Here there be Dragons [Reply to JT]

Here there be Dragons [Reply to JT] August 23, 2012


So, JT asked:

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

No, I definitely don’t have a modus tollens, modus ponens style justification for my new position. I didn’t have one for my old position, and I doubt JT’s got one for his metaphysics.  As the name suggests, metaphysics are hard to test.

So I end up approaching the problem from both sides.  I look for things I’m really confident in or that I’m willing to presuppose (e.g. other minds exist, arbitrary murder is wrong, the worth of my life is at least within an order of maginitude of the worth of any randomly chosen human).  These are first principles, and they’re pretty hard to prove (logically or otherwise).  I’ll try and knock out a slightly less scattered list at some point in the future.

Imagine I’m trying to map out the ocean floor.  These first principles are my soundings of depth.  They may not be taken in a very systematic way, and there may be regions where I can’t take any soundings at all (the water’s too dangerous, my rope’s too short, etc).  But this is the dataset I want any proposed map of the ocean floor to match.

The trouble is, I can end up with a lot of possible maps that satisfy these conditions.  So now I start making some judgements about what a good map looks like.  Maybe good maps of the ocean floor don’t have jump discontinuities.  Maybe good maps are self-similar at a lot of different scales.  This helps me pare down the list of possible maps, but the good map criterion is also hard to prove.  Some of it is aesthetic, though I might also notice that certain principles of good maps do better than others at anticipating future soundings.

And that brings me to one of the biggest ways the ocean floor analogy isn’t a great stand-in for “How do you pick a metaphysics?”  When we’re talking about moral philosophy, we start out with soundings in a lot of places.  There isn’t much uncharted moral territory (by which I mean, places where we don’t have a preference between two outcomes or courses of actions).  And some of the uncharted spots are boring and unhelpful.    (Is “there are two identical twins unconscious in a pool and you can only save one, which one?” really going to help you distinguish between competing metaethical theories, or is it going to burn through working memory energy to little use?).

If only Socrates had one of these babies!

Sometimes, the closest I can get to new soundings is moral questions I change my mind about.  Let’s say I used to prefer X, and now I prefer not-X, and I’ve been considering two metaethical systems: A and A’, which output as correct ‘X’ and ‘not-X’ respectively.  Now that I’ve changed my mind, I should increase my expectation that A’ is true, since it was right before I was.  (Note, this doesn’t work if you’ve adopted not-X because you became convinced A’ is likely.  That way lies a feedback loop and madness).

And, at the abstract level at which I’m writing this post, that’s how Catholicism won me over.  It matched a lot of the soundings I’d already taken, it predicted some measurements I later found myself having to revise, and it looked like a tolerably good map.  It seemed like a better map than my virtue-ethics atheism.  I suspect the place where JT and I disagree the most is not about the good map criteria, but about the moral soundings dataset I was trying to match up to a plausible map.

We can totally talk about overfitting worries at some point

Now, some people will say, why choose a map at all?  Why not just plot all the soundings and use that?  (This is the “Why truck with metaethics?” objection).  There are a couple of reasons.  First of all, when you pare off all the most uncertain bits, but the tattered map you’ve got left isn’t always going to be of much use.  It’s good to come up with some kind of schema for thinking about the gaps; you probably aren’t indifferent between all possible depths.

Second, there’s something else I need to add to this analogy to make it resemble moral philosophy a little more closely.  Imagine you’re checking ocean depths with a really sucky rope.  I don’t just mean that your observations are a little noisy (though they are) but there’s a whole list of only recently-known failure modes for your instrument (and we’re not particularly confident that we’ve sussed out all of them).  Thinking at the map level might make it easier to spot when your observations are buggy.  You don’t want to take all your observations at face value.

Finally, it’s easier to have a discussion/debate with someone at the level of maps (and goodness of maps) than it is at the level of intuition datasets.  Stirrings of conscience are an internal process; your interlocutor can’t watch you measure out fathoms of rope.  So it’s easier to thrash things out when you can switch back and forth fluidly between predictions and theory (often using thought experiments).

And just one more thing: it’s at the map level that you get the concept of an ocean, not just a collection of points in xyz coordinate space.


Where does that leave me?  Well, it’s possible that Catholicism/virtue ethics/teleology is a useful map, but it’s got some major deviations from the territory it’s supposed to depict (say, the existence of God). I don’t discount that possibility, and I’ve flagged some really weird observations it predicts that my intuitions still don’t resemble. But the map has proved helpful, so I expect the territory to have some level of correspondence. (Ptolemy’s epicycles got a lot right. You wouldn’t expect the model that replaced it to lose the ground it covered).

I don’t know that I’m right, but I think I’m less wrong. I think I’ve burned out some errors in my model of the world that won’t crop up again even if my confidence in the God map dipped below some critical threshold and another explanation surged ahead.

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  • I suspect that you’re correct when you say that:

    I suspect the place where JT and I disagree the most is not about the good map criteria, but about the moral soundings dataset I was trying to match up to a plausible map.

    But as that is so often the case—disagreement is more fundamentally about first principles than about the maps built around them—is there any possibility for having a (at least vaguely rational) conversation about the dataset itself?

    • leahlibresco


      I’ve got a lot of debate group friends with really different datasets and sometimes our discussions go nowhere, but sometimes I get curious a weird discrepancy between our measurements. Maybe they’ve got equivalences that don’t make sense to me, or maybe they’ve got an extra metric I don’t have that they refer to. Sometimes interesting things come of noticing that.

  • Ms. Libresco, this is a fascinating journey that you’re on. I am on a similar one, though it has not been as fruitful–and I’m considering giving up. However, I’m considering starting a website called “Brad interviews cool people.” No, seriously, I am. I think I’d like to interview you about all of this. Let me know if you’re interested, ok? Thanks, and peace be with you.

  • anodognosic

    Your last two paragraphs express more or less my bafflement regarding why you’d choose Catholicism wholesale. Even if Catholic moral philosophy is something of a local maximum in moral philosophy–and I see how its sophistication may be attractive in that regard–how do you deal with all the epistemological baggage that comes with Catholicism? What do you accept, and what do you reject, and how wrong about other things would the Church have to be for you to part ways with it?

    • Alex Godofsky

      In other words, to a lot of us Catholicism looks like a really bad map per your [Leah’s] description.

  • Ted Seeber

    My question is similar to anodognosic’s, but is rather off topic for this post, and I’d like you to consider a future *series* of posts on it.

    I’d like to hear what your particular set of moral soundings are, which ones Catholicism predicts, which ones you’ve changed your mind on, and which ones you still mismatch Catholicism on.

    Especially the last. We have much to learn from people who believe differently than we do.

    During my agnostic time it seems that every single cradle Catholic in their 20s goes through to some extent, my way out of it was comparative theology; I gained many insights in Catholicism from religions and philosophies radically different from my own. My favorite was one introduced to me by GEB- the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism. After reading it, and the Koans within (along with a smattering of other Koans) all of Christ’s parables made a lot more sense to me, as well as some of his reported miracles (for instance, a completely materialist and natural science way of looking at the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes is not as a miracle at all, but as a lesson on how generosity is contagious. It’s hard to believe 5000 random people in 1st century Palestine would go to the seashore to hear an preacher with only one small child remembering that maybe they’d have to eat; but it is easy to believe that 5000 people were lying about what they had for resources until shamed into sharing by Jesus Christ and one small child breaking up and distributing the loaves and fishes; enough so that there were 12 baskets of unidentifiable fragments left over at the end).

    • Why have I never heard that explanation before?! That is so powerful. Thank you.

    • deiseach

      Sorry, Ted, but I am going to disagree with you on the Miracle of the Carin’ and Sharin’. As someone else pointed out, it boils down to saying the real miracle was getting a bunch of Jews to share instead of being selfish – and that’s not the moral anyone wants to draw 🙂

      If a large proportion of the crowd had planned ahead and brought a packed lunch, then what is the point of mentioning that, after the sermon, everyone sat down on the grass and Jesus told them “Okay, you can eat your sandwiches now”? I’m unreconstructed enough to say “Make it a miracle, or deny it ever happened, but for the love of Sir James Frazer, don’t rationalise it into the Local Small-Scale Ice-Floe Surfing on the Water, instead of the Walking on the Water”.

      There seems to have been a fad in the 80s for these kind of approaches to exegesis; I remember on an Irish afternoon call-in radio show, another man talked about how he’d heard the Wedding Feast of Cana explained:

      “So after the wedding and the drink, the guests weren’t in the best shape, and Our Lady went over to one of them and asked ‘Poor man, how can I help you?’ and he said ‘Don’t let the young fella* at the wine again!” Because this was a country wedding, and everyone would have helped out the couple, and one would have said ‘I can bring food’ and another would have said ‘I can bring the table linens’ and Jesus, He probably said ‘I know a fella living up the mountain, I’d handle the drink’ and the water was really poteen!”

      Now, I laughed at that as much as anyone, but I don’t think 1st century Judaea had jars filled with moonshine (i.e., the water jars weren’t filled with water but with a clear alcoholic liquid, and that explains the turning of the water to wine) at weddings, so I don’t take that explanation for the miracle either.

      *For those of you unfamiliar with Irish slang, a ‘youngfella’ refers to a youth or young man, a ‘youngwan’ is a girl or young woman, and in this context, the man talking to Mary about the youngfella would mean her son Jesus. Also, the idea of “I know a fella who lives up the mountain” means you know someone who can supply you with poteen (illegally distilled spirits, like moonshine).

      • Ted Seeber

        So don’t think of them as Jews. Think of them as HUMAN BEINGS. Selfishness is built into the species- it is ridiculous to assign that trait steeotypically to a single ethnicity.

        But otherwise, you’re right on, this is more just appologetics for materialists. Having said that though, it’s still a powerful lesson in small scale gifting society economics.

        • Rachel

          except that this story took place in a culture where hospitality was extremely important. These were people who would let their own children starve before a guest went hungry in their house. So no i dont think the “demythologising” of the Feeding of the Five Thousand could hold water in a monsoon

        • deiseach

          I agree with Rachel; this new model of ‘explaining’ the miracle only came in when culture shifted to be more materialistic and greedy. In the wider world even today, and in the West in the past, hospitality was a major virtue. I remember (this is going to be one of those ‘in my day’ anecdotal ramblings) as a child growing up in the Irish countryside that “you never go with your hands hanging” (that is, when visiting, you always bring something, some small gift, even if it’s only a shop-bought cake or the likes), and the worst thing you could say about someone was that they had a habit of turning up with one arm as long as the other. There were (and indeed, still are) jokes about people from County Cavan being so mean, they eat their dinner out of the drawer (that is, they eat their meals so that if someone arrives in, they can close the drawer and pretend not to be eating). The point of that (and the joke from Scotland about saying “You’ll have had your tea”) is the expectation that if someone comes to the house at mealtimes, you will invite them to sit down and eat with you.

          So I can see how, in a culture where you don’t do that (that is, modern Western culture), the Miracle of the Carin’ and Sharin’ gets to be the ‘reasonable’ explanation. But for people from the times the Gospels were written, up until the last century, it would have made no sense. You would not write down as a miracle that proved divinity the fact that a large crowd of people, those who were better-off or better-prepared, shared their food with others. It would be like describing a public meeting or concert or political rally today, and hailing as a miracle proof of divine intervention the fact that everyone there cheered for the candidate/sang along with the band on the big hit/expressed agreement with the aims of the gathering.

          • leahlibresco

            I am so pleased to have just encountered all these expressions.

  • Steve

    Leah… I’ve been following your journey since the CNN hoopla, since as an atheist leaning agnostic I can’t for the life of me understand your thought process. Why couldn’t you study or even adopt elements of catholicism and incorporate what you learn into your personal moral framework and overall worldview, without accepting the countless questionable supernatural claims? And if you’re not accepting the supernatural claims, what’s the point of converting? What tests have you performed that sell you on the catholic worldview? What elements of the catholic worldview have impacted you the most? Do you have a plan how you might go about reconciling differences between what the church teaches and your own worldview?

    I can understand how certain religious beliefs simply resonate with people and I can’t fault them for adopting something that ultimately makes their time here more pleasant. I understand a good faith effort to resolve certain issues as you go along. But there is a real gap here between approaching metaethics as a quantifiable area of study and becoming a follower of a very specific faith, and all the charts & colorful analogies aren’t helping me understand this.

    • DoctorD

      As an atheist scientist who was raised in a catholic family and taught in catholic schools I can say unequivocally, “It’s all hogwash.”
      How you can willingly join this 2000 year-old cult is beyond me.

      • Irenist

        Given the poor state of catechesis in most families and parochial schools in this country, it is sadly the case that your experience may have left you with little conception of what Catholicism is actually about. It’s easy to come away from a parochial education thinking that Catholic theology amounts to theistic personalism, for example, despite its complete rejection of that worldview.

        • I remember, back when I was in elementary school, all of the Catholic kids hated CCD. They complained about it regularly. Then, when I talked to them later, it seemed like their hours worth of work in the middle of the week was insufficient even compared to my Sunday School.

          It is depressing how bad CCD is run, and it is depressing how poorly they catechize. Fortunately, my kids have a former DRE for a mom and a dad who’s done five years of ministry on his own (my resume never measures up to hers).

    • IIRC, the turning point came when Leah discovered that the moral system was not simply a system of propositions or principles or data, but was personal. That morality is personal (rather than static or inert) is a huge, map-changing datapoint, the kind of thing that can turn your map upside down or flip it over. It makes perfect sense to me that Leah would gravitate toward the Catholic faith which (almost, but not quite, alone among religious and philosophical systems) has insisted from the beginning that morality is personal, despite all sorts of other moral/cognitive dissonance, because the person question is so fundamental to whether the map can ever approximate the territory.

      This is also why I am very curious to hear more about how you, Leah, experience the personality of morality, and the personality of God.

  • As a religious man, your approach strikes me as strange. Catholicism isn’t primarily a theory that you can assent to at some point and not assent to at others. In its own self-understanding, Catholicism is a *way.* You take *oaths.* I don’t see how you can honestly become a Catholic with your own self-described level of commitment to Catholicism.

    • Ted Seeber

      Adam, that’s what RCIA is *for*. To convert the heart to what is already in the head.

  • Aaron

    This is actually the perfect analogy for me to frame my question regarding your conversion. Many of the soundings you take match the Catholic “map,” but some, such as sexual ethics and submission to authority, do not. Have you explored other religions that might match your map better? Even if you want to stay within the monotheistic faiths, what about Unitarianism or Sikhism, to name a few? What about Catholicism makes it a better map than other monotheistic religions?

    • Skittle

      Why do atheists keep suggesting Unitarian Universalism? It is pretty much the least attractive religion for someone seeking metaphysical rigour. It suggests that you imagine Leia is looking for a social club, rather than the Truth.

  • Ray

    My main response. What about Okham’s razor? It seems pretty clear from your metaphors about epicycles and dragon’s in garages and so forth that you believe you are trying to distinguish between to worldviews that make the same predictions (Although this is dubious if you think that Catholicism renders miracle stories plausible, aside from those which are too small and too ancient to leave clear physical evidence.) If that’s the case, then it seems to me that any interesting metaphysics is likely to make your worldview more complicated than it needs to be.

    In particular, if you accept Eliezer’s ideas regarding the complexity of value, then making morality a fundamental component of the simplest possible description of reality (whether it be by declaring morality a platonic form or an ontologically basic person) seems to be a huge fail with regard to parsimony. In contrast, if we just assume that moral terminology was invented to manage human relations to satisfy human preferences, there is no reason to suspect moral terminology should refer to anything particularly simple, or fundamental to reality: Since both human relations and human preferences are extraordinarily complicated things, all that complexity is built in already once we characterize humanity through the empirical sciences of psych, sociology, and linguistics, with no need to import extra complexity from metaphysics.


    Do you reject Ockham’s razor?
    Do you reject Yudkowski’s thesis of the complexity of Value?
    Or is there something else I’m missing?

    • Zac

      The ‘complexity of value’ entry is very similar to the New Natural Law theory, and its reading of Aristotle. The significant differences are that NNL takes into account that our preferences/values can be mistaken, impaired, or otherwise flawed; and it does not regard as an accident the fact that the things listed on the wiki page are “things which many cultures and people seem to value (for their own sake rather than strictly for their external consequences)”

      But to keep it in your own terms: “if we just assume that moral terminology was invented to manage human relations to satisfy human preferences,” then someone like Aristotle is merely extending the franchise to deal with the problem of mistaken, impaired, flawed preferences. ‘I thought I would prefer X, but it turned out to be a huge mistake. ‘ or ‘I wanted to achieve Y, but I compromised other important things along the way.’

      You don’t need to get into metaphysics to make the ethics work, but since everyone has a preference for truth (all things being equal) why wouldn’t you go on to inquire into whatever underpins ethics?

      • Ray

        Not sure what exactly what you’re advocating for here, Zac, but a couple of observations:

        1)Regarding your last statement — everyone seems to have a preference for the pragmatist’s notion of truth (They don’t like being misled in ways that make it harder for them to achieve their other goals), but that seems pretty generic to any sort of goal seeking behavior. In the context of metaphysics, it’s not even clear that the concept of truth is well defined — I reject the central claims of Christianity not for metaphysical reasons, but because Christian claims also have consequences (empty tombs, earthquakes etc.) in the language of physics, which appears to be much more unambiguously truth apt than metaphysics.

        2)There’s absolutely nothing in any of the examples you gave of “flawed preferences” to indicate that the flaws in question refer to something other than a failure of one human preference to satisfy the goals imposed by a different human preference (e.g. short term goals conflicting with long term goals.) The first example “… it turned out to be a huge mistake” could even be construed as an example of a problem caused by incorrect beliefs rather than incorrect preferences (and those incorrect beliefs would most likely be classified as regarding psychology, rather than ethics.)

        3) Even if I bought the point you were trying to make. Are you seriously trying to argue that, because claims made by an atheist I mostly agree with (Yudkowski) are vaguely similar to claims made by a Pagan (Aristotle) who became popular with your particular cult 1200 years after its founding, the central claims of said cult are even remotely plausible? (I apologize if I have you pegged wrong as a Catholic –that said, the tactic of trying to take one point of vague agreement with some aspect of Catholic Philosophy/Theology as validating the whole thing seems depressingly common with that set, and I am commenting on the Catholic Channel after all.)

        • Zac

          I may just have been overly enthused at seeing the resemblance to multiple, irreducible goods portrayed on LessWrongwiki. The idea is surprisingly rare (at least it is when people attempt to ‘do ethics’ seriously…they tend to go immediately for utilitarian or deontological systems; whereas utilitarianism doesn’t encompass the ‘complexity’/irreducibility aspect of preferences, and deontological ethics seems to approach morality from the wrong direction entirely).

          But my point (aside from the aforementioned enthusiasm of recognition) was that your appeal to parsimony is entirely comfortable with the Aristotelian model adopted by the church, hence the problem of “making morality a fundamental component of the simplest possible description of reality” does not apply. Though I realise now that I didn’t actually say that (and should have). If someone tries to say that morality is ontologically basic, you have to ask what they mean by morality, and in a Catholic context that has to break down to telos, which is in turn explained in terms of essence. The ontologically basic-est level is essence and existence. The fact that our essence is compatible with some things and incompatible with other things is what constitutes ‘morality’, at least when it comes to human choices.

          If someone says ‘morality is a person’… I suspect what they’re getting at is that there is a person (individual substance of a rational nature) whose essence is somehow the principle that governs our own essence/existence, from which in turn we derive our moral system.

          So, I’m not really trying to argue that a point of vague agreement validates the whole thing, just that I think your criticism is mistaken. (But I may be mistaken about the nature of your criticism.)

