Aristotle, Atheism and God

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Can you be good without God? This is one of those perennial questions that comes up in discussions between theists and atheists and never seems to go get anywhere. This essay was inspired by a discussion along those lines over at John C. Wrights blog and I thought I would set out an idea that I think may provide a solution to the problem.

First some preliminaries that need to be addressed to save on confusion. This is not a question of morality as such. Anybody can ascribe to the historic conception of the good and seek to live in accord with that, adopt a stoic vision of reality that provides a moral framework or adopt the 10 commandments and attempt to live in light of those precepts without regard to whether the origins of those precepts are coherent. That rather misses the point though. The question is, does an idea like morality make sense and can it be grounded in some fundamental way that makes moral behavior a binding duty and not simply an optional suggestion if I feel like it. The real question is, do I have an obligation to be moral even when I don’t want to be, or it would be to my advantage not to be. That is the real test of a moral system, when it costs me more to adhere to it than to abandon it. It is easy to say “I would never steal $10,000,000!” until the bag of money is there in front of you and nobody would find out if you did take it, and you are badly in debt and the money would solve all of your immediate and pressing difficulties. That is when you really find out if you would do it or not, whether your principles are real or just for show. Until the moment of testing it is all just platitudes.

That raises the question, can the atheist be good without god in this sense? Alone in the dark when nobody is watching and there would be no consequences to the moral transgression. I think the answer is no, but not because they don’t believe in God as such, that isn’t actually the problem, at least not directly. Interestingly, if this idea works it will present a problem for many theists as well in that they will have to rectify it by adopting something like Divine Command Theory ethics. It would seem DCT is problematic because it seems very open to charges of being arbitrary and based in the idea that you must be good because God carries the biggest stick.

So what is the problem for the atheist? It would seem that for the atheist the problem is one of a metaphysics. To make for a coherent moral framework that is obligatory, even when you are alone in the dark and no one is watching, you will need something very much like Aristotelian formal and final causes. Without final causes the is/out gap presents a serious problem. As Hume showed, you can’t really get from a descriptive statement about the world, “the way it is”, and from that observation derive an ought about what is the moral cause of action.

The way to avoid the is/ought problem is with Aristotle. There are actions that are in line with a way a being ought to behave, that work towards the good for the being, that operate in line with their inherent design and function and there are things that don’t. That man has an obligation to live in line with the good because that is mans final cause. That is the way he ought to live, it is a fact of reality if formal and final causes exist. Without formal and final causes, if you attempt to adopt the “mechanical project” as Edward Feser terms it, you encounter all of the problems of trying to derive an ought from an is, along with the problem of induction, the mind/body problem and everything else that the modern philosophical project has spawned with its rejection of formal and final causes. Efficient and Material causes wont let you construct a binding moral framework that applies alone in the dark. The problem is deeper than that, as Aristotle showed in Book 2 of the Physics. You can’t separate the causes, Efficient and Material causes are insufficient to explain causality coherently.

The solution to grounding morality effectively is a return to Aristotle’s robust understanding of causation, abandon the failed attempt to dispense with formal and final causes and a return to virtue ethics. The alternative is the moral nihilism that the mechanical project inevitably ends in. I would suggest it is worse than that and the mechanical project will end in full fledged nihilism that extends all the way to the merelogical but that is a bit beyond the scope of the question here.

So why is this a problem for the atheist? Can’t they just adopt the robust Aristotelian theory of causation, get a moral foundation of formal and final causes back and go on their merry way, able to answer he Christian who challenges them and says they cannot be good without god?
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, for the atheist the answer is no. If the atheist adopts Aristotelian causation he will have a new problem. A somewhat obscure monk named Tom showed why in his beginners book on theology. Tom showed rather conclusively that if you adopt Aristotle’s understanding of causation that you can’t avoid needing to adopt a fairly robust generic theism and that that conclusion followed logically from this basic understanding of causation coupled with some very basic observations about the natural world that nobody can really dispute.

