A way in which morality depends on God

David Berlinski has a quip that there shouldn’t be anything demeaning in expecting human beings to act worse when their actions are not being policed by God, since we already expect them to act worse when their actions are not being policed by police. I want to consider a way in which this fact is also compatible with believing that if there were no God, our moral beliefs and actions would not change all that much.

The police almost never intervene in my life now, and so to take them away wouldn’t deprive me of all that much. If there were days that I knew the police weren’t looking, I wouldn’t expect myself to start murdering or raping or pillaging. I’d expect to do pretty much everything I already do.

Pretty much. The speed I drive would probably change appreciably, not just because the only reason I don’t drive faster is because of the highway patrol, but also because a good deal of other persons would be also driving faster. “No cop day” would become a byword for highway craziness, and since you need to go out there anyway you’re going to have to take part in it. You’re going to have to act more reckless even if, as an abstract matter, you are morally opposed to being reckless. The analogy to theism is this: even if “losing an invisible cop in the sky” would not directly change my own moral convictions, if it changed the convictions of a great deal of others* it would end up changing how I act. Even if only the weak-minded need God to behave well, to deprive them of this would leave me acting worse.

More profoundly though, to point to the fact that I would act more or less the same whether the cops are there or not seems to miss the very reason we have cops in the first place. It’s not as if we put them there to look over people in in the normal, mundane state in which most of life gets conducted. Even pretty awful criminals spend 99% of their life doing things that no cop could cite them for: sleeping, watching TV, cooking macaroni, whatever. We need the cop for the extreme situations, like times when you’ve drank too much, are being egged on by others, are frazzled and pushed too far by some jerk, or for the times when, for all your clarity of moral conviction, morality just seems boring or pointless or something we can’t be bothered with. The general principle is this: we don’t need extrinsic, fear-based checks on our behavior in its everyday, mundane circumstances, or even for some more or less great temptations and trials; but it’s unrealistic to think we can count on always finding ourselves within these limits. Our moral life must recognize some limit beyond which we need fear of violence to keep ourselves in line, and it shows a marked lack of self-knowledge for a person to think he has such moral control that he will never need this. Most people don’t need this fear most of the time, and so far as this goes to lose all these sources of violence and fear won’t change much. We only need it when we are not ourselves.

And there’s the rub: even if moral person is totally motivated by beliefs that he holds for himself, we are not always ourselves. Our moral equipment simply can’t be counted on to act of itself beyond limits that are more or less broadly given. The state is the only non-voluntary association we can count on to provide this violence we need to be moral, but it cannot provide for all the violence we need without becoming a totalitarian horror. At any rate, the state is just a set of relations among persons who all have the same need for violence as we do.

It’s at this point that we’re stuck having to rely on God to be moral, since we can’t be moral without some extrinsic fear of violence beyond ourselves, and God alone can provide this to the extent we need it.** This picture of God as a necessary source of fear and trembling is perhaps not very flattering, but this is because it’s an inference made from a part of ourselves that we not only don’t want to face, and which we have a very difficult time even recognizing in our everyday mundane existence,*** because it is not who we are. 

Are there atheist and theist accounts of this? If we have this sort of need of God, then we seem to have exactly the sort of incentive we need to imagine he exists, even if he doesn’t. God is simply a princess Alice story we tell to keep kids in line. But atheism is both a fact and a belief, and for this belief to be reasonable depends not just on the fact but on there being one class of persons who need extrinsic fear of violence and another that doesn’t. But this isn’t so.


*As far as the argument goes, it makes no difference whether it would change them for better or worse. All I want to target here is the idea that if my own moral convictions don’t change, then my moral actions will not change. Human actions are more deeply socially related than that, even for all our prisons, housing communities, zoning laws, and ghettos walled-off or divided by highways.

**Children have parents and adults can form voluntary networks of moral support, but these are either transitory or have the same problems we see in the case of the state.

***Notice that we have a hard time not just anticipating these actions (I don’t think I would ever act like that) but even remembering them. Even when forced to remember those times we can find ourselves saying, with no exaggeration, “I don’t know what I was thinking” or “that wasn’t me”.

A Comment on the Song of Songs

The Facts

-The Song of Songs is the most lengthy description of erotic love in all of Scripture, and yet it does not so much as suggest marriage or bearing children. It does not even mention the moral law. The closest one gets is an admonition “to not awaken love until it is ready”, which is the antiphon or chorus or central message (SoS 2;7; 3:5 ; 8;4).

-Several of the passages are difficult to read except as descriptions of fornication, and none need to be read in a way that rules this out.

-The Song of Song nowhere mentions God, the Law, the Holy Ones.

-Biblical literalism or fundamentalism reads the Song allegorically as spontaneously as it reads Genesis literally. The Douay version even gives chapter headings explaining how the contents of some chapter are simply and elliptical or convoluted way of trying to speak about Christ (here the text sheweth the Love of Christ for his Church…). Even if this is true, it leaves the central question completely untouched: why describe such a relationship as sex with no reference to marriage, children, morality, or even God?

-Why is the Song of Songs a wisdom book? The designation has a clear reference to the matter of Job, Proverbs, Psalms, Wisdom, Sirach, etc. The Song seems just thrown in. Leaving aside whether Solomon wrote it, what is Solomonic about it?

-There is and has been no society that can appropriately discuss the Song. Modest societies will we scandalized by the explicit sexuality and will rush to allegorize way too quickly; and societies like our own that are more comfortable discussing the explicit sex will be scandalized by its complete lack of reference to any moral structure.

The Theory

The Song of Songs describes a state of love as absolute and completely justified in itself. In absolute contradiction to Plato, it refuses to see love as a contingent good that stands in need of  being fulfilled by that which is good in itself. Love is God.


But it isn’t and can’t be so now for us. It can only be so when God has made a complete communication of his own existence to us. Saying “Love is God” now is only true for God and the saints.

Love has a historical character and is divided between the time of viators and the time of the eschaton. Note that when Christ says “in heaven they are neither married nor given in marriage” he is responding precisely to a description of marriage which is treating it so far as it is a vehicle for inheritance, the continuance of the family line, and even as a remedy for the mortality of spouses. It is because of this element in marriage that it has a necessary tie to procreation and exclusivity.* But Scripture and experience are clear that there is another element in love as well.

We can’t just distill out this element of love since its historical character is integral to it. Nevertheless, erotic love is the easiest for us to visualize or understand as an absolute. To take it in this way is, in our present state, immoral, and so the Song uses sex with no reference to morality as a way to speak of eschatological love. Seen from this angle, the problem with the Sexual Revolution is that it wants the absolute too soon – in the words of the Song it wants “to awaken love before it is ready”.

*The exclusivity of marriage follows an analogous reason to the one given for private property – just as property is usually treated better if it is tended by one who owns it, children do better when they are raised by those who generate them. But private property will not remain in the life to come. Monogamy also gets another note of meaning as a sign and sacrament of the unity of Christ and his Church.

Prediction and necessity

1.) Aristotle concludes what he called (for the first time) a science of physics with a proof for a spiritual mover with infinite power. That said, he wasn’t trying to identify statistical plots of data and interpret them according to a model in order to predict future experience.

2.) Data ranged statistically is always a sample and so incomplete. In this sense, data is endless and is made doubly so by the indefinite amount of models that might interpret it and possible future experiences. Because of this essentially indefinite character of the data-model picture one is forming, the one engaged in this activity knows in advance that he can, will and must keep filling in this picture indefinitely.

3.) The data-model picture might end up arriving at the same conclusion as Aristotle did, or might conclude to a divinity by way of different properties. The data-model picture might well someday look like creation, but at the moment creation (or its absence) can only be a suggestion and a hypothesis.

4.) Aristotle did not target prediction but necessity. It’s clear that these are different in mathematics, which served as Aristotle’s paradigm for science. The law of cosines does not predict a relationship among the sides of future triangles, if for no other reason than it is nonsensical to speak about “future” triangles. Aristotle thought that there was an element like this in natural things too, sc. their species and the properties that were linked to it by necessity.

