Can pantheism explain morality? And, the fight-or-flight response and the Fall
Published: 13 May 2012 (GMT+10)
Fred K. from the United States writes:
I read with interest your response to the Euthyphro dilemma. I was a Christian for 30 years, and am now a Pantheist. If I could attribute any one cause of my “slide” into Pantheism, I would say that it would be this dilemma. Of course, you must realize that the answer you give to the dilemma is Aquinas’ classic answer. But I’m not sure you realize the full implications of it. If goodness is attributed to God’s “nature,” then goodness can no longer be an act of God’s will. It is as though God is divided into two parts, a “willing” part that makes decisions and acts, and a “nature” which He cannot control. In a sense you are still on one horn of the dilemma. God’s personhood which wills and acts is now subject to, and therefore “lower” than God’s nature, which is immutable. Aquinas got around this by saying God’s nature is the exact same thing as God. But if God is a natural thing, why not say that God IS the universe? This is the position I eventually came around to. I believe goodness is woven into the fabric of the universe (much as you believe that goodness is woven into God’s nature) in the same way mathematics is.[>
CMI’s Dr Jonathan Sarfati responds:
Dear Mr K.
Thank you for writing. I presume you are referring to What is ‘good’? (Answering the Euthyphro Dilemma) I honestly can’t see how pantheism solves any problem, since this basically denies a distinction between good and evil.
A nature of a thing is the set of propositions that describe that thing, or the set of its attributes. I fail to see why it’s a problem that God’s actions are the result of His attributes such as perfect goodness, and that His commandments flow out of this.
It seems that you have equivocated on the meaning of “nature”, to go from what God’s “nature” means, correctly defined as above, to God is a “natural” thing, which means nothing supernatural.
One problem is that the universe is not eternal (see If God created the universe, then who created God?). Another one is that there is clearly evil in the current universe, as well as violence and suffering. Thus pantheism normally subsumes good and evil into the universe.
Also, if God is identical to the universe, what is the point of this statement? How does this differ from “there is no God; the Cosmos is all there was, is and ever shall be” (Carl Sagan)? Giving the universe another name adds nothing to substance.
Fred K. then responded:
Thank you for responding so quickly. You are really making me think!
“it would be a problem if God was enslaved to something *outside* himself, but not a problem if his own set of attributes (nature) govern His actions and commandments.”
The problem I see is: how is it then that God has a free will? He has to do whatever is best, and cannot do anything else. As humans, we say that we have a nature and a will, because we can choose to do something that is against our nature: we can turn down that second helping of ice cream or resist sin. But God, it seems, has no choice. He is like a dog that will always wag its tail given the same circumstances. Aquinas recognized the problem, and said that although God had to do good when it was necessary, there were circumstances where a particular good response was non-necessary. I take this to be either a non-moral decision or a choice between equally good options. But do Aquinas’ non-necessary circumstances really exist? Are there really no non-moral choices for a Being that knows the complete outcome of any choice He makes? And if there were a choice between a number of equally good choices, how is choosing one an act of the will? This seems more choosing at random, which even a computer can do.
I had hoped not to give my own theory of Pantheist ethics, but since you are curious I’ll give it a go. I see ethical rules as basically paralleling mathematical rules. Just as the inequality 2<3 is true, true ethical statements are built into the fabric of the universe. The is/ought “problem” really isn’t a problem at all. We use such terminology all the time outside of ethics: Wood IS stronger than styrofoam, so we OUGHT to build chairs out of wood. Nobody gets hung up on whether this is a true statement or not. I agree with Sam Harris that moral decisions which maximize the well being of sentient beings are better than those that do not. This statement is as axiomatic as 2<3. I do not see a single source of good (such as a God or the universe): there is only better or worse. Things can only be good or bad in relation to other things: there has to be two sides of the equation. (Or to continue the analogy: the inequality-2<3; mercy is better than sacrifice) Certain actions are better than others, and we should strive to do the ones that are best.
Dr Sarfati replied again:
Hi again Fred
Sorry about the delay in replying. I wasn’t sure what point there was in continuing, and I have been away a lot on ministry.
As said with the Euthyphro dilemma and the omnipotence issue, God is not bound by anything outside himself, just by His own nature. As far as His creation is concerned, He is free to create as He pleases. This consideration was actually one of the Christian world view issues that led to the development of modern science. I.e. Since God is sovereign, He was free to create as He pleased. So the only way to find out how His creation works is to investigate and experiment, not rely on man-made philosophies as did the ancient Greeks. See for example Chapter 17 of The Greatest Hoax on Earth?
But whatever the alleged problems with Christian theism, pantheism seems to have far more. E.g. Professor John Warwick Montgomery pointed out:
“Pantheism … is neither true nor false; it is something much worse, viz., entirely trivial. We had little doubt that the universe was here anyway; by giving it a new name (“God”) we explain nothing. We actually commit the venerable intellectual sin of Word Magic, wherein the naming of something is supposed to give added power either to the thing named or to the semantic magician himself.”1
Connie O. from Australia writes:
Please can you share any insight as to why we (and animals) have a built-in flight/fright response when we were originally designed for the Garden, which was pronounced ‘good’ by the Lord i.e. no predators or sin. Why would we need such a response?
