A startling thing happened last week on Patheos, a website for conversation about “religion”. Atheist blogger Leah Libresco wrote a post entitled “This is my last post for the Patheos atheist portal”. Not for the reason you’d normally expect – that she had no time for blogging and was moving on to other ventures in life. No, Libresco wrote this because she was now going to start writing for the Catholic portal. Continue reading
In my previous discussion of Christine Korsgaard’s prologue to The Sources of Normativity, I left out one significant feature of the story she tells of Western philosophy. This is the reason – related to the basic account of excellence of obligation – why Christianity proved philosophically more powerful than Greek thought.
On Korsgaard’s account of Greek metaphysics (à la Plato and Aristotle), goodness is a feature of reality, one more fundamental in a sense than the particular physical objects that appear before us. Perfect form is more real than imperfect matter. This is true whether, with Plato, those forms exist in a world apart from matter, or, with Aristotle, they exist within matter as its potential and telos.
But if that’s the case, Korsgaard notes, then the logical question is: why aren’t things perfect already? We normally think of theodicy – the problem of suffering and responses to it – as primarily a problem for Abrahamic traditions. If God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, it’s hard to see how there can be suffering in the world (though it’s less hard to see how there can be evil). But broaden the question a bit – make it “the problem of bad” – and it appears elsewhere too. For Śaṅkara’s Advaita Vedānta, in which reality is pure knowledge, it’s a conundrum to think how there can be so much ignorance.
And Korsgaard seems to provocatively suggest that the Christians were better equipped to handle the problem than the Greeks – connecting to her account of how an ethics of excellence was superseded by an ethics of obligation. Continue reading
Last week I examined the theology of Marcion of Sinope, who believed – as did many other early Christians – that there existed two gods, one good and one evil. I argued that Marcion’s theology is an ingenious way for a Christian to make sense of the atrocities in the Hebrew Bible. But this week I want to argue that the appeal of such a theology goes well beyond the interpretation of scripture in the West. Rather, it is also a way to help us understand the world, if we are to take theism seriously. Continue reading
The posts of the previous couple weeks begin to add up to an argument for the existence of something like God – a value or goodness that is an inextricable part of the basic structure of reality. It strikes me that a significant part of this line of reasoning also underlies most of the widely known philosophical proofs for the existence of God. These proofs (at least on their own) do not take us to any of the particular Abrahamic views of God, as revealed in Qur’an or Torah or the person of Jesus Christ, but they are often taken as a first step to getting there.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I previously called the problem of good. Those who believe there is an ultimate goodness central to the universe face the problem of the universe’s imperfection and badness. The most obvious form of this problem is the Abrahamic problem of suffering; it’s also a problem for Advaita Vedānta, in which it’s hard to explain how ignorance can be possible. But for those who don’t believe in that ultimate goodness – which includes Theravāda Buddhists as well as naturalistically minded scientists – there is an alternate problem, of how we explain the existence of value in the first place.
This problem is not quite the opposite of the problem of suffering. Those who don’t believe in an ultimate value of this sort – I am here going to call them “atheists” as a shorthand, though I think that runs the risk of oversimplifying the matter – have no problem explaining the existence of particular good things, the way that theists have a problem explaining the existence of hurricanes or ALS. The problem they face, rather, is in the basic question of how things can be good (or bad) at all, of how the very ideas of goodness or badness can mean anything. Continue reading