Checking my biases

Atheist to Catholic convert Jenifer Fulwiler has added a new zeroth step (“You Must be Willing to Lose it All”) to her five-part plan for seeking God, and it gave me the heebie-jeebies. Here’s how Jen summed it up:

Here’s a rough analogy: Let’s say that a woman was seeking God, and she came across a belief system that taught that it’s morally wrong to own a car; something about car ownership, they said, was contrary to God’s nature, and therefore objectively wrong. Naturally, her first reaction was, “That’s absurd!” But then she found a lot of other reasonable stuff in the belief system, so she took another look at that crazy car teaching. To her surprise, it ended up being not as unreasonable as she’d initially thought; in fact, she had to admit that some of the defenses she read really got her thinking.

But in the back of her mind there was always this voice that said, I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT A CAR! There was no way. She even thought through it a couple of times: She needed it to run errands, her husband needed his car for work. And she couldn’t just take the kids out of all their activities. Nope. The life that she had carefully crafted would completely fall apart if she gave up having a car.

As you can imagine, this line of thinking would bring her investigation into the anti-car belief system to an end… there is no way that she is going to accept the belief system that includes the teaching against cars, even if her rational mind believes that it’s true…unless she’s willing to let go of her car, and therefore her entire lifestyle.

The first time I read the post, I headdesked and chalked it up as another example of a religion making impossible to satisfy demands and then turning the blame on the seeker. Still an atheist? Well, I guess you didn’t read enough books or were too weak to give up your attachment to sin. Not to mention that this kind of distrust of yourself makes you an easy target for cults and con-artists.

And drek like this

Then I read it again and noticed it wasn’t that dissimilar to the Litany of Tarski:

If the box contains a diamond,
I desire to believe that the box contains a diamond;
If the box does not contain a diamond,
I desire to believe that the box does not contain a diamond;
Let me not become attached to beliefs I may not want.

And liking this idea only when it’s cited by my team is a red flag and a good reminder to keep a better eye on my biases. So where’s the error?

The call to be careful of your biases and presuppositions has a free variable. To be of any use, it needs to have some heuristic for identifying our own bias to be plugged in. Otherwise, it cautions us without telling us what to watch out for; the unbound formulation supports every worldview, ultimately providing evidence for none.

So, what ought to be added in? It probably comes back to making sure those long-held beliefs pay rent. To go back to Jen’s example, no one values a car for the car’s sake alone. A car is a useful way to get a hold of some good (maybe decreased transit time, maybe flexibility of schedule), which itself is seen as valuable because it plays a part in some hierarchy of needs and goods (maybe the woman needs time to raise her children, maybe she values the autonomy and choice the car provides).

If you want to get a person to give up the car, you need to break a link in this chain of values. Stick to the practical and explain how a different means could better serve her end or go for broke and try to show her that she’s wrong to value something farther up the chain. But don’t forget that there’s already evidence on the table: the fact that the car currently does a good job of sustaining her. That sets up a higher bar for the anti-car proposition, even if it has shown itself on other occasions to be a good truth-telling thing in the Chestertonian mold. And an institution only wins the benefit of the doubt by making a lot of beliefs that have paid rent in the past.

Ultimately, I might not disagree with Jen at all in theory (I’m open to metaphysical backsliding), but this post needed a discussion of praxis. Talk about how institutions or theories earn trust and how you can spot that you’re withholding a belief from scrutiny. Yudkowsky earns trust (and his ideas are easier to adopt) because he frequently links back to ways to apply his aphorisms. Without that kind of depth, a post like this sounds like it’s asking me to keep a mind open enough for my brain to fall out.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08016230732925516069 Gilbert

    You're missing the point here. The car and its advantages are not metaphors for cherished beliefs. Rather they are examples of a cherished lifestyle that might require a wrong belief to justify it.To give you an historical example:It would have been very hard for a southern cotton farmer ca. 1800 to recognize slavery is wrong. Not only because he grew up in the belief that it is right, but quite simply because he would have lost his riches if he had done the right thing and freed his slaves. There wouldn't have been better means of staying rich then having slaves, so you couldnt have shown him any. He was also not wrong to value his wealth. In fact slavery did a good job of sustaining him. So good that you couldn't have shown him any better way to that purpose. But the fact is, slavery is immoral. The cotton farmer would have been moraly obliged to give up the cotton farm even tough it would have intensly discomforted him.So the point is not "I want to believe what ist true even if that is not what I now believe." but rather "I want to believe what ist true, even if believing the truth makes it impossible to live as I now wish to live." Or as a reformulation of the litany"If the box contains a diamond,I desire to believe that the box contains a diamond,even though I get a million dollars if I am mistaken about its content."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12909360575166964668 Joe

    This is an excellent post. I think it really is the bottom line when one considers a worldview. Is the worldview the truth and what will it cost me to adopt it. Atheism scares me. If I hold a worldview I want to be logically consistent. As a Catholic that means I need to strive to be a saint. Form what little I have read, to be a logically consistent Atheist I need to be a Nihilist. That gives me pause when considering the Atheist worldview. I can't stomach living in an existential vacuum. Its seems to be against my nature and you know what they say about nature and vacuums. I suppose I could solve the problem by attributing purpose and meaning to myself but then wouldn't I be setting myself up as my own personal God?

  • Patrick

    Joe- If you're like most people who say that, the reason you think that atheism requires nihilism is because you're importing your religious conception of what morality "is" and applying it to morality under atheism. It is the same reason that I, when looking at Catholic morality, see a mixture of nihilism and brutal, arbitrary authoritarianism.Under Catholicism, putting things very loosely, morality is made out of magic. I don't believe in magic. So when I evaluate Catholic morality by my standards, there is literally nothing there at all except bizarre claims that are refutable by reference to the first few chapters of a beginners book on logic and reason. I recognize, however, that a grown adult who nonetheless believes in magic would find it entirely plausible that morality could be made out of it. So I don't go around calling Catholics nihilistic, arbitrary authoritarians.You could consider a similar effort.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17467675780212523820 Brandon Jaloway

    I agree with Gilbert. I think you are missing the point of Jen's piece. I think she is getting at, "How much am I willing to sacrifice in order to live the truth? Am I putting a limit on what the truth is allowed to demand from me?" This is something I think we all struggle with on a daily basis. I know I do. Everytime I learn something new, some new truth, I run the risk that it might require me to reform or improve my life in some way. But for me, the value of learning and believing in the truth is more important than being comfortable.As a side note, I also believe in metaphysical backsliding. To become a Himmler or Stalin for the sake of following a theory I like to its logical consequences seems like a horrible misuse of reason.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12909360575166964668 Joe

    Patrick- The point I was making had more to do with meaning rather then morality. I find it difficult to understand how Atheists find intrinsic meaning in life. It probably doesn't matter because you would just say that Catholics derive meaning through magic you don't belive in. I think you're right I am blinded by my own biases when it comes to atheism. Like I said I have read very little on the subject. Perhaps you could e-mail me some good reading material?

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com/ Brian Green

    This is a good post and I've been meaning to comment on "metaphysical backsliding" for a long time. So sorry to focus only on that, there is a lot more meat in here deserving attention, maybe I'll say more later.First, I think "metaphysical backsliding" mis-named. Backsliding implies failure of some sort, at least in my understanding. It has a built-in bad moral judgment to it. It should be more like "ethical-to-metaphysical feedback," perhaps. Or maybe I am misunderstanding your usage.I would next say that using ethics to choose metaphysics is always wrong unless the following is the case…To judge a metaphysical theory there are four criteria (this is from Ian Barbour's _Religion in an Age of Science_, but its basically a synthesis of the three theories of truth with one additional criteria).1) The system should be logically coherent (coherence theory of truth)2) The system should correspond with facts known by other means (correspondence theory of truth)3) The system should "work" or be "fruitful" (pragmatic theory of truth)4) The system should be comprehensiveIf two competing theories tie in three criteria then obviously the last one must be the tie-breaker.So "metaphysical backsliding" is an incorrect move UNLESS 1, 2, and 4, are tied. If they tie, then consequences of belief, i.e. ethics, aesthetics, etc., i.e. fruitfulness of the belief system, whether it "works" can be considered. But only if the other criteria are tied.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08016230732925516069 Gilbert

    One more semi-related point to ponder:Does belief in objective morals pay any rent in anticipated experience?If a random sample of Yudkowskyans was polled on this question I would put some money on a clear majority for "no". And I tend to agree with them.This isn't a problem for me, because I don't believe in practicing usury on my beliefs. But for an adherent of Yudokowskian epistomology belief in objective morality seems blatantly eupocritical.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08572976822786862149 Darwin

    So "metaphysical backsliding" is an incorrect move UNLESS 1, 2, and 4, are tied. If they tie, then consequences of belief, i.e. ethics, aesthetics, etc., i.e. fruitfulness of the belief system, whether it "works" can be considered. But only if the other criteria are tied. It strikes me that an alternate approach would be to take certain elements of "fruitfullness" or "fit with moral intuition" as facts which are known by other means under criteria 2). So, for example, I think many people would be willing to accept "euthanizing a healthy, six month old baby is murder" as a moral fact known by other means (essentially, moral intuition or natural law) and reject any moral system which would suggest that this were not wrong as being incompatible with known facts.

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com/ Brian Green

    Darwin, I like your idea initially, but I am wary of it because of the fact-value problem. Now, I happen to not be a fan of the FVP (my dissertation is on smashing it to bits), but it does have a point. Some moral judgments are not natural, they are socially conditioned. I agree with you that your baby example should be a fact. But beyond that clear cute-baby-love fact things get ambiguous fast. Peter Singer thinks if the same baby were deformed it would be okay to kill it, for example. Do we trust his judgment or not? And then our choice depends on our own previous conditioning.So I think morals have to be kept in a separate category…Except for one thing… the entire system has a presupposed value built in which is that truth is good. So we can try to exclude value (perhaps) from the other 3 categories except insofar as those categories rely on presupposed values themselves. That's what kills the FVP, by the way, the FVP relies on facts having epistemic value.Anyway, I like this stuff.

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com/ Brian Green

    Just a comment on Yudkowsky's "beliefs paying rent." That's not always going to work. What about the belief that existence is good, or neutral, or evil? Where do you get rent paid on that? Probably never, and yet the question tends to structure ethical systems. Perhaps the spin-off beliefs from that structure would run into rent-questions, but not necessarily ever in a way that would call the entire framework into question. It only works for the empirically anticipatable, but some things are not so.If the answer is something like "if it is not subject to anticipatory verification then it is false or irrelevant," then that is very like scientism and logical positivism (back to the fact-value problem again, the logical positivists were all about the FVP). It might fail in the same way. Is the anticipatory verificationist criteria itself subject to anticipatory verification? I don't think it is. Then the system could be logically incoherent, falsifying its own premise. Not to mention it relies on the value of truth itself, and how is that value verifiable, or justifiable? I don't think this works for first principles.Now, it's late and I could be missing his point; if so could someone explain? Thanks.

  • Patrick

    Joe- at this point, you don't need reading material. Just define your terms, and things will make a lot more sense.For example, define "intrinsic meaning." If the way you define it makes it clear that it is literally impossible for intrinsic meaning to exist if God doesn't exist, then chances are atheists don't find intrinsic meaning in life under that definition of intrinsic meaning. End of debate.On the other hand, if you're asking how atheists find a satisfying sense of meaning in life, just ask them. It may turn out that you feel you wouldn't find that sense of meaning satisfying yourself- and maybe the reason for that is that you feel you wouldn't be satisfied with any sense of meaning other than the one you believe exists due to your religion- but again, the question will have been answered and the discussion will be over.Most philosophical debates are pretty short once you make people define their terms.If you want a zen koan to meditate upon…A great teacher says you should value your neighbor for your neighbor's own sake.A great philosopher says you should value your neighbor for your neighbor's own sake because the nature of God is such that this is true. He says that if God does not exist, then this wouldn't be so.If you actually value your neighbor for your neighbor's own sake, then the great philosopher is wrong.

  • Patrick

    Brian Greene- You're going to have issues with your thesis if you base it on arguments from adverse consequence. The effect on our ability to evaluate the arguments of Peter Singer is not a reason to accept or reject a particular set of epistemological principles for morality.Additionally, the fact that a great many ethical systems are founded on the acceptance of claims like "existence is good" is not a reason to reject the need for such beliefs to "pay rent." That makes as much sense as claiming that deliciousness must be real because a great many cuisines are founded on it. Maybe those people and/or systems are just wrong. You might have an interesting comment if you're evaluating morality from a descriptive position (ie, I can prove that a great many people find certain things delicious and/or good), but not if you're evaluating prescriptively (but I'm not sure I can prove that people OUGHT find things delicious and/or good, and if you think you can, by all means pony up).Oh, and you need to read up on the infinite regress issue. Your argument that anticipatory verification could be logically incoherent if it can't be validated by anticipatory verification is a rehash of the infinite regress problem of epistemology, and subject to the usual defenses and counter attacks. Namely, most scientifically minded theories of epistemology really ground themselves in real world success rather than philosophy, which means that they don't precisely validate themselves, but also that nothing within their own theories implies a need for self validation. This also creates an interesting set of bullets for the attacker to bite, namely, some argument why an established record of success isn't a relevant criteria for evaluating an epistemological system (or why we can't just declare our epistemological system to be a vague acceptance of whatever methods lead to established records of success, with some gesturing towards leading contenders). There's generally some ground to attack even after you've waded through that, but you'll also have to deal with the simple counter attack claim that most systems which self validate are circular, and therefore suspect. It can be awkward, and kind of sad, to watch a philosopher set out to take down scientifically minded epistemology… only to find himself defending a circular or brute assertion based epistemological system that makes no claims to real world success. I'm not saying you can't work your way through that morass, particularly if you focus on making an entirely negative case and never putting forward any argument of your own that might be condemned by your own prior reasoning, but it will be tough.Oh, and for god's sake, define "good" before claiming that the statement "existence is good" can or can't pay rent. If you have a coherent definition, it probably CAN pay rent, or at least fail in an informative way. If your definition is incoherent, you have larger problems.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08572976822786862149 Darwin

