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#21 Hinduism and Morality

September 10, 2007

Dear Craig,

In your moral argument, you say that God’s absolutely Holy nature (which exists regardless of creation of the world) provides the basis of Morality. I heard an argument that God is neither Good nor Evil (outside of creation, it just Pure Principle). Here is the argument made, can you please comment on this:

The commands of God come AFTER His determination of His Nature in relation to man. If there were no creation, no manifestation, and only Pure Principle, there can be no ‘specific’ quality that can be spoken of (Nirguna) because the Principle contains within Himself ALL the infinitude of qualities and potentials without any of them being ‘actualised’. It is only at the point of creation or manifestation (which is an act of Will) that certain qualities are expressed (Saguna) which come to constitute His Nature in relation to man and the universe. There is nothing arbitrary about this determination in relation to man because creation/manifestation itself follows from it, and man would not be the way he is, in terms of his moral constitution, if the entire universe did not also conform with the morality so determined. In relation to our particular universe or state of existence, His Nature can very well be described as ‘immutable’.

Arbitrariness (or non-arbitrariness) of morality itself is a ‘quality of determination’ that ‘comes into existence’ or is ‘actualised’ only at the point of creation/manifestation. There is no quality beyond that point because the Supreme Principle is, in the most complete sense of the words, Indescribeable, Inexpressible, Indefinite, Infinite, Quality-less (Nirguna, because He is Pure Quality Himself). Reason is rooted in our individual (or created/manifested) existence but what transcends reason is the Spirit of God in us or the Divine Intellect that permeates us. Reason, being relative, is limited to understanding things by contrast (dualities) and exclusiveness, hence the distinction between arbitrariness and non-arbitrariness or the paradox of free will and predestination. At the level of the absolute these distinctions fade away, all paradoxes are resolved, and only the stark singularity of the Principle remains.

Killing babies, rape, etc. are ‘possible/potential’ actions that cannot be described as arbitrary (or non-arbitrary) from point of view of the uncreated/unmanifested Principle because even this ‘quality’ (arbitrariness) or ‘value’ hasn’t been created/manifested yet. Creation/manifestation results in two things: the ‘actualisation’ of a particular world, with all its laws, events and beings, and the assignment of values (qualities) to each. These are both in conformity; so if killing babies, rape, etc. were ‘actualised’ as good or beneficial actions for man, they would also have been assigned values of goodness and benevolence. In case of our particular created/manifested state, these actions hurt, injure and cause suffering and are hence in conformity with their assigned values that are negative, abominable, and evil.


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Dr. craig’s response


I gather that whoever presented you with this argument is coming at these questions from a Hindu perspective.

Now you always need to ask yourself, “Which premiss of my argument does the objector deny?” Otherwise you can get distracted, especially in a case like this, by all the verbiage. It’s evident that the objector does not deny the first premiss of the moral argument as I’ve framed it:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

For he says nothing about what would be the case about morality should atheism be true.

Rather it’s evident that he denies

2. Objective moral values and duties exist.

For he says that what he calls “God,” the Supreme Principle, is beyond all distinctions, including good and evil. Distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, are mere appearance, being the result of the operation of human reason, which has to think in terms of dualities and exclusiveness (in other words, the Law of Contradiction!).

I appreciate that on his view the Supreme Principle is beyond the distinction between arbitrary and non-arbitrary as well. But that does not preserve the objectivity of moral values and duties. For there is nothing explanatorily prior to the determination of the Supreme Principle which determines that moral distinctions should appear one way rather than another. If the determination is by will (which I think is incoherent, given that the Supreme Principle is an impersonal entity; but never mind), then this is a blind willing. This just is sheer voluntarism. What the objector calls “God” has no nature prior to His determination. There is no reason why the Supreme Principle should not manifest itself in such a way that killing children is right and loving them is wrong.

Again, I appreciate that on his view “man would not be the way he is, in terms of his moral constitution, if the entire universe did not also conform with the morality so determined.” But the point remains that there is no reason why the universe and its morality should be determined as it is, since the Supreme Principle is qualityless. So the immutability of the appearance is irrelevant; the point remains that it is mere appearance, even if unchangeable.

So in line with classical Advaita Vendanta Hinduism, the objector does not accept premiss 2.

Seen in this light the objector’s view is morally unconscionable. It would require us to say that there is no action you could commit which would be objectively evil, nor is there anything you do, or anybody else does, which is objectively morally praiseworthy or good. Therefore, we have sound moral grounds for rejecting the Vedantist view of God. We may argue:

3. If Advaita Vedanta Hinduism is true, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
4. Objective moral values and duties exist.
5. Therefore, Advaita Vedanta Hinduism is false.

Thus, the very argument we are thinking about gives good moral grounds for rejecting the objector’s view of what he calls “God.”

In fact, when you think about it, on the objector’s view, even the distinction between the Supreme Principle and the world is ultimately illusory. You mustn’t be fooled by his use of words like “God,” “creation,” and so forth, for these words do not have the same meaning in a pantheistic context as in a theistic context. Thus, his view commits us not only to moral illusionism, but even more radically to total illusionism about the world, ourselves, and all that we experience! I cannot think of a worldview more implausible than this.

Indeed, the objector’s view is patently self-contradictory. For he affirms that “the Supreme Principle is, in the most complete sense of the words, Indescribeable, Inexpressible, Indefinite, Infinite, Quality-less.” But this just is to describe the Supreme Principle, to attribute to it certain qualities! Indeed, the objector is somehow able to tell us quite a great deal about the Supreme Principle. This is patently self-refuting--a lesson which certain misguided Christian theologians would do well to take to heart (see my “Pantheists in Spite of Themselves?: Pannenberg, Clayton, and Shults on Divine Infinity” under “Scholarly Articles: Christian Doctrines” on this site)!

Finally, the objector’s view is self-refuting is another way, namely, if human reason “is rooted in our individual (or created/manifested) existence” and, “being relative, is limited to understanding things by contrast (dualities) and exclusiveness,” then reason cannot be trusted to tell us anything about the ultimate nature of reality. There can be no rational grounds for thinking the objector’s view to be true, for if it were true, reason would itself be undermined. Hence, his view cannot be rationally a affirmed.

For further critique take a look at Robin Collins, “Eastern Religions,” in Reason for the Hope Within, ed. Michael J. Murray (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1999), pp. 188-92. Cf. Alvin Plantinga’s critique of John Hick’s notion of the ineffable Real in Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 49-55. See also Stuart C. Hackett, Oriental Philosophy: A Westerner’s Guide to Eastern Thought (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979).

- William Lane Craig