July 30, 2019

The rights debates raging on a number of recent comment threads have been pretty embarrassing for many of the people (gun advocates) taking part because they have simply not engaged with the conversation at the level it should have been. In fact, these haven’t been “rights debates”, they have been long lists of assertions followed by the spinning of guns stats. This is a philosophical blog, at heart, and the articles are mainly written to stimulate philosophical conversation, sometimes overtly and explicitly so. In the recent cases, this concerned the ontology of rights.

This is a rerun of the same article. Except, this time, if your comment is not pertinent to the ontology of rights in any meaningful way, it will be deleted. I want a discussion about whether conceptual nominalism holds, here, and what the implications are for the basis of rights in general if ontological realism is shown not to be coherent.

You have been warned. This will be philosophy on this thread, nothing else. I apologise for the two people on the previous thread who actually engaged (Luke and 3lemenope?). Perhaps copy and paste again here?

Mind Independence

Conceptual nominalism would say that rights, as abstract objects, only exist in the mind of the conceiver. If all sentient animals that conceived of rights were to die, then the concepts of rights would die with them.

This is defended by the following issues that arise when trying to claim that rights/abstract objects have ontic/min-independent existence, for example, in saying that rights exist innately in humans. If this were the case:

  • What would rights (/abstract objects) be made of?
  • Where would they be located? If they are innate in humans, where in the human body do they exist?
  • How would they causally interact with the physical world?
  • How do we know what those rights are? How do we know if our ideas of what our rights are map directly onto what those “real” rights are? (John Locke might call these nominal and real essences).

We know of things that really are innate. Take a predisposition or behaviour to do X. This would be coded into our genes (if shown to be genetically caused and not behaviourally learned based on interaction with the environment). X is innate insofar as society does not enforce X, somehow, on the agent and that the agent is born with it; it is not environmentally derived (assuming a simple understanding of genetics).

We can also see innate characteristics with blue eyes, dark skin or red hair, or any other genetically defined property.

But rights? Where and how are these encoded into a human? In what way could they be innate? Really, what does this mean?

We, as a society, ascribe rights to humans. This is why those rights differ across time, across societies and people. We used to think keeping slaves was a right. Many now see same-sex marriage/relationships/parenting as rights. But, ironically, many who argue for gun rights argue that these other rights are not, indeed rights.

One criticism of natural rights (and there are many I am not detailing here, see many of the linked articles below) is, as mentioned, knowing that we have a correct idea of what these supposedly innate things are. This is similar to issues with divine command theory as pointed out in the previous piece. There is an epistemological problem as much as an ontological one.

Locke

I could, for example, claim that eating ice cream on a Tuesday is a right. An innate right. I could claim anything is. How would we know? What I think has happened, over time, is that thinkers have tried to think of catch-all rights that cover all the bases rather than individualised rights. Of course, these bases are merely benchmarks of moral philosophy, and I would argue that rights supervene on pretty standard moral philosophising rather than have a fundamental and properly basic existence.

It appears that John Locke did this catch-all approach in claiming that there are three basic rights: rights of life, liberty and property, all somehow innate in humans. As great as many libertarians and American Constitutionalists think he was, he was a little contradictory, supporting the Bank of England, setting up military conscription in Carolina (this is a balanced piece on his involvement there), becoming the Commissioner on the Board of Trade (imposing tariffs and restrictions) and so on. (See here and here for property issues). I would certainly take issue with some of his claims:

We should not obey a king just out of fear, because, being more powerful he can constrain (this in fact would be to establish firmly the authority of tyrants, robbers, and pirates), but for conscience’ sake, because a king has command over us by right; that is to say, because the law of nature decrees that princes and a lawmaker, or a superior by whatever name you call him, should be obeyed. (Locke, 1663–64, Essays on the Law of Nature, in Goldie (ed.) 1997, 120)

Locke believed that having no property meant no injustice, and government was necessarily an infringement on liberty. True liberty is doing what one pleases. He saw moral laws as certain and discoverable as Euclidean geometry…

The problem for Locke is that he didn’t appear to do any ontological philosophy to support his claims of rights; he just asserted this, and this is then asserted by guns rights advocates in an attempt to sound lofty and thinking they are then rationalising their position. This is a really important point to emphasise. Thus all the issues with natural rights remain. This paper (“A paradox in Locke’s Theory of Natural Rights“) really sums up my thoughts on Locke and those (for example, in these threads) who quote and idolise his claims on natural rights:

There are certain recurring objections to Locke’s theory of legitimate government and the conception of natural rights on which it is based. These objections generally take the form of showing that most of Locke’s claims in the Second Treatise stand largely as ad hoc assertions, defended—if at all—not by philosophical argumentation but by appeals to theology or intuition. These criticisms might be called external criticisms of Locke’s theory because they focus, not upon the coherence of the theory or the perplexities which prompted Locke to adopt it, but rather upon the justifications (or lack of them) for that theory. [my emphasis]

Quite. He really doesn’t justify his claims, as far as I can see, on natural rights by dealing with ontological issues.

Let’s look at these rights, and forget the massive ontological issues that obtain in terms of what they are made of. You could say that eating an ice cream on a Tuesday is indeed a right because it falls under the rather nebulous right of freedom.

Indeed, most things do.

Aha. But what if your right to do something impinges on someone else’s right to their freedom, or indeed life? And this is where we get into a whole minefield of rights that is simply unsolvable. I might demand something that means someone is confined to a sweatshop; or it could be that I demand something that contributes to climate change and infringes on everyone’s right to life (okay, so must gun advocates probably deny climate change, but you get the point). Rights of property: what happens when people amass so much propertynto the detriment of others, affecting their rights?

…the top wealthiest 1% possess 40% of the nation’s wealth; the bottom 80% own 7%; similarly, but later, the media reported, the “richest 1 percent in the United States now own more additional income than the bottom 90 percent”.[8] The gap between the top 10% and the middle class is over 1,000%; that increases another 1,000% for the top 1%. The average employee “needs to work more than a month to earn what the CEO earns in one hour.”[9] :[source]

How does this affect rights? Especially when we know that money begets privilege and gives untold opportunity advantage to those who have it.

Locke was actually pretty progressive, which is amusing since many modern Americans who idolise his natural rights position are clearly not:

The Civil Rights movement and the suffrage movement both called out the state of American democracy during their challenges to the governments view on equality. To them it was clear that when the designers of democracy said all, they meant all people shall receive those natural rights that John Locke cherished so deeply. “a state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another” (Locke II,4).[43] Locke in his papers on natural philosophy clearly states that he wants a government where all are treated equal in freedoms especially. “Locke’s views on toleration were very progressive for the time” (Connolly).[44]Authors such as Jacob Connolly confirm that to them Locke was highly ahead of his time with all this progressive thinking. That is that his thought fits our current state of democracy where we strive to make sure that everyone has a say in the government and everyone has a chance at a good life. Regardless of race, gender, or social standing starting with Locke it was made clear not only that the government should provide rights, but rights to everyone through his social contract. [source]

These triple rights are also seriously challenged by the idea that libertarian free will does not exist – either philosophically and logically or empirically, as according to the overwhelming majority of philosophers (86% – metadata shows that those who don’t are invariably Christian thinkers who require it for their understanding of a judgemental god, heaven and hell, but they have yet to give a cogent account of how contra-causal free will can possibly work).

A right to bear arms is a freedom, but the probability of this leading to the infringement of someone else’s rights is what is the battleground here.

So even if we can establish another realm of reality where abstract objects can exist independent of the mind, we still have an absolute quagmire to negotiate. Of course, under conceptual nominalism, all of these issues simply evaporate; they are not a problem, because rights are conceptual, and so only exist in our thought, and don’t have real boundaries When they conflict, it is only because we have invented these fuzzy ideals that come with all of the issues that invented things do.

But realists have to solve these problems.

The funny thing is, they appear not to be bothered.

Immigration

Take the right to freedom. Libertarians (and I mean true libertarians) get this absolutely right (if you believe in these Lockean rights). The right to movement is about the most basic right of freedom – to move, with your body, from one location to another. Thing is, we’ve invented borders and nationhood – abstract ideas that we have codified into laws and maps. We’ve made them up and we don’t like people from that made-up country coming to this made-up country. In short, people don’t like immigration. Libertarians, taking into account Ayn Rand as a Russian illegal immigrant herself, actually defend migration and free movement of people amongst a whole suite of other things, and presumably based largely in the thinking of Locke:

1.5 Abortion

Recognizing that abortion is a sensitive issue and that people can hold good-faith views on all sides, we believe that government should be kept out of the matter, leaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration.

3.4 Free Trade and Migration

We support the removal of governmental impediments to free trade. Political freedom and escape from tyranny demand that individuals not be unreasonably constrained by government in the crossing of political boundaries. Economic freedom demands the unrestricted movement of human as well as financial capital across national borders. [my emphasis]

In other words, every gun rights activist should be a free movement of people advocate. They should be welcoming people across the Mexican border in the US and should be decrying Trump, his rhetoric and his wall.

In reality, of course, they don’t (in the vast majority of cases), post hoc rationalising and cherry-picking their freedoms to suit their own little bubble.

They like the idea of a right to bear arms, but they seem to want to have a right to stop other people moving, infringe the rights a woman has over her own body (whilst not caring about the rights of the born baby they fight so hard to get born, after it is born), deny the right to life of countless others through a clean environment (air, water, climate change), so on and so forth. The morass of contradictions and conflicting ideals is almost funny had it not so many nefarious implications. How do we know how to solve these problems? In what way can we tell that one right trumps another with any sort of epistemic certainty?

Easy. Because, you know, guns and abortion. These trump everything. This is identity politics at its best, with all the virtue signalling we have seen on the latest threads. Irony is delicious (though sometimes differentiating between irony and flat out hypocrisy is tough).

If people vomit their comments all over this thread without dealing with the ontology of rights, then they are doing their position a disservice. They are building their entire edifice of politics and thought upon air, on empty or hollow foundations.

Locke appeared to do the same, and repeating his mantra as a justification of their position, or bringing up human-conceived documents (Bill of Rights, the Consitution etc.) is no justification. You cannot bring up the conclusion of a strain of thought as justification for the conclusion of a strain of thought.

Please do not hijack this thread to try and scattergun your thoughts about gun ownership; I couldn’t care less here and now. This is a philosophical post about rights, their ontology and the contradictions inherent. This is my blog, my article, and my thread. Don’t opportunistically herd here like a pack of rabid dogs trying to upvote each other in competing as to who can comment the most, shout the loudest and champion gun rights to those gun control nazis and libtards that we supposedly are. I would hope we’re usually a bit more mature here in hoping for some more nuanced conversation.

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July 25, 2019

The rights debates raging on a number of recent comment threads have been pretty embarrassing for many of the people (gun advocates) taking part because they have simply not engaged with the conversation at the level it should have been. This is a philosophical blog, at heart, and the articles are mainly written to stimulate philosophical conversation, sometimes overtly and explicitly so. In the recent cases, this concerned the ontology of rights.

Mind Independence

Conceptual nominalism would say that rights, as abstract objects, only exist in the mind of the conceiver. If all sentient animals that conceived of rights were to die, then the concepts of rights would die with them.

This is defended by the following issues that arise when trying to claim that rights/abstract objects have ontic/min-independent existence, for example, in saying that rights exist innately in humans. If this were the case:

  • What would rights (/abstract objects) be made of?
  • Where would they be located? If they are innate in humans, where in the human body do they exist?
  • How would they causally interact with the physical world?
  • How do we know what those rights are? How do we know if our ideas of what our rights are map directly onto what those “real” rights are? (John Locke might call these nominal and real essences).

We know of things that really are innate. Take a predisposition or behaviour to do X. This would be coded into our genes (if shown to be genetically caused and not behaviourally learned based on interaction with the environment). X is innate insofar as society does not enforce X, somehow, on the agent and that the agent is born with it; it is not environmentally derived (assuming a simple understanding of genetics).

We can also see innate characteristics with blue eyes, dark skin or red hair, or any other genetically defined property.

But rights? Where and how are these encoded into a human? In what way could they be innate? Really, what does this mean?

We, as a society, ascribe rights to humans. This is why those rights differ across time, across societies and people. We used to think keeping slaves was a right. Many now see same-sex marriage/relationships/parenting as rights. But, ironically, many who argue for gun rights argue that these other rights are not, indeed rights.

One criticism of natural rights (and there are many I am not detailing here, see many of the linked articles below) is, as mentioned, knowing that we have a correct idea of what these supposedly innate things are. This is similar to issues with divine command theory as pointed out in the previous piece. There is an epistemological problem as much as an ontological one.

Locke

I could, for example, claim that eating ice cream on a Tuesday is a right. An innate right. I could claim anything is. How would we know? What I think has happened, over time, is that thinkers have tried to think of catch-all rights that cover all the bases rather than individualised rights. Of course, these bases are merely benchmarks of moral philosophy, and I would argue that rights supervene on pretty standard moral philosophising rather than have a fundamental and properly basic existence.

It appears that John Locke did this catch-all approach in claiming that there are three basic rights: rights of life, liberty and property, all somehow innate in humans. As great as many libertarians and American Constitutionalists think he was, he was a little contradictory, supporting the Bank of England, setting up military conscription in Carolina (this is a balanced piece on his involvement there), becoming the Commissioner on the Board of Trade (imposing tariffs and restrictions) and so on. (See here and here for property issues). I would certainly take issue with some of his claims:

We should not obey a king just out of fear, because, being more powerful he can constrain (this in fact would be to establish firmly the authority of tyrants, robbers, and pirates), but for conscience’ sake, because a king has command over us by right; that is to say, because the law of nature decrees that princes and a lawmaker, or a superior by whatever name you call him, should be obeyed. (Locke, 1663–64, Essays on the Law of Nature, in Goldie (ed.) 1997, 120)

Locke believed that having no property meant no injustice, and government was necessarily an infringement on liberty. True liberty is doing what one pleases. He saw moral laws as certain and discoverable as Euclidean geometry…

The problem for Locke is that he didn’t appear to do any ontological philosophy to support his claims of rights; he just asserted this, and this is then asserted by guns rights advocates in an attempt to sound lofty and thinking they are then rationalising their position. This is a really important point to emphasise. Thus all the issues with natural rights remain. This paper (“A paradox in Locke’s Theory of Natural Rights“) really sums up my thoughts on Locke and those (for example, in these threads) who quote and idolise his claims on natural rights:

There are certain recurring objections to Locke’s theory of legitimate government and the conception of natural rights on which it is based. These objections generally take the form of showing that most of Locke’s claims in the Second Treatise stand largely as ad hoc assertions, defended—if at all—not by philosophical argumentation but by appeals to theology or intuition. These criticisms might be called external criticisms of Locke’s theory because they focus, not upon the coherence of the theory or the perplexities which prompted Locke to adopt it, but rather upon the justifications (or lack of them) for that theory. [my emphasis]

Quite. He really doesn’t justify his claims, as far as I can see, on natural rights by dealing with ontological issues.

Let’s look at these rights, and forget the massive ontological issues that obtain in terms of what they are made of. You could say that eating an ice cream on a Tuesday is indeed a right because it falls under the rather nebulous right of freedom.

Indeed, most things do.

Aha. But what if your right to do something impinges on someone else’s right to their freedom, or indeed life? And this is where we get into a whole minefield of rights that is simply unsolvable. I might demand something that means someone is confined to a sweatshop; or it could be that I demand something that contributes to climate change and infringes on everyone’s right to life (okay, so must gun advocates probably deny climate change, but you get the point). Rights of property: what happens when people amass so much propertynto the detriment of others, affecting their rights?

…the top wealthiest 1% possess 40% of the nation’s wealth; the bottom 80% own 7%; similarly, but later, the media reported, the “richest 1 percent in the United States now own more additional income than the bottom 90 percent”.[8] The gap between the top 10% and the middle class is over 1,000%; that increases another 1,000% for the top 1%. The average employee “needs to work more than a month to earn what the CEO earns in one hour.”[9] :[source]

How does this affect rights? Especially when we know that money begets privilege and gives untold opportunity advantage to those who have it.

Locke was actually pretty progressive, which is amusing since many modern Americans who idolise his natural rights position are clearly not:

The Civil Rights movement and the suffrage movement both called out the state of American democracy during their challenges to the governments view on equality. To them it was clear that when the designers of democracy said all, they meant all people shall receive those natural rights that John Locke cherished so deeply. “a state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another” (Locke II,4).[43] Locke in his papers on natural philosophy clearly states that he wants a government where all are treated equal in freedoms especially. “Locke’s views on toleration were very progressive for the time” (Connolly).[44]Authors such as Jacob Connolly confirm that to them Locke was highly ahead of his time with all this progressive thinking. That is that his thought fits our current state of democracy where we strive to make sure that everyone has a say in the government and everyone has a chance at a good life. Regardless of race, gender, or social standing starting with Locke it was made clear not only that the government should provide rights, but rights to everyone through his social contract. [source]

These triple rights are also seriously challenged by the idea that libertarian free will does not exist – either philosophically and logically or empirically, as according to the overwhelming majority of philosophers (86% – metadata shows that those who don’t are invariably Christian thinkers who require it for their understanding of a judgemental god, heaven and hell, but they have yet to give a cogent account of how contra-causal free will can possibly work).

A right to bear arms is a freedom, but the probability of this leading to the infringement of someone else’s rights is what is the battleground here.

So even if we can establish another realm of reality where abstract objects can exist independent of the mind, we still have an absolute quagmire to negotiate. Of course, under conceptual nominalism, all of these issues simply evaporate; they are not a problem, because rights are conceptual, and so only exist in our thought, and don’t have real boundaries When they conflict, it is only because we have invented these fuzzy ideals that come with all of the issues that invented things do.

But realists have to solve these problems.

The funny thing is, they appear not to be bothered.

Immigration

Take the right to freedom. Libertarians (and I mean true libertarians) get this absolutely right (if you believe in these Lockean rights). The right to movement is about the most basic right of freedom – to move, with your body, from one location to another. Thing is, we’ve invented borders and nationhood – abstract ideas that we have codified into laws and maps. We’ve made them up and we don’t like people from that made-up country coming to this made-up country. In short, people don’t like immigration. Libertarians, taking into account Ayn Rand as a Russian illegal immigrant herself, actually defend migration and free movement of people amongst a whole suite of other things, and presumably based largely in the thinking of Locke:

1.5 Abortion

Recognizing that abortion is a sensitive issue and that people can hold good-faith views on all sides, we believe that government should be kept out of the matter, leaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration.

3.4 Free Trade and Migration

We support the removal of governmental impediments to free trade. Political freedom and escape from tyranny demand that individuals not be unreasonably constrained by government in the crossing of political boundaries. Economic freedom demands the unrestricted movement of human as well as financial capital across national borders. [my emphasis]

In other words, every gun rights activist should be a free movement of people advocate. They should be welcoming people across the Mexican border in the US and should be decrying Trump, his rhetoric and his wall.

In reality, of course, they don’t (in the vast majority of cases), post hoc rationalising and cherry-picking their freedoms to suit their own little bubble.

They like the idea of a right to bear arms, but they seem to want to have a right to stop other people moving, infringe the rights a woman has over her own body (whilst not caring about the rights of the born baby they fight so hard to get born, after it is born), deny the right to life of countless others through a clean environment (air, water, climate change), so on and so forth. The morass of contradictions and conflicting ideals is almost funny had it not so many nefarious implications. How do we know how to solve these problems? In what way can we tell that one right trumps another with any sort of epistemic certainty?

Easy. Because, you know, guns and abortion. These trump everything. This is identity politics at its best, with all the virtue signalling we have seen on the latest threads. Irony is delicious (though sometimes differentiating between irony and flat out hypocrisy is tough).

If people vomit their comments all over this thread without dealing with the ontology of rights, then they are doing their position a disservice. They are building their entire edifice of politics and thought upon air, on empty or hollow foundations.

Locke appeared to do the same, and repeating his mantra as a justification of their position, or bringing up human-conceived documents (Bill of Rights, the Consitution etc.) is no justification. You cannot bring up the conclusion of a strain of thought as justification for the conclusion of a strain of thought.

Please do not hijack this thread to try and scattergun your thoughts about gun ownership; I couldn’t care less here and now. This is a philosophical post about rights, their ontology and the contradictions inherent. This is my blog, my article, and my thread. Don’t opportunistically herd here like a pack of rabid dogs trying to upvote each other in competing as to who can comment the most, shout the loudest and champion gun rights to those gun control nazis and libtards that we supposedly are. I would hope we’re usually a bit more mature here in hoping for some more nuanced conversation.

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July 20, 2019

A thread has recently exploded when I posted about the Second Amendment and drawing the line between acceptable and unacceptable weaponry. On the thread, one particularly obvious common denominator sprung up with all of the gun advocates, the idea of “rights”:

A right is no less a right just because time goes by and technology changes.

I’m not an expert, but I believe the idea behind natural rights is that they can, and do exist outside of any social construct. For example, if attacked by a bear on a deserted island, one does not need law to grant her permissions to stick a spear into the bear’s belly. Nor does one need law to grant one the right to construct said spear.

People have the right to guns. Period.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,
that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That you say the preceding is hogwash tells us all we need to know about you. You’ve no right to life according to your own statement.

Sorry, but no.
People have inalienable rights. No other person has the moral authority to grant you a single right.

In America we do have inalienable rights and it does not matter if the majority “feels” Citizens should not own certain weapons like fully armed Tanks and Machine Guns, government still will never have the legal,moral or the Constitutional power,nor the means of force, to ever disarm the American people of our right to be armed with modern weapons of war and self defense.That is an inalienable right and affirmed by the US Supreme Court!

Yes the right to be armed with modern weapons of war and self defense including guns is an inalienable right and affirmed as such by the US Supreme Court. See DC v. Heller,MacDonald v. Illinois ,Caetano v. Mass. and US v. Miller for factual references.

Gun rights are not negotiable.. We really don’t need to have a conversation about our rights to keep and bear arms. They’re rights. There’s nothing to talk about.
The 2nd Amend is a RESTRICTIVE admendment. It states such in the Preamble to Bill of Rights. the 2A does not grant nor convey any right, but RESTRICTS and PROHIBITS the government from infringing upon this enumerated,
pre-existing, God given right.

my rights don’t come from a document.
my rights were bestowed by my creator.
Americans have been exercising their rights for longer than we’ve been a country. longer than we’ve had a president or judges to tell us we couldn’t do so.

my right to self defense with arms is over 7,000 years old. It transcends government and in truth, the ONLY thing that the 2nd amendment does is limit the legal right of the government to interfere with my right to self defense.

when it stops doing that, I will change my government.

Inalienable rights are inherent to the human. No other human has any right or moral authority over another.
Those rights limit societal action.

I am admittedly going to include previous writing here in answering this before relating it to gun rights advocacy.

And, before any of the gun advocates from the previous thread or otherwise comment here, please can they think about not repeating the mantras above and establish what human rights are, how abstracta exist, where they exist, and how they are binding? I will not accept mere assertions.

Human Rights Don’t “Exist”

Human rights don’t exist. By this, I mean, as I so often state, they do not have ontic existence – they do not exist outside of our minds. Like all abstract ideas, for a conceptual nominalist (please read this, or linked posts below, to fully understand this post) like myself, the existence of such mental entities (labels, morality and so on) is entirely in our minds.

I, and most other humans, often talk about human rights as if they exist as objective entities. This is what the people above have done, and they can be excused for this as it is ubiquitous in our everyday language. However, this is lazy language. These ideas of rights, like any aspect of language itself, are arrived at by consensus. When we agree on the meaning of any word, we codify that by putting it in a dictionary.

Actually, it’s even more descriptive than that. When humans use language – words and whatever spelling we choose often enough – dictionary compilers recognise a certain level of frequency and deem a word and its spelling common enough to be included in the dictionary. For example, the word “gamification” recently made it in after being coined and utilised enough that it reached a tipping point of acceptance into codification.

