Stephen Fry, Blake Deal and Linguistic Circles

Blakodeal has replied, and it appears he is underwhelmed by my defence of of Stephen Fry’s tirade against the supposed nature of God. I’m not surprised. But, I do enjoy a good exchange and so this is my reply again. Let the dialogue begin, I suppose. I am, again, going to summarise Blake’s points as headings and reply in turn.

1. It’s that Fry’s opinion is arbitrary

I seems I misrepresented Blake’s positions when I said he believes Fry doesn’t have the right to a moral opinion. It is that his opinion, although he has the right to it, is arbitrary and cannot be said to reflect truth. I am happy to correct myself; I hope never to misrepresent a person to make my own point. However, this still fails to do away with Fry’s criticism.

Fry has evaluated a being that is complicit in the creation of bone cancer in children and parasites with a life cycle dependent on burrowing from the inside out of eye balls as a being that is immoral. It doesn’t suffice to accuse Fry of moral relativism. To defend God against this accusation one must account for where the intended creation of a child’s bone cancer and eye ball-burrowing parasites fits in the objective moral standard God created.

Here’s the issue: God is either complicit in bone cancer in children, or he is not. If It is, one must account for how being complicit in bone cancer in children is moral. If It is not not, we must place a big question over either the omnipotence or the omniscience of God.

It is worth saying here, to delineate the limitations of what apologetics can achieve in this argument, that any defence given here would be capable of demonstrating no more than literary consistency of God, and not the truth of a claim of God’s existence.

2. God is “innocent” by definition, regardless of the Bible

I claimed that Blake argued for God’s innocence simply because the Bible defines God as innocent (i.e. morally perfect; cannot be guilty of immorality or moral ineptitude). I said this because Blake said “By definition God is not at fault for anything that he does” and I imagined that the definition of the Christian God came from the Bible. Apparently I am wrong. Again, I am happy to accept this correction. But, again, that doesn’t do away with the issue.

There is no way of defining God as moral without either admitting to a moral standard external to God, admitting that morality is arbitrary or employing circular reasoning. There are many ways of attempting this, but by way of an example, I will show by using a premise from the Ontological argument: God is the greatest conceivable being. In this context “great” includes the quality of being “moral”.

This leaves the question of what morality is completely open; it tells us nothing of God or morality. We can either say that God’s nature is moral, because It is moral, but that is circular reasoning. We can call whatever God’s nature is “moral”, but that is completely arbitrary; it would simply be a case of calling whatever God does “morally good” regardless of what God actually does. Lastly, we can appeal to an external definition of morality that God conforms to, in which case we don’t need God for morality and should be free to place judgement. That would mean that Fry’s opinion is far from arbitrary.

If we accept that whatever God’s nature is is what we call “moral”, then we have to accept that “morality” is compatible with suffering being unevenly distributed and oddly concentrated in geographically defined places (a circumstance of birth we have no autonomy over), and bone cancer in children. You may take a theodic view, that what God does is moral, but it does look a lot more like capriciousness to me. And it looks even more again like “pitiless indifference”.

If I pay lip service to you definition of morality, it leaves me able to say “God causes untold suffering, disease, pain and misery. But It is good”. In fact, your definition is so obscure that if I were to say “… But It is bad” you would say, without irony, that I have reached a definitively paradoxical conclusion. The untold suffering, disease pain and misery must be good, that is the conclusion you have reached and implore other to as well. You rest your definition of morality on God and your definition of God rests partly on the definition of morality. If I swap the content of “moral” with “evil”, your definition leaves you entirely unequipped to tell the difference.

3. Religious Nihilism (believing nothing has value unless God decrees it does)

I can offer a mechanism by which God imbues things with value that is not just the arbitrary assignment, by preference, of a God. That is necessary! At the moment, Blake is defining value as being meaningful but describing it as arbitrary preference (but he is willing to defer the preference to God). Value doesn’t become less arbitrary just because you defer it to someone else’ opinion. It’ still an opinion.

But my answer is tyranny. God states things have value and demands you act accordingly. There is then a carrot and stick issue, where we are rewarded or punished based on our ability to worship God and values as It does. This is the assignment of value by force. It’s only objective insofar as we could, if God were real, actually know what It does and does not prefer. But, at bottom, it would just be a preference. It is objectively true that I subjectively prefer chicken to beef. That does not make it objectively true that chicken is better.

Again, we could simply swap the labels around and you’d have no ability to distinguish. Does God value child rape or loving parenting? How could you know? I suspect you have comforted yourself with this idea that things can be said to be objectively valued, but imposed your own value ideas onto what it is that has value.

4. God is angry at the wicked. That does not make It capricious. Just because my mum has been angry at me, doesn’t mean I have forgone the ability to talk of a loving mother

The wicked? Let me restate the nature of God’s “vengeance” on the “wicked”: it is highly concentrated in areas defined by geography and seemingly unrelated to sin or wickedness. I, the unbeliever (the greatest sin, no?) am well fed, comfortable, live with climate stability and financial security. The same can be said for large populations of British, European and American people. Huge numbers of believers, globally, suffer with drought famine and disease. This appears largely across Africa and Asia. If we are talking about a God that is taking vengeance on the wicked, why does It miss so many sinners, and strike down so many faithful?

What is a perfect being even doing, taking vengeance against mortals? This is like me being angry with a cat for not conforming to my desires, and so putting it in the microwave. To take such a terrible anger out on such inferior beings in a sign of mental health conditions in humans…

Your mother, on the other hand, is mortal and admittedly imperfect. She may love you and be doing her best, but she has imperfect emotions and reasons to be sorry. God is not apologetic. God is all-powerful and violent and mean. The fact that you talk about God seeking vengeance as if children deserve bone cancer is disgusting.

But you’re not talking about a God of love, are you? You’re talking about a God of favouritism and discrimination. That’s fine, so long as you are the favoured. But it’s more capricious than it is loving. If my dad loved me, but hated everyone else, I would not consider him a good man.

5. The atheists cannot make honest moral judgements

Although Blake makes efforts to say atheists are entitled to their moral judgements, he isn’t going to consider them. Blake refuses the atheist’s allusion to “justice”, “bad”, “capricious”, “tyrannical”. Blake says with one hand that atheists can make moral judgements and with the other disregards them. Blake wants to turn this discussion in a many-tens-of-thousands-of-word essay writing competition because he hopes that if I get distracted enough to actually spend time giving a complete and practical definition of justice, I will forget that Blake is nebulously referring to a woolly definition of justice that is compatible with geographically distributed and physically understood suffering and pain and misery.

There is no difference here between Kim Jong Un and God. It is moral if I say so, it is just if I say so, I am immune from your criticism. When you make words this flexible, they become meaningless. Blake is slowly arguing that there is no such thing as justice, because he is making it so flexible as to account for anything (so long as God does it).

6. There is no relationship between rights and responsibilities

Blake thinks it is a non sequitur for me to say that to talk about the right of one person, one must also talk about the responsibilities of another. Well, Blake, it’s not my fault that you don’t understand how rights work. Look it up. If you think rights exist independent of responsibilities, why do you think that America hasn’t ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? It’s because America cannot take on all the corresponding responsibilities.

If you want to claim God has rights over us, independent of any one’s responsibilities, then you are not talking about rights. You are, against, talking about a forceful political system: a tyranny. Again, I’m glad we agree that God is a tyrant. If you want to disagree I thoroughly recommend you do some reading on what a “right” is. You appear to be confusing “rights” with “force”.

Blake claims that God has no moral responsibilities. Instead, God can simply call Its actions moral. God has no responsibility to behave a certain way, It can just call the way It has behaved “moral”. Am I the only one who sees that making “moral” a meaningless jumbling of letters, ungrounded by a definition?

7. The Fall is not God’s fault

Yes it is. If I am all-knowing and I set something up to inevitably happen, I am the one who did it. God made a tree that has no purpose other than to act as temptation, placed it right in front Adam and Eve and said “See that, there, don’t eat from it. Look at it, over there… look! Look! Look! It’s the really tempting one. See it? Don’t eat it.” God was fully aware that Adam would eat it, but still made it, placed it in front of them, pointed it out and continued to forbid it. He did all this without giving Adam and Eve knowledge of good and evil, leaving them entirely ignorant to the concept of disobeying being a “wrongdoing”. But, Blake thinks, in no way, is any of that God’s fault.

Blake also thinks it appropriate that Cain and Abel were punished for the actions of their parents. And so this hereditary punishment continued down the line to all 7 billion people alive now and the billions alive before us. The narrative of the Fall is not just the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but God’s sustained punishment by association.

(Mildly irrelevant aside 1I compare the narrative of the Fall to a police officer forcing a person to buy drugs, and then punishing the person’s whole family to death for the fact the person buys drugs. It shows the entrapment and the guilt by association that the religious accept as part of the narrative of the Fall. Blake claims not to see it. Morality–which is universal, is it not?–doesn’t apply to God, but it does to a police officer. Therefore the analogy is a false one. An appropriate analogy to Blake’s objection to my analogy would be the claim that the police are above the law. Blake also espouses doubt that any country has the death penalty for being in possession of drugs. Singapore, Malaysia, Iran, Indonesia, China and the United Arab Emirates. You could have Googled that, Blake. Instead, you’re just attempting to rabbit hole the conversation. Look at how I took the bait.)

(Mildly irrelevant aside 2I did not say that Nietzsche came up the idea of religious nihilism. Nietzsche came up with the idea that Christianity is nihilistic because it is fatalistic. Inspired by that, I now use the term “religious nihilism” to describe people who think the atheist must necessarily be nihilistic, as all things are meaningless except with God. Don’t try to rebut things you have only skim-read.)

