Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

Does God love the Good or is the Good what God loves? On Nominalism, Platonic Form of Goodness, and Divine Command Ethics

The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.

Socrates in Plato’s “Euthyphro”

For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.

Romans 10:3

It has been sometime since I wrote a philosophical note and admittedly this note is going to get a little technical. I’ve been reading up on the Blessed John Duns Scotus’s works on philosophy which provoked the following thoughts in me about the vast complex of background philosophy which underpins Duns Scotus bold and daring “divine voluntarianism”, which is the idea which states that “justice” and “goodness” or whatever axiological or moral concepts are what they are simply by a divine fiat, or will/command. I do not claim to be an able interpreter of Scotus (whose original work is truly deserving of his title as “Subtle” and very difficult to follow), but these are simply reflections on the broader issues of philosophy and how it ultimately impinges upon theology.

On Nominalism versus Universalism

For the purposes of this note, I am simply going to define the difference between “nominalism” and “universalism” very crudely. “Universalism” (whether Platonic or Aristotelian), is simply the philosophy that there is a “universal” or a “form” which unites common terms. For example, there is the chair I’m sitting on, there is the chair in the next room, and there is the chair in your room. But over and above the many particular chairs in our historic space-time world, there is a “form” of the chair, a “universal chair”, a “chairness” which all chairs “share” which makes them chairs. The easiest example is from mathematics. There are obtuse triangles, right triangles, but they all are “triangles” by virtue of being three sided figures.

“Nominalism” is simply the philosophy that there is this chair and that chair and many particular chairs, but no universal form or idea of “chairness”. In other words, there are many chairs in the world, but there is no universal form of “chairness” which unites all of them as chairs. “Nominalism” strictly refers to the claim that the only thing that all the “chairs” have in common is simply the name or term which we use. But for the purposes of this note, I shall include under “nominalism” the philosophy of “conceptualism”, which is the claim that the primary reality is the many different particular chairs in this world, but then the mind (or society or some human reality), goes on to invent or create the mental concept of a chair as a way of uniting all of them.

The reason for simply lumping Platonic universalism with Aristotelian universalism and Nominalism with Conceptualism is simply that I want to focus upon the broad difference between the two, namely what they consider to be more “real”. “Universalism” begins with the “universal forms”, the essential unity of our ideas, and then at the particular empirical historic reality. “Nominalism” begins with the many particular facts or empirical history reality and then go on to form general or universal ideas or concepts.

Now, the reason I went into this winding explanation of the difference between nominalism and universalism is that I hope to demonstrate that it would have a direct impact on how we consider ethical/moral theory. For the question then arises, is there a form or standard of “justice” or “goodness”, whereby we may judge all the many particular acts of justice or goodness, and which essentially unites all the many individual or diverse acts of justice or goodness, or are just simply there many particular just acts or good acts but no common concept or standard which unities them, only a common name?

Nominalism and the Scientific Revolution

It seems to me however that nominalism is essentially correct (although I would personally tend towards conceptualism), and I wish to illustrate (not so much prove) why this is so by reference to the scientific revolution and the subsequent scientific development.

One of the most famous examples beloved by medieval philosophers is the concept of “heat”. They were convinced that there was such a thing or universal as “hotness” which individual things “had”. But of course now we know that there is no such thing and that according to the kinetic theory of heat, what we call heat is simply nothing more than particles vibrating. Thus, the nominalistic explanation of “heat” makes more sense, “heat” is simply a human or social convention/concept which we invented to speak of certain range of phenomena as it interacts with us. It is us who feels the heat after all (no pun intended) and what is considered “hot” is relative to our various social and environmental contexts. But there isn’t some universal concept or special numerical range of degrees which we can identify as “hot”.

Broadly speaking, the scientific revolution would not have been possible without the abandonment of the Aristotelian universalism mode of thinking and the focus upon the particular individual data or facts, from which theories and laws are form mathematically. There is a reason why the English Newton, from the British empiricist background, and not Leibniz, of the continental rationalist background, became the father of mathematical physics. As Newton adamantly insisted in a letter to Robert Hooke,

I have not been able to discover the cause of those properties of gravity from phenomena, and I frame no hypotheses; for whatever is not deduced from the phenomena is to be called a hypothesis, and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, whether of occult qualities or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy.

Thus, Newton refused to have anything to do with metaphysical “hypotheses” which goes beyond the particular phenomena and facts, or any such “occult qualities” like universals or whatever. Thus there are many particular phenomenas, and then from there we frame theories and general statements. But science does not and cannot proceed from an a priori intuition of essentially unified concepts or universals and attempt to force reality into that shape. (It is interesting to note in this regard that Einstein’s most scientifically productive periods was in his more “empirical” early days when he subjected his theory to concrete empirical meaning, but towards his older years, he started to indulge in more “Greek” speculations and dreams about the “elegance” of collapsing physics into pure mathematics and sought to find his “Grand Unified Theory” in the rarified land of pure geometry and attempted to completely “geometrise” gravity. This attempt has now been largely abandoned and judged to be a failure)

The Laws of God and the Laws of Nature

It would be good now to link our example from science to our true subject matter, the question of Divine “Justice” or “Goodness”. If nominalism is correct, then there isn’t as a matter of fact a universal form of “justice” or “goodness” or whatever. There are many individual and particular acts of judgement about goodness or justice. For example, this nation’s law prohibits prostitution, the other nation’s law legalises it. This person judge that to be wrong, but this person judge that to be right, etc. Thus, there are many individual and particular judgements of goodness or justice which exists in a myriad of contexts, i.e. cultural, national, legal, individual, groups, etc. But there isn’t a unified form of the “just” or the “good” from which we can evaluate a priori individual actions or characters or whatever as “just” or “good”.

It is from this nominalistic context whereby we may understand the divine voluntarianism of Duns Scotus and Ockham. The problem with Euthyphro is simply that he fell into Socrates universalism trap. When Socrates said,

there was one idea which made the impious impious, and the pious pious

Euthyphro should immediately reply, ‘No Socrates, there is no one idea which makes the impious impious and the pious pious but each individual act is simply judged to be pious from a certain concrete context, but there isn’t an overarching unified “idea” of the pious.’ But doubtless if Euthyphro had replied this way it wouldn’t be a philosophical classic, or maybe it would just descend into a dispute between nominalism and universalism.

Thus Duns Scotus and Ockham, because of their nominalistic background, does not in fact begin with any a priori ideas of what is the “just” or what is the “good”. They begin with a canonical narrative: The Witness of Scripture to Salvation History. Thus, they have a normative collection of particular ethical/moral judgements. Thus, God hardens pharoah’s heart. He liberates Israel from Egypt by flinging meteor storms on them and drowning pharoah and his armies. He commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, he commands various tribes to be wiped out completely. He gives manna from heaven, he commands an elaborate set of levitcal laws, at later parts of salvation history he changes his interacton with them, e.g. from the sins of the fathers will be visited unto the sons he changes to everyone shall bear their own sin in the later prophets, etc. And of course Christ appearing on the scene brought about a radical new set of commands and divine actions.

Thus from this mass of empirical facts and particular judgements made in very concrete contexts, we form a “system” of what divine “justice” or “goodness” consists of. Thus divine voluntarianism is at heart simply a recapitulation of a very simple nominalistic truth: Whatever God wills is just, and justice is by definition whatever God wills or commands, God’s will or commands are not subject to “general” truth or universal form or standard of justice or goodness, he commands, and then we have justice.

It would be good to compare this to how some philosophers understand the “Laws of Nature”. According to David Lewis (who is himself also a nominalist), “Laws of Nature” are simply deductive systems. A system has a set of axioms, the logical consequences of axioms are theorems. By increasing the system’s number of axiom, one will have a stronger system, in that the system will contain more truths. But increasing axioms, especially if this is not compensated by an increase of statements which can be deduced from the axioms, will lead to a reduction in simplicity, meaning, it is more unwieldy, more cumbersome. The “Laws of Nature” simply are those systems with the best combination of strength and simplicity. We seek a system whereby we can generate the most number of truths with the minimum number of axioms.

Thus the “Laws of Nature” are in the sense, a systematic rationalisation of the masses and masses of particular empirical facts, Lewis calls the prior reality of these masses of particular facts whereby the system is derived “Humean supervenience” (after the great Scottish nominalistic philosopher David Hume), describing it as “the doctrine that all there is in the world is a vast mosaic of local matters of particular fact, just one little thing and then another”.

Likewise is the “Laws of God” or the “Justice of God” likewise to be formulated. Although of course we do not appeal to deductive systems with simplicity and strength to formulate what the “Laws of God” are but more to a sort of literary “logic” of narrative coherence and the development of salvation history, but the core resemblance which the nominalist “Laws of God” share with the systems approach to the “Laws of Nature” is the priority of the particular acts of God over any general principles or conception.

The Freedom of God and Arbitariness

Scotus and Ockham has always emphasized upon the freedom of God to will as He pleases, unconstrained by any other standards of justice or goodness formulated in other contexts. The Thomistic system on the otherhand emphasizes human nature at least as a partial source of the meaning of “justice” and “goodness” and as providing valuable context for evaluating God’s actions as “just” and “good”. Thus in this context, God’s goodness and justice consists in him providing the goods to perfect or complete human nature (the Aristotelian system!).

However of course the nominalist refuse to seek for some a prori general conceptions of “justice” or “goodness” but begin with the myraid of particular acts and decrees of God and from there draw out their understanding of divine “justice” and “goodness”. Now, having said all these, most divine voluntarists do place some prior context or “constains” even upon the divine will. For example, Scotus himself argues that God cannot will or command logical contradictions, thus in a sense he is “bound” to purely formal logic, and as a necessary being, he “must” necessarily have Himself or His glory as the proper end of all his actions.

But even with these “restrictions”, the scope of God’s willing is still unimaginably (and uncomfortably!) vast. After all, he still can (and does!) command genocides, Abraham to infanticide, regulate slavery, and he still hardens hearts and visits the iniquities of the fathers unto the sons, etc. Thus there is the common charge of arbitariness, the charge that if God is really so maximally free to do whatever He likes, then His commands and “laws” for us would be arbitary. The divine volunatarist who is a convinced nominalist can always shoot back that the charge is simply begging the question in assuming that there is in fact a non-arbitary and unified systematic idea to justice or goodness. But suppose instead we took up their charge and examine it a little closer. Let’s pick up one of their rhetorical objections and look at it carefully. What if God commanded, say, rape? Would rape be obligatory on God’s command?

As Daniel Dennett once puts it regarding thought experiments, always go for the contrarian answer! Suppose God were to legislate “rape” to the people of Israel. Suppose he were to say something along the lines of, “All woman shall be in subjection to the carnal needs of man. If any man should desire to lie with a woman who is pleasing to him, the woman shall not refuse but comply, thus saith the Lord”. (If your feminist instincts are offended, you can always invert the genders and have it “All the man shall be subjected to the desires of the woman, etc”, after all, God is maximally free and he can legislate anything). Now, imagine for a moment what would such a community be like. The woman will simply “sublimate” their sexual desires in obedience to God. Sexual desire would become less a matter of individual choice or less integrally tied to one’s personal identity, but would become something much more “periheral” to who they are, something that wouldn’t matter all that much, of much less significance. There would be a certain amount of “alienation” between their sexuality and their selves, but that is simply part of God’s ordering, whereby sexual desires may freely reign upon the arbitary whim of the man (or woman!). Thus technically in such a community God would in fact have legislated “rape”, if by rape is meant having sex against one’s own choice or desire. But what will simply happen in such a society is that therefore sexuality would only be loosely related to the will or choice, and by extension, to the sense of one’s personhood. In such a society, one may not really “like” the man (or woman!) whom one demands sex from, but one does it anyway, just as in our world, one may not really desire or be turned on by one’s spouse because he or she is getting fat and flappy, but one simply have sex anyway to satisfy a carnal need. The only difference is one of degree, between not really desiring to have sex with your husband because he’s getting fat or you’re feeling tired but still doing it anyway, and my hypothetical world whereby the woman (or man) may not really desire to have sex with this random stranger but one does it anyway, because it wouldn’t subjectively matter all that much in this world. In this hypothetical world, “rape” simply wouldn’t have the same connotations or force as it has in our world where God happened to not have legislated “rape”. But that is not to say that He couldn’t have done it or that some standard of justice or goodness would prohibit him from doing so. Our intuitions against the possible “rightness” of rape is a contingent conviction, formed upon the contingent fact that God had in fact not legislated “rape”, rather than rooted in anything more fundamental like universal justice or goodness. To be “unable” to conceive how rape can be right in another world is simply a failure of imagination, not an insight into some absolute universal moral reality.

Thus, to the charge that God can simply legislate “rape”, we can just reply, okay, so? What would be wrong with that? Consider another possible law which God can legislate which would make the rape charge less credible. Suppose God instead of legislating rape, legislates arranged marriages. Suppose that God were to say, “And the man when he reaches the age of manhood shall take a wife of his parent’s choice.” Now, there are as a matter of fact many past societies, and even some surviving today, where there is a social obligation to marry someone arranged by your parents. If God were to pass this legislation, it wouldn’t be prima facie so “intuitively” wrong, we wouldn’t think that it that irrational or wrong or bad or whatever for God to pass such a moral law. But if God can pass a law to make children marry a person not of one’s choosing but of their parent’s choosing (and by extension to have sex with such a person), then it is but a small step to God passing a law to make anyone have sex with a person not of one’s choosing, in short, “rape”.

Now, I write all these simply to emphasize how contingent and somewhat arbitary are our own moral convictions. They are very heavily “historicised” and formed by our empirical contexts. Thus, the charge of “arbitariness”, while intutitively appealing, upon closer inspection, simply disintegrates, and if our moral intuitions are somewhat arbitary, it would be hypocrisy to impose them upon God who naturally ought not to be subjected to our arbitary whims.

Faith in a Person, not a Law

But beneath the intuitions of moral “arbitariness” perhaps lies a more fundamental fear or worry, the fear of a God who is not a predictable and tame “Laws of Physics” who unfailingly acts according to some moral or rational laws, but is in fact a particular individual, a free and unpredictable person who can only be known in particular individual acts, not in some generalised law. 