It’s similar with abstract concepts like human rights. We think and observe and take part in society and then we make moral proclamations. I don’t know, something like these generic ones:

  • The right to life
  • The right to liberty and freedom
  • The right to the pursuit of happiness
  • The right to live your life free of discrimination
  • The right to control what happens to your own body and to make medical decisions for yourself
  • The right to freely exercise your religion and practice your religious beliefs without fear of being prosecuted for your beliefs
  • The right to be free from prejudice on the basis of race, gender, national origin, color, age or sex
  • The right to grow old
  • The right to a fair trial and due process of the law
  • The right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment
  • The right to be free from torture
  • The right to be free from slavery
  • The right to freedom of speech
  • The right to freely associate with whomever you like and to join groups of which you’d like to be a part.
  • The right to freedom of thought
  • The right not to be prosecuted from your thoughts

You might want to get more specific still. Like the right to bear arms and so on.

If I thought up these ideas but no one else did, or no one else agreed, they are not really human rights in any pragmatic sense, and they certainly aren’t universal. You could argue that there is a set of human rights that exist in some kind of ether or Platonic realm of truth. Perhaps in God as many commenters above specify. Of course, the Bible contravenes even some of the most basic human rights of, say, the UN (that seems infinitely more sensible and moral in its/their proclamations). So there is a problem of the observable data of the holy book of the Bible. Let’s scrap that book as a source of information about human rights.

Indeed, this whole post is equivalent to my writings on the ontology of morality since human rights are merely moral proclamations that many assume are objective and that somehow transcend time and culture.

Over time and thought and society, people tend towards agreement on moral matters. Unless you’re in America right now. In fact, the States is a great example of how, in reality, human rights are conceptual, how they aren’t written into the ether. The country is divided on abortion, and the right of a woman to their own body and the right to life of a foetus. I have discussed this, with connected ideas, in terms of personhood (as a word ascribed to a set of properties, and how this is subjective) in “What Is Personhood? Setting the Scene.

Advocates, like those above, need to establish what abstract objects, under which rights fall, are; what they are made of and how they work. In short, they need to philosophically establish (Platonic) realism of sorts. Human rights sound lovely, but until we do something with them, they are meaningless, or they have no ramifications.

Human rights, therefore, are the philosophical underpinnings of moral thought that form the foundations to law. As we grow into a global society, the term “human right” takes on a more transcendent quality that dismisses borders in favour of the human race: it becomes a universal term. This is why it is often connected to the UN, an organisation that sets to unite the world and see humanity as one. This international law, it is hoped, somehow trumps the national and parochial laws of individual countries.

Legal Rights

Until we codify human rights into law – first into local and national laws, but more usefully into more universal, border transcendent laws – the thinking, the philosophy, behind those human rights is ineffectual and pragmatically impotent.

In short, “human rights” is a term that signifies “moral philosophy”, but the “right” part of it only means something when there is a legal framework to make the moral proclamation binding. We all know what a legal right is:

1aa claim recognized and delimited by law for the purpose of securing it

bthe interest in a claim which is recognized by and protected by sanctions of law imposed by a state, which enables one to possess property or to engage in some transaction or course of conduct or to compel some other person to so engage or to refrain from some course of conduct under certain circumstances, and for the infringement of which claim the state provides a remedy in its courts of justice

2the aggregate of the capacities, powers, liberties, and privileges by which a claim is secured

3a capacity of asserting a legally recognized claim — compare LEGAL DUTY

4a right cognizable in a common-law court as distinguished from a court having jurisdiction in equity

The law works to enable an entity within its jurisdiction the capacity to do, have or be something. Without that, you just have one person or people making moral claims to another person or people. Law makes these things binding.

To mention God, theists often claim morality is only binding when objectively embedded within the entity of God. Binding, though, simply means stuff happens when you don’t obey or adhere. Heaven and hell are mere promises from any given denomination of religion that believes in them, and for which there is approximately no evidence. And you can’t just claim that (human) rights are based in God: what does this actually mean. It is similar, if not identical, to saying God underwrites morality. So what? Even if we can know, somehow, that our understanding aligns with God’s, so what? Even if there is an objective ideal, is it knowable? And we still have to subjectively interpret it anyway. This is what Kant said about ding an sich – things in themselves – we cannot know them, at best we can interpret them in our own, subjective, phenomenal way.

This claim of rights being based in God is patent nonsense and is at very best a promissory note. Secular, legal rights that are binding in light of legal organisations such as law enforcement and jurisprudence, as well as prison services and suchlike, are far more tangible than what is claimed within the theistic notion of binding morality. There are real-world ramifications to not adhering to such rights as laid out in any given legal code.

In conclusion so far, then: set out your human rights as a philosophical endeavour (after arguing about them, and knowing that there will rarely be universal agreement) and then write these into law, preferably international law that transcends borders so that they become, as much as possible, universal. The reality will be that we arrive at these agreements by consensus. Hopefully, the consensus utilises the tools of logic and reason, observation and data analysis.

And the Second Amendment?

It’s pretty obvious how this all pertains to the Second Amendment – the right to bear arms. That is a mere declaration at a particular time, in a particular place, of a right. But it only means anything if it is interpreted in such a way that it is written into law and enacted. The claims above by the commenters on the other thread are meaningless. These rights, sadly for them, only exist in their heads. Well, actually no. They exist meaningfully in the laws of the US that still allow its citizens to bear arms. But no more than this. Laws can be changed; indeed, the Second Amendment and the Constitution as a whole can be ratified or rejected entirely. In my country, it’s wholly irrelevant.

The Constitution and Declaration of Independence are merely documents written in a particular time and a particular place. They are nothing more. The Consitution is only worth anything when valued by the people under whose influence it stands, and in the way it is interpreted and codified into law. The Constitution has been amended because it lacked completion at the time. It can always be amended. It is not concrete and is open to interpretation (often by the Supreme Court, but ostensibly by anyone).

Here are three quotes from the thread that sum up the views on the Consitution. As you can see, they are contradictory:

The Constitution is the FOUNDATION of law – a foundation upon which all laws rest…. Look to the Constitution – the foundation and authority for ALL laws.

The Constitution grants no rights. All the Constitution does is affirm the preexisting inalienable rights of all freemen and deny government the power to ever even infringe upon those rights! The interpretation that the Second Amendment protects an individual inalienable right has been affirmed as “settled law” and will never be changed. Just because you do not believe in inalienable rights does not mean millions of others do not believe in them and that they do not exist!

In America we have had inalienable rights recognized before the Constitution was even written. What rights do you think the Colonists had on April 19, 1775 when British General Gage tried to violate those rights by seizing the Arms owned by the Minutemen? Both the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence affirm our inalienable rights as do the Constitutions of all 50 States. Inalienable rights are Birthrights that can never be taken away by government without due process.Your bizzarre claim about feeling you have the inalienable right to injure someone’s eyeball is both obtuse and a strawman’s argument.You have the right to injure yourself but not others.

The first comment claims the foundational aspect of the Constitution from which ALL laws supposedly find their authority. But then the third quote states that inalienable rights existed before the Consitution. These are directly opposed. At least one of these comments is obviously wrong.

So the problem here (one amongst many) is that, if there is a claim that rights exist prior to the Constitution, then the Constitution is nothing special – something of an interim document (given the Amendments). How do you know that the Consitution actually aligns with the “real”, pre-existing rights? This is exactly the same problem that exists with Divine Command Theory (DCT) – how do we know what God’s commands really are, and that we have aligned our rules with God’s? See the previous link to see how many of the issues with the Second Amendment advocates are involved in DCT.

Let’s see another few comments:

Next you will be claiming there is no inalienable right not to be enslaved! Read Locke and get educated! Humans are born with rights.

Slavery and gay rights are interesting examples. A few hundred years ago, American citizens would have argued that keeping slaves was a human right. Now, citizens have a right to same-sex marriage. I wonder how many of these same people would disagree with that human right. And with slavery, we can see adaption and change within our understanding and establishment of rights. We disagree and argue about rights precisely because they are not inborn, written on the “soul”, or whatever. They are conceptual and people require some philosophical discussion to either arrive at a consensus, or continue with disagreement. We disagree with what a hero might be – Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Luke Skywalker, Superman… The same scenario exists for any conceptual idea, rights included.

Every human being possesses fundamental human rights – rights that are NOT with the purview of government to limit. Even the Founders understood this…. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the writings of the Founders are evidence [of this].

When pressed for evidence that rights are not merely conceptual, human inventions, the commenter gave human documents as his argument. Oh dear. When properly pressed, the commenters did one of three things:

  1. Continued to merely assert the primacy of rights without substantiation.
  2. Claimed they were natural rights/law.
  3. Claimed they were somehow embodied in God.

None of these positions cut the mustard. (See my extensive writings eviscerating natural law and morality as based in God).

We might agree, or not as the case may be, on the right to bear arms. But this right is utterly meaningless unless action about it takes place: when it is codified into law and enacted. Don’t go telling me the right to bear arms is inborn and inherent in us, or I will tell you we have the right to drive forklift trucks over babies, or forqwiblex on Tuesdays whilst elongating scenapsofils.  Go prove those rights aren’t inherent. Or the right to marry someone of the same sex, or adopt within a same-sex relationship, or keep slaves, or keep Jews or immigrants in concentration camps. These are tricky territories where we have to use our finest philosophical training to navigate and argue over which rights obtain, and which don’t. And which are nonsense.

Inalienable Rights

The concept of “inalienable” rights is another thing that keeps coming up. This rather assertively means:

Personal rights held by an individual which are not bestowed by law, custom, or belief, and which cannot be taken or given away, or transferred to another person, are referred to as “inalienable rights.” The U.S. Constitution recognized that certain universal rights cannot be taken away by legislation, as they are beyond the control of a government, being naturally given to every individual at birth, and that these rights are retained throughout life….

These fundamental rights are endowed on every human being by his or her Creator, and are often referred to as “natural rights.” Only under carefully limited circumstances can such natural rights be taken away as people have the freedom to exercise them as they choose.

Of course, natural law is a thoroughly problematic position that falls apart precisely on concepts of realism, essentialism and (conceptual) nominalism (see related posts below and follow further links). The whole idea that humans are inborn with birthright rights is nonsense and a bare assertion at best. Where are they located? To the right of the pituitary glands? Below the kneecaps? What, as abstracta, are they made of?

Moreover, the rights as set out in the Constitution cannot be inalienable because they only exist in that fashion for citizens of the United States. They are not universal or transferable across borders or even time. The claim “The U.S. Constitution recognized that certain universal rights cannot be taken away by legislation, as they are beyond the control of a government, being naturally given to every individual at birth, and that these rights are retained throughout life” is obviously wrong, since they only apply to a small area of the world – the US – and can be removed or amended through democratic (or non-democratic) means. They don’t apply to me, and nor do I want them all. The right to bear arms? Meh. I don’t want firearms in the UK. I have not seen a gun in public for something like 15 years when I saw some armed police once, and that is the sort of society I prefer. I prefer the right not to have citizens around me armed.

When rights overlap and contravene other rights, which rights win? These issues cause endless debates because there is no objective list of evaluated rights that prioritise one above another. I can make up all sorts of rights and claim they are universal, embodied in God, inherent in humans and all such other nonsense. But claiming so does not make it so and does absolutely nothing to show how it could be so.

The language of rights and inalienable rights is everywhere, but it doesn’t make it cogent or objectively true as an idea. Because abstract ideas do not have objective, ontic existence. Unless these people can show me otherwise. Show me that if all sentient creatures, all humanity were to die, and with it, all concepts and ideas, the right to bear arms would still exist. Out there. Somewhere. In some Platonic aether.

Until they establish this, the 1000 comments on that other thread are wasted and meaningless; philosophical castles in the air, built with no foundation whatsoever. (N.B. Assertions do not make foundations).

 

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June 25, 2019

Natural Law Theory (NLT) is an ethical theory derived from the thinking of people such as Thomas Aquinas that attempts to establish that humans, for example, have an ideal form or essence that dictates how they should act. The form of a particular species of bird is that it has feathers, a beak, two eyes, can fly, has a particular colouration and so on. The essence of a bird can be described by listing, one assumes, its properties. There is, in reality (so they would say), some objective notion of what these properties are.

For all of these thinkers, literally everything has this kind of essence, though those essences will differ between things. The idea that homosexual humans (I use this as an example, many other properties could also be used) are morally wrong is derived from the notion that they have an essence, a natural form, to which they should adhere, but do not. A good badger is a badger that most resembles the essence of a badger. A good human is a human who most resembles the nature or essence of a human. Homosexuals or some other group of supposedly morally bad people are morally bad because homosexuality is not a property of the human essence, or essential property.

To confuse matters, we could subcategorise humans in terms of male and female as well. In fact, one of the problems with essentialism and Thomistic philosophy is that you could subcategorise anything further and further to create more and more essences until you eventually have an individual instantiation of a thing. For example, you could subcategorise humans into males and females. But why not continue with other categories? Age, hair colour, size, geographical distribution, skin colour and so on but each of these categories could be sliced and diced even further. Who gets to define the categories? Of course, such advocates of NLT or Thomism would say that God gets to define this, but how do we know what those categories are? We can look around us at the natural world, but as I have at length set out before, categorising the natural world in light of evolution is utterly problematic.

In terms of categorisation, it appears to me that Thomists are not bothered about hair colour or skin colour (although I am sure many of them could be!) and they are happy to allow this variation in light of an overarching human essence. However, they are employing a double standard. They seem to allow variation in physical characteristics but not in mental characteristics. Let’s take homosexuality. Someone who has homosexual tendencies is seen as morally bad because they are not adhering to the essential form of a human. But homosexuality isn’t just a decision that people make. There is a huge amount of research to show that there are very real material bases for homosexuality, particularly in men. Whether it be genetic or biological in nature, there is a clear parallel with other genetic and biological differences between humans that can apparently show a massive variety of physical difference and this does not invalidate them as being a “good” human. However, as soon as they diverged from a very strict mental or rational blueprint, they are deemed as “bad”.

To look at this further, then, we have a set of mental properties that fulfil the criteria of the essence of a human. Again, we have the problem of defining and categorising exactly what these are. Because this appears not to be the case of employing moral reasoning to define moral goodness, but adhering to the essential form of a human. We could have a circular argument where the essential form of a human includes moral behaviour and properties that are good, and these are themselves defined as behaviours that are essentially human. And round and round we go. This is a dilemma paralleled in the Euthyphro Dilemma.

One of the properties of the essence of a human is the property of rational thought. But defining what this is ain’t easy, and falls into the same traps as any property that sits along a continuum as can be seen in the image above. There are humans that have different levels of rationality and at different times, and there would have been an evolution of this over our biological history. Was there a single point in time where two “non-rational” hominids gave birth to a “rational” hominid that finally qualified as “human” in terms of its essence or form?

NLT supposedly allows Christians to claim homosexuality or homosexuals are morally bad because there is a prescriptive human essence from which such urges or biology or behaviour diverges. Homosexuality is not the “function” of humanity, so to speak (what Aristotle called the final cause). Of course, we have the whole debate around libertarian free will: if it can be argued that an individual doesn’t have the power of volition over these urges or biology or behaviour, then what does this say about such a moral framework as NLT?

The whole project appears doomed to confusion and arbitrary delineation.


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May 17, 2019

This post was recently posted on Facebook by someone I know and I was added to the link. I want to deal with this here because it is not only something this other person does all the time, but it is a really common occurrence when arguing about morality and moral claims. I have talked about all the things I will talk about here very frequently, but I will try to draw them all together in several pieces (I will link to a lot of my previous articles so not to make this series massively long, even though it already is!). I was commissioned by John Loftus a few years back to write a chapter on exactly this subject for his anthology Christianity Is Not Great (link to my series drawing on my chapter). My views will be split over several pieces.

Without further ado, here is what he said:

HOW NOT TO ARGUE – KNIFE CRIME AS EXAMPLE One can approach knife crime as a baffling and inexplicable phenomenon that could be happening on another planet. One can commission studies that address it at the statistical level as if it is a mathematical phenomenon to be solved by the stats. But this is to adopt a very particular behaviourist approach which looks at human behaviour in terms of surface appearances. To do this is to adopt a very specific model of what a human is. So, correlations between school exclusions, money invested in youth clubs, unemployment etc will give you the ‘answers’ (they usually involve blaming the Government of the day). The answer, then is to apply money at the place indicated by the stats. Anyone who quarrels with this is hit over the head with studies considered to have the privileged last word on the matter, called unscientific, a refuser of ‘evidence’, naive, bad or even mad.

However, the very distinctive, statistical behaviourist approach strangely excludes a vital element from the phenomenon we are supposedly examining and one with which, being human ourselves, we are all familiar. It excludes moral interiority, responsibility and agency in the carrier of the knife, the very things that differentiate us from animals and because of which every sophisticated society has courts assuming moral accountability. Strange things to blink at you might think. The interesting this is that a person who has no expertise in behaviourist data collection and statistics can see this from the viewpoint of their simple humanity. So what value the statistical approach if the statisticians haven’t even considered the full nature and parameters of what they are studying?

I don’t want to discuss the causes of knife crime here. I don’t want to insist on proving the existence of moral responsibility. I simply want to point out the faultiness of the argumentative methodology. Those who adopt the purely statistical, behaviourist approach (which may garner some interesting information) should have the good manners to ask if their interlocutors feel this method is satisfactory and addresses the whole picture. The very adoption of that model shapes the conclusion by excluding key avenues in human nature at the outset. What value, then, does the experiment have? It’s studying a phenomenon by assuming at the outset that it has a different nature from what it actually has.

I simply use this as an example of how the behaviourist approach to the problem is as much up for discussion as its conclusions are. To exclude the moral may be one of the reasons for the problem. Shouting at the sceptic who doubts the methodology because the statistics prove the case is vain as the issue is, can statistics prove the case here?

It’s interesting that David Lammy’s approach in 2012, where he put knife crime down to the moral vacuum created by paternal absenteeism, might address the moral issue better.

Essentially, we shouldn’t look at data concerning behaviour and concentrate on internal moral causality. And by this, he also means devaluing the biosocial jigsaw of causality that causes moral behaviour. This is merely morality, absent, it appears, of any other causal influence so that it can just be the domain of the agent (uncaused) in its causality. As you can tell, we have argued the toss over free will.

This guy is a moral deontologist who believes in free will and God (though in a much more traditional, British and conservative sense than in any evangelical American sense). He is a pretty standard conservative who believes that morality exists inside people as a driver and he would here is two things that look very similar to a form of essentialism. I remember when we were arguing at Tippling Philosophers that he felt quite strongly about gender norms in a very sensualist manner quite similar to natural law theory and to Thomistic philosophy.

These sorts of comments should sum him up:

As in leaving out the moral element in humans which can’t be reduced to data

And I don’t need books to tell me that morality exists here and now. I and you and everyone else can’t do without it in our daily discourse. It’s like saying I need a book to convince me I need oxygen. All I need is the accoutrements of my present humanity. That’s my authority [This is not to say he isn’t well-read – JP]

I start from the my engagement with the real as all real philosophers do.

It’s part of our essence. Your quotations prove it. The moment you criticise Trump for being a fascist.

So on and so forth. You get the idea. One of his favourite philosophers is Roger Scruton who is a pretty standard conservative deontologist.

Bottom-Up and Top-Down

He takes great pleasure in disagreeing with pretty much everything I say. Part of this is because we disagree on pretty much all our conclusions by coming at things fro completely different angles.

The problem, as far as I’m concerned, is that he argues from his conclusions and not to them. This is one of the main points on want to make today. I wrote an article many years ago entitled “Top down or bottom up?“:

This is fundamental, in many senses, to me. It is why I spend a lot of time trying to establish the building bricks of philosophy, such as “what is an abstract idea?” So often we argue on the veneer, and so often this means that our conclusions or claims are propped up with little more than biases and bluster.

For me, the bottom-up approach is by far the more justifiable one.

If you look at this image about chip design (or something, it doesn’t really matter), you will get my point:

Here you can see that the left-hand approach has a conclusion which is correct if the whole thing is built correctly. The importance is in the construction, which should ensure truth if built with the correct bricks. The right-hand option smacks of ad hoc. If it doesn’t seem to work (is true) then just mess around with fixing things at the last stages, working under the assumption, nothing more, that the initial building blocks and desires and plans are correct.

At the end of the day, looking down on things is pretty arrogant, and assumes that you know best.

Abstract Objects

To argue that morality is just inside of us like some kind of magic fairy dust is merely wishful thinking and ends up being just an assertion. He doesn’t even really offer any proper deontological arguments. But that’s beside the point. Let’s look at the ontology as a whole. We know from the Philpapers survey that, even after 3000 years of moral philosophising, we are at an impasse for moral philosophers. No one single moral framework fully works. They are all problematic. This is why no one can agree. Indeed, any philosopher who coherently argued indubitably for a fully working moral framework would get the Nobel Prize. It hasn’t been done and it won’t be done.

And it can’t be done.

Morality is the ultimate of abstract objects. In order to understand the nature of morality, we need to understand the nature of abstract objects. What this comment does is to confuse actions that he has ascribed to moral value to with morality. But to ascribe something abstract to something concrete is quite a jump and needs some explaining, but this explaining is never ever done. Actions are themselves events with real, physical properties. Intentions are different to actions in that they are states of minds, but we know that the mind supervenes on the brain, the physical.

Mind – Brain Supervenience

There are several ways to show this:

1)The evolution of species demonstrates that development of brain correlates to mental development. E.g.  “We find that the greater the size of the brain and its cerebral cortex in relation to the animal body and the greater their complexity, the higher and more versatile the form of life” (Lamont 63). Lamont, Corliss. The Illusion of Immortality. 5th ed. New York: Unger/Continuum, 1990.

2) Brain growth in individual organisms:

“Secondly, the developmental evidence for mind-brain dependence is that mental abilities emerge with the development of the brain; failure in brain development prevents mental development (Beyerstein 45). Beyerstein, Barry L. “The Brain and Consciousness: Implications for Psi Phenomena.” In The Hundredth Monkey. Edited Kendrick Frazier. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1991: 43-53.

3) Brain damage destroys mental capacities:

“Third, clinical evidence consists of cases of brain damage that result from accidents, toxins, diseases, and malnutrition that often result in irreversible losses of mental functioning (45). If the mind could exist independently of the brain, why couldn’t the mind compensate for lost faculties when brain cells die after brain damage? (46).” Ibid

4) EEG and similar mechanisms used in experiments and measurements on the brain indicate a correspondence between brain activity and mental activity:

“Fourth, the strongest empirical evidence for mind-brain dependence is derived from experiments in neuroscience. Mental states are correlated with brain states; electrical or chemical stimulation of the human brain invokes perceptions, memories, desires, and other mental states (45).” Ibid

5) The effects of drugs have clear physical >>> mental causation.

Merely reading into Phineas Gage should open one’s eyes, here.

Back to Abstracts

Everyone who reads this blog regularly will know that it’s one of my favourite topics. That’s because it underwrites pretty much everything. And this is what I mean about arguing from the bottom up. If you don’t establish what abstract ideas are, pretty much the rest of philosophy is just preference. It arguing from a conclusion that you like but it’s not building up to a conclusion. It is a castle in the sky.

Morality is an abstract idea, so surely we would need to know what an abstract idea is and what its ontology (principles of existence) is? As many of you know, I am a conceptual nominalist.

Nominalism arose in reaction to the problem of universals, specifically accounting for the fact that some things are of the same type. For example, Fluffy and Kitzler are both cats, or, the fact that certain properties are repeatable, such as: the grass, the shirt, and Kermit the Frog are green. One wants to know in virtue of what are Fluffy and Kitzler both cats, and what makes the grass, the shirt, and Kermit green.

The realist answer is that all the green things are green in virtue of the existence of a universal; a single abstract thing that, in this case, is a part of all the green things. With respect to the color of the grass, the shirt and Kermit, one of their parts is identical. In this respect, the three parts are literally one. Greenness is repeatable because there is one thing that manifests itself wherever there are green things.

