In a sense, this is about the most important piece I can write because out of it comes my whole philosophy. What you are about to read pertains to any abstract object: morality, meaning (of life or words), maths, purpose, and so on.
I am just about to release a new book called Why I Am Atheist and Not a Theist in which I build my whole worldview up from the bottom. It’s a touch more philosophical than some of my other religious treatments in establishing my ontological framework, which then informs my epistemology, natural theology and then morality. The problem is, most people do it backwards, or start in the middle. I often talk about bottom-up construction of worldviews rather than top-down.
I don’t want this to be a screed against certain people, but here is an example of ignorance of this topic from regular commenters. In this case, Catholic Jim Dailey appears not to have read my previous 100 pieces on the topic. Except I’m pretty sure he has – or at least he has commented on them – because his comment shows a willful ignorance of my repeated claims.
Jim Dailey stopped reading my piece on pro-life being anti-choice by his own admission:
Stopped reading at
“ The Consitution and the Bill of Rights are just old bits of paper. You can amend them get rid of them, supersede them – whatever.”
I will preserve this quote from you, and bring it out on every single piece you ever write on American politics ever again. It shows you have no understanding of the social compact between government and the governed.
Thanks for this.
This really annoys me for a couple of reasons: he is willfully not understanding me (he just doesn’t want to get it) and he is quote-mining me. Let’s present it all:
I’ve told you this a million times before. it’s how all abstract objects work, including morality and rights. We construct them so they exist conceptually, and in our minds, and then we codify them into law. This only becomes meaningful if the law is enacted and robustly defended.
The Consitution and the Bill of Rights are just old bits of paper. You can amend them get rid of them, supersede them – whatever. They only become meaningful in a pragmatic sense when codified, enacted and enforced.
This is, of course, trivially true. The Constitution literally is an old piece of paper (written by a bunch of long-dead old [white] guys). It literally includes amendments and changes. It literally is encoded into law, enacted and enforced, thus giving it practical importance and implication. To add to this, the Supreme Court routinely tests and modifies interpretations of the statements in both documents.
It’s the ideas that are important, silly.
But, as stated, ideas are only practically meaningful when they have ramifications or influence: in other words, when they are codified and acted upon.
This whole debate is where these ideas exist. Someone like JD, here, thinks there is either…
- some Platonic realm where there is the right to bear arms (that in this realm, there is some absolute moral law or diktat that sits there, as an abstract idea, naturally),
- or, as a Catholic, that perhaps abstracts exist in the mind or existence of God.
The broad point for me is that unless you set out your ontology of abstract ideas, you simply cannot do epistemology (how you know stuff, or go about seeking truth and what this means, since “truth” is an abstract concept), you cannot then do natural theology (whether gods exist, and how to make them coherent) and you cannot do morality (the ultimate of abstract objects).
All 2nd Amendment advocates, anti-choicers, religious zealots, and other such people do is argue from God outwards, or morality downwards; but they make a hash of abstracts, and their whole framework falls apart.
Not just those people. I wrote a post on moral skepticism the other week and plenty of humanists and atheists didn’t like it. They’re wrong too (in my humblest of opinions, sorry!). They are arguing from a realist ontology of morality – an assertion that there are indubitable moral facts that exist irrespective of human/sentient minds, or some such thing. This may be the case, but they present no cogent argument for how this is so. Thus it is merely wishful thinking.
I don’t want to set my case out in full again. But I will say this – and hats off to Luke Breuer because I’m sure he understands this and it is why he is using my ontological framework (conceptual nominalism – that abstracts only exist in the minds of the conceivers) as target practice. I will admit, if I am wrong at the bottom, everything else falls apart and I will have to rebuild my foundations to see where it leads me (don’t start with the conclusion and work back!). The only thing that has come close – though it might be a paradigm shift rather than a complete deconstruction – is idealism.
Theists are wrong at the bottom.
And so they are wrong all the way up.
Hopefully, you will see it in my book. It started off as just a project to compile old essays into an anthology so as not to waste them. It has become probably my most important book. My opinion is that every philosopher and theologian should be dealing with the ontology of abstracts before beginning to learn about anything else. It is that important.
