Sunday, December 4, 2016

Post Debate Reflections

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Preface



This is a debate between me and SeekSecularism over the truth of the first premise of the following moral argument:
  1. If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.
  2. Objective morality does exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
The debate:




Post Debate Reflections (p. 1)



At times this debate was frustrating but I did find it useful. It encouraged me to present my case in a clearer, more analytical fashion. I owe my interlocutor a debt of gratitude for that. In this blog entry I’ll recap and summarize my argument, discuss what I think to be an interesting and substantive objection, why I don’t think the objection works, and some of the issues I found more frustrating.

Terms



By descriptive ought I mean that type of ought that is nothing more than some purely descriptive state of affairs, e.g. “If you want to do well in school, you ought to study” meaning something like “As a matter of practical necessity, you need to study to do well in school.” By prescriptive ought I mean that type of ought that is not a descriptive ought, e.g. “You should not to torture infants just for fun.” By moral ought I (roughly) mean the prescriptive ought as applied to human behavior.

Let’s define natural properties as properties that are entirely in the language of physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology, e.g. “being healthy” and “being in pain” are both natural properties. Similarly, natural facts are facts that are entirely in the language of psychology and the natural sciences, e.g. “the dog suffered a painful injury” is a natural fact. For the sort of morality we’re concerned with, moral non-naturalism appears to be true. Since physics, chemistry, etc. deal solely with purely descriptive states of affairs, natural properties and natural facts are purely descriptive states of affairs. As such, since moral oughtness is a prescriptive ought and not a descriptive ought, moral oughtness is non-natural and moral oughtness properties (like moral wrongness, where an action is morally wrong for someone only if they morally ought not to do it) are non-natural.

Some Key Claims



Another indication that moral properties are non-natural is their empirical undetectability and causal inertness. To illustrate what I mean by moral oughtness being empirically undetectable, imagine a moral nihilist (who disbelieves in moral oughtness) and a moral realist (who believes in moral oughtness) observe some jerk kicking a dog just for fun; the dog whimpers in pain and runs away. Both agree on all physiological and psychological facts, e.g. that the dog felt pain and suffered minor injury. The moral nihilist says, “I don’t think moral oughtness (like moral wrongness) is attached to that action.” The moral realist says, “I think moral oughtness (moral wrongness) is attached to that action.”

There is no empirical way to determine who is right here. Both views agree on all the same empirically observable facts, and moral oughtness being associated with certain physical facts (such as the dog’s injury) doesn’t explain any physical fact. Not only do we have zero empirical evidence for the existence of moral properties, we can’t have empirical evidence for moral properties since they’re empirically undetectable.

The dog kicker scenario also illustrates that moral oughtness is causally inert. Notice that whether moral oughtness is associated with natural facts (e.g. the dog’s pain and injury) or not, the physical conditions are the same in both cases, and so barring the supernatural, the presence or absence of moral oughtness makes no causal difference as to what those physical conditions will result in.

Another pertinent claim is that if atheism is true it would be a remarkable coincidence if moral intuitions happened to line up with what these nonphysical moral oughtness properties are really like. 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. On atheism, which moral intuitions we’d get from sociobiological evolution is unguided and random—random in the sense that it could have been otherwise, there’s no external intelligence like God directing which intuitions we’d get, and the processes that give us our intuitions are completely blind and indifferent to what moral properties are really like, such that even the very existence of moral properties has no effect on which moral intuitions we’d get. On atheism we could have had very different moral codes, even more different from the variations we’ve seen in human history, because moral intuitions would likely track adaptive behavior (behavior conducive for survival and reproductive fitness) rather than truth. Evolution could even have evolved a species where adaptive behavior would be to kill one’s own sibling, and we know this because it’s already happened (the Nazca booby bird). So all things considered, it would be a remarkable coincidence that the moral intuitions we’ve received happen to coincide with what these invisible and causally inert moral properties are really like.

Because moral oughtness is causally inert, the best atheistic explanation for why we believe morality exists does not require morality’s existence. Ultimately, we believe morality exists because our brains deliver the intuition that it exists; e.g. it just seems true to us that there’s something morally wrong with torturing innocent sentient life (like infants) just for fun. Barring the supernatural however (like God-guided evolution or supernatural clairvoyance), moral oughtness is causally inert such that even the presence or absence of moral oughtness would have no effect on which intuitions our brains give us, nor would it have any effect on the evolutionary and environmental processes that gave us our brains. So if atheism is true, those processes that gave us intuitions of morality’s existence would have done so even if morality did not exist.

With that out of the way, I’ll recap my argument for the moral argument’s first premise.

