Joel Marks essay

Take a look at Joel Mark’s short essay in the NYT; “Confessions of an Ex-Moralist.”

It’s nice to see amoralist points of views expressed once in a while.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

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

    Thank you for pointing out this article.

    Torturing innocent children for sake of pleasure in having power over another person is morally wrong. This is not just a matter of personal taste.

    I like chocolate ice cream, and my wife prefers salted caramel. I have no problem with letting her and other people have different personal preferences than me, concerning what flavor of ice cream they like and choose.

    But if someone starts torturing innocent children in my neighborhood, and if the police did not take action, then I would purchase a shot gun solve the problem myself.

    You could, I suppose, say that some of my personal preferences are weak (leaving room for tolerance of alternative choices) while others of my personal preferences are strong (leaving no room for tolerance of alternative choices), but there is something more than subjective personal preference involved in the condemnation of the torture of innocent children.

    Some people, of course, see nothing wrong with torturing innocent children for the sake of pleasure in having power over another person. Those people are called sociopaths. They are mentally defective people who need to be locked up or executed.

    If we find a 'morality' gene that determines whether a person will be a sociopath or a morally normal person, we should do whatever we can to use that knowledge to eliminate sociopaths from the human race, and to have only morally normal people, people who have sensitivity to the rights, interests, and feelings of other people.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07711295082644210782 Juno Walker

    @Taner -

    Massimo Pugglici over at Rationally Speaking would disagree with you (and me). He thinks Mark's essay is what happens when a philosopher gets confused about ethics.

    He wrote: "I on the other hand reject the premise, and think that to accept it and then go on to talk about reasoning correctly is a non sequitur. If morality is a matter of taste or preference, what sort of argument or reasoning would apply to convincing someone that dark chocolate is better than milk chocolate?"

    @Bradley: I don't believe there are any objective moral facts. Even though I would also be inclined to purchase a shotgun if people started tortuing children on my block, I can't say that it is an objective fact that it is wrong. The universe simply doesn't care – nature has no point of view. But we humans – you and me – do care precisely because we are human, and we as a species have apparently evolved a system of "rules for living" in a social setting. I presume things like torture, etc., have evolved and have been refined through the millennia based originally on various preferences, preferences that have now essentially become 'instinct.'

    And your last paragraph sounds an awful lot like Harris in "The Moral Landscape." Do you agree with his premise and conclusion therein?

    Juno

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Thanks, Taner, for posting the link to this interesting and stimulating article. The key bit is where he says:

    "But then it hit me: is not morality like this God? In other words, could I believe that, say, the wrongness of a lie was any more intrinsic to an intentionally deceptive utterance than beauty was to a sunset or wonderfulness to the universe? Does it not make far more sense to suppose that all of these phenomena arise in my breast, that they are the responses of a particular sensibility to otherwise valueless events and entities?"

    However, this poses a false dilemma: Either the wrongness of an action, like a lie, is an intrinsic property of the act or it is a matter of our subjective (or perhaps intersubjective) responses to the act. These alternatives probably appear exhaustive to him because, as he says, he came from a deontologist position and deontologists hold that the goodness or badness of actions is a property intrinsic to them. For one deeply imbued with that perspective, perhaps it will appear that the only alternative to intrinsic goodness is subjectivity. The alternative his either/or overlooks is one that the ethical naturalist would propose, i.e., that the goodness or badness of an action is determined by whether or not it tends to promote desirable ends. It is not, as the paradigmatic deontologist Kant would have it, that the action conforms to a formal principle, e.g., it follows a rule that is universalizable. Rather, the goodness of an action is determined by its role in a causal nexus leading, or tending to lead, to the actualization of desirable ends. That is, it is the end (telos) of the action that makes it good, not some intrinsic, formal property. On the other hand, naturalists would say that the desirable is objective and not a matter of feeling. So naturalism seems to present a third alternative between the two he offers.

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

    Juno Walker said…

    @Bradley: I don't believe there are any objective moral facts. Even though I would also be inclined to purchase a shotgun if people started tortuing children on my block, I can't say that it is an objective fact that it is wrong. The universe simply doesn't care – nature has no point of view.
    ================
    Response:

    Hmmm. I'm unclear on the relevance of the idea that "nature has no point of view."

    If nature DID have a point of view, what difference would that make? Wouldn't that be like God having a point of view?

    If God commanded that we torture innocent childrent, then I would conclude that God is evil, and that I had no obligation to admire or obey God. Rather, I would feel obligated to resist and fight against such an evil person and anyone who aligned themselves with such a God.

    Similarly, if nature could somehow command or commend the torture of innoncent children, I would conclude that I had no obligation to admire or obey the will or view point of nature.

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

    Juno Walker said…
    But we humans – you and me – do care precisely because we are human, and we as a species have apparently evolved a system of "rules for living" in a social setting. I presume things like torture, etc., have evolved and have been refined through the millennia based originally on various preferences, preferences that have now essentially become 'instinct.'
    ===========
    Response:
    I have no doubt that moral concepts and principles have developed over the course of human history. And I accept the view that these concepts and principles have roots in the biological evolution of humans from primates and mammals.

    But the same is true of logic and mathematics. So, the fact that ideas develop, and have roots in biological evolution does not show that those ideas are purely subjective.

    I'm not sure what to say about "moral facts". The idea that there are objective moral properties of things or actions does seem like an odd idea to me too. The fact/value distinction leads me to think that any objective properties must be 'interpreted' to yield a normative conclusion.

    If I could somehow perceive the property of "moral goodness" in the action of torturing innocent children, then I would conclude that the property of "moral goodness" can sometimes be found to be present in an evil action. So, I don't see how the perception of some odd sort of property would be of any more use than the commandments of God (or of nature).

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

    Yes, that is an interesting article. Still something in it strikes me as being fake or delusive. Joel Marks describes his condition as if it were the case that what he thought was good was identical to what he desired. For example, he thought it good that animals be protected from exploitation and he also desired that animals be protected from exploitation, and so on. But as a matter of fact this state of affairs does not represent the human condition we all share. The reality of our condition is that what we perceive as being good does not fit well with what we desire. Thus, for example, we see that it is good to abstain from eating sweets but we desire to eat sweets. We see that it is good to pay our fair share of taxes but we desire to keep all the money that the law’s loopholes allow us to keep. And so on.

    The reality then of the human condition is that there is normally a tension between one’s desires and one’s moral judgment. The moralist faces that tension and tries to be strong and do what she thinks is right and not what she desires. Thus the moralist fights the good fight, no matter how feebly or unsuccessfully. The amoralist who with Marks finds it “attractive to exclude all moral concepts and language from her thinking” – simply surrenders. Which I find extremely unattractive and undesirable. I think it is quite obvious that if in a life-threatening situation one could choose between being among moralists or being among amoralists, then, all other things being equal, the rational choice would be to choose being with the moralist group.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07711295082644210782 Juno Walker

    @Keith:

    I may be understanding you incorrectly. I consider myself a 'naturalist,' but like I said previously I don't believe objective moral facts (or values) exist. When you say that "the desirable is objective and not a matter of feeling," do you mean in the sense that desires/values exist as surely as the computer I'm typing on? As a naturalist, I believe that our collective moral sentiments are natural phenomena (i.e., they 'exist'), but they are ultimately a product of perhaps millennia of tastes, preferences, etc., that have been positively reinforced (to use Skinner's language) by society. In other words, our intuition (or gut reaction/revulsion) that torturing children is wrong evolved over time from 'feelings.' What else could they have evolved from?

    @Bradley

    Sorry if I confused you about the universe having no point of view. Perhaps that was poorly worded. I suppose I was just trying to emphasize/'metaphorize' the fact that there are no objective moral facts; or as Nietzsche said – nature's 'magnificent indifference.'

    And I agree that logic and mathematics have their roots in us (and not some ideal of Forms) as well, as a way of coarsening our perception in order to make nature 'intelligible' and useful.

    In sum, I suppose what I'm getting at is that without a supernatural source or sanction of moral imperatives, then morality (like the good, the beautiful and the true) as such doesn't exist. However, that's not to say that we can't present certain premises and, if they are accepted, derive certain conclusions with the help of logic. The problem lies in getting others to accept our premises (whatever the may be). Perhaps, in the end, we're all just rhetoricians…

    Juno

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

    Juno said…

    In sum, I suppose what I'm getting at is that without a supernatural source or sanction of moral imperatives, then morality (like the good, the beautiful and the true) as such doesn't exist.
    =======
    Response:

    Again, I don't see the relevance of nature having a point of view, nor do I see the relevance of God's commands. Whether there is a "supernatural source or sanction of moral imperatives" is irrelevant.

    Any person, authority, or being that has a point of view can be wrong, mistaken, and can lie or be evil.

    So if God (or an all-powerful creator of the universe or some other powerful spirit) said 'I command you to torture as many innocent children as you can', then I would conclude from this pronouncement that God is evil, and that I'm perfectly reasonable to ignore this command of God.

    I would consider it a morally duty to oppose God on this matter, as well as any human beings that decided they should follow this command (time to go buy that shotgun).

    If God added '…or else you will burn in hell forever!' to this command, then I would fear what awaits beyond my death, but if I could muster enough courage, I would still rebel against such an evil being, and would fight any humans that sided with God on this matter.

    Note:
    The word "God" in philosophical debates generally implies a 'perfectly good person', so on that definition it is logically impossible for God to be evil.

    However, there is nothing logically impossible about there being an all-powerful person who is evil, or about there being a creator of the universe who is evil, and so forth. So, something could be very much like 'God' as traditionally conceived, except that it was evil.

    I'm using the word 'God' loosely above.

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

    Juno said…
    However, that's not to say that we can't present certain premises and, if they are accepted, derive certain conclusions with the help of logic. The problem lies in getting others to accept our premises (whatever the may be). Perhaps, in the end, we're all just rhetoricians…

    ======
    Response:

    I think this is an interesting thought. What is the relationship between persuasion and objectivity?

    Swinburne's case for the objectivity of morality hinges on this idea.

    He argues that philosophical questions and claims are matters of truth and fact because we know how to argue about philosophical questions, and with a great deal of effort and integrity it is possible to sometimes make progress and come to agreement on such matters. He argues that moral questions and claims are analogous to philosophical questions and claims, and thus have a similar claim to objectivity.

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

    One more point about persuasion and objectivity.

    The fact that moral arguments have no influence on sociopaths does not show that such arguments and issues are subjective or non-objective.

    Arguments about the earth being round might have no influence on mentally ill people who cling to the flat earth theory. But that does not mean that the arguments or issues are subjective in nature.

    The failure to persuade or obtain agreement from mentally defective people is not sufficient to show that the arguments or issues involved are subjective in nature.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07711295082644210782 Juno Walker

    @Bradley:

    I think we may be talking past each other a little bit.

    If a supernatural authority ('God' in the loose sense) were to command the torturing of children, we could certainly call him evil. But where does our notion of evil come from? We could say, dispassionately, "God ordered me to waterboard a 5 year old." But if we were to say, "I consider it evil that God ordered me to waterboard a 5 year old," where does the notion of evil come from? I say – and I think you agree, unless I misunderstand you – that this notion comes from 'feeling' or 'emotion' that has become what we could call 'instinct' in us, via the evolution of our species.

    Is it evil for the larger snowy owl chick to peck at and push the runt out of the nest to die so the former can get the lion's share of the meat, and thus survive? I think our initial human intuition on this subject would be revulsion (though probably not as strong if these were human children doing this – unless your Joel Marks, I suppose!); but then we naturalists would remember that nature is indeed "red in tooth and claw."

    But I suppose that brings us to dialectics: each party attempting to use reasoned arguments to arrive at the 'truth.'

    I think Nietzsche has one of the best analyses of the concepts of reason, logic, truth, etc. He says in one instance, "…since no one would maintain there is any necessity for men to exist, reason, as well as Euclidean space, is a mere idiosyncracy of a certain species of animal, and one among many." And if you know Nietzsche, he says things like reason, logic, etc., have developed out of their opposites. He talks at great length about the tendency of most philosophers down through the ages to reject the notion that human qualities like reason, etc., have an ignoble origin. The ancient Indians, he claims, basically said, "We must have been divine, *because* we have reason!" Etc.

    But I haven't finished my coffee yet, so this comment may be a bit rambling and a touch incoherent.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Juno,

    The ethical naturalism that I defend is developed from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and from the writings of modern exponents of Aristotelian ethical naturalism such as Larry Arnhart (see his masterful Darwinian Natural Right). On this view, the human creature has certain natural needs due to the biological nature of the organism. We flourish when those needs are met, and we suffer when they are not. The good is the desirable and the desirable is what (objectively) works towards the fulfillment of those needs. Human needs are not only for food, shelter, clothing, and such basics requirements. Aristotle notes that, by nature, we are rational and social creatures (we are "political animals" as he says, so humans cannot flourish if their natural capacities for sociability and rationality are stunted or frustrated. Hence, things that tend to bring about such stunting or frustrating are bad. Of course, Aristotle, Arnhart, and other naturalists in that tradition do have to assert that there is such a thing as human nature, and thus we clash with those for whom it is important to maintain that human nature is entirely plastic and malleable (and in reply to those persons, see Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07711295082644210782 Juno Walker

    @Keith:

    Thanks for claryfing.

    It sounds very similar to Owen Flanagan's line of argumentation in his chapter 'Ethics as Human Ecology' in his 2002 book "The Problem of the Soul." I don't have it in front of me, but you could also call him a virtue ethicist in the Aristotelian vein. For instance, I remember him saying that even though a neo-Nazi may *feel* happy and fulfilled with his racist and bigoted sentiments, we could still be correct when we say that the neo-Nazi is not maximizing his well-being; in other words, he has not achieved eudaimonia. I'm not sure I entirely agree with that – though I am by no means condoning racism or bigotry.

    I think I agree that it is objectively true that humans strive to achieve certain values which are necessary to the basic needs of the organism (food, shelter, clothing, social interaction), and that we are fulfilled when we achieve them, and feel suffering when we don't. I think of Buddha's doctrine in this regard. His solution was to renounce all desire, which is the source of suffering. Schopenhauer had a similar diagnosis of life, with a somewhat different version of a cure. Nietzsche acknowledges the suffering but aims to transfigure it into a 'positive,' so to speak, so that it can be a further enticement to life.

    I don't think Nietzsche's version has been explored much outside of Nietzsche circles. But his basic formula was: 1) objective values don't exist 2) we create our own values 3) will to power has a privileged normative status.

    Nietzsche's formulation says that nature is value-less; any values that do exist, we humans have created for ourselves; the basic drive of life is will to power – i.e., growth, expansion, overcoming resistances, and not necessarily domination, aggressiveness, etc. For example, the drive for nourishment isn't really because the organism is hungry, it's because the drive for expansion and growth requires nourishment. Or something like that.

    Anyway, I'm getting off on a tangent. I have read Pinker's The Blank Slate, and I really enjoyed it and agree with most of what he says in there. I think it's obvious that humans have a human 'nature.' One of my favorite non-science books is "First, Break All the Rules", which is about management; their key insight is that "People don't change that much. Don't try to put in what nature left out – draw out what was left in. That is difficult enough."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Juno,

    Right! My view is very much in line with Owen Flanagan's. BTW, I think that The Problem of the Soul is one of the best books of philosophy, or of any sort, that I have read. Another book that had a tremendous impact on my ethical thinking was Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue. He blasts the "Enlightenment Project" of basing ethics on pure reason and argues that we are left with the choice of Aristotle or Nietzsche, either naturalism or relativism. I come down on the side of Aristotle.

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

    Juno Walker said…

    In sum, I suppose what I'm getting at is that without a supernatural source or sanction of moral imperatives, then morality (like the good, the beautiful and the true) as such doesn't exist.

    [and also]

    But I suppose that brings us to dialectics: each party attempting to use reasoned arguments to arrive at the 'truth.'

    I think Nietzsche has one of the best analyses of the concepts of reason, logic, truth, etc. He says in one instance, "…since no one would maintain there is any necessity for men to exist, reason, as well as Euclidean space, is a mere idiosyncracy of a certain species of animal, and one among many." And if you know Nietzsche, he says things like reason, logic, etc., have developed out of their opposites. He talks at great length about the tendency of most philosophers down through the ages to reject the notion that human qualities like reason, etc., have an ignoble origin.
    ============
    Comments:

    I just noticed that you included "the true" alongside of "morality" "the good" and "the beautiful".

    So, you appear to take a thoroughly subjectivist viewpoint. Do I understand you correctly? If so, then you would say that there is no objective truth to the matter on the question "Is it wrong to torture innocent children?"

    Would you also say that there is no objective truth to the matter on the question "Is the earth round or flat?"

    In the case of both morality and rationality, you seem to be focused in on the question of "origin" and "source". These seem irrelevant to me, but I might be missing something.

    In the philosophy of science a distinction was drawn between discovery and proof. How a person generates or creates or arrives at a scientific hypothesis can be very illogical and irrational (e.g. an image of two snakes intertwined in a dream might lead to an hypothesis about the structure of DNA).

    What matters is not the origin or source of a scientific hypothesis, but how the hypothesis is tested and verified. That is where observation and logic and experiments come into the picture. So, it appears that the origin of an idea in science has little to do with the value or truth of the idea. What counts is whether the idea holds up under scientific scrutiny.

    It seems to me that this distinction between discovery and proof has a broader application, and suggests that the origins or sources of morality and rationality are largely irrelevant. Whatever their origin or source may be, whether noble or ignoble, they either are valuable or not as they stand. They either are useful or not. They either yeild truths or they don't. Looking into their origins and sources may be interesting, but it seems irrelevant to an evaluation of morality and rationality.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07711295082644210782 Juno Walker

    @Bradley

    Well, with regard to 'truth' in my statement, I made it vis-à-vis morality specifically. So when I call something beautiful, 'beauty' isn't a property intrinsic to that thing; likewise when I call something good (or valuable). I would also say that, as Owen Flanagan noted in The Problem of the Soul, we can say that my dog is dead – but to say that it is bad that my dog is dead, the property or idea of 'badness' is something *I* bring to the situation.

    I suppose that, as inhuman as it sounds, I can't say that 'badness' or 'evil' is an *intrinsic* property of the situation of child torture. I do believe/feel it is bad – as bad as bad can get – but I don't use the word 'evil,' because it carries a religio-moral connotation; whereas 'bad' carries a more secular-ethical one, you might say.

    Just as I don't think a 'spirit' or 'soul' exists – it is a human interpretation of certain phenomena – I think the concept of 'truth' (and valuations) has to be regarded in a strictly anthropocentric, biological sense. In order for our particular species to exist, its conception of reality has to comprehend enough of what is constant, calculable, regular, etc., to be able to base its behavior on it. There's an interesting discussion going on over at the Rationally Speaking blog, where Massimo Pigliucci recently said, "
    The first thing to note about contractarianism is that it usually begins with a particular theory of human nature. I consider this an advantage, as I do not think that ethics makes any sense outside of the specifics of biology and society (i.e., there is no “view from nowhere” in ethics). All ethical theories assume some theory of human nature, but contractarians (as well as virtue ethicists) are more explicit about it."

    So with regard to your comment about the earth being flat or round, I would say that 'flat' and 'round' are terms humans developed to designate or describe aspects of reality that enable it to survive and thrive. – Wow, I'm beginning to sound like a politician!

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

    Juno Walker said…

    So with regard to your comment about the earth being flat or round, I would say that 'flat' and 'round' are terms humans developed to designate or describe aspects of reality that enable it to survive and thrive. – Wow, I'm beginning to sound like a politician!
    =========
    Response:

    Yes. You sound a bit like a politician because you did not answer my question. So, like a good reporter, I will ask more questions to try to get a more direct and clearer reply.

    (R) The Earth is round.

    (F) The Earth is flat.

    I believe (R); I accept (R).
    I disbelieve (F); I reject (F).
    I believe (R) is true.
    I believe (F) is false.
    I believe that (R) is objectively true.
    I believe that(F)is objectively false.
    I believe that one can know that (R) is true.
    I believe that one can know that (F)is false.

    So, now you know how I think about (R) and (F).

    Can you tell me how you think about (R) and (F)?

    Do you accept or believe (R)?
    Do you disbelieve or reject (F)?
    Do you believe that (R) is true?
    Do you believe that (F) is false?
    Do you believe that (R) is objectively true?
    Do you believe that (F) is objectively false?
    Do you think that one can know (R) to be true?
    Do you think that one can know (F) to be false?

    Obviously, if you have a different view than I do on any of these points, I would be interested to hear why you hold that alternative view.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 Richard Wein

    Keith,

    I suspect that Joel wasn't using "intrinsic" in as narrow a sense as you're interpreting it. Be that as it may, it's certainly fair to say that he didn't make much of an argument in support of his amoralist position. (I broadly share his position, though I call myself a moral error theorist rather than an amoralist.) I don't think he set out to argue for this position, but only to describe it and show that one can live in a way that is consistent with it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 Richard Wein

    Juno,

    "Massimo Pugglici over at Rationally Speaking would disagree with you (and me). He thinks Mark's essay is what happens when a philosopher gets confused about ethics."

    I guess someone who is himself extremely confused is liable to find clearer thinkers confused. I'm afraid I have little respect for Massimo Pigliucci as a philosopher (especially on metaethics).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 Richard Wein

    Dianelos Georgoudis,

    You wrote: "Joel Marks describes his condition as if it were the case that what he thought was good was identical to what he desired."

    I would say you've misread him. All he does is make statements of the form "I prefer X" or "I desire X". He does not go on to say that he thinks X is good.

    "I think X is good" is ambiguous. It could be taken to mean "I prefer X", or it could be taken to mean "In my opinion it's a fact that X is good." The word "good" is also ambiguous, as it can be used in both moral and non-moral senses.

    So, if you're not careful, there's a danger of progressively misinterpreting Marks as follows:
    "I prefer X"
    == "I think X is good"
    == "In my opinion it's a fact that X is good"
    == "In my opinion it's a fact that X is morally good".

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

    Juno,

    You write: “ I would also say that, as Owen Flanagan noted in The Problem of the Soul, we can say that my dog is dead – but to say that it is bad that my dog is dead, the property or idea of 'badness' is something *I* bring to the situation.

    That you bring something to the situation does not mean that it is not there already. Sounds paradoxical, but consider as simple a case as seeing a red apple. We know from science that there is nothing “red” in the apple and that you must be there to bring the “redness” into the situation. Still, we all agree that there are objectively speaking red apples in the world, don’t we?

    Perhaps a naturalist may bite the bullet and claim that no, there are objectively speaking no red apples around, the way many a naturalist brings herself to claiming that no there is objectively speaking nothing bad in torturing a child. The first problem I see with this line of thought is this: Why force oneself to think in such weird and indeed inhuman ways? Why follow naturalism in its many weirdo implications, including the belief that beauty is not really there, freedom of will is not really there, personal responsibility is not really there, meaning is not really there, and so on? I mean what naturalism is really saying is that we ourselves are not really there – how reasonable a belief is that? Secondly, according to modern physics the world itself does not become concrete unless there is an observer. As Einstein complained quantum physics is saying that the moon is not really there unless one is watching it, and therefore he insisted that quantum physics must be wrong. But almost a century later there is little we can affirm with as much confidence as that quantum physics is right. Even super-sophisticated superstring theory works within the quantum physics structure. So it seems that not only philosophy but also the physical sciences are telling us that for objectivity to make sense we must bring ourselves into the situation.

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

    Dianelos said…

    That you bring something to the situation does not mean that it is not there already. Sounds paradoxical, but consider as simple a case as seeing a red apple. We know from science that there is nothing “red” in the apple and that you must be there to bring the “redness” into the situation. Still, we all agree that there are objectively speaking red apples in the world, don’t we?
    ===========
    Comment:

    Interesting point about subjectivity. Let's change the example slightly to think about this a bit more: seeing a green apple.

    There is the subjective experience of green in seeing a green apple, and there is an objective physical phenomenon causing that experience: light emanating from the apple. In this case, there are different potential physical causes: (a) white light emanates from the apple, but passes through a green filter (say, green-tinted glasses), (b) green light emanates from the apple and is perceived normally (no filters or haze interfering with the light on its way to the eyes of the beholder), or (c) a combination of yellow light and blue light emanates from the apple, and this is perceived as green.

    Thus, three objectively different physical phenomena can create basically the same subjective experience of a green apple. So the experience of green color in the apple is subjective in that it fails to get at the fundamental physical reality, which concerns the frequency of the light that emanates from the apple.

    However, there (probably) really is an apple there, and light is really emanating from the apple, it's just that our eyes/vision cannot distinguish between the three (or more?) objectively different physical phenomenon that can produce the sensation of green in us. So, the experience of seeing a green apple has both subjective and objective aspects.

    Of course, one might experience an hallucination and have the subjective experince of 'seeing a green apple,' even though there is no apple present, and no light emanating from an apple into your eyes.

    In the case of hallucinations, the subjective experience has no objective external cause. The cause is real and objective, but is presumably some sort of brain malfunction, perhaps induced by a drug or illness (fever, starvation, brain tumor, etc.).

    If we take moral 'reactions' to be subjective in a way analogous to the subjectivity of 'seeing a green apple', then (a) there would be (in most cases) an actual objective phenomenon corresponding to that subjective reaction, but (b) the reaction might fail to discriminate between objectively different phenomena (might lump together things that have significant objective differences), and (b) in some (perhaps rare) cases the subjective moral reaction would be mistaken, non-veridical, and fail to correspond to the normal objective phenomena that typically produce that sort of reaction.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 Richard Wein

    We don't bring redness to the situation in any useful sense. The redness of an apple is a real physical property. Some apples really are red, while others really are green. Red apples are those which reflect only light in a certain frequency range. Green apples reflect light in a different frequency range. Redness is a real property that has a causal effect on the world (e.g. it can be detected by instruments).

    The same goes when, for example, when we observe that a table is solid. At a lower level of description a table is mostly empty space, sparsely populated by a collection of atomic nuclei and electrons. But it is solid in the sense that objects placed on it don't fall through it. It is no more true to say that redness is something we bring to the situation than it is to say that solidity is something that we bring to the situation.

    Now, there is that old saw about the possibility that I have the same experience when I see a red apple as you have when you see a green apple, and vice versa. That's the idea of qualia, and I think it's misguided. But I won't get into that. The fact is that a red apple is a red apple, however you perceive it. And a green apple is a green apple, however you perceive it. Redness is a real physical property, however you perceive it, just as solidity is a real physical property, however you perceive it.

    I think we can loosely say that morality is something we bring to the situation, but I would prefer to put it differently. The word "morality" has several meanings. Of particular interest here are that it can refer (a) to mental states consisting of the moral values people actually hold, including beliefs such as "X is morally wrong" and "you morally ought to do Y"; or (b) to alleged moral facts corresponding to such beliefs.

    I say that such beliefs cannot be true, so there are no true moral facts. On the other hand, I accept of course that people hold such beliefs. In other words, I say morality exists in the first (mental) sense but not the second. I might loosely express this by saying that morality exists only in people's minds, or that morality is something we bring to the situation.

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

    Richard,

    I find that naturalists tend to load their own metaphysical assumptions to what the physical sciences actually say. And here is my point: According to the physical sciences there are apples who reflect light at different wavelengths. And, further, there are people with brains which when exposed to these wavelengths process them in different ways and ultimately report seeing red and green colors. That is all that the physical sciences say. There is nothing about “red” or “green” in what the physical sciences speak about. Indeed, if a very advanced alien civilization of blind beings visits Earth and studies an apple orchard without meeting any humans, they will report about apples that reflect different wavelengths but will report nothing about “red” or “green”. Therefore, if we want to say that red and green apples really exist we must bring ourselves to the situation.

    Another way to see this is as follows: Suppose you insist that there is something intrinsically “red” in the wavelength around 700 nm, and something intrinsically “green” in the wavelength around 500 nm. What color would you then say is there intrinsically in the wavelength around 300 nm? The answer is: No color whatsoever, because humans cannot see that wavelength. So, again, it makes no sense to speak of colors (and hence of red and green apples) without bringing us into the situation.

    You mention “solidity” as another example. I could add “wetness”. Or “light”. But solidity, wetness, and light do not exist independently of us and our senses. To speak of them we must therefore bring ourselves into the situation. Here is how the great atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell puts it: “When it is said that light is waves, what is really meant is that waves are the physical cause of our sensations of light. But light itself, the thing which seeing people experience and blind people do not, is not supposed by science to form any part of the world that is independent of us and our senses

    [continues bellow]

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

    [continues from above]

    A few more comments on some particulars you write:

    The redness of an apple is a real physical property.

    That’s what you believe, but in fact many naturalist philosophers disagree. A case in point is David Chalmers, one of the pre-eminent philosophers of the mind. As a group naturalist philosophers deeply disagree about the greatest fact of all, namely our consciousness. As they disagree about many other fundamental properties of reality, such as whether there is one universe or many, whether reality is deterministic or not, whether we possess free will or not, whether ethical values exist or not, etc. All of which does not speak well of naturalism’s supposed objectivity.

    Redness is a real property that has a causal effect on the world (e.g. it can be detected by instruments).

    Actually that’s wrong. There are situations where only we but not a scientific instrument which measures photon wavelengths will detect “redness” (see about the psychological perception of color). Here is an experiment you can perform yourself: In a completely dark room (where no instrument will detect light) close your eyes and apply moderate pressure to an eyeball, and you will see light. As Bertrand Russell made clear almost a century ago: Light is not something that is independent from us. When the physical sciences speak of “light” they speak metaphorically, namely about one of the possible physical causes of light.

    At a lower level of description a table is mostly empty space, sparsely populated by a collection of atomic nuclei and electrons.

    Actually physics does not describe a table as being mostly empty space. Physics *models* a table as being mostly empty space. Naturalists (and many theists too) believe that physics not only models but also describes reality; but, again, that’s a metaphysical assumption (indeed a reification of scientific theory) which is irrelevant to the physical sciences. The science itself would not at all be affected if it is the case that we all live in a computer simulation, which entails that the table is not materially there.

    The fact is that a red apple is a red apple, however you perceive it.

    That makes no sense. Surely it would be wrong to say that an apple is red if as a matter of fact we perceive it as green.

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

    Juno Walker said…

    But if we were to say, "I consider it evil that God ordered me to waterboard a 5 year old," where does the notion of evil come from? I say – and I think you agree, unless I misunderstand you – that this notion comes from 'feeling' or 'emotion' that has become what we could call 'instinct' in us, via the evolution of our species.
    ===========
    Response:

    See my previous comments about the distinction between discovery and proof in science.

    A scientific hypothesis can have its origin or source in feelings or emotions. It does not follow from the fact that a scientific hypothesis comes from feelings or emotions that the hypothesis is purely subjective. If the hypothesis is testable by normal scientific means, then it is an objective claim, no matter what the source or origin of the hypothesis.

    The same holds for any belief or claim. In other words, the source or origin of an idea is irrelevant to determining the objectivity of the idea.

    However, the skepticism of Logical Positivism about moral judgements is grounded on this other basis: ideas that are not subject to testing or confirmation or disconfirmation don't really make objective claims.

    Moral judgments are not subject to emprical testing or to confirmation or disconfirmation, so Logical Positivists concluded that moral judgements don't really make objective claims.

    Is that your real problem with moral judgments? Our inability to subject them to empirical testing?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07711295082644210782 Juno Walker

    Sorry for the delay in responding, but Irene made things a little difficult these past few days…

    @Bradley –

    I agree with you that if a hypothesis is testable by generally accepted scientific means, then it is, for us, an objective claim. So in that sense I agree that we can know that the earth is round and not flat, and that there are generally accepted scientific means to do this.

    I would say you're pretty close to my view when you say that my main problem is that moral claims aren't subject to empirical testing (Sam Harris be damned). So I suppose I would say that I side more with a positivistic approach – though I wouldn't call myself a Logical Positivist. Any 'movement' like that is a bit too manifold to really pin oneself down. But generally speaking, I feel that the scientific method (i.e., methodological naturalism) is the best approach to understanding the processes by which physical and human events occur. Does that make sense?

    @Richard -

    I have my own disagreements with Massimo at times; but I'm curious as to why you feel he's confused about ethics…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07711295082644210782 Juno Walker

    @Dianelos -

    You write: "Perhaps a naturalist may bite the bullet and claim that no, there are objectively speaking no red apples around, the way many a naturalist brings herself to claiming that no there is objectively speaking nothing bad in torturing a child. The first problem I see with this line of thought is this: Why force oneself to think in such weird and indeed inhuman ways? Why follow naturalism in its many weirdo implications, including the belief that beauty is not really there, freedom of will is not really there, personal responsibility is not really there, meaning is not really there, and so on? I mean what naturalism is really saying is that we ourselves are not really there – how reasonable a belief is that?"

    =====

    First I should say that I don't necessarily *want* to believe those things. As a prime example, I would much rather prefer that my consciousness survives the death of my body; unfortunately the evidence doesn't support such a hope.

    Secondly, the reason I believe these things is that I follow the thread of evidence wherever it leads; I'm not one to simply stop at a cursory explanation and be satisfied. In addition to asking, "How do you know that?" I also ask, "How do you know that you know that?" But given the fact that I am not a professional scientist – and no scientist can be an expert in all scientific disciplines – I end up relying on the 'professionals' to the extent I understand them. So the cognitive dead ends and brick walls they hit are also my own. For example, I accept the theory of evolution as the best explanation for the diversity of biological life. However, I have no idea what got life started in the first place. I'm familiar with the ideas on offer, but the evidence hasn't tilted the consensus one way or the other. So my stance on the *origin* of life is one of agnosticism. Religious types say that God created life; but I've rejected that hypothesis due to lack of evidence.

    The main reason I engage in discussions about a naturalistic world-view is primarily in reaction to what I've experienced growing up and living in the United States. I'm not sure where you are, but our country is overwhelmingly Christian in terms of cultural milieu – it's on our currency, it's in our pledge, it's in our courthouses, our halls of congress – it's everywhere. That in itself wouldn't necessarily be a problem, but the sense of moral indignation (remember The Moral Majority?) toward atheists such as myself gets my hackles up, so to speak. I would like to show them – or those who might be swayed by them – that their 'objective' or 'divine' moral foundation is built on sand, not rock…

    It's true I don't believe in gods, ghosts, souls – or even selves (just like Buddha) – but if I am to live with other human beings, I have to relate on the appropriate level. Knowing that Rainer Maria Rilke was essentially a soulless meat puppet doesn't make me appreciate his poetry any less.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 Richard Wein

    Dianelos,

    You wrote: 'Surely it would be wrong to say that an apple is red if as a matter of fact we perceive it as green.'

    You said in your previous post that "there are objectively speaking red apples in the world", and presumably you don't think a red apple turns green just because people hallucinate that it's green. Even if everyone had such hallucinations at the same time, I don't think you'd say that red apples turned green while we were all hallucinating. So I think we must be talking at cross-purposes.

    We can use colour words to describe both our own perceptions and facts about the external world. If I say "this apple is red" I'm asserting a fact about the world. On the other hand, "I see a red apple" is ambiguous. I could be asserting that I observe something red in the external world; or I could merely be reporting my perception. If I mean it in the former sense and the apple was really green (I was only hallucinating redness) I would be wrong. If I meant it in the latter sense I would be right even though I was hallucinating. (A similarly ambiguity applies in your case of "seeing light" when you press on your closed eyes.)

    Our misunderstanding was probably my fault for quibbling over your vague claim that 'there is nothing “red” in the apple and that you must be there to bring the “redness” into the situation'. Given that we agree that some apples are objectively red, whatever you were claiming must have been relatively weak, and possibly something I would agree with if it was stated clearly.

    However, I suspect that, when Juno said something similar about goodness, she meant something stronger. So the two of you were probably talking at cross-purposes too. But I should have kept out of your discussion with Juno. Mea culpa.

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

    Richard,

    Naturalists claim that there is not really anything morally good or bad, because ethical talk only makes sense if we bring ourselves into the situation. My point is that by the same measure there are not really red and green apples, because color talk only makes sense if we bring ourselves into the situation.

    What I am trying to do is demonstrate how the naturalistic hypothesis has many weird, not to say absurd, implications. Such as that there is really no free will, no beauty, no meaning, etc. Some naturalistic physicists (Victor Stenger) are now arguing that there are not really physical laws. Other naturalistic physicists (Lawrence Krauss) are arguing that logic is invalid. Other naturalistic physicists (David Deutsch) insist on the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is actually true which implies that, say, there are many universes out there where you have become the next Pope. Others naturalistic physicists (Max Tegmark) go way beyond that and suggest that all universes which are mathematically consistent actually exist. And it’s not only physicists who find themselves moved by naturalism towards the absurd. Well-known naturalist philosopher Daniel Dennett claims that animals and pre-linguistic children are not conscious beings.

    Of course there are many absurdities coming from the theistic camp too (even though, in my judgment, they do not by far reach the heights of the naturalistic absurdities). But in the theistic camp it is the less knowledgeable (albeit often louder and more popular) people who make such claims. Whereas in the naturalistic camp, it seems to me, the more knowledgeable you are the weirder you think. Tellingly enough, when confronted with such arguments, many naturalists respond that on naturalism we should not expect reality to make any sense to our little hominid minds. Which is a valid answer but also an intellectual surrender. And ultimately self-defeating.

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

    Juno,

    As far as how religion (in the worse sense of the word) permeates American politics, I completely sympathize. I too found it appalling when G W Bush explained that before deciding to go to war against Iraq he prayed and sensed that God agreed with that decision. Not to mention how American politicians today pander to the beliefs of the scientifically uneducated, while probably knowing better themselves. On the other hand the New Atheist mantra that religion is the cause of all evils is sheer nonsense. Greed and lack of education are by far the dominant factors. Indeed bad religion finds space to grow where there is little education, and finds space to become powerful when it joins forces with greed. (Having said that, all other factors being the same, I think that a theistic society is demonstrably safer than an atheistic one.)

    As for asking “How do you know that?”, again, I am completely with you. So ask yourself, how do you know naturalism is true? Where’s the evidence for naturalism? The impression that there is evidence for naturalism, even “overwhelming” evidence, must be one of the dominant myths of our time. At this juncture though we must be careful. To find some evidence that *fits with* naturalism is not evidence *for* naturalism. To be evidence for naturalism it must not fit with the competing hypothesis of theism, or at least not fit as well. This is often ignored by naturalists and theists alike, and represents a major logical error. Let me illustrate:

    Suppose two detectives work in murder case. It is known that either George or Helen did it. The first detective leans towards the George-hypothesis, and the second towards the Helen-hypothesis. Now the second reporter discovers a new piece of evidence and claims it is evidence for his hypothesis that Helen did it. After all, he says, the new piece of evidence fits perfectly with the Helen-hypothesis. But, the first detective responds, that piece of evidence fits perfectly with the George-hypothesis too, so it does not count as evidence for the Helen-hypothesis. – I trust it is clear that the first detective is right. A piece of evidence is evidence for a hypothesis only when it fits it better than it fits an alternative hypothesis.

    [continued bellow]

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

    [continued from above]

    Let’s now consider the evidence from natural evolution, which you mention in your post. There is little as well established in science as that the species evolved from common ancestors by the processes described by natural evolution. For all practical purposes natural evolution is fact. Now, that evidence fits naturalism very well, but it also fits theism very well. After all, since the theology of the very fist centuries in the common era, God is understood as being the author of nature. What this for example means is that according to theism when we let an apple free in the air and it falls accelerating towards the Earth, it’s God’s will that makes the apple behave in this orderly and predictable way, a way physicists later found can be modeled mathematically with great precision. So it’s not like the discovery of natural evolution in some way contradicts theism's claim that nature is the work of God. Actually, I remember how when reading Richard Dawkin’s excellent “The Selfish Gene” as a young man I marveled at the sheer elegance and brilliance of God’s creation.

    If anything, and this will shock many atheists, the evidence from natural evolution may still make trouble for the naturalistic hypothesis. Why? Because, as a matter of fact, the process of natural evolution does not guarantee the increase of complexity, and we know that a very high degree of complexity is needed for the evolution of an intelligent species, such as the human one. It is beyond the current capabilities of science to compute what the probability is that, given the conditions on Earth after life started, intelligence-bearing complexity would evolve on Earth without some divine guidance. In other words science does not say whether the way that naturalists *interpret* natural evolution (because of their metaphysical assumptions, namely as an unguided process), actually works. Should science one day be able to compute that probability, and should that probability come out to be small, then the evidence of natural evolution will count *against* naturalism. So, what we can reasonably say today is only that the fact of natural evolution gives a prima-facie plausible naturalistic account of how the species evolved, and that we now know nothing that would defeat that account. The fact that (the few) ID theorists have long tried but have consistently failed to show that this probability is small, increases I think one’s confidence that that probability is not small. On the other hand their failure is not in any way conclusive either.

    These are not my ideas by the way. I first read them in theistic philosopher Keith Ward’s “God, Chance & Necessity”, who in turn used the thought of biochemist and theologian Arthur Peacocke. They present some arguments in favor of the probability under discussion to be small, but I find them far from conclusive too. Right now we simply do not know whether natural evolution contradicts naturalism or not. (My best guess is that it doesn’t.) By the way, I discussed these ideas in some detail with RBH (Richard B. Hoppe, who I understand is a specialist in natural evolution and also an atheist) in this very blog. You can find that discussion here: http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/2009/03/only-theory.html

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 Richard Wein

    Dianelos,

    You wrote: 'Naturalists claim that there is not really anything morally good or bad, because ethical talk only makes sense if we bring ourselves into the situation. My point is that by the same measure there are not really red and green apples, because color talk only makes sense if we bring ourselves into the situation.'

    I'm not sure that even Juno made the argument you're attributing to naturalists. And I certainly haven't seen anyone else make an argument against moral realism based on the concept of "bringing ourselves into the situation".

    The problem is that you're relying on a vague and ambiguous expression, "bringing ourselves into the situation". Unless you're using it in the same sense when you talk about redness as Juno was when she talked about goodness (and I think you're not) your counter-argument commits a fallacy of equivocation (even assuming you're correctly representing her argument in other respects).

    Ambiguous wording is the bane of philosophical arguments.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07711295082644210782 Juno Walker

    @Dianelos -

    I'm not sure what to make of your question, "What's the evidence for naturalism?"

    As I understand it, having a naturalistic world-view is the result of sticking to the scientific method as the means to understanding reality.

    To break it down in simple terms, science, as I understand it, can be described as follows:

    1) We make observations of the phenomena we experience.

    2) We develop hypotheses that attempt to explain these phenomena.

    3) Hypotheses are accepted if they are part of the unified picture of cause and effect (otherwise we can't claim to have 'knowledge').

    4) These explanations should be able to generate predictions that can be independently verified – or falsified (otherwise our 'knowledge' isn't reliable).

    5) Furthermore, these explanations shouldn't contain pieces whose properties or mechanisms aren't precisely specified (otherwise our 'knowledge' isn't complete).

    I guess what I'm saying is that, with science/naturalism (i.e., methodological naturalism), the proof is in the pudding. If we are correct in our description of the various pieces of reality, then our predictions will be accurate.

    The biggest problem I have with Intelligent Design – which you seem to have an affinity for – is that positing 'God' as the designer doesn't really explain anything – it ends the attempts to explain. Unless, of course, someone can come up with a way to explain this 'God' and the mechanisms by which it accomplishes its design. But if that were to happen, we would have 'naturalized' God – God would no longer be supernatural.

    I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home/culture (though not an oppressive one – I went to public school), and for *me* methodological naturalism leads to metaphysical naturalism – I didn't start with an assumption of metaphysical naturalism – quite the opposite!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 Richard Wein

    Juno wrote: 'As I understand it, having a naturalistic world-view is the result of sticking to the scientific method as the means to understanding reality.'

    I would put it a little differently, and say that naturalism (rejection of the supernatural) follows from taking science seriously. Science is by far the most effective means we've found for learning about the world, and although the rigorous methods of science can't be applied to all questions, our answers to other questions can still be guided by science in a broader way. Science gives us the following reasons for rejecting the supernatural:

    1. Supernatural explanations have turned out to be an unsuccessful way of explaining the world, as evidenced by their complete absence from accepted scientific knowledge.

    2. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. From a scientific point of view, supernatural claims are extraordinary because they involve a completely new (to science) type of phenomenon which is fundamentally irreducible to the low-level explanations of physics. The evidence for supernatural claims is woefully inadequate to support such extraordinary claims. And it seems a reasonable induction that this will continue to be the case.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11030669424412573308 Chris

    Dianelos said:

    "Because, as a matter of fact, the process of natural evolution does not guarantee the increase of complexity…"

    An increase in complexity is the very essence of evolution, is it not? Single-celled organisms evolve into multicellular ones, etc. If there weren't an increase in complexity over time, there wouldn't be any evolution at all, just single-celled blobs remaining exactly the same everywhere. The fact that human-like intelligence is unlikely (as it should •naturally• be, really) doesn't add any support for theism – unless of course you are adding metaphysical baggage that isn't there, as you accuse naturalists of doing. You don't get to interpret the evidence if we don't.

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

    Juno Walker said…

    I would say you're pretty close to my view when you say that my main problem is that moral claims aren't subject to empirical testing (Sam Harris be damned). So I suppose I would say that I side more with a positivistic approach – though I wouldn't call myself a Logical Positivist.
    =============
    Response:
    OK. I won't assume you are a card-carrying Logical Positivist.

    But your response does point to the historical/philosophical context of Logical Positivism's critique of 'metaphysics' and theology, and morality, as in Ayer's book: Language, Truth, and Logic.

    And the Logical Positivist objection goes back to the skeptic David Hume, and particularly back to 'Hume's Fork'.

    So, even if you don't fully buy into Logical Positivism or to Hume's version of skepticism, the arguments and philosophical discussion of these ideas is probably a good place to focus some attention in order to develop pros and cons about the objectivity or subjectivity of moral judgements.

    One objection to the Logical Positivist critique of morality, is that the criterion of meaningfulness advocated by the Positivists appears to fail it's own test. The criterion appears to itself be a normative claim that is not subject to confirmation or disconfirmation by empirical observations.

    So, you might ask yourself, 'What is the criterion that I'm assuming here?' and 'Is this criterion a normative principle that fails to meet it's own standard?'

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

    Juno,

    I suppose you have never had any trouble asking “what is the evidence for theism?”, yet the question “what is the evidence for naturalism?” gives you pause. But what goes for the goose goes for the gander. I think naturalists should not only use their critical minds to ponder theism, but should to at least the same degree ponder naturalism too.

    Now, if I understand you correctly, you are suggesting the following answer: That you highly value the scientific method, and that method leads (or can only lead) to naturalism. I have several problems with this kind of response.

    First of all, what kind of evidence is that? Suppose a theist were to answer that she highly values prayer as a means for finding truth, and that method leads (or can only lead) to theism. Would you say that this is a valid answer about what evidence is there for theism?

    At this juncture you may argue that the scientific method is demonstrably effective, whereas prayer is not. But in fact the scientific method is demonstrably effective for doing physics, not for doing metaphysics – i.e. for finding out how reality is. You may assume that the physical sciences describe reality, but this is not a given. What we really know is that the physical sciences successfully model physical phenomena – and nothing more. Therefore we should not assume anything more. Actually, the fact that after the huge advances of the physical sciences in the last 100 years, naturalists are more confused than ever, and disagree more deeply between themselves about how reality really is – should make one suspicious about the claim that the physical sciences describe reality, or even about the lesser claim that the physical sciences are an effective guide for finding out how reality is.

    My second problem is more serious still. One of the worse and more common fallacies around is to beg the question. This fallacy is so common because it is often the case that one is already assuming what one is about to prove without noticing this fact. So, if you think about it you’ll see that to use the scientific method as the method for thinking about reality is to beg the question. Why? Because the scientific method is oriented to discovering mechanical order, but to assume that what one is looking for is mechanical order is to beg the question, for on the theistic hypothesis reality is fundamentally *not* of a mechanical nature. If you only use a metal detector you are apt to find nothing but metals.

    It seems to me that you have reached (or have come close to reaching) by yourself the conclusion that to ask for mechanistic answers amounts to begging the question. Thus in your post you point out that theistic explanations will either fail to describe the mechanisms that God uses in creation, or if they succeed they will have naturalized God. Either way theism fails.

    In conclusion, I would like to suggest that the right way to think about reality is as follows: First make clear what the metaphysical hypothesis you wish to think about implies about how one should think about it. And then think about it without violating these implications, because otherwise you are committing the fallacy of begging the question (in a particularly sneaky way).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07711295082644210782 Juno Walker

    Dianelos –

    I apologize for this choppy response – blogger logged me out before I could save the first half of my response. What follows is the only part that's been saved. I'll try to reconstruct the first part when I have time.

    ====

    I do call myself a skeptic; I am truly open to revising my world-view. But I haven't yet encountered strong enough evidence to do so. I regularly read evangelical literature, Intelligent Design publications, near-death experiences, and various and sundry claims by all sorts of paranormal advocates. So far, none of it has stacked up.

    You also said: "Suppose a theist were to answer that she highly values prayer as a means for finding truth, and that method leads (or can only lead) to theism. Would you say that this is a valid answer about what evidence is there for theism?"

    I would say that this is a testable hypothesis. We would have to define what she means by 'truth' however. If by 'truth' she means 'spiritual understanding', then I would say that that is probably not testable. That's *her* truth. But if she were to say that she values prayer because it's true that her prayers are regularly answered, then we can test that. In fact, I believe there are studies about the efficacy of prayer (I can't think of them off the top of my head), and prayer didn't fare well. Most people who pray don't get what they prayed for. The most common rationalization is: "God always answers prayers; but sometimes the answer is No." So from my point of view, I would say that that is not a valid answer about what evidence there is for theism.

    Yes, the scientific method is effective for describing and explaining *physis*; but some argue that that is all human beings need worry about. Who cares about metaphysics? The scientific method can provide descriptions and explanations of the world we live in, and can thus give us a measure of prediction and control over our environment and our lives.

    As Nietzsche noticed over 100 years ago: "…the need, not to 'know,' but to subsume, to schematize, for the purpose of intelligibility and calculation" is what gave birth to reason and logic. "No pre-existing 'idea' was here at work, but the utilitarian fact that only when we see things coarsely and made equal do they become calculable and usable to us…In short, the question remains open: are the axioms of logic adequate to reality or are they a means and measure for us to *create* reality, the concept 'reality', for ourselves? One should not understand this compulsion to construct concepts, species, forms, purposes, laws as if they enabled us to fix the *real world*; but as a compulsion to arrange a world for ourselves in which our existence is made possible…"

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

    Richard,

    You write: “Supernatural explanations have turned out to be an unsuccessful way of explaining the world, as evidenced by their complete absence from accepted scientific knowledge.

    True. There is overwhelming scientific evidence that physical phenomena are causally closed. We may safely assume this is a fact. So? How exactly do you suggest is this fact evidence for naturalism or against theism?

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

    Granted.

    Now one of the most extraordinary claims I have ever heard is the naturalistic claim that free will does not exist. Free will is an illusion claims the naturalist. It must be, because according to naturalism the whole universe (and thus each one of us too) evolves by blindly following mechanistic laws. Now given our experience of free will this is a truly extraordinary claim. So where is the extraordinary evidence for that extraordinary claim?

    Naturalists make many other extraordinary claims apparently with no evidence whatsoever. So, for example, they claim that mass bends spacetime around it. Now we know from general relativity that spacetime around mass is curved in the appropriate observational sense, but what naturalists claim is that mass itself is doing the bending. Which is a wildly extraordinary claim. Where is the evidence for that? How exactly is dumb mass bending the spacetime around it in such a mathematically precise manner?

    A similar naturalistic claim is this: We know for quantum mechanics that the behaviour of a physical primitive, such as an electron, is computationaly very complex. To predict where an electron will (probably) be requires a lot of computation even in artificially simple cases. Yet naturalists claim that an electron, without any internal moving parts, without access to any computing machinery, and simply just by itself is capable of producing that behaviour. An amazing claim! Is the electron supposed to have magical powers? And where is the evidence for that claim?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07711295082644210782 Juno Walker

    Dianelos -

    Though I don't believe that true free will exists, I would be the first to admit that it certainly *feels* like it does – no question about it.

    Likewise, if I had no scientific understanding whatsoever, you could not convince me that the earth revolved around the sun. I would be confident that I could *prove* to you that the sun revolves around the earth. I would even question your sanity, because you and I could sit down together somewhere on a wide plateau with some provisions and we could watch the sun rise in the east, travel high over our heads, and dip down below the earth's mantle – only to return again 12 hours later. I would tell you that it's *obvious* that the sun revolves around the earth; and if you were to convince me otherwise, you would have to provide me with extraordinary evidence for a claim like that.

    I'll quote Nietzsche again here on the subject of a 'free will':

    "The causa sui is the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far; it is a sort of rape and perversion of logic. But the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with just this nonsense. The desire for ‘freedom of the will’ in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated; the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society involves nothing less than to be precisely this *causa sui* and, with more than Baron Münchhausen’s audacity, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness."

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

    Juno,

    You write: “If by 'truth' she means 'spiritual understanding', then I would say that that is probably not testable.

    Spiritual beliefs are certainly testable in the spiritual dimension of our life.

    Who cares about metaphysics?

    Naturalists and theists care about metaphysics, because both naturalism and theism are metaphysical theories, i.e. theories about how reality actually is. We all more or less agree about how reality appears to us. And how reality appears to us includes the physical phenomena that the physical sciences study. Now, thanks to science, all educated people agree about how physical phenomena are. But there are many alternative realities that would produce exactly the same physical phenomena, so the physical sciences by themselves cannot say which of these alternatives is the correct one. I trust we agree so far. Therefore in order to find out what is reasonable to believe about how reality is, and not only about how reality appears to us, we need metaphysics.

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

    Juno,

    Free will is not just a feeling. It is a major fact of the way we experience life, and a major axis around which we understand the world. If free will is an illusion so is also a huge part of the way we understand the world, including our thinking about good and evil, about personal responsibility, about justice – and finally about rationality itself. For example, those atheists who think of themselves as freethinkers are imagining things, for their thoughts are not free. You say you believe that no free will exists. If so, it’s not really the case that you have actually chosen this belief. Rather the mechanisms in your brain happened to evolve this particular belief, as they happened to evolve in my brain the opposite belief.

    And, in any case, I see you have not actually offered any evidence for your belief that free will does not exist. I have looked at the evidence, and it is so weak, and indeed so conflictive, as to amount to little more than hot air. Nothing like the extraordinary evidence naturalists claim should be available before one can reasonably hold an extraordinary belief.

    As for the sun not revolving around the Earth, I’d agree that this is a pretty extraordinary belief, but we also have vast evidence for that belief. So I don’t see the analogy.

    So in conclusion, it seems very clear to me that naturalists systematically demand of theistic beliefs a level of epistemic justification their own beliefs do not reach by far. Which I think demonstrates the intellectual superficiality of naturalism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07711295082644210782 Juno Walker

    Dianelos -

    I agree that I am determined to believe that there is no free will; I also agree that you are determined to believe there is. But that doesn't mean our beliefs can't change. Our behavior can change. I train dogs for a living, and I can change their behavior according to the principles of operant conditioning. Yet I imagine you would agree with me that dogs do not possess free will. I observe them 'change their mind' when confronted with the various possible consequences of their potential actions.

    I would say that it is a 'fact' that we *feel* like we have free will. Can you tell me what your evidence is that we do in fact possess free will, and don't just feel like we do?

    Have you ever tired to meditate in the Buddhist style? I ask because I can guarantee that you will not be able to prevent thoughts, impressions, feelings, and sensations from entering your consciousness – you have no ultimate control of your mental processes. As Nietzsche observed, a thought comes when *it* wishes, and not when *I* wish. There seems to me to be no more readily available or accessible proof of principle than that.

    And with regard to your assertion that there are 'many alternative realities' that could account for the facts of reality as we experience them, could you please describe them for me?

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

    Juno,

    You write: “Our behavior can change.

    It can and it does, but I am not sure I understand your point. The behavior of a cuckoo clock changes all the time too. The behavior of a good pseudo-random number generator changes all the time too.

    Can you tell me what your evidence is that we do in fact possess free will, and don't just feel like we do?

    There are many beliefs we hold without evidence, for example the belief that the external world exists and is not a figment of my imagination. (To have evidence for all beliefs is impossible anyway for it leads to an infinite regression.) On the other hand the belief that the external world exists is *not* an extraordinary one. Whereas the belief that free will does not exist is extraordinary indeed. To be quite frank it strikes me as next to irrational, because, as I said before, it makes nonsense of a huge part of the way we all think of the world. I’ve just reread the Nietzsche quote you posted above where he talks of “Baron Münchhausen’s audacity” and whatnot. So where is the evidence that Nietzsche presents? Where’s the philosophical argument? Where’s the slightest point? As far as I can see Nietzsche is just energetically waving his arms around hoping that people will not notice that he is holding nothing in them. (The later Nietzsche is a poet philosopher and should be read as one.)

    As Nietzsche observed, a thought comes when *it* wishes, and not when *I* wish.

    Well, I find that to speak of thoughts as having wishes does not make sense. And in any case to the degree Nietzsche’s observation makes some sense it is false. After all, before a thought “comes” it is almost always the case that I have wished to think about some matter. So it’s not like thoughts “come” without myself having made a decision. And while thinking I am continuously making decisions too. That’s a basic fact of how we experience life. Could it all be “an illusion” and just “a feeling”? It could. My belief that the external world exists could also be “an illusion” and just “a feeling”. So, should I take seriously such possibilities at the absence of any evidence for them, let alone believe in them?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07711295082644210782 Juno Walker

    Dianelos -

    Our behavior changes, but not due to something called free will – that's all I meant by that.

    With regard to a thought coming when it wishes, perhaps it would be better not to anthropomorphize a thought; but the fact remains that thoughts simply 'enter your head.' You say a thought enters your head after you wished to think about some matter; but where does the wish to think about some matter come from? You're caught in an infinite regress, I would say. As Schopenhauer noted long ago: a man can surely do what he wishes, but he can't determine what he wishes. Or to put it the way Spinoza did: In the mind there is no absolute or free will; but the mind is determined to wish this or that by a cause, and this last by another cause, and so on to infinity. That's why I asked if you have ever tried to meditate; i.e., ever tried to focus on just one thought, or image, or body function (like the in and out flow of your breath). Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner makes an excellent case for that fact that an action, the feeling of willing that action, and the authorship of the action are all generated unconsciously/subconsciously – in his book "The Illusion of Conscious Will." I highly recommend you read it, if you're interested in investigating actual experiments concerning human will.

    With regard to Nietzsche, he goes into more length about human will in various other works which, frankly, I don't have the desire or patience to look up for you. If you don't have his works, a Google search will reveal several sites that have the majority of his works on-line.

    In any case, it seems you and I are just going around in circles at this point, and to be honest it's getting a little frustrating. If you want to discuss reasons for beliefs, and present arguments for or against – instead of simply coming to a finality with a sort of extreme skepticism, then that's fine. Otherwise, I won't be commenting on this thread anymore.

    Cheers.

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

    Juno,

    You write: “And with regard to your assertion that there are 'many alternative realities' that could account for the facts of reality as we experience them, could you please describe them for me?

    This goes back to the thought of Descartes and of Kant, or even way back to Plato. The idea is always the same: We have no cognitive access to reality itself, but only to how reality seems to us. Plato used the analogy of us living in a deep cave and observing only the shadows that the external world throws on the cave’s wall. The point then is that many different external things will produce the same shadow; many different things which *are* different may *seem* the same to us.

    Some specific examples: Descartes, who was a theist, pondered the possibility that the world was created by an “evil demon” who takes pleasure in deceiving theists into thinking there is good God out there (and, I add, deceiving naturalists into thinking that there is no creator at all out there and that all is just a big mechanism). Another example: Most theists are dualists and believe that God has created the physical universe which we in turn observe, whereas some are monists (and call themselves “idealists”) and believe that God directly produces our observations of the physical universe. Another example is how naturalistic physicists interpret quantum mechanics (i.e. describe a naturalistic world that would produce the quantum phenomena) in completely different ways, each one of which is entirely compatible with all quantum phenomena described by quantum physics. Another example would be the modern naturalistic idea that we may be living in a computer simulation (which is the naturalistic analogue of the theistic idealism). – All these real world examples describe possible worlds which would produce exactly the same impressions to us.

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

    Juno,

    I don't mind stopping our discussion here. It's been quite interesting.

    Cheers


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