CMI’s Lita Cosner responds:
Thanks for writing in. This is an interesting question, and any attempt at an answer will necessarily involve some attempts to reason from Scripture where we aren’t told specifically.
We know that some physical structures in animals have uses that are compatible with pre-Fall applications—sharp teeth and claws could be used to eat rough vegetation, for example. Other things that only seem to have attack/defense applications could have been pre-built into creation since God foreknew the Fall, or He could have ‘flipped a genetic switch’ at the Fall so that the post-Fall features would now be expressed. Such things are consistent with a merciful Creator who provides for His creation.
The fight-or-flight response is somewhat more complicated because we’re talking about a behavior, not a physical structure. First we have to address that we’re talking about a human distinction of one response from the rest of animal behavior. Is the fight-or-flight response a behavioral trait in and of itself, or is it part of an animal’s inbuilt survival instinct in general? If it’s the latter, then it’s perfectly consistent to say that God would have built into His very-good creation the ability for animals to not kill themselves by, say, walking off a cliff. This basic instinct would have wider application after the Fall by extending to avoiding predators, defending its own young, etc.
So *if* we accept the fight-or-flight response as a manmade category that is subsumed under an animal’s survival/harm avoidance instinct in general, I think we can safely say that it is consistent with the very-good, pre-Fall creation. However, even if we say “No, it’s something in and of itself that only has useful application after the Fall”, even though I wouldn’t agree with that statement, I think it would be consistent with a loving God’s providence for His creation to build in things that would allow His creatures to survive post-Fall.2
A couple headings in our Death and Suffering Q&A page may be relevant. I hope this is helpful for you.
- Montgomery, J.W., The Suicide of Christian Theology, Bethany, Minneapolis, MN, p. 252, 1975. Return to text.
- Genesis 9:2 suggests that God added to or modified the behavioural programming of animals after the Flood: “The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered”. This at least sets a scriptural precedent for the possibility of the fight-or-flight response being God’s post-Fall providence in action.—Ed Return to text.
"If goodness is attributed to God’s “nature,” then goodness can no longer be an act of God’s will. It is as though God is divided into two parts, a “willing” part that makes decisions and acts, and a “nature” which He cannot control."
This assumes that God's wants to do something contrary to His nature, but can't. However, the biblical God's nature and will are in perfect harmony. For instance, God cannot lie (Titus 1:2) becaue it is aganst His nature, but on the other hand, God wouldn't ever want to lie in the first place.
"The problem I see is: how is it then that God has a free will? He has to do whatever is best, and cannot do anything else."
Again, this assumes that God would want to do antyhing other than the "best". The Bible says that God cannot deny Himself (2 Tim 2:13), therefore He would never want to do anything contrary to His nature. Also, I have no problem with saying God does not have free will, if the definition of free will is the ability to do anything imaginable, such as sin.
"Just as the inequality 2<3 is true, true ethical statements are built into the fabric of the universe."
No offfense, but this makes no sense. You seem to be suggesting that mathematics and morality/ethics are just a part of the universe. However, if this were true, then we would expect mathematics & morality to change as the universe changes. However, this line of reasoning would lead to aburdity, which I trust you can figure out why on your own.
Ultimately, I also fail to see how pantheism answers the morality question, especially for the reason I just mentioned. If God is the universe, and the universe is constantly changing, then we would expect that morality would constantly be changing. I would say it is always wrong to hurt someone just for fun, wouldn't you? Only the unchanging biblical God can account for the unchanging nature of morality (and mathematics for that matter).
I don’t think that Fred K. realizes the full implications of his own argument. On the one hand he claims that if goodness is woven into God’s nature then God cannot possibly have a will. But on the other, he asserts that goodness is woven into the nature of nature. Yet still, he, as part of nature, chooses to be good.
A few initial thoughts about 'fight and flight' and their relationship to the Fall.
From a physiological point of view, humans (and probably many other animals) have a "fright, fight or flight" mechanism when sufficiently threatened (either actively by an external agent, or passively by allowing ourselves to accidentally fall into a threat). This is mediated by a mass discharge from the sympathetic nervous system and a rapid flooding of our whole system by adrenaline. This stress response is involuntary.
However, whether we stand rooted to the spot quaking in fear, fight our antagonist or flee the spot has a voluntary component which kicks in once our minds appreciate more facts of the situation.
This to me suggests that the physiology was built-in before the Fall (it was presumably possible for either Adam or Eve [or an animal] to fall in one of Eden's rivers and they would need a stress response to handle that).
The mental response and subsequent action to the stress is also integral to harm minimisation and threat avoidance and was therefore also inbuilt preFall. Nevertheless, our post-Fall sin state skews our appreciation of circumstances and we frequently do the wrong thing (such as reacting aggressively when we should be apologising and backing off - or struggling in the river and sinking instead of rationally making for the shore or calling for help).
There are some holes in this line of argument (conjecture is perhaps the least!) but it may be a place to start. One obvious issue (upon which this argument rests) is whether or not God would have allowed any of His creation to be exposed to harm or danger in Eden pre–Fall. Can you shed any light on that? Would "dominion" imply killing or culling?
We can definitively say that no death or suffering of nephesh chayyah (soulish) creatures happened before the Fall. That means no suffering, disease, death, or predation. Isaiah 65 envisions a new heavens and earth where there will be no predation and where the lion and wolf will be herbivorous.