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Saturday, November 19, 2016

Debate: Objective Morality Without God? (p. 8)

Home  >  Philosophy  >  Atheism/Theism

Preface



This is a debate between me and SeekSecularism over the truth of the first premise of the following moral argument:
  1. If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.
  2. Objective morality does exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
The debate so far:




SeekSecularism’s Q & A





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?


I want to start off by clarifying that I argued that basic moral truths cannot fail to be true. If pain really is intrinsically bad, then it’s intrinsically bad in all possible worlds i.e. it’s a necessary truth. Since I also argued that universals exist necessarily, it follows that it is not metaphysically possible for there to exist a world with conscious beings and no moral properties. MaverickChristian is suggesting that a belief in moral properties has evolutionary value regardless of whether those moral properties actually obtain. I argue that it is not possible for those properties to not obtain. Moral facts are completely and necessarily determined by non-moral facts i.e. moral properties supervene necessarily on non-moral properties. The only thing left to explain is how we’ve come to have knowledge of these properties. Here’s such an explanation:

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. With that said, I think such an explanation will include biological evolution, however, it will not be the rather crude explanation that MaverickChristian offers. An explanation of veridical moral intuition would be impossible without first identifying the target of explanation (i.e. the moral system) and how it fits into our world. I think MaverickChristian and I could both agree that a moral system must be impartial to everyone's interests if it is to be considered a moral system at all. However, a crucial point that is glaringly lacking from MaverickChristian’s explanation of morality is the acknowledgement that peaceful cooperation provides benefits to all that generally outweigh any benefits that could be gained by the exploitation of others, and conflict with others causes harms that generally outweigh any benefits that might be non-cooperatively obtained. In other words cooperation has survival value, but conflict does not. For example, stealing food from my neighbor does not have survival value if a fight ensues, and I break my arm. However, cooperatively hunting with my neighbor and respecting each other’s property rights so that fights do not ensue does have survival value. However, peaceful cooperation of this kind requires rational assent to an agreed upon set of rules, and agreement on a set of social rules is very unlikely if those rules do not impartially take into account everyone's interests. For example, if I am operating under rules that are biased in my favor (i.e. I can steal from you, but you cannot steal from me), then I am unlikely to find anyone else who agrees with them. In order to achieve peaceful cooperation with others I need to accept rules that impartially account for both my interests and the interests of others i.e. rules whose being universal laws would make things go best, rules whose being universal laws everyone could rationally will, and rules that no one could reasonably reject.

With these considerations in mind, an alternative (and I think superior) explanation to the one MaverickChristian suggests is that people with a capacity for veridical moral intuition would enjoy the advantages of agreeing with each other on a set of rules that best permits social cooperation. People who lack veridical moral intuition might see no reason to accept a set of social rules, or might be inclined to accept a biased or skewed set of rules. If this were the case, then it is likely that such people would neither enjoy the advantages of finding agreement nor would they converge on rules whose being universal laws would make things go best. Since there is only one truth, those with veridical moral intuitions would avoid this problem by being able to use their faculties of reason to converge on moral truths that everyone could rationally will and no one could reasonably reject e.g. it is wrong to cause unjustified death, disability, pain, loss of pleasure, or loss of freedom.

I think my claims for this explanation are modest, and they are certainly much more modest than “supernatural clairvoyance” or the insertion of the radically dualistic metaphysics of Theism into the clockwork of ethics, because my explanation asserts less stuff, makes fewer essential claims, and thus has fewer ways of being false. I think this explanation plausibly demonstrates that it is at least possible for veridical moral intuition to have survival value, and this explanation would require the existence of moral properties, because otherwise there would be no “true target” for our rational intuitions to converge on. To be sure, I do not deny that sociobiology can teach us something about ethics, because it’s certainly possible that evolution may have endowed us with biases that affect our moral judgments. Sociobiology could then help us identify those biases in order to correct for them and thereby improve our moral cognition.


2) If my view about whether to believe in morality’s existence was decided by randomly throwing darts on a dartboard, where what I’d believe depends on where the dart lands, would this belief constitute knowledge if the dart happened to land on the correct belief?


I don’t think so, because that belief would merely be coincidental. However, I do not think that atheism implies that our moral beliefs are randomly selected for in the same way a dart is randomly thrown at a dart board. See my answer to question 1.


