The Social God

This post might be misnamed, but I’m at a loss for what to call it, and this sounded clever enough, so I’m rolling with it.

Today (most likely yesterday by the time I finish this post), I went to a debate being presented by The Society of Ontario Freethinkers, and hosted by The Laurier Freethought Alliance (Those of you in Canada but not in the region might have heard of their struggles to get recognized as an official club on their campus).  The debate topic was the question “Is morality natural or supernatural?”  The Atheist speaker, Michael Sizer, presented a very typical Atheist perspective response: the basis for morality is natural in nature and can be explained (mostly so far) scientifically.  He pointed out that different regions of the brain dealt with different moral situations, and referenced studies backed by evidence.  I’m more interested in Mariano Grinbank’s argument (Mariano runs two blogs; I think a google search would reveal them quickly enough).

He presented a strange argument that from what I can see is very weak; if you’re a religious-minded person, please help me out here…  I think I might be missing some fundamental distinguishing feature that makes this argument a little more sound, and I doubt that this little post on this little blog will find its way to Mariano’s screen.

Now, I’m not very well read on Mariano’s philosophy, only what he presented in the debate.  Therefore, during this post, when I spread my arms wide when talking about Mariano’s points, I’m only referring to his debate points.

His argument started with a simple God of the Gaps and Begging the Question application.  It basically boiled down to “we know how the hardware [of the brain] is installed, but not the software” — therefore, there must be a divine agent who put it there.  This is, quite obviously, the weakest point of the argument, and only really inserted to drive the discussion to the next points he made (in my frame of mind, at least).  Of course, there’s no real effective way to argue against this, beyond Occam’s Razor and the fact that science is iterative, and eventually we might very well know everything there is to know about the brain in scientific terms.  Once again, that’s not the interesting part.

Next, having established that morality can come (or in his case does come) from a supernatural agent, attempted to describe further where this morality could have come from.  He went through a few different versions of deity-based supernatural agents, which I will visit in turn: pantheistic, duotheistic, polytheistic, monotheistic, and trinitarian monotheism.

Mariano first touched on Pantheism.  He dismissed the possibility of any meaningful morality coming from this situation, as “it’s God telling God what God can do to God or God”.  There is, however, a case to be made that this setup is meaningful.  For example, I’d like the cells in my body to behave so as to not injure the whole through the actions of  individual agents which comprise my being.  In fact, you could argue that this would be the easiest way to explain “built-in” morality, because we are all God and therefore must have some understanding of Our goals.

The second topic was that of duotheism (a word which might not really exist, but one which I am just going to use anyway).  He claimed that in a setup with two gods, each god’s morality must be the polar opposite of the other.  A must see B as the Evil god, while B sees A in the same light (or dark, if you mind my little jab there).  This was a little silly, and is an error of definition.  Just because two gods exist, it doesn’t mean that their views need be opposed to each other.  Two people on an island would probably start thinking a lot alike after a while, maybe only having disagreements concerning who the palm tree loves more.

Polytheism was next, which was again dismissed almost out of hand.  Mr Grinbank brought up the Greek and Roman pantheons, and asserted that their behaviour was often times immoral.  He moved on after that, but it might have also been implied that absolute morality in this kind of system would be impossible to achieve, due to the number of agents involved.  Certainly absolute morality would be hard to achieve.  Perhaps the gods could agree on a few points here and there, but there’s a large amount of infighting, and new gods being conceived every so often, which would throw ten more wrenches in the system.  However, absolute morality in relation to a single god in the pantheon is entirely possible.  There would be warring factions of morality, but morality could be imposed upon or accepted from individual deities.

Monotheism is where things get kinda strange.  Mariano claimed that because there’s only one god, it cannot have a sense of morality, because morality is a relational construct (it only matters if there is more than one being).  Therefore, when this being creates life (let’s say Earth), it MUST arbitrarily establish a set of morals, and impose them on his creations.  There are a few errors of definition here, of course: 1) If this god is omnipotent, despite being the only creature, it should be able to conceptualize there being more than one creature, and therefore how you should interact with said creature.  Also, it should know it’s gonna make life, and how it’s going to interact with said life 2) A Deist would tend to disagree that such a being must lay down rules for interacting with its subjects (or the subjects’ internal relations).  However, please keep this argument in mind, because the next one is different enough, Mariano claims, to be just right (in the porridge sense).

Trinitarian monotheism is the final answer, Mariano claims.  We start by saying that we have one god which is one singular being.  This prevents the warring gods of polytheism and duotheism, and the self-referential nature of pantheism.  Next, assign this singular god multiple facets  (for sake of argument, let’s call them the father, son, and holy ghost).  Now, we have a situation where morality can develop (because morality is relational), but where opinions cannot differ (because there is only one god).

And curtains.

Go ahead, take some time to come to your own conclusions about the above argument.  With some generous definitions, it’s almost a passable argument.  Let me try and poke as many holes in it as I can (those of you on the Atheist bench, feel free to help me out here if I miss anything.  I’m not used to picking apart apologetic arguments).

The first was brought forward by a friend of mind, Chuck [correction: Brad.  Sorry!  It was one of you two :P].  He asked a simple question: “Why does it need to be a trinity?”  Why couldn’t it be a duo, or a quad, or a sextuple?  If the appropriate mix of attributes is having a multi-faceted singular entity, then supposedly a god with any number of extra facets is appropriate.    When approached with this question, Mr Grinbank’s response was a simple “I’m a Christian, so that’s just the easiest thing for me to use”.

The second was something I picked up on during the debate.  Mariano says that in order for morality to develop in a non-arbitrary sense, there needs to be multiple agents (in his case, facets of the same god).  Supposedly, these facets occasionally have differing opinions; most of a proper moral code would not arise in a non-arbitrary way or would not be useful should they always agree on everything.  Furthermore, Mr Grinbak is defining morality arising out of virtue of this god being a social creature, yet asserting that morality can not fully arise in social creatures such as Humans.  There seems to be a logical disconnect at this stage as far as I’m concerned.

There’s another important thing to bring up: how do interactions between the same deity translate to interactions between separate entities such as Humans?  Surely things such as violence mean vastly different things to one god or two people, for example.  I don’t see how developing a moral system surrounding how you interact with yourself would prime you an incredible amount for prescribing how separate beings should interact.

That’s all I have for now.  I would love to hear your thoughts, criticisms, or clarifications on this subject.

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~ by buncythefrog on March 19, 2010.

5 Responses to “The Social God”

  1. Brad thought up the Septarian question

  2. We discussed this in IRC. I’m not sure I can be bothered recapping here. Should I?

  3. Ooops, thanks Chuck! I only remembered the question card.
    Revenant, for sake of helping the discussion here, it couldn’t hurt to reiterate.

  4. May God save me from his followers that don’t believe in logic,

  5. Well said, Nikky. Unfortunately, when it comes to religious conversations, the best or most common ways to argue against each other differ on each side in large ways. In some ways, logic can’t be correctly applied to a deity, because (from all the arguments I’ve seen so far) it always requires a break in that logic at some point or another.

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