In Which I Answer Leah Libresco's Moral Philosophy Concerns So You Don't Become A Catholic Too

Leah Libresco was an irreligious person with little interest in religious issues until as a Yale undergraduate she began dating a Catholic, reading Catholic theology and apologetics, and going to church with him. She wrote a blog about her process of weighing Catholicism against atheism. Recently, she converted to Catholicism.

I have previously analyzed some of her personal reasons for converting to Catholicism and tried to understand just what her atheism consisted of before she intensively immersed herself in Catholic thought, and what all that means for understanding her conversion. Then I criticized atheists who explicitly argued to Leah that moral objectivity and ethical teleology suited Catholicism well and were outright ruled out by atheism. And in that same post, I pointed out numerous ways Leah’s inference to the truth of Catholicism was hasty and irrational. I will write another post, fleshing out those latter objections a bit more.

In what follows, I am going to give counter-replies to her clearest recent statements explaining her views on metaethics and normative moral philosophy and on what she sees as the limits of atheism for answering moral philosophy questions. This is a long post because it attempts to counter her views with enough systematicity and thoroughness as to be a clear and useful aid for all atheists debating the fundamentals of moral philosophy. I also hope to persuade atheists and religious believers alike of the merits of my moral philosophy in this process.

Let’s start with atheistic teleology. Leah wrote to The Blaze about how she was convinced that her teleological understanding of ethics could not be made consistent with her de facto atheism.

But more and more, my atheist friends and sparring partners thought I’d gone wrong one step back, and objected to my holding to the idea of morality as human-independent and objective (i.e. we uncover it like archeologists, we don’t build or design it like architects). To top it off, I’d switched to thinking of morality in a virtue ethics framework (your moral imperative is to reform your character and try build up a habitual attraction to right action). The trouble is, virtue eithics kind of presupposes teleology (these is some particular form you are called to embody) and my atheist friends thought that was pretty far out of bounds.

Teleology should not be at all out of bounds for atheists. Teleologists do not need to posit that there is an intelligent goal-giver who gives natural beings purposes to fulfill, as many theists think. Just as we understand that natural “selection” can occur without an intelligent “selector(s)” so we can talk about the ways that natural beings function optimally according to their natures without their requiring any intelligence that gives them their functions deliberately. This is because every being, I would argue, is understandable precisely as something which is the functional result of its component beings. Water is what emerges when 2 hydrogens function together with an oxygen, for example.

Each reality which is composed of further parts can be understood to emerge from the interaction of those parts such that those parts function to create the more complex result. The parts are constitutive of the emergent whole. The emergent whole is a function of the parts. Each of these is a functionality relationship. Some parts of physical reality function together to make an emergent feature of physical reality, some complex object from not just the sum of the parts but the patterned way they behave. The patterns beings follow are regular, general, recurrent. They are “universals” or “forms”. They can emerge without any divine intelligence somehow having to intervene to create them. They evolve of their own under the pressures of natural selection with no intelligent guidance. They exist “eternally” not in some other realm as things but as eternal possibilities that always could emerge if the right conditions in the right universe were ever to be met. There are forms which are not actualized in reality but which some day will emerge under the right conditions or (possibly) never will emerge because the conditions will never be right.

Among those complex functional beings that do exist are us human beings. We are each composed of trillions of cells functioning together to create, and to be constitutive of, numerous complex organs which each function together to create, and constitute, the total human organism. For a being to be human is for it to be comprised of the right kinds of cells functioning as “human”. There need be no divine intelligence that created the goals of the human or said that humans must function in this way but not that. There just is this formal possibility for being and through an unguided natural selection process it (we) emerged. Taken together, we are just the general kind of being that emerges from our specific sets of sub-functional capabilities which function together in certain characteristic ways to make the complexly human capabilities possible.

We are what happens when the distinctive functional complex capabilities which constitute us function together. Take away those distinctive functional capabilities (or “powers”) and there is no human being. Our powers of reason, emotion, sociability, physical coordination, technological inventiveness, artistic creativity, sexuality, morality, and others, are foundational to our being because we exist through them. We cannot exist as human beings apart from all of these powers (or even without most of them). And except in those cases where there are serious neurological problems, we each have all of these powers to at least some minimal degrees. And taken together they constitute our very being.

Humans are particularly fascinating emergent beings because we can function more or less according to our characteristic patterns. The patterns that constitute a human being at our most complex, ordered, and externally effective level are our rational capabilities, our emotional capabilities, our social capabilities, our artistic capabilities, our technological inventiveness, our athletic and physical coordination abilities, and our moral capabilities. There may be some other basic powers I did not enumerate. This is not meant to necessarily be an exhaustive list.

These capabilities also mutually constitute each other in that our rational capabilities, for example, play a role in our effective realization of our social, moral, emotional, technological, artistic, and athletic powers. Similarly other of our basic powers can (and do) combine with each other in a myriad of complex ways to can create greater and greater powers.

These powers are what constitute being human. Without all or most of these powers, we fail to maximally effectively realize the basic nature of what we are as humans. When all these powers terminate completely, we are gone—even if our lower powers of basic organic function can be kept going artificially, the “human being” in the robust psychological and social senses, and not just in the minimally biological sense, is effectively dead.

So, we have these powers, they constitute our very being. It is irrational for us to try to destroy these powers (all things being equal) since they are us ourselves and they are the precondition of every conceivable good we could achieve.

So, in this context, I am an atheistic virtue ethicist requiring no divine agency for the teleological dimensions of my ethics to make minimal sense and have minimal coherence. I am just describing purely naturalistically occurring patterns as universals or forms. I am saying that since humans’ very natures are constituted by a specific set of powers, fulfilling them is incumbent on humans as the beings that we are. It is irrational and a practical contradiction to destroy the very precondition of our own being (all things being equal). We have a rational imperative instead to flourish maximally powerfully according to the powers which constitute us ourselves.

In the same piece, Leah moves on from describing her concern for teleology:

But I was as sure of the reality of moral law as I was of the reality of the physical world. Both of which can’t be proven since I can’t step outside them to examine them. And the more I thought about the metaphysics that were necessary to undergird this moral system, the more I thought morality seemed less like an distant rulebook and more like an animating spirit.

Here Leah makes an unwarranted leap. Universals, including moral ones, are imminent in reality. They do not exist is in some mysterious other realm. It only takes reading Aristotle (as I would expect a Catholic philosopher to do) to see the good reasons for this. And it is pure anthropomorphism to start to humanize morality by making it an “animating spirit” (presumably comparable to the ways that dualists imagine humans to have an “animating spirit”). She gives no justification that it was right that it should seem to her like morality was an animating spirit. It sounds like by the time she was thinking this, she was already simply internalizing Catholic prejudices (which in turn exploit and exacerbate the human brain’s natural prejudice for overactive agency detection).

In her conversion narrative she writes,

After the debate, I buttonholed a Christian friend for another argument. During the discussion, he prodded me on where I thought moral law came from in my metaphysics. I talked about morality as though it were some kind of Platonic form, remote from the plane that humans existed on. He wanted to know where the connection was.

I could hypothesize how a Forms-material world link would work in the case of mathematics (a little long and off topic for this post, but pretty much the canonical idea of recognizing Two-ness as the quality that’s shared by two chairs and two houses, etc. Once you get the natural numbers, the rest of mathematics is in your grasp). But I didn’t have an analogue for how humans got bootstrap up to get even a partial understanding of objective moral law.

Morality does not exist on “another plane”. She is committing here the fallacy of misplaced concreteness by over-reifying morality and mathematical concepts. Mathematical concepts likely do track mathematical properties and possibilities in reality but these do not exist in some quasi-material way on another “plane” as this language implies. They are truths about the properties and possibilities within universes but that does not mean their existence is somewhere else.

With respect to true moralities, they are just certain patterns of norms that can always emerge as good wherever certain kinds of beings (namely rational ones with interests) emerge and face certain kinds of conditions which create certain kinds of inherent needs for cooperation. The number 2 is real in the sense that in many places there are 2 things and that they are related in a way of 2. And also even were there no 2 objects they are still a possibility. 2 exists as always possibly instantiatable in 2 things somewhere, should there be a somewhere for them to be. Similarly every possible moral truth (and every other possible truth) always exists as a possibility even when not instantiated. But that is very different than being a self-subsisting concrete thing existing somewhere worth calling another “plane of existence”.

But as for the question of how to bootstrap from the realm of experience to the concept of morality, it is really not very hard. There are several distinct ways that we can get an analogue for the process of grasping morality from observing the quality of 2-ness shared by things to grasping the formal concept of 2 and getting mathematics. But it depends on what sense of forming a concept of morality Leah means.

Does she mean, “psychologically where do moral concepts come from?”, or “how do we discover that moral concepts are true?”, or “how do we justify moral judgments as true?”

Psychologically, it makes sense that we would evolve the basic frameworks software for developing moralities. These things include basic emotional capabilities for trust, empathy, and certain kinds of self-sacrifice. We also have developed an a priori grasp of a basic concept of fairness that seems to me universal, even as robust conceptions of what fairness requires in practice varies wildly with differing beliefs, values, and cultural practices. Our minds have also evolved to understand things within two basic categories of judgment “things to embrace/seek” and “things to repel/avoid”. Our judgments of the things to embrace/seek take the form of what we can call a “pro valence” and our judgments of the things to repel/avoid take the form of what we can call a “con valence”.

These basic yes/no judgments are I think our natural psychological access to the concepts of good and bad on the most rudimentary level, shared even with species that have much less sophisticated and developed conceptual capabilities than ours. From the amoeba to the lizard to the monkey to the human, each organism says (or does) yes to some things and no to others.

And because humans depend so much both on the cooperation and the non-interference of other humans, it makes perfect sense that our brains would develop both emotions and cognitive categories to make mutual coordination with each other natural and inevitable to us. From Hobbesian social contract theory to game theory to kinship altruism, we understand numerous of the mathematical ways that success among interdependent rational agents depends on their developing behaviors which forego short term personal gains over each other for the long term benefits of mutual coordination. That natural selection would favor the brain developing emotional and cognitive mechanisms that make us inclined towards these things is not at all a counter-intuitive or unlikely thing to infer.

Of course that is not all there is to our brains. We also are inclined to strategize for immoral advantages when we can get them. We have not evolved to be morally perfect, but we have evolved to have the emotional/cognitive equipment for developing the affiliations and basic concepts through which we can now start to understand the logical structures of moralities and determine their objectively best formulations.

As part of this, we innately have an inherent knack for grasping that there is something illogical and unfair about at least certain kinds of practical contradictions. Practical contradictions are ones actions which undermine their own preconditions, such that if everyone did them illogically the actions themselves would be impossible. If every rational agent calculated it was best to lie, then the presumption of honesty which underpins communication would be eradicated and so no one would be fooled by lies. If every public official took bribes and thus used their offices for their own private benefit rather than the public good, then the system of having offices with power of administering the public’s will would not be serving that goal at all but just giving over power to individuals to exploit the public. And in that case there are no true “public offices” in the true sense of the phrase and the public would stop voluntarily handing over its power to those who would use to the public’s detriment, in which case there would be no one with the power of public office to take bribes in the first place. We get it that if students were allowed to take tests with answer keys provided by their teachers, then no real “tests” would occur. We get it that if you score the highest in a game only by breaking the rules of the game, then you have not really won at the game.

There are numerous examples we could multiply of formal kinds of actions where if everyone were to perform them in a self-serving way rather than according to the purpose the action is ostensibly supposed to serve, then the purpose the action is sanctioned for serving would never get fulfilled and all the advantages which the cheater is trying to accrue would be impossible to attain too.

This is a complicated idea to explicate and to think of abstractly. But we all get it. Numerous jokes and complaints about laws hinge on our understanding the absurdity of making oneself the exception to the rule or of making laws which absurdly thwart their ostensive ends through their actual mechanisms for enforcement, etc. We all understand intuitively the wrongness of hypocrisy and the nature of corruption, whereby a person or institution starts in practice serving the opposite ends that it in principle is claiming to stand for. We innately grasp that making something function to destroy the good it properly is meant to create is bad and irrational.

Given our innate emotional dispositions and our capacities for calculative and formal reasoning, moral concepts are completely explicable. Then through careful attention to experience and philosophical clarity we can assess what sorts of moral rules in what sorts of contexts guide us towards our ultimate goods of flourishing according to our inherent possibilities for maximal excellent human functioning with respect to our constitutive powers and their cumulative total power.

In reply to the claim that morality and math are not really true but just useful, she writes:

I would ask, useful by what metric? To say that some human-constructed thing (whether math or morals) is useful kinda presupposes some goal or purpose that is human-independent that you think this constructed thing serves. In the case of math, you might say that the equations are a constructed thing that are useful as a reference to the objective natural world, but I think, when it comes to morality, the definition gets recursive really fast. What is morality useful for except being good?

Morality is useful for helping us be overall excellent. Our overall excellence has to do with our maximal overall flourishing in the functional powers through which we have and inherently aim to realize our very being itself. Good moralities are good and justified by the ways they contribute to their maximal power realization for societies and individuals. They do this by training us to coordinate with each other even when it is inconvenient to do so or leads us to a short term loss of benefit. Moralities serve as rules to stick too when we would otherwise be tempted to be shortsighted about what maximally benefits us in the big picture.

Contrarian recommended her the work of Frans de Waal which talks about how the “phenomenon of moral behavior” is present in other primates. Leah replied:

I read some excerpts of his in the same college evopsych class where we read selections from Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence which suggested to me that horrendously immoral behaviors were evolutionarily stable strategies.

Whether or not “horrendously immoral behaviors” are evolutionarily stable does not mean that they are optimal for human flourishing, all things considered. There may be times and places at which actions we would be horrified by are genuinely in the best interest of humanity itself or a culture to flourish and so worth being moral. It could even be that the winding unguided road of natural and social evolution required at various times all sorts of brutalities which proved the most efficient route to overall long term progress. Those might be harsh truths.

But it is also the case that cultures can be wrong about what leads to their own optimal flourishing in power in objective terms. And many strategies which may have been minimally stabilizing could have been (and have been elsewhere) replaced with far more optimal arrangements. With people of the past, we can forgive them more than we can our contemporaries (both individuals and whole cultures) for their ignorance and bad calculations as to what would lead to maximal flourishing.

Unfortunately, since she only assumed evolution could contribute to morality only by making morality necessary for minimal survival and not as developing the tools for our flourishing beyond minimal reproductive capacities, she threw up her hands and instead went into wildly speculative anthropomorphic territory about Morality being a person that loved her. And she judged mysteriously that this meant that this meant Catholicism, in all its bizarre particular beliefs, simply was true.

Your Thoughts?

 

I will talk more about the inadequacies of her reasons for selecting to be a Catholic tomorrow.

In the meantime here are more posts developing key ideas in these Leah Libresco posts on ethics and on Catholicism.

Basic overview of goodness as occurring as a natural phenomenon:

The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

An explicit defense of teleology in naturalistic, god-free terms:

Natural Functions

An account of how normativity arises in nature with rational beings:

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

An account of how some moralities can be objectively better for some peoples while other moralities are objectively better for others, without sinking into subjectivistic moral relativism:

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How I make sense of our sense of duty and the value of self-sacrifice within a power-based ethics:

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

How I think our own good extends into motivation to seek others’ flourishing:

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

A trio of posts demonstrating my virtue theory in applied terms:

Rightful Pride: Identification with One’s Own Admirable Effects 

The Harmony of Humility and Pride

Meditations on How to be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Here is a polemic against nihilism (one of a few) which overviews my views and talks about the deep connection between values realism and rational thought:

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

Here are two critiques of the attempt to ground goodness in God:

God and Goodness

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

Here is a dialectical consideration of the problems with the traditional attributes of God:

Examining Some Alleged Divine Attributes

And, here is my critical exposition of Aquinas on goodness and God: 

On God As the Source of Being But Not of Evil

 

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

    For a being to be human is for it to be comprised of the right kinds of cells functioning as “human”.

    Man qua man.

    Humans are particularly fascinating emergent beings because we can function more or less according to our characteristic patterns. The patterns that constitute a human being at our most complex, ordered, and externally effective level are our rational capabilities, our emotional capabilities, our social capabilities, our artistic capabilities, our technological inventiveness, our athletic and physical coordination abilities, and our moral capabilities.

    All of which far under-determines any interesting moral question, from abortion to war.

    Good moralities are good and justified by the ways they contribute to their maximal power realization for societies and individuals.

    Carthage was evil because it fell, and Rome good because it didn’t?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      As for the underdetermination concern, this is about morality on the purely metaethical and formal level. Obviously we would have to get into finer points to deal with finer issues.

      And no a morality is not evil just because a people who follow it fall. Sometimes bad fortune is unavoidable. Moralities are rationally justified to the extent that we can project them to maximize human flourishing in effective power. And a morality that on net does not lead to maximal flourishing is to that extent a bad one, even if it benefits a small group.

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

      Fincke:

      Moralities are rationally justified to the extent that we can project them to maximize human flourishing in effective power. And a morality that on net does not lead to maximal flourishing is to that extent a bad one, even if it benefits a small group.

      1) “human flourishing”: The core problem with what you’re attempting is that it defers precisely what it is supposed to define. There are dozens of different and conflicting visions of what constitutes “human flourishing.” Conflict that typically involves competing values. When you define the Good in terms of Effectiveness and Effectiveness in terms of Flourishing and round and round and round, it says very little about what actual morals or values are buttressed from all that and what aren’t. Not only is it impossible to conclude from such rhetoric what your stance would be on abortion, premarital sex, and public healthcare, but the certainty is a) that any argument toward that would involve fleshing in the terms you’re using, and b) that someone else, using the same rhetoric, could flesh it out differently to quite different and contrary conclusions.

      2) “to the extent that we can project them”: History is both path dependent and famously hard to predict. Trying to ground morality in what can be projected from a particular time, place, and circumstance has several problems. Most salient is it pretty much has to sanction what works. Maybe you and I are humble in our ability to project from Roman morality to Rome’s success in the Punic wars. There are plenty of people who will say, “well, of course, that’s just what it took.” And now, you have to say that morality was a good one, pretty near optimal, given Rome’s subsequent flourishing.

      3) “even if it benefits a small group”: Group size is not static. More, groups compete for resources, power, money, and influence. How can your grounding of morality in “flourishing” not simply grant moral blessing to any group that succeeds, in whatever way?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Russell, again, I’m talking in metaethical terms. I am just trying to establish the truth of the formal categories of moral discussion. In real world debates we hold these issues constant and then argue out the pragmatics of what creates flourishing better in what context or another. Some of these debates are going to have epistemic problems when it is hard to get a satisfying metric to measure a given kind of flourishing. Nonetheless, we muddle through this with at least certain ideals about flourishing in powers as much as overall possible. Sometimes we will have to weigh overall aggregate flourishing against the average flourishing of the individual.

      These are all difficult questions. But they can all be worked out within this basic framework about the meaning of goodness and the value of moral systems in general laid down. Not being able to solve those other problems deductively from these metaethical basics, apart from considerations of all the particulars of actual situations, is not any kind of disproof of this metaethics.

      It only shows that the metaethics does not lead straight to a normative theory and that is quite by design. I am aware that specific normative theories and values can vary widely in ways that make opposite norms, values, and theories of both better in different times and places and I don’t think on the metaethical level we should try to cram in the specifics of our own time and place and its most important values. They take into account the particulars of our condition of life and I want to save that for the actual practical determination of our own norms and our own values distinct from the general metaethical categories for any values and any norms whatsoever and the basic formal criteria for assessing particular systems, even cross-culturally.

    • F

      Carthage was evil because it fell, and Rome good because it didn’t?

      Neither behaved well, and neither really flourished in terms of people. As states (or ruling class cultures), they did, temporarily. Like corporations, these states were both expansionist psychopaths.

      Neither realized maximal power or flourishing, regardless as to the territory or riches commanded by either at a given moment. They wasted their power, and sewed the seeds of their own destruction.

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

      F says:

      Neither behaved well, and neither really flourished in terms of people. As states (or ruling class cultures), they did, temporarily.

      Everything is temporary, but Rome famously flourished for long centuries. I’d say we’d have to give its ruling class high marks by that criteria. And hence high marks to its ruling class’s morality, by Fincke’s meta-ethical principles.

      Fincke:

      These are all difficult questions. But they can all be worked out within this basic framework about the meaning of goodness and the value of moral systems in general laid down. Not being able to solve those other problems deductively from these metaethical basics, apart from considerations of all the particulars of actual situations, is not any kind of disproof of this metaethics.

      If the meta-ethical theory is so loose, when and how does it constrain particular ethical theories at all? If it doesn’t, then it becomes merely a rhetoric for labeling such. Take Rome, as an example. It flourished. On what basis would your meta-ethics allow a criticism of its morality?

      Fincke:

      Wherever possible however, I should maximize overall flourishing because I am powerful through all the flourishing of those I empower.

      Well, the result of competition can determine who there is overall. Romans would say that the Punic wars were a great success for the world overall. That world just no longer included Carthage, and down the centuries, hundreds of millions of potential Carthiginian descendants never to be born as a result.

      More, Romans would say their use of slaves was great for Rome, overall. I’m not being facetious here. The problem is that when you use adjectives like “overall” to define your meta-ethics, either a) you can define them rigorously in purely factual terms, and explain WHY that makes your meta-ethics the “right” meta-ethics, or b) they become value-laden, and just another way for your meta-ethics to carry undefined values and norms.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Russell, when sorting out the issues, the values and norms appealed to will not be wholly arbitrary they will have to do with overall flourishing. There are ways that civilizations both advanced human flourishing while they also could have been more humane and empowering of more people had they only had the foresight. It is possible that the only choice is miserable poverty for all or human flourishing for some and poverty for another set. Given that choice, if it really were that hard choice, what would you choose? I would prefer there be at least some flourishing for some if that’s the only choice. But it seems there is no reason not to seek as best we can for maximal flourishing for the maximal number however possible.

      Here is a post you might find interesting, Russell: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2010/06/18/some-suspicions-about-the-superiority-of-liberal-moral-values/ It is one I would be interested in Your Thoughts about. (And any others reading here.)

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

      Fincke:

      when sorting out the issues, the values and norms appealed to will not be wholly arbitrary they will have to do with overall flourishing. There are ways that civilizations both advanced human flourishing while they also could have been more humane and empowering of more people had they only had the foresight. It is possible that the only choice is miserable poverty for all or human flourishing for some and poverty for another set. Given that choice, if it really were that hard choice, what would you choose?

      Of course. I completely agree that the flourishing of culture, families, and individuals are important values. And so I listen to arguments about how policies and morals affect those. I just disagree with the teleological argument for those values.

      Here is a post you might find interesting…

      So, a couple of thoughts. There are several senses in which meta-ethics is meta. 1) Moving from discussion of specific norms to desirable properties of norms, e.g., universalizability. 2) Providing a story for the justification of norms, as you’re attempting with a rarified teleology. 3) Investigating in a more positive way how norms originate, get applied, etc. Haidt’s work falls partly here.

      Let me offer two thoughts, that may seem contrary superficially, but really aren’t. First, just for understanding the arguments and claims, it’s important to be as precise as possible about what one means. Which is why I push you above about whether you have a purely positive definition of flourishing, or see it as a carrier of values? (Your talk of human functioning — like Rand’s of man qua man — does little more than serve as a place-holder for values, partly serving as justification it can’t really carry on its own, and partly deferring the need to identify which values you want to bring to the table until later discussion.)

      Second, these different senses of meta- blend together and are not entirely distinct from just plain old ethical discussion. Liberals abstract to reciprocity and universality because they devalue the particularities of group and appeals to authority. If moral conservatives were more honest, they would discuss meta-ethics in terms of the abstract principles of authority, obedience, and hierarchy. Some used to do that. A few still do. Most, today, prefer to cover that up with talk about “honor” and God’s moral laws. There’s a sense in which liberals have won the rhetorical high ground in the modern world, and so conservatives, afraid to speak out loud what they want, have to wrap it in rhetoric they can’t well explain.

  • eric

    Slightly different take on it, but I would consider this a variation of your own thoughts rather than disagreement.

