Platonism and Existentialism

We’ve been suggesting that the obvious truth of morality might provide evidence for God’s existence, as well as reason to think that this obvious truth depends ultimately on God. At first glance, such a claim might seem implausible, if not inconsistent. In particular, it might seem inconsistent to argue that moral truth is dependent on God if we can know it without even thinking of God. This alleged inconsistency can be dispelled if we recognize, as numerous classical thinkers have pointed out, that the order of being is different from the order of knowing. That is, the order in which we come to know things might be different from the order in which things exist, or have come to exist. Certain moral truths might be as evident to us as anything can be, but may still leave unanswered the question of where morality came from. Likewise, the foundations of morality might be at a greater distance from us in terms of immediate knowledge than morality itself.

This is a fundamental distinction, but one that is often missed, resulting in needless confusion. Recent books defending atheism have perpetuated this confusion, unfortunately, but not surprisingly. For instance, Richard Dawkins in his book “The God Delusion,” seems to ignore this distinction when he asks, “if we have independent criteria for choosing among religious moralities, why not cut out the middle man and go straight for the moral choice without the religion?”

The intuition that God and morality are intimately related is a deep one that has often been recognized by noted spokesmen on both sides of the aheism/atheism divide. Dostoevsky’s famous line that if God doesn’t exist, then everything is permitted, is one echo of this theme, as is the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s confident proclamation that the “death of God” should have for one of its practical outcomes a Copernican revolution in ethics. According to this view, selfishness and pride, perhaps even ruthlessness rightly understood, should now eclipse traditionally exalted moral virtues like humility, altruism, and compassion. Upholding traditional morality after the death of God wasn’t Nietzsche’s concern. It was rather his agenda to effect his trans-valuation of values, in an effort to infuse goodness again with strength and heroism.

Nietzsche and Mackie were atheists who saw the nonexistence of God as morally relevant, and French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre was another, who wrote “Existentialist Ethics,” in Classic Philosophical Questions, “For these thinkers, atheism didn’t mean business as usual when it came to ethics. It meant fundamental rethinking of what ethics is all about, because they recognized the long history of a perceived connection between God and morality. They thus stand in contrast to those who think that eliminating God from the moral equation changes little or that including God adds nothing of consequence.” The following passage from Sartre is worth quoting at length in this regard, (though he tried to re-track that statement to no avail):

Towards 1880, when the French professors endeavored to formulate a secular morality, they said something like this: God is a useless hypothesis, so we will do without it. However, if we are to have morality, a society and a law-abiding world, it is essential that certain values should be taken seriously; they must have an ‘a priori’ (relating to or denoting reasoning or knowledge which proceeds from theoretical deduction rather than from observation or experience) existence ascribed to them. It must be considered obligatory ‘a priori’ to be honest, not to lie, not to beat one’s wife, to bring up children and so forth; so we are going to do a little work on the subject, which will enable us to show that these values exist all the same, inscribed in an intelligent heaven although, of course, there is no God. In other words … nothing will be changed if God does not exist; we shall discover the same norms of honesty, progress and humanity, and we shall have disposed of God as an out-of-date hypothesis which will die away quietly of itself. The existentialist, on the contrary, finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good ‘a priori‘, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that “the good” exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only men.

This passage is interesting for several reasons, not least in its contrast of existentialism and something like Platonism, the notion that moral values exist in an intelligent heaven even though there is no God. Both of these approaches are potential ways that atheists might avoid the conclusion of the moral argument. We’re inclined to think that Platonism and existentialism each captures, with some success, crucial aspects of morality, but that neither is fully adequate to account for all that morality requires.

The Platonist says there are objective moral values, every bit as transcendent and
binding as Lewis believed in, but that they stand in no need of foundations. They
are, rather, brute facts, perhaps like the truths of mathematics, fixed features of reality, ultimate facts about the universe of which we become aware. This view has
the advantage of making sense of our abiding conviction in the truth and obviousness of morality as well as its ground in reality. It echoes Sidgwick’s claim that morality is self-evident and needs no foundation, and it goes some distance in satisfying Kant’s insistence that reality somehow be committed to morality. It asserts that obligations can be understood as realities that objectively exist and have binding power over us.

Mavrodes writes in “Queerness,” argues, we think rightly, that Plato’s wordview, though not Christian, has very often been taken to be congenial to a religious understanding of the world. He continues in this vein:

The idea of the Good seems to play a metaphysical role in his thought. It is somehow fundamental to what is as well as to what ought to be, much more fundamental than are the atoms. A Platonic man, therefore, who sets himself to live in accordance with the Good aligns himself with what is deepest and most basic in existence. Or to put it another way, we might say that whatever values a Platonic world imposes on a man are values to which the Platonic world itself is committed, through and through.

Mavrodes goes on to argue that this is not the case with a Russellian world, where values and obligations cannot be nearly so deep, having a grip only on surface phenomena. This status of moral facts in a naturalistic world heightens the seeming strangeness of morality in demanding so much while lacking sufficient grounding.

So Platonism definitely seems to hold an advantage over pure naturalism. Interestingly, it’s a view of the universe shaped by, among other things, moral convictions. The explanation given for the existence of what seem to be stable and enduring moral facts is that the universe itself is a moral context. This is an intelligible view, and it is hard to refute. It’s not far from the view we ourselves hold, though of course what it leaves out is the most important part of the picture, in our estimation.

Augustine, an early Christian Platonist, understandably thought it made best sense that if the highest standard of goodness is the object of the highest form of love, as it was for Plato, then the highest reality is likely to be a person. Beyond the impersonality of the Platonic Good is another problem, already alluded to by Sartre, as John Rist observes:

Plato’s account of the “Forms” (including the Good) as moral exemplars leaves them in metaphysical limbo. They would exist as essentially intelligible ideas even if there were no mind, human or divine, to recognize them: as objects of thought, not mere constructs or concepts. But, as Augustine learned, and as the Greek Neoplatonists had asserted, the notion of an eternal object of thought (and thus for Plato a cause of thought) without a ceaseless thinking subject is unintelligible. Intelligible Forms, never proposed as mere concepts, cannot be proposed as Plato originally proposed them, as free-floating metaphysical items.

The need for Platonic forms ultimately to be grounded in a mind that recognizes them is once again keenly felt. “Free floating metaphysical items” do not have the ontological strength and stability that we think morality must have. Even if we discern these moral truths before we identify their deeper foundations, this only reminds us again that the order of knowing is distinct from the order of being.

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