Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Ultimate Questions

At the conference I attended last month, a couple of the classes served up a fair amount more philosophy than I had expected. I liked that, but it has me thinking of ways to share the information despite both my lack of formal philosophical training (that doesn’t stop me from talking economics, obviously) and the limitations of length I have here. Plus, there’s the hope that I can make this interesting. 

Turtles All the Way Down*
A couple of year’s ago, I read a book called Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar, by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein (preview here). It’s a fun little book, making the point that philosophy teases the brain in the same way a joke does. So they explain the various philosophies mainly through jokes. It’s a quick read too, and not a bad way to overview philosophical points of view. It starts out with this introduction: 

Dimitri: If Atlas holds up the world, what holds up Atlas?
Tasso: Atlas stands on the back of a turtle.
Dimitri: But what does the turtle stand on?
Tasso: Another turtle.
Dimitri: And what does that turtle stand on?
Tasso: My dear Dimitri, it’s turtles all the way down! 

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series (Going Postal and Making Money, that I’ve mentioned lately are from this series) has his semi-magical world resting on the back of a giant turtle, so the cosmic depth of turtles does seem to arise here and there. 

I attended a four-day class on psychology, specifically on spiritual therapy in a secular psychology world. The first 3 ½ days were philosophy, and the last half day covered what I expected (but rather more brilliantly than I had expected). At one point, the teacher said, “It’s turtles all the way down!” and I knew what he was referring to. 

The question being asked is in this little exchange is, what is ultimate? Much of the class covered the more or less competing ideas of Plato (father of philosophy) and Aristotle (the father of science), loosely comparing metaphysics and materialism. What do they each define as “the Good life,” or ultimate Good? And is there an alternative view? Another four-day class I attended was on the culture wars, also much of it dealing with the ultimate Good. 

Is there an ultimate Good? What are the implications if your worldview says yes as opposed to no? 

In the psychology class, one of the lines of thought was whether psychological egoism is true. If it is, then there is no difference between people and a Snickers bar: both are a source of either gratification or frustration. If not gratifying, then why not discard and get another?  

One example was a man faced with the choice of whether or not to have an affair with his secretary. If his wife and the secretary are both considered possible sources of his gratification, then he simply weighs which one is more likely to satisfy and discards the other. But if he views both the wife and the secretary as human beings, created by the same God who created and loves him, then his decision is likely to be different—and more meaningful. 

If you are a “meat machine,” simply a sum total of chemicals and computer-like inputs, with no moral agency, then you will raise your children differently than if you believe you and your children are part of God’s family for always. Worldview matters. 

Do we believe there is ultimate Good, and ultimate Truth? If so, we go about our lives differently from those who think, “That’s your truth, but mine is different. Don’t you dare impose yours on me!” 

I’m an ultimate Good believer, as you’ve no doubt guessed. As a believer, I’d like to propose a list (certainly incomplete) of ultimates, moral Good things, that exist and are true whether we believe or perceive them or not: 

  • God exists.
  • Truth exists and is usually ascertainable.
  • Our existence matters.
  • Life is valuable.
  • Human life is more valuable than animal life or plant life.
  • Liberty is basic—no one has the right to own another person.
  • Property is an outcome of life and liberty, so taking another’s property is wrong, just as taking someone’s life or liberty is wrong.
  • Family (married parents raising their children) is the basic unit of civilization and should be honored and protected.
  • Sexual morality is essential for protecting family.
  • Modesty (wearing clothing that covers our nakedness) is a hallmark of civilization; it helps to honor and maintain sexual morality.
  • Caring about your neighbor as you care about your self is a way to make decisions that civilize (allow people to thrive while living together).
If you hold a worldview similar to mine, you probably agree with all (or nearly all) of these statements, even though we may have various ideas of what our behavior must be based on these beliefs. If we share this basic worldview, then we can overlook differences of manner much more easily than if you’re a relativist who refuses to allow that any of these things are true. 

The discussion here at Spherical Model may sometimes look political or economic, but underlying any such discussions is a worldview that there is ultimate Good. Questions about politics and economics can’t help but relate to how we thing about the ultimate Goods of Life, Liberty, and Property. 

One thing about our founders: they were, on the whole, strong believers in ultimate Good, which is why their ideas resound with us today.
*I don't know the origin of this art, but I found it here.


  1. Interesting you say "Life is valuable." but if you imagine God as an omnipotent being, that can do anything at all - nothing, absolutely nothing would be more valuable than anything else!

    We humans assign "value" to things because it is necessary for us to make choices in order to survive.

  2. Your if/then statement doesn't follow: If God is all powerful, He must not value something more than something else. I believe God prefers goodness, and He knows ultimate goodness. He created us with a purpose, and values our living toward that purpose. God is ultimate Good; He has given us life; we therefore value life.