Tuesday, October 19, 2010

From the Archives: Why I Believe in a Personal God

Since I am grading midterms for the next week, I thought I'd dust off something from the archives, written a couple of years ago, which has clear relation to my previous post. In effect, it is an account of why, on the deepest level, I believe in a personal God--an account rooted in a certain kind of religious experience. As should be clear in the post, I don't claim that this religious experience confers knowledge. But I do think that the pragmatic and ethical implications of trusting the experience, as opposed to dismissing it, are such that they speak in its favor. (At some point I intend to develop in a systematic way what I call "the epistemology of love," that is, a theory of belief-formation that treats the moral call to be as loving as we can be as the foundation not only for how we treat our neighbors and our world, but also for how we form beliefs about our neighbors and our world.) Here, then, from the archives, is "Why I Believe in a Personal God": 

“God,” as I understand that term, names something that is not the least bit anthropomorphic but is deeply and profoundly personal. When I say that something is personal, I mean that it is both a subject and an agent. In other words, a person is a conscious self that acts.

And love cannot happen without such personhood, because love is really about a self that says YES to the other in all its otherness. To say that God’s essence is love is to say, I think, that “God” names that fundamental reality which is constantly and endlessly saying YES to all of us and everything around us. Even if such a reality is unlike anything remotely human, even if it is otherwise shrouded in a cloud of impenetrable mystery, it cannot affirm and value and care unless it is personal.

I believe in a personal God because, when I clear my mind of all my fears and frustrations and preoccupations, I can feel that YES affirming me and resounding in every particle of the universe, coming as if from the very root of it all.

The YES feels like more than just an endorsement or an attitude of approval. It is more fundamentally active than that. It is a performative YES, a YES that sustains. The YES resounds through it all as if it were the source of it all, the limitless being from which all bounded realities flow. It is the YES of the Infinite that cradles the finite, keeping it from descending back into non-existence, from being swallowed up by “the abyss in which it must inevitably sink, the ocean by whose waves it must inevitably be overwhelmed, if He who created it did not also preserve and sustain it” (to quote Karl Barth). It is, in short, a love that preserves.

The encounter with that YES is always transitory. Anxieties and the preoccupations of ordinary life flood back in, drowning it out. The dread of the abyss returns, and all that is left is the memory of a YES that, for the brief moment that it sounded clearly, was more potent than any no could ever be.

The experience of that YES could be delusional. It could be nothing but my deepest hopes projected onto the field of experience. It could just be the power of suggestion, or a side-effect of neural misfirings.

But it feels real. And I can decide to live as if it is real. For there is not a single empirical fact which precludes the reality of something like what I am experiencing—even if, as must be admitted, there are ways of elaborating on the concept of God that do clash with the empirical facts. Such elaborations must be rejected, but not the reality of that which loves from beyond the world.

Believing that my experience of a personal God is veridical doesn’t change what I would expect to observe with my ordinary senses. I wouldn’t expect the empirical world to look different were my experience authentic rather than delusional. But even if believing in the veridicality of that experience makes no difference for what I would expect the empirical world to be like, it makes an enormous practical difference for my life. When I embrace it, when I don’t explain it away but instead accept its substance—when I really come to trust that the fundamental reality in the universe is saying YES to me and everything that is, treasuring and sustaining it all, I find myself saying YES so much more.

And this means that my capacity for joy and gratitude expands, and it means that my capacity for love expands. I live, not in an indifferent universe of blind mechanism and chance, but in a universe that says YES. So long as I can sustain the hope that this is true, I find that I can love more fully and richly, without the usual limitations and conditions. In a universe where that YES is the fundamental truth, to join in the joyous affirmation is to be in tune with the voice of God.


  1. Unicorns, as I understand them are real, but not real. What I mean is that you would never meet a unicorn on the street or in the woods, but since I grew up loving unicorns so much, they are real just the same. Since I think love the greatest thing in the world, and I love unicorns, they have a veridical position with respect to reality. To whit, they are real. Or might be real, which is epistemilogically identical.

    And I feel unicorns love me back. I feel an enormous "YES!" when I think about them, and this has to mean that they are giving me love-waves. At least I think they are, and since no one has ever proven love-waves don't exist, I will on pragmatic grounds continue to have this belief which, while uncompelling, is at the same time compelled, in a peculiar way.

    A lunchbox I had in childhood corroborated these ideas, showing that not only unicorns and u-love are plausible, but equally plausible as the wretched and hopeless anti-unicorn position, which is so negative and makes people mean and nasty. Say "YES" with me and embrace the unicorniverse.. please?

  2. Ah, the joys of subjective language and the temptation to apply one's understanding of the world to the world as a whole. To be fair, your essay is most concerned with why "you" believe in a personal god, so I'll hold any further criticism. It sure seems like you enjoy K. Barth.. ;)


  3. Hi Burk,

    Suppose the whole of our experience of life (subjective and objective) can be interpreted in two ways, one of which is pragmatically useful (it gives one joy and helps one live the way one wishes, including being a good person), while the other is in comparison much worse. If that supposition is true then clearly only a fool would choose the latter interpretation.

    So, practically speaking, the only relevant question is whether the whole of our experience of life can be interpreted both positively (an intrinsically loving and caring YES world) or negatively (a blind, indifferent world).

  4. Burk, I don't know what prompted you to make such a deeply offensive comment, but I cannot imagine how it can be anything other than an impulse that seriously impoverishes your life - both intellectually, since you don't seem to want to listen to what honest people have to say , and relationally, since you come off as someone who has no problem arrogantly mocking others, even when they are most sincere. That's your prerogative, of course, that's your right. But I don't imagine it makes for much of a nice life, at least not in those instances where you insult and mock people. Eric is a great guy. He's an honest and rigourous thinker. To dismiss him and his thoughts in such a disparaging manner only reflects badly, very badly, on yourself. You might have something good to say, but insisting on being a douche will not help you.

  5. Dianelos

    The point you make here is important. In the end we must all believe in unicorns of one sort or another, which is to say we must find our own personal poetry, a way to weave together purpose, motivation and meaning. Eric, and I think you, find this in a metaphor that I think I can only get a shade of, but it seems to involve reality as some sort of manifestation of a personal and loving force (not the right word I'm sure).

    The question does then become, and both you and Eric touch upon this, is the world of blind chance and indifference really such a negative metaphor? Interestingly I suspect I find the same sort of purpose and glory in the metaphor of an indifferent universe that you find in your theistic version.

    Here is not the place to expand upon that, beyond saying that the assumption that our consciousness, our capacity for empathy, our curiosity and our dreams have risen out of a sort of nothingness, makes them all the more precious for their fragility (for me.) That we can create lives of meaning and worth against this deep and dark backdrop perhaps the quest all the more glorious.

    I mention this alternative metaphor only because it is sometimes assumed that a non-theistic perspective simply must dissolve into some sort of existential despair, and yet that's not how I experience it at all.


  6. Hi Eric,

    I must say that, to me, your piece resonates very much with a lot of what I have read in the books of John Shelby Spong. I'd be interested to know if you would recognise that comparison at all.

  7. There is much to be said in favour of the feelings expressed in this post. The same for mystical/religious experiences. These experiences are no doubt real; they can produce, I suppose, insights into the human condition, new layers of meaning, a feeling of Oneness with all things, and so on. Eric mentions the need for metaphorical, analogical, and poetic characterization of these experiences. Much of this is valuable and there is little to quarrel about.

    Where I get off the train is when these experiences and feelings are associated with some other mystical or alternate reality as a matter of necessity, despite the balance of evidence strongly tipped against it.

    Frankly, and I hope not to be misinterpreted, I think this idea cheapens the whole experience. It diminishes us by claiming we are not good enough to create all these feelings and meanings by ourself. In effect, it makes us into mere radio tuner, allowing those equipped with the noumenal option to tap into this spiritual reality – somehow.

    But is this literal interpretation really necessary? I suspect it isn't. Instead of simply listening to the “spiritual broadcasts” we might be in fact in charge of the programming. This whole spiritual world may be a human creation – and I don't see why that would make it less compelling. On the contrary.

    Take a simple example: the oneness of life, the feeling of connectedness with all life, leading maybe to the idea of reverence for life (to use the beautiful phrase of Albert Schweitzer). It so happens that it is true in a technical biological sense but is this reality necessary to the feeling? I don't think so. This layer of meaning is a human construct. If we were to discover conscious and intelligent beings on another world, struggling to find meaning and beauty on their rock as we do on ours, wouldn't we feel connected to them, despite the absence of common biological origin? I like to think we would.

    I agree with what Bernard writes above. There is grandeur in this view of life (to use Darwin's phrase) of standing up, facing the “pitiless indifference” of the universe without flinching and creating this world of beauty and meaning out of its nothingness.

  8. Just for the sake of clarity and context, let me offer the following: Were I to say (as I am inclined to do), "I'm a better person because I'm married to whom I'm married to," I would not thereby intend to say that everyone else ought to marry my wife, and that those who don't are thereby rendered *less* than they would otherwise be.

    One of my colleagues is a Buddhist, and I would never wish that he were anything else--not an atheist, not a Christian. I think his Buddhism contributes to him being who he is--it resonates with other aspects of his character in ways that produce something genuinely admirable.

    By contrast, I think Pat Robertson's brand of Christianity has features that, for lack of a better word, are *stunting* his moral development and generating character traits that are ugly. It's like being married to an abusive spouse. It is hard to imagine that anyone is a better person for it.

    The notion of integrity is important here. While integrity is not a sufficient condition for a life lived well, it seems to be a necessary one. Faced with the kind of experience I talk about in this post, one important question to ask is how various responses to that experience coordinate with other aspects of one's life to promote or diminish personal integrity. The answer will not, I think, be the same from person to person, or from stage to stage in a single person's life.

  9. Take the "Yes" experience as I've poetically described it here (and this post was more an exercise in poetic prose than a clinical philosophical essay, since the aim was not primarily to develop an argument but to attempt to give readers some sense of an aspect of my experience, so as to better understand and reflect on how such an experience might impact my life and outlook).

    In terms of the actual content of the experience as it presents itself to me, this "Yes" experience is not an experience OF me saying "yes" to the universe, but OF the universe saying "yes" to me and my neighbors and the Earth's ecosystems, etc. I could, of course, explain the origins of the experience in the former terms--that is, I could say that I had an impulse to affirm and lift up me and everything around me, and I then projected that experience onto the world and deluded myself into thinking it was coming FROM the world. But that wouldn't be a description of what the experience is LIKE. The experience, when I have it, is humbling in something like the way I feel paradoxically humbled when I am affirmed by someone whose opinion I respect. That has a very different character than the experience that accompanies *extending* such an affirmation.

    So, to treat THIS experience as something I am doing in relation to reality is to treat the experience that I actually have as delusional. And the question is what it would mean for me and my life--for my integrity--to treat this experience as delusional.

    If I'd had an experience of suddenly wanting to say "yes" to a vast, mysterious, and fascinating universe that was utterly incapable of caring about me or reciprocating my "yes"; if I'd had an experience of myself as a kind of bubble of something precious arising by chance out of a world of blind mechanism and randomness; then I'd need to ask what to do with THAT experience in connection with my broader character and life.

    But the truth is that when I consider that experience (which I know people to have had and to have integrated into lives lived admirably), I have trouble making sense of it. I have trouble understanding in what sense we can say that this bubble of life is precious--only to itself, a wholly subjective judgment? If so, would it be equally coherent for someone to judge the very same bubbles of life as abominable boils on the pristine beauty of an indifferent reality? And if the latter would make just as much sense, then doesn't it follow that I can't be *right* in any meaningful way about the value of this existence?

    My point is not to try to lay out an argument against the coherence of this experience, but rather to briefly sketch how hard it would be for *me* to integrate *this* experience into *my* life in a way that would make sense.

    That said, some experiences challenge our worldview in ways that we ought to attend to--it would show a lack of integrity *not* to do so. So I'm not saying that we should never accept as veridical experiences which are at odds with our character and beliefs (or dismiss as delusional experiences which reinforce our current state). Because who one is and what worldview one embraces at the moment may an ongoing source of dissonance that cries out for resolution.

  10. Hi Eric

    This point really interests me, because I can tell I am losing the thread of your thinking somewhere. If I understand you then you are saying that different beliefs systems work very well for different people. That Buddhism, Christianity and Atheism are all belief systems that when well integrated can provide a life with value and meaning. I would agree with this, it seems entirely sensible to allow that there are many ways of constructing a fulfilling life.

    You then make the point that the indifferent universe hypothesis doesn't work for you because it necessarily embraces a kind of relativism. If all meaning is constructed internally, then you can't believe you are 'right in any meaningful way...' Again I agree, and our difference I think is just that this inability to be right is for me a quality to be highly prized, whereas for you it's a disturbing implication, and this difference is more a matter of poetry than philosophy I suspect.

    But, and here's where I am lost: doesn't the acknowledgment that Atheism, Buddhism or whatever can do the job equally well for some people already embrace the of relativism you are nervous about?


  11. Bernard,

    First of all--Dang, I wish you lived close enough that I could take you out for a beer.

    Second, "relative" can mean a couple of things--let's call them subjectivism and contextualism. To understand the distinction, consider the example of someone's ideal diet. My wife is a triathlete. I'm lucky if I make it to the gym once a week and get most of my exercise walking to class and pacing while I lecture. My wife has reactive hypogycemia, whereas I have no blood sugar issues. These differences entail that her ideal diet--in terms of daily caloric intake, balance of carbohydrates and protein--is quite different from mine. Ideal diet is thus contextual. But it is not subjective. That is, her ideal daily caloric intake isn't a function of her subjective preferences. It's objectively true that she should consume more calories a week than I do, and that she needs a higher protein/carb ratio than I do in order to stay healthy.

    I think the relationship between one's worldview and personal integrity is a bit like the relationship between one's ideal diet and bodily health. That is, it is contextual but not subjective.

    Does that make sense?

  12. Eric

    I'm not sure. Might not contextualism reduce to subjectivism when the context is the mind?

    I mean, yes, the truth of what food is good for us is constrained by the context of the individual metabolism, which is in itself a function of our genes, lifestyle, medical history and so forth. And we say this context is not subjective, the body caring not a fig what the individual believes is good for them.

    But if we let the analogy play out, we now have different world views or ideas about truth in the place of food, and the believers' mental idiosyncracies in the place of metabolism. These are in turn influenced by their culture, personality, experiences and so forth. But this context is now subjective, insomuch as what the individual believes is part of the context in which that mind operates.

    I remain unclear then how one can both hold a belief that other apparently contradictory viewpoints (atheism say) can do the job equally well for others, and also that one's own beliefs are not bedeviled by relativism. I pursue this line simply because I think it may be the thing we most fundamentally disagree upon.

    For me the pragmatic potential of religious belief would crumple beneath the knowledge that it's just one constructed way of looking at things, embraced purely for its usefulness. For me it would become useful precisely at the point where I did not believe this, but rather could maintain I had accessed some deeper truth about existence.


  13. Taking the example of the diet - I know quite a few people who 'should' follow a particular diet in order to keep in check various bodily disorders; yet they deliberately don't because, as they have said to me many times, they consider their lives would be less fulfilled by sticking 'religiously' to their diets than enjoying some of the foods that might shorten their lives.

    In this instance the subjective mind decides that it is 'better' for them to not stick to the diet than to gain a few years extra living what they consider to be a considerably duller life.

    So which judgement is 'right' sticking to the optimum diet for the longest, healthiest possible life or being fulfilled as a human being while trading away some of that extra existence?

  14. Hi Bernard,

    You write: “The question does then become, and both you and Eric touch upon this, is the world of blind chance and indifference really such a negative metaphor? Interestingly I suspect I find the same sort of purpose and glory in the metaphor of an indifferent universe that you find in your theistic version.

    Yes, that’s interesting. I think your life stance shows that the human condition is so powerfully positive that one can experience it as purposeful and glorious even while believing in a worldview in which all is the result of blind chance and indifference. It seems that even when one believes that all reality is blindly indifferent one can realize that one’s life isn’t. It’s as if our heart is such that when deprived of the fruits of religion it produces them itself.

    Perhaps the way you experience life is not uncommon among non religious people. In the current issue of Newsweek there is an article about the original New Atheist author Sam Harris, in which he rather poetically expresses how deeply spiritual he is. In that article the idea is raised that perhaps it is appropriate to say that Sam Harris believes in God, but not in the kind of personal/anthropomorphic God of the theists, belief in whom, according to Harris, is divisive and not conducive to critical thought. But he is a believer in the value of the spiritual life. In his new book he writes: “I see nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many religions. Compassion, awe, devotion and feeling of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have”.

    So far so good, but I really wonder about how much sense it makes to think that a blindly indifferent world should be such as to produce conscious beings for whom some of the most valuable experiences are that of feeling owe and devotion and oneness to something that isn’t actually there.

  15. Eric,

    I have trouble understanding in what sense we can say that this bubble of life is precious--only to itself, a wholly subjective judgment?

    Subjective to the extents that these judgments are grounded in the human mind. It does not mean of course that they are arbitrary – some moral values may be so deeply imprinted in our biology that they become essentially universal.

    As a human, I feel very deeply about the preciousness of this bubble of human creations. But, from the point of view of Life on Earth in general (or any of millions of species not depending on us) I would no doubt consider humans as the greatest evil to ever appear on this planet and, the sooner they exterminate themselves the better. And, from the point of view of the Universe, or an hypothetical deity, all life could well be an ugly stain on the “pristine beauty” of the indifferent universe.

    Who is right? I don't see any objective way to choose. I don't even have a clue about how we could determine this.

    As for being “meaningful”, how can meanings can be anything except relative? Doesn't the notion of meaning requires a context, se that the meaning of something refers to its place or role within this it? I suppose each of the three judgements above may be seen as perfectly meaningful within its own context.

  16. The discussion here turns on some of the same issues that came up in our earlier conversations about aesthetics. Some of what I said there, especially about the objective good existing at the meta-level (that is, in terms of what is generated by the interplay of the distinctive features of a work of art and the distinctive characteristics of the individual who is appreciating it) applies to the concept of integrity.

    I agree that subjective preferences create at least some of the context within which choices about what promotes integrity are judged (but not all, I think). But even if that is true, it doesn't follow that the judgment about integrity is subjective. That is, it could be that one can't just hold any combination of subjective preferences and beliefs to exhibit integrity and that be true just because one has subjectively decided that it is true. It may be an objective feature of a certain combination of subjective states that they embody the property of integrity.

    And, in fact, this is what I think is the case with respect to integrity.

    But there's a further issue in play, having to do with fallibilism. Now it should be clear that universality and objectivity are not the same. If "human life has value" simply means "this speaker has a subjective attitude of approval towards human life, then the value statement is wholly subjective. And it remains wholly subjective even if every human being by virtue of evolutionary pressures has come to share the subjective attitude. Conversely, if "human life has value" is an objective statement--if it is saying that there is this property, being of value, that human life actually possesses--then it is true or false independent of majority opinion, and if false would be false even if evolution guaranteed that every human subjectively valued human life.

    Let us suppose (as I believe but others on this blog do not), that value judgments of this sort, attributing an intrinsic worth to such things as human beings, are objective. If they are, then value judgments are fallible in a way that they would not be were subjectivism correct. That is, if value judgments are objective, we can be wrong about them. And we have to adopt an attitude of fallibilism with respect to these value judgments.

    On an objectivist view of values, I think integrity would require such fallibilism. As such, it would also require an openness to having one's values and beliefs transformed EVEN IF they otherwise exhibit internal integrity. On this perspective, it is possible to exhibit integrity even if one is in error (which, I think, all people are all the time to greater or lesser degrees), so long as one is always open to growth in the light of what one learns.

  17. Hi Eric,

    You make important clarifications. However, my problem with the objectivity of values remains. It's not really that I don't believe such values can be absolute. It's more than that: as much as I try, I can’t even make sense of the notion.

    Maybe I am a few pages behind everybody here and what is clear to others remains obscure to me; maybe I understand words differently - I don’t know. But the truth is that I am genuinely unable to formulate the concept in a way that makes sense to me. This notwithstanding, I suspect that, in practical terms, what one believes in this does not matter very much. Wherever values come from, we all act on them in a similar manner.

    Your comment on fallibilism is interesting. Consider this: suppose it were found, established without any doubt on a rock-solid foundation, that discriminating against gays was good or, say, that torturing babies was good – in real, unambiguous, absolute terms. What then? I don't believe one moment that you would change your behaviour. Your instincts (?), or moral sense, would trump logic or even, in this case, moral truth any day of the week. The only way out of this seems to be assuming that, because our instinct is so strong, it must be right – but that would be begging the question, I think.

  18. Eric

    I think fallibilism comes into play whether or not we consider values as subjective things. From a relativist perspective, we tend to construct our values as part of a web of understandings, expectations and commitments, striving for a degree of coherence.

    So, I might claim that it is wrong to take a human life, but then be forced to reconsider this claim in the light of specific cases (euthenasia, self defence, do not ressuscitate orders etc) because the initial claim rubs up against other moral claims and the ongoing battle is to integrate them.