    1. Extend the H2O analogy. Water’s emergent properties are a result of interactions between individual molecules. Let two H2O molecules interact, and they’ll have properties in addition to the properties each ‘brings to the table.’ Likewise, one can say that morality emerges out of human social contact. Just because it may not be fully located in any individual human or not additive of properties within individual humans does not mean it is nonexistent.

    2. The goal/purpose of human morality can likewise be located in our interactions with each other and the environment. As you point out, an evolutionarily stable strategy does not necessarily equal prosperity, so locating morality in our interactions is not the same thing as the naturalistic fallacy. “Always Defect” is a stable prisoner’s dilemma strategy. That doesn’t mean it gives you the best result.

    3. Maybe she covers this elsewhere, but none of her arguments lead to Catholicism per se. At best, they lead to deism or a generalized theism. Like a lot of bad Christian apologetics, she just ignores or handwaves away the problem of going from belief in a benevolent spirit to belief in the New Testament’s miracle-working Jesus.

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

      eric:

      “The goal/purpose of human morality can likewise be located in our interactions with each other and the environment.”

      There would be little to object to in that statement had you said “function” instead of “goal/purpose.” Biologists and anthropologists learn it takes hard work to avoid precisely the kind of fallacy that comes from presuming a teleology in how things behave.

      People have goals. And yes, because morality is invented by people, they can have goals in doing that. But there is a logical slip between levels to then think the morality itself has goals that can be used to justify the prescriptive claims written into it.

  • msm16

    I find it interesting how our morality is often horrendously misguided. humans have often preformed actions which they consider to be eminently moral only to cause massive human suffering. We tend to think of this as something that happens only I the past, usually codified as ‘imperialism.’ But these sorts of things are happening all around us today.

    My friend told me of an attempt to introduce modern farming techniques in Afghanistan. The specialists in charge of the project genuinely wanted to help the Afghanis. Unfortunately the soil and water quality were such that the project destroyed hundreds of acres of land. This land that had previously been semi arable by using traditional farming practices is now barren.

    We tend to place our Morality as unquestionable, and we preform huge mental gymnastics to try and maintain this fiction. As I see it though, after only some basic investigation, one finds that our morality is just as kludged together as the rest of our psyche.

    • http://songe.me Alex Songe

      This seems to me of not recognizing that the moral rightness of a particular solution is completely embedded in the particulars of the area. Hence, this was a moral failure to know enough about wtf your’e doing. I can tell you for a fact that most NGOs and many scientists would have had different criteria that would’ve attempted to come up with solutions that would at least avoid chances at harm. Common criteria for 3rd world problems in the science realm. Feasibility includes things like technological sustainability (will we make people reliant on technology they cannot afford to repair through lack of knowledge or lack of available parts?) and cultural impact, etc. A few weeks ago I listened to an attempt to re-introduce a native species of prawn to keep a fly population in check which was spreading diseases that were very hard to cure, and the guidelines they have for doing that intentionally are truly massive.

  • Axxyaan

    Dan, I was wondering, do you oppose euthanasia? Since euthanasia makes an end to someone’s effectiveness as a human and good is effectiveness, it seems that you should oppose euthanasia.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I support it but not lightly. I have a long piece on suicide that I have not yet posted where I deal with this. Provisionally, I would say that there can be cases where there’s a combination of someone’s overall flourishing in their powers, their intrinsic effectiveness, being so diminished and their pain so unbearable and interminable that it could be rational for them to choose to die. Now, that’s not because effectiveness is not their intrinsic good. But because in some cases, pain is just too miserable to cling to it as a conscious being. Our good is not in our conscious pleasure states in themselves, it’s in our objective flourishing. But as conscious beings if we become nearly unable to enjoy our own existence at all and can only endure it painfully, it may be necessary to let it go. It is a loss of one’s constitutive and intrinsic good but because it’s just too unendurable to live with as a conscious being and because ultimately one’s overall flourishing internally and the flourishing of those in whom one has invested one’s powers, etc. are all suffering anyway.

  • http://biblicalscholarship.wordpress.com/ jayman777

    Teleologists do not need to posit that there is an intelligent goal-giver who gives natural beings purposes to fulfill, as many theists think.

    I believe Aquinas makes such an argument in his Fifth Way. Do you have a rebuttal of his argument by chance?

    This is because every being, I would argue, is understandable precisely as something which is the functional result of its component beings.

    Do you believe there is a being who is not composed of parts? If I’m reading you correctly, it seems that you explain each being’s teleology by the teleology of its components parts. But this would seem to result in an infinite regress. On your view, what explains the existence of teleology in general?

    We have a rational imperative instead to flourish maximally powerfully according to the powers which constitute us ourselves.

    Why doesn’t such a position allow you to decide to flourish at the expense of my flourishing? Why not inhibit my flourishing if, over the long run, it allows you to flourish more than you would otherwise?

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

    I believe Aquinas makes such an argument in his Fifth Way. Do you have a rebuttal of his argument by chance?

    Yes, it’s called the theory of evolution by natural selection.

    Why doesn’t such a position allow you to decide to flourish at the expense of my flourishing? Why not inhibit my flourishing if, over the long run, it allows you to flourish more than you would otherwise?

    Sometimes, if we are competitors, our flourishing interests are to some extent in conflict. Wherever possible however, I should maximize overall flourishing because I am powerful through all the flourishing of those I empower. And even when our flourishing interests conflict, moral restraints are in all of our best interests in the long run. See the following posts (among many others(:

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/11/17/why-be-morally-dutiful-fair-or-self-sacrificing-if-the-ethical-life-is-about-power/

    and

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2012/05/29/meditations-on-how-to-be-powerful-fearsome-empowering-and-loved/

    • http://biblicalscholarship.wordpress.com/ jayman777

      Daniel Fincke:

      Yes, it’s called the theory of evolution by natural selection.

      That’s not a refutation. What might be called “unconscious teleology” is consistent with Aquinas’ metaphysics. This may tie in to my other question that you missed because of my poor formatting job:

      Do you believe there is a being who is not composed of parts? If I’m reading you correctly, it seems that you explain each being’s teleology by the teleology of its components parts. But this would seem to result in an infinite regress. On your view, what explains the existence of teleology in general?

      Sometimes, if we are competitors, our flourishing interests are to some extent in conflict. Wherever possible however, I should maximize overall flourishing because I am powerful through all the flourishing of those I empower. And even when our flourishing interests conflict, moral restraints are in all of our best interests in the long run.

      I intentionally chose a scenario where your flourishing would not be maximized by promoting my flourishing. By extension this means moral restraints are not in all of our best interests in such a scenario. So when we are “competitors” I should expect you to mistreat me.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I’m taking it you didn’t bother to read the posts I linked. Put simply, the deal with morality is that we have to accept some genuine hits to our own flourishing for the sake of the overall flourishing of the society with which our own good is co-constituted, because otherwise, if every rational agent opted out whenever it was inconvenient the system would collapse, so to avoid practical contradiction, we must adhere even at personal loss on occasion. This is the core genius of Kant’s insight (even though it has limits) and it is a big part of game theory. But even more than this, I would stress that except for unavoidable competitor relationships, destroying some one else’s good means there’s a net loss of effectiveness of the kind that it is my effective good to maximize rather than minimize.

      The posts linked to explain more, I would hope you would read them.

      As for the most basic reality, I do not know much about it as there is not enough to say from either cosmology or metaphysics to decide what it is. It’s illogical to posit that it’s an intelligent person since intelligent persons are complex beings though and it is by definition the simplest of beings. Here is more of my reasoning process on the concept of God and fundamental metaphysics http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2012/02/21/examining-some-alleged-divine-attributes/

  • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight

    I haven’t been following this train wreck in detail, but IIUC correctly, Libresco’s agrument boils down to:

    1) Moral realism is true (because I want it to be true, or feel like it’s true).
    2) Catholic philosophy has a robust account of moral realism and atheism doesn’t.
    3) Ergo, Jesus — specifically the Pope’s version thereof.
    And of course:
    4) This totally has nothing to do with having a Catholic BF.

    That’s really it? ‘Cuz it seems pretty bass-ackwards. If I wanted to work out a meta-ethical theory for personal use (which I’ll get around to, some day) I’d start as you do above: with some kind of first principles and work forward. Then whether I arrive at Realism or Errorism or wherever, I’d have my justification, and no need to appeal to some off-the-shelf rationale that comes with a boatload of institutional baggage.

    (FWIW: I’m not convinced by your argument above, for reasons along the line of comment #2. But what I know about moral philosophy could probably be covered in the first lecture of a 100-level course, so never mind ;-) .)

  • jesse

    Daniel–

    I am going to, a a bit of a science fiction buff, throw out this problem:

    Imagine aliens. They will have evolved differently. They will not likely share anything like our life cycle. Imagine, for a moment, beings whose basic form is one that lives in stars, and they require that stars stay cool and stable.

    Further posit that they come to live in our Sun. These are thinking beings, remember. They have to flourish as you say.

    But their survival and maximal flourishing would necessitate the elimination of all human life. Maybe all life, period, except theirs.

    What now? What moral precepts can be true if another life form that is sentient requires, for its survival, to eliminate another, or to live in a universe that is inhospitable to all other types? (This was all brought up by Stephen Baxter, by the way, in his Xeelee novels).

    You need not even bring up aliens. Whales and chimps are thinking beings. Yet it’s pretty clear that for them to survive humans will have to go through a pretty big die-off at the very least. What moralities are true for them and us both? To a whale, maximal human flourishing has been something of a dud. So if maximal human flourishing means the extinction of other thinking beings, what then? A Neandertal might have an interesting opinion on that.

    This is the kind of problem I have with your conception of how to find moral truth. rturpin brought up the definitional issue as well.

    For Libresco, in one sense she hit it on the head — the definitions get recursive. So Catholic theology is comforting in a very indifferent universe.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I think that to the extent that there is overlap between us and the aliens and we can reason and coexist together, there is a basis to say that allowing the maximal amount of powerful flourishing life of highly ordered and complex types is the ideal. If it is their species against ours in a true zero-sum game, then, well, you’ve seen that my justification of morality is ultimately in terms of our own power spread through other humans and in terms of game theory and in terms of social contract theory, so if it’s us or the outspacemen (or if it were ever a choice of us vs. the whales), then it seems irrational to me to extend our moral categories inter-species at the cost of our own obliteration.

    • Ted Seeber

      Xeelee? A more widely known example are Dr. Who’s Daleks. Which ended up requiring the good Doctor to end up wiping out his own people in an attempt to eliminate them from all existence (and failing).

    • jesse

      Daniel, now you know why I find your justification for objective morality (defined here as something that exists independent of us and all the stuff in our heads) inadequate and unsatisfying.

      Both us and the aliens and the whales, for example, will all come to the same answer if we divide a circle’s circumference by its diameter (even in other base arithmetic — base 8 or 6 — you get an irrational number). So there is something about the math that’s built into the structure of the universe. You can’t define it away.

      But as rturpin says, your definition is recursive from the get go. Maximal human flourishing is important, but you can’t define what that would mean in practical terms. Let’s just say, to be silly, that I think maximal human flourishing means that every person on earth should stick a carrot in his or her left ear and sing “Yankee Doodle.” Is there any first-principles type logic you can give me that says that is wrong? I don’t see it. I can come up with a perfectly consistent set of reasons why, given our ability to sing, grow carrots, and the fact that we have a left ear at all, that should be the maximal use of all those faculties.

      As to Libresco, I just think she’s hand-waving away that a) she has a Catholic BF. b) she understands little of the physical sciences, which have a number if plain, brute facts that render a good chunk of Catholic philosophy nonsense and theism pretty shaky (the fact of entropy for one) and c) is unwilling to walk through the implications at a personal level of an insane, indifferent world.

      I mean, one thing that used to get me about Aristotle, for instance, was that he said things that were just wrong, physically. If what he posits is physically wrong than the rest of it is just hand-waving. No disrespect to Aristotle, he couldn’t have known that. But if you say that there’s some natural tendency for things to rest and that there are four basic elements — well, it’s like if I said that gravity didn’t apply to me and built a whole philosophy on that.

      I may be a moral nihilist, but I do think that we can go with “try not to kill ourselves off as a species” as a starting point. Since we reproduce sexually having our children live is kind of important to us (if we were amoebae it would look rather different — and it is interesting to speculate on what morality would look like to an intelligent species for whom the concept of offspring didn’t exist in at all the same way).

      @Ted Seeber — yeah but the Xeelee novels lay it out more starkly. In that case, one species was made of baryonic matter (us and other life forms like us) and the other was made of dark matter. A universe compatible with us was inhospitable to the others. No sharing was possible.

  • F

    This is minor and likely irrelevant to the larger discussion, but I have to poke at it.

    After the debate, I buttonholed a Christian friend for another argument. During the discussion, he prodded me on where I thought moral law came from in my metaphysics. I talked about morality as though it were some kind of Platonic form, remote from the plane that humans existed on. He wanted to know where the connection was.

    This is almost hilarious, as Christians quite enjoyed using Platonic or Neo-Platonic logic and constructs to hook together the nature of reality, morality, and their god. It’s all Emanatin’ from teh One God. (See, Christians can disbelieve or be ignorant of the One, but God is for real, therefore morality.)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Yes, I wanted to more explicitly poke away at the fact that she’s claiming you need the Christian God for morality and metaphysics and yet except for her personal relationship with an anthropomorphized Morality all the morality and metaphysics is pagan in origins–Platonic, Neoplatonic, or Aristotelian.

    • Ted Seeber

      Why is that a problem? Or don’t you know the meaning of the word Catholic?

      I’ll give you a hint- Catholic does NOT mean Christian in the same sense as *only Jesus Christ has the truth*. See Nostra Aetate for a modern explanation of the philosophical underpinnings of Catholicism. Or better yet actually bother to read the Early Church Fathers who came up with the term.

    • DavidM

      So Plato and Aristotle and Plotinus and the rest are pagans? That seems a little simplistic, doesn’t it? Remember Plato’s mentor Socrates, how he was charged with impiety? Yeah, those guys were actually kind of moving beyond paganism.

  • Ted Seeber

    Why is the natural observable universe outside of God in your thought processes?

    Why can’t the patterns we see in the universe, be no different from the patters we see when we turn an MRI machine on a human body?

    In other words, after reading this, I think you need to learn the meaning of the word TRANSCENDENT.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I really don’t understand these cryptic questions and implications. But perhaps my post explaining the limits of my skepticism will be a start: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/09/03/mostly-true-not-mostly-false/

    • Ted Seeber

      To co-opt your own words for a second- what if human beings are hydrogen, the rest of the universe and everything supernatural or spiritual that exists is oxygen, and God is water?

    • http://skepticalmath.wordpress.com skepticalmath

      What if humans are hydrogen, the rest of the universe is oxygen, and Zeuss is water.

      Oh wait! What if humans are hydrogen, the rest of the universe is oxygen, and Mozart is water.

      Nonononono — I’ve got it now!

      What if humans are hydrogen, the rest of the universe is oxygen, and the wine I’m drinking is water?

    • Stevarious

      @Ted Seeber (emphasis mine)

      “To co-opt your own words for a second- what if human beings are hydrogen, the rest of the universe and everything supernatural or spiritual that exists is oxygen, and God is water?”

      If god is partly ‘everything supernatural or spiritual that exists’, than he appears to be partly nothing. Your analogy actually works: god is 50% a creation of the human mind, 25% erroneous explanations for observations of the rest of the universe, and 25% ‘everything supernatural or spiritual that exists’ – that is, nothing.

      God is wishes and hopes and mistakes and nothing at all.

    • Contrarian

      God is an emergent property created by previously existent natural and supernatural objects interacting?

  • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ Lou Doench

    Not much to add other than that you do not have to worry about me becoming Catholic…again… ;)

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

    Hey atheist readers, Leah has linked to my post here http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked/2012/06/camels-with-hammers-has-a-rebuttal.html and so there may be some more Christians who show up in the comments section (as there have been since I first brought up her conversion). Please argue with them vigorously and hospitably. I do not want you to drive them away but to reason with them if you’re up for it.

    And any incoming Christians who want to comment, please stick to substantive arguments and veer away from wholesale insults or proselytization, the predominantly atheistic audience finds neither particularly ingratiating.

    • http://skepticalmath.wordpress.com skepticalmath

      Fair point. I hope I didn’t come off too mocking/dismissive in my comment(s) above.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      No, I think that comment (about Zeus) was fine. I just don’t want mud thrown. But pointing out the absurdity of an illustration with a counter-absurd illustration is just fine.

  • Contrarian

    Honored by the mention :)

  • Contrarian

    But, qua my pseudonym,

    So, in this context, I am an atheistic virtue ethicist requiring no divine agency for the teleological dimensions of my ethics to make minimal sense and have minimal coherence. I am just describing purely naturalistically occurring patterns as universals or forms. I am saying that since humans’ very natures are constituted by a specific set of powers, fulfilling them is incumbent on humans as the beings that we are. It is irrational and a practical contradiction to destroy the very precondition of our own being (all things being equal). We have a rational imperative instead to flourish maximally powerfully according to the powers which constitute us ourselves.

    You seem to define “human” as “that with those properties which characterize the ‘human form’” or “an instance of the ‘human form’”, where you have defined the “human form” as the emergent natural pattern we all satisfy. “Human nature” is those properties characterizing the ‘human form.’” Is this correct?

    Now if a moral code were to insist that humans behave in such a way as to destroy their own human nature, the moral code would cause humans to cease to exist, hence destroy itself. Thus such a moral code would contradict itself.

    Therefore any moral code must require that humans not negate the definition of “human”. Correct?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Not really. I mean the human form is not just defined tautologically as the human form. It’s the synthesis of our various characteristic powers (reason, emotion, sociability, technological inventiveness, artistic capabilities, athleticism, sexuality, etc.) plus our basic human features that demarcate us as a species. But if we could become so much more powerful in any of these capabilities or somehow even invent whole new powers that make us overall that much more effective and powerful beings in general by becoming something transhuman then that would be great too.

    • Contrarian

      A human is a being which manifests a synthesis of our various characteristic powers and features?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      and is genetically human, has basic human physical traits, etc.

    • Contrarian

      Right, that should be included in “characteristic features.”

      Since this is nailed down, is my summary of your metaethics correct?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I feel like this is a set up…

    • Contrarian

      It’s a trap!

      I just want to see whether I correctly summarize your argument for metaethics.

    • Contrarian

      (I mean, I want to get the argument right so I can attack it, but I want to get it right first.)

  • heliobates

    Daniel,

    I muchly appreciate this series of posts and I’m learning a ton, but something is jamming sideways in my brain:

    They exist “eternally” not in some other realm as things but as eternal possibilities that always could emerge if the right conditions in the right universe were ever to be met.

    Don’t get it. Get how humans, who currently exist, can have this “form” as a teleological direction or destination, but don’t get how this form can exist eternally.

    As an example: ~ 25,000 years ago H. Sapiens Sapiens and H. Sapiens Neanderthalensis were co-existant. So H.S.S. had, as they do today, a “form”/teleology. H.S.N., being very close hominid cousins, must also have had a form/teleology. But H.S.N. went extinct. So what happened to the H.S.N. form/teleology?

    If I read this essay correctly, it still “exists” somehow. And that jams sideways in my brain, because it doesn’t fit through the “exists” sieve in my head.

    What am I missing (besides all of Aristotle)?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Thanks hellobates, it’s really not that out there an idea. It’s just this: what it means to be a dinosaur still exists. That’s why we can look around and at everything we see and say, “Nope, no dinosaurs here.” It’s because the concept of the dinosaur is still the concept of the dinosaur. And they’re still theoretically possible (even if unlikely to ever evolve again). Say we went all Jurassic Park and were able to recreate them, then voila! They’re back. All this basically means is that every possible being is always a possible being. So even before current humans existed we were a possibility in theory. Now we’re actually here having evolved. Numerous other possible beings have not evolved or have but gone extinct. But as long as there is some theoretical condition under which they could be at all, they are possible and always and eternally a possibility nature has within it.

      Does that clarify it?

    • heliobates

      Does that clarify it?

      A little bit. But does “what it means to be a dinosaur” really exist outside of human cognition? That is the “idea” of dinosaur (which is constantly emerging/evolving) is an idea within “human mindspace/society/language/accumulated knowledge…”, but not really accessible to anything else outside of human mindspace…, right?

      I mean “what it meant to be a dinosaur” must have meant something different to the dinosaurs themselves?

      Or am I too stuck on a “the-moon-is-still-there-when-I’m-not-looking” idea of existence?

    • consciousness razor

      It’s just this: what it means to be a dinosaur still exists. That’s why we can look around and at everything we see and say, “Nope, no dinosaurs here.” It’s because the concept of the dinosaur is still the concept of the dinosaur.

      But you were talking about a functional property. The function itself doesn’t always exist, just whatever truths there are which constitute the concept of the function. Right?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I was just saying that matter always theoretically has in it the possibility to be rearranged into every possible material object. It just won’t unless the right physical events happen to make that happen, but all those possibilities are always true possibilities. They don’t exist as actualities on some special plane or anything. The dinosaur no longer exists. But the possibility of the dinosaur exists and always has and always will. This is so even if the likelihood of the recurrence of dinosaurs was infinitesimally small. It’s still a thing that could be and we can say that truly. The possibility exists.

    • consciousness razor

      That is the “idea” of dinosaur (which is constantly emerging/evolving) is an idea within “human mindspace/society/language/accumulated knowledge…”, but not really accessible to anything else outside of human mindspace…, right?

      I don’t really know where I stand about Platonism, but I think you’d at least have to expand the existence of ideas beyond something like a human mind. Machines can store, produce and manipulate information. That information exists in some sense, even if there isn’t a sentient mind to “think” it, though it is embodied in one configuration of physical objects or another. It’s not just floating in a separate plane of existence or in the mind of God, or similar nonsense.

      On a very different level, I think it makes sense to say it’s always been true that 2+2=4. That would be true even if it were also true that no one ever became smart enough to think that idea, or if there were any machine which could otherwise encode that information physically without actually “thinking” about it.

    • heliobates

      I think it makes sense to say it’s always been true that 2+2=4. That would be true even if it were also true that no one ever became smart enough to think that idea, or if there were any machine which could otherwise encode that information physically without actually “thinking” about it.

      That actually helps alot. Thanks.

  • Brian

    Hi Daniel. Just a question, why do you even think there is any benefit in looking upon unguided processes (not teleological) such as evolution, as teleological?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Hi Daniel. Just a question, why do you even think there is any benefit in looking upon unguided processes (not teleological) such as evolution, as teleological?

      Yes, because there is more to teleology than the posit of an intelligent guidance to it. I’m basically updating Aristotle’s ethics and everything about it works, and works just the same, as far as I can tell, without any external intelligence creating the forms. As long as beings have inherent functionalities that constitute their very being, their staying the being they are means functioning a certain way, just as teleological ethics has always emphasized. Because of this tradition, it is accurate to say that my ethics is essentially teleological, even if it rejects a traditional explanation of where beings’ defining functions come from.

  • Brian

    Whoops, by teleological, is understood purposefullness or guidedness. It doesn’t make sense to suggest a teleology for evolution unless you posit an end or purpose. If people need that to feel important, well, whatever.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

    I think this is highlighting one of the main problems I have with this view:

    Not really. I mean the human form is not just defined tautologically as the human form. It’s the synthesis of our various characteristic powers (reason, emotion, sociability, technological inventiveness, artistic capabilities, athleticism, sexuality, etc.) plus our basic human features that demarcate us as a species. But if we could become so much more powerful in any of these capabilities or somehow even invent whole new powers that make us overall that much more effective and powerful beings in general by becoming something transhuman then that would be great too.

    So my answer to this is: well, it might be great … but would it be moral?

