God’s Vigilantes

The Vigilantes seal from the cover of Fifes an...

In anticipation of teaching my Modern philosophy class in the upcoming spring semester, I have been perusing my notes. Since I recently did a post on God and punishment, re-reading Locke got me thinking about this matter once again.

Locke, like other political thinkers of his age, made use of the state of nature in his consideration of rights and authority. Roughly put, the state of nature is a situation in which there is no political authority: no politicians, no police, no judges, no man-made laws and so on. In short, there is no artificial society-just people existing in a natural state.

Thomas Hobbes also envisioned such a state, but he saw this as  a state of perpetual war. Since many of my students play video games, I always illustrate Hobbes as presenting a “death match” view of the state of nature: everyone against everyone, whatever you can grab is yours (until someone kills you and takes it), and so forth.  Locke, however, envisioned a nicer state in which people possessed natural rights to life, liberty and property.

Locke also contended that there is a law of nature that should be observed and that this law “wills the peace and preservation of all mankind.” Locke also noted the obvious: if there is no one to execute or enforce the law of nature, this law would be in vain.

To solve this problem, Locke claimed that in the state of nature everyone has the right to execute the law of nature by punishing wrongdoers who violate the right to life, liberty or property.  Locke, of course, grounds these rights on God. Our right to life rests on his view that we are God’s property and our right to property rests, in part, on God’s gift of the world to us. Put a bit simply, God is the legislator of the law of nature and the author of our rights. However, given what Locke claims, God respects the distinction between the executive and the legislative in that He does not enforce the law of nature nor does He act to prevent or punish (on earth) the violation of rights. He does not even dispatch angels to act as divine police. As such, on Locke’s view the state of nature is governed by divine law but God does deploy any enforcers.

In human societies when laws exist but there are no official enforcers, people sometimes turn to vigilantism. That is, people take the law into their own hands. In human societies, this practice is generally frowned upon-at least when law enforcement does exist. It is, as might be imagined, tolerated more (or even encouraged) when official law enforcement is lacking.

Given that in the state of nature there is law (the law of nature) but no official enforcers, what Locke is arguing for is vigilantism. In short, he calls upon people to serve as God’s vigilantes. Naturally, it might be wondered why God would need vigilantes rather than having official law enforcement in operation. After all, God surely cannot lack the funding or personnel to provide adequate policing. Given that He supposedly created the universe and all its contents, surely He could create a divine police force to supervise us here on earth. This force would not, of course, impede our free will anymore than our own police forces do: people are always free to chose to do wrong-they just get punished if they get caught and convicted.

As far as the view that God does not punish and hence does not need police , given what most faiths claim, God has no compunction against punishing people. He just seems rather reluctant to do so when people are watching.

It might be argued that God has deployed a police force, namely us. We are, of course, also the criminal element and the judges as well. However, this seems a rather odd way of doing things. Consider the following analogy: imagine a federation or empire with unlimited resources that is engaged in colonization. The way it colonizes is that it just dumps people on a habitable world, but provides them with no technology, no police, no education and so on. While this would make some sense for a poor empire that cannot afford proper colonization efforts, this would seem absurd for such a wealthy empire.

In the case of God, it seems absurd that He would just dump us on a planet and have us “go to it” on our own with no support or police.  This hypothesis seems, on might suspect, more absurd than the hypothesis that humans are the result of a seriously lame (or badly failed) colonization attempt by a space empire. After all, to say that we are ruled over by a God who makes rules, but provides no police or judges here on earth seems rather like saying that we are ruled over by a space empire that laid down our laws, but provides no police, judges or any contact with us.

This analogy also provides the obvious response to the claim that God punishes people in the afterlife. Imagine if someone claimed that we are part of a space empire and that just before people appear to die they are whisked away by transporters and their bodies replaced with duplicates. The supposedly dead people are then brought to the Court of the Space Empire and then tried by Space Lawyers before the Space Judges. If they are found guilty of crimes, they are cast into Space Hell to be punished. If they are found to be innocent, they are transported to Space Heaven and rewarded. Naturally, we are all really immortal-we just seem to die when we are transported away and replaced by a fake corpse (or ashes or whatever).

Just as we have every reason to think that the space empire story is just bad science fiction, it would seem that we should think that the story about God is just a bad fantasy story.

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34 Comments.

  1. Happy New Year Mike

    I think, it would be awfully boring if, God provided us with the Police, Judges, technology, and all the products and services we need. What would we do?

    Let’s go one step further; imagine we all had predictive capabilities – so we could predict the future & we can know what went on in the past and that we all had unlimited knowledge. What then would we do with ourselves.

    So maybe God or some Space Empire, in their wisdom, thought, it might be best to entice and induce us to learn, establish laws, establish politics, establish structures, find pregressive ways of using the unlimited resources we have in this World and this Universe – and in the process we might find happiness for successes, sadness for failures, pain and pleasure, liberty and incarceration, evil and benevelence, haven and hell…you get my drift.

    Having duality in everything, enables us to progressively learn more & better, and improve the products and services we seek in pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. And the evidence of our progress is here today; we have fewer wrongdoers, fewer wars, better technology etc than there was, some 100, 200 years ago.

    Where Locke’s observations are sound, is the closer we are able to mimic how nature does things, the better products and services we produce for ourselves. For example, we could have superior computers, if we could accurately design computers and get them to work like our brains.

    So it may be that the theory is for us to continously develop better punishments – re retribution, reparation and deterents in our desire to have fewer wrongdoers – And I guess it does not do us any harm if we could get a few would-be-wrongdoers (which arguable is all of us – depending on your definition of wrong doing), to think that if we fail to administer the appropriate punishment here on earth, they could find themselves in Hell, when they die. Who knows, it might actually be true -and that, I guess, is the curiosity, and the fun in not knowing.

    Life is not so boring afterall.

  2. But the Bible does promote the establishment of governments of man.

  3. Sorry, I suppose we could imagine that it doesn’t.

  4. Dennis Sceviour

    Mike concludes:
    “…it would seem that we should think that the story about God is just a bad fantasy story.”

    Perhaps it is the story of law and punishment that is a bad fantasy nightmare. It depends on which biased perspective one looks at it.

  5. Being a gamer, I am sympathetic to the game view of the universe. After all, if I ran a campaign in which there was no conflict (“You enter the ruins of the ancient city and see a gleaming pile of gold. Suddenly, a dragon blots out the sky and says ‘hey, help yourself to the gold…plenty for everyone!’”) or super beings prevented trouble (“you draw your pistol, but an angel turns it into a bouquet of flowers before you can shoot”) no one would want to play.

    However, if God is setting up the world like a game, then He would be a different sort of God than the one normally envisioned. After all, as a game master I need to create evil and such in the world for the players to face and the idea that God does this seems a bit inconsistent with his being good. Unless, of course, we assume that the poor villagers who are being slaughtered are just NPCs (non player characters) that God creates to give us someone to rescue. If those villagers are people like us and God is causing them to be slaughtered to amuse us, well…that would not be very nice.

  6. Dennis Sceviour

    “…if God is setting up the world like a game”

    Predictability and consistency are important issues. Nature is very predictable. We can predict the sun will rise tomorrow and gravity will not suddenly disappear. If this is the meaning of nature (or God), then nature is like a game with rules.

    However, contrived law in the real world is not like a computer game. Legality changes every time we turn our backs, and with every election. And those who enforce law, or undertake vigilante measures is the name of God, are using the rules when it suits them, and ignoring the rules when it suits them. There is no predictability or consistency.

  7. Mike,

    Aren’t you claiming that all governments established by man are by definition forms of vigilantism?

  8. Mike, it could actually be a balanced game – because if you follow on with the logic, the Villagers who are killed, may go to Haven, and the Killers, to Hell. Then when they are re-incarnated, the Villagers become the Masters, and the Killers, the poor Villagers. We’ll see what the new Masters do then- do they kill the new Villagers?

  9. The term “vigilantes” is a loaded pejorative term, a kind of “who watches the watchmen” (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?) allusion. It is less polemic to simply say “agents”.

    There’s a solid argument in philosophy and theology (not to mention scifi) that we are agents in a construct (perhaps multiple layers of such). Indeed in this we are free agents, that can choose to act in accordance with natural law (good) or against it (evil), and perhaps there are intention for such a construct and consequences for the agents.

    I see in earlier comments the simulation argument (in terms of the personal observable universe is a kind of MMPORPG a kind of objective/absolute idealism of Peirce or Hegel perhaps). It is hard to argue it is not, other that by faith in axiomatic principles of realism.

    In terms of thinking about God, if the universe/multiverse is a simulation construct, we can conceive of God as the terminating architect, or the effective sum of infinite layers of constructs (and their architects) “above” us. In theological terms this can be made to work with an Anselm/Leibniz/Godel Ontological Argument.

  10. Pod,

    Provided that the game does balance out, then it could be okay. I’ve been playing SWTOR and one PvP battle follows a model set by WOW: each faction plays one side of the battle, then switches sides. So, if God sets it up so the massacred villages get to come back well armed and decide whether to get the bad guys, that might create a system of cosmic justice. Or vengeance. :)

  11. Nature is generally predictable, but (as a gamer) I think that the most plausible model of nature includes chance. It is interesting how well a random table and a set of dice can model the actual world. :) So, I would say that God totally plays dice with the universe.

    As you note, our laws are less consistent and the powers that be can simply make anything legal or illegal. Of course, whether this lawmaking has any impact is another matter.

  12. Dennis Sceviour

    “God does not play dice (Albert Einstein)”

  13. Good article, but the criticism of God seems to rely on you having correctly discerned (from God’s perspective) what the world was made for, what it aims at, and what we as subjects are supposed to achieve. You can only criticise the means to an end if you know what that end is. If ‘harmonious colonisation’ were the only intention, it would be a strange way of going about it, yes, but if it is all directed towards some other goal, then perhaps not. One way or another, your conclusion rests very heavily on assumptions about the world that are unlikely to be shared by Christians (or God Himself).

  14. Jordan,

    True-judging an endeavor a failure does require knowing its purpose. Naturally, I assume that God would punish for the same reasons we do: retribution and deterrence. Perhaps revenge and maybe rehabilitation. God could, of course, have utterly alien and bizarre (to us)goals in mind-but we have no reason to think this. Maybe. :)

  15. Einstein was totally wrong about that. A random universe matches the evidence way better than a dice less universe. Einstein was corrupted by Spinoza. Now, if he had played D&D, he would have said, as a friend did, that “God rolls the D20s hard, bitches.”

  16. Dennis Sceviour

    Much philosophical debate revolves around an either/or argument. Is it a deterministic or a free will world? Is it ordered or random? Is it extrinsic or intrinsic? Should there be rule or act utilitarianism?

    A current theory of chaos is that both order and randomness exist but at different times. Material in the universe disrupts and then reorganizes into something similar, but not quite the same as before. (Perhaps something like level 1 to 2 in D&D, but don’t ask me for sure. I have never played the game)

    A strict view of chaos is that future behaviour is determined by the initial conditions, with no random elements involved. However, it may read too much into the theory to reject the possibility of randomness.

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/chaos/

  17. There are two viewpoints here. 1/ there is the God game. This is extraordinarily popular, highly complex, an example of the imaginative ingenuity of human beings and their ability to invent rules of the game. It has been played by countless millions or people and is still very popular. There are many variations of it too. Similar to most good computer games, if you play it good, and hard, and long, and study under a master, you will find some trouble in divorcing it from reality.
    2/ Then there is Reality. That is hard, it is not a game, as most often you experience the results of whatever decisions you make in your life. All you know, or think you know, is that death is a certainty, and only you, can make the best, or worst, of your life. You are ultimately answerable to no one other than yourself. Good life or bad life, all that awaits you is re entry into the oblivion which existed before you were born. This is a pretty stark prospect, no wonder so many bury their fears in playing the God game.

  18. Dennis Sceviour

    Don writes,
    “…most often you experience the results of whatever decisions you make in your life.”

    This seems made with an unsupported certitude. I would say it is the epitome of a free will philosophy.

  19. @Don Bird. Labelling one’s opinion about the nature of the universe ‘reality’ is not actually an argument. You may have lots of agreement with you, but self-congratulation is not actually a help to the atheist cause or a challenge to the Christian one, so I’m not sure why so much of it goes on in your camp.

  20. Dennis Sceviour

    @Jordan Pickering,
    Don Bird is one of the best writers on this site. My only surprise is that he has not submitted an article for discussion. As to the issue of his of his self-actualization, perhaps it was my fault for trying to goad him into another debate. If I interpret correctly, Don was suggesting that the approach to God (for those who believe in the existence of) could be without following dogmatic rules.

  21. @Dennis. Maybe my comment for Don came off a bit more bitingly than I intended. Sorry about that — I get that a lot.

