Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Apr/09

7

Brooks bashes the “new atheists”

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David Brooks argues that the view that moral decision-making results from an intuitive, pre-rational engagement with the world, rather than from logical deduction from a set of moral principles, is a  challenge to “the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning.” 

With all respect to David Brooks, this claim, in an otherwise lucid column, strikes me as nonsensical.  The new atheists are arguing not against the view that morality is innate, but that it is the product of formal religious teaching.  It is the theistic and theocon worldview that is challenged by what Brooks calls the “evolutionary approach to morality,” not the skeptical one.  It is the theocons who assert that unless society and individuals are immersed in purported Holy Books, anarchy and depredation will rule the world. 

Skeptics respond that moral behavior is instinctual, that parents build on a child’s initial impulses of empathy and fairness and reinforce those impulses with habit and authority.   Religious ethical codes are an epiphenomenon of our moral sense, not vice versa.  The religionists say that morality is handed down from a deity above; secularists think that it, and indeed the very attributes of that deity himself, bubble up from below.  Children raised without belief in divine revelation can be as faithful to a society’s values as those who think that the Ten Commandments (at least those not concerned with religious prostration) originated with God.

 
As for non-believers’ purported faith “in the purity of their own reasoning,” I have no idea what Brooks is talking about.  The new atheists are not on an intellectual purity crusade; they see the whole of human thought as evidence of the richness of the human mind.  They embrace the gorgeousness and grandeur of music, art, and literature as a source of meaning and wisdom.

Brooks appears to want to unite neuroscience and evolutionary psychology with staunch support of religion as a precondition to decent society.  I’m not sure that this balancing act will hold, but we’ll have to wait and see. 

The Templeton Foundation discussion that spurred Brooks’s column is here.  Readers can judge for themselves whether secularists should feel rebuked by its contents.

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85 comments

  • A-Bax · April 8, 2009 at 9:36 am

    Daniel :

    Daniel
    A-Bax,
    You are also committing the same error you accuse Tobias of; namely, you assume there must be a Darwinian explanation for our impulse to make moral judgments, and then you go about explaining the mechanism by which that would have occurred.

    Close, but not quite right. I don’t assume there must be a Darwinian explanation, that’s just simply the avenue that I’m looking down at the moment. I am perfectly content to go through life without an “explanation” of morality, if such an explanation is blatantly question-begging, or makes highly dubious metaphysical inferences.

    Perhaps the Darwinian explanation will ultimately fail. Perhaps we will come across some other good explanation. Or, perhaps, we won’t ever reach a good explanation, in my lifetime at least. (As seems to be the case with the phenomena of consciousness, for instance). Yet I would and do refrain from making unsupported leaps to the realm of the “non-physical”, without any evidence beyond my own ignorance.

    The later bits about epiphenomena, the equivalence of human-deliberative-processes and the falling-of-raindrops betrays a billiard-ball understanding of causality that has not been tenable since Neils Bohr, at least. And the use of quotation-marks where referring to reason and logic give me a whiff of stale Platonism….as if these things simply must, MUST be grounded in something other than the physical world, because…..well because they simply MUST!

  • Tobias · April 8, 2009 at 10:14 am

    @

    A-Bax

    “This is mistaken. We do not “choose” some instinct over other instincts. Rather, in the distant past, members of a population exhibited variance with regard to their behaviors (some of which we might, in retrospect, call proto-moral behavior or something like that). Certain sorts of behaviors were more fruitful than others, and the genes involved with those behaviors, however tangentially, had a higher frequency in the next generation.”

    But this only buttresses my argument with Heather. This is certainly a true description of the gradual appearance of behaviors, but can’t you see the problem that lies in that description? You’re suggesting a alternative to my earlier point, and that suggestion implies that you believe I have the choice, at least in principle, between affirming either the wrong or the right interpretation. If you’re right, and neither I nor anybody else has the ability to choose, why do you present the evolutionary description of behavior as something that I am free to affirm? Don’t my instincts and biological make-up determine for me which position I will affirm?

    Be that as it may, Heather’s description of morality as something that we can teach our children, without reference to any sort of trans-instinctual values, both implies our ability to choose between morality and a-morality, and begs the question of how exacty we are to choose. If we say that morality is instinctual, then why should it need to be taught? If it is preferable, on what grounds is it preferable to our other instincts?

  • A-Bax · April 8, 2009 at 10:46 am

    Tobias :

    Tobias
    @
    A-Bax

    But this only buttresses my argument with Heather. This is certainly a true description of the gradual appearance of behaviors, but can’t you see the problem that lies in that description? You’re suggesting a alternative to my earlier point, and that suggestion implies that you believe I have the choice, at least in principle, between affirming either the wrong or the right interpretation. If you’re right, and neither I nor anybody else has the ability to choose, why do you present the evolutionary description of behavior as something that I am free to affirm? Don’t my instincts and biological make-up determine for me which position I will affirm?

    Where this semi-mystical understanding of choice comes from, I don’t know, but you seem to be relying on it an awful lot. This judo-style debate move is not as strong as you seem to think it is. Attempting to persuade someone of something does not commit one to invoking non-physical properties or essences. That you seem to think it does so commit bespeaks an already metaphysically-elevated sense of reason. And you then use this already-elevated-sense-of-reason to play gotcha! with anyone who engages in the debate. This is simply question-begging.

    Tobias :

    Tobias
    @
    A-Bax
    Be that as it may, Heather’s description of morality as something that we can teach our children, without reference to any sort of trans-instinctual values, both implies our ability to choose between morality and a-morality, and begs the question of how exacty we are to choose.

    Again, there seems to be an insistence on a top-down understanding of these matters. Not only are you insisting on a mystical understanding of choice, but your are declaring that what you call “trans-instinctual values” both i) exist, and ii) are accessible to humans (where? through the pineal gland?). What is your evidence for this assertion again?.

    Tobias :

    Tobias
    @
    A-Bax

    If we say that morality is instinctual, then why should it need to be taught?P>

    Many animals have instincts for things, but still require training to do them successfully (especially among mammals). Not all instincts operate like a spider spinning its web. Much of this training is through simple trial & error by the animal itself, but among many mammals there is often outright “instruction” from the parent, usually the female.

  • Secular Right » Godless liberals & religious conservatives, the numbers recaped · April 8, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    [...] I thought a review would be nice to get into the record. AllahPundit and Ace have both linked to Heather’s post on David Brooks & the New Atheist. Ace notes: This gets at something I think is important: I believe that evangelical atheists like [...]

  • Andrew Stevens · April 8, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    “What is bizarre is that you all are defending positions which none of our leading secular philosophers would defend.”

    No, what’s bizarre is that you’re concerned about what the least-effective seekers of truth in all history think and say.

    This is not true. Virtually all of our culture and knowledge has spun off from philosophy. Science used to be called “natural philosophy.” The reason why we think of it as separate from philosophy now is because philosophers solved the problems of science and spun it off to its own field. What is left to philosophy today is those problems which have not yet been solved. This isn’t to say, though, that philosophy hasn’t reached some conclusions on those matters. For example, nobody takes seriously any more Bradlaugh’s logical positivist positions (e.g. Bradlaugh’s position that the word morality has no semantic content). Of course, there are many non-philosophers who believe they have solved all the problems of philosophy, but they shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

    The truths of science absolutely depend on the truths of philosophy. The process of science, including experimenting, observing, and analyzing, leading to empirically testable claims is not itself (as a process) empirically testable. It rests on a number of philosophical propositions, including the objectivity of reality and the validity of induction, parsimony, coherentism, etc. None of these are empirically verifiable; they are philosophical truths, assuming they are truths at all. Indeed, many people have attacked, and continue to attack the objectivity of science by attacking the philosophical basis on which it stands.

    On morality, what has always puzzled me about error theorists, and I grant the logical possibility that their position is correct, is why nobody who espouses it actually takes it seriously. Let us assume for the sake of argument that it is true. Why exactly should I bother to believe it? It’s no longer possible to say “you ought to believe it because it’s true” after all.

    You can’t even get hypothetical imperatives out of error theory. E.g. “if you want to live a non-screwed-up life, you should do X.” Like all hypothetical imperatives, it implies that we have reason to do that which will enable us to accomplish our ends. But this is a claim that we have reason to do something regardless of our preferences, which error theory is forced to deny.

    Perhaps the Darwinian explanation will ultimately fail. Perhaps we will come across some other good explanation. Or, perhaps, we won’t ever reach a good explanation, in my lifetime at least. (As seems to be the case with the phenomena of consciousness, for instance). Yet I would and do refrain from making unsupported leaps to the realm of the “non-physical”, without any evidence beyond my own ignorance.

    The problem with the Darwinian explanation is not that it might ultimately fail, but that it cannot possibly succeed. Dawkins argues that non-kin altruism evolved out of a “blessed, precious mistake.” Well, perhaps it was simply the result of an evolutionary error, a misfiring caused kin altruism to overshoot its mark. But why blessed and precious? If we explain morality in terms of the survival of a species, one cannot simply assume that it is a good thing for the species to survive. The Darwinian explanation is not even in principle capable of grounding morality. All it could possibly do is explain why we keep making the mistake of thinking there’s anything good, bad, valuable, or whatever, at all.

    Error theory is, I believe, the only viable alternative to moral realism, but, while I have met many people who claim to believe it, I’ve never met anyone who acted in any way consistent with believing it.

    Moral realism is simply a matter of common sense. It seems obvious to me that “boiling babies just for the fun of it is wrong.” (And, while I sympathize with A-Bax’s objection to positing non-material entities, even the arch-materialist Quine was forced to posit the existence of abstract objects, namely numbers.) Against my intuitive belief that “boiling children alive just for the fun of it is wrong,” J.L. Mackie offers the following argument:

    1) If moral values existed, they’d be “queer.” (Premise. I’m actually inclined to grant the truth of this one.)
    2) “Queer” things don’t exist. (Premise)
    3) Therefore, moral values don’t exist.

    So against my premise of “boiling children alive just for the fun of it is wrong,” Mackie claims that the more plausible, more intuitive premise is “‘Queer’ things don’t exist.” I understand that Mackie and others who believe this argument sincerely believe that their premise is more forceful than mine is. I’m just bewildered that this really strikes them as the more likely premise to be true, given what we know about electrons, black holes, quarks, electromagnetic fields, etc. Believe me, I’m not happy about the metaphysical baggage that comes with my belief in moral realism. But A) I believe one is forced to certain metaphysical commitments, equally as “queer,” in order to justify mathematics and science and B) I don’t believe the metaphysical commitment required is all that extensive (since I’m an immanent realist, a la David Armstrong). There are large implicit metaphysical assumptions embedded in science. These assumptions don’t bother me, but they probably should bother a committed materialist.

  • Robert Satori · April 9, 2009 at 12:06 am

    “If we explain morality in terms of the survival of a species, one cannot simply assume that it is a good thing for the species to survive.”

    That brings up something I’ve thought about quite a bit.

    A practical, reasoned (and entirely familiar) system of morality CAN be founded on the assumption that survival of our own species is the fundamental “good.” Even “non-kin” altruism is no great leap of reasoning in a system based on this assumption if you recognize our shared genetic history (not to mention ecological interdependence) with every other form of life on this planet; there is no such thing as truly non-kin altruism, in fact, as you merely need to scale your kinship bond accordingly.

    I will grant that this reasoned system of extended kin loyalty may diverge from universal morality if you ever introduce a true non-kin “other.” Simplistic moral tenets such as Confucius’s ‘golden rule’ may in such a situation be directly in contention with the fundamental “good” if you do not assume some other connection — a shared metaphysical origin, perhaps. Such was the leap C.S.Lewis seemed to make in his apologetic fantasies. But until we actually encounter such truly “non-kin” others we can avoid that dilemma.

    Of course, I am sidestepping the question of whether we have this kind of altruism as a natural quality of our species or not.

  • Kevembuangga · April 9, 2009 at 1:20 am

    Andrew Stevens
    “boiling children alive just for the fun of it is wrong,”

    Agreed (ignoring semantic nitpickings on “wrong”).
    But it’s a FEELING, like food smells good and shit smells foul.
    Were it not for those those EVOLUTIONARY SELECTED feelings neither you nor I would be here discussing the matter.
    Why the heck do you want to paint “metaphysics” on anything you cannot put your hands on?

  • A-Bax · April 9, 2009 at 5:40 am

    Andrew Stevens :

    Andrew Stevens
    Science used to be called “natural philosophy.” The reason why we think of it as separate from philosophy now is because philosophers solved the problems of science and spun it off to its own field.

    Just one real quibble here, and it is the above claim that the increased separation of science and philosophy (we no longer talk about “natural philosophers” anymore, they’re just “scientists”) is a result of achievements in philosophy.

    To my mind, this has it exactly backwards, and I say this as someone who has studied philosophy at the post-graduate level and has a great deal of respect for the discipline. Philosophy has lost territory over the centuries as a result of the real-world success of the scientific method. The scientific method, for its part, eschews abduction (inference-from-best-explanation), and, yes, displays a “favoritism” towards naturalistic explanations/theories. But this favoritism is a result of the repeated and utter failure of rival (philosophical) methods to produces real-world results.

    Well, one might say, philosophy (as currently understood) has a wider scope than what you’re calling “real-world” success/results. Fine. Well and good. But when these other kinds of methods and styles-of-reasoning make claims regarding matters-of-fact, all sorts of alarm bells go off. These alarm bells go off because non-scientific methods of reasoning are notoriously poor, unreliable, and non-self-correcting when it comes to matters-of-fact.

    The claim that there MUST be non-physical entities is a claim regarding matters-of-fact. I hear your point about Quine, and philosophy of math is sort of one of the last bastions of Platonism (as Bradlaugh acknowledged earlier). Will it always remain so? Possibly. Should we worry if the foundations-of-mathematics continually resist naturalization? Possibly. But who knows what the future holds.

    The future does not necessarily resemble the past, and it could be the case that the scientific method will be augmented/replaced at some point in the future by something which better accounts for its successes AND does justice to foundational questions in math and other seemingly non-naturalistic disciplines (morality, aesthetics).

    But until such a method is developed, epistemological modesty should compel one to treat the claims and results of non-scientific philosophy (when such claims impinge upon matters-of-fact) with extreme skepticism, as it’s track record is so poor.

    PS – Great post, Andrew Stevens. It may bring us too far off-topic, but I was struck by your claim that “moral realism is simply a matter of common sense”. For my part, I am more persuaded by Van Fraasen’s stance that even scientific realism is not warranted. (VF is, of course, famously known for his anti-realist, yet non-instrumentalist, view of the nature of scientific claims.) So, moral-realism is anything but commonsensical to me.

  • Andrew Stevens · April 9, 2009 at 8:50 am

    Agreed (ignoring semantic nitpickings on “wrong”).
    But it’s a FEELING

    I disagree with this. There is no question that moral propositions often evoke feelings, but I deny that they are, at base, emotional in nature. I agree that my example, “boiling children alive just for the fun of it,” evokes very strong feelings and therefore perhaps wasn’t the best example. But how about, “on the subject of the existence of moral values, we ought to believe only what is true”? Anybody prepared to get worked up over that? This is a moral proposition that has an obvious force to it, but I do not agree that the force is emotional in nature. It is not a contradiction to say, “It is not true that there are such things as moral values, but I believe that there are.” However, we see this as something very akin to a contradiction since the force of the moral proposition “we ought to believe only what is true” is so powerful. It is far more powerful than the chain of reasoning which leads one to conclude that it is false.

    Why the heck do you want to paint “metaphysics” on anything you cannot put your hands on?

    On the contrary, I would love a material explanation for the truth of moral propositions, but I have yet to find a non-metaphysical solution which is, even in principle, capable of explaining it. Moreover, emotivism does not appear to be a tenable belief. An emotivist can agree with my moral propositions, as you just did, but an error theorist is forced to deny it. Despite Blackburn and others’ attempts to rehabilitate non-cognitivism, I am nearly certain that the Frege-Geach objection is fatal to it. (Just as Socrates put a stake through the heart of Divine Command Theory, thus liberating morality from the further baggage of God.)

    The scientific method, for its part, eschews abduction (inference-from-best-explanation), and, yes, displays a “favoritism” towards naturalistic explanations/theories. But this favoritism is a result of the repeated and utter failure of rival (philosophical) methods to produces real-world results.

    I cannot agree that the scientific method does not use inference-to-best-explanation. Only Van Fraassen has really tried to justify science without using inference to best explanation. I personally favor Peter Lipton’s argument against Van Fraassen, but judging between the two may well be beyond my competence.

    As for methodological materialism, I completely agree that it is a necessary and completely appropriate assumption of science. It does not, however, prove materialism is true. That isn’t a scientific question at all. I know of no experiment which could even conceivably prove or refute materialism.

    But when these other kinds of methods and styles-of-reasoning make claims regarding matters-of-fact, all sorts of alarm bells go off. These alarm bells go off because non-scientific methods of reasoning are notoriously poor, unreliable, and non-self-correcting when it comes to matters-of-fact.

    I disagree. The philosophical underpinnings of science are one of the great success stories of philosophy, and there are many others. You use non-scientific methods of reasoning every day of your life, including moral reasoning, and it works just fine for you 95% of the time. (The fact that scientific methods work 99.9% of the time is because their philosophical basis is stronger than non-scientific methods of reasoning.) The fact that a lot of people say mad things (and I agree that many philosophers say mad things, such as “it is not true that boiling children alive just for the fun of it is wrong”) is no sufficient refutation of reasoning. We just have to be careful about how we reason. For example, I believe that you are putting far too much weight on your skeptical argument, far more than it can bear. (And, by the way, you are engaging here in non-scientific philosophy so your principle appears to be very close to self-refuting, in that it states we should treat your reasoning with extreme skepticism. I agree in this one particular case, for what it’s worth.)

    The claim that there MUST be non-physical entities is a claim regarding matters-of-fact. I hear your point about Quine, and philosophy of math is sort of one of the last bastions of Platonism (as Bradlaugh acknowledged earlier). Will it always remain so? Possibly. Should we worry if the foundations-of-mathematics continually resist naturalization? Possibly. But who knows what the future holds.

    Actually, Bradlaugh argued that working mathematicians held a naive Platonism. He didn’t seem to be aware that many (most?) philosophers of mathematics hold a view which would seem, to Bradlaugh, to be equally naive.

    It may bring us too far off-topic, but I was struck by your claim that “moral realism is simply a matter of common sense”.

    Sloppy writing on my part. I agree that moral realism may not seem like common sense. What I meant was that the truth of certain moral propositions is simply a matter of common sense. I am convinced by the arguments that if a moral proposition is true, then this entails moral realism (in some fashion, and I’m happy to debate the details).

  • Caledonian · April 9, 2009 at 8:53 am

    Virtually all of our culture and knowledge has spun off from philosophy.

    No, it hasn’t. In the modern sense, philosophy has accomplished precisely *nothing*. What was called ‘philosophy’ at the time it was done is, from our perspective, science. Newton, for example, did a whole lot of work. Some of it fits the requirements to be called science and mathematics, and it’s what made his reputation. All of his ‘philosophical’ work on alchemy, theurgy, Qabbalistic magic, and heretical theology? Utter garbage.

    Mathematicians sometimes try to produce results that have absolutely no ‘useful purpose’, but sooner or later someone finds a way to make even the most obscure findings shed light on some observable process. They try to make useless progress, and they can’t do it!

    Philosophy is not only useless, but it eschews the concept of usefulness to excuse its total lack of accomplishment.

  • Caledonian · April 9, 2009 at 9:00 am

    @Gotchaye

    e was clearly asking about whether or not slavery is morally permissible, evil, laudatory, etc.

    Those words are not synonymous, Gotchaye. The concepts to which they refer are not interchangeable, or even necessarily correlated.

    Before people understood anything about the nature of light, they were sensibly talking about things appearing ‘blue’.

    No, they were not. They used ‘blue’ to refer to a learned association of color states. It’s not a property, it’s a categorization of properties, which people were almost absolutely ignorant of.

    There are people (the blind and some of the color-blind) who have no real idea what ‘blue’ is, but they don’t doubt that others are saying something meaningful when they say that “the sky is blue” or even “I dreamed about a blue triangle”.

    The failure of some individuals to properly apply reason is not my concern. They *should* be doubtful.

    It’s precisely like explaining ‘blue’ to the color-blind.

    You can’t even explain ‘blue’ to a sighted person.

    but you can’t just say that “slavery is evil” is word salad because there’s no agreed-upon empirical test for ‘evil-ness’.

    There’s no ‘conceptual’ test, either. That’s why the word has no meaning in any general context.

  • Andrew Stevens · April 9, 2009 at 9:09 am

    Caledonian, that’s some interesting philosophy you’re engaging in. As I said earlier, science relies on the truths of philosophy for their foundations.

    This, of course, brings us back to the usual tension underlying these sorts of debates. Skeptical arguments are never themselves exposed to skeptical scrutiny. The inability or unwillingness to refute skepticism is the primary cause of virtually all bad philosophy. Skeptical arguments are seductive because they appear to rest on very plausible premises like “we have to have a reason for believing anything” (no reason is ever given for why we should believe that, of course) or “our epistemic equipment is untrustworthy” (it is left unsaid how we were able to ascertain the truth of this with our untrustworthy epistemic equipment), etc. These principles are plausible and so are left unrefuted. However, very few people are thorough-going skeptics so they reject the conclusions that naturally follow from these premises. So most people are going through life believing a contradiction: that knowledge is possible while simultaneously believing premises that show that knowledge is not possible. From a contradiction, anything can follow. In this case, what we have are two separate epistemic standards – a skeptical one and a non-skeptical one. What happens in practice is someone comes across an argument (the efficacy of science or God) which they happen to like so they apply their loose standards of justification and believe it. Later, they come across a proposition that they don’t like (the truth of morality or evolution) and they apply their skeptical standards and refuse to believe it. This is a prescription for intellectual chaos. I meet few people who haven’t studied philosophy who aren’t very much in the grasp of this chaos.

  • A-Bax · April 9, 2009 at 9:53 am

    Andrew Stevens :

    Andrew Stevens
    Skeptical arguments are never themselves exposed to skeptical scrutiny. The inability or unwillingness to refute skepticism is the primary cause of virtually all bad philosophy.

    But can’t we understand skepticism as more of an “stance”, or “intellectual disposition” rather than as a formal doctrine requiring justification?

    I agree with you that, for instance, materialism cannot be confirmed or disconfirmed by experiment, in the same way that a doctrine of skepticism might be vulnerable to a skeptical onslaught, but, as Wittgenstein said (and I’m not trying to name-drop here, honestly): explanation has to end somewhere. We will never have to full-blown explanation for everything seen and unseen, never have a full-blown justification for our ideas/conclusions at every stop along the way.

    Indeed, the attempt to accomplish such a feat is, from where I’m sitting, the true cause of virtually all bad philosophy (think Hegel).

    Andrew Stevens :

    Andrew Stevens
    However, very few people are thorough-going skeptics so they reject the conclusions that naturally follow from these premises.

    The historical Hume addressed this very issue at the end of his magnum opus, and famously admitted that, after a game of backgammon and merry conversation with friends, his own penetrating ideas left him cold and unmoved.

    Yet that tells us more about human nature than it does the force of his ideas. You are likely right that most of us walk around with contradictions in our heads (“cognitive dissonance” among psychologists), but yet there doesn’t seem to be as much chaos as I think you’re imagining. Perhaps there’s “intellectual chaos”, as our mental life is not nearly as formally pristine as perhaps it should be, but we seem to go along to get along fairly well, and even steadily improve the quality of life we enjoy.

    The lions share of credit of that improvement in the quality of life we enjoy goes to the discoveries made and technologies derived from the scientific method.

    Even the blossoming of Enlightenment ideas that we might call classical liberalism – upon which our Constitution is based, and many who read this site struggle to currently defend – would not have been possible without, say, the invention of the printing press.

  • Caledonian · April 9, 2009 at 10:03 am

    Caledonian, that’s some interesting philosophy you’re engaging in

    No, it’s fairly trivial reasoning. Only the most depraved try to include any and all forms of reasoning in the category of philosophy.

    Socrates’ term has been almost completely corrupted. Now his word refers to the sophists, as opposed to those who reject sophistry.

  • Daniel · April 9, 2009 at 10:23 am

    Andrew Stevens said:

    “(Just as Socrates put a stake through the heart of Divine Command Theory, thus liberating morality from the further baggage of God.)”

    I’ve seen you invoke the Euthyphro dilemma before as an objection against any role for God in the existence of objective morality. I do not believe that it is nearly as powerful, as an objection against a broadly Judeo-Christian explanation for morality, as you seem to take it to be. (For the sake of other readers: the Euthyphro dilemma asks whether actions which are morally good are good because the gods command it, or if the gods command morally good actions because they are good. If one takes the first position, one is left in the awkward circumstance of claiming that, if the gods were capricious, rape could be a moral good. If one takes the second position, one has removed the need for gods, since morally good actions were such prior to the divine command.)

    Socrates was working with a conception of deity which is radically different from that of classical Christian theism. He was more or less referring to corporeal Olympian Superdudes when talking about the gods. On the other hand, in the Christian view the existence of God is a necessary precondition for the existence of anything outside of Him. Contingent beings are good only by an analogous likeness to the ultimate Good – God.

    If you’re interested in a more extended discussion of a Christian resolution to the Euthyphro dilemma, I recommend Steve Lovell’s paper C.S. Lewis and the Euthyphro dilemma.

  • Kevembuangga · April 9, 2009 at 10:58 am

    Andrew Stevens
    This is a moral proposition that has an obvious force to it, but I do not agree that the force is emotional in nature.

    Sorry, I don’t see any “force” in any moral proposition whatsoever, beside:
    a) the emotional content.
    b) the practical societal consequences of following/failing it.

    I would love a material explanation for the truth of moral propositions,

    This is where the reasoning goes awry, “truth” is a technical term of formal logic, where is the logic framework which would be supposed to capture the “materialistic” embodiment of your moral propositions?
    Why do you crave so much for “truth”?
    Truth only guarantee correctness of a conclusion from the premisses, truth NEVER guarantee correctness of the premisses.
    Evidence doesn’t either but at least comforts the plausibility of the premisses.
    I know that “truth” is often used in place of evidence but this is an abuse of language which makes discussions even more murky.

    I know of no experiment which could even conceivably prove or refute materialism.

    This just proves that your “concept” of materialism/non materialism is meaningless, angels dancing on the head of a pin!
    I actually don’t care about materialism, I don’t put any metaphysics in its definition beyond the crude common sense of the word.

  • A-Bax · April 9, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    Daniel :

    Daniel
    Andrew Stevens said:
    “(Just as Socrates put a stake through the heart of Divine Command Theory, thus liberating morality from the further baggage of God.)”
    I’ve seen you invoke the Euthyphro dilemma before as an objection against any role for God in the existence of objective morality. I do not believe that it is nearly as powerful, as an objection against a broadly Judeo-Christian explanation for morality, as you seem to take it to be. (For the sake of other readers: the Euthyphro dilemma asks whether actions which are morally good are good because the gods command it, or if the gods command morally good actions because they are good. If one takes the first position, one is left in the awkward circumstance of claiming that, if the gods were capricious, rape could be a moral good. If one takes the second position, one has removed the need for gods, since morally good actions were such prior to the divine command.)

    Unfortunately for Christians, this is an absolutely devastating critique – so devastating that the response has basically been to conflate these two concepts, which is evident in the fairly odd Christian claim that god IS goodness. Christians seem to think that this conflation somehow disarms the Euthyphro objection, when all it does is muddy the waters even further as to the semantic-content in their use of the term “God” when they say they believe in God.

    If memory serves, there is a strain of Islam, can’t remember which, that essentially bites the bullet on Euthryphro, and takes what Daniel is describing as the first position. Thus if Allah wills it that rape, murder, etc. is good, than it is indeed good. As repugnant as this may seem, it at least takes the criticism seriously. (Taking the second position would, of course, mean that Allah has to “answer to” something, which of course is inconceivable to most Muslims.)

    Like many Christian theological ideas, this response is an attempt to (philosophically) have your cake and eat it too. The bit about God as a “necessary precondition for the existence of anything outside of Him”, etc. is literally stuck in the Middle Ages, and is a great example of what I mean when I say that inference-from-explanation is a notoriously poor form of reasoning.

  • Gotchaye · April 9, 2009 at 6:24 pm

    Caledonian: So, to be clear, you don’t think that the statement “the sky is blue” is at all meaningful? It’s nonsense to say “I dreamed about a blue triangle”? I’m curious now – what kinds of statements actually are meaningful? In what sense is ‘two meters tall’ not ‘a learned association of length states’, and why are words for learned associations meaningless? They certainly seem to usefully describe the inter-subjective world.

    You also did a bit of careless interpretation in your response to me. I was first throwing out moral words to remind you that, in fact, there’s a whole other way in which people talk about things as being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ that you’d somehow forgotten to mention in your earlier post. I also never said that ‘blue’ was a property of objects, just that one could meaningfully use the word to describe the appearance of objects (and as I noted, it seems something of a non sequitur to go from ‘only a learned association’ to meaningless).

    You can’t even explain ‘blue’ to a sighted person.

    You never really take the time to explain where you’re coming from, so I’m not very clear on how far you’re taking this. How do you mean? This seems every bit as true if we substitute ‘distance’ or ‘time’ in there. Isn’t the very best kind of explanation the one that consists only of one word: “Look”?

  • Andrew Stevens · April 9, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    But can’t we understand skepticism as more of an “stance”, or “intellectual disposition” rather than as a formal doctrine requiring justification?

    I’m not seeing it. I’ve heard this argument before and I’ve always been puzzled by what is meant by it. If all you mean is that “I personally choose to withhold judgment on everything unless it’s absolutely certain, but I’m not saying that everybody should do that,” then I suppose I’m okay with viewing that as a “stance” or an “intellectual disposition,” though I’d question how consistently one could actually do that (and I don’t find that anyone does it consistently in practice). But the skepticism that I’m talking about is one which insists that people who come to judgments based on the best evidence they have available are in error in so doing. In that case, it is certainly a formal doctrine and needs defending (quite a lot of it, since I think it’s false).

    Part of the mistake of skepticism, I believe, is a fanatical aversion to believing things which turn out to be false such that the skeptic is willing to not believe a massive number of things which turn out to be true. It is true that a thorough-going skeptic would not have made the mistake of believing that the sun revolved around the earth (in fact, only a thorough-going skeptic wouldn’t have made that mistake at one time), but he also would not now believe that the earth revolves around the sun. I simply don’t see a very good justification for this stance. I don’t think that wrongly believing things is so terrible that it should be avoided at such a high cost.

    I agree with you that, for instance, materialism cannot be confirmed or disconfirmed by experiment, in the same way that a doctrine of skepticism might be vulnerable to a skeptical onslaught, but, as Wittgenstein said (and I’m not trying to name-drop here, honestly): explanation has to end somewhere. We will never have to full-blown explanation for everything seen and unseen, never have a full-blown justification for our ideas/conclusions at every stop along the way.

    I agree with this, but it seems to me that it’s antithetical to the skeptical disposition you were previously advocating. After all, isn’t it my lack of a full-blown explanation for a moral metaphysic which so disturbs people who disagree with it? And yet they seem to believe that I should be wholly willing to swallow their entire metaphysics (or lack thereof) even if it makes a complete nonsense of common sense propositions. By the way, I don’t believe that my moral (and other) metaphysics is all that mysterious and I expect us to understand the whole thing a lot better within a few centuries or so. I am puzzled as to why we should privilege the “there is no metaphysics” argument as the default position, when there is zero evidence for it (and a great deal against, in the form of reasoned argument).

    No worries about the name-dropping. You may have noted my propensity for dropping the names of far more obscure late 20th century philosophers. This is mostly a shorthand to allow me to discuss complex issues in a limited amount of space and I assume that the Internet is now so extensive that everybody I name can be looked up easily.

    Indeed, the attempt to accomplish such a feat is, from where I’m sitting, the true cause of virtually all bad philosophy (think Hegel).

    Well, certainly I have no use for Hegel. Talk about the mad things some philosophers say. How on earth he was ever taken seriously by anyone is a bafflement to me.

    The historical Hume addressed this very issue at the end of his magnum opus, and famously admitted that, after a game of backgammon and merry conversation with friends, his own penetrating ideas left him cold and unmoved.

    But this should have tipped him off. I love Hume; he was a brilliant philosopher, but his unpalatable conclusions were unpalatable because they were mistaken. I agree that it was difficult, at that time, to spot the little errors he was making in his thinking so that he could untangle it, but the fact that his conclusions flew in the face of common sense should have made him rethink his arguments. Of course, Hume still deserves credit even by those who defend the methods (such as induction) he criticized. He was invaluable in strengthening the arguments for them.

    Yet that tells us more about human nature than it does the force of his ideas. You are likely right that most of us walk around with contradictions in our heads (”cognitive dissonance” among psychologists), but yet there doesn’t seem to be as much chaos as I think you’re imagining. Perhaps there’s “intellectual chaos”, as our mental life is not nearly as formally pristine as perhaps it should be, but we seem to go along to get along fairly well, and even steadily improve the quality of life we enjoy.

    I think there’s enormous amount of it in the average layman. In this thread alone, I couldn’t throw a dinner roll without hitting a dozen people with entirely inconsistent standards of epistemology. While I agree that, in general, these errors in philosophy don’t tend to do us much harm. But sometimes they cause untold amounts of harm. Think of Stalin slaughtering millions simply in the name of ideology.

    The lions share of credit of that improvement in the quality of life we enjoy goes to the discoveries made and technologies derived from the scientific method.

    Certainly.

    I’ve seen you invoke the Euthyphro dilemma before as an objection against any role for God in the existence of objective morality. I do not believe that it is nearly as powerful, as an objection against a broadly Judeo-Christian explanation for morality, as you seem to take it to be.

    Forgive me. Perhaps I haven’t been clear. I’m not arguing that the Euthyphro Dilemma makes the existence of God impossible or anything like that. What the Euthyphro Dilemma does is show that the “argument from morality” is not sound. I.e. it shows that we do not need God in order for morality to exist, so the existence of morality (which I agree with) does not entail the existence of God (which I don’t).

    The article was quite good, by the way, and I do appreciate the reference. Let’s take his conclusion (Divine Nature Theory) seriously, since this was the same conclusion advocated by the great Thomas Aquinas and I do believe it’s the best solution any theist has ever offered. If goodness is identical with God’s nature and God has all these other properties like intelligence, omnipotence, etc., surely God’s nature is separable from these other properties. In Divine Command Theory, morality is inseparable from God’s intelligence and personality, but in Divine Nature Theory, this is no longer true. There is no obvious reason why we need this nature to have intelligence, a personality, omnipotence, etc. So the argument for God’s existence from morality fails. I believe, essentially, that there is such a thing as goodness. But there is no need of God to justify this existence and the Euthyphro Dilemma makes this clear.

    I do not believe the Euthyphro Dilemma falsifies Judaism or Christianity, but I do believe it is a devastating critique to the argument that we need a god or gods as the origin of morality. The Divine Nature Theory might make it possible that God is the source of morality, but cannot sustain the argument that God is the only possible source of morality.

  • G,E,B · April 9, 2009 at 8:42 pm

    Andrew, I highly recommend Nietzsche. He covered this ground thoroughly and with incredible insight. Specifically Beyond Good and Evil – Part V – Natural History of Morals and Genealogy of Morals. Beware of the older, poorer free translations available online. I prefer Kaufmann.

    I will be so bold as to say that – in moral philosophy – he trampled all who came before him, none have refuted him, and few have improved upon him.

    One doesn’t want to be too harsh on Brooks since he is only a journalist and editor writing for the public, but his whole paragraph starting with “The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change.” was outrageous. Not that it’s wrong, but that it’s been true for at least the last hundred years. “Most people”? “Talmudic scholarship”? These things have not been taken seriously by reasonable people for ages.

    One is tempted to excuse it on the basis that he is speaking specifically about America, but America was also the country of Bernays!

  • Caledonian · April 10, 2009 at 6:59 am

    @Gotchaye

    Caledonian: So, to be clear, you don’t think that the statement “the sky is blue” is at all meaningful?

    You’ve missed the point. By themselves, statements have no meaning. They can take on meaning when they are used in particular ways in particular contexts.

    You aren’t capable of making that statement meaningfully. Others, however, are.

    Why are words for learned associations meaningless? They certainly seem to usefully describe the inter-subjective world.

    They can be used to refer to detectable patterns. They can describe those patterns only by making reference to other patterns.

    Describe ‘blue’. Go ahead, I want to see you try it.

    I was first throwing out moral words to remind you that, in fact, there’s a whole other way in which people talk about things as being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ that you’d somehow forgotten to mention in your earlier post.

    Already addressed.

    Isn’t the very best kind of explanation the one that consists only of one word: “Look”?

    That’s not a explanation at all.

  • Andrew Stevens · April 10, 2009 at 7:50 am

    G,E,B, I am of course familiar with Nietzsche and have read both of the books you mention. Obviously, as a devotee of analytic philosophy, I have limited patience for Nietzsche’s arguments, such as they are. He is interesting to read for poetical reasons and he is a very rare bird in philosophy – a man dominated by emotion rather than reason. For obvious reasons, philosophy is dominated by thinkers rather than feelers. I think he is well worth reading for this reason; he brings a perspective which is very often lacking.

    But clearly I do not share your regard for his philosophy. He never attempts to make a rigorous argument and it seems clear to me he wouldn’t have been able to succeed if he tried. However, there have been attempts to take his beginnings of an argument and make them rigorous by later philosophers. Some of those have been quite good. E.g. his best argument against moral realism is one of the better “Arguments from Disagreement” that there is. It’s still unsound, but it’s much better than most philosophers’, even analytic philosophers’, attempts at the same argument.

    As for his actual first order moral philosophy (which he has, despite his moral skepticism), I’ll let others evaluate it. I’m more interested in meta-ethics than I am in first-order moral philosophy. My major belief in first-order moral philosophy is that if it’s not fairly banal and obvious, then it’s probably false. Nietzsche’s is quite far from banal and obvious.

  • A-Bax · April 10, 2009 at 8:11 am

    Caldonian:

    You seem to be espousing something close to Bertrand Russell’s “Logical Atomism”, which, of course, became one of the key ingredients in Positivism. While I am sympathetic to the mindset that leads to these sorts of ideas, they have run their course, and have been found wanting.

    Read Russell’s lectures on “Logical Positivism” and I’m sure you’ll come away feeling something like: This is what I’ve thought all along! This is the real deal! Then read Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”. It’s a difficult piece, but worth the effort. It more or less decisively shows that the Positivist project (a laudable project, in my view, and perhaps should be seen as a reaction to the Hegel-inspired excesses of many late 19th century thinkers) simply will not work. On its own terms.

    The short version of why it will not work, if memory serves, is very close to Kant’s extremely subtle critique of Hume’s vision. Much as I revere Hume, and am often exasperated by Kant, the latter did score an important victory against the former when he rightly pointed out that the mind is not a passive entity which merely notes regularities and patterns in the world. To a significant extent, the mind shapes the data that it takes in. And it shapes in it ways that are devastating to the Positivist project.

    (Small aside, the post-Kantian, Hegel-inspired idealist excesses might be seen as taking this insight too far, and claiming that the mind creates, as opposed to just “shapes” the incoming data.)

    BTW, modern cognitive psychology and neuroscience back-up the claim that the mind/brain shapes sensory inputs.

  • A-Bax · April 10, 2009 at 8:44 am

    Sorry, Russell’s lectures on “Logical Atomism”:

    http://www.amazon.com/Philosophy-Logical-Atomism-Court-Classics/dp/0875484433

    Caldonian, you’ll dig it the most. (But there’s a near-unanswerable rebuttal…)

  • Andrew Stevens · April 10, 2009 at 10:37 am

    There is an absolutely terrific interview on Youtube of A.J. Ayer (link is to first of five parts), logical positivism’s main proponent in Great Britain, by Bryan Magee. Near the end of the interview, Magee asked Ayer what he thought logical positivism’s principal defects were and Ayer replied, “I suppose the most important defect was that nearly all of it was false.” And they both had a good laugh. Ayer went on, “Perhaps that’s being too harsh on it. I still want to say that it was true in spirit in a way, that the attitude was right. But if one goes for the details, first of all the verification principle never got itself properly formulated. I tried several times and it always let in either too little or too much, and to this day it hasn’t received a properly logically precise formulation. Then, the reductionism just doesn’t work. You can’t reduce statements, even ordinary simple statements about cigarette cases and glasses and ashtrays, to statements about sense data, let alone more abstract statements of science…If you go in detail very, very little survives. What survives is the general rightness of the approach.” It is fascinating watching the (quite brilliant) Professor Ayer admit that his life’s work had been a waste of time.

    As Magee himself said much later, “Rather like Marxism, logical positivism had seductive appeal and therefore an enormous vogue because it was clear-cut, easy to grasp, and provided all the answers. Like Marxism too, it constituted a ready-to-hand instrument of intellectual terrorism. At the university in which I arrived as a freshman in 1949 there were many who prided themselves on their mastery of it for this purpose. Almost regardless of what anyone said to them on any subject they would run him through with a ‘How would you go about verifying that statement?’ Clever young people were exhilarated by the sense of mastery this gave them. A lot of excited discussion took place on the basis of it—and to give it its due it did have the effect of clearing away a great deal of woolly thinking, and of giving people an altogether new alertness to the logical status of what it was they were saying. However, the more it itself was subjected to critical examination, the more trouble it ran into. The Verification Principle was neither analytic nor empirically verifiable, and therefore, according to its own criterion, it was meaningless. Furthermore, philosophical statements generally tended to be of this kind, neither analytic nor empirically verifiable, so the Verification Principle had the effect of outlawing more or less the whole of philosophy apart from logic. Once people ceased to be cowed they stopped agreeing that value judgments such as ‘Toscanini was a better orchestral conductor than Edward Heath’ were empty of cognitive significance, or that statements about events in the past turned out on analysis to be statements about the presently available evidence for their having occurred. People began to realize that this glittering new scalpel was, in one operation after another, killing the patient. In every case it destroyed too much. There was a period in which several of the cleverest philosophers became reluctant to say anything at all, because almost nothing that might be deemed to be worth saying was, unless it was factually provable, permissible.”

    The real flaw, as Magee points out, was evident from the outset. The Verification Principle says that a statement is only true if it is analytic and tautologous, such as statements of mathematics and logic, or if it is empirically verifiable. The Verification Principle itself is obviously neither. Positivists tried to evade this by claiming (forgive me) that it was a “stance” or an “intellectual disposition” and it therefore did not have to pass its own criteria. (They actually argued it was a philosophy and not an axiomatic system, so it didn’t need to pass its own criteria though they certainly thought it was legitimate to use it to judge all other philosophies.)

    To see what’s wrong with this, let us imagine that I have an epistemology based on the Magic 8-Ball. When presented with a proposition, I consult my Magic 8-Ball and determine whether the proposition is true or false based on its answer. You then ask me to submit my Magic 8-Ball methodology to itself. You say I should consult the Magic 8-Ball and see if the Magic 8-Ball itself even agrees with the Magic 8-Ball methodology. I refuse to do this on the grounds that it is somehow illegitimate to question the Magic 8-Ball about itself. This is very much what philosophical skeptics and logical positivists were doing.

    There were many other issues, of course. Their criteria for determining what was meaningful and what was meaningless was always either A) too vague, B) allowed in too little, or C) (worst of all, from their perspective) passed absolutely anything. In the end, the entire talents of the positivists (considerable) was entirely defeated. The Young Turks had lost to the establishment.

  • Caledonian · April 11, 2009 at 5:39 am

    I love the way that defenders of philosophy assume that people contradicting them must be ignorant of even the really famous events in the discipline.

    Tell me, A-Bax, have you heard of the Courtier’s Reply?

  • A-Bax · April 11, 2009 at 5:52 am

    Hey Caldonian, have you ever hear the expression “often in error, never in doubt?” – If I were being uncharitable I’d say that describes much of your writing, in this post at least.

    But, being more chartiably minded, I’ll chalk up your unnwarranted confidence in your vague position to mere ignorance. Proud ignorance at that!

    Cheers brosephs…

  • Caledonian · April 11, 2009 at 6:12 am

    I don’t have any writing in that post.

    I think that pretty much sums up the nature of your contribution to these forums.

  • Gotchaye · April 11, 2009 at 9:04 am

    Caledonian, I don’t think you understand what the Courtier’s Reply is. It’s not directing someone to a single reference where a directly applicable argument is to be found. Biologists aren’t engaging in a Courtier’s Reply when they point creationists to, say, the Lenski paper in response to the claim that mutations never produce beneficial changes. A Courtier’s Reply is pointing to the sheer volume of work in a discipline as evidence that the discipline isn’t bunk. I don’t think anyone’s done that here. In fact, many of the references have only been given in order to give proper credit to an argument that was then reproduced – they were not given as a way of telling you to shut up until you’ve read everything.

    I’d suggest that you try stepping back for a second – re-read your posts from the perspective of someone who doesn’t completely agree with you. You have a tendency to uncharitably interpret (or just misinterpret) other people’s posts in order to more easily shoehorn their statements into your pre-determined caricature of their positions. You consistently cherry-pick so as to ignore the real meat of people’s arguments. Your sketches of your own position are generally vague, such that all anyone can get out of them is that you’re basically a positivist. When asked to clarify or defend your position, you start tossing insults around, adding that your position is simply the only reasonable and obvious one (again, you’re careful not to actually justify this).

    I would imagine that it’s attitudes like this that give rise to the notion that atheism is merely another form of religion. Replace your metaphysics with the typical fundamentalist’s, for example, and you basically get what many of the religious trolls on Pharyngula toss out on a regular basis.

    In defense of A-Bax, he’s not simply assuming groundlessly that you’re ignorant of Quine. Quine is understood as arguing against exactly the position you’re taking. He’s often considered to have offered the definitive argument. And yet you’ve never given any indication that you’ve even considered that objection. I suppose we could just assume that you have some secret and absolutely compelling answer to Quine, but you haven’t yet even acknowledged that one is necessary. I think A-Bax is essentially right that you’re starting from absolute certainty in your own position.

  • A-Bax · April 11, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    Thank you Gotchaye. This has been a great post/comment/thread/forum, etc.

    Peace…

  • Caledonian · April 12, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    Caledonian, I don’t think you understand what the Courtier’s Reply is.

    The Courtier’s Reply is when one person rejects another’s arguments regarding a field or its claims by pointing at their lack of in-depth knowledge of it.

    For example, saying that a scientist calling phrenology a pseudoscience has no grounds for that evaluation because he’s not deeply familiar with the theoretical claims of phrenology.

    In this particular case, Gotchaye first implicitly asserts that my position matches that of a particular group of well-known philosophers, then assumes that I’m ignorant of the current status of their beliefs and a very famous demonstration of their flaws. Throughout, it is suggested that I’m ignorant of the relevant philosophy and that this purported ignorance renders my opinions and judgments invalid.

  • A-Bax · April 12, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    Caldonian: Do biologists make use of the Courtier’s Reply when they refer IDers to the content of current texts in biology? (After all, biologists often reject IDers arguments regarding biology by pointing to IDers “lack of in-depth knowledge of it”)

    As an aside, you still haven’t directly addressed what your take on positivism is (which is fine, no one says you have to). But, when you utilize what seem like positivist concepts, it’s only natural to wonder about your familiarity with those concepts. That’s all.

  • Caledonian · April 13, 2009 at 10:39 am

    Try to get my name right, please. It’s not as if it’s an arbitrary collection of letters.

    No. The biologists are pointing them at specific existing arguments and data. If it was insisted that IDers couldn’t form a judgment of biology because they supposedly hadn’t read obscure research journals, THAT would be a Courtier’s Reply.

    IDers frequently make claims about the support for evolutionary theory that are contradicted by basic, simple, and nearly ubiquitous introductory information that someone would likely come across if they’d looked even a little bit into the matter, assuming they hadn’t known it from general knowledge and cultural exposure. That’s why they’re so frequently held in contempt for ignorance – because even a little knowledge of the subject is enough to render their statements ridiculous.

    In this way, academic philosophy is more like theology or Intelligent Design than it is like biology.

  • David · April 15, 2009 at 12:26 am

    Bradlaugh: “Frankly, I think most philosophy is bollocks.”

    Then why the hell do you discourse on philosophical topics such as ‘is morality real’?

  • Caledonian · April 17, 2009 at 8:51 am

    That’s a scientific and logical topic.

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