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Aug 19

Should the clay judge the potter?

I’ve never understood why people, especially Evangelicals, use this question as if it has force. The answer seems like an obvious “Yes,” but to clearly see why, let’s unpack the assumptions.

First, let’s consider the analogy: the clay should not judge the potter. Humans (and I presume animals) are supposed to be the clay and God the potter. Right off the bat I hope you notice something. Clay is not sentient. The ethical theories to which most of us subscribe consider consciousness to be of considerable importance. Just for a quick intuitive example, consider whether you feel wrong kicking a rock versus kicking a human being or a cat. Or, if we do value non-sentient objects, it is because of some attachment to a sentient being. For example, I would be morally culpable for destroying a painting that someone else really valued – not for the sake of the painting, but for the person. So, clearly the analogy is a flawed one, but there are some unstated assumptions to consider too.

These assumptions generally say that we cannot even rightly call certain acts by the creator unjust. They will argue that we owe respect, or maybe even allegiance, to a creator or authority figure. I will argue two contentions with these points. First, just because a creator gives life does not make it just to take life. Second, an authority figure who creates laws is not then above those laws.

Let’s imagine you are a creator of artificial intelligence. You are wildly successful in a way no one has been before, and you create a sentient creature. It is not human, but it reasons, it has feelings, it feels pain – basically, it is just like a human, but with different components. Suppose you create 100 of these creatures and 98 of them are acting in a way that you didn’t intend through your programming. Would it then be moral to destroy them in a painful way, like drowning them or setting them ablaze? Realize that I don’t mean reprogramming (like an equivalent of a surgery to fix something) and then activating them again to resume their lives. I mean actually extinguishing their lives permanently and painfully. I don’t see how that can be just.

Now imagine that you are under a sovereign king. This king has created a law of the land; he is the author and enforcer of this law. Since he is your sovereign, you are bound to keep the law. One of the laws says it is illegal to steal from anyone else in the kingdom. Yet, the king’s men regularly steal from the commoners to increase the king’s wealth. Another law says it is illegal to murder. Yet, the king’s men regularly kill anyone—man, woman, or child—who does not respect them. Is it just for this king to advocate these laws and not keep them himself? I don’t think so. And neither, by the way, did the people of Europe who eventually overthrew many of these kingdoms.

If the “potter” kills his creatures and breaks his own laws, then it seems perfectly correct to call him unjust.

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3 comments

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  1. Ryan

    Let’s reverse the question: should the potter judge the clay? After all, the clay is what the potter shapes it to be… unless, of course, we’re not just clay. Furthermore, if everything is created by God, then, according to the logic you criticize here, the only being capable of judging God is God itself. And that’s just a recipe for disaster that can only be ignored if you take on faith that God is perfect without it having to prove itself.

    As for your AI point, I suspect that many theists would claim that it is justifiable to destroy the creature because it has no soul. The soul, of course, is poorly defined and its relationship to ethics is poorly laid out. In other words: it is yet another religious tool to excuse oneself from critical thought.

    I often wonder if AI (or alien) ethics might one day be the hot political issue of the time. Will we permit marriage to a computer or extraterrestrial with all the same–or even greater–intellectual and moral functions? Will we even guarantee a right to life? If humans manage to craft consciousness, what would the implications be for our own consciousness and the ideals we associate with it? I imagine the religious Right–if we still have one by then–will be there, still fighting “the good fight” to preserve an outdated vision of humanity and its place in the universe.

  2. Mike

    Yes, good points, Ryan. I agree that a creator god would have some culpability for its creations, especially if we add properties like all-knowing and all-powerful.

    I sometimes forget that people believe in a soul. It just seems so completely unwarranted.

  3. Ryan

    Questions about the soul (along with a breaking down of Pascal’s Wager) were at the center of my ultimate rejection of Christianity. One might expect more talk of the subject from theists, given how essential (pun intended) it is to many belief systems. But I suspect the silence is due in no small part to the silence of the sacred texts themselves. What is a soul? What purpose does it serve? Why is the body not enough? What beings have souls? At what point does the being receive its soul? And how can we know the answer to any of these questions? It seems that they get no further than petty, baseless arguments over whether or not pets will join their owners in the next life. Many even allow popular and dramatic images–a translucent copy of a person as he was at death, floating away from his body–to define their vision and understanding of the soul. That notion is comparable now to such anachronistic beliefs as a white Jesus or behaviors like looking up to the sky as if Heaven were just beyond the clouds.

    Of course, theists do not have a monopoly on the concept. Animism appears to pre-date religion and will probably outlive it. I suppose it’s just one of those comforting evolutionary adaptations or exaptations. In any case, the subject might be worth a blog post–or at least an addition to your ever-growing list of topics to cover.

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    […] Should the clay judge the potter? (foxholeatheism.com) […]

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    […] ‘Should the clay judge the potter?‘ is an interesting post from Mike Gage at Foxhole Atheism which looks at whether or not we can judge God’s actions, and the underlying assumptions of saying we shouldn’t. […]

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