Monday, October 6, 2008

Islam, Christianity, and Euthyphro

Euthyphro is one of Plato's dialogues which presents us with a meta-ethical dilemma that has been addressed throughout philosophical and theological history (meta-ethics being the study of the ground or foundation of ethics). In this debate, Socrates asks Euthyphro why God assigned the particular moral laws he did, such as to not commit murder or adultery. The problem this creates is that if God assigned these laws because they are good in and of themselves, then there is a "higher" reality than God, and God commands them because he must align himself with this reality just as much as we do. God, in other words, is not absolute; neither the ground of morality nor of reality. But if we say that these laws are not good in and of themselves, then these laws are simply arbitrary, and God could have made them differently. The "good" would have been to commit murder and adultery if God said so. In this case, God is not intrinsically good because the appellation of "good" is entirely arbitrary (this is the position that Euthyphro takes in the debate).

Traditionally, Christianity has split the horns of this dilemma. Moral laws are intrinsically good, not arbitrary. But their goodness is not derived from something outside of God; rather, they are derived from God's own intrinsically good nature. The ground of morality, in other words, is identical to the ground of reality. The error of the Euthyphro dilemma is that it tries to put the two concepts -- the goodness of certain acts and God's command of them -- into a cause-and-effect relationship with each other. If the goodness of these acts is what causes God to command them, then they are higher than he. But if his command of them is what makes them good, they are arbitrary. Neither, however, is the case: these two concepts are both effects from a common cause, namely, God's own nature.

Now, as far as I can tell, this option would be available to any general theistic position. But in my (admittedly limited) knowledge of Islam, Muslim theologians have not availed themselves of this resolution. A core doctrine of Islam is that God is completely transcendent; that is, he transcends even our moral and rational categories. God may give moral commandments, but ultimately, they are not expressions of his nature -- if they were, then he would not transcend them. Since they have their origin in his command of them, but not in his nature, they could have been different, and are therefore arbitrary, as Euthyphro thought.

Thus, in the Qur'an, God is represented as capricious. For example in the battle of Badr, God had told Muhammad (indirectly -- since God is completely transcendent there is no direct communication between him and humanity in Islam) that he would outnumber his enemies. When Muhammad's army got there, they found to the contrary that the enemy outnumbered them; but there was no way to avoid the battle at that point, and the Muslims ended up winning anyway. Later, when Muhammad asked why God told him that they would outnumber the enemy at Badr when they didn't, the response in the Sura of the Spoils of War is essentially, "If God had told you the truth, you wouldn't have gone". Thus, God lied to Muhammad in order to accomplish his goals (which makes me wonder what else he lied to Muhammad about).

Or take the Qur'an's explanation of Jesus' crucifixion, which Muslims deny: God made it seem that Jesus was crucified, but he really wasn't. Islamic tradition explains this by claiming that God put the image of Jesus on someone else (sometimes thought to be Judas Iscariot), and this person was crucified instead of Jesus. In any case, God made things appear differently than they really are in order to accomplish his objectives. He tricked people so he could get what he wanted.

In contrast to this, the God of the Bible cannot lie; not that he merely does not or will not, but he cannot. Unlike Islam, in Christianity morality and rationality are two things that put us in touch with God, because of their origin in his nature. God does not transcend morality and rationality, he is their very ground. That's part of what it means to say that we are created in his image -- there is a connection between humanity and God, even after the fall. We are created in his image because we have the capacity for morality and rationality. There's more to it than that of course, but that's at least some of it.

So it seems that Islam has pitched its tent with Euthyphro, by accepting that the moral laws are good because God commands them, and that they are thus arbitrary. Now -- to get even more speculative -- when I think about this, I wonder whether it has any connection to the bloody nature of Islamic history, and with Islamic terrorism today. Of course, other religions have had their share of violence as well, but Islam seems to stand out in this regard, despite what the popular media says. Committing an evil act in the name of Christianity can only be done by essentially contradicting the central commandment of Christianity to love God and to love other people. But if morality is not directly linked to the ground of reality, it can be reasonably ignored as long as one is doing so in the name of the ground of reality. If murder is not intrinsically bad, then if you can serve God by committing murder, there's really no reason why you shouldn't.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)


Pogo said...

Wonderful post.

Speaker for the Dead said...

How do you deal with cases such as that of the lying spirit in 1 Kings 22?

Jim S. said...

Hi Speaker. I would say, first, that the description of a lying spirit being sent down to the false prophets to deceive the king is a parable. The prophet Micaiah is telling a story about all of these prophets telling falsehoods to the king, and the "lying spirit" imagery is just meant to show that the claims of the false prophets are false.

I would say, second, that even if we ignore this, God is not the agent responsible for the lie in 1 Kings 22, as is the case in the Quranic texts mentioned. This of course leads to the further objection that God is still a party to the lie, but this is really just the problem of evil under a different name. If God allows someone to perform an evil act, and uses that act to bring out a counter-balancing good, then isn't he responsible for the evilness of the act, albeit not directly? That's a bigger issue than what I'm addressing in this post, though.

Anonymous said...

Your knowledge of Islam, as you so aptly put it, is limited. Limited indeed my friend.

I suggest you consult any basic Islamic text dealing with the '99 Beautiful Names of Allah' to learn that in Islam, Allah literally is Justice, is Mercy etc. Thus in Islam, morality is grounded in Allah's very nature. He does not transcend morality, as you seem to suggest, for this would amount to transcending His own Essence.

Back to the drawing board in your attempt to discredit Islam pal...

Jim S. said...

Well, thanks for the comment, even though it's pretty condescending. I'm well aware of the 99 names of God in Islamic theology, and about God's identity with justice, etc. Unfortunately, Muslim theologians and philosophers have not drawn the same conclusions from this that you have. If God simply is justice, then whatever God does is just. So "just" is defined as whatever God decides to do, and according to Islam, God is not constrained by anything, he is pure act. So the laws of morality, not to mention the laws of rationality, are whatever God wants them to be.

This is the almost universal position of Muslim theologians and philosophers throughout Islamic history, at least since the 11th century. The only main school that thought otherwise were the Mu'tazilites, who thought that the philosophy of the Greeks, Romans, and Christians should play a role in the development of Islamic philosophy and theology. They didn't last long because the Western concept of God is difficult to reconcile with the words of the Qur'an.

The reason you've erred is that you have taken the claim that God is "just" in isolation from other Islamic doctrines. According to Islam, God is not constrained by anything, including morality. This concept is imbued throughout Middle Eastern culture. You could have made your case stronger by pointing out that man is created in God's image in Islam as well as Judaism and Christianity. But they haven't taken that the same way the Jews and Christians have, that we share in God's morality and rationality. As I wrote in the post, the view that God is completely transcendent -- transcending even our moral and rational categories -- is a core Islamic doctrine. You can find it in any work on Islamic philosophy, it's pretty much the starting point for all Islamic thought. That you're apparently unaware of this means that you don't have much credibility on the subject.

Anonymous said...

Good sir,

what is and what is not the "the Islamic' views is a complicated matter. but it seems to me you're not entirely correct about what it is. i say not entirely because the view you've mentioned in the OP is just one take on the issue in Islamic thought. but that's all it is, one among others. and it's only the view of a certain school of theologians, not philosophers. in the Islamic intellectual tradition, there's a strict distinction between two and they have had widely opposed views on central question (like the one you're post is about). so, when you say:

"According to Islam, God is not constrained by anything, including morality."

i ask: according to whose Islam? Ash'arite theologians, like al-Ghazali? well, that's true. but the Muslim philosophers, e.g., like Avicenna, think that's false. God is constrained by something i.e., His nature. And all truths, theoretical and practical, are ultimately rooted in that nature. So why in the world would one think what Ash'arite theologians say is 'the view of islam'?

Jim S. said...