    The greater context of that integration, be it ultimately cultural, genetic or transcendental seems to add little practical to the moral challenges we all face, which seme to me to always be about this balancing act between competing demands.

    I would guess the criteria by which we judge our moral success is also similar. A good system is one that allows us to find peace/fullfilment, and again the ultimate source of this sense of satsifaction is at some level unimportant.

    I think this is the comment upon which I originally entered the discussion on this blog. Questions about how one should live seem to me to be far more important and rewarding than questions about whether God is the best choice of metaphor.


  19. Hi JP,

    You write: “However, my problem with the objectivity of values remains. It's not really that I don't believe such values can be absolute. It's more than that: as much as I try, I can’t even make sense of the notion.

    Take the common example “It is wrong to torture a child for fun”. Some people think that this proposition is not objective, i.e. only expresses a truth about the state of mind of the person who believes in it. That people learn from society to think or feel this way about torturing children for fun, or perhaps that their brains have evolved in such a way that they can’t think or feel otherwise, but that there is nothing actually intrinsically wrong with torturing a child for fun. Others, on the other hand, believe that to torture a child for fun is intrinsically wrong, independentaly of how one, or most people, or all people, may think or feel about this issue. That if some force were to change the brains of all people so that they thought and felt that it is not wrong to torture a particular child for fun, it would still be wrong. To distinguish that latter understanding one says that some people not only believe that it is wrong to torture children for fun, but that it is *objectively* wrong to do so.

    I see that difference very clearly, and I would like to understand what it is you can’t make sense of.

  20. The question I have is why doesn't everyone experience what you do, Professor. If there is a god, and he/she/it is good as you say, then why do only a few experience this transcendence? I wish I could experience the great YES. But I haven't, even after years of seeking. What other conclusions can I come to besides either that there is no god or he/she/it just isn't interested in me, or is hostile towards me.

  21. Hi Dianelos,

    Thanks for your answer.

    Now, my issue is not about the difference between subjective (relative) and objective (absolute) values. This is clear enough. My question is what does it mean to say that the proposition “Action A is good” is true in an absolute sense? This must refer to some absolute criterion for goodness, something in the fabric of reality. I don't know what that could be. Even on theism, this does not seem simple: if we simply say that God just happens to be good, it does not define goodness. If, on the other hand, we say that God defines what goodness is then, presumably, he could have decided otherwise.

    Which leads to fallibilism. You write: [...] if some force were to change the brains of all people so that they thought and felt that it is not wrong to torture a particular child for fun, it would still be wrong.

    If you accept this then you must accept that it might be the other way around. Torturing children might be good in an absolute sense but some force has built our brains so that we believe otherwise. There is no need to invoke a mysterious force: evolution may have produced this hypothetical “moral error”. What then?

    This approach opposes our instinctive “moral sense” to absolute moral truths discovered by other means. I suspect that, if a discrepancy were found, our moral sense would win over moral truth. If I was shown that torturing children is good and presented with a child and the relevant tools I would react as any decent human being would: the hell with moral truth, I won't do this.

    Now some I suppose would act on this “truth” and proceed with the torture. This is a real problem with “absolutes” and “truth”: it can transform a decent human into an absolute monster.

  22. JP and Dianelos,

    I think Dianelos's characterization of what it means to say that ethics and values are objective is helpful--and I think it helped JP to articulate more clearly WHERE he has difficulty objectivism, as follows: "This (a claim that a moral judgment is objective) must refer to some absolute criterion for goodness, something in the fabric of reality. I don't know what that could be."

    I want to restate what I THINK JP's difficulty is in my own words, to see if I have it right: If moral statements admit of an objective truth value (that is, a truth value independent of the subjective feelings, preferences, desires, attitudes, of the individuals and communities that affirm or deny these statements), this means that a moral statement like "torture is wrong" is saying something ABOUT torture that is true or false OF torture, rather than being ellyptical for merely saying something ABOUT ourselves (or our community). In other words, there is some property that torture ITSELF has--a feature of "the fabric of reality"--that serves as the truth-maker for the claim "torture is wrong."

    But to say that ethical judgments admit of such truth-makers is not to provide an account of what reality is like such that it admits of such "objective moral truth-makers". And it is clear that no empirically observable fact or scientific fact, by itself, can be the truth-maker for moral judgments. (THAT something promotes my welfare might be an empirical fact, but that the promotion of welfare is good all else being equal is not an empirical fact).

