An Apology to JT Eberhard

An Apology to JT Eberhard August 22, 2012

It has been quite a while since the deadline I set for answering JT Eberhard’s questions after my conversion. One of the reasons for the delay is that I turn out to be terrible at spacing commitments or estimating how much free time I had. (Getting overwhelmed after my announcement and telling everybody “Contact me again in two weeks” was a bad idea).

But the other, content related problem is that, based on these questions, JT and I (and atheist!me of say, six months ago) have a lot of different first principles.

So when I settle down to write a post replying to:

3. You undoubtedly have a logical proof of some sort for a moral lawgiver. What is it?

I realize I probably have to write a whole series just to explain why that’s not the standard of proof I use for anything outside of, well, math. And then I think of spending a whole week just on epistemology, when I still have posts outstanding for the LessWrong Retreat and the Sondheim Symposium (which are both more interesting to me, since they involve futzing around with new ideas) and I put it off. Gevalt.

And, as much as I don’t want to spend all my writing time on this, I can recognize that it’s a lot harder to follow unless it’s a giant coherent series (or a book).  But I’ve been letting the great be the enemy of the good, so I’ll take a quick and dirty crack at this one.  Meet me back here tomorrow, after you’ve read these:

I swear I’m not trying to Courtier’s Reply, but this will make my life a lot easier if I’m not recapping things that are better written elsewhere.  And, unlike in the Courtier’s Reply, I’m not making you read theology (i.e. stuff written on the topic we’re fighting about).  I think most atheists will be interested in the material covered in these links.  (And, fair warning, the LessWrong Sequences have strange attractor properties that are only a little weaker than those of TV Tropes).


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  • I was told there would be no homework.

    • leahlibresco

      You sure weren’t told that by me.

  • KL

    I don’t see this as a Courtier’s Reply at all, though others could conceivably disagree. It’s a clarification of terms and epistemological premises, which is always going to be necessary unless one’s interlocutors explicitly share those foundations. And it’s useful and enlightening reading for everyone, regardless of intellectual commitment. I’m trying to maintain some restraint on the LW wiki, as TV Tropes took over my life for a while a few months ago…

  • Rachel

    John Henry Newman’s Essay on the Developement of Doctrine might be helpful to you in formulating a reply even if only insofar as to greatly clarify terms. The downside is that it is 445 pages, at least in my edition, and that in true victorian fashion, the author does not see the point in using 10 words when he can use 50 instead!

  • Ron K

    The way I read them, LessWrong’s Map-Territory analogy and Eve Tushnet’s piece stand in glaring contradiction.

    LessWrong writes: “If you change what you believe about an object, that is a change in the pattern of neurons in your brain. The real object will not change because of this edit. […] The strategy that normally gives most control over reality is one where the ‘map’ is aligned to match the ‘territory’ as closely as possible. […] Humans are wired to sometimes let their beliefs slip into what they would like to believe instead of what the evidence suggests. That is like erasing a mountain off a map because you would like to pass there or drawing an oasis on the map in a desert because you would like some water. ”

    Tushnet writes: “[…] it’s OK to say that you are more convinced of certain ethical claims […] than you are of certain metaphysical claims that you thought you held but that drive you to unacceptable ethical conclusions. That’s an if/then choice, not a rejection of rationality. […] It is not irrational to decide that the ethical claim is the better one, the one you’re more sure of, and so you need to radically rework your metaphysics in order to justify that ethical claim.”

    Setting aside Tushnet’s obvious naturallistic fallacy, she claims that it is rational to evaluate claims based on one’s level of conviction. If one ‘knows’ (translated to my language: feels) that it is wrong to kill babies then one must work one’s metaphysics and epistemology around any percieved implications to the contrary. That is exactly what LessWrong warns from — redrawing the map because you don’t like the quicksand. Although this approach is not intellectually dishonest per se, it is easy to justify intellectual dishonesty and bias using it.

    As I understood LessWrong, If some ethical statements are belief statements about truth, and can be deduced from reality in a certain level of accuracy (two claims I seriously doubt), then one must believe them in that level of accuracy regardless of conviction, bias, or emotion. There is no relation between your certainty or conviction and the accuracy of a statement.

    • Ted Seeber

      GK Chesterton’s opinion on paradoxes comes to mind. If you find an apparent paradox, and the world is full of them, it’s a sign that you have yet to examine the dox to find out first if it is orthodox.

      The orthodox bit in both is “if you find something that does not match reality, you need to change your internal thinking until your internal thinking matches reality”. That’s true in both Catholicism and (for want of a better term) Skepticism. And in fact, I’d say it has to be true if, to paraphrase Pope Benedict XVI at the University of Regansberg, you are to have a rational metaphysics rather than an irrational one.

      You are right that the connection between the certainty of conviction and reality is a loose one at best, but what you’re missing is that Eve and Less Wrong are really saying the same thing- that we have to learn to match our reasoning to the data, rather than manipulate the data to fit our reasoning.

    • Adrian Ratnapala

      There should be no suprise if LessWrong and a christian convert contradict each other, but I don’t think they do in this case.

      LessWrong admonishes us to distinguish between facts, our beleifs about facts, our knowledge of facts, our knowledge of beleifs etc. Taking this to heart, we see that Tushnet is talking about how to formulate our beleifs and choose between alternative beleifs — that is, our knowledge of our beleifs. I see nothing in the LessWrong piece that even addresses Tushnet’s claims about this topic, let alone contradicts them.

      Also, can you spell out the “obvious naturalistic fallacy”. I am feeling dumb today.

      • Ron K

        @Ted and Adrian
        Eve doesn’t even mention the words ‘data’ or ‘fact’. She seems to have a way to choose between beliefs that relies not on evidence, but on certainty. That is exactly what LessWrong is referring to when they write about letting beliefs slip into what you want to believe/already believe firmly, as opposed to trying to match your beliefs to the observable data, and ONLY to the observable data, however contradictory to deeply held notions, emotionally uncomfortable, intellectually unsatisfying or downright painful that might be.

        That said, I might be reading too much into both LessWrong and Eve.

        The naturallistic fallacy states that one cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Eve callously throws around sentences such as ‘metaphysical claims […] that drive you to ethical conclusions’. Sorry, but no. Metaphysical, Epistemological and Empirical claims are all truth claims, pretaining to what and how the world *is*. There is no logical way to derive an ‘ought’, i.e. an ethical or aesthetic statement, from that. If Metaphysics and Epistemology (and maybe even Metaethics) are part of that birthday cake, then Ethics is a quiche on another table, in another room, on another continent.

        • FYI, the naturalistic fallacy is not the same thing as the is-ought problem.

          Summary: the naturalistic fallacy says that no one can define what “good” is. This is from GE Moore’s Principia Ethica. And it is neither naturalistic nor a fallacy. Discuss.
          The is-ought problem states that one cannot derive and ought from an is. This is David Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature. Yet in this very treatise Hume say ethics ought to rely on human emotions, thus drawing an ought from an is. Discuss.

          • Aw geez, the Wikipedia article is actually quite confused. I should have read it more carefully before linking to it. I’ll just give the Courtier’s Reply (wink!) and say read the two guys who invented the ideas: Hume and Moore.

          • Ron K

            1) Yes, we have a difference of definitions here. What you call ‘the is-ought problem’ I call the naturallistic fallacy, and what you call ‘the naturalistic fallacy’ I simply call the appeal to nature fallacy. The language you use depends on the philosophy you read, because each philosopher uses terms differently. Nevertheless, this is a mere difference in terminology. I don’t like using the term ‘is-ought problem’ because I don’t think this is in any way a problem, just a rule of logic.

            2) That is NOT what G.E. Moore says. He says that re-defining ‘good’ in such a way, that ethical claims become claims about reality, is just another way of commiting the naturalistic fallacy (deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’). For example, if I say that ‘good’ means ‘beneficial to the survival of the human race’, I can now use this re-definition to bring ethical claims to the realm of the ‘is’, and to evaluate them based on their results in the real world. The problem with that is, that by the mere re-definition I have bridged the gap between ‘ought’ and ‘is’, and committed a category error. This begs the question: how do I derive this specific definition of good, and bring us back to square one. You are still free to define ‘good’ and ‘just’ in ‘ought’ terms, just not bridge the gap to the ‘is’ world.

            3) As far as I understand Hume, he says that ethics DO rely on human emotion, not OUGHT to rely on human emotion. In other words, Hume holds a Metaethical position of emotivism — ‘ought’ statements are irrational, because they are based on emoions. That does not contradict the naturalistic fallacy.

