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Utilitarian theories hold that the rightness of an action depends wholly on consequences. For example, the most basic (act) utilitarian theory states that an action is right just as long as it is the one that maximises pleasure and minimises pain. More complex utilitarian theories present variations on this theme - for instance, rule utilitarianism states that an action is right if it conforms to a rule, which brings about the best consequences if it is generally followed. So, while a single act of murder might bring about more pleasure than pain (say, painlessly killing a healthy patient and harvesting his organs to save five other patients), things would be happier overall if the rule 'do not murder' was generally obeyed, than if it wasn't (because people would be constantly fearing for their lives, etc).

We can set these nuances aside for our purposes. Let's focus on a problem that faces all brands of utilitarianism, which we'll call the calculation problem. On any utilitarian theory, knowing whether a given action is right depends on knowing future consequences, whether of the action itself, or the rule that the action instantiates, or whatever else. Critics point out that it can be very difficult to know the future consequences of anything. Our ability to predict the future is limited, especially regarding long-term consequences. For all we know, a drowning child might lead to said child growing up to becoming a ruthless, murderous dictator. And the 'algorithms' put forward by utilitarian thinkers, like Jeremy Bentham's 'felicific calculus', are quite complicated, including many variables like the intensity and duration of the pleasures (and pains) produced, how soon these will occur, the number of people affected, and the 'quality' of the pleasures (in J.S. Mill's version). Not only is this impractical in situations where we need to act fast (do I save the drowning child or not?), it also implies a kind of moral scepticism: since we can never really know what the consequences of our actions will be, we can't know whether our actions are right or wrong. The objection goes something like this: (1) If utilitarianism is true, for any action, we can't know that this action is morally right or wrong.

(2) But we can know that some actions are morally right or wrong (e.g. we can know that torturing people for fun is morally wrong) (3) Therefore, utilitarianism is false.

Here, the utilitarian has an obvious reply to (1): we might not be able to be absolutely certain of the future consequences of something, but we can be reasonably confident about them, and thus reasonably confident that such-and-such action is morally right or wrong. And maybe that's enough for knowledge (unless you're an infallibilist, but that's another topic). Sure, it's strictly possible that torturing someone for fun will somehow lead to the greatest happiness somewhere down the line, but let's face it, how plausible is this?

Not so fast. Let's tweak the above argument a bit: (1') If utilitarianism is true, I cannot be absolutely certain that torturing someone for fun is not morally right.

(2') I can be absolutely certain that torturing someone for fun is not morally right.

(3') Therefore, utilitarianism is false.

(1') is motivated by the fact that we can never be 100% certain of any future event, even with a mountain of evidence to the effect that it will occur. No matter how many times you have seen the sun rise in the morning, there is always some chance (however slim) that it won't rise tomorrow morning. What about (2')? Try to conceive of a scenario where torturing someone for fun is not only 'not-wrong' (i.e. morally permissible) but in fact the right thing to do. Are you able to? For my part, I cannot - moral truths like 'torturing someone for fun can never be morally right' strike me as self-evident in the same way that logical truths like 'X and not-X cannot both be true' are. But if you somehow can, consider the most morally abominable act (or rule) that you can think of. Try to think of a far-fetched scenario in which it brings about the greatest good for the greatest number (if you think hard enough, you will be able to). Next, try to imagine that this act is somehow morally right. Can you? I suspect not.

The best way out for the utilitarian would be to deny that it is actual consequences that make an action right or wrong, but rather reasonably expected consequences (Bentham seems to have believed this). This is sometimes referred to as 'reasonable utilitarianism'. I may not be able to know that consequence C will actually occur, but perhaps I can be certain that my expectation that C will occur is reasonable. Can I really be certain of this, though? I am not so sure. Whether an expectation is 'reasonable' depends on whether it is sufficiently likely given my evidence. Unfortunately, we can never fully rule out that we are mistaken about the evidence that we have. Knowing what evidence we have almost always requires us to rely on memory - for instance, to know that I have seen the sun rise hundreds of times, I need to remember this. But relying on memory to know past events, much like relying on our predictive powers to know future events, can never give us certainty. For any memory, no matter how strong or seemingly accurate, we can never rule out that it is distorted or perhaps even entirely false. But if I can't be certain of what evidence I have, I cannot be certain that my expectation of C is likely given my evidence, and thus cannot know whether my expectation is reasonable.

We are thus back where we started: utilitarianism (in the above modified form) entails that I cannot know for certain that some action is morally wrong, since I cannot know for certain that my expectations of the relevant consequences are reasonable. But if we can know for certain that some actions are morally wrong - which we surely can - then it follows that utilitarianism has a false implication, and therefore is false.

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  • Writer's picturechris de ray

We saw in a previous article that the Incarnation is the means by which God shares his divine life with human beings, transforming them into his likeness, so that they can eternally enjoy perfect fellowship and union with him. As I will now argue, this has some interesting implications for (as it were) the specific 'mechanics' of the Incarnation.

How exactly does the eternal God 'become Man'? The most straightforward interpretation would have God literally transforming himself into a human being, exchanging his divine nature for a human one. But this is a non-starter. For losing his divine nature would surely entail losing the power to share the divine life with human beings. Hence on this simple account, the incarnation not only fails to fulfil its purpose, it makes said purpose impossible to fulfil.

The divine nature, then, must remain intact in order for the Incarnation to achieve its goals. That is why Christian theology has consistently taught that the Incarnation consists in the union of a divine nature and a human nature, not the transformation of a divine being into a human being.

But what exactly is this 'human nature' that the divine Word unites itself to? Well, one view is that it is simply a human body. The fourth century Christian bishop Apollinaris argued that in the Incarnation, God the Son simply took the place that an ordinary human soul would normally occupy. This sort of position is sometimes referred to as 'Word-flesh' (Logos-sarx) Christology. Its opponents charged that, here again, the view jeopardizes the efficacy of the Incarnation. Another bishop and contemporary of Apollinaris, Gregory of Nazianzus, put it like this:

The unassumed is the unhealed, however, that which is united to his Godhead is saved. If only half of Adam fell, then Christ assumes and saves only that half of his nature. But if his nature fell in its totality, then it must all be united to the nature of him who was begotten, and thus be saved in its totality. Let them not begrudge us our salvation in its totality, or clothe the savior with nothing more than bones and nerves and something which looks like humanity.

Let's try to unpack this a bit. If it is human nature as a whole that is to be regenerated and deified, and not simply its bodily component, God must unite himself to a complete humanity, both body and soul. Otherwise, God would not really be sharing his divine life with humanity at all. Further, and as we saw in the last article, the most important aspects of deification have to do with the character of the human soul, which is called to partake of God's love, perception, joy etc. Hence an Incarnation that failed to deify the soul would fall well short of what it promised.

For these reasons and others, the opposing 'Word-man' ( Logos-anthropos ) Christology eventually won out and became normative to mainstream Christianity, which affirmed that the divine Word of the Father and a particular human body-soul complex were perfectly unified in the person of Christ. The Third Council of Constantinople (680) went as far as to declare that there exist two distinct wills in Christ, one divine and one human.

This raises questions about the unity of the person of Christ, as it seems to imply two 'Christs', one divine and one human. I hope to discuss this i a future article.

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"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." John 1:14

The Incarnation is surely the central claim of the Christian faith. Unsurprisingly, it is also controversial. Chief among its critics are Muslim apologists, who routinely accuse Christians of committing idolatry (shirk) by teaching that Jesus Christ is the divine Word made flesh, God made Man. 'Incarnation-bashing' seems an ancient Islamic tradition, since it goes at least as far back as Ibn al-Qayyim, a medieval Muslim intellectual who opened a well-known polemical poem with the following words:

"O Christ-worshippers! We want an answer to our question. If the Lord was murdered by some people’s act, what kind of god is this?"

We may read this as an objection to the effect that being "murdered" is unbefitting of divine majesty. And sure enough, Al-Qayyim lists various other dishonourable things which Christ engaged in or underwent, such as being fed in the womb, eating and drinking, and yes, defecating.

Perhaps a more interesting reading would be that God, by his very nature, could not have underwent what Christ underwent. In particular, God being by nature immortal and indestructible, could not have experienced physical death, let alone death on the cross. But Christ did experience these things. Therefore, Christ cannot possibly be God made Man.

This is ironic, because a very useful way of beginning to make sense of the Incarnation is to take a look at the traditional Sunni Islamic teaching on the nature of the Qur'an, Islam's holy book. Sunni Muslims (i.e. 80-90% of all Muslims) are indeed taught that the Qur'an is uncreated. In the words of the great 10th Century Muslim theologian Al-Ashari,

"God has said: "When we will a thing our only utterance is that we say to it 'Be!' and it is". So if the Qur'an had been created, God would have said to it "Be." But the Qur'an is His speech, and it is impossible that His speech be spoken to (...) [hence] it is false that the Qur'an is created" (source)

The Quran is thus the eternal speech of God; uncreated, unchangeable and indestructible. Such lofty titles make it difficult to resist drawing parallels with the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, as does the Islamicist Wilfried Cantwell Smith, who writes that "What corresponds in the Christian scheme to the Qur’an is not the Bible but the person of Christ".

Sure enough, the Sunni view of the Qur'an raises questions similar to those mentioned above. The 'speech' of God is supposed to be an eternal attribute or mode of God. But the Qur'an has many features which would seem to preclude its identification with said 'speech'. First of all, it is a book, and all books necessarily come to being when they are written down for the first time. Further, written books can and have been completely destroyed. It wouldn't help to say that the Quran isn't in fact a written book, but an oral recitation, because oral recitations (like songs) likewise come to being when they are first uttered, and cease to exist when no one remembers them anymore. Finally, the Qur'an is in Arabic, and Arabic, like all languages, is a created thing.

The Sunni doctrine of the Qur'an thus faces a familiar-sounding challenge: the eternal speech of God, by its very nature, is uncreated and cannot possibly undergo destruction. But the Qur'an, like every other book, was created and can be destroyed. Therefore, the Qur'an cannot be the eternal speech of God.

How may one respond to the challenge? Al-Ashari's followers distinguished the eternal speech of God itself from two other 'levels of speech', i.e. utterance and writing*. These two clearly are created things. But they are also means through which something uncreated, i.e. divine speech, is expressed. In other words, the uncreated, eternal speech of God is made manifest in a created, transient thing.

Hence we are left with two sharply distinct things, one divine and the other created, which are nevertheless closely united, for the purposes of divine self-revelation and human salvation, enabling human beings to access the divine component through the created one.

This of course is in many ways analogous to what Christians have always taught about the relationship between the Father's Eternal Word, i.e. his perfect Wisdom or self-knowledge, and the created human nature to which it became united, for the salvation of mankind. The divine nature dwells in the weak, suffering and dying human nature so derided by Ibn Al-Qayyim. The natures remain distinct; neither is absorbed into the other, nor are they fused into a single nature. They are nevertheless perfectly unified, in what Christian theologians call the hypostatic union.

Let us conclude, then, that if Sunni Muslims are going to object to the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, they will need to point to something objectionable which isn't also instantiated by their own doctrine of Quranic uncreatedness.

But there is much, much more to say about the Incarnation. Stay tuned for the next few articles.

*Abdullah Sa'eed (1999)

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