Can an atheist believe in the good?

A reader asks that question, and I answer, Yes, of course. But then I ask, If an atheist does believe in the good, is he really an atheist?

Bruno L., a law student in Brazil, writes:

I would like to make a comment about the entry in your website, “A materialist re-thinks the rejection of religion.”

Can’t an Atheist Conservative base his beliefs in the intrinsic goodness of some human goods, as discernible through reason (more specifically, practical reason)? For example, that life is a basic and intrinsic human good is an evident truth. There’s no need to ascertain that it comes from “God” or anything to postulate that life is a human good that is good by itself. One needs only to make use of common sense and reason.”

LA replies:

Thanks for writing.

Of course I agree with your main point. An atheist can see that there are basic goods, such as the goodness of life; and our human natural reason is sufficient to see this good. At the same time, while the atheist is capable of seeing the good, I would say that he is limited in the degree and scope of the good that he can see. That is, if he keeps denying that there is anything higher, then how “good” can this “goodness” of life be? For example, is only his own life good, and he would let other people die? Or would he see the goodness of other people’s lives as well? But if he believes only in matter, could he see such a larger good as the goodness of other people’s lives? Can we point to any truly noble philosophies, noble works of art, which convey the belief that all that exists is matter and that there is nothing beyond matter?

Let’s approach the problem like this. To postulate a good, such as the good of life, as you do, means that you have a mind, a consciousness, a moral conscience, which can perceive the good and value it as the good. Even though life may present itself to us in a material, sensual way, the goodness of it is not material. You cannot see this goodness with your eyes, you cannot hold it with your hands, you cannot demonstrate its existence by experimental-scientific means, you cannot prove its existence to another person—unless, that is, he already sees the same thing that you do, which renders material proof unnecessary. What this means is that you perceive this good not materially, but spiritually, or, to use the philosophical term, noetically, noesis being defined as “the intuitive aspect of rationality by which we perceive first principles.”

The upshot is that even an atheist relying solely on what he calls his natural reason, if he experiences the good as the good, experiences a non-material reality. But does not such a belief in a non-material reality contradict his atheism?

Let’s take it a step further. If this non-material reality of the goodness of life exists, is it the only good? Aren’t there other and higher goods beyond the goodness of life itself? The goodness of beauty, the goodness of an action skillfully done, the goodness of a virtuous and noble deed. And as these goods keep mounting higher, some people experiencing some goods, and others experiencing others, some people come to the highest good, which is God. The goodness of God, like the goodness of life, cannot be seen or touched or proved, yet it is experienced, by those who experience it, as real.

So what I’m suggesting is that a truly atheist position is not possible. Because the atheist is a human being, he cannot help but experience the good and be attracted to the good, even if the good he believes in is a limited form of the good, such as “life is good.” But the fact that he believes in this good already takes him outside pure materiality, to the transcendent, the transcendent being defined as that which cannot be reduced to an immediate object of experience, yet is nevertheless real. And this non-material, transcendent good is part of a hierarchy of non-material, transcendent goods, the culmination of which is God.

The atheist may deny the existence of God. But he cannot deny his own nature as a being who loves the good, even if it’s a limited form of the good, such as simply loving his own life. And that love places him on a continuum of ever greater and larger goods which are ultimately inseparable from God, even if he personally denies that God exists.

So, to boil my argument down to the briefest, most radical form, the fact that the atheist experiences life as good proves that God exists. Even the limited good that he experiences could not exist unless it were on a continuum with, and thus a part of, a larger good, and ultimately that larger good is God.

- end of initial entry -

Kristor writes:

This is one of the most beautiful things you have written. It is tender. It expresses your own love for the beautiful, and for the God of love and beauty.

In particular, I loved this line: “A truly atheist position is not possible.” Yes. A consistent atheism contradicts being. This is what I have always tried to express in saying that the atheist, or the nihilist, or the materialist—these boil down to the same thing—is at war with his own body, and with those of his children. Our bodies love the good, in their every atom; the love of our brains for the good is but a portion of that more basic love, that holds all things together in harmony. We cannot but love the good. Even the suicide’s rebellion is in the final analysis a protest against what he perceives as his exile from the good.

To exist is to apprehend the good, however dimly. Paul draws the same conclusion from this fact that you have drawn, in Romans 1:20:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

The fact of any goodness anywhere entails the existence of perfect goodness somewhere.

When you say that “the fact that the atheist experiences life as good proves that God exists,” you express in one short sentence two profound and subtly different arguments for the existence of God.