I’m referring of course to that giant of medieval philosophy, the Dominican monk Thomas Aquinas and his mammoth volume The Summa Theologicae. Thomas’ 5 ways each build on a simple observation about the world that is difficult to dispute and then extrapolates from that observation, in conjunction with Aristotle’s 4 types of causes, to a proof for the existence of God that have been widely dismissed and misunderstood but never to my knowledge been shown to be wrong (See here for a typically abysmal example of the misunderstanding and see [easyazon_link asin=”B002QBNVAW” locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”superversivesf-20″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”default”]The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas Lectures by Peter Kreeft[/easyazon_link] and [easyazon_link asin=”1587314525″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”superversivesf-20″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”default”]The Last Superstition by Edward Feser[/easyazon_link] for explanations of the idea). The early modern philosophical atheists solved the problem by dispensing with formal and final causes, not understanding what they had given up in this bargain.

So where does that leave the atheist, or the modernist Christian? In something of a bind. You can’t avoid the is/ought problem if you try to only have efficient and material causes as the early modern philosophers tried to do. There is no way to bridge that gap and you will forever be looking for a moral framework that ultimately comes down to “Someone with a big stick says do it!” whether that person is God or the state or some appeal to some sort of anthropomorphized nature in the form of an “evolutionary imperative”. Whatever solution the moral framework generated in such a way will be somewhat arbitrary and will never solve the “alone in the dark when nobody is watching” problem. Even the theist is solving that problem by asserting that you can never be alone in such a sense, the cosmic policeman is always watching.

What can be done? For the modernist Christian they can just renounce this fools errand, return to a more robust understanding of causation and get on with it. This might sound simple but many a Protestant is going to struggle with this option. For the atheist it would seem there is no solution. They must either abandon their atheism and accept a robust understanding of causation with its attendant and unavoidable theism or perhaps engage with one of the greatest of the medieval minds and try to show where he made a mistake. No easy task as the typical solution to date has been to do an end run around Thomas and remove the Aristotelian framework he used as the assumption for his argument. Alternatively they can renounce the moral project and accept that the atheists enterprise, because of its reduction of causation to efficient and material causes only, is destined to be morally nihilistic.
Is a generic theism really all that bad given the alternative?

5 Comments

  1. The error in the argument here, as in many arguments, is in the assumptions. Reasoning from the basis that religion is *a* source of morality, it is unsurprising that the conclusion is that religion is *the* source of morality. However, to accept that basis, one needs to be religious in the first place. I would argue the opposite: that religion originates in the need for morality on the part of early societies.

    Similarly, refuting old Tom’s so-called logical proofs of the existence of God is Logic 101, provided one doesn’t take one’s pre-existing faith that God exists into the argument. Never mind the flaws in each of the five Ways, which are excellently–not abysmally–refuted in the linked article: even if each step in each of the five Ways, up to the penultimate step, were objectively correct, his final leap in each case is not supported by his arguments. That is, in each case, even if something unknown needs to exist to fit his (already flawed) reasoning, it does not need to be God, or any kind of all-powerful benevolent being at all.

    For instance, looking at the Prime Cause, disregarding the view dat a Prime Cause is unneeded in most multi-dimensional views of the Universe, let’s for a moment accept that the Universe actually needs to have a Prime Cause. It is then a giant and unsupported leap to propose that God must be that Prime Cause. With a Big Bang theory, supported by an overwhelming body of evidence, to describe how the Universe came to be, it seems to me that Mr Occam would have something to say about dragging a hypothetical Supreme Being into the equation as well.
    As an additional example, the Argument from Perfection falls flat in at least two ways. First, to propose that there must exist a *single* entity possessing *all* properties to the maximum extent has no basis in logic or in what Tom himself puts forward. And even if he did manage to argue that there must exist such a “perfect” entity, there is still no basis for concluding that such an entity would then be the God the Christians believe in.

    In other words: Aquina’s Ways can seem valid only to those already convinced that God exists. He was preaching to the parish.

