Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The God of Eth

Most people who believe in God take their belief to be pretty reasonable. “Perhaps God’s existence can’t be conclusively proved”, they’ll say, “but it’s a fairly sensible thing to believe – far more sensible than, say, belief in fairies or Santa Claus.” But are they right?

Christians, Muslims and Jews believe that God is both all-powerful and all-good. Indeed, God is often characterized as an infinitely loving father. Yet most of the popular arguments for the existence of God allow us to deduce little if anything about his moral character. Take the argument from design, for example. Even if we can show that the universe does show signs of design, what’s the evidence that this creator is all-good?

There is also a well-known argument that, even if the universe was created by an all-powerful being, that being is not all-good. The argument is called the problem of evil, and runs roughly as follows: if God is both all-powerful and all-good, why is there so much suffering in the world? Why does God inflict earthquakes, floods, famines and the Black Death upon us? Why was he busy inflicting acute suffering on the animal kingdom for millions of years before we even made an appearance (including the literally unimaginable suffering caused by the several mass extinctions that have repeatedly wiped the majority of species from the face of the earth)? Why does he give children cancer? Why does he make life so grindingly miserable for so many? Why does he arrange for millions of us to end our lives horrendously scarred - in many cases both physically and psychologically crippled – by the world he created for us?

This hardly sounds like the behaviour of a supremely compassionate and loving father-figure, does it? Surely there’s overwhelming evidence that the universe is not under the control of a limitlessly powerful and benevolent character?

Many find this argument compelling. But of course there are plenty who believe the problem of evil can be dealt with.

How? Religious thinkers have, over the centuries, developed a number of ingenious solutions. Here are some four examples.

1. The free will solution. God gave us free will. We are not helpless automata, but free agents capable of make our own choices and acting on them. As a result of God having given us free will, we sometimes choose to do wrong. We start, wars, steal, and so on. So some suffering results from our possessing free will. However, it is still better that we have free will. Free will is a very great good that more than compensates for the suffering it can bring.

2. The “character-building” solution. We know that a bad experience can sometimes make us stronger. We can learn, be enriched, through suffering. For example, people who have suffered a terrible disease sometimes say they gained greatly from it. Similarly, by causing us pain and suffering, God allows us to grow and develop both morally and spiritually. It is only through our experiencing this suffering that we can ultimately become the noble souls God wants us to be.

3. Some goods require evils. Theists often point out that God inevitably had to include quite a bit of suffering in his creation in order that certain important goods could exist. Take, for example, charity and sympathy. Charity is a great virtue. Yet you can only be charitable if there exist others who are needy. Similarly, you can only sympathize with someone whom you perceive to be suffering. Charity and sympathy are so-called “second order” goods that require “first order” evils like neediness and suffering (or at least the appearance of such evils) to exist. It’s argued that these second order goods outweigh the first order evils, which is why God allows the evils to occur.

4. Play the mystery card. Some theists point out that God works in mysterious ways. It’s arrogant of us to suppose that we can understand the mind of an infinitely powerful and wise being. The evil God inflicts upon us is, actually, all for the best. It’s just that we, being mere humans, can’t see how.

Many believe these and other similar moves largely take the sting out of the problem of evil. Some think they deal with the problem altogether. I find them utterly inadequate. The following dialogue is my attempt to convey why.

Welcome to Eth, a modestly-proportioned planet on the far side of our Galaxy. Here, beneath the great marble spires of Eth’s finest university, the debate of the age is taking place. Arrayed on either side of the University’s Great Chamber are Eth’s finest scholars and thinkers. They are here to decide the most controversial and emotive issue dividing the inhabitants of Eth – does God exist?

To the right of the Great Chamber are arrayed the believers. To the left sit the skeptics. The public galleries are near to bursting with those waiting to hear the proceedings. At the end of the debate, the audience will vote.

Booblefrip - the bird-like Professor of Origin - and Gizimoth - the portly Arch-logos-Inquisitor - lead the debate.

GIZIMOTH: Here, on Eth, many of us believe in God, do we not?
BOOBLEFRIP: Certainly.
GIZIMOTH: So what is God like?
BOOBLEFRIP: Well, God is all-powerful, of course. God can do anything. He created the entire universe, including every last one of us. God’s awesome power knows no bounds!

A whisper of approval ripples across the believers on the right side of the Great Chamber.

GIZIMOTH: Let’s agree about that, then. God, if he exists, is omnipotent. But here on Eth, those who believe in God also attribute another property to him, don’t they?
BOOBLEFRIP: Yes. As you know, we also believe that God is all-evil.
GIZIMOTH: Can you explain what you mean by that?
BOOBLEFRIP: Not only does God’s power know no bounds, neither does he depravity. His cruelty is infinite. His malice without end.

Booblefrip casts a cool look across the right side of the chamber.

GIZIMOTH: I see. All powerful. And all-evil. Now Professor Booblefrip, do you think that could briefly explain why you think it’s reasonable to believe in such a being? What grounds can you provide to justify belief in this evil God?

The universe must have come from somewhere

BOOBLEFRIP: Well, I don’t say I can conclusively prove beyond doubt that God exists. But it seems to me that there are at least two rather good reasons for believing in God. First, it seems obvious to me, as it does to many, that the universe must have come from somewhere. Don’t you agree?
GIZIMOTH: Of course. The scientists assembled here will tell you that there is a perfectly good scientific explanation for the existence of the universe – the Big bang. About 14 billion years ago an unimaginably violent explosion occurred in which all matter and energy came into existence, and in which space and even time itself began.
BOOBLEFRIP: We’re all familiar with the Big Bang theory, Professor Gizimoth. But of course, the Big Bang really only postpones the mystery of why there is anything at all, doesn’t it? For now we need to explain why there was a Big Bang. Why did the Big bang happen? Science can’t explain that, can it? There’s a real mystery here, isn’t there?
GIZIMOTH: Hmm. Perhaps
BOOBLEFRIP: The only satisfactory explanation we have for why the universe came into existence in the first place is that God created. So there’s my first reason to believe in God.

Gizimoth frowns: he’s clearly not buying Booblefrip’s argument. But he encourages Booblefrip to continue.

Evidence of design

GIZIMOTH: And your second reason?
Booblemat: Take a look around you, at the wonders of universe. Life. Conscious beings like ourselves. Do you suppose that all this appeared just be chance? Surely not. The universe shows clear signs of design. And where there’s design, there’s a designer!
GIZIMOTH: But science can explain life. What about the theory of natural selection? That explains how over millions of years, life forms evolved and developed. It explains how complex life-forms can gradually evolve from even the simplest of bacteria. Science can perfectly well explain life without introducing your supernatural designer.
BOOBLEFRIP: Natural selection can’t explain everything. For example, it can’t explain why the universe was set up to allow natural selection to take place in the first place, can it?
GIZIMOTH: Hmm. Well no, it can’t explain that.
BOOBLEFRIP: Did you know that, if the laws governing the universe had been only very slightly different, the universe would not have survived more than a second or two? Either that or it would have quickly dissipated into a thin sterile soup incapable of producing life. For life to emerge and evolve, you need very specific conditions. The universe must be set up in an extremely precise fashion. And of course we know that it was set up in just this way, don’t we!
GIZIMOTH: I guess so.
BOOBLEFRIP: Now that it should just happen to be set up in just this way by chance is too much to swallow. That would be a fluke of cosmic proportions. It’s much more sensible, surely, to suppose that someone deliberately designed the universe this way, so as to produce life, and ultimately ourselves. That someone is God!

Another warm ripple of approval arose from the right side of the Great Chamber. The assembled academics felt that, so far at least, Booblefrip was getting the better of the argument.

But Gizimoth was perplexed.

GIZIMOTH: Very well, let’s suppose the universe does show clear signs of having been designed by an intelligent being.
BOOBLEFRIP: Ah. A convert!
GIZIMOTH: Not at all. I’m supposing this only for the sake of argument. You still haven’t given me much reason to suppose that this designer is all-evil, have you?
BOOBLEFRIP: But God is, by definition, all-evil.
GIZIMOTH: But why define God that way? Why not suppose, instead, that God is neither good nor evil? Or why not suppose he is all-good?

Booblefrip thinks Gizimoth has gone too far.

BOOBLEFRIP: What a bizarre suggestion. It’s obvious our creator is very clearly evil! Take a look around you! Witness the horrendous suffering he inflicts upon us. The floods. The ethquakes. Cancer. The vile, rotting stench of God’s creation is overwhelming!