Instead of laying out my case again (read the related posts below), I am going to produce an infographic or three to show that, even if the theist can establish either a Platonic realm where (even if it has no spatio-temporal location…) such ideas immutably exist or a God in which such ideas exist, then they are still no closer to solving the problem due to the epistemic barrier ever-present. And that’s given that when I invent the idea of a grashextiquet (the refraction of early morning sunshine through of a droplet of dew on a honeysuckle plant into the eyes and perception of a badger), it must somehow then pop into the Platonic realm or exist in God’s mind, and this must still take into account people’s disagreement with this definition, perhaps a changing thereof, maybe over time with the development of language and its application by a wide range of people. So on and so forth. See dictionaries and encyclopedias of everything, including philosophy. We construct and create frameworks of ideas – change and adapt them to suit different causes – and use these to navigate our way through reality.
But we don’t dig into the sands of an ethereal dimension like abstract explorers to discover already-existent individual ideas or frameworks of abstract ideas. We are builders, not discoverers.
Because we cannot access either God or the Platonic realm (PR). As such, there is an epistemic barrier, first formulated by Descartes: all we can know indubitably is cogito ergo sum – “I”, as a thinking or experiencing entity, exist. Past that, anything could be happening. The Matrix, Descartes’ Evil Daemon, a simulation, idealism, and so on. So we build up our epistemologies, but these are often measured on their success in pragmatic terms. We don’t know that our thoughts and beliefs entail 1-to-1 correspondence to an ultimate, foundational reality.
We all live in our worlds of our minds and hope that other minds think like ours. Often, we change our minds, and often we seek to change others in the endless journey towards the ideal of cognitive alignment.
If God exists, or a PR, we simply can’t know that our idea of morality is correct; 42,000 denominations of Christianity will show you this. Revelations depend on epistemologies, and epistemologies depend on abstracts and how we see the fundamental and ontological nature of reality.
We build up a map of reality, construct it from the earliest of moments to our present one.
This is a potential reality, too:
Here, the agent believes that there is another abstract reality outside of the undoubted abstract reality of their mind. For instance, the theist believes that their idea of God and their idea of morality is ideally a 1-to-1 correspondence to what is in the pink box. The problem is, all religious people believe this (or are trying to achieve this, involving some progressive revelation), but they mostly believe different things – different gods, different moralities, different revelations or understandings thereof (theologies).
But this is really what is going on with them – even if their god or PR actually exist!
Even if they do happen to hit the jackpot by “getting their god right” or mapping a moral rule accurately, they cannot know this! As a result, they still have to map everything out using their own conceptual mechanisms and frameworks!
This is one of the famous areas of issue with Divine Command Theory – the epistemic criticisms.
Christian: Goodness comes from God’s nature. What he commands is by definition good.
Skeptic: God commanded rape in the OT.
C: No he didn’t. At worst, that’s a human mistake in the Bible.
S: But how do you know God wouldn’t countenance rape?
C: Because God is good and rape is bad.
S: But in order to tell me that God wouldn’t command rape, you are using secular moral reasoning to tell me rape is bad such that it wouldn’t be part of God’s nature since it seems he did command it in the Bible!
This and many other connected issues show that we do morality and apply to gods, we don’t derive morality from gods. Our divine revelations throughout the world have been so wildly at odds with each other over time and place. There is simply no way of knowing you are accessing God’s moral dimension of a PR.
But this doesn’t have to be about God, it is also about, say, the 2nd Amendment and the right to bear arms. Where does that “inalienable right” exist? How does it compete with my asserted right to not be surrounded by people with guns? How do the rights of a blastocyst trump the rights of a fully-grown, perhaps voting and civically engaged (or not) woman? Who gets to be the arbiter of the accuracy of any correspondence?
Of course, they never follow through with the argument. I have asked several times, and was met with obfuscation, assertion, bait and switch, but not with establishing the ontology of abstract (rights).
Back to God, personal revelation won’t cut the mustard because every religion in the world in all places and times have adherents who believe they have received such. The Christian doesn’t believe the Muslim’s personal revelation and vice versa.
The atheist believes neither and doesn’t welcome in special pleading and double standards.
So I just jettison all that bother and do it myself, and in doing so, try to make the world a better place. There is no heaven for me bribing me to act in a certain way, colouring every moral action so that they are, in effect, entirely self-centred. Likewise, there is no threat of hell, beating me with the worst stick in human conception, making me act a certain way.
Instead, I develop moral frameworks that are coherent, pragmatic and useful, and philosophically legible.
I suggest you do the same.
- What Is Personhood? Setting the Scene.
- Life starts at conception, but what about personhood? Revisited.
- Human Rights Don’t Exist until We Construct and Codify Them
- Philosophy 101 (philpapers induced) #2 – Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism
- Species Do Not “Exist”: Evolution, Sand Dunes and the Sorites Paradox
- 16 Problems with Divine Command Theory
Stay in touch! Like A Tippling Philosopher on Facebook: