God = Me

In the Peter Barnes play, The Ruling Class, the schizophrenic earl is asked how he knows that he is God. He replies “Simple, when I pray to him, I find I am talking to myself.” But we do not need to be schizophrenic to suspect that when we ask ourselves about the will of God in such or such a matter (or fashionably ask: “What would Jesus say?) the answer we give owes more to our own will than it does to God’s.

This is not just an observation we may make about ourselves, interesting tests have confirmed that our instinct to confabulate God with ourselves can be measured in our brains. When, for instance, we are asked to think about both our own person, and about being English, two separated parts of our brain light up to deal with each concept. But when we think both of our own person and God, nothing happens: the brain does not record a difference.

So we are put on warning. When we are faced by a moral decision, we have to allow for this instinct by opening our minds to the fact that our inclination may be wrong. And that goes against the grain. Since we know that the final decision must accord with our reason, reason itself requires us to set aside our arational tendencies in order to find the truth. So, let’s have a look at some moral issues to test how we handle this.

You have to choose a primary school for your child. One possibility is the Catholic school down the road. Unfortunately it doesn’t have a good scholastic record, and you feel that your child may be disadvantaged at secondary school. Another primary is not a faith school, but it has an excellent academic record. Which one are you going to choose?

You are a journalist on a successful newspaper. Your salary is not as high as you would like. But it has been explained to you, on the quiet, that the paper never questions your expenses – within a reasonable figure. And that’s to your advantage because expenses are not taxable. Will you take advantage of this convenience?

You have a young friend who often listens to your advice. You know that he is in a sexual relationship but you suspect that he is not using any contraception. Would you advise him to get equipped and protect his girlfriend, or would this simply double the wrongdoing?

You are the next of kin of an elderly patient who is dying in hospital. The doctor tells you that the patient, currently unconscious, could live for a few more days, and perhaps have episodes of some consciousness – which may well involve considerable pain. The doctor suggests that, except for the continuance of morphine, treatment should cease and the patient be allowed to die, perhaps in the next few hours. Will you agree to this?

I realise that final decisions would require more information than I have given, but perhaps this will be enough for you to test any difference between what you may think and what God may think.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Moral judgment, Neuroscience and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

46 Responses to God = Me

  1. milliganp says:

    On your first question, given the discussion on Religious Education continuing on last weeks blog it would seem the best thing to do would be to send the child to the academically superior school and do the faith education in the home. We have a highly successful state Grammar School nearby and many of our “best” Catholics send their children there, their children seem to display well above average faith commitment. However does any of this define right and wrong?

    • John L says:

      I tried, in the previous blog, to comment on the problems of Catholic R.E., but my contribution got “cut off” in some way, and I was distinctly disinclined to type it all again.
      To answer question 1 in this case, I will be briefer – I would not only consider the question of general academic record, but would want to know about the quality of R.E. in the Catholic primary. The “new syllabus” seems to leave much to be desired, and R.E. often is left to a teacher with time to spare rather than with appropriate qualification. In such case, home instruction, combined with better academic approach might well seem the better course.
      Would this be God’s will? Well, if the intention is good R.E. in the long run, I might think so.

  2. Iona says:

    Have been having problems posting, so this is a trial run… If it works I’ll be back for a longer post.

  3. Iona says:

    It worked!
    Quentin, where on earth did you find that bit of research? (The bit that found the brain responded in two places when someone was asked to think of himself and of “being English”, and only one when he was asked to think of himself and God).

    I’m with Milliganp on the school question. (After all, if the Catholic school is not very good academically it may also not be very good at teaching the faith).

    The journalist – I think I would avoid actually lying about my expenses, but might take advantage of the situation by, for example, having a good lunch in a restaurant rather than a home-made sandwich.

    I’ll have to think about the next one (the contraception one)

    But the last one, – isn’t “letting nature take its course” acceptable in such a case?

  4. milliganp says:

    If we take the second question and substitute “The government want’s to look like it’s keeping MPs salaries down, so hammer the expenses, employ your wife as a secretary, and build the odd duck-house”, we’d all know where we would stand.
    Another item, in the news, “is it OK for an undercover policeman to father a child by a female member of the organisation he’s infiltrating?” I know where I stand – it’s the most dreadful abuse imaginable, but the Metropolitan Police is using “confidentiality” to quash discussion.
    Once you cease to belive in God, everything is OK.

