Tom Gilson

On Analyzing the Ultimate Good

With reference to your comment this evening, Dave, please correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the problem with finding some ultimate definition of good is the same for all systems, Martin’s included (see the entire thread here for context on that). That is, if one wants to explain what makes a good, one must analyze it in terms of some more fundamental good b. But what makes b a good thing for a to have? Doesn’t that need explaining, too? The answer is, b has some good-making characteristic c. What then makes c a good-making characteristic? Of course it’s d; without c‘s being characterized by d, how could we possibly think of c‘s being good? Okay, then, what makes d good? Well, that’s easy; we know that d is good because it exhibits e. But e‘s goodness needs explaining too! No problem there: e‘s goodness can be analyzed in that it is marked by f, and we know that f in turn is good because of g

Well, enough already!

There has to be a point of beginning, or of ending, however you want to view the infinite regress represented there. I think actually we must think of it as a point of beginning, because if there is no beginning to the chain, then there is no chain. Beyond that beginning—call it y, for convenience—there is no more fundamental good z, for y really is the beginning. So necessarily, y‘s goodness cannot be analyzed in terms of anything whatever.

Could there be a beginning point like that? If not, then how could there be a chain at all, and how could there be any coherent way to describe anything whatever as good? So then what kind of being could suffice for such a beginning point? I’m quite sure it is God himself. Martin finds that “incoherent.” What then? If not God, what alternative would he propose? The Big Bang? That’s the only other ultimate beginning point I know of that anyone speaks of at all clearly (setting aside the question, what caused that?). Shall we take it that the Big Bang is characterized by that ultimate goodness in which all other goodness finds its source and explanation? Martin, is that your position?

But wait, there could be yet one other option for the ultimate beginning point: the awakening of sentience in organic life. Or perhaps (I’m really trying to work with this now) it is sentience itself. Sentience, with its accompanying desires, wants, needs, satisfactions, pleasures, pains, and so forth, is the ultimate beginning point of goodness, by reference to which all other goodness is described and explained. Or if not sentience, then the original organisms exhibiting sentience. Martin, is that your position?

One further possibility: does the original source of goodness reside actually in those desires, wants, needs, satisfactions, pleasures, pains, etc.? Are these the beginning of the chain that makes all other good, good?

I think it would be salutary for us to turn the tables on you, Martin. You have repeatedly insisted on us providing some analysis of that which cannot be analyzed, God himself. How about it if you try it on your own position. What is good? Please define it without reference to some other putative good that will in turn need defining; please define it in ultimate terms such that when we have your definition, we have it in its full and final form. Thank you.

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53 thoughts on “On Analyzing the Ultimate Good

  1. Hi Tom and Dave

    Finally there was success in the other thread, see my last comment there.

    The issue is not over “ultimate meaning” (whatever that means) but explaining the actual usage of good and bad in the real world, it’s pragmatic sense or meaning.

    In this sense we can start by noting aspects of this, making just indicative points such as
    good prescribes, bad proscribes;
    good is action-guiding, bad is action-avoiding;
    good is commendationary, bad is condemnationary;
    and so on and so forth.

    My complaint about your original definition of ethical good “Good is God’s nature” was that it fails to mean anything in reference to such usage of good, when we are concerned about moral behaviour. You now have presented a definition that does make sense, I quote you from your last thread:

    “Good is that which conforms to the character of God.”

    That is something we can discuss, I agree that it does have some relevant meaning in terms of a definition, mapping, or explanation of the term. That is really all that needs to be said for now. Which does make the majority of the above post rather irrelevant.

    Anyway for further clarifications there are other notion of good that are meaningful, for example:

    The deontologists says “Good is conformance with one’s duties” where duties could be based on a universal categorical imperative, say.

    Utilitarians based a theory of good on a theory of right, says things such as “the right act is the act that maximises utility” where what is good is the utility such as pleasure, happiness, satisfaction, flourishing, well-being and so on.

    Areticists say that good is having a virtuous character and so on.

    Egoists say it is good to pursue one’s narrow self interest.

    Evolutionary ethicists say good is in the genes.

    Now there are questions and challenges to make to all these and other such claims. The definitions above, as is the one you recently presented, are amenable to such equivalent analysis, whereas your first one failed. That was the whole point of that other thread.

    Success at last.

  2. Yes, at last. Two full days after it was first spoken. If I’d known that was what you were looking for, and that you wouldn’t regard it as exemplifying the genetic fallacy, or failing to answer the question, or meaningless, I would have repeated it oftener. I’m sure Dave and Holo would have, too.

    Apparently you think “character” provides more of “a relevant specific” than “nature.” But as I said, where “character” is different from “nature” is that it focuses one’s attention more on the ethical aspects, whereas “nature” is a broader term. I would have thought that when we used “nature” in the context of this discussion, you would have understood we were referring to the ethical aspect all along. After all, when I fleshed the term out with examples, those examples were in the ethical realm. Apparently I was wrong to think that.

  3. BTW, I spent altogether too much time on this yesterday! My fault completely. I won’t be posting as quickly or as frequently today; other stuff to keep on top of.

  4. And I hope you do not think “success at last” means we can ignore the patterns of discussion I have identified on the earlier thread, which I have asked you to acknowledge. My 5:45 am comment above seems to identify another pattern besides. I said just now I would be posting less often today, because of other things I need to attend to. I will also be exercising judgment as to whether I think it will have any possibility of doing any good or not.

  5. Given your distinction over nature and character nature referring to generic good and character referring to moral good respectively, the issue was that merely declaring something as a value without it having the features of any value-bearer made no sense. So now we have two versions

    “Apparently you think “character” provides more of “a relevant specific” than “nature.” But as I said, where “character” is different from “nature” is that it focuses one’s attention more on the ethical aspects, whereas “nature” is a broader term. I would have thought that when we used “nature” in the context of this discussion, you would have understood we were referring to the ethical aspect all along.”

    Generic good is conformance with God’s nature
    Moral good is conformance with God’s character.

    “I would have thought that when we used “nature” in the context of this discussion, you would have understood we were referring to the ethical aspect all along.”
    It was not clear at all but now it is.

    Either way this was not what you started out arguing but like you I have limited to explore that further.

    There is still an issue here (well more than one) but I will take this to the new post.

  6. Tom:

    Look, I’m not going to continue beating Martin’s imposition upon moral discourse to fit his a priori atheism, his ignorance of certain issues and terms (including not properly applying non sequitur), his historicist fallacy, and his bald-faced lies, etc…

    … unless, of course, he continues employing such nonsense without acknowledgment.

    But let’s all be honest on this “success” thing (which you correctly caught in comment #4 above): I don’t think “abundantly clear” captures your over-and-over-and-over efforts and clarity on a point that, presto-chango, all of a sudden he “gets.”

    While I’m all for leaving a door open for Martin to save face, the conversation none the less drips of manipulation on his part. Grace and common shared humanity notwithstanding, for him these two terms are, at best, questionable… and so I’m left viewing a track that doesn’t bode well for trust in honest discourse.

    Here’s an example where Martin opens another can of worms: “The issue is not over “ultimate meaning” (whatever that means) but explaining the actual usage of good and bad in the real world, it’s pragmatic sense or meaning.” Any critical thinker should be able to see through such a ruse and setting the stage to his own selfish advantage of relegating (somewhat condescendingly) ultimate meaning to the side (this point was covered!) in order to push to pragmatism… we all know how pragmatic it was to reduce Terri Schiavo to a non-human and to murder her. And we all know how pragmatic it is to elevate the evil of homosexual acts to something “normal.” So, who or what determines what is “pragmatic”? It would be (and is) a deadly world if Martin does so.

    One of the underlying problems with Martin’s approach is not first getting straight what a human being is, what morality means in terms of human nature, and what associated issues related to that are about. Instead, he plunges into “almost” operational definitions of terms which are then thrown into a moral discourse or at moral philosophy (the “pragmatism” thing is a dead give away) in a barrage of examples (for which I question his competence)… followed by the predictable call for pragmatism over ultimate concerns… a pragmatism based on personal whims (his take on homosexuality or God as nothing but an “it” myth, for example).

  7. Tom:

    Further, one of the underlying problems with Martin’s approach is not first getting straight what a human being is, what morality means in terms of human nature, and what associated issues related to that are about. Instead, he plunges into “almost” operational definitions of terms which are then thrown into a moral discourse or at moral philosophy (the “pragmatism” thing is a dead give away) in a barrage of examples (for which I question his competence)… followed by the predictable call for pragmatism over ultimate concerns… a pragmatism based on personal whims (his take on homosexuality or God as nothing but an “it” myth, for example).

    All one has to do is take a quick look at what’s out there on any given day. I’m not drawing this into a political discussion, just giving two quick examples that reflect Martin’s approach (HT: pseudopolymath): [1] Kagan arguing that it’s important to start from your conclusion and derive a solid argument afterwards (http://voices.washingtonpost.com/postpartisan/2010/05/kagan_and_the_stupid_liberals.html); [2] pragmatic means without principles (http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0510/37562.html).

    This is the kind of ubiquitous non-thinking out there… and I may be swayed to view Martin as a victim of inhaling foul ideas (Desirism, pragmatism), and then promulgating them as, well, as “gospel” truth.

  8. Martin, my question to you at the end of this post remains the operative question. If we don’t know what’s actually good, then we don’t know what’s practically or pragmatically good; for pragmatically good always means good for some purpose or effect x, and we have to know whether x is good.

    The same applies (though I won’t bother with the full analysis, I think you can do it for yourself) to approaches like

    good prescribes, bad proscribes;
    good is action-guiding, bad is action-avoiding;
    good is commendationary, bad is condemnationary;
    and so on and so forth.

    Please define “good” for us with a full and final definition.

    Your turn.

  9. I just can’t take the credit Tom. Not even with the semanitic adjustment. Paragraph 4 of your post, Rising Toward Reality, includes the following;

    Christian ethical considerations cannot begin there, however, but must start with the character of God. God is eternal and infinite, and he is good. Hence reality at its deepest foundation is good. It’s not just a matter of how we act, it’s a matter of the way all reality is constituted.

    (bold in original)
    https://www.thinkingchristian.net/2010/05/rising-toward-reality/

    Good summary of the problem of defining “good”. But I think Martin is still a little confused about the issue.

  10. Martin:

    Upon some needed reflection, I’m going to pull back and apologize for my bellicose approach. That’s not to say, to echo Dave, that you’re not confused: fear of watering down my apology (which is not my intention) notwithstanding, you still need to face up to the real problems of your position(s)… and some of what you’ve asserted. Hopefully, by my pulling back you’ll have space to reflect. So, for your sake, I remove myself from the discussion.

  11. Tom

    “If we don’t know what’s actually good, then we don’t know what’s practically or pragmatically good; for pragmatically good always means good for some purpose or effect x, and we have to know whether x is good.”
    Oh dear. I was not using pragmatic that way, I focusing on how the term good is used and that any explanation of what good means had to somehow account for how it is used, which your original definition “good is God’s nature” completely misses, where as your new “good is what conform’s to God’s nature” at least can qualify as a candidate explanation. Lets leave it at that.

  12. “Please define “good” for us with a full and final definition.”
    There is no such thing as “ultimate good”, nor a full and final definition, like there is no such thing as an ultimate fact or an ultimate belief or an ultimate desire and to think there is for any of these is a mistake.

  13. Oh my. “There is no such thing as … an ultimate fact … and to think that there is … is a mistake.” Martin, you’ve stated that in what seem to be rather absolute terms. So, is that an ultimate fact?

  14. “Oh my. “There is no such thing as … an ultimate fact … and to think that there is … is a mistake.” Martin, you’ve stated that in what seem to be rather absolute terms. So, is that an ultimate fact?”
    No

  15. Okay, then, two follow-ons.

    First, if it’s not an ultimate fact, then with respect to its truth value (e.g.mostly true, nearly always true, absolutely true, etc.) what kind of fact is it, and how do you go about knowing when it is or is not true?

    Second, it seems to me, for reasons cited above, if you have no definition of “good” that is a full and final definition, then you have no way of knowing if anything is actually good.

  16. This thread is pretty uninteresting and not the reason I am on this blog. I have made those reasons clear and the important questions are on the new thread.

    Regardless:

    “First, if it’s not an ultimate fact, then with respect to its truth value (e.g.mostly true, nearly always true, absolutely true, etc.) what kind of fact is it, and how do you go about knowing when it is or is not true?”
    If what is not an ultimate fact? Your question is quite unclear and we are not talking about ultimate fact as used in the law, and, by extension in that sense only, in general discourse.

