You Can’t Get an Ought From an Is In Hell

One of the questions which comes up in discussions of morality is whether you can get an “ought” from an “is”. This is relevant primarily to discussions of atheism, since to the atheist everything is a brute fact, i.e. an “is” which is not directed towards anything, and therefore an atheist cannot get any “oughts” out of their description of what is. Or in simpler language, if God is dead then all things are permitted. (Note for the unpoetic: by “God is dead” we mean “there is no God”.)

There are two reasons why if God is dead all things are permitted:

  1. If God is dead, who is there to forbid anything?
  2. If God is dead, then there is no ultimate good because all is change and therefore nothing has any lasting reality.

If you argue this sort of stuff with atheists long enough, somewhere along the line while you’re explaining natural ends (telos) and natural morality, you may come by accident to a very interesting point which the atheist will bring up without realizing it. It often goes something like this:

OK, suppose that what God says is actually the only way to be eternally happy. Why should you be eternally happy? Why shouldn’t you do what you want even though it makes you unhappy?

This question sheds some very interesting light on hell, and consequently on what we mean by morality. Our understanding of morality tends to be like what Saint Augustine said of our understanding of time:

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.

Somehow or other atheists tend to assume that ought means something that you have to do, regardless of what you want to do. It’s very tempting to assume that this is a holdover from childhood where ought meant that their parents would make them do it whether or not they wanted to. It’s tempting because it’s probably the case and because that’s not an adult understanding of ought. And it’s not because ultimately we can’t be forced to be good. (Or if this raises your hackles because I’m “placing limits on God”, then just take it as meaning that in any event we won’t be forced to be good.)

Hell is a real possibility. Or in other words, it is possible to see two options and knowingly pick the worse option.

What we actually mean by saying that we ought to do something is that the thing is directed towards the good. And we can clarify this if we bring in a bit of Thomistic moral philosophy: being is what is good. Or as the scholastic phrase goes, good is convertible with being. But being, within creation, is largely a composite entity. A statue is not just one thing, but many things (atoms, molecules, etc.) which, in being ordered toward the same end, are also one thing which is greater than their parts.

And you can see a symphony of ordering to a greater being, in a human being. Atoms are ordered into proteins (and many other things like lipids, etc), which are ordered into cells, which are ordered into organs, which are ordered into human beings. But human beings are not at the top of the hierarchy of being, for we are also ordered into community with other created things. (Please note: being part of a greater whole does not rob the individual of his inherent dignity; the infinite goodness of God means that creation is not a competition. Also note that God so exceeds all of creation that He is not in the hierarchy of being, but merely pointed to by it.)

And so we come to the real meaning of ought. To say that we ought to do something is to say that the thing is ordered towards the maximum being which is given to us. But we need not choose being; we can instead choose non-being. The great lie which the modern project (and, perhaps not coincidentally, Satan) tells us is that there is some other being available to us besides what was given to us by God. That we can make ourselves; that we can give ourselves what we haven’t got. And, not at all coincidentally, are the things which we ought not to do—that is, those things are not ordered toward being. They’re just what the atheist says that all of life is—stimulating nerve endings to fool ourselves that we’ve accomplished something.

And yet atheists complain when one says that, according to them, they’re in hell.

God, at least, has a sense of humor.

Gold Covered Chicken Wings

If you haven’t heard, there’s a restaurant which came up with the idea of gold-covered chicken wings. While there are all sorts of things which could be said about about the wisdom of buying such things, the thing I really want to talk about is the symbolism of the thing.

(Since there’s too much outrage on the internet, I think I should note in passing that due to gold’s astonishing brilliance with only a few atoms of thickness the wings are not actually wildly expensive. You can get 10 wings for $30, which for the location is probably a 3x markup—wasteful, but not very wasteful in absolute terms. You can easily get less food for more money in Manhattan.)

To see the symbolism of the thing, we need to consider what gold-plated food is. Unlike many heavy metals, metallic gold is (basically) inert, which is why it is safe as a food additive. But the fact that it’s inert also means that it has exactly no nutritional value, either. It’s not bad for you, it’s not good for you; it’s just there.

As such it’s an almost pure waste. I say “almost” because it does look pretty, though its beauty in the wrong place. If gold is to be present, it should be on the plates, where its beauty is not destroyed by the act of eating. It should not be on the food itself, where the beauty is destroyed by the act of eating. And that is, I think, the key to the symbolism.

My favorite version of the baptismal promises includes the questions:

Do you reject Satan?

And all his empty promises?

But there is another translation of the second question:

And all his empty show?

Gold-covered chicken wings seem to me an almost perfect illustration of Satan’s empty show. It looks like it has value—but has none—and the acceptance of it destroys even the slight good it uses as a bait.

Hearing the Same Story Twice

One of the great benefits of having friends who are at least twenty years older than oneself is that they have a wealth of life experiences that they are happy to share. This enables one to circumvent the problem in the popular saying:

Good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment.

Having significantly older friends means that one can benefit from their experience. (The same is true of parents, if one can bring oneself to listen to them.)

