Post Debate Reflections (p. 4)
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- SeekSecularism says, “My beliefs regarding evaluative facts are epistemically prior to my belief that God does not exist.” Maybe, but this seems irrelevant.
- 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.
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: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.
(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).
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:
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.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?
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.
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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