5.) Prediction thus becomes our sole access to nature to the extent that we fail to attain to what things are and what is linked to this.  

6.) There are three possible ways we might stand to understanding what things are and what relates to them by necessity

a.) We might not understand them at all

b.) We might understand only that things have species but be unable to understand what they are.

c.) We might understand both that things have species and what these are, at least to some extent.

7.)  I don’t see how either a or b are compatible with saying that we know things abstractly.

Aug. 15, Time notes

Ideas of time in nature need to take more account of light, which has no succession of itself.

For Aquinas, time arises from matter, or the intrinsic possibility of things to be something else. For Augustine it arises from the dependence of the human mind on anticipation and memory and the dependence of the angelic mind on a multiplicity of ideas. These seem to amount to the same thing: whatever is not God has a dependence on being otherwise.

Outside of God, we have music – a whole that depends for its existence on negative space. Sight doesn’t depend on the unseen the way a melody depends on what is not now heard.

Progressivism assumes history is for what is later, but this deprives the past of its existence for itself. In fact, like a melody, history is not for what is later but for the whole.

Progressivism is the conceit that history is now intelligible because it existed for now. Alternately, it might have existed for the past. These are the only two ways it could be intelligible to us. If it existed for the whole we would have to know all time to know it and then…

In creatures, multiplicity is division in being and/or thought. In the Trinity this is overcome. In this sense Neo-Platonism does not go far enough, though its truth is still preserved in in trinitarianism as monotheism. .

So why not go further and have a trinitarianism that overcomes the opposition between good and evil/ or the beautiful and ugly? Because multiplicity isn’t a privation of unity. An unplayed note is not a privation of the melody. Or – and this is better to say – the highest sorts of unity are those that can preserve distinction among the members.


Kids have names. Adults have relations (dad, grandma). Kids are thus absolutes.

Science raises this: is the divine inference through it? Does it need one? Should it have one?

Idealism challenges what experiment?

Resurrection is symbiosis with cosmos. I would take this if it is wilderness of Ontario. A suburb not so much.

The Feast of the Assumption and the Blessings of Marriage

In a few short days Catholics around the world will be celebrating the Feast of the Assumption – the day that honors our Blessed Mother being assumed, body and soul into heaven so that she could be crowned the Queen of heaven. It has long been one of my favorite feasts and I have loved OLA for as long as I can remember. My grandmother died on August 19th, 1995 and I remember taking great comfort praying to Our Lady on this feast day, asking her to accompany my grandmother on the final leg of her journey, and then feeling her presence with my grandmother on her final day. So ten years ago, when my husband proposed to me, I knew I wanted to be married on this feast day.  A few (not-so) short months later we were married! It was a Monday, which turns out is quite a lot cheaper for most wedding expenses! We were married at the Mission San Buenaventura in Ventura, California; our parish priest drove up to say the wedding and friends of my husband provided the music for the Mass – we had violins as well as acapella songs: they sounded like heaven. Our reception was at a friend’s-mother’s beach house (she told me that when James and I got married we could have our reception at her house if we wanted, even before we were engaged).  My friends catered the meal, my new cousin and brother-in-law grilled the meat for us (chicken and tri-tip!), and my mom made the wedding cake (there was a lot of chocolate involved).  A dear friend DJ’d the wedding from his iPod. It was beautiful and perfect and surrounded by love: True, sacrificial, life-affirming love.

So here’s to Our Lady of the Assumption and sacramental marriage!

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Day light hours – another mom post

A few weeks ago a visiting priest gave a homily lamenting two of modernity’s great gifts: electricity and air conditioning. The first, he noted, allowed man to work beyond the natural limits of the day light, and the second allowed him to work, all day, every day, without interruption. But man needs rest, rest which used to be dictated by the natural rhythms of the days and seasons. He was encouraging us to take more time out to rest and pray. “If you don’t have time to pray, you better not have time to eat,” he said.