    See, for me the metaethics here has to establish not what humans are as humans, but what humans are as moral agents. Not every capacity that humans have will be morally relevant, especially if you are taking an evolutionary view (as we will inherit things in our genetic make-up that evolved for purposes that are not moral), and some of them might even run contrary to morality and what it means to be a moral agent. From what I’ve read before, you do — and have to — start from a principle of maximizing our effectiveness and basically try to make THAT the moral principle. But then you cannot appeal to that and us having those capacities to make your point, because many — myself included — deny that that is indeed moral. For example, when you discussed purposes of various body parts and the like elsewhere, it’s clear that if we make the moral imperative to act as per the most effective way to exercise our powers, then we would have to apply this to things that don’t seem capable of morality, like hearts. So, we can then make distinctions about what it means to be capable of morality — such as agency, which hearts don’t have — but then that opens the door to my complaint: that not all of our capabilities necessarily relate to our morality, and that there’s a distinction between human flourishing and moral flourishing.

    And that’s where it seems here that you run into a similar problem as Sam Harris does. When you talk at the metaphysical level about flourishing as per what makes us truly human, most people will generally agree. It’s when you get into the specifics of what you think counts as flourishing that the disagreement comes in. And whether that counts as metaphysics or not, I think THAT’S the level that Leah wants the answer, not that really vague upper level.

    As an example of the disagreement, in your list above it’s basically only reason that I think is a relevant power for morality, even though the others are indeed powers and many of them are ones that we would like to maximize. And I’d argue that you leave the most important power — agency — off the list, as that’s the main one that determines and is relevant to our status as moral agents. Without agency, you are not an agent, and without being an agent, you are not a moral agent.

    • Jesse

      It’s when you get into the specifics of what you think counts as flourishing that the disagreement comes in. And whether that counts as metaphysics or not, I think THAT’S the level that Leah wants the answer, not that really vague upper level.

      That’s also where I run into problems, though my “answer” is rather different from Libresco’s. While I think her choice it at many levels irrational, I understand it, I think. People want answers.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      It’s NOT like my moral philosophy STOPS HERE. This is just the general metaethical level. And it gives all sorts of particular value priorities that ground further inquiry. My point in emphasizing the formality is that it allows for actual consideration of particulars—which I provide in many other posts—rather than trying to bake some concrete conclusions into the most general level.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      Daniel,

      I get that. I’m pointing that that’s the point where the disagreement comes in, though, and even where Leah really wants the answer, in my opinion. And it’s at that level where Leah might find she requires an intelligent telelogical entity, and if that’s the case, then this won’t really answer her concerns at all.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Okay. Well, I see her desire for a personal source of morality as rooted in a combination of standard human projective anthropomorphism, the influence of so many Catholics she was reading, and the assumption that teleology cannot work without it. I have tried to push her to be more critical of the anthropomorphism and tried to show teleology can work without it. I don’t see why either of those things requires more than what I have done. Now, what she also seems to want is to see an ethics that works in practice and she’s been doing these “tests” of Catholic ethical ideas and seeing if they “really work” and been all amazed by the ways they predict new information, etc. I’ll criticize that in the next post (and did a bit in the post on “foolish atheists”), but that stuff is not relevant to her issue of atheists not being able at all to do teleology, their ability to bootstrap to moral concepts, or their ability to learn some things about ethics from evolution. All those concerns of her were explicitly metaethical. In fact, both privately and on her blog she has expressed appreciation to me precisely for advocating both metaethical discussions in general and atheist moral realism in particular. So, she explicitly likes what I am doing here. (Heck, she even has appreciated my respectfully aggressive and critical spirit towards the rest of her stuff!)

      So, I don’t think there’s a problem of me not addressing what matters to her. This is someone who thinks a lot about the metaphysics of math and morality. Her eyes are not glazing over.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      I think that you’re misinterpreting me as challenging metaethics. I’m not really looking at things as a split between metaethical and practical considerations. I’m trying to look at things as basically specific problems/questions and seeing what gets answered. I also never insinuated that it wouldn’t be useful, just that it might not be as settling as at least the blog title says it should be.

      How this may relate to Leah is that you are indeed trying to relate to her a way that teleology can be done in an atheistic framework, which is fine. But the problem is that teleology may not, in fact, be a teleology that’s sufficient for morality, at least for her. She may accept that that’s a SORT of teleology, but that a more intentional teleology is required for morality. And if she does think that, then you have to go back a step because it’s likely that there’s a disagreement earlier on.

      Which is why I brought up the general “flourishing” idea and my problems. In my case, I would likely have a different starting point than you, but would agree that talking about flourishing as a human is not far from the truth. However, due to our starting points, we disagree strongly over what powers count, since I clearly exclude many that you don’t. In Leah’s case, it is easy for me to imagine — although this is just my opinion — that she is also wondering how you could choose between what powers count as moral powers and what powers don’t, and requiring an appeal to an intentional purpose to settle that set. And that would require an intentional agent. _I_ don’t go there, because I start from what it means to be moral as a concept, but she may well.

      Now, at what level is this sort of discussion? I haven’t a clue. But these sorts of discussions may well be the crux of the difference here.

    • consciousness razor

      See, for me the metaethics here has to establish not what humans are as humans, but what humans are as moral agents.

      I’m not quite sure how Fincke thinks agency fits into the picture, but to me it looks like all the pieces are there. We have all of this:

      characteristic powers (reason, emotion, sociability, technological inventiveness, artistic capabilities, athleticism, sexuality, etc.)

      You can leave out the “etc.” to be fair, but given all that, would there still need to be something else to account for agency?

      So, we can then make distinctions about what it means to be capable of morality — such as agency, which hearts don’t have — but then that opens the door to my complaint: that not all of our capabilities necessarily relate to our morality, and that there’s a distinction between human flourishing and moral flourishing.

      The metaethical framework he’s outlining just has to be sufficient to account for moral flourishing. If other stuff that fits under “human flourishing” needs to be weeded out to refine it, that could be done (without big changes to the rest), but I don’t see it as lacking the ability to handle things like that. Or maybe I’m not understanding what your issue is.

      (I do have some issues of my own with it, but those are probably irrelevant to this. In fact, some have to do with moral questions concerning non-humans.)

  • Stevarious

    I’m not really sure why so many people think they are entitled not just to answers, but that they are entitled to answers they like.

  • John Horstman

    Okay, I think I’m on the same page with you, Dan.

    With respect to true moralities, they are just certain patterns of norms that can always emerge as good wherever certain kinds of beings (namely rational ones with interests) emerge and face certain kinds of conditions which create certain kinds of inherent needs for cooperation. The number 2 is real in the sense that in many places there are 2 things and that they are related in a way of 2. And also even were there no 2 objects they are still a possibility. 2 exists as always possibly instantiatable in 2 things somewhere, should there be a somewhere for them to be. Similarly every possible moral truth (and every other possible truth) always exists as a possibility even when not instantiated.

    This resolves my objections to ideas like math or logic being ‘true’ or ‘real’ and ‘discoverable’ versus ‘constructed’. As with any abstracted model, we’re developing/constructing something that can function to be a useful but simpler analogue to represent something that exists. While “2″ itself may be a construct, the thing that “2″ represents is real and discoverable (and in our model of mathematics, we have decided to represent it with “2″). Is that a fair reading?

    • John Horstman

      Oh, and the title made me laugh out loud – a good, hearty laugh, too.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      While “2″ itself may be a construct, the thing that “2″ represents is real and discoverable (and in our model of mathematics, we have decided to represent it with “2″). Is that a fair reading?

      Yes, there can be different constructed number systems but they all track the same reality.

  • http://dysangelist.wordpress.com Dysangelist

    An excellent post. I am in particular grateful for the link to Some suspicions about the superiority of liberal moral values, which seems fundamental to the most important moral questions confronting us today: how to “solve the equations” involved in First World vs. Third World flourishing, and in present-day vs. seventh-generation flourishing.

    I don’t have Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition to hand (I wasn’t about to buy the thing, but I remember he claims to have been an atheist won over to Catholicism by the arguments of Aquinas and his kind. It seems really weird to me.

    You are right that one can find teleological, life-well-lived sort of arguments appealing and useful without being led to postulating a personal god.

    The thought-experiments mentioned in the comments, about aliens (or whales or chimpanzees) are interesting up to a point, but I tend to respond that “Hard cases make bad law.” (Even more interesting would have been the situation if human beings had spread to multiple continents and then evolved in isolation for hundreds of thousands of years. The resulting species might all have been rational beings, but of vastly different levels of intelligence. Just as well we were spared that; we behaved badly enough with respect to our co-specific relatives in Africa and the Americas.)

    Rambling thoughts; I have to go out to dinner so I must stop here.

  • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

    Dan,

    It seems to me that your biological, psychological, and anthropological points are mainly on target but that you are trying to hang too much philosophical clothing on those points.

    Humans’ main tool of our survival is our big brain and the abilities that brain makes possible. Certain protocols of interaction make it more likely that we can use those faculties in a cooperative and productive way, and we should therefore not be surprised that pretty much all human societies hit upon some version of such protocols. We call such protocols “morality.” Full stop.

    Why go further? “Morality” is like TCP/IP, the protocols that make cooperation across the Internet possible, without dictating the detailed content of Internet interaction.

    Why view morality as any more philosophically confusing than TCP/IP? Teleological/non-teleological, natural/non-natural, all arguing about angels on the head of a pin. Morality and TCP/IP are understandable results of human nature and human interaction. Nothing spooky in either case.

    (Unless of course you happen to have a Catholic boyfriend!)

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Just explaining where they come from does not tell us why we should engage in moral standards or how to assess particular ones. That’s where more philosophy about the nature of goods and worthwhile norms becomes necessary. The angels on a head of a pin analogy is a false one. This is not dreaming up the specifics of purely imaginary beings. It is getting clear on the meaning, justification, and truth of basic value terms and figuring out how to rationally adduce the best conclusions in our most important debates (those about values).

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      Dan,

      Thanks for your reply.

      You wrote:
      >Just explaining where they come from does not tell us why we should engage in moral standards or how to assess particular ones.

      Indeed. But, normal people already know, more or less, how to deal with that: “How would you feel if somebody treated you that way?” “How will you feel about yourself if you do that?” “What will other people think of you if you do that?” “What will happen if everyone behaves that way?”

      As you suggest, most people are at least partly moved by such considerations, as a result of evolution and due to their own personal life experiences (including “socialization”).

      But, as you have seen, again and again here in your blog, *that* is not enough for people like Leah. After all, a person could be rigorously logical and completely cognizant of empirical facts, and yet be quite unmoved by such considerations. In fact, some of the psych people seem to think that ten percent or so of the population consists of such people.

      I see that as merely a pragmatic problem: how do we protect ourselves against such psychopaths? But Leah and her comrades see it as an intellectual problem: how do we prove to such people that they are *objectively* wrong, not just lacking in human sympathy, etc.?

      My answer to them is that their demand simply cannot be met: vide the Euthyphro dilemma. I suspect you may agree with me, though you seem not to want to say so. At any rate, philosophers for over two millennia have been trying to square this circle without noticeable success, and, empirically, that certainly gives support to the Humean argument against such objective justification.

      Of course, Leah really does not understand that the Euthyphro dilemma means that her new-found faith still does not solve her problem. Alas, a Yale education seems not to be what it used to be!

      Dave

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Actually philosophers have had tons of success in working out countless really helpful and clarifying distinctions. Many philosophers have even had those distinctions profoundly influence our self-understanding and our institutions as a result. In what other fields should we just shut down inquiry and stick to what “ordinary people know” simply because the questions and the answers are complicated. I mean, there are still anomalies physicists don’t understand. And, WTF with the ways physics does not square with common sense! Or what about how I can walk around the world and not get killed despite not knowing anything about calculus. So, yeah, let’s stop doing moral philosophy. And while we’re at it, let’s stop doing physics and mathematics.

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      Dan wrote:
      >Actually philosophers have had tons of success in working out countless really helpful and clarifying distinctions. Many philosophers have even had those distinctions profoundly influence our self-understanding and our institutions as a result.

      Have they?

      I’ve asked various philosophers around the Web the following question:

      Can you give a handful of results in philosophy that are generally accepted among the overwhelming majority if contemporary philosophers and have been for the last few decades, that are about substantive issues about the real world (i.e., not just “Plato made some mistakes”), and that are not already obvious to ordinary people (i.e., non-philosophers).

      No one could come up with any examples, not a single one.

      It would of course be extremely easy for a physicist, astronomer, biologist or mathematicians to come up with such examples from their own fields.

      Of course, maybe I just did not ask any philosopher as smart as you!