          • Ray

            I’m not convinced essence is a well defined concept in the first place, but if it is, it ain’t simple either (And I assure you Yudkowsky would agree with me on this point.) If I gather correctly from previous discussions with Catholics, at a minimum, an essence would be a characteristic I share with: a human zygote, the offspring of two human parents who has been rendered sterile and severely mentally disabled by a chromosome abnormality, a cloned neanderthal (probably)

            but not: a human skin cell, an adult chimpanzee, a cloned australopithecine (probably)

            I trust it is clear to you that this is an extremely complex concept in the relevant sense (It would take a LOT of lines of code to program a robot to locate which parts of the physical world are associated with “essence of human person.” Never mind the fact that actual people disagree amongst themselves on this point.)

          • Zac

            “I’m not convinced essence is a well defined concept in the first place, but if it is, it ain’t simple either”

            That’s fair enough. It’s part of a way of looking at the world which is – the more I look at it – dramatically different from our modern perspective.

            I think a material reductionist perspective informed by the modern sciences is extremely compelling and yet profoundly at odds with the view from this kind of metaphysics. It’s a whole different approach…and while it’s possible to reconcile them, the effort may not do anything at all to enhance the pragmatic efficiency of science.

            For example, even before you talk about essence you have to determine the level at which things actually exist…

      • Ray

        Oh Also:
        4) What do you mean “it does not regard as an accident [That people value what they value]”? Human preferences are pretty clearly non-random, and for the most part, they are non-random in the direction you’d expect given the process of evolution (both biological and cultural) that produced them. And any similarities within human values that exceed the similarities between human values and those of the remainder of the animal kingdom can be quite neatly explained by our common biology (we’re at least an order of magnitude more closely related to one another than we are to our nearest extant nonhuman relatives,) and the fact that, for the last several hundred years at least, the major human cultures have had a great deal of mutual influence and interaction. What exactly is the additional problem Aristotle is supposed to solve (especially since aspects of Aristotle’s ethics, such as his approval of slavery are well outside the modern mainstream.)?

        • Doragoon

          “Human preferences are pretty clearly non-random, and for the most part, they are non-random in the direction you’d expect given the process of evolution (both biological and cultural) that produced them. ”

          Evolution pics traits for benefit of individuals, not for collectives. Also, if you’re proposing that humans were bred by an intelligence (cultural, collective, or other) then that’s not natural selection or evolution.

          • Alan

            What do you mean evolution picks traits for individuals, not collectives? The generally accepted understanding (though there are those who disagree) is that natural selection happens at the population, not individual, level.

          • leahlibresco

            Citation please. The unit of selection is the individual, who either reproduces or not.

          • Ray

            Read this.
            Cliffnotes version
            1) As social creatures, we do exhibit altruistic behavior, but not more than you’d expect for a social animal (True eusocial animals exhibit far more intra-species altruism than we do. e.g. bees who sacrifice themselves to protect the collective, by stinging intruders.)
            2) The degree of altruism shown by humans does not even require something so exotic as group selection to explain. Kin selection and reciprocal altruism do the trick just fine.
            3)The assumption that we got our altruistic predilections, such as they are, from individual selection also makes some nontrivial predictions about human behavior that have been borne out — it coexists with a desire to punish social cheaters, and it tends to fade when the possibility of punishment is removed (as in the public goods game.) Successful attempts to promote altruism in a culture tend to rely heavily on the language of fictive kinship (effectively hijacking our kin-selected instinct to be altruistic towards close relatives.)

            Also, I’m not sure you got the idea that I was claiming humans were bred by an intelligence. Maybe from the phrase “cultural evolution,” — which I use to refer to a process along the lines of Dawkins’ memetic inheritence (or if you don’t like the metaphor, things like sound shifts in language, cumulative changes in customs and technology etc.) Now there is a sense in which our evolution has been shaped by an intelligence — namely us: human culture is shaped by human intelligence, and is part of the environment in which humans have been evolving for at least the last 50,000 years. But I hope it’s clear that the only intelligence required by this scenario is that of humans, which is an intelligence that is available in both the atheist and the theist world views.

          • Alan

            Leah – Admittedly, there is more nuance than I provided. First we need to differentiate between the unit of selection and the target of selection – the individual can be the unit of selection (though I think using the gene as the unit of selection makes more sense) but an individual cannot be the target of selection because they cannot replicate themselves (they can provide for the replication of a subset of their genes, but not the genotype let alone the phenotype of the individual).

            The target of selection (which is what I was referencing here as that is the entity that benefits from the traits evolution ‘picks’ per Doragoon’s post) whether you are looking at it as kin selection or group selection is at the level of some population (or collective per Doragoon’s post).

            I don’t know what kind of citation you are looking for but this piece by David Sloan Wilson (a Biologist) does a good job of capturing the history of thought (albeit in the context of the arguments EO Wilson started when he turned on Kin Selection):

          • Alan

            Leah – I should clarify one thing. You could also describe genes as the target of selection – that is just less useful when talking in terms of the impact in our world. At that point, it makes sense to talk about the target as, at the lowest level, the related kin group which shares common genes (and from there you can start to argue about what Group Selection is and at what levels it may be meaningfully said to take place).

          • Ted Seeber

            What is your definition of individual?

            A human being can be considered as a colony of single celled organisms, banded together for mutual support and protection.

            Given that, why wouldn’t cultures be subject to the same evolutionary forces as individuals (though, admitedly on a MUCH slower scale, since you can easily have 75% dieoff of a culture and still have that culture survive, but if you have 75% of your cells in your body die, you’re pretty much done for).

          • Alan

            Leah – this article from the WSJ online yesterday covers some of the evidence why the individual organism is not the best level to use for the unit of selection (as opposed to the gene):

          • Doragoon

            First, bees aren’t a good example because everyone except the queen is an evolutionary dead end. The colony should be viewed as an individual. This also explains all the harems that males tend to make where the alpha is the only one who breeds and they breed with all the available females. Then I look at china with the one child policy, except party leaders gather up as many women as they can, sometimes populating entire towns with their children. An odd parallel between collectives in nature and in humans.

            But the real thought that was in my head was how many eggs a species of bird lays. It’s determined by the ability of the individual, not by what is best for the flock. My husband’s professor was actually upset at people misusing evolution to talk about collectives traits and survival of the species as a community or as a whole.

          • Alan

            Doragoon – I obviously don’t know what your professor was reacting to but while it is certainly true that evolution is used in cultural contexts (both in defending ‘collective’ action and in defending individuality) where even as a metaphor it is of limited applicability. However, that doesn’t mean that group behavior doesn’t contribute to evolutionary outcomes of individual (genes or organisms) – for an example related to the successful survival of a birds kin see the recently published paper in PLoS ONE “Multilevel Selection and Neighbourhood Effects from Individual to Metapopulation in a Wild Passerine”.

        • Zac

          I’ll try to reply here to your four points.

          1) I don’t have a problem with that. Whether I’m seeking some vague goal of ‘knowing everything’, or just accumulating knowledge in case I need it later, doesn’t really matter too much. My point was just that the metaphysical investigation is legitimate in its own right, not required as a part of ethics.
          2) Ethics covers a lot of psychology, since it is, from Aristotle at least, based on the logic of the ‘soul’, right? So you can take it as a psychological premise that everyone ultimately desires happiness, though we don’t really agree on what happiness means. Aristotle’s Ethics is just about working out what happiness is and how to get it; the idea being that then we will all know how to act to best satisfy this fundamental desire. A’s answer is that happiness must consist in ‘flourishing’, which basically means achieving all of those ‘complex values’. If we desire(prefer) something that is not actually compatible with flourishing, then it is most likely due to false beliefs – as you rightly point out.

          But the main point I want to get across from Aristotle is that our desires/preferences are not arbitrary, they ultimately return to the vague desire for happiness. Which is analogous to you referring to ‘long term preferences’. Ethics from Aristotle is really about informing this desire for happiness. I think your preference model is on the right track, but the Aristotelian model (or perhaps neo-Aristotelian, given that I learnt it from a contemporary source) is superior.

          3) I think I answered this in my reply immediately prior. I wouldn’t attempt to appropriate the Catholic label, but I’ve done a bit of thinking along their lines. And no, I was not attempting to argue that Catholic theory outside of ethics is made any more plausible by the adoption of an Aristotelian ethics that resembles LessWrong’s complexity of values idea. Though, it might give one pause to consider the nature and significance of the apparent disparity between plausible ethics and implausible everything else.

          4) The ‘accident’ comment was a reference to the view that our preferences/desires are not arbitrary – non-random as you put it. But the implication is that there is an objective basis by which we can scrutinise our preferences/desires. Maybe you could try to work it out from biology or psychology studies (isn’t that what Sam Harris was up to?) but the good ol’ fashioned way is through personal experience, observation of others, and logic.
          Perhaps I misunderstood your comment, but it seemed to imply that preference-satisfaction was the end of ethics; Aristotle’s ethics is for people who wonder what they ought to prefer in the first place, given the plentiful evidence that people regret their preferences (yes, based on false beliefs or bad information).

          • Ray

            You’re missing the point — I don’t think “truth” is well defined in the context of metaphysics. It looks an awful lot like arguing over the definitions of words. While it is possible to be misled by bad terminology (see e.g. here ), it’s probably more *useful* to describe such bad definitions as being unhelpful, or misleading rather than factually incorrect.

            “Aristotle’s ethics is for people who wonder what they ought to prefer in the first place” also misses the point. I’m not saying that ethics is simply the rational interest of the self given the self’s preferences. I’m saying that words like “good”, “evil”, “ought”, “ethical”, etc. like everything else in language were invented by humans, and their usage patterns have been subtly tweaked over the years by the millions of humans who have used these words before us. Those who invented those words and shaped what they came to mean, did so voluntarily (i.e. as a result of their own preferences.) As a side note, I’m not sure if you’re doing this, but if you attempt to define what is ethical as what one “ought” to do, you may run into a problem that the only definition of “ought” you can agree on is something along the lines of the circular “that which we ought to do is the most *ethical* action a person could perform in our situation.” In order to explain morality, non-circularly, you need to define moral language in terms of non-moral language. And here, “essences” is neither the best choice from the perspective of avoiding ambiguity nor from the perspective of getting other people to agree you’re using the words in question properly (Pretty much no one but a Thomist thinks morality has anything to do with “essences,” whatever they are.)

          • Ray

            Oh, also, I don’t think it’s correct to say that Aristotle or the Catholic Church (at least historically speaking) had a plausible view on ethics (at least not if ethics is meant in the way that modern readers mean it.) Aristotle advocated Slavery. The Catholic Church advocated the death penalty for heresy. What Aristotle had, and the Church later appropriated, was a plausibly useful set of technical terms for discussing ethics. The actual ethical stances Aristotle and the early modern Church expressed using this terminology are not plausible to the modern reader (and the modern Church’s stances regarding homosexuality and birth control are rapidly being rejected by the public at large despite near universal agreement on the value of “ethics” in the abstract.)

          • Zac

            I’m afraid I’m at risk of continuing to miss the point!
            In my experience the best approach to metaphysics is to start by accurately (truly) describing the world as it is, to the best of our abilities. Of course, metaphysics of the Thomistic kind also gives great (excessive from an empiricist perspective) credence to the rational operation of the human intellect. eg. we can presume that reality is fundamentally rational, that the first principles of reason hold universally, such as ‘a thing cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same way’. Which is how we get Thomistic claims such as ‘nothing can come from nothing’. Logically, this claim has to be true; if it is not true, then reality is illogical. Recently some famous scientists argued that the universe did indeed arise out of ‘nothing’. But their concept of ‘nothing’ didn’t match the philosophical concept of nothing. Hence the all important arguing over definitions!

            Your point about moral terminology is more subtle than I thought…Firstly, trying to think clearly within the typical stock of moral terminology is fruitless in my opinion. It took me a long time to ‘rehabilitate’ the terms ‘good’ and ‘evil’, to clear away all the cultural baggage associated with them. They ought to be as simple and uncontroversial as ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ in the context of nutrition. We all need certain vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, etc in order to achieve a state that we identify as ‘healthy’ (etymologically derived from ‘wholeness’). The same basic model applies to other things that observably contribute to an analogous form of wholeness on a level beyond that provided by good nutrition alone.
            That may seem tenuous, but the whole point of the discipline of ethics is to work out how achieve an ideal yet poorly defined state we all desire. When we observe that ‘friendship’ for example, contributes to that state, we can view it by analogy as equivalent to having iron or calcium in your diet. It fulfills a basic need or capacity, such that we are better off having friends than not having friends, regardless of our preferences.
            I now treat ‘good’ and ‘evil’ as shorthand for ‘good for you as a human being’ and ‘bad for you as a human being’, relative to our basic desire for that dimly recognised goal of ‘happiness’ ‘wholeness’ or ‘flourishing’. If you want to reduce it even further, make it good=contributes to flourishing, bad/evil=undermines flourishing.

            So I guess I’ve been doing what you describe as explaining moral terminology in non-moral language. Except that I would go a little bit further and argue that our culturally ingrained impression of ‘morality’ itself is horribly disfigured. ie. ‘moral’ language is already non-moral language, if we can scrape off the numerous accretions.

            I’m sure you’re familiar with the is/ought problem. Basically, we can overcome the problem if we recognise that all human beings fundamentally desire ‘happiness’ (that’s an *is* claim), and that ethics itself is an intrinsically conditional discipline, based on the premise that we all desire happiness. You don’t even have to tell people ‘you ought to desire ‘happiness’!’ because it is (I assert brashly) a universal psychological trait.

            The LessWrong article was very good! I’m a fan of etymology for precisely the reason that it helps to break down our fuzzy, imprecise, culturally influenced use of words.

          • Zac

            With regard to Aristotle and the Church as historical moral exemplars…I have to admit it doesn’t really bother me. I view the ideas as tools, and I’ve not yet found a superior ethical tool to those developed (admittedly through my idiosyncratic interpretation) by Aristotle, and taken up by the Church.
            I don’t know enough of the history to determine where the fault lies on an issue like slavery, or the death penalty for heretics; for example, did they reluctantly conclude that these were the outcomes mandated by their ethics? Did they have cultural and temporal blind-spots? Did they (unethically) decide to put aside ethics for the sake of some other consideration? Did they make mistakes in their ethical theorising? I don’t know, but it doesn’t (or hasn’t so far) impeded my appreciation of the ethical system itself.

          • Ray


            Indeed, Aristotle’s ethical framework is a tool, but I submit that it is not a blueprint for ethics, but a mirror in which a person can see his own idea of ethics. But if you think this validates Aristotle’s metaphysics, keep in mind that the Greeks knew how to build non-metaphorical mirrors as well (as you could tell from the myth of Narcissus, or the symbol for Aphrodite) but their explanation for how they worked (Emission Theory e.g. as expounded in Plato’s Timaues) is completely wrong.

            As a warning, I don’t think Aristotelian ethics works by a mechanism anything like that of a mirror (since it is the human mind that does all the work, rather than a simple physical mechanism): More properly it ties ethics back to some vague concepts, like essence and telos, that invite the reader to fill in the details according to his own ethical goals.

            Anyway, when Aristotle’s accomplishment is seen as creating the feeling of familiarity with language, rather than building a practically useful code of behavior, or worse still, understanding the deep structure of reality, it’s no longer that surprising that Aristotle’s Ethics remains satisfying, unlike his physics or his political theory. Things like natural language processing are exactly where we have made the least progress since ancient times — they deal with complicated things, like human minds, and there’s ample evidence we’ve evolved to be hard wired to perform the necessary tasks to be pretty good at this stuff (Correlations between monkey troop size and brain size indicate that group living was the primary driver in the evolution of large brains, and there have been numerous studies showing that there’s a critical stage during development for language acquisition.) The ancients were also pretty good by modern standards at related tasks, like storytelling — The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of my favorite stories, despite its age.

          • Zac

            The New Natural Law theorists describe Aristotle’s ethical method as ‘practical reasoning’; which I guess concurs with what you’re suggesting here. I’m personally unimpressed by other ethical theories, and had given up on ethics until reading an introductory text by David S. Oderberg who, IIRC, describes himself as a neo-Aristotelian.
            I’d be quite happy approaching everything from a more ‘practical’ perspective…though a ‘practical metaphysics’ sounds a little weird.
            Anyhow, I appreciate the conversation!

    • Doragoon

      I don’t think the problem is with Ockham’s razor, as much as it’s about the sets of axioms we’re willing to entertain. The simplest explanation for any circumstance is, “God wills it.” The Greeks got a little better with talk of, “That’s is it’s natural tendency.” But in general, this is like talk of the differences between Magic and Science. Any sufficiently explained magic is indistinguishable from science, and any sufficiently advanced (unexplainable) science is indistinguishable from magic. Does this mean that the magical explanation is more true than the scientific one because it’s simpler?

      Your talk of complexity only makes sense if you are willing to accept the axioms of the opposing system to show demonstrate the relative complexity of one system verses another. Applying the axioms from one system to another system to show how it requires more complex explanations makes no sense.

      • anodognosic

        Simple is not the same as expressible in few words. In a sense, magical thinking is a sort of blindness to complexity. Think, for example, at the computational complexity that would be required for Harry Potter-style transmogrification. It’s the same with the Christian assertion that God is simple. In contrast, good science has always consisted of searching for what is truly more simple.

        • Ted Seeber

          Where I (since I reject Ockham’s Razor) say that science is the search for the mind of God, looking for his rules in the patterns he created. Science fails if it merely looks for the simple.

        • Doragoon

          I didn’t mean, simple to be number of words. I meant that taking that example as axiomatic would be simpler than any other explanation. For that situation, the closer to the axioms that the explanation is (the less assumptions are needed), the simpler it would be. Now, if you mean, the simplicity of the system, then obviously this kind of occasionalism would be horribly complex with every situation requiring it’s own axiom. But like I said, that requires comparing moral systems complete with axioms. You can’t change the axioms and complain that everything becomes more complex, further removed from the new axioms.

  • jose

    Whoa, this post was almost entirely unintelligible to me. I have no idea what you mean with the ocean stuff.

    • leahlibresco

      Can you be more specific? I have no idea what you need clarified. Where did you start feeling confused?

      • jose

        Thank you, everybody seems to get it so I only need to read more carefully. Don’t worry. I just don’t see the analogy at all right now. What the ocean represents, the sounding, the map, etc.

  • john

    I get how this is sort of a reply to JT, who specifically suggested you had a logical proof. In reply, you said “I don’t. I have some other sort of justification.” What I’m vague on is what that justification is–do you think you have told us? Or did you deliberately leave the specifics for another post?

    What I heard was “I have a bunch of data points [of some sort] that the Catholic vision of a moral lawgiver predicts better than other systems I’ve heard of.” I’m not clear on:

    * What those data points are. Do you mean specific moral intuitions that you presumably have, like “it’s wrong to kill” or “marriage is good”? Could you give some specific ones?
    * How those data points would be predicted by this vision, in advance of having those intuitions (which you rightly pointed out, it would be problematic to go the other way).

    I’m very interested to hear your justification for belief in a moral lawgiver, especially given that you seem to highly regard the same rational principles I do.

    • leahlibresco

      Yup, I was giving the structure of how I changed my mind, not the specific data that led me to change it. I’ll write more on this in the future, but I can’t guarantee a timeline, since it takes me much longer than other kinds of posts to write.

      • john

        Sounds good. I admit to being befuddled by people who suggest there is an objective morality. (Is that what you are suggesting, btw? Or do you think morality is basically arbitrary and in some way flows from the whim of a deity? Those seem like they would predict different things about the world.)

        When I have engaged people, the arguments seem to come down to an argument from intuition and from nature (“come on, it’s OBVIOUS that these morals are objectively, universally true because your intuition tells you so”) with a pinch of the argument from ignorance to clinch it (“how else could multiple people *possibly* have similar moral intuitions on lying and stealing?”). Even when they have come from professional apologists, I’m assuming they are simply weak apologists. I’m very much interested in hearing an argument that at least TRIES!

        • Doragoon

          This was my immediate thought upon reading her post. How do you know that it’s not a fast moving river, and the depths are changing as fast as you can map them?

          The existence of a permanent objective truth, is axiomatic, like causality, for both morality and science. People say “it’s obvious” because once you reject them, you inevitably end up in nihilism. If you can’t predict ahead of time what will happen, then there’s no use trying. But luckily very few people are so open minded and in the moment that they are surprised when a pencil makes another mark, or the light switch turns on a light regardless of who flips it.

          • John

            I agree, it could certainly be that morality will change over time–because people (and their environment) change over time. I don’t see the process quite as futile as you seem to. Morality changes as time marches on, but a good deal of what makes up morality derives from the makeup of our physical body, which changes, but awfully slowly. And even as our capabilities change, the fundamental things that make up happiness (and our desire for happiness) are not changing quite so quickly.

            I take your point, though. People might say it’s obvious, not because they think it’s true, but because they have trouble imagining how to navigate the world without it.

            I don’t agree with your conclusion that morality is hopelessly adrift unless it flows from outside humanity. At present it morality is rooted in our physical form, our bodies, emotions and brains, to desires that are hardwired by evolution (we like happiness and would like to live longer to have more of it) and capabilities limited the same way (we die when we lose lots of blood). That provides us an anchor for morality that is semi-objective, without requiring an external authority to dictate the rules.

            It’s sure going to get more complex as technology advances, though 🙂 When you change the body and mind, you must change the moral system to match.

        • Ted Seeber

          One of the axioms of Catholicism is that an objective universal meta-morality and meta-culture exists for our species. It is rather a late axiom, coming from the early second century rather than the Bible, but it is the etymology behind the word “Catholic”.

          Oh, and the Roman Catholic Church hasn’t found it yet. 2000 years in, we’ve got a pretty good idea what that universal morality should look like, but there’s always something new popping up, like the possibility of growing human embryos for organ harvesting, or poisoning women to remove their fertility.

          • John

            Yep. I totally get that some people believe it, and that it’s an important facet of many religions. I’m just genuinely befuddled as to how people come to think it is a *justified* belief that morality exists or flows from outside humanity. I’m wondering what I’m missing.

            I’m surprised to hear Catholic referred specifically to objective morality–I was taught in confirmation (Episcopal, not Catholic) that it referred to “the universal church,” a statement of permanent temporal authority as well as (roughly speaking) an exclusive hold on the truth and attention of God that other churches could never match.

            “Exists for our species” is an interesting qualifier on “universal” … it brings that system much closer to the way a naturalist atheist would distinguish himself from a moral relativist–specifically, that morality proceeds from the constraints and desires of the human species, rather than preceding it or coming from outside it.

  • Peter

    I get that you are working on your map, but it seems to me like it’s still entirely possible it’s just totally flawed. Ptolemaic astronomy mapped the territory but was totally wrong, and we have evidence for that.

    It seems to me that before you consider taking up Catholicism, you have to consider what kind of evidence we have about that sort of map. Is the Bible a reliable tool? Has the Church been self-consistent in its philosophy (like it has claimed) over the past 2000 years? Ptolemaic astronomy worked pretty well. Maybe Catholicism will work pretty well, but that’s what it’s really doing for you. Working as a map, and it doesn’t sound like you’re convinced of it. It sounds like you believe you believe it.

  • Quoting Leah:
    “And that brings me to one of the biggest ways the ocean floor analogy isn’t a great stand-in for “How do you pick a metaphysics?”

    The question that I, personally, am far more interested in, is: How did you pick a religion? Or do you consider picking a religion and picking a metaphysics to be the same thing? They seem completely different concepts to me, but maybe I am missing something or approaching the idea from a different angle.

    Quote Leah #2:
    “Where does that leave me? Well, it’s possible that Catholicism/virtue ethics/teleology is a useful map, but it’s got some major deviations from the territory it’s supposed to depict (say, the existence of God). ”

    – Does this mean that your map doesn’t cover the existence of God? Seriously? If your map doesn’t even depict the existence of God, why on earth would you pick ‘Catholic’ as the label to identify yourself with? I’m pretty sure believing that God exists is one of the absolute basic requirements of any deistic religion! (Again, I feel like I must be misreading this, as I can’t make any sense out of it at all).

    A map may be a useful thing, but we should always remember that the map is NOT the reality. It is only a representation of that reality. Do you believe in Catholocism as a map or as a reality?

    Or framed in another way – if someone asked you “Do you believe that the Catholic God exists?” and you had to give a simple, one word, yes/no answer… what would you say? You have a fantastic ability for loquaciousness (I’m an English major! I do mean that in a good way!) but I feel like this question really needs a straight-up answer.

    I really appreciate that you are answering these questions for all of us curious onlookers, but I’m afraid your answers are only confusing me more! I still can’t figure out if you actually believe in God or not, and as someone who is sharing their conversion experience, this seems like it -should- be extremely obvious. But I just don’t see it.

    • leahlibresco

      Yeah, for me, picking a metaphysics is a process that might (and did) end up outputting a religion.

      Re the second quote, it looks like I wrote that bit badly. I meant that my map does predict a God, and that’s what I expect the territory to actually look like, but it’s not the data that I’m most certain of; I could be wrong. But even if I am wrong, I expect my current map corresponds better in a lot of places than my old one. The answer to your reframing is: yes.

      • JohnH

        Have you tried asking God about God? God is a being not a territory.

        • Argus

          Have you?

          • JohnH


  • JackOCat

    I think I can boil down a lot of the confusion your post (and conversion) is creating to something pretty brief and hopefully clear:

    Your choice of a religion (or lack their of) is driven primarily by the richness and compatibility of the ethical system it offers. In my experience,this not the way most people approach the choice of a religion. Instead, most people tend to choose (or continue to not choose differently) based off the answers that are offered about the ‘big questions’ (Life the Universe and Everything). For them (myself included) the ethics just come along as part of the package.

    I think it is great that you have this different approach and that you write about it so well. I think though that JT and some of the commenters here are confused because they approach Atheism/Catholisim from that other (and I believe more common but not any better) point of view.

    Keep doing what you are doing, just keep in mind that some of your reader’s ‘world views’ of what a religion primarily is ‘for’ may be skewed from your own.

  • Bob Seidensticker

    Actually, the theory that replaced Ptolemy’s epicycles did lose some ground. The epicycle theory was a hideous kludge, but it had been tweaked so that it did make better predictions. Only when the heliocentric model was corrected (no, planetary orbits aren’t circles but ellipses) did it become superior.

    Maybe there’s an analogy. “God did it” explains quite a lot. Indeed, it explains everything. But it does have the nagging problem that this God dude certainly seems shy. Or is he actually nonexistent?

    Maybe science as an explanation of reality is like the heliocentric model—pretty good but with lots of work to do. It seems to me to be putting to rest the God hypothesis more and more completely over time.

    “God Did It” Explains Everything … or Maybe Not

    • Maybe science as an explanation of reality is like the heliocentric model—pretty good but with lots of work to do. It seems to me to be putting to rest the God hypothesis more and more completely over time.

      The explanations science offers, as a rule, aren’t incompatible with “the God hypothesis” in and of itself. Every instance of scientific explanation can map 1:1 with it, and thinking otherwise is born of either misunderstanding or caricature.

      • Alan

        Well sure – if the God hypothesis includes whatever we find scientifically is how God did it of course it maps. It just isn’t particularly enlightening or necessary. Nor of course is it testable.

        • Kristen inDallas

          It is (necessary) if the scientist needs to now understand the thing that caused the thing that caused the thing. Why DO the stars move across the sky? “God did it” sounds like a pretty juvenille answer, sure… but when you consider the follow up questions that will accompany every single scientific discovery we make (eg. “Why do the planets orbit in an elipse?”, “What is gravity?”, “why is gravity?”, “Where did all this mass stuff come from, anyway?” etc, etc, etc…) You start to realize that “God did it,” is as plausible an explanation as any for first causes. Everything else requires a prior explanation.

          • Alan

            God did it doesn’t require a prior explanation only because you make the assumption that God doesn’t require a cause. I could just as easily make the assumption that the dense state of the universe at the big bang doesn’t require a cause – and then I don’t get bogged down with the baggage of a God (which itself is a non-specific term with very broad use and often prone to equivocation fallacies – such that one jumps from ‘God’ did it to explain first cause to God in an active force with anthropomorphic tendencies who speaks to me and that is all obviously so because we need God to be the primary mover).

          • God did it doesn’t require a prior explanation only because you make the assumption that God doesn’t require a cause.

            This is argued for, not merely assumed.

            and then I don’t get bogged down with the baggage of a God

            A) God isn’t ‘baggage’, even in the sense you mean, and B) your own reply does have baggage, precisely because you assume, rather than argue for it. You should probably familiarize yourself with the cosmological arguments for God, the Five Ways, etc, to at least get an understanding of why theists traditionally say what they do about God.

            The fact that you think that ‘God did something to explain the first cause’ really indicates you’re not aware of what is meant by First cause in this context.

            It just isn’t particularly enlightening or necessary. Nor of course is it testable.

            “Necessary” is a red herring, precisely because someone can always assume or posit a brute fact if they wish. Enlightening? Considering God is concluded from a variety of philosophical and metaphysical arguments, I’d think if those arguments succeed then yes, it’s enlightening. And testable? You can find problems with the arguments, for one. “Not testable scientifically”? Really, so what – metaphysical views (naturalism, atheism, etc) aren’t generally testable besides.

          • Alan


            I am quite familiar with the cosmological argument. You should familiarize yourself with the objections to it and particularly the ones that apply to the assertion that it leads to a God. Even if you accept the notion that an infinite cause is necessary (which I don’t find particularly compelling to begin with) it doesn’t follow that that cause need be anything more than the initial state of the finite universe.

            God, as understood by Catholicism to include virgin birth of a flesh incarnate of said God certainly carries a lot of baggage with it. Can ‘God’ be defines in such a way to avoid that baggage, sure, but that isn’t the God that Leah has accepted.

            As noted above, my assumption is just as valid an understanding of the cosmological argument as yours.

            “God did it” was a quote from the response I replied to – ‘did’ as an act in the active sense of course isn’t necessary – your inability to follow the thread and instead make assumptions about my knowledge shows that you aren’t aware of what this being said in this context.

