Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Pelor and the Euthyphro

Those of you who know me know that I am an avid Dungeons and Dragons player as well as a long time student of philosophy. More often than not the latter of these informs my thoughts on the former. I find philosophy fascinating and wonderful, and I believe that fantasy, science fiction, and the comic book/superhero genre are realms in which questions about philosophy, theology, and ethics are asked in new ways and brought to a a reader's mind. I will be touching on this again, I'm sure, as this is more than a bit central to my thinking.

Today I want to discuss the divinity system in D&D, which is wonderfully simple, with one of my favorite issues in philosophy, namely, the Problem of the Euthyphro. One of my favorite things about D&D is that it is so simple, its theology is cut-and-dry, at least in the version I'm used to, and it shows a particular bias on the part of the writers, which I love. The D&D system is not like the Force, which is complicated and multi-faceted and deep.

In a dialogue known as The Euthyphro we encounter a fascinating question about the relationship between the gods and good and evil. (By the way, if your education failed you so thoroughly that you have never read this dialogue, go read it. It is short and fun and classic. Go read. Now.) The question is, essentially, which came first, the chicken or the egg. Let me explain.

Lets take the example X. Most reasonable folks agree that X is good, and notX is bad. It doesn't matter what X actually is, it is just an example, a holder for an action.

The problem is this: is X good because the gods decided it is, or because they like it, or is X good whether or not the gods like it? Is X morally good because it is commanded by the gods, or is X commanded by the gods because it is morally good? Both are problematic.

First, one has to assume that the gods are perfect, that, while they may make lapses of judgement, they are themselves good and try to do good and lead humans to do good things.

Then, take the first option, in which X is good because the gods decided that it is a good thing, the gods voted and they all generally think that X is good and, thus, it is. The problem with this is that you can fill anything into the place of X and it is good. Take the most despicable thing you can imagine and put in the place of X. The gods, who are good and helpful and so forth, can just arbitrarily say anything falls into that category, and thus what is morally good, X, is only so based on their opinion, and anything (even things that we all see as evil) could be good if the gods decided that it is. (And if the gods disagree with each other, then we are really screwed.) Also, if there was ever a time without the gods, what was good and evil then? And if the gods change their minds, does what is good change so that X is currently good but, after some divine council, they decide that X is not bad and notX is to be preferred? Needless to say, this is a problem, especially as it gets picked up in the 4th century CE by Christian (and other monotheist) philosophers and theologians.

On the other hand, is X morally good and the gods command it because it is morally good? While this answer deals with some of the above questions, it is not satisfying upon closer examination. The second answer means that the gods themselves are only teachers, looking to something above themselves for what to teach, no different than a junior high algebra teacher, turning to the book and saying X is good because they understand the nature of the universe. X, then, is bigger and more important than the gods. Also a problem, especially as this question is discussed by monotheists.

So which is it, asks the dialog? Are the gods arbitrary and tyrannical, able to call anything good at their whim? Or are the gods merely teachers, discerning something greater and realer than themselves and passing it along to us humans? Either way, the gods (and later, God as conceived by monotheist thinkers) end up looking kinda dumb.

While I do believe there is an answer to the Problem proposed in this dialogue, and I believe that the Christian faith can give a very clear and true answer, I want to hear your thoughts, and I also want to talk a bit about D&D.

Pelor is the All Father in the D&D cosmology. He is the big good guy, symbolized by the sun, and the most "good" or all the gods, though he is not the only god nor even the only good god. He is the god most opposed to undead (zombies, vampires, etc), and most supportive of good without the restrictions of law and chaos.

Pelor, however, and the rest of the D&D cosmology, falls very distinctly in the second category of the Euthyphro. Pelor does not decide what is good, the gods are not the designers of society so much as they are the judges of good and evil and the teachers of mortals. Pelor supports what is good, but it is good long before Pelor ever ascended. Good is good even if nothing recognizes it, evil is evil even if we all pretend it is not. This makes for a very cut and dry system, in which self sacrifice is good, for example, even in a universe run by evil beings.

However, it is TOTALLY UNSATISFYING for a Christian. Pelor and the D&D gods are subservient to the moral categories around them, but we believe that God is sovereign, wholly holy, and nothing can dictate to God. So, is God a tyrant, and X is good because God just decided that it is, and God in God's divine wisdom, could have decided otherwise? This answer is also unsatisfying (and I think worse) because it makes good and evil arbitrary, and whether or not there are four lights or three or five just doesn't matter.

What are your thoughts? How does one grapple with this question?

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