      So, by all means fill us all in on some of these important, well-established, non-obvious results of philosophical work that have been generally accepted for decades among philosophers.

      I’m really not trying to show you up here: I really, sincerely would be interested in hearing some examples. I really am disappointed that, so far, no philosopher I’ve asked has been able to provide any.

      All the best,

      Dave Miller in Sacramento

    • DavidM

      Here’s one result for you, PDave: An ordinary person might not see that your question/suggestion “What will happen if everyone behaves that way?” is actually a very difficult one, and your observation that most people are ‘moved’ by this kind of consideration tells us very little. Whereas it really is a question, an ‘ordinary’ person like yourself might interpret it as an answer. Philosophers are generally better than ordinary people at seeing that rhetorical questions generally constitute very shallow and inadequate arguments. And none of this has been discovered in the last twenty years, but what does that have to do with anything?

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      DavidM wrote to me:
      >Philosophers are generally better than ordinary people at seeing that rhetorical questions generally constitute very shallow and inadequate arguments. And none of this has been discovered in the last twenty years, but what does that have to do with anything?

      I think you make my point for me. Philosophers are good at seeing that rhetorical questions are rhetorical questions?

      Sorry, but your comment illustrates why the number of people who take philosophers seriously is comparable to the number who take astrology seriously. (Indeed, I’d guess that more people read their horoscopes daily than read a philosopher daily! At least, the horoscope is amusing.)

      Dave

    • DavidM

      Ph-Dave: I think you missed my point (philosophers are also better than average at not missing the point ;) ). People often think they can settle important and difficult questions by simply throwing out a rhetorical question which they think resolves the whole question because they assume that the (correct) answer to the rhetorical quesion is obvious. They are usually mistaken in this assumption. So it’s not just that philosophers see that rhetorical questions are rhetorical questions; it’s that they see that the rhetorical questions people offer in response to certain questions are usually inadequate as real responses to those questions.

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      DavidM wrote to me:
      > So it’s not just that philosophers see that rhetorical questions are rhetorical questions; it’s that they see that the rhetorical questions people offer in response to certain questions are usually inadequate as real responses to those questions.

      Y’know, DavidM, I have been reading and talking to philosophers for just about forty years, and during that time I have constantly been told that philosophers are unusually good at ________, where (blank) has been:

      Distinguishing the meanings of words
      Thinking logically
      Writing clearly
      etc.

      and now, it seems, noticing that rhetorical questions are rhetorical questions!

      But, it’s all lies, isn’t it?

      Years ago, when I was taking a philosophy course, the professor asserted that almost all people agreed with a certain proposition. So, I proposed we actually go outside to a busy street off campus and ask a bunch of real people if they agreed with the proposition. He became very nonplussed: you see he did not actually mean the “people” kind of people! He meant some other sort of people (i.e., the small minority who actually held his view).

      Typical.

      No, philosophers are not masters of clarity, despite their claims to the contrary: almost anyone not part of their profession finds their writings the very opposite of clarity. (Of course, they do not mean that sort of prosaic, pedestrian clarity! They mean their special, patented, emperor’s-new-clothes sort of transparent clarity!)

      No, philosophers are not particularly good at distinguishing the meaning of words: we have a profession that is indeed reasonably good at that – lexicographers, not philosophers.

      And, no, philosophers are not very good at all at logic: what philosophers consider “logical” argument would earn an “F” in any decent math or natural science course.

      All a fraud.

      But, it’s a living: gotta rip off the rubes somehow.

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      Dan wrote to me:
      > Actually philosophers have had tons of success in working out countless really helpful and clarifying distinctions. Many philosophers have even had those distinctions profoundly influence our self-understanding and our institutions as a result.

      Really?

      Then, Dan,

      Why not give us some actual concrete examples of this????????

      And since you claim this is true of “many” philosophers, how about giving examples besides yourself, so we do not have to be rude to you, our dear host?

      This is oh-so-typical of you guys: We philosophers have really done very, very important work but we just have not the time to mention any examples at all of that work.

      Where’s the beef?

      Please note, everyone, I have been asking this question of philosophers for quite a while: I am not just picking on Dan.

      Always grandiose claims of their important work. Never any actual examples.

      Of course, when someone asks the equivalent question of us physicists, we are quite cheerful to give examples galore (as I’ve said before, cell phones, transistors, jet planes, lasers, CT scans, LEDs, etc. ad infinitum).

    • DavidM

      PhDave: So you missed my point the first time, I point this out to you and clarify the point I was making, and you come back at me again with the very same misunderstanding. Now it’s actually irrevelant that philosophers do the same thing sometimes – the point is that one shouldn’t do this, whoever one is.

    • DavidM

      Just so you don’t miss the point again, please understand that my point about rhetorical questions was a criticism of your original attempt to criticize Dan by claiming that whatever philosophers know is already known by ordinary people: “Indeed – but normal people…[ask a series of rhetorical questions and think that resolves the matter].”

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      DavidM wrote to me:
      > PhDave: So you missed my point the first time, I point this out to you and clarify the point I was making, and you come back at me again with the very same misunderstanding. Now it’s actually irrevelant that philosophers do the same thing sometimes – the point is that one shouldn’t do this, whoever one is.

      You seem to think I was making a deeper point in my original post than I was making. I was not trying to exalt common sense or attribute great philosophical wisdom to ordinary people. I was merely suggesting that, whatever ordinary people do know vis a vis morality, philosophers know even less.

      Dave

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      DavidM wrote to me:
      > Just so you don’t miss the point again, please understand that my point about rhetorical questions was a criticism of your original attempt to criticize Dan by claiming that whatever philosophers know is already known by ordinary people…

      No, that was not my point: I think philosophers know less than ordinary people about morality, indeed much less than zero.

      Dave

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      Dan wrote to me:
      >This is sheer historical ignorance and obliviousness to what philosophy is and what constitutes its successes.

      Well… I’ve taken philosophy classes and read a large number of books written by philosophers, but maybe you’re right: maybe I really am just an ignoramus.

      So, why don’t you fill us all in on what I am missing, Dan?

      I don’t mean you should teach us philosophy in a hundred words or less. But, in a few hundred words, can’t you at least point us to some of the significant “successes” you claim philosophy has to its credit (without just pointing to your own postings as the pinnacle of philosophical achievement – that just involves us in the fruitless and rather rude endeavor of brutally critiquing your posts!).

      Look: in legitimate fields of intellectual endeavor, people can easily do this: I can easily point to such achievements in natural science, whether you want pure knowledge (relativity, evolution, plate tectonics, etc.) or practical applications (antibiotics, cell phones, jet planes, etc.).

      Why on earth won’t you do the same thing for philosophy?

      In all honesty, there seems to be one obvious explanation: there are no “successes” for you to point to.

      You keep saying all of us are just missing the “successes” of philosophy: fine – tell us what “successes” we are missing!

      Dave

    • DavidM

      Ph-Dave: You’re either quite bad at expressing yourself clearly, or you have simply changed your original claim/argument. Regarding your latest claim: “I think philosophers know less than ordinary people about morality, indeed much less than zero,” two questions: What is that supposed to mean? And provided it actually means something, why do you think it’s true (how would you propose to go about establishing its truth)?

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      DavidM wrote to me:
      >You’re either quite bad at expressing yourself clearly, or you have simply changed your original claim/argument. Regarding your latest claim: “I think philosophers know less than ordinary people about morality, indeed much less than zero,” two questions: What is that supposed to mean?

      Well, perhaps you are right that I do not express myself clearly: about all I can say is that very few people have trouble understanding me. Certainly, lots and lots of people have disagreed with me! But most of the time, when they disagree with me, they understand clearly enough what I have said: they just do not like it. Few people fail consistently to understand me (except in the sense of “I cannot understand how you fail to agree with *me*”).

      As to what the statement you quote is “supposed to mean,” well, I doubt I can express it more clearly.

      Look: you’re and my exchanges here seem to have consisted largely of your asking procedural or meta-questions of me that seem to have little interest and little substance that interests anybody but you. That’s your privilege, but I am afraid my response sort of has to be that, for one reason or another, your fault or mine, you and I seem to have trouble communicating.

      It happens.

      You also asked:
      >And provided it actually means something, why do you think it’s true (how would you propose to go about establishing its truth)?

      Well, that is what most of my posts to Dan have been about. If you disagree with those, you are certainly free to object as loudly as Dan will tolerate. Again, I doubt I can explain all of that any better than I did in the posts directed to Dan, but, if you have a specific point of mine to question, feel free to ask me or attach me as you wish, and, if I think I can explain my point more clearly, I’ll try.

      Dave

    • DavidM

      PhDave: So it sounds like you would like to maintain that your only interest in philosophy consists in trying to justify your lack of interest in philosophy. That’s an interesting position, but perhaps it displays the kind of temperament, or habit of mind, as Dan put it, which makes it very difficult for you to actually understand philosophy and thus to be in a position to actually make good on your (pseudo-) justification for taking no interest in it.

    • DavidM

      PhDave: You hopefully noticed that I suggested a disjunction. You keyed on one disjunct (that you are bad at expressing yourself) and rejected it. Just so you know, I would tend to reject it too (you seem to express yourself quite clearly, although I wouldn’t say you have been thinking very clearly). Therefore, by disjunctive syllogism (obviously), I would have to affirm the other disjunct as more likely true: you just changed your original claim. If you didn’t, I’d like to see you analyze it, and explain how it is the same as your subsequent claim.

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      DavidM wrote to me:
      >I’d like to see you analyze it, and explain how it is the same as your subsequent claim.

      Well, the problem is that I really do not understand what you do not understand about something I said!

      I’m really not trying to be clever or flip here, but, sorry, I just cannot respond when I do not know what issue you are raising.

      Maybe if you just say concretely what bothers you concerning something I said, then I might see what you are driving at.

      Dave

      P.S. I have not intentionally abandoned this discussion: various things in the real world (a busted air conditioner during our first heat wave of the summer, the kids’ birthday party, etc.) have demanded my attention.

    • DavidM

      Ph-Dave: If you read what you originally wrote (and I responded to) and then your response to my criticism (which I subsequently criticized as being a different point from the original one) and you really can’t see any difference, then… I’ll have to recommend we drop it. I’m afraid I think the difference is far too obvious to need explaining.

      Your original point:
      Dan wrote: “Just explaining where they come from does not tell us why we should engage in moral standards or how to assess particular ones.”
      Ph-Dave wrote: Indeed. But, normal people already know, more or less, how to deal with that: “How would you feel if somebody treated you that way?” “How will you feel about yourself if you do that?” “What will other people think of you if you do that?” “What will happen if everyone behaves that way?”

      Your subsequent point:
      You seem to think I was making a deeper point in my original post than I was making. I was not trying to exalt common sense or attribute great philosophical wisdom to ordinary people. I was merely suggesting that, whatever ordinary people do know vis a vis morality, philosophers know even less.

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      DavidM wrote to me:
      >If you read what you originally wrote (and I responded to) and then your response to my criticism (which I subsequently criticized as being a different point from the original one) and you really can’t see any difference, then… I’ll have to recommend we drop it. I’m afraid I think the difference is far too obvious to need explaining.

      Well… obviously there is indeed a difference! But I am afraid I just cannot see any point of substance that you have raised to which I could respond in any sensible way.

      I suspect that the problem between you and me may be that when I see words, I tend to ask what the referent of those words in the real world is. I.e., I am not too worried about asking whether “This sentences is false” is really true or false. That sentence does not refer to the real world; therefore, its truth or falsity need not concern me.

      Is your background in philosophy, literary studies, or some related field? Those of us who are scientifically trained tend to find such fields to be simply futile exercises in weaving complex webs of words without much reference to the real world. (Some people in those fields, indeed, agree with this and are proud of it!) I know how to play such games, but I fear they do not much interest me.

      Dave

    • DavidM

      To your “I suspect”-paragraph, two words: red herring (which I’m not going to chase after). As for my background, my first degree was a science degree, but it’s mainly philosophy.