            ‘Necessary’ isn’t a red herring if you want to avoid introducing new entities that require entire theories of their own to describe when they don’t add any explanatory power.

            God (at least in the Catholic context) is also rejected from a variety of philosophical, metaphysical and physical arguments. So, while the stories may contain some interesting ideas, enlightening from the sense of giving us a better understanding of the world as it actually is is a stretch.

            Well, since the axioms of the philosophical argument are not obviously true and not themselves testable, I’d be very interested in your conception of what a test of the argument would look like.

      • keddaw

        An omnipotent, omniscient ‘God’ is compatible with any version of reality because it would be able to create them all*. Omnibenevolence seems somewhat more problematic….

        *Including those, like this one, where it doesn’t appear to exist at all.

    • leahlibresco

      I’m not using “God did it” as a patch for questions about the material world. I kept asking questions and making hypothesis about what undergirds moral law, and I didn’t throw up my hands and go “God did it!” I realized that everything I was hypothesizing as necessary looked a lot like God.

      • Steve

        How does “everything I was hypothesizing as necessary looked a lot like God” (which sounds like grounds to simply be a deist in a very general sense) turn into the specific action of becoming a catholic??

        • leahlibresco

          It looked like a specific kind of God; the problem constrains the solution. Generic god would be more like the god of the gaps.

          • Alan

            It might help then to describe the specific it looked like rather than calling it God (which as I mention above is a non-specific term that encompasses many different understandings).

          • Steve

            Leah… I think there’s a difference b/t a generic god of the gaps (which is intellectually lazy), and simply being a non-specific deist.

            You go on and on about data sets and metrics and a specific kind of god, yet you never really say what any of that is. There are very specific supernatural claims made by christians, catholics included, that would be utterly preposterous in any other context. For people to accept them because it helps them sleep at night or because it was drilled into their head since they were a child, I get it. But to arrive at and accept them through some sort of logic is just baffling. To me, there is just an enormous leap from following a certain thought process to a conclusion that there is probably a god to it’s a catholic god. Perhaps these specifics are being sorted out offline in conversations with friends, or maybe they’re on posts I missed, or maybe I’m simply not seeing what you’re seeing. But I don’t think I’m alone in pointing out a disconnect here. Obviously you can offer as much of whatever explanation you like, as this is your blog of course. And I don’t envy you in this matter as there are many people with countless questions (like myself) looking for answers you might not have yet.

      • Ted Seeber

        I think it would help if you understood that what separates the Catholic notion of God from many other religions is rationality.

        In fact, this was such an astounding breakthrough that nearly all western civilization scientific discovery since the 800s or so rests on the non-obvious philosophical assumption that God isn’t an insane unfaithful bastard who changes the laws of physics on a whim (note, most of the Greek and Roman gods WERE, as I’d say the Gods of most religions mankind has ever chosen to believe in).

        The sad part is with certain interpretations of evolution, genetics, and quantum mechanics, due to limitations in our measurement technology and perhaps even the inability of our species to understand the universe revealed to us on the quantum level, we have come full circle and now some atheists seem to me to believe in a random universe that is non-deterministic, and doesn’t even have a God left to keep gravity turned on.

        • Alan

          So Catholics don’t believe in miracles which violate physical laws? Or is it that their God only suspends the laws of physics on a whim?

          • Irenist

            Not on a whim. But just as a departure from meter only has any effect in a poem in which meter has been complied with previously, a miracle is only miraculous in a lawfully ordered cosmos. In the absence of physical law, miracles would be mere prodigies.

          • Nicholas Escalona

            Very well put, Irenist.

          • Alan

            Right, so he is an insane faithful bastard who suspends physical laws, not on a whim but to demonstrate that he can. Definitely a big improvement over those ‘irrational Gods’ that came before him.

    • Ted Seeber

      I’m not as certain as you seem to be that “God did it” and “the scientific model” are mutually exclusive.

  • And, at the abstract level at which I’m writing this post, that’s how Catholicism won me over. It matched a lot of the soundings I’d already taken, it predicted some measurements I later found myself having to revise, and it looked like a tolerably good map. It seemed like a better map than my virtue-ethics atheism. I suspect the place where JT and I disagree the most is not about the good map criteria, but about the moral soundings dataset I was trying to match up to a plausible map.

    I just wanted to say, your reasoning process – as well as the way you describe it – is very refreshing. First because you apparently take metaphysics seriously, and I think that alone sets you apart from a lot of contemporary atheists around your age. The fact that you considered metaphysics important from the start rather sets you apart intellectually from the New Atheists most people probably think of lately when they hear about an atheist at all.

    By the way, something has me curious. You make Lesswrong references a lot, or so it’s seemed. One thing I heard recently was the idea that that community thinks ‘if two people disagree, one of them is being irrational’. Is that true? And if so, do you yourself reject that standard? And if you don’t, does that mean you think lesswrong’s community is irrational on the subject of God?

    • leahlibresco

      People can be wrong but not irrational. If you apply good logic to insufficient data you probably won’t come up with the right answer, but no one should expect you to progress by abandoning critical thinking. Most LWers (as far as I can tell) are not super interested in metaphysics (like most people) and that’s how I ended up where I am. So if that’s not a sphere you’re thinking about, you can be pretty hot stuff and still not be likely to notice a problem up there.

      But I’ll also say I know plenty of cool LWers who do engage with some of these questions. Among them, Yvain.

  • keddaw

    Leah, no matter how much of Catholic morality you think maps with your idea of Truth, you have to accept a whole bunch of its other, anti-rational, beliefs to be a member. Things like (and I checked this with some Catholics):

    The devil not only exists but plays an active role in the world.
    Angels are real and everyone has a guardian angel.
    Marian apparitions.
    Miracles happen (all the time given the number of saints!)
    Prayer works.
    People can be possessed by demonic spirits.
    And exorcisms expel them.
    Adam and Eve were real people who actually existed!

    I don’t know how much you need Objective Morality to be true to validate your existence, but it must be a lot to swallow all that other stuff…

    • Skittle

      Just for future research, if what you want to know is official Catholic teaching and what Catholics must actually believe in to be able to say they are in Communion with the Church, rather than asking some random Catholics (who are notoriously ignorant of specifics, on the whole) you should look up the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It’s available for free on several websites, many with handy search functions, and it lays out what Catholics actually are meant to assent to.

      For example, marian apparitions and any miracle after the Apostles (including stigmata and exorcisms) are pretty well known examples of “extras” that it is fine to believe in, but which actually do not form a part of official Catholic teaching. Nobody is going to expect Leia to believe in them before becoming a Catholic. Angels, demons, prayer, Adam and Eve, all fall into the category “a brief definition is assented to, and then a wide variety of positions are perfectly acceptable beyond that”. For details, read what the Catechism says.

      • leahlibresco

        Well put! (And one clarification deserves another: Leah, not Leia. And it’s pronounced Lee-uh, not like the Star Wars princess).

        • Skittle

          I’m sorry, I knew a horse called Leah and seem to have acquired the habit of giving the Star Wars spelling to humans. My greatest apologies.

      • Alan

        I don’t know – lines like:
        “Satan or the devil and the other demons are fallen angels who have freely refused to serve God and his plan. Their choice against God is definitive. They try to associate man in their revolt against God.”

        Are more seems to cut off most of the wide variety of positions that seam acceptable to me.

        • Ted Seeber

          Reference please? The Catholic Catechism has paragraph numbers, usually expressed as four digits.

          • Alan

            Paragraph 7, # 414 – not being familiar with the naming convention would that be expressed as 7414?

        • Irenist

          Catholics are metaphysical dualists, traditionally believing that the soul is the form of the body, and that the mind is therefore immaterial. Many entirely rational philosophers have been and are dualists; others have been and are monistic idealists. Once one believes in immaterial minds, belief in angels is no more “anti-rational” than belief in the possibility of embodied extraterrestrials. Just because you are a materialist doesn’t mean that all other positions are “anti-rational.”

    • Ted Seeber

      “Adam and Eve were real people who actually existed!”

      Uh, doesn’t genetics tell us that? They may not have been the same species we were, but Australopithecus is still a people.

      The rest just follows from a subset of assumptions of how the metaphysics works, and while nice, none of them are required. In fact, if you accept the Church’s *current* teachings about the book of Genesis, not even “Adam and Eve existed” is required.

      • Alan

        No, genetics doesn’t tell about a first couple from which we all descend that is of the genus homo.

        • Irenist

          Genetics gives us a population bottleneck of about 10,000. Adam and Eve could have been two of those.

          • Alan

            In the nominal sense that two of them may have called themselves Adam and Eve but in any sense that would align with meaningful understanding of Genesis – I don’t see it.

      • Steve

        My understanding of what genetics says about Adam & Eve (and correct me if I’m wrong) is nearly the opposite of any church has claimed in the past (and the church is wise to distance themselves from such bogus claims). Ignoring the mythological claims of god creating man from dust, Genetics suggests there was never a ‘first human’ in the sense that in 1 generation we became homosapiens, making the suggestion that genetics tells us of an Adam & Eve incorrect.

        Population bottlenecks don’t imply that there weren’t people prior to that period, making the suggestion that an Adam and Eve (in any meaningful way) might have been part of that group to be incorrect.

      • deiseach

        Tiny bit more complicated than that, Ted, since the encylical Humani Generis of Pope Pius XII in 1950 binds the teaching of the Church to reject (0r at least, not to accept as the definitive explanation) polygenism:

        “36. For these reasons the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter – for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God. However, this must be done in such a way that the reasons for both opinions, that is, those favorable and those unfavorable to evolution, be weighed and judged with the necessary seriousness, moderation and measure, and provided that all are prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church, to whom Christ has given the mission of interpreting authentically the Sacred Scriptures and of defending the dogmas of faith. Some however, rashly transgress this liberty of discussion, when they act as if the origin of the human body from pre-existing and living matter were already completely certain and proved by the facts which have been discovered up to now and by reasoning on those facts, and as if there were nothing in the sources of divine revelation which demands the greatest moderation and caution in this question.

