Monday, December 26, 2011

Against Moral Objectivism

Victor Reppert also posted a list of arguments against the objectivity of morality. I'll look at these in the next few posts, as time and holiday events allow. Here's the first:

I. The argument from disagreement:
1. People and cultures disagree extensively about what is right and wrong.
2. Probably, if moral judgments were objectively true or false, people would not disagree extensively about what is right or wrong.
3. Therefore, probably, moral judgments are subjective.

This is the flip side of the argument from moral agreement. I don't think theists or moral objectivists would find this a very persuasive argument.  The objectivist can claim that there is a common " moral core" - as we saw in the argument from moral agreement. While I think the evolutionary view is better at explaining the existing variety of moral codes, the objectivist is free to interpret the same evidence differently.

(Michael Ruse thinks morality evolved, but is nontheless objective. His argument doesn't seem very coherent, though, as pointed out by Jason Rosenhouse.)

Another objection: the theist can argue that true morality only comes from an understanding or acceptance of his/her preferred god, and those who have different moral codes are simply wrong. 

A more difficult challenge for the theist (specifically, the Christian) is to explain how moral codes change over time. Christianity accepted slavery as part of the divinely ordained order of things for more than 1000 years. Yet today most Christians would say that slavery is wrong. (William Lane Craig is one who bites the bullet and says that Biblical slavery was not morally wrong. He also defends Biblical genocide - which is why Dawkins refused to debate him. I'm not finding the link to his Reasonable Faith post about slavery (he calls it "indentured servitude"), tho.) So how is it that God-based morality was so much in error for so long? But theists have potential answers to this challenge, too. (For instance "continuing revelation" or an evolving understanding of God's will.)

Unfortunately for the subjectivists, this might be the strongest argument they have.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Christmas Treat

As a holiday treat, I refer you to an honest-to-OCMOG Biblical scholar who explains that the divinity of Jesus is not a part of earliest Christianity.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

But What About the Holocaust?

Reppert's fourth argument is one that moral absolutists often raise.

IV. The argument from clear cases
1. If moral values are subjective, then even in clear cases of wrongness, we have to say that it is neither true nor false that an action was wrong.
2. But consider the case of someone inviting another person over for dinner, shoving that person into the oven, and then eating them as dinner. (Or the Holocaust, etc.)
3. Therefore, moral values are objective rather than subjective.
I think this makes more sense as an argument against relativism, rather than subjectivism. I don't see how this argument can be anything but circular, though. The second premise amounts to "X is (obviously)  absolutely wrong." This is just an appeal to our moral intuition that some things, at least, are really wrong, and not just wrong according to some particular standard.

But that moral intuition is exactly the point in dispute: the relativist says the intuition is simply incorrect.

(We can also quibble that premise 1 confuses the issues of subjectivism and non-cognitivism. The cognitivist subjectivist, for example, agrees that moral judgements are subjective, but thinks they are capable of being true or false.)

Reppert's fifth argument is basically the same one, but turned around:

V. The argument from human rights.
1. If moral values are subjective, then there are no inalienable human rights. (A right in a moral obligation on the part of someone not to do something to you. If I have the right to free speech, that means someone has the obligation not to forcibly shut me up).
2. There are inalienable human rights.
3. Therefore, moral values are objective and not subjective.

Here the second premise is "X is (obviously) absolutely right." Again, it is an appeal to the very intuition that is in question.

Does anyone know if there's a non-question-begging way to formulate these arguments?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Are We Becoming More Moral?

 Reppert's third argument in favor of objective/absolute morality:

III. The argument from reformers:
1. If moral values are subjective, then moral codes cannot improve, since there is no objective standard by which to judge one code better than another.
2. But the work of people like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks shows that moral codes can be made more just.
3. Therefore, moral values are objective rather than subjective.

The weak point here is in premise 2: how are we to decide if a moral code has become "more just"? There were many who opposed the civil rights reforms, who thought it was a move away from true morality rather than towards it. Likewise, there were many Germans who applauded the moral "reforms" of Naziism. The fact that it is possible for moral codes to change does not imply that they are improving. I think it would only be possible to claim that a particular reform has made things objectively more just if everyone agreed that that reform was an improvement - and this just returns us to the considerations of argument two.

The fascinating question of how moral codes change and why seems to get neglected by moral philosophers. There is a great discussion of the issue in Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue. MacIntyre says moral codes change when they encounter challenges (from encounters with other societies, or from considerations that arise internally) that reveal the existing code to be inadequate according to its own standards. (His view is reminiscent of Kuhn's view of scientific revolutions.)

Such a view of moral codes as constantly evolving and interacting doesn't rule out objectivism or absolutism, but neither does it require it.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Everyone Agrees...

The second argument against subjectivism Reppert gives goes like this:

II. The argument from Underlying Moral Consensus:

1. If morality were a subjective matter, we would expect to find sizable differences of fundamental principles amongst moral codes.
2. But there is, in general, agreement concerning fundamental principles amongst moral codes.
3. Therefore, morality is objective rather than subjective.

I think this is legitimately an argument against subjectivism, though it could also work as an argument against relativism. We often consider things to be objectively true when everyone agrees they are true. If I see a tree over there, and everyone agrees there is a tree over there, then we take it as objectively true that there is a tree over there. On the other hand, if I see a tree over there, and no one else does, then people will assume I am having a hallucination, a vision, or some such.

I don't think either premise is true, though. If morality is an evolved behavior, then we might expect there to be a fair amount of convergence among codes, without this implying that moral codes must be objective. On the other hand, moral codes exist or have existed in the past that allow infanticide, human sacrifice, huge inequalities in social standing, torture, slavery, and on and on, so I think it's hard to find common fundamental principles that all moral codes adhere to.

Morality-as-evolved-behavior seems to have the capacity to explain the observed range of moral codes better than morality-as-objective-truth.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Rock Bottom In Philosophical Argument

In a NYT article, Alvin Plantinga declares

“I think there is such a thing as a sensus divinitatis, and in some people it doesn’t work properly,” he said, referring to the innate sense of the divine that Calvin believed all human beings possess. “So if you think of rationality as normal cognitive function, yes, there is something irrational about that kind of stance.” 

 This has to be the worst philosophical argument ever. "You are a defective human being, so you cannot see the evidence I see." Can there be any clearer declaration that the speaker is lacking any serious argument and flailing desperately than to say that I have a special secret knowledge that my opponent lacks?

And this guy is supposed to be the top Christian philosopher of our time?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Higgs Non-News

We interrupt your irregularly scheduled amateur philosophizing to bring you an unimportant bulletin from the world of science. Once again, the Higgs particle has not been sighted!

Yes, folks, you heard it here first - unless you heard it somewhere else first, in which case, not. After a summer of breathless excitement, followed by an autumn of suspenseful waiting, and then a week of wildfire rumors, the infamous Higgs particle has again failed to show up.

And that's actually sort of exciting.

Exactly in line with the rumors, the two big LHC experiments, ATLAS and CMS, both reported small excesses in events at an energy of about 125 GeV. These excesses are actually slightly more than what would be expected from a Standard Model Higgs particle. (See Matt Strassler's excellent post about what might be in store if there is more than one Higgs particle, or none.) Similar hints were reported earlier this year at 140 GeV - the new results conclusively rule out a Higgs particle with this higher mass. In fact, the whole range from 130 GeV up to 600 GeV has been ruled out, again as far as a Standard Model Higgs.

These excesses are still far too small to make any kind of a claim about a new particle being discovered. Disappointingly, the bumps in the two data sets are at slightly different energies - ATLAS  at 126 GeV and CMS at 123 Gev. It will take months for the experiments to combine their data, but Phillip Gibbs at viXra has already done a quick-and-dirty combination, and even included Tevatron data.