But there is a problem with listening to the stories of people who are several decades one’s senior: they tend to tell you each story several times. Contrary to popular belief, this is not because they’re old, but because while stories are memorable, the act of telling them isn’t. In fact, telling a story is actually quite hard to remember because the storyteller’s attention is on the story, not on the telling.

Further, older people simply have far more to remember because they’ve got much fuller lives than young people do. Our culture’s obsession with youth not withstanding, older people have far more friends and acquaintances than young people do. They also have vastly more people’s lives and concerns to keep track of.

And since one very remarkable experience—that is, one good story—will touch on many aspects of life, in conversation with one’s older friends their especially good stories will come up from time to time, and they will probably not remember that they already told you that story three years ago. As I said, the story is far more memorable than the telling of it.

There are, at this point, three options:

  1. Interrupt them to tell them they already told you the story.
  2. Let them tell it then tell them that they already told you the story.
  3. Let them tell the story and appreciate it again.

Of the three, the second is the worst option. It’s basically throwing a gift back in the giver’s face. Don’t do this.

The first can be polite, but it’s tricky to pull off. If the story is recognizable in its first few words, you can probably find a pause in the first sentence (or so) to interrupt and ask if it’s the story you’re thinking of—and bear in mind you might be wrong because sometimes different stories sound similar. If it is, then tell the friend how much you like the story. The danger of interrupting them is that you might seem ungrateful or unappreciative of the wisdom being conveyed and telling them how much you appreciate the story—not merely appreciated it in the past, but kept its lessons with you—will ensure that the proper reaction of gratitude is conveyed.

The third option is often the best option. First, because it is the most grateful option. Second, because the same story is often told with different details filled in, so one gets a more complete version of it by putting the two together. Third, because one will probably learn new things from hearing it again. And fourth, because the impossibility of perpetual novelty (while maintaining quality), happiness depends upon the ability to appreciate good things one has already experienced. Hearing a good story again is excellent practice at this.

One should not lie and pretend that one has not heard the story before, but it almost never comes up, and if it doesn’t, there’s no need to bring it up.

And you’re vastly better off having heard the same story twice than not at all.

Atheists’ Bluster

Around a quarter century ago, in my early teens, I did online Christian apologetics in various forums (AOL, usenet, etc.). And something I came across was the habit of atheists using bluster—the extremely confident assertion of things that, if pressed, they couldn’t defend.

In my later teens I took a hiatus from apologetics to spend time learning, to better prepare myself. It ended up being a fairly long hiatus, and by the time I was ready to get back to apologetics I was Catholic and now it was called evangelization. And in the great dealing of thinking and reading and so forth that I did in those years, I  came to the conclusion that reasoned argument was not what most people needed. Atheism was not so much an intellectual position as it is a mental prison. The atheist is in a tiny, cramped little universe, so much smaller than a human mind. What atheists really need—as Chesterton said of the madman in his masterpiece, Orthodoxy—is not arguments, but air. He needs to come in contact with enough truth that he will realize it can’t fit inside his prison, at which point he will realize that he’s not actually inside of a prison, and leave.

But being an open Catholic online and hanging out with the sort of people I hang out with does bring one into contact with a lot of atheists—though almost all of a few related kinds. And in meeting the same sorts of people I was arguing with 25 years ago, I found that they were still using bluster—making assertions with impressive confidence. But as an adult in my 30s, this was nowhere near as intimidating as it was to me when I was 13. And I found something very interesting when I would respond to bald-faced assertions with contrary bald-faced assertions.

I somewhat naively expected to simply come to a standstill of assertions that would result either in agreeing to disagree or providing space for a real discussion to take place. Instead, the atheists tended to get angry. Very angry. And what was curious was that it was the sort of anger one sees from a dog owner who isn’t any good at dog training when their dog fails to perform on command. It’s the anger of, “you’re not doing what you’re supposed to!”

You’ll see this all over the world, from all sorts of people. Doubtless many atheists have gotten this from irate grandmothers. But they were holding themselves up as rational inquirers. But if you scratch the surface, like with gold leaf, you find out that their rationality is just a coating which is only a few molecules thick.

And I started noticing that this applied in other places, too. The people who scream, “only believe things because of evidence!” get awfully huffy when you ask them for evidence of their honesty. They don’t put it that way, but apparently that, you’re supposed to take on faith.

“Don’t believe things without evidence!”

“OK, do you have any evidence that you’re not a moron?”

Again, their principle apparently comes with a lot of unstated qualifications. In theory, this should be an entirely reasonable question since you’re just asking for evidence. Instead you’ll typically hear about “ad homs” (argumentum ad hominem, i.e. arguing that the man is bad as if that proved his conclusion is false, see here for more), which is rather bizarre since a question cannot be a fallacious argument since it is not any kind of argument.

It’s been rather fascinating to see, since these people have great conviction, but it’s not conviction in their own principles. I still haven’t really found what their conviction is in. (I have my suspicions, and it will vary with the individual, of course. But I haven’t come to any definite conclusions yet.)

But it’s been very interesting to see how little there is behind atheists’ bluster.