    Similarly, arguing for religion as the only real basis for morality, as you do, can only seem valid if you accept religion as *a* basis for morality. Like I said, if you argue from the assumption that religion serves some need of the human species, it would seem most plausible that the need served is the need for morality. Morality stabilizes society, minimizes conflict (if applied correctly), and thus helps create optimal circumstances for the perpetuation of society. Hence, morality is such a great good for the human species, that humans have repeatedly invented religion to institutionalize morality. From this basis, it flows naturally that morality leads to religion, not the other way around; and ultimately, that most humans will have an innate need for morality, that can either be served by religion, or alternatively, and increasingly, by a non-religious moral system (such as reciprocity, or a non-religious belief system that does not require a Supreme Being).

    It occurs to me, though, that both the refutation of Aquina’s Ways, and the point of view I’ve sketched here, require the acceptance of the scientific method as the most reliable and useful means of observing and explaining the Universe. It also occurs to me that science, and specifically the Big Bang Theory, Relativity, and Evolution, are hated by so many religious people and institutions precisely because understanding the scientific method, and knowing these theories, cannot but lead to refutation of the assumption that religion is *a* source of morality, never mind *the* source.

    • Hi Floris,

      “Reasoning from the basis that religion is *a* source of morality”

      That’s the problem. I didn’t do that, if anything I was saying the reverse. That “religion as a source of morality”, which is (IMO) a lot of what Divine Command Theory amounts too, is actually a problem that comes from a rejection of Scholastic Metaphysics. You have my argument backwards.

      “it is unsurprising that the conclusion is that religion is *the* source of morality”

      But that was _not_ my conclusion. The conclusion was that morality finds its proper grounding in a metaphysics with formal and final causes. That formal and final causes lead to arguments that conclude some sort of generic theism is true is a corollary of that. This was never intended as an argument for the existence of God but to show that bad metaphysics renders morality impossible and that for the atheist, good metaphysics, is inimical to their atheism.

      “Generic Theism” or the agnostic variety as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle appear to have adhered too are not “religions” in the sense you appear to mean the term.

      “Similarly, refuting old Tom’s so-called logical proofs of the existence of God is Logic 101,”

      You say that, and then laud the abysmal arguments I cited but their refutation of the First Way, the argument from motion, makes the typical modern mistake of assuming that “motion” means movement, but Aquinas meant “motion” as change. It was a different, and broader, usage of the term. A “refutation” isn’t off to a good start when it indicates that it doesn’t understand the source material.

      “looking at the Prime Cause, disregarding the view that a Prime Cause is unneeded in most multi-dimensional views of the Universe”

      Be careful here. I am guessing you think “first cause” means “initial event”, but again, Aristotle, who originated the argument thought the material universe was eternal. Any argument that starts with, “but we don’t need a beginning of the universe” or “but we have a different explanation for the beginning of the universe” doesn’t understand the argument.

      “let’s for a moment accept that the Universe actually needs to have a Prime Cause”

      It does Aquinas and Aristotle showed this from the existence of change in the universe. Do you agree with Parmenides that change is impossible?

      “It is then a giant and unsupported leap to propose that God must be that Prime Cause”

      I think there is some confusion on your part as to what Aquinas’ 5 ways are supposed to demonstrate. He also goes into the idea elsewhere at great length to show what you can derive from the original proof. It is hardly a “leap” and Aquinas, in these arguments, isn’t presuming the truth of any religious revelation, quite the opposite. He was trying to see how far he could get on reason alone. Quite far as it turns out.

      “Similarly, arguing for religion as the only real basis for morality, as you do”

      But that is explicitly what I didn’t do, saying that such an approach was a problem for my fellow Christians who are nominalists. The reference to an appeal to Divine Command Theory and dismissing it as “god having the biggest stick” was not an argument for the idea that “religion is the only basis for morality”.

      “Morality stabilizes society, minimizes conflict (if applied correctly), and thus helps create optimal circumstances for the perpetuation of society. Hence, morality is such a great good for the human species, that humans have repeatedly invented religion to institutionalize morality”

      For someone who accuses others of begging the question, it seems strange that you would then do it yourself.

      “It also occurs to me that science, and specifically the Big Bang Theory, Relativity, and Evolution”

      Except that none of these are a problem at all for the 5 ways and evolutionary theory might be seen as a vindication of the 5th way in particular.

      You appear to be trying to argue against something i’m not actually arguing.