Nominalism denies the existence of universals. The motivation for this flows from several concerns, the first one being where they might exist… Particular physical objects merely exemplify or instantiate the universal. But this raises the question: Where is this universal realm? One possibility is that it is outside of space and time…. However, naturalists assert that nothing is outside of space and time. Some Neoplatonists, such as the pagan philosopher Plotinus and the philosopher Augustine, imply (anticipating conceptualism) that universals are contained within the mind of God. To complicate things, what is the nature of the instantiation or exemplification relation?

Conceptualists hold a position intermediate between nominalism and realism, saying that universals exist only within the mind and have no external or substantial reality.

Moderate realists hold that there is no realm in which universals exist, but rather universals are located in space and time wherever they are manifest. Now, recall that a universal, like greenness, is supposed to be a single thing. Nominalists consider it unusual that there could be a single thing that exists in multiple places simultaneously. The realist maintains that all the instances of greenness are held together by the exemplification relation, but this relation cannot be explained.

Finally, many philosophers prefer simpler ontologies populated with only the bare minimum of types of entities, or as W. V. Quine said “They have a taste for ‘desert landscapes.’” They attempt to express everything that they want to explain without using universals such as “catness” or “chairness.”

As ever, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on nominalism is great – here. As is the SEP entry on abstract objects – here. As is the superb SEP entry on properties found here. Other useful SEP entries are Challenges to Metaphysical Realism, Platonism in Metaphysics, and the wiki entry on the Third Man Argument (an argument from Plato that shows an incoherent infinite regress in relational universals, which can be found in the SEP here).

To illustrate this, let’s now look at the “label” of “chair” (in a very cogent way, all words are abstractions that refer to something or another, but nominalists will say that these abstractions, or the relationship between them and the reference points, do not exist, out there, in the ether). This is an abstract concept, I posit, that exists, at most, only in the mind of the conceiver. We, as humans, label the chair abstractly and it only means a chair to those who see it as a chair—i.e. it is subjective. The concept is not itself fixed. My idea of a chair is different to yours, is different to a cat’s and to an alien’s, as well as different to the idea of this object to a human who has never seen or heard of a chair (early humans who had never seen a chair, for example, would not know it to be a chair. It would not exist as a chair, though the matter would exist in that arrangement). I may call a tree stump a chair, but you may not. If I was the last person (or sentient creature) on earth and died and left this chair, it would not be a chair, but an assembly of matter that meant nothing to anything or anyone.[i] The chair, as a label, is a subjective concept existing in each human’s mind who sees it as a chair. A chair only has properties that make it a chair within the intellectual confines of humanity. These consensus-agreed properties are human-derived properties, even if there may be common properties between concrete items—i.e. chairness. The ascription of these properties to another idea is arguable and not objectively true in itself. Now let’s take an animal—a cat. What is this “chair” to it? I imagine a visual sensation of “sleep thing”. To an alien? It looks rather like a “shmagflan” because it has a “planthoingj” on its “fdanygshan”. Labels are conceptual and depend on the conceiving mind, subjectively.

What I mean by this is that I may see that a “hero”, for example, has properties X, Y and Z. You may think a hero has properties X, Y and B. Someone else may think a hero has properties A, B and X. Who is right? No one is right. Those properties exist, in someone, but ascribing that to “heroness” is a subjective pastime with no ontic reality, no objective reality.

This is how dictionaries work. I could make up a word: “bashignogta”. I could even give it a meaning: “the feeling you get when going through a dark tunnel with the tunnel lights flashing past your eyes”. Does this abstract idea not objectively exist, now that I have made it up? Does it float into the ether? Or does it depend on my mind for its existence? I can pass it on from my mind to someone else’s using words, and then it would be conceptually existent in two minds, but it still depends on our minds. What dictionaries do is to codify an agreement in what abstract ideas (words) mean, as agreed merely by consensus (the same applies to spelling conventions—indeed, convention is the perfect word to illustrate the point). But without all the minds existing in that consensus, the words and meanings would not exist. They do not have Platonic or ontic reality.

 Thus the label of “chair” is a result of human evolution and conceptual subjectivity (even if more than one mind agrees).

If you argue that objective ideas do exist, then it is also the case that the range of all possible entities must also exist objectively, even if they don’t exist materially. Without wanting to labour my previous point, a “forqwibllex” is a fork with a bent handle and a button on the end (that has never been created and I have “made-up”). This did not exist before now, either objectively or subjectively. Now it does—have I created it objectively? This is what happens whenever humans make up a label for anything to which they assign function etc. Also, things that other animals use that don’t even have names, but to which they have assigned “mental labels”, for want of better words, must also exist objectively under this logic. For example, the backrubby bit of bark on which a family of sloths scratch their backs on a particular tree exists materially. They have no language, so it has no label as such (it can be argued that abstracts are a function of language). Yet even though it only has properties to a sloth, and not to any other animal, objectivists should claim it must exist objectively. Furthermore, there are items that have multiple abstract properties which create more headaches for the objectivist. A chair, to me, might well be a territory marker to the school cat. Surely the same object cannot embody both objective existences: the table and the marker! Perhaps it can, but it just seems to get into more and more needless complexity.

When did this chair “begin to exist”? Was it when it had three legs being built, when 1/2, 2/3, 4/5, 9/10 of the last leg was constructed? You see, the energy and matter of the chair already existed. So the chair is merely a conceptual construct. More precisely a human one. More precisely still, one that different humans will variously disagree with.

Let’s take the completed chair. When will it become not-a-chair? When I take 7 molecules away? 20? A million? This is sometimes called the paradox of the beard / dune / heap or similar. However, to be more correct, this is an example of the Sorites Paradox, attributed to Eubulides of Miletus. It goes as follows. Imagine a sand dune (heap) of a million grains of sand. Agreeing that a sand dune minus just one grain of sand is still a sand dune (hey, it looks the same, and with no discernible difference, I cannot call it a different category), then we can repeatedly apply this second premise until we have no grains, or even a negative number of grains and we would still have a sand dune. Such labels are arbitrarily and generally assigned so there is no precision with regards to exactly how many grains of sand a dune should have.

This problem is also exemplified in the species problem which, like many other problems involving time continua (defining legal adulthood etc.), accepts the idea that human categorisation and labelling is arbitrary and subjective. The species problem states that in a constant state of evolving change, there is, in objective reality, no such thing as a species since to derive a species one must arbitrarily cut off the chain of time at the beginning and the end of a “species’” evolution in a totally subjective manner. For example, a late Australopithecus fossilised skull could just as easily be labelled an early Homo skull. An Australopithecus couple don’t suddenly give birth to a Homo species one day. These changes take millions of years and there isn’t one single point of time where the change is exacted. There is a marvellous piece of text that you can see, a large paragraph[ii] which starts off in the colour red and gradually turns blue down the paragraph leaving the reader with the question, “at which point does the writing turn blue?” Of course, there is arguably no definite and objectively definable answer—or at least any answer is by its nature arbitrary and subjective (depending, indeed, on how you define “blue”).

End result? Realism is, in my opinion, untenable and conceptual nominalism (conceptualism) is not only a more coherent argument, it is also borne out by actual data and the world around us.

Here are a number of articles on abstract objects that you can read so that I don’t make this unnecessarily long:

Morality – What Is It? Abstract.

But what this commenter needs to do is to establish some kind of ontic realism. This is why moral positions are often categorised into realism and anti-realism. But morality is a conceptual construct that we create in order to navigate the world as a social species. Without it, society would fall apart. That is precisely because society has been constructed using morality as both a tool and a currency. So when we both say it exists, there is some kind of equivocation.

Let’s set out the basics. What is morality? Generally, the study of morality is split into three components: descriptive moralitymeta-ethics and normative morality. Normally philosophers replace the term ‘morality’ with ‘ethics’. Descriptive ethics is concerned with what people empirically believe, morally speaking. Normative ethics (which can be called prescriptive ethics) investigates questions of what people should believe. Meta-ethics is more philosophical still in attempting to define what moral theories and ethical terms actually refer to. Or,

What do different cultures actually think is right? (descriptive)

How should people act, morally speaking? (normative)

What do right and ought actually mean? (meta-ethics)

Of course, this kind of philosophising is a prime example of an abstract past time! Descriptively, it seems fairly self-evident to me that moral skepticism is evident. The fact that no moral philosophy works perfectly, the fact that we all believe slightly different things of morality, shows that there is, descriptively, subjectivity concerning moral philosophy.

Either that, or it is hidden somewhere in the world or in the mind of God (see my article “16 Problems with Divine Command Theory ” for a big critique of such deontological ethics). The problem here is that we have to subjectively interpret it so it becomes subjective at any rate. As Kant said, we can’t know things-in-themselves. Add to that the fact that we can make huge errors in accessing this source of morality and you end up having a scenario where you have to construct them using moral reasoning anyway. Which is precisely what happens.

Deontology is the idea that there is some objective, mind-independent moral framework. If this can’t exist outside of sentient minds, then we have a problem. If all humanity or all sentient creatures were to die, then the concept of morality (the existence of morality) would die with those sentient creatures. Again, this is something I’ve talked about almost endlessly, it seems.

The basic point is that you simply can’t decontextualise morality. This is what deontology seeks to do and is doomed to failure. The enquiring murderer and other similar thought experiments put paid to this. Reductio ad absurdum of deontology leads to conclusions where deontologists would actually allow any number of horrible things to happen in the name of rigid morality. Kant’s Categorical Imperative is criticized because the instruction to create rules which should be universal is vague and subject to the potentially flawed opinion of anyone using it.

Richard Carrier writes a fantastic essay to show that all moral value systems defer to virtue ethics anyway: “Open Letter to Academic Philosophy: All Your Moral Theories Are the Same” (he argues for Goal Theory, which looks not too disimilar to desirism, in my opinion).

But what does this mean if morality is conceptual and not ontically real? Well, it means that these conceptual ideas like morality have to be constructed by minds. All minds are independent of each other but they have similar biological construction as well as cultural and historical similarities. Therefore, we often agree on things. However, we also often disagree. The only way of navigating this is to agree by consensus. And this is precisely what happens. This is how democracy works and how laws get written. You vote in a ruling party that can change the law based on a majority rule. Or you have some kind of dictatorship that doesn’t do this…

But in the most representative forms of government and society, we use consensus to work out how best to exist with each other. We use consensus to write dictionaries. We use consensus to make laws. We use consensus to make policies. So on and so forth. Otherwise, it is just might makes right. Historically, of course, this is precisely what happened before the Enlightenment period and the development of political ideals.

Conclusion

It is difficult to make any such article concise because as soon as you make one claim you have to then establish that by using something more fundamental and then establish that using something more fundamental. This is precisely why you have to start from the bottom and work your way up. I am having to do this again for the purposes of establishing why this commenter and myself disagree so often (and so I am sorry to my regular readers for massively repeating myself here!). I maintain that abstract ideas are conceptual (existing individually only in our minds and the minds of any sentience, higher-level thinking creature) and if we want to establish any abstract claims (such as morality and thus politics and regulation and law), we need to do so by consensus. This is both descriptively true, but is also evidenced by point of fact that no philosopher has fully and completely coherently established any moral value system.

In the next piece, I will look at this the earlier bio social jigsaw that leads to the development of moral behaviour. Just a little hint to get you going:

The second part can now be read here.


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May 2, 2019

Aquinas is famous for a number of arguments for God’s existence, one such one being the argument from essence and existence from De Ente et Essentia [On Being and Essence]. I will briefly summarise it here.

Everything supposedly has both essence and existence and they are two separate properties; only God has them together.

The essence of something is the “what” of a thing – what it is. You can describe a lion and this would be its essence. That description, or that essence, though, does not make it exist.

The most prominent argument for the distinction is that you can know thing’s essence without knowing whether or not it exists, in which case its existence must be distinct from its essence.

Effectively, this then becomes a cosmological argument, a Prime Mover argument. The Aesity of God looks to show that God is the only entity whose essence and existence are indistinguishable. God is self-existent, though that is not to say he created himself, as, Thomists will claim, neither did any other god.