    “Second, it seems to me, for reasons cited above, if you have no definition of “good” that is a full and final definition, then you have no way of knowing if anything is actually good.”
    You have things upside down. It appears that full and final definitions have repeatedly failed to do the job required of them. They are metaphysically and epistemologically strange and odd. Since we can do without them, we have no need for recourse to them. Regardless, of course, people still offer their subjective definitions of a term. This debate is not about what people will agree to.

    I am rather concerned with actual usage of value terms (within which the following definition is tacit and made explicit by non-circular answers to why questions – that is not good->right->ought->good etc, replies) and value-laden terms, such as harm and murder, which have value built into them by definition.

    Captcha: Answered School !!!

    Good/Ought/right refers to reasons to act of the kind such as to keep or bring about the states of affairs in question.

  17. I thought this was the new thread. I guess you’re talking about this one. As to “This thread is pretty uninteresting,” that’s a person-relative statement. I think it’s fascinating the way, for example, you keep changing the vocabulary to “ultimate fact,” when I’ve been avoiding that terminology (other than quoting you) in my last questions to you, in view of its imprecision.

    You asked, “If what is not an ultimate fact?” Please re-read my comment 13, it’s right there for you. You’ve already answered it, and I was following through.

    I don’t have time right now to respond to the second half of your comment here; I’ll be back later.

  18. A quick additional response to your second half just occurred to me. I agree that full and final definitions, specifically regarding the good, have repeatedly failed to do the job required of them, in non-theistic contexts. Without an actually existing God to ground such definitions they cannot succeed.

  19. Tom

    You are funny sometimes. The full quote was “This thread is pretty uninteresting and not the reason I am on this blog”. Of course this is person-relative statement, it was intended that way!

    Anywho, “I think it’s fascinating the way, for example, you keep changing the vocabulary to “ultimate fact,” when I’ve been avoiding that terminology (other than quoting you) in my last questions to you, in view of its imprecision.”
    Um, you mean the title of this post was not “On Analysing the Ultimate Good”? Yes there is imprecision in the use of “ultimate” on this we agree.

    I am no sure what you are asking but the point is it is as absurd to ask what is the ultimate good as to ask what is the ultimate fact. As far as we know, in human psychology beliefs map to facts and desires map to value, and as it is nonsense to think that beliefs reduce to one single, final, ultimate belief, it is equal nonsense to think the desires reduce to one single, final, ultimate desire.

    If you disagree that this is not nonsense, and only if you want to, then please provide an argument but as I said my interests lie elsewhere.

    “I agree that full and final definitions, specifically regarding the good, have repeatedly failed to do the job required of them, in non-theistic contexts. Without an actually existing God to ground such definitions they cannot succeed.”
    More confusing assertions. Surely the introduction of the gods here make the issue more imprecise, opaque, obscure, intractable and confusing, rather than less?

    BTW like your new blog theme, just noting that comments previews overlap to the right-hand column.

  20. Holopupenko

    Thank you for your last comment. I think we can agree that debate between us has not and is not likely to be productive 🙂

    Lets see how Tom and I get on. Others can, of course, have a peanut gallery here and I will try only read Tom’s replies, especially given time limitations etc.

  21. Um, you mean the title of this post was not “On Analysing the Ultimate Good”? Yes there is imprecision in the use of “ultimate” on this we agree.

    Well, you got me on that. But I have been trying to be more precise.

    I am no sure what you are asking but the point is it is as absurd to ask what is the ultimate good as to ask what is the ultimate fact. As far as we know, in human psychology beliefs map to facts and desires map to value, and as it is nonsense to think that beliefs reduce to one single, final, ultimate belief, it is equal nonsense to think the desires reduce to one single, final, ultimate desire.

    You’re begging the question here by making reference to beliefs, desires, etc., when the question is whether anything is actually good in the final analysis. It is absurd to speak of the good without having some reference. Good according to what? A gun is good. A fire is good. Sex is good. Mosquitoes are good. Rain is good. Food is good. But you can see that there are ways in which any of those could be true or false, depending on what it is for which they are being employed.

    So, fires are good for producing heat, and heat is good. But for what is heat good? Not for preserving food; for that, cold is good. But heat is good for comfort. For what is comfort good? Well, not for motivating change when change is really necessary. For that, discomfort is good. So, for what is “necessary” change good? Then we have to ask, necessary for what purpose? For motivating secret police to get out and do their job of kicking down doors? That’s usually not good, though even for that one could devise a scenario for which it could be productive of good (it would take some creativity, but it could be done). Maybe instead change is being motivated in that it gets some lazy boy out of the house looking for a job. Is that good? That depends. Maybe the boy’s training is for web design. For whom will he design this website? Barnesandnoble.com or some drug, gambling, or porn site? Maybe it would be better for the world if he didn’t get a job; but then, there are people who don’t know whether gambling or porn or drugs are good or not. Maybe he would go out and get a job with the secret police kicking in doors. So do we know yet whether fires (the topic with which I started the chain in this paragraph) are good? No.

    More to the point, do we know whether desires represent, or speak to, or are in some way indicative of some good? We must ask, for what are they good? Of course it’s nonsense to speak of desires reducing to one single, final, ultimate desire, but I didn’t speak of it. What I said was, you can’t begin to speak coherently of anything being actually good unless you can trace it to something that you can really bank on as being actually good.

    What is my argument that there is some such good? As I told you earlier, all you have to do is click on the “evidences” topic in the sidebar to find many of my arguments for a good God. But additionally, my argument is that absent a good God, there is no coherent basis for calling anything good at all. The word is smoke.

    Don’t miss the corollary to that, by the way: there’s no coherent basis in that case for calling anything bad, either. There is no coherent way to call Pol Pot’s killing fields bad in any sense whatsoever that would hold up to analysis.

    (Not sure what to do about bleed-over into the right column. It only happens with some browsers. My son the web whiz will have to solve it for me when he gets time.)

  22. Tom

    “You’re begging the question here by making reference to beliefs, desires, etc.,”
    This was not begging he question but to show the relation between belief and desires on the one hand and facts and values on the other and how they work together.

    “when the question is whether anything is actually good in the final analysis.”
    The above is the basis of such a “final” analysis.

    “It is absurd to speak of the good without having some reference. ”
    Which is my point exactly.

    “…So do we know yet whether fires (the topic with which I started the chain in this paragraph) are good? No.”
    Fires are not intrinsically good or bad to wonder that is to ask the wrong question, their value status varies according to the relevant reference, as in the framework I presented in the last comment.

    “More to the point, do we know whether desires represent, or speak to, or are in some way indicative of some good?”
    Yes

    “We must ask, for what are they good?”
    For the beings that have them of course! What else?

    “Of course it’s nonsense to speak of desires reducing to one single, final, ultimate desire, but I didn’t speak of it. ”
    But that then contradicts the claim to need an ultimate good!

    “my argument is that absent a good God, there is no coherent basis for calling anything good at all”
    How does adding a god, good or not, help? At a minimum, this is just another being with dispositions, beliefs and desires, there is no reason for its values to take precedence over any others, assuming one could get over the insurmountable obstacles over establishing what its values are, and there is overwhelming evidence that choosing such a path has been repeatedly detrimental to the world.

    So, it appears, that you do want to argue over some notion of “ultimate good”. In this case my key question that I think needs answering, is that you need to show how such a concept is remotely beneficial and not detrimental to determining what is actually good in the real world and is not metaphysically and epistemically queer.

    To date the framework I proposed makes far more sense that anything you have yet written.

  23. Martin,

    As I look at this and your comment this evening on the other thread, I find that I have arrived at a point I rarely reach. It’s a point of letting go of the discussion because I don’t see any good purpose to continuing it. I have given up hope that we might make progress together in it. I’m not giving up the argument, but I am giving up on the argument.

    Here’s what I mean by that. I have tried to explain my position to you, and my view on your position, and I think I have been clear. But you’re not understanding what I’m writing; in fact, you’re not even coming close. Your comment here on fires focuses on the fire and not on the point I was illustrating with it. Your point on desires misses all that I said on them in my last comment. Your response, “But that then contradicts the claim to need an ultimate good!” is incomprehensible to me in this context: I don’t know (nor did you bother to explain) just how it does so. Your question regarding “how does adding a god, good or bad, help?” misses the point that we are speaking in terms of a theistic framework: not whether such a framework is correct, but what it means to be within such a framework even if hypothetically. And of course I want to discuss an ultimate good, for reasons I have very extensively laid out, so I don’t see why that seems such a revelation to you.

    So either I’m a terrible communicator or you’re not being very effective as a reader/responder. Either way, we have reached a point where it’s clear that this exercise is accomplishing nothing. You may have the last word in response to this. Chances are (depending on what you say, of course) I will leave it at that.

    As I said earlier, I am not conceding the argument; I am instead saying that I have lost hope in our advancing it toward a fruitful end. I’m sorry and more than a little bit disappointed, but that conclusion has become inescapable.

  24. Hi Tom

    First I have slowed down our correspondence to a couple of times a day. Ironically in our debate last week I forgot to go to the Alpha Course! Which I will attend tonight, and note that debate there is utterly different to anything I have had on this and other Christian blogs, I have yet to find out why this is.

    In discussing ethics, the existence of god can easily be granted and I grant it and I do understand what you mean by operating within a theistic framework, but (a) yours is not the only one so how do we choose (b) the issue to resolve (a) is not to operate within a theistic nor non-theistic framework but a common epistemic framework available to everyone regardless of theistic beliefs, one that is a non theistic-relative and non-cultural framework. That is the space I am coming from and from which your approach is externally incoherent – both rejecting moral relativism whilst at the same time requiring it based on your theistic moral relativism.

    Anyway I think I indicated that this thread would not be productive, since I am not here to argue you out of your god beliefs (and vice versa?) and am not interested in doing so (and vice versa?), yet the way you approach this topic requires one to do that. When it comes to ethics, it is ethics I am interested in and only secondarily theism to the degree this affects ethics. Where you appear to be coming from is necessarily making them fully interdependent, assuming that you cannot have one without the other. I find that a questionable position and am questioning it.

    Unless one is willing to engage in a debate where one suspends belief in one’s assumptions so that they can be discussed then there can be no fruitful discussion. On this, at least, we agree.

    To the next time, if there is one. 🙂

    BTW your son has fixed things in Chrome. Well done. I note there is not currently a list of recent comments in the right hand column, as there was. Dunno if that is by design.

  25. Martin, thanks for the note on the fix in Chrome. The recent comments list is awaiting him doing another repair: it tries to squash the entire comment into one horizontal line, so it’s unreadable.

    One final note on, “On this, at least, we agree.” The difficulty here has not been inability to suspend beliefs in assumptions. The difficulty has been, as I wrote last time, that what I write, I am apparently not writing in such a manner that you can respond to what I’m actually thinking. You have kept responding to something else, not to what I wrote (or at least intended), but as if to something quite different from what I have written. Between my mind and my words and your reading and your response, there has been a frequent breakdown of communication and/or understanding. If the debate were able to move forward in such a way that we were actually responding to the other person, it could have moved forward still further.

  26. Well Tom I will leave with the following thought.

    Looking at what there is in common, as opposed to the distinction I made previously, what I am learning from the Alpha course and from various blogs such as yours, is that – and I do not mean this in an insulting fashion, it is just an observation – such a theistic world-view is upside down, inside out and back to front to any remotely plausible world-view I could try on for size. (Note that not all theistic world-views are like this, but the ones you and Alpha propounds are).

    I can do two things with such an observation.

    One is trying to get back from not assuming a world-view and finding what anyone, regardless of world-view, has in common that leads me to the rational and empirical grounds within which we all operate, but it seems to be impossible to get there, given your specifically theistic type of world-view, as it does not allow you to do so and makes, from such a perspective, all your claims inevitably question begging.

    The other is to dis-regard plausibility, along with confirmation theory and inferences to the best explanations and try on a theistic-type of world-view, such as you propound, for size. However that still fails, as removing the presumed rational and empirical grounds, anything goes and referring either to my long rejected Orthodox Jewish upbringing or my esrtwhile interest in Theravada Buddhism and in Taoism, I still end up with a radically different world-views to yours. None are remotely the same as yours or Alpha’s. And, quite frankly, granted some “higher” power, energy or force, all these others appear more coherent and ethical than yours (and Buddhism/Taoism better than Judaism/Kabbalah, if you want a ranking). And now there are no empirical and rational grounds to choose between these radically opposed “theistic” (obviously Taoism/Buddhism rejects a deity but you know what I mean) frameworks, so the selection of one framework versus another is entirely relative and subjective.

    So long and thanks for the fish!

  27. With reference to your comment this evening, Dave, please correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the problem with finding some ultimate definition of good is the same for all systems,[…]

    I may not be able to define “the good”, but “I know it when I see it”. (Paraphrase of Justice Potter Stewart)

    Martin has suggested that we put aside our “worldviews” and approach the issue free from “the rational and empirical grounds within which we all operate.” I have some difficulty with this suggestion for the simple reason that his reliance on “the rational and empirical grounds within which we all operate” is, itself, an assumption about how we acquire knowledge. Both ‘rationalism’ and ‘empiricism’ have suffered setbacks in the sense that ‘rationalism’ is not supported empirically and ‘empiricism’ is self defeating.

