Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah, the 5th book of the Bible, consists of 34 Chapters containing on average about 35 verses each. We will focus on just one of those verses (Deut. 30:19)…not even. We will focus on just a fragment of that verse. Yet arguably all of Deuteronomy, indeed all of Scripture, hangs on this one fragment:
“…I have set before you life and death…therefore choose life…”
In logic, mathematics and science, we are accustomed to formulating problems as a choice between two alternative propositions: either “p” or “not-p”. We posit “p”; it becomes our hypothesis. Then we attempt to prove it relying on a limited set of premises (axioms, postulates) that we believe to be ‘self-evident’.
If we cannot prove “p” then we try to prove “not-p”. At the end of this process we either have proven “p” or we have proven “not-p” or we have proven neither: “p or not-p” remains undecided (and perhaps in some cases undecidable).
So what’s different in Deuteronomy? Here God presents two competing propositions, “life” and not-life, i.e. “death”, and then immediately states the conclusion, “therefore choose life”. Here there is no invoking of premises, no resort to argument. The text simply reads “therefore choose life”. How brazen! How can such a conclusion possibly be justified?
It turns out that occasionally we come across a logical problem where we may say that the solution is evident “by inspection”; it does not require argument. The conclusion is implicit in the question itself. But does that reasoning apply here?
(Note: the words “life” and “death” are not themselves propositions but they are placeholders for an expanded propositional format: “life is better than death” or “death is better than life”.)
Now you might be tempted at this point to abort this whole exercise. “Of course life is better than death!” But that is not necessarily so. Many people’s lives are so full of misery that they are heard to say, “I wish I’d never been born.” And of course, we all know people who have taken their own lives, evidently preferring death to life. There are even philosophies that claim that we are living in some version of Hell.
So there is no irrefutable empirical evidence that life is better than death and Deuteronomy doesn’t suggest otherwise. Deuteronomy does not rely on empirical evidence to justify its conclusion (“therefore choose life”); it relies instead on pure logic. How so?
The key to the Deuteronomic argument can be found a few verses earlier (Deut. 30:15):
“See, I have today set before you life and good, death and evil.”
Note that this verse does not say that life is good or death evil; however, it does put life/death and good/evil on a common logical footing.
The choices between ‘life and death’ and ‘good and evil’ are not like our normal everyday choices. This is not the same thing as steak or salmon at a wedding, Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts on the way to work, chocolate or vanilla at the local soft serve ice cream stand. In those situations, the choices are between options that share a common ontological status: both are foods or restaurants or flavors.
Not so with ‘good and evil’ or ‘life and death’. Evil is merely the absence of good and death is merely the absence of life. In spite of our efforts to personify death and evil (Hades, Devil), death exists only as the privation of life and evil exists only as the privation of good.
Returning to our two choices, we now see that their expanded, propositional forms should read:
- ‘Good is better than not-good’ or ‘not-good is better than good’
- ‘Life is better than not-life’ or ‘not-life is better than life’
But the proposition ‘not-good is better than good’ is nonsensical. ‘Better’ is the comparative form of good. So in essence we’d be saying ‘not-good is more good than good’. This is clearly self-contradictory and therefore devoid of any meaning. So we can choose between good and evil ‘by inspection’. Once you fully understand the question, only one answer is logically possible:
- I set before you good and evil; therefore choose good. Q.E.D.
So how does this help us with our ‘life or death’ dilemma? First, we can substitute ‘being’ for ‘life’ in this context. Deuteronomy is not talking about the specific biological processes associated with human life; it is talking about the very being of the persons it is addressing.
If we choose ‘death’, we simply choose ‘non-being’ over ‘being’. Those who argue that life is not worth living (above) are not talking about biology; they are talking about ‘being’, period.
An absence of ‘life’ (or ‘being’) would also entail an absence of ‘good’. If there is nothing, nothing can be good. ‘Good’ is a value and therefore ‘something’ in itself. Further, as a quality, ‘good’ is only operative when it characterizes something actual (an ‘actual entity’ in the terminology of Alfred North Whitehead).
So a decision to choose good over evil entails a decision to choose being (life) over non-being (death). Just as a choice of evil over good is logically inconsistent (above), so is a choice of death over life.
Frame the problem as a matrix:
- Good & Life (being)
- Good & Death (non-being)
- Evil & Life
- Evil & Death
It is impossible to choose Evil (above) so the last two options are impossible. Option #2 also involves a logical inconsistency since it is impossible to choose Good and then choose that Good not exist since the absence of good is evil. The second choice negates the first choice.
Therefore, we can also choose between Life and Death ‘by inspection’:
- I set before you life and death; therefore choose life. Q.E.D.