As sure as I am of anything

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.

Eliezer Yudowsky put his finger on the problem in a Socratic dialogue on fairness he wrote on Less Wrong.

“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!).

With regard to morality, I am in the same situation I might have been in before the eye was better understood. I receive certain sense perception which, instead of being ordered with regard to color and hue, are organized according to right and wrong. I can no more explain how I perceive these than I can explain exactly how I parse electrical signals, but, in my day to day life, these questions are not critical.

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

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  • Anonymous

    Leah,For the purposes of this comment, I will write as though I comprehend what you try to signify by objective morality.You say,"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."This is a typical cognitivist analogy. But morality is clearly quite different than EVERYTHING else we know. If there were objective values, they would be entities or qualities or relations utterly different from anything else in the universe. Furthermore, if we were aware of them, it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else. The best move for the moral objectivist is as you seem to have done, to look for companions in guilt. For example, Richard Price argues that it is not moral knowledge alone that we are unable to account for, but also our knowledge of other things like substances, etc. Yet we have good empirical explanations for things like sight (light-waves, retinas, etc.), whereas your claim about morality depends on 1. Postulating value-entities or value-features of quite a different order from anything else with which we are acquainted; and 2. A corresponding faculty with which to detect them.How much simpler and more comprehensible the situation would be if we could replace the supposed moral qualities you postulate with some sort of subjective feeling which could be causally related to the detection of the features it followed?And how different is this imperfectly-knowable entity you posit, whose existence and relation to you you believe with quite some certainty, than some other mysteriously-known entities posited to exist throughout history?-Eitan.

  • Anonymous

    You've probably read this already (certainly you're familiar with the main ideas in it), but if you haven't seen it, you'll be interested: "The Moral Instinct,";=1

  • I have some difficulty with this post. Some points were already addressed by Eitan. Primarily, I think the analogy between sight and moral sense is most certainly limited.We can, in most (almost all?) cases confirm what we see with other senses, instruments, etc. We can even ask many people to describe what they see. Not so with morality. Also note that the description of what is seen is essentially irreducible. There is no "peeling of the onion" to find out why one thinks one sees something (except maybe in those pictures where if you look one way you see an old woman or in another way and you see a young one).In morality, however, few things are really treated as irreducible. Many are simply not satisfied with "I just think x is wrong. That's just what I think/feel/sense." Instead, we expend countless hours trying to find a commonly agreed upon basis for this view — killing is wrong because x is the standard for morality and killing violates x (where x = human happiness, respect of the desires of others, a soul, etc.).Also, sight is not influenced by social, familial, or cultural influences. We might differ on nomenclature, but what one sees as blue has nothing to do with how one is raised. It truly is a purely innate sensory mechanism. A set of tools and that's that.But what about morality? How could a "sensing mechanism" be so heavily influenced purely on the basis of parental teachings, religious dogma, political leanings, and cultural heritage? I find that extremely odd and a big obstacle to claiming that our "moral sense" just "is." I agree that "seeing badly" does not mean the world exists; it means a deficiency is present. But "morally choosing" badly is by no means a deficiency in the moral sense as if it's just flawed and not "in tune" with what is. Yes, that condition exists as you have identified, but the moral compass could also be wrong simply because it was programmed to be wrong.Lastly, with sight we can identify color blindness because we know that reflected wavelengths of light should be identified as which colors and can compare perception with morality. In matters of morality, say with abortion, what is the external reality of morality that is used as the standard?I'm interested to see how you continue forward. I don't completely disagree at the moment but see some issues with the analogy. I also think that if you conclude that we can't get to the moral domain for observation because we're in 4D trying to "get out of the page" into 5D… then in the end doesn't that work out to personally/culturally prescribed morality anyway? The values really might exist but since there's no way of knowing or interacting with them… it's up to the inhabitants of time-space-land to make up the best set we can…

  • Actually, the way we see color is at least somewhat culturally contingent – there is a lot of literature on linguistic determinism.This is an example:

  • Hendy hits most of the points I was going to cover, although I'd like to emphasize that with sight you can vertify it with other senses. I see a banana, I feel a banana, I smell a banana, I taste a banana. What's the analogy with "morally right"? What other sense allows me to verify my intuition?

  • Oh. There is a way you could verify your moral intuition. Let's say you adopted this standard for morals: "a moral action is one that maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain." You have a moral instinct that stealing is immoral. Then you do studies and consult economists and sociologists and so forth and verify that, yes, indeed, stealing does not live up to your stated standard.

  • This will run the risk of sounding fuzzy because English words have multifarious meanings, but here goes anyway:I think you're confusing what in olden days might have been called "sensation" and "sentiment." That is, our moral sense (as Hume might have said) is closer to a sentiment than a sensation. I can't speak for you, but my senses of moral approbation and disapprobation strike me more in the way that feelings (aka "sentiments") like anger, calm, love, hate, sadness, and happiness do than in the way that sensations of sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste do. Indeed, we call "pity" and "indignation" feelings or emotions, and they are emotions that suggest a moral judgment. That is, a moral sentiment feels introspective and internal, a physical sensation feels like something that impinges upon me. Now, it seems to me, you have three options re: this distinction:1) You can reject *my* dichotomy, and classify moral judgments with sensations rather than feelings. This can be based upon something as simple as a claim that "experiencing a sense (hard to avoid loaded words) of "approbation" feels to me more like 'seeing a house' than like 'feeling anger.'" If you say that, I'll simply have to say that it doesn't seem so to me, and we'll agree to disagree.2) You can reject all dichotomies between "sensation" and "sentiment" and claim that they are of a single philosophical category. Then moral sentiments are certainly analogous to seen or felt sense perceptions.Yet then, if you want to continue to claim that "goodness" and "badness" can be "objective" attributes of things in the external word (and that we tap into them with our sensations/sentiments the way we do into shape, size, and other such attributes), you will be forced to say that "pleasing-ness," "loveable-ness," "boring-ness" etc. are "objective" attributes of things. Now, this seems like a stretch. Perhaps certain groups of human beings can agree that cute fuzzy bunnies are possess an objective quality of loveable-ness, but those who dislike certain student movements may disagree. In essence, this has the problem of implying that *every* sensation or feeling taps into something "objective" about the external, mind independent world. This seem intuitively implausible to me. You might rejoin that surely a bunny has the quality of loveable-ness if some (probably beautiful) person loves it. Yet this seems to me to dilute the objective-subjective distinction you were initially trying to draw to the point of meaninglessness. As you have observed in your post, it has particularly bad consequences for morality, as it means that things about which reasonable people feel opposed moral sentiments are both "objectively good" and "objectively bad," which you were understandably trying to avoid.3) You can join me in saying that our moral sense *may* tap into something inherent in the mind-independent universe, but that it seems less obvious that it does than that sight does.(Of course, depending upon how you interpret quantum, whether sensations tap into something inherent in the *mind-independent* universe may also be up for debate).

  • @JC: I said this in my post: "We might differ on nomenclature, but what one sees as blue has nothing to do with how one is raised. It truly is a purely innate sensory mechanism. A set of tools and that's that."I think I covered the linguistic nuances between color. Even so, we can use wavelength measurement to decipher the "true" color even if we call it blue, aqua, cerulean, purplish, or whatever. Trying to equate moral differences with this analogy I find pretty far off. Moral differences would be the equivalent of calling red, green or black, white. Would you equate pro-choice/pro-life, support/banishment of same-sex marriage, etc. under a "linguistic difference"? I would think not!

  • The thing is people mostly agree on moral judgments. Most of the time, people act on moral instincts as unthinkingly as they act on sense data, and other people agree with them. If you leave a tip, you're not wondering whether it's the right thing to do. At the same time, people argue about sense data all the time (does it smell funny to you?).You're also significantly underselling linguistic determinism. How do you have any way to tell that people see the same colors you do? And the fact that we have a different name for it changes the immediate perception of the color.So I might not perceive something as immediately or as strongly as somebody else because I lack a category. In much the same way as, to a white person all Asians look alike, and to Asians all white people look alike because we're not attuned to the same sight markers for differentiating between people (obviously a gross generalization). And people who perceive the same thing can come to different conclusions about the proper course of action based on those perceptions. And disagree about their explanatory theories.This to defend the sight analogy not to shore up morality so much as to undermine sight.

  • I like this post. I can tell you've recently read Lewis by your use of phrasing.

  • @J.C.:I want to get less hung up on whether we see the same color and focus far more on whether there is an objective basis for thinking we see color at all. Here's the easiest way I can think to put it:We know that color is the product of light reflected by matter. We can measure the wavelength of this light. Where the shift in various wavelengths begins to transition from blue to blue-green to yellow… who knows. What you call it or see it… who knows. But the fact that you see it at all is due to the existence of electromagnetic radiation hitting your photoreceptors and being interpreted by your brain.All 5 senses function this way. They all come down to matter and energy. Smell is due to the emission of volatile particles, touch is due to nerves in our bodies which interpret pressure/texture/temperature, sound is due to the compression of matter in patterns through a medium and is picked up by our audio "hardware/software", and taste is due to our taste buds translating various molecules into the various sensations/tastes we know of (sweet, sour, etc.).Compare this to morality.I don't have an issue with pondering our "moral sense", but to compare it to sight just seems fatally flawed. Typical senses are based in matter and energy measurable through other senses themselves if not some other type of instrument.But we're talking about a hypothesized "sixth sense" or inner "sense receptor" that can somehow pick up on values which necessarily are not composed of matter and/or energy!In addition, we have every reason to suppose that the object of our five senses exist because they are cross-verifiable by other means. But the speculation of objective moral values is due entirely to a simple "feeling" that these values do exist combined with an observation that humans get really upset when they think they've been the object or witness of "wrongdoing."So. This is why I somewhat dismiss the linguistic differences. It really doesn't matter what people call them or if they see the same color because we know the source of the objective values. In this case we really are able to say, "You should be seeing a shade of ______ (fill in color) because the wavelength reflected is _____ nm long."So what is the reference point for morality? How do we go about defining these values? Even if we recognize our emotional reactions, why suspect that a set of immaterial values is hovering in the fifth dimension and we're picking up on the "radiation" from those values over the suspicion that they might have been programmed in over eons for the survival of the species?

  • You got me, Christian. I have a very noticible habit of mirroring the writing style of what I just read and the speaking style of people I was just speaking with. I am told this reaches maximum hilarity if one hangs out with me directly after I see anything by Shakespeare.