First, there is Kant’s argument that the creaturely apprehension of even trivial goodness—he talks of moral goodness, but the argument works for aesthetic goodness, too—such as the nice, hoppy taste of this beer I’m drinking, for example—as really, factually good requires the concrete existence of a perfect, ideal good somewhere. If there be no such concrete, perfect good, of which the goodness of the beer is a participation, and a partial quotation, then the goodness of the beer is, in the final analysis, utterly groundless. That is to say, it is an illusion; so that the fact of the matter is that I’m not really enjoying this delicious beer at all! Which is absurd, because this beer is awesome. [LA replies: I’m glad to find out that I’m making an argument similar to Kant’s. That’s almost as good as being told that one speaks prose. :-)]

Second, quite apart from our apprehension of the good, there is the argument of C.S. Lewis from our innate love for the good: innate, incontrovertible desires must necessarily correspond to really attainable goods, or they would find no room in human life, would gain no very pervasive purchase in the economy of our psyche. But everyone without exception loves the good. It can’t be helped. So the good must be a real, concrete, objective feature of things, that we can really grasp. But unless there is this transcendent aspect to reality that you have in this entry discussed, the good is not a real, concrete, objective feature of things, and our love for it is illusory. That would mean that the moral, emotional and aesthetic aspects of human life—that is to say, all the parts of life that we care about—are illusory. And that’s an intolerable conclusion; a palpably false conclusion, at variance with experience as such. To aver that our moral, aesthetic, and emotional feelings are illusory is almost as egregious as arguing that consciousness doesn’t really exist.

Both these arguments depend upon our apprehension of the good. And there is another, come to think of it. Hans Urs von Balthasar argues that the mere fact of beauty demonstrates the existence of God: if Bach, then God.

The atheist wants the good, can’t help thinking about things in terms of the good, and needs the good to complete his analysis of things in such a way as to avoid the absurd result of claiming that human life—animal life, really—is basically illusory. But without God as the eternal exemplar and origin of the good, the atheist cannot begin to account for it. The same goes for teleology, intention, agency, form, etc., etc. Without all these things, we cannot even begin to take account of reality in such a way as to reconcile our accounting with the facts of our quotidian experience.

Think of it this way: our every experience involves intention, agency, moral and aesthetic evaluation. Our experience is the only evidence we have about the nature of reality. So far as we can tell from our experience, reality just is moral, aesthetic, teleological and intentional. The materialist postulation that reality has none of these properties is a wild and wholly unjustified denial of the basic elements of all our experience. It is a rejection of the only evidence we have about what it is like to exist.

No wonder then, that neurosis and depression are so widespread in these Enlightened days!

LA writes:

I wrote:

“The fact that the atheist experiences life as good proves that God exists.”

This mirrors an experience I had when I was 13 years old, when I thought, “If life feels this nice, there must be a God.”

LA writes:

Here’s is the summation of my argument.

Atheism is impossible, for this reason. An atheist is a human being. As a human being, he cannot help but believe in the good in some form. But the good is a non-material reality. An atheist who believes in a non-material reality is a contraction in terms. Therefore atheism cannot exist. Furthermore, for this good that the atheist believes in to be really good, it must be part of a hierarchy of higher and higher goods, the ultimate good of which is God.

Laura Wood writes:

The responses of Mr. Auster and Kristor to Bruno are excellent. I just wanted to elaborate on Kristor’s point, “If Bach, then God.” This expression and the equating of God with aesthetic and intellectual pleasure has its obvious limitations. It’s also possible to say, “If Terry Schiavo, then God.” Schiavo’s mind was apparently inactive, but any human in a pronounced state of disability would do. How does the atheist explain his perception that human life is intrinsically good when faced with an infant born with half a brain, an elderly man with extreme Alzheimer’s or someone violent and deranged? He could change his principle to: the human mind is intrinsically good. This is clearly not true. The highly intelligent can be sinister. Also this idea inevitably leads to immorality. The atheist cannot justify kindness to or care for many human beings who do not represent the ideal or are mentally inferior. The atheist may be good in his individual life if he never confronts those who are incapacitated and vulnerable, but atheists cannot run a good society.

I am also having difficulty with Mr. Auster’s notion that good is a non-material reality. Good is incarnated in the world. Even inanimate things possess what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called an “inscape,” the indefinable presence of the divine. The atheist, because he does not believe in creation, cannot perceive this higher dimension to physical reality. The body is instrumental, a tool for the mind, not intrinsically sacred, to the atheist.

LA replies:

I’m not sure I follow Laura’s last point. Is she saying that the indefinable presence of the divine that is perceived in inanimate things is material?

Laura replies:

The non-material also imbues the world with a meaning that is entirely physical. The rock-ness of a rock and the tree-ness of a tree are forms of good in and of themselves. The human body is sacred not simply because it is the instrument of mind and soul, but because it is created and physically expressive of God. The non-material goods of mind and soul are higher, but life and things carry some simpler essence that cannot be perceived by the atheist. My point is simply that the atheist is not just limited morally. He cannot in all honesty experience rapture in relation to the physical world. Kristor spoke of aesthetic rapture, I am referring to the bliss in things.

LA replies:

That’s interesting, because the leading atheists try to construct a materialist religion, based on their awe at the wonders of evolution. But this “religion” is intellectual, self-consciouss, preciously aesthetic. So I think you’re right. How can a consistent atheist experience, or allow himself to experience, rapture in relation to the physical world? To experience rapture at a tree would be implicitly to recognize some quasi-divine or transcendent essence in things, which would contradict his atheism.

At the same time, while I love the rock-ness of rocks, the is-ness of speckled granite boulders in a stream, our experiencing and valuing of the rock-ness of rocks is still a non-material event in consciousness. But you’ve said the same—that the “entirely physical” meaning with which the world is imbued comes from the non-material.

The poet Theodore Roethke in a beautiful poem wrote:

I know the back-stream’s joy, and the stone’s
eternal pulseless longing,
I love that line, “the stone’s eternal pulseless longing.” It captures a great truth. But to me at times a great granite boulder is not pulseless. It’s pulsing—it’s alive.

LA continues:

Dawkins in The God Delusion defines three types: the atheist, who denies any deity at all; the theist, who believes in a personal god who is active in the universe; and the pantheist, who believes nature is divine and is in between the atheist and the theist. (The Deist is in there somewhere too.) Dawkins calls himself an atheist. If he’s not even a pantheist, how can he let himself be transported by nature?

Laura continues:

This explains why the modern world is uglier. There is no joy in things. The craftsman is inferior. He works with the material only. The farmer is a mere grower, not involved in a spiritual activity.

Jim B. writes:

An excellent discussion. It was a line of thinking like this that ultimately led me back to Christianity, and the Catholic faith. Even though Science (science which, as I investigated further, I found to be largely bogus) was telling me in no uncertain terms that the Universe was a meaningless clump of matter in motion, I had to admit to myself, “And yet there is meaning! And yet there is beauty!”

And of course, this is why the arts in the 20th century (and continuing in the 21st) embraced ugliness. To make something ugly and hang it on a wall and call it “good”, or to do the same with a building or a novel, is to rebel against the very concept of the good, and ultimately against God. Once you’ve killed God, you need to kill beauty as well.

LA replies:

That’s a profound point. This is why liberals love Frank Gehry. It’s why they are transported at the sight of his museum in Spain which looks like a pile of turds. Liberals ARE willing to let themselves experience rapture—but only in the presence of the DENIAL of God, truth, and beauty.

Alan Roebuck writes:

This discussion is a sort of poetry of argumentation; I appreciate and can comment on it but feel incapable of creating it, and therefore look on it with awe.

This argument for God is not really an “argument.” It entices the undecided to think for the first time about something he’s always seen, but never noticed. It shows that persuasion is never ultimately our words forcing another mind to rearrange, but rather an invitation. Many disbelieve because they have never been properly invited.

Many conservatives despair over the apparent impossibility of persuading enough people to make a noticeable difference in the ordering of our corrupt society. But persuasion is the only weapon we have, and its strength is not in our selves, but in the reality to which we point.

This is what might be called “passive persuasion,” in contrast to “active” persuasion, which must be employed on those who refuse to drink when led to water. Indeed, many scoff at the water of life. For the professional atheistic apologists and their constituents, one must aggressively point out how their system radically fails to account for reality. This is where the more technical proofs come into play, and there are many of them, each suited to a different type of nonbeliever. Proof is inherently subjective because its function is to persuade, and different people are persuaded differently.

On another point, in an e-mail you mentioned the need to respond to Ayn Rand’s positon of basing morality on life. I believe Rand’s position is that the more obvious transcendents (a term she would of course reject) such as morality and logic do exist objectively, but that no explanation for them is necessary. They’re just there, and nothing more need be said about their origin or cause. In this respect Randians resemble Moslems, for whom their religion is true because their god said it, and for no other reason, and that’s all there is to it. In both cases the system is doubt-proof if you adhere to the fundamentals because no justification is needed.