So is this the first hint of an experimental detection of a Higgs particle, or will it all go away with more data? No one can say right now. Certainly, there will be an intense focus now on 125 GeV, and the data will be looked at in many different ways. By the end of 2012 there should be about five times more data - enough to conclusively rule the Higgs in or out at these energies.

Either way, we are entering a new era in our understanding of the structure of the universe. This is the beginning of the end of a 40 year long wait.

[Revised viXra link 12/17/11]

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Wrong According to Whom?

Here's Reppert's first argument against subjectivism:

I. The argument from Implied Practice

1. If ethics is subjective, then we should expect people to recognize that actions which they are inclined to think of as "wrong" are only wrong from their point of view.
2. But invariably, people view wrongs against themselves as actions that are really wrong.
3. Therefore moral values are objective and not subjective.

This is actually an argument against relativism, not against subjectivism. The issue is whether morality depends on one's point of view - is morality the same for everyone? I will interpret this argument with "subjective" replaced by "relative" and "objective" replaced by "absolute."

 But if morality is relative to the social or cultural group, rather than to the individual, this argument doesn't work. The people with whom I interact on a regular basis are, by definition, part of my social group. If morality is just a group's implicitly agreed-upon restrictions on behavior, then of course I will expect those restrictions to apply to others in my group, and I will feel justified in being upset when those restrictions are violated.

What about the case where I feel wronged by someone from a different culture? The absolutist might claim that this proves morality is not relative to the group.

But the relativist can argue that this response is a result of how ingrained our sense of morality is. I will tend to assume that anyone with whom I come in contact is part of my social group and subject to the rules I am familiar with.

Furthermore, there are cases where we do make allowances for cultural differences. I might feel offended if someone cuts in line in front of me, but if I learn they come from a country where pushing to the front is standard operating procedure, I might think, "Oh, that's OK, they didn't know how we do it here." Or imagine that someone steals from me, and I later learn they come from a culture where all property is shared communally. Then I might not feel a sense of moral outrage at the act - though I would probably still want my property back.

Finally, there is no problem here under a non-cognitivist account of morality, either. For the non-cognitivist, moral disapproval amounts to saying, "I don't like what you did," or "Don't do that!" or both. When someone does something that hurts me, these would be very natural reactions, not requiring any sort of absolutism.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Absolute or Objective?

A post at the Secular Outpost pointed me to an old post of Victor Reppert's, where he summarizes five arguments in favor of moral objectivity. I want to consider these arguments briefly.

First, though, I think Reppert has confused the subjective-objective issue with the relative-absolute issue. This SEP article explains the difference, but let's review it here:

If morality is objective, it is something that exists "out there in the world", independent of what anyone thinks or believes. The truth of a moral claim is fixed by objective facts.

Moral subjectivism, on the other hand, says that moral truth is fixed by some person or persons. The person could be the individual, the social group, or God. (So William Lane Craig is being inconsistent when he argues that morality is objective, yet subscribes to a Divine Command theory of morality: the latter ascribes morality to the desires of God, and thus it depends on a person's (God's) opinion. That's subjective, not objective.)

The other axis is relativism versus absolutism.

Morality is absolute if it is the same for everyone, everywhere, at every time.

Morality is relative if it depends on the person or the social context. As the SEP article says, "Stealing is wrong" could be true for one person and false for someone else, for instance, for someone from a different culture where stealing is an acceptable practice.

These axes are "orthogonal", in the SEP's words: it is possible for a moral theory to be subjective-relative, subjective-absolute, objective-relative, or objective-absolute.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Blogroll Update

I've been wanting to get more religious sites into the blogroll for balance. I just added two. Atheists ought to confront the best counter-arguments available, and both of these writers are intelligent, informed, and Christian. It's too easy to stay inside the atheist echo chamber - you need to get out and challenge your assumptions regularly.

Victor Reppert writes the Dangerous Idea blog. He is friends with one of the philosophers at the excellent Secular Outpost blog, and they have been having a respectful back-and-forth for some time.

Professor of philosophy Edward Feser is more confrontational, as can be seen in his recent exchanges with atheist philosopher Stephen Law and scientist Jerry Coyne. Personally, I am turned off when the epithets start flying - I would much rather read a respectful exchange than one laced with invective on both sides. Still, Feser is very smart and very well-read, and I find that his criticisms are usually fair and on point. His own brand of AT philosophy ("Aristotelico-Thomism", nothing to do with the Appalachian Trail unfortunately) seems a curious relic from the distant past. By my triangulation principle, I have avoided reading his books so far, but I may eventually do it just to understand where he's coming from. Feser is a former atheist, proving that not all smart people move in the "correct" direction....

I also trimmed a few previous blogs. Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (funny, but not at all serious), Common Sense Atheism (Luke has turned his attention to Less Wrong and Facing the Singularity), and The Busybody (a religion blog that rarely deals with religion).

Thursday, November 17, 2011

What, No Tooth Fairy?

When I started reading Oppy, I was interested in two things: (1) what he considered good arguments from the atheist side, and (2) what he thought was wrong or unconvincing about atheistic arguments. In contrast to Swinburne, Oppy sets a high standard for a good argument: he is only interested in arguments that are, or ought to be, rationally compelling to someone of the opposite persuasion. And he doesn't think any theistic arguments are compelling, so that saves half my work.

Oppy has strangely little to say about atheistic arguments. He spends a section (3.9) considering Quentin Smith's atheological argument from cosmology. (I don't think Smith's suggestion holds up from the point of view of physics, and Oppy doesn't think it holds up philosophically.) He has a whole chapter on arguments from evil. (I don't find these interesting or convincing, so I'm going to skip them.) And he addresses some general atheological arguments in his opening chapter in a discussion of agnosticism, and (350 pages later!) includes a discussion of Clifford's Principle in his conclusion. Also, in the first chapter, he deals with the Evil God arguments like the one used by Stephen Law in his recent debate with William Lane Craig. Apart from these, he only mentions atheological arguments in passing.

(Oppy states at the beginning of the book that he's not going to consider arguments that claim the very concept of an OCMOG is incoherent. He's saving these for another book.)

So there's no discussion at all of what I think is the strongest point in favor of atheism - what I think of as the Tooth Fairy Argument. The closest he comes to it when he addresses some general principles that the atheist might try to call on in those first and last chapters. Let's take a look.

The atheist might appeal to the principle that

in the absence of any positive evidence for the existence of x's, one is rationally required to believe that there are no x's.
 Oppy claims that this principle is refuted by the lottery paradox. He asks us to consider a lottery in which an infinite number of tickets are sold, and only one ticket wins.

If I believe of each ticket that it won't win, then I shall be obliged to conclude that no ticket will win - that is, I will be obliged to believe something false.

According to Oppy, the existence of god(s) is like the lottery: we know that some existence proposition must be true, but since there are infinitely many such propositions (no god, god 1, god 2, etc) there is only an infinitesimal chance of any one of them being true. So the agnostic is justified in rejecting the "no god" hypothesis along with all the others.

Now, this is a very strange argument for Oppy to make, because it relies on making probability statements about an infinite set of possibilities. The problem is simply not mathematically well-defined. Elsewhere (in his chapter on fine tuning) Oppy shows himself to have a very sophisticated understanding of the difficulties of such statements. But here, without batting an eye, he allows the agnostic to cite the lottery paradox as if it were unproblematic.

He concludes his one-paragraph discussion like this:

Thus, for example, although there is no good reason to think that there are currently intelligent beings inhabiting the fifth planet of the Vega system, the correct view to have is simply that this claim is a very unlikely one.
 That is, (complete) lack of evidence is not enough to make us disbelieve in something, it is only enough to make that something very unlikely

I think this is correct in a strictly logical sense, as far as it goes. But I also think it doesn't go far enough. It's not just that we are lacking in evidence for a god, it's that we have positive reasons to believe that something like a god can't possibly exist. Rather than "intelligent life on Vega 5," the analogy should be "purple elephants on the planet Pluto." We know elephants can't exist on Pluto, because mammals need food, oxygen, and liquid water, and none of that is available there.

Likewise for gods. It's not just that we're lacking evidence for them: we have good reason to think that intelligence requires a complex neural system (or something like it - as in a computer). The evidence is both experimental and theoretical. Experimentally, all known intelligent beings have complex neural systems. And theoretically, the ability to process information requires some such system.

But according to theists, God doesn't have any neurons. He doesn't have a material body at all. In fact, the OCMOG has no moving parts. How then, can God be intelligent?

Gods are as unlikely as purple Plutonian pachyderms.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Why Change Your Mind?

Suppose I have some belief. Under what circumstances should I change it?

A common atheist response is that we should reject any belief for which we don't have evidence.  Graham Oppy calls this "Clifford's principle." Oppy thinks it's untenable.

Oppy starts off his book with a discusion of beliefs and their formation and revision. He approves of Harman's Principle of Conservatism:

One is justified in continuing to fully accept something in the absence of special reason not to.

Specifically, Harman says I shouldn't change my mind simply because my belief is not adequately justified (denial of the Principle of Negative Undermining). But I should change my mind if I have positive reasons for thinking my belief is no good (the Principle of Positive Undermining).

Oppy doesn't go into great detail on these principles, but I think what he is getting at is something like the following. We each have a complex network of interlocking beliefs. Many of these beliefs have never been critically examined (by me), and hence aren't adequately justified. For example, I believe Minsk is a city in Russia. I have never been to Russia, let alone Minsk, nor have I ever met anyone from there. I probably learned about Minsk from a book or a casual conversation, or possibly in school. According to Oppy, I should go on believing this, even though I do not have adequate justification. If someone comes along and says, "Minsk isn't in Russia, you idiot, it's the capital of Belarus!" or if I bother to look it up in an atlas, then I have reason to change my belief.

Most of our beliefs are like this. I believe a squirrel is a mammal, even though I have never seen one suckle its young. I believe water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, even though I have never performed an experiment to prove this. I believe my father was born in Philadelphia, even though I have never seen his birth certificate. And so forth.

In this view, the atheist who says, "I never believe anything unless I have evidence for it" is saying something profoundly stupid. Such a principle would require a retreat to near total skepticism.

Oppy's position here is a sophisticated version of the religionist who says, "But you have faith, too!" And I think he's right. If "faith" means "belief without adequate supporting reasons," then we all have to have faith. Life is simply too short to completely, or even adequately, examine all of our beliefs.

This helps us understand why so many people have irrational beliefs, and why they are so hard to change. It is actually better (in an evolutionary sense) to continue to believe unsupported things than to jettison too many beliefs and be paralyzed into inaction. It may be that something like the Principle of Conservatism is built into our psychological makeup to prevent this kind of paralysis.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Arguing About Gods

Graham Oppy's book, Arguing About Gods, is an odd one. Oppy, an atheist, says his aim is to survey the arguments for and against the existence of an "orthodoxly conceived monotheistic god," which I'm going to call OCMOG for short. He says right at the outset that he thinks it is not irrational to be theist, agnostic, or atheist. Not surprisingly, by the end of the book he has concluded that there are no really convincing arguments either for or against OCMOG.

Oppy spends most of the book on arguments for OCMOG. These he ably dismantles. (Anyone planning on debating William Lane Craig ought to memorize this book.) Why, then, does he think it is not irrational for a theist to remain theist or an agnostic to remain agnostic? The basic idea is that people start from different "priors" and have access to different evidence, so it is by no means surprising that they will come to different, and even incompatible, beliefs. And they can do so in a completely rational manner. (Not that they always do, of course.)
A rational agent will persist with the views she has until she is shown that she can improve her view by changing it.
So the question for the atheist is whether he has arguments that are rationally compelling to the theist, just as the question for the theist is whether he has arguments that are rationally compelling to the atheist. And Oppy thinks the answer is "no."

Although I agree that people can differ without being irrational, and I am willing to entertain the idea that that might even be true about the existence of God, I think Oppy sets the bar for rationality too low. I wonder if he would insist that astrology believers, UFO enthusiasts, and Bigfoot hunters make no mistakes of rationality.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Resurrection of Jesus

Keith Parsons has a post up on Secular Web responding to Stephen T. Davis's review of the book The Empty Tomb, to which Parsons contributed an essay. Parsons uses a lot of nice examples from recent history to illustrate how bizarre beliefs form and spread. He notes:

... aspects of the history of the Second World War are debated vigorously, sometimes fiercely, even though the events are massively documented and occurred within the living memory of millions of people. Often the only honest thing to say is that the evidence is compatible with various hypotheses. A fortiori we should be very circumspect in our conjectures about what happened nearly 2000 years ago in obscure circumstances.

Parsons mentions the hallucination hypothesis for the resurrection appearances (though he doesn't claim it is the only, or even the best, explanation).  I have often felt that there is an even simpler explanation, that comes right out of the Bible:

13 Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles[a] from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. 15 As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him.
 17 He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”
   They stood still, their faces downcast. 18 One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
   19 “What things?” he asked.
   “About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied.....

 25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
 28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.
 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

Now, if you discount the idea that this was actually Jesus and the magical disappearance, this all seems very reasonable. Two followers were walking along and discussing Jesus's death (not implausible). They met a traveling rabbi who didn't look like Jesus (not implausible). They told him they were discussing the Messiah, and the rabbi began explaining the messianic interpretation of various scripture passages (not implausible). Later on, they reflected on this conversation and decided it was Jesus himself who had met them. This last step might strike some as implausible, but I think if there were already stories of Jesus's appearance circulating, it would actually be quite psychologically reasonable.

In this scenario we see how, without any dreams, hallucinations, or weird psychological experiences, Jesus's followers could come to believe that Jesus had "appeared" to them. This explanation might not work for all of the appearance stories, because it relies on the disciples having a predisposition to interpret experiences in terms of appearances of Jesus. Perhaps the first "appearance" was a dream or something. But it might help explain how, once the resurrection meme was in place, it spread so widely. We don't need to posit mass hallucinations, just people re-interpreting their very ordinary experiences in extraordinary terms.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Having forced myself to slog through Swinburne, I thought I could give the whole area of arguments for God a rest. Swinburne admits that there are no valid deductive proofs of God's existence, and all his "good inductive arguments" for God seem pretty weak to me. But I keep running across atheists who claim either  that there are reasonable arguments for God, or that the usual arguments for naturalism fail, or both. For instance, here's a curious article in Philo by atheist philosopher Quentin Smith. I like and respect Smith: he has published some very cogent counter-arguments to the arguments of William Lane Craig and other theists. So when he says that naturalists are naturalists for all the wrong reasons, I have an uncomfortable feeling that he's probably right.

Oddly, though, he doesn't (in this article) tell us what the wrong argument for naturalism is, nor what he considers the right argument. This he leaves to "other papers and books."

One book that is often mentioned favorably (by Smith, among others) is Arguing About Gods, by Graham Oppy. According to the Amazon reviews, Oppy - an atheist - concludes that neither side has arguments sufficient to convince the other.

To me, the naturalist arguments seem clearly superior. My questions are, what reasons do theists have to remain theists (it seems to me they don't have any), and why aren't the naturalist arguments strong enough to be convincing (as it seems to me they are)?

I guess I have to do some more reading....

