Friday, February 14, 2020

Gratitude to the cosmos

Some non-theists, without thinking that the cosmos is a person, want to say that we can be appropriately grateful to the cosmos. This is supposed to do justice to our deep human need to be grateful for the good things to happen to us.

I have two lines of thought that this doesn’t work. Both start with the thought that the cosmos’s connection the good and bad events in our lives is relevantly symmetric. The cosmos is not an agent, so no kind of Principle of Double Effect can be employed to say that the good stuff is to be attributed to the cosmos and the bad stuff is not. Moreover, since the cosmos is not an agent, its activity is beyond moral justification.

Now, my first line of thought. Suppose Fred has, with no moral justification, fed me poison and an hour later he gave me an antidote. I should not be grateful for the antidote. Similarly, if I get cancer and then the cancer goes into remission, I shouldn’t be grateful to the cosmos for the remission. Yet cancer going into remission is a paradigm case of the sort of thing that we feel the need to be grateful for. But since the cosmos gave us the cancer, and did so with no moral justification, there is no call to be grateful for the cosmos taking the cancer away. (The reason for my “with no moral justification” clause is this: If the poison constituted a case of morally justified capital punishment, and the antidote constituted a morally justified pardon, then gratitude for the antidote is appropriate.)

The second is this. Given that the cosmos’s relation to the bad stuff in our lives is relevantly like its relation to the good stuff:

  1. If it is appropriate to be grateful to the universe for good stuff, it’s appropriate to be resentful against the universe for bad stuff.

But:

  1. It is not appropriate to be resentful against the universe.

First, intuitively, such resentment seems a paradigm case of a spiritually unfruitful attitude. I think we have all felt resentments against non-agential things—say, pieces of machinery—but clearly such resentments are something to be ashamed of.

Second, I should feel no resentment against people who, without in any way doing anything wrong, have caused bad things to happen to me. If someone running in the dark from a vicious animal accidentally knocks me down because she didn’t see me, no resentment is appropriate, because there was nothing inappropriate. Everything the cosmos does to me is in some sense an accident, because the cosmos is not an agent.

Perhaps the last argument could be countered by saying that even if the cosmos is not an agent, it might have a teleology, and perhaps we could be resentful when it departs from it (and grateful when it follows it). But I don’t think the cosmos is a substance, and only substances have an intrinsic teleology (as opposed to a teleology induced by external agency—which in this case would require something like theism).

28 comments:

Walter Van den Acker said...

Alex

Of course, both gratitude and resentments with respect to a non-agent are meaningless, but I see no reason why anybody should feel ashamed for feeling resentment against non-agential things.
Moreover, I don't see what moral justification has to do with anything. You seem to imply that we should only express gratitude towards a moral agent, but God is not a moral agent, so, we should not express gratitude towards God either. Just like Fred, God cannot in any way help doing what he does. That is, God's character determines Him to do what He does.

Daniel Vecchio said...

Walter,

"God's character determines Him to do what He does."

Could God not do a variety of things compatible with who He is?

Best,

Daniel

Michael Gonzalez said...

Pruss:

Have you ever wondered whether, in the absence of agents, the world would be either metaphysically necessary or brute? Non-agential explanations are fixed by laws and initial conditions. The initial conditions and the laws themselves can't be explained that way, so they are either brute or metaphysically necessary (and good luck with the latter). I dunno. Your post about gratitude seems like a good intuition pump, and it leads back to something like inevitability for whatever happens in the absence of agents....

AJ said...

Walter,

"I don't see what moral justification has to do with anything. You seem to imply that we should only express gratitude towards a moral agent, but God is not a moral agent, so, we should not express gratitude towards God either."

Is it possible to express gratitude towards God for agency alone? For example, thanking God for creating the universe, and by extension, myself?

Blessings,
A.J.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Daniel

Actually, God cannot do a variety of things, but I am willing to agree for the sake of the argument that he can. He cannot, however, help doing what is good.

AJ

Provided the classical theist can avoid a modal collapse (and I am convinced he can't, but that's another discussion), that seems to be the only thing we could express gratitude for. T

Daniel Vecchio said...

Hi Walter,

Suppose God can do a variety of things, and whatever he does is good. I think God would still be worthy of gratitude for any contingent state of affairs he actualizes.

