Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Euthyphro's Dilemma

Recently I've been spending many of my hours listening to and reading a number of articles on STR.org (Stand to Reason), a christian apologetics website, which address various philosophical and intellectual challenges to a christian worldview. It's a cool resource, and a great way to pick your own mind and plow the fertile ground of thought for new ideas and clearer thinking. At the same time, there are a number of formidable and useful secular sources that also address these challenges in a decidedly christian-less way. Which camp do I fall into? Well, I'll let you figure that out as we go along.

What I've been thinking about most recently though is the idea of "good" and "bad" (I also posted something on this a little while ago, though, admittedly, with a lot less thought and research). It's also been presented as "the problem of evil" or Euthyphro's Dilemma (a discourse by Plato, where Socrates is having a dialogue with a man named Euthyphro). In plain terms, it asks, "is God good because he is God, or is good good because God is good?"

Essentially, it posits two possibilities for why good is good:
  • Goodness is a command from God - "good" is determined by divine fiat. An afflatus of good, in certain terms. Things are considered good because God says so.
  • God is good because goodness is good - "good" is objective, and God is aligned with goodness. God commands good things because he likes good things.
This presents Christians (and any moral absolutists) with a grave dilemma.

In scenario A, goodness dissolves into an arbitrary;  that whatever the will of God happens to be, that is what good is. In that case, good would mean little else than "as God likes it." In this sense it attributes the goodness of good (and of God) to simply power. Because God wields power absolutely, this power dictates what is good and what is not.  Not only is this argument counter to what the Bible teaches about God and goodness, it is lethal firepower that can be used against the moral absolutists stance that "good" is in fact "good". It lends more credence to the atheistic and relativistic argument that "good" is in fact "whatever is appropriate for the time" (or "whatever God says it is").

On the other hand, scenario B presents us with a different problem. In this case, if God is good because goodness is good, which then implies that goodness is somehow deemed so by a power higher than God. In this case, the charge against moral absolutism is simpler, but much more compelling: if true, than God is in this case subordinate to some other power which has deemed good to be good.

Now, at this point many atheists and some moral relativists would be more than pleased with themselves, seeing an unsolvable dilemma posited to moral absolutists and theists at large. Having shifted the burden of proof from themselves about the existence of moral absolutes and of the omnipotence (and therefore validity) of the Christian God. (side note: The ironic thing here is that if in fact they disprove the existence of moral absolutes, they lose the ability to consider themselves better than those they've defeated.) As a Christian, which I am, and a moral absolutist, which I must necessarily concede to be (I feel), how am I to answer this dilemma?

In order to completely understand my own answer to this question, you may have to familiarize yourself with these two articles: Greg Koukl's own discussion on Euthyphro's Dilemma (specifically the section under "Grounding") and Paul Copan's rebuttal to atheist author Michael Martin's argument for how atheists can be moral absolutists (specifically the first half of that paper.). I have a feeling you won't be too surprised by my answer if you take the time to read these two articles.

The short answer is this: Euthyphro's Dilemma is a false dilemma. That is, as a rhetorical device, Socrates is painting the poor fellow into a corner despite the fact that they're talking in a circular room. In addition to the argument about grounding and about general moral presuppositions about the dignity of humans, my own conclusion is thus: we can recognize good.

The simplicity of this answer, after having attempted to think and read and write something more compelling or more explanatory, does a better job than any of the other statements I can think of. The statement is pregnant with meaning. As it employs the word "good", it contains the entirety of the discussion about the arbitrariness of good and the autonomy of those who deem it so. In the act of "seeing good" we are in reality interpreting meaningless (in naturalist terms) behaviors and infusing them with our presuppositions. By stating the action of recognition, it asserts that perception is the key to understanding the false dilemma, and that the existence of morality is not based simply in the physical realm, but also as a presupposed idea with which we link behaviors to. And finally, by presenting ourselves, human beings, as the perceivers, I mean to reestablish the profundity of the idea that morality is an idea "queerly" (as Bertrand Russell would have stated) confined to humans, and is therefore evidence for the unique imprint of God in each and every one of us.

The best evidence for the existence of moral absolutes is the fact that we look for and find moral absolutes. The only way this is possible is if A) moral absolutes are out there and B) we know what they look like.

God, being good, created us in his image. As a result, we know what good is, we know what it looks like, and we see it in the world, because the world is also created by God.

Someday, we'll all just have to admit it.