What we can’t know

About the theist four-step again – I’ve been pondering the fact that 2) and 4) are a tricky combination. What would it even mean to have reliable knowledge that ‘God’ is ‘good’? It’s not really even possible to know that. It’s possible to believe it in a sense, but not to know it.

It’s possible to imagine having reliable knowledge that God exists – and that God is all-powerful and all-knowing, and that it wants us to do certain things and not others. But that it is good? No. Because that’s not knowable in principle.

Imagine it. There’s been some global mass revelation that puts it all beyond question. Included in that is God’s own declaration that God is good. And – it tells us to torture animals for fun, to torture small children, to bully women, to exploit people in proportion to the darkness (or lightness) of their skin; to lie, to cheat, to destroy, to cause pain and harm in every way we can. Would we ‘know’ all that was good? No. We only know God is good if the way God is good – even if God declares its own goodness itself – is what we ourselves think is good; we can’t know it if God’s idea of good turns out to be our idea of horrible wickedness. So all we can know about that is what we already know. (This is just ‘Euthyphro’ again.) If it turned out not to be what we already know, but something that pulled in the opposite direction – we wouldn’t know that; we would know we had awakened into a nightmare.

And even if God told us ‘good’ rules, we still wouldn’t know, because the principle itself is dubious – because it’s external and hierarchical and authoritarian, and thus not good enough.

We could be robots – and have a set of instructions, which produce the least harm possible in any given situation. That wouldn’t make us ‘good.’ It would just be an algorithm. Good isn’t a meaningful concept unless it’s internal to us, unless it belongs to us rather than being an externally imposed command, like ‘turn right at the next stoplight.’

It has to be internal, and also emotional* to mean anything – to match what we mean by the word. The word refers to human motivations and intentions and feelings. An external recipe or blueprint just doesn’t do that.

From that point of view, the whole idea that morality is linked to God is really very fundamentally mistaken, so fundamentally that believers probably agree, whether they know it or not. It’s ‘good’ that they really believe in, not ‘God.’ (If God turned out to be real and also self-evidently cruel and wicked, they would [perforce] believe in God’s reality but not its goodness; they would no longer ‘believe in’ God in the sense that mingles loyalty with cognitive acceptance. That’s a very flat assertion – but I think it’s fair. I pay believers the compliment of thinking they do pretty much universally associate God with goodness.)

Imagine a reliably knowable God whose rules are not incidentally or incompletely cruel but thoroughly and systematically so – the usual ‘God’ in every other way, but sadistic and merciless. Would anyone love that God? No – not even Pat Robertson would. (Fred Phelps might.)

It’s not God that believers love – it’s ‘good.’ It’s Good, and they just conflate that with God.

What a better happier more peaceful world it would be if we all actually understood this. Not perfect, but better.

*Hume’s ‘Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.’

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