3) My view of moral intuitions: God, who knows of morality’s existence, used evolution to give us intuitive awareness of morality’s existence (one possible way: by giving us intuitions of certain actions being morally wrong, allowing us to infer morality’s existence). One of my objections in this debate is this: objective moral oughtness is so metaphysically queer on atheism that it seems we’d need something like supernatural clairvoyance to know it exists (since there is no God to superintend evolution) otherwise it’s up to blind chance which intuitions we’d get and at best we’d get coincidentally true beliefs, like nature throwing darts on a dartboard. 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? Because supernatural clairvoyance is the best one I can think of.


To be sure, I explicitly deny the claim that moral properties are “metaphysically queer,” and I explicitly deny that we would need something like “supernatural clairvoyance” to know basic moral truths. I think MaverickChristian misunderstands moral realism by weighing it down with metaphysical baggage. In regards to a plausible explanation, see my answer to Question 1.


4) Premise (P2) of my argument is that the Unbiased Atheist would be justified in believing Pr(not-M|A&K) is high. Do you agree that premise (P2) is true?


I agree, but not for any line of evidence MaverickChristian offers. I only agree because the Unbiased Atheist is someone who has no epistemic means to discern basic moral truths. Recall, MaverickChristian intentionally designs the Unbiased Atheist this way. MaverickChristian’s Unbiased Atheist could no more have knowledge of basic moral truths than a complete blind person from birth could have knowledge of colors. There simply are no good reasons for a thoughtful, discerning, and consistent atheist to adopt this epistemically deficient vantage point.


5) I’ve argued that Pr(not-M|A&K) is high, arguing that the vantage point of the Unbiased Atheist should be used in assessing this probability, e.g. while People have intuitions of morality existing would be in K, propositions that presuppose moral oughtness’s existence like It is morally obligatory to not torture innocent sentient life just for fun would not be in K. You’ve argued that propositions of moral oughtness existing should be in K when assessing Pr(not-M|A&K), and when we do this Pr(not-M|A&K) is (trivially) low. To me this seems akin to saying “Pr(not-God|Evil&K) may seem high, but Pr(not-God|Evil&God) is low, and we should include God exists in K.” Why can’t the theist justifiably call God exists a “rational intuition,” include God exists in K, and refute the argument from evil this way?


I’ve argued that our rational intuitions of basic moral truths (and rational intuitions in general) are justified by the Principle of Phenomenal Conservatism and provide us with prima facie evidence for the truth of some basic propositions including basic moral truths. Indeed, all of our knowledge is founded on rational intuitions of basic propositions. It no more begs the question for someone to refer to her rational intuitions about moral truths anymore than it begs the question for someone to refer to her rational intuitions about logical truths, mathematical truths, reliability of perception, or the reliability of memory. With that said, I think a Theist does have prima facie evidence to believe in the existence of God based on rational intuitions, because a religious experience would be prima facie evidence of God’s existence. Notice that I use the qualifier prima facie and not ultima facie. That’s very important, because it may be the case that a particular rational intuition that a certain religious experience is veridical will come into conflict with other rational intuitions i.e. the premises of an argument from evil. These premises can serve as potential defeaters for such a rational intuition. In fact, I would argue that the dramatic variations in the nature and content of religious experiences and widespread religious disagreement is a defeater for the veridicality of the rational intuition that God exists. By contrast the widespread agreement of basic moral truths (i.e. it is wrong to cause unjustified death, disability, pain, etc) confirms the veridicality of rational intuitions of basic moral truths. There is far more widespread agreement about basic moral truths than there is about the nature and content of religious experiences. To be sure, I do not make the claim that rational intuitions are infallible. Clear and firm rational intuitions should take precedence over weaker or wavering rational intuitions. “Cruelty is wrong” is a much clearer and firmer rational intuition than “God exists.”


Saturday, August 13, 2016

Debate: Objective Morality Without God? (p. 7)

Home  >  Philosophy  >  Atheism/Theism

Preface



This is a debate between me and SeekSecularism over the truth of the first premise of the following moral argument:
  1. If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.
  2. Objective morality does exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
The debate so far:




Maverick Christian’s Q & A





(1) Why does the Unbiased Atheist not have any (or why does she choose to ignore her) rational intuitions of basic moral truths?


First a recap of what the Unbiased Atheist is. The Unbiased Atheist has no preconceived opinions about whether morality exists, and initially 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).

Recapping some symbolism:

M = Moral oughtness exists.
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.


Back to the question: why use a fictional character who doesn’t have any initial intuitions for morality’s existence, including basic moral truths? Why have someone who doesn’t have any intuitions for or against morality’s existence? I employed the Unbiased Atheist because it’s a useful way to see what Pr(not-M|A&K) would be if we excluded propositions like Morality exists from K (while also excluding propositions like Morality doesn’t exist from K).[1] But why exclude propositions like Morality exists from K in the first place? Why consider the vantage point of the Unbiased Atheist for Pr(not-M|A&K)?