        37. When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.”

        So, while evolution is accepted as a scientific fact, we are bound to believe that true humans (that is, ensouled beings) do indeed have their origin from our First Parents and that therefore Adam and Eve are not symbolic or mythological, but did exist as living beings.

    • keddaw

      Hang on, you’re saying that Catholics don’t have to believe in any of that? The Catholic Church which performs exorcisms, and has specially trained priests to perform them, is okay with people not thinking demonic spirits exist?

      Let’s look at the Catechism (why am I looking up their beliefs!?!?):
      From which seems a reasonable source! speaks of our first parents and Satan being very real. is clear that Cain and Abel are real. 407 “By our first parents’ sin, the devil has acquired a certain domination over man, even though man remains free.”

      Matthew 8:31 Jesus cast out demons into swine.
      2.2.4:1673 deals with exorcisms. , “Exorcism is directed at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church” Guardian Angles – “From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession. “Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.” Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God.”

      Marian apparitions:
      But it’s not a requirement for Catholics to believe in them… Okay, you got me on apparitions. And probably stigmata, but I got bored looking them up.

      1.2.1:402-405 Adam’s existence is clearly held as real and problematic for ‘his children’.

      Skittle: “Nobody is going to expect Leia to believe in them before becoming a Catholic.”
      So it’s like Scientology, they give you some semi-reasonable parts and get you hooked/indoctrinated before telling you the nutty stuff?

      • Skittle

        “Skittle: “Nobody is going to expect Leia to believe in them before becoming a Catholic.”
        So it’s like Scientology, they give you some semi-reasonable parts and get you hooked/indoctrinated before telling you the nutty stuff?”

        No. Since you seem to expect some subterfuge, I will make it as explicit as possible. They are not required beliefs for any Catholic. Catholics can believe them without it being a bad thing, but Catholics can equally not believe them without it being a bad thing. Catholics can actively disbelieve them without it being a bad thing. Catholics can argue against them without it being a bad thing. You can be ordained as a priest without believing in them. You can become a nun without believing in them. They are not a part of the required beliefs for a Catholic, so they are not part of what Leia will be expected to assent to before joining the Church.

      • Skittle

        Also (oh, for an edit function):

        “why am I looking up their beliefs!?!?”

        Because you are making claims about what their beliefs are. If I were to make claims about what Sikhs believe, I would expect to look those beliefs up.

        Also also, exorcisms are a really interesting case, and there’s been some published work recently that examines how Catholic exorcisms actually practically happen these days. No Catholic is bound to accept that any of these exorcisms are actually exorcisms and actually involve demons, but it’s certainly interesting to look at how they work these days and how mental health professionals are involved.

        • keddaw

          My point was I make (mostly accurate) claims about Catholic beliefs and people cry foul when they should know better, then I have to go look up the frigging Vatican’s Catechism site to show what it is that Catholics should believe.

          But hey, Catholics believe the creator of the universe made a Bronze Age virgin pregnant with the creator’s child who is also the creator and who then performed miracles , died and rose again. What’s a couple of demons, really bad genetic and evolutionary science (Adam and Eve), really bad regular science (miracles), and a few angels following people around compared to that?

  • FTFKDad

    are there any aspects of your model that are different to an atheist model (did you have an atheist model or map?) that you could give a bit of insight in to? i.e., what is it about the catholic map/model that makes it a better one for you than an atheist map/model? ie, the difference to the virtue/ethics map? Thank you.

  • Leah, I have a few questions:
    If you see morality as a personal entity that loves you (I think this was part of your conversion), was some variant moral lawgiver argument part of your thinking (you mentioned teleology)?If so, what about the Euthyphro dilemma? I have my own opinion on this, but would appreciate someone else’s insight.Do you see morality as an achievable goal?If so, was there any of Kant’s moral argument in your mind over the conversion process? Sorry, these may be a little off the topic, but I struggle seeing much use in the moral arguments, & thus wonder how those who have been converted by them actually think.More on the topic, how does your map/prediction hypothesis square with the fact that abortion (even to spare the life of the mother) is an excommunicable offence while child molesting (at least for priests) isn’t? I’m not trying to be funny here, surely any predictions made objectively, without the bias of accepting the Catholic Church as a moral authority, would lead to men who prey on young boys being considered less moral than doctors trying to spare one life where two may otherwise be lost. If we view this in the light of fundamentalist groups (who I assume you reject largely based on their rejection of evolution) where the pastors loose their jobs for having sex with a consenting married adult within their church, who’s principles fit predictions? While I can hardly be accused of being a liberal protestant, I would think liberal protestantism makes better moral predictions than pure Catholicism, at least with regard to sexual morality. Frankly, I’m not sure Catholicism can even be classified as a “tolerably good map” in light of this particular data set.
    Although these are specifically directed toward Leah, any other input would be appreciated.

    In the post you also mention arbitrary murder as a first principle that is tough to prove. Violent crimes are among the easiest to justify as objectively immoral, & certainly not a first principle. A first principle in Christianity (& thus Catholicism) would be the Golden Rule, which is tougher to argue for (from an objectively moral standpoint) than the same idea expressed in the negative as, do not to others as you would not have them do to you, or the common expression, first do no harm. Obviously arbitrary murder as immoral is a given if you provide any of these formulations of the Golden Rule as a first principle. Perhaps I’ve misinterpreted the term “first principles,” if so, please correct me.

    • Irenist

      Christian, Jewish, and Islamic philosophers have traditionally answered the Euthyphro dilemma by noting that, given Divine Simplicity, God just *is* the Good. Thus, the question “Is it good because God wills it, or does He will it because it’s good?” is moot, since it is impossible in principle for God as defined by, say, Aquinas, to will anything other than the good. His Will is His Goodness is His Knowledge, etc. Aquinas teaches that what is predicated of God is only predicated analogically: Goodness and Will and Knowledge are distinct in us, but entirely synonymous in God. (Of course, the original dilemma in the dialog involved one god willing contrary to another, IIRC. Not a problem for monotheism.)

      • Thanks, my approach would be different. Like physical laws, right & wrong help maintain stable societies without the divine intervention. I’d be interested with how God being incapable of willing evil sits with omnipotence, since then God would lack some ability, regardless of whether that ability is one He, or us would want Him to have.

        • SunnyHello

          God’s omnipotence is traditionally defined as the ability to do all things that are logically possible. So God does not have to do logically impossible things (such as create rocks he cannot lift) in order to be omnipotent. It makes sense to at least presuppose this in any conversation about God because if we didn’t, it would be impossible to speak about God in any reasonable fashion since any proposition about God could be true (For example: if God can do logically impossible things, God could be absolutely good and absolutely evil at the same time.).

    • Skittle

      “is an excommunicable offence while child molesting (at least for priests) isn’t”

      Where on Earth do you get such strange ideas?

      • deiseach

        I think the idea arises from the fact that procuring or assisting in abortion incurs latae sententiae excommunication, whereas the same penalty does not exist for rape/paedophilia.

        This does not mean that rapists, whether clerical or no, are immune from excommunication of course, but it’s been a long time since anyone learned “What are the four sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance? Murder, sodomy, oppressing the widow and orphan, and defrauding the labourer of his wages.”

        Abortion, as encompassing the murder of a human being, is seen as being more grave than rape in this instance, since a rapist may harm and damage their victim but does not take their life, whereas taking an innocent life means taking everything at once.

        • Thank you for the reply, it sort of helps, but it does raise other issues.

          “What are the four sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance? Murder, sodomy, oppressing the widow and orphan, and defrauding the labourer of his wages.”

          I wasn’t sure where this came from, so I Googled it & arrived at the forums which quoted the Douay Catholic Catechism of 1649
          CHAPTER XX
          I’m not sure if this is still relevant to modern Catholics, but will run with it anyway.

          “Q. 928. What is the second?
          A. The sin of Sodom, or carnal sin against nature, which is a voluntary shedding of the seed of nature, out of the due use of marriage, or lust with a different sex.
          Q. 929. What is the scripture proof of this?
          A. Out of Gen. xix. 13. where we read of the Sodomites, and their sin. “We will destroy this place because the cry of them hath increased before our Lord, who hath sent us to destroy them,” (and they were burnt with fire from heaven.)

          It doesn’t really specifically talk of Sodomy, but rather it sounds like sexual immorality in a more general sense. The reference to sodomites to arrive at sodomy, seems equivocal, since the Bible would be referring to people of Sodom, while interpreting the context you used implies those who engage in sodomy, which hardly conveys the same meaning. Furthermore, the reference given (Gen 19:13) doesn’t really seem to help, for lack of giving an actual sin:

          “For we will eliminate this place, because the outcry among them has increased before the Lord, who sent us to destroy them.”

          if we examine actual sinful behaviour (v9), then it makes the case for sodomy (though not for the 1649 catechism) clearer:

          “And they called out to Lot, and they said to him: Where are the men who entered to you in the night? Bring them out here, so that we may know them.”

          The problem for the catechism is that it specifically references “lust with a different sex,” which clearly isn’t the case here. The problem for you, though, is that there was not rape itself, but the intent of it, furthermore, it regards the same sex, which is what I was asking about. The only ways that you can really get around this, are, a) age makes a difference (it’s not as bad with a child as the case of sodom was with adults); b) you equivocate over the meaning of sodomite (although I’m not sure this helps you, after all, what does a man who rapes a boy do?) or c) you have an updated version of the catechism with a more clear exegesis.

          So although I understand your reasoning, I’m uncertain of the facts behind it. Perhaps there’s somewhere I can get a pdf version of the current catechism, or would I have to go to a Catholic church for a hard copy? I would really appreciate a copy, since it isn’t entirely fair of me to reject a worldview I only have a limited knowledge of. Put differently, I can only be less wrong if I have more data.

      • Skittle, let’s be fair here, I’m not the first to have this issue, Sam Harris mentioned it in The Moral Landscape. Abortion is an excommunicable offence, that’s not in dispute here. What is the issue, presumably, is the statement about paedophilia. Priests accused of molestation seem to be protected by the church, & actually retain jobs as priests. Although there may be systems within the church for dealing with this, it does seem to most observers that priests are protected from prosecution (through the church) for crime that would end the average Joe in jail for some time. What is strange, is that you found the question strange.