I was reminded of this at 1:48 AM as I climbed into bed, after “getting into a cleaning groove.” With my hubby away I knew *I* would be on duty with the kiddos bright and early.  What, exactly, was I thinking when I kept the lights on into the wee hours so I could clean when I should have been sleeping??

Products of Conception – a mom post

Hubby is at the cabin, so he asked me to post…

Between the PP videos that have been released over the past few weeks and the Republican primary debates taking place, the internet is full of euphemisms about abortion again.  So I wanted to share a ‪#‎truth‬: the “product of conception” doing all sorts of flips and kicks and punches and stretches inside of me is ‪#‎notmybody‬ (even if he is currently existing IN my body and his existence is dependent UPON my body – though less so at this point in the game) and therefore his or her right to life is ‪#‎notmychoice‬. He or she is a distinct person, a complete human being, and endowed with EXACTLY the same natural rights as you and I. The Right to Life must be understood by all as the preeminent right in our political and moral ideologies, for without *that* right, there can be no logical claim to other rights.  The idea that at any point, from the moment of conception until the moment of birth, that a fetus is anything less in terms of inherent value is a lie, a political fiction.

Notes on the Argument from evil

-The best any particular argument from evil can hope to do is to establish that God is not good in the sense the argument assumed. There are, however, at least a dozen non-reducible ways ways in which God can be called good/ infinitely good/ benevolent.

-There’s a lot of literature on the argument from evil that I’ve never read, but I’ve gone through a good deal of it without ever seeing an argument that began by saying “Dr./Saint _____ argued that God was infinitely good because _____” The arguments always start as if “God” just meant “infinite goodness/ benevolence”, and as if everyone from time out of mind just assumed he knew this without giving an account of what he meant or a reason why he thought it. And as if everyone meant the same thing by it.

-Even if one takes God’s infinite goodness as axiomatic, there are multiple ways in which it can be so taken, consider

a.) when the one supreme God of gods is thought of, even by those who believe that there are other gods, and who call them by that name, and worship them as gods, their thought takes the form of an endeavor to reach the conception of a nature, than which nothing more excellent or more exalted exists. (Augustine De doc, 1.7)

b.) God is that than which nothing greater can be thought.

c.) God is called good ‘as that by which all things subsist’ (Dionysius)

d.) The perfect is always prior in being to the imperfect (Boethius, following Aristotle)

e.) God is a perfect/ ideal person (Plantinga)

Notice that, while (a) was a clear influence on (b), the former is far more limited and particular while the latter is more general. (c) and (d) can be taken as showing either that God is axiomatically good, or that this follows from very broadly held assumptions.

-Notice that no one ever said “God is infinitely good because everything is awesome! Just look around :-)!” The goodness of God is given within a world where evil not only exists, but often seems to be deeply and radically involved in goodness. In other words, God’s infinite goodness can be just as much an attempt to come to grips with the evil in the world as the argument from evil is. As an empirical support for this, notice that evil makes some turn to God and some away from him.

-If we actually took some of the arguments or axioms of divine goodness seriously, we’d see they saw goodness though the idea of wholeness and totality rather than the way we see it as… what exactly? A lot of the lit says that God must be morally good, but we don’t have any consensus over what this would mean. Would God be an ideal utilitarian? Virtue ethicist? Should he have some goodness transcending this? Is even raising questions like this sheer nonsense? All of these accounts would give us very different views of God, and would in turn give rise to many different sorts of argument from evil, along with different clear resolutions to it. We should stop talking about “moral goodness” as if we all agreed what that meant.

-Many seek out God in the face of bad luck (loss of spouse, getting cancer, born in the wrong place or time) Here again we get another account of the divine goodness: God alone can give meaning to bad luck. God alone can ensure that this evil that befalls us has some sort of intrinsic, real meaning and not just one that we might impose on it though sheer force of optimism. This argument is part of a larger genre: arguments for the divine goodness that arise precisely because of the reality of evil (the simplest arises from the question, “if there is no God, why is anything evil?”)

