Smuggling Morality into the Amoral: A reply to Jeff Williams

Smuggling Morality into the Amoral: A reply to Jeff Williams February 2, 2020

What is going on? 

If we wish to follow the Logos where He leads, we need to listen to critics, especially those with interesting things to say. Jeff Williams is a critic of metaphysics. A University of Chicago grad, he agreed to present his argument and I have posted it here unedited (except for some formatting and the title). As result of his rejection of metaphysics, he rejects objective moral law as an illusion.

Mr. Williams previously argued that Athens has no need of Jerusalem, which contributes nothing good to Western civilization. I responded and enjoyed the interaction immensely. Mr. Williams has taken the time to discuss Martin Heidegger, a philosopher not much in favor when I was in graduate school. I have enjoyed reading more Heidegger (alas in translation). As usual, I allowed his post to stand without comment for a time and now here is a  response. Mr. Williams suggested to me that I had not gotten him right, so it seemed decent and in order to let him respond.

Thank you for this dialog Mr. Williams! May we ever follow the Logos wherever He leads. And now I suggest that Mr. Williams is searching for morality in the amoral: not unlike looking for a pony in a pile of Legos.

Finding that Pony

When I was a boy, there was a joke, sort of funny, that accused some thinkers of endlessly looking for the pony in a pile of horse manure.  As an optimistic kind of kid, this “joke” struck me as missing an important point. Perhaps the search was a good idea, since if you had a pile of pony manure, there was a pony somewhere, even if not here. The hope that a pony might be someplace close might be a good enough motive for a continued search.


Yet imagine someone finding a pony shaped stack of Legos. This pony-loving-soul would not be justified in looking for an actual pony in a pile of spare blocks since no real pony is needed to explain the presence of the stack of Legos or even the LEGO pony. We can build a Lego unicorn without there ever being (in nature) a unicorn.

We cannot have a pile of unicorn poo without there once being a unicorn. Mr. Williams, I would suggest, keeps looking for some “ought” in a pile of “is”. He isn’t ever going to find what he seeks, but remains hopeful because he keeps smuggling in some “ought” with ill defined terms.

Mr. Williams begins by pointing out what he thinks is an error on my part:

This will of god is itself a metaphysical assertion that one is not compelled to accept. If I were to ground my thinking solely in the physical this idea of god vanishes but the world is in no way altered. This indicates it is not an essential part of the world. It is really the same thing as a Platonic form but attributed to a specific metaphysical deity. As I explain below, I do not suggest there is no common ground for morality among people; much to the contrary. But as I have written before, the error of metaphysics is to split off this ground from physical Being and unnecessarily construct imaginary forms and sources for this essence. These imagined forms can take the appearance of objectivity because they are posited to exist prior to subjective judgment and meant to provide a common measure of truth. Common, however, does not necessarily imply objective. We share certain innate sensibilities, but there is no objective measure for beauty, food preferences, etc. Metaphysics is largely a reaction to the impossibility of logically grasping the true nature of Being in this world and rational idealism offers the alluring illusion of clarity. The universe, however, just isn’t that way. Finally, my point was not that the objective law would be outside God’s own will, but rather it would be outside and separate from human subjectivity, immutable and perfect.

This is not so much wrong as confused. Suppose one is not compelled (?) to accept the idea of the “will of God.” I certainly know many thinkers who do not accept the existence of God. Yet, sadly for such folk, if they remove the idea of God and ground all in the physical, then the world is in many ways altered. They cease to be able to think coherently about human consciousness, a pretty basic experience! They cannot account for the existence of numbers or ideas, even though both numbers and ideas seem to exist to the experts that study such concepts. 

Perhaps nobody should split the metaphysical reality from the physical. As a Christian theist, I am commanded not to do so. I am not sure then why Mr. Williams thinks I do. Christian theism thinks the physical and the metaphysical matter and urges people not to ignore important parts of their own experience . . . Like the ability to experience anything (consciousness)!

Nothing believe is outside human experience, or subjectivity, since I am (despite critics’ claims) human. I experience God, gobstoppers, Geittier problems in my mind. What is my mind? Simply saying it is merely physical is not helpful, since it almost surely is not. A pile of red LEGO blocks  is never going to produce a blue LEGO castle. That God as a person exists outside of my particular subjective experience is helpful for similar reasons that Mr. Williams’ existence outside of my particular subjective experiences is helpful.

Mr. Williams as a mind exists regardless of my opining and so it is with God. He goes on being divine, whatever I may wish or assume. As a result, my experience of the cosmos keeps running into His hard reality. Of course, this means that past speculations of what God might have thought turn out to be wrong, but then my past speculations of what my wife (also a person!) have thought have turned out to be wrong.

Neither the existence of my wife or of God are made suspect by this (not so shocking) fact.