The problem of good

GIZIMOTH: Yes, our creator may do some evil. But it’s not clear he’s all-evil, is it? It’s certainly not obvious that his wickedness is infinite, that his malice and cruelty know no bounds. You’re deliberately ignoring a famous argument against the existence of God – the problem of good.
BOOBLEFRIP: I’m familiar with the problem of good – we theologians of Eth have debating it for centuries. But it’s not fatal to belief in God.
GIZIMOTH: Really? Let’s see. The problem of good, as you know, is essentially very simple. If the universe was designed by an all-powerful, all-evil God, then why is there so much good in the world?
BOOBLEFRIP: That’s the supposed problem, yes.
GIZIMOTH: Why, for example, does God allow at least some people to live out happy, contented and fulfilled lives? Why doesn’t he torture them instead? If God is all-powerful, he certainly could torture them, couldn’t he?
BOOBLEFRIP: Well, yes, he could.
GIZIMOTH: In fact he could make their lives utterly miserable. And we know that, as he is also supremely evil, he must want them suffer. Yet he gives some people every care and attention. Why? It makes no sense, does it?
BOOBLEFRIP: Perhaps not at first sight, no.
GIZIMOTH: Here’s another example. Why does God allow us to do good deeds, to help our fellow Ethians? He even allows us to lay down our lives for each other. These selfless actions improve the quality of our lives no end. So why does God allow them. Why doesn’t he force us to be nasty and do evil, just like him?
BOOBLEFRIP: I grant you that God’s allowing so much noble and selfless behaviour might seem like very good evidence that he is not all-evil. But appearances are deceptive.
GIZIMOTH: Also, if God’s is absolutely evil, why did he put so much beauty in the world for us to enjoy? Why did he create such sublime sunsets?
BOOBLEFRIP: Good question.
GIZIMOTH: And why does God give us children, which bring us immeasurable happiness? You see? There are countless ways in which our lives are enriched by God’s creation.
BOOBLEFRIP: But there’s also evil!
GIZIMOTH: True, there’s evil in the world. But there’s an awful lot of good. Far too much good, in fact, for anyone reasonably to conclude that the universe was created by an all-evil God. Belief in a supremely wicked creator is palpably absurd.

There is much quiet nodding to the left of the Great Chamber. Gizimoth’s argument has struck a chord with the unbelievers. But Booblefrip thinks Gizimoth’s argument is far from conclusive.

BOOBLEFRIP: Look, I admit that the amount of good in the world might seem to undermine belief in an all-powerful, all-evil god. But actually, we believers can explain why a supremely evil God would allow all these good things to happen.
GIZIMOTH: By all means try.

The free-will solution

BOOBLEFRIP: Surely you are familiar with the free-will defence?
GIZIMOTH: Perhaps you would care to explain it.
BOOBLEFRIP: Very well. God’s malevolence is without end. True, he let’s us do good. He allows us to act selflessly for the betterment of others, for example. But there’s a reason for that.
GIZIMOTH: What reason?
BOOBLEFRIP: God gave us free will.
GIZIMOTH: Free will?
BOOBLEFRIP: Yes. God could have made us mere automata that always did the wrong thing. But he didn’t do that. He gave us the freedom to choose how we act.
BOOBLEFRIP: By giving us free will God actually increased the amount of suffering there is in the world. He made the world far more terrible than it would otherwise have been!
BOOBLEFRIP: Think about it. Yes God could have tortured us for all eternity with a red hot poker. But he would have got very bored very quickly. How much for fun for him to mess with our minds - to induce more complex, psychological forms of suffering.
GIZIMOTH: Psychological suffering?
BOOBLEFRIP: Yes. Take temptation. By giving us free-will, God can be sure we will agonize endlessly about what we should do. For free will brings with it the exquisite torture of temptation. And then, when we succumb to temptation, we feel guilty. Knowing that, being free, we could have done otherwise, we feel awful about what we have done. We end up torturing ourselves. The exquisitely evil irony of it all!
BOOBLEFRIP: By giving us free-will God allowed for far deeper and more complex forms of suffering than would otherwise be possible. Special, psychological forms of suffering.
GIZIMOTH: But what about the good people sometimes do?
BOOBLEFRIP: It’s true that people do sometimes choose to act selflessly and nobly, and that this can produce good. But this good is far outweighed by the additional suffering free-will brings. Just take a look at the world, for goodness sake! It’s a world full of people who not only behave despicably, but also agonize endlessly about what they have done!

The problem of natural goods

GIZIMOTH: But this is ridiculous!
GIZIMOTH: Well, for a start, this only explains the good that we bring about by acting freely. It doesn’t explain the existence of naturally occurring goods.
GIZIMOTH: Well, what about the glories of nature: sublime sunsets, stunning landscapes, the splendor of the heavens? We’re not responsible for these things, are we?
GIZIMOTH: But why would an all-evil God create something that gives us pleasure? Also, why does he give us beautiful children to love? And why does he choose to give some people extraordinary good fortune – health, wealth and happiness in abundance? Surely the existence of these things provides us with overwhelming evidence that, even if the universe has a creator, he’s not all bad?

The “character-destroying” solution

BOOBLEFRIP: You’re mistaken, Gizimoth. Such things are exactly what we should expect if God is supremely evil.
GIZIMOTH: But why?
BOOBLEFRIP: Some natural beauty is certainly to be expected. If everything was uniformly ugly, we wouldn’t be tormented by the ugliness half as much as if it were laced with some beauty. To truly appreciate the ghastliness of the environment most of us inhabit – a urine stained, concrete and asphalt wasteland peppered with advertising hoardings, drug addicts and dog dirt – we need to be reminded every now and then that things could have been different. God put some natural beauty into the world to make our appreciation of the ugliness and dreariness of day-to-day life all the more acute.
GIZIMOTH: Hmm. But why would a supremely wicked God give us beautiful children to love?
BOOBLEFRIP: Because he knows we’ll spend our entire lives worrying about them. Only a parent can know the depth of torture a child brings.
GIZIMOTH: Why does he give us healthy young bodies?
BOOBLEFRIP: Well, after 10 or 15 years they slowly and inevitably slide into decay, disease and decrepitude until we end up hopelessly ugly, incontinent and smelling of urine. Then we die, having lived out a short and ultimately meaningless existence. You see, by giving us something, and then snatching it away, our evil creator can make us suffer even more than if we had never had it.
GIZIMOTH: But then why does God allow some people live out such contented lives?
BOOBLEFRIP: Of course an evil God is going to bestow upon a few people lavish lifestyles, good health and immense success. Their happiness is designed to make the suffering of the rest of us even more acute! We’ll be wracked by feelings of envy, jealousy and failure! Who can be content while they have so much more!
GIZIMOTH: Oh honestly.
BOOBLEFRIP: Don’t you see? The world clearly was designed to produce life, to produce conscious beings like ourselves. Why? So that it’s designer can torture us. The world is designed to physically and psychologically crush us, so that we are ultimately overwhelmed by life’s futility and bow out in despair.

Gizimoth is becoming frustrated. Every time he comes up with another piece of evidence that the universe wasn’t designed by a supremely evil deity, Booblefrip turns out to have yet another ingenious explanation up his sleeve. And yet, thinks Gizimoth, the evidence against the existence of an utterly evil God is overwhelming.

Some goods require evils

GIZIMOTH: This is ridiculous. You have an answer for everything!
BOOBLEFRIP: Yes, I do have an answer to all your arguments. So far, you’ve given me not the slightest reason to suppose that the world was not created by a supremely evil being. But if you’re unhappy with my answers, let me try a rather different approach. There are some evils that require goods in order to exist, aren’t there?
GIZIMOTH: Such as?
BOOBLEFRIP: Take the evil of jealousy. Jealousy requires there be something to be being jealous of. God gave good things to some people so that others would feel jealous. Or take lying. Lying requires that people often tell the truth – otherwise there would be no point in lying because no one would believe you. The evil of dishonesty requires that there be a certain amount of honesty.
GIZIMOTH: And you think these evils outweigh the goods they depend on?
BOOBLEFRIP: Exactly. God allows some good things into his creation. It’s the price he has to pay for these greater evils.

Play The Mystery Card

GIZIMOTH: These tricksy replies of yours are patently absurd. You can’t seriously maintain that the world you see around you – a world full of natural beauty and laughing children – is really the handiwork of an infinitely evil God?
BOOBLEFRIP: I do maintain that, yes. True, I may not be able to account for every last drop of good in the world. But remember that we are dealing here with the mind of God. Who are you to suppose you can understand the mind of an infinitely intelligent and knowledgeable being? Isn’t it arrogant of you to suppose that you can figure out God’s master plan?
GIZIMOTH: I’m arrogant?

There’s some subtle nodding from the believers on the right.

BOOBLEFRIP: Yes. Arrogant. Evil God works in mysterious ways. Ultimately, everything really is all for the worst. It’s just that, being mere humans, we can’t always figure out how.
GIZIMOTH: Oh, really. This is…
BOOBLEFRIP: I think it’s arrogant of you to suppose otherwise – to suppose that you must be able to figure it all out.

The verdict

At the end of the debate, the audience vote. After the deliberation, a spokesperson steps forward with their verdict.

THE VERDICT: It seems to us that Booblefrip has made a powerful case for supposing the world was created by God. In addition, Booblefrip has provided a compelling defence of belief in this evil being. He has successfully explained why even an evil God would allow a great deal of good. And so the motion is carried – we are persuaded that Evil God exists.

Are you persuaded by Booblefrip’s defence of belief in a supremely evil God? Of course not. His explanations are clearly feeble. Surely, despite Booblefrip’s convoluted maneuverings, belief in a supremely evil God remains palpably absurd.

But of course, Booblefrip’s defence merely flips round the standard explanations that theists offer in defence of belief in a good God. His attempts to explain what good there is in the world mirror the theist’s attempts to explain the evil. If Booblefrip’s explanations are deeply inadequate, why aren’t the theist’s explanations? That’s the question the theist needs to answer.

Of course, theists consider belief in an all-evil God to be downright silly. And rightly so: there’s clearly far too much good in the world.

But then here is my challenge to theists. If you consider belief in an evil God downright ridiculous, why on Earth do you suppose that the good God hypothesis is, at the very least, not unreasonable? The onus is surely on you to come up with some much better arguments for specifically an all good God (can this be done? I think not, though try e.g. religious experience and miracles if you like) and/or to deal much more effectively with the problem of evil

This is (Mark Vernon take note) a challenge to agnostics too. If you think agnosticism about an evil god is ridiculous (and I am betting you do), why on Earth do you suppose agnosticism is the rational position to take re. the good God hypothesis?

Surely, even if the universe does have a designer/creator, isn’t it patently obvious that this being is neither all-evil, nor all-good?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The time machine

Today I journeyed to Richmond, to the laboratory of the time traveller. I was welcomed into the house by the courteous Mrs Watchett, his housekeeper. Mrs Watchett showed me into the drawing room where a fire was blazing. She explained that the time traveller was travelling through time even as she spoke, and that if we should pass through the next door into his laboratory, I would discover the awful truth about his time machine.

The housekeeper led me through a door into an amazing Victorian laboratory filled with experimental equipment. But the most astonishing thing of all was that there, sat in the saddle of his glittering brass, ivory, and crystal machine, was the time traveller himself.

“I thought you were off travelling in time!” I gasped.

There was no reply from the time traveller. In fact, he remained strangely motionless.

"He can’t hear you," explained Mrs Watchett.

“But you said he was travelling in time? I said.

“He is,” replied Mrs Watchett.

"But what my genius of an employer failed fully to realize,” she continued, “is that if, as he travels into the future, he can still see the laboratory about him - the hands on the clock whizzing round, the sun streaking across the window each day, me buzzing about like a fly, and so on - then he must still be in the room for the entire period of time through which he travels. Otherwise how could he see these things?"

I was beginning to understand. The time traveller’s machine had merely slowed him right down. His heart beat once a minute. His brain activity had been reduced to a crawl. Just as, from his perspective, we seemed to be whizzing about like gnats, from our perspective he appeared frozen like a statue.

“And now it’s me that has to dust him every week,” continued Mrs Watchett. She took out a feather duster from a drawer and proceeded gently to dislodge a fine layer of dust that had accumulated on his hair.

“He’s already been sat here for the last five years," she added crossly. "His nieces and nephews come and hang holly and tinsel on him at Christmas time.”

“And he doesn’t move at all?” I asked.

“Oh yes, he moves,” replied Mrs Watchett. “Only very, very slowly. I have noticed that his eyelids have begun to drop over the last week or so. I think he’s blinking.”

I walked up to the machine and peered intently at the time traveller. His grey eyes were fixed intently on something across the room, and his eyelids were indeed a little droopy.

“Worst of all,” added Mrs Watchett, “he’s going to be sat there for the next twenty thousand years. Whose going to do the dusting when I’m gone?”

"Well, time’s getting on," I said, and made my excuses.

(UK spellings. Apologies to H.G. Wells and Michael Dummett.)

Friday, March 23, 2007


Here's something from a new book. Thought it might interest those following the very odd comments (scroll to the end) on my posting an Anselm's argument.

Around the globe, audiences sit at the feet of marketing experts, life-style consultants, mystics, cult-leaders and other “gurus” waiting for the next deep and profound insight. Audiences often pay a great deal of money to hear these words of wisdom. So how do these elevated individuals come by their penetrating insights? What is the secret of their profundity? Unfortunately, in some cases, the audience is duped by the dark arts of pseudo-profundity.

The art of sounding profound is fairly easily mastered. You too can make deep- and meaningful-sounding pronouncements if you are prepared to follow a few simple rules.

First, try stating the incredibly obvious. Only do it v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, with a sort of knowing nod. This works particularly well if your remark has something to do with one of the big themes of life, love, death and money. Here are some examples:

Death comes to us all
We all want to be loved
Money is used to buy things

Try it yourself. If you state the obvious with sufficient gravitas, following up with a pregnant pause, you may soon find others start to nod in agreement, perhaps muttering “How true that is”.

Now that you have warmed up, let’s move on to a different technique – the use of jargon. A few big, not fully understood words can easily enhance the illusion of profundity. All that’s required is a little imagination.

To begin with, try making up some words that have similar meanings to certain familiar terms, but that differ from them in some subtle and never-fully-explained way. For example, don’t talk about people being happy or sad, but about people having “positive or negative attitudinal orientations”. That sounds far more impressive and scientific-sounding, doesn’t it?

Now try translating some dull truisms into your newly invented language. For, example, the obvious fact that happy people tend to make other people happier can be expressed as “positive attitudinal orientations have high transferability”.

Also, whether you are a business guru, cult-leader or a mystic, it always helps to talk of “energies” and “balances”. This makes it sound as if you have discovered some deep mechanism or power that could potentially be harnessed and used by others. That will make it much easier to convince people that if they don’t buy into your advice, they will really be missing out. For example, publish an article entitled “Harnessing positive attitudinal energies within the retail environment”, and Lo! another modern business guru is born.

Finally, if someone does get up the courage to ask exactly what a “positive attitudinal energy” is, you can always give a definition using other bits of your newly-invented jargon, leaving your questioner none the wiser. If all your jargon is defined using other jargon, no one will ever be able to figure out exactly what you mean (though your devotees may think they know). And the fact that buried within your pseudo-profundities are one or true truisms will give your audience the impression that you must really be on to something, even if they don’t quite understand what it is. So they will be eager to hear more.

Unfortunately, some cult-leaders, business gurus, mystics, life-style consultants, therapists - and even some philosophers – make use of these techniques to generate the illusion that they possess deep and penetrating insights. Now you can see how easy it is to generate pseudo-profundities of your own, I’m sure you will be rather less impressed the next time some self-styled “guru” suggests that your attitudinal energies need balancing.

[TEXT BOX: Another secret of pseudo-profundity is to pick two words that have opposite or incompatible meanings, and combine them cryptically, like so:

Sanity is just another kind of madness
Life is a often a form of death
The ordinary is extraordinary

Try it for yourself. You’ll soon start sounding deep. In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen-Eighty Four, the three slogans of the Party are all examples of this sort of pseudo-profundity:

War is peace
Freedom is slavery
Ignorance is strength

A particularly useful feature of these remarks is that they make your audience do all the work for you. “Freedom is a kind of slavery” for example, is interpretable in all sorts of ways that probably won’t even have occurred to you. Just sit back, adopt a sage-like expression, and let your audience figure out what you mean.

None of this is to say that such cryptic remarks can’t be profound, of course. But given the ease with which they are generated, it’s wise not to be too easily impressed.END OF TEXT BOX]

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

What's wrong with gay sex?

Here's a chpt of my book The Philosophy Gym on homosexuality.

Mr Jarvis, a Christian, was asleep in bed, dreaming of the Last Judgement. In his dream, Jarvis found himself seated next to God in a great cloud-swept hall. God had just finished handing down judgement on the drunkards, who were slowly shuffling out of the exit to the left. Angels were now ushering a group of nervous-looking men through the entrance to the right. As the men were assembled before Him, God began to speak.

God: So who’s next? Ah, yes, the active homosexuals . So tell me, Jarvis, what shall we do with them?
Jarvis: You’re going to punish them, aren’t you?
God: Why do you say that?
Jarvis: Because to engage in homosexual behaviour is wrong, of course.

The Appeal to The Bible

God gently rubbed his chin and looked quizzically at Jarvis.

God. Wrong? Is it wrong?
Jarvis: Yes. You say so yourself in The Bible.
God: Ah. The Bible.
Jarvis: Yes. Look right here. “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination.” Leviticus 18.22
God. Well, I may have been a little hasty. I’m not sure about that bit now.
Jarvis. Not sure? You’re God! You don’t make mistakes!
God: Perhaps I am not the real God. Perhaps I’m merely a dream God – a figment of your imagination.
Jarvis: Oh.
God. Also, why do you assume The Bible is one hundred percent reliable?
Jarvis: You mean it’s not?
God: I didn’t say that. But look, if you plan entirely to base your morality on the contents of just one book, you had better be sure it is the right book. And you had better be sure to what extent it can be relied upon, hadn’t you?