    Still think my point holds though; his comment ends with the assumption that oblivion is so terrible and fearful a prospect that people ‘play a God game’ instead. I’m merely objecting to the use of labels that assert a conclusion, rather than any sort of helpful interaction with the issues.

    I suppose that is not entirely fair; at least positing a motivation of fear of oblivion is a semblance of an argument. It’s just a really problematic explanation of religion without any real support, at least of Judeo-Christianity (and given that most early religion was more properly a means of coping with the here-and-now, not the afterlife, it doesn’t explain them either). Extinction of oneself may seem unacceptable to some, but the entire way of Buddhism is motivated by achieving exactly that, because it’s so much better than living again in this world (or at least Indo-China :wink: ). Judgement is scarier than oblivion in any case, so it’s a pretty dumb move to invent a religion in order to cope with fear, and then immediately invent something more terrible in order to keep the hoi polloi in check. It’s not a coherent reconstruction, nor supportable (in any way that my studies have led me) from the historical development of Judeo-Christian faith.

  22. “Duplicate comment detected; it looks as though you’ve already said that!”
    Yes I have all 832 words of it, Four attempts so far but nothing, so far as I can see appears on the the site.

  23. Don’t undertsand why Don, it doesn’t appear to be in the system, trying reposting it with an extra sentence added on top. And I’ll see if anything occurs that I can fix.

  24. Oh dear, I’m about to get it in the neck, am I?

  25. Well Jordan, it appears the Good Lord may be intervening on your behalf.

    Don, trying cutting n copying out the comment, refreshing the page and entering your comment with a slight change….

  26. Thanks Jim here it is again With a couple non essential paragraphs created. This will be my fifth attempt.
    My submission 4th Jan was written in part to be provocative, to tempt replies. That said however it does have a serious side as it represents my worst fears. If I am not cremated I shall be ‘damnable mouldy a hundred years hence’ cf Thomas Jordan http://www.daypoems.net/poems/328.html I do not follow Thomas Jordan’s recommendations but as a threshold atheist I take his point.
    I would like nothing more than sincerely to believe some sort of supreme power has my well being at heart and if I come up to expectations in this world, the whole of pleasurable eternity is open to me.
    Unfortunately my mind governs my heart, my fancy maybe. Jordan Pickering has suggested, perhaps with some justification, that I am not submitting an argument. My first thought here is what sort of argument do believers in God present? Other than ancient records and the beliefs of ancient superstitious people, still preserved to this day, there seems little that one can get one’s teeth into. Certainly nothing can be tested or shown to be the case. That of course is no reason to reject it, which is why I regard myself as a threshold atheist, interested in religion as a psychological phenomenon.
    I must admit to finding these ongoing arguments about God somewhat tiresome each side trying to outdo the other with much erudition, eloquence, and reference to this and that other authority. I ask my self why does Dawkins spend so much time on opposing religious belief, there must surely be better things to do and examine in his line of business, as an Ethologist and Evolutionary biologist. I suppose religious belief can in certain circumstances be harmful, episodes of history reveal this, and currently Creationism and Intelligent Design are a threat to the educational systems of young people. So from that viewpoint it does seem beneficial if scientifically educated minds speak out. From my viewpoint it is unfortunate that some scientists have had their minds adulterated with strong religious viewpoints which accordingly can on occasions adulterate their output.
    I am not sure what Jordan Pickering means by ‘self congratulation.’ From what I have said there seems little with which to congratulate myself. As I said, ‘a stark outlook.’ The true believer must be more comfortable and self congratulating than I. He is at one with his god with the belief that the best is yet to come. The question is; would I change places with him. The answer is, and I think it is an informed answer, NO! So far as I am concerned for me God has been no more than a massive silence, which I construe as absence.
    Yes Dennis Sceviour and I have had some interesting and fruitful discussions in the past concerning Problems in Evolution, Human cognition, and the cognitive processes and language in Parrots. He has accused me but not unkindly, in being too ready to agree and less to oppose. Philosophically I prefer to engage in discussion rather than argument and to look for points of agreement rather than absolute disagreement. I feel that way some progress may be made. I sometimes read here of disagreements which borders on ill feeling. For me that is a blind alley. I disagree with the religious viewpoint and will say why but I have no desire to go on ad infinitum on something which is leading nowhere. On occasions Dennis pointed out what he considered were misconceptions on my part in say, the interpretation of evolution, for which I was grateful and replied accordingly. Whilst I am in this vein I noticed recently that Leo Smith pointed out the tendency to quote authorities rather than come up with one’s own ideas, which may well have been blended with one’s own prior reading. I think he has a good point here. Constant reference to J S Mill can become a little tiresome. By the way, if you want to get some idea of scientific methodology, Mill’s Methods, which concern five methods of induction are described in his 1843 book ‘A System of Logic’. I have yet to find a scientist who is aware of them, which is of some interest.
    I accept that my views on god are an hypothesis reached by observation of human beings and their works, together with what knowledge I have gained by virtue of much reading and thought. Of course I cannot verify my hypothesis, how can I to prove a negative, it is next to impossible? In any case the onus is on the believer to prove his/her case and I fear he/she is in a similar position to me in that connection save the fact that they only grapple with a positive.
    I wrote this before reading Jordan’s last submission which is now receiving my attention.
    This is my fourth attempt to upload this to the site. I am beginning to wonder if the hand of God is intervening and preventing my blasphemous utterances becoming available to all and sundry.

  27. Part 1
    Thanks Jim here it is again Half of it
    My submission 4th Jan was written in part to be provocative, to tempt replies. That said however it does have a serious side as it represents my worst fears. If I am not cremated I shall be ‘damnable mouldy a hundred years hence’ cf Thomas Jordan http://www.daypoems.net/poems/328.html I do not follow Thomas Jordan’s recommendations but as a threshold atheist I take his point.
    I would like nothing more than sincerely to believe some sort of supreme power has my well being at heart and if I come up to expectations in this world, the whole of pleasurable eternity is open to me.
    Unfortunately my mind governs my heart, my fancy maybe. Jordan Pickering has suggested, perhaps with some justification, that I am not submitting an argument. My first thought here is what sort of argument do believers in God present? Other than ancient records and the beliefs of ancient superstitious people, still preserved to this day, there seems little that one can get one’s teeth into. Certainly nothing can be tested or shown to be the case. That of course is no reason to reject it, which is why I regard myself as a threshold atheist, interested in religion as a psychological phenomenon.

  28. Jim still cannot get it to appear tried what you said and one or two other things. My confidence in what I said is draining away rapidly each time I read it, more and more it looks like C**P. Perhaps I will save it for another time.

  29. Don,

    I checked in the comments section and saw that the spam filter had grabbed your comments. I have set them free.

  30. Don said: I ask my self why does Dawkins spend so much time on opposing religious belief, there must surely be better things to do and examine in his line of business, as an Ethologist and Evolutionary biologist.

    I agree with Don, but let’s not forget the basic human need for recognition, wealth, and power. I also think his fight against religious belief is a political fight. He may think that the world will be a better place if he can be convincing enough to help remove religious thought from society. At the very least his provocative thoughts and symbiotic relationship with the media draw attention to his publications and scientific work, things he prospers from. Maybe the prosperity will be channeled into scientific discovery that generates a more conventional and less selfish contribution to society.

    We all need to make a living so we should always be mindful of how other people are making theirs, and what biases may be inherent in that.

  31. Re Bill Mathers Jan 6th:-
    Yes I agree here. The only point which occurs to me is that if Dawkins’ intention is to remove religious thought from society he will almost certainly fail. It seems to me that religion, or religious expression is an innate propensity. I would like to enlarge on this, and also to some work in that connection with animals, but memory and time forbids at the moment. I remember reading about the religious activity of a terrified Goose by some Ethnologist many years ago It may have been by Nikolass Tinbergen. There is always C.G. Jung if one has the patience. Any way if it is innate then Dawkins has a problem. Destructive and intolerant Religious thought we could well do without perhaps he can make some impact there.
    ps Thanks to Mike LaBossiere For your assistance.

  32. Dennis Sceviour

    Don,
    Thank you for the insight into your inner observation and feelings. I always look forward to reading your postings.

    I scanned Mill’s Methods and they appear to be linear logic. This has been superseded in mathematics by non-linearity and matrix methods.

  33. Thanks Dennis
    “The Method of difference” by Mill has been described by some as Scientific method
    Par excellence.
    Some may not agree. Mill’s Canons are rarely mentioned these days unless it is to compare him with Hume and his views on induction. He is remembered in the main for other writings. I had to learn them word perfect for a course in Logic I took longer ago than I care to remember.

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