(Mildly irrelevant aside 3: “If you could have answered any of my questions you would have”. When? At what point between your first question and this accusation have I had the opportunity to answer your questions? The questions and the accusation are all in the same post, posted at the same time. You’re not intelligent, are you?*)

8. You cannot defend the premise “God cannot hold us accountable unless he asks for our permission”

That is a misrepresentation of what I said. I said God should be holding us accountable for what is inevitable in the system It orchestrated. If I orchestrate a system with inevitable consequences, it doesn’t matter how many pawns I use in the system, if it is inevitable from the moment I set it up, I am responsible for the outcome.

9. I don’t understand why religious nihilism is a bad thing

I have not said that nihilism is a bad thing, nor that religious nihilism is a bad thing. However, when you appeal to religious nihilism to dodge a question you are making a rather complex and unsubstantiated claim. You are claiming that without God all things are just materialistic stuff without value or purpose. You are also claiming that with God all things are somehow more than just materialistic stuff without value or purpose. Earlier, you alluded to the idea that it is merely God’s opinion that makes all the difference. That is a series of big claims. You appeal to them as assertions, but cannot actually defend them.

10. You can’t answer my questions about the standards of good and justice and why tyranny is bad!

All of Blake’s standards and definitions are rooted in God. Therefore God can cause disease and pain and pointless suffering and misery and rule through self-interested tyranny and we must conclude “this is good”. To rebut this, it apparently doesn’t suffice to say that these are circular definitions so content-free as to be meaningless. Instead, I must offer my own definition of morality. At the end of this post, I’ll link to a few of my posts on the these issues as Blake’s further reading. However, I implore the reader to question whether the flexible and undiscoverable definitions offered by Blake are of any use, can be relied up on, make sense or are truly representative.

Closing thoughts – Blake says a lot more in his post. But it’s nonsense for the most part. You can go over there and read it for yourself, if you want. Blake, you can argue for a fiction with its own moral and justice structures. Those structures can be completely alien to us. You can then posit that this fiction has a character who manages these alien moral and justice systems. By the benchmarks and criteria set up in those fictions, you can claim that the Manager is moral and just (in this alien sense). You can come up with a completely consistent, but alien-to-reality, bit of literature. But once you start saying that is alien-to-reality literature represents reality, that’s where we disagree. There may be a Biblical idea of morality, and God may fit it perfectly within the Bible, but in the narrative of reality, it simply doesn’t fit.

* Before any one accuses me of ad hominen, I am merely quoting exactly what Blake said to me. If you accuse me of ad hominen, I hope to see you being consistent and see the same accusation from you in his comments thread.

Blake’s reading list

Objective Morality for the Non-Believer

Allallt believes in Objective Morality

The Lines between Rights, Law and Objective Morality

The Evidence for Objective (secular) Morality

On Heaven and Objective Purpose

God-arguments that don’t work and the beauty of life

We Hope You Enjoyed Your Journey: why the passing of life is why we should care

The “Ought” Problem

Getting Meaning from Atheism


5 thoughts on “Stephen Fry, Blake Deal and Linguistic Circles”

  1. Hi allalt.
    You remarked that it’s left unsaid exactly how a cosmos with God is more meaningful than an atheistic cosmos.

    I think the answer to the lies in that we’re talking about a profoundly different conception of who God is, profound differences in areas like philosophy of nature and answers to questions like “what are human beings?” If we really were just talking about the same universe with some bearded guy who wants us to “press his Like button” (as one commenter put it above) tacked on, I actually think you are right to point out that there really doesn’t seem to be a lot of difference between those two conceptions of reality.
    Let me recommend the following resources which deal with some of those issues:

    “The Gospel and the Meaning of Life” by Bryan Cross

    Lectures 1,2,3, 11 and 12 from Lawrence Feingold’s series “Man Called To Share in the Divine Life”.

    1. Can you not actually give me a difference between the concept of God i present and the God you believe in? Do i have to waste my time with these resources not even knowing what to expect?

      1. Your God’s goodness consists in Him having a certain set of obligations, and if we judge that He’s fulfilled them correctly, He’s a good God, and if he hasn’t, He’s a bad God. I maintain that this is a fundamentally flawed way of conceiving God’s being good. I understand that it’s a huge amount of material that I posted, but I don’t think this can be explained in anything less than the three blog posts by Feser I posted in the comment below.

  2. I’ll also say that, while I don’t know what the intent of blakeodeel using that phrase was, the phrase “God is Truth” is not necessarily a “deepity”.

    On classical theism, God is Being Itself. And, given that God is Being Itself, God is also Truth Itself.

    But how does this follow? “Isn’t God is Being Itself just another deepity?” I hear you say. There’s an awful lot of fleshing out to do, and to see why this is the case, I recommend the following resources:

    An Aristotelian Proof of God, a talk by Edward Feser

    Lectures 1,2,3,4,5 in Lawrence Feingold’s series “Creation and Covenant”.

    1. I don’t understand how these posts help you. They’re all semantic games. I particularly like making morality and intellect the same thing (the WLC article) and then then saying morality comes from intellect (to get around the Euthyphro dilemma.
      Alright… are things wise because God thinks them, or does It think them because it is wise?
      (Thanks to the semantic game Feser plays, this is the same question…)

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