    To sum up: if the objectivist with respect to morality holds that the truth-maker for a moral statement is not its conformity to the subjective preferences and attitudes of the speaker, nor the dominant preferences and attitudes of the speaker's culture, then what IS this truth-maker? It's not some empirical fact, so what is it?

    This is, in effect, the motivating question for most of moral philosophy. And, like most moral philosophers, I have my pet theories and speculations but nothing like a decisive answer. And I think JP is right that simply positing the existence of God doesn't as such provide an answer, especially if you think, as I do, that the divine command theory of ethics is wholly inadequate (at best it provides a "richer" metaphysical framework within which there are more potential truth-makers that might be invoked to ground moral judgments).

    Does this capture the problem? If so, it may be that a series of posts on these issues is called for--but not right now, since I'm still linking this blog to my philosophy of religion class (and will probably have to slow blog posting after this term so as to get my co-authored manuscript finished by the February deadline).

  23. Eric,

    I think you understand well my question about this elusive truth-maker and this is, I think, a very interesting and important issue. Apparently, even many non-theists philosophers believe in objective moral facts, which makes the subject even more puzzling.

    You write if the objectivist [...] holds that the truth-maker [...] is not its conformity to the subjective preferences and attitudes of the speaker [...]. I would certainly add to that list our deep biological moral buildup. This cannot provide a basis for objectivity but it certainly makes room for a number of (near) universals moral values.

    I would assume (wrongly?) that much of moral philosophy must be independent of the question of the objectivity of moral values. Whatever the case is, are not most practical moral questions about what we should do when faced with conflicting values?


  24. Hi Rob,

    You write: “The question I have is why doesn't everyone experience what you do, Professor. If there is a god, and he/she/it is good as you say, then why do only a few experience this transcendence? I wish I could experience the great YES. But I haven't, even after years of seeking

    Theism’s thesis is that our condition, our experience every single second of our lives, is God-created and God-infused. Theism’s thesis is not that there are some rare cases of transcendence, which only a few manage to experience, but rather that all our experience of life is transcendental. When some theists speak of rare peak experiences, they don’t mean that only then is their life infused by God, but only that it’s then when God’s presence becomes overwhelmingly real for them. To put it plainly: The theist is not one who has succeeded in having such peak experiences of God, but one who realizes that God is there in all the small and ordinary things of life (even then when one’s attention is elsewhere). I suppose that when Eric says he experiences the universe as saying “YES” to him, that’s what he means.

  25. Hi JP,

    You write: “ I don't know what that could be. Even on theism, this does not seem simple: if we simply say that God just happens to be good, it does not define goodness.

    I am not sure what your point is. Incidentally the idea is not that God “happens” to be good. Rather theism’s idea is that all reality is based on and infused by the presence of a perfect being, one happens to call “God”.

    Also, the question is not what *defines* goodness but rather what *grounds* goodness. If some deeds are objectively, i.e. in-themselves, good or evil, then reality must be such that this obtains. The very fabric of reality must have an intrinsic pointer such that a particular deed performed by a particular person may have the “good” or “evil” property. Which comports very well with theism’s understanding of reality, namely that reality (which at all times and places is being created by God) is such that all persons are by nature meant to become more perfect. One may say that reality is such that the ones created in the *image* of God can grow to become *similar* to God. A deed is good when it works positively within that reality-wide process, and evil when it hinders it.

    You write: [...] if some force were to change the brains of all people so that they thought and felt that it is not wrong to torture a particular child for fun, it would still be wrong.

    If you accept this then you must accept that it might be the other way around.

    I am not “accepting” the above; I am mentioning a hypothetical case to make clear the distinction between “objective” and “subjective” when used in relation to propositions.

    Torturing children might be good in an absolute sense but some force has built our brains so that we believe otherwise. There is no need to invoke a mysterious force: evolution may have produced this hypothetical “moral error”. What then?

    Right, that’s a conundrum for one who is not a theist. For on theism all creation, including the evolution of humanity, has a purpose, indeed a good purpose, and thus such hypothetical cases do not arise. On the other hand, on non-theism, and certainly on non-religion, it is very difficult to make sense of objective moral values; and that’s a problem for non theists to deal with.