-In the last fifty or sixty years we’ve grown comfortable seeing goodness as meaning, e.g. to ask “what is the meaning of life” or “what does it all mean” is the same as asking what it is good for or what the good of it could be. This commits us, however, to either seeing all good as determined by humans (whether individually or socially) or as determined by some other intentional agent. Either way, we get very different accounts of the argument from evil. What sense is there to “evil” if all goods (meanings) are determined by us? If we cannot determine them all, then how is good “meaningful”? If we trace this back to nature, in virtue of what is this good properly meaningful? 

Proving divinity

1.) Bill Vallicella and Randall Rauser have both defended this argument:

A proof is a logically valid argument based on self-evident premises

We do not have a logically valid argument based on self-evident premises for the existence of God.

I think both premises are wrong, but in fairness to Vallicella and Rauser, I can’t prove them false by just showing them the sort of argument they had in mind. So why do I disagree with them?

2.)  Every discourse has an appropriate standard of proof. Aristotle makes the point that we can’t expect politicians to give geometrical proofs, and he says this not because politicians are too dim to give them or because they should be allowed to shoot from the hip, but because demanding geometrical proof in political matters fails to recognize something very important about politics. Training politicians to seek mathematical certitude would make them indecisive, abstract, impersonal, etc. Again, politicians would not seek to cultivate the sorts of traits that one finds in Caesar, Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, etc. but the sorts of traits one finds in Archimedes and Cantor. The horror. Notice that the appropriate standard of proof applies not just to conclusions but to the premises one starts with, and so we not only have different standards for what is proven but also for what can count as given, axiomatic, or self-evident.

3.) One aspect of an appropriate level of proof is is tied up with the fact that some proofs are necessary because of the imperfection of knowledge. It would be irrational to say a prosecutor hadn’t proved his case because he failed to deliver a video of the defendant in the course of the act and a signed confession. This is not just because the level of proof demanded is inappropriate but, perhaps more importantly, because if all prosecutors has such evidence we wouldn’t need to have trials. As a consequence, we wouldn’t even need prosecutors. In this sense, we are giving argumentative evidence of guilt because we fall short of the highest sort of evidence we might have. We don’t just arbitrarily stipulate that prosecutors do not need to prove their case beyond a shadow of a doubt. If they were given such proof then we wouldn’t need prosecutors at all. To make a general rule: sometimes a doubt that cannot be eradicated by a proof is part of the reason the proof must be given. 

4.) It’s given that there is an appropriate level of proof, but specifying what that level is with any exactitude requires not just rational considerations but also conventional ones set by authority. Why set the 5-sigma standard of proof and not, say, a somewhat larger or smaller one? Why demand that treason be proved by two witnesses and not three? Why ask prosecutors to prove beyond any reasonable doubt and not significantly beyond reasonable doubt? Why ask that a Saint be proven by two miracles and not more or fewer? All of these standards have both a rational and an arbitrary component set by some authority.

5.) So (a) some proofs require their own inability to eradicate some doubts (or to reach a highest level of evidence); and (b) in order to discuss whether something is proven requires some difficult antecedent work about what an appropriate level of proof and self-evidence would be, and (c) in order to specify this with any exactitude we need arbitrary conventions set by some governing authority.

6.) There’s more than one interpretation of these facts, but here’s mine: as opposed to other discourses philosophy has to recognize that its appropriate level of proof allows for a wider lack of consensus. All discourses recognize some reasonable level of dissent and absence of consensus, but philosophy needs to recognize its level as relatively much larger than other discourses. This seems to be the only way to preserve the facts that (a) we can’t deny that there is some appropriate level of proof in philosophy and (b) it’s against the very nature of philosophy to set up a universal authorities that might set conventional and arbitrary standard of proof.

7.) Under this description, the major premise of the original argument is true only in a sense that is not useful in deciding whether one has a philosophical proof (since “self-evidence” is relative to one’s appropriate level of proof). And the minor is false because our belief in its truth, as far as I can tell, rests on an idea of philosophical truth that has an inappropriate expectation of consensus.

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