  5. Alan says:

    Not being a believer means that questions 1 and 3 aren’t really a dilemma for me.

    I wouldn’t submit false expenses claims nor make unwarranted use of them. I would probably accept the doctor’s advice on withholding further treatment for a dying relative in the circumstances described.

    Everything is not OK when you don’t believe in God. Theft or deceit or life and death choices all have consequences. Not to take that into account in considering how you behave or how you expect/hope others will behave would seem somewhat short-sighted whether you believe in God or not.

    • milliganp says:

      Alan, sorry for the blanket statement. The “cease to believe” is a particular term applying to the decline of religion based moral standards in the west – and the failure to substitute a “thought out” alternative. The atheist existentialists did great work (excluding perhaps Nietzsche) trying to determine what constitutes a well lived life without a “God”.

    • Vincent says:

      Consequences certainly matter. But in,say, the matter of journalist’s expenses, there are likely to be no direct consequences. However, if you hold that is is right for the state to exact taxation for the general good of society, you could rationally conclude that you had a moral obligation to pay your share, and that it would be wrong to avoid this by deceitful arrangements. You do not have to be a believer to hold this. I leave you to consider what the words “right” and “wrong” mean in this context.

  6. tim says:

    I think we may be missing Quentin’s point. We can offer answers to Quentin’s dilemmas – what we would do if we had them – and we can point out to each other where we think we’ve got it wrong (quite tempting!). But how are we to discern where we are making up our own answers rather than listening to what God is telling us?

    I quite agree that everything is not OK if you don’t believe in God. There is an objective moral law. But where does it come from.

  7. Truthos says:

    What we define as morally right can only come from so many places be it, what we are taught in school; in church; at home or society’s norms in general. This can obviously differ between the teachings of different religions and even within the religion depending on where in the world you are. For example, some of what we see as morally justified in the western world is unheard of in the east and vice versa. Therefore how can we know what is fundamentally the right thing to do when faced with any of these situations? If we as catholics look to the ten commandments and the teachings of the bible as our guidelines for a righteous life then we may be off to a good start but even this can be viewed subjectively and people may argue that society’s perception, particularly in the western world, of what we are used to and what ‘feels right’ has changed over time to such an extent that to follow the commandment t’o love thy neighbour…’ may contradict other moral points that we find in the bible. If through prayer we can talk to God and bring the answer out of ourselves, I suppose we can only hope and have faith that we are making the right choices and not coming from misguided delusion. I am sure that many convicted criminals were able to convince themselves that they are doing the right thing, aside from whether they know any better or not and how they had been raised morally and ethically.

    I think it is important that we not only recognise God within ourselves but also within other people as after all we have ultimate control over not only our perception of right and wrong but our consciousness over all, of which moral judgement is only a small part of.

    • milliganp says:

      I did a short stint at prison visiting. At least 80% of the inmates claimed to be either innocent or in some way victims of events. It may be a psychological defence rather than just a defective conscience.

  8. tim says:

    But Quentin clearly hopes for our responses, even if I don’t see yet what use he will make of them. Casuistry is always good fun – provided it’s purely hypothetical, of course. Increasingly we see it in modern popular philosophy – in what is often disparagingly called ‘trolleyology’.

    For those who haven’t encountered this trend (who may not be numerous on this blog) I outline the kind of dilemmas it considers. You are standing on a bridge beside a fat man (or, in more politically correct examples, a fat person of indeterminate sex). Below you you can see a heavy trolley careering down a track towards five people bound to the rails, who will inevitably be killed if you do nothing. Your only option to save them is to push the fat person off the bridge in front of the trolley, thereby halting it. You must make an instant decision. Do you push?

    If your answer is No, you are responsible for the unnecessary death of four innocent people (one would have died anyway). If Yes, that’s interesting – how much further would you go? – and various ingenious variations of the problem are put to you to test this.

    In my view, the key to answering this kind of interrogation is not to accept the conditions put to you. Is there no other way of saving the five people on the track? Think of one! Maybe you should jump in front of the trolley yourself? (you are too small to stop it, your questioner will say, but you retort that he can’t know that, and at least you may slow it sufficiently to minimise the chances of all five people being killed). And maybe when you push the fat person off the bridge, you bungle it so that he falls beside the track rather than on it, and six people die instead of five.

    So with Quentin’s much more realistic examples. Take the young man who listens to my advice (sometimes, at least). Though he is a good friend that I know well, I am still very unsure if he will accept my intervention in such an intimate matter. But if I thought he might (and I could summon the courage to test this) I would not tell him to use contraceptives, but to marry his girlfriend or (should he or she not be ready for this) to give her up. ‘I am not now to learn’ that chastity before marriage is an impossible ideal – however scorned today by the world.

    • Alan says:


      I would have thought that the question about the person on the railway bridge is framed with particular conditions because of a very specific point it wants to consider. It is certainly possible to change the conditions of the question so as to open up all sorts of answers beyond the two on offer, but that’s just avoiding the question isn’t it? The limited A) “push him off” or B) “don’t push him off” reveals something about ourselves that the answers C) “I’d jump myself” or D) “I’d try to save those tied to the track” does not.

      An interesting question related to this one is where the trolley is approaching a spilt in the line. Without your intervention it will kill 5 people tied to the tracks but by diverting the train onto the other line it will only kill one person. If I remember correctly, most people say they would divert the trolley but they wouldn’t push the person off the bridge. It’s not all about the numbers it would seem.

      • tim says:

        My view is that not all questions are entitled to a reply – as when the Gestapo asks “Are you hiding a Jew in your cellar?”. If you call this evading the question, so be it. And to my mind, diverting the trolley is probably a duty – quite different from pushing a bloke off a bridge. I’m not willing to judge actions solely by their most obvious immediate consequences. I shall, if pushed, argue that shoving a bloke off a bridge is a breach of his human rights.

      • Alan says:

        I can see from your example that not all questions are entitled to a reply. I find this hypothetical one quite interesting however. Limited and unrealistic as it might be it still, within those limits, explores something about how we think. Although you say they are “quite different” I personally find it somewhat difficult to identify just where the distinction is between the direct action most people wouldn’t take (even though it would save lives) and the direct action most people would take. I can perhaps imagine alternative scenarios that might make the choice even less clear cut.

    • milliganp says:

      I am even fatter than the fat man, so the jump option is better than throwing him off. Do I have the right to commit suicide in the hope ( not certainty) of saving someone else?

      • Alan says:

        I think that is your right if you are given that option (and it is an option I’m sure that many would prefer to have), but the scenario needn’t allow for it and so whether you would push someone else off the bridge to save others would remain unanswered.

      • tim says:

        milliganp, I think so. Can we bring into play the principle of ‘double effect’ (or will someone authoritative explain to us that this is now exploded)? Your intention is not to commit suicide, but to save other people’s lives. You may not succeed, but you are entitled to try. Alan, I do not accept the choice the scenario offers me – freedom means I am entitled to refuse it. You may say that refusing to choose is itself a choice – but I’m not convinced. It;s not the same choice, anyway.

      • Alan says:

        Tim, you certainly have the freedom to refuse the choices that the questioners are intending, with their albeit contrived scenario, to restrict people to.

  9. John Candido says:

    Even for mundane matters, let alone more personal issues, it is extremely difficult to separate from oneself in order to view yourself in more objective terms. Given this anatomical and psychological impossibility; according to the latest conjecture theological questions seem to be in a category of their own. I would tend to treat anyone who would think that they have an internet connection to God as absolutely crazy. They are an accident waiting to happen or even a potential moral hazard, given particular contexts.

    As humans are thoroughly selfish, a conflation between one’s selfishness and what one considers to be God’s will is always a risk. Life, as they say, is a valley of tears. The battle between selfishness and impartiality or love, is a part of this old territory. The good news is that given intellectual rigor and maturity, personal objectivity is difficult but not impossible.

    • Vincent says:

      I wonder whether it is more practical than one might immediately think. Since Gaudium et Spes says of conscience “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God,” we might start by clearing any interference if we want to be objective. So a desire to get a particular result is a warning. So are other prejudices and tendencies we should be aware of in ourselves.
      Then how about checking whether the Catechism — which covers the waterfront pretty well — has anything relevant to say. If so, do we understand why it says it? Then, do we agree in this case? And, if we are looking at other opinions, might we discuss with someone else — wise friend or spouse perhaps? Even, if we’re daring, a priest?
      All these things expose us to the possibility of new ideas — and at least they indicate that we don’t want to be stuck with just the view which seems to suit us best.
      And a prayer to the Holy Spirit might help. It’s hard to be dishonest with ourself following that.

