On Genuine Morality Without God?

On Genuine Morality Without God? March 9, 2021

Wisdom cries out, but we often miss her voice. We are too busy and too content in our lives to listen.

Good questions inspire deeper reflection, while great questions never leave a person. When I find a person who asks great questions, I try to keep them around! A sometime contributor asked for a quick answer (one or two lines!) in response, but the question is so good that words multiply. Hopefully error will be lacking.

His question:

Is a moral Platonist Christian committed or at least generally inclined to believe that there can be moral truths without God?

The quick answer is “no,” but the quick answer needs an explanation. My guess is that right now many are tempted to stop reading. Wait! You might not be very interested in Plato or philosophy (though why not?), but we might be able to clear up an error Christians sometimes make in thinking about atheism. We do not want to bear false witness! 

Our friend has asked a good question, but one that requires some simple definition of terms. In this context*, a Platonist is convinced by experience and argument that some ideas exist part from the mind thinking about them. A Platonist could disagree about what ideas exist, a usual example is mathematical objects, say the idea of “1.” When talking about “minds” Plato is usually referring to the minds of people or (perhaps) divine beings like the Greek gods. These ideas, unlike the minds of men and gods, do not change. Unlike any body they do not decay.

They are real and compared to ideas our own changing world has a shadowy existence.*

Where did the eternal, unchanging Ideas exist? One possibility for a Plato is that ideas exist eternally beyond the cosmos and their very existence induced creation to come to be. Another obvious possibility is that these Ideas exist in the great Mind of an unchanging, eternal God. Plato never says this directly, but many find this great Mind (God) implied in his works.

If there are ideas, including moral ideas, Plato asserts there is a Good, that exist mind independently, then an atheist could discover them. On this Platonic account, one could be an atheist and believe in objective (or absolute) goodness. Plato himself could be an atheist, since the Almighty would not exist for him, just some godlings**.

This why the assertion that an atheist cannot defensibly believe in an absolute Good as an atheist is false.****

If there is a Platonic Good, and even if there is a God there might be, an atheist could find that Good and so discover an objective, eternal morality. There is, however, a catch for most atheists one meets outside of philosophy seminar rooms.

For these atheists the Platonic Good comes at too high a price: the existence of ideas (Platonism) means there is more to the cosmos than just stuff: physics. Another interesting consequence of Platonism being true, even for an atheist, is that the methods of science cannot account for everything. Mathematics is the language of science, but is not subject to or part of science.Since many atheist mathematicians think numbers are “real” in the Platonic sense, strong materialism/physicalism always has seemed implausible to me.

I am a Platonist, convinced some ideas exist, but also a Christian. 

This means, apart from the arguments for the existence of ideas, I think there is good reason and human experience to point to a Creator God who is omnipotent and omniscient. If this is true, then there is a Mind in which the Platonic ideas can exist. There are problems with the arguments for the existence of ideas and simply putting those ideas in the Mind of God.**** What if some ideas are eternal and exist “apart from God?” Is that possible?

This does not seem to be possible, since God is the creator of all things and so must have created and sustained the Ideas in His Mind. As you might fear by this point, this is probably the case, but there is another possibility. One could believe that God’s existence is logically prior to the existence of ideas: If God, then ideas. The ideas are not God, but proceed from God’s being. Since God exists eternally, the ideas exist eternally. God is the “creator” of the ideas because God’s existence is why they exist, but they are not the same as God. The laws of logic, for example, are not God, but exist because of God. One can discover the laws of logic without discovering God. One can know the son without ever knowing the mother, though if one thinks for a bit one might start looking for the mother! If this form of Christian Platonism is correct, then an atheist could discover objective morality and not need to reference God in discussing that morality.

Let’s be blunt. If Platonism is true (and I think it is about numbers and some ideas), then theism will be easier for thinking people to accept. The idea that the “cosmos,” matter and energy in mindless motion, is all there is will be know to be false: no strong materialism/physicalism. Platonism is a gateway path to Christianity as it was in CS Lewis! See his Pilgrim’s Regress. 


*All of this could be complicated endlessly, but let’s use the terms as we have been given them! Christian writers such as CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien were some kind of Platonists.

**Anybody who cannot cope with the English words “god” and “God” having two different meanings is in trouble. 

***Atheists that believe in objective morality have other strategies that can lead to the same conclusion.

***I will not spell those problems out here.

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