In a sense, to attempt to reduce God’s action to some standard or conception of goodness, justice or morality which can be grasped by us outside of the purely individual and particular acts of God is an attempt to “tame” and render God predictable, secure and safe for us to put our trust in.

But this of course destroys the very nature of the relationship exists between man and God, and that is of faith. Faith is faith precisely whereby we cannot see or predict by our intellect or wisdom what God will do (or must do!). Consider for example the case of Exodus 32. Moses went up to the mountain to meet with God, Aaron and the Israelites were at the bottom celebrating with their golden calf, the Lord then declares, “Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.” (Exodus 32:10), then we read of the following,

But Moses implored the Lord his God and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it for ever.’”

Exodus 32:11-13

Well we know that the Lord relented upon this argument, but consider the following, was God really bound by justice or rationality or goodness to relent? If God was really bound to this course of action, then of what use was Moses pleading and arguing with God? He could just wait for God to pull a “just kiddin’ ya! I’m good and just and of course I wouldn’t carry out my threat!” Surely one of the reasons for Moses to plead with God is precisely, he doesn’t know what God will do. Not even knowing that God is just, good and true or whatever means anything or determines any course of action for God. God both relenting and not relenting would be perfectly compatible with His “justice” and “goodness” and “rationality”, etc. He could very well reply, “Do I give a damn what the Egyptians say? And can I not keep my promise to Abraham, Isaac and Israel through you? Are not all things possible with me? Can I not raise children of my servants from the very rocks? (Luke 3:8)” And then Moses would have bowed his head in submission and God could have went ahead to obliterate them.

Thus this example shows that God’s will by default is “just” and “good” and simply not bounden to any conception of justice or rationality or goodness outside of his very particular acts. Both relenting and not relenting is perfectly compatible with his justice and goodness, and by extension, most of his acts and decrees are contingent and have no explanation or reason outside of the fact that he wills it, he could act that way and he could very well do the exact opposite and he would still be perfectly just and good, etc. That is because God is fundamentally a person, a free agent himself, and he is absolutely free even above all the conceptions of justice or rationality or goodness which we can form with the wisdom of this world. Thus Moses was speaking and addressing a real person, a real agent, not to an impersonal law or principle or rationality, not knowing how that infinitely free person would respond, but interested for his response, his heart was set for a passionate interaction and relationship with a living God.

Conclusion: Wrestling with Angels

Fundamentally, worship of God is a leap of faith, God is not bounden to any universal conception of justice or goodness or rationality, he is maximally free and does whatever the hell he wants. Our worship and relationship with God must necessarily fundamentally be “existential” in that sense, a constant “wrestling” and furious engagement with a highly subjective, free and living God, and this living relationship and faith is more important than justice, goodness or rationality. When Isaiah in 63:17 cried out,

O Lord, why do you make us wander from your ways

and harden our heart, so that we fear you not?

He didn’t raise any theoretical questions about freewill and moral responsibility or whatever, he immediately followed this cry and lament with,

Return for the sake of your servants,

the tribes of your heritage.

He was only interested in continuing the relationship with God, interested only to pray and plead to the Lord for his mercy and goodness to his servants and to look upon them kindly, to continue to fellowship and be in communion with the God who lives, which relationship was more precious to Isaiah, than God conforming to some system of justice or rationality.

Incidentally with regards to Job, many Christians often highlight Job’s stoic response to his troubles of “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21) But this response even the pagan stoics who did not have a living God knew. That whatever God or Fate decreed was rational and just and that they should and could do nothing but to accept it. But Job became a proper Jew worshiping a living God when he cried out against God instead and demanded that God answer him for all the troubles which God have inflincted upon him. He did not lie to himself that what happened to himself conformed to any philosophical or humanly possible understanding of justice, goodness or rationality. It was a completely arbitary act, which Job fully realise that God was capable of, but yet he was determined only to continue to fellowship with this God who has dealth with him in a completely arbitary and irrational and unjust fashion and from this faith in a living personal God, Job cried out and shook his fist against God and demanded an answer, a response. He was not so much asking for some rationality or reason for what happened to him, but only for God’s continued presence and word of fellowship, and this can be seen in how God answered Job, by not answering any of his questions, but simply by turning up.

From here, we can discern the difference between the righteousness of man, conceive by the wisdom of this world, and the alien righteousness of God, utterly foreign to this world, bound only to the particular, living, action of God for us. In which case we should rejoice always, pray without ceasing, for indeed, anything is truly possible with a living God, and with Him, nothing is impossible, therefore always turn to Him in trust, for He is the Sovereign, Free and Living God.


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This entry was posted on October 13, 2012 by in Uncategorized.
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