The Atlantic‘s Robert Wright has a thought-provoking review of Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. Greene used scans of people’s brains to examine their responses to the famous (famous by the standards of professional philosophy, anyway) “trolley problem” thought-experiment. In the thought-experiment, people are asked whether they would divert a runaway trolley about to hit five people onto a track where it would hit just one person. Most people think this would be the right thing to do. But when the conditions of the experiment are changed, people tend to respond differently. For instance, many people say they wouldn’t be willing to push someone onto the track to prevent the trolley from hitting the other five, even though the utilitarian moral calculus (one life for five) is the same.
Greene found that MRIs showed that people who said would be OK to push the one man onto the track were using the portions of their brains associated with logical thought, while those who said it wouldn’t were responding more emotionally. He concludes that emotional bias–inherited from our evolutionary past–clouds our judgment. Because our ancestors lived in small hunter-gatherer groups, we’re good at group solidarity, but bad at inter-group harmony. Pushing someone to their death is the kind of thing you could be blamed and swiftly punished for in a small group, so the idea of doing that lights up some deep-seated moral aversions. Green concludes that humanity needs a global moral philosophy that filters out these atavistic types of responses can “resolve disagreements among competing moral tribes.” And the best candidate for this is a form of utilitarianism.
Here’s Wright summarizing Greene:
One question you confront if you’re arguing for a single planetary moral philosophy: Which moral philosophy should we use? Greene humbly nominates his own. Actually, that’s a cheap shot. It’s true that Greene is a utilitarian—believing (to oversimplify a bit) that what’s moral is what maximizes overall human happiness. And it’s true that utilitarianism is his candidate for the global metamorality. But he didn’t make the choice impulsively, and there’s a pretty good case for it.
For starters, there are those trolley-problem brain scans. Recall that the people who opted for the utilitarian solution were less under the sway of the emotional parts of their brain than the people who resisted it. And isn’t emotion something we generally try to avoid when conflicting groups are hammering out an understanding they can live with?
The reason isn’t just that emotions can flare out of control. If groups are going to talk out their differences, they have to be able to, well, talk about them. And if the foundation of a moral intuition is just a feeling, there’s not much to talk about. This point was driven home by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt in an influential 2001 paper called “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail” (which approvingly cited Greene’s then-new trolley-problem research). In arguing that our moral beliefs are grounded in feeling more than reason, Haidt documented “moral dumbfounding”—the difficulty people may have in explaining why exactly they believe that, say, homosexuality is wrong.
If everyone were a utilitarian, dumbfoundedness wouldn’t be a problem. No one would say things like “I don’t know, two guys having sex just seems … icky!” Rather, the different tribes would argue about which moral arrangements would create the most happiness. Sure, the arguments would get complicated, but at least they would rest ultimately on a single value everyone agrees is valuable: happiness.
Whenever I see someone arguing that “science” can tell us which moral framework to adopt, it sets my Spidey-sense tingling. Simply saying we should all be utilitarians dodges a bunch of important and contested philosophical questions, like
–What is “happiness” (or “utility”)? Is it just the net balance of pleasure over pain (as the founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, thought)? Or does it include “higher,” more complex elements (as Bentham’s protégé and critic John Stuart Mill thought)?
–Assuming we can define happiness, can we quantify it in such a way that allows us to determine which course of action in a given case will yield the most of it?
–Even if we can define and quantify happiness/utility, might there not be other things that are good and whose promotion should enter into our moral calculus? What about beauty? Truth? Should those always be subordinated to happiness when they conflict?
–Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism. But can we know what the likely consequences of our actions are ahead of time? Can we even specify what counts as a consequence of a particular action with any precision?
Wright says that Greene studied philosophy, so presumably he knows this. And it’s not that utilitarians don’t have responses to these questions. But they don’t all agree among themselves on what the answers are. And these are properly philosophical questions, not questions that the natural sciences (including neuroscience) can answer in any straightforward way.
To Wright’s credit, he is skeptical of Greene’s advocacy of utilitarianism as a kind of “moral Esperanto.” And he notes that some of the most intractable conflicts in our world aren’t necessarily conflicts over ultimate values, but over facts. For instance, most Americans are, at best, dimly aware of our history of meddling in the internal politics of Iran, so they attribute Iranian mistrust of the U.S. to irrational animus or religious fanaticism. The problem is that we are all afflicted with a self-bias that inclines us to filter out facts that our inconvenient to our cause and which makes it difficult for us to view a situation from the perspective of our opponent. Christians would call this a manifestation of Original Sin.
UPDATE: At Siris, Brandon offers some thoughts on the Atlantic article and utilitarianism in general.
Men who are strongly of the fact-loving temperament, you may remember me to have said, are liable to be kept at a distance by the small sympathy with facts which that philosophy from the present-day fashion of idealism offers them. It is far too intellectualistic. Old fashioned theism was bad enough, with its notion of God as an exalted monarch, made up of a lot of unintelligible or preposterous ‘attributes’; but, so long as it held strongly by the argument from design, it kept some touch with concrete realities. Since, however, Darwinism has once for all displaced design from the minds of the ‘scientific,’ theism has lost that foothold; and some kind of an immanent or pantheistic deity working in things rather than above them is, if any, the kind recommended to our contemporary imagination. Aspirants to a philosophic religion turn, as a rule, more hopefully nowadays towards idealistic pantheism than towards the older dualistic theism, in spite of the fact that the latter still counts able defenders.
But, as I said in my first lecture, the brand of pantheism offered is hard for them to assimilate if they are lovers of facts, or empirically minded. It is the absolutistic brand, spurning the dust and reared upon pure logic. It keeps no connection whatever with concreteness. Affirming the Absolute Mind, which is its substitute for God, to be the rational presupposition of all particulars of fact, whatever they may be, it remains supremely indifferent to what the particular facts in our world actually are. Be they what they may, the Absolute will father them. Like the sick lion in Esop’s fable, all footprints lead into his den, but nulla vestigia retrorsum. You cannot redescend into the world of particulars by the Absolute’s aid, or deduce any necessary consequences of detail important for your life from your idea of his nature. He gives you indeed the assurance that all is well with Him, and for his eternal way of thinking; but thereupon he leaves you to be finitely saved by your own temporal devices.
Far be it from me to deny the majesty of this conception, or its capacity to yield religious comfort to a most respectable class of minds. But from the human point of view, no one can pretend that it doesn’t suffer from the faults of remoteness and abstractness. It is eminently a product of what I have ventured to call the rationalistic temper. It disdains empiricism’s needs. It substitutes a pallid outline for the real world’s richness. It is dapper, it is noble in the bad sense, in the sense in which to be noble is to be inapt for humble service. In this real world of sweat and dirt, it seems to me that when a view of things is ‘noble,’ that ought to count as a presumption against its truth, and as a philosophic disqualification. The prince of darkness may be a gentleman, as we are told he is, but whatever the God of earth and heaven is, he can surely be no gentleman. His menial services are needed in the dust of our human trials, even more than his dignity is needed in the empyrean.
– William James, “What Pragmatism Means” (1907)
This discussion on religion with heavy-duty philosophers Hilary Putnam and Alvin Plantinga is from way back in 2000, but I found it well worth a listen. Somewhat ironically–considering that Putnam is Jewish and Plantinga is a Christian–I found myself more sympathetic to Putnam’s overall approach. I’m not nearly as familiar with his work, but the way he draws on pragmatism, existentialism, and negative theology resonates pretty closely with how I think about this stuff.
Keith Ward gives a concise overview and defense of metaphysical idealism:
This lecture is essentially a summary of the argument from his 2010 book More Than Matter. The basic claim is that mind or consciousness is a fundamental component or aspect of reality, and it can’t be reduced to or explained exhaustively in material terms. Ward points out that we’re immediately aware of consciousness, while the material world–at least as it appears to us–is something that is in part constructed by our minds. This doesn’t mean that the physical world isn’t real; but it does suggest that there’s something problematic about arguing for the reduction of mind to an aspect of reality that is itself partly mind-constituted. Minds are the only “things-in-themselves” we know first hand. On that basis, Ward says
What idealists maintain is that the ultimate nature of reality itself is mind-like, and that human and other finite minds are the best clues we have to what objective reality is like. The cosmos is not a mindless, unconscious, valueless, purposeless, yet somehow strangely intelligible, mechanism. Such a view is the result of extrapolating a machine-model, very useful in many scientific contexts, to provide the most comprehensive and adequate picture of the real cosmos.
Idealists propose that the human mind provides a better model from which to extrapolate to the cosmos as a whole. That is not because the cosmos looks like a very large human person or because there is some large person hovering just beyond the cosmos. It is because human minds play a creative and constructive role in producing the phenomenal world. They seem to point to a level of reality that is not merely phenomenal or an appearance to consciousness. Human minds generate an idea of reality as mind-like in a way that far transcends human mentality, yet that does include something like consciousness, value, and purpose as essential parts of its nature. (More Than Matter, p. 58)
Ward doesn’t claim to offer a knock-down argument for idealism, but he thinks it’s at least as reasonable as competing views, if not more so. He also points out that some form of idealism is arguably the majority view in the history of philosophy.
Even when I was an atheist, I never found materialism particularly compelling. And studying philosophy–particularly early modern philosophy–only reinforced that. It’s hard to come to grips with the arguments of Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant and still think that materialism is a straightforward, much less obviously true, understanding of reality.
I want to shift gears away from Anselm’s argument for God’s existence and focus on his account of God’s nature (though, as noted, he doesn’t think these are wholly separable).
Recall that, for Anselm, God is that being greater than which none can be conceived (or, “the greatest conceivable being” for short). In chapter V, Anselm amplifies on this definition:
WHAT are you, then, Lord God, than whom nothing greater can be conceived? But what are you, except that which, as the highest of all beings, alone exists through itself, and creates all other things from nothing? For, whatever is not this is less than a thing which can be conceived of. But this cannot be conceived of you. What good, therefore, does the supreme Good lack, through which every good is? Therefore, you are just, truthful, blessed, and whatever it is better to be than not to be. For it is better to be just than not just; better to be blessed than not blessed.
“Whatever it is better to be than not to be” seems to be the controlling idea as Anselm discusses some of God’s key attributes. For example, he says that it is better to be “omnipotent, compassionate, passionless” than not (chapter VI).
In explicating these attributes, Anselm offers arguments intending to show, for instance, how God can be said to be omnipotent even though he can’t, say, lie or change the past, or how God can be compassionate even though he is “passionless.” He also attempts to reconcile God’s justice with his mercy. Furthermore, God, according to Anselm, does not exist in space or time, and God exists as triune (Father, Son, and Spirit).
Anselm’s arguments vary in their persuasiveness, but probably the most disputable point is his method of deriving divine attributes from general premises about “what it is better to be than not to be.” To take the most obvious example, much recent theology has questioned whether it is really better to be “passionless” and specifically whether divine impassibility is compatible with divine love and compassion.
Obviously, the tradition of “perfect being” theology that Anselm represents (and in large measure established) has been hugely influential in Christian theology. The question that has been asked by more recent theology, though, is whether the way this tradition depicts God is faithful to the disclosure of the divine nature that Christians believe occurred in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and which is witnessed to in the Bible. I’m not dumb enough to think I can settle that issue in a blog post, but I do think that Anselm’s appeal to “what it is better to be than not to be” is bound to seem far less straightforward and persuasive today than it may have in his time.
I should say that I’m not at all confident that I correctly interpreted Anselm’s argument in the previous post. But at least one major interpreter–namely, Charles Hartshorne–agrees that chapter III of the Proslogion is where the action really starts; he refers to the (more famous?) iteration of the argument in chapter II as “but a preliminary try, and an unsuccessful one–elliptical and misleading at best–to state the essential point, which is first explicitly formulated in Proslogium III, and reiterated many times in the Apologetic I, V, and IX” (Hartshorne, “Introduction to the Second Edition,” Basic Writings of St. Anselm, Open Court edition, 1962, p. 6). I’m not well read enough on more recent Anselm scholarship to say if this represents the consensus view or not, but it’s nice to get a little validation.