        • Skittle

          I find it strange because, although being /accused/ of anything is not an excommunicable offence, committing any mortal sin automatically excommunicates you. Murder is not something that typically gets you declared excommunicated, because everyone knows that doing it is a mortal sin that automatically excommunicates you. Raping a child would certainly excommunicate a priest, even if nobody knew he did it. If a priest was publicly admitting to raping children, and still unrepentantly practising publically as a Catholic, then you can bet he’d be just as publicly excommunicated as someone acting in the equivalent way about murder or abortion.

          As to what it appears to “most observers”: I have looked up the stats. Maybe you should too.

          • Perhaps you could send me those stats, I’m willing to give you a fair chance, but the majority of priests who are accused never make it to trial, so it’s not like they’re ever found not guilty.

            As for them being excommunicated anyway (albeit by God) that doesn’t really help the Catholic Churches supreme moral authority on earth, since they aren’t allowing the correct legal enquiries to go ahead to find out if there is a problem. You could at least inform me of the procedures of the church in these cases.

  • Rachel

    I like what you have to say about maps, soundings and territories. I really should not have suggested 445 page books without giving some idea of why I think they might be helpful for you. In terms of your analogy, Newman’s Essay Concerning the Developement of Doctrine has several good “tools” that would be helpful in improving your “soundings” of the “territory”.

    Newman argues that if Christianity is a living, vibrant idea or collection of ideas, an idea that individuals think about and try to apply to their lives, one whose constituent parts get analyzed, classified, compared and contrasted, then that idea / those ideas cannot NOT develope. It is part of the bnature of healthy, vibranct ideas to develope and change. He is not talking about mathematical, material or physical developement, so therefore tools meant for those disciplines are improper for analyzing the “truthiness” of Christianity. When dealing with moral, historical and religious truth, such things as antecedent probability become important. He admits that this would not be rigorous enough for fields where the data are present to the senses, such as physics, but we have to make do with what we have.

    To guarantee the legitimacy of a development, it must be one in type, one in its substantial unity, one in its system of principles, one in its relation to externals, one in its increasing clarity and conservatism and one in its tenacity. One of his arguments is that entire elaborate doctrines are often based on single and often obscure sentences. Transsubstantiation, for example, is based largely on “this is my body”.

    The vast scale and precision of the developments and their harmoniousness bespeaks that this development was planned and protected by God. He also argues that a collection of weak proofs is a strong proof. Also, that a developement or clarification in one area helps bolster otehr areas. There are three points he wishes to make, so far: First, is that development cannot not be, second, that the developments are under divine guidance and protection, and third that those developments are found in apostolic teaching.

    I realize that this is a bit of a scattershot presentation but I hope you can take something useful from it. I have not quite made it through to the halfway point yet!

  • I don’t think your problem is over-fitting (in the sense of skewing your model to follow your measurement errors), I think it’s the old underdetermination of theory by experiment. If you’re just looking at meta-ethics, then there seem to be lots of possible surfaces in world-view space which pass near your meta-ethics but don’t require belief in the resurrection of Jesus, the existence of demons or papal infallibility (I do know that doesn’t mean that every word the Pope says is true), say. That stuff isn’t in Aristotle, as far as I know 🙂 How have you located all those extra beliefs, assuming you hold them?

    • deiseach

      I think that things like the resurrection or Papal infallibility are the areas where Leah says she is thinking that, since in previous areas the map fitted, these may be new territories that although she does not yet understand them, the same principle of cartography applies.

  • Yvain

    That sounds suspiciously like abductive reasoning!

    And although I can hardly criticize abductive reasoning, I offer two caveats.

    Make sure that a theory which claims to predict the data hasn’t been massaged into the correct predictions after the data were discovered. This seems to me a notorious problem with moral theories. The modern proponents of Kantianism, teleology, natural rights theory, divine command theory, etc all give plausible-sounding reasons why their theory successfully predicts racism is morally wrong. A hundred fifty years ago, Kantians, teleologists, natural rights theorists, and divine command theorists etc all gave plausible-sounding reasons why their theory “successfully” predicted that racism was morally right. As soon as society, with very limited help from philosophers, decided that racism was wrong, the proponents of all these theories suddenly “discovered” that they had implied that racism was wrong all along.

    Aristotle believed slavery and infanticide were awesome. The medievals believed heretics should be burnt at the stake – a small fire, mind you, not a big one, because a small fire dragged out the pain longer before death. As moral progress was made in these fields by people who were generally not Aristotelian ethicists, the Aristotelian ethicists “discovered” that their ethics had agreed with the new conclusions all along. And lo and behold, now you find that the current crop of conclusions of Aristotelian ethics looks exactly like what you already believe!

    (I’m only picking on Aristotle because he’s relevant; nearly every other moral theory suffers from this problem too, except the ones that are too young to have encountered it).

    Scientists – the professionals at abductive reasoning – try to solve this problem by only giving a theory credit when it predicts new data. The moral equivalent would seem to be that we should only give an ethical theory credit if it was actually ahead of the game in predicting moral progress – that is, if it was on the right side of history in all the moral battles in which it fought, *before* the “correct” result was known. The Catholic Church seems like, no offense, possibly the single institution in the history of the world that has failed this criterion most spectacularly.

    If the first caveat is to make sure the theory isn’t secretly based off the data, the second caveat is to make sure the data aren’t secretly based off the theory. I had a friend who was a zealous environmentalist because she felt an intuitive belief that the environment was sacred. I analyzed the belief with her and we came to the conclusion that it probably had a lot to do with some of the movies she had watched as a kid – Pocahontas, for example. I’d guess Pocahontas was written by environmentalists – no doubt not as deliberate propaganda, but certainly as a “way to communicate their ideas”. So my friend believed that her feelings provided independent support for environmentalism, when in fact environmentalism had caused her feelings.

    I don’t know anything about your personal history, but just from your last name, I would guess you did not grow up entirely unexposed to Catholic memes (and if you’ve interacted with Western civilization at any point in the past two thousand years, that makes it even *more* likely)

    I will save any further comment for once you clarify exactly what moral soundings you found attractive.

    • leahlibresco

      Make sure that a theory which claims to predict the data hasn’t been massaged into the correct predictions after the data were discovered. This seems to me a notorious problem with moral theories.

      This is my biggest concern.

      I don’t know anything about your personal history, but just from your last name, I would guess you did not grow up entirely unexposed to Catholic memes (and if you’ve interacted with Western civilization at any point in the past two thousand years, that makes it even *more* likely)

      Sorry, the guy at Ellis Island who thought it would be fun to give a bunch of Romanian Jews an Italian last name tricked you! (We went Librescieu ->Libresceau (France) -> Libresco (USA)). I am half Italian, but not that half, and my dad had left Catholicism long before he met my mom. I knew very little about Catholicism (unless it touched on elections) until I went to college.

    • The moral equivalent would seem to be that we should only give an ethical theory credit if it was actually ahead of the game in predicting moral progress – that is, if it was on the right side of history in all the moral battles in which it fought, *before* the “correct” result was known. The Catholic Church seems like, no offense, possibly the single institution in the history of the world that has failed this criterion most spectacularly.

      I decided to quote this because I can’t possibly say it any better. I do have one suggested addition: the Catholic church has failed this criterion and is still failing it, most notably when it comes to the equal treatment of gay people and women. In both these cases, it’s clinging to a view that most of the rest of the world is rapidly leaving behind.

    • Seamus

      I’m not sure if the scientific approach can be successfully translated to moral questions. Even if you accept that there exists an objective moral order, is it necessarily true that cultures inevitably advance toward a greater recognition of it? I don’t think so, and as such a cultural consensus rejecting some previously widely held belief does not seem a useful analogue to new data, since there can be no certainty that it is a “correct result”; I suspect we could all think of some culture or country which we believe has regressed. Perhaps we could approach it more on a global consensus instead of a national/cultural consensus, but I think that would quickly empty our set of “correct beliefs.”

      Alternately, we could approach the test from a more subjective viewpoint, which is to ask whether the Church’s historical positions clash with Leah’s own conclusive moral claims. However, there is an additional hurdle here – how do we determine which of the church’s failings were demanded by their ethical philosophy? For instance, the bishops who covered up for pedophiles did something reprehensible, but their actions were also in clear violation of their own ethical teachings. It seems unwise to judge the quality of a philosophy by its hypocrites. Similarly, there would be Catholics on both sides of whatever issue it was, so to whom do we assign the “true Catholic” position? Assuming we choose just the institutional church (which would be complicated by anti-popes, etc., but let’s just ignore that for now), historical claims are still very difficult to evaluate, since to be accurate you must possess a significant understanding of the institutional Church’s role in the struggle, what options it had available, the limits of its factual knowledge, the impact its ethical philosophy had on its decisions, and the culture in which it was immersed.

      Now, the fact that it’s hard is not in itself a valid reason to reject the test, but it doesn’t seem to me to be any more accurate than simply assessing its current morality. The Catholic Church expresses a lot of counter-cultural or at least controversial moral perspectives; they are anti-contraception, anti-consumerism, pro-universal healthcare, anti-abortion, pro-environmentalism, pro-immigration, pro-welfare, anti-pornography, anti-capital punishment, anti-recreational sex, anti-retributive punishment, anti-(most) war, anti-gay marriage, etc. (the list is looong). Since the historical test also relies on a subjective comparison between Leah’s own moral compass and the Church’s, it is not clear why it is any more accurate than simply assessing its current counter-cultural positions. Leah already has a significant understanding of the cultural context, and if Leah should find that the more she independently considers each of those issues, the more she finds that she takes the same position as the Church for the same reasons, it seems to me that is at least as accurate a test as a historical survey of moral clashes, and it doesn’t require her to devote her life to studying 2000 years of Church history. That said, I suppose more data is always better than less.

      P.S. Sorry about talking about you in the third person, Leah. I’m a stranger to your blog, but I just found this particular test interesting to think about, in my own limited way.