Friday, June 19, 2009

Does the Euthyphro Dilemma Argue For Theism? (Part One)

Marc Schooley, author of the The Areopagus, (who also comments as MS Quixote) argues adamantly in a post on his blog that the Euthyphro Dilemma advances theism. MS Quixote referenced this argument during a discussion on the reasons why people are theists or atheists at the blog Daylight Atheism.

I intend to present a comprehensive case as to why the Euthyphro Dilemma advances atheism, but to do this, I must substantively and seriously address the reasons given by MS Quixote as to why he believes the Euthyphro Dilemma advances theism. This is my goal, and I intend to demonstrate my case thoroughly and convincingly.

First, I must commend MS Quixote for his well-written and well-argued critique of ED. I recommend his summary of ED and the surrounding controversies to anyone who desires to obtain a solid understanding of what exactly the dilemma is, and what is meant by it, when both theists and atheists refer to it.

Because MS Quixote has done such an excellent job covering the historic origins of the Euthyphro Dilemma and the traditional use of ED by atheists, I will not delve into those sections of his essay here. I hope that my readers of this entry will already have some knowledge of the dilemma, and if they don't, I recommend MS Quixote's summary of it, because he does a much better job of summarizing it then I could have done.

Let's cut right to the meat of this discussion: Quixote's critiques of the dilemma.

MS Quixote asserts that:
Another nemesis of the dilemma is the tertium quid, the third option. If a viable third option is presented, the dilemma is rightly deemed a false dilemma. The dilemmas above appear to be true dilemmas; there do not appear to be other alternatives to dead/alive and pregnant/not pregnant. However, if a dilemma states that children like either football or baseball, it is rather simple to provide other options, say, basketball. Thus, the dilemma is defeated. This is commonly referred to as “passing through the horns of the dilemma.”

Lastly, one may “grasp the horns of the dilemma.” If it may be shown that one or both of the premises of a dilemma is false, the dilemma is successfully defeated. With ED, the theist is able to both pass through the horns and grasp them.

So, is the theist really able to both pass through the horns of the Euthyphro Dilemma and grasp them? This is the bedrock of MS Quixote's argument: if I cannot demonstrate that his arguments (which purport to demonstrate that the theist can pass through and grasp the horns of the ED) are invalid, then I cannot state that MS Quixote is incorrect when he claims that the ED argues for theism rather than atheism.

MS Quixote's first step is to demonstrate that the Euthyphro Dilemma is, in fact, a false dilemma, by presenting a viable alternative, a third option, in addition to the two horns of the Dilemma as summarized:

The first horn of the dilemma—Is good willed by God because it is good—locates the good independently of God. The good is conceived of as some standard or other that God recognizes in determining what is good. If this state of affairs obtains, God is subservient to standard independent of his eternal being; there is at least one entity He is not sovereign over. Moreover, he becomes the mere messenger of goodness. Admittedly, this position is untenable for Christian theists.

The second horn of the dilemma—or is it good because it is willed by God—tends to render the commands of God arbitrary. The ED proponent argues with this horn that God could have just as well commanded rape and murder as goods, and that they are evils is only at the whim of God’s command. Furthermore, under the second horn, often referred to as Divine Command Ethics (DCT), it is difficult to make informative claims about Gods goodness, if goodness is solely based upon what God says it is. What does it then mean to say that God is good?

While acknowledging that both horns of the original dilemma are untenable for Christianity, MS Quixote presents his third option:

The first philosophic move of the theist is to pass through the horns of the ED by locating the Good as the nature of God. In effect, the theist answers the dilemma by saying “neither.” Hence, the theist claims that the good is not independent of God, as posited by horn one, nor is the good commanded by God, as claimed by horn two. In effect, a tertium quid is presented: God’s nature is the paradigm of goodness. God’s nature is the good.

Ah ha, the ED is clearly bunk, then! So we're finished, right?

Not necessarily.

As MS Quixote aptly recognizes, many proponents of the Euthyphro Dilemma are not prepared to accept this alternative as an answer to the dilemma. In fact, these critics argue that this framing only moves the dilemma one step farther back:

ED is re-erected around the theist’s contention that God’s nature is the good: Is God’s goodness good in relation to some independent standard, or it is good because God’s character is good? The former presents the same problem as the first horn of the original dilemma, the latter, the same problem as the second horn of the original dilemma which again seems arbitrary or whimsical. After all, God’s character could have been anything.

MS Quixote responds that those critics who reply to his offered alternative with this response fail to understand exactly what he really means with his third option:

Theists generally consider the reformulation of the dilemma a clear indicator that the ED supporter has misunderstood the theist contention that God’s nature is the good. Note, the theist objection does not say that God’s nature is good; it says that God’s nature is the good.

The ED supporter has attempted to establish an infinite regress with the reformulation of the dilemma; however, the theist response precludes this outcome by positing God’s nature as a metaphysical ultimate, a brute fact of existence. Brute facts are explanatory propositions that require or admit no explanation themselves.

So God's goodness is a brute fact of existence. But wait, God's nature isn't good; it is the good, according to MS Quixote.

So how we can call God "good" if we have no standard for what is "good"? If "the good" is defined as God's nature, then anything that is God's nature is "the good". But God could be entirely malevolent, and since it is his nature, then complete malevolence is "the good". For who are the pots to question the potter? God can smash all of them if he wants, err, if that's his nature.

And why not? What's preventing God from being completely malevolent? And how do we know that if there is a God, that he isn't entirely malevolent? If God's nature is "the good", and we cannot define "the good" apart from God's nature, then how can we ascribe any qualities at all to this nebulous concept known as "the good"?

If we agree with MS Quixote's definition of "the good", then we now have no coherent standard for whether something is good or evil. In fact, good and evil become meaningless and obsolete; things are either part of "the good" or they are not part of "the good". God's nature defines what is "the good". And those who speak in the name of God get to define what is God's nature!

"Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." - Voltaire


MS Quixote said...

Hey Tele,

I'm confident that you will recognize good when you encounter it, whether it be in God or elsewhere. That's why I believe it's informative to say that God is good.

Teleprompter said...

MS Quixote,

I agree with you that it should be informative to say that God is good.

It should be. But is it?

I have to admit, I am a bit confused.

You said that God is the paradigm of goodness. OK. But you said that theists didn't argue that God was good...but that he is "the good".

"The good" as a concept seems awfully slippery as doesn't tell us as much as just to say that God is good. Because what if what is good for God isn't so good for us? How would we know?

So, that confused me a little bit - is God "the good" or is he "good", or is he both?

Also, if God's nature is good because it's God's nature, then why is God's nature good? Of course, you would say that this is probably not a good question, because God's goodness for you is a fact of brute existence.

But for me, this is not so clear.

I agree with you that I recognize things that could informally be called "good" when I encounter them.

Things that tend to promote certain values, which fulfill some of our desires and reasons for moral actions, could very well be called good...and I assume, for the most part, that we do know these when we see them. However, I have a hard time believing that any one thing or principle is inherently good or bad.

For me, it would make sense to say that if God is good, then because of God, more reasons for action are fulfilled than go unfulfilled.

But since God hasn't really blatantly made himself known to me, there's really no way for me to know this. I don't have the personal experience to say, reasonably, that God is good.

So I do see things that I consider good and I recognize this, but I don't see God for now, I have to evaluate whether any particular God is good using the sources I have (scripture, theology, dialogue with religious people). And that, is just not enough for me to say that any God is good, if there is such a God.

I hope I have clarified what I would like to see in order to declare that God is good: reasons for believing in a God, and reasons for believing that a God is good.

MS said...

"I hope I have clarified what I would like to see in order to declare that God is good: reasons for believing in a God, and reasons for believing that a God is good."

I get you loud and clear, Tele. So, I don't think we're arguing much here. IOW, if you do encounter God, you'll know if he's good or not.

Teleprompter said...

No MS, you have found my argument!!

If any of us did encounter God, we wouldn't have to argue whether or not a God was good.

Do you begin to see where this is going?

MS said...

"If any of us did encounter God, we wouldn't have to argue whether or not a God was good.

Do you begin to see where this is going?"

OK, so it's a new front. Yes, I think I see it, but correct me if I'm wrong. You're saying if we had a common frame of reference from encountering the same God, or if he were *as obvious as the sun* we wouldn't have to argue. I agree.

If that's a correct representation, then I think you need to rephrase from *if any of us* to *if I*. Obviously, I claim to have encountered such...