    So, I'm reading Leah's linked source on beliefs "paying rent", and I'm trying to follow whether "paying rent" in this context means much of anything more than "able to make predictions which I will be able to detect the truth of falsity of via sensation" or even more restrictively "able to make empirical predictions."Clearly, the bowling ball example he gives "pays rent" with an empirical prediction, though he phrases it in terms of a sensory prediction (you'll hear a crash).Under this schema would beliefs such as the following pay any rent:1) You should marry someone you both love and like.2) Helping your neighbor is a virtuous action.3) Brahms Piano Concerto is beautiful.–DarwinCatholic

  • Patrick

    Darwin- It depends. Can you define "should," "virtuous," and "beautiful?"One of the problems people run into is a tendency to misunderstand the difference between facts and opinions. No one expects statements like "I enjoy Brahms Piano Concerto" to pay much rent, except as a predictor of what you do or do not enjoy. But unfortunately people have tendency to phrase statements about HOW THEY RELATE to things as statements ABOUT THE THINGS.So "I find anchovies to be delicious" transforms into "Anchovies are delicious."Just like "I find anchovies to be disgusting" transforms into "Anchovies are disgusting."And then people get into arguments about whether or not anchovies have the trait "delicious" or "disgusting," and loads of time is wasted. Everyone dances around in confusion over the fact that some people believe each thing, and no method exists to determine who is right… and no one ever catches on that the real problem is that no one is right because these sentences, as phrased, are not capable of being right or wrong.The reality is that these are statements about how one views a thing, not statements about the thing itself. "Is delicious" is not a trait that a food can have in the same sense that it may have the trait "weighs 150 grams." In fact, "is delicious" is not a trait at all… its a statement about how the speaker views a thing. "Weights 150 grams," on the other hand, is a statement about the thing itself.Separate the two, and you'll find that a lot of things can pay a lot more rent than you thought… but you'll have to pay the price of no longer believing that your subjective opinions are in fact magical commentary on the true nature of reality. I think its a worthwhile price in the end.

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com/ Brian Green

    Hi Patrick,I 'll just start by saying that I was describing my thesis poorly. The FVP is only a few pages of it (Rudolf Carnap and Hilary Putnam's retort). Most of it is just on the general question of whether nature is good or not, then arguing that it is based on some recent work on natural teleology. Then mix in some other neat stuff and try to get an idea of how science can inform a naturalistic ethics.Your first two paragraphs aren't problems for me because I'm not arguing that way.Your infinite regress issue isn't a serious problem either (I'm not basing anything on it yet, as far as I know), though if you have some recommended authors for me I'd be interested to read them. Those methodologies you are describing are criteria 3) on the selection criteria, which is of course interesting, because going that direction allows for incoherence on criteria 1) while being very strong on criteria 3), and 2) as well.The next thing I would say is that natural science does have a lot of metaphysics under its methodological hood, for example, that the world is good (worth studying), real, rational, orderly, homogeneous, not sacred, investigable by the human mind, not logically necessary but contingent, and that discoveries ought to be shared, among others. These metaphysical assumptions are largely borrowed from Western theism and partially Aristotelianism prior to that. So that these assumptions do pay rent is good for some metaphysical systems in terms of criteria 3. If a metaph system can then do better on criteria 1 or 4, then it will beat basic scientism overall. I think theism does that (but that's another discussion).Purely formally, good is that which everything seeks, as stated by Aristotle. The content I would add is that for humans good means becoming virtuous people in a way that the parts of the system do not conflict with the whole. The telos of the human species is to live in such a way that we are all facilitated towards excellence, and the environment as well, since it is also good and contains ends. That's the objective check on subjective goods, that they have to not injure other ends (that's a Kantian and Millian aspect, but it's also Aristotelian and Christian too).Last thing I'd just add in for your response to Joe is that the "Great Philosopher's" second sentence and second clause of the first sentence are not a part of Christian teaching, at least not Catholic teaching. "Love your neighbor as you love yourself" is not qualified in that manner, or any manner as far as I remember.Anyway, this is good, say more if you like.

  • Patrick

    Brian Greene- I don't know what else to add. I think I made my point, and that you missed it. I gave specific examples of things you said that were subject to my responses, and you simply claimed that you weren't arguing that way, even though you just did. Anything else I'd have to say would be redundant.

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com/ Brian Green

    Patrick I appreciate your time, but you are right, our arguments are failing to engage properly. I'll take the blame for poorly describing my work. But do you have some reading recommendations? I would hate to miss something and maybe they will help me understand your point better.On a different note and not directed at anyone in particular, just wondering out loud, I was wondering if evolutionary success would be the ultimate example of beliefs "paying rent." For example, the Amazonian Munduruku thought that by taking the heads of their enemies they would please the spirits and gain greater success in their game hunting. Now, it turns out this actually works, but not for the reason they thought it did – it works of course because they are killing competition for game with every human head they took.The Balian water-temple system is another example (described well by DS Wilson in _Darwin's Cathedral_, and in great detail by Stephen Lansing in _Priests and Programmers_ and a bunch of his articles that can be found on Google scholar). The water temple system makes a religion out of irrigation and did better than the disastrous attempt at the Green Revolution in Bali in the early 80s, which they quickly rejected and returned to their religion.Now if beliefs pay rent, the Munduruku did pretty well without any ecological knowledge, and the water temple system actually did better than the science of the Green Revolution (and of course science learned from it and knows more now thanks to the experience -that's the great thing about science – I'm not being anti-science here). But if theory selection criteria is all about success, then success can be for the wrong reasons.And of course, evolutionary success is the ultimate rent payment.. right? So whatever is, is good or right/correct? If your metaphysical system promotes reproduction then is it better than those which do not? Gets social Darwinist. These are just more thoughts, if I'm wrong let me know.

  • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com/ Benjamin Baxter

    Everyone else betrays the cant of reinventing the circle to spite the wheel. The Church, in every magisterial teaching, lacks this frivolity. Only she seems concerned with telling the truth. Sure, I'm working from the middle of the creed outwards. Yes, that troubles me. This fact remains: I never see as measured an approach, or a quarter as much humility and honesty, as when I listen to Rome. On this, and on a few experiences I wouldn't care to repeat, rests my fledgling faith.http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com/

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11111405959451703182 PhysicistDave

    Brian Green wrote:>Except for one thing… the entire system has a presupposed value built in which is that truth is good.[snip]>That's what kills the FVP, by the way, the FVP relies on facts having epistemic value.Not really.I know that I do not have, and will never have, a “knock-down” argument convincing all other people that truth is always good.It does rather distress me that most people seem to rate truth rather low on their scale of values as compared, say, to “fitting in” socially, getting in to Heaven, etc.But, while I disagree with their choices (and they will never be my best of friends), I do recognize that my valuing of truth more highly than they do is simply my choice (or the inherent shape of my character, if you want to deny free will).And, there is no “fact value *problem*.” It is just a reality, not a problem. That many people want to deny that reality… well, that is a “problem” if you want to change their minds. If you do not care about their being mistaken, that is not a problem, either.Odd how few people are willing to follow through the logic of the fact-value dichotomy.Dave Miller in Sacramento

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11111405959451703182 PhysicistDave

    Brian Greene wrote:>The next thing I would say is that natural science does have a lot of metaphysics under its methodological hood, for example, that the world is good (worth studying)…Boy, you do conflate two separate issues a lot!No, there is nothing inconsistent *at all* in the truths of science being true, and in a person’s recognizing that they are true but nonetheless personally judging that the universe is *not* worth studying.I myself happen to think most of the results of science are true *and* that science is worth studying, but, after all, most Americans disagree with my values. I.e., most Americans think that most scientific truths (excluding perhaps evolution and related issues) are true, but most Americans most assuredly do not want to study those truths in any significant detail!Don’t they want someone to study those truths? Hmmm… speaking as a scientist who has dealt with that issue with many people, I’d say generally not, unless they expect some practical value from the study. E.g., most people seem to see little reason, say, why anyone should study the Riemann hypothesis.What is true is that most (believe me, not all!) *scientists* do value studying the world and do think that most of the truths of science are true.But the conclusion that scientific truths are true and the valuing of pursuing such truths are two separate things. In most people, the two are not combined.Dave

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08572976822786862149 Darwin

    Patrick,It depends. Can you define "should," "virtuous," and "beautiful?"Yes, but this hardly seems the place for it. Clearly, different people will assign different meanings to these words and the meanings assigned will affect the meanings of the statements. Any example statements are going to be subject to that limitation. That was, however, why I tried to pick fairly simple examples statements which, despite variances in use of vocabulary, would present fairly similar meaning to most people. My key question was: 'whether "paying rent" in this context means much of anything more than "able to make predictions which I will be able to detect the truth of falsity of via sensation" or even more restrictively "able to make empirical predictions."'One of the problems people run into is a tendency to misunderstand the difference between facts and opinions. No one expects statements like "I enjoy Brahms Piano Concerto" to pay much rent, except as a predictor of what you do or do not enjoy. But unfortunately people have tendency to phrase statements about HOW THEY RELATE to things as statements ABOUT THE THINGS.Yes and no. It is true that people frequently take their responses to object to be the result of a quality the object itself has. However, what you say seems to assume that objects do not, in fact, have qualities with actual value that are responsible for these reactions that people have to them.This may or may not be the case, but one certainly can't just assume it.Among a number of approaches, one would be to claim that different artistic compositions (say a Fra Angelico fresco and a Thomas Kinkade landscape) are simply two object with different attributes which we can examine with our senses and appreciate to varying degrees depending on preference; another approach would be to claim that one artistic composition could in fact have attributes which are more "good" than another and thus that is possible to say that one is "more beautiful" than another.To the extent that I'm understanding it thus far, it seems to me that the "paying rent" approach of evaluating beliefs is focused around making predictions, perhaps strictly empirical predictions, or perhaps sensory predictions in some more general sense. If this is so, it would certainly seem to commit oneself to the evaluating my third example statement in the former way.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08016230732925516069 Gilbert

    @DarwinI'm an avowed enemy of the Yudkowskyan philosophy and not a neutral source. But since I have read most of his stuff and noone else seems to want to answer…Yes, the "orthodox" version of "paying rent" is predicted sensation. More precisely affected probability of sensation, so if a belief being true changes your best guess of some sensation's probability from 60% to 70% that is rent, even if your actual prediction (you will experience that sensation) is unaffected. The "orhodox" Yudkowskyan ethical system is utilitarianism. Your statements would probably be interpreted along the lines of1) If you marry someone you don't both love and like you will have an increased probability of experiencing regret.2) Helping your neighbor increases the total happiness of mankind.3) Brahms Piano Concerto gives me a warm fuzzy feeling.On these interpretations they all pay rent. But there is, indeed, no room for objective moral or aesthetical properties.Leah, however, is very clearly not an orthodox Yudkowskyan. She believes in objectiv morals for one. And I'm not even sure whether her understanding of "paying rent" actually conforms to Yudkowskys.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11111405959451703182 PhysicistDave

    Gilbert wrote:> She believes in objectiv morals for one.But, of course, the problem in most of these discussions is exactly what people mean by words like “objective.”If “objective” means merely that there are some objective facts that help explain why people hold certain moral views (e.g., such objective facts as the fact that most humans do not want to die), then of course in that sense of the word “objective,” morality is “objective.”But if “objective” means that there are “laws of morality” that exist independently of human purposes, desires, and goals, just as the Andromeda galaxy exists independently of human desires, no one has ever been able to show this.And, indeed, there is overwhelming reason to think this view is false:1) No one has ever been able to show, point to, measure, etc. these supposedly independent laws of morality in the way we can demonstrate, for example, the existence of the Andromeda galaxy.2) The people who believe in the existence of this sort of objective morality have never been able to come up with an explanation of its existence or content that convinces even most of the other people who believe there is this sort of objective morality.3) It is easy enough to see how people could arrive at this sort of mistaken view about morality, just as most people have a tendency to think their tastes in food, etc. are objective, though it seems clear that such tastes are not really objective. Indeed, the centrality of morality to human culture and the stigma attached to denying morality makes it quite obvious why people would tend to attribute to it an objectivity it does not have.4) No one has ever given a coherent explanation of what a morality that exists independently of human goals and desires could even mean. The debate has gone on for centuries – the Euthyphro dilemma, the fact that humans are free to disobey the “laws” of morality in the way a stone cannot disobey the law of gravity, and many other arguments have plagued any attempt to show that a fully objective morality even makes sense conceptually.Does that prove absolutely that the idea is nonsense? Well, how do you prove absolutely that Santa does not exist or that the law of non-contradiction is true. Any sophomore can always come up with some super-Cartesian demon to show that you have not proven the point absolutely.In short, the evidence that it is a mistake to claim there is an “objective morality” independent of human choices or goals is far, far better than most evidence in science or everyday life.Philosophers can quibble about this as they quibble about everything, but we know beyond sane doubt that it is a myth.At a pragmatic level, the demands of human society and human life and the commonality among human purposes is enough to explain why some core morality is going to have to be accepted by any viable human society. But that morality most certainly does not exist separate from our goals and purposes as an objective fact about the universe.Dave

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com/ Brian Green

    Hi Physicist Dave. Saying the fact-value problem is a reality and not a "problem" (object of investigation, or perhaps more properly a theory) is metaphysical statement. It assumes that values are subjective and facts objective. This is what you are saying correct? If this is not what you are saying I apologize for the rest of this.The objectivity of value is a contentious subject, to say the least. Natural teleology (arguing that values exist in nature independently of human will) has a long history. Francis Bacon removed teleology from the study of natural science because he said it was a property of the human mind not a property of nature. This has worked well for science – it cut out a lot of useless courses of study and focused research. But just because it is excluded from scientific investigation does not mean it does not exist. It just means it is not open to empirical study. Why? Because purposes, functions, teleology, etc. are "cognitively opaque." We can't see purposes, they are only communicable by language, by someone explaining them to us. Humans obviously have purposes, but the question is, does non-human life show purposivity as well? Usually "teleology" in nature is written off as "teleonomy" – programmed goal seeking based on genetic hindsight, not mental foresight. But why are teleonomic purposes not allowed to seek real values? Why are humans trying to keep values only in our minds and not sharing them with nature? In other words, why do we refuse to acknowledge objective values, values that are facts? There is no empirical evidence that can demonstrate the fact-value split. It is a metaphysical theory open to other routes of inquiry (as I described above with theory-selection criteria), not fact in itself. Just because nat science methodologically excludes intrinsic value does not mean that intrinsic value does not ontologically exist. It is just much harder to investigate.Anyway, I think we are seeing the "rent" paid by our rejection of value intrinsic in nature: we are destroying it for our own ends, and it is wrecking our planet. The environmental movement is open to the idea of value intrinsic to nature, but take the same person and ask them about it from a scientific or ethical perspective and they will probably reject the same idea, saying values are not objective. An interesting cognitive situation based on our contemporary inability to reconcile two branches of human inquiry.What do you think?

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com/ Brian Green

    Hey Physicist Dave, we posted close enough together that I missed your post to Gilbert. I can see we have a strong disagreement. I'd just ask, as a preliminary, is it okay for us to drive all the species on Earth extinct that we don't think are useful or cute (insofar as this helps humans and does not hurt us, just to pre-emt the instrumentalist response)? If there is no objective value in their existence, then its open season, I think. Having no objective morality is extremely dangerous. That does not make it false, it just makes it something to avoid if possible, and there are many ways to avoid it. If we want to talk rent, I think relativism does not pay.

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com/ Brian Green

    This link is to a great article on cognitive opacity from child developmental psychology. Purposes are not visible, they must be communicated via symbolic representation.http://www.cbcd.bbk.ac.uk/people/scientificstaff/gergo/pub/index.html/pub/sylvia.pdf

  • Patrick

    Brian Greene- You're still doing it. You're asking whether its "ok" to do something if there's no objective moral rule telling us not to. The word "ok" supposes a framework for evaluating whether something is or is not ok. Your question only makes sense if you have some meta-rule in place, like, "It is ok to do anything which is not prohibited." But that does not exist in the moral framework you're purporting to discuss.Take your question and flip the metaphorical negative sign, and you'll see."If there are no objective morals, is it prohibited to murder if no human agency can dissuade you?""If there are no objective morals, is it permitted to murder if no human agency can dissuade you?"Notice that the answer comes out the same in both questions. It is not prohibited. It is also not permitted. And the reason why is the same in both cases- these terms do not function this way given the "If" clause. A truly appropriate answer to each question wouldn't be "no," it would be "syntax error."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10845051786114528609 Julie Robison

    Leah! I also enjoyed this post and reading you "talk" thorough your thoughts. I will concur with Gilbert that you missed the point and second his "So the point is not "I want to believe what is true even if that is not what I now believe." but rather "I want to believe what is true, even if believing the truth makes it impossible to live as I now wish to live."" Sadly, to briefly note on Patrick's side comment, Catholicism is not magic. It would be much more entertaining and amusing and easy if it were. Instead, Catholic morality stems from very logical things like the Ten Commandments, Natural Law, and Scripture. Nothing too sparkly about all of that.People love to discuss the hubris of the Catholic Church and how dare she made overriding statements about everyone. That's the beauty of the Catholic religion: she doesn't speak directly for you and me- she speaks to you and me, and she speaks for Christ. The Church is not a man-made set of rules, even though men do run it. But who else would, otherwise? The angels?Logically, as a Christian, to lose our life in Christ is not seen as blindly bending over and saying, "Thank you Sir; may I have another?" It is a divine partnership in Love, and there is a freedom found there when one abandons that one can control every aspect of one's life. I cannot totally help my situation; but through offering it up, I can find joy, and contentment, and purpose.Catholicism is not magic, it is mystery. The phrase "YOU DON'T KNOW ME" has a huge and beautiful theological implications. You're right. I don't. But God does. And his way may seem narrow– through Christ Jesus– but it is so wide, that it encompasses people from all walks of life and backgrounds. Some of them are cradle and some are converts, but most of them have found God through Christ, who shared in our humanity. How many other faith can claim that?Keep writing Leah! I enjoy reading and gaining more understanding.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08572976822786862149 Darwin

    Gilbert,Thanks — I appreciate the confirmation and explanation.PhysicistDave,It seems to me that your four points involve a fair amount of build in assumption. And, indeed, there is overwhelming reason to think this view is false:1) Assumes that laws of morality would be things which are examined and measured in some material way. The other approach would be to take it that moral laws are sensed via our moral sense in the same way that light is sensed via our sense of vision.2) You're arguing here that because people do not have agreement on precisely what objective moral laws are in detail — what they say — that there is therefore no reason to believe they exist at all. The latter does not follow from the former. At most, this disagreement would indicate that the means by which we discern the nature of these laws are not very precise — just as it would be hard, given our current level of ability to view such small things at this distance, for you to get universal agreement as to the number of planets of various types in all solar systems in the Andromeda Galaxy. (Needless to say, this failure would not indicate that the Andromeda Galaxy does not exist, merely that some of the details of it cannot be clearly discerned.)3) This point is basically a story — you can imagine how, if moral laws don't exist but people have moral opinions, they might imagine there are moral laws. On the other hand, even if there are moral laws, you could still imagine this, so it doesn't really get us anywhere.4) This point is a bit here and there, but there seem to be two main thrusts: 4.1 You say that no one has given a comprehensible explanation of what an objective moral law would be like — however this doesn't necessarily tell us a great deal other than that, to the extent that you've encountered such descriptions, you haven't found them comprehensible. 4.2 You correctly point out that a moral law would be different from, say, the law of gravity, in that clearly a moral actor can act contrary to a moral law. However, this is not a surprise as the law of gravity is a description of how things behave (masses are attracted to each other by a force proportional to their masses and distances) while moral law is traditionally described as some norm or measuring stick by comparison to which actions are "good" or less good according to their level of conformity to it. As a side note, I'm not clear if you may be misunderstanding a bit what Plato is getting at with Euthyphro — his argument there is that to the extent that "the good" or "justice" or "piety" is singular (in other words, that it's an objective standard) that it cannot consist of "doing what is pleasing to the gods" since there are multiple gods and they don't always agree. Indeed, Plato in that dialog and others has the opposite conclusion to what your seems to be: he holds that there is an objective form of good that things can be compared to.

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com/ Brian Green

    Patrick I am still having difficulty figuring out what you are saying. Everything you claim I am doing wrong you describe using value-laden terms: "ok," "prohibited," and "murder" all have built-in judgments. Given that the terms mandate moral judgment just by their definition and usage how can we not presuppose a moral framework in which they are working? Unless you are saying all morally-laden terms are inherently nonsensical in the objective sense. Is that your point?Your example illustrates the problem. The reason the answer is "no" in both cases is because "murder" is synthetically defined as wrong, it has a built-in negative moral judgment. If that is your point, that "no objective morality" and "murder" cannot exist peacefully together in the same conceptual framework, then that makes sense.But that all of course assumes that your relativistic and subjectivist ethics is already true. I see no reason why that would be the case, other than your assertion, same with the assumption that the fact-value split must precede all of this. I guess I am still having trouble with your metaphysics – are you simply asserting the FV dichotomy is true? Or do you think something proves it? If so what and how?