Well, of course all world views are diverse, you're right. I pointed out in one of the comments, however, that the only school of thought in Islam that argued that God was constrained by rationality or morality was the Mu'tazilites, and they've been gone since the 11th century or so. The great Muslim philosophers, like Avicenna (Ibn Sina) were great because Christian Europe thought so. They were considered to be at the fringes of Islam if not out and out heretics by mainstream Muslims precisely because they gave such a high priority to the Greek, Roman, and Christian tradition which argued that God has a nature. Mainstream Islamic theology denied this specifically because it would mean that God would be constrained by his nature and God cannot be constrained by anything.

Anonymous said...

Good sir,

that the Mu'tazilites thought that, i grant. but that they were the ONLY school of thought in Islam that thought that, i deny. that's simply not true. again, islamic philosophers of various schools definitely held that as well. and they certainly can be categorized as a school of thought in Islam. further, there is also the Shia tradition in Islam. they doctrines are not only influenced by Mu'tazili thought, but, more importantly, they're also heavily influenced by Avicenna's philosophy, thanks to certain followers of his thought who were of that (Shi'i) background.

you then say Islamic philosophers were great because Christian Europe thought so. well, that's not at all true. sure, you're right about them being considered heretics by certain theologians, but two points should be made about that: first, who cares who the theologians (especially of the Sunni Ash'arite variety) think is a heretic or not. it just did not, (and does not) matter to the philosophers (and others who did not agree with them). the relation between authority and orthodoxy in Islam is not as it is in Christianity. you seem to assume that it is. so, one can then say that Shi'i Islam represents mainstream Islam just as much as Sunni Islam. second, if you were even remotely familiar with the post-Avicennian Islamic philosophical tradition, you would know that Avicenna is The Philosopher around which all discussions revolve. so you have both his supporters and his detractors (the latter were usually, again, philosophically minded theologians).

Jim S. said...

Sorry to take so long to respond. The Mu'tazilites were the last main school of thought to maintain those doctrines in Islam. Again, Islam is certainly diverse, looking at the differences between the Sunni and Shia schools; but these are both fatalistic, saying God does not and cannot have a nature, since if he did it would limit his power and God's power cannot be circumscribed. This is a central doctrine of Islam.

I am familiar with medieval Islamic philosophy and its reception among Muslims at the time, not so much with its current reception. So I do know that the Aristotelians were sometimes tolerated, sometimes not tolerated, but almost never held in high regard. Al-Ghazali ended his Incoherence of the Philosophers by asking, since the philosophers contradicted fundamental Islamic doctrine, whether they should have their heads cut off. He answered, in effect, "Well, I'll leave that to my readers." You don't see that in the writings of Jewish or Christian theology or philosophy.

Anonymous said...

Good sir,

"The Mu'tazilites were the last main school of thought to maintain those doctrines in Islam."

Again, not quite. The Islamic philosophers, as well as Twelver Shi'i theologians (who were influenced by them and the Mu'tazilites) have always maintained it.

"[...]Sunni and Shia schools; but these are both fatalistic, saying God does not and cannot have a nature, since if he did it would limit his power and God's power cannot be circumscribed. This is a central doctrine of Islam."

Sunnism of the Ash'arite type is certainly fatalistic. But mainstream Twelver Shi'ism is certainly not. So you have to specify just "which or whose Islam" you're talking about.

"So I do know that the Aristotelians were sometimes tolerated, sometimes not tolerated, but almost never held in high regard."

This isn't true either. Sure they weren't held in high regard by Ash'arite theologians and jurists. But even this needs major qualifications, especially if you know anything about the post-Avicennian tradition.

"Al-Ghazali ended his Incoherence of the Philosophers by asking, since the philosophers contradicted fundamental Islamic doctrine, whether they should have their heads cut off. He answered, in effect, "Well, I'll leave that to my readers."

Ghazali's opinion is was that, one opinion, and not even a major one. That's why after his death, philosophy flourished (in the eastern lands of the Islamic world) even more so that it did during his time. Serious thinkers just did not take such pronouncements seriously. Again, you'd have to know something about the post-Avicennian tradition to really get a sense of what i'm talking about it.

"You don't see that in the writings of Jewish or Christian theology or philosophy."

Sure you do. The official Condemnations of the various doctrines of the philosophers, among which were those of St.Thomas. In any case, what does it matter. It's irrelevant.