To see my point of view on why I thought it was important to use this sort of vantage point in my argument, 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 in God 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, in this debate I’ve been offering a sort of “probabilistic argument from atheism” against moral objectivism, arguing that atheism makes moral objectivism unlikely, and that Pr(not-M|A&K) is high when K doesn’t include propositions like Morality exists, though K would include propositions like People have intuitions of morality existing. Suppose an atheist argued that since belief in morality is a rational intuition, we should include it in K, and when we do we effectively get Pr(not-M|A&M) which of course is extremely low, and thus Pr(not-M|A&K) is low. This seems no more a legitimate maneuver than inserting God exists in K for Pr(not-God|Evil&K) in the probabilistic argument from evil scenario, even though I think the intuition of morality’s existence is a rational one. The intuition of morality’s existence, while perhaps rational, is a subjectively experienced intuition, and the objective evidence would still be strongly against morality’s existence on atheism if Pr(not-M|A&K) were high when propositions like Morality exists are excluded from K.

In general, when arguing that there’s evidence against some proposition P such that Pr(not-P|Evidence&K) is high when P is excluded from K, we don’t normally think putting P in K so that Pr(not-P|Evidence&K) is low really solves the problem. Let’s call situations where propositions like P is true from K in Pr(not-P|Evidence&K) a standard exclusion from K, e.g. a standard exclusion from K in Pr(not-God|Evil&K) is excluding God exists from K.


2) Given that our rational intuitions are justified by the Principle of Phenomenal Conservatism, why should any thoughtful atheist choose to ignore her rational intuitions of basic moral truths and adopt the vantage point of your Unbiased Atheist?


I don’t! I think the atheist should trust the moral intuition of morality existing, but I also think the atheist should recognize that the first premise of the moral argument (“If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist”) is probably true, which would logically compel the atheist to convert to theism.

But let’s accept the spirit of the question, which I think is something like, “Why should the atheist take the vantage point of the Unbiased Atheist seriously in a probabilistic argument form atheism against moral objectivism?” Part of this I’ve already answered; just as it seems inappropriate to put God exists in K when responding to a probabilistic argument from evil for Pr(not-God|Evil&K), it seems inappropriate to put something like Morality exists in K when responding to a probabilistic argument from atheism for Pr(not-M|A&K). By excluding propositions like God exists from K in assessing Pr(not-God|Evil&K) we’re assessing the objective evidence against God’s existence, and if Pr(not-God|Evil&K) is high in that sort of situation, the objective evidence would indeed be against theism. Similarly, if Pr(not-M|A&K) is high when propositions like Morality exists are excluded from K, the objective evidence would still be strongly against morality’s existence on atheism.

But that’s only part of the answer. Is it possible for subjectively experienced intuitions to trump what the objective evidence indicates? Yes. Regarding the probabilistic argument from evil, suppose it is true that Pr(not-God|Evil&K) is high when we make the standard exclusions from K. It’s still possible for the theist to know God exists while being aware of Pr(not-God|Evil&K) being high if God exists and if God is supernaturally responsible for the theist’s intuition of God’s existence. So can’t we do something similar for the atheist moral objectivist somehow and solve the problem that way, where subjectively experienced intuition trumps objective evidence?

There are a couple problems. First, if Pr(not-God|Evil&K) really were high given the standard exclusions from K, I think the probabilistic argument from evil would be successful in at least some sense. After all, the only people who would accept the “God gave me the intuition” response are people who already believe in God. So when it comes to convincing agnostics and atheists vis-à-vis the probabilistic argument from evil, the “God gave me the intuition” response is a question-begging failure. The atheist moral objectivist’s appeal to subjectively experienced intuition against the probabilistic argument from atheism faces this same sort of weakness; e.g. it won’t provide any good reason for the agnostic to not accept the moral argument’s first premise.

Second, whereas within the theistic worldview there is a plausible mechanism for knowledge of God’s existence if the theist faced objective evidence to the contrary, no such plausible mechanism seems to exist for the atheist moral objectivist. To illustrate my point of view, suppose my belief of the sky’s color was decided by me randomly throwing darts on a dartboard, where what I’d believe depends on where the dart lands. Even if the dart landed on the correct belief, my true belief wouldn’t be knowledge. The same goes for randomly throwing darts to decide whether I’d accept moral realism (“morality exists”), moral nihilism (“morality doesn’t exist”), or moral skepticism (“nobody knows”). Even if the dart happens to land on the correct position, it’s not knowledge.

