something, we don’t know it in a detached, objective way. We couldn’t know anything in that way, because we can’t get outside ourselves to be objective and detached. I then read this little bit by Torrance, which I’ve posted here before:
‘If man is considered only as “thinking thing” poised upon himself over against the world out there, then the world can be brought within the knowledge of the detached subject only by way of observing phenomena, accounting for them through determining phenomenal connections, and reproducing them to rational representation. Thus the “world” is that which is constructed out of the states of man’s consciousness, not something with which he interacts as a personal agent: it is merely the subject of his objectivist and objectifying operations.’
‘But it is action, in which we personally behave in accordance with the nature of the things around us, that connects man and the world in a way that overcomes the detatched relation between man and nature.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’, p. 57)
That seemed to me to be about right. If we interact in a dynamic and relational way with the world around us, we break through the dualisms that lead to naive realism/IRC. That is, I neither cold observe the real world in a detached way (which is impossible and leads to some odd ideas) nor do I construct reality out of my own experience/perception/mental content. I interact with the world as a personal agent and by doing so am able to know the thing I interact with in itself.
I’ve been reading some Philoponus lately, as well as a couple of different articles on his thought and its relation to theology and physics. Here’s one article (I’m not sure where the other is, but its by the same author):
Some interesting thoughts are to be found in this sixth-century thinker – including dynamic and relational views of time, space and a theory of light that really is ahead of its time. But its his christological thought that I find the most interesting, because he bases his ‘philosophy of nature’ (for lack of a better term) directly on his christology and doctrine of God, or at least that’s how I read it. To quote a couple good bits from the cited article above:
‘John the Grammarian labored at its Academy purged of pagans by the Emperor Justinian. There he attempted to think together the theological and physical significance of the Word of God in relationship to the world. Because of John’s belief in the teaching of Moses, that the Creation was created out of nothing by the Word of God, he could argue at crucial points with the Master of Greek Philosophy and Physics. Against the Greek vision of the world and the kind of necessities it had posited between the Creator and the Cosmos, Philoponus sought to argue for the rational contingency of the intelligibility of the cosmos based upon its creation out of nothing by the speaking of God in the Beginning. The contingency of the world’s Beginning out of nothing was transcendently grounded, independent of God’s nature, in God’s divine freedom to speak into existence all of created reality, the heavens and the earth, its mankind as His Image, and His Sabbath relationship with them in the Creation.  The Cosmos was given existence and motion by the Creator in the Beginning with the divine freedom of His holy love and will and as such was absolutely dependent upon Him for its independent nature and being. As such, it possessed in and of itself no necessity for its existence and subsistence. It could not have been or it could have been something other than it is. The Creation possesses actuality and potentiality that is something out of nothing, the impossibility for Greek thought. But because of the speaking of the divine and sovereign will of a free God, the world is what it is with its mankind in it. It possesses neither an arbitrary ‘nature’ nor a necessary ‘nature’ in its relationship with its Creator. It is what it is in its independent ‘nature’ dependent absolutely upon the divine will for being what it is. It thus possesses a contingent necessity in relation to God, the rationality and intelligibility of which reflects the created and creative freedom of the will of the freely speaking God. The nature of the universe is a contingent nature utterly different from God’s nature and yet absolutely dependent upon Him for its being.’
He was a pretty controversial guy, though – his christological thought landed him an anathema, but I’ll wait for the nxt post to draw that out in a bit more detail.