Friday, October 21, 2011

Smart People Who Say Stupid Things (Again)

Thanks to a post at TheSecular Outpost, I came across an article by Robin Collins on fine tuning, that explicitly discusses the procedure of "subtracting out" the knowledge that our universe supports life, which I mentioned in this previous post. It provides another example of how a smart person can say very stupid things when talking outside of their sphere of expertise.

Collins is discussing the fine tuning of the gravitational force relative to the electromagnetic force. Having argued for the life-allowing range of the gravitational constant, G, he goes on to attempt to determine the relevant comparison range of "allowable" values. He argues:
Given that the very idea of a constant of physics only makes sense within a set of laws of nature, and a set
of laws only make sense as instantiated in some universe, it makes no sense to talk about varying a constant
beyond its universe-permitting range. In other words, possible law structures can only exist if there is a
possible universe to instantiate them.

OK, let's suppose that's a reasonable approach. What then is the universe-permitting range of G values? Collins writes:

Although it is unclear exactly what the upper
bound of the "universe-permitting" strength of the gravitational force is, certainly if gravity were, for
example, a factor of 10^100 larger, a viable universe would be impossible: the gravitational attraction that a
single particle exerted on itself would result in a black-hole.
 Um. There's so much wrong in this sentence that it's hard to know where to start.

1) In neither Newton's nor Einstein's theory of gravity do we include the gravitational attraction that a
single particle exerts on itself in the calculation. We find instead the force that all other masses exert on our particle.

2) A single point particle, all by itself, is a black hole regardless of the strength of gravity.

3) A black hole solution is a valid possible universe in General Relativity. A bit later Collins writes:
Does our "black hole
universe" consisting of no-space time qualify [as a permissible universe]?

Sorry, but a black hole is not a solution consisting of "no space-time." It is exactly the opposite: a solution describing the space-time around a mass. And black hole solutions are possible no matter the value of G.

4) Expanding and re-contracting universes are possible regardless of the value of G. The right-hand side of Einstein's GR equations is G times the energy-momentum tensor. Thus, increasing G is the same as increasing the density of energy-momentum in the universe. Standard cosmological models (like the FLRW models) are still valid, no matter how large we make the density. Admittedly, the larger you make the density, the sooner the universe will re-collapse. But that's still a possible universe.

5) Empty universes, where the right-hand side of Einstein's equation is equal to zero, are still possible for any value of G. Collins asks whether empty universes count, but doesn't give any answer. He just ignores the issue. But it's clearly important for his project of determining the range of G that permits universes: if we include empty universes, then all possible values of G result in possible universes.

Collins seems to be a very smart guy, judging by the earlier parts of this paper. Yet he doesn't seem to have bothered to understand the physics he's employing before writing his article. Didn't he bother to check with an actual physicist? Or maybe he did, but got bad advice? (He doesn't acknowledge any assistance in the paper.)

At any rate, it seems it's not just us physicists who assume all other fields are easy.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Fine Tuning Supports Naturalism

Garren's comments on the previous post got me thinking more about fine tuning. There are lots of reasons to dislike fine tuning arguments for God, but it occurred to me that we can turn the fine tuning argument around and show how it actually supports naturalism, not theism. Let me explain.

The usual fine tuning argument goes like this: Our universe is governed by natural laws that involve certain numerical parameters - the cosmological constant, the strength of the nuclear force, etc. Some of these parameters must lie in a very narrow range in order for life to exist:

PU = Possible Universes
FTU = Fine-Tuned Universes

So, given a naturalistic hypothesis (N) and general background knowledge (K), the probability of a fine-tuned universe is small:

P(FTU|N&K) = Area(FTU)/Area(PU)  << 1

On the other hand, given the theistic hypothesis (T), we would expect the universe to be suitable for life: P(FTU|T&K) is not small, or at least not as small as P(FTU|N&K).

One of the (many) problems with this argument is that we can't assert that the probability is given by the ratio of the areas without making many additional assumptions: that the values of parameters 1 and 2 are randomly chosen from the space of all parameters, for instance. But that's not the objection I want to pursue. Rather, I want to point out that the probability envisioned in the fine tuning argument is a sort of prior probability that ignores some of our background information: namely, the fact that life actually exists. That is, we have to take (K) to mean "general background knowledge not including the knowledge that life exists."

But we actually do know that life exists (L), and it is perfectly legitimate to include this knowledge along with our other background knowledge. If we add this knowledge back in, then trivially P(FTU|N&K&L) = 1: under the naturalistic hypothesis, the only way that life can exist is for the universe to have parameters that allow the existence of life.

But that is not true if God exists! Indeed, under theism, there is no reason to expect that the universe will be fine-tuned.

Remember that God is, by hypothesis, omnipotent. That means that God could  have caused life to arise by miraculous means, even in a universe that was not fine-tuned. Say, for example, that the universe had a value of the cosmological constant that caused it to expand too fast for galaxies to form. God could have prevented a galaxy-sized region from expanding in order to allow our Milky Way to form. Or God could have inserted a pre-made galaxy. Or he could have inserted an additional force that operated only within our galaxy and that countered the effects of the expansion. Or any number of other possibilities, because God can do anything.

So, under theism, the diagram looks like this:

That is, the probability of a fine-tuned universe under the theistic hypothesis is:

P(FTU|N&K&L) = Area(FTU)/Area(PU)  << 1

Conclusion: given that we know that life exists, the probability of discovering we are living in a universe with parameters fine-tuned for life is much higher under the naturalistic hypothesis than under the theistic hypothesis.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What Kind of Atheist Are You?

Roman Catholic philosopher Edward Feser asks what attitudes we atheists take toward religion. Usefully, he separates out the theoretical and practical sides of religion.

As far as the theoretical side - that is, the questions of religious beliefs - he sees three types of attitudes the non-religious might take:

1. Religious belief has no serious intellectual content at all.  It is and always has been little more than superstition, the arguments offered in its defense have always been feeble rationalizations, and its claims are easily refuted.

2. Religious belief does have serious intellectual content, has been developed in interesting and sophisticated ways by philosophers and theologians, and was defensible given the scientific and philosophical knowledge available to previous generations.  But advances in science and philosophy have now more or less decisively refuted it.  Though we can respect the intelligence of an Aquinas or a Maimonides, we can no longer take their views seriously as live options.

3. Religious belief is still intellectually defensible today, but not as defensible as atheism.  An intelligent and well-informed person could be persuaded by the arguments presented by the most sophisticated contemporary proponents of a religion, but the arguments of atheists are at the end of the day more plausible.

And as far as religious practice is concerned: rituals, morality, and (I would add) community, he likewise sees three possibilities:

A. Religious practice is mostly or entirely contemptible and something we would all be well rid of.  The ritual side of religion is just crude and pointless superstition.  Religious morality, where it differs from secular morality, is sheer bigotry.  Even where certain moral principles associated with a particular religion have value, their association with the religion is merely an accident of history.  Moreover, such principles tend to be distorted by the religious context.  They certainly do not in any way depend on religion for their justification.

B. Religious practice has a certain admirable gravitas and it is possible that its ritual and moral aspects fulfill a real human need for some people.  We can treat it respectfully, the way an anthropologist might treat the practices of a culture he is studying.  But it does not fulfill any universal human need, and the most intelligent, well educated, and morally sophisticated human beings certainly have no need for it.  

C. Religious practice fulfills a truly universal or nearly universal human need, but unfortunately it has no rational foundation and its metaphysical presuppositions are probably false.  This is a tragedy, for the loss of religious belief will make human life shallower and in other ways leave a gaping void in our lives which cannot plausibly be filled by anything else.  It may even have grave social consequences.  But it is something we must find a way to live with, for atheism is intellectually unavoidable.

Feser plausibly sees P.Z. Myers and Jerry Coyne as A1 type atheists. But, he says, to hold this position, one must
...think it plausible that the greatest minds of entire civilizations -- Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, Avicenna, Averroes, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Mencius, Buddha, Adi Shankara, Ramanuja, et al. -- had for millennia been defending theoretical and practical positions that were not merely mistaken but were in fact nothing more than sheer bigotry and superstition...

 On the theoretical side, I would put myself solidly in category 2. I can't imagine how intelligent, educated people today still cling to religion. Actually, I can imagine it, because I used to be one of them. But I find it hard to believe that after looking at all the arguments and evaluating them honestly, someone would conclude that, yes, an invisible person in the sky is more plausible than not.

On the practical question, I place myself somewhere between B and C. I think religion does address fundamental human needs, but I think it does it very imperfectly, and I don't see why we need to introduce supernatural entities to address those needs. (Some of the "greatest minds" Feser mentions didn't see a need for supernatural entities, either: Lao Tze and Buddha, for instance.)

Also, I don't think it's a tragedy that religion is false - I think we can get along fine without it. Maybe even better - but we will have to work on replacing religious institutions with non-religious institutions that address those same needs. We don't have those structures yet.

(Cross posted on Think Atheist.) 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Should Atheists Read Aquinas?

Reading some of the altercations between Jerry Coyne and Edward Feser has got me wondering: when do we need to delve deeply into the other side's arguments, and when is it OK (if ever) to give a simple answer and move on? Life is short, and I don't want to spend the rest of it reading a bunch of clap-trap just in order to debunk it. On the other hand, as True Skeptics™ we want a rational basis for what we believe - we don't want to dismiss some idea just because it interferes with our preconceived worldview. So we feel a certain obligation to look into the other side's arguments in detail. And if we fail to do our due diligence, people like Feser and William Lane Craig end up running circles around us

So, here are some guidelines to help decide when enough is enough.

Know your audience; know your argument. It is, it seems to me, perfectly legitimate to address simple arguments for God with simple answers. Most believers don't believe because of some philosophically sophisticated argument of Aquinas or Craig. Rather, they are thinking something like, "Everything had to come from something." To this, it is enough to reply, "No, it didn't," or "Saying it came from God just pushes the problem back one step."

So it seems fine to write books or blogs that address the popular arguments for God while leaving out the philosophically sophisticated ones. If people like Feser complain about this, one need only point out that there are philosophically sophisticated answers already out there for those sophisticated arguments, and anyone who cares to do so can read up on them.

On the other hand, if you are addressing a particular argument for God, you had better understand the different versions of that argument, and the responses to them, and the responses to the responses, or you will end up with the taste of shoe leather in your mouth. It makes no sense to invent your own version of the Cosmological Argument and then proceed to knock that down - that's a classic straw man fallacy.

Triangulate. If prominent experts on the other side have abandoned a particular line of argument, it seems legitimate to ignore that line. If someone tries to argue that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time because of the Paluxy footprints, I only need to point out that not even the Institute for Creation Research defends the Paluxy claim any more. Similarly, given the fact that theistic philosophers like Richard Swinburne and Alvin Plantinga have agreed that there are no valid deductive proofs of God's existence, I don't feel the need to pursue those any more. If Feser thinks he has rehabilitated Aquinas's cosmological proof and that all atheists need to read his book to find out how, well, fine: when he has convinced his fellow theists that he's done so, then I might look into it. Until then, I'm not going to waste my time.

Remember that the courtiers are sometimes right. PZ Myers has identified the "Courtier's Reply." In brief, the term refers to those who respond to the cry "The Emperor has no clothes!" with learned sneers, "He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots..." and so forth.

But here's the thing: the courtiers are sometimes right. There are many highly educated and highly intelligent believers, and they have thought long and hard about their positions, and can defend them ably. When you run up against one of these, you should either shut your mouth or do the hard work of learning the real issues and responding to them. Giving a simplistic answer to a complex question is worse than giving none at all (see Know your audience above).

Atheists should respect the intelligence of their opponents. We think we have the better arguments. If we do, we should welcome the engagement with the best and the brightest among the theists.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Out of the Mouths of Babes

My four-year-old is in a Christian Montessori preschool. I had concerns about this choice of school, but having met the staff and talked to them about their approach to religion, agreed to it. They don't do indoctrination; they talk about the parables of Jesus and try to draw out the kids on what they think they mean. Also, the school has a wonderful approach to conflict resolution: seeing a 10-year old boy bring a "peace rose" to a classmate almost brought tears to my eyes when I thought about my own elementary school experience.

But they do talk about Jesus, and this leads to some interesting conversations with my son while I drive him back and forth to school.

"Dad, is Jesus real?"

"Yes, he really lived."

"Then how come he could do things other people can't do?"

Good question, I thought. I told him that people sometimes make up stories about real people. He wanted to know what parts of the story I thought were made up. I mentioned walking on water and the resurrection.

"Dad, maybe Jesus was a zombie."

I think he's going to be OK.

(Cross posted on Think Atheist.)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Doing It Wrong

A curious debate-by-blog has been spinning itself out, between some atheists who claim that modern genetic evidence conclusively rules out the Biblical story of Adam and Eve and the defenders of the faith. I'm all for atheists calling out the religious when their beliefs are contradicted by scientific evidence. It seems to me that this sort of debate didn't happen much during the last century: atheists pretty much ignored religious dogma and stuck to promoting knowledge of science (evolution, especially). So I was very interested in the current exchange. However, Jerry Coyne of Why Evolution is True seems hell-bent on showing us how not to go about it.

It began, more or less, with Jerry's comments on some media reports about evangelical Christians who have been attempting to address the issue of the scientific evidence and its implications for Christian doctrines, especially the existence of an actual Adam and Eve. Jerry correctly points out that "... the scientific evidence shows that Adam and Eve could not have existed, at least in the way they’re portrayed in the Bible."

But then Coyne goes on to poke fun at the evangelicals' attempts to address the scientific evidence. Now, I don't choose to spend my time poking fun at other people's beliefs, but I don't have a problem with others who wish to do so - I enjoy my daily dose of PZ as much as the next atheist. But I live in a country in which close to half of the citizens reject evolution. I think the message shouldn't be "Gee, look at those silly Christians struggling to fit their religious beliefs around scientific evidence." Instead, it should be "Hooray! You've finally admitted that Adam and Eve are mythical! Now go tell all your coreligionists, please."

From there things went downhill.

Michael Flynn responded to Jerry by noting that Roman Catholic theology, at least, doesn't require belief in a literal interpretation of "the mythos of Adam and Eve." He suggests a scenario in which Adam was just one of many ancestors of modern humans - one who also happened to be a common ancestor of everyone living today. In the National Catholic Register,  Mark Shea applauded Flynn, and Edward Feser on his blog took the same tack.

Coyne fired back. His response is a good illustration of how an intelligent person can make fundamental mistakes when he goes outside of his area of expertise. A glance at any recent introduction to the Bible would have shown him that modern Biblical scholars recognize that the Bible is composed of a diversity of sources and is written in a variety of genres: history, poetry, myth, etc. For many, the Genesis story is a myth of origins, not a historical account. It should have been obvious, at any rate, that anyone who accepts the evolutionary account of human origins - as Roman Catholics now do - cannot also take the Genesis account literally.

Instead of congratulating them for recognizing the validity of evolutionary science, Coyne goes on the offensive, saying they are misinterpreting their Bible and "making stuff up" in order to reconcile it with their beliefs.

And if the language is figurative (and there’s no indication that it is: Shea simply realizes that the story [is] wrong in light of modern science), how does he know the event is real?

So, Jerry, you're now an expert on Biblical language?