LA replies:

This is a useful distinction, between “invitation” and “active persuasion.”

Bruno L. writes:

Thank you very much for your answer and your concern.

In my opinion, your reply deals a serious blow to the atheist position, there is no doubt about that. But that is not all there is to it.

Although you may have proven that one cannot hold belief in the good, or in “intrinsically good” goods and at the same time believe there is no God, you did not establish any proof that belief in God is in any way necessary simply to believe in good, or in any “intrinsically good” good.

One cannot deny that God Is and at the same time hold that there is good. But one can believe in, or defend good, or any “intrinsically good” good (such as life) without making any reference to God Himself (despite not being able to, at the same time, deny that God Is). And that position will be consistent.

LA replies:

I agree with you. I am not saying that a person must believe in God or affirm the existence of God in order to believe in any “intrinsically good” good. I am saying that if a person believes in an “intrinsically good” good, he is—in reality—affirming and demonstrating the existence of God, even if he personally denies the existence of God.

January 16

Kristor writes:

It seems to me that when Darwinians express awe or reverence for nature, they are not so much dishonest as inconsistent. Honestly and straightforwardly carried through to their logical conclusions, their principles make a mockery of such feelings. Yet they cannot help having these feelings that they do have. They have these feelings because it is bliss to be alive, bliss to exist; it is bliss to know, and so to know is to love, to adore, and willy nilly to worship. Existence is essentially beautiful, and holy. Whitehead has a wonderful passage somewhere, I think in Process and Reality, where he talks about the “massive enjoyment of mere existence.” His point is that we don’t customarily notice how profoundly gorgeous it is merely to be. We take that for granted, and grow absorbed in our worry about money or work other superficial things. When we have been sick, and begin to feel well and normal again, the pleasure and beauty of it can be exhilarating. Then we grow accustomed to it again, and forget about how wonderful we still feel. So also with merely living.

When I was 17 and hiking along the edge of the Cumberland Plateau, I slipped on wet granite and slid down a slippery rock slope into a flume that poured over the edge only 10 feet away. I hit the water—only about 8 inches deep, but really cooking along over slick smooth rock—and it shot me toward the lip of the waterfall. Desperately I tried to stop myself, but it was no good. I was going over. I would fall 300 feet, and die. So I resigned myself to that—there was nothing else to do—and over I went. I landed 15 feet below in a pool that poured over the real edge 10 feet away. I bounced out of the pool and up onto the bank, about 12 feet in a single bound, and shook myself, incredulous. My life had been given back. I laughed and laughed. Not because it was funny, but because it was impossibly beautiful.

Every part of the world, every rock and mote of dust, is, just is, an instance of joy, and of pulseless longing. And this enjoyment, this pleasure in mere existence, is so incredibly vast, that the super-added pleasures of beer or wealth or success are like a thin veneer upon its glorious weighty depth. We experience more joy than do rocks, more complex and interesting pleasures; but only by a little. For to be at all is to have been created by God, and is also in some degree to worship and adore him, and to enjoy him (even if one is unconscious that one is doing so).

Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ, said it beautifully, perhaps best:

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

So when Darwinists or atheists go on about the beauty and majesty of nature, they are expressing the truth of the General Revelation of God in all his works, that cannot but be expressed by every being. They sing the Benedicite Omnia Opera Domini; they know not what they do, nor reck his rod.

Kristor writes:

Thank you for saying that my comment is beautiful. I didn’t supply the beauty, though; as George Herbert says, I am but a crazed glass.

You know, it’s funny. I just read that comment over again for the first time since sending it, and realize for the first time in my life what happened to me in that pool: baptism.

In yet another of those deeply indicative “coincidences,” the whole thing happened only because I was visiting the Episcopal seminary at Sewaunee for a workshop.

Jim F. writes:

This exchange was truly awesome. You are most definitely at your best when involved in theological arguments. The entire text/comments is now at the top of my challenge folder for (pseudo)atheists.

Where do you stand on the subject of Natural Law? My belief is that NL was given to us by God the Creator, and virtually every moral tenet flows from it quite nicely.

LA replies:

Thank you, but I’m going to have to disappoint you here, because I feel like Sarah Palin when Charles Gibson asked her what she thought about the Bush Doctrine. Natural law in what sense? And natural law in relation to what? It’s a big subject.

If natural law means the same thing as natural right, i.e., what is by nature right, what are the types of actions and behaviors that are more in fulfillment of our true nature, or less in fulfillment of our true nature, then I do believe that there is a natural law. and that it is given to us by our God-given nature.

