Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Moral Argument vs Sleeping Beauty

When I first read CS Lewis' book "Mere Christianity", the book and specifically the opening chapter blew me away.  In it, he made such a compelling case for the existence of God that I didn't know how anyone could read it and not come away a believer!  I didn't know the formal name at the time but he used the Moral Argument for the existence of God.  The gist of it is that all humanity throughout time and space and regardless of culture all have the same innate sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair.  We often choose to violate this sense but it's there nevertheless.  Since it is universal and since it is there whether we choose it or not it must be an external influence, as Lewis puts it, "a controlling power outside the universe" - a.k.a God.

Like I said, at the time I found this to be fantastically convincing.  In time however I came to realise that this is actually a terribly flawed argument and as arguments for the existence of God go, it was pretty terrible!  The entire argument falls apart at proposition number one.  It seems true at first but on closer inspection it quickly becomes clear that there is no set of universal right and wrongs that mankind has always been aware of.  Depending on your culture or your time period, your innate sense of right and wrong can be radically different from mine.

Now usually when arguing against the Moral Argument, opponents tend to bring up the horrors of the Old Testament.  Unfortunately this usually leads to otherwise good people defending genocide.  I think the patterns of attack and defense are just too well worn by now so that when this is debated, people just fall into argument and counterargument by reflex - which really accomplishes nothing.  Fortunately, this is one of those happy occasions where awesome talking dinosaurs can help!

Is it just me or is education more fun when it comes from dinosaurs?

As our lovable dinosaur friends here point out, the morality of the 17th century was rather sharply different from our own!  But, since I'm daring to disagree with none other than CS Lewis (who I'm very fond of for the record) I guess I can't just offer the word of a comic strip.  Even if it is a super fun and informative comic strip featuring a talking T-rex.  So I looked it up and here, is the original according to Wikipedia:

"Sun, Moon, and Talia (Sole, Luna, e Talia) is an Italian literary fairy tale written by Giambattista Basile in his 1634 work, the Pentamerone. Charles Perrault retold this fairy tale in 1697 as Sleeping Beauty.

After the birth of a great lord's daughter, Talia, wise men and astrologers cast the child's horoscope and told the lord that Talia would be later endangered by a splinter of flax. To protect his daughter, the father commands that no flax would ever be brought into his house.

Years later, Talia sees an old woman spinning flax on a spindle. She asks the woman if she can stretch the flax herself, but as soon as she begins to spin, a splinter of flax goes under her fingernail, and she drops to the ground, apparently dead. Unable to stand the thought of burying his child, the lord puts Talia in one of his country estates.

Some time later, a king, hunting in nearby woods, follows his falcon into the house. He finds Talia, tries unsuccessfully to wake her up, and rapes her. Afterwards, he leaves the girl on the bed and returns to his own city.

Still deep in sleep, she gives birth to twins (a boy and a girl). One day, the boy cannot find his mother's breast; and instead he begins to suck on Talia's finger and draws the flax splinter out. Talia awakens immediately. She names them "Sun" and "Moon" and lives with them in the house.

The king returns and finds Talia is awake – and a mother of twins. However, he is already married. He calls out the names of Talia, Sun and Moon in his sleep, and the queen hears him. She forces the king's secretary to tell all and, with a forged message, brings the children to court. She orders the cook to kill the children and serve them to the king. The cook hides them and cooks two lambs. The queen taunts the king while he eats.

Then the queen has Talia brought to court. She commands that a huge fire be lit in the courtyard, and that Talia be thrown into the flames.

Talia asks to take off her fine garments first. The queen agrees. Talia undresses and utters screams of grief with each piece of clothing. The king hears Talia's screams. His wife tells him that Talia would be burned and that he had unknowingly eaten his own children.

The king commands that his wife, his secretary, and the cook be thrown into the fire instead. The cook explains how he had saved Sun and Moon. The king and Talia marry; and the cook is rewarded with the title of royal chamberlain.

The last line of the fairy tale – its moral – is as follows: "Lucky people, so 'tis said, He who has luck may go to bed, And bliss will rain upon his head.""

Clearly the dinosaurs had it right all along!  Apparently a story that we would see as tragic, violent and disturbing, to our not too distant ancestors was an uplifting tale illustrating that, "Lucky people are always lucky, even when they're asleep".  Don't know about you but I don't see the universal moral law in that at all!


GumbyTheCat said...

Good post! Well-written and fun.

I think many people subconsciously associate their sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair, with the legal codes of the day as well as social norms. For example, some people mock Islam by pointing out that its prophet had a thing for marrying little girls; but what the mockers leave out is that at that time and place, it was more of an acceptable practice. To this day, child brides are not unheard of in the Middle East. This is repugnant to our Western mode of thought. It is certainly repugnant to my mode of thought. But sometimes I find myself in the uncomfortable position of having to remind people who are normally on my side of the religion argument that judging a religion by practices from another time and place that we now consider offensive isn't exactly fair. So yes, standards of right and wrong do indeed change over the course of time and location, unless we're all subconsciously OK with cannibalism or suchlike!

On another note, I really like this that you said: I think the patterns of attack and defense are just too well worn by now so that when this is debated, people just fall into argument and counterargument by reflex - which really accomplishes nothing.

You said it! Most of the "debates" I see in the religion arena might as well be copy-pasted. It's more about getting the last word than providing new arguments or insights. That goes for the thumpers as well as the anti-theists. I pretty much have stopped debating, and now mostly just read along, hoping for the occasional FSTDT-style quote for my blog.

Eugene said...

Thanks Gumby! I do try!