St. Thomas seeks to show that God is his own existence as well as his own essence. God has his Being of himself and to himself such that he is Absolute being and the definition of existence. Since God’s essence is his nature and God’s existence is the same as his essence it follows that God is existence….

Or, more formally, as syllogism:

Primary Argument:

P1. Whatever a thing has besides its essence must be caused by the constituent principles of that essence or by some exterior agent.

P2. Consider a created thing. It is impossible for a created thing’s existence to be caused by its essential constituent principles because nothing can be the sufficient cause of its own existence if its existence is caused.

C1. Therefore, a created thing has its existence different from its essence.

P3. God is the first efficient cause.

C2. As the first efficient cause, anything God has cannot be due to an exterior agent. C3. God’s essence is identical to his existence.

Secondary Argument:

P1. Existence is that which makes every form or nature actual. Existence is actuality as opposed to potentiality.

P2. There is no potentiality in God; only actuality.

P3. God is his essence.

C1. Since God is actuality his essence is existence.

For a look at many arguments against this position as formulated in the Kalam Cosmological Argument, see my book Did God Create the Universe from Nothing?. For now, I want to just look at these ideas of essence and existence.

The IEP shows how Aquinas sees these ideas:

In the second stage of argumentation, Thomas claims that if there were a being whose essence is its existence, there could only be one such being, in all else essence and existence would differ. This is clear when we consider how things can be multiplied. A thing can be multiplied in one of three ways: (i) as a genus is multiplied into its species through the addition of some difference, for instance the genus ‘animal’ is multiplied into the species ‘human’ through the addition of ‘rational’; (ii) as a species is multiplied into its individuals through being composed with matter, for instance the species ‘human’ is multiplied into various humans through being received in diverse clumps of matter; (iii) as a thing is absolute and shared in by many particular things, for instance if there were some absolute fire from which all other fires were derived. Thomas claims that a being whose essence is its existence could not be multiplied in either of the first two ways (he does not consider the third way, presumably because in that case the thing that is received or participated in is not itself multiplied; the individuals are multiplied and they simply share in some single absolute reality). A being whose essence is its existence could not be multiplied (i) through the addition of some difference, for then its essence would not be its existence but its existence plus some difference, nor could it be multiplied (ii) through being received in matter, for then it would not be subsistent, but it must be subsistent if it exists in virtue of what it is. Overall then, if there were a being whose essence is its existence, it would be unique, there could only be one such being, in all else essence and existence are distinct.

God. (Read the rest of the article above to see how some, e.g John Wippel, disagree and think that essence and existence are indistinguishable in reality.)

On essence and existence, these things are ideas. To me, ideas are, as I have said so many times, concepts within our minds. I am a conceptual nominalist, so abstract ideas like essence and existence have no ontic reality. That is to say, if all sentient beings (humans) were to die, then all such abstract ideas would die with them. They don’t exist outside of conceiving minds.

Aquinas was a Moderate Realist so he will be able to argue himself to such positions because of his axiomatic starting point. However, is such realism truly self-evident, axiomatic? I would argue not. Either way, it underwrites his premises. Who is right might depend on where they start.

As Wiki states:

Moderate realism (also called immanent realism) is a position in the debate on the metaphysics of universals that holds that there is no realm in which universals exist (in opposition to Platonic realism who asserts the existence of abstract objects), nor do they really exist within particulars as universals, but rather universals really exist within particulars as particularised, and multiplied.

Moderate realism is opposed to both exaggerated realism (such as the theory of Platonic forms) and nominalism. Nominalists deny the existence of universals altogether, even as particularised and multiplied within particulars.

Aristotle espoused a form of moderate realism as did Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Duns Scotus (cf. Scotist realism).[1] Moderate realism is anti-realist about abstract objects, just like conceptualism is (their difference being that conceptualism denies the mind-independence of universals, while moderate realism does not).[2]

That is to say that those universals (redness, man-ness) simply do not exist at all outside of the mind. For Aquinas, they do really exist, these abstracted forms, these essences, in the particular thing. But what does that really mean? That sounds fine, but how does it really work?

For me, all beings are different, but we mentally categorise them for human pragmatism. I have written extensively on this, using the example of the species problem, and using this image:

This, as applied to species, shows that species don’t have essences, and don’t have categorical boundaries set in abstract stone. We, technically, should treat all organisms as individuals, as particulars alone that happen to have similar properties but that are not identical. Aquinas treats them as analogical, each being similar but different, but those similarities are essences that really exist in the particular. There is the essence of a tiger and of a mouse. But, for me, which type of mouse – do we now have to break up this mousenesses into yet smaller or different essences? And what happens around the blurred evolutionary transition between non-mouse and mouse? I can see the draw of this approach of realism for pragmatic, categorical purposes, but it simply doesn’t hold up in nature.

In other words, the “whatness” of any given thing is what is up for grabs. You and I may disagree over what a hero is, but also the exact essence of a homo sapiens (as opposed to a homo heidelbergensis). And these whatnesses would have to take into account those particulars on the extreme that we would still include in the term homo sapiens or man, such as a badly malformed foetus, or an unconscious transgender person or some other entity (as a philosophical word, not to belittle transgender people!) that doesn’t fit neatly into the idea of natural kinds and essences.

Of course, it is God who knows everything; we are merely imperfect epistemological entities:

The epistemology of Aquinas is thus a moderate realism, a via media between exaggerated or naive realism, and idealism. We attain to a reality itself independent of our act of knowing, and in doing so we become possessed of knowledge which is true, but inadequate. The process of psychological elaboration which goes on in the mind limits the field of knowledge, but does not disfigure it.

To me, though, Aquinas fails in showing, at least as far as my very limited Thomistic reading is concerned, the viability of an essence as an ontic entity. We have properties, for sure. And many entities have similar groups of properties. So what?

To say that God is the only entity whose existence and essence are bound together necessarily is to assume “essence” makes any sense. I simply deny the universality and coherence of essences. Of course, that’s not even to get onto the sticky subject of existence conditions of propertiesBoth existence and essence are very much terms to be argued over.

 


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April 22, 2019

I am first going to furnish you with an excerpt from Robert Sapolsky’s Behave [UK here] before discussing the content within a theological context. Of course, what Sapolsky has to say is nothing new or groundbreaking, but it serves s a good introduction to the topic.

AGAIN WITH BABIES AND ANIMALS

Much as infants demonstrate the rudiments of hierarchical and Us/Them thinking, they possess building blocks of moral reasoning as well. For starters, infants have the bias concerning commission versus omission. In one clever study, six-month-olds watched a scene containing two of the same objects, one blue and one red; repeatedly, the scene would show a person picking the blue object. Then, one time, the red one is picked. The kid becomes interested, looks more, breathes faster, showing that this seems discrepant. Now, the scene shows two of the same objects, one blue, one a different color. In each repetition of the scene, a person picks the one that is not blue (its color changes with each repetition). Suddenly, the blue one is picked. The kid isn’t particularly interested. “He always picks the blue one” is easier to comprehend than “He never picks the blue one.” Commission is weightier.—

Infants and toddlers also have hints of a sense of justice, as shown by Kiley Hamlin of the University of British Columbia, and Paul Bloom and Karen Wynn of Yale. Six- to twelve-month-olds watch a circle moving up a hill. A nice triangle helps to push it. A mean square blocks it. Afterward the infants can reach for a triangle or a square. They choose the triangle.* Do infants prefer nice beings, or shun mean ones? Both. Nice triangles were preferred over neutral shapes, which were preferred over mean squares.

Such infants advocate punishing bad acts. A kid watches puppets, one good, one bad (sharing versus not). The child is then presented with the puppets, each sitting on a pile of sweets. Who should lose a sweet? The bad puppet. Who should gain one? The good puppet.

Remarkably, toddlers even assess secondary punishment. The good and bad puppets then interact with two additional puppets, who can be nice or bad. And whom did kids prefer of those second-layer puppets? Those who were nice to nice puppets and those who punished mean ones.

Other primates also show the beginnings of moral judgments. Things started with a superb 2003 paper by Frans de Waal and Sarah Brosnan.— Capuchin monkeys were trained in a task: A human gives them a mildly interesting small object—a pebble. The human then extends her hand palm up, a capuchin

begging gesture. If the monkey puts the pebble in her hand, there’s a food reward. In other words, the animals learned how to buy food.

Now there are two capuchins, side by side. Each gets a pebble. Each gives it to the human. Each gets a grape, very rewarding.

Now change things. Both monkeys pay their pebble. Monkey 1 gets a grape. But monkey 2 gets some cucumber, which blows compared with grapes— capuchins prefer grapes to cucumber 90 percent of the time. Monkey 2 was shortchanged.

And monkey 2 would then typically fling the cucumber at the human or bash around in frustration. Most consistently, they wouldn’t give the pebble the next time. As the Nature paper was entitled, “Monkeys reject unequal pay.”

This response has since been demonstrated in various macaque monkey species, crows, ravens, and dogs (where the dog’s “work” would be shaking her paw).*—

Subsequent work by Brosnan, de Waal, and others fleshed out this phenomenon further:—

• One criticism of the original study was that maybe capuchins refused to work for cucumbers because grapes were visible, regardless of whether the other guy was getting paid in grapes.

But no—the phenomenon required unfair payment.

• Both animals are getting grapes, then one gets switched to cucumber. What’s key—that the other guy is still getting grapes, or that I no longer am? The former—if doing the study with a single monkey, switching from grapes to cucumbers would not evoke refusal. Nor would it if both monkeys got cucumbers.

• Across the various species, males were more likely than females to reject “lower pay”; dominant animals were more likely than subordinates to reject.

• It’s about the work—give one monkey a free grape, the other free cucumber, and the latter doesn’t get pissed.

• The closer in proximity the two animals are, the more likely the one getting cucumber is to go on strike.

• Finally, rejection of unfair pay isn’t seen in species that are solitary (e.g., orangutans) or have minimal social cooperation (e.g., owl monkeys).

Okay, very impressive—other social species show hints of a sense of justice, reacting negatively to unequal reward. But this is worlds away from juries awarding money to plaintiffs harmed by employers. Instead it’s self-interest —“This isn’t fair; I’m getting screwed.”

How about evidence of a sense of fairness in the treatment of another individual? Two studies have examined this in a chimp version of the Ultimatum Game. Recall the human version—in repeated rounds, player 1 in a pair decides how money is divided between the two of them. Player 2 is powerless in the decision making but, if unhappy with the split, can refuse, and no one gets any money. In other words, player 2 can forgo immediate reward to punish selfish player 1. As we saw in chapter 10, Player 2s tend to accept 60:40 splits.

In the chimp version, chimp 1, the proposer, has two tokens. One indicates that each chimp gets two grapes. The other indicates that the proposer gets three grapes, the partner only one. The proposer chooses a token and passes it to chimp 2, who then decides whether to pass the token to the human grape dispenser. In other words, if chimp 2 thinks chimp 1 is being unfair, no one gets grapes.

In one such study, Michael Tomasello (a frequent critic of de Waal—stay tuned) at the Max Planck Institutes in Germany, found no evidence of chimp fairness—the proposer always chose, and the partner always accepted unfair splits.— De Waal and Brosnan did the study in more ethologically valid conditions and reported something different: proposer chimps tended toward equitable splits, but if they could give the token directly to the human (robbing chimp 2 of veto power), they’d favor unfair splits. So chimps will opt for fairer splits—but only when there is a downside to being unfair.

Sometimes other primates are fair when it’s at no cost to themselves. Back to capuchin monkeys. Monkey 1 chooses whether both he and the other guy get marshmallows or it’s a marshmallow for him and yucky celery for the other guy. Monkeys tended to choose marshmallows for the other guy.* Similar “other- regarding preference” was shown with marmoset monkeys, where the first individual got nothing and merely chose whether the other guy got a cricket to eat (of note, a number of studies have failed to find other-regarding preference in chimps).—

Really interesting evidence for a nonhuman sense of justice comes in a small side study in a Brosnan/de Waal paper. Back to the two monkeys getting cucumbers for work. Suddenly one guy gets shifted to grapes. As we saw, the

one still getting the cucumber refuses to work. Fascinatingly, the grape mogul often refuses as well.

What is this? Solidarity? “I’m no strike-breaking scab”? Self-interest, but with an atypically long view about the possible consequences of the cucumber victim’s resentment? Scratch an altruistic capuchin and a hypocritical one bleeds? In other words, all the questions raised by human altruism.

Given the relatively limited reasoning capacities of monkeys, these findings support the importance of social intuitionism. De Waal perceives even deeper implications—the roots of human morality are older than our cultural institutions, than our laws and sermons. Rather than human morality being spiritually transcendent (enter deities, stage right), it transcends our species boundaries. [my emphasis]

Indeed, the Frans de Waal experiment can be seen here:

What do these things tell us? Well, within the context of primates and other social animals, the foundations of morality are not only there, evident to see, but they are evolved. Their functionality for sociality and social cohesion are clear to see. And this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as the subject of the evolution of morality and morality in other species is concerned.

But what about God?

This is where you can see so many theists have an issue with evolution. This is where evolution gets rejected because so many things that have theological purchase, things like morality, that we can see have been clearly involved for their functional purpose become problematic for the theist for these very reasons.

The theist really and has two options. Firstly, they can reject evolution outright. Secondly, they can be theistic evolutionists. Obviously, from a naturalistic and atheistic point of view, the theistic evolutionist is a much more preferable form of the theist. At least they are somewhat reasonable and open to logic, science and data. And yet, still, one wonders how they deal with the subject of evolved personality traits. For example, Steven Pinker’s superb How the Mind Works, a great synopsis of the evolutionary underpinnings and processes behind everything to do with our personality and minds, must still be a very difficult book for a theistic evolutionist to read.

Of course, if you deny evolution, none of this is a problem. However, the real problem is that you deny evolution and all of this data and science still exists. It doesn’t suddenly disappear. Burying your head in the sand doesn’t make the rest of the world disappear; it just means you only get to see granules of sand in front of your eyes. And nothing else. The world becomes a very one-dimensional place when you do this; there is no benefit the person doing this in terms of understanding the world around them.

God is the Foundation of Objective Morality

Goodness me, I’ve written enough on the fact that the term “objective” doesn’t make any sense, particularly in the context of conceptual nominalism. Indeed, what we have here is a two-pronged attack on God. And by “God” we can mean objective morality or any other similarly evolved traits that humans have that also have theological importance.

If morality is evolved due to its functionality and usefulness, then the grounds to morality are… their functionality and their usefulness. Morality isn’t underwritten by God; God has no explanatory use here, both in terms of causality and moral philosophy.

As humans have built on these foundations of morality, both aspects of intuition and reasoning, using the many parts of our brain that Sapolsky spells out in minute detail throughout his book, we create an intricate framework of morality that gets woven into our culture and our relationships with each other, and even with other species. But the core foundation of this morality is it functionalism evolved within parts of the brain.

As Sapolsky continues:

Many moral philosophers believe not only that moral judgment is built on reasoning but also that it should be. This is obvious to fans of Mr. Spock, since the emotional component of moral intuitionism just introduces sentimentality, self-interest, and parochial biases. But one remarkable finding counters this.

Relatives are special. Chapter 10 attests to that. Any social organism would tell you so. Joseph Stalin thought so concerning Pavlik Morozov ratting out his father. As do most American courts, where there is either de facto or de jure resistance to making someone testify against their own parent or child. Relatives are special. But not to people lacking social intuitionism. As noted, people with vmPFC damage make extraordinarily practical, unemotional moral decisions. And in the process they do something that everyone, from clonal yeast to Uncle Joe to the Texas Rules of Criminal Evidence considers morally suspect: they advocate harming kin as readily as strangers in an “Is it okay to sacrifice one person to save five?” scenario.

Emotion and social intuition are not some primordial ooze that gums up that human specialty of moral reasoning. Instead, they anchor some of the few moral judgments that most humans agree upon.

Which is to say that both reasoning and intuition are important, yes. Anyone who has read around the subject, from Kahneman to Damasio knows this. What I find important here to the context of this piece is that there are functional reasons as to why intuitive morality evolved – for example, it profits the survival of kin more likely than non-kin (think the selfish gene). This is hardcoded into the brain and if you damage those intuitionist parts of the brain, the subject then makes moral decisions that, purely rationally, do not favour kin over non-kin.

The brain, and the way it has evolved, is key, then, to understanding morality. And that is a truth many philosophers don’t like. And a truth that theologians really struggle with.

My next piece will be on how theistic evolutionists deal with the above. Or how they don’t, really.

 


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January 11, 2019

Last night, I gave a talk to the Portsmouth Skeptics in the Pub with fellow ATP writer, Alan Duval. We had a great time and I can’t thank Pompey Skeptics enough (especially as they donated all proceeds to my appeal – totally brilliant of them). It was great to meet Phil Rimmer, a commenter here at ATP, who came down to see the talk. Awesome, and just a shame the venue closed after the talk and we couldn’t grab a beer! Damn!

The talk consisted of Alan and me splicing our views over an hour, talking about the different philosophical approaches to morality (as in the big three: consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics) and how these translate into psychology.

We first talked about building philosophical frameworks up from the bottom rather than top-down, as I set out here. This means working out what the basic building bricks of philosophical ideas are. In other words, what are abstract ideas? As per my personhood talk and views, it comes down to expounding conceptual nominalism. Abstract ideas only exist in our heads. Without any sentient life forms on earth, the ideas of a hero or a chair, or indeed morality, would die. They do not exist outside of our minds.

Don’t worry, God doesn’t help here since claiming God solves the problem simply moves abstracta into another mind, the mind of God.

Excuse the missing brick.

Given this, and showing the strengths and weaknesses of all the big three, we concluded that the big three, on their own and individually, don’t really cover the necessary ground, although they have their functional use. From an action point of view, consequentialism does seem to have a benefit of having a non-derivative value currency in some kind of satisfaction / happiness / pleasure / lack of pain. This is a decent axiom from which we can start. Happiness is self-evidently good, it seems. But as a whole system, it’s still not perfect.

Alan, in looking at the work of Schwarz, Maslow and Kohlberg, equated each philosophical outlook with a psychological and moral development in people, as you can see above.

In the meantime, we dismissed Divine Command Theory and Natural Law (upheld by various theists) and established how psychology could account for these moral systems from an individual and then societal point of view.

A more complex form of which can be seen here:

I really like the way it fits into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:

We look at individual actions, learn from them, and formulate rules that knit together societies. When these work well, they allow for safety and security, out of which blossoms self-actualisation.

In a sense, this doffs a cap to Richard Carrier and others who have said that consequentialism derives to deontology, deontology to consequentialism, and both to virtue ethics. See Carrier’s excellent piece: “Open Letter to Academic Philosophy: All Your Moral Theories Are the Same“.

On Carrier’s piece is the following image:

My conclusions, in general, were:

  • Morality does not exist outside of our minds
  • We construct it with a psychology evolved to fit our environment
  • …both the physical and the social
  • Morality is built on intentions, empathy and rationality
  • …and good knowledge of the world
  • But, there is no perfect model, so there are grey areas.
  • Animals have it to differing degrees.
  • It is evolutionarily beneficial – empathy, consolation, prosocial tendencies, reciprocity and fairness
  • In order to set out a moral framework, you need to carefully set out a goal, a vision for the world

That covers a lot of ground. The last bit is important. I have often said the following:

So, what is an ought? Well, oughts should be seen in their larger context. All too often, we use language sloppily in a way that we take linguistic shortcuts. For example, if I say “I ought to change the oil in my car engine” then most people understand what I mean by implication and inference. This this is actually an apodosis, the part of a conditional sentence that usually starts with then. The problem is, we are missing the protasis, which is the first part of the conditional sentence that usually starts with an if. This is because we are clever enough to make the correct inference and work out what the speaker is meaning.

However, if we were being specific and accurate, we would include the protasis. In this case, the protasis would be “If I want my car engine to work well, then I ought to change the oil in my car engine.” Without the protasis, the sentence “I ought to change the oil in my car engine” is essentially meaningless. This is because you can place anything as the protasis and completely change the overall meaning of the sentence or, indeed, render the apodosis incorrect. In this case, if I said “If, as a scientist, I am testing how well engines work without oil in them” then adding the apodosis, “then I ought to change the oil in the car engine” will not make sense, and the whole sentence is problematic.

Thus the point to make here is that, although we often do it and can make sense of it, if we are to be precise, then we should always include the protasis in a conditional statement.

The problem is that when we make moral proclamations involving prescriptive morality concerning the world, that one should do such and such, then we often miss out the protasis. The statement is oddly devoid of a goal. If we want this kind of world to eventualise or maintain, then we should do X. All too often, we hear “You should do X” devoid of any clear idea of what the goal actually is.

The first step in working out a sound moral framework is to work out the sort of world you want to live in, a process itself laden with moral dimensions. Then you will start constructing morality that will eventually look like the sort of pyramid set out above, if it is successful. Morality is one of those tools that regulates social interactions and is functionally necessary for social beings to create communities and societies.

End result? We both had a great time, stimulating a fabulous Q & A (my normal favourite part where we go round the houses talking about anything. In fact, it was suggested a bring a talk where I have no talk, and we just do a massive Q & A!). Thanks to organisers and all who came, and very much to Alan for making a great double team.

December 30, 2018

Yup, you guessed it, we’re gonna return to the Sorites Paradox. Sorry to bore you. This comment came up on the older post “IQ: Using Race Divisively” and I thought I would go over some points I have previously made:

You are clearly not very bright because you are so foolish as to believe that if there are not absolute, crystal clear dividing lines between categories, then categories do not exist. Talk to a biologist some time. Even species divisions are not always absolute. Are you thus going to tell me there’s no such thing as species?

The races of humanity exist. They have differing average IQs. This has profound real-world implications. You are not very intelligent. All of these are true. Get used to them.

Of course, it depends what we mean by “exist” when we might say “the races of humanity exist”. Many of you might have read the introductory stuff here and you can skip to the end, if you desire.

The Sorites Paradox

My favourite philosophical thought experiment, if you can call it that, and as many of my readers might know of me, is the Sorites Paradox. It can be defined as follows:

The sorites paradox[1] (sometimes known as the paradox of the heap) is a paradox that arises from vaguepredicates.[2] A typical formulation involves a heap of sand, from which grains are individually removed. Under the assumption that removing a single grain does not turn a heap into a non-heap, the paradox is to consider what happens when the process is repeated enough times: is a single remaining grain still a heap? If not, when did it change from a heap to a non-heap?[3]

The paradox arises in this way:

The word “sorites” derives from the Greek word for heap.[4] The paradox is so named because of its original characterization, attributed to Eubulides of Miletus.[5] The paradox goes as follows: consider a heap of sand from which grains are individually removed. One might construct the argument, using premises, as follows:[3]

1000000 grains of sand is a heap of sand (Premise 1)
A heap of sand minus one grain is still a heap. (Premise 2)

Repeated applications of Premise 2 (each time starting with one fewer grain) eventually forces one to accept the conclusion that a heap may be composed of just one grain of sand.[6]). Read (1995) observes that “the argument is itself a heap, or sorites, of steps of modus ponens“:[7]

1000000 grains is a heap.
If 1000000 grains is a heap then 999999 grains is a heap.
So 999999 grains is a heap.
If 999999 grains is a heap then 999998 grains is a heap.
So 999998 grains is a heap.
If …
… So 1 grain is a heap.

Categorising stuff

We love to use categories. That’s a blue flower, that’s a red car, that’s an adult, that’s a child. It’s how we navigate reality in a practical sense – it provides our conceptual map. However, you shouldn’t confuse the map with the terrain. Essentially (good word choice), we make up labels to represent a number of different properties. A cat has these properties, a dog these. Red has these properties, blue these. Often we agree on this labelling, but sometimes we don’t. What constitutes a hero? A chair? Is a tree stump a chair?

The problem occurs when we move between categories. It is at these times that we realise the simplicity of the categories shows weakness in the system.

You reach eighteen years of age. You are able to vote. You are now classed as an adult. You are allowed to buy alcoholic drinks (in the UK). But there is barely any discernible difference in you, as a person, physically and mentally, from 17 years, 364 days, 11 hours, 59 minutes, 59 seconds, and you 1 second later.

However, we decide to define that second change at midnight as differentiating the two yous and seeing you move from child (adolescent) to adult. These categories are arbitrary in where we exactly draw the line. Some countries choose sixteen, some younger, some older. These are conceptual constructs that allow us to navigate about a continuum of time. You can look at a five-year-old and the same person at twenty-eight and clearly see a difference. But that five-year-old and the same person one second later? There is no discernible difference.

And yet it is pragmatically useful for us to categorise, otherwise things like underage sex and drinking would take place with wild abandon, perhaps. Sixteen for the age of consent is, though, rather arbitrary. Why not five seconds later? Four days? Three and a half years?

Speciation is exactly the same. There is no real time where a population of organisms actually transforms into a new species. Because species is a human conceptual construct that does not exist objectively. We name things homo sapiens sapiens but cannot define exactly where speciation occurred. In one sense, it does not occur. In another, if you look at vastly different places on the continuum, it does (at least in our minds).

This is a version of the Sorites Paradox.

As I have shared several times, why not again? This image sums it up with aplomb:

Races

In philosophy, there is a position called (conceptual) nominalism, which is set against (Platonic) realism. This conceptual nominalism, as I adhere to, denies in some (or all) cases the existence of abstracts. These categories we invent don’t exist (a word that itself needs clear defining), at least not outside of our heads. Thus species do not exist as objective categories. We invent them, but if all people who knew about species suddenly died and information about them was lost, then so too would be lost the concept and categorisation.

When we look at two very different parts of a continuum we find it easy to say those things are different and are of different categories, but when we look in finer detail, this falls apart. There is a fuzzy logic at play.

Species do not exist. Well, they do in our heads. When we agree about them. And only then so we can nicely label pictures in books, or in our heads.

In the same way, races do not exist in any objective sense. We can conceptually call them into existence for whatever reason we might want. We could do it to be racist, or for pragmatic reasons, or we could choose not to conceptually create the category of race because it might be counter-productive.  To choose to create race categories appears to be, for the most part, a spurious pastime. What remains to be said, or asked, is why such a person bothers with the race crusade at all? I could vilify autistic people, or quadriplegics, as not offering something or another to society, or being different, less than, more than etc. But I don’t because I am a compassionate human.

We could further categorise into hair colour: blonde, ginger, brunette and so on, and attach value (superiority or inferiority) to such categories. Why bother? Well, we do so for hair colour in merely differentiating the looks of one person against another for pragmatic usage.

As a child, I was ginger and I was bullied/teased on account of this, at some points pretty damagingly so. Outside of that pragmatic usage, such distinctions are often misused for purposes of in-group / out-group castigation.

Whether or not we do such categorisation comes down to the benefits or negative aspects of so doing: the consequences. Whether or not we should do something is, after all, a moral question. The challenge is that is is a very natural process to do so, to point out and indicate differences. It is a way of understanding the world that humans love all too much. We have a habit of putting people, things, plants, animals and anything else in boxes. It isn’t always so beneficial, though.

In conclusion, race doesn’t exist out there, but only in the mind. It’s up to you or us how we define it, and then, after that, how we use that definition.


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December 22, 2018

The other day, a Christian commenter posted a series of comments concerning the Kalam (appearing to pertain to my book Did God Create the Universe from Nothing?). I would like to take them to task in considering some of those comments, which include:

“It is… a mere assertion… that EVERYTHING which begins to exist has a cause… This can be called a ‘simple induction by enumeration to a generalization.’ …”
Can anyone give an example of something physical in the universe that began to exist did not have a cause

and

It is impossible for something to begin to exist without a cause.

and

The cause for your existence is due to your parents.

and

The universe began to exist. Its called the big bang.
It is impossible for something to begin to exist without a cause. Just because you don’t know the cause doesn’t mean there was not a cause.

and

If something could come into existence without a cause then that is the end of science. It has nothing to do with the laws of nature.

God does not need a cause. He has always existed.

The naturalist has these options:

  1. The universe popped into existence uncaused.
  2. The universe was caused by some other non-God cause, somehow.
  3. The universe is part of an infinite regress of causality. (See the chapter by Dr James East on this very point, in my book)
  4. The universe is a brute fact, a necessary entity, just as God is claimed to be. This is a more attractive proposition than God as per Ockham’s Razor. (I will create a post to talk about this).

What we need to think about first here is causality. Indeed, this whole argument is one over causality: cause and effect. Whilst cause and effect might be at face value a very simple thing, just the term “cause” can be tricky. Let me make reference to my book in answering this, where much of the next content comes from.

With this in mind, let us look at causality and the problems with it. Let me analogise to make the point as clear as possible.

Smith is driving along the road over the speed limit. He is tired due to a heavy work schedule and a deadline which meant a lack of sleep the night before and is late for a meeting. One of his favourite songs comes on the radio and he starts singing along to it. On the pavement (sidewalk) a drunk man falls over into a bin which the Borough Council had just put in place to improve the cleanliness of the town. The bin is knocked off its stand and rolls into the road. Smith sees the bin late as his attention is distracted. He swerves, to avoid it. At the same time, a boy is trying to cross the road without looking. Smith is swerving into him and has to reverse his swerve significantly the other way, hitting a pothole in the poorly maintained road. This sends the car out of his control and onto the pavement. Jones, who had been walking by, slips on some soapy water draining from the carwash he is walking past. Whilst Jones is picking himself up, Smith’s car mounts the pavement, hits Jones, and kills him instantly. What is the cause of Jones’ death?

This is a very difficult, but standard causal question. The universe is not an isolation of one cause and one effect. It is a matrix of cause and effect with each effect being causal further down in something like the continuum. One could say that the impact of the car on Jones’ head kills him. But even then, at what nanosecond of impact, what degree of the force killed him? This is arbitrarily cutting off the causal continuum at 1, half or quarter of a second before the effect (Jones’ death). Having said that, the cause could be said to be the lack of oxygen to the brain, or the destruction of his vital organs. We could also accuse the bin, the drunk or anything else as being a cause, because without each of these, the final effect would not have taken place.[i]

As a result, I would posit that the cause of Jones’ death is one long continuum which cannot be arbitrarily sliced up temporally.[ii] As such, it stretches back to, say, the Big Bang—the start of the causal chain. In terms of free will, we call this the causal circumstance. Because the universe is one big causal soup, I would claim that any effect would be the makeup of the universe at any one point, like a snapshot. This makeup that leads to any given effect cannot be sliced up arbitrarily but is the entire connected matrix of ‘causes and effect’ (for want of a better term) since the Big Bang.

In other words, there is only one cause. The universe at the Big Bang (or similar).

If I am picking up a cup of tea to drink from it now, then we could just look at a few seconds before this as to the cause. Perhaps it was just my intention. But how about the notion that my parents introduced me to tea, and all those instances of tea drinking which came from that that now enforce my intentions? What if tea had not evolved? What if my grandparents had not given birth to my parents, and them to me? What if humanity had not evolved? What if the Earth had not harboured life? Without all of these, I would not have picked up my cup of tea. They are all relevant (and all the bits in between, and connecting them to other parts of the matrix) to my drinking tea now.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett uses another example about the French Foreign Legion that he himself adapted from elsewhere to illustrate problems with a basic notion of causality, of A simplistically causing B:

Not that deadlocks must always be breakable. We ought to look with equanimity on the prospect that sometimes circumstances will fail to pinpoint a single “real cause” of an event, no matter how hard we seek. A case in point is the classic law school riddle:

Everybody in the French Foreign Legion outpost hates Fred, and wants him dead. During the night before Fred’s trek across the desert, Tom poisons the water in his canteen. Then, Dick, not knowing of Tom’s intervention, pours out the (poisoned) water and replaces it with sand. Finally, Harry comes along and pokes holes in the canteen, so that the “water” will slowly run out. Later, Fred awakens and sets out on his trek, provisioned with his canteen. Too late he finds his canteen is nearly empty, but besides, what remains is sand, not water, not even poisoned water. Fred dies of thirst. Who caused his death?

This thought experiment defends the thesis that causality is, at times, impossible to untangle or define. I would take this one very large step further in saying that the causality of such an effect, of any effect, is traceable back to the first cause itself: the Big Bang or whatever creation event you ascribe to.[iii]

So the causality of things happening now is that initial singularity or creation event. As I will show later, nothing has begun to exist, and no cause has begun to exist, other than that first cause—the Big Bang singularity.

Let me show this as follows with another example of such causality. In this example, the term causal circumstance is the causal situation that has causal effect on the object—from every air molecule to every aspect of physical force:

Imagine there are 5 billiard balls A–E and nothing else. These came to exist at point t0 with an ‘introductory force’. At each point t1, t2 etc, every ball hits another ball. At point t5, B hits E at 35 degrees sending it towards C. Craig’s own point about causality seems to be this: the cause for B hitting E at 35 degrees is the momentum and energy generated in B as it hits E. That is his ‘efficient cause’. My point is this: the cause of B hitting E is at t0. No cause has begun to exist or has been created out of nothing. The causes transform—what is called transformative creation. So the cause of B hitting E is:

B firing off at t0 and hitting A at t1, the causal circumstance meaning it rebounds off A to hit D at t2, meaning the causal circumstance rendering it inevitable that it hits A again at t3… and then it hits E at t5 at 35 degrees.

The cause is the casual circumstance at t5. This is identical to the causal circumstance in free will discussions—that determinism entails the cause of an action to the first cause of the Big Bang. The causal circumstance is everything up until the moment t5 as well as all the factors at the moment just prior to t5 (at t4). Craig is incorrect, in my opinion, in saying that the cause of B hitting E is the immediate isolated efficient cause just before t5 (t4).

Now, in this example, the term transformative creation pops up. This is something which will be examined in the next objection. In summary, this example shows that one cannot arbitrarily quantise causality; one cannot cut it up into discrete chunks since it is, in reality, one long, continual causal chain, unbroken. Even the word “chain” is problematic because it is linear in sense, and causality is more like a matrix (or causal soup as I earlier said!).

What this amounts to is the notion that there is only one cause, and even this is open for debate. The creation event sets in motion one long, interconnected continuum of causality. What I am implying here, then, is that there is only one effect. This means that the idea that “everything” or “every effect” as it can be synonymously denoted is incoherent since there is only one effect—an ever-morphing matrix of causality. Let us see how this changes the syllogism:

1) Everything which begins to exist has the universe as the causal condition for its existence.

2) The universe began to exist.

3) Therefore, the universe had the universe as a causal condition for its existence.

As you can easily see, the conclusion is highly problematic. It is nonsensical and seems to insinuate that the universe is self-caused. There is only one cause and this is the universe and can hardly be applied to itself. One cannot make a generalised rule, which is what the inductively asserted first premise is as we have discussed, from a singular event/object and then apply the rule to that very event/object. This is entirely circular and even incoherent. Causality itself renders the KCA problematic.

Let me emphasise that point: you cannot make a generalised rule that “everything which begins to exist has cause for its existence” when everything is merely one thing. And you cannot apply that rule to itself.

In exactly the same way that we cannot untangle or slice up causality into discrete parts, we cannot also delineate objects, and this leads me on to the second objection which closely matches the one just elucidated – that of nominalism as it pertains to the KCA.

[i] Personally, I find JL Mackie’s INUS conditions (insufficient but non-redundant parts of a condition which is itself unnecessary but sufficient for the occurrence of the effect) an interesting concept within the discipline of causality.

[ii] One could run down a rabbit hole here in assessing (partial) moral responsibility in light of being part of a causal chain, as can be seen in the work of determinists and compatibilists in the free will debate.

[iii] As I have hinted at in the previous note, this has ramifications upon ideas of moral responsibility. As this is not the remit for this book, I would refer the reader to the excellent Living Without Free Will by Derk Pereboom.

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