Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Standard Of Measure

There is one thing of which one can say neither that it is one metre long, nor that it is not one metre long, and that is the standard metre in Paris. - Ludwig Wittgenstein (1)
When scientists decided to come up with the metric system, they needed a standard of measure.  A metre stick stored in Paris, made of platinum, was chosen as the standard against which all metres were to be measured.  Platinum was chosen because it would not vary or decay.  However, today the platinum metre has been superseded by laser light for the same reason. (2)

A standard of measure needs an objective source that can be accessed so as to verify the accuracy of a particular measure.  That source must be constant and unchanging.  Obviously, if the standard metre were constantly changing, measurements would be unreliable.  If measurements could not be relied on, they could not be used in science, commerce, or everyday life and the metre as a standard of measure would be abandoned.

The metre stick in Paris, therefore, holds a special place in the measurement system.  It is the standard by which all other metres are put against to see if they measure up.  Ludwig Wittgenstein, the celebrated twentieth century Austrian philosopher, wrote that the metre stick in Paris was neither one metre long, nor not one metre long. 

What does this mean?  Wittgenstein is often enigmatic, but he seems to be saying that the standard metre in Paris is not a metre long because it can’t be measured against itself to see if it is one metre long.  To see if it is one metre long, we would need another standard metre to measure the Paris standard metre against.  Then we would need another standard metre to measure that metre against, and so on into infinity.  So, it makes sense to have a starting point, a standard metre that is sui generis, that it to say, it can’t be measured against anything else. 

The concept of an objective standard of measure applies to other areas as well.  If we are to know how to quantify something we need a standard measure to make a determination.  For example, to make a decision whether an action is right or wrong we need a standard of right and wrong to measure our decision against.  If we have no such standard how can we make a decision?

 What are our moral standards measured against?  I believe that our moral standards must have an objective basis.  That is to say, they cannot be based on society or our personal tastes.  Otherwise everything will be right and wrong at the same time.  If moral standards are relative, we cannot condemn even the most stomach-churning of acts as morally wrong.  Nor can we praise selfless acts as morally right.   Click here to read more about the problems with moral relativism.

I think that by drawing another analogy from the standard metre we can see that an eternal, unchanging God as the wellspring of moral judgment makes a lot of sense.  It is imperative that the standard metre be constant and immune from change over time.  From our experience and human history we observe that certain actions have always been considered wrong, such as murder.  If a moral standard were to vary over time so that at time X murder was wrong, but at time Y murder was not wrong, we would reject it. 

Euthyphro Dilemma

The metre stick analogy also helps us untangle Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma.   This ancient philosophical problem questions whether something is good because God commands it, so anything can be good if commanded by God, or whether God is good because His actions conform to a standard of good that exists independent of God.  If something is good because God commands it, moral standards are arbitrary because God could command anything to be morally right depending on His whim.   Alternatively, if good exists independent of God, then God is not all-powerful.

When we realize that just as we need a sui generis standard metre as an objective measure of length, we need a sui generis objective standard of right and wrong, the dilemma disappears.  Just as the standard metre cannot be measured against another standard metre, an objective moral standard is not measured against a further standard to determine its worth. It stands alone.  Therefore, if God is the sui generis source of objective moral values, He is good.  Good is not something outside of God, nor something He arbitrarily commands.  It is His very nature; just as the metre stick in Paris is not one metre long because it is measured against another metre stick.  Neither can anything be good just because God commands it.  Something is good because it measures up to God’s nature as the objective source of moral truths. 

1.             Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 29e. Investigation No. 50.

2.            The metre was originally defined as one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole (at sea level).  A metre is now defined as the distance travelled by light in vacuum in 1 ⁄ 299,792,458 of a second.

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