Sunday, December 4, 2016

Post Debate Reflections (p. 4)

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Post Debate Reflections (p. 4)



The Bad



While there some aspects of the debate were good, some were bad. The debate had a number of red herrings. SeekSecularism defined the “Epistemic Thesis” by noting we believe in morality due to “rational intuition” (we intuit its existence and it’s a rational intuition). Recall that the Unbiased Atheist has no intuition of morality’s existence or nonexistence. With that in mind, consider these four of SeekSecularism’s objections to why the Unbiased Atheist is not a good vantage point to evaluate Pr(not-M|A&K), i.e. the objective evidential relation between not-M and A&K.
  1. SeekSecularism says the vantage point of the Unbiased Atheist is incompatible with the “Epistemic Thesis” in the sense that this vantage point excludes the a priori intuition of OMO existing. This seems irrelevant given what Pr(not-M|A&K) means. Remember, K can’t include any alleged a priori knowledge that OMO exists, just as it can’t include any alleged a priori knowledge that OMO does not exist.
  2. SeekSecularism says, “Any reason to be skeptical of moral intuitions would be reason to be skeptical of all rational intuitions,” and provides no justification for this claim. Suppose a theist claimed that “Any reason to be skeptical of my intuition that God exists would be reason to be skeptical of all rational intuitions.” An atheist might reply this isn’t true because while the objective evidence suggests that people’s intuitions of gods are delusory, the same does not go for all rational intuitions in general. Similarly, the AftUA suggests that while the objective evidence (on atheism) suggests that people’s intuitions of moral oughtness existing are delusory, the same does not go for all rational intuitions in general.
  3. SeekSecularism says, “My beliefs regarding evaluative facts are epistemically prior to my belief that God does not exist.” Maybe, but this seems irrelevant.
  4. SeekSecularism says, “My a priori knowledge of evaluative facts is not influenced by my a posteriori reasons for rejecting God’s existence.” Maybe, but this seems irrelevant.
Objections 3 and 4 were red herrings, though they are somewhat related to the issue at hand. Some red herring fallacies work by arguing for a similar but nonetheless different point from the actual topic, thereby engendering a greater chance of hoodwinking the audience.

Objection 1 was borderline; in a sense it brings up an irrelevant point but can become more relevant if one argues for why having such an intuition is needed for evaluating the objective evidential relation between A&K and not-M. (Though for reasons already mentioned, such an approach would appear doomed.)

Objection 2 raises an important lesson: beware unjustified claims. Seek Secularism claimed, without any justification, that “Any reason to be skeptical of moral intuitions would be reason to be skeptical of all rational intuitions.” One needn’t believe an objector simply because they say something. To be fair, this is sort of a blind spot for me also; I sometimes don’t realize when things aren’t obvious and I neglect to argue for claims I should justify. One of the reasons I find philosophical discussions useful is that it helps me expose such blind spots.

Another thing to take away from the debate when watching someone criticize a deductively valid argument: beware of objections that don’t attack the truth or justification of any premise of the argument. In SeekSecularism’s rebuttal, he said someone he called the “Unbiased Observer,” a person who has a subjectively experienced intuition that morality is real but has neutral intuitions about whether God exists, would accept both atheism and reject moral nihilism. The claim was that this “undercut” premise (P2). But as I pointed out, (P2) just says that the Unbiased Atheist would be justified in believing Pr(not-M|A&K) is high. Showing that someone else would be justified in accepting A and M doesn’t attack the truth or justification for (P2). The Unbiased Observer was largely a red herring. This happened quite a bit in SeekSecularism’s posts; a lot of his responses just didn’t attack the position he was responding too. If someone presents a deductively valid argument, and a person’s rebuttal doesn’t attack the truth or justification of any premise of that argument, you might have a red herring.

Another thing to take away from the debate: beware debaters making demands of their opponents. SeekSecularism said this:
These key points can be seen in the following two propositions:

(a) Glorious pleasure is intrinsically better than excruciating pain.

(b) Nothing is intrinsically motivating.