      • Admittedly, I am not at all as well-versed in philosphy as you obviously are, and my use of the applicable terms is careless and inaccurate. However, we do seem to be talking about the same things, and our disagreement does seem to be one of world view rather than misunderstanding.

        Let me make a couple of observations that are relevant to my argument.

        Old Tom did not, perhaps, explicitly use the existence of God as one of his starting points. However, he was a religious fellow, wasn’t he? His religion, his belief in a Supreme Being, cannot but have informed his Ways, especially since from what I can gather, he did not go out of his way to work from the explicit assumption that God does *not* exist. Any approach to this question that is both logical *and* scientific needs to start with a negative null hypothesis, and critically attempt to reach mundane conclusions before leaping to God. Such a leap, I maintain, is insufficiently grounded in his arguments, and therefore results, in my opinion, from a pre-existing bias towards the existence of God.

        Similarly, it strikes me that despite your impressive arguments from philosophy, your root argument is nevertheless one of religion; the title of your post is an important tell in that regard. Setting aside the details of Aristotle’s causes for a moment, you do argue that Man’s final cause is Good. To me, that is a religious assumption rather than fact, originating more in your religious beliefs than in rational argument. (And of course, I’m not equating religion with DCT; there are, and have been, many ways in which the Divine has been put forward as the source of morality, of Good and Evil, and I wholeheartedly agree with you that DCT, or the Biggest Stick Theory, is flawed.

        Myself, I’m one of them Darwinists. And while evolutionary biologists and other careless types have the bad habit of speaking about evolution in teleological terms, evolution can in fact explain life, and human behavior, without resorting to final causes at all; mere chance and efficient causes suffice. As I argued before, apparent moral behavior can simply be the result of evolution, because what we now call Good actually provided evolutionary advantages. Worse even, the concepts of Good and Evil are in this view inventions after the fact, labels applied to evolved behaviors. (Speaking of careless terminology: this is what I meant when I talked about “great good for society” in my first comment.) I’d even go as far as claiming that evolutionary theory is in itself the single most powerful refutation of Aquinas’ 5th Way.

        So does this make me a nihilist? Perhaps so. But this still seems to me to be a collision of world views, in which I think that our Universe can be sufficiently explained through science, and you that metaphysics are needed.

  2. “Admittedly, I am not at all as well-versed in philosophy as you obviously are”

    That’s alright, I am certainly an amateur myself. It is all a process of learning.

    “our disagreement does seem to be one of world view rather than misunderstanding.”

    It s probably a bit of both, but certainly at base it is a clash of worldviews.

    “Old Tom did not, perhaps, explicitly use the existence of God as one of his starting points. However, he was a religious fellow, wasn’t he? His religion, his belief in a Supreme Being, cannot but have informed his Ways”

    A first point. If you say “I can dismiss Thomas because he was religious and therefore tainted”, then I can just as reasonably say “I can dismiss Floris because he isn’t religious and therefore his view is tainted by that and therefore irrelevant”. Surely it is better to look at the actual merits of the argument, entertain them on those merits and evaluate accordingly.

    I would ask though. Have you read the relevant section of the Summa Theologicae? Thomas can be a little hard going, but he is a very careful thinker and does examine the strongest objections he can find to his arguments. He certainly doesn’t, as you seem to think, suggest that God is self evident and puts forward an argument as to why before he gets to the 5 ways in the Summa Theologicae. He also is quite explicit in the 5 ways in not claiming this leads to a specific God but is just a general falsification of the broad atheist project. Also the whole point of the early part of the Summa was to work out how much you could learn via reason alone without the aid of revelation.

    “Any approach to this question that is both logical *and* scientific needs to start with a negative null hypothesis, and critically attempt to reach mundane conclusions before leaping to God”

    May I suggest you take the time to read the first few articles in the Summa Theologicae. I think you will be surprised.

    “Similarly, it strikes me that despite your impressive arguments from philosophy, your root argument is nevertheless one of religion”

    I did not cite any religious text and quite explicitly worked with the assumptions of Aristotle, not a believer in any particular religious tradition as his mentor Plato was not nor was his mentor Socrates. Socrates was in fact put to death for his rejection of the Pagan Greek God’s.