Here, he falls into a common atheist error: telling Christians how they should interpret the Bible, and then telling them why that interpretation doesn't make any sense.  You're never going to get anywhere that way!

Fundamentally, I agree with Jerry's point: these theologians are scrambling to reconcile their beliefs with the scientific evidence, and it doesn't make a pretty fit. But at least they're making the attempt - in contrast to so many believers who simply stick their heads in the sand, ignore all the science, and claim the Earth is 6000 years old. In fighting to keep real science in the schools, it is the latter, not the former, we need to worry about.

Finally, and unforgivably,  Jerry fudges on the science. Flynn pointed out, correctly, that the question of a single couple that is ancestral to all modern humans is completely different than the question of mitochondrial Eve or Y-chromosome Adam. The most recent common ancestor of all currently living humans (MRCA) lived astonishingly recently, according to current models: around 2000-5000 years ago. Flynn, et. al., are supposing a picture in which Biblical Adam and Eve are ancestors of the whole of current humanity, though not the sole ancestors, so it is the MRCA that is relevant. Rather than admit that they are right about the biology, Jerry simply ignores all this.

(On the other hand, Flynn and Feser both talk a lot of garbage about the evolution of "sapience": I wish Jerry had spent his considerable resources ripping them a new one on that point.)

I like Jerry's blog, and I agree with him most of the time. But the thought of uninformed atheists expounding the true meaning of the Bible makes my skin crawl. Please stick to the biology, Jerry, and leave the Bible interpretation to those who know something about it.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Early Christian Religion Now Defunct

The website, that is. Actually, it's been defunct for a long time, but I finally got my essays moved over to a new location. (You can also access them from the "Essays" tab on this site.) Some of the formatting got lost in the move - I'll try to fix it when I have some time.

If you had any links to the old site, please update them.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Book of Days

Music video by Meredith Monk. Presented without comment.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Watch a Galaxy Form

Sorry I haven't posted in a long time. I hope to start updating more regularly soon, but for now here's an amazing video. For decades, it has been a mystery how galaxies form, and the discoveries of dark matter and dark energy have to some extent made things more difficult. But now, a computer simulation that required 8 months of calculation on a Swiss supercomputer has produced a very realistic galaxy - for the first time.

And you can watch it right now!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Morality Institutionalized

I think Joyce is right to say that we can't make any sense of categorical imperatives. But Joyce's solution - going on acting as if there were categorical imperatives - doesn't seem either desirable or possible.

Why not take a step backwards, and admit that morality is really an institution that we can choose to opt in to or out of? That is, we admit that "ought" statements have an implied "if," of the general form "You ought to do X if you want to abide by morality system Y." (Here I'm stealing a page from the end-relational theory of ought that Garren's been writing about over at Words, Ideas, and Things.)

But why opt in to a moral system? We recognize that there are benefits to opting in (e.g. the moral approval of others) and undesirable consequences of opting out (moral condemnation, punishment).  Furthermore, we can never know all the consequences of our actions, so we need guidelines and principles by which to make choices in an uncertain world. A moral system gives us a set of guidelines for how to behave in social settings. We can recognize that abiding by a moral code doesn't always result in the ideally rational result, and still choose to abide by that code, because we hope it will yield a better result in the long term than will failing to abide by the code.

So it seems we can make a choice, based purely on practical rationality, to opt in to a moral system because it will in general be to our benefit to do so. This is basically what Joyce said about adopting a fictionalist attitude - but without requiring the doublethink of Joyce's approach.

What I like about this approach is that it takes us away from throwing slogans at those with whom we have moral disagreements - "Abortion is murder!" "Respect the rights of the mother!" - and instead focuses us on the goals the competing principles are intended to bring about. Maybe we can't agree on whether abortion is morally permissible, maybe we can't even agree on the principles by which to decide moral questions, but we can still try to find agreement on certain goals: fewer unwanted children? less sex outside of marriage? 

Earlier I said I thought moral systems are a sort of instinctive legal system. We all accept (AFAIK) that legal systems are institutions. We don't expect all countries to have the same laws, and while we might think some country's laws are bad laws, we still accept that we are subject to those laws when in that country. Of course, some people choose to opt out of the system: break the laws. And then they are subject to the prescribed penalties.

Why can't we treat morality the same way? Why not recognize that different social groups have different moral systems? And that when one is engaging with such a group one might wish to abide by their moral system - or not, and pay the penalty.

Of course, this approach leads us smack into the question, "But then how can you condemn Hitler?" I'll try to address this in a future post.

Monday, June 13, 2011

"It will be a hell of a lot of fun"

Is this going to be "the most exciting summer since 1974"? Possibly, if you're a particle physicist.

Last week, the CDF experiment at Fermilab reported some tantalizing evidence of a new, unknown particle. A few days ago, a different Fermilab experiment, called D0 (D-zero), reported the results of their independent check on the CDF result. D0's answer? Nothing there.

These intriguing result are showing up just as Fermilab prepares to shut these experiments down for good. At the same time, the LHC in Switzerland is gearing up to do similar work. So far, LHC doesn't see anything either, but it doesn't have enough data yet to say for sure.

What happens if LHC does see something? As Fermilab's Gordon Watts says,

If they do see it, then all the papers proposing different models will be scoured for their distinguishing features, and all of us experimenters will run off to try to compare them with data. Very little sleep will be had. It will be a hell of a lot of fun.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

(nudge, nudge, wink, wink) Morality

Richard Joyce first argues strenuously that categorical imperatives are fundamental to moral discourse. Then he turns around and argues strenuously that there is no rational basis for categorical imperatives. Finally, he spins once more and says it might be rational to act as if there were such things as categorical imperatives. This is what he calls the "fictionalist" approach to morality. All these sharp turns left me with a feeling of intellectual whiplash.

But let's follow him to the end: how can he claim that we ought to behave as if there were such a thing as morality?

Obviously, it doesn't make any sense to ask what we ought, in a moral sense, to do, having concluded that there is no such thing as morality. But that's not what Joyce is asking. He's asking what we ought, in a practical sense, to do.

One possible answer is, "Jettison the moral discourse entirely." Joyce writes,

For all I know, "Jettison the discourse" is the correct answer.... However, I do not think that it is the only candidate....
The reason is that acting according to a moral code might actually, for the most part, be beneficial in a practical sense for a given group of people. But those people cannot simply decide to believe in such a code - not, that is, if they have already concluded that morality doesn't exist. However, they can decide to act as if their moral code were real, act as if there were such things as categorical imperatives. In doing so, they are able to reap the benefits of a moral code without committing the logical error involved in accepting categorical imperatives as actual. This is what Joyce calls the "fictionalist stance."

The fictionalist thinks the correct answer is "Keep using the discourse, but do not believe it."

Joyce admits a problem with the fictionalist stance, namely, that we can't adopt it among people who actually believe in morality. To do so would be dishonest: we would be using the same terms, but in a different way. The alternative would be to preface any moral statement with some sort of disclaimer, to the effect, "I'm going to be talking as if I believe in morality even though I actually don't." One can easily imagine how effective this would be.

So, by his own admission, Joyce's solution only works if a group of Joycean fictionalists went off to an island somewhere and all agreed to adopt the fictionalist stance. Clearly, an impractical solution!

Worse, just imagine the kind of moral discourse that would take place on this island. "You really ought not (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) to rape that child."

I think there is a better response than this - which I'll try to sketch next time.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Practical Reasons and Moral Reasons

Here (again) is Joyce's argument for a moral error theory as I understand it:

  1. Moral language requires categorical imperatives.
  2. Categorical imperatives cannot be legitimately questioned.
  3. Practical rationality is the only source of statements that cannot be legitimately questioned.
  4. But practical rationality cannot provide a basis for (moral) categorical imperatives. 
  5. Therefore, moral language is in error.
If you buy what Joyce has said so far, then (4) follows easily. Practical rationality, on Joyce's account, is agent-relative. Therefore, it cannot be a basis for categorical imperatives, which are absolute. 