Mr. Williams does not think he needs God, as he has another ground for morality. Leave aside that one does not need my wife to exist (Hope!) in order for her to exist. In fact, I think she exists, because she does exist and I have experienced her presence. I do not need God to exist (at first), so much as I find God and so know God exists. Mr. Williams apparently has not had such an experience and so tries for a different grounding for morality. It is very incoherent:

So, what is ground?

It’s earth in its fecundity. It’s blood and genes and the mysteries that drive it all. It is not fully explicable or knowable, but it does reveal certain aspects. Those aspects of revealed mystery are the solid grounding of knowledge. It is tempting to invent myth for those mysteries yet unrevealed, but the resulting metaphysics lose their grounding as mere empty speculation. Much better to remain silent before what cannot be spoken.

However poetically one writes about “is,” one is not going to get an “ought.” The “solid grounding of knowledge” of what is can immediately be challenged by the impertinent thinker (who as a thinker is outside of the merely material). She looks up from the piles of data about what “is true” and says: “We know you are right about what is, but we prefer this, even if this is just now a mere dream. Why? Because is does not seem best compared to the blessed community envisioned by thinkers like Martin Luther King.”

And surely nothing has gone wrong with looking at blood and genes in human history without a “love your neighbor” and “love your enemies” checking our (at the moment) convenient interpretation of what is! No follower of Heidegger should take about “blood” without caution. 

The end result of such thinking will always be not so logical:

You pointed to a priori knowledge such as mathematics (or logic), but how would you justify a priori knowledge as revealing truth outside our representations? You point to innate categories of the understanding, but these we have evolved to better adapt to our environment on the savannah. They simplified the world to icons that allowed us to better flee lions and catch gazelles. But these innate senses of number and logic need not actually exist outside this subjective understanding. We refer to it as objective because everybody has reference to it as an innate feature of our minds, but there is no valid way to expand that to actual existence outside our common subjectivity. Once we make the initial metaphysical move from A is A to A=A we have imposed a pure idea of number onto a world where it doesn’t exist. By doing so we have erased essence from the physical world and instead objectified it into equal and additive objects. With the erasure of essence inherent in A=A we can blithely say two lions when in reality it is this lion and that lion not identical in reality. And once we blind ourselves to that essence, we can never really know a lion. That essence was defined away as some metaphysical idea.

Mr. Williams should explain how, exactly, a logical truth or mathematical truth evolves. We can certainly learn such truths over time, but A=A is not subject to my assent. A does, in fact, equal A. Try denying it after you see it and you will discover it cannot be coherently done. If Mr. Williams can doubt this, if Mr. Williams has a way of explaining reality without A=A being true, then he should tell us just what that way is.

I feel quite comfortable saying “two lions” because, in fact, there are two lions. There is a concept of lions and though these two lions are not the same lions, they are both lions. Mr. Williams suggests we deny the reality of logic, mathematics, and the all the rest of metaphysical reality so he can be sure there is no God. We might ask for even a coherent definition of physical. To say that all is physical using language, ideas, and abstract concepts with no possible explanation on hand for what they are is a grave problem.

We think first and then we experience external reality in our minds, but Williams would have us doubt the existence of the first on the basis of the second.

Metaphysics is not a problem unless one is determined to ban the obvious from reality. This is similar to the idealist who must suggest the rock isn’t really stubbing our toe. Mayhap, but why believe it?

Williams tries hard to find the pony in his pile of physical LEGO blocks:

So, how do we get to knowledge of morality?

Hume proposed that morality was an innate sensibility that we as a species refine over time. There is much to be said for that as a beginning of our answer to what is good. If morality is a matter of innate sensibility refined over time it is mutable according to the nature of our innate sensibility and explains how morality has progressed over the millennia. Objective morality, as that based on the Bible, would be immutable; but just as the eating of bugs would offend the sensibility of most people today, so does the Biblical harshness of the old testament. Our sense of morality is offended by genocide, an eye for an eye revenge, slavery, and the stoning of adulterers, heretics, and wayward youth. Alfred North Whitehead noted that in most religions there is a progression from a fearsome and harsh god toward a mild and forgiving one. I suggest that is best explained in a refinement in taste toward empathy and tolerance. In the West, this progress evolved more quickly and radically the further we moved away from Christianity, with a decided acceleration from the time of the Enlightenment. Were morality objective and immutable, we would still be mired in the primitive dictates of the Pentateuch.

Apparently Mr. Williams has never read the New Testament or noted that revelation is progressive in Christianity. Leave aside this failure to understand that a good God must educate broken people over time waiting for their free consent and understanding to ideas they keep refusing.

