Sobel: Might there not be a God…

[Faustus’s note: At the end of the first chapter of his dense 700-page tome Logic and Theism, the late logician Jordan Howard Sobel (1929-2010) offers these brief observations which strike as at once simple and deep, the sort of thing you look at and think “How very stupid of me not to have thought of this.” (This is reportedly what Thomas Henry Huxley uttered upon having Charles Darwin’s idea of natural selection explained to him.) A humbling experience, but also an enlightening one. Here Sobel suggests a way of disposing of theism that’s almost easier than recycling old beer bottles.

The bibliographic citation for this excerpt is as follows:

Jordan Howard Sobel, Logic and Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God. (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 24-5.

The pages are reproduced in Google Books here.]

8. Might there not be a god, even if there is a perfect being?

There are two ways in which one may maintain that, even if there is a perfect being, there is no god. There is the way of ‘the objective humanist’ and there is the way of the ‘normative sceptic.’ Each is way to the radical negation that there is no god, no matter what there is, an essentially perfect being, a merely perfect being, the imperfect God of the bible and the rabbis, whatever!

8.1 An ‘objective humanist’ might say that there can be nothing to which it would not be beneath the proper dignity of a human being to bend and worship. He might say that, far from ever being appropriate, worship done by a human being, regardless of its object, would be disrespectful of his humanity, and wrong. Let a being be perfect, he says with a nod to philosophers and theologian. Let it be whatever ‘turns on’ religious spirits, he adds with a nod to Wettstein’s rabbis. This being is even so not a proper object of worship, because, as a matter of fact, worship is always for every human being and every possible object an improper attitude. Given that a god would be a proper object of worship for a human being (which, until now, has been left implicit), it follows, our objective humanist concludes, that there is no god, even if there is a being that is perfect and everything for which a religious spirit might ask.

8.2 Suppose, however, that our objective humanist is mistaken when he says that it is as a matter of fact improper and wrong for a human being to worship. He could still be right when he says that not even a perfect being would be as a matter of fact a proper object of worship. He could still be right about that, if there are not facts of the matter of propriety. Suppose that is so. Suppose there are in the vicinity only psychological facts concerning what if any religious attitudes this or that person would, or would not, on reflection entertain toward various beings including perfect beings. Suppose there are not in addition normative facts concerning what attitudes are proper and prescribed, and what attitudes are improper and proscribed, whether or not they are forthcoming for persons. Then, while our objective humanist would be mistaken in his reasons for bending and scraping’s being ‘beneath us’, he would still be correct in his conclusion that not even a perfect being would be a proper object of worship. The correct reason for this, according to the present line, is that ‘proper’, that is ‘objectively proper’, never correctly applies to attitudes. This way to say ‘you are no god’ to an essentially perfect being, and to every being, is the way of a ‘normative sceptic.’ It is a ‘Mackiean way.’

8.3 John Mackie says that there are no objective values (Mackie 1977, Chapter 1). He says that there are no objective goods, or values of universal validity, that everyone ought to cherish, whether or not they would be so moved in the end, on fully informed reflection. He holds that there are only subjective values, this or that person’s values, where a particular person’s goods are the things he would in the end be moved to value. Even so, he maintains, ordinary value thought and talk involves commitments to objective values. Unhedged use of the language of values to ascribe objective values to things is, therefore, Mackie says, in error and undermined. Affirmations of objective values are neither true nor false, since there are no such values to be correctly or incorrectly ascribed.[Note omitted] The suggestion of the previous section is that perhaps the case is similar for gods. Perhaps, although there are no possible ‘objective gods’. Ordinary ‘God-talk’ of both believers and their opponents expresses, in both affirmation and denials, the idea of a being who would be an ‘objective god.’ It could be that (a) ordinary God-talk, especially impassioned ordinary God-talk, presupposes the possibility of a being who would be objectively worthy of worship, notwithstanding that (b) as Mackie might say, this idea of objective worthiness for worship is without instantiation in any possible world, which is to say that a being that would be objectively worthy of worship is not so much as a possibility. The (a)-and-(b) condition would be a plague on the houses of both theists and many atheists.


[Faustus’s note: The reference, John Mackie’s famouse 1977 book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong is linked below: