This is the third post in a series about math and morality. Read about the uses and abuses of abstraction and metaphysics in the first two posts
Long before I tried to find a way to justify that my belief in morality in some way corresponded with absolute truth, I found myself in the traditional freshman-in-intro-philosophy-class discussions at summer camp. “How do you know that any of this is real?” we would ask each other. “Surely the labels we assign to our sense perceptions are somewhat arbitrary and at least partially culturally contingent.”
With middle school élan, I found that the best way to refute someone who doubts the existence of the material world was to throw something at them, and see if they ducked.
When we start these philosophical discussions, we are not really in doubt of what the answer ought to be. Whether objects around us are amalgams of tiny platonic solids, collections of small spherical atoms, or the result of a wave function collapse, do we really doubt that, at the scale at which we exist, they are solid?
We are scientists for our entire lives, and the instruments we are using for our observations are extremely imperfect. They’re poorly designed, unable to perceive many everyday phenomena and vulnerable to systematic biases. Again, this is the positition of scientists throughout history. We fumble after knowledge that is never proven, but may obtain higher and higher levels of certainty.
The existence of material objects is not a proven fact, but not only do we assign this claim a high degree of certainty, it is the standard by which we judge certainty. Scientific theories are judged by how well they accord with our observations of the physical world. Further, it is impossible to suspend our disbelief in the existence of objects.
“How odd it is to have a procedure of which we are more sure of the result than the procedure itself.”
In large part, I this is how I approach the science of sight. I’m familiar with the basic principles of optics, but (due to a regrettable squeamishness) I took a pass from biology class on the day that we dissected cow eyes and I’ve not yet had the opportunity to grind my own lenses. I’ve never experimentally verified most of the relevant scientists, but I’ve never run into a fact about vision that contradicted my own experience of seeing. It seems my belief that I see is reasonably justified. But I cannot believe I would less justified in believing I could see if I lived before the first eyeball dissection. I can experience and follow my perceptions without understanding how they are focused on my retina, conveyed to my brain, and translated from electrical pulses to sensation (jury’s still out on this step!).
I do know that I am at least as certain that my moral perceptions are meaningful and correspond to truth as I am certain that my visual perceptions do as well. In fact, I would go farther and say that I am as certain that my moral sense is attuned to something as real and urgent as the existence of physical matter. Explaining the ultimate cause of either of these experiences is not prerequisite to structuring my life to take account of them.
Two supplemental notes:
The study of how we know what we know is useful primarily because it helps us see where we consistently go wrong or where we’re letting in bias. This is the real utility of evolutionary psychology.
The example of color helps to defend against a common argument against a universal morality. The next time someone tries to tell you that morality can’t be universal unless everyone is in agreement about what it implies, point out that we assume the visual world to be universal, even though some people are constitutively incapable not only of perceiving it correctly, but of understanding how their visual experience is deficient. When this people are afflicted with this condition with regard to color, we call them colorblind. When they have this deficiency with regard to morality, we call them sociopaths.
In tomorrow’s installment, I’ll discuss how we can use the imperfect instrument of our perceptions to behave morally