Wednesday, August 8, 2018

An argument for theism from certain values

Some things, such as human life, love, the arts and humor, are very valuable. An interesting question to ask is why they are so valuable?

A potential answer is that they have their value because we value (desire, prefer, etc.) them. While some things may be valuable because we value them, neither life, love, the arts nor humor seem to be such. People who fail to value these things is insensitive: they are failing to recognize the great value that is there. (In general, I suspect that nothing of high value has the value it does because we value it: our ability to make things valuable by valuing them is limited to things of low and moderate value.)

A different answer is that these things are necessarily valuable. However, while this may be true, it shifts the explanatory burden to asking why they are necessarily valuable. For simplicity, I’ll thus ignore the necessity answer.

It may be that there are things that are fundamentally valuable, whose value is self-explanatory. Perhaps life and love are like that: maybe there is no more a mystery as to why life or love is valuable than as to why 1=1. Maybe.

But the arts at least do not seem to be like this. It is puzzling why arranging a sequence of typically false sentences into a narrative can make for something with great value. It is puzzling why representing aspects of the world—either of the concrete or the abstract world—in paint on canvas can so often be valuable. The value of the arts is not self-explanatory.

Theism can provide an explanation of this puzzling value: Artistic activity reflects God’s creative activity, and God is the ultimate good. Given theism it is not surprising that the arts are of great value. There is something divine about them.

Humor is, I think, even more puzzling. Humor deflates our pretensions. Why is this so valuable? Here, I think, the theist has a nice answer: We are infinitely less than God, so deflating our pretensions puts us human beings in the right place in reality.

There is much more to be said about arts and humor. The above is meant to be very sketchy. My interest here is not to defend the specific arguments from the value of the arts and humor, but to illustrate arguments from value that appear to be a newish kind of theistic argument.

These arguments are like design arguments in that their focus is on explaining good features of the world. But while design arguments, such as the argument from beauty or the fine-tuning argument, seek an explanation of why various very good features occur, these kinds of value arguments seek an explanation of why certain features are in fact as good as they are.

The moral argument for theism is closely akin. While in the above arguments, one seeks to explain why some things have the degree of value they do, the moral argument can be put as asking for an explanation of why some things (more precisely, some actions) have the kind of value they do, namely deontic value.

Closing remarks

  1. Just as in the moral case, there is a natural law story that shifts the argument’s focus without destroying the argument for theism. In the moral case, the natural law story explains why some actions are obligatory by saying that they violate the prescriptions for action in our nature. But one can still ask why there are beings with a nature with these prescriptions and not others. Why is it that, as far as we can tell, there are rational beings whose nature prescribes love for neighbor and none whose nature prescribes hatred for neighbor? Similarly, we can say that humor is highly valuable for us because our nature specifies humor as one of the things that significantly fulfills us. (Variant: Humor is highly valuable for us because it is our nature to highly value it.) But we can still ask why there are rational beings whose nature is fulfilled by the arts and humor, and, as far as we can tell, none whose nature is harmed by the arts or humor. And in both the deontic and non-deontic cases, there is a theistic answer. For instance, God creates rational beings with a nature that calls on them to laugh because any beings that he would create will be infinitely less than God and hence their sensor humor will help put them in the right place, thereby counteracting the self-aggrandizement that reflection on one’s own rationality would otherwise lead to.

  2. Just as in the moral case there is a compelling argument from knowledge—theism provides a particularly attractive explanation of how we know moral truths—so too in the value cases there is a similar compelling argument.


Walter Van den Acker said...


"But one can still ask why there are beings with a nature with these prescriptions and not others. Why is it that, as far as we can tell, there are rational beings whose nature prescribes love for neighbor and none whose nature prescribes hatred for neighbor?"

The answer is quite obvious. If what you are claiming is true then hatred for neighbour is not rational. Something either is or isn't rational, and God has nothing to do with that fact. LIkewise, if certain things are necessarily valuable, then the existence or non-existence of God has no bearing on this.
Of course one can still ask how it is possible that there are rational beings, but that's another matter.

Art and humour are a different matter, because there do seem to be rational beings who do not appreciate art or humour, or at least there seems to be no inherent irrationality in not appreciating art or humour. Unlike love, e.g. they lack universal value. No doubt there is art that you like and I hate and vice versa. The same holds for humour. Appreciation of art and humour follows from the relativity of human rationality and from the interaction of various rational beings whose rationality is slightly different. Counteracting self-aggrandizement is in part explained by our nature as social beings. We are not "put in the right place" by god, but by our fellow human beings who remind us of the relativity of our rationality. Nevertheless, there are peolle who think they know everything, but often those people lack any sense of humour.

Philip Rand said...

Walter Van den Acker

Something either is or isn't rational

OK... how about this:

You are stranded on a desert island. Would it be rational for you to write a rescue message; placing it in a bottle and tossing the bottle into the sea?