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One of the most common and profound misconceptions about faith is that God is necessary to be moral and to find meaning in life. The ancient Greeks would have been surprised by this odd way of looking at things. To begin with, for them there was no distinction between the moral and the meaningful life: Aristotle thought that life can only be meaningful (“eudaimonic,” as he would say) if it is lived morally. The immoral tyrant or robber baron may think he is happy, but he actually just doesn’t get it.
Indeed, Plato tells us a little story that is still considered — 24 centuries later — a pretty definitive refutation of the idea that gods are necessary for morality (and hence, to live a meaningful life). Come along back in time with me, and imagine seeing Socrates heading for the Athenian courts, where he will eventually be condemned for corrupting the city’s youth and put to death. On his way to hear the charges, he meets Euthyphro, a pompous fellow who confidently tells Socrates that he always does the right thing because he knows what the gods consider the Right to be (does that sound familiar in these times of perennial political campaigning?).
Socrates professes great humility and begins to probe Euthyphro about his alleged knowledge (this is a splendid example of the so-called Socratic method). At some point during the discussion Socrates poses a question that has ever since been known as Euthyphro’s dilemma: is something right because the gods say it is, or do the gods say that something is right because it is? Euthyphro’s first answer is to take the first option, just like many religious believers would do today. But, Socrates immediately points out that, if that’s the case, then this simply means that morality is arbitrary: should the gods decide that rape and genocide are right, then they would be (for a number for examples, check your copy of the Old Testament).
Euthyphro concedes the point and takes the second horn of the dilemma: the gods simply know what is right. Ah, says Socrates, but if that’s the case, morality is independent of the gods, and just as they can figure out what is right and what is wrong, so can we (through philosophy, of course). No middle man — or middle God — needed, thank you very much. At which point Euthyphro, seeing no way out, beats the hastiest retreat in the history of intellectual disputations.
Plato’s point in writing the dialogue remains vital today: gods are unnecessary in order for us to figure out the right thing to do, and consequently the right way to live. How do we do it, then? In “Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life “I explore the possibility that we can get our guidance from what I call “sci-phi,” a combination of science and philosophy.
Think about it: after all, science is by far the best approach human beings have devised to learn about how the world works — and surely that sort of knowledge is necessary to make good decisions about how to live. Philosophy, on its part, is a way to reflect about our choices, our priorities, and in general why we do what we do. It seems to follow, then, that the smart thing to do is to learn from the best of what science and philosophy can tell us in order to make the most informed decisions we can in our lives. Aristotle (and Plato, and Socrates) would have approved.
Massimo Pigliucci is professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and author of “Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life.” His essays can be found at rationallyspeaking.org