Dennis James, a Randian, writes:

This is in regard to your “proof” that atheism is false and that God exists. This proof of God you offer assumes its conclusion—the argument assumes God’s sustenance of the Realist Form of the Good. But just as I needn’t assume that a triangle I’ve drawn implies some Perfect Triangle existing in another realm which it is a particular instance of, I needn’t assume that assessing something as good implies any Perfect Good existing in another realm that it is a particular instance of. Assuming that abstract universals such as triangularity and goodness are *actually* particular concretes (existing somewhere else) is literally incoherent; your approach to reality and cognition is fundamentally confused.

LA replies:

You’re applying a literal understanding of Plato to me, that the ideal form of a triangle or goodness exists as a concrete in some place. And because that sounds so bizarre and silly, it’s easy to dismiss. But that’s not my view, and I’ve never stated it. Rand, and thus her followers, reduces thinkers she opposes, particularly Plato, to caricature.

LA continues:

To understand my approach to Plato, you should read the chapter, “Classic Natural Right,” in Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History. I had completely rejected and stopped reading Plato at age 25, in large part for reasons similar to yours: the ideal world he spoke of seemed unreal. But when I read Strauss 15 years later, he explained what Plato was about in a way that clicked with me. He spoke about the “natural constitution of man’s being,” and how natural right is what is in harmony with that constitution. This made complete sense to me and was the key to understanding Plato’s Republic, which I began reading again.

LA continues:

Another key source of my understanding of the objective reality of goodness is C.S. Lewis’s beautifully commonsensical discussion of objective value in The Abolition of Man. Lewis points out how certain existents have certain inherent attributes, such as the inherent loveability of a small child. We respond to these things the way we respond to them, not because we choose to do so, not because we are “creating our values,” but because the thing itself has a certain intrinsic value and draws a certain response from us.

Lewis persuasively demonstrates the objectivity of moral value, of goodness, and he does it without any reference to Platonic ideal forms existing as a concrete in some other dimension.

Bruno L., whose question began this entry, replies to LA:
Your blog/site is one of the best I’ve seen. I feel I must confess that I’ve been pretty much playing the “devils advocate” here. Your answers are the about the same Mr. Fulvio di Blasi gave me when I asked him the very same question. I was impressed back then as I am right now. It is nice not to feel alone in matters such as the ones we were discussing.

Please continue to fight the good fight. I will continue to read your blog/site.

LA replies:

Thank you very much, I’m glad you find VFR of value. Also, I appreciate your original question in this thread as it led me to make a new argument about the existence of God which I don’t think I had made before. It was unexpected and just came out as I was replying to you.

I’m not familiar with Fulvio di Blasi.

Bruno L. replies:

I’d recommend his books to you then. He is an Italian philosopher. There are two of them translated to English, and currently sold by this and this.
Kristor writes:

How wonderful that a nominalist should have contributed to this thread! Dennis James should understand, first, that nothing in this thread so far rises to the level of a proof. Arguments and assertions, yes; proofs, no. The arguments are not circular, because they presuppose the reality of the Platonic Forms, without at the same time trying to prove that reality. If the Forms are real, then before all worlds, and before every and any particular event that instantiated any of them, they were real (we know that they pre-existed every and any event because all events instantiate Forms, or else they never happen). That being the case, the Forms must be non-contingent—i.e., not dependent upon any particular event. But non-contingency is necessity. So the Forms exist necessarily. And since what exists necessarily cannot either come into existence or go out of existence, the Forms exist eternally. From this point it is only a few steps to Augustine’s doctrine that the Forms are the eternal thoughts of God, aka the Logos; and that the Form of the Good is, not sustained by God as God sustains creatures in being, but rather that the Form of the Good is the form of God himself.

But NB that this whole line of argument presupposes that the Forms are real. It doesn’t try to prove that they are real. The argument takes their reality as axiomatic.

I concur with Mr. James that it is befuddling, and not too helpful, to conceive of the Realm of the Forms as existing in some other purely Formal cosmos, that has a sort of reality different from our own. Aristotle felt the same way. He insisted that forms can exist only as the forms of something or other that is really actual. So the Form of the Good has to be the form of some perfectly good thing. Thus he supplied one of the stepping stones that Augustine used to get from Platonism to the God of Jacob.

