Continuing discussion.

EPS Blog

This is the blog area for the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its journal, Philosophia Christi.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Aseity, Fictionalism and Moral Values

At, I recently received a questions about the topic of divine aseity in light of my understanding of fictionalism and abstract objects:
  1. What are morals according to the fictionalist? Can the fictionalist hold to objective morality without having to be a command theorist? If not, then how can the fictionalist account for arbitrary commands from God (e.g., torturing little children is okay if God commands it to be so)?
  2. My second question is: can we interpret John 1:3 with a quantifying restriction. That is, can we interpret John saying something like the following: "Through him all things were made [except for abstract objects]; without him nothing was made that has been made." Why or why not?

These are excellent questions, which have confronted me in the course of my study of divine aseity (self-existence). For readers who might lack the background of these questions, let me first say that the problem here is what many philosophers, usually called Platonists, think that in addition to concrete objects like tables and people and stars, there exist abstract objects like numbers, properties, and propositions. The problem is that many (though, interestingly, not all) abstract objects exist necessarily and so were never created by God, and many are what we might call "uncreatables," that is to say, they cannot be created, since in order to be created, they would have to exist already, so that one winds up with a vicious circularity (see my and Paul Copan's Creation out of Nothing, chap. 5). The Fictionalist solves the problem by denying that abstract objects really exist—they're just useful fictions (like the average American family with 2.5 children).

With that bit of background, let's take question (2) first. The motivation behind this question is, I think, to ask whether biblically there's really anything problematic about holding that there are uncreated abstract objects, things other than God that also exist a se (through themselves alone). It seems to me that Platonism is so problematic theologically as to be deeply unchristian. It postulates an incomprehensible number of beings, real objects in the mind-independent world, which exist independently of God, so that God becomes just one being among many. It thus espouses a metaphysical pluralism which robs God of His ultimacy and primacy as Creator.

So even if John did not have abstract objects consciously in mind when he wrote that "all things came into being through him (i.e., the Word)," I am confident that if a Platonist were to sit down with John and explain to him just what numbers and sets and functions are on a Platonic ontology and explain to him the metaphysical status of propositions and properties according to Platonism, until John had a clear grasp of Platonist ontology, then John would have said, "If such things really do exist as robustly as concrete objects, then certainly they, too, were created by the Word!" It would have been pointless to affirm the Word's creation of the infinitesimally tiny realm of concrete objects while allowing most of being to exist independently of God. What good does it do theologically to affirm the Word's creation of all concrete objects when these are a mere triviality in comparison to the infinity of infinities of uncreated beings with which God finds Himself confronted? To allow such an ontology would be to rob John's prologue of its theological force.

Moreover, —and this is really interesting!—it's not implausible that John actually did have such abstract objects in mind when he wrote his prologue extolling Christ as the divine Logos (Word). For the Logos is not original with John. The figure of the creative Logos of God is also found in the writing of John's contemporary, the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C. - A.D. 50). In his On the Creation of the Cosmos according to Moses, Philo explains that on the first day of creation God marked out, like an architect designing a city, an intelligible cosmos to use as an ideal model for the sensible cosmos (16). Philo admonishes that "To declare or suppose that the cosmos composed of the Ideas exists in some place is not permissible" (17). Therefore,
Just as the city that was marked out beforehand in the architect had no location outside but had been engraved in the soul of the craftsman, in the same way the cosmos composed of the Ideas would have no other place than the divine Logos who gives these (Ideas) their ordered disposition (20).
In short,
If you would wish to use a formulation that has been stripped down to the essentials, you might say that the intelligible cosmos is nothing else than the Logos of God as He is actually engaged in making the cosmos. For the intelligible city, too, is nothing else than the reasoning of the architect as he is actually engaged in planning the foundation of the city. This is the doctrine of Moses, not my own (24-25).
In Philo's philosophy of religion we see the confluence of Judaism and Greek Platonic philosophy. Plato's realm of Ideas, what we today would call abstract objects, is not a realm external to God but has been moved into the mind of God where it serves as the archetype of creation by the divine Logos.

John's Prologue breathes this same atmosphere of Middle Platonism, as it is called, and it is not at all implausible to think that John imagines the realm of abstract objects to exist in the mind of the Logos. This is to espouse Conceptualism, not Platonism. On Conceptualism abstract objects exist as ideas in God's mind, not as independently existing entities.

Now as to the first question above, there are Fictionalists who advocate an "error theory" of ethics: moral statements are all of them false but nonetheless useful and important for human relations. By contrast, the theist will affirm moral truths, but he will not adopt some sort of Platonism as the basis of their truth. For God Himself, who is a concrete object, is the paradigm of moral goodness, just as the meter bar in Paris once served as the paradigm of a meter, rather than some abstract mathematical object. The divine command theory of ethics which I have embraced thus fits perfectly with anti-Platonism. Indeed, it was crafted, in part, precisely to avoid the Platonistic horn of the Euthyphro dilemma of Plato (For more info, see here and here).

Can we hold to objective morality without being divine command theorists? Perhaps, if we can find some other way to ground moral values and duties in God, say, by imagining the natural moral law to exist in God's mind. What we cannot do is adopt some Platonist account of moral values.

The last question of (1)—if objective morality necessitates divine command theory, then how can the Fictionalist account for arbitrary commands from God?—seems to be confused. Does it mean how can a Fictionalist avoid arbitrary commands from God? That just is the other horn of the Euthyphro dilemma answered in the above questions. God's commands are reflections of His nature, so that God cannot issue commands arbitrarily. So the Good is not some abstract object existing apart from God; rather God Himself is the Good and the source of our moral duties via His commands to us.

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