  • Patrick

    I'm trying to point out that your challenges against moral nihilism fail to understand what moral nihilism is. I'm not even trying to defend it, I'm trying to point out that you don't understand your own ethical apologetics, in a bad way.1. Suppose someone asserts that all things of a type either have, or lack, X. It doesn't matter what X is.2. He also argues that all relevant things with X should be placed in category A, and all relevant things without X should be placed in category B.3. Now suppose you are convinced that X doesn't exist, and that the categorization that is being based on it is intellectually empty.4. He argues that if X doesn't exist, then no things have X. Therefore, he claims, if X does not exist, we should place all relevant things in category B.Do you see where he's gone wrong? Your criticism wasn't only "For each relevant thing, that thing lacks X." If that were the entirety of your criticism, he might have a point.Your criticism was "There is no such thing as X, and this entire enterprise is intellectually bankrupt." Nothing flows from that with respect to placing any given thing into categories A or B.I can dream up examples all afternoon, but it doesn't matter what they are. It could be something as simple as this:A monarchist believes that some people have the divine right to be King, and that those who do not must be serfs. You tell him that there is no such thing as a divine right to be a King. He claims that you are saying that everyone must be a serf. Well, no. That doesn't follow. You're probably critiquing the entire king/serf dichotomy.Anything can be filled in here. It really doesn't matter.

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com/ Brian Green

    Patrick, you are finally making sense to me. This is about nihilism. I think you are saying that I can't argue against moral nihilism to moral nihilists by using morality. Well, yeah. If the world has facts and values… well to them values do not exist.I'm not trying to convince moral nihilists of anything. They are rare and the best way to disagree with them in my experience is just to watch them and point out that they don't actually live out their belief system. Nihilists make fundamental errors at the level of anthropology and metaphysics. There's no point in debating morality with one when the problem is deeper than that.Ultimately nihilism is a philosophical system which humans cannot actually practice. That doesn't make it wrong (as Nietzsche said, the truth could be poison), it just makes it humanly impossible, and therefore irrelevant. Humans cannot actually live that way. If we have to choose between the possible but wrong and the right but impossible, we must choose the possible one whether we like it or not.The proof of an ethics is in the people it produces. If a set of people "have no ethics" (which is impossible, as if they could not have some ideas of proper action) and no care for what it produces then they are just in a self-sealed fantasy universe. And they would think the same about me, and perhaps you think that about me as well. But the game goes on whether we like it or not.

  • Patrick

    "I'm not trying to convince moral nihilists of anything. They are rare and the best way to disagree with them in my experience is just to watch them and point out that they don't actually live out their belief system."Right, yeah, you still don't get this. Someone who believes that "morals" aren't a real thing, but rather an expression of subjective human preference, isn't failing to live out that belief system if they continue to have preferences. You're still trying to partially import your moral system into their meta analysis OF moral systems, and then evaluate it from the inside in its newly created, corrupted form.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11111405959451703182 PhysicistDave

    Brian Greene wrote to me:> Saying the fact-value problem is a reality and not a "problem" (object of investigation, or perhaps more properly a theory) is metaphysical statement.Suppose you wrote an essay criticizing astrology as obvious nonsense, and an astrologer wrote back declaring, “To criticize astrology is itself part of the discipline of astrology. By criticizing astrology you therefore engaged in astrology and therefore committed yourself to the proposition that astrology is in some form valid. Tu quoque.”I’ll call this the “Astrologer’s Reply” in honor of P.Z. Myers’ phrase, “the Courtier’s Reply.”I’ll leave it as an exercise for the student to explain why the “Astrologer’s Reply” (and therefore your accusing me of having committed an act of metaphysics) is a fallacy.BG also wrote:> It assumes that values are subjective and facts objective. This is what you are saying correct?I’m saying what I said: one of the main debating tricks in these debates is using the word “objective” as if it is being used with a single meaning while it is really used with two meanings and then switching between the two. Of course, morality does have some connection with certain objective facts about human beings. Of course, “laws of morality” are not objective facts about the universe in the sense the law of gravity is.A river bank is not a financial bank.BG also wrote:> The objectivity of value is a contentious subject, to say the least. Natural teleology (arguing that values exist in nature independently of human will) has a long history.Indeed.Astrology and fortune-telling are also contentious subjects: I know people who take both seriously. And, astrology and fortune-telling also have a long history.The question is why are these subjects “contentious.” Is it because there is actually some evidence for the reality of “objective morality” or successful fortune-telling or astrology? Or is it because some people deeply want to believe in such things and insist on doing so despite all the evidence to the contrary?(cont.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11111405959451703182 PhysicistDave

    (cont.)Those two alternative hypotheses can be tested.They have been tested.For, thousands of years, as you suggest, people have been claiming that objective morality exists (that is, values that transcend human choices and purposes). They have had thousands of years to offer evidence for this.Their “evidence” pretty much boils down to: “Lots of people want to think objective values exist, and who the Hell are you to say everyone else is wrong???”Pretty much like astrology and fortune-telling.BG also wrote:> Why? Because purposes, functions, teleology, etc. are "cognitively opaque." We can't see purposes, they are only communicable by language, by someone explaining them to us. Humans obviously have purposes, but the question is, does non-human life show purposivity as well?You mean, do dogs and whales have purposes? Well, sure! Why would anyone deny that?BG also wrote:> Why are humans trying to keep values only in our minds and not sharing them with nature? In other words, why do we refuse to acknowledge objective values, values that are facts?Because all the values we know of exist in minds, and no one has ever given a coherent explanation of values not in someone’s mind, much less evidence that such values outside of minds exist.BG also wrote:> Anyway, I think we are seeing the "rent" paid by our rejection of value intrinsic in nature: we are destroying it for our own ends, and it is wrecking our planet.That is absurd. The planet is big. We may be warming it enough to inconvenience part of the human race. Unfortunate, but not nearly as big a deal as the Ice Ages. And, the planet survived the Ice Ages quite well.Look: I am all too familiar with the attempts by goof-balls like Feser and Oderberg to argue that teleology is consistent with science: they are only able to do so because of their incredible ignorance of science.You guys are just fantasizing: sort of like some guy who claims that the true spiritual essence of Emma Watson visited his bedroom last night. Maybe… or maybe he is just a goof-ball. It is not hard at all to figure out which.Dave

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11111405959451703182 PhysicistDave

    Brian Greene wrote to me:> I'd just ask, as a preliminary, is it okay for us to drive all the species on Earth extinct that we don't think are useful or cute (insofar as this helps humans and does not hurt us, just to pre-emt the instrumentalist response)? If there is no objective value in their existence, then its open season, I think. Y’know, most people feel guilty about answering that honestly.I don’t.It’s okay by me.Now, of course, I know enough ecology to know that a lot of species are really useful even though most people do not know that. So, I’d take that into account.But, if it were proven that the common cockroach has no hidden ecological importance that most of us do not know of, would it bother me to see it become extinct?Nope.And, y’know, if Nature does have inherent values, Nature seems to agree with me on this. The overwhelming majority of all the species that ever existed on this planet have long ago gone extinct, long before humans evolved. Extinction is what species do.Indeed, in the natural course of events (i.e., unless humans develop superhuman technology to prevent it), the pageant of life on this planet is more than half-way over. In a couple billion years or so, the sun will have heated up enough to make life on earth impossible.And, now that we know about all those extra-solar planets, it seems likely that the same fate has played itself out at least billions of times across the universe since the Big Bang: not just constant ongoing extinctions, but the entire biospheres of planets, again and again, wiped out by the natural forces of stellar evolution.Poignant in a way.That’s Nature for ya’!Seriously, if you don’t like that, you would be better pursuing some sort of defiant Nietzschianism that rails against the values of Nature.Dave

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11111405959451703182 PhysicistDave

    Gilbert wrote to me:>It seems to me that your four points involve a fair amount of build in assumption.No, I am making none of the assumptions you attribute to me.Interesting that folks on your side of this debate have so little ability to figure out what the rest of us are saying. Now, that is what Leah should have done her Turing Test on!I’m not going to fill up Leah’s blog with point-by-point discussions of every statement you have made in your point-by-point misunderstanding of me: that approach leads to exponentially growing responses that simply exhaust everyone.So… I’ll simply try to explain my broad approach, which you do seem to be missing:We have one undisputed fact here: You, Brian, and many, many, many other people think that morality exists in some sense that transcends the purposes, goals, etc. of actual human beings.There are two obvious hypotheses that may explain that fact:1) You guys are actually right.2) You guys are just making it up because it satisfies your desires and personal psychological needs, shows your loyalty to your social or religious group, etc.If anyone had ever offered any evidence for your belief’s actually being true that even convinced most of you folks who hold that belief… well, I think guys like Patrick and me would have to seriously address such evidence. But, I have been interested in this subject for well over forty years, I know all the classical “arguments,” and I know of no evidence at all that your belief is true that even convinces most of the guys on your side of the debate.On the other hand, all of the evidence fits hypothesis 2 very, very nicely indeed. In fact, Brian has ingenuously provided some himself: he has argued for the inherent objective value of non-human nature on the grounds that we really need to believe in such values to avoid global catastrophe. Maybe we do, thought I doubt it. But, that is an example of someone’s being rather clear that they are making up this objective-values thing simply because they like the results: hypothesis 2 in a nutshell.Your and Brian’s objections tend to be that the rest of us can never prove to you through deductive logic that your very weird objective values do not exist. No, indeed, and you cannot absolutely prove to anyone that boojums and slithy toves do not exist, either.But, since there is no evidence at all for the existence of boojums and slithy toves, and since the evidence fits nicely the hypothesis that Lewis Carroll just made them up… well, the hypothesis that he just made them up is better supported than the hypothesis that they are real.Plain old scientific method.We are all talking past each other because some of us take for granted that this is the appropriate way to evaluate claims made by human beings, whereas the guys on your side take it for granted that we have an obligation to prove you wrong.We don’t: it is sufficient to weigh the evidence for the hypothesis that you are right (i.e., zero evidence) vs. the evidence that you are just making it all up for a variety of reasons (considerable evidence).Dave

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08016230732925516069 Gilbert

    For the record, Darwin responded to Dave, not me. I agree with everything he said, but still those are not my words.

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com/ Brian Green

    Well, there is one terrible inaccuracy that you have committed above Dave, and that is thinking that Boojums cannot be proven one way or another. They certainly do exist.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fouquieria_columnarisI must say, Dave, you are extremely resistant to the idea of purposes being external to human minds. What about chimps? Can they have purposes in their minds? And what about other animals? You humorously (I think, sarcasm is hard to detect on the internet) write off that dogs and whales have purposes… do you mean that in terms of purposes to humans, or their own purposes? Because dogs definitely can have purposes in their own minds and whales (at least toothed ones) can too. They think about food and figure out ways to get it. For that matter why stop at minds? Why must purpose be /consciously intentional/? DNA/RNA certainly shows functionality with codons, tRNAs and aminoacids forming biosemiotic triads. Cells signal each other. Neurons represent brain states reflecting the outside world. All this non-intentional purposivity has definite function without any mind involved. And function can succeed or fail, hence the objective existence of value.Look up biosemiotics and Terrence Deacon (at UC Berkeley). He's an atheist, so it's okay, he's a member of your tribe.I'm starting to think you are a person who looks at text and sees only black and white markings, not language with meaning (that's a joke, since you can obviously read and write). The meaning is in the system of symbolic representations and the interpreter of them. Your physicalist description can study the markings all it wants to, but to get the meaning you need access to the system and how it represents things. That's why there are ancient languages we cannot translate: we have the symbols but not referents or interpreters. Same with nature, but we actually have more to go on in that case. People are working on this, you just don't believe there is anything there to find, which is an excellent way to never find something.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03615608336736450543 Hendy

    I get the gist of this… but let me paint it this way:- X and Y are mutually exclusive alternatives- I current believe X but think Y has a valid chance of being true- X is currently more favorable to me for certain reasonsAm I the only one who couldn't just justify X and ignore Y and still sleep at night? How many people really do this? You might as well just call all non Y-ers immoral and blatantly so. I do want to know the truth, even if it entails stuff I don't want to do.Honestly, in my "quest" to evaluate theism, morality (practically applied) doesn't even enter my mind. I'm simply interested in 1) whether a theistic being exists and 2) which one it is and what it wants. Note that #2 isn't about evaluating whether I want to do what it wants… it's simply about finding out about such a being if #1 has been established.The litany of Tarski, to me, is much more about pride and being wrong than getting to carry on with whatever my current moral system allows for. For me, it would be much more about how I've shifted my life toward non-belief over 1.5 years and then having to admit that god was real after all. Something like that.Lastly, theists themselves don't even agree on what kind of diamond is in the box. Maybe it's just me, but it really rubs me the wrong way when it's declared that god is the only source of objective moral values… and then the proclaimer goes on to list how humans have to interpret from ancient texts and philosophy what the correct values really are.My current thinking is that proclamations of objectively true things should produce a convergence upon them because they can be demonstrated (pay rent). "Truths" that after 1300 years haven't managed to convince people who didn't already believe them are suspect, in my opinion.

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com/ Brian Green

    Hendy, quick recommendation, read David Sloan Wilson's _Darwin's Cathedral_ on religion and cultural evolution. And then think about moral systems and you'll see that cultural evolution has converged on many common moral practices that are shared by many groups of peoples. It's convergent cultural evolution of moral norms. It has nothing to do with belief and everything to do with practice, because evolution selects what people do, not what they think.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11111405959451703182 PhysicistDave

    Brian Greene wrote to me:>You humorously (I think, sarcasm is hard to detect on the internet) write off that dogs and whales have purposes… do you mean that in terms of purposes to humans, or their own purposes? Because dogs definitely can have purposes in their own minds and whales (at least toothed ones) can too.Brian, I fear that you think I am a more humorous fellow than I really am!We humans are great apes, the “third chimpanzee” as Jared Diamond has said.Anyone who accepts evolution is pretty much stuck with the idea that chimps have feelings, goals, etc.It would be silly to say that humans have purposes and chimps don’t. And, almost as silly, at least for anyone who has ever had a dog as a pet, to deny that dogs have purposes.I have no personal contact with whales, but I take it there is little doubt among those who have that cetaceans also have purposes of their own.Brian also wrote:>For that matter why stop at minds? Why must purpose be /consciously intentional/? DNA/RNA certainly shows functionality with codons, tRNAs and aminoacids forming biosemiotic triads. Cells signal each other. Neurons represent brain states reflecting the outside world. All this non-intentional purposivity has definite function without any mind involved. And function can succeed or fail, hence the objective existence of value.Have you read Feser? This is what he rants and raves so much about. Most of us scientists nowadays claim that the apparent “purposivity” of DNA, cells, etc. is illusory: an illusion due to the failure to grasp the utter purposelessness of evolution. All that is really there in DNA, a rosebush, etc. is electrons, protons, and neutrons pushing and pulling on each other. The apparent “purposivity” is simply due to the mindlessly mechanical process of evolution: mindlessly random mutations mindlessly weeded out via natural selection.That is why atheists like evolution so much: it reduces the seeming “purposivity” of even mindless living organisms (like a rosebush) to mindless mechanism.Feser hates the fact that most scientists think this way, but he does admit that we do. And, his attempts to claim that we scientists are all wet in thinking this way end up just betraying his stunning ignorance of science.Brian also wrote:>Your physicalist description can study the markings all it wants to, but to get the meaning you need access to the system and how it represents things.You once again are putting words in my mouth and revealing your unwillingness to understand people who differ from you.I am not a physicalist, never have been: I agree with Colin McGinn and David Chalmers that physics as we know it probably cannot explain consciousness.On the other hand, it seems reasonable to me to suppose that things that appear to be mindlessly physical – rocks and rosebushes – really are.Yeah, I have my purposes, chimps have their purposes, etc.But, there is no reason at all to think that anything beyond individual conscious beings have purposes.Brian also wrote:> He's an atheist, so it's okay, he's a member of your tribe.Fallacy of negative definition, like assuming commonality among non-Sikhs that goes beyond simply not being Sikhs. Trust me, there is no atheist tribe: I irritate other atheists at least as much as I irritate theists.Maybe more.Brian also wrote:>People are working on this, you just don't believe there is anything there to find, which is an excellent way to never find something.There are people “working on” astrology, Scientology, etc. – all sorts of con games No reason to think they have any worse contact with reality than the people you refer to.You guys are just making this up.Just like Scientologists and astrologers.Dave

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com/ Brian Green

    Dave I think we've gotten to the point where discussion is not longer useful. You are obviously set in your beliefs since you acknowledge current physics probably can't explain consciousness and then reject one course of inquiry that could actually solve the problem. “I am not a physicalist, never have been: I agree with Colin McGinn and David Chalmers that physics as we know it probably cannot explain consciousness. On the other hand, it seems reasonable to me to suppose that things that appear to be mindlessly physical – rocks and rosebushes – really are.”You are a physicalist for some things but not others. Why? Have you noticed that roses and rocks act differently? Roses show purposivity, seeking light, etc. Rocks sit. Or do you deny any difference between life and non-life? And if so, why are humans not like rocks? What makes minds different? Why is the value split between “with mind” and “without mind” rather than “alive” vs. “not alive”?You acknowledge purposivity exists in higher animals, but deny it exists in lower, calling even looking for it "astrology"? You are full of talk. Do you have no curiosity as to where the borderline cases occur, or how purposivity can appear at a certain level of development? Why can brains have purposes but not individual cells? Even amoebas will move up a chemical gradient towards a food source. Dogs and humans do the same. Rocks do not. The trick is to explain it. Biosemiotics does that and it also grounds natural teleology and therefore a completely naturalistic, non-theistic theory of value. Why do you resist an idea that could help your worldview make sense?Your system does not make sense by your own admission. Anything with even a slight chance of improving upon zero percent chance of being right ought to be worth a look! You acknowledge your worldview is incoherent and does not correspond with human experience and then happily dismiss even looking for one that could solve the problem, reiterating "astrology," "scientology" as if random analogy made your point. I'm not even asking you to think about God, just nature. I can only conclude that you are arguing in bad faith or are very confused. Being confused would be much better of course, if only you were interested in resolving it. Your responses make me think of someone who really WANTS to believe what they already believe, and doesn't much care about anything else. In which case there is no longer any point at attempting discussion.But I like discussion and can hardly resist it, so to wrap up I will just point to where I have discussed some of these things before in more detail, in the comment thread of a critique of Sam Harris.http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com/2011/02/07/book-review-the-moral-landscape-by-sam-harris-part-1/

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11111405959451703182 PhysicistDave

    Brain Greene wrote to me:> You are obviously set in your beliefs since you acknowledge current physics probably can't explain consciousness and then reject one course of inquiry that could actually solve the problem.Not in the slightest. There seems to be little to no chance that the verbalist nonsense you propose can solve the problem. But, there are other courses of inquiry that may.I am against lying. People who claim to have the solution to the problem, when they do not and when there is little hope they will ever find it, are lying.I deeply hate liars.BG also wrote:> Why is the value split between “with mind” and “without mind” rather than “alive” vs. “not alive”?I didn’t say anything about that “value split.”BG also wrote:> You are full of talk.As opposed to students of theology (I’ll try not to laugh) such as you?Hmmmm…..BG also wrote:> And if so, why are humans not like rocks? What makes minds different?I don’t know.Real scientists are very good at saying “I don’t know.” I have noticed that philosophers and theologians are not.BG also wrote:> You are a physicalist for some things but not others. Why? Have you noticed that roses and rocks act differently? Roses show purposivity, seeking light, etc. Rocks sit. Or do you deny any difference between life and non-life?Modern science says the difference between roses and rocks is that the electrons, protons, and neutrons are in different positions in the rose vs. the rock.That’s it.Really.I know this is very, very hard for most non-scientists to grasp due to the abysmally poor science education in the USA, but that is really it.Of course, there is a history – i.e., evolution – explaining why the electrons, protons, and neutrons are arranged differently in the rose vs. the rock. But, that too is totally mechanistic.BG also wrote:> Your system does not make sense by your own admission. [snip]>You acknowledge your worldview is incoherent and does not correspond with human experienceBoth of those statements are clear, nasty, bald-faced lies.I admitted and acknowledged nothing of the sort. I did not even claim to have a “system” or a worldview.” I know some things – a rosebush can be explained mechanistically. There are other things I do not know -–how consciousness is related to the physical world.I lack the hubris that liars like you have to claim to have a completed “system” or “worldview.”Again and again, you have claimed that I have presented views that I do not hold and which I have not stated at all. Again and again, you are just making it up.You are so unwilling to try to understand people who differ from you that you are engaging in blatant, bald-faced lies.You are contemptible.Frankly, to me what you exhibit is the true essence of being a Christian.Dave

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com/ Brian Green

    Dave, thanks, you are just perfect. :)


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