Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Where did God get his morality?

I don't remember when I first thought this, or perhaps when I first heard it, but as I've considered it more recently I just considered it a clever remark but not particularly substantive. It's of the same order of quip as the other similar quip: "God is, himself, an atheist because He doesn't believe He has a creator. (At least he hasn't said anything about it.)"

It seems like a rather obvious argument to me, but I don't think it's really that obvious to most people, especially people who wonder how atheists could have morality or morals at all. I think a background of programming makes me think of it as obvious: for a good programmer, indirection and recursion start to become natural. "Who created God?" "If this reality is a simulation, is the environment we're simulated in also a simulation?"

The first thing we must realize is that even Divine Morality changes. The Bible has demonstrated that God can change His mind, and a pure historical account of the Catholic Church shows their positions on certain issues differ significantly from their founding views. I don't think this is very controversial, and I don't mean to imply morality can change into anything; it still must fall within certain bounds.

But why did God command Thou shalt not kill? Where did God get the idea that killing was Bad? Where did he get the idea that Theft was Bad? Where did he get the idea that Honesty was Good? You can say "He just knows", but that doesn't really answer the question, because I'm still confused. How does He "just know"? It's got to come from somewhere!

I haven't met a religious person yet who can give me a decent response to this, though in fairness I haven't asked all that many religious people. My own response, trying to be within a religious framework, is as follows.

The human mind works in specific ways that science can tell us all about. Whether you believe in evolution or not, evolutionary psychology is just one branch of psychology even if it offers a lot of explaining power. There are other branches of psychology that tell us other things, as part of the whole picture. The main point I'm making is that the human mind works in specific ways that we can make predictions about.

For example, I can predict that if a human is walking along at night, alone, when suddenly they see a baby crying quietly on the sidewalk some yards ahead, I predict that they are not going to walk up to the baby, and stomp its head in. I don't think it matters what this human's background is, whether they're religious or not, they're just not going to do it. However, I will make a qualification and state that the human must be mentally sound. I don't want to suppose limits on the evil that sociopaths can create.

Now given we know at least something about how human minds work, we can infer how God's mind works. Remember, He created us in His image. In the beginning, Adam and Eve were immortal. It can be supposed this is because they were allowed to eat from the Tree of Life that granted them immortality. The only thing that separated them from God at that point was their lack of knowledge of Good and Evil. And so when they received that knowledge, God, acting very human-like, saw the potential competition and banished them from the Garden, thus preventing them from eating from the Tree of Life again, and thus making them die.

Indeed, all the accounts of God portray him as very human-like. This shouldn't be surprising because we're made in His image, He should be like us. He shows many of our emotions: love, kindness, wrath, jealousy, and more.

Yet the question remains: why does he think killing people is bad? Presumably He "just knows this". My own interpretation of this phrase is this: it's intuitively obvious to Him. It's self-evident. For many humans, I believe this is the case as well.

We can look at tribes untouched by Christianity, indeed tribes without even the concept of religion as Westerners would understand it, and in general they don't think it's a good idea to go around killing people. Of course when killing has a purpose... but then the religious folks, God included, have always had exceptions. Nevertheless, the core idea of killing for the sake of killing is universally held as a bad thing.

Is "intuition" an answer to the question? I think it's a reasonable answer, because it offers an avenue for explanation. Given that human minds are very similar to the mind of God, what we can conclude about human minds ought to apply, at least to some extent, to the mind of God. It's something about the way our minds are designed that makes these moral ideas like not killing people intuitive. Evolutionary psychology gives a lot of insight into how our mind was designed by Natural Selection, and if we want to take any of its conclusions as true we should be able to apply them to God as well. Intuition isn't a sufficient answer, but it's a great place to start if we can accept that what's intuitive to God is also likely intuitive to Man.

I don't think this goes too far outside of the realm of religious context. The appeals to evolutionary psychology, perhaps, but we can use "intuitive reasoning" (as full of flaws as that is) to arrive at many of the same truths evolutionary psychology arrives at. I'm sure you can think of a plausible-sounding (even if incorrect) reason beyond "God says so" why mothers love their children, and in general vice versa. You might also imagine why the love isn't there, in the same way that Hell exists as a place where souls unloved by God go.

Of course, my atheist response would be: with this intuition approach, where certain morals are sort of "baked into" the architecture of the human brain, it seems clear that a group of people converged at a set of morals they all intuitively agreed on and decided to create an entity God that commands everyone else to think the same way. We might want to take some of our good intuitions and start constructing an axiomatic framework to formally reason from, but at the end of the day people's morals are the way they are because of what goes on inside their heads and nothing else. A mind designed differently might have completely different morals, or no morals at all, or some similar and some different, some we're not even capable of thinking about in the sense that animals in general can't think about our morals.

Posted on 2011-10-19 by Jach

Tags: atheism, morality, philosophy, religion


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