It may help Mr. James to “flatten out” Platonic metaphysics somewhat, as Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas did, and think of the Forms as pure potentialities. If you think of the Forms as just possibilities, somehow they don’t put such a strain on the imagination as trying to think about some other, disembodied realm of being that has an incomprehensible relationship to the realm of our lives. Instead, you have Aristotle’s potentiality and actuality. And potentialities behave just like the Forms: if it is possible for event x to happen at time y in some world z, then it must always have been possible for event such as x to happen at a time such as y in a world such as z. The possibility does not depend on the actuality, but vice versa. So the possibility is a non-contingent factor of existence, a necessary, eternal factor of existence. And so forth.

Now, if you think about the Forms as possibilities, then the argument for their objective, eternal existence gets pretty strong. For if there are no possibilities, why then, nothing at all could ever have come to pass.

One last point of clarification. Thinking of the Forms as possibilities avoids the problem that Mr. James rightly says arises from thinking of them as *actual* particular concretes in their own rights. Exactly correct; he agrees with Aristotle and the Church. The Forms are properties of real beings, rather than being themselves independently real. We may abstract them from concrete actualities for purposes of ratiocination and discussion, but we cannot ever find them in reality except as aspects of real, concrete beings.

LA replies:

Your whole comment is tremendously on point and helpful to understanding. But, if I may say so, your first paragraph is one of the most audacious things I’ve ever read.

Dennis James writes (his comment came in before Kristor’s last comment):

You have repeatedly stressed that goodness is something you “turn yourself towards”; ie that goodness is something that exists “out there” in another dimension. Your very conception of morality consists in “turning yourself towards God.” That which is closer to God is good, that which is farther away from God is evil. That is the Auster morality theory. Am I wrong? [LA replies: I’m going to have to oversimplify in order to reply. In part you’re right, in part you’re wrong. When I have spoken of “turning oneself towards God,” I was not speaking of ordinary morality and ethics, such as the rule against stealing. No “turning toward God” is necessary in order to know not to steal. The wrongness of stealing is known directly by an apprehension that is both rational and intuitive. The wrongness of stealing is objective, just as two plus two equals four is objective. It just is. By contrast, when I speak of “turning toward God,” that has to do, not with ordinary human ethical behavior, but with the higher way of life, the true way of life in Christ, which Jesus calls the kingdom of heaven.]

You have also described the various species of humanity as archetypes in the “mind of god.” (I’m not sure exactly how you know that though … ) [LA replies: First, I don’t think I have said that the sub-species or races of humanity (which is what I think you meant to say, not “species” of humanity) are archetypes in the mind of God, though I may have said it. What I have definitely said is that the main forms of life, such as bull, lion, eagle, man, are archetypes in the mind of God, a notion that first came to me when reading the Book of Revelation. Second, obviously, I never said that I knew this, I described it as an intuition or speculation. You must be a very careless reader if you think that I ever said that I “knew” this, since every time I have mentioned this idea I’ve said that it is a speculation of mine. And I’ve added that I have the right to make speculations of this sort, since the Darwinians are making wild unfounded speculations (which they call scientific knowledge) all the time.] You (and your readers) have stated that mathematical theorems and other laws of nature are reflections of a divine realm. All this is pure Platonic idealism (Christian version) regardless of your denying it. It’s not what a person professes about himself that counts but what he is and what he believes in. You said that in one of your posts about “liberals.” I remind you of it here. [LA replies: I’m attempting to reply to your points in good faith, notwithstanding your accusatory undertone, because I think you’re raising points that are worth replying to. I don’t think I denied that Platonic idealism is an element in my thought. All I said was that I do not believe in some literal other world where Platonic Forms exist as concrete actualities. But, approaching me in an accusatory mood as you are doing, you evidently took my good faith attempt to clarify my position as a dishonest attempt to deny what I believe.]

I am not reducing your position to caricature. I am taking you at your word. For you, and especially Kristor, morality has metaphysical status. For a rational approach to ethics, morality has epistemological status only. So, you have proved nothing, certainly not the futility of atheism or the existence of a supernatural being who, if it existed (an impossibility), would have no need of morality, logic or creating an “imperfect” species like humanity.

Man was not created in God’s image. God was created in man’s. [LA replies: for a person who doesn’t like statements that are asserted, but not proved, you sure like to make sweeping unproved assertions.]

I leave you with Rand’s discussion of the God concept from “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.” It shows the gross epistemological errors inherent in theism:

This is precisely one, if not the essential one, of the epistemological objections to the concept “God.” It is not a concept. At best, one could say it is a concept in the sense that a dramatist uses concepts to create a character. It is an isolation of actual characteristics of man combined with the projection of impossible, irrational characteristics which do not arise from reality—such as omnipotence and omniscience.