  10. milliganp says:

    If we follow the logic of the argument that we project our own beliefs onto our concept of God, am I also projecting when I think something I would really like to do is wrong?

  11. Iona says:

    Quentin – thank you for the reference.
    The article talks about people “intuiting God’s belief on important issues”. Apart from the question of whether it makes any sense to talk about God’s “belief” (belief? – He doesn’t need to believe things, he knows things, he’s omniscient), the article is discussing not the morality of specific actions (such as pushing someone in front of an out-of-control trolley, or advising someone to use contraception) but attitudes to issues such as gay marriage or state provision of free health care. Had the subjects been asked to think about a course of action which they personally found very attractive but recognised was probably sinful in the sight of God, and about God in his absolute holiness, I think it would have been two different parts of the brain that became active, definitely not God = Me.

    • tim says:

      Iona, yes. It’s great fun asking people questions and watching bits of their brain light up, but I fear there may be a tendency to over-interpret the results. It may not yet be much advanced from phrenology.

      • Quentin says:

        Certainly it is great fun. But it’s also extremely important in the study of neurology, yielding new information hitherto inaccessible to science. Of course it is open to interpretation so we have to be careful; scientific maturity acknowledges that we are always open to new phenomena which may refine or even contradict earlier conclusions. But the distance between phrenology and current investigation is vast.

      • RAHNER says:

        “It may not yet be much advanced from phrenology.”
        A quite absurd remark….

  12. milliganp says:

    I remember a film from Britain’s gritty realism phase of film making in the 60’s. A young couple are going out on a date, dad says “be good”, and mum chirps in “and if you can’t be good be careful”.
    Quentin’s third question posits the moral dilemma that if your not prepared to raise a child you shouldn’t be trying to make one. Contraception allows humanity to separate the end of sexual intercourse from its means.
    CAFOD has lost the support of many in the church because of its ABC policy (abstain, be faithful, use a condom) in preventing the spread of AIDS.
    In both cases there is an absolute moral argument to consider, the almost total rejection of Humanae Vitae has led to ignorance of its underlying moral principals. If we cannot recover HV, should we at least try to recover the moral thinking behind it?

  13. Zara says:

    The simple explanation as to why we have a separate compartment for England and not God is because we evolved space in our heads for dealing with interactions with our tribe and running its ‘cultural programming’, but we have evolved no such space for God because Christianity did not evolve, and so God is not a being we are equipped to second guess the way we would our tribe.

  14. Iona says:

    I wasn’t sure what the point of “thinking about being English” was. I don’t think it’s mentioned in Quentin’s reference, – which in any case used American subjects.
    Hasn’t CAFOD given up advising condoms?

  15. claret says:

    I am amazed at the volume of replies to what is no more than an exercise in the world of endless ‘moral maze’ type questions for which there are no right and wrong answers.

    • Vincent says:

      But surely the interesting moral questions are those where there are no clearcut answers. Most of our moral lives are concerned with teasing out conflicting factors in search of the best answer — often the best compromise. But, if I understand Quentin correctly, the exercise was to allow us to see how ready we were to question to what extent we use our own biases rather than considering what God might want. I hope I am now put on my guard against my own prejudices.

    • milliganp says:

      The original questions asked by Quentin are “supposed” to be ones where “what Jesus would do” should be clear cut.The only reason they are not is because we “divine” the mind of God in our own heads and the discussion is intended to cause us to consider what this means in terms of absolute truth.

    • tim says:

      There seem to be two schools of thought – that Quentin’s questions have ‘right answers’ (which if we do not give, it is because we fail to confront our prejudices?) or that they have ‘no right answers’ (because of moral relativism, because the answer may depend on circumstances not specified, or for some other reason). I am confident I have prejudices – some I am aware of (in part at least), others not. But – right answers or no – how is answering the questions going to help me confront those prejudices of which I am not aware? Will other contributors diagnose them and expound them to me? If someone you respect disagrees with you, you must take them seriously – but they need to demonstrate your error before you have to change your mind.

  16. Ignatius says:

    Catholic moral theology has as its baseline the notion that human beings are made in the image of God and are therefore somehow ‘like’ God. As such we are capable of moral decisions, these moral decisions are based on what God is ‘like’ not upon our own inclinations of justice. Because of this we have to educate our consciences so that we may weigh our thoughts and actions against those of the divine. For Catholics the divine will is encountered chiefly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the questions above simply test our understanding of catholic thinking, how close or how far we are from it. Also there is the important issue of consent, how much can we consent to rulings which though not personally owned may be the teachings of the church

  17. Ignatius says:

    “Religion provides a moral compass for many people around the world, colouring their views on everything from martyrdom to abortion to homosexuality. But Epley’s research calls the worth of this counsel into question, for it suggests that inferring the will of God sets the moral compass to whatever direction we ourselves are facing. He says, “Intuiting God’s beliefs on important issues may not produce an independent guide, but may instead serve as an echo chamber to validate and justify one’s own beliefs.“

    I don’t really see that this study says or shows much at all. The group surveyed were almost all Christians so it is unsurprising that the brain stores ‘God’ and ‘Self’ in the same box, hearing someone calling God your ‘Father’ over the years is quite likely to lead to a bit of overlap I should think. Of course Christian values will become internalised as ones own…that’s half the point. But there is a process also which stops the traffic running both ways equally and this process is called the conscience.

  18. claret says:

    On what basis do we give God ( assuming he exists,) some kind of thought process that translates into English. The scriptures ask us in bewilderment how we can define the mind of God. Who knows it ? True we have the 10 commandments but even these we interpret to fit a particular situation that can be seen as sinful and yet say ‘God wills it.’

  19. ignatius says:

    Without the basic tenet that God is knowable by humans then there is no Christian understanding whatsoever. The entire project is based on the belief that man is made in the divine image, thus to some degree understandable to the mind and therefore to language: Greek, Serbo Croat English or Icelandic.

  20. milliganp says:

    Another piece of research which may be of interest; when people act as part of a group or mob, their personal moral sense diminishes. It’s easy to see this in 1930’s Germany or current day Syria, Iraq, DR Congo etc..
    But do Catholics (or any religious group) also exhibit group behaviour which supresses personal morality? Can we turn our conscience off?


    • Quentin says:

      “Can we turn our consciences off?” It may be more a case of not turning our consciences fully on. You note that the views of a group of which we are a member can influence our moral decisions. This is certainly so. Therefore we have a responsibility to be aware of these influences and so need to use a deliberate judgment to endorse or to reject them.

      It seems harder nowadays to find a general ‘Catholic view’. But think of the attitudes within our own lifetimes to belittle other religions. Hard to believe that one major Catholic theologian (Henry Davis SJ) taught that a Catholic nurse should not join in the prayers of a non-Catholic cleric at the sickbed of a ‘heretic’.

  21. tim says:

    Since first posting on this thread, I’ve become aware of a relatively recent book. It is not directly on point, but it’s very illuminating on moral disagreements. Maybe the rest of you have already read it (I’d offer odds that Quentin has) but if not, I commend it to you. It’s very readable and highly convincing.
    The book is called “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” by Jonathan Haidt, a social and cultural psychologist. His thesis is that we are designed (by evolution, in his view) to operate according to certain moral principles, “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second”. The main function of the intellect is to find arguments to support the position adopted . That’s not to say that reason is incapable of modifying our moral views, but that’s not the way it usually happens. People seek arguments in favour of positions they hold (frequently finding very plausible ones) but they may produce them even if they are remarkably weak.
    The book is extremely readable (sounds most unlikely, but undoubtedly true), sympathetic and well supported. It provides an answer to a question I asked further up the thread (“Where does an objective morality come from?”) which Alan, for example, may find more acceptable than the one I had in mind. if you get nothing else from it, reading it may make you more tolerant of people who oppose you with completely ridiculous arguments.

    • Alan says:

      Thank you for the recommendation Tim. If there is an opposite to “well read” then I am it, but I may still try to take a look at this book.
      I was away for a while immediately after the later posts above and when I returned it seemed too late to follow up on the points we had been talking about. Some ideas did come to me about the subject that I might otherwise have followed up on but, time having moved on (amongst other things), I decided not to post them.

  22. Singalong says:


    This article from today`s Telegraph is I think of interest and relevant to the discussion.

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