        • Ted Seeber

          What is a fact, if not a piece of data we are certain about?

    • leahlibresco

      If I were trying to translate Eve’s metaphysical backsliding into LessWrongese, I would say:

      You might have strong expectations about what a map looks like and have spotted a couple error modes that mean maps are incoherent, and cannot correspond with any territory. But, if you notice that a feature you strongly expect to be in the territory is hard to integrate into your map without triggering an error mode, don’t assume that you’re wrong about the territory, even if you don’t have any map that fits that feature yet. Maybe you’re wrong about the error modes, maybe you need to look at more kinds of maps.

      • Ron K

        Thanks for the clarification, leah.

        Of course, just having an expectation of a yet un-mappable feature is far from enough to cause me to actually change my map type. I’d say I’d need several orders of magnitude more evidence for a new feature in order to change my map type than to simply add a currently mappable feature. Not only that, I’d also need a good reason to be convinced that without that feature, the map is less useful.

        That’s another reason why I like the map analogy. Maps are by design imprecise approximations. Indeed, if all features of a territory would precisely appear in a map, it would cease to be a map, and become a territory. Nobody expects maps to be perfect — as long as they serve as good tools to navigate the territory, they’re good enough. Indeed, deciding the features that won’t go in the map is as important as deciding what features it concentrates on.

        Worrying that my map lacks detail or is somehow wrong is silly — I know that it’s wrong and lacks detail and can never be completely right and accurate. I don’t worry as much about true negatives in my map, as long as it is useful, and that it gradually becomes less wrong. I worry much more that my map may contain false positives, because adding more data based on false positives would make my map more, not less, wrong. In other words, I’d rather disbelieve true things than believe false things.

        • leahlibresco

          So thn the question is what you do in that local region. I probably stick with the thing I feel really sure of at that point and my map everywhere else, since, at this point, I’m actually least sure about the paradox being a paradox. I’d rather be inconsistent for a bit than jettison either, but I’ll flag the whole thing for further study and start working on leaving some lines of retreat.

          • Ted Seeber

            The sad part of that article is that I really am a cynic. A world without a God for me is a world where chaos rules, where we can’t even count on the law of gravity existing let alone me being able to control my passions and stay a moral person.

            I am psychologically incapable of giving myself an escape route from reality.

  • Adrian Ratnapala

    I realize I probably have to write a whole series just to explain why that’s not the standard of proof I use for anything outside of, well, math.

    But you do seem to beleive that moral laws are in some sense analogous to (Platonic) mathematical objects. It’s true that doesn’t commit you to having a logically rigorous proof of God. But you do seem to be puting Him in the same playpen as the roots of the zeta function. And we would dearly love some more rigorous proofs about those buggers.

    • leahlibresco

      I’m putting it more in the realm of metamath, which is a pretty weird realm!

    • Ted Seeber

      How can you prove an axiom?

  • Adrian Ratnapala

    I was amused by Eve Tushnet:

    I don’t know why it was the Birthday Cake, since it was actually shaped more like a wedding cake, with a series of layers resting one atop the other; I guess weddings are even less Objectivist than birthdays.

    This is correct. There nothing unObjectivist about birthdays. Consider:

    Dagny, I’m giving you this birthay present because I choose to. It’s not altruism or any such dispicable thing. It’s because our friendship has real value. And now I’ve given it to you, it’s yours not mine, I make no claim on it, or on you.

    Works doesn’t it?

    • Ted Seeber

      No, it doesn’t, for it violates the basic social law of gift giving.

    • Emily

      A+ comment!

  • McNihil

    I’m gonna be very cheeky and assume that this post is at least partially motivated by my comment from yesterday –

    I don’t really care if this is a Courtier’s Reply or not. I’ll gladly read your linked articles tonight and I look forward to your promised post tomorrow.

    • leahlibresco

      You plus JT, plus me actually having a free weekend for the first time since I agreed to answer these questions. (Jeez louise, what is up with my life?).

  • I did my homework. Looking forward to the post (series?)

  • It’s only a Courtier’s Reply if it’s an effort to shut down discussion, not improve it. “How dare you say that when you haven’t even read *this*!” is a Courtier’s Reply. “Hmm, it would be really helpful if you were to read *this* before the next time we discuss this” isn’t, I think; though I might sometimes decline.