    :Setting aside the details of Aristotle’s causes for a moment, you do argue that Man’s final cause is Good”

    In a sense i would argue that mans final end is happiness or actually Eudimonia (Greek word, that is probably best translated as blessedness), and the pursuit of the good in the virtuous life will lead to this end. Aquinas has an interesting article on “What does a mans happiness consist in?” that I really should write something on some time.

    “Myself, I’m one of them Darwinists”

    I did guess that 😉

    “And while evolutionary biologists and other careless types have the bad habit of speaking about evolution in teleological terms”

    It is the natural way to speak about such things. I would suggest that it is the natural way to speak about such things because it is true.

    “evolution can in fact explain life, and human behavior, without resorting to final causes at all”

    This isn’t actually true. Explain what the heart does without reference to a final cause. You will find the task impossible. Don’t forget a “final cause” is the “What is this for?” question. Either science cannot actually answer that question, or it will need to use final causes to explain it. Final causes don’t have to be “intelligent” in the sense you seem to presume.

    “mere chance and efficient causes suffice”

    I would suggest this is essentially an appeal to magic. There is nothing inconsistent between Aquinas’ 5th way, his “argument from design” and evolution. The modern ID movement, which makes the mistake of trying to follow in the footsteps of the mechanical project, muddies the water there. I know a number of them and I think they do good work, but they do confuse the issue. Mike Behe in particular I think as an orthodox Catholic sees no conflict between evolutionary theory and his religious convictions and his point is closer to being the idea that the current Darwinian theory is not wrong so much as incomplete. Much as Newton wasn’t wrong, but his work was incomplete and General relativity provides a more complete picture.

    “As I argued before, apparent moral behavior can simply be the result of evolution, because what we now call Good actually provided evolutionary advantages”

    This is problematic though. You can assert it, but what evidence do you have? Altruism and other behaviors are still largely black boxes and more importantly, Alvin Plantinga has a devastating critique of your whole approach in his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism that (AFAICS) the critics have failed to understand rather than ever shown was wrong.

    “I’d even go as far as claiming that evolutionary theory is in itself the single most powerful refutation of Aquinas’ 5th Way.”

    That probably rests on your misunderstanding of it. Which is alright, as I said, the modern ID movement does rather muddy the waters. I would suggest evolutionary theory is a strong vindication of Aquinas’ 5th way.

    “So does this make me a nihilist? Perhaps so”

    I’d suggest your adherence to “darwinism” and the mechanical project will lead you into an abiding nihilism that includes the epistemological and even the merelogical and not simply moral nihilism.

    “But this still seems to me to be a collision of world views”

    Of course, it always was.

    “in which I think that our Universe can be sufficiently explained through science, and you that metaphysics are needed.”

    There is one difference though. I admit the need for metaphysics and make use of it, while you make use of metaphysics and then deny the need for it.

    Saying “The universe can be sufficiently explained through science” is a metaphysical not a scientific claim. You can’t do science without a significant amount of metaphysics already worked out. It isnt “metaphysics or science”, you can do metaphysics without science but you can’t do science without metaphysics. Try and construct a scientific framework without resorting to metaphysics, it can’t be done. If you think it can keep in mind a few things.

    1. That your senses are in any way reliable is a metaphysical assumption.
    2. That the universe is orderly is a metaphysical assumption (actually it is also a deeply theistic one).
    3. That the universe is comprehensible is a metaphysical assumption (and doesn’t automatically follow from 2).

    Trying building a framework for science that doesn’t presume those.

    Your view was once known as “Logical Positivism” and more commonly is known as “Scientism” and it is logically incoherent, but also quite popular.

    Thanks for the reply you have given me some things to ponder.

    • Likewise. It has been both instructive and entertaining, and I look forward to whatever blog post this may result in. I’m abandoning the discussion now, not because we seem to be out of points to argue (we’re clearly not), but because all this is coming out of my writing time 😀 If we ever run into one another at a Con, let me buy you a beer (soda? vodka?), and we’ll drink to Aristotle and Aquinas…

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