For Hartshorne, the key insight underlying Anselm’s argument is that divinity must be thought of as existing necessarily:
Anselm’s proposal can therefore be put thus: the contrasts, creature-creator and contingently-necessarily existent, should be seen as one and the same contrast, somewhat differently expressed. All things, except God are contingent–of course, says the theist, since they exist only thanks to the fact that it pleased God (and it might not have) to make their existence possible! But surely God does not exist because it pleased Him (and might not have) to make His own existence possible! In this and many other ways it may be shown that God cannot be contingent in a sense parallel to the contingency of ordinary existents.
To talk about “perfect islands” as analogous to deity is mere trifling, unless insular “perfection” (which, nota bene, is not Anselm’s word) is taken to include the status, “creator of all things else.” But then “insular” loses its meaning! When one reads some cheap and easy refutations of the Proof one gets the impression of the following strange course of thought: if God can exist necessarily, surely many other things can too; or, what God can do, others can do also; or, surely His unique excellence cannot go so far that His very mode of existing, His very relation to the category of existence, is unique also. Ah, but can it not? This may turn out to be the same as the question whether or not theism (and not simply an argument for theism) is logically possible. And if the logical possibility of theism is what the critic impugns, by all means let him say so! (pp. 6-7)
What Hartshorne is saying, I think, is that, for Anselm, if it is possible that God exists, then it is necessary that God exists. That is, necessary-existence is an essential part of the concept “God,” and so if that concept is internally consistent or coherent, then it must be instantiated in reality. The “logic” of the God-concept, so to speak, follows different rules than any other.
Over the weekend I reread Anselm of Canterbury’s Proslogion (as one does), partly motivated by my recent interest in thinking about the divine nature. In addition to setting out the (in)famous “ontological” argument for God’s existence, the Proslogion is a hugely important source for the development of “traditional” or “classical” theism in the Christian tradition.
On this reading, I think I got a better understanding of the ontological argument (a term Anselm doesn’t use, by the way, and which was coined, I believe, by Immanuel Kant). Anselm has often been interpreted as saying that since it is better to exist in reality than merely as a concept in the mind, then God, as the greatest conceivable being, must exist in reality, not just as a concept. As was pointed out by Anselm’s first critic, his fellow monk Gaunilo, this argument would seem equally to prove the real existence of the greatest conceivable island.
But Anselm’s argument is quite a bit more subtle than this, and not so easily refuted. Let’s take a look.
In chapter II, Anselm sketches his argument for God’s existence, in reply to “the fool who says in his heart there is no God” (Psalm 14):
For, it is one thing for an object to be in the understanding, and another to understand that the object exists. . . .
Hence, even the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it [i.e., the fool understands the meaning of the word "God" in some sense, even if he denies God's existence]. And whatever is understood, exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.
Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.
Now this does look like the version of the argument I summarized above: that it’s better to exist in reality than to exist only as a concept in the mind, so the greatest conceivable being must exist both in the mind and in reality. And thus it would seem to be vulnerable to the common objection.
But in the following chapter Anselm provides what I think is an elaboration of the argument (rather than a second, distinct argument):
And it [i.e., the greatest conceivable being] assuredly exists so truly, that it cannot be conceived not to exist. For, it is possible to conceive of a being which cannot be conceived not to exist; and this is greater than one which can be conceived not to exist. Hence, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, can be conceived not to exist, it is not that, than which nothing greater can be conceived. But this is an irreconcilable contradiction. There is, then, so truly a being than which nothing greater can be conceived to exist, that it cannot even be conceived not to exist;. and this being you are, O Lord, our God.
So truly, therefore, do you exist, O Lord, my God, that you can not be conceived not to exist; and rightly. For, if a mind could conceive of a being better than you, the creature would rise above the Creator; and this is most absurd. And, indeed, whatever else there is, except you alone, can be conceived not to exist. To you alone, therefore, it belongs to exist more truly than all other beings, and hence in a higher degree than all others. For, whatever else exists does not exist so truly, and hence in a less degree it belongs to it to exist.
Here Anselm qualifies the notion of divine existence in an important way. “It is possible to conceive of a being which cannot be conceived not to exist; and this is greater than one which can be conceived not to exist.” In other words, he’s not (just) saying that it’s better to exist in reality than to exist only as a concept in the mind. He’s saying that it is better to have the property of not-being-able-to-be-conceived-not-to-exist than to have the property of being-able-to-be-conceived-not-to-exist. That is, the greatest conceivable being would be one which not only exists, but whose non-existence is inconceivable.
So Anselm’s argument looks like this:
1. God is, by definition, that being greater than which none can be conceived.
2. A being whose non-existence is inconceivable is greater than one whose non-existence is conceivable.
3. Therefore, the being greater than which none can be conceived is one whose non-existence is inconceivable.
4. But a being whose non-existence is inconceivable must exist, by definition.
5. Therefore, the being greater than which none can be conceived (i.e., God) exists.
I think the most questionable premise here is number 2, for a couple of reasons. First, it may be that “a being whose non-existence is inconceivable” is itself not a coherent or conceivable concept. At least it’s not immediately apparent to me that it is without further argument. One could also question Anselm’s entire method of ranking modes of being along a scale of “greatness.” Such ranking entails, it seems to me, a particular view of value that may not be universally shared. So, perhaps needless to say, I don’t think it’s a knock-down argument.
Still, it’s a darn interesting argument, and one that has a lot more going for it than is sometimes supposed. Moreover, Anselm’s understanding of God as “the greatest conceivable being” has been extremely fertile with regard to thinking about the divine attributes. That’s the topic I want to explore in the next post.
In his Gifford Lectures, published in 1984 as In Search of Deity, Anglican theologian John Macquarrie develops a view of God that he calls “dialectical theism”–to provide an alternative to what he calls “classical theism.”
According to Macquarrie, classical theism has over-emphasized certain attributes of God, resulting in a less-than-satisfactory concept of divinity from both a philosophical and religious point of view. For instance, he contends that it has over-emphasized divine transcendence, resulting in a “monarchical” picture of a God who is removed and aloof from creation. “The intellect demands a more dialectical concept of God, while the religious consciousness, too, seeks a God with whom more affinity can be felt, without diminution of his otherness” (p. 31).
This is not an unfamiliar criticism, but instead of simply swinging to the other extreme and positing an “immanent” God, Macquarrie argues that an adequate concept of God requires holding certain seemingly opposed attributes in a “dialectical” tension. Hence, “dialectical theism.”
Macquarrie describes a series of six “dialectical contrasts”, each side of which he thinks we need to attribute to God in order to have a more adequate concept of deity:
–Being and nothing: God is being, or as Macquarrie prefers to say, the power of “letting-be.” At the same time, God is not an existent in the same way that particular things in the spatio-temporal world are. So it is true, in a sense, to say that God does not exist. God is not “a thing” or “a being” alongside other beings, but that which gives to other things their being.
–The one and the many: God is one (or maybe better, beyond numbering) and is the ultimate unity that grounds the multiplicity of things. But there are also reasons for thinking that there is a kind of differentiation within the being of God: a divine “abyss,” and intelligible self-manifestation, and a drive toward unity or communion (echoes of the Trinity).
–Knowability and incomprehensibility: Because God expresses himself in creation, God is knowable, “intuited in the world as a presence or as its unity.” But this knowledge is indirect, mediated by symbols, and the inexhaustible being of God transcends what we can know about him.
–Transcendence and immanence: God is independent of the world in the sense that the world depends on God for its existence. But God is also deeply involved in the world, intimately present to the processes that make it up. Images of “making” and “emanation” provide complementary ways of picturing the act of divine creation.
–Impassibility and passibility: Because God transcends the world, the suffering in the world cannot overwhelm or destroy him–or ultimately defeat God’s purposes. But God experiences what happens in the world and it affects him–the world matters to God. Its history makes a real contribution to the divine life.
–Eternity and temporality: God transcends the succession of past, present, and future and “remains constant and faithful, neither his power nor his love is diminshed by the passage of time” (p. 182). But God is also involved in the movement of time, “engaged in the struggle,” “an active participant.” “God is himself in the events of history and is concerned about their outcome” (p. 182).
Macquarrie acknowledges that his view is similar to the “panentheism” often associated with Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, but he prefers to avoid the connotations that this term might have of “pantheism.” He also thinks his dialectical theism preserves a more robust sense of divine transcendence than one finds in Whitehead. You could say that Macquarrie’s version of theism is a characteristically Anglican “both/and” approach that tries to affirm the kernel of truth in seemingly opposed claims.