My best,

Daniel

Walter Van den Acker said...

Daniel

No, I don't think this God would be worthy of gratitude. It He were, the cosmos would also be worthy of gratitude.

Dominik Kowalski said...

Not really since the cosmos itself has no power or saying in the matter. It would be like saying that my wife and the meal deserve equal thanks in feeding me. Being grateful to a mere artifact makes no sense

Walter Van den Acker said...

Dominik

Sure, but that wasn't the point of debate. The point was that, whether if the agent has no moral justification, he/she is worthy of gratitude.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Walter,

I think you're going to have a hard time showing that God cannot do a variety of equally good things. Even if you could succeed, all you'd prove is that God cannot exist, since perfect freedom is one of the essential attributes for a candidate to qualify as "God" at all.

But, in any case, since you're allowing it for the sake of argument, I think you're missing what follows: It follows that the things God actively and freely does are categorically different than the things the cosmos inevitably and mechanically does. We should not express gratitude for accidents. Gratitude is like praise, and the core of debates about freedom and morality have been about "praiseworthiness" vs. "blameworthiness", both of which can only properly be ascribed to voluntary, intentional actions.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Michael

I don't think,that's hard at all. The God of classical theism is simple and immutable and necessary, hence he cannot have any contingent properties. If that means God cannot exist, so be it.

And I agree that, in a sense we could express "gratitude" to an agent, but only if gratitude doesn't have anything to do with moral justification.
I have already said that I agree that gratitude towards a non-agent is meaningless, but gratitude towards a non-moral agent doesn't make much sense to me either.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Walter:

If God is said to be both "immutable" and "free", then I 100% agree with you. But the God of the Bible is absolutely not immutable, and I don't see any reason to think that the greatest being would have to be. Whereas freedom is a great-making property, inactivity is not.

So, if God does something on purpose with good intentions, then we could reasonably be grateful, yes? Whereas, there is no such thing as the cosmos doing something on purpose, for good or bad reason.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Michael

That God is both immutable and free as well as simple is necessarily true on classical theism. Alex Pruss will certainly agree with that.
But, I am not going to defend modal collapse here.
My point is that "good intentions" are meaningless for a being who cannot possibly have bad intentions. So, the "purpose" of God is relative. The fact that I exist and severral other possible people don't, has nothing to do with intentions by God.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Walter:

I'm certainly not trying to be argumentative. I genuinely think I agree with you that an immutable God leads to modal collapse. I haven't thought it through nearly as well, I'm sure, but I am inclined to agree. I just know that the Bible teaches the exact opposite of Immutability all throughout and even uses God's being "living" and active as the distinction between Him and false idols.

Anyway, I know that's not the topic. It was just interesting to me. To the main topic...

1) I don't see how the lack of ability to have bad intentions would make good intentions "meaningless". One's "good intentions" are not obviously defined or delineated by being distinct from that same person's bad intentions! They are defined by the good that is intended. Our wellbeing, our happiness, etc.... These would be goods that are intended, and so God could have good intentions utterly regardless of whether He can also have bad ones.

2) The fact that anyone at all exists does have to do with God's good intention, without which He wouldn't have bothered to create a life-sustaining world, etc.

Michael Gonzalez said...

cont. for Walter:

3) If the issue is that God couldn't help but be well-inclined, and so it seems as automatic as the mechanistic cosmos, I would point out some serious differences:

3a) There is no reason I'm aware of to think that God's own existence isn't sufficiently good to warrant Him just staying that way (i.e. not creating at all). For that matter, He could have just created spirit beings, who also seem to be free creatures. The equal good of creating the physical world in the way He did was up to Him.
3b) The choices of free creatures are not mechanistic outcomes, but they spring from their desires and intentions. So, to be grateful that God desired us and our wellbeing, and acted on that good desire, is nothing at all like being grateful to a machine for doing what it inevitably does without desiring anything.
3c)

Dominik Kowalski said...

OT of course, but you are both assuming that Gods willing and knowing of contingent facts would constitute an intrinsic, rather than extrinsic change. The accidental properties objection can be solved by accepting externalism of divine knowledge, e.g. through the partially externalist account of truthmakers developed in “On Two Problems of Divine Simplicity“.
As to modal collapse, the argument fails if it cannot be stated in a valid and non-questionbegging way.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Michael

1)The point is that the good is not intended by God. Maybe some specific good is intended by God but the good itself is an automatic response by God.