Besides, God isn’t even supposed to be a concept: he is sui generis, so that nothing relevant to man or the rest of nature is supposed, by the proponents of that viewpoint, to apply to God. He is supposed to be unique. Therefore, by their own terms of setting up the problem, they have taken God out of the conceptual realm. And quite properly, because he is out of reality. -AR [LA replies: Rand’s statement about the “God concept” seems utterly irrelevant to any serious notion of God. She’s like a person who has been blind from birth speaking with cold contempt about people who have eyesight and about what they profess to see with their eyes.]

PS Why didn’t you post my replies to Allan Roebuck? I’m always curious to see how theists respond to Rand’s arguments, or precisely how they evade them. As you just did.

LA replies:

Yes, your reply to Roebuck is worth posting, but getting into a whole discussion our the “metaphysical”-Christian position versus the Randian position would not fit in the current thread, so I’ll start in a new entry with your reply to Roebuck. Tomorrow or Monday.

(However the Christian vs. Randian exchange seems already to have begun in this thread. So I’ll have to figure out whether to keep the exchange with Dennis James in this entry or move the whole thing to a new entry.)

LA adds:

What I’m about to say is a side point; it’s not about Dennis James personally and it’s not a comment about our discussion, at least not directly so. But something in the underlying tone of this exchange reminds me of the strange and disconcerting fact, that in their heart of hearts, Randians view theists the way anti-Semites view Jews—as enemies, as enemies of humanity.

January 17

Kristor writes:

I have never read Ayn Rand, although I have always meant to, and still do. It appears from the snippet Mr. James provides of her philosophy that I should read her as a novelist and social critic, rather than as a philosopher.

  • Rand says that the concept “God” is not a concept. Um, how can she say that without conceiving of God? Without, that is, refuting what she says? If “God” is not a concept, then no one can think anything about him, including the thought, ” ‘God’ is not a concept.”

  • She says omnipotence and omniscience are impossible, but gives no argument, so no point dwelling on the bare assertion. I suppose she would say that infinity is impossible, too.

  • She says God is not even supposed to be a concept, but rather sui generis. How does treating something as sui generis render it impossible to think about? If it were true that one can’t think about sui generis things, then it would not be possible to think, “one can’t think about sui generis things.”

  • She says God is supposed to be unique, and that supposition takes him out of the conceptual realm. How? I’m unique. Does that take me out of the conceptual realm?

She says nothing relevant to man or nature is supposed by theists to apply to God. But theists say no such thing. If they did, they could not participate in the lively, ancient discourse of theology. The very existence of that discourse contravenes her assertion. Granted, theologians and metaphysicians spend a lot of time trying to figure out how human concepts apply to God, for one must think of an eternal being in different ways than one thinks of anything else. But this sort of groundwork is something all intellectual disciplines do. That’s what makes them disciplines. Think of physics, and how much time physicists and philosophers spend thinking about how human concepts apply to the interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Rand utters all these howlers in a mere 141 words. That has to be some kind of record. I have to think they are the transcript of some informal remarks she made standing around at a cocktail party, rather than serious and sincere argumentation. Yet they come from her intro to her epistemology, so perhaps this is Rand at the top of her game.

I hope Mr. James is now satisfied to have learned how a theist responds to Rand’s “arguments.” I can’t really say that I’d be happy to respond to any others he cares to share with us, but I’m willing to do so, in the spirit of dialectic. What would he say is her very strongest argument?

Mr. James says we think morality has metaphysical status. Well, yeah. Metaphysics is discourse on first principles, that apply by definition to everything. If metaphysics is possible at all, then everything has metaphysical status. Perhaps Mr. James would argue that metaphysics is impossible. But that argument is an argument in metaphysics, so it is self-refuting. He states that morality has epistemological status only. But this is an argument about the metaphysical status of morality, so it is self-refuting.

Mr. James calls us pure Platonic idealists as though Platonism is some sort of disgusting perversion, and seems to think we are trying to weasel out of it. This is not how philosophers talk. It is how ideologues talk.

Kristor replies to LA:
Audacious? How?

LA replies:

I meant it as a compliment. You start by saying, “I’m not proving the Forms, I am assuming them.” That by itself was audacious—you’re unabashedly assuming something that to your interlocutor (Dennis James) is not only unproved but the very mark of mental dysfunction. And then you proceed to argue in such a way that by assuming the Forms, you reach conclusions that seem virtually to prove their necessity and their non-contingency.

Kristor replies:

Ah, I see. Funny, as I wrote the whole line of reasoning seemed quite straightforward and unremarkable, each step following naturally and as it were irresistibly from the last. If the forms exist, they exist necessarily; if they don’t exist, nothing is possible. Since it is not the case that nothing is possible, the forms necessarily exist. Once one understands what we must mean by “form” if we are to talk about them coherently, these conclusions follow inescapably, I think. They lead right to the point where one is forced to say, “OK, the forms have to exist. How do they exist?” That was the question on which Plato and Aristotle differed. Intriguingly, Aristotle’s answer—that the forms exist only as properties of actual entities—leads more straightforwardly than Plato’s to the implication of God’s necessary existence. If we think of the forms as Aristotle does, it is much easier to see that they are potentialities for actualization. And we are all intimately familiar with what a possibility feels like; we understand the idea viscerally, which makes the forms concrete and tangible. And that makes your argument—that our quotidian experience of actualized goodness entails the concrete actuality of the Archetype of Goodness—much more compelling. We see forms as possibilities of realization, each of which carries some moral and aesthetic value in respect to the Archetype of the Forms. And we are familiar with that value. It is not merely some incomprehensible thing in some other disembodied realm that has nothing to do with our world. It is the value we enjoy right now: the taste of this coffee, the sound and smell of this rain, the fair beauty of the Earth.

That’s the great thing about Aristotle, and Aquinas. They are earthy.

Julien B. writes:

How is Kristor’s view of Platonic Forms as “potentialities” or “possibilities” an improvement on the bizarre view that the Forms are particulars in some other universe? It’s possible that Obama is secretly a devout Muslim. That’s possible, right, however unlikely? What does it mean exactly to say that that possibility exists? Obviously it doesn’t exist in the same way as Obama’s shoes, or even his attitudes and beliefs. Maybe saying that the possibility exists only means “We don’t have evidence that conclusively proves that Obama is not secretly a devout Muslim”. If so, possibility won’t serve the big metaphysical purposes Kristor intends. Our ignorance of any evidence that would prove the non-existence of good can’t be what explains, metaphysically, the existence of particular good things! Nor can it be required for the existence of those things, as the Forms are supposed to be. But if it doesn’t mean that, what does it mean? I find this all very mysterious, and I’d be surprised if others didn’t also, on reflection.

Kristor says that possibilities exist only as “properties of real beings”. How does this fit with his further claim that “possibility is a non-contingent factor of existence, a necessary, eternal factor of existence”? Okay, so presumably Obama’s potential as a lawyer is a property of Obama. But if that potential or possibility is eternal, what was its mode of being a billion years ago? Was it a property of God, or of the universe as a whole? Or did it start out as a property of God, or something else, and then get passed on to Obama later? Is it not even now a property of Obama, in particular, but of some other, eternal entity? Again, I’d suggests that this is all far more confusing and controversial than Kristor thinks it is.

LA replies:

I don’t think Kristor was speaking of such things as the possibility of Obama’s being a Muslim, but of, say, the possibility or potentiality of a human being fulfilling his true nature. The potentiality of his fulfilled nature does not exist as a particular in some other dimension of reality, but is inherent in his actual nature.

Kristor writes:

A hearty welcome back to Julien B!

It is understandable that Julien has a hard time seeing how saying that forms are potentialities is any better than positing a Platonic Realm for the forms. If instead of “forms” we call them “potentialities,” are we not still left with positing a realm of the unactualized potentialities? Well, no, so long as we go along with Aristotle in saying that forms and potentialities exist only as properties of some actuality.

All right then: where was the potentiality of Obama being a lawyer before there was an Obama? Good question! Clearly the potential had to exist somehow, somewhere, or Obama could never have become a lawyer. But how? Where are all the potentialities stored before they are realized? They are stored as properties of real actualities. Forms can be properties of actualities either explicitly and actually (the way Obama now expresses the form of the Lawyer) or implicitly and potentially (the way Obama now expresses the form of the ex-President). Thus in 1950, his father had the property of potency to conceive a lawyer who would practice in Chicago. Before there was a world, there was a state of affairs that had the property of being potent to generate a world where Obama could become a lawyer in Chicago. Before there were any worlds, there was a state of affairs that had the property of potency to generate worlds, among which could be numbered one wherein Obama practiced law in Chicago. States of affairs with these properties had necessarily to exist, all the way back, or Obama could never have practiced law in Chicago. All that we need to know in order to demonstrate this fact is that Obama has actually been a lawyer in Chicago.

How did all these potentialities exist before there were any actualities at all? They could not have done so. There must always therefore have existed some actuality or other, that had the property of potency to generate all possible worlds.

I’m sure Julien can take it from there.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 15, 2010 08:36 AM | Send

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