The Lord pointed to The Bible lying in Jarvis’s lap.

God: Flip forward a couple of pages. Scan down a bit. That’s it. Leviticus 11.7-8 What does it say?
Jarvis: “And the swine, though he divide the hoof; he is unclean to you. Of their flesh shall ye not eat.”
God: Ever eaten a bacon sandwich? Then you have sinned! Now a little further down.
Jarvis: “These shall ye eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers them shall ye eat. And all that have not fins and scales…”
God: “…ye shall not eat of their flesh.” Didn’t your last meal include moules marinière? Why aren’t you Christians out boycotting seafood restaurants and warning of the perils of lobster thermidor?

Jarvis turned a little pale.

God: If you read over the page from the passage about homosexuality, you will discover that it’s also wrong to wear a jacket made from a linen/wool mix.
Jarvis: I hadn’t noticed that bit before.
God: Further on it says it’s sinful to lend money for interest. Yet you condemn not one of these things, do you?
Jarvis: No.
God: But you confidently cite that particular passage of Leviticus to justify your condemnation of homosexuality. It seems you are picking and choosing.
Jarvis: But surely you no longer mean those other passages about seafood, jackets and lending money to apply? They’re outdated, aren’t they?

God looked sternly at Jarvis.

God: The word of God? Outdated? Okay, I don’t blame you for failing to condemn those who wear jackets made from a linen/wool mix. But you’re using your own sense of right and wrong, your own moral criteria, to decide which passages of The Bible to accept and which to reject, aren’t you?
Jarvis: Yes, I guess I am.
God: Indeed, it’s because the morality of The Bible does generally fit in with what you already think about right and wrong that you are prepared to accept The Bible as my word, isn’t it? If The Bible recommended stealing, lying and killing, you would hardly be likely to take it as My word, would you?
Jarvis: I guess not.
God: Then I think you should be honest. Rather than picking those bits of The Bible you like and rejecting the rest, and then claiming that your particular selection has my divine stamp of approval, I think you should just say that you think homosexuality is wrong and leave me out of it.
Jarvis: Very well.
God: Right, so if you believe homosexuality is wrong, can you explain to me why it’s wrong? Why do these men deserve punishment?

Homosexuality is unnatural

Jarvis looked out at the assembled crowd and scratched his head.

Jarvis: I didn’t say you should punish them. Perhaps they should be forgiven. But they have sinned. I can give you a number of reasons why.
God: What reasons?
Jarvis: The first is that homosexuality is unnatural.
God: Ah. That’s perhaps the most commonly held justification for condemning homosexual acts. But in what sense is homosexuality unnatural?
Jarvis: Well, most people aren’t actively homosexual. So homosexuality is an aberration from the norm.
God: In a sense. But then most men don’t have red hair. So red hair is also, as you put it, an aberration from the norm. Yet there is nothing unnatural about red hair, is there?
Jarvis: True. What I mean is that homosexual acts are unnatural because they are not what nature intended.
God: Not what nature intended? Hmm. Again, you need to clarify. Do you mean that homosexual acts run against those tendencies that nature has instilled in man, those that come most naturally to him?
Jarvis: Yes, I suppose I do.
God: I see. But now what about cleanliness? Cleanliness is next to Godliness, they say. Yet it hardly comes naturally to most human beings does it? Children seem positively fond of dirt. Man, for the most part, is pretty filthy, and doesn’t much mind being so. Your human obsession with hygiene is a very modern development. But then, by your own reasoning, cleanliness is morally wrong.
Jarvis: Oh dear.
God. Indeed, much that comes naturally to man is immoral. But he also seems naturally inclined towards greed, avarice, selfishness, infidelity and aggression. Humans have to struggle to control these natural inclinations. In fact it’s only those who succeed in thwarting these repugnant natural tendencies that are considered virtuous. Yet you would now reverse this and say that these tendencies, being natural, are good and what runs against them bad! Let me introduce you to someone.

Suddenly, Jarvis felt another person sitting close by. He turned to his right and saw a bald, serious-looking man dressed in a dark suit.

God: This is John Stuart Mill, who lived from 1806 to 1873. Mill here didn’t always give me a good press. In fact meeting me came as something of a surprise to you, didn’t it Mill?

Mill smiled nervously.

God: But he does has something interesting to say about what is natural. Don’t you Mill?
Mill: Conformity to nature, has no connection whatever with right and wrong….To illustrate this point, let us consider the phrase by which the greatest intensity of condemnatory feeling is conveyed in connection with the idea of nature – the word unnatural. That a thing is unnatural, in any precise meaning which can be attached to the word, is no argument for its being blameable; since the most criminal actions are to a being like man, not more unnatural than most of the virtues.

No sooner had Mill finished speaking than he vanished in a puff of smoke.

God: A fine mind, that Mill. So what do you say now?

Jarvis looked a little irritated. He remained convinced that there is something unnatural about homosexuality, something that makes it morally wrong. But he was struggling very hard to identify exactly what this unnatural and immoral feature is. Then, after a few minutes, Jarvis had an idea.

Jarvis. I have it! The penis has a specific function, doesn’t it? It’s designed for procreation: for the production of children. Homosexual activity is thus a misuse of that particular body part. One is using a body part contrary to the way nature intended.
God: I see. But then most sexual activity is morally wrong. For most sexual activity – even heterosexual activity – involves the thwarting of the procreative natural function. Masturbation is sinful: it cannot result in the production of children. Oral sex is sinful. The use of any sort of contraceptive device is sinful. Is that what you believe?
Jarvis: It’s certainly what many Catholics believe, isn’t it?
God: True. But look, if the justification for considering all these sorts of sexual activity sinful is that they involve using body parts contrary to their “natural” function, then what about, say, wearing earrings? It hardly looks like a “natural” use of the ears, does it, hanging lumps of metal off them? Yet it’s not considered sinful. No doubt you would deny that wearing earrings involves, as you said, using a body part “contrary to its basic, essential function”. But why?
Jarvis: I’m not sure.
God: And in any case, the question remains: Why is it wrong to use a body part contrary to its basic natural function? I just don’t see why it follows that if something comes unnaturally to us, or to a part of our body, then it’s wrong.

Homosexuality is dirty

Jarvis was struggling to answer God’s question adequately. So he decides to try a different tack.

Jarvis: Okay. Suppose I accept that Mill is correct. Morality has nothing to do with what’s “natural” or “unnatural”. Still there’s another much more obvious and better reason for condemning homosexual practices. I hope you won’t be offended if I speak frankly.
God: Be as frank as you like.
Jarvis: Very well. Homosexuality is dirty, isn’t it? Sodomy – placing ones penis in someone else’s anus – means that it is probable that one will come into contact with faeces.
God. What you say about sodomy is true. But does this show that all homosexual acts are wrong? No, it doesn’t. There are plenty of active homosexuals who don’t practise sodomy. You can’t condemn them, can you?
Jarvis. No.
God: Also, there are heterosexual couples that practise sodomy, aren’t there?
Jarvis: There are?
God. Take my word for it. But in any case, just because an activity is dirty doesn’t make it wrong.
Jarvis: Why not?
God: You’re a keen gardener, aren’t you?
Jarvis: Yes.
God: Well, gardening is a pretty dirty activity, isn’t it? Particularly where you live. There is rarely a day you spend in the garden that doesn’t result in you immersing your hands in cat faeces, is there?
Jarvis: I guess that’s true. You are right. Gardening is dirty, but it’s not immoral. So I can’t really use the alleged dirtiness of sodomy to justify my morally condemning it, can I?
God: You’re catching on, my boy.

Homosexuality is unhealthy

Jarvis now tried a different tack.

Jarvis: To engage in homosexual activity is unhealthy. That’s why it’s wrong.
God: Unhealthy?
God: Yes. Take HIV for example. HIV is an infection that results in AIDS. AIDS kills millions of people. And it is through homosexual activity that HIV is spread. Correct?
God: You are partially correct. HIV can be spread through all forms of penetrative sex. Indeed, many heterosexuals are infected too.
Jarvis: That’s true.
God: Also, homosexuals may practise safe sex. Heterosexuals too. Practice safe sex and the risks are pretty low.
Jarvis: Hmm. Also true, I guess.
God: Perhaps it’s true that homosexual acts are more likely to pass on the disease than are heterosexual acts, even if they are of the comparatively “safe” variety. But does that make it wrong? If it were found that drinking wine is similarly a bit less healthy than drinking beer, we wouldn’t morally condemn those wine drinkers who refused to switch to beer, would we?
Jarvis: I guess not.

