Euthyphro Dilemma and William Lane Craig’s Response

Some argue that real morals cannot possibly exist unless God exists. The common and I think proper response to this claim directs them to the Euthyphro dilemma. The Euthyphro was one of Plato’s dialogues where Socrates asks whether something is good because it pleases the gods, or is it pleasing to the gods because it’s good?

This is an interesting question isn’t it? Most of my readers I suspect tend to be monotheists so let’s change “gods” to “God” and consider each possibility mentioned:
1) Something is pleasing to God because it is good.
2) Something is good because it is pleasing to God.

Ok I tend to think the first prong is a contender. I tend to think it’s possible that something is pleasing to God because it is good. That position has been criticized it is claimed that means God can’t be omnipotent or something along those lines. That is they would argue, God is caged in by goodness, and can’t make evil into goodness and therefore is not omnipotent.

Ok my view here is to fall back to Alvin Plantinga’s exposition about God’s omnipotence when he was dealing with the problem of evil. That is we should first try to understand what we mean by “omnipotent.” If omnipotent means God is not bound by the rules of logic then none of this philosophical talk will help us understand the possibility of his existence. For example the problem of evil would go away since it at best portends to show that God’s traits contradict the possibility that he would create this world with evil. Of course, if God is not bound by logical rules (such as the rule of non-contradiction) then this argument is of questionable worth.

So by “omnipotent” I tend think God’s power is still bounded by the rules of logic. (If I am wrong so be it. He is then truly well beyond my understanding so I can only hope for the best.) This is why people who ask can God make a rock so heavy even he cannot lift it, are asking something of dubious relevance.

The other observation from this first view is that the good seems capable of existing independent of God. I do not deny that this first view explains how morality might exist independent of God.

Now let’s consider the second possibility. Something is good because it pleases God. In this situation there is a sort of relativism based on God’s subjective wants. This view is in line with what is called the divine command theory of morality. I tend to agree that this makes right and wrong a bit too arbitrary.

Now a popular philosopher and apologist, William Lane Craig, points out that this is really a false dichotomy. I think he is correct on that point. These two options are not the only possible two options. “Murray Macbeath (1982), submits that the horns of the ED are not exhaustive given the logical possibility of this scenario that represents Macbeath’s own view: God might choose actions because they maximize our happiness, which might be the reason why those commands are morally right, but God might not command them because they are right but because he loves us. Thus, both disjuncts of the ED would be false, and ought to be rejected anyway, Macbeath would say..” THEISTIC ACTIVISM AND THE EUTHYPHRO DILEMMA by DAVID BAGGET

http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1015&context=fac_dis

But also as William Lane Craig says we can reject both options and say “God wills something because he is good. That is to say it is God’s own nature which determines what is the good.” Therefore morality is not arbitrarily based on God’s whims as the second prong suggests. But also the good is not external to God. It flows from God’s nature. This view of God and his nature date at least as early as Anselm.

I think William Lane Craig, Anselm and several other philosophers over the millennia are correct in pointing that the two prongs of the dilemma are not exhaustive. And I would say that this understanding of morality seems a very plausible one. I actually see no reason why I need to try to determine whether this third possibility or the first possibility holds. Clearly since I believe God created the world there might be very little difference.
What does the existence of this third possibility show? I agree that it shows that what is commonly referred to as the “Euthyphro Dilemma” is not a true dichotomy. So it’s not the case that the Christian must either accept that goodness is independent of God or arbitrary. So that much is good for the Christian.
However sometimes I think the “third option” argument gets pushed a bit farther than is warranted. This third (or 4th or 5th) possibility is sometimes used to argue that for real morality to exist there must be a God. I think this stretches things too far. After all these other possibilities do not logically eliminate the first possibility. Thanks to the first prong we can clearly conceptualize how real morality could exist independent of God. And just because there are other possibilities that does not mean the first prong is impossible, or even less likely.

In the end I think the “Euthyphro Dilemma” does indeed help us understand how real right and wrong might exist without God. It does not prove morality exists without God. But it does help us understand how real morality can exist without God.

Practical versus Theoretical Rationality

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I think this article gives a pretty good description of a distinction I often think about:

http://www.princeton.edu/~grosen/puc/phi203/Pascal.html

 

“Theoretical rationality is (roughly) a matter of evidential and argumentative support. Your belief in God is rational in the theoretical sense just in case the balance of evidence and argument supports the truth of the proposition that God exists. Your belief in God is practically rational, on the other hand, if it is in your interest for you to hold it.”

 

It seems to me both theoretical and practical rationality are important.   Often times it seems people only think in terms of the theoretical.   I often suggest that we might want to consider something beyond the probability of our beliefs being true, as to whether something is rational to believe.  The typical response from some atheist and theist alike is along the lines of “O my god! that’s Pascal’s wager O my God! Oh my god!  You know that’s been refuted right? Oh my god!”  And then they give me a link to some blog or wiki or something like that.  (I don’t think I have ever been offered a link to a peer reviewed article on Pascal’s wager.)  The link will rarely give a reason not to use practical rationality.  Instead it will give objections to Pascal’s specific formulation of the wager.  This will typically be a shot gun approach with decent and poor objections mixed together.  The result is that atheists (and certain theists) often only think in terms of Theoretical rationality.   I think that is a mistake.  Here are two points I would make in that regard:

 

First we might not have an option which is more likely true than not.  One of the objections to Pascal’s Wager is that there are many different exclusive God’s to choose from.  I think this illustrates a major problem for only thinking in terms of theoretical rationality.    If they all were assigned a probability value, it’s possible none of them would have a probability greater than 50% yet one still might put the probability of there being no God at under 50%.   What sort of beliefs should we then use to conduct ourselves?

 

I think this issue of choosing beliefs to base our conduct on is most directly brought to bear when we consider ethical and meta-ethical views.  As you might already know there are several different ethical positions we can hold.  But unfortunately each of them seems to present more problems than solutions.    I don’t think there is much in the way of evidence in support of one particular view of meta-ethics.  At least not evidence of the sort that I can mark as an exhibit in a court case.  (I plan to do a blog on what “evidence” is if there is an interest)  Yes there are arguments in favor and against a variety of different views.   But the problem is there are definitely more than 2 options.  I gave 4 major options in an earlier blog.  But there are all sorts of variations and sub-possibilities within those options.  E.g., Quasi-realism, naturalist realism and non-natural realism.  There are all sorts of varieties of constructivism and relativism.   Suffice it to say that these options cannot all be true.  If we ever find out the truth there will be many more losing theories than winning theories.    That’s just meta-ethical theories.  We also have many possible ethical theories, which one we choose might depend on which meta-ethical stance we take.   Christianity presents a set of moral beliefs as does Hinduism and Islam, not to mention all the different secular theories of ethics.    

 

Well here is the problem for someone who only follows theoretical rationality.  Let’s say you think theory 1 has a 20% chance of being true, theory 2 has a 15% chance of being true, theory 3 has about a 15% chance of being true and 5 other theories (theories 4-9) all have about a 10% chance of being true. (this should add up to 100%)   Well what to do?  You have to live your life.   In living your life you will be presented with binary options.  For example you either will go to church on Sunday or you will not.   What will you do?

 

You might say you will not believe any of these theories.   But what does that mean?  That doesn’t mean you will accept moral nihilism because perhaps you only give that a 15% chance of being true.    So if you accepted that belief you would believe something that you think is more likely than not false.  But what can you do?  How can you live your life?

 

It seems to me that theism is indeed an ethical and a meta-ethical theory.  Arguing that this theory is not more likely than not true is just like arguing nihilism or moral realism or relativism is not more likely than not true.  It really doesn’t itself decide anything.  This is because all these possibilities might be more likely than not untrue! 

 

It is my opinion that theism and Christianity in particular not only has a higher probability of being true than other meta-ethical and ethical theories, but also it is the most attractive option when we consider consequences from a practical rationality point of view.   But that is not the point of this blog.  I am here just merely trying to explain why solely using the theoretical model of rationality is a mistake.   That brings me to the second problem.

 

The second problem with just looking at rationality from the theoretical standpoint is that doing that doesn’t seem, well…. rational.  If you are looking at rationality solely from the theoretical view then what?  We are just to believe things that are more likely true then not and purge beliefs that are likely untrue.

Now how important is it to hold beliefs that are likely true?  Well this narrow view of rationality gives us no guidance of what views are important to get straight.  It’s just a matter of gaining beliefs that are likely true and purging beliefs that are likely untrue.   So on this narrow view there is nothing to say learning the facts by reading the phone book is any less important than learning science or ethics or history.  In fact, the phone book will likely give you more certain beliefs than studying ethics or meta-ethics.  So really if your goal is to just fill your head with as many beliefs that are likely true you might as well memorize the phone book.    That just doesn’t seem rational. 

 Now it seems that certain atheists are more concerned that people might hold beliefs that they think likely untrue.   Why is this a big concern?   We hear arguments like well if people believe this, which is likely untrue, then maybe they will believe something else that is likely untrue.   The concerns are fairly fantastic.  Maybe people will believe in the flying spaghetti monster or a teapot in space.  One philosophy professor even expressed concern that someone might believe in “absolute purple.”  He wasn’t sure what that would mean but he thought perhaps someone would believe it.  And this was somehow a concern. 

It’s not that I think we should believe in absolute purple.  Nor do I think we should believe in spaghetti monsters or tea cups in space, for that matter.   But I also don’t think we should worry about people believing those things either.    That concern, just really doesn’t strike me as rational either.  It just strikes me as odd for several reasons.  Not only does it seem unlikely people will believe that but it’s unclear what untoward consequences of such a belief would entail.   It just seems a bizarre concern to have. 

 

Of course I am not saying that the probability of a belief being true is not part of the equation.  I think it is.  But there is more to it than that.   That’s the point of this blog.  Any thoughts to the contrary or otherwise are always appreciated. 

Ehrman and the Historicity of Miracles

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One of the issues that often comes up is whether there is any evidence for God.  Miracles are the most common and direct form of evidence requested in both modern and ancient times.   Definitions of a miracle can vary but the one provided by Macmillan dictionary seems most in tune with the philosophical model.  “an event that cannot be explained according to the laws of nature and is considered to be an act of God”

 

In modern times many agnostics and atheists ask for miracles as proof or evidence.  Whether it’s  N.R.Hanson’s having God appear after a thunder-clap causing everyone in the world to fall to their knees before the heavens open and  a giant radiant Zeus like figure appears  and “exclaims for every man woman and child to hear ‘I have had quite enough of your too-clever logic-chopping and word-watching in matters of theology.  Be assured, N. R. Hanson, that I do most certainly exist’”   Then there is the common notion that God could rearrange the stars to spell something like “I exist” to those who question.   Although there will always be some holdouts[i], most atheists are willing to agree that such miracles would be fairly compelling evidence of God.

The author of the Gospel of John explains why he records the signs (miracles)

“Jesus performed many other signs [miracles] in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”   John 20:30

 

But the hope for miracles dates even earlier.  The ancients thought along the same lines as we read in Isaiah.  He wished God would show himself by rending the heavens and coming down and do awesome things so that people would believe in him and turn from their sin.  But because he has “hidden [his] face” people continue to sin. [ii] I will just say that I find it interesting that it appears throughout time some humans have expected/hoped that God would reveal himself through miracles.  Some issues seem new but you can often find they have been asked before.

 

Is there historical evidence of miracles?  Years ago I listened to Bart Ehrlman’s lectures entitled “Historical Jesus.”  He repeats several times that in determining what historically happened one must use criteria..  The criteria he proposes are more or less these:

 

1)            Multiple sources

2)            Preferably Independent sources

3)            Non biased sources

4)            Contextual credibility

5)            Close in time to the events

6)            No contradictions/internally consistent

 

So far so good.  He goes through 17 lectures explaining, using, and emphasizing the importance of these criteria.  Then in lecture 18 he addresses miracles.  Needless to say I was somewhat excited to hear how they would hold up under historical criteria.

Unfortunately he then launches into some confused and contradictory explanations which I will quote at length below.  But at the outset I want to say that I do not intend to bash Professor Ehrman here.  I learned allot about the historical Jesus from listening to his lectures and books.  And I greatly appreciate his work and his ability to introduce and explain many of the issues in this very interesting field.  I don’t agree with everything he says but I learned a great deal from him and think he is an excellent author and professor.

 

Before I quote him I want to point out how he uses 2 different definitions of the word “miracle.”  1) an event that violates the law of nature.  And 2) and improbable or rare event.   But it’s important at the outset to know these are two different definitions.   We might say the Yankees winning in the ninth inning was a miracle comeback.  But we don’t really mean any laws of nature were violated.

In the same token several Christians believe a miracle happens at communion when the bread becomes Christ’s body and blood.  This is literally confirmed by hundreds of thousands of believers every day at Catholic Masses.   So according to them at least, it’s an event that violates the laws of nature, but it’s not exactly rare or improbable.

 

There are 2 definitions for the word duck.  One is a bird that likes water and the other is to bow down to dodge something.  But if I were to say a duck is a bird that likes water and often bows down to avoid attacks that would be conflating the two meanings.    You will see that is what Bart Ehrman does.

 

I will try to transcribe exactly what he says.  However, the parts in brackets and blue are are my own comments.  He says:

The reports of Jesus’s miracles create a special problem for historians who are committed to establishing to the best of their abilities what probably happened in the past.  On the one hand the miracles of Jesus are virtually ubiquitous in our gospel traditions.  [traditions which Ehrman believed were sufficient to establish historical facts]  Nearly everywhere you turn Jesus is healing the sick, casting out the demons, raising the dead, multiplying the loaves, walking on the water and so on.  These traditions infiltrate our gospel traditions.

 

Some people since the enlightenment in Europe have insisted that such miracles cannot happen.  For people like this, since miracles don’t happen, Jesus necessarily did not do miracles.   This view can be called the “philosophical problem of miracle”  I want to state emphatically that this is not the issue that I want to address in this lecture.  I am not dealing with the philosophical problem of whether miracles are possible.  That’s not what I want to deal with.  For the sake of the argument I am willing to concede that miracles can and do happen.  For the sake of the argument Ill concede that they happen.

 

But there still remains a huge and I’d say insurmountable problem when discussing Jesus’s miracles.  Even if miracles are possible, there is no way for the historian to show that they ever happened.  I’m going to call this the historical problem of miracle. As opposed to the philosophical problem.  Let me explain the historical problem of miracle at some length.

 

One way to approach the question is by reflecting for a moment on the ways in which historians engage in their craft in contrast say to the ways scientists engage in theirs.  The natural sciences operate through repeated experimentation as they seek to establish predictive probabilities based on past occurrences.  To illustrate on just the most simple level suppose I wanted to demonstrate that a bar of iron will sink in a tub of lukewarm water but a bar of ivory soap will float.  I could prove my thesis simply by repeated experimentation with tubs of water and with bars of both iron and soap.  Line up the tubs with water and the bars of iron will sink every time and the bars of ivory soap will float every time and this would provide an extremely high level of what we might call presumptive probability.  Namely that if I keep repeating the same experiment I’m going to keep getting the same results so that we can predict that in the future that is probably what is going to happen.  This is what natural science does it makes predictions about what is going to happen based on repeated experimentation of what already has happened.

 

In common parlance a miracle within this schema would involve a violation of this known working of nature.  It would be a miracle for example if a preacher prayed over a bar of iron and chucked it into a vat of lukewarm of water and it floated.  We would call that a miracle.

 

The historical disciplines are not like the natural sciences, in part, because they are concerned with establishing what has happened in the past as opposed to predicting what will happen in the future and in part because the historical disciplines cannot operate through repeated experimentation.  An occurrence is a one-time proposition once it happened; it is over and done with.

 

Since historians cannot repeat the past in order to establish what probably happened there will always be less certainty than there would be in the natural sciences where you can actually demonstrate things through repeated experimentation.  It’s much harder to convince people that John F Kennedy was the victim of a lone assassin than it is to convince them that a piece of ivory soap will float.  Because you can repeat one but you can’t repeat the other.

And the farther back you go in history the harder it is to mount a convincing case.  It’s one thing to mount a convincing case of an event that happened in 1963 where you actually have video.   But to try to convince somebody of what happened in 63 is extremely difficult.  You can not only not repeat it, but the sources available to you are highly problematic.  This all though is what makes alleged miracles so hard for historians, so difficult, in fact why they pose an insurmountable difficulty for historians. [But this seems to have nothing to do with something being a miracle, there are ancient and modern alleged miracles]

 

On one level of course, everything that happens, that happens at all is improbable but most things that happen are not so unlikely as to defy the imagination. [Again I thought he conceded they do happen it seems he is reneging.]  Because they happen more or less all the time.  If you five years ago had tried to calculate the probability of your sitting right now where you’re sitting.  I think probably it would be a remote probability five years ago but there is nothing improbable about the fact itself I mean you have to be sitting somewhere if though five years ago you tried to predict the probability of our right now levitating 20 feet in the air, well how would you even calculate the probability of that since you don’t levitate. [But I thought he said “For the sake of the argument I am willing to concede that miracles can and do happen.” he seems to be reneging]   You see both are improbable but the improbability of you levitating at this point is so infinitesimally remote that you can’t even calculate it. [I’m not sure I could calculate the probability that I would be sitting here five years before either] Events that don’t happen all the time defy probabilities. [But as he said himself all events from history only happen once.  Plus he clearly is just arguing they don’t happen all the time.] That’s why miracles create an inescapable dilemma for historians.

Let me put it like this since historians can only establish what probably did happened in the past and the chances of a miracle happening by definition are infinitesimally remote a miracle can never be the most probable occurrence.  [Notice this is a different definition of miracle than what he said earlier.] That means historians can never show by the very nature of the case given the constraints imposed by them by the historical methods that miracles probably happened. [Why not apply the historical method/criteria he claimed to use?] This is not a problem for only one kind of historian, for example for atheist for agnostics or Buddhists or Roman Catholics or Baptists or Jews or Muslims it’s a problem for all historians of every stripe.  Even if there are otherwise good sources for a miraculous event the very nature of the historical discipline prevents the historian from arguing for its probability by their very nature miracles are the least probable occurrence in any given instance.  [Clearly he is deciding this using something other than the historical criteria he set out and claimed to use.  If it is not the use of his historical criteria then what is the grounds for saying they are so unlikely? It seems that although he tries to deny it, he is mixing his philosophical views with his historical methodology.  Again he is using the different definition, that the one that simply indicated a violation of the laws of nature]

 

 

 

He offers some very confused thoughts and no longer wants to apply the same historical criteria he applies to other events.  It’ clear that we can take the miracle events described in the gospels and apply these criteria just like we can to any non – miraculous event.

 

 

He really offers nothing specific about any of the 6 historical criteria themselves not working with miracles.   So at the outset I see no reason why his normal criteria for historical analysis cannot be employed and sadly he does not address any of these criteria or attempt to show why they don’t work with miracles.  It seems very much to a situation of special pleading.

Ok lets move on to what he does say.   He claims he is not referring to a philosophical problem, but instead a “historical problem of miracle.”    Given that he never mentions any problems with applying the historical criteria to these events, it seems a strange claim.   Despite his claim to the contrary the “miracle problem” he refers to seems to be very much a philosophical misgiving.  It is a conflation of 2 distinct definitions of miracle, and a confusion over predicting probabilities in the future or the past.

It’s unclear to me whether his disparate thoughts are intended to mount several different arguments as to why normal methodology of a historian can’t be used.   Or if he thinks they support one global argument.  That said lets go through some of his points:

Why does he mention scientific method and how it’s distinct from the methods of the historian in the context of miracles only?  Clearly that distinction applies equally well to all sorts of historical evaluations and not just to miracles.   It seems he agrees history is not science regardless of whether we are discussing claimed miraculous events or natural events.  So why raise this distinction in this context?  He seems to be going adrift.

He indicates that it is harder to prove something that happened farther in the past with problematic sources than it is to prove something closer to the present when we have video tape.  I don’t disagree with that.  But this is true of all history and has nothing to do with the event being a possible miracle or not.  So again he seems to be going adrift when he brings this up in the context of why miracles can’t be examined with historical analysis.

He goes on to offer even more confused thinking:

“Another way to look at this problem is to point out ways that the historical disciplines are like the natural sciences.     Both Historical and natural disciplines deal with phenomena that can be observed by all interested parties apart from their ideological or religious beliefs. The historian can only look at evidence in other words that is available in the public record.   As a historian the person who is a historian has no access to supernatural forces.   Only to events that can be observed and interpreted by any reasonable person of whatever religious persuasion.

 

If a miracle requires belief in the supernatural realm but historians as historians have access only to the natural realm then they can never even discuss the probabilities of a miracle because it requires belief in the supernatural.  Let me emphasize that historians don’t have to deny the possibility of miracles or deny that miracles happen.  I’m not saying that.”

 

A miracle does not require anyone to believe in the supernatural.  It is a supernatural occurrence but the possibility of it happening is not dependent on our subjective beliefs.   It happened or it didn’t, regardless of whether we believe it happened.   Some miracles are better supported by historical criteria than others.  It’s difficult to know what he could mean when he says:

 

“If a miracle requires belief in the supernatural realm but historians as historians have access only to the natural realm then they can never even discuss the probabilities of a miracle because it requires belief in the supernatural.”

What is he talking about?  Discussing the probability of miracles does not require belief in the supernatural.   Lots of people who do not believe in the supernatural assign a probability to miracles.  Often these probabilities are low but very few people who do not believe in the supernatural claim there is absolutely no chance they are wrong.    But even if they do assign a zero probability they are assigning a probability.

 

What does he mean accessing the supernatural realm?  Miracles are supernatural events that happen in this realm.  People who believe the miracles as recorded in the bible do not think they happened in some other “realm.”  He is begging the question when he says Historians as historians cannot access the supernatural.  They can access them the same way they access natural events.     By looking at their sources and using their historical criteria.

When we examine the reasons for his claims, they do indeed make it clear that his issues with miracles are only philosophical ones.  I think his comments about how often miracles are recorded and from how many different sources makes it clear that if he used actual historical analysis he would find they are historically supported.  It’s just too bad that his philosophical views are so confused that he doesn’t even realize they are in fact philosophical and have nothing to do with historical analysis.

[i] For example Matt McCormick is an atheist philosophy teacher who apparently does not consider miracles to be evidence of God.

[ii]  “Why, O LORD, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes that are your inheritance.  For a little while your people possessed your holy place, but now our enemies have trampled down your sanctuary. We are yours from of old; but you have not ruled over them, they have not been called by your name.

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you!  For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.  Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.  You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved?  All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins.” Isaiah 63-64

Is God Immoral?

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Like all law students I took a course on “property.”  Throughout my life, I was lucky enough to take courses from some very interesting people.  My property professor, Douglas Kmiec,[1] was no exception.

The idea that we gain rights over what we create was to some extent developed by John Locke.  He described how people will mix their labor with items from the common property and make it theirs.

 “The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to….”

John Locke Second Treatise of Civil Government Chapter 5.

I read this in my property class taught by Kmiec.  He explained that I might pick up a branch in the forest.   Now if I put it down again, then anyone else can pick it up and do what they want with it.  But if I pick it up and carve it into a wooden statue, well then it’s mine.  At that point I would have the right to do with it what I wanted even destroy it, but no one else would have that right.   I thought it was an interesting insight.

 

 

Ok so now many atheists want to say God is a “murderer!”  He asked/commanded people to kill others.  We have such stories in the Old Testament.  How can we worship such a God?

 

Well first of all I tend not to believe the Old Testament is literal.  I think the Old Testament is by and large a collection of stories.   Yes the Holy Spirit inspired them but how exactly that works, I do not pretend to speak for that Holy Spirit.  But even an atheist should consider that Jewish scripture consists of what possibly the very best and brightest cultures thought was some of their best literature.  I agree some books do nothing for me but other books I find delightful and wonderful.    I am somewhat saddened when I see people reading it only for the purpose they want to get out of it instead of thinking about what the author was up to.

 

Now although I do not take the Old Testament literally I do think it teaches true messages.    But what message can Abraham being commanded to kill his son possibly be teaching?   What can stories about God wiping out whole cities be teaching? One answer is that it teaches God is our creator and as such he is not like us.  We are not the same.  Regardless of what we or even God might want the truth is we are not the same.   Reality doesn’t cater to our wants.

 

Let’s think about this.   If a lion intentionally kills a human without justification we don’t say that it is a “murderer.”  If a human intentionally kills a human without justification he/she is a murderer.  What if God intentionally kills humans?  Should God be treated like other humans?  This is the hidden assumption of every anti-theist blog crying out that God is a murderer.  I just read a paper which seems to imply God committed a holocaust against children who died from natural causes.   I am not suggesting that God is not a murderer for the same reasons a lion is not a murder.  But I am saying we should not automatically assume God is just like us, in this analysis.

 

Here is something to consider.  If I create a sand castle, I can destroy it and it is not immoral.  If someone else destroys my sand castle it is wrong, unless I as the creator give them permission.  God created us and he can destroy us and it is not immoral.  Others however cannot destroy us and remain blameless, unless they are given permission by our creator.

 

I realize that this is not an appealing view.   But if God is bound by the rules of Logic not even he can change that fact can he?  If we are in fact, created by God we cannot truthfully claim otherwise.  Even God cannot make this truth, false.  This wounds our pride and tradition teaches it wounded Satan’s pride as well.  He was unhappy with the truth that he was not like God, and rebelled against it.

 

“How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!   For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north:  I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High.  Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.” Isaiah 14:12-14[2]

 

Now my point is not to say the people who claim God is a murderer are “Satans.”  Not at all.  But it is to say that they are not accounting for the fact that Christians believe God is our creator and generally we think a creator has a right to destroy his creations.  They engage in special pleading when they refuse to acknowledge this principle when discussing God’s relationship to us.  This is a double standard.  They recognize a painter has a right to destroy his painting if he is unhappy with it, but they want to deny this right to a creator God.

 

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[1] Before I did my blog arguing that marriage should no longer be governed by the state I googled to see if anyone else came to the same conclusion.  I was somewhat surprised to see my old Property and Constitutional Law Professor arguing the same thing.  Doug Kmiec is an inspirational professor who brought energy and excitement to everything he taught.  But he was always a bit too conservative for me!  Because this blog brought back memories of his property law class I decided to google him and read the Wikipedia.  Few could be as surprised as I am.  But really politics aside, I am honored to have learned from him.  I was of course surprised by what I read.  But  I am not surprised by this quote from Wikipedia:

“On July 2, 2009, President Obama nominated Kmiec as Ambassador to Malta.[24] He was confirmed by the Senate. In April 2011, he was criticized by the Inspector General of the State Department for spending too much time on what the OIG reported as unofficial (religious) duties, which Kmiec saw as integral to his ambassadorial role.”

And I likewise am not at all surprised by this quote from Tiffany Stanley of The New Republic:

“in the annals of diplomatic misbehavior, Kmiec’s is rather an unusual case. Even the critical OIG report notes that embassy morale was good, he was respected by the Maltese and his staff, and had ‘achieved some policy successes’. The problem, it seems, was that Kmiec may have taken the job a little too seriously.”[27] Columnist Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times writes: “Over the last few years, Kmiec has emerged as one of this country’s most important witnesses to the proposition that religious conviction and political civility need not be at odds; that reasonable people of determined good conscience, whatever their faith or lack thereof, can find ways to cooperate in the common good. Though Kmiec has not sought their intervention, the president and the secretary of State ought to deal with the bureaucrats seeking to silence a voice whose only offense is to speak in the vocabulary of our own better angels.”

I read some other things that make me believe he likely had some hard times.  I wish Doug Kmiec the best, and will keep him in my prayers.

[2] But see:  https://bible.org/article/lucifer-devil-isaiah-1412-kjv-argument-against-modern-translations and http://pastordougroman.wordpress.com/2009/11/17/do-isaiah-14-and-ezekiel-28-refer-to-satan/

 

Pascal’s wager without God and without Hell

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This blog is a response to some questions posed by David W in my earlier blog. I drafted this response and decided I should put it up as a separate blog, because it covers an important point of how I am coming at these questions. 

 

 I think you will understand where I am coming from if we first drop the idea of God all together.   My strongest reasons for believing in God come out of my understanding of morality.  So you can’t really gloss over my views on morality and start asking about my reason to believe in God.  So let’s just think about morality and specifically whether the moral realist’s position is true.  For example is it a moral fact that what Hitler did to millions of Jews was evil regardless of what anyone thinks?

 

It seems the holocaust either was really wrong or it wasn’t.  Now in general I think the actual “evidence” of moral realism is pretty weak.   For example I think there is *no* empirical evidence that the moral realist view is correct.  Sure we all might see the photos of corpses or even have seen the corpses or the families of those Hitler killed directly.   Looking at this might cause us to be repulsed.  That emotional response might somehow yield a strong belief that what Hitler did was morally wrong.     I do not think strongly believing something (especially when it’s due to an emotional response) is itself evidence for what we believe.    There is no empirical indicia of wrongness that the moral realist can see, and point out to a Nihilist. 

 

A nihilist will look at the same pictures and there is no reason to think he does not experience the same emotional response of repugnance.    His emotional response would lead to him to try to prevent that sort of thing from happening.  In fact a moral nihilist might take more actions to prevent it from happening.   But if the nihilist is consistent, he would not claim he is trying to prevent the holocaust because it is morally wrong.   Why he would try to prevent is an interesting question that might have a variety of answers.  Richard Joyce is as philosophical nihilist (although he doesn’t like the term “nihilist”) who I agree with on many issues and have allot of respect for.  He has given glimpses into his views on this but never really fully explored this. 

 

But I would say though that if I were to accept the view that no one should ever believe anything unless they have empirical evidence to support it, then there is no way I could be a moral realist.  But I think rational people consider more than empirical evidence and indeed more than the probability of a belief being true when deciding whether or not to accept it.  They also consider the consequences.   

 

Let’s think this through with respect to moral realism.  I have no empirical evidence that moral realism is true.  But I also understand that it might still be true because it is really not the type of thing I would expect to have empirical evidence for.  So what to do?  Well I think there are people who would tend to say I must reject moral realism until I have evidence of it being true.  Others would say they don’t know what to make of it.  But some people would say they are going to believe it anyway.   For me I will consider the consequences of believing or not believing.   

Now moral realist’s view either corresponds with reality or it does not.   I.e., it is either a true view or a false view.  And let’s just say we either accept moral realism or we reject it.  I.e., we either believe it or we do not believe it.    

 

So ok that leaves 4 possibilities:

 

Possibility 1) We believe in moral realism but in fact it is not true.  Well then I hold a false belief.  But holding that false belief is not really morally wrong.  Why?  Because if this situation holds true then there is no real moral right or wrong.    Now it might be wrong in some peoples morality that they create in their head – ie. a relativist view.  But you know what?   I don’t really care.  That consequence has no weight for me.  Not any more than whether my actions correspond with any other sort of make believe.  So the consequences of my holding the false view that morality is objectively real is basically zero.

 

Possibility 2) What if I hold the view that moral realism is false when it really is true?   Things get a bit more sticky here.  Now my holding that false belief might have some real moral implications.  Moreover I might be inclined to not be very concerned with what might or might not be really moral.  (After all, I don’t believe in it)  This might lead me to not carefully consider the different views of what is morally right and wrong or carefully consider what basis people have for giving me their moral views.  In the end I might lead a life doing things I truly should not have done and not doing things I really should have done.   I would have lived my life wrong in a real sense.  This is basically what I am trying to avoid.  And so to the extent I am trying to avoid that then rejecting a belief in moral realism seems to be a bad way to go.

 

Possibility 3) Now what if I correctly reject moral realism.  Well then yes I would have got that one right, but it doesn’t “really” matter.  Why doesn’t it really matter?  Because if moral realism is false then nothing really matters.   So again there is no good reason to reject moral realism despite the lack of evidence. 

 

Possibility 4) So the final option is that I believe in moral realism and moral realism is true.    I think this is really the possibility that we need to focus on.    Let’s accept that there is moral realism is true.  

 

So a pascal wager like analysis leads to the conclusion that we should believe in moral realism.  But now how do we know what is really moral or not?    That is our next step as a rational person right?  If what I said earlier is true then we should believe in/accept moral realism.  But what is really moral or not moral?

 

It is only at this point that God comes in.  After careful consideration it seems to me that it is impossible that we can with any reliability believe what is moral or not, if we evolved without any supernatural guidance.   I argue why this is here

 

From that conclusion I do a similar analysis and conclude a rational person should believe in God here.

 

Thoughts on Pragmatic Encroachment

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Can beliefs be justified by anything other than evidence that they are true?   I think allot of people would want to say “No” to that question at some time in their lives, myself included.  Any other justification for beliefs seems somehow wrong and intellectually dishonest.   But because

1 ) Beliefs have  a causal connection with how we act,

2)  Often we have to act on uncertainty about the actual state of affairs and

3) When rational people decide how to act based on uncertainty they must weigh the likelihood and the consequences of being right or wrong as to the state of affairs

 

it may be irrational to only consider the likelihood of being right or wrong and not considering the consequences.

In this blog I would like to offer some of my thoughts on pragmatic encroachment.   But first let’s start with some observations of the traditional definition of knowledge.

There are various ways that philosophers have tried to define what Knowledge is.  The most traditional is to say that a subject S knows a proposition P if and only if:

 

1)            S believes P,

2)            P is true,

and

3)            S has sufficient reason for believing P

 

Now the third condition might be phrased differently.  For example it might be stated as “3) S is justified in believing  p.”  Or “3) S’s belief in P is properly warranted.” [1]

As it turns out I think this 3rd conditions is ambiguous in a few respects.  One way is that we often think someone might be “justified” in believing something even when we don’t think their justification is sufficient to call that belief “knowledge.”   I might have believed the Seahawks would beat the Broncos in the Super Bowl.    That belief might have been a “justified” belief based on different things I have learned about the two teams.   Hence in that sense we can call that a “justified true belief.”  We might say my belief was a rational belief.    But I don’t think most people would say I “knew” the Seahawks would win the Super Bowl – at least not before the game started.   So we can see there is “justified true belief” and there is “justified true belief.”  The “justification” required for knowledge is greater than the “justification” needed to hold mere “justified belief.”

Notice that this ambiguity remains regardless of whether we use the formulation of “justified” belief or “sufficient reason” or “proper warrant.”  What is “sufficient reason” to rationally believe something is less than the “sufficient reason” required to know something.

 

The justification that yields knowledge is stronger than the justification that allows us to simply say we are justified in believing something.   This raises a few questions:

1)            How much justification do you need to” know” something?

2)            How much, if any, justification do you need to be “justified in believing” something?

3)            Is there any difference in the forms of justification that can relate to “knowledge” versus the forms of justification that can relate to mere “rational belief.”

 

I think those questions are bit vague, and even if clarified, somewhat difficult to answer.  But here are some thoughts.    The justification for “knowledge” might require something close to 100% certainty.  We might be inclined to say mere “rational belief” would require something like a preponderance of evidence.  That is, that it is more likely than not true.   But I think the cases presented by those who consider pragmatic encroachment shows “justification” (or “sufficient reason” or “proper warrant”) can get a bit more complicated than just looking at the certainty/probability that your belief is true.

 

Let’s consider theDeRose’s “bank cases” as set forth and explained by Jeremy Fantl and Matthew McGrath in their paper “Pragmatic Encroachment”:

Some of our intuitions about specific cases seem to support the claim that knowledge can depend on practical factors   Consider DeRose’s famous (1992) “Bank Cases”:

‘Bank Case A (Low Stakes).  My wife and I are driving home on a Friday afternoon.  We plan to stop at the bank on the way home to deposit our paychecks.  But as we drive past the bank, we notice that the lines inside are very long, as they often are on Friday afternoons.  Although we generally like to deposit our paychecks as soon as possible, it is not especially important in this case that they be deposited right away, so I suggest that we drive straight home and deposit our paychecks on Saturday morning.  My wife says, “Maybe the bank won’t be open tomorrow.  Lots of banks are closed on Saturdays.”  I reply, “No, I know it’ll be open.  I was just there two weeks ago on Saturday.  It’s open until noon.”

 

Bank Case B (High Stakes).  My wife and I drive past the bank on a Friday afternoon, as in Case A, and notice the long lines.  I again suggest that we deposit our paychecks on Saturday morning, explaining that I was at the bank on Saturday morning only two weeks ago and discovered that it was open until noon.  But in this case, we have just written a very large and important check.  If our paychecks are not deposited into our checking account before Monday morning, the important check we wrote will bounce, leaving us in a very bad situation.  And, of course, the bank is not open on Sunday.  My wife reminds me of these facts.  She then says, “Banks do change their hours.  Do you know the bank will be open tomorrow?”  Remaining as confident as I was before that the bank will be open then, still, I reply, “Well, no.  I’d better go in and make sure.” (913)’

 

It looks like Keith speaks truly in Case A in attributing knowledge to himself that the bank will be open tomorrow, while he also speaks truly in Case B in denying himself knowledge.  The only thing that changes in the two cases is how important it is for Keith to be right about whether the bank will be open tomorrow.  Therefore, it looks like how important it is for Keith to be right about whether the bank will be open tomorrow is relevant to whether Keith knows that the bank will be open tomorrow.  And relevant in a clear way: holding fixed Keith’s evidence concerning whether the bank will be open tomorrow, whether he knows it will be open varies with variations in how important it is for him to be right about this.

But here we find some odd consequences.  If this is the proper lesson to draw from the Bank Cases, it would appear to follow that two subjects can have the same evidence concerning whether the bank will be open tomorrow, even though one of them knows it’ll open tomorrow and the other doesn’t.  ……What makes the difference in knowledge has nothing to do with these traditional factors.  In fact, one subject might have more evidence than another that the bank will be open tomorrow – be better informed, have done more checking, etc. – but because much more is at stake for the more well-informed subject, the more well-informed subject can fail to know that the bank will be open tomorrow while the less-informed subject knows that the bank will be open tomorrow.  All this is hard to swallow.

https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&cad=rja&ved=0CDQQFjAB&url=https%3A%2F%2Fweb.missouri.edu%2F~mcgrathma%2Fpubs-papers%2FPragmaticEncroachment.doc&ei=UJD-UoDjCoHm2AWag4D4Ag&usg=AFQjCNGMBYTohUuRYmF0oT6BsV0dlx0gCQ&sig2=YyCPP25IPEfzLjAsoyYfIA&bvm=bv.61535280,d.b2I

 

I think these cases can illustrate few different ambiguities about what it means to “know” something or be “justified” in believing something.    The first ambiguity is the one I already mentioned.   It seems to me that having gone to a bank a few weeks back and having it be open on a Saturday is pretty good justification for the belief it will be open next Saturday.  Is it certain enough that we would say we “know” it will be open this Saturday?  I think so, but it’s getting pretty close and some might disagree.   If he went there 2 years ago we probably would say it’s not enough certainty to count as “knowing” whether it will be open this Saturday.  So I think these examples are playing on that gray area of what amount of certainty we need before we call something knowledge.    Accordingly this example tends to open the door to look at other ways Keith might or might not be “justified in believing” it is open on Saturday.

 

The bank cases clearly isolate the role of justification in our beliefs that deals not with the probability of our beliefs being true, but with the consequences of their being true or false.  Let’s consider how that is working here.

First, saying that as “the stakes” increase, better evidence is required for knowledge, is not quite what this shows.  It’s not just that “the” stakes are increased, but only certain stakes.  Specifically the stakes are increased in such a way that if he acts on his belief and he is wrong he will suffer greater consequences.

 

Consider case C (another high stakes case).  This case is just like case A as far as it goes.  It is not the case that any important checks will bounce as in case B.  There is nothing else that would cause any urgency for Keith to deposit that check before Monday.    But let’s add a few other facts that increase the stakes.   Keith is on his way to a very important interview.  He is sure he will get this job if he is on time, because a decision maker told him that everyone was so impressed with his credentials and past interview that so long as he shows up, on time, for this interview they will probably make him an offer.  This would be the offer of a lifetime.  And he is not sure with parking and the odd traffic around the bank, whether he will be on time for that interview if he stopped to deposit that check.

 

It seems to me the stakes are just as high in case C as they are in case B.  And I think we would still agree that Keith’s knowledge claim is just as valid as in case A.    So it’s not just that “the” stakes went up in Case B.  The stakes went up in a way that made his being wrong in his belief yield harsh consequences.  Case C increases the stakes concerning his belief as well but it increases the stakes in a way that reinforces acting on his belief.   Could we still say he knows the bank will be open on Saturday due to his going a few weeks ago?  What about 2 years ago?

 

Rather than get bogged down on how much certainty we need for “knowledge” I would rather explore how this second view of “justification” works with our belief.  The distinction is whether we are justified due to the probability of our belief being true or due to the consequences of our belief being true.

 

In an earlier blog I explained what a belief is so that we perhaps better understand how they might be “justified.”   I accepted that “[a belief] is a disposition to respond in certain ways when the appropriate issue arises.”  From W.V. Quine and J.S. Ullian’s  book The Web of Belief.     This description helps us make sense of the bank cases.  Case B demands more “justification” to “respond” as if the bank will be open on Saturday.  The way we would “respond” if the bank is open on Saturday, is to simply drive past the bank on Friday night.   But that response is less justified if there is some doubt in our belief about the bank being open and we risk having an important check to bounce.

 

However the “response” of driving past the bank is not less justified if the stakes are raised in such a way that supports driving past the bank.  Should our “disposition to respond in certain ways” (i.e., our belief) be effected by the stakes we have for responding a certain way?  I think they should.   That is, I think our beliefs should be effected by the stakes we have for responding a certain way.

 

Some people will recoil from this.  They will think our beliefs should only be effected by the probabilities that they are true.    I think that view will usually work out ok for them.  However in certain circumstances this approach may lead to irrational behavior.  But we are skipping ahead too fast.  Let’s back up and think about a few things.

 

First in case C the inherent importance of holding a “true belief” seems to be overshadowed.  Since there is no urgency to have the check deposited on Saturday, the belief “that the bank will be open on Saturday” being true seems relatively unimportant.   Adding the fact that you might be late for a very important interview further decreases the concern whether that belief is actually true or false.  The consequences of your “responding a certain way” is determining your “disposition to respond in certain ways” as much as, if not more than, any inherent importance of holding true beliefs about bank hours.     The probabilities that the bank will actually be open on Saturday becomes relatively less important in Case C, because the decision is really hinging on the consequences of missing the interview.

When we look at the “justification for believing” that the bank is open on Saturday, in case A and C we tend to think he has more justification to than in Case B.  And clearly he does have more justification to be “disposed to respond” by driving past the bank.

 

In sum I think these cases do indeed indicate not only that the probability of our beliefs being true is not the only consideration to holding true beliefs.   In fact, I think we can see that given certain circumstances the probability of our beliefs being true can be relatively unimportant in whether we should hold them.

 

Now I think allot of what I said depends on how we understand “belief.”  Some might not agree with my analysis.  They might say that the belief is not better justified depending on the consequences.  Remember the definition “[a belief] is a disposition to respond in certain ways when the appropriate issue arises.” (emphasis mine)   They might say that the belief has the same justification regardless of the consequences, but the “appropriate issues” change leading to the action of Keith driving past the bank in Case A and C but not driving past in Case B.

 

They might argue that the belief should not be held more or less strongly dependent on the consequences but your actions should be change as the consequences change.  This seems a sensible way to view things.   If we were a computer program or robot that might be the best approach.  But sometimes I think we know we should act a certain way but our doubts about probabilities prevent us from following through.    But I wonder what people think of what I said so far so I will end here.

 

[1] “  A philosopher named Gettier provided some important counter examples to this definition which ends up being the subject of other important philosophical developments on this topic.  However, I don’t mean to address that now.  This idea of knowledge being “justified true belief” remains a sort of default view and its good enough for our purposes.

A Life of Make Believe

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I generally spend more time reading and commenting on atheist blogs than I do posting my own blogs.   Since a lack of a satisfactory morality is, to my mind, a real problem for the atheistic belief system, I frequently ask atheists what they make of morality. 

 

On one atheist’s blog, the author was comparing being Christian to be being like John Nash as portrayed in the movie A Beautiful Mind. Just like John Nash believed in people who weren’t real, he argued that Christians believed in an unreal God.   He also compared Christianity to Buzz Light Year’s belief that he was really on a mission from mission control.   The author thought he could relate to Buzz Lightyear because, when he was a Christian, he thought he was on a mission from mission control and had to face the hard realization he really was not.      The blogger was hoping that he could disabuse Christians of their “make believe” ideas.      

 

As it turns out this blogger replaced the idea of mission control, with the idea that when it comes to morality we create our own meaning.    I found this interesting.  He was trying to help people stop believing “make believe” but he thinks he “creates” his own meaning when it comes to morality, and presumably lives his life based on these creations.    It became clear to me that this author and perhaps a few people who follow his blog did not see the irony.   So I explained the difference between moral realism and relativism.  He clearly indicated he is a subjectivist.   That is, he is some who thinks right and wrong is dependent on our own view of what is right or wrong.  In other words morality is a creation of our mind – just like those imaginary people John Nash believed in.    

 

I am aware meta-ethical views and their implications are really not all that well known outside of philosophers interested in the field.   I did a brief introductory blog on it here http://trueandreasonable.co/2014/01/20/what-do-you-mean-im-wrong/  So I am not trying to be critical of the blogger, or any of the other commentators, defending him.  They were all pretty intelligent and reasonable people.   I think this is an important illustration of why gaining an understanding of these issues is critical if you want to discuss the reasonableness of believing in Christianity.  Here the blogger assumed we shouldn’t live our lives based on make believe.  Yet this person admitted he lives by a morality he made up.

 

Russ Shaefer-Landau said it best:

  <blockquote>“Nihilists believe that there are no moral truths.  Subjectivists believe that moral truth is created by each individual.  Relativists believe that moral truth is a social construct.  These three theories share the view that, in ethics, we make it all up. ”  </blockquote>  Page 11 Whatever Happened to Good and Evil. 

 

But don’t take his, or my word for it, think it through yourself.  If your morality is based on creating your own meaning you are indeed “making it up.”  Now there are several reasons people might not believe in God.  But if you reject belief in God because you fear God might be “made up”, it seems you would be contradicting this principle, to then accept some sort of relativist theory of morality.  Because there you know you are living your life based on make believe.  

 

In the end if a rational person really wants to keep close contact with reality then rejecting a view that might be made up for one that you know is made up seems a poor approach. 

    

What Goal are We Rationally Pursuing?

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It seems to me that we act rationally toward a goal.  If the goal changes then it’s likely that the rational way to act will change.   I decided that my goal would be to try my best to act morally to the extent there really is a moral way to act.  That is, do real good and avoid real evil.   God, or no God, what if there is something I should be doing to make the world really better.

Now I don’t mean good as made up by someone or group, as a constructivist might think of it.  That sort of made up morality in some ways sounds good but I decided not to live my life based on make believe.  I am pursuing the real morality, if such a thing exists.   It is with that goal that I decide to consider what beliefs I should hold, to the extent I have control over my beliefs.

I decided that if I live my life trying to live as I really should, and because of that do not live by some rules a person or group of people made up, well I am fine with that.   Sure it’s possible there is no real morality, in that case, there was nothing I really should have done anyway.   But if it does really exist then I think trying to discover what it is, and trying to live by it, should be my focus.    I think everyone should give their best efforts in this regard.

Fairly early on I realized that if naturalism and evolution are true our moral beliefs are completely unreliable.    If you don’t think I am right on that point (or perhaps just don’t understand what in the world I am talking about) please share your thoughts in the comment section to my last blog.   But for this blog I want to rest on that conclusion.   I argued for it in the last blog, and now I want to draw some other conclusions.  So for this blog Ill assume my conclusion in the last blog is correct.   This also happens to be the conclusion reached by a few other philosophers including Richard Joyce, Sharon Street, and Mark Linville.

What that means is if evolution and naturalism are true our moral beliefs are completely unreliable.  From that I concluded that pursuing one set of moral beliefs is no better or worse than any other set of moral beliefs if N and E are true.  Accordingly pursuing the morality of Christianity would be no less likely to be true than any other, even if N and E are true.   Accordingly even if evolution and naturalism is true, following Christ would not be a worse moral option than any other in the rational pursuit of my goal.

It’s at this point that I think it is established that the nonbeliever has lost his case that the believer is acting less rationally – at least toward the goal of living a life that is really morally correct.   From this point forward I will try to push things a bit further and argue that the nonbeliever is less rational than the believer in pursuit of the goal to lead a really moral life.

Ok so we see that if N and E are true our moral beliefs are completely unreliable, so then it doesn’t matter what moral beliefs we choose.  But what if N and E are not true?  Since any moral beliefs, are a wash if N and E are true, I think it’s rational to focus our attention on the possibility that N and E are not true.

Specifically what if naturalism is not true.  Then it seems we might actually have reliable moral beliefs.  But how could we know what they are?  From what I (and the other 3 philosophers) have argued I am convinced that natural processes alone could not produce beings with this knowledge.  So we would need to look for something from a supernatural/non-natural confirming source that could teach us these morals.   From this it seems we should weigh the evidence of what sources of morality seem to have a supernatural/non-natural confirming source.  There are many religions that fit this bill and I would suggest the reader consider these religions and which has the best evidence.  I won’t go into that weighing here.  But I would like to point out that when it comes to weighing the religious moral schemes we are looking for evidence that the moral teachings were affirmed by a supernatural/non-natural source.

Now I anticipate a few objections to what I said.

First is to say what if there is a God who gave us our moral beliefs but he wants us to believe there is no God?

I think we weigh the evidence of this God the same way we would of any other God.  What is the evidence that this God exists?  But I think there is a second problem with continuing to not believe in this God.   It seems like a contradiction to believe in this god and follow this God’s rules.  If we believe and follow this God then we don’t believe this God.

Finally I think there is a third problem with not believing in God.  If we do not believe in God and we understand that what I and the other philosophers said is true, then the belief that there is no God would also imply our beliefs concerning morals are unreliable.  This would undermine our determination to act morally when acting morally is hard.  When it’s hard, it would be easy to rationalize and say “well the reliability of my moral beliefs are suspect anyway.”  Now I admit that reaction wouldn’t be rational based on my goal.  But I think that would happen.   When you know you are subject to irrationally immoral behavior by taking certain course of action (and here I include an action such as adopting a belief or taking actions which would lead to adopting the belief) then rational people will not take that course of action.

Here is a second objection:

So let’s say we agree to follow some God that we think has the best evidence.  But the “best evidence” is really pretty weak.  Let’s say for example we think the Christian God is more likely than Zeus but maybe just barely.   Let’s say we don’t think the evidence for the Christian God makes it more probably true than not true.  But nevertheless that God has better evidence than any other Gods.    What then?

I think we need to consider this carefully.  It seems to me that if we knew full well this God existed because we could see this God continually and literally standing over us watching our every move few of us would sin.   But that is not the case.   And so we all sin or act in ways we might agree is not how we should.  It seems to me that the firmness of our belief in God is important to how well we follow his moral laws.    And again that is our goal.  We want to find and  follow the real moral way of life.

How we should look at this depends how committed we are to our original goal of trying our best to act morally to begin with.

Let me offer an analogy involving a game.  For this scenario let’s say you are not in need of any set sum.   You want to maximize your potential return.   In fact maximizing your potential return in this game trumps all other concerns you have.    Maximizing your return in this game is in effect all that matters to you.

Let’s say there is a roulette wheel with 1,000,002 numbers.  You get $3,333.34 every month over the course 25 years.  You will receive $1,000,002.00.   You must immediately place the money on a number once you receive it.  At the end of the 25 years there will be one throw that will decide the winning number.  You can only keep the money that is on the number that the ball lands on.   You can put the money on more than one number.  So you could have one dollar put on each number.  You would be sure to get one dollar back but you also know you would only get one dollar.

Now everyone knows the number 7 is slightly rigged such that there is 3xs the possibility of the roulette ball landing there than for any other particular number.  I am not saying it is 3xs as likely to land on 7 as it is to land on any of all the other numbers combined.   I am just saying it is 3xs more likely that it will land on 7 compared to it landing on, say, 474,923 or any other particular number you pick.

How do you bet over the 25 years?

Now let’s say you went all in on 7 but the number comes up 775,957.  How do you feel?  Do you feel bad that perhaps you were irrational?

On the other hand let’s say you figured you did not have “enough evidence” to believe in the number 7.  After all, you lacked evidence sufficient to show that 7 was “more likely than not” going to be the winner so you just picked a random number like 42 and went all in on that.     And the number 7 came up.   And then you saw the other people who picked 7.   Would you disagree with them if they told you it was irrational for you to not go all in on 7?

Here is a more interesting question.  Let’s say some people actually claimed to firmly believe that it would be 7 and went all in on 7?  Let’s say they looked at the situation and they just wanted to make sure that they acted rationally in this game.  So they reinforced the idea that it would be 7 so they would be sure not place any money outside of 7.    So for example they convinced themselves that the odds of it being 7 was much higher than it really was.   Was that irrational to the extent of pursuing their goal?

I don’t think it was irrational.  I think so long as your actions concerning an uncertain belief would not change by adding certainty to your belief it is not irrational to reinforce that belief.   That is whether a person believes that the chance of 7 winning is .0003% .3% 33% or 100% when all the other numbers are about .0001% it won’t make any difference, you should still bet it all on 7.  So none of the actions that this belief is relevant to are negatively affected by puffing up the belief.   And in fact puffing up this belief might be beneficial.

Let’s say the evidence suggested that people who did not puff up the belief that it would be a 7 often would put some money on other numbers.    Assuming your goal was to maximize your possible gains then would it be irrational not to puff up the belief that the number 7 would win?  I think it might be irrational not to puff up that belief.

How should those who reinforced their belief feel if it happened to come up 42?  Would you be able to say that their foolishness mattered?

A Problem with the Reliability of Moral Beliefs

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Compared to some of my earlier blogs this one will presume quite a bit of philosophical understanding.  Even then since I am introducing a slightly new idea it will still be slow going.  But I am happy to answer questions anyone may have in understanding.  Also any editing advice is always appreciated.

Earlier I have referenced Richard Joyce, Sharon Street and Mark Linville as philosophers who have published arguments that if evolution (and naturalism) are true then any beliefs we have about real morality would be unreliable.

Here are some of their articles on the issue:

Sharon Street’s verision

A version by Richard Joyce

Here some of his other papers – many of which address this argument.

Linville gives much more than just the epistemic argument he also covers allot more ground.

This blog will attempt to advance that argument in light of a common objection.

By the way this argument not only tends to show why natural selection will not hone in on moral truths but also why science will have its efficacy limited as well.  Specifically it will explain why science can’t identify the actual rightness or wrongness.  After we determine what we deem right and wrong science will of course be very helpful in promoting or determining whether a set of facts fits that description.  But there will always remain a critical part of the analysis that science cannot help.

One of the common responses to the argument given by Joyce, Street, and Linnville is given in this blog (here he is responding to Street):

http://www.partiallyexaminedlife.com/2013/01/29/an-objection-to-sharon-streets-darwinian-dilemma/

In the end that author thinks there are 2 ways the naturalist can save moral beliefs he says:

“This is not to say that natural selection does not pose a challenge to moral realism. Street’s coincidence objection will kick in again unless the moral realist can either a) show there are at least some evaluative judgments which are not simply the result of more basic evaluative tendencies that have been shaped by evolutionary pressures (or better, are inconsistent with an evaluative judgment under reflective equilibrium that takes into account all tendencies but falls short by virtue of some form of moral reasoning that only the realist can supply); or b) show why tendencies that are clearly the result of evolutionary pressures so neatly line up with the results of a capacity for evaluative judgment that is supposed to be unrelated to such tendencies (what Street calls “tracking”). For (a) to be the true, it cannot be the case that our system of values cannot be as thoroughly “saturated” with the influence of natural selection as Street thinks it is. One option for (b) is to argue that adaptiveness and what is “good” are systematically related in such a way that selective pressures will tend to produce a tendency to true evaluative judgments. After all, what is adaptive is arguably a species of the good (although it’s possible that this line of thought leads us back to a constructivist account by relativizing the good to the constitutions or organisms).”

I personally do not think A accomplishes anything, but I won’t address that here.   In this paper I argue that approach B is necessarily doomed to failure.   Evolution, and incidentally science, cannot possibly track the truth of ultimate questions of real morality.

I’ll just throw a form of the argument on the table and then I will talk more about what it means:

P1)      The process of natural selection (and science) is blind (insensitive) to concepts/truths/facts that never have material or empirical manifestations or indicia.

P2)      Moral evil is a fact/concept/truth that has no material or empirical manifestations or indicia.

C1)      Therefore the process of natural selection (and science btw) is blind (insensitive) to moral evil.

First I will talk a bit about what I mean by these terms and where the argument is aimed, and then I will address the likelihood of these premises being true.

By “blind” or “insensitive” I mean the processes cannot possibly access the truth of the concept.  There can be no cause and effect relationship between that truth and the process of evolution (or science).

“Moral Evil” could be substituted for “moral wrongness” “moral goodness” “moral truths”.   Although the term “moral facts” is used by most philosophers in this area, it is to my mind, a poor word choice.    I think “wrongness” helps us focus in on what I am talking about better than the alternatives.  I use that term a bit and by wrongness I mean moral wrongness.

Let me explain more about what I mean by “material or empirical  manifestations or indicia”  Those who argue for the reliability of moral beliefs often make the very general claim roughly along the lines of:

Mechanisms that tend to produce true beliefs will generally be more adaptive than those producing false ones.   Therefore the mechanism(s) that produces our moral beliefs, likely tends to produce true beliefs.

The attempt is to sort of shift the burden to those who claim moral beliefs are an exception to the rule.  The validity of this move is suspect but my argument, more or less, accepts the challenge.    What is it about moral beliefs that would exempt it from the reliability we afford other forms of knowledge?

My position is that in every moral analysis there is going to be a critical determination, the truth of which has no material or empirical component.   Without such a component natural selection (and science) will be blind and insensitive to it, and therefore can’t possibly track it.

Let me give an example to help illustrate what I mean by material manifestation of wrongness.  Let’s say Leslie complained that her roommate Sophia used sticky traps to catch a mouse.   She thought this was not morally acceptable because sticky traps, unlike other traps, left the mouse to suffer longer.   Now let’s just assume Sophia thought her actions were morally acceptable.   Perhaps Sophia either didn’t place a moral consequence on the mouse’s suffering or perhaps she thought the effectiveness or the inexpensiveness of the traps outweighed the suffering.  Hopefully all moral realists can agree Sophia’s use of the sticky trap was either morally acceptable or it was not.

Now it seems very clear to me that both parties can be fully informed and agree about  everything our five senses can tell us about this event and still disagree on whether it is morally acceptable.  That is Sophia can be well aware that the mouse will suffer longer. (and indeed Sophia might believe the added suffering from the sticky trap might be greater than what Leslie thinks)  Leslie can be well aware of the decrease in the efficiency, and the added cost, of other types of traps.  (and Leslie might even think sticky traps are relatively less expensive  and more efficient than Sophia thinks.)  They might both fully understand the neurology of mice and therefore understand how mice suffer in sticky traps as opposed to other traps etc.  Take any piece of information we can find out from our senses about this event and we can assume they both fully understand it and still disagree whether it was morally acceptable.   Because the actual “wrongness” of an action never has a material or empirical manifestation science will never be able to resolve this dispute.

It’s not like they can watch a recording of the events through a certain type of projector and the video will show with a red tint if Sophia was wrong and a green tint if what she did was morally acceptable.   Nor can we examine of the mouse’s liver or other organs to determine whether the killing was justified.   We can determine how it died and from there we might have certain beliefs about wrongness that lead us to believe it was killed through immoral means.  But we can’t see the wrongness itself.  Nor does the wrongness itself leave empirical indicia. [1]

I believe Sharon Street is on to something of the same point when she separates out moral beliefs from beliefs about a creatures “manifest surroundings”:

“What makes this point somewhat tricky is that on the face of it, it might seem that of course it promotes reproductive success to grasp any kind of truth over any kind of falsehood. Surely, one might think, an organism who is aware of the truth in a given area, whether evaluative or otherwise, will do better than one who isn’t. But this line of thought falls apart upon closer examination. First consider truths about a creature’s manifest surroundings—for example, that there is a fire raging in front of it, or a predator rushing toward it.  It is perfectly clear why it tends to promote reproductive success for a creature to grasp such truths: the fire might burn it to a crisp; the predator might eat it up.  But there are many other kinds of truths such that it will confer either no advantage or even a disadvantage for a given kind of creature to be able to grasp them. Take, for instance, truths about the presence or absence of electromagnetic wavelengths of the lowest frequencies. For most organisms, such truths are irrelevant to the undertakings of survival and reproduction;…”

It is my contention that moral truths never have a moral manifestation and therefore evolutionary processes cannot possibly track them.

In his paper “Ethics and Observation” Gilbert Harman asked the question “you can observe someone do something but can you ever perceive the rightness or wrongness of what he does?”

I think this question is somewhat ambiguous because of the word  “perceive.”  We tend to say we “perceive” this is right or wrong but I think it’s quite clear that we don’t use any particular one of our five sense perceptions to do it.   So I think if he asked a question “you can observe someone do something but can you ever hear the rightness or wrongness of what he does?”   or “you can observe someone do something but can you ever taste the rightness or wrongness of what he does?” we could easily answer the questions in the negative.  The same would be true if he asked if we see, touch, or smell the rightness/wrongness.  We can’t do these things because there’s no “material/empirical manifestation” of rightness or wrongness. To the extent one  claims we can possibly “see” the wrongness I think he is exchanging “see” for “judge” the wrongness.  Wrongness is not a color.

Ok so at this point you might be wondering about other areas of knowledge.  How does the truth “manifest itself” in other areas of belief?

Sharon dealt with the more obvious case of evolution tracking the truth for our beliefs about our immediate material surroundings.

SCIENCE:

Dr. Harman gave a good example to illustrate the point dealing with science.   He says “let’s consider a physicist making an observation to test a scientific theory.  Seeing a vapor trail in a cloud chamber he thinks, ‘there goes a proton.’”

Well in this case, as in any case when we are trying to detect the very existence of a material thing, the truth of that material things existence will materially manifest itself in the existence of that material thing.  Here the proton itself is not observed but it’s material manifestation is observable by the vapor trail in the cloud chamber.  Thus although the proton itself may not directly manifest itself to our senses there is a material manifestation of the truth that there is a proton. One such “material manifestation/indicia” is the vapor trail.  So it would be at least possible that Natural selection could create mechanics that track the truth of protons existing.

MATH:

Next let’s look at math.  I think there is a sense that certain mathematical truths just appeared to be self-evident.  But setting aside self evidence, I think Richad Joyce and Dr. Harman also establish how mathematical truths have material manifestations.

Consider what Dr. Harman said in this regard:

“Perhaps ethics is to be compared, not with physics, but with mathematics.  Perhaps such moral principles as you want to keep your promises is confirmed or disconfirm them the same way (whatever it is) in which a mathematical principle as “5+7=12” is.   Observation does not seem to play the role and mathematics it plays in physics.  We do not and cannot perceive numbers, for example, since we cannot be in causal contact with them.  We do not even understand what it would be like to be in causal contact with the number 12, say.  Relations among numbers cannot have any more of an effect on our perceptual apparatus than moral facts can.

Observation, however is relevant to mathematics.  In explaining the observations that support a physical theory, scientists typically appeal to mathematical principles.  On the other hand, we never seem to need to appeal in this way to moral principles.  Since an observation is evidence for what best explains it, but since mathematics often figures in the explanation of scientific observations, there is indirect observational evidence for mathematics.  There does not seem to be observational evidence, even indirectly, for basic moral principles.  In explaining why certain observations have been made, we never seem to use purely moral assumptions.  In this respect then, ethics appears to differ not only from physics but also from mathematics.”

Joyce gives what I consider another example of mathematics having a material manifestation.  He states:

“Suppose you are being chased by three lions, you observe two quit the chase, and you conclude that it is now safe to slowdown.  The truth of “one plus one equals two” is a background assumption to any reasonable hypothesis of how this belief might have come to be innate.”  The Evolution of Morality Richard Joyce page 182.

Joyce’s example of running from lions demonstrates a ”material manifestation” of the mathematical truth that 3-2=1.  That mathematical truth manifests itself in that 3rd lion.   Mathematical truths would no doubt “manifest themselves” in trade as well. If you do not understand that seven is more than five when someone was, say, bartering food stuffs there would be a material manifestation in that you might lose lots of your food.

Due to these material manifestations we have reason to believe natural selection might be reliable in creating belief mechanisms regarding our manifest surroundings, science and math (logical truths have material manifestations in a similar way to math).    But moral judgments lack those material components and therefore any mechanism yielding moral truths would lack the reason we might find them reliable.

Now let me say the fact that people hold beliefs about morals often does have material manifestations  (eg., the creation of laws and posses) This is undoubtedly true. .   I don’t doubt our beliefs can have material manifestations.  They will have them whether they are true or false.  But how did those beliefs arise?  That is the question.    Since it seems clear the truth of those beliefs could not possibly be tracked by evolution then our beliefs are not reliable. (edit: I address this a bit more in my reply to Travis’s first comment on this blog.)

With that readers may have a few more questions about what I mean by “material manifestations” I would encourage people to go ahead and ask in the comment section.

At this point I would like to address whether the premises are true.

Is the first premise true?  Natural selection concerns itself with things that have physical /empirical impacts.  Only things with physical or empirical impacts, can effect whether things are killed or procreate.  I am not sure this will be much in dispute so I won’t dwell on it.   The same I think would be true with the idea that science concerns itself with empirical data.  If you can’t test it with empirical data then it’s probably not science.

I anticipate more reluctance to accept the second premise.

Moral naturalists might argue that the natural facts that they believe simply make up moral facts and they do indeed have physical and empirical manifestations and indicia.   For example facts that might make up a murder (i.e., a “wrongful” killing) might include the fact that the murderer knew firing his gun would likely kill the victim.  It would include the fact that the bullet from his gun did in fact go through the victim etc etc.  All of which could have various empirical indicia.  However we still need to make the determination that the set of facts I described belongs to the set of facts which are also moral facts.

We still need to differentiate the set of natural facts that happen also to be moral facts.  The “wrongness” made up of one set of natural facts leaves no additional physical or empirical indicia which we can see hear taste etc.   In fact the wrongness does not even exist outside the other natural properties so it couldn’t signal us to this set of facts as being ones upon which moral facts supervene.

As Street points out “The [Moral Naturalist] response, I will argue, ultimately just puts off a level the difficulties raised…..” “In trying to figure out which natural facts evaluative facts are identical with, we have no option but to rely on our existing fund of evaluative judgments…”

One person might say that the set of natural properties called set “n” equates to evil.  Another might disagree.  They might both fully acknowledge the empirical properties of the set yet still disagree on the whether the set properly has evil supervene on it.  In the end this problem is most difficult for the naturalist precisely because he argues there is no additional property of wrongness.  The wrongness is just the set of natural facts that make up the wrong action. (or sets of sets of wrong actions)  Accordingly, there can be no physical or empirical manifestation or indicia, that the wrongness leaves behind, that would help evolution select for the correct set(s) of facts that match up with moral facts.

Because moral naturalists posit no additional properties other than the natural properties that make up the set of a wrong action, there could be no additional material indicia that would result from the set of natural properties which would help natural selection distinguish the moral sets.

Again just to be clear when I talk about moral truths I mean only the wrongness or rightness of a particular action.  No doubt we have material indicia of the fact that the World Trade Center Towers were attacked.  However we have no material indicia of the very wrongness of that act.  There is no buzzing sound or red tint that we hear or see when we are witnessing an evil act.   We learn of the events and we judge them to be wrong.

What about non-naturalists?

Nevertheless some might argue that we can’t say for sure whether our moral beliefs cannot be traced to empirical evidence. (material manifestations)  They might say “Who knows? After all, a lot goes on in our brains when we see something.”   I think those who doubt the truth of premise 2 are simply misunderstanding the nature of moral truths.  I think the following thought experiment may help demonstrate this point.

Consider the possibility that they are right.  Let’s just pretend every time we perceive a wrong action the wrongness emits some, hitherto unknown, type of radiation. This radiation causes the “unease” we feel when we perceive an immoral act.  Every time we see an immoral act on television, or simply imagine one, our brain would apparently trigger the memories which bring about the same type of unease and belief again.

Okay it’s an outlandish idea but the point is not to suggest that this is plausible.  My point, is that if this were to occur it would not give additional justification to our moral beliefs.  It would just as likely debunk them.  We would just as likely understand that the reason we believe things are immoral is due to this physical trigger and not because it is really wrong.

The fact that we might reach this conclusion demonstrates that our conception of moral truth does not allow for material manifestations or indicia.  It is simply not part of the concept.   Since material manifestations and indicia are not part of moral truths, natural selection could not possibly track moral truth.


[1] I might say that evil does not occupy space or exist in any particular space.  Yes it exists when an occurrence happens but it is not a something that literally surrounds the occurrence.  It’s a property that seems to exist at no particular point of space at all.  When we consider a long embezzlement conspiracy would we think the evil was literally located all through the offices and everywhere the people perpetrating it conspired?  If they talked on the phone was evil in the phone wires?  I don’t really think so.   I’m not exactly sure if this is a proper way to express what I am saying but it might be a at least a start.

3 Brands of Baggage that Evolution gives the Naturalist

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I find the evidence for evolution pretty convincing.   Being theist it might mean something a bit different than being a naturalist (by naturalist I mean someone who does not believe in anything supernatural, no gods, no spirits etc.) when we talk about “randomness.”  What is random to us, of course, is not random to God.  We think how dice will land is random.  But, we also know that how they land is based on the forces applied and the angles that the dice hit, combined with predictable laws of nature.  So what is random for us is not random for something with an infinite understanding.  I don’t see “randomness” of evolution in creating us as we are as much different the “randomness” of which sperm will fertilize which egg.

In an earlier blog I talked about how evolution as an explanation might carry some logical baggage for the naturalist.  Why aren’t the problems caused for the theist?  Generally it has to do with that idea of whether the events are random to everyone (naturalism)– or whether they are just random to us but not the creator of the universe (theism).   It seems to me that unless you are attached to a very literal reading of genesis, evolution does not really present any problems for the Christian.  On the other hand the way it is filling in the details for the naturalist, it might cause some logical friction with beliefs naturalists would like to hold on to.      It creates at least 2 arguments against naturalism and it tends to buttresses a third.

1.First there is the argument that if naturalism is true there is no morality. (Again as per my earlier blog when I talk about “morality” I am referring to moral realism) This argument existed before evolution was even presented as a theory so evolution didn’t create this argument.  But I do think it tends to buttress the argument.   Evolution is a convincing explanation that helps flesh out the naturalist worldview, but it fleshes it out in a way that morality seems very much a sort of odd fifth wheel.

It’s not that I think it’s logically impossible for moral realism to be true if naturalism is true.  I think the Euthyphro dilemma does tend to demonstrate how it could work.   So in my opinion it’s not logically impossible for real morality to exist if naturalism is true.  It’s just that accepting moral reality seems to have no place in the framework naturalists accept.    If you apply the same standards of reason and necessity for “evidence” that many naturalists apply to God I think many would be logically contradicting themselves to believe in moral realism.

Preserving moral realism is important because it is the only option where we reject the idea that when it comes to morals we make it all up it.  From that it logically follows that the naturalists who believe in some non-realist moral system are essentially believing in “make believe.”        That is a common accusation thrown at theists isn’t it?   In any case I am interested in believing reality not make believe.   

 

While I agree that there is no logical contradiction in believing in naturalism and moral realism.   I still think this may be a good argument to support belief in God.  Why?  Again it depends on the other beliefs that a person holds as to what sound argument might be a “proof.”  It seems to me that many atheists claim to apply standards to all their beliefs.  These standards exclude the belief that God is real, but they aren’t using those standards when it comes to analyzing whether morality is real.   For example the moral properties that moral realism posits are not directly observable by the senses.  This is why there are no labs to help us identify if this or that is immoral.  We do not devise better telescopes or microscopes,  x-ray machines, ultrasounds, stethoscopes to help us see, hear, touch, smell or taste these moral properties.[1]

Kant, and Mackie both make a sorts of “moral argument.”  Mackie chose to not believe in Morals rather than to believe in God.   But even earlier I have read at least a few historians explain that the ancients required belief in the Gods because they thought atheists would be immoral.  So the idea of a connection seems to go back to antiquity.

2.The second argument is that even if we assume morals exist without God, our understanding of natural selection makes it very unlikely that our moral beliefs are reliable.    I came to this conclusion on my own and it is a reason why I believe in God.  Of course, it takes a few steps beyond just proving that evolution would make our moral beliefs unreliable (which covers allot of ground itself) to say this “proves God exists.”  And indeed the conclusion of my argument is not “God must exist” but rather that “it is irrational not to believe in God.”   Like I said earlier at least three philosophers, Sharon Street, Richard Joyce, and Mark Linville have published articles in support of this argument.  The first two are naturalists.   They simply do not believe in moral realism.    I will write some blogs on this argument and what I think its implications are in the future.

3.  The third argument is that if evolution and naturalism is true then all our beliefs are unreliable.  Alvin Plantinga has made this argument and it is called an evolutionary argument against naturalism, or EAAN.   This argument might be sound but I don’t think it has much promise of convincing many naturalists.  I would like to give a basic overview of it, a very common objection, and why I think the common objection fails to appreciate the full effect of the argument.   That said it is not an argument I have thought a whole lot about.  So I certainly welcome and look forward to any comments on my views of the argument.

First understanding the argument.  Evolution or natural selection is “aimed” at creating creatures that are fit for survival and reproduction.  I say “aimed” in quotes because evolution is not really “aimed” at anything, but the general effect is still as if it were aimed at traits with higher fitness in those areas.  To the extent the results of evolution are not just random that is a trend we can identify.

Now we should note at the outset that this model of how we came to be, does not directly claim it would create creatures that tend to hold reliably true beliefs.   Plantinga quotes Darwin, “the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?’”  Charles Darwin, to William Graham 3 July 1881

Now I think Darwin’s quote goes some of the distance but it doesn’t quite go all of the distance.  We shouldn’t just think of the beliefs of monkeys, but really the potential beliefs of any living thing under this model.  I mean we certainly tend to believe monkeys would have a lot of true convictions since they are like us.  But there are plenty of other living things that have evolved today and perhaps many times others that did not.  And if we want to objectively look at the types of belief systems this process might develop we might as well replace monkeys with “jellyfish like” creatures that have some sort of mental function they use to spend most of their time dreaming.  OK let’s move on.

Although Plantinga disagreed, I think this argument is fairly well follows from Descartes comments from the quote I gave in an earlier blog:

“Some, indeed, might perhaps be found who would be disposed rather to deny the existence of a Being so powerful [God] than to believe that there is nothing certain. But let us for the present refrain from opposing this opinion, and grant that all which is here said of a Deity is fabulous: nevertheless, in whatever way it be supposed that I reach the state in which I exist, whether by fate, or chance, or by an endless series of antecedents and consequents, or by any other means, it is clear that the probability of my being so imperfect as to be the constant victim of deception, will be increased exactly in proportion as the power possessed by the cause, to which they assign my origin, is lessened.”

When Descartes refers to “deception” I think he is generally just saying that our senses and beliefs might be misguided or unreliable.  The process of evolution is just another way in which I reach this state without the idea that God did it.

The most common response I see to the EAAN is something along these lines that Travis raises in his blog.   http://measureoffaith.wordpress.com/2013/12/28/a-few-comments-on-plantingas-where-the-conflict-really-lies/

Travis states:

“As I read through the EAAN, I was eagerly anticipating Plantinga’s response to the following objection: evolutionary theory claims that well before any creature was conscious there were sensory systems that triggered responses which selected the population. Selection is dependent on beneficial interactions with the external world. If those interactions do not consistently and properly map to the outside world then they are less likely to be beneficial.”

To address this objection we need to first understand how an “undercutting defeater” works.  In contrast, a “rebutting defeater” is one where we get evidence that contradicts our belief.  That’s not what an undercutting defeater is.  An undercutting defeater is where we accept a model where our beliefs are not justified, but not because other evidence rebuts them, but because we recognize they were formed in an unreliable way.

Here is an example of an undercutting defeater from a philosopher named Pollock: You are visiting a factory and you see a bunch of red parts sitting in a room. You look at them and they appear red so you believe they are red. But then the supervisor comes up and tells you that the parts you see actually have a very strong red light shining on them so they can better detect if any defects exist in the parts. He tells you they would appear red regardless of whether they were red or not.

So the supervisor does not tell you they are not red; it’s still possible they are red. But your justification for believing they are red just dropped off because you see that the model by which you acquired the belief that they are red, is not a reliable one as to beliefs about the redness of the parts. So that is the basic idea of an undercutting defeater. It’s not that it’s impossible that they are red, but given that model any such beliefs about their redness would be completely unfounded.

Let’s consider an undercutting defeater that would undercut all of our beliefs.  Let’s say you accept the skeptical scenario/model of your existence such that you are a brain in a vat being manipulated by an evil genius in some other solar system on planet called Ork.   This evil genius can instantly give you any beliefs he wants.   Let’s call this “model A.”  And let’s say you believe this “model A” is how you came to exist.

It is important to note that this would not mean that the majority of your beliefs are false.   In fact we might be able to imagine a situation where at least the vast majority are true.  Let’s say there is a body (let’s call the body “Bob Dole”) on earth and the evil genius gives you beliefs based on what the Bob Dole’s body sees.  Now you know you are not Bob Dole.  You know you are the product of a brain in a vat on a different planet, Ork.  Your location is not where Bob Dole is you are just given sensations and beliefs based on what Bob Dole’s body sees, smells hears feels etc.  At least it’s possible that the body “Bob Dole” is actually there on earth making all the movements you believe he is making seeing smelling etc all the same scenes that the brain in a vat gives you.   It’s logically possible that what you see and believe is happening on earth through Bob Dole’s eyes, is actually happening.    Thus on this model A, it’s logically possible that your beliefs are largely true.   Just like it is possible that the parts are red in Pollock’s example.    It’s just that nothing in model A directly requires that your beliefs are necessarily reliably true.

Well let’s say you accept that “model A” is how you came to exist.  Now under Model A though you also come to believe that all your beliefs are reliable and mostly true.   How?  It doesn’t really matter.  But for example, let’s just say, on earth you see through Bob Dole’s eyes that there are evil geniuses manipulating brains in vats there on earth.   Now it seems those brains in vats create minds that believe that they are observing people on some other planet as well.  Maybe Ork or other parts of earth or wherever.  But the thing is this.  You very strongly believe that the evil geniuses who give the brains in the vats unreliable beliefs tend to die off quickly often even immediately.   Therefore you come to believe that most minds created by brains in a vat have reliable beliefs.  Therefore you conclude that even though you are a brain in a vat you can reasonably think your beliefs are reliable.

Ok that might not seem the most convincing tale, but there is a very clear problem with all of the reasons given in the paragraph immediately above.  Namely, all of the beliefs expressed in the above paragraph would have been produced through “model A”.    It seems to me that once you accept “model A” you have a defeater for all your beliefs.  Sure you might develop beliefs like the one that “most evil geniuses give reliable to beliefs due to reasons xyz”  but those are all  beliefs secondary to the original model that does not guarantee reliability.     Once you accept something like Model A all your beliefs that form from it have an undercutting defeater.

Plantinga argues that the based on such a model the likelihood of our beliefs being reliable is “either low or inscrutable” I think “inscrutable” is an important idea to understand.  It means that we cannot even rationally investigate or evaluate the probabilities.  Since all of our beliefs are affected by these pulls to something that is not necessarily true, and we can’t step outside our beliefs and see what is really going on, it would seem the reliability is in fact inscrutable.   In the example of the red widgets we can sort of see what is happening with respect to our beliefs regarding the redness of the widgets.  But when something like evolutionary forces are effecting all of our beliefs we can’t gain that vantage point.   We have no beliefs that would not have been influenced by evolutionary pulls from which we can reason about the probabilities.   In a way all of our beliefs have the red light tinting them.

Is the Evolutionary model  (“model E”) like model A?  I think it is.  The evolutionary model is at best “aiming” at survival/reproduction.   This is not necessarily the same as aiming at reliably truth tracking mental systems.  We, of course, might come to believe they are related.  For example we might hold a set of beliefs like those Travis stated.  The problem is those are beliefs we came to hold secondary to the Model E, which does not necessarily produce reliably true beliefs.  Both Model A and Model E have the same flaw.  The model itself does not explicitly indicate that the creatures it creates will have reliable beliefs.  Accordingly once we say we were created from that model then taking beliefs XYZ and saying these logically yield the conclusion our beliefs are reliable will be irrational.   This is because beliefs XYZ are just the product of the model that we agreed at the outset would not explicitly produce reliable beliefs.  Both model A and model E share that unfortunate quality.

Can we include those beliefs that I quoted from Travis and make them part of the Evolutionary model?  Yes I suppose we can but they are not part of the model now.  Just like we can change model A to be Model B.  Model B could be I am created by brain in a vat that is controlled by an evil genius *and* that evil genius gives me reliable beliefs.   So Model E could become Model F.  Model F is that I came about from a process that selected for things that survived, reproduced, and had reliably true beliefs.   But until that is done I think those who adopt the view that they were created by a completely natural selection do indeed have a defeater for all their beliefs.

Is the person who accepts naturalism and evolution any worse than everyone who has to deal with the skeptical scenarios?  Yes I think they are.  They not only have to deal with the possibility that a skeptical model might be the case, they actually believe one is the case.

Now perhaps someone would say that it’s not really that the evolutionary model comes before our belief that our beliefs are reliable.  First we believe our senses and beliefs are reliable and it’s only after that we accept the evolution model.  My response would be what if someone came to believe model A in the same way?  That is they looked around the world around them and for whatever reason they too decided they must be a brain in a vat.  I don’t think it matters how you get the model in your beliefs, once it’s there it works as a defeater.


[1] At least not directly.  Sure science might help us understand what actions might be moral or immoral indirectly.  So for example we may find out that certain people have mental disorders and our understanding of those mental disorders might help us understand the level of their culpability.  Also some Catholic Church scholars thought that our understanding of dna and the fact that an embryo’s dna was different than that of the mother seemed to inform their decision that abortion was wrong.   But there can be no doubt that there are cases of moral disagreement where no amount of learning the empirical facts is at issue.  Abortion might be such an issue.  It’s not as if the pro-choice community is unaware of the dna differences between a mother and the fetus she carries.

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