Naturalism and Norms

My recent exchange with Taner on ethical naturalism (EN) prompted a good bit of stimulating comment and criticism. I’ve been out of town for a couple of weeks and away from blogging, so I have not been able to reply to each comment as it arrived. Rather than attempt to do so now, I would like to address the issue that seems to me to be at the heart of much of the discussion: How do naturalists justify norms? The prima facie problem is this: Norms tell us what should be, not what is. Many philosophers accept Hume’s argument that a recitation of the facts, however detailed or nuanced, cannot entail an “ought.” Hume concluded that “ought” is something we bring into the discussion as a consequence of our feelings, our feelings of approbation or disapprobation as he often puts it.

Hume’s subjectivism is a form of moral antirealism. That is, for the subjectivist, moral judgments, though they take the form of factual assertions, cannot really assert facts. “Murder is wrong,” though superficially similar to “Fluorine is a halogen,” does not assert that an objective property, wrongness, somehow attaches to the act of murder. Rather, saying that murder is wrong is a roundabout way of expressing the collective sense of revulsion we feel towards heinous acts (I call Hume an “intersubjectivist” because he invokes the collective rather than individual sentiments). Moral realism, on the other hand, holds that judgments like “murder is wrong” or “abortion is wrong” are assertions capable of being true or false. Rightness and wrongness are objective properties (perhaps non-natural ones) of acts, volitions, intentions, or whatever is the subject of moral judgments.
EN is a form of moral realism. Ethical naturalists hold that true moral judgments express facts. The true judgment that an action is good expresses the fact that the act really does tend to promote objective value. Educating children, for example, is good because it tends to promote the objective value of human well being. What, then, constitutes value and what makes it objective? A value is the basis of a norm, and, concomitantly, a norm is a rule that admonishes us to perform acts that tend to promote the realization of what we value. For instance, the norm “always practice safe sex” tells us to practice behaviors that tend to promote the objective value of health. Ethical naturalists therefore justify norms by their actual tendency to promote objective value like health. For the ethical naturalist, a norm is simply information about how a value may be actualized. Norms are not distinct from facts. A normative assertion is a factual assertion: If you want to promote the realization of value V (e.g., health), then do X (e.g., practice safe sex). Thus, for EN, ethical imperatives are hypothetical, not categorical.
All of this would have horrified Kant, of course. For Kant a genuinely ethical imperative must be categorical. It must be binding on all rational creatures qua rational. A merely hypothetical imperative is not binding on someone who rejects the desideratum specified in the antecedent clause of the hypothetical imperative: “If you want x, then do y.” For instance, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man repudiates happiness, and prefers to be spiteful despite the fact that living spitefully deprives him of happiness. In this case, the norms that tell us to promote happiness would not apply to that person. He does not even value happiness for himself, so why should we expect him to desire happiness for others? For Kant, a genuinely ethical injunction cannot depend on our contingent desires (as, e.g., for happiness), but must be dictated by reason itself.
I think that most critics of EN find it unsatisfactory because, at bottom, like Kant, they want a categorical imperative, and EN can only provide hypothetical imperatives. Value for ethical naturalists can only be value for creatures of a certain organic constitution who, in virtue of that constitution, will find certain things valuable. Further, ethical naturalists think the Kantian idea that a substantial account of norms can be derived from pure practical reason is a fantasy. Indeed, speaking for myself, I find the whole idea of a categorical imperative, one binding on all rational creatures qua rational, to be extremely dubious. As Kant recognized, a norm based only upon what pure reason gives us has not got much to go on. Indeed, since it can have no contingent basis, it must be based only upon the pure abstract form of universal moral law. The result is the famous, and vacuous, injunction: Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become universal law. But practically any scheme of deranged wickedness can be made consistent with this rule. Nazis, the Taliban, and the Khmer Rouge could all declare that their maxims (e.g., “repress all non-Aryans”) should be universal law.
“Pure reason” then can tell us precious little about which norms to adopt. A sufficient ground for norms will have to specify some substantial set of values, so we are back with the question of where values come from. For ethical naturalism values are empirical discoveries. We find that humans do in fact flourish when they live in certain ways and enjoy certain circumstances. What is valuable for human beings is therefore whatever is conducive to, or constitutive of, human flourishing. It follows that on EN values are objective. Humans flourish in certain conditions and not others. That is a fact. It is not a matter of choice, or, at least, not entirely. If someone says that they are happier letting their brain rot watching garbage TV (apologies for the redundancy), then that person is wrong, just as wrong as someone who says that a diet of Whoppers and Twinkies is as good for you as a balanced diet.
“But why should I care for human well-being, even my own?” demands the Underground Man. When someone asks a question like this, what is he really asking? Is he asking what makes human well-being valuable? As Aristotle points out at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, you can justify a good by showing that it is conducive to another good, and that good by showing that it leads to another, and so forth. However, when you come to the highest good—that good that lies at the end of chain of justifying goods—there is no further to go. If human well-being is found to be the summum bonum, then there can be no further or higher good to justify its goodness; we simply find it to be that which is valuable for its own sake and not for anything else. This will be the case for any summum bonum in any system of ethics.
What the Underground Man really seems to mean is this: What moral obligation do I have to value human happiness? Most moralists, Peter Singer, for instance, hold that we are morally obligated to care for the well being of others, for instance starving children in impoverished countries. Indeed, Singer holds that we are so strongly obligated that we should be willing to significantly simplify our own lifestyles so that we can devote more (if not most) of our income to Oxfam. Can EN support the judgment that we are morally obligated to care for the wretched of the earth, or can it only say that we do, in fact, care for them?
I’ll bite the bullet. If someone says honestly (and is not just being an asshole) that he does not care for human well-being—not even his own—then I do not see how EN can rationally engage that person and convince him to follow any norm. As I say, for EN norms are hypothetical imperatives; they have a tacit antecedent clause “If you value human well-being.” If someone honestly and consistently rejects that antecedent, then, as an ethical naturalist, I can offer no argument to persuade that person to follow ethical norms. I have no categorical imperative to impose on them. What I can do is to test the honesty and consistency of that person’s rejection of human well-being.
I am reminded of a story about a student in an introductory ethics class who turned in a brilliant paper defending ethical nihilism. The professor graded the essay and returned it to the student. The professor commented: “Brilliant paper. It is cogently argued, clearly written, effectively organized, and well-researched. One of the best undergraduate essays I have received. Grade: F.” The understandably chagrined student inquired about his grade and the professor merely shrugged and said “I just don’t like you and I was in a bad mood when I graded it.” Pretty soon, of course, the student realized what the professor was getting at: If you honestly reject morality, you have no grounds for complaint when you are treated unfairly. (According to the story the professor changed the grade to “A” when the student got the point). People who declare themselves indifferent to human well-being, even their own, could also be put to such tests.
In my experience, to get people to do the right thing, you do not convince them to have certain values, but remind them of what they do in fact value. One of the chief justifications of the study of the humanities is that great works of literature and art engage us in such a way that they make us confront our real values and to make decisions about what really is important in life. For instance, reading the Oresteia makes you confront what you really feel about vengeance. Aeschylus masterfully makes you feel Clytaemnestra’s obsessive hatred and rage, and the terrible satisfaction she feels when she gluts her (justifiable) outrage in hacking Agamemnon. Aeschylus shows that vindictiveness devours you from the inside like a parasite, until it consumes you entirely. You cannot read the Oresteia without having to confront your feelings, your true feelings, about vengeance. Great art and literature, by engaging our emotions at a very deep level, have the power to penetrate self-deception, pretension, and ideology to make us confront what really, fundamentally matters to us. Philosophical argument is a very weak tool, far inferior to literature, when it comes to reminding people of their true values.

Indeed, how would any system of ethics argue with the Underground Man? If you tell him that God wants him to care for himself and other people, he could just as easily reply that he does not care what God wants and why should he? If you respond that God will send him to hell if he does not do what God wants, you are merely threatening him, not engaging him in ethical debate. Ethical naturalists could threaten too, though we lack the sanction of eternal punishment. Really, if there are no categorical imperatives, all norms in any ethical system will be hypothetical imperatives, and can be rationally rejected with the rejection of the value named in the antecedent clause. The upshot is that EN seems to be no worse off when it comes to formulating and inculcating ethical norms than any other ethical system.

About Keith Parsons
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Wonderful post.

    This is difficult, deep, and interesting stuff, yet you cover a good deal of ground here while staying clear and focused.

    Thank you.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09773324482031159784 Philip K

    So EN says that norms are means to getting what we value and that it’s an empirical matter that we value well-being. This is so because we “flourish”, as Aristotle says, when we’re well, or happy. All organisms flourish under certain conditions, in that they’re then healthy and thus capable of achieving their goals.

    Which goals–be they explicit or implicit–are ethically relevant? The Aristotelian answer is a teleological one: the members of each species have their appropriate final cause, their proper endpoint, and so the members’ behaviour is governed by norms. Humans have rationality and freewill, but those traits aren’t why some of our actions are morally right or wrong, according to an Aristotelian. The source is the fact that we have a final cause, a metaphysically-grounded meaning of our life.

    Here are two questions, then. First, is it an empirical discovery that the members of each species have a natural purpose, a proper endpoint? Second, is the ethical naturalist who rejects Aristotle’s teleology bereft of a rationale for speaking of ultimate, bedrock value and thus of the value of happiness which is the source of norms and of morally right actions? Even if the interest in well-being were still universal, without a metaphysical grounding of the propriety of certain goals in a telos, there would seem no reason for a naturalist to honour the achieving of certain goals with the title of being morally right. There would simply be no objective ultimate good.

    As to the first question, it’s a fact that plants grow and reproduce when they’re healthy, and this fact is discoverable by observation. But even if we can then posit an implicit purpose on the plants’ part, as a theoretical entity to make sense of our observations, calling one such purpose *proper* or *the final, ultimate* purpose isn’t an empirical matter, but a philosophical, speculative one.

    In the case of humans, again observation shows us that we flourish as a species when we’re healthy and happy enough to reproduce and so to spread our genes, sustaining the species through future generations. That’s our natural purpose as far as we can tell with scientific methods. But what scientific experiment or bit of airtight reasoning justifies the conclusion that the implicit "good" of the genes dictates the *ultimate* rightness of some of our own actions? Does it come down to the power of our genes over us, so that EN implies that might makes right?

    If sexual reproduction for the genes’ benefit isn’t crucial to our flourishing or our well-being, what is the empirical answer to the question of when ultimately do humans flourish? Aristotle says we’re happy as a result of thinking of how to act in a social setting, but his deeper point is that we’re happy in that case because that’s when we *flourish.* His naturalism consists here in a reduction of norms to the ceteris paribus laws of the flourishing of organisms as such. Again, flourishing is a matter of being healthy enough to succeed in some regard, and the question is whether it’s an empirical matter that humans flourish as rational animals in a political state. Which scientific experiment shows that that’s our function?

    And the deeper question can indeed be put in the mouth of the Underground Man: What’s so right about flourishing, about being healthy? Do viruses that flourish when they kill their host organisms have norms? Can we speak of a healthy virus as being the one that acts for the good? Arguably, humans are as parasitic as viruses: we destroy many other species and threaten the planet’s ability to sustain life. So what’s so good about what we do best? What’s so honourable about healthy humans? It’s Aristotle’s optimism that most annoys me: he identifies the good with the natural, whereas I see nature in more pessimistic, Lovecraftian terms.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith,

    A naturalist living in a theistic reality can discuss ethics in a meaningful way. After all she is an intrinsically ethical being living in an intrinsically ethical reality. What I fail to see is how a naturalist can discuss ethics in a naturalistic reality without speaking nonsense. For it seems that there are no values (as the term is normally understood) in a naturalistic reality. And if there are no values then any talk about values is nonsensical.

    Now it is a fact that people in our reality do value things. Indeed there is some general agreement, for example almost everybody values “human flourishing”. All of which makes perfect sense on theism. On naturalism, on the other hand, these dispositional attitudes are understood as being the result of mechanical forces within a reality which is value-free. This of course is an unattractive property of naturalism, and many naturalists try to find some way to blur the whole issue. So, for example, Sam Harris argues that conscious well-being is as objective as physical health, and that the physical sciences can help us attain both. Which is true enough, as is the fact that virtually everybody (the main exception being mentally ill people) values both. But the question is what in a naturalistic reality makes either physical health or conscious well-being valuable. Indeed, given how we are destroying life on the planet a naturalist may argue that humanity is a pest, a kind of cancer (as that machine intelligence character in the Matrix movie observed). So in a naturalistic reality human well-being is not the summum bonum, in the sense that many a reasonable naturalist may disagree that it is. So, what is the summum bonum in a naturalistic reality? It seems it’s not only the case that the meaning of “value” cannot be defined in a naturalistic reality, but that values cannot be grounded by some arbitrary theory even while leaving the concept of “value” quite vague.

    So, it seems to me, the consistent naturalist must embrace nihilism. You write that a nihilist has no “grounds” to complain about other peoples’ behaviour, which is quite true. If reality is naturalistic and no values exist then there are no such grounds. On the other hand, the consistent naturalist can deal with other peoples’ behaviour. The student in your story may learn her lesson and become a manipulative hypocrite. Now, of course most naturalists are not nihilists. Indeed according to a recent study most naturalist philosophers are moral realists. So what seems to be the case is that most naturalists think and speak and act in a way that makes sense in a theistic reality while believing that it is not.

    Finally, you write that on ethical naturalism (EN) ethical imperatives are hypothetical and have the form “If you value V then do X”. I agree that such propositions are factual, but they are clearly not ethical. Ethics is about what has value, and therefore about what one should value. Ethics is *not* about how to achieve something one values. So, for example, “If you value the mass killing of Jews then you should use this poison gas” is not an ethical proposition, or an ethical imperative.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09773324482031159784 Philip K

    Dianelos,

    How does theism make sense of values? If ethical values were to come from God, who would be a person, values would be subjective, and the theist would be in no better a position than the naturalist who has only hypothetical imperatives. Theistic ethics would be a matter of humans trying to be like God out of respect or awe for his stature or abilities. But whether values were to come from mortal or from immortal persons, the result would be the same: values would be subjective.

    You might say theistically-based values are objective, because God’s nature is supremely good, so his values aren’t arbitrary or liable to change. But this commits the naturalistic fallacy just as much as does the naturalistic proposition that humans are valuable because humans are made of matter. God would be made of super-duper spiritual stuff and he’d be omnipotent, omniscient, and the creator of the universe, but would those factual properties automatically make him good or objectively valuable? No, the open question would remain, as the philosopher Moore said. Just because something is the case (God is immortal, immaterial, all-powerful, etc) doesn’t mean it ought to be that way (God’s objective properties are good and indeed supremely so).

    As is almost always the case, whatever the problems may be with atheism or with naturalism, theism doesn’t help (and usually makes things much worse). The only exceptions, as Taner Edis says, may be with purely pragmatic issues, such as sustaining a society.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Philip,

    Theism makes sense of values by grounding them on the nature of God. Please observe that on theism the metaphysically ultimate is a person of perfection, the greatest conceivable being (whom we call "God" in English). Thus values are entailed in the theistic worldview: Goodness is God similarity. Something is good to the degree that it resembles God.

    Now you may think that the above is some kind of metaethical theory creatively suggested by theists (the way several naturalists creatively suggest naturalistic metaethical theories), but in fact the above theory is necessarily true on theism. Here’s the proof: Assume any conceivable X which is good (i.e. has value) without being similar to God. If that is the case then God is not the greatest conceivable being, for a being that besides having all other attributes of God would also be such that X resembles it would be greater still. But this is impossible (for God is the greatest conceivable being), which proves that there is no such X.

    Incidentally, the idea is not that God is good because God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, just, forgiving, eternal, etc. Rather to be all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, just, forgiving, eternal, etc are good because this is how God is. In this context it seems you are asking the following kind of question: “Granted that God is like X. Why ought God be like that?” If that’s what you are asking then observe that the concept of “ought”, or normative knowledge, does not apply to God. The nature or reality of God defines what good is and thus how things which are not good “ought” to be. To ask why God “ought” to be loving is like asking why a circle “ought” to be round.

    Finally you appear to believe that any problems which afflict naturalism also afflict theism, and indeed afflict it even more. I wonder why you should think that. Naturalism and theism are radically different metaphysical views about reality, and each faces its own set of conceptual problems. The problems that afflict naturalism, such as the problem of metaethics, the problem of free will, the hard problem of consciousness (or the mind-body problem), the problem of intentionality, the problem of how to naturalistically interpret the discoveries of modern science – are all non-existent problems on theism. Conversely theism faces the problem of evil (in its various forms) which is a problem which naturalism does not have to deal with. What I find significant is that the number and depth of naturalism’s conceptual problems appear to be growing fast, whereas theism is slowly advancing solutions to its set of conceptual problems.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09773324482031159784 Philip K

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09773324482031159784 Philip K

    Dianelos,

    Descartes’ formulation of the ontological argument (“the supreme being necessarily exists,” etc) does commit the naturalistic fallacy. He says the idea of the supreme being is of a being that always exists, which means the being is supreme because of that property. Anselm’s argument does the same thing, linking the greatest conceivable being with the being that can’t be conceived not to exist. The implication is that God is so great because he necessarily exists, that is, because he’s immortal, all-powerful, etc. In any case, it’s not hard to see why a theist should say that God is the most perfect being because God has all the great properties (including the supposed property of existing) to the greatest degree. Otherwise, “God is the greatest conceivable being” would be utterly vacuous.

    Suppose a Muslim goes around chanting, “God is great! God is great!” and someone replies, “Enough already with the mantras! Why is he so great, then?” And the Muslim replies, “Just because, that’s why! I can leave you with no reason in particular.” Not so impressive, eh? No, most theists would think God is great, because of his properties and his deeds. He’s the strongest, the wisest, etc, and he created the whole universe and saved humanity with his begotten son’s sacrifice, etc. As I said, this seems to commit the naturalistic fallacy, which means theism suffers the same meta-ethical problem as naturalism.

    You say that God isn’t so great or perfect because of his properties, but rather his properties are perfect because they’re God’s. And God’s nature “defines” the word “good.” In the first place, as a definitional matter, this just isn’t so. The dictionary doesn’t refer to God and we’d have the word “good” even if there had been no theism on Earth. Historically, ethics comes from social relations that have evolutionary advantages (kin selection, the handicap principle, etc), although as I said to Keith Parsons, the meta-ethical problem remains for his naturalism (why is altruism right just because ultimately it serves the genes?)

    Second, you say it’s like asking why a circle is round. But for the comparison to work, you must be talking about a perfect circle, which is only a mathematical construct that doesn’t exist. In any case, a Platonist could give mathematical reasons for why the perfect circle is round, citing the equations that distinguish circles from other shapes. A circle is round because of its mathematical properties: for example, each point on its outer surface is the same distance to the shape’s central point. But you want to deny that God is great because he’s all-powerful and all-knowing. Your analogy thus falls apart. Clearly, theists think God is perfect because he’s supposed to be the judge of humankind, and he’s great in the sense of being awesome, fearsome, and the like, due to his having created the whole natural universe.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09773324482031159784 Philip K

    Dianelos,

    As for whether theism suffers from the other problems you referred to, I beg to differ. Theism doesn’t solve any of those problems. I’ve already shown how theism suffers from a meta-ethical problem. Freewill becomes a miracle of spirit on theism, which is just hand-waving. How is immaterial spirit self-determining and how does it interact with the physical body? As for consciousness, why immaterial spirit should be conscious is just as mysterious as why a material brain should be. No one knows what consciousness is, and so no one knows why anything yet proposed to be conscious should be so. Theism’s no help there. As for intentionality, if you’re talking about Brentano’s so-called challenge to naturalism, which is that intentionality is the mark of the irreducible mental, again how does theism explain “immanent objectivity,” the fact that a symbol points to something even if the referent doesn’t exist? How does adding God to the mix explain anything at all? All it does is throw in the capacity for miracles, which is the capacity for nothing that can be understood by any human, by definition.

    Finally, you speak of a problem of interpreting modern science. I take it you mean quantum mechanics and the like. Far from modern science being a problem for naturalism, this is a thorn in the side of the theist, since scientific discoveries push God into smaller and smaller gaps, making God more and more abstract and thus irrelevant to daily life. Hence, the comparative impotence of religious organizations in scientifically informed societies. Anyway, you’d have to say more about this last supposed exclusive problem for naturalism.

    Like I said, I’d be more inclined to agree, for existentialist reasons, that the advantage of theism is the practical one that it makes people, by turns, happy or afraid, thus maintaining a social order.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09773324482031159784 Philip K

    Dianelos,

    I forgot to respond directly to your first point, that the theist makes sense of values by saying that goodness is God similarity, since God is perfect. You’ve said that God is perfect by stipulation and thus for no particular reason, that none of God’s super-duper properties make him perfect. In this case, you’re still left with the meta-ethical problem, since you can offer no answer to the following question: “Why ought we be similar to God?” You can say it’s because God’s perfect, but because you don’t justify or explain why you call God perfect, you don’t justify or explain theistic ethics that is based on that vacuous premise.

    But suppose you agree with what I take to be the more commonplace theistic view, that God is perfect because of his super-duper properties (omnipotence, etc). In that case, not only do you have the theistic version of the naturalistic fallacy, but you’ve got an empty comparison between God and us. Infinite things aren’t comparable to finite ones; indeed, they’re incommensurable. This would be the mystic’s point. So again, theism offers no help to ethics.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Philip,

    I won’t discuss the ontological argument because I don’t see its relevance in the current discussion. Suffice to say that there are much more powerful versions than Anselm’s.

    You ask why a theist (not only a Muslim) believes that God is the greatest conceivable being. I think the answer here is twofold. First theism (defined as the view that the metaphysically ultimate is a person who is the greatest conceivable being) works better than naturalism (defined as the view that the metaphysically ultimate is a mindless mechanism) under any epistemic criterion one cares to apply consistently to both views. The second answer is more esoterical: The theist can directly perceive that God is no less than the greatest conceivable being. Indeed that shared perception explains why virtually all theists agree with that definition. Interestingly enough even atheist philosophers somehow perceive that it makes no sense to talk about God as something less than the greatest conceivable being.

    Dictionaries are not manuals on ontology, so the fact that the dictionary definition of “good” does not mention “God” is irrelevant. The dictionary entry on “weight” does not mention the curvature of spacetime either, nor does it have to. What is relevant in our discussion is that on theism the concept of “good” is ontologically grounded, whereas on naturalism it is not. That’s why I argue that the consistent naturalist must embrace ethical nihilism.

    I didn’t compare the proposition “God is loving” to the proposition “a circle is round”. Rather I pointed out that to ask “Why ought God be loving?” is like asking “Why ought a circle be round?”. God’s loving nature is part of what we mean when we speak of God, in the same way that a circle’s roundness is part of what we mean when we speak of circles.

    You claim that you have already shown that theism suffers from a meta-ethical problem, but I can’t see where you do that.

    You correctly observe that free will is “a miracle of spirit” in theism, but then you say that this is “hand-waving”. Theism is a supernaturalist worldview, so it has no problems with miracles you know. Quite on the contrary. If by “miracle” we mean any event or state of affairs which is metaphysically impossible in a naturalistic reality, then the miraculous is what characterizes a theistic reality. As for free will, it is not only a miracle, but a miracle we continuously experience in our life. Which falsifies your claim that no human can understand miracles, for our everyday condition entails a miracle. Our everyday experience of life is incompatible with naturalism on this and several other levels. (Naturalists of course have to argue that free will is illusory, simply because free will as we experience it does not fit within their worldview.)

    [continued bellow]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [continued from above]

    You ask “How is immaterial spirit self-determining and how does it interact with the physical body?” That’s a strange question. Please observe that theism is not a mechanistic view of reality, so surely you are not expecting a theist to describe for you the relevant spiritual mechanisms, are you? Incidentally, the so-called interaction problem does not ask for a mechanism, but rather asks how come an immaterial spirit can have a causal effect in a physically closed universe. Which is a valid question which theism answers by pointing out that a non-deterministic physically closed universe is compatible with the theistic view.

    You claim that nobody knows what consciousness is, but in fact we all know what consciousness is. The problem is that naturalists do not see how what we all know can fit in a naturalistic reality.

    You ask how intentionality fits in a theistic reality. On theism the metaphysically ultimate is a mind, and thus by its very nature parts of reality (symbols) can refer to other parts of reality (referents).

    Naturalism has not only problems interpreting quantum mechanics, but many other facts discovered by modern science. In the context of QM some naturalists are moved to claiming such absurdities as that every time you switch on a light you cause the entire universe to invisibly split into a huge number of almost identical copies. Victor Stenger, a physicist and New Atheism author, claims that physical laws do not exist, and also that we people are “a form of frozen nothing”. From where I stand naturalism’s contact with modern science is pushing naturalists to say some really weird things.

    Now you say that on the contrary it is theism that has a problem with science since science “pushes God into smaller and smaller gaps”. Which is a strange thing to say given that God is the author of the nature that the physical sciences study. Apples fall, light travels, and species evolve, all by the will of God. The idea that the scientific discovery of the God-designed and God-sustained order present in the physical world somehow pushes God into ever smaller gaps, only proves that many people do not understand the basics of theism. And I am not talking about some sophisticated modern theology, but about the classical theistic understanding since at least the first century.

    In response to my explaining that on theism goodness is God-similarity you ask “Why ought we be similar to God?” which I understand as “Why ought we strive to be similar to God?”. The answer is: because it profits us. We are made in such a way that a life of goodness (i.e. of God-similarity) is experienced as more desirable than a life of evil (i.e. of God-dissimilarity).

    I don’t discuss your charges about naturalistic fallacy, because first I don’t quite see how it is even possible for theists to commit this fallacy, but mainly because it seems you are not using this charge against my description of theistic metaethics, but against what you claim is the more commonplace theistic view.

    Finally, it seems you are suggesting that something finite cannot be similar (or comparable) to something infinite. I don’t see that at all. After all 2 is more similar to an infinitely large number than 1. Also please observe that the concept of “infinite” when used in the context of God normally refers to perfection and not to some infinite quantity.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [continued from above - reposted]

    You ask “How is immaterial spirit self-determining and how does it interact with the physical body?” That’s a strange question. Please observe that theism is not a mechanistic view of reality, so surely you are not expecting a theist to describe for you the relevant spiritual mechanisms, are you? Incidentally, the so-called interaction problem does not ask for a mechanism, but rather asks how come an immaterial spirit can have a causal effect in a physically closed universe. Which is a valid question which theism answers by pointing out that a non-deterministic physically closed universe is compatible with the theistic view.

    You claim that nobody knows what consciousness is, but in fact we all know what consciousness is. The problem is that naturalists do not see how what we all know can fit in a naturalistic reality.

    You ask how intentionality fits in a theistic reality. On theism the metaphysically ultimate is a mind, and thus by its very nature parts of reality (symbols) can refer to other parts of reality (referents).

    Naturalism has not only problems interpreting quantum mechanics, but many other facts discovered by modern science. In the context of QM some naturalists are moved to claiming such absurdities as that every time you switch on a light you cause the entire universe to invisibly split into a huge number of almost identical copies. Victor Stenger, a physicist and New Atheism author, claims that physical laws do not exist, and also that we people are “a form of frozen nothing”. From where I stand naturalism’s contact with modern science is pushing naturalists to say some really weird things.

    Now you say that on the contrary it is theism that has a problem with science since science “pushes God into smaller and smaller gaps”. Which is a strange thing to say given that God is the author of the nature that the physical sciences study. Apples fall, light travels, and species evolve, all by the will of God. The idea that the scientific discovery of the God-designed and God-sustained order present in the physical world somehow pushes God into ever smaller gaps, only proves that many people do not understand the basics of theism. And I am not talking about some sophisticated modern theology, but about the classical theistic understanding since at least the first century.

    In response to my explaining that on theism goodness is God-similarity you ask “Why ought we be similar to God?” which I understand as “Why ought we strive to be similar to God?”. The answer is: because it profits us. We are made in such a way that a life of goodness (i.e. of God-similarity) is experienced as more desirable than a life of evil (i.e. of God-dissimilarity).

    I don’t discuss your charges about naturalistic fallacy, because first I don’t quite see how it is even possible for theists to commit this fallacy, but mainly because it seems you are not using this charge against my description of theistic metaethics, but against what you claim is the more commonplace theistic view.

    Finally, it seems you are suggesting that something finite cannot be similar (or comparable) to something infinite. I don’t see that at all. After all 2 is more similar to an infinitely large number than 1. Also please observe that the concept of “infinite” when used in the context of God normally refers to perfection and not to some infinite quantity.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09773324482031159784 Philip K

    Dianelos,

    I challenge you to ask a Muslim why he says that Allah is great. His answer won’t be either of the two you provide; instead, he’ll say that God is great (highly valuable) because of his superhuman properties, thus committing the naturalistic fallacy, given G.E. Moore’s Open Question formulation.

    The reason I referred to the dictionary is because you said “God defines what good is.” I took this to be a linguistic statement, and an obviously false one at that. Now you want to talk just about “ontological grounding” and you say that God is inconceivable without thinking of God as good. But even if we construe your earlier claim that “God defines what good is” as conceptual rather than linguistic, your point about conceivability reverses that claim. It’s one thing to say God is necessarily good, but it’s quite another to say, in effect, that goodness is impossible without God (because the concept of God is analytically contained in the concept of good).

    Anyway, enough of that. I’ll try to cut to the chase. You say that ethics is ontologically grounded only on theism, not on naturalism. But this seems to me obviously false. What theism gives you is a person, but there are people on naturalism too. If values can come from one person (God), they might just as well come from human persons.

    “Ah,” you’ll say, “but theism posits not just any old person. God is the only *perfect* person.” But why the need to base values on a perfect person, when with humans you have the distinction between ethically *better or worse* persons? In fact, this is Aristotle’s view. He says that if you want to know how to decide a difficult ethical issue, look to the most virtuous persons in your community. The logic of that argument is the very same as that of the theistic argument, since in both cases norms come from people who act as standards for others, so that being good is being similar to those standard individuals. Thus, theism is no improvement on naturalism.

    You might reply, “But there’s an epistemic problem about knowing which human is ethically better than another.” My response: that problem is nothing compared to the problem of knowing about God, since the latter knowing requires trust in revelation. Which sacred text tells us what God’s really like? Or which inner experience? Again, theism is no improvement.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09773324482031159784 Philip K

    Dianelos,

    You say we experience miraculous freewill. The determinist says our experience here is illusory, since we don’t experience all the causes of our actions such as the events in our brain. But the point that should be made is that even if the naturalist grants that we have a kind of freewill (self-determination) that no one understands, theism doesn’t help make sense of that freewill. Mysteries are just as possible on naturalism as they are on theism. Scientists can say that freewill and consciousness are not well understood as of yet. The theist says they’re miraculous and adds that the miracle is the work of an almighty God. But that *is* hand-waving! I’m referring here not to the confession that freewill is mysterious, but to the theist’s explanation of freewill, to her solution to the problem. Saying that God created an immaterial spirit and gave it supernatural powers, provides only the illusion of adding to our understanding. The theist understands freewill and consciousness just as little as does the naturalist.

    Now, you’ll want to stress ontological grounding. But that’s just more hand-waving. The theist grounds freewill by saying that freewill is supernatural and immaterial, and that these properties come from a perfect person who by definition can do anything. That is unenlightening, naïve anthropomorphic speculation.

    By contrast, here’s the naturalist’s ontological grounding of freewill. We humans are only glorified primates and so there are many things in the universe we don’t understand and perhaps also many we can’t possibly understand, because of our inherent cognitive limitations. In other words, the natural universe consists of whatever’s out there that scientists confront and try to explain using certain methods. The set of those things we try thus to explain includes things we might never be able to understand. That’s all the ontological grounding the naturalist needs for freewill and for consciousness, and it solves those mysteries just as much as does theistic ontology (immaterial spirit, miracles), which is to say there’s no such solution yet in either case.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    "That is, for the subjectivist, moral judgments, though they take the form of factual assertions, cannot really assert facts."

    No, this is not subjectivism, but noncognitivism. This confusion appears to have ramified through your taxonomy, since EN as it is presented here is not a form of moral realism.

    To side with Hume against Kant and deny the existence of categorical imperatives, and to concede that someone who does not share your values has committed neither an empirical, logical, nor conceptual mistake is not to "bite the bullet". The correct rhetorical term for these sorts of concessions is "giving away the store."

    The strongest passages here come in the penultimate paragraph. Of course, I *would* say that, since it is a very good retelling of what antirealists like myself actually believe morality is about. But the moral realist is not content to say that morality is "just" the cultivation and reweaving of our values and desires through imaginative engagement with literature or film or trolley problems. The secular moral realist wants some metaphysical source of authority which goes beyond our subjectivity, so he fishes about in quasi-theological fashion for something to "ontologically ground" (whatever that means) his 1st-order moral claims. He claims to find this in biology, which for purely contingent historical reasons carries enormous cultural cachet within the atheist movement. The quasi-theologian can now pronounce, with the assumed authority of a medical doctor, that his moral and political opponents are "defective specimens".

    The analysis of Underground concerns thus fails to hit the mark. What the theist debater fears (and what the atheist antirealist knows and should embrace) is not any arcane technical point of ontology, but the death of nonhuman authority over the human. For the power-hungry, this means the annihilation of their claims to be acting on behalf of God when they tell people what they can't do with their own genitals. For the weak-willed, this means the loss of a moral compass — to extend the metaphor, the loss of moral orientation — and the awful existential responsibility that accompanies having to actually make one's own decisions and make them one's own in a universe that doesn't do all your philosophical work for you.

    The intractability of these debates can only partly be attributed to the general obduracy and lack of scientific and philosophical sophistication in the evangelical culture overall. Much of it comes from the failure of atheist proponents to recognize the true underlying psychological mechanisms behind moral realism, so even the most honest and persuadable theist will always walk away from these exchanges unmoved. Acknowledging this dynamic means acknowledging that the secular moral realist has a kind of theological hangover, and is attempting to put technocracy and evolutionary biology on the moral throne where God used to be. Better a democracy, I say, than a king.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    "That is, for the subjectivist, moral judgments, though they take the form of factual assertions, cannot really assert facts."

    No, this is not subjectivism, but noncognitivism. This confusion appears to have ramified through your taxonomy, since EN as it is presented here is not a form of moral realism.

    To side with Hume against Kant and deny the existence of categorical imperatives, and to concede that someone who does not share your values has committed neither an empirical, logical, nor conceptual mistake is not to "bite the bullet". The correct rhetorical term for these sorts of concessions is "giving away the store."

    The strongest passages here come in the penultimate paragraph. Of course, I *would* say that, since it is a very good retelling of what antirealists like myself actually believe morality is about. But the moral realist is not content to say that morality is "just" the cultivation and reweaving of our values and desires through imaginative engagement with literature or film or trolley problems. The secular moral realist wants some metaphysical source of authority which goes beyond our subjectivity, so he fishes about in quasi-theological fashion for something to "ontologically ground" (whatever that means) his 1st-order moral claims. He claims to find this in biology, which for purely contingent historical reasons carries enormous cultural cachet within the atheist movement. The quasi-theologian can now pronounce, with the assumed authority of a medical doctor, that his moral and political opponents are "defective specimens".

    The analysis of Underground concerns thus fails to hit the mark. What the theist debater fears (and what the atheist antirealist knows and should embrace) is not any arcane technical point of ontology, but the death of nonhuman authority over the human. For the power-hungry, this means the annihilation of their claims to be acting on behalf of God when they tell people what they can't do with their own genitals. For the weak-willed, this means the loss of a moral compass — to extend the metaphor, the loss of moral orientation — and the awful existential responsibility that accompanies having to actually make one's own decisions and make them one's own in a universe that doesn't do all your philosophical work for you.

    The intractability of these debates can only partly be attributed to the general obduracy and lack of scientific and philosophical sophistication in the evangelical culture overall. Much of it comes from the failure of atheist proponents to recognize the true underlying psychological mechanisms behind moral realism, so even the most honest and persuadable theist will always walk away from these exchanges unmoved. Acknowledging this dynamic means acknowledging that the secular moral realist has a kind of theological hangover, and is attempting to put technocracy and evolutionary biology on the moral throne where God used to be. Better a democracy, I say, than a king.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09773324482031159784 Philip K

    Hiero5ant,

    What makes neo-Aristotelian ethics all the more ironic is that this sort of ethicist finds the authority for ethical judgments in the presumed teleology of biological evolution, even though the Artistotelian signs onto Darwin’s anti-teleological explanation of evolution. This is Fodor’s criticism of Dennett’s talk of biological functions. Post-Darwinian Aristotelians believe that Darwin didn’t undermine the theological notion that the organic world is rife with objective value, that biological traits have functions they either succeed or fail to fulfill. Instead, they think Darwin simply showed how those functions actually come about: not from God but from natural selection.

    Dennett cheerfully calls natural selection “Mother Nature”, splitting the difference between God (a person who could at least be a source of values and functions) and a mindless natural process. These biological functions, values and norms are supposed to emerge at higher levels of organization like in Conway’s Game of Life, except that for Dennett, the patterns require an observer to be interpreted, and so according to him norms aren’t simply objective, or mind-independent.

    John Gray’s critique seems relevant here: secular liberals destroy the intellectual foundations of Christianity, but want to preserve Christian values, contrary to Nietzsche’s warning that when an ideology falls its values go with it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Philip,

    I don’t think we should discuss what “a Muslim” would say, but should discuss the strongest theistic and non-theistic worldviews we can conceive – and then see which works better. Surely any idea merits discussing at its best expression.

    I meant “God defines what good is” as in “God grounds what good is” or “we understand better what good is by seeing how it is related to God”. I am saying “God is necessarily good” in the same sense that I say “a circle is necessarily round”. Now, do I think that goodness is impossible without God? Actually I do, yes. First, it seems plausible that goodness cannot be metaphysically grounded and thus does not exist in a reality which is ultimately of a mechanical/blind/purposeless nature. Also, I would argue, any reality in which goodness exists must be grounded on a being who is not less than the greatest conceivable being. The idea that goodness may be grounded on the character of virtuous people does not really work, for it leaves open what grounds the virtue of such people. Indeed we can see that there are “better or worse” people precisely because there is a grounding of goodness which we can perceive.

    In my judgment the failure of any non-theistic ontology to make sense of goodness is for me a major roadblock. On the other hand it seems that some people feel comfortable with the idea that our sense of goodness is really only some kind of figment of our imagination, or perhaps a figment created by our brain structure.

    It seems you think that one knows God through revelation in scripture. In fact reading scripture is at best one first step. There are many ways of knowing God described in the tradition and practice of many religions. The basic idea is to know God by acquaintance, and for that one must spiritually transform oneself by following in one’s life the same ethical path that all great religions describe (as well as, according to many, by doing spiritual exercises). In Christianity that spiritual transformation is called “repentance”, or in the original Greek “metanoia”, which literally means “transformation of mind”.

    [continued bellow]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [continued from above]

    I am not suggesting that free will is mysterious. Quite on the contrary. Free will is a fundamental part of our experience of life, and as common and clear a thing as anything we know of. Qualia, such as how colors look like, are not at all mysterious either. These things only become mysterious if one tries to make sense of them within a mechanistic conception of reality. Well, I say, so much the worse for naturalism.

    You call my position “hand-waving” and write: “Saying that God created an immaterial spirit and gave it supernatural powers, provides only the illusion of adding to our understanding.” I wonder why you should think that. If theism is true then the above is precisely the right understanding about how things stand. Perhaps you are begging the question by judging any understanding and any explanation which does not fit the naturalistic mold to be intrinsically inadequate. It sometimes seems to me that naturalists are expecting theists to give a mechanistic account of God. Such of course would be nonsense, and to even try to do that would be foolish.

    One problem I suspect naturalists have with theistic explanations is that they tend to think that God “can do anything” and thus that anything goes; the theistic answer to any question is “that’s how God did it”. But in fact God cannot do anything. It’s precisely God’s perfect nature that greatly restricts what God can do, for God will only want to do what accords with perfection. Indeed, that’s the basis for the many arguments that atheist philosophers propose against theism. In comparison naturalism strikes me as much more unrestricted; for example a naturalist may suggest about anything she likes including invisible multiverses of arbitrary properties. An extreme case is Max Tegmark's suggestion that reality consists of all mathematically describable worlds – a metaphysical monster if there is one.

    [continued bellow]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [continued from above]

    Finally, you suggest a kind of grounding for freewill and consciousness in a naturalistic reality by pointing out that on naturalism it may well be the case that we lack the cognitive capacity to understand many things. Natural evolution, a naturalist may reasonably argue, does not produce brains with metaphysical truth tracking capacity. Now, since we can see that freewill is not compatible with a mechanistic reality, I assume you mean that our brain creates the illusion that we have freewill (perhaps that's needed for efficient thinking). Well, on the whole I agree with you here. If naturalism is true then our brains may be massively fooling us, and may be entirely inadequate for tracking metaphysical truths. If I didn’t know of any ontology which makes sense of the whole of my experience of life then I too would be inclined to embrace naturalism despite its many warts. But given how intellectually satisfying (never mind morally empowering and life enriching) theism is for me, I don’t see why I should do that. After all I have not fallen for the modern myth that there is some kind of conflict between the physical sciences and theism; on the contrary I see much conflict between the physical sciences and naturalism. But, as you may argue, if naturalism is true then our brains may not be capable of making sense of the physical sciences either. Given the success of the physical sciences we know that our brains are quite good at mathematically modeling physical phenomena, but, on naturalism, they may be quite inadequate for finding out how physical reality really is.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09773324482031159784 Philip K

    Dianelos,

    The point about Muslims is that they’re actually known for saying that God is great, and I can’t imagine them giving your answer if pressed to say what’s so great about God. They may all be wrong, but I think your answer, that God has his properties because he’s perfect, rather than the other way around, is counterintuitive. It also turns “perfect” into a weasel word, since there would literally be nothing in which God’s perfection would consist. You might as well call God “shnagglepuss” instead of “perfect.” You say God’s perfect nature limits what he can do. How so, if we can’t say the slightest thing about what makes God perfect? If you say God’s limited because he’s perfect, and he’s perfect in part because he’s wise, then you’ve got the naturalistic fallacy to worry about (just like the naturalist); you’re saying that God is highly valuable in part because he’s wise.

    I see that you keep referring to mechanisms, but I’m sure you know that, strictly speaking, mechanisms belong in the Newtonian system, not in the Einsteinian or quantum mechanical systems. You can stretch the meaning of “mechanism,” but then the word becomes empty like “perfect” when applied to God. I think you’re trying to hobble naturalism with an antique notion of mechanism. Subatomic particles don’t behave like clockwork, so naturalists aren’t committed to that sort of naïve determinism.

    And I think you missed my point about freewill. My point is that naturalists can be mysterians about freewill: we can agree that we have full-blown freewill, and that determinism is true, and maintain that we’re not smart enough to see how they’re compatible. The metaphysical grounding comes in the mysterian assumption that part of the natural world can be beyond our comprehension. I don’t see how the theistic story improves on that mysterian one. Either way, no one ends up understanding how we could be perfectly self-determining, despite our inhabiting a physical world, even though we could appreciate that we seem to be so.

    When I talk about the theistic account of freewill as “hand-waving,” what I mean is not that it’s supernatural rather than natural, but that it violates general rules of explanation and critical thinking, rules which have been shaped largely by modern science. Take the statement that God miraculously created immaterial souls to be self-determining, and implanted them in corporeal bodies. The root problem with that statement is that it’s meaningful only in a highly figurative, poetic way, because of the god-of-the-gaps problem. Theistic language was taken literally when people naively extended their knowledge of how humans operate to everything else, thus anthropomorphizing the world. So we could imagine that just as we intelligently design things, so we might be intelligently designed. And because we can’t sense our own minds the way we sense the outer world, we compare the mind to materially insubstantial things, like air or clouds. Scientists looked at how nature actually works, and found much that violates our intuitions. For example, Earth isn’t centrally located, and so on and so forth. As God became less and less natural, he became more abstract and mystical, and that has a cost which is that theistic language becomes harder to understand and harder to be literally correct.

    [continued below]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09773324482031159784 Philip K

    Dianelos,

    The point about hand-waving is that a theist can pretend to be making a straightforwardly factual statement about God’s deeds, but is actually telling a highly metaphorical narrative, something much more akin to poetry than to a scientific explanation. Granted, there are metaphors everywhere, including in science, but scientists have much else besides metaphors to give their statements literal meaning. Mystical theists (unlike fundamentalists) shouldn’t even want to contend that their religious language is (merely) literally correct. The theist has analogies and that’s just about it (no quantifications, despite the vain talk of “systematic theology”). And analogies are fine, but let’s appreciate that analogies (especially grossly anthropocentric ones) are at home more in fiction than in nonfiction.

    You say values can’t come from virtuous humans, who are ethically better than other people, because then we’re left with the question of whether the former are really ethically superior. But if the story runs out for God, why not for humans? If all correct values come from God’s nature, how do we know God’s nature is really good? You say we can be personally acquainted with God’s goodness instead of just reading about it in religious texts. But we can personally experience the goodness of heroic humans as well. (In fact, it’s much easier to see how we could do the latter than the former.) So why can’t that be the end of the story about grounding values? Either way, values become subjective, because even if they come from God’s nature rather than his will, God’s nature is to be a subject, not an object! So theistic prescriptions would be subjective. Their correctness would transcend human opinion, but they wouldn’t transcend psychological processes in general.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Phillip,

    Let me start with the basics. I know that to help a child in need is better than to torture it for fun. I know this with more certainty I know about anything else (including that 2+2=4 or that the sun rises in the east), and I know this without having to form or depend on any ontological views. Similarly, I know that a person whose character is to help children is greater than a person whose character is to torture children. Thus I know with perfect clarity what the phrase “God is the greatest conceivable being” (or “God is perfect” for short) means. Thus I can judge the truth value of propositions that claim properties of God. For example I know that the proposition “God’s is loving” is closer to the truth than the proposition “God is not loving”, or that the proposition “God’s love is unconditional” is closer to the truth than “God’s love comes with strings attached”. Thus I epistemically ground my knowledge of God’s properties on my understanding of personal perfection (or of “being the greatest conceivable being”). All of that strikes me as crystal clear. Indeed many atheistic philosophers think in exactly the same way about God, and that’s why they are able to wage theologically sophisticated discussion with theistic philosophers. For example, atheist philosophers ground the claim that “God will not allow gratuitous suffering to obtain” on God being the greatest conceivable being, and not the other way around. They say: Since God is perfect we know that God will not allow gratuitous suffering. That’s the way how theistic reasoning goes.

    [continued bellow]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [2nd part, continued from above]

    Now you say that my way of looking at things turns “perfect” into a weasel word, “ since there would literally be nothing in which God’s perfection would consist. You might as well call God “shnagglepuss” instead of “perfect.””. Well, frankly, I have no idea how you mean that. After all, God’s perfection consists in having all the properties that we know are entailed in perfection (even though our sense of perfection is less than perfect itself, and people may disagree about the details of some these properties). So, how is it that this is “nothing”? And given how well we understand the concept of personal perfection, what’s the point of suggesting one use the word “shnagglepuss” instead? I think I understand the naturalist’s mindset pretty well, but here you have stymied me.

    By “mechanism” I mean any process knowledge about which can be exhausted by a mathematical model. Since the physically sciences mathematically model phenomena, all the knowledge they produce is of mechanical nature, even when such models are probabilistic and not deterministic. That is why naturalism and its mechanistic understanding of reality does not entail determinism. A naturalist can remain a naturalist while interpreting quantum mechanics as implying that physical reality is not deterministic and that a quantum system evolves probabilistically. Sorry for not having clarified this before.

    Incidentally I find determinism to be a remarkable bad idea, and I wonder how philosophers did not see that before the discovery of quantum mechanics early in the 20th century. Classical physics is deterministic and I suppose philosophers (both theists and non-theists by the way) were driven to reify physical models, a risky step that many still commit themselves to. Also, it seems to me, they failed to imagine how a non-deterministic reality could give rise to deterministic phenomena, and failed to see that statistical mechanics already does this. But statistical mechanics was discovered only some 40 years before quantum mechanics, and old ideas have much inertia.

    [continued bellow]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [3nd part, continued from above]

    Now our sense of free will entails that a mechanistic view of reality is inadequate. Our making a choice is an intrinsically different thing than a cuckoo clock striking the hour or a photon passing through the left slit instead of through the right – precisely in the sense that the event of a person making a choice cannot be fully described by a mathematical model. Through free will creativity enters the world. Free will, as Leibniz observed, makes of humans “little gods”. It is in that sense that free will contradicts naturalism, and is thus a supernatural property we possess and exercise almost every second of our lives. This leaves the naturalist with no alternative but to consider our sense of free will to be an illusion produced by our brain.

    You write: “My point is that naturalists can be mysterians about freewill: we can agree that we have full-blown freewill, and that determinism is true, and maintain that we’re not smart enough to see how they’re compatible.” I agree. Actually we do think that we are smart enough to see that free will and determinism are not compatible, but, if naturalism is true, our brain must be fooling us about this. For naturalism to remain viable the naturalist must affirm that we are much less smart than we think we are, and indeed that we should not trust our cognitive faculties wherever they appear to conflict with the naturalistic worldview (and there are many such cases beside free will). To affirm this makes perfect sense on naturalism, indeed I accept that there is in principle a naturalistic account which explains why it is that our brain is fooling us. On the other hand this to be one of the most unattractive features of naturalism. The consistent naturalist must as it were go around wearing a T-shirt that says “I am a fool” or at least “my brain is fooling me about metaphysical matters”. Which is not only self-depreciating but also necessarily casts doubt on any metaphysical beliefs the naturalist may hold, including in naturalism. This is one more way to see that naturalism is self-referentially unreliable.

    [continued bellow]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [4th part, continued from above]

    Conversely, do theists need to be mysterians about the existence of evil? I don’t think so. First, soul-making theodicies succeed in explaining evil in a way I find intellectually satisfying. Or, as Plantinga argues, we can know that God has good reason for allowing evil, even though we may not know what that reason is in many individual cases. Or, as William Lane Craig argues, we can see that if it were the case that we knew the reason for each individual evil then that state of affairs might defeat that reason. Finally, as I argue, there may not be a morally sufficient reason for each individual evil, and thus there is no wonder we can’t see what that reason is. Thus there is not one but many ways for a theist to avoid wearing that T-shirt.

    Incidentally, I don’t think that our sense of free will is that “we are perfectly self-determining”, but only that we are to some degree self-determining. Only God, I’d say, is perfectly self-determining, and we become more self-determining the closer to God we move. As theists say, the truth will make you free.

    You write: “Take the statement that God miraculously created immaterial souls to be self-determining, and implanted them in corporeal bodies. The root problem with that statement is that it’s meaningful only in a highly figurative, poetic way, because of the god-of-the-gaps problem.” I don’t see anything “figurative”, “poetic”, or “metaphorical” in that statement. On theism that statement explicitly, directly, and literally describes how things are, and means exactly what is says. (I myself happen to believe that our souls are not “implanted” in a physical body but only that our experience of life is such that it seems so – but that’s a side issue.) I agree with you that it is an error to anthropomorphize the world, but on theism one must personalize the world. If theism is true then, being persons ourselves, we can understand how reality ultimately is, indeed pace Kant we can understand the noumenon.

    [continued bellow]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [5th part, continued from above]

    Incidentally I don’t agree that there are metaphors in the physical sciences. There is nothing metaphorical in a mathematical model of physical phenomena. Metaphors exist only in the naturalistic (or perhaps I should say realist) interpretation of the physical sciences. So, for example, to say that “mass bends spacetime” is metaphorical, because neither space nor time are things of a kind that can be “bent”.

    You write: “As God became less and less natural, he became more abstract and mystical, and that has a cost which is that theistic language becomes harder to understand and harder to be literally correct.” It seems you are saying that as the physical sciences have demonstrated that the people who wrote scripture at about 800 BCE were wrong in many of their physical beliefs (as we now know they were wrong in many of their metaphysical beliefs also), this has turned God into a harder concept to understand. I think exactly the opposite is the case. God is spirit and thus should not be understood in physical or mechanistic or naturalistic terms. To understand God as being “less and less natural” is to move in the right direction. Nature is in God, not God in nature, as theistically clueless New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins believe. (According to Dawkins the God hypothesis is a scientific hypothesis about the universe.)

    You correctly note that we do not sense our minds in the way we sense the external world. The reason of course is that we sense the external world *through* our minds. It is a category mistake to think about our minds in the way we think about the external world. Of course on naturalism our minds are part of the external world and thus, again, our brain must be fooling us into seeing a category distinction that is not there.

    [continued bellow]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [6th part, continued from above]

    You write that any theistic explanation is “more akin to poetry than to a scientific explanation”. Perhaps by “poetry” you mean language that refers to our personal and thus subjective condition. In any case I quite agree that theistic explanations do not look anything like scientific explanations. As I wrote before, for a naturalist to expect theistic explanations to look like scientific explanations is to beg the question. Theistic explanations should *not* look like scientific explanations. Any theistic explanation that looks like a scientific explanation is incoherent, because scientific explanations are of a mechanical nature whereas theistic explanations are of a personal nature.

    On the other hand (and I feel most atheists ignore this) theology is as empirical a science as the physical sciences are. Let me elucidate this. The physical sciences make testable/falsifiable claims of the form “If you do A you will experience B”, for example, “if you sufficiently cool water it will become solid”, or “if you look through a telescope at a star close to a total eclipse of the sun you will see its position shifted”. Theism makes testable/falsifiable claims of exactly the same form too, for example “if you are pure in heart you will become acquainted to God”, or “if you undergo repentance you become more self-determining and thus more free”, or “if you pray you will be morally empowered”, or “if you reason carefully about metaphysics you will see that theism makes more sense than naturalism, because you are made by God having the appropriate cognitive faculties to recognize this”. (As John Hick says the reality we experience is metaphysically ambiguous. On the other hand God has certainly not created us experiencing a metaphysically misleading reality). There are of course many differences between the empirical claims of the physical sciences and the empirical claim of theism (beyond the obvious difference that theism is a metaphysical theory). The former refer only to our experience of physical phenomena, the latter to the whole of our experience of life. The former can be tested by others, the latter only (or mainly) by ourselves. The former are of a public nature and can be tested without personal investment, the latter are mostly private and require lots of personal investment and time. All these differences granted, the idea that theology is not an empirical science is just another atheistic myth.

    [continued bellow]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [7th part, continued from above]

    You touch on the issue of mystical theism and how its language tends to work by metaphor or analogy. What is at issue here is not at all mysterious. Mystics experience God in a qualitative way that non-mystics don’t. Thus when mystics try to communicate to others their experiences they must use metaphor and analogy, indeed in a sense they must invent language. That’s a general problem about communicating experience, and is not in any way particular to theism. An analogy here would be for a person of normal sight trying to communicate to a blind person the experience of colors, or a person of normal hearing trying to communicate to a deaf person the experience of music. One thing I find striking about mystics is that they describe their experience of God as being more real than their experience of the physical universe.

    You ask “But if the story runs out for God, why not for humans?”. Because God is a hypothesis about the nature of what’s metaphysically ultimate; humans are not. Now a naturalist may argue that the actual physical nature of humans (as it has been formed by the blind physical forces of natural evolution) grounds values, but this would be to commit the naturalistic fallacy you often speak of. A theist cannot commit the naturalistic fallacy, because on theism the metaphysically ultimate is essentially/necessarily of a moral nature. “If all correct values come from God’s nature, how do we know God’s nature is really good?” We are created by God with the perception like cognitive faculty to know this fact. We perceive that God is good in the same way we perceive that a circle is round. When we correctly form the idea of circle we can’t fail to see that the circle is round, and, similarly, when we correctly form the idea of God we can’t fail to see that God is good.

    [continued bellow]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [8th and last part – continued from above]

    But we can personally experience the goodness of heroic humans as well.” Yes, exactly right. We can perceive the goodness both in God and in other humans, the difference being that we only sometimes perceive specific values in specific humans. Given this epistemic fact, the ontological question arises: What is it in reality that allows us to perceive and measure goodness in other humans? The theistic answer is: the fact that God’s goodness (which we can also perceive) is the ground and measure for all other goodness in creation. “[value] correctness would transcend human opinion, but they wouldn’t transcend psychological processes in general.” Right. On theism God’s psychological processes are the fabric of reality. And if you want to use “subjective” in the sense of “being of a personal nature” then indeed all truth in a theistic reality is subjective. I know that “subjective” tends to have a negative connotation is naturalistic (and pseudo-scientific) epistemological talk, but it is interesting to note that in fact the only certain knowledge we have is subjective. For example I am absolutely certain that right now I am experiencing seeing my computer monitor.

    You know, Philip, I like atheists. They tend to be more freethinking than theists, and I see that they can reason about ethics and about God (which is exactly as would be the case if theism is true) while being unencumbered by religious dogmas. Atheists can reason against theism and this helps theists test their beliefs. For example, if it weren’t for William Rowe’s recent version of the argument from evil I would not have realized that theism does *not* entail that there can’t be any single gratuitous evils. If it weren’t for naturalists trying to interpret quantum mechanical phenomena I wouldn’t have realized that, contrary to the modern myth, it is rather naturalism that conflicts with modern science, which in turn has motivated me to search for other places where modern science makes trouble for naturalism. The recent ID debacle (which I agree can be quite hypocritical on the theistic side) has helped me realize that naturalists overplay the truth when they claim that the naturalistic interpretation of natural evolution explains the evolution of the species (for nobody really knows the probability that unguided natural evolution will produce the species, even though we do now that the species were produced by natural evolution). It is clear that nature and God cannot conflict; after all on theism God is the author of nature. Thus, I say, all reasoning is valuable. Even bad reasoning is valuable because it motivates one to see what is bad about it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09773324482031159784 Philip K

    Dianelos,

    Thanks for the very thorough reply. I’ll start with a point of agreement. I also find Dawkins annoying. Coming from a philosophical rather than a scientific background, I take the deeper questions about theism to be philosophical. Scientific, or rather positivist, scientistic atheism often throws out the baby (philosophy) with the bathwater (theology). (I know you wouldn’t compare theology to bathwater.)

    In an earlier post, you said, “the idea is not that God is good because God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, just, forgiving, eternal, etc. Rather to be all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, just, forgiving, eternal, etc are good because this is how God is.” But in your last post you say, “God’s perfection consists in having all the properties that we know are entailed in perfection.” I’m having trouble reconciling those two statements. To avoid the naturalistic fallacy and to make good on your claim that theism makes better sense of morality than does naturalism, you said that goodness comes from God, but not from facts about God’s properties. Instead, goodness comes from God’s having a perfect nature, and his personal perfection is just a bedrock, essentially moral, value-laden fact. But in your last post you say God’s perfect nature consists in his having the properties we think of as perfect, which I take it are omniscience, omnipotence, eternity, immateriality, etc. You seem to have brought yourself back to the naturalistic fallacy.

    We’re probably talking past each other, but I’m pretty sure you’ve got a dilemma on your hands. You can say moral values come from God’s perfect nature, which in turn comes from his factual, albeit personal, properties, (omniscience, etc), in which case you’re deriving an “ought” from an “is” and you’re in no better position than many naturalistic ethicists. Alternatively, you can say moral values come from God’s perfect nature, and that his perfection is made up not of facts, but only of values, in which case it’s values all the way down. In that case, you can give no descriptive, factual reason as to what makes God perfect and indeed as to what makes moral rightness better than moral wrongness. As soon as you cash out God’s high value in descriptive terms, citing some personal attributes he’s supposed to have as a matter of fact, you’ve got the naturalistic fallacy to worry about. But if you don’t cash it out that way, you’re left dangling with an empty ascription of moral value to God.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09773324482031159784 Philip K

    Dianelos,

    You keep saying it’s just an analytic truth that God is the greatest conceivable being, but analytic truths are no longer so clear in general, and in this case the supposed truth seems particularly dubious. If you read Stapledon’s Star Maker novel, you’ll find an account of God as a morally neutral artistic genius who creates many universes in the pursuit of artistic beauty, and who cares as much about humans as we do about ants. I don’t think there’s anything incoherent about conceiving of God in primarily aesthetic rather than moral terms. On the contrary, doing so solves the problem of evil in the blink of an eye; moreover, the aesthetic conception is properly non-anthropocentric.

    Indeed, ask yourself why theists tend to think of God as a judge who’s obsessed with righteousness. The historical answer is that human kings, pharaohs, caesars, monarchs, and so forth popularized the moral conception, identified themselves with God, and used the “divine” authority for moral commandments to lord it over masses of people. The moral conception of God has been utterly, transparently self-serving for human rulers; those rulers simply created God in their own image. Relatively recently, for example, Republican Christians defined God in terms of family values, even though the New Testament is hostile to human families (because the writers believed the world was about to end). The monotheistic emphasis on morality makes no sense: most of the universe, with its black holes, galaxies, and dark energy, has nothing to do with morality, with a value that we need merely for our own parochial reasons here on Earth, stuck as we are having to live together. The moral conception is painfully anthropocentric and the result of taking theistic metaphors much too literally.

    One problem with your definition of “mechanism” is that in some ways the standards of mathematics are looser than those of empirical science. That’s why physicists such as Lee Smolin criticize string theorists, for following exotic math instead of favouring more testable theories. Anyway, if mathematicians can model the many dimensions and universes posited by string theory, I can’t fathom why they couldn’t model freewill or creativity. You can make up mathematics as you like: just stipulate the semantics and syntax of an artificial language.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09773324482031159784 Philip K

    Dianelos,

    I don’t get your point about naturalists having to fool themselves about determinism and freewill. There’s no need for self-deception; the naturalist can admit that we’re self-determining, that every event has a natural cause, and that we don’t and perhaps can’t understand how those two facts are compatible. In any case, a naturalist who follows evolutionary psychology will have no trouble admitting that our brains often lead us astray, since our brains are adapted to prehistoric conditions we no longer find ourselves in.

    The statement about God’s creation of freewill that I said is poetic wasn’t actually put in poetic language, but the statement implies only figurative definitions, since there are no literal explanations of anything referred to in the statement. For example, what is an “immaterial soul”? Or what is “miraculous creation”? In explaining these things, you’ll eventually run into metaphors that have at best emotional force, as in poetry.

    You say theology is like science in that theologians make testable, falsifiable statements, the difference being just that scientific statements are publicly testable whereas theological ones are only privately so. I’m afraid I consider that to be a howler. In the first place, as Popper said, theological statements are unfalsifiable and pseudoscientific, since theology includes endless ad hoc rationalizations to account for every conceivable piece of contrary evidence. An infamous example is that if God doesn’t answer your prayer, God still exists but he simply understands your situation better than you do and realizes that you don’t really want what you say you do. Or take one of your “hypotheses”: “if you are pure in heart you will become acquainted to God.” Now, “pure of heart” is as ambiguous and figurative as a piece of abstract visual art. That sort of ambiguity gives the theologian all the wiggle room needed to explain away contrary evidence. If the person doesn’t find God, he’s just not “pure” enough. How much purity is needed? And what is acquaintance with God? Do you hear God’s voice as being different from your own? Who knows? None of this is quantifiable and the private test is no test at all. The point of scientific, intersubjective tests is that their being public prevents rationalization, ego, emotions, and other biases we’re each prone to, from distorting the results. No such luck with a private “test.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Philip,

    When I wrote “God’s perfection consists in having XYZ properties” I meant it in the sense “If you want to know more about God’s perfection then know that God has XYZ properties”. Observe that I used that phrase after describing how we find out about the properties of God. My point was that given our knowledge of perfection (aka of “greatest conceivable being-hood”) and given our knowledge of properties such as loving, wise, just, etc, we can see that God is loving, just, wise, etc. I take it the question “Is God perfect because God is loving-etc, or is God loving-etc because God is perfect?” is a question of epistemology. It means, “Do we know that God is perfect based on the knowledge that God is loving-etc, or the other way around?” (my answer being the other way around). Incidentally there may be properties related to perfection we have no concept of and we cannot therefore know that God possesses them. Thus the claim is not that we can know all the properties of God, but that we can know some. Incidentally, I am not ontologically grounding the loving-etc properties on God’s perfection. God is the metaphysically ultimate and thus all the properties of God’s nature are essential. God would not be God (the greatest conceivable being) if God’s nature lacked any property, such as, say, the loving property.

    In any case, what is rather remarkable is that we all (theists and atheists alike) find ourselves capable of reasoning and debating about how God is, or about how God would be if God existed.

    I understand that the “naturalistic fallacy” refers to arguments which ground values on natural facts. On theism though there are no natural facts, but only personal facts. What we call natural facts are really manifestations of God’s (and other persons’) personal will. Thus, it seems to me, it is impossible for a theist to commit the naturalistic fallacy.

    [continued bellow]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [2nd part, continued from above]

    Now perhaps you mean “naturalistic fallacy” in a broader sense, namely as referring to any argument which grounds values on facts. In the metaethical account I am giving it is the case that it’s values all the way down, and it’s also that case that it's facts all the way down, because on theism all values are factual. On theism the fabric of reality is personal and thus, factually, of a moral nature. I really do not see any dilemma in my hands; if you still see some problem I’d like to understand where. To elucidate my meaning, here is a list of propositions that hold on my account:

    (1) God is wisdom, and thus the ground and measure of all wisdom.
    (2) God is goodness, and thus the ground and measure of all goodness.
    (3) Socrates is wise in that (or to the degree that) his wisdom resembles God’s wisdom.
    (4) Socrates is good in that (or to the degree that) Socrates resembles God.
    (5) In that Socrates’ wisdom resembles God’s wisdom, Socrates resembles God.
    (6) Therefore, Socrates is good (in respect to wisdom).

    I am not saying that it is just an analytic truth that God is the greatest conceivable being. Rather I am simply saying that by “God” I mean the greatest conceivable being. Since “God” is a word that carries lots of conceptual baggage perhaps I should have used another word, such as “the Absolute”. Anyway, from where I stand it is irrelevant that other people may mean something else when they speak of “God”. The fact remains though that the vast majority of theists accepts St Anselm’s definition.

    As for God being often understood anthropocentrically, the issue here is of a practical nature: We mainly associate properties that pertain to our own personal condition with greatness and thus with perfection, and therefore our understanding of God’s properties tends to be of a human-like personal nature. It may very well be the case that God has properties which are quite alien to the human condition; indeed we can see that God possesses at least some non-personal properties, such as being eternal.

    [continued bellow]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [3rd part, continued from above]

    As for the concepts of creativity and of freedom of will, I think that they essentially refer to events which cannot be modeled mathematically, and that’s the reason why they are problematic on naturalism. For example physics models any physical event as a probabilistic state transition, and I claim that’s the most general case possible (the probability distribution itself may be humongously complex to compute, and will be the end-result of any artificial syntax/semantics formal system you’d like to suggest). But we experience the event of making a free choice as being intrinsically different from the event of a mechanical (and thus purposeless and blind) probabilistic state transition. What we experience may be illusory, but the point is that freedom of will as experienced cannot be modeled mathematically, and thus does not fit with a naturalistic view of reality.

    I agree that the naturalist can explain how come our brain is fooling ourselves especially in things metaphysical (such as the nature of consciousness, of free will, of goodness, even of physical reality – nearly everything there is except for the order present in physical phenomena). But since naturalism itself is a metaphysical belief, we get a self-referentially defeating view.

    An immaterial soul is what each of one is, or at least seems to be – with the particularity that we experience living in a mechanically restricted environment we call the physical universe. Miraculous creation is all creation, and creation is the bringing into reality something new. Now I don’t think that these explanations are metaphorical in any way. What we really know are the properties of our condition, and descriptions given in the common terms of our condition are thus quite direct and easy to communicate.

    [continued bellow]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [4th part, continued from above]

    It is on the contrary naturalistic concepts that are difficult to describe and require metaphors. Try, for example, to describe what mass is, or what an electron is, or what the charge of an electron is. At best you will find yourself describing what effect these concepts have on the reality of our condition and specifically on our experience of physical phenomena, but if you try to describe these terms independently of us you’ll need to use metaphors. In general, given that we are persons, it is easier to describe reality in personal terms. Which, a naturalist may reasonably argue, is one reason why theistic worldviews may strike one as being more natural and less conceptually problematic than naturalistic ones. This much I give you. The naturalist can in principle explain why naturalism should strike us as being so problematic, but the fact remains that naturalism does strike us as being problematic and even self-referentially defeating. I am not here arguing that naturalism is false, but that if naturalism is true then true metaphysical beliefs are rendered irrational.

    In relation to my claim that theology entails empirically testable and falsifiable beliefs you point at Popper’s contrary view, to which I can only respond that Popper did not understand neither theology nor religious life. Leaving Popper behind, you observe that contrary to theistic belief God does not answer prayers. Now what I claimed was “if you pray you will be morally empowered”; I did not mention intercessory prayer in general. In my own experience what I have claimed is true, and I suspect that people keep asking God for miracles (which is what I basically mean by “intercessory prayer”) not because they find that God responds to them, but because they find that praying to God helps them resist the worse.

    [continued bellow]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [5th part, continued from above]

    You criticize my other claim “if you are pure in heart you will become acquainted to God” by suggesting that it is not at all clear what “pure in heart” means. Well, in the Christian context at least, this phrase means doing what Christ asks of us, a matter which I find is quite clear in the gospels: To love others the way Jesus loved us, to not resist evil and try to help even one’s enemies, to not judge others, to be humble and poor, etc. You ask “How much purity is needed?” To be acquainted with God is not a binary thing; rather we are all acquainted to God to some degree, whether we are aware of this fact or not. So when an atheist is doing ethics she is perceiving part of the nature of God. I sometimes think that ethicists I admire, such as Peter Singer, may be much better acquainted to God than most theists. On the other hand there comes a state of purity where one can't fail to realize that what one so strongly perceives in many ways (in goodness, in love, in beauty, in truth) is the presence of a personal being of utter perfection, and there comes a state where the presence of that being is experienced as more real than the physical universe itself. In all serious theology the presence of God is a concrete living reality, with which one can interact, from which one can learn, and by which one can grow. A concrete reality of huge pragmatical relevance. Further you ask “And what is acquaintance with God?”, but I think I have just responded to that. Also you ask: “Do you hear God’s voice as being different from your own?” Well, that would be a metaphorical way to put it. How it is (and I am not here claiming any special experiences) is that one feels like being aware of a source of knowledge which is not from oneself. Again, any ethicist has had that experience. (And of course the consistent naturalist can at least in principle explain how come our brain produces the illusory experience of a transcendental source of knowledge – but, frankly, “illusions here, illusions there, illusions everywhere” does not a good metaphysics make.)

    [continued bellow]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    [6th and last part, continued from above]

    You write “None of this is quantifiable and the private test is no test at all.” Many of the more important things in life are not quantifiable, because they do not pertain to physical phenomena. But a test is a test. There are many private/subjective empirical claims which you can test for yourself and which are not explicitly theistic. Here is one: If you understand X then you will experience X as being more beautiful. This is a major fact of our condition, and is only privately/subjectively testable. I think it is a pity that scientifically minded people tend to disparage empirical knowledge which is not public/objective, because they thus miss a major avenue for gaining knowledge.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09773324482031159784 Philip K

    Dianelos,

    I’m going to give you the last word on most of the points in our exchange, but I want to address one point that keeps coming up, which is your high epistemic ranking of human intuition. Consciousness, freewill, and acquaintance with God are all assured, you say, because commonsense affirms them, whereas naturalism is saddled with counter-intuitive, harder-to-explain theoretical entities, like electrons and dark matter. You say or imply that theism is in a better epistemological situation than is naturalism, because theism accords more with our intuitions. And this point is often made by the well-known Christian debater, William Lane Craig, who says, for example, that the Cosmological, First Cause argument is commonsensical and thus well-supported.

    With regard to this, I’d distinguish between epistemology and politics. Intuitions have no special epistemic weight after science and naturalism, because science discovered that many natural facts are counter-intuitive, such as the fact that the Earth is in constant motion, that it’s round and yet no one falls off, that the Earth isn’t at the universe’s center, that illnesses are caused by tiny organisms rather than demons, and on and on and on. The role played by intuition in debates between theists and naturalists is a political one, and William Craig demonstrates this in his debates. It makes for great rhetoric and point-scoring in a debate witnessed by ignoramuses, to flaunt theism’s greater intuitiveness compared to naturalism. Theistic officials subjugate ignorant, impoverished populations by flattering them with a reassuring, intuitive worldview (“Don’t worry, you’ll see your dead family members again, in heaven. After all, you seem immaterial and thus immortal, because you sense your own strange consciousness and freedom”).

    Copernicus’ model of the solar system was laughed at for its counter-intuitiveness. Then what happened?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09773324482031159784 Philip K

    Dianelos,

    I’d also like to connect this with what I’ve been saying about optimism and pessimism, in response to Keith P’s latest post at the Secular Outpost. Theists are highly optimistic in ranking intuition so highly, and pessimists fulfill a higher moral calling when they challenge themselves, as Nietzsche said, by entertaining counter-intuitive hypotheses. Hypotheses that flout our preference for flattering, anthropocentric notions are welcomed by the pessimist, because the pessimist sees our intuitions as the product of inhumane natural forces that keep us deluded in the matrix, as it were. People assumed the Earth doesn’t move because we can’t directly feel the Earth moving, and that conservative way of reasoning evolved as a mechanism for the genes to keep the eyes of their host bodies on the straight and narrow: “Don’t go so far afield,” say the genes, “and remember why you’re alive: survive long enough to reproduce! Don’t go risking yourself (and us!) by wandering off in outer space to discover ultimate truths that don’t have an obvious genetic benefit and that may even threaten all life (and all genes!), by giving you godlike technological power.”

    Scientific methods are themselves counter-intuitive because they’re accidental byproducts of our innate, largely fallacious ways of reasoning. Modern science is an enormous challenge to intuition, to traditional authority, to a plethora of human biases (vanity, moral cowardice, fear of the unknown, etc), and thus to theism which is propped up by all such human weaknesses. To say that naturalism is counter-intuitive is to state the obvious, but you’ve presupposed the high value of our intuitions.

    Why should the intuitions of meat-eating, only-recently-hairless primates, who speak instead of grunting and who wear gold watches and drive sports cars instead of proudly thumping their chests in the jungle, count for anything special? Why should those intuitions be given the last word on ultimate metaphysical questions? Why isn’t it more selfless and thus ethical to prefer theories that dethrone us, that challenge our anthropocentric bias and put us in our miserable place as deluded, self-absorbed animals who anthropomorphize everything (because of our over-active social instinct and theory of mind, as Dennett says)?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Philip,

    You claim that I am ranking the epistemic value of human intuitions too highly. Without begging the question by assuming naturalism, you argue that past experience has often showed how unreliable our intuitions are. You mention misleading intuitions such as that the Earth is at rest, or that it lies at the center of the universe. I have the following comments:

    1. All other things being equal, an ontology that does not contradict our intuitions is more probably true than an ontology that does. And naturalism contradicts our deepest intuitions about almost everything, including consciousness, free will, ethics, and even physical reality. Now if I saw any good reason to embrace naturalism and/or reject theism then I´d be willing to suspect that all these intuitions are false. But I have not found any such reason whatsoever. I do not know of *one* epistemic principle which when applied consistently to both naturalism and theism (at their respective best) favors naturalism. It seems to me that those who embrace naturalism and/or reject theism do so a) because of current fashion (atheists are perceived as being more intelligent and educated – I’d say those atheists who are educated tend to have a more specialized and thus less balanced education), b) because they are bothered by the many stupid/dogmatic/hypocritical things that cling to religion and fail to see that one is free to take the religious baby and reject the religious bathwater, c) because they believe that the physical sciences support naturalism, and very often actually conflate the physical sciences with naturalism.

    2. All knowledge (including that of the physical sciences) is based on intuitions, so to disparage intuitions for being intuitions is irrational. Further, there are intuitions and there are intuitions. The intuition that the Earth is at rest is not a very strong one, after all one can easily be mistaken about relative movement. But such intuitions as that we have freedom of will, that to help a child is better than to torture it (an intuition that for me is stronger than 2+2=4), and so on, are made of different cloth. Recently physicist Lawrence Krauss argued (in a debate with William Craig) that we should not trust in our intuitions about logic. What I see is naturalism pushing people into a radically self-defeating position.

    3. My stronger point though is this: The history of humanity’s cognitive progress proves again and again that we are capable of identifying and rejecting misleading intuitions. It seems we are blessed with a sufficiently reliable cognitive equipment in this sense. But, if I understand your position correctly, you are justifying a mysterian position according to which our counter-naturalism intuitions are incorrigible and obtain because of the blind/purposeless evolutionary process that produced our brains. Here then, it seems to me, your argument by analogy breaks down. If anything, the fact that as history proves we are capable of detecting and correcting misleading intuitions weakens your argument, because one would expect naturalists to be able to identify the mistake in the counter-naturalism intuitions, as people in the past were able to identify the mistake in other misleading intuitions we used to have. Which, I claim, is not happening. (Daniel Dennett’s blowing of smoke hardly counts.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09773324482031159784 Philip K

    Dianelos,

    You say “All other things being equal, an ontology that does not contradict our intuitions is more probably true than an ontology that does.” That’s just a presupposition, as far as I can tell. What reason is there to think that that statement of yours is true?

    You say “All knowledge (including that of the physical sciences) is based on intuitions.” What does “based on” mean? You’re surely not saying that all knowledge is intuitive, which is to say, in agreement with our innate, biased assumptions that reflect evolutionary hardwiring, emotional prejudices, traditions, or a lack of education.

    I never said or implied that supernatural intuitions are “incorrigible.” Of course science has cast doubt on many of them; that’s the point about the god-of-the-gaps. Those intuitions are the default positions (even kids have invisible friends, after all) and they persist for the reasons I gave.

    You say naturalists aren’t showing where theistic intuitions go wrong. That’s your opinion. I note that religions are thriving today mainly in poor counties with uneducated populations. My explanation of that fact: scientific, secular education leads people to question their theistic intuitions and upbringings, and to improve their critical thinking skills.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Philip,

    Commenting on my claim “All other things being equal, an ontology that does not contradict our intuitions is more probably true than an ontology that does.” you write “That’s just a presupposition, as far as I can tell. What reason is there to think that that statement of yours is true?

    Well, here you raise a good case in point. The reason I have for believing that my statement above is true is that it strikes me as obviously, intuitively, true. Suppose your life depended on correctly choosing whether P or not-P is true. Further suppose that all other things are equal, except that P does not contradict your intuitions and not-P does contradict them. You have to make a choice. Which would you choose, P or not-P? Obviously (I think) you would choose P.

    Commenting on my claim “All knowledge (including that of the physical sciences) is based on intuitions.” you ask “What does “based on” mean?

    It means that all knowledge is either intuitive, or else is the result of some reasoning which itself presupposes some intuitive truths. So, for example, all knowledge from the physical sciences assumes the truth of some intuitions, such as the principle of induction, uniformitarianism, the veridicality of our senses, and, indeed, that the universe did not start existing 5 seconds ago.

    As for some intuitions being incorrigibly false on naturalism, I meant this in the sense you previously described as follows: “My point is that naturalists can be mysterians about freewill: we can agree that we have full-blown freewill, and that determinism is true, and maintain that we’re not smart enough to see how they’re compatible.” And I agree: if naturalism is true then it is probably the case that our brain has evolved in such a way that many important intuitions (about ethics, freedom, etc) that are false are hard-wired in it.

    You write: “Of course science has cast doubt on many of [supernatural intuitions]”. Well, perhaps, but these were mainly intuitions that primitive theists three millennia ago entertained. I don’t know of any discoveries of modern science casting doubts on the intuitive beliefs of sophisticated theists. In comparison, modern science has cast doubts on some of the strongest naturalistic intuitions, including determinism and locality. Not to mention has cast doubts on the naturalistic intuition that physical reality is objective (hence Einstein’s complain that QM implies that the moon is not there when nobody is looking). What I will agree is that scientific knowledge about phenomena has the power to falsify metaphysical beliefs, for reality must be so as to produce the phenomena that the physical sciences discover.

    You write: “I note that religions are thriving today mainly in poor counties with uneducated populations.” Yes. One of the major fruits of religion is to give one power to withstand life’s injustices, including the lack of material necessities and education. Religion, Philip, is much more than a belief system; it is also and mainly a way of life. It is also a way to see life, indeed an optimistic and hopeful way. And, I will hurry to add, an excellently rational way (as those who are blessed with a good education I think should be able to see).

    You write: “My explanation of that fact: scientific, secular education leads people to question their theistic intuitions and upbringings, and to improve their critical thinking skills.” Right, which is why I expect a genuine religious resurgence to take place in such societies. I think there is a pendulum like process at work here. I interpret the “secularization” in Europe both as the result of a rejection of the many evils of institutionalized religion as well as the result of the major modern myth that science supports atheism. So I am only in favor of critical thinking – God, after all, is truth. Indeed I think that philosophical education is sorely missing even in rich societies.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09773324482031159784 Philip K

    Dianelos,

    I asked for a reason to believe your statement that an intuitive ontology is more probable than an unintuitive one. In your response you shift to a psychological question about whether someone would more likely accept an intuitive or an unintuitive ontology. This psychological question has no bearing on the epistemological question about which ontology is more likely correct. Anyway, you’ve proven my point: you’ve just presupposed the high epistemic value of intuitions. I have no such presupposition; on the contrary, if anything, I trust that the ultimate truth about the universe will be counterintuitive, because of the parochialness of our metaphysical intuitions.

    But here we have to be careful about what we mean by “intuition.” We’re talking about theistic intuitions, such as the assumptions that mental properties are fundamental, that justice and morality win out in the end, that we have immortal souls, and that human life isn’t absurd. I maintain that these intuitions derive from anthropocentric bias, vain delusions of grandeur, fear of death and of horrible absurdity (existentialism, mysterianism, Lovecraft), and from overextending primitive modes of reasoning that have a narrow, pragmatic, evolutionary effect and that are therefore unlikely to deliver the ultimate truth. These intuitions are anthropocentric prejudices and emotional presuppositions that may eventually be rationalized.

    You say all knowledge is directly or indirectly intuitive, since there are intuitions underlying even the use of reason, such as the principle of induction or the reliability of our senses. But these starting points of reasoning are very different from the theistic intuitions we’ve been talking about. The rational intuitions comprise methodological naturalism, which in turn is a species of pragmatism. The justification of intuitions underlying science and rationality more broadly is pragmatic and tentative, whereas the sources of theistic intuitions are things like naked vanity, anthropocentrism, or primitive fear.

    Take, for example, the assumption that the universe didn’t start five seconds ago, which is to say that we’re not being tricked by a Cartesian demon and that are senses are halfway reliable. If we accepted skepticism instead, that would be the end of inquiry since we couldn’t trust any judgment, including the skeptic’s judgment that the universe is only five seconds old. So skepticism, which is to say the criticism of methodological naturalism (i.e. rational intuitions) undermines itself. Also, there’s a burden of proof issue: the skeptic has at least some burden to prove his extraordinary claim, but has no evidence. Failing to meet that burden, the rationalist chooses the more fruitful course of assuming optimistically that our senses are reliable (under certain conditions) and that therefore the universe isn’t five seconds old.

    The theistic intuitions have no such justifications. They represent default positions, but only in a historical, not in a logical sense, which is to say that they are naïve starting points, based on insufficient data and the use of inappropriate cognitive equipment (social instinct and theory of mind which are anthropocentrically projected onto an external reality that isn’t obviously personal, to say the least). Thus, as I said, children literally have invisible friends, and that’s no accident; their experimentation with their cognitive hardware leads them to that delusion, which only a minority grow out of entirely (they’re the atheists).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09773324482031159784 Philip K

    Dianelos,

    You say that modern science has cast doubt only on primitive theistic assumptions, not on sophisticated ones. If so, that’s because the sophisticated one are vacuous and unfalsifiable as a result of the god-of-the-gaps problem. Primitive theists are naïve enough to make bold, literal, and thus testable statements about gods. Sophisticated theists are sneakier and more defensive, having learned that the bolder, more straightforward the theistic declaration, the more likely it will be refuted or disproven, and so these theists retreat to figurative, poetic language that provides comfort without actually saying anything. In this way, sophisticated theologians are very similar to American politicians.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03232781356086767207 AIGBusted

    How remarkable that you should make this post! Just a few days ago I posted something that was about the same thing, and made the same points, that you do, including an argument that a moral skeptic (an "underground man" as you call him) is unanswerable in principle, even by those who believe in God:

    http://aigbusted.blogspot.com/2011/06/my-moral-philosophy.html

    Sincerely,
    Ryan

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