Homosexuality corrupts the young

Jarvis: But what of homosexuals who prey on innocent young men? That’s wrong, isn’t it?
God: But it’s no less wrong when men seek to seduce innocent and impressionable young women, surely?
Jarvis: Well, yes, that is wrong too. But what the homosexual seducer does is more wrong.
God: Why?
Jarvis: Well, because the young man involved may then end up adopting a homosexual lifestyle himself. He may be corrupted.
God: You’re assuming, I think, that homosexuals tend to be made, not born. That’s contentious, is it not?
Jarvis: Well, isn’t it plausible that some men who would, other things being equal, go on to have only heterosexual sexual relationships may have a tendency towards homosexuality that, given the wrong sort of experience at an impressionable age, may result in them then pursuing homosexual liaisons later in life?
God: That’s not implausible. But notice that you’re begging the question. If there’s nothing morally wrong with homosexuality, then what difference does it make if a young man does end up engaging in homosexual acts? Why insist that this young man is corrupted?
Jarvis: Well, homosexuals live miserable lives. In many societies they continue to be vilified. So, as a result of his early homosexual experience, this young man may end up having an unhappy life. The homosexual who initiates the young man into this life must know this. So what the initiator does is wrong.
God: Perhaps. But even if what you say is true, is the blame for the young man’s misery to be pinned primarily on the homosexual who initiates him?

God pointed an accusatory finger at Jarvis.

God: Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to blame people like you for making homosexuals miserable by vilifying them?

Homosexuals are promiscuous

Jarvis didn’t bother to answer God’s question. Instead, he pointed out something about male homosexuals that does appear to be true.

Jarvis: Male homosexuals tend to be rather more promiscuous than heterosexuals. Doesn’t that, at least, make them worthy of your moral condemnation?
God: This, at best, would give me reason to condemn those homosexuals that were promiscuous. It would not justify my condemning homosexual acts per se. In fact there are many homosexual couples that remain faithful throughout their lives. And plenty of heterosexuals are promiscuous too.
Jarvis: True. But homosexuals tend to be more promiscuous.
God: In fact, there’s a scientific explanation for that. Males seem naturally much more disposed towards having no-strings sex than do females. Ask heterosexual men if they would accept the offer of no-risk, no-strings sex with an attractive stranger of the opposite sex and over 90% say “yes”. Ask heterosexual women the same question and the vast majority say “no”.
Jarvis: That’s interesting.
God. Yes. So you see, in heterosexual relationships, women act as a natural brake on the male’s impulse to have sex fairly indiscriminately. For male homosexuals this brake is missing. It is unsuprising, then, that they tend to be more promiscuous than are heterosexual males. It’s not that they are any less moral. It’s just that they have more opportunity to do what most men, whatever their sexual persuasion, would do given the opportunity.
Jarvis: Nevertheless, you admit that male homosexuals do tend to be more promiscuous, and promiscuity is not to be encouraged. So male homosexuality is not to be encouraged, surely.
God: Your argument rests on the assumption that promiscuity is itself a bad thing. But is it?
Jarvis: Isn’t it?
God: Can you explain to me why you think it is?

Homosexuals use each other as means, not ends

Jarvis: Well, take for example those bathhouses in San Francisco. You know, the ones in which homosexual orgies are supposed to have taken place. Men having sex with complete strangers at the drop of a hat. These men would be treating other men not as ends in themselves, but merely as a means to an end, that end being their own immediate sexual gratification. Now that is morally wrong, surely. It was the philosopher Kant (1724-1804) who said: “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.” And that is quite right, isn’t it? One ought to treat others as ends in themselves, rather than as the means by which one might obtain a quick sexual thrill. That, surely, is why such promiscuous behaviour is wrong.
God: An ingenious argument, I admit. But not persuasive. Let me conjure up for you another philosopher, Lord Quinton (1925- ), who has something interesting to say on this matter.

A figure began to materialize to Jarvis’s right. First some hands appeared; then a nose. Finally, there was Anthony Quinton standing before him (Quinton, incidentally, bears an uncanny resemblance to God).

God: Ah. Lord Quinton. My friend Jarvis just suggested that it is wrong to use another person not as an end in themselves, but merely as a means to sexual pleasure. Homosexuals are less likely to enter into lasting, monogomous sexual relationships. They are, perhaps, more likely to engage in casual sex with a complete stranger, on a whim. Is it that a problem, morally?
Quinton: It is certainly true that long-term, morally and personally profound relationships are less common among homosexuals. How much does that matter? If I regularly play tennis with someone but do not see him except on the tennis court and at the health juice bar afterwards, if, in other words, I am interested in him only as a tennis partner, am I ignoring his status as an end in himself? More to the point, if I pick up different opponents every time I go to the courts, on a purely casual basis, am I acting immorally?
Jarvis: But hang on. Sex is not like tennis is it? Sex is a much more important part of life, surely.
Quinton: Except for a minute number of people sex is a more important part of life than tennis. A life in which it is merely a source of short-term gratification and not an inseparable part of a whole shared life is to that extent trivialised. But triviality is not a moral offence; it is, rather, a missed opportunity and one which, in fact, many homosexuals do not miss.

God waved his hand and Lord Quinton began to dissolve into tendrils of cloud. As the last wisps drifted away, God looked intently at Jarvis.

God: So you see, it may be true that some homosexuals use each other as means to an end and not as ends in themselves. But, as Quinton just explained, it’s difficult to see why there is anything morally wrong with that. It may also be true that some homosexuals miss out on the kind of deeper connection that can be made only within a stable, lasting and sexually exclusive relationship. However, as Quinton also just explained, this is surely not a reason morally to condemn them.

Jarvis scratched his head. He now felt very confused.

Jarvis: But I felt sure that you would condemn homosexuality.
God: If two consenting adult males want to enter into a sexual relationship, why not? So far you have not given me a single convincing reason why such activity demands my condemnation. Homosexual sex does no harm to others. Nor does it appear to do much obvious harm to the individuals involved. Why shouldn’t people engage in it if that is what they want?

Homosexuality and “family values”

Jarvis: You say that homosexuality does no harm to others. But perhaps it does. Perhaps it has a corrosive effect on society as a whole. For doesn’t it eat away at the institution that lies at the heart of any civilized society: the family?
God: Why do you say that?
Jarvis: Well, for a start, if everyone was exclusively homosexual, then there would be no families, would there? The human race would die out!
God: Does that make homosexuality wrong? I think not. For, similarly, if every man became a Catholic Priest, that too would mean the end of the family. Yet there’s nothing immoral about being a Catholic Priest, I hope?
Jarvis: No. But look, societies that fail to condemn homosexuality crumble. Once homosexuality is considered a morally acceptable alternative to heterosexuality, the result must be the breakdown of the family. And the family is the glue that binds society together, is it not?
God: You seem to be suggesting that homosexuality is like some sort of disease that will inevitably eat away at the vitals of society unless strongly dealt with.
Jarvis: Yes, I am.
God: But why must a society that tolerates homosexuality crumble? Actually, it seems to me that societies tolerant of homosexuality thrive just as much if not more than intolerant ones. And why do you believe homosexuality is a threat to the family? Why can’t we have both strong families and tolerance? You really have made no case for any of these conclusions, have you?

Jarvis grimaced.

God: In fact, it seems to me that your attitude towards homosexuals is driven less by reason and more by emotion: by feelings of disgust and revulsion.
Jarvis: I do have strong feelings about them, yes. They do revolt me. And shouldn’t society take into account the strong moral convictions of the great many who have such feelings?
God: But it’s clear, isn’t it, that morality isn’t simply a matter of emotion? Just because most people feel that something is disgusting or abhorrent doesn’t make it wrong. After all, plenty of people feel strongly about the moral inferiority of Jews. Plenty feel similarly about blacks. Plenty feel sickened by foreigners. Yet all these feelings are without justification. That kind of “them and us” sentiment on which “they” are held to be dirty, nasty and immoral comes very naturally to you humans. Perhaps you should be more vigilant, more on your guard against letting such feelings get a grip. As Ronald Dworkin points out, you certainly shouldn’t mistake such feelings for moral conviction. Isn’t that right, Ronald?

Another shadowy figure started to take form next to Jarvis and began to speak.

Dworkin: If I base my view about homosexuals on a personal emotional reaction (‘they make me sick’) you would reject [it]. We distinguish moral positions from emotional reactions, not because moral positions are supposed to be unemotional or dispassionate – quite the reverse is true – but because the moral position is supposed to justify the emotional reaction, and not vice versa. If a man is unable to produce such reasons, we do not deny the fact of his emotional involvement, which may have important social or political consequences, but we do not take this involvement as demonstrating his moral conviction. Indeed, it is just this sort of position – a severe emotional reaction to a practice or a situation for which one cannot account – that we tend to describe, in lay terms, as phobias or an obsession.

Jarvis looked uncomfortable.

God: See? You’re in the grip of a phobia or obsession.
Jarvis: Oh dear.
God: Having said all that, let’s get on with the judging.

God reached forward and pressed a small red button on his armrest. Immediately, the hall was bathed in an eerie red light and the air filled with the deafening “Parp! Parp! Parp!” of a claxon. Jarvis noticed that over on the left of the hall a number of doors had sprung open and little horned creatures with long tails were pouring out. These devil-creatures immediately began to prod the assembled homosexuals back in the direction of the doorways with their spiked forks. Many of these unfortunate men were now holding each other and whimpering.

God: That’s right. You all burn.
Jarvis: In hell?
God: I’m afraid so. They didn’t follow instructions. Couldn’t be clearer. You pointed out one of the relevant passages yourself. Homosexuality is an abomination. I razed Sodom to ground, didn’t I?
Jarvis: But a minute ago you said…
God: I have been testing you. I have pretended to be a bleeding-heart liberal in order to establish your commitment to The Bible. I do tests. Don’t you remember Isaac and Abraham – Genesis 23?
Jarvis: But what about forgiveness? Aren’t you going to allow them into heaven?

God pointed to the men being herded about by the devil-creatures

God: Let them into heaven? How can I?
Jarvis: But I thought you said...
God: There you go, thinking again. It’s all in the book: The book you hold in your hands. Take a look at Corinthians, 1, 6:9-11. It says very clearly that ‘abusers of themselves with mankind…shall not inherit the Kingdom of God. Such were some of you, but ye are washed…ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus.’ Now these men are not ‘washed’ are they? They don’t repent. In fact, they flaunt their activities proudly before us. That one even has a ‘Gay Pride’ banner.

There was indeed a worried looking man standing at the front with a slightly droopy cardboard placard.

God: It’s all very clear: they go to hell.
Jarvis: Really?
God: Rules are rules. So who’s next? Ah yes, the lobster eaters. Come on down!

At this Jarvis woke up, his bed soaked in sweat.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Aquinas on homosexuality

Thought I would try a bit of a draft out on the blog, for feedback. All comments gratefully received. No doubt I've got at least some details wrong re the Catholic Church's position...


Aquinas’s thinking remains hugely influential within the Catholic Church. In particular, his ideas concerning sexual ethics still heavily shape Church teaching. It is on these ideas that we focus here. In particular, I will look at Aquinas’s justification for morally condemning homosexual acts.

When homosexuality is judged to be morally wrong, the justification offered is often that homosexuality is, in some sense, “unnatural”. Aquinas develops a sophisticated version of this sort of argument. The roots of the argument lie in thinking of Aristotle, whom Aquinas believes to be scientifically authoritative. Indeed, one of Aquinas’s over-arching aims was to show how Aristotle’s philosophical system is broadly compatible with Christian thought. I begin with a sketch of Aristotle’s scientific conception of the world.

Aristotle’s vision of the world

Man-made objects typically have a purpose. A knife is made to cut, a telephone for speaking to people at a distance, and a car for transporting us about. In the case of knives, telephones and cars, it is clear what their purpose is, as we made them for that purpose. But what about naturally occurring things? Might they, too, have a purpose?

Clearly, some naturally things do have a function. Legs are for walking and running. Teeth are for biting and chewing. Hearts are for pumping blood. But what of clouds, pebbles and mountains? Are they, too, for something?

Aristotle believed that here, too, a purpose can ultimately be found. Clouds exist to produce rain, rain to water plants, and plants to feed animals. In Aristotle’s view, the natural world forms a rational system within which everything has a purpose. Nothing just is – it is always for something. And the ultimate end to which everything is finally geared, according to Aristotle, is man: “nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man”.

The addition of God

This Aristotelean vision of purpose-driven world – a world that, by applying our power of reasons, we are able to fathom and comprehend – was well-known to and much admired by many medieval Christian thinkers. They considered it involved only one major omission: God. Aquinas took Aristotle’s view of a purpose-driven world and added to it the thought that the purpose each thing possesses is given to it by God.

God’s entire creation, according to Aquinas, is imbued with divine purpose. By examining the world carefully - by uncovering the essential natures of things and the laws determining what they are for - we can discern God’s plan and intentions.
Aquinas extends this view to cover even ourselves. We too, are made by God for a purpose. By examining our essential natures and revealing what we are for, we can discern what God intends us to be. We can arrive at knowledge of what is in keeping with, and what is contrary to, God’s intentions, and so what is morally good and bad.

The claim that morality can, as it were, be “read off” nature in this way is called the theory of “natural law”.

Aquinas on sexual ethics

You can now see how Aquinas’s version of “natural law” theory is likely to have repercussions for sexual ethics. Many parts of our bodies have a purpose. These purposes are, according to Aquinas, God-given. It was God who gave us legs so that we can walk, a tongue so that we can taste and speak, and so on. But then someone who uses their body, or any part of it, contrary to the manner God intended, contravenes “natural law”. To thwart the natural functions that God has given things is act against God’s will. That makes it wrong.

The God-given role of semen

Aquinas notes that semen is plays a role in reproduction. That is its purpose, he supposes. But then any activity that involves thwarting the natural function of semen must be contrary to nature, and thus morally wrong. “It is evident,” says Aquinas,

that every emission of semen, in such a way that generation cannot follow, is contrary to man. And if this be done deliberately, it must be a sin. Summa Theologica.

But then it follows that those sexual acts that result in the issue of semen where generation is not possible must be sinful. As homosexual acts between males involve thwarting the purpose God has assigned to semen, such acts are “contrary to nature”. If we act in this way, we frustrate the will of God. We sin.

Of course, if Aquinas is correct, it follows that masturbation and contraception are sinful too. This is, of course, the current position of the Catholic Church on homosexuality, masturbation, oral sex and contraception. All are sinful.

To date, the Catholic Church continues to oppose the use of condoms even in places like Africa, where they might save countless lives by reducing the spread of HIV and Aids (though there are signs, finally, that the Church may be about to shift its position on this). The roots of the Church’s justification for continuing to forbid the use of condoms lie at least partly in Aquinas’s medieval blending of Christian theology with Aristotle’s science. The use of condoms involves thwarting the natural reproductive function God has assigned to semen.

An initial objection: walking on your hands

One of the more obvious worries you might have about Aquinas’ justification for condemning homosexual acts is this: doesn’t it commit him to morally condemning all sorts of behaviour that is, in fact, entirely blameless? Take walking on your hands. There is nothing morally wrong with that, surely? Circus performers and acrobats do it all the time. No one, not even the staunchest Catholic, condemns them. Yet our hands are not designed to be walked on. So why doesn’t Aquinas condemn the activities of circus folk?

Aquinas’ response

Aquinas is ready for this objection. He admits that it isn’t always wrong to use a body part contrary to its natural function. Walking on your hands is not a sin. But this is because, as Aquinas puts it, “man’s good is not much opposed by such inordinate use.” It is acceptable to use a body part contrary to its natural function if this helps man as a whole, or at least doesn’t frustrate the natural purpose of that whole. Walking on your hands does not frustrate the purpose God has given man, and so it is morally acceptable. But homosexuality does frustrate this purpose. Man is designed by God to procreate. Homosexuality thwarts that function. That makes it morally wrong.

Objections to Aquinas’s sexual ethics

Many other objections have been raised against Aquinas’ sexual ethics, including the following two:

1. Just as occasional bouts of walking on your hands won’t prevent you using them for the purpose they were intended, so occasional bouts of homosexual activity do not prevent a man from using his sexual organs to reproduce normally. Just as I might use my hands normally most of the time, but occasionally engage in a bout of hand-walking, so I might I might use my sexual organs procreativity for the most part, while also engaging in the odd homosexual fling. It is not immediately clear how Aquinas’s argument, as outlined above, allows Aquinas to justify condemning homosexual activity per se, rather than just exclusively homosexual activity. Perhaps Aquinas’s argument might be bolstered by the addition of the premise that God also clearly also intends us to be strictly monogamous.

2. Aquinas’s justification is dependent upon several questionable claims many of us no longer accept. These include:

(i) The claim that God exists. If there is no God, then the suggestion that things possesses purposes that are given by God is false. But then Aquinas’ argument has rational force only if he can show that there are good grounds for supposing God exists. Whether there are such grounds is contentious, to say the least. In the absence of good grounds for supposing God exists, we lack good grounds for accepting Aquinas’ conclusion.

(ii) But in any case, even if there is a God, the claim that those purposes that we find in nature indicate what God desires is questionable. We now know that the universe and all the species in it were not created more or less simultaneously by God just a few thousand years ago, as Aquinas believed. What Aquinas took to be natural functions, roles, dispositions etc. laid down by God at creation were in reality laid down by natural selection over millions of years. And the functions, roles and dispositions that have evolved by natural selection need not be good. Natural selection favours attributes that enhance the ability of organisms to survive and reproduce. And what enhances that ability may well not be morally admirable. For example, we may have evolved a natural disposition to dominate and subjugate others. Such a disposition may well have survival value. But just because this tendency is “natural” for humans in no way entails that it is morally good.


Philosophy is sometimes accused of being a head-in-the-clouds discipline with no relevance to day-to-day life. But if philosophy can show that the moral justifications offered for condemning homosexuality and the use of condoms are, in fact, intellectually bankrupt, then philosophy might prove very useful indeed. It might even contribute towards saving countless lives.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

morality and authority

Returning to an earlier theme, here's something from my book The War For Children's Minds on whether it is a good idea to get children, or individuals more generally, to defer to some authority on moral and religious questions.

Deferring to authority isn’t always a bad idea. We do it all the time. No doubt you go to a doctor for a medical opinion, to a plumber for expertise on central heating, to a lawyer for legal advice, and so on. It’s pretty reasonable to take the authority’s word for it in these cases.

In fact, modern life demands that we trust the expertise of others. The world is now so complex that any one of us can only properly understand how a tiny bit of it works. We can’t all be experts on plumbing, science, the law, car mechanics, psychology, and so on. We have to seek out others upon whose expertise we inevitably have to rely.

So what if you go to an authority on some matter, and they give you bad advice? Who’s to blame, then, if things then go awry? Suppose, for example, that a student new to chemistry wants to know whether it’s safe to dispose of a large lump of potassium by flushing it down the sink. They ask their chemistry professor, who tells them it will be perfectly safe. So the student drops the potassium in the sink. There’s a huge explosion that kills another student. Is the student who was given the wrong advice to blame? Can she excuse herself by pointing out that her authority told her to do it?

Yes she can. It was entirely reasonable for the student to trust the advice of their chemistry professor. She had every reason to accept the professor’s advice. Generally speaking, if we go to the acknowledged experts for advice, and those experts assure us that something is a good idea when in fact it’s a very bad idea, we’re not morally culpable when things go wrong as a result.

But if it’s sensible to trust the word of medical, legal and plumbing experts – if we are justified in simply taking their word for it – then why not the word of moral experts?

Suppose someone wants to know what sort of attitude she should have towards those who don’t share the same religion as her. She goes to her community’s religious and moral Authority for the answer, the Authority to which she has always deferred in the past. Suppose this Authority tells her that it is her moral duty to kill those who don’t share the same religious beliefs as her. In fact, suppose this Authority tells her to go out, wire herself to some explosives, wander into a supermarket full of unbelievers, and blow herself up. She takes her moral Authority’s word for it (as she always has) and goes out and kills several hundred people. Is this person also blameless?

Intuitively not. Someone who goes out and kills on the instruction of a religious or some other moral Authority does not thereby avoid moral responsibility for what they have done. “I was only following the instructions of my expert” is not an excuse.
Of course, in the case of the suicide bomber, there may be mitigating factors. If we feel this individual did not really make a free decision – if she had been heavily psychologically manipulated, perhaps even brainwashed – then we might be slightly more forgiving. She might, for that reason, be less blameworthy. The point remains that she can’t absolve herself from responsibility simply by saying, “My moral expert told me it was okay” in the same way that the chemistry student can absolve herself of responsibility by saying “My chemistry expert told me it was okay”.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t seek moral advice, particularly when it comes to complex moral dilemmas. The advice we receive might be valuable. It might lead us to recognize that we were mistaken in holding a particular moral belief. No doubt some people really are better judges about what’s right and what’s wrong than are the rest of us. They’re ‘moral experts’ in that sense. Arguably, these moral experts include some priests, imams and rabbis. If so, we might learn by listening to them. They may, in this sense, be “authoritative”.

However, to accept that some people may be “authorities” in this sense is not to say that we should more-or-less uncritically defer to them on moral matters. It’s not yet to say that anyone should be considered an Authority with a capital “A”.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Anselm's argument

I promised Richard Symonds something on Anselm's argument, so here it is. This is from a book I am doing so any suggestions for improvements would be gratefully received. Sorry it's a bit long.

Anselm’s argument simple and elegant. He begins by characterizing God as a being greater than which cannot be conceived. That God, if he exists, is such a being seems clear. If you conceive of a being, yet can also conceive of a still greater being, then the being you first thought of cannot be God.

Armed with this concept of God, we can now argue for God’s existence as follows. We can at least conceive of such a being. That there exists a being greater than which cannot be conceived is at least a hypothesis we can entertain. But, adds Anselm, as it is greater to exist in reality than merely in our imagination, this being must really exist. After all, if he did not exist, then he would not be as great a being as we can conceive.

Here is the argument laid out more formally:

1. God is a being than which nothing greater can be conceived
2. I can conceive of such a being
3. It is greater to exist in reality than merely in the imagination
4. Therefore the being of which I conceive must exist in reality

This argument is called an ontological argument (though that label is not Anselm’s - it is Kant’s). An ontological argument attempts to establish the existence of God by reason alone. Though several philosophers have subsequently offered ontological arguments of their own, including Leibniz (chapter xx) and Descartes (chapter XX), Anselm’s is the original and, arguably, the best.

The ontological argument was once very popular, but that popularity has waned. Few philosophers – and I include among them the majority of philosophers who believe in God – now consider the argument cogent. Still, while few philosophers find the argument convincing, there remains no consensus as to exactly what is wrong with it. Let’s finish by looking at three criticisms.

Gaunilo’s island

Even in Anselm’s day, the argument had its critics. A monk called Gaunilo pointed out that we could, by means of a similar line of reasoning, apparently “prove” that a perfect island – an island as perfect as it is possible for any island to be – exists.

Here’s Gaunilo’s argument. Can we not conceive of a perfect island – an island perfect in every conceivable way, from the purity of its streams to the sublime contours of its landscape? It seems we can. But if we can conceive of such an island, and it is greater to exist in reality than in imagination, then the island we are conceiving of must exist. If it didn’t exist, it would not be perfect in every way.

On the seemingly safe assumption that there is no such island, it seems we have no choice but to accept that there is something wrong with the argument that appears to establish that there is. But if there is something wrong with this argument, isn’t there also something wrong with Anselm’s analogous argument for the existence of God?

Anselm knew of Gaunilo’s criticism, and replied to it, although his response is widely considered to amount to little more than bluster. One move we might make in defence of Anselm’s version of the argument is to insist that, actually, we cannot conceive of a perfect island. We might think we can, but we are mistaken. An obvious problem with this move, however, is that merely invites the same response to the claim that we can conceive of a perfect being. Perhaps we merely think we can conceive of such a being. I’ll return to this suggestion at the end of this chapter.

Kant’s criticism

The philosopher Kant offers one of the best-known criticisms of the ontological argument. According to Kant, Anselm’s mistake is to treat existence is a further property we might conceive of something possessing in addition various other properties such as, for example, being tall or all-powerful. Existence is not such an extra property. If you imagine a pile of money, and then add to what you are conceiving the property of existing, you do not in fact add anything to what you were already conceiving.

But if existence is not a property that can be added to our conception of thing, Anselm’s argument fails. If existence is not a property, then it is not a property that might be included in the concept of God. As the ontological argument requires that it is such a property, the argument breaks down.

Kant’s diagnosis of what is wrong with the ontological argument, while ingenious, is not universally accepted. In particular, it is debatable whether Kant is right to deny existence is a property.

Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that Kant is mistaken and existence is a property that we can add to our conception of a thing. Unfortunately for Anselm, the argument then runs into other difficulties, such as the following.

Can we conceive of God?

Suppose I define a wibble thus:

Something is a wibble if, and only if it, is: (i) red, (ii) spherical, (iii) weighs one ton, and (iv) smells of fish.

Are there any wibbles? I have no idea. Perhaps there is a wibble floating in a harbour somewhere (functioning as a buoy, perhaps)
Now suppose I define a wooble thus:

Something is a wooble iff. it is: (i) red, (ii) spherical, (iii) weighs one ton, (iv) smells of fish, and (v) exists.

The difference between these two concepts is that we have added existence to the latter. Of course, Kant would deny that we can do this. He would insist that the concept of a wibble and the concept of a wooble are the same. But let’s suppose Kant is mistaken. Let’s suppose we are dealing with distinct concepts.

Notice that, in order for something to be a wibble, it need not exist. A merely imaginary object can qualify as a wibble. For something to be a wooble, on the other hand, it must exist. If it doesn’t exist, it is, at best, not a wooble, but a wibble.
I can conceive of a wibble. But can I conceive of a wooble? Not if there are no woobles. I might think I am conceiving of a wooble, but if there are none, the most I can be conceiving of is a wibble, as what I am conceiving of will not possess the further property of existence (though I may think it does).

Similarly, if existence is one of the properties built into the concept of God, then I cannot prove God exists by supposing I can conceive of him. If there is no God, then I cannot really conceive of him (just as, if there are no woobles, then I cannot really conceive of them, though I may think I can).

So, even if we allow that existence is a further property that we can build into our concept of a thing, it seems Anselm’s argument still fails. It fails because the argument now begs the question. One of Anselm’s premises is that we can conceive of God. But as Anselm’s concept of God includes existence, in order to know that we can conceive of such a being, Anselm would need first to have established that there is a God. But that is what his argument is supposed to establish.

In other words, Anselm’s argument is circular. The most it establishes is that, if God exists, then God exists. But that is something with which even an atheist can agree.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The appeal to authority

In a comment on my Feb 26th Post, anonymous said:

What you write ought... to provide a concise test for those who aspire to be professors of philosophy in this country's universities.If they read it and are unpersuaded then they are lacking in a key ability,to think clearly.At the moment Clark of Liverpool,Cottingham of Reading,Haldane of St Andrews,Trigg of Warwick are professors of philosophy at British universities who I think would call themselves Christian believers.There may well be others.Does the fact that they will all have dealt with the issues you raise in your essay and have come to an entirely different conclusion to you show that they are,unlike you,mentally deficient.

Does the fact that some eminent philosophers believe in God show that it is a reasonable, or not unreasonable, thing to believe? Don't they provide good grounds for thinking I'm wrong to suppose belief in God is downright unreasonable?

Well, let's remember that there are also many eminent philosophers (far more, I think) who side with me in this debate. And then there are a few who are agnostic. So it seems that some very eminent philosophers have got to be wrong. Which ones are wrong? Well, that's what we are trying to figure out, isn't it?

Some (like Mark Vernon) may argue that the fact that there is this diversity of opinion among philosophers shows that agnosticism is the only rational position for most of us to adopt. After all, if the world's leading scientists were deeply divided over some issue, it might well be wise to be cautious and not commit yourself one way or the other. Shouldn't you be equally cautious here?

I don't think so. Here's just one reason why. One explanation for diversity of opinion is when the evidence doesn't settle the matter decisively one way or the other.

But that is not the only explanation. Religion has an extraordinary power to make very smart people believe really stupid things (and even the power to make 'em think they're being really smart when they're actually being really stupid).

Just look at how religion has taken a belief shared by just a handful of religious crackpots some 60 years ago - the belief that the entire universe is six thousand years old - and in just those 60 short years convinced 100 million Americans that it is true. Not just that it is true, mind, but that it is consistent with the best scientific evidence.

Many of these people are college educated. You can be sure many are smarter than you or me. They think they are being reasonable. But of course the truth is they are just deluded.

Given we know religion has this gobsmacking power to blind people to the obvious, the fact that, yes, some smart people think the available evidence is consistent with belief in an all-powerful all-good God really wouldn't be particularly surprising, even if I'm right. So the fact that there are such people really doesn't provide much evidence that I'm wrong.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Problem of evil - "the mystery move"

I recently pointed out that the fact that there's a mystery about why there is anything at all (I'll assume for sake of argument this is a mystery) in no way allows theists off the hook so far as the problem of evil is concerned.

To admit ignorance concerning why there is anything at all is not to concede that we can't rationally rule certain explanations out. It seems to me we certainly can rule out the Judeo-Christian God, as traditionally defined. Whoever created the universe, it certainly wasn't him.

Mark Vernon defends his agnosticism by saying, in effect, "But sophisticated theists don't say God is all-powerful and all-good. In fact they sensibly don't say anything about him at all. So you haven't shown their "mystery God" doesn't exist, have you?" Here's Vernon:

My point is that all images of God must be done away with. So, no: you can’t agree on what a true God is. Again, the great theologians say this: God is always wholly other. You might approximate. But then you have to do away with your approximations too. God is beyond human comprehension else not God.

But now here's my question: what is the difference between the atheist who admits there is indeed a fascinating mystery about why there is anything at all, a mystery to which they do not have the answer, and Vernon's theist who says there's a mystery about why there is anything at all, and calls this mystery "God"?

Surely the difference is entirely trivial and semantic?

By the way, Mark seems to think that the mystery of existence is one that just doesn't much grip atheists. Of course it does. I just spent some time reviewing Bede Rundle's Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing for Philosophical Review. Rundle is an atheist, yet he's clearly gripped by the question.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Problem of evil - "atheists face it too"

The problem of evil is a problem if you believe in an all-powerful, all-good God. Actually, there are two problems of evil:

1. The logical problem. Suffering exists. But the existence of any suffering at all is logically inconsistent with that of such a God. Therefore that God does not exist.

2. The evidential problem. The sheer quantity of suffering is powerful evidence against the existence of an all-powerful all-good God.

Problem 1 is not much of a problem perhaps. It would do to show that some suffering is the price that logically must be paid for a greater good, e.g. free will.

Problem 2 is the BIG problem. Unfortunately, some think that by showing an all-powerful all-good God would put some suffering in the world for a greater good, that deals with problem 2. But of course, it doesn't. What needs explaining is not the existence of some suffering, but the sheer quantity - millions of years of unimaginable animal suffering etc. etc.

In his recent blog responding to this blog, Mark Vernon suggests, re. the sheer quantity of suffering there is in the world, that

good reasons for this state of affairs can be found in any intro to religion.

I think these "good reasons" are woefully inadequate. As do most atheists. And even quite a few theists. For a sketch of my worries see my The God of Eth.

But Vernon also says this:

I think that most believers would say that the problem of evil - which after all is something everyone faces in some form or other whether they believe in God or not - is the reason they believe in God, not a reason for not doing so: at least they have faith that good will finally triumph, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary!

The problem of evil is "something everyone faces... whether they believe in God or not"? Really? Vernon has here switched problems in fact, to that of how, pyschologically, to deal with suffering. Yes, that is a problem for everyone. How do we cope? But that is not the problem we are discussing here. Which is how on earth can we maintain that it is reasonable (or even not unreasonable) to believe in an all-powerful all-good God in the face of such seemingly overwhelming evidence to the contrary?

One way of coping psychologically is of course to believe in God. That's a "reason" to believe, perhaps. But not the sort we are after. We are after the kind of "reasons" that make a belief more likely to be true.

After all, it might help me cope with my current financial nightmare if I believed I was going to win the lottery next week. But though it might help me psychologically cope now, this "reason to believe" doesn't give me the slightest reason to suppose it's true that I'll win. In fact, it very obviously isn't true.

Friday, March 2, 2007

atheism a faith position? - the "mystery" move

One of the thoughts lying behind the often-made claim that “atheism is a faith position” is that there is a great mystery about life, the universe and everything.

Why, for example, is there something, rather than nothing?

Personally, I haven’t a clue (we'll maybe I have - but let's put that off to another day).

Noting this mystery, the theist/agnostic may then argue like this:

Either (i) the atheist refuses to recognize this question. But this is just a "faith in science" position - it just assumes the only legitimate questions are questions science can settle. Bang - the scientific atheist's position is a "faith position" too!

Or (ii) the atheist admits they haven’t a clue how to answer the question. But once the atheist admits they are in the dark how to answer it, they must admit there’s no more reason to suppose God didn’t create the universe than there is to suppose He did.

So you see? Theism and atheism are equally (un)reasonable!

This is a popular, but bad argument. Atheists often admit that they have no idea why the universe exists. They can admit there are questions it may be impossible for science to answer, and that this may be one of them (Dawkins does, in fact).

But actually, to admit there’s a mystery about why the universe exists is not to concede theism is just as sensible as atheism. To see why, consider an analogy.

Sherlock Holmes is having a bad day. There’s been a terrible murder. There are hundreds of suspects. And he just can’t figure out who dunnit.

However, while Holmes can’t say who the culprit is, he is quite sure that certain people are innocent. The butler, in particular, has a cast-iron alibi. So Holmes is rightly confident the butler didn’t do it, despite the fact that he doesn’t know who did.

In the same way, an atheist can admit that there is a mystery about why the universe exists, and that they are utterly baffled by it, while nevertheless insisting that there’s overwhelming evidence that, whoever or whatever created it (if anything) it certainly wasn’t the all-powerful, all-good God of Christian theology.

They can be as sure of that as they can be that it is not the creation of an all-powerful, all-evil God. For there is, in both cases, little evidence for and overwhelming evidence against (too much suffering, in the case of the good God; too much good in the case of the evil God) (see my God of Eth, for more on the evil God hypothesis).

Don't make the mistake of supposing that, because there’s a deep mystery about why there is anything at all, that puts theism and atheism on an equally rational/irrational footing. It doesn’t.

[P.S. Of course theists and agnostics can always try to deal with the evidence against and absence of evidence for an all-powerful all-good God by saying, well, that’s not quite what I mean by “God”. See e.g. Mark Vernon’s response to this blog here.

I suggest that any God worthy of worship is indeed pretty decisively ruled out on the available evidence (BTW Mark, don't make the mistake of thinking I'll only accept empirical evidence (which you imply in your blog) - I will happily consider any evidence/argument you have to offer]

[P.P.S Of course I have not actually given a very sophisticated argument for atheism as yet. I admit that. I am merely pointing out the shortcomings of a certain sort of popular argument for atheism being a "faith position". There are more sophisticated arguments, of course.)