When one says “morality is an innate sensibility” then one has run into explanation by semantics:  like the use of “instinct” to describe why a being acts as the being does. The word covers what happens without explaining why it happens. Suppose our moral impulse is “innate” given to us by mindless Darwinism.

immediately can challenge this and my mind allows me to do so. This “direction” from nature is not sanctified so should I do as nature suggests? Why? This is not a ground for morality, but an explanation for why we might choose particular moral positions. Williams is confused.

I am also confused about the “West” that has not been overwhelmingly Christian until the last fifty years or so (for good and bad). What is this place? Who are those people? Is it the Christian apologist Locke? Is it Martin Luther King? Is it the Christian American super-majority resisting the horrors of the atheist Soviet regime or the atheism Maoist regime?

Who will decide? Science is strangely unable to parse the “is” from the “ought” because science can never do that task. 

Williams then tells a falsehood:

We accept this moral sensibility as being good because we can do no other. It springs directly from our nature and contains the very possibility of morality in man. Although different people, and at different places and times, interpreted this innate sensibility differently, we consider empathy, fairness, caring and love in the general sense to be good because it is so determined in our nature.

In fact, if there is one nearly indisputable fact of human history it is that we can, in fact, do quite a few things other than agree with our “moral sensibility.” Atheists are killing Chinese religious in China tonight. Christians, with a Lord who says “love your enemies,” kill their enemies. We do not all consider empathy, fairness, caring, and love to be good, because we do not all agree on what the terms “empathy,” “fairness,” “caring,” and “love” mean.

The devils are in the details and the details bring us back to metaphysics and philosophy. Nature does not settle the subject. Can anyone name one good cultural moment motivated by Heidegger? If religion is almost wholly terrible, it is not always terrible. The same cannot be said for this approach to morality.

What of morality?

Williams confuses how with what: 

Science explains this in evolutionary terms. As our adaptative ability is improved through social cohesiveness and cooperation, so these innate impulses are selected for and survive. There are such examples throughout the animal world. Because science is an ontic explication of mechanism, however, it can tell us nothing of the ontology of morality, which with the overcoming of metaphysics requires a complete rethinking. And this is where you and I come surprisingly close in our thinking, although separated in the parallel universes of the metaphysical and the physical.

Just so.

I am stuck with all of reality. I cannot find the moral pony in a pile of LEGOS. Why would I even try? Here is an illuminating suggestion: the metaphysical and the physical “universes” need not be parallel, but might be one. They are aspects of one whole. If one insists, on bifurcation, then one will have trouble seeing the unity. What if the division is merely a mater of human convenience?

Mr. Williams imports metaphysical vocabulary into science: 

Being as physical existence is not a metaphysical assertion but our only knowable reality. And within it lies more mystery than we can ever fathom, so why invent another mystery? In Christianity man was made for a purpose, although it isn’t entirely clear what that purpose was. Perhaps Being contains the universal purpose that progresses in expression throughout time. Physical laws impel development toward ever more complexity. Inorganic chemicals evolve toward organic molecules and into genetic material. Eternal survival of this genetic material is the strongest force we have ever witnessed in this world, but who really can begin to imagine what this overwhelming intentionality really encompasses? Everything we are is an expression of what lie as potential in those uncanny genes. And what we are appears purposed for the contemplation and experience of this universe – Being in self-regard and self-experience.

We all, in fact, begin with a non-physical experience; our consciousness. Mr. Williams can assert the contrary all he wishes, but our very selves have not been reduced to the physical. This is the “hard problem” for the physicalist. Perhaps, it is so very hard, because simplistically taking one part of reality (ideas, numbers, consciousness, mind) and making it one thing is not going to work.

Meanwhile, we are given the genuinely unscientific notion that “physical laws” impel anything morally. Nothing suggests they do. Nothing other than desire for everything to be physical would suggest they are. We do contemplate and experience this cosmos and nothing in physical laws suggests that this is so. We do and so the physicalist uses his metaphysical assumptions to assume there must be a physicalist way to explain this deepest reality.

We begin in consciousness and the physicalist would explain this away.

The one thing nature, as mere nature, does not do (by itself) is stir up any particular moral position. Is nature red in claw? Is war good as it eliminates the unfit? Or not? Heidegger followers have taken both views, because “Nature” does not speak. Nature is mute having no mind. Instead, we are left, even if we knew all of what “is” to ask: “Is our dream of the beloved community better?”

If it is, if the dream is better than the “is,” then we must acknowledge the “is” but live for the dream. Physical nature is not immoral, even broken as she is, but physical nature is amoral.  We can look at the stars and see the glory of God or endless empty space that has no love for us. Perhaps a cheerful non-theist can smuggle in some better imagination, but when he does, he is bringing a “should” to the “is.”


When Jeff Williams waxes poetically it does not come from nature, but from the very image of God that will spring up and do better with Heidegger than Heidegger did. 

Not one star is poetic, but one mind is. Perhaps we should begin with minds and not stars.

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