Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Clarifications, Hopefully

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

My brother-in-law once asked me what the point of this dialog with Ernie is, since we "have been going it at for months with little or no progress." Sometimes I feel like that too, but for the most part I find that it has been a helpful exercise for me to clarify my thinking and to force me to address questions from new directions. Just the act of writing is good practice as well; as I have noted before I am a dreadfully slow writer and the results still do not always communicate what I intend. In his latest brief post, Ernie is still trying to get a handle on what I am saying (or trying to say) about ethics, but I fear I still have not been sufficiently clear. In trying to clarify one point, I seem to have confused another. Let me try to clarify what appears to be the current confusion.

First, remember that ethics can be objective without being universal; that is, we can agree on a particular theory of ethics and within that theory we can make objective statements about what is ethical and what is not. We can only say that goodness is an objective attribute of an action after agreeing on the ethical theory under which the description is meaningful. Goodness is therefore not an objective attribute of the action itself isolated from ethical theories. Only if we can show that there is in fact a unique valid theory of ethics would it make sense to say that goodness is an objective attribute of an action.

Now, in responding to Ernie's questions about whether belief in truth is inherently good, and how that compares to other candidates for inherently good actions, I said basically that belief in truth is instrumentally good (thanks, Ernie) but not inherently good, as might be said of pursuit of happiness and love of others, which I said "reflect the true ends of ethics." That last phrase was misleading and I must apologize for being so unclear. Those two things are certainly examples of what might qualify as the "true ends" under some theories of ethics, but I did not intend to state categorically that they must be so.

Despite my efforts to the contrary, I may also have given the impression that an ethical "theory of everything" will be found when I said "... the hypothetical ethical theory of everything will have a place for [belief in truth]." I am not confident that such unified theory can be constructed, and I only meant that if there were such a thing, belief in truth would play a part in it. Where Ernie appears to see not only a moral nature but a moral purpose in the universe, I see only abstractions that people use to describe their actions, according to a variety of criteria. While it might be simpler and even more meaningful if one particular theory were found to be uniquely true and all-encompassing, we have both good foundations and plenty of room for progress without such a thing even being possible.

I hope that, having said all that, it will not be suprising that I do not believe all of Ernie's latest statements (I-VI), not as stated. (I) is only true within a particular theory of ethics. (II) and (III) are similarly dependent. (IV) is a claim that Ernie has made; depending on exactly what he means I may or may not agree, but that agreement would be based on my intuitive sense more so than being deeply rooted in a particular ethical theory so I would not claim this belief is justified. (V) and (VI) are mostly accurate. I might add a (V'): "It is both possible and important to pursue better practice of ethics."

In the end, I realize that I have left you, the reader, with entirely too little concrete description of what I believe about ethics and morality. I suppose I can try to correct that deficiency in my next post. I hope, however, that Ernie will develop his position more fully as well.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Ethical Universe (No, Not That Kind)

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

As I suspected, my last post, An Earnest Trilemma, was less than a model of clarity, leading to a number of questions by Ernie in "Good" and "True". The core of the last couple of posts and of his questions relate to ethics and morality (two terms which I have been treating more or less interchangeably). I will try to explain a bit more fully my current thoughts on the subject; after that description, I will also answer Ernie's specific questions.

Let me start with the idea of moral law, analagous to the physical laws that describe the regularities we observe in our universe. The thing about physical laws, as Chesterton was so kind to point out, is that they cannot be broken (at least, barring supernatural intervention). The laws, as descriptions of reality, may be incorrect, but to the degree that they are correct they describe constraints on the way things work. According to the simplest translation to the realm of moral action, we can see that moral laws do not work that way. That is, we are not prevented by nature from anti-moral action. So if there is a real moral law, its existence would impact us in some other way. The possibility that makes the most sense to me, and which I believe is at least roughly in line with what Ernie described a few months ago, is that such a moral law would make itself known through some sort of personal consequences beyond those implied by mathematical and physical considerations. Of course, those consequences that are only observable after death are hidden from us, and those consequences that are observable now must be disentangled from physical causality. Ernie may think we can extract that signal from the noise, while I think that "normal" causation can account for what we observe.