2 )God isn't "bothered" by anything. Either creating a life-sustaining world is good, in which case Gd could not refrain from creating a life-sustaining world or creating and not-creating a life sustaining world are equally good. in which case the choice to crate wasn't a moral choice. I don't see why i should be grateful to someone for throwing the dice.

3a) I have already answered that in my answer to 2)
3b) Likewise
3c) You are absolutely right. I have no reply to this one.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Dominik

Knowing can perhaps be described as an extrinsic change (although I don't think it can ,but I am willing to accept it for the sake of the argument).
Willing, on the other hand, can't be extrinsic, at least not for God. Also, there can be no externalist account of God's Will.

The modal collapse argument can be stated in a valid and non-question-begging way. You should not just take Thomaszewski's word for it. He is wrong.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Walter:

1) Of course it is. He wills to do the good; that is His intention. Again, it does absolutely nothing to that fact to point out that He doesn't will any bad things. It's just a complete non-sequitor. Seriously, run the lines of the argument and try to derive the conclusion. It does not follow.

2) If His creating is a chance to manifest good toward us, and He chooses to do that for that reason, how on Earth is that not a morally praiseworthy voluntary act on His part?? You keep talking about it like some sort of Goodness Machine, but it is categorically different for an animate, sentient being to do something because they want what's good for us than for some machine to calculate "goods" (as though there were numerical values and a mathematics that could be done) and then pumps out the best or randomizes among equal bests. That is not the picture of Theism. Theism holds that God wills/desires/intends what is good.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Michael

No, He does not Will to do the good. He automatically does the good. In that respect, He is an automaton. The fact that He also seems to be able to arbitrary decide which particular good is going to be actualized doesn't make him worthy of gratitude.

God doesn't choose his creating for the reason that it is good for us, because if that were the case, He would be obligated to create everything that is possible, which would then not be a choice at all. So, maybe He is able to think or mayeb He is even conscious, but that is irrelevant, because hsi creating is nothing more than an automatic response.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Walter:

What is your argument for the conclusion that God does not desire to do what is good and then act on that desire? The only premise I can see is that God has no bad in Him and so would always desire what is good; but not only does that premise not entail your position by itself, it actually contains the phrase "[He] would always desire what is good", which is antithetical to your position. Please spell out the steps toward your conclusion, because otherwise I can't see how it isn't just an assertion on your part.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Michael

A Will is only meaningful if there is a possibility to will something else. Since God doesn't have that ability, God's "will" is a meaningless phrase. That he is somehow conscious of what he inevitably "wills" is not relevant, jsut like the fat that I am aware that I rolled the dice to decide whether I should do X or Y doesn't make it a real choice or anything that deserves gratitude.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Walter:

That is just manifestly mistaken, and you can easily see why by considering perfectly possible situations for us as humans. Willing to do something while being, for example, totally unaware of other options or in a situation where the alternative goes against our moral core, etc., is still meaningful. And we can still be praiseworthy for desiring and carrying out the thing in question. Examples would be very easy to conjure up. If I see a child on fire, it is morally praiseworthy to help her, even if the very idea of doing otherwise is so contrary to my nature that I would never consider it (indeed, that very disposition is often praised as ideal).

Alexander R Pruss said...

Walter:

I am surprised to hear you're more of an incompatibilist than I am. I think alternate possibilities are necessary for non-derivatively free will, but I don't think they are necessary for derivatively free will or for non-free will.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Alex

By "meaningful" I mean meaningful with respect to gratitude. It doesn't mean compatibilist free will cannot be meaningful in other respects.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am not sure. Suppose Alice gives a gift to Bob every year, until it becomes a habit and she can't help doing it anymore. I think Bob still owes her gratitude.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Alex

In this scenario, I guess Alice starts giving gifts to Bob for some moral reason. And in that case, Bob owes her gratitude. But as soon as she can't help doing it anymore, it seems to me she is in much the same position as Fred, who gives an antidote with no moral justification. Alice gives the gift with no moral justification, so why would Bob owe her gratitude (provided, of course, Bob knows that she is now simply giving him something because she can't help doing it anymore)

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