These two propositions are incompatible, and I take it as obvious that (a) is prima facie more plausible than (b). In order for MaverickXtian’s argument to be successful, the evidences that he presents must make (b) more plausible than (a).
But do I really have to do that for my argument to succeed? Not really; all I have to do is show that the premises of my deductive argument are justifiably true, and if they are justifiably true, then my deductive argument is sound regardless of whether I did anything to show that (b) is more plausible than (a), because that’s just how logic works. If a debater says something along the lines of, “If my opponent doesn’t do such-and-such, I win!” it’s worth taking a moment to think about whether that’s actually true. In this case, I didn’t have to meet SeekSecularism’s demands for my argument to be successful.

The Ugly



For me, what was among the most frustrating things in the debate is how he wouldn’t answer one of my main questions, which was this:
1) It is my view that on atheism the best explanation for why we believe in morality is this: evolution gave humanity physical brains that predispose them to believe in moral oughtness in the environments humanity finds itself in. This atheistic evolutionary explanation doesn’t require morality’s existence (belief in morality has evolutionary value whether it exists or not). You’ve disagreed with the idea that on atheism this evolutionary explanation is the best explanation for why we believe in morality, but then what better explanation is there on atheism that does require morality to exist for us to believe in it?
The idea behind “the best explanation for why we believe in morality’s existence doesn’t require morality’s existence” is that even if moral properties like “moral wrongness” were not associated with the corresponding natural properties, we’d still believe in morality’s existence. This seems plausible on atheism because moral oughtness is causally inert; it’s presence or absence would have no effect on what intuitions our brains would give us, nor would it have any effect on the evolutionary and environmental processes that gave us our brains.

So how did SeekSecularism answer the question? Basically by providing a non-answer. When I ask atheist moral objectivists how on atheism we have genuine knowledge of objective morality’s existence, the answers are sometimes frustratingly vague (almost as if they’re aware of the problem and don’t want to admit it), and SeekSecularism’s response here is sort of an example of this, but fortunately we can get something from this vague response:
Since I believe that morality is a function of reason in general, I consequently think that the correct explanation for why we have veridical moral intuitions will refer to whatever is the explanation for why we have the capacity for reason in general.
If atheism is true, what is the explanation for why we have the capacity for reason in general? Well, it’s evolution giving us physical brains that predispose us to reason in the sorts of environments humanity finds itself in, but this explanation does not require morality’s existence. The presence or absence or moral oughtness’s existence would have no effect on the evolutionary and environmental processes that gave us our physical brains, nor would it have any effect on the physical processes our brains engage in when we reason. So we still have no better explanation (or even any other explanation offered) for why we believe in morality that requires morality’s existence. That is, even if moral properties like “moral wrongness” were not associated with the corresponding natural properties, this would not affect whether we’d have intuitions of morality’s existence.

The situation is analogous to Cyborg Smith’s metal-detecting implant when the objective evidence suggests the implant would give her the intuition that the widget contains metal even if it didn’t contain metal. The intuition would fail to give Smith knowledge that the widget contains metal even if the widget did contain metal. Similarly, if atheism is true our intuition of morality’s existence fails to give us knowledge of morality’s existence if our intuitions are unaffected by whether morality exists.

The failure to provide an answer of how it is on atheism we know of morality’s existence didn’t just poison question 1 but future questions. In question 2, part of what I asked was “On atheism, what is the most plausible explanation you can think of for how our intuition of morality’s existence constitutes genuine knowledge, as opposed to something akin to nature throwing darts on a dartboard to decide which intuitive beliefs we’d get?” The reply? “In regards to a plausible explanation, see my answer to Question 1.” Argh; that reply was annoying.

If nothing else, beware responses that don’t actually answer the question, even if they claim they do. For example, in his reply to question 1, he said, ‘this explanation [for how we have veridical intuitions] would require the existence of moral properties, because otherwise there would be no “true target” for our rational intuitions to converge on.’ These “veridical intuitions” of morality’s existence require morality’s existence only in the sense that if morality did not exist, our intuitions of morality’s existence would not be veridical, and thus would not converge on the truth. However, the proffered explanation does not require morality’s existence in the sense the question was asking, since even if the proffered atheistic explanation is true, the presence or absence of moral oughtness would have no effect on whether we’d have intuitions of morality’s existence; we’d still have the intuitions even if morality did not exist.

Conclusion



Despite some bad and ugly stuff, I think the positives outweigh the negatives of the debate all things considered, largely because from the debate I’ve come away with a better way to present and defend the argument. This debate inspired a major rework of my Does Objective Morality Exist If God Does Not Exist? article.

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Post Debate Reflections (p. 3)

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Post Debate Reflections (p. 3)



Recall that (P1) is, “If the Unbiased Atheist would be justified in believing Pr(not-M|A&K) is high, then Pr(not-M|A&K) is high,” the idea being that the Unbiased Atheist is a good vantage point from which to evaluate the objective evidential relation between not-M and A&K. What we might call the main objection is the idea that premise (P1) is false, on the grounds that the Unbiased Atheist would not be a good vantage point for evaluating Pr(not-M|A&K). It’s an interesting objection and not one I expected (I instead expected (P2) would be the target of choice). But how to go about making this objection precisely?

Approach #1



One way would be to argue that M should be part of K, and if one does that Pr(not-M|A&K) would be as low as Pr(not-M|A&M). But this tactic seems philosophically inappropriate and question begging. To illustrate why, suppose an atheist proposes a probabilistic argument from evil, arguing that Pr(not-God|Evil&K) is high where K is some appropriate background knowledge (including e.g. free will for the theist who attempts a free will theodicy).[2] Suppose I argue that since belief that God exists is a rational intuition, we should include it in K, and when we do we effectively get Pr(not-God|Evil&God) which of course is extremely low, and thus Pr(not-God|Evil&K) is low. Therefore, I argue, the probabilistic argument from evil fails.

Even though I think the intuition that God exists is a rational intuition, this maneuver does not seem philosophically appropriate. The intuition of God’s existence, while perhaps rational, is a subjectively experienced intuition, and the objective evidence would still be strongly against theism if Pr(not-M|Evil&K) were high when propositions like God exists are excluded from K. Similarly, it seems philosophically inappropriate and question begging to just include morality’s existence (or some other proposition that has morality’s existence implicit in it) in K to argue that my “probabilistic argument from atheism” against moral objectivism doesn’t work.

Approach #2



A different approach would be, although not including a proposition like Morality exists in K, the intuition gives us nonpropositional support for morality’s existence, i.e. actually experiencing the intuition justifies our belief more than the mere fact that People have the intuition that morality exists. This a priori moral intuition makes us inclined to believe in morality, and this intuition needs to, for lack of a better term, bias our evaluation Pr(not-M|A&K) compared to a more neutral vantage point.

The problem is while that while a priori subjectively experienced intuitions about whether a theory is true might be appropriate for subjective probability assessments, the type of probability the argument is using is the objective evidential relation between the belief (moral objectivism) and the data (A&K). To illustrate, suppose that prior to examining the relevant scientific data, Smith has an overpowering intuition that creationism is true, and Jones has an overpowering intuition that evolution is true. Smith and Jones might come away with different subjective probability assessments of how likely evolution is after examining the scientific data, but to correctly evaluate the objective evidential relation between data and theory a more neutral vantage point seems appropriate. Hence the Unbiased Atheist.

In response, one could say that when a person’s intuition is a rational one, that person should use the intuition when evaluating the probability of a theory given the data if she is to assess the overall rationality of the belief. The problem is that even a rational subjectively experienced intuition is still subjectively experienced, and the type of probability the argument is using is nothing more than the objective evidential relation between theory and data, and not the overall rationality of a person’s belief.

To illustrate the difference between the two, suppose Smith and Jones know that in a particular factory 2% of all widgets shaped like a cube contain metal. Let T represent The widget from the factory contains metal and let D be The widget from the factory is shaped like a cube. The objective evidential relation between T and D is such that Pr(T|D) = 0.02, and Pr(not-T|D) = 0.98. Smith is a cyborg who knows she has a metal-detecting implant that gives her the intuition that a widget contains metal whenever a metal-containing widget is in her hand. Unbeknownst to Jones, Smith’s intuition tells her the cube-shaped widget contains metal and she is rational to believe it contains metal, but this does not change the objective evidential relation between T and D, which is still Pr(T|D) = 0.02, since Pr(T|D) represents the probability of the widget containing metal given just the shape of the widget. The overall rationality of a Smith’s belief is such that she is rational in thinking the widget contains metal despite Pr(not-T|D) being high.