    • DavidM

      I’ll add that I think your doctrine of the function of words is very naively simplistic. What you describe is not true of how you, I, or anyone actually uses words. There are different kinds of words, they are not all for ‘referring to things in the real world.’ If you believe otherwise, you are simply mistaken (including about your own practice of what you do when you see words). I’m afraid this is more red herring nonsense on your part and, ironically, really doesn’t make much reference to the real world. If you’re not interested in actually having a serious analytical discussion of the issues, perhaps you should just not pretend to discuss at all. In any case, I think you should refrain from this kind of diversionary speculative personality analysis. It’s really a waste and suggests that you’re not the most intellectually honest person in the world.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

    I said

    Actually philosophers have had tons of success in working out countless really helpful and clarifying distinctions. Many philosophers have even had those distinctions profoundly influence our self-understanding and our institutions as a result.

    This does not mean that they agree on settled conclusions. So, that’s not what I said. It means that our debates involve a lot of advanced distinctions that are illuminating even if they are not conclusive. Our issues are not the same as in other fields, our “progress” is not the same as in other fields.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      If you want to know which distinctions I think are illuminating, by the way, just read my posts. I use them all the time (and make up new ones)! Read them and tell me where their faults.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Here’s another recent statement of my position on why philosophy is indispensable. Notice, it neither claims philosophers have a *great settled conclusion* to pronounce uniformly to the world. But it explains what we do have:

      Secondly, I think there are two basic things I want to counsel atheists about philosophy. One is that they need to accept that there are some questions that are legitimate, that have consequences, and which do not go away simply because we ignore them, and yet their answers are not neat and tidy. Atheists need to embrace the messy process of working out tough philosophical issues without just accusing them of being sophistical because they cannot be settled by science or because theists try to exploit the ambiguities to make sophistical arguments for God.

      We need to be better than fundamentalists who say “give me certainty or shut up”. We need to be okay with the fact that philosophical problems are hard to resolve. Because the only other option is to be sloppy about a lot of philosophical questions that eventually have bearing on our lives. Metaethics, the study of what our ethical terms mean, and whether or not they refer to real things or not, and whether moral norms are truly binding or not, is an important discipline. So is ethics in general. Of course these are notoriously inconclusive discourses but we cannot dispense with them because that only means worse, less nuanced ethical decisions. And that’s clearly bad. We cannot have an all or nothing attitude where metaethicists and ethicists give us perfect knowledge or otherwise we simply ignore them. We need to work these things out to as much depth as we can, not because this will give us perfect answers, but it will at least expose to us all sorts of problems we can avoid by bringing to light for us numerous bad answers or inadequacies in various overly simple answers that common sense might offer.

      We have to accept that often philosophy works in this way and that even though it is a different kind of benefit it offers than the hardest sciences, it is a real benefit and one that we are much worse off without. And we need to be comfortable with the uncertainty and the process of philosophy in the meantime.

      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2012/06/14/learn-about-philosophy-and-help-a-great-cause/

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      Dan wrote to me:
      > So, that’s not what I said. It means that our debates involve a lot of advanced distinctions that are illuminating even if they are not conclusive.

      Except, Dan, you have a number of intelligent, educated people here who seem not to find the distinctions you are so fond of drawing very illuminating at all, indeed, quite the contrary. And, you seem to have no independent way of showing there is any validity to anything you say in philosophy.

      Kinda like astrology or phrenology.

      Dan also wrote:
      >Our issues are not the same as in other fields, our “progress” is not the same as in other fields.

      Indeed. Kinda like astrology or phrenology.

      Dave

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      No, quite unlike astrology and phrenology. Whether or not any given intelligent or educated people grasp the significance or the logical correctness or coherence of positions is not the guarantor of their actual correctness or coherence. I can be right even if your habits of mind or inability to grasp certain problems that make your own thinking on these issues inadequate for appreciating that I am right.

    • DavidM

      I think that’s an excellent point, Daniel, the very kind of fundamental philosophical point about our epistemic situation that would tend to be too easily ignored by someone with a background only in physics (for example). Of course your general point, that you CAN be right even if others are unable to grasp this, is indeed a general point, such that OTHERS also COULD be right, even if YOU fail to grasp the coherence of their position. With that in mind I think you might consider proceeding with a good deal more Socratic humility in much of what you write, in particular insofar as you have chosen to embrace and promote a rather dogmatically atheistic philosophy.

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      Dan wrote to me:
      >I can be right even if your habits of mind or inability to grasp certain problems that make your own thinking on these issues inadequate for appreciating that I am right.

      Indeed, but the problem is that philosophy is just like astrology and phrenology in that its conclusions have not been confirmed: indeed, the most passionate and convincing critics of the conclusions of various philosophers have been other philosophers!

      Sorry, Dan, but the historical record is quite clear: philosophy is batting “0.”

      Dave

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Sorry, Dan, but the historical record is quite clear: philosophy is batting “0.”

      This is sheer historical ignorance and obliviousness to what philosophy is and what constitutes its successes.

    • DavidM

      I appreciate your frustration, and yes, philosophers (including Dan) often are FOS, completely illogical, human, etc., but still… What do you mean by ‘confirmed’ and why is this a necessary criterion of any worthwhile cognitive endeavour (assuming this is a good way to explicate the assumption underlying your complaint here)?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      philosophers (including Dan) often are FOS

      Thanks for the generalized, unsubstantiated insult.

    • DavidM

      Insult? What if it’s true? I think it’s more of an observation, certainly a challenge, but I don’t intend it as an insult (I admit that even I might be FOS sometimes, but I’m not insulting myself with this admission, just being realistic). I think the generalization is warranted (I think I have enough experience with philosophers to be able to come to such a judgment). And substantiation? I’ll just refer you, as you have done to Ph-Dave, to the copious amounts of BS you have posted on your own blog here. (And to be clear, I think you also make some good points, you’re much more intelligent than the average internet atheist, and I admire your passion, if not your all-too-frequent hubris and downright confusion and ignorance.) And I remind you of a corollary of what you said to Ph-Dave: You can be FOS even if your habits of mind or inability to grasp certain problems make your thinking on these issues inadequate for appreciating that you are FOS.

  • DavidM

    “It is irrational for us to try to destroy these powers (all things being equal) since they are us ourselves and they are the precondition of every conceivable good we could achieve.” – That’s nice, but so what? Not all of our powers are nicely governed by our rational power, and that includes the power by which we try to do things (such as destroying stuff, e.g., the belief in God and in transcendent goodness and justice). The will to power is hardly identical with a will to be rational or the will to perpetuate human flourishing. “Oh well,” you might say, “so things get buggered up here and there – no biggie!” But does it really matter if things get buggered up? Why should it? Why fear death, since it offers nothing worth fearing? Why fear extinction (death generalized), since the same applies? ‘Psychologically,’ does this just ‘make sense’ to you?

    “Psychologically, it makes sense that we would evolve the basic frameworks software for developing moralities. These things include basic emotional capabilities for trust, empathy, and certain kinds of self-sacrifice.” – Wow… Where to begin in assessing this little claim? “Psychologically, it makes sense…”? What is that supposed to mean?? Psychologically it makes sense that we would evolve into psychological beings that would then proceed to dish up generous helpings of BS about where, ‘psychologically,’ it ‘makes sense’ for our psychology to have come from? Seems a little flaky, to say the least.

    “As part of this, we innately have an inherent knack for grasping that there is something illogical and unfair about at least certain kinds of practical contradictions.” – We also have an inherent knack for seeing that IF our inherent aversion to unfairness is just a contingent gift our psychological evolution, THEN there is no real reason to cultivate this knack and to overcome other innately inherent knacks like our ability to be indifferent towards or to take spiteful pleasure in all sorts of illogical and unfair states of affairs.

  • J

    “Sorry, Dan, but the historical record is quite clear: philosophy is batting “0.”

    Except for all of the philosophical foundations which allow for science to work, right?

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      J wrote to me:
      >[Dave said]“Sorry, Dan, but the historical record is quite clear: philosophy is batting “0.”
      >[J said]Except for all of the philosophical foundations which allow for science to work, right?

      Ah, well. I guess the job is never done: Look, the early scientists were revolting against the accepted philosophical views of their time (Aristotelianism, Scholasticism, etc.). And, the early scientists were not led on by some philosophical leader whom they were meekly following. They just did science – philosophy need not apply, thank you.

      Are you a Randian cultist? If not, where did you pick up the meme that science cannot work except for some (alas, unusually unspecified) “philosophical foundations”?

  • http://constructal.blogspot.com transmogrifier

    If I understand you correctly, you are saying that our morality is the result of our nature and composition as human beings. This necessarily implies that morality could be different for being constituted/evolved differently from us. If the human species is wiped out from the face of earth, all traces of “human” morality will disappear along with us. Any other species of socially interacting beings (say elephants) that takes our place will have their own morality. Will the moral rules among humans be similar to moral rules among elephants?

    It is possible that certain aspects of morality will inevitably evolve in any socially interacting, finite beings. In other words, as long as certain conditions on the environment and being inhabiting the environment are met (E.g. finite resource, finite lifetimes, propensity to maximize survival/reproduction etc.) similar moral rules will prove to be effective. In other words moral rules are nothing but effective game strategies that maximize the survival and well being (appropriately defined) for certain kind of beings inhabiting certain kinds of environments. Even this morality cannot be thought of “universal” except perhaps in a narrow sense.

    Here on Earth the properties of environment and properties of evolved beings display a quite narrow variation by virtue of our common descent. So it is possible that the game strategies that maximize the survival and well being of any socially interacting species “on earth” are more or less the same. In that sense morality is more or less the same for any species on earth.

    Our inability to imagine any other moral framework is probably the result of our inability to imagine an environment and beings inhabiting the environment that have properties radically different than ours.

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      transmorgrifier,

      Your statement of Dan’s position, and the conclusions you draw from it, seem to me somewhat clearer than some of Dan’s own statements (sorry, Dan!).

      Yes, if morality stems from human nature, then beings with natures that differ in relevant ways would have different “moralities.”

      And everyone knows this! No one is surprised or indignant that ants or lobsters fail to follow human standards of morality.

      That, by the way, is the theme of T. H. White’s lengthy parable, “The Sword in the Stone,” the opening section of The Once and Future King: Merlin changes Wart into different animal species to teach Wart the “morality” and social structure that allows each species to survive and thrive. Alas, both the Disney folks when they animated The Sword in the Stone and the creators of the Broadway musical Camelot seem not to have grasped that point (or at least they thought it had no commercial potential). White’s The Book of Merlyn has “out-takes” from The Once and Future King that spell this out explicitly.

      One important point does need to be added to what you wrote: nearly everyone who lies within this broad stream of thought, from Aristotle to T. H. White, has maintained that the most relevant facet of human nature in discussing morality is that humans are (potentially) rational beings. So, everyone in this stream of thought thinks that rational Martians, rations Betelgeusians, etc. would have moralities not that dissimilar from humans. To be sure, other features are relevant, too – e.g., our mode of reproduction: a species that reproduced asexually would, necessarily, have a different approach to sexual morality than humans do. (A lot of atheists in this tradition seem overly willing to ignore such considerations. Leah, whatever else might be said about her, does seem to understand that such considerations are part of this overall perspective on morality.)

      But, yes, your general point does indeed follow from this broad perspective: this is a feature, not a bug.

      Dave Miller in Sacramento

    • DavidM

      transmogrifier (and Ph-Dave): The problem is, elephants (or lobsters or ants) don’t have any moral standards. Morality is different from a ‘maximizing game strategy’ or however you want to put it. This should be perfectly obvious – think of a real game, or think of war, or any example: the best strategies for winning are just that (strategies for winning), and this has nothing to do with them being *morally* superior. The fact that you seem to not understand this indicates to me that you haven’t managed to understand the first *id* of what morality even is.

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      DavidM wrote to me and transmorg:
      > Morality is different from a ‘maximizing game strategy’ or however you want to put it.
      [snip]
      > The fact that you seem to not understand this indicates to me that you haven’t managed to understand the first *id* of what morality even is.

      Hmmmm….. if you do not like transmorg’s reference to game theory, the point can be rephrased without that:

      Morality is just a system of rules, a protocol if you like, rather like TCP/IP for computers on the ’Net, that human societies have developed that enable humans to live in relative peace and cooperation with each other. Obviously, exactly which rules will achieve that end is largely contingent on what sort of animals humans are.

      Pretty simple, and, I would think, pretty obviously true. After all, does anyone really deny that almost all human societies have developed such rules or that moral rules do indeed allow people to interact with each other peaceably and cooperatively?

      I find it odd that anyone would object to such a characterization.

      I know of course that lots of people want to shout out, “No, it’s not that simple – you have neglected the ultimately deep metaphysical, epistemological and quantifogovumagical aspects of morality.”

      Well, maybe we have. But, then, it seems to me incumbent upon those of you who believe there are deep metaphysical, epistemological and quantifogovumagical aspects to morality to explain how you know about these aspects.

      Otherwise, perhaps we can stick with the obvious points we have made, which are, after all, true.

      Dave

    • DavidM

      Okay, Ph-Dave, I already understand that you believe that. You don’t need to repeat yourself, you need to try to understand why I think you are wrong. You bring up certain obvious points, yes, but you continue to ignore the countervailing obvious points that I brought up.

    • DavidM

      Ph-Dave: Here’s a question for you: You claim that morality is just like TCP/IP… No wait – I was going to ask you to think about a concept and get clear about what you mean by it and how you think we should use it in order to best understand the world. But if you’re not interested in doing that kind of thing, it seems too bizarre for you, maybe I shouldn’t bother?

  • http://constructal.blogspot.com transmogrifier

    DavidM says:

    The problem is, elephants (or lobsters or ants) don’t have any moral standards.

    How do you know this? I am speaking out of my area of expertise so others who know more about this may chime in. In animals which live in social groups and have hierarchical family/social structures (elephants, wolves, gorillas, chimps) there are observed behaviors which are akin to moral rules. These rules which hint at a sense of justice, empathy, altruism etc. are to a certain extent cultural (i.e. the newborns learn them by experience). I see this as the moral framework that has evolved for that particular being in their particular environment. In humans, because of the evolution of culture and language we can think of moral precepts in the abstract as if they are standing outside of human existence. However this could very well be just an illusion.

    Morality like any other biological trait (consciousness?, sense of self?) probably lies on a continuous spectrum. You see it in increasing degrees with the level of social/cultural evolution among beings. It makes no sense to claim that other animals have no moral standards.

    • DavidM

      How do I know this? Well, we have a disagreement about the extension of a concept (morality). I think the way to know which of us is correct is to think about the use of the concept and see which of us (if either) is correct. That’s what I tried to get you to do in my original response to you. You write that we can observe animal behaviours that are akin to moral rules. I think you’re probably right to say that we observe behaviours that exhibit something like moral virtues, but a behaviour is not like (akin to) a rule, rather it seems to follow a rule. But obviously (I hope) seeming to following a rule/law is not sufficient for calling a rule/law *moral*. Genuinely *moral* rule-following requires concept-use, and from what I understand, there is no good evidence that animals use concepts in a sufficiently complex and self-reflective way that they can reasonably be judged to be consciously rule-following – they just do what they do, or sometimes (e.g., Kanzi the chimp, Clever Hans the horse) what they are trained to do. Human beings are unlike other animals in that we (normally) spontaneously develop the capacity to consciously choose (or at least think of ourselves as choosing) the good as such, for its own sake. (Again, I think there is no good evidence for thinking this is true of any other animals.) Even if this is ultimately illusory (a mere by-product of blind evolution), it is a fundamental datum of moral phenomenology which ought to inform the correct use of the concept ‘morality.’

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      DavidM wrote:
      > Well, we have a disagreement about the extension of a concept (morality).

      Yes, but no one seems to have had trouble understanding what transmorg or I wrote, so the different uses of the word “morality” seem not to have caused any problem. Indeed I used “scare quotes” when referring to the “moralities” of other animals to make clear that I knew I was stretching the usual use of the word, but stretching it in a way no one seemed to have trouble understanding.

      DavidM also wrote:
      > I think the way to know which of us is correct is to think about the use of the concept and see which of us (if either) is correct.

      Why assume that there is a “correct” or incorrect way to use a word, as long as the word is being used in a way that does not impede communication?

      Again, if we agree as to what is actually occurring in the real world with regard to actions and events that in some sense involve “morality,” why be bothered that we may use the word itself in slightly different ways, as long as this does not cause confusion?

      This idea that merely thinking about the use of a concept can produce something useful strikes me as quite bizarre. Yes, yes, I know that philosophers claim that such conceptual analysis has produced numerous examples of illuminating epiphanies…. but, when you ask them to list a few such examples, they rarely give any at all. And, when they do, it turns out that their examples are highly doubtful, indeed most strongly doubted by their fellow philosophers.

      On the basis of the evidence, it seems to be a futile enterprise.

      Dave

    • DavidM

      Your equivocation on the word ‘morality’ seems not to have caused any problems? Beg the question much? The problem is that you are failing to see the radical inappropriateness of construing the two notions of ‘morality’ as basically the same thing. You wrote:”This idea that merely thinking about the use of a concept can produce something useful strikes me as quite bizarre.” – Sorry, but LOL! That’s funny! Do you seriously expect me to believe that? And you’re a theoretical physicist?!? Again, I’m sorry, but that sounds seriously naively bonkers to me. If you really believe it, perhaps you could explain it some more. What is the real world referent, for example, of the bizarreness with which this idea strikes you?…

  • http://constructal.blogspot.com transmogrifier

    DavidM says:

    But obviously (I hope) seeming to following a rule/law is not sufficient for calling a rule/law *moral*. Genuinely *moral* rule-following requires concept-use, and from what I understand, there is no good evidence that animals use concepts in a sufficiently complex and self-reflective way that they can reasonably be judged to be consciously rule-following – they just do what they do, or sometimes (e.g., Kanzi the chimp, Clever Hans the horse) what they are trained to do.

    I posit that even among humans, the behavior – a result of our biological/social evolution came first and the “rules” were abstracted from the observed and collectively experienced culture later. Even in the Bible an abstracted “rule” reads like “Thou shalt not kill”. But other parts of the bible show that it comes with many addenda like “Thou shalt not kill – (other human beings) – (of your tribe) – (unless they have committed a sin)”. This looks exactly like the process of abstracting a rule from what already exists in a culture.

    You seem to place a lot of emphasis on the fact that humans are the only organisms on earth who by virtue of language/culture can abstract the observed behaviors among humans and codify them in some fashion. Other than that our “rule following” and the rule following among say elephant societies aren’t really that different. Both are the result of a certain degree of learning. Whether or not we “consciously choose” to follow the rules will take us into a prolonged discussion of whether we have free will. I believe that our choices are “determined” and are a result of (among many things) the cultural environment in which we grow up and our biological makeup. Certain individuals lack the apparatus needed to feel empathy, certain autistic individuals lack the apparatus to learn social norms even though they possess the reasoning skill required to understand these norms. So we don’t “choose to follow the rules” in a fundamentally different way than higher apes or other social mammals.

    Our rules are highly sophisticated and complex only because our culture is highly sophisticated and complex. We have the ability to codify the rules and contemplate on them in the abstract because we have developed language to transmit such abstract ideas. Also I don’t get this “the capacity to consciously choose (or at least think of ourselves as choosing) the good as such, for its own sake.” business. We learn whether an idea is “good” or not from the culture. We also learn from our culture that “being good” involves choosing “good ideas” and that “being good” is rewarded. So our learned behavior is to choose “good” ideas, imperfectly, with varying degrees of success of course in part due to varying propensity to learn/retain these ideas and also due to varying incentives to follow a rule. Since the process of abstracting and codifying the rules has been underway for several hundred generations, it seems like we are learning to follow some abstract rules that “exist out there independent of us”. The different religions certainly want us to believe that these rules exist “out there” thanks to a benevolent and loving god. However most of the rules that have been codified seem to be imperfect attempts at regulating preexisting behaviors that would evolve in complex social beings.

    The only meaningful way in which we can say that “morality” exists “out there independent of us” is to say that in other complex evolved beings in an environment reasonably similar to ours, similar moral rules will evolve. This too is only speculation but I think it could be true given what we see along the spectrum of evolved beings here on earth.

    • DavidM

      transmogrifier wrote: “I posit that even among humans, the behavior – a result of our biological/social evolution came first and the “rules” were abstracted from the observed and collectively experienced culture later.” – Okay, fine, but I think you’re completely missing the point: we DO observe and experience (and HAVE) culture (other animals do not, at least not in the same sense) and we DO reflect upon our observations and experiences and abstract rules therefrom. That is requisite for morality and that is something that we do and which other animals do not, and which separates us quite radically from them. Additionally the process of formulating rules is obviously not the one way process of describing and endorsing existing practices as you suggest. It is also critical. On free will, you are of course free to not believe in it. ;) The fact remains that our rules, genuinely moral rules, put ourselves in question (unless you think you can actually prove that you have no free will). Again, this is radically different from what we can reasonably presume to be the case with other animals. You also wrote: “We also learn from our culture that “being good” involves choosing “good ideas” and that “being good” is rewarded.” – But we also generally learn that being good is not good because of the rewards; rather the rewards are a result of the goodness. Do you want to deny this? Certainly you can call it into question, since we can call pretty much any proposition into question, but do you really have any good reason for coming down on the side of the question you have chosen? It doesn’t sound like it.

  • Jose Ferro

    To be or not to be atheist? To truly believe or not in God? After reading the whole blog it still seems to be complex to understand, and truly believe …. should be easy , but it is not. As a personal experience, I was delighted by Richard Dawkins speeches …. then my first baby came …. ultra preterm …. 600 grams … religious people started coming around, praying , helping, the boy got a colon perforation, could not gain weight, then got surgery , 6 hours, 700 gram, then i started believing, prayed and prayed every day, asked God for forgiveness, for being such a jerk, i finally understand, i hated Dawkins and prayed for him, but just after 78 days after birth, when everybody was convinced there was a miracle there, when all people in the clinic truly believed, the first day the doctor told us the baby was out is risk, the colon collapsed, got infected and died in few hours. And so, here i am back to atheism. Is there a purpose and design to the universe and to man? It may not matter. If so, why follow it blindly?.If blind chance rules, we better shape our own purpose , suitable to our ultimate possibilities.

    • DavidM

      Peace be with you, Jose. It is complex to understand. That’s why most people don’t find their way to God principally by understanding, but by experiences of the goodness or oneness or beauty of God. There are many paths to God. But how does the death of your baby imply the truth of atheism? Or how does atheism help you to deal with that death? Maybe it’s hard to see the world as a beautiful meaningful place right now, but maybe, maybe, God is your only real hope for helping you to see purpose in your suffering. You can try to just shape your own purpose, but perhaps your experience of suffering should be teaching you that your own plans are not sufficient, that you can’t control your own destiny. But also you can recognize that you – and your baby – were meant for more than just death and that you really need God if you ultimately want anything more than that.

      Simon Weil had some pretty profound experiences of suffering. Here is something she wrote that you might think about: “Man can never escape obedience to God. A creature cannot not obey. The only choice offered to man, as an intelligent and free creature, is to desire obedience or to not desire it. If he does not desire it, he obeys nonetheless, perpetually, as a thing submitted to mechanical necessity, but a new necessity is adds itself to this, a necessity constituted by the laws proper to supernatural things.”

      I haven’t experienced the loss of a child, but obviously there are others who have, who have been able to see even in the short life of their child a beautiful gift from God. “The meaning and value of life does not come from medical tribunals or courts, and it is not measured in years, months, or days. It is measured by giving and receiving love, first from God and then from each other.” -Fr. Frank Pavone

  • http://www.thegoodatheist.net The Good Atheist

    I don’t even think you need to get that detailed on why she is so wrong. For instance, if moral laws are immutable, then it would seem to imply that all moral conversations were concluded around the Bronze Age, a notion that’s patently ridiculous. If instead our own morality is the exercise of testing moral claims and seeing their impact on the real world, then we can at least try and make some objective criteria for what is moral. The Christian framework of morality being pinned by the actions of a God implies that all of God’s actions are by nature moral, and that any perception of immorality is our failing. I don’t think you need to look far in the Bible for morally repulsive actions by their God. His wanton xenophobia, misogyny, and cruelty obvious. Less obvious is the moral repugnance of Jesus and his torture of unbelievers. How can these death cultists even dare to claim a strong moral framework when they believe eternal torture to be good and even necessary?


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