The False Dichotomy
One of the most famous arguments against the connection between God and morality is the Euthyphro Dilemma. The Euthyphro Dilemma poses this question: Does God will x because it is good, or is x good because God wills it (where x is some action)? If God wills x because because it is good, then the goodness of x is independent of God. God, in this case, refers to some standard beyond Himself, and most theists rightly consider this option to be unacceptable theologically. But, if x is good because God wills it, then the goodness of x becomes arbitrary. God could will, for instance, that I torture children for fun, and torturing children for fun would therefore be good. So, as the Euthyphro Dilemma argues, the whole connection between God and morality becomes problematic, since it results in one of two accounts for that connection, both of which are unacceptable for the theist.
How can the theist get out of the Euthyphro Dilemma? Any good dilemma works because there are only two options to consider. In everyday language, we describe dilemmas with idioms such as "being stuck between a rock and a hard place." With any dilemma, there's no escape; you must choose one or the other option, and neither option is acceptable. If the Euthyphro Dilemma succeeds, it does so because there's no third option for accounting for the connection between God and morality. So, is there a third option?
There is a third option. The third option, recognized by many theist philosophers, is that x is good because it conforms to God's nature and character. In other words, God is the standard for the good. He could not have willed some evil action, such as that I torture children for fun, because such an action would conflict with His nature and character. Therefore, the good is what it is because of God's nature and is not external to Him. The possibility of a third option undermines the Euthyphro Dilemma. We call this failure of a dilemma a "false dichotomy" (or false dilemma).
The false dichotomy is an interesting and subtle fallacy that can be particularly difficult to spot. It is based on a desire common to all of us as rational creatures: a desire to hold a coherent structure of beliefs. If a dilemma is presented to us, its strength is in the fact that we naturally desire to hold a belief consistent with our other beliefs. If we're committed to God's existence and believe that He is good, then the question naturally arises concerning how we are to account for that connection between God and morality. The Euthyphro Dilemma takes advantage of that desire for a coherent account while claiming that there is no way of accounting for God and morality in a way that the theist can accept. If the theist feels trapped by the dilemma, then it can cause serious doubt as to that connection. Someone might even doubt God's existence because of it!
But here, I want to stress what I call exploratory thought. This is not a technical term. I just intend it to refer to an element of our intellectual thought that is willing to go beyond accepted terminology and ways of thinking about things. It seems to me that exploratory thought is one of the most important aspects of being a philosopher. Philosophers are constantly questioning and modifying the conceptual frameworks in which ideas are expressed, and it is by modifying those frameworks that ideas are challenged and new arguments posed. For Christian philosophers, there must be a balance between exploratory thought and the foundational elements of our worldview that we're not willing to abandon, such as the truths of the Christian worldview. It's not always easy to find that balance, but to me, one of most fascinating aspects of doing philosophy as a Christian is trying to find that balance.
Exploratory thought is key to recognizing and undermining false dichotomies. Consider two examples of false dichotomies:
Example 1: If you care about immigrants and refugees, you can't at the same time support detaining them. Either you're for immigrants, or you want to put them in cages.
False dichotomies are very often seen in politics because they're easy ways to argue a political opponent into a corner. Many false dichotomies pair a moral statement (i.e., caring for immigrants and refugees) with a statement of policy (i.e., detaining illegal immigrants). The assumption, of course, is that the person who supports detaining illegal immigrants does not care about immigrants and refugees, which is not necessarily true. So as you can see, false dichotomies can be a way to emotionally manipulate people.
Example 2: Either you believe science, or you believe religion. You cannot believe both.
This one was very common when the so-called New Atheists were prominent in the West. (To some extent, they still are, but their fame has certainly diminished.) The notion was that science was in total conflict with "religion" (whatever that word was supposed to mean) and that one had to pick a side. Of course, this is not true, and this false dichotomy in particular is illustrative of the fact that exploratory thought is key to undermining them. Many books have been written on the relationship between religion and science that have shown that this dichotomy is fallacious. One of the most famous examples of these books is Alvin Plantinga's Where the Conflict Really Lies, where he argues that between science and religion there is "superficial conflict and deep concord." Suffice it to say that this dichotomy is not so simple.
In this series called "Logic Gone Wrong," I like to focus on how learning about these fallacies helps us develop our skills in critical thinking. With the false dichotomy, I want to make two points along these lines. First, don't react immediately to a dilemma when it's posed to you. Because dilemmas are supposed to be a kind of logical trap, slow down and consider the dilemma being posed to you. Second, always ask whether the options being posed in the dilemma are the only two options you have. Is there a third way? Could an either/or instead be a both/and, as is the case with science and religion in many cases? This is where exploratory thought is most helpful. Don't be trapped in a false dichotomy. Instead, use your critical thinking skills to escape the horns of the dilemma.
That's it for this post! These posts are intended to very short and easy to read. I want them to a helpful resource for reference and an introductory resource for people who haven't been exposed to these concepts. I hope that the content will be edifying to you. If you have questions or would like to reach out to me to discuss these things, feel free to comment here or to send me an email or message on Facebook. If this blog has been helpful and interesting for you, feel free to subscribe to be notified of any new posts. Finally, if this post would benefit anyone else, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks for reading!
For the sake of full disclosure, this is the main resource that I will be using for this series. This is an excellent textbook and worth checking into if you want more information on the subject:
Hurley, Patrick J. A Concise Introduction to Logic. Twelfth Edition. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2015.