So what makes something "good" versus "evil"? First, as ethical or moral descriptors, I would use those terms primarily as descriptive of actions, and secondarily as descriptive of actors according to their capacity and tendency to engage in good and evil actions. If there are moral laws and if we knew what they were, we would be able to identify specific actions as being good or evil (possibly to some degree of goodness or evilness) according to the agreement between law and action. But if there are no moral laws (in the sense of otherwise-unexplainable consequences), what would it mean to call something "good" or "evil"?

People give various answers to that question. Some people look at consequences, some people look at motivations Some people look for cultural or societal answers (descriptive ethics in the generally-used sense) wherein good and evil are defined simply in terms of what some group of people agree is good and evil.

Now, when Ernie first brought up his trilemma, he said:

Put another way, I can readily see why atheists might (and do) believe in such noble ethics as above, but I've never been quite clear why it is not equally possible for them to believe in something else.

Certainly people affirm a variety of systems of ethics, some of which strike me as, well, evil and others as merely misguided. Others strike me as well-intentioned and helpful, but incomplete. So I can agree with what Ernie wrote in the paragraph prior to the one I just quoted:

The short answer is that the atheistic ethics I've seen feel a bit to me like Aristotelian physics: useful and well-thought out as far as they go, but lacking the sort of deep grounding we've expected from physics since Newton established a coherent mathematical foundation for physical inquiry.

The answer to this current state of affairs is not to give up and conclude that secular ethics is a dead end, but rather to keep working on it, just as we did not give up physics.

In the universe of proposed ethical theories, preference utilitarianism probably comes closest to describing where I fall, but I find admirable ideas in a variety of places; the original position described by John Rawls is one such example. But these various theories do not presently compose a unified whole. Given this situation, I choose to use what I can from various theories to inform my decisions without finding it necessary to claim that any unified ethical theory presently exists.

As I said, I find preference utilitarianism to be a helpful way to frame many moral questions, wherein actions are judged according to the alignment between the consequences of an action and the preferences of those affected. Using this particular ethical theory as an example (though similar conclusions can be reached from a variety of starting points), belief in truth is important for several reasons. First, my own preferences will be affected by what I believe. I prefer those things that I think will make me happy, but false beliefs may result in preferences that in fact cause undesired pain. If somebody acts so as to satisfy my ill-reasoned preferences, I can hardly blame them for the pain I thus endure. My ability to act morally under this moral theory is also reduced by false beliefs both because I may not correctly know another's preferences and especially because I may not be able to predict accurately the effects of my actions on others.

So when I agreed that belief in truth is inherently good, I may not have characterized my views accurately. Or, more accurately, my thinking since then has clarified somewhat. Belief in truth is a sometimes critically important means to an ethical end, but to call it inherently good might be going too far. (Looking at morality as a characteristic of action and looking at belief as a state of being, we could not properly call beliefs themselves moral or immoral, but beliefs can lead quite directly to actions, so in practice the distinction may be more fine than is useful.)

Given all that, I can now try to answer Ernie's latest questions, which were:

a) Do you consider (I) a statement about objective reality, or of personal preference?

b) Why do you believe (I) is true?

c) How universally do you think this statement holds?

d) How strongly do you believe in (I)?

e) How does (I) relate to alternate statements, such as:

II. The Pursuit of Happiness is inherently Good

III. Helping Others is inherently Good

I interpret statement (I) to be a statement about objective reality; while I understand that somebody could use that same statement to express a personal preference, I understand it in this conversation to be a "real" not "imaginary" statement. Strictly speaking (as I clarified above), I do not believe that the statement is true, even while I believe that belief in truth is very important. I think this latter belief is, practically-speaking, pretty tightly wrapped up with the various ethical theories; I do not know if you would call that either non-contingent or empirically-motivated. (If true knowledge is characterized by making correct predictions, any kind of consequentialist ethics will depend on knowledge for making ethical decisions.)

Regarding universality, that is something of an open question for me for this reason: we are not perfectly rational, and it seems possible that unrecognized partial knowledge could lead to worse predictions, and therefore less ethical actions, than ignorance. At least, this is true under consequentialist ethics, but not necessarily of other ethical theories. So there are two ways that the statement might not be universal: it does not hold under some ethical theories (though it does in the ones I support most strongly) and it may not hold in some cases of partial knowledge. Unfortunately, the worst cases of partial knowledge are probably cases of "unknown unknowns" that, practically speaking, are very difficult to recognize. In these cases it is helpful to be able to look back on actions in the light of motivation and recognize that an action was well-intended based on the state of knowledge at the time (if that was in fact the case).

Would I bet my life on (I) holding? Well, since I have rejected the full meaning of the statement, I would say "no". Since I have refused to commit to a single theory of ethics, and since I have said that even a modified (I) would not hold in some theories, I would have to say "no" again. Still, I believe that belief in truth is a very important part of ethical living, and that the hypothetical ethical theory of everything will have place for it.

When compared to the other statements in your trilemma, as I mentioned in my last post, I think (I) is in a different category from (II) and (III), primarily because (II) and (III) reflect the true ends of ethics while (I) is a critical part of the path to get there. So, they are consistent, but not all peer alternatives in the trilemma.

I hope this was a helpful clarification. As always, Ernie, if you have more questions, fire away. But don't forget to work on your end of the field too...

Sunday, September 17, 2006

An Earnest Trilemma

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

In Looking for and Argument, Ernie stated two propositions that he was willing to defend, each corresponding to a core issue that differentiate our two positions. The first issue, in his words, is:

I. Ontological dependence on an omnipotent, benevolent Deity as the ultimate source of virtue and truth

Now, in The Ethical Trilemma Ernie begins his elaboration and defense of his corresponding proposition:

I. Belief in a transcendent moral purpose for the universe is as well-justified and essential for social inquiry as belief in the transcendent mathematical nature of the universe is for scientific inquiry.

Ernie poses what he calls the Ethical Trilemma, which asks how we can reconcile three competing ethical claims related to belief in truth, the welfare of society and personal happiness. Which of them, or which set of them, constitute the greatest good? Then he suggests three possible resolutions: that there is no absolute greatest good (relativism), that only one or two of them is necessary, or that the three claims, despite appearances to the contrary, are in fact ultimately in alignment and thus can be satisfied simultaneously. His assertion is that the third resolution is the case, and that this ultimate alignment is equivalent to the existence of a "transcendent moral purpose for the universe".

I make no claim to be an ethicist, but as I understand things, there remains fairly diverse views on the nature of ethics. For instance, the Wikipedia article on ethics discusses among other things truth-aptitude (can ethical statements be true or false, or is the concept of truth orthogonal to ethics) and normative versus descriptive ethics. Ernie's three "categorical imperatives", for instance, would fall under the deontic branch of normative ethics. On the other hand, my personal view is more descriptive in nature (but not necessarily in the same sense as the descriptive ethics described by the Wikipedia article, unfortunately). That is, within an ethical system actions can be judged as good, bad or neutral. Different ethical systems may judge the same action differently. I suppose that within such an ethical system, calling an action "good" might be taken to mean that one ought to do it, but I see these judgements more as guidelines for action than true obligations (sort of like the Pirate's Code). Of course, "wrong" actions may involve "bad" consequences, including both natural consequences as well as those imposed by society.

Now, I said that different ethical systems may judge the same action differently. According to an Egoist, an action should be judged according to its impact on me. According to an Altruist, an action should be judged according to its impact on others. According to a Utilitarian, an action should be judged according to its total impact on everybody. According to Divine Command Theory, an action should be judged according to its alignment with divine commands. But can we say that one of these systems (or any other) is true and the others false, or even simply that one is preferable to all of the others?

It appears that Ernie may be claiming that it does not matter because ultimately all ethical systems (or at least the ones he lists) will be found to be in alignment. And he rightly admits that this is "an enormously strong statement" which he asserts to be true despite the appearance of "strong evidence for conflict." He compares this unification to the sought-after physical "theory of everything".

While such a unification could possibly exist, the mere assertion that it exists is hardly sufficient. The statement that Ernie is defending states that "Belief in a transcendent moral purpose for the universe is as well-justified and essential for social inquiry as belief in the transcendent mathematical nature of the universe is for scientific inquiry.". In science, we have vast amounts of evidence that math can be used to accurately describe the universe, which is more or less what I understand Ernie to mean by "transcendent mathematical nature". And while we do not as yet have a "theory of everything", we have had a great deal of success so far in unifying what appeared to be separate phenomena under a small number of theoretical frameworks; to expect that a single theory may unify these few is not such a large leap. On the other hand, I am unaware of a comparable degree of support or development of any ethical theory, let alone that multiple such theories can be unified. Since Ernie admits that the evidence appears to suggest that these ethical theories are sometimes in conflict, he needs to provide strong evidence to the contrary. That is, for any real situation S with possible actions A1-AN, there exists a single Aopt which is the best choice under all of the ethical systems he claims can be unified. At least, that is what I understand such a unification to entail.

I must also point out what may be only a minor quibble, but I note that Ernie is comparing the "transcendent mathematical nature of the universe" to a "transcendent moral purpose for the universe". Why not the "transcendent moral nature"? Is it not possible for there to be a moral nature without a moral purpose? Or is it that Ernie thinks the evidence for a moral purpose is as strong as what exists for the mathematical nature of the universe? At this level of abstraction, it seems at least possible to me that a unified moral nature is possible without requiring a purpose (and therefore a source of purpose).

Ernie finished with a "deluge of questions":

  1. Do you accept my formulation of the Trilemma as a meaningful question?
  2. Might you phrase it differently, but still accept the fundamental tension between these three?
  3. If so, how (if at all) do you resolve that tension?
  4. If you choose (iii), do you have any rational basis for that belief?
  5. Do you have any empirical evidence for the viability of your approach?
  6. Do you see why I consider (iii) equivalent to asserting a "transcendent moral purpose for the universe"?

My answers:

  1. Your trilemma provides a meaningful basis for clarifying our positions. I am not sure that your three competing ethical claims are the only possible competing claims; I can imagine others. I also tend to view the "belief in truth" leg as being in a different category from the others so I would be tempted to formulate a simple dilemma. On the other hand, I agree that belief in truth is important and is very likely to align with the others.
  2. There is a tension at least between good for others and good for myself, though I agree that we should at least aim for the so-called "win-win" choice and that in many cases such a choice exists. I am unconvinced that in a community/ecosystem with finite resources such a choice always exists, thus giving rise to the tension.
  3. I resolve the tension by not requiring a single answer, by allowing that different ethical systems may give different answers. While I have preferences for certain kinds of answers, I cannot claim that they are singularly right. This is closest to your option (i), though I would state it rather differently. I would not claim there is a unique (valid) metric of goodness that implies a single greatest good for each situation.
  4. (Not applicable.)
  5. In order to discuss viability, I think I would need to discuss a particular system of ethics (what is right, what is wrong, and especially for the question of viability, what is the right way to respond to right or wrong actions). I might argue, though, that some systems are inherently viable since actions which lead to mortality could be defined (in those systems) as "bad", so that all "good" actions would be viable by definition. Whether we can know ahead of time whether an action is good or bad under such a definition is another question. Without describing my thoughts on ethics in any detail, I can say that I have very little actual evidence for or against their viability though I have conservative intuitive reasons for believing they are viable. I am also unconvinced that human nature is conducive to their realization. That is, if everyone lived according to my idea of ethics, I believe such a community would be viable. How many "cheaters" can be supported is a more difficult question. Whether to blame the ethical system for failures under such circumstances is also a difficult question. In other words, I do not claim to have any certain answers here.
  6. I can see why you might consider (iii) equivalent to asserting a "transcendent moral nature of the universe"; you would need to go further to establish a purpose. And, of course, you still need to defend your assertion.

