God or Moral Nihilism

Plato's Cave image

Plato’s allegory of the cave posits four levels of reality. Plotinus called them the Physical, Psyche, Nous and the One. Another nomenclature would be the Physical, Mind, Soul and Spirit.

Among other things, Plato’s Cave is supposed to be a description of the structure of reality. Some regard it as a fairy tale. Interestingly, mathematicians tend to be realists about mathematics. They generally believe that mathematical truths are objectively true. They have always been true and will always be true. These truths are clearly not physical in nature. So where do they exist? They exist at a level of reality accessible by our minds but not created by our minds. We do not make these truths up. We discover them.

Plato called this level “The Forms,” or “Ideas.” The Greek word is “Eidos.” The Forms are eternal and perfect. The Forms are “universals” – concepts and categories of thought that allow us to identify any individual thing as the thing it is; as a “particular.” Plotinus, a second century Neo-Platonist called this level of reality, the Nous. The Nous is the Understanding and the Soul.

Most professional mathematicians are Platonists, at least about mathematics. Because many of them are atheists, some of them would like to arbitrarily limit the occupants of this realm of reality, this Platonic heaven, just to mathematics – expelling other Platonic Forms, like Justice, Truth and Beauty.

Having posited this intellectual, intelligible realm, they want to quarantine it and prevent it from impinging on the rest of their thinking – perhaps like having a God of Ice Cream, who keeps himself to himself on other matters and doesn’t interfere where ice cream is not concerned.

Below the level of Nous, is the level of Psyche. Psyche represents, among other things, the workings of the rational mind. The mind makes imperfect copies of the Forms – reproducing them to the best of its limited abilities. The rational mind approximates eternal verities. For instance, it uses pi to measure the circumference of a circle – but pi is an irrational number. The circumference must in truth be some particular number, but we can only figure it out to a certain decimal place.

Justice, according to Plato, also exists in this Platonic heaven as one of the Forms.

If one equates reality with physical reality, then justice does not exist. Science is the study of physical reality. As such, morality and all other values, are invisible to it. If physical reality is all there is, as physicalists/materialists believe, and science captures all the truth that is fit to print, then morality does not exist except as a fiction.

A belief in the unproven metaphysical doctrine of materialism is generally a prerequisite for gaining employment as a philosopher. It is certainly a prerequisite for being taken seriously by the majority of Anglo-American philosophers, and frankly, being taken seriously by the majority of so-called Continental philosophers would not be desirable.

The materialist is by definition an atheist. Many materialist philosophers are well-meaning and they are troubled by the morally nihilistic implications of their unstated metaphysical views. Some have devoted their lives to trying to rescue morality from the abyss of moral non-existence that materialism posits for them.

If morality exists for real, as the term “moral realism” tries to convey, then reality must include intelligible realms beyond the physical. If a person is to be reduced to his atomic parts, and is nothing more than this, then removing his heart is to change the location of a bunch of atoms; hardly a hanging offense.

Moral realism requires attributing spiritual, moral qualities to the universe. If these qualities are to exist, then reality must be different from the reality that science studies. Reality must be something like Plato’s Cave – including physical reality, but going far beyond it; to the levels of mind, soul and spirit. Moral truths arguably exist at the level of the Forms, just as mathematical truths do.

Materialist moral philosophers rather sweetly, though dementedly, rail against the darkness. The moral fervor that drives them could possibly be admired if one is capable of admiring such self-delusion.

Materialist moral philosophers (MMPs) are unable to defend their own motives in attempting to find a “naturalistic” foundation for morality. The most that they are going to be able to say is that morality is a “useful” fiction. Though untrue, they might say, morality reduces the number of murders, rapes and assaults; thus morality is a “good” thing. If morality is a morally good thing – then this is circular and one has snuck moral realism in the back door, having denied it entrance through the front.

The unstated premise in the argument that morality is a useful fiction, is that anything that helps mankind can be regarded as morally good; as something having normative force for all human beings. If that is not true; if benefiting mankind is not in fact morally good, then why should I pursue this goal? If moral beliefs are grounded on mere wishes, why should that wish be satisfied? What moral force does satisfying whims have? You are not going to be able to get a “should” from a “that.”

Immanuel Kant distinguished moral goods that are to be pursued by all rational beings – from prudential goods that only have force for particular individuals, promising to satisfy as they do, mere inclinations and inclinations differ from person to person.

Plato was well aware of the possible conflict between prudence and morality and wrote The Republic in part to try to show that morality and prudence in fact coincide. But if morality just IS prudence, then no conflict is possible. It’s all just prudence. Plato’s attempt to discredit the notion that the best possible scenario would be to be thought to be morally impeccable, but to in fact act in totally corrupt, evil and self-serving ways, would be redundant. If morality is prudence, we have no independent moral standard by which to judge prudence. It would mean that whistle-blowers should almost never act “morally.” In fact, if morality and prudence are one and the same, the whistle-blower should keep his or her mouth shut.

If morality just IS prudence, then apparently, anything that is good for me is in fact good. Thus egocentrism is true, as is narcissism, and even psychopathy. And what is good for me is for everyone else to act “morally” in the usual sense, and for me to act in an egocentric manner, perhaps in my capacity as a tyrant. (Really, whatever “innovation” the MMP thinks he is engaging in, Plato has anticipated all the moves.)

If it became known that morality does not exist; that what we call “morality” is a fiction that it happens to benefit society to believe, then people would stop acting morally, unless they came to believe that it was morally right to do what benefits society. But if morality doesn’t exist, why should I want to do what benefits society, especially if that benefit comes at my own expense, as in the case of the whistle-blower? Because in actual fact, it is not prudent to do what is prudent for society if doing so harms me. We may want to say you should do it anyway – but that involves appealing to some non-prudential good.

This would imply that to get people to act against their own best interests, they should be led to believe that acting for the benefit of society is somehow of benefit to them. Perhaps that it would be good for their soul. Or they will receive a benefit in heaven. In other words, it will be necessary to lie to the members of society, in order to get them to act in the way we wish them to act; in our own totally self-serving and amoral interests. We will call this “the noble lie.” ; )

Morality can’t exist at the level of prudence. Prudence implies an extrinsic good. Extrinsic goods are only good because they satisfy some intrinsic good. But MMPs are incapable of identifying intrinsic goods. Extrinsic goods can be identified and located using science. Extrinsic goods can be “seen.” Intrinsic goods are good in themselves. They are not dependent on observation or science to identify them. So how are we to identify them? Where do they exist?

The thing is that extrinsic goods are not good at all without intrinsic goods. If I identify Zyklon B as extrinsically good because it is very good at gassing Jews, the truth of this claim depends on the intrinsic moral worth of ridding the world of Jews. If ridding the world of Jews is only another extrinsic good, then we are still in need of an intrinsic good.

In fact, Zyklon B has no “goodness” of any kind, not even extrinsic goodness, because the goal that it accomplishes is not good at all.

If I invent a glue that is very good at sticking toe nail clippings to monitors, then my glue has no extrinsic worth. It has no extrinsic worth, because it is not good to have toe nail clippings stuck to monitors. It’s not good at all.

Extrinsic goods without intrinsic goods set up an eternal regress. One is in the situation of saying “It is turtles all the way down.”

The only “solution” that seems to exist is to say something like “human flourishing has actual intrinsic moral worth, and anything that supports that flourishing has a derivative moral worth.” And that moral worth must be real and objectively true and not merely “prudential” or useful. If human flourishing is merely useful for something else, what is that something? I could probably live with “because it fulfills the aims of God.” But there can be no MMP answer to the existence of intrinsic worth.

The intrinsic worth of the universe seems to be derived from the intrinsic goodness of God – God as a moral First Cause. If God is Goodness itself – the Form of the Good. If the qualities of the deity are goodness, beauty and truth, then if Soul, Mind and Body are derived from this intrinsically good First Cause, then physical reality itself is imbued with goodness, with God as its Creator.

I can’t prove that God exists and is Good. But if morality exists, God, or the Form of the Good, or Forms, must also exist. One cannot logically have an endless chain of extrinsic goods and there is no naturalistic way of locating intrinsic goodness.

MMPs can claim that their search for a naturalistic justification for morality is merely satisfying some whim of theirs, some “feeling.” This feeling is Plato’s anamnesis; a remembering, having seen the Form of the Good, or the Form of Justice. If seen, one is dimly remembering an experience, not a theory. Their souls remember something their rational minds will spend a life-time trying and failing to prove. They are trying to prove that it is good to be good. This end they have already decided is good. They know it in their souls to be true. All their arguments and confabulations are an ex post facto attempt to justify this intuition. They are certainly not just letting the facts just speak for themselves. If they were truly devoted to scientific fact in the way they claim, they would not have set their heart on proving the moral worth and validity of morality as a fiction – that truly Quixotic and teleological goal.

I have met more than one person with philosophical pretensions who has chosen, in advance, the goal of finding a naturalistic foundation for ethics. They truly believe they are doing a morally good thing and are serving mankind in the process. They begin as moral realists – why devote your life to an illusion? – and end trying to promote morality as a useful fiction. Presumably, in their heart of hearts they believe themselves to have done a truly, morally good thing – utterly, trashing and destroying the perception of morality as literally true. They must kill morality in order to save it and having achieved this mortifying goal, they can rest with full moral satisfaction.

They have made a rag doll of their favorite friend. They have then publicly flogged and harassed this doll to death; proving its non-reality and constructed nature. Then have they curled up in front of the fire, their favorite book in hand (Plato?), and brought their old friend out of hiding, while the friend profusely thanks him for his moral, kind and sentimental service to all of humankind. Morality pays homage to its savior and goes to fetch itself a drink and cry itself to sleep; having had to admit for his own sake, that he doesn’t exist.



14 thoughts on “God or Moral Nihilism

  1. Pingback: God or Moral Nihilism | Neoreactive

  2. If one substitutes the term ‘measurement’ in place of ‘morality’, then one immediately sees where the Platonist goes off the allegorical rails.

    You would have us re-categorize all of reality – including every therapy, application, and technology that works for everyone everywhere all the time and all the understanding that underpins these results from this, the supposed shadow world – to be the fiction, the representation, rather than point out what should be obvious to anyone who has stubbed a toe: that all these supposed Platonic forms – you know, mental constructs and comparative terms we use that you and Plato argue are the real that sharp-edged reality only represents – might suffer from a fatal case of location and properties envy. The materialist, for all her metaphysical faults and philosophical foolishness, at least has something independent of herself to work with. The Platonist doesn’t even have that.

    • Actually, I do not want to characterize the shadow world as fiction and neither does Plato; merely derivative. Plato’s non-rejection of physical reality is symbolized by the return of the philosopher to the cave. I’m only arguing that there is more to reality than the physical world. I’m not a reductionist. Your comments also by-pass the point of the essay which is to argue that for morality to exist, there must be more to life than the world available to science. Also, Plato and I completely agree that there is a reality beyond ourselves. It is only that inner reality and objective reality (not merely objective reality as counted by science) are connected. I can access the Forms via my Nous/understanding. The Forms are intelligible and thus intelligence is needed to appreciate them.

    • “The materialist, for all her metaphysical faults and philosophical foolishness, at least has something independent of herself to work with.”

      On the contrary, it is the materialist, who, being part of the material order, has no external reference. She “has” only the great glob of plastic substance in which she is minuscule droplet.

      The Platonic forms are not “mental constructs”; they are intelligible beings, the external, that is metaphysical, references that one needs should one wish to know anything about the physical world.

      • What could this “external reference” conceivably be? Thomas’ beliefs in other realms of existence?

        Placing an definitive article before an adjective doesn’t magically turn the adjective into a proper noun (such as “the external”). You have a habit of doing this… as if you’re speaking of a thing (as if the ‘external’ is a thing in itself rather than a description OF something else) rather than a very muddled concept you find convenient to give the appearance of intellectual depth (like stirring a puddle and claiming that its opaqueness is an indication of depth) you then slip under the door of metaphysics and claim that’s what is really is: a metaphysical concept of perception and wisdom. It’s really just a word game that the credulous might find seductive and alluring but upon honest examination it leads nowhere.

      • Placing an (sic) definitive (sic) article before an adjective doesn’t magically turn the adjective into a proper noun (such as “the external”).

        Sure it does. Not a proper noun like “Tom” or “Newark” or “France,” of course. Still it’s quite an ordinary figure of speech. E.g.:

        “The temporal is not in contradiction to the eternal.”

        “The great are less than the greatest.”

        “The atheist does not believe in gods of any sort.”

        “The wicked flee when no man pursueth.”

        “The Platonic realist thinks the Forms somehow actually exist.”

        But in any case, that’s not what Professor Bertonneau actually did in the comment you critique.

  3. “You would have us re-categorize all of reality – including every therapy, application, and technology that works for everyone everywhere all the time and all the understanding that underpins these results from this.”

    Exactly, Tildeb; that is what Traditionalists (and contemporary Platonists are Traditionalists) would have you do: Re-categorize all of reality. And that is how you should measure the radicalism of the Traditionalist (or Platonist) thesis. Such a re-categorization would not, however, prevent your mechanical wine-bottle de-corker from operating, exactly as it usually does – so you shouldn’t worry too much about it.

  4. Richard: I’ve long thought of Plato’s Cave as an archetype for the cinema, but the illustration at the top of this essay puts the analogy front and center. It could almost be a drawing of a large modern movie theater.

    • Dear Kristor – true, true… And just when we thought that Hollywood could not make itself more troglodytic, its techies invented CGI!

      PS. But the real cave is the cell phone – a tiny electronic Charybdis.

    • Hi, Kristor: I had to figure out how to add annotations to that illustration so I’m glad someone paid attention to it! It is rather like the cinema. I sometimes do a film projector version of Plato’s Cave. I have to add a prism at the ‘fake tree’ level, to symbolize the way in which the archetype gets broken up into many variations. The cinema metaphor is great for capturing the ‘downward’ journey.

  5. Pingback: God or Moral Nihilism | Reaction Times

  6. I would like to point out the following sloppy, culturally biased thinking: “It has no extrinsic worth, because it is not good to have toe nail clippings stuck to monitors. It’s not good at all.” You could have at least prefaced this possibly bigoted dismissal of others’ self/other actualization with a trigger warning for those readers/nonreaders who/which find such remarks/insinuations troubling and hurtful. For all anyone knows, offering toe nail clippings to the LED totem might be an intimate form of worship, suggesting, as it does, both the ephemerality of human thoughts, technology, and the ego itself as well as the sublimated synthesis of body and spirit in the act of attempted cognition.

    “. . . and frankly, being taken seriously by the majority of so-called Continental philosophers would not be desirable.” So, you’re descriptively proposing that you don’t find this comment enlightening. Surely, your failure of appreciation/mental assimilation may be attributable to the syntactically impoverished delimitation of this argumentative corpus of utterance, for which I would take full responsibility — analogously — so to speak — were we hypothetically to grant agency to our selves in a favorable search toward expression, as it were.

  7. Pingback: God or Moral Nihilism — The Orthosphere | An Alchemist's Journey....


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