    In my own case it was the question of ‘justice’ which led me to my epiphany. “What is ‘justice’?” is another of those problematic Socratic questions. We all know that some things are “just” in the sense of “good, right, and proper” and that other things are “unjust” as in “wicked, wrong, and improper” but itemising and defining them is difficult, if not impossible. It is precisely this uncertainty which is exploited by the proponents of situational ethics and subjectivism.

    The fault of the great mass of logicians is not that they bring out a false result, or, in other words, are not logicians at all. Their fault is that by an inevitable psychological habit they tend to forget that there are two parts of a logical process–the first the choosing of an assumption, and the second the arguing upon it; and humanity, if it devotes itself too persistently to the study of sound reasoning, has a certain tendency to lose the faculty of sound assumption.
    G. K. Chesteron, ”Carlyle”

    Chesterton’s point is that there are assumptions “all the way down”.

    Rationalism “assumes” that human reason is capable, through some mysterious process, of distinguishing the true from the false, and empiricism “assumes” that human perception, through some mysterious process, somehow corresponds to reality. I suspect that there is another layer to reality, that layer upon which we perceive “the good, the true, and the beautiful” which transcends the natural world we perceive with our senses. The bare fact that we have the capacity to reason (use immaterial minds to know things) is evidence that something transcends the material world. So, which “assumption” is able to account for the natural world and the fact that we have minds which transcend the natural world?

    Pascal considered this question in response to the empiricism of Descartes. How can we be certain of anything? Unless we know our origin then we cannot know our perception has any correspondence with “reality”. Yet we have a natural intuition that guides our actions and beliefs as we journey through our lives. Even the most sceptical of sceptics will hold some things to be true even if it is the incoherent belief that we cannot know the truth.

    Now this natural intuition is not a convincing proof of their truth; since, having no certainty, apart from faith, whether man was created by a good God, or by a wicked demon, or by chance, it is doubtful whether these principles given to us are true, or false, or uncertain, according to our origin.
    Pascal, “Pensees”, frag. 434

    Where we come from informs us of where we are going, it tells us if we can trust our senses and our reason. Pascal asserts that there is only one origin which provides us with the trust in our faculties of reason and perception that we, as rational beings, need to have and upon which we act. His argument is that even the most dogmatic sceptic needs and acts upon the assumption that human reason and perception are a valid reflection of true reality.

    What, then, shall man do in this state? Shall he doubt everything? Shall he doubt whether he is awake, whether he is being pinched, or whether he is being burned? Shall he doubt whether he doubts? Shall he doubt whether he exists? We cannot go so far as that; and I lay it down as a fact that there never has been a real complete sceptic. Nature sustains our feeble reason and prevents it raving to this extent.
    Pascal, “Pensees”, frag. 434

    Martin, to his credit, declaims subjectivism, but this rejection of subjectivism is not based upon any sound philosophy, but upon a natural inclination. His philosophy necessarily leads to subjectivism, as the theories of the proponents of such philosophy abundantly demonstrate. Even the proponents of subjective philosophies cannot act the part they proclaim to their disciples. They will assert objective standards of good and truth which, by the definition of their very own philosophy, are nothing more than subjective preference. Without a philosophical leg to stand on they will dogmatically proclaim the very “Truth” which they deny.

  28. By gosh I guess I’m not the first person to think this (what a surprise)

    I was surfing for images and found this little tidbit from Thomas Aquinas “Summa Thologica” which more or less covers the bases.

    I. The Text (ST I.2.3c):

    “The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things. Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But “more” and “less” are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being, as it is written in Metaph. ii. Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus; as fire, which is the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things. Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God.”

    II. The Argument in Syllogistic Format:

    P1A: If a perfection, P, is predicated “more” or “less” of things (p), then P exists at its maximum (m).
    P2A: Being, Truth, Goodness, etc. are perfections, P, that are predicated “more” or “less” of things (p).
    CA: Therefore, Being, Truth, Goodness, etc., are perfections, P, that exist at their maximum (m).

    P1B: If a perfection, P, exists at its maximum (m), then P is the cause of all perfections in that genus (c).
    P2B: Being, Truth, Goodness, etc., are perfections, P, that exist at their maximum (m).
    CB: Therefore, there is a cause of Being, Truth, Goodness, etc.–this is what we call God (c).

    http://iteadthomam.blogspot.com/2010/02/fourth-way-in-syllogistic-format.html

  29. Dave

    This Thomist Fourth Way assumes something like Platonic Idealism with the idea of maximums and perfection. This is not required at for “more” or “less” and so none of his reasoning follows. Indeed the assumption of perfectability is very suspect, not self-evident and not needed.

    Compare the A-Theory and B-Theory of time.

  30. Dave

    I think you are missing my point.

    What I meant was avoiding worldview distortions (from any side) in the sense of arguing by assuming provisional or otherwise answers but instead focusing, orthogonally if you like, on the minimal possible set of methods we all have to use to get by in this world.

    For example, mathematicians debate the basis or foundations of mathematics, but whether they are a realist or irrealist about those foundations, they still balance their cheque books the same way (that is use the same method regardless).

  31. Hi Martin

    Perhaps it is you who misconstrues my point. I am saying that there is no such thing as a viewpoint free of “worldview distortions.” The methods we choose and the range of methods we consider acceptable are constrained by our worldviews. You appear to assume that a reductionist method will provide sufficient guidance as you traverse this experience we call life. I put it to you that this is not the “right angle” you seek. There is more to life than method.

    “How do we know that, if we made a theory which focuses its attention on phenomena we disregard and disregards some of the phenomena now commanding our attention, that we could not build another theory which has little in common with the present one but which, nevertheless, explains just as many phenomena as the present theory?” It has to be admitted that we have no definite evidence that there is no such theory.

    http://peccatte.karefil.com/PhiMathsTextes/UnreasonableWigner.html

    We have the illusion that science has answers to most of our questions, but this is not so. From the earliest of times man must have pondered over what Truth, Beauty, and Justice are. But so far as I can see science has contributed nothing to the answers, nor does it seem to me that science will do much in the near future. So long as we use a mathematics in which the whole is the sum of the parts we are not likely to have mathematics as a major tool in examining these famous three questions.

    http://www-lmmb.ncifcrf.gov/~toms/Hamming.unreasonable.html

  32. Dave

    Again you are pondering answers first, whereas what we all have in common are methods in order to negotiate reality. In a sense, these are perpendicular to each other. Now we each have additional methods not used or available to the other, I was trying to focus on the ones we do have in common, and further I was not specifically referring to science.

    Your quotes seem irrelevant to my point.

  33. Pleease, we are talking about a shared minimal basis to communicate, if you need to have these defined you don’t know what you are talking about. How can you hold a rational conversation without basic logic and basic empiricism? You don’t need to have these defined to safely cross the road do you?

    If you cannot, that is fine by me, but I have no wish wasting my time talking to someone like that.

  34. As I said, good luck, Martin. Ducking the question won’t get you there. If I were Dave, I would certainly insist on “basic empiricism” being defined. It could mean so many different things. Some of them are even epistemically responsible.

  35. Hi Martin

    Please consider me a child in these matters… humour me and hold my metaphorical hand as we cross this street. Your definitions of logic and empiricism may be unique to yourself. Certainly they seem a little obscure to me.

  36. Very funny, I am not playing any silly stupid semantic games with someone who apparently needs such things defined before they can wear clothes, cross the road safely, eat food civilly in the company of others, know how to use a toilet or use a computer to access internet blogs.

  37. Martin,

    You would be welcome to try again with a different kind of response, more in keeping with what Dave actually said about why it would be good to define your terms, and more in keeping with the blog discussion policy, too.

  38. In which case I take back my last comment, which I hope you see anyway was an amusing way of stating that point.

  39. I still think it would be in your own best interests to try again with another response to Dave, actually paying attention to why he said careful definitions are needed here. To use care with terms is not a sign of philosophical childhood, but of maturity.

  40. After reading the comments above I can’t help thinking I’ve missed something here. Nothing important I trust.

    ReCaptcha \fre- Reproves\

  41. No Dave you touched no nerve at all.

    that comment” referred to a humorous comment removed by Tom due to him, temporarily as it now happens, moderating another comment for which there was no reason to do so.

    CAPTCHA: “reprises ordered”

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