With that in mind, consider how we’d come to believe morality. On my theistic worldview, God used divinely superintended evolution to give us moral intuition, and thus there’s a mechanism whereby this intuition of morality’s existence constitutes knowledge. But on atheism, evolution is unguided and random. Whereas nature evolved our senses to detect the physical world around us, there is no such sense (barring something like supernatural clairvoyance) for detecting non-natural moral properties being associated with events in the physical world. Instead, on atheism it’s just nature randomly throwing darts on a dartboard to decide which intuitive beliefs the sapient species would evolve. Nature could have evolved a sapient species where the majority have a moral nihilist intuition, or a moral skeptic intuition. But if it’s simply blind chance choosing the intuitive belief about morality’s existence, not some sensory mechanism, then it’s not really knowledge even if the randomly chosen intuitive belief happened to be correct. Theism has (within its worldview) a plausible mechanism for moral intuition constituting knowledge, but no such plausible mechanism exists for atheism; just blind natural forces throwing darts on a dartboard. Consequently, there is no plausible mechanism on atheism for subjectively experienced intuition to trump the objective evidence.

In short, on atheism the objective evidence is against moral objectivism, and while on the theistic worldview there is a plausible mechanism to override the putative evidence against theism in the probabilistic argument from evil, no such mechanism appears to be available for the atheist moral objectivist to override the objective evidence in the probabilistic argument from atheism. So it seems to me that the atheist moral objectivist ought to seriously consider the ramifications of the Unbiased Atheist’s viewpoint.


3) If you found out tomorrow (with reasonable certainty) that God did not exist, then would you really believe that it was not only rational but morally acceptable to seek unjustified death, disability, pain, loss of freedom, or loss of pleasure for their own sake?


I don’t think it would be necessarily rational since behaving that way wouldn’t necessarily meet any of my goals. Would I think it was morally acceptable? Well, yes in the sense I would think that moral nihilism would be true and I wouldn’t think anything is morally wrong. If I were convinced that atheism is true, I would find it very likely that my would-be intuition of morality existing is very likely the product of nature throwing darts on a dartboard, and so such an intuition would be undermined, at least in the light of the strong objective evidence against such an intuition being veridical.


4) If you had sufficient reason to believe that God had commanded you (without justification) to rape, kill, and eat your children, then would it be morally good to perform this action? Would you have a moral obligation to carry out said action?


In that situation I’d ask my friend the married bachelor.

To understand what’s behind my admittedly flippant response, suppose someone made this argument against virtue ethics:
If raping innocent people were a virtue, then raping innocent people would be ethical. But raping innocent people cannot possibly be ethical, therefore virtue ethics is false.
Something’s wrong here, but what? True enough, if raping innocent people were a virtue, raping innocent people would be ethical. However, if raping innocent people cannot possibly be ethical, then it is equally impossible for raping innocent people to be a virtue. So whatever answer a virtue ethicist might give to a question like, “If raping innocent people were a virtue, then would it be morally good to carry out this action?” it wouldn’t really show virtue ethics to be false.

The same principle applies to my theistic moral ontology. On my theology, an essential attribute of God is that God is (among other things) the incarnation of objective morality. Thus if raping my children cannot possibly be ethical, then it is equally impossible for God, qua the personification of objective morality, to command me to do it. So whatever answer I give to, “If God commanded you to eat your children, would it be morally good to carry out this action?” it wouldn’t show my theistic moral ontology to be false.

Back to the question: yes, if per impossibile God, qua the personification and incarnation of objective morality, commanded eating my children etc. it would be morally obligatory for me to do so. But if such actions cannot possibly be ethical, then it is equally impossible for God, the personification of objective morality, to make these commands. This is like asking, “If raping innocent people were a virtue, would it be morally good?” Technically yes, but in the end questions like these don’t really prove anything.


5) If God is required to explain the veridicality of our moral intuitions (and those of some other primates), then is God also required to explain our (and some other primates) veridical intuitions of mathematics? Logic? Science? Playing chess?


Well, I think supernatural clairvoyance could allow moral intuition to be knowledge too, but it just seems so far-fetched on atheism. As for other intuitions, it seems to me that some sort of supernatural component is needed (not necessarily God, but something supernatural) for us to have real knowledge if for no other reason than it seems to me that the evolutionary argument against naturalism is a sound argument.



[1] Any propositions that have morality’s existence implicit in them would also be excluded, e.g. Raping innocent people is morally wrong has morality’s existence implicit in it and so would be excluded from K as part of the “standard exclusions” from K in Pr(not-M|A&K).

[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.