Saturday, March 15, 2008

divine command revisited

A commenter just pointed me to an essay that offers a Christian response to the Euthyphro dilemma (see my post on divine command theory-- or buy my book, in which a slightly revised version of the essay appears).

The Christian essay boils down to the idea that the very nature of the trinity prevents the Christian God from falling victim to the paradox highlighted by the Euthyphro dilemma. The paradox in question? If God recognizes goodness, then God is using a standard of goodness that exists outside (and, arguably, above) himself; but if God commands goodness, then goodness is merely a function of God's whim.

The essayist agrees that the "command" view leads to absurdity, but he argues that the "recognition" view works because if one Person of the trinity recognizes goodness, then God does not fall prey to the "You're recognizing a standard outside yourself!" objection. Why? Because the goodness isn't "outside" God: it inhabits the other two Persons of the trinity as well, thus allowing a sort of internal confirmation process to occur.

The force of this argument, which the author says from the beginning is addressed to Christians, not atheists, depends entirely on whether one even subscribes to the doctrine of the trinity, a doctrine not specifically and explicitly laid out in the Christian Bible. What Christians did over the first few centuries of Christianity was to develop the doctrine of the trinity based on implications they perceived in the scriptures. Whether this is a valid move is a question I leave up to you, but it does mean that, if you're not a Christian, you won't be impressed by the argument.

And that, ultimately, is my problem with the essay. What's the use of arguing the point merely for Christian ears? While the argument might resolve the Euthyphro dilemma for Christians, this isn't the same as resolving the dilemma once and for all. The essayist has, at best, argued that a certain vision of ultimate reality provides an answer to the dilemma, but he has not made the case that this vision is the one to which all people should subscribe.

I'm being charitable in the above paragraph, because I actually think the essayist's argument fails even on its own terms. By bringing in the the trinity and turning the "confirmation of truth" into a pass-it-along, hot-potato-hot-potato dynamic, the author merely defers the questions originally posed. Assuming the trinity will never experience internal disagreement (such discord calls to mind the insanely self-conflicted God in Carl Jung's long essay "Answer to Job"), what, ultimately, is the difference between the trinitarian God and the unitary Allah, whom the essayist disparages?

So while the essay is an interesting read (like many essays on religion these days, it bleeds over into science), I can't say I agree with it.



Roboseyo said...

I just finished posting a series of essays about religion on my blog; don't know if you'd care to read it or not (I'm just a regular layperson and have no authority except that I read a lot and think a lot) but the series is titled, "Why Modern Religion Deserves Richard Dawkins"

Kevin Kim said...

Rob, it's a good, thoughtful series. I don't have any authority on these matters, either, except that I, too, read a lot. Not sure whether I think a lot, though, especially these days.