If it is important (or if you are curious), I can try to elaborate on my views of ethics. I made the claim that a naturalistic theory "can provide more reliable foundation for morality than supposed divine authority." The difference between "divine authority" and "transcendent moral nature/purpose of the universe" may be large enough to render elaboration and support of my claim less worthwhile, but I am willing to do that as well. Since you said "this Trilemma has been bugging me for several months, and I'm dying to hear Alan's answers", I rather suspect that what I have said here will be insufficient to quench your curiosity, so in addition to defending your assertion, Ernie, let me know what I need to flesh out.

Update: As I reflect on what I wrote, I fear I may have given a wrong impression about the importance of ethical behavior. I do value such behavior highly; when I described ethical systems providing guidelines rather than obligations, my intent was to focus on how those systems can help me choose what to do to satisfy my values, as well as help me evaluate the choices of others. This distinction also recognizes that an "ought" is not a "can't help but"; that is, that alternative actions are possible, which is therefore consistent with allowing multiple ethical systems to inform decisions. Finally, and despite my use of the words "choose" and "choice" and the phrase "can't help but" in the last two sentences, I also value ethics in a descriptive sense because they remain useful even if free will is illusory. That is, even if we have no true choices, we can still describe actions as "good" or "bad", even if it no longer makes sense to speak of moral obligations. Since I remain open to the possibility that free will is an illusion, this property of my view of ethics is important.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Found: Two Goalposts

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

Obviously I have taken a bit of a break from blogging, my last post having been made one and a half months ago. My dialog with Ernie has been the major emphasis for awhile, and while he was traveling and moving, it was pretty easy to take a break. But now that Ernie is back, looking for an argument, I guess it's time to devote some time to writing again.

In his post, Ernie sets forth what he hopes might be a reasonable characterization of my foundational objections to Christianity. Has he succeeded? He certainly captures some important elements of my thinking. I will try to state them succinctly myself and then perhaps highlight what I think are important differences between his "Woodman" version and my version.

Using the word "theory" in the sense of an explanatory framework, I assert that a theory built on naturalism can provide a better explanation of the world and specifically of the history of Judaism and Christianity than a theory built around Christian monotheism (or any other theism). Such a theory can explain features of the Bible and its development that are inconsistent with divine inspiration and divine authority. Such a theory can provide a more reliable foundation for morality than supposed divine authority. Such a theory provides a better explanation for the existence of both natural and moral evil. Such a theory can better explain the variety of religious beliefs and experiences found throughout the world, and the variety of beliefs held by those who self-identify as Christians. In short, I believe a naturalistic (non-theistic) theory has greater explanatory power than Christianity-as-theory does.

There is, of course, a great deal of elaboration that might accompany those claims, but for my purpose here I hope it will be sufficient. How does that compare to Ernie's Woodman? Really pretty well, I think. Regarding "[e]pistemic dependence on received Scripture as a reliable indicator of divine will", I would go beyond calling such a belief merely unjustified and irrelevent; other beliefs, including belief in the existence of a Creator God, I would call unjustified epistemically and irrelevent morally.

I hope readers will find this consistent with this list of assertions I made three months ago, when I had intended to start detailing my reasons for disbelief.

Ernie also advanced two propositions that he is willing to defend:

  1. Belief in a transcendent moral purpose for the universe is as well-justified and essential for social inquiry as belief in the transcendent mathematical nature of the universe is for scientific inquiry.
  2. Belief in the Biblical narrative regarding God's role in shaping religious faith is as central and well-justified as belief in the scientific narrative regarding evolution's role in shaping anatomically modern humans.

These are strong claims, as I am sure Ernie is aware. I look forward to seeing Ernie's elaboration and defense of them. While perhaps due to a misunderstanding of our mutual goal at the time, one of my frustrations in this "diablogue" has been the higher-than-helpful ratio of assertions to justifications and perhaps we have now arrived at the point where we can remedy that problem.

P.S. For those who might stumble by that question the evidence for evolution, the article I would recommend most highly is 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: The Scientific Case for Common Descent by Dr. Douglas Theobold. This is not, however, specific to "evolution's role in shaping anatomically modern humans." As I am not actually sure of Ernie's particular position on the subject, I suppose it is possible that Ernie does not feel the standard he is suggesting for (II) is as high as I think it is, but considering the standard he presents for (I), I strongly suspect he intended the second standard to be high as well.