Friday, January 22, 2010

Divine Command Theory

A couple hours ago my bioethics discussion section finished watching "Who Watches the Watchers," a Star Trek episode where the native hut-dwellers start to believe in a God they call "the Picard." ( In the episode, the people, aware of The Picard's marvelous powers, start trying to guess what he wants them to do. They interpret unseasonable lightning as a sign of his displeasure, and wonder if they should punish a captive for the escape of a stranger they found in order to please The Picard. They seek to know what pleases and displeases The Picard so they can obey him in exchange for favors and punishment forbearance.

After the film one of the students, *Matt, noted how grateful he was that in our religion we do have revelation and a clear understanding of God's will so we're not subject to the vagaries of such primitive superstition. I was reminded of an email conversation I had with a non-member friend of mine:

Me: Thanks for sharing your conversion story with me! It looks like we have a lot of similar beliefs- for instance, salvation through Christ, the reality of Christ's birth and life on earth, and the consequences of sin. You've had powerful spiritual experiences in your life, and it sounds like you are converted!

Friend: A lot in common? Well, it seems like we are saying two different things you and I. Jesus Christ? Ok! Who do you believe Jesus Is? Did your Jesus created the Heaven and the Earth and all that in them is? Including the angels and Lucifer? Is your Jesus the God of the Old Testament? What was Jesus mission on the Earth?
Can two people have a different testimony of the same person from the same Spirit?

Can two people have a different testimony of the same person from the same Spirit? It seems unlikely. I don't think Matt's claim about personal/continuing revelation is unique to the LDS religion (examples below), and when member of faith A claims to receive revelation which contradicts revelation claimed by member of faith B (say, both claim their's is the only true religion God endorses), it's reasonable to conclude that the principle of revelation or the claims of one or both persons is flawed. This contradiction also shows that person C cannot with impunity rely on the claimed revelation of A or B, but must obtain revelation, if it is necessary, for him or herself.

Therefore, if it truly is difficult to know what "The Picard" wants, it seems to make more sense to decision make using more handy ethical tools, like rational utilitarianism or at the least Kantian deontology. Otherwise you run into difficulties like obeying when one receives seemingly unGodlike commands such as "Abraham, kill your innocent son" or "Nephi, kill that defenseless man lying over there." Absent clear revelation, it's be better to evaluate those choices using deontological tools such as "I have a duty not to kill defenseless people and children" or teleological ones like "if I slay the defenseless man, I might more easily obtain the record... but on the other hand, the law will be after me... on the other hand..." etc. Deliberate practice in using these ethical approaches seems more likely to construct a skilled, advanced ethical decision maker than does a divine command theorist working off a spotty and unreliable revelation principle. (will revelation to guide me in this particular circumstance come, and if so will it be clear?) It seems that Nephi and Abraham had no trouble receiving and identifying clear, abundant, and situation-specific revelation: this condition seems much different from most of the "groping-in-the-dark" decision making I'm familiar with. So is the superior objective to get good at 1) short-cutting (skillfully getting the omniscient God to tell you the answer to all the hard problems) or 2) developing independent powers of ethical reasoning?
"In the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), continuing revelation comes from the Inner light or the light within. This light has traditionally been identified as the Spirit of Christ or Christ within, although not all Friends associate the Inner Light with Christ. It is understood as the presence of God which provides illumination and guidance to the individual and through individuals to the group."

"This dissertation entitled �€˜Knowledge, Belief .and Faith: A Comparative Study of Christian and Islamic Epistemologies�€™ is focused on an inquiry into the epistemic structure and cognitive validity of religious faith and belief. The aim of this dissertation is to compare and contrast Christian and Islamic pictures of the Divine and to investigate the conditions under which an understanding and knowledge of God occurs. The concerned questions are: How revelation, religious experience, and knowledge on testimony and trust are relevant to epistemology? How religious knowledge-claims are explained in terms of their relation to rational belief?"

"In the Western monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, revelation is the basis of religious knowledge."

Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians generally believe that Christians, especially "Spirit-filled" Christians can receive revelations from God in the form of dreams, visions, and audible or inaudible voices. They also believe that certain individuals are able to transmit revelations from God in the form of prophecy, words of knowledge, and speaking in tongues and interpretation of tongues.

"Different gods in the Daoist pantheon are designated for temples which have to go through the rigour of acceptance before the contents are recognized as authorized communiques from heaven."

"Progressive revelation is a core teaching in the Bahá'í Faith that suggests that religious truth is revealed by God progressively and cyclically over time through a series of divineMessengers, and that the teachings are tailored to suit the needs of the time and place of their appearance.[3][4] "

"[Islam] shares with Judaism and Christianity the belief that the only and One God unveils himself through revelation and speaks through scriptures he has revealed to his prophets."

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