In some cases it is possible for rational intuition to be relevant in evaluating the objective evidential relation between data and theory, e.g. intuiting principles of inductive inference. But the a priori intuition that moral oughtness is associated with certain natural properties is no more a rule of inductive inference than the a priori intuition that God’s existence is currently associated with the universe’s existence. The subjectively experienced intuition of morality’s existence, while perhaps a rational intuition, does not seem like it should affect our evaluation of Pr(not-M|A&K) when it’s the objective evidential relation between not-M and A&K that we’re trying to determine, and not the overall rationality of the belief.

Approach #3



A more promising approach is to bite the bullet and say that Pr(not-M|A&K) is high but only in the sense of an objective evidential relationship between not-M and A&K, and not the overall rationality of the belief. Consider the case of cyborg Smith. Although Pr(not-T|D) is high in the objective evidential relation sense, cyborg Smith’s intuition nonetheless makes it rational for her to believe the widget probably contains metal. Similarly, even though Pr(not-M|A&K) is high in the objective evidential relation sense, moral intuition still justifies an atheist’s belief that objective morality probably exists. Pr(not-M|A&K) as an objective evidential relation between theory and data ultimately becomes irrelevant, and the atheist moral objectivist is still justified in rejecting the moral argument’s first premise.

The problem comes when A&K encompass all the relevant data, including the existence of moral intuition, and when this objective evidence suggests that the moral intuition is likely delusory. To illustrate, let’s modify the cyborg Smith scenario as follows: Jones shows Smith objective evidence suggesting that Smith’s metal-detecting implant would give Smith the intuition that the widget contains metal even if the widget did not contain metal, making Pr(not-T|D&K) high. Cyborg Smith’s intuition would no longer provide adequate justification, and Pr(not-T|D&K) being high gives her strong rational grounds to believe the widget does not contain metal. Similarly, on atheism the objective evidence suggests we would have the moral intuition even if morality did not exist. Moral oughtness is causally inert; its presence or absence would have no effect on what intuitions our brains would give us, nor would it have any effect on the evolutionary and environmental processes that gave us our brains. On atheism, this would seem to undercut our moral intuition as a source of adequate justification, and Pr(not-M|A&K) being high does seem to strongly justify the moral argument’s first premise.

All things considered, I see no good way for the atheist to avoid the intellectual force of my argument for the moral argument’s first premise, but I appreciate my opponent’s attempt to knock it down.

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[2] For the record, I do not believe that Pr(not-God|Evil&K) is high, but the hypothetical scenario of it being high does serve as a useful illustration.




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Post Debate Reflections (p. 2)

Home  >  Philosophy  >  Atheism/Theism

Post Debate Reflections (p. 2)



Recap



With the following symbolization key:

M = Moral oughtness exists.[1]
A = Atheism is true.
K = The relevant background data.
Pr(not-M|A&K) = The probability of M being false given A&K, i.e. the probability of moral oughtness not existing given atheism and the relevant background data.


Presumably, there are objective probability facts regarding the evidential relationship between data and belief, e.g. “On the basis of the scientific data, quarks probably exist” is objectively true, and this is the sort of probability I have in mind when I say, “Given atheism, moral oughtness probably doesn’t exist” (viz. the objective evidential relationship between “atheism + background data” and “moral oughtness exists”).

My overall argument can summarized thusly, where the Unbiased Atheist is someone who has no intuitions of moral oughtness existing or not existing, including not intuiting propositions that have moral oughtness’s existence implicit in them (e.g. the Unbiased Atheist wouldn’t have the intuition that Something is morally wrong is true or probably true):

(P1) If the Unbiased Atheist would be justified in believing Pr(not-M|A&K) is high, then Pr(not-M|A&K) is high.
(P2) The Unbiased Atheist would be justified in believing Pr(not-M|A&K) is high.
(C1) Therefore, Pr(not-M|A&K) is high.
(P3) If Pr(not-M|A&K) is high, then Given atheism, moral oughtness probably doesn't exist is true.
(P4) If Given atheism, moral oughtness probably doesn't exist, then the first premise of the moral argument is probably true.
(C2) Therefore, the first premise of the moral argument is probably true.


Lines (P1), (P2), and (C1) are more or less the Argument from the Unbiased Atheist (AftUA). The main purpose of the AftUA was to show that on atheism, people’s intuitions of moral oughtness existing are probably delusory and not veridical, which of course implies Pr(not-M|A&K).

(P1) seems true due to what K can and can’t include. K cannot include question-begging propositions like M is true or M is probably false, since then we wouldn’t really be answering the question at hand, which is how likely not-M is in the first place on atheism and not e.g. how likely not-M is given A and M is probably true. SeekSecular balked at the idea of the Unbiased Atheist being a good vantage point for the objective evidential relation between A&K and M, but given which sort of data is admissible for K, what more could one reasonably ask for than someone like the Unbiased Atheist, since any good-vantage-point atheist wouldn’t have the a priori intuition knowledge of moral oughtness existing?

Line (P3) is true by definition, since what I mean by Given atheism, moral oughtness probably doesn't exist just is Pr(not-M|A&K) is high. Line (P4) is supported by a mathematical theorem.

My support for (P2) was the following inductive argument (with each premise predicated with, “If atheism is true, this is true:”), where objective moral oughtness is abbreviated as OMO.
  1. There is zero empirical evidence for objective moral properties. This supports the idea that the Unbiased Atheist has no good reason to accept M.
  2. It’d be a remarkable coincidence if moral intuitions happened to line up with what these invisible, causally inert moral properties are really like. Such reliance on remarkable coincidence suggests that we wouldn’t have real knowledge of objective moral truths; at best we’d have coincidentally true beliefs.
  3. OMO properties are suspiciously queer, akin to invisible and nonphysical gods.  To illustrate the general idea behind the Argument from Queerness (AfQ), suppose someone claims there is an invisible unicorn floating above my head. This claim is possible, but not plausible. I would be justified in disbelieving in this unicorn. The unicorn is “queer” enough to be prima facia implausible, and we are prima facia justified in rejecting its existence. Moral oughtness is invisible, nonphysical, empirically detectable, and causally inert. To the Unbiased Atheist, moral oughtness likewise seems “queer,” giving her prima facia justification for disbelieving its existence.
  4. Evolution occasionally gives false beliefs (e.g. gods).  So there’s precedent for evolution giving humans delusory intuitions for invisible nonphysical things. And belief in gods potentially serves some evolutionary purpose: “Don’t do stuff that harms the group even if we’re not watching because the gods are watching and they’ll punish you for doing bad stuff.”
  5. Moral oughtness beliefs have evolutionary value whether true or not.  Suspiciously enough, belief in moral oughtness is kind of like the false belief in gods in potentially serving some evolutionary purpose: to get us to behave in the right ways. Such beliefs have evolutionary value regardless of whether moral oughtness exists.
  6. Our best theory for why we believe in moral oughtness doesn’t require its existence.  Moral oughtness is causally inert; its presence or absence would have no effect on whether we’d get moral intuitions, and so the processes that gave us moral intuitions would do so regardless of whether morality existed. Consequently, we don’t need to posit something so extravagant as these invisible and highly metaphysical moral properties to explain moral beliefs; we can just say it’s a trick of evolution to get us to behave in certain ways.
Therefore: (probably) premise (P2) is true; the Unbiased Atheist would be justified in thinking that, like people’s intuitions of gods existing, people’s intuitions of moral oughtness existing are probably delusory and not veridical.

Note: I am not claiming that any single premise by itself is enough to justify the conclusion, but I do think the combination of all six premises justifies the conclusion.

One of my key claims that the AftUA illustrates is that on atheism the objective evidence suggests that people’s intuitions of M are probably delusory. In some cases our justification for beliefs comes from non-evidential grounds. For example, consider for example the following brain-in-vat (BIV) hypothesis: you are recently created (say, within the past five years) brain in a vat hooked up to a supercomputer feeding you all the memories, sense experiences, and intuitions you know have. We can’t justify our belief that BIV is false based on evidence, because there can’t be any evidence against it.[1] Instead it’s our intuition of its falsity that justifies our belief that BIV is false and that this perceived reality is real. The atheist moral objectivist (AMO) could similarly argue that he’s justified in believing OMO based on non-evidential intuition grounds, even if Pr(not-M|A&K) is high. But a crucial disanalogy is that in the case of BIV we don’t have any objective evidence suggesting BIV is true, whereas on atheism the objective evidence suggests that people’s intuitions of moral oughtness existing are probably delusory. This makes the a priori intuition option much less viable for the atheist.

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[1] This can be shown with the help of mathematics (given that the sort of “evidence” we have in mind is something that makes a hypothesis more or less likely); see p. 2 of Why evidentialism sucks.




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