Atheism, Christianity, epistemology, morality, morals, philosophy, philosophy atheism Christianity ethics morality, reason
I have noticed when I talk about abstract concepts such as morality and ask for evidence of them, I am being unclear to some. I don’t mean that morality is a physical thing somewhere that we can find like a moon orbiting Saturn. But I do mean it is real.
If I say I am taller than my daughter I am invoking an abstract concept – tallness. If I say prove tallness “exists in reality” (or provide evidence that tallness exists in reality) as opposed to our minds that might mean different things to different people. Some people would think I mean we must find an actual platonic-like form of tallness that is perfectly tall. That is not what I mean at all.
I think I “really” am taller than my daughter. That is in reality I am taller. The notion of tallness is something like, when I am standing, the highest part of my body is higher than hers (when she is standing) means I am taller than her. This tie in with reality makes the notion that I am taller than my daughter objectively true. It’s not just that I believe it is true. My belief does not make the statement true or false. Reality makes that statement true or false. That is because tallness has a tie in with reality.
Does morality have tie in with reality? If I believe something is wrong does my belief make it wrong? Or does reality determine whether my belief is true or false. The latter is what I mean when I say morality is objectively real. It is not the case that I necessarily think there is some perfectly moral good form (or perfectly evil form) somewhere that we need to find. What I am asking is 1) whether these concepts have a tie in with reality. And 2) if so, how we would know in what ways morality ties in with reality.
I think I answered the first question with respect to tallness. Yes tallness ties in with reality so we can say it is really and objectively true that I am taller than my daughter. What about the second question with respect to tallness? I think we have empirical evidence that I am really taller than my daughter. We can see me standing next to her. Even a blind person would be able to feel if we are standing, and then feel the top of my head relative to the top of her head. So we have empirical evidence of how “tallness” ties in with reality.
But what about “wrongness”? Here it seems we do not have empirical evidence.
Sure we can substitute concepts for “right and wrong” and “good and evil” and then assert that this new word is promoted by such and such conduct. But whenever I see this one of 2 things is always happening. Either they are leaving the new term so vague that it is pretty much vacuous, and thus the “definition” is vacuous. (that which makes us “thrive” or that which brings “happiness” etc.) Or they do in fact put some constraints on the definition and then I have to wonder if that is really good. I gave a hypothetical that approaches one of the latter views here: https://trueandreasonable.co/2014/12/19/a-moral-hypothetical/
In any case, I do think we can have empirical evidence of abstract ideas. But in the case of morality the the evidence of morality is the evidence for God. I talk more about that connection here:
Travis R said:
You might be interested in my write-up on the ontology of abstract concepts, where I considered the tallness example and came to similar conclusions. But I don’t see how that is a straight analogy with morality due to a lack of an objective referent, and when you say “Here it seems we do not have empirical evidence” it would appear you agree. Yet when you say
I understand you to mean “objective morality is real” rather than “morality is objectively real”. The latter claim I can agree with and this accords with your tallness example, where our moral ‘perception’ is relative to an internal, subjective sense (and this is what Harris’ ‘Moral Landscape’ was explaining, even if he thought he was explaining the former), but the former claim does not have the same kind of grounding. So I’m not sure how the tallness example does anything to help support the claim of objective morality. Lastly, I’ll note that it was you who persuaded me that the philosophical claim of “moral realism” should be understood as including an objective morality even if the term ‘real’ can be correctly applied to subjective things (like beauty, ice cream flavor preferences, etc…) in a more colloquial sense. Perhaps that’s part of the confusion? I know it was for me.
Hi Travis thanks for referring me over to your blog. I didn’t read that one because I usually do not go into mind body dualism issues. But your blog does indeed cover this issue and attempts to go much deeper than this blog does. Here I just wanted to explain that when I talk about a concept being “real” or even objectively real that does not mean I meant one had to fully embrace Platonism.
In reading your comments it reminded me that there is another ambiguity regarding the word “objective.” “Objective” might two different things:
1)Objective may be a reference to the type of evidence or grounding for a belief. Or
2) Objective might be contrasted to relativism where we mean the truth of the matter is independent our beliefs about it being true.
So consider the time before we knew of the moon, MK2 which orbits the dwarf planet Makemake. http://www.cnn.com/2016/04/26/world/makemake-moon-nasa/
Now consider that before we had the Hubble one were to say:
A) It is objectively true that Makemake has a moon orbiting it.
Now whether or not that would be true would depend on what we mean by “objective.” If by objective you mean the first one then it would not have been objectively true until we had the hubble or some other instrument/method that would allow others to see the evidence of it. So under that view of “objective” statement A became objectively true when we had the hubble. Doctors often refer to “objective” and “subjective” findings and this use of the word mirrors that view. Xrays are objective (everyone can see them) pain complaints are subjective. (no one but the person feels their pain)
But I think when we are talking about morality people use the term objective in the second sense. In that sense Statement A was objectively true because in reality the moon was orbiting Makemake regardless of what we believed about it. Here we are just differentiating that statement from the statement:
B) Pickles taste good.
Statement B seems to not be objective in the second sense of the word.
It is this second sense of the word that I am most interested in but do admit that many readers may not have that sense in mind when they think about what is “objective.” I think you are understanding objective in the first sense in your blog.
For example you say:
“This space [occupied by a taller mountain] is a quantifiable, observable object. So the “taller than” relation actually has a referent – the space that is occupied by the taller object and is not occupied by the shorter object. I am venturing to propose that this holds for all objective relations.”
Consider this claim:
C) At least one quantum exists beyond the observable universe.
I would say if it exists then it exists in objective reality under the second view– at least if we assume its existence does not depend on our beliefs about it. (quantum physics can be tricky on this point) But it would not be objective under the first view. We would not be disagreeing about anything of substance just the semantics.
“If you have a counter-example of an objective relation that has no referent in the physical world (i.e., space / time / matter / energy), please send it my way.”
Well if you define objective exclude anything that others can not see objective evidence for then I think you are right. But consider some of the following:
1) Someone tells me they committed a crime. But then they deny it and I have not recorded it etc. Under the first definition we would say it is not objectively true that the person told me that. Their telling me they committed the crime would not be a part of objective reality. Yes I can testify as to what I heard but I can not make you hear exactly what I heard coming from the persons mouth.
If you say that it is not objective reality then much of what we believe about history would not be objective reality – even if it were true.
2) I take it you think morality is not objective in the first sense. But do you think it is objective in the second sense?
I think it is objective in the second sense but admit it is not objective in the first sense. At a certain point we need to take God’s word for it as to what morality requires. The idea here is not just what scripture says but also what he wrote in our hearts. If god did not write it
“Lastly, I’ll note that it was you who persuaded me that the philosophical claim of “moral realism” should be understood as including an objective morality even if the term ‘real’ can be correctly applied to subjective things (like beauty, ice cream flavor preferences, etc…) in a more colloquial sense. Perhaps that’s part of the confusion?”
Ok so lets compare the
B) pickles taste good.
D) I think the pickles I ate yesterday tasted good.
Now in some ways D seems more objective than B. That is, I might say D and be lying because it is not true and I know its not true. (imagine the pickles were rotten) That is, there is a certain objective reality in the way I reacted to the pickles. Just like if I might say a movie was funny but really I don’t think it’s funny. So statement D is true or false regardless of whether I or you or anyone believes it’s true. Statement B seems to entirely depend on our reactions to pickles. That is whether they taste good. There seems no objective sense we can appeal to outside of that to determine whether B is true or false.
So yes I do think our reactions to moral actions are objectively real. People really can feel guilt and they really can feel satisfaction. But I do not think whether an action is moral, or not, is completely dependent on those reactions.
Travis R said:
As I see it, your first definition of objective relates to epistemology and the second relates to ontology. My post was about ontology, so I hope I was using it more in line with the second definition, but I guess that wasn’t obvious. Here, I was mostly just trying to get clarification on your distinction between “real yet subjective” and “real and objective” and how those related to morality. I think I have that, so I don’t really have anything more to say.
I probably won’t respond to the comments related to my post until later, and since you’ve submitted comments there I’ll keep my response there as well.
It’s good to see you subscribe to an error theory at the end of the post. Like similar abstractions, ‘tallness’ would seem to be a useful category.
And, like all useful categories, it is instrumental. In other words, it is useful once we have fixed ourselves on a relevant course of action – thinking about our orientation to gravity, noting the relationship between a child’s development and the relative distance from the top of their head to the ground, etc. ‘North’ would seem to be a similar abstraction.
But those abstractions are not action guiding in the way that moral qualities want to be. Nobody says ‘I ought to go North’ in the way that they say, ‘I ought to do good.’. I don’t see how the latter is anything but a report of sentiment, and reports of its utility independent of that sentiment, anything but a mistake.
Thanks for commenting. I agree that our moral beliefs are more emotional/sentimental driven than logically driven. That doesn’t mean someone can’t be illogical and wrong about morals. But IMO our emotional constitution is more important than our logical or empirical abilities.
As to whether morality is anything more than a sentiment and/or utility (albeit ultimately pointless utility) seems an open question to me.
There either is more to morality or there is not. I agree that on a naturalistic view it is very hard to see how it would exist. But ultimately It seems to me pragmatically reasonable to place my bet on morals mattering beyond just sentiment and short term utility.
Adding God and the possibility of infinite understandings seems to help the chances for our emotions being guided by real morality. For example, It may resolve infinite regress issues in ways we can’t understand now. But mostly the idea of God helps us understand why we think our emotions are actually aimed at that true good.
Are our pastors telling us the truth?
Are Christian pastors honest with their congregations regarding the evidence for the Resurrection? Is there really a “mountain of evidence” for the Resurrection as our pastors claim or is the belief in the Resurrection based on nothing more than assumptions, second century hearsay, superstitions, and giant leaps of faith?
You MUST read this Christian pastor’s defense of the Resurrection and a review by one of his former parishioners, a man who lost his faith and is now a nonbeliever primarily due to the lack of good evidence for the Resurrection:
—A Review of LCMS Pastor John Bombaro’s Defense of the Resurrection—
(copy and paste this article title into your browser to find and read this fascinating review of the evidence for the Resurrection)
Hello thanks for posting. This particular post has very little to do with weighing the evidence of the resurrection. I sort of address those issues here: