Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Idea of God - who needs the reality?

Clayton makes a nice point:
According to Anselm, I'm a fool. I believe God exists only in the imagination. But even Anselm grants that God does exist in my imagination and that I have a grasp of what things would have been like had there been a God. Had there been a God, for example, God would have been very displeased with Hitler and commanded him to stop.

More generally, it's daft to think that God's existence is necessary to ground normative ideals, because the whole point of ideals is that they float free from the mess of our actual reality. The question of how things should be does not fundamentally depend on how things in fact are. Ideal standards can be grounded in counterfactuals, e.g. facts about what an ideal spectator would recommend; whether such an ideal spectator actually exists in the here and now is, quite simply, irrelevant. (This is a familiar point: one may ask, "What would Jesus do?" without requiring that Jesus actually be in that situation.)

3 comments:

  1. Clayton's argument was complex, I think (although parts of it would clearly transfer nicely to the objective existence of physical objects), but the conclusion of your quote of him ought only to be that God, if it exists, cannot be as he imagines it to be. My problem with your approach is that without God's existence, the only things able to ground our normative ideals, so far as I can see, are self and society. But we think that societies can be wrong, and selves too (both other and own).

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  2. Hum, very interesting argument. I would agree with "The question of how things should be does not fundamentally depend on how things in fact are." And I would agree with enigman's argument about the grounds for our ideals. Good read.

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  3. Enigman - "My problem with your approach is that without God's existence, the only things able to ground our normative ideals, so far as I can see, are self and society."

    This misses the central point of my post, namely: "Ideal standards can be grounded in counterfactuals, e.g. facts about what an ideal spectator would recommend."

    Suppose we want to ground goodness in God's nature. This does not require God to exist. We could just as well appeal to counterfactual natures, and what God would have wanted (had he existed).

    Consider: you may think (1) that God exists, and (2) that God frowns upon genocide. Now entertain the hypothesis (3) that God does not actually exist after all. You should still hold a modified form of your second belief, namely: (4) God would have frowned upon genocide.

    I'm suggesting that claim #4 can do everything that claim #2 can. It is just as objective, and can "ground" all the same facts. Any doubts you have about #4 (e.g. "but how can we know it for sure? We could be mistaken in ascribing these judgments to God...") will apply in equal measure to #2. There is simply no relevant difference between them.

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