One way to avoid (4) is to object to Joyce's view of practical rationality. Joyce spends a whole chapter (Ch. 5) answering this objection. His approach is to "attempt a straight defense of practical instrumentalism [his version of practical rationality] by showing that the non-instrumentalist necessarily commits an error." The argument he uses is based on a "well-known" paper by Bernard Williams, "Internal and External Reasons."

Williams's conclusion is that something is a reason if (and only if), after a process of fully informed and correct deliberation, it would motivate someone to act in accordance with the reason. Williams thus denies that there are such things as "external" reasons. (In the lingo, "internal" reasons are those that are motivating, "external" reasons are those that are not.)

Joyce is more circumspect. He doesn't agree that Williams's conclusion applies to all reasons. But he does think it applies to the sort of normative reasons that are needed for moral language.

My objection is only with external reason claims that do not know their place - that overstep themselves by claiming to transcend all institutions.

Once again we see the importance to Joyce of the imperative that is categorical, that "transcends all institutions."

If we go along with Joyce's definitions and assumptions, then his error-theory conclusion is unavoidable. Joyce admits that he has not "proven" error theory - he has only tried to make it probable. His next move, though, is pretty weird: he tries to treat morality as a work of fiction. More on that next time!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Evading the Categorical Imperative

Now let's return to the first step of Joyce's argument:
  1. Moral language requires categorical imperatives.
Joyce considers three objections to (1.): morality could be institutional, or morality could be founded on hypothetical imperatives, or morality could be relative, rather than absolute.  These are closely related, but Joyce considers them in different places.

"Institutional," in Joyce's usage, means something that one may or may not adopt. The rules of chess are an institution. I must adopt the rules of chess if I want to play in a tournament, but if I am playing against my 7 year-old nephew, I might intentionally make an illegal move (move into check, for instance, so that she can win). As we saw last time, Joyce thinks that practical rationality is the only normative system for which we do not have the luxury of being able to "step outside of the system."

Some philosophers (Joyce mentions Philippa Foot, but says she later abandoned this approach) have proposed that morality is really a system of hypothetical, not categorical, imperatives. Joyce's only response here is to refer back to his discussion of practical reason as the only non-institutional normative system.

Still later, Joyce considers Harman's relativistic view of morality. For Harman, different moral systems are like different frames of reference in physics: events can be viewed from any system, and no one system is privileged over another. If practical rationality is indeed agent-relative, and if morality can be founded on practical rationality, then it makes sense that the resulting system would be relative rather than absolute.

Joyce responds with the Nazi objection. When the Nazis were put on trial, no one thought it necessary to consider the facts from the point of view of the Nazi ethical system. The judges behaved as if their morality was the only correct frame of reference. Thus, Joyce argues, we do not in practice act as if morality were relative.

My first thought here is, "Well, yeah, but in other cases we act as if morality were relative." For instance, knowing that my friend Joe is Jewish, I have no difficulty saying "Joe ought not to eat that cheeseburger," even if I do not feel that I ought not eat one.

More broadly, I would say that our use of moral language is partly cultural and partly instinctive, and that it would be very surprising if it formed a logically consistent system. It is not surprising, then, if we find we have to modify something in our morality in order to make it logically consistent. Isn't this just what moral philosophers have been doing for centuries? Joyce would respond that to let go of the absolute quality of morality results in a system which is no longer recognizably a moral system.

Finally, I want to note that Joyce's Nazi response is merely argument-by-example, and so is pretty weak. My intuition is that most moral systems have some sort of inbuilt relativity. For instance, quite often there are different rules for "us" than there are for "them." Joyce's intuition is different, but he acknowledges that it is just an intuition, and would require much more research to establish with certainty.

To summarize, we can evade (1.) by saying that morality is an institution that we can choose to adopt. Equivalently (?), we can say that morality is a system of hypothetical imperatives of the form, "In order to act in accordance with moral system X, you ought to do Y." What results is a relative, rather than an absolute, morality.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Trolley Odyssey of Homer

I'm not a big fan of trolley problems but this is a fun introduction to them, with some fascinating twists and cameos by the Simpsons.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Practically Rational

Jumping over point (1.) of Joyce's argument, let's take a look at point (3):
(3.) Practical rationality is the only source of statements that cannot be legitimately questioned.

This can be broken into two pieces:

   3a. Practical rationality cannot be legitimately questioned.
   3b. There is nothing else that cannot be legitimately questioned.

Joyce spends some time arguing for (3a), but the basic point is quite simple. The question, "Why should I care about practical rationality?" simply makes no sense. It amounts to asking for a reason I should care about reasons. This is obviously incoherent.

Oddly - given how central it is to Joyce's argument - he says very little about (3b). He merely points out that the argument in the previous paragraph doesn't work when "practical rationality" is replaced by any other normative system. Maybe this is enough, but it seems to me that such an important point needs more than a one-sentence support. (Of course, it may be that I am misrepresenting his argument in making (3b) so central.)

Anyway, it seems we could avoid moral error theory  if there was something other than practical rationality that could not be legitimately escaped. I don't see much hope for this escape route, though.

However, I wonder if we were to take the view of morality that I've been promoting - a social system that imposes constraints on individual behavior - could we argue that, while it is possible to logically step outside the moral system, there is no way to do so practically? That is to say, we are necessarily part of a society, and so are subject to the moral system of those around us, whether we like it or not. (Unless I am alone on a deserted island for the rest of my life - in which case there is, arguably, no need for morality.)

Joyce goes on to analyze practical rationality.

An agent S is practically rational to the extent that she is guided by her subjective reasons.
S has a subjective reason to X if and only if she is justified in believing that S+ (S granted full information and idealized powers of reflection) would advise S to X.

The main take-away from this definition, for my purposes, is that practical rationality is agent-relative.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Moral Game

(Note: this post got lost in the Blogger meltdown. Sorry that it is out of order.)

The Prisoners' Dilemma (Mackie's version):

Two soldiers (let's call them Amy and Bob) are on guard at separate posts. They both hear noises indicating that the enemy is coming. They each have to decide: stick to their post, or flee? If they both stick to their posts, they have a good chance of surviving. If they both flee, the enemy will overrun their position, and they might be captured or killed. If one runs and one stays, the one who stays will probably die, but the one who runs has a good chance of getting away while the other guard holds them off.

What should the guards do? Cooperate (i.e., stay) or defect?

We can analyze their options with the help of the following table:

Bob's Choice
Cooperate Defect


Cooperate (2,2) (4,1)
Defect (1,4) (3,3)

The entries in the table are the preference Amy and Bob respectively assign to each outcome: (1,4) indicates this outcome is the best for Amy (1) and the worst for Bob (4).

If Amy doesn't know what Bob is going to do, she will reason like this: "Suppose Bob decides to defect. Then my choices are to cooperate and probably die (4), or defect (3) and run the risks of the enemy overrunning our position. So I should choose to defect.

Now suppose Bob decides to cooperate. If I cooperate too, then we have a good chance of surviving (2). But if I defect, I have an even better chance of surviving (1). So I should decide to defect."

Bob reasons the same way, of course, so both decide to defect. Both have chosen rationally, but the outcome is  sub-optimal. From a global perspective, both of them cooperating is clearly preferable.

This simple example from game theory helps us understand how moral systems might have evolved. Individuals with a disposition to cooperate can end up with a better chance of surviving than individuals acting purely from their own self-interest. This is the hook that evolution can latch onto to promote cooperation.

A more detailed game theoretical analysis shows that when the situation is repeated many times - rather than the one-off situation described above - cooperation can actually be rationally justified.

And this is just the situation we find ourselves in. Every day, we make thousands of decisions whether to cooperate and do what morality dictates - keep that promise, pay for that coffee, obey that traffic signal - or to defect.

And most of us, most of the time, decide to cooperate. But is this rational behavior?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Humean's Fake: Joycean Error Theory

I've been reading The Myth of Morality, by Richard Joyce. Joyce is a proponent of moral error theory: He thinks that when we use moral language we are simply in error, because there are no such things in the world.

His argument centers on the idea of the categorical imperative. A hypothetical imperative has the form, "If you want to achieve A, you ought to do X." This sort of statement is uncontroversial: there is no doubt that such statements are sometimes true. Kant thought, and Joyce agrees, that categorical imperatives are central to moral thought. Categorical imperatives make the claim, "You ought to do X," without any "if..." clause. Such claims are absolute.

As I understand it, Joyce's argument runs as follows. (He lays out his argument very nicely, but this is my formulation of it, not his.)

  1. Moral language requires categorical imperatives.
  2. Categorical imperatives cannot be legitimately questioned.
  3. Practical rationality is the only source of statements that cannot be legitimately questioned.
  4. But practical rationality cannot provide a basis for (moral) categorical imperatives. 
  5. Therefore, moral language is in error.
(2.) is simply a consequence of the definition of a categorical imperative. Joyce gives each of the other points careful consideration. In the next few posts, I will look at how he deals with attempts to deny each of them.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Boo on You! Non-Cognitivism and the Moral Instinct

Non-cognitivism in ethics is the idea that moral claims are really just expressing the speaker's attitude towards something. "Abortion is wrong," for example, amounts to "Boo on abortion!" The attitude expressed is, roughly, "I approve/disapprove of this and you should, too." But the moral claim is itself the expression of the attitude - it is not the claim that one has that attitude. That is, a moral claim is non-propositional: it doesn't have any content that is capable of being true or false.

Cognitivist philosophers respond that we seem to think moral claims have propositional content. They support this by considering the way we use moral language. Consider the claim, "If killing animals is wrong, one shouldn't eat meat." It doesn't make any sense to translate this as, "If boo on killing animals!, one shouldn't eat meat."

I think the cognitivists are probably right: when we make moral claims, we think we are making a statement that is capable of being true or false. (Whether we are right to think so is another matter.) But it seems to me that once they have considered and dismissed non-cognitivism, cognitivist philosophers forget all about the non-cognitive aspect of morality.

In the last post I gave a sketch of morality as an evolved social system that limits the actions of individuals by means of social pressure. If this view is at all correct, it is easy to see why there is a large non-cognitive component to moral claims. A strong expression of disapproval of doing X, and the resultant peer pressure to refrain from doing X, lies at the root of the moral system. (Together with the positive version: expressing strong approval of an action.)

It's harder to understand why there might be a cognitive component to morality. It seems like evolution could have given us a purely emotional response that would serve to enforce the group norms.

Let's see if the linguistic analogy helps us here. Consider "It's wrong to say, 'I am going the store to.'" Here "wrong" is not used in the moral sense, but it plays a similar role. It certainly expresses disapproval. But it also implicity invokes the rules of grammar: "It's wrong to say, 'I am going the store to,' because in English the preposition comes before its object." Notice that in grammar, the rules arise (originally) as generalizations about actual usage. They are not imposed by some linguistic authority - though various institutions (dictionaries, textbooks) might take on that authority at a later time.

It seems to me that moral claims are also two-pronged: they express approval/disapproval, but they also implicitly invoke general rules that it is assumed are accepted, or at least known, by all. "Murder is wrong" thus has the cognitive content "Murder is a violation of the generally accepted rules of behavior."

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Moral Instinct

I've been trying to educate myself about ethics, metaethics, and moral philosophy, and so far I feel like I haven't encountered an approach that really makes sense of it all. But I thought I'd try to take a first pass at putting down some of my thoughts on the subject.

Let's start by asking what sort of beast morality is. I come up with something like the following:

A1. A moral system is a social structure that imposes limits on the actions of individuals who are part of a given social group. These limits are enforced by a system of rewards and punishments. Rewards include praise and increased social status, punishments range from shame to shunning to ostracism to death.
Thus, morality acted as a legal system, back before laws and punishments were formalized and written down. But morality is more than just a system of rewards and punishments, it is internalized through feelings of pride, guilt, etc.

 If we ask what is the origin of such moral systems, the answer seems pretty clear: evolution. Humans, like other primates, are highly social animals. Our survival depends to some extent on our ability to cooperate with each other. Just as we have evolved an innate capacity for language, we have evolved some innate capacity for moral behavior: not just the external rules of the system, but the internal emotions that result when the rules are obeyed or disobeyed. Presumably, this sort of behavior gave a better survival rate, so that groups with stronger moral institutions (and containing individuals with stronger moral feelings) out-competed other groups. Let's summarize this as

A2. Morality evolved as a way of subordinating the interests of the individual to the interests of the group.

Clearly, different cultures have implemented widely varying sorts of moral systems. I take it that what we have evolved is a basic instinct for conforming to the group morality. The specific content of that morality differs from culture to culture, and is learned.  Here the language analogy is useful again: we have some innate capacity for language, but the specifics of vocabulary, grammar, etc., are learned.

All this seems rather obvious and straightforward. But it is already enough to answer some of the big questions that moral philosophers ask. In fact, it makes the search for a true account of morality look rather pointless. Why, given A1 and A2, would we expect any one "correct" moral system? That's like asking what's the correct grammar for a language to have, or what's the ideal legal system.

Here the language analogy seems to break down, however. When we hear, "Throw your father down the stairs his hat," we think, "How charming!" but when we hear of a practice like female genital mutilation, we say, "That's just wrong."

But there is a reason our response to other moral systems is different from our response to other languages. That is just what a moral system is: a system of deciding what is right and what is wrong. So we should not be surprised that we have an instinctive - maybe even irrational - response to other moral systems.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Taking on P.Z. Myers

Hmm, maybe this blog would be more popular if I had more octopi...

This amazing image is from the most recent Scientific American. As if that weren't cool enough, this critter confuses predators by disguising itself as a flounder.
Isn't that a bit like a spider disguising itself as a strawberry?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

On The Problem Of Worldviews...

And the hovertext:

% of universe the meek shall inherit, by volume: 0.00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000003%

Friday, April 15, 2011

Theists and Atheists Agree...

Alexander Pruss of Prosblogion seems to have found an argument that theistic and atheistic philosophers agree on. From the comments:

So it looks like there are a number of people who have published on this, and all the papers that I've so far looked at basically agree that the following are not all true:
1. Evolution occurred pretty much as science describes it.
2. Naturalism is true.
3. Moral realism is true.
4. We have moral knowledge.
I don't understand all the arguments that lead up to this conclusion well enough to know whether to agree with it or not, but it's rather a fascinating conclusion if true.

Alexander, being a theist and a moral realist, naturally takes (3) and (4) to be true, and so concludes that either (1) or (2) is false - he then opts for naturalism being false.

I don't know enough about the whole realism/anti-realism debate to have a firm position, but I'm leaning anti-realist at the moment, so the argument doesn't present a real problem for me. But it seems to be a real problem for someone like Sam Harris, who is a naturalist and a moral realist. I don't think he would want to deny (4), either. From what I understand, he thinks that science can discover moral truths. So I wonder how Sam would respond to this argument.

But then, Sam thinks that discussions of metaethics and deontology only add to the amount of boredom in the world, so probably he wouldn't bother.