Thursday, November 23, 2006

NTOBM: Still Kicking

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

I have, for the most part, avoided addressing Ernie directly as if I were writing letters to him, though he was adopted that style. I am going to try it for awhile to see how it works out. So...


I am glad you liked the ideas about morality that Sam Harris expressed in his article, and I am not surprised that you find in them parallels to what you are trying to express. But I think you have still failed to adequately support your first goalpost statement.

First, some confusion. Back in Ratioanalizing Virtue, you listed four statements (1-4) and then said:

However, I would argue that believing in (1-4) is tantamount to believing:

5. The present System exists as the result of a benevolent Purpose

When you said "tantamount to believing", I initially inferred that (5) was equivalent to or derivable from (1-4). That is, someone who assented to (1-4) would, logically, have to assent to (5) as well. Your later statements in that same post gave a slightly different picture, since you said "this is not the only possible assumption, but I assert that it is the simplest and most comprehensive explanation for everything above". Now in your last post you described (5) as pre-paradigmatic, unjustified, non-contingent and not susceptible to rational proof, disproof or derivation. Based on this more detailed description it seems pretty clear you are not deriving (5) from (1-4), but you are asserting that (1-4) are best explained by (5).

Now, the goalpost statement you are currently defending is this:

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.

I am a little confused now about the relationship between (5) above and (I), which seem to be pointed in the same direction, but in (I) you say the belief is well-justified while you described (5) as unjustified. So I am concerned that I am missing something. My guess is that you are using "justified" in different senses, but I am not sure exactly how you would make that differentiation.

Despite that, let me press on. You have stated that, given (5), the four statements with which you summarized Harris' NTOBM (Non-Theistic Objective Basis for Morality, for those just joining us) can be derived. But I must first call attention to several differences between Harris' description and your summary of them, as well as differences between those statements and (I). These differences, I think, serve to highlight reasons why I continue to disagree with your path to (I).

First, Harris said "if there are psychophysical laws that underwrite human well-being". He does not claim that we know what these laws are in any detail, or even that we know that they exist (though he suspects they do). The possibility and even apparent likelihood that they exist is sufficient to justify further investigation, but this is very different than saying that belief in their existence is as well-justified as belief in the transcendent mathematical nature of the universe.

(By the way, it would be helpful if you could elaborate on what you mean by "transcendent" here. It occurs to me that what you mean by "transcendent mathematical nature" could be sufficiently different than my understanding that your statement (I) would be true, but only because neither belief was particularly well justified!)

That math is tremendously useful for describing and indeed accurately predicting the behavior of physical systems is, I trust, not under dispute here. What psychophysical laws can you elaborate that have the predictive power (accuracy and precision) of the laws of physics and other sciences that have been discovered in the past four hundred years? Belief in the so-called mathematical nature of the universe is warranted because of the astounding success of science in describing the operation of various physical, chemical and biological systems using mathematics. Without corresponding success of elaborated psychophysical moral laws, belief in their existence is not as well-justified as a belief in the mathematical nature of the universe.

Second, and related to my previous post that you have not really addressed, both Harris and I are describing an objective basis for morality grounded in and limited to human well-being. On the other hand, your statement (I) as well as your previous post defending it seem to be making a much broader claim, that the universe as a whole has a moral purpose. (I'll mention in passing once again that there is a difference between a moral nature and a moral purpose.) If that is your meaning, I do not believe you have defended it successfully.

Given a non-theistic, non-deistic paradigm, is it not reasonable to suppose that there may be objective descriptions of what makes people happy and prevents suffering, descriptions that are based on the evolutionary pathways that brought us to this point? If not, why not? And if there is a moral purpose for the universe as a whole, one grounded in benevolence, why is there so much unhappiness and suffering?

And in that way, we arrive at another problem. You have stated that your statement (5) is powerful, that it can explain numerous phenomena, just as a good scientific theory should. But you also know that it is not sufficient for theories to offer explanations: they also must not be contradicted by observations. While (5) is not specific enough to allow me to bring the problem of hell back into the discussion, I submit that (5) at least appears to be contradicted by the existence of both natural and moral evil. Since you are equating (5) with a sort of deism, would we call these problems "deodicies" instead of theodicies? This issue is, I think, something that you must address in your defense of (I), especially since these sorts of problems do not contradict alternative (naturalistic) theories.

Finally, you have claimed that (5) explains a wide range of phenomena without describing what those might be, and you have also claimed that without (5) we would have "a complex welter of unjustified beliefs in its place" without describing what those other beliefs might be or why they are unjustified. Without knowing what you are referring to in either case, I can hardly respond to either of these claims.

There are, then, a number of things that remain to be addressed, and it may take some time to address them all, unless you would like to give up now. :-)


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Myth of Secular Moral Chaos

A couple months have passed since Ernie and I found some statements (goalposts) we were each willing to defend. Most of the intervening time we have spent looking at his first statement: "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." On the other hand, I claimed that "a theory built on naturalism ... can provide a more reliable foundation for morality than supposed divine authority."

I have not explicitly been defending that claim, though naturally there has been some relevant discussion as I have responded to Ernie's position. I did recently come across an article by Sam Harris, The Myth of Secular Moral Chaos that briefly addresses this topic, specifically under his third point:

If religion really provided the only conceivable objective basis for morality, it should be impossible to posit a nontheistic objective basis for morality. But it is not impossible; it is rather easy.

Clearly, we can think of objective sources of moral order that do not require the existence of a law-giving God. In The End of Faith, I argued that questions of morality are really questions about happiness and suffering. If there are objectively better and worse ways to live so as to maximize happiness in this world, these would be objective moral truths worth knowing. Whether we will ever be in a position to discover these truths and agree about them cannot be known in advance (and this is the case for all questions of scientific fact). But if there are psychophysical laws that underwrite human well-being—and why wouldn’t there be?—then these laws are potentially discoverable. Knowledge of these laws would provide an enduring basis for an objective morality. In the meantime, everything about human experience suggests that love is better than hate for the purposes of living happily in this world. This is an objective claim about the human mind, the dynamics of social relations, and the moral order of our world. While we do not have anything like a final, scientific approach to maximizing human happiness, it seems safe to say that raping and killing children will not be one of its primary constituents.

One of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns—about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering—in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith. Incompatible religious doctrines have balkanized our world into separate moral communities, and these divisions have become a continuous source of human conflict. The idea that there is a necessary link between religious faith and morality is one of the principal myths keeping religion in good standing among otherwise reasonable men and women. And yet, it is a myth that is easily dispelled.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Score One for Deism?

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

After a brief hiatus, Ernie returned to our diablogue with Ratioanalizing Virtue, the title of which involves either a typo or a pun that went over my head. While Ernie had initially introduced the subject of ethics with his ethical trilemma, most of the intervening posts have revolved around my answer to the trilemma, not his. With this latest contribution, Ernie has begun to elaborate on the answer to which he hinted originally: that there is an underlying ethical nature, even an underlying ethical purpose, to the universe that causes self-interest, other-interest and belief in truth to be aligned, always. Ernie asserted this, and now finally begins to defend it.

Ernie begins by referencing a statement I had made in another context about the role of pure chance in evolution. I had said "Evolution does not operate by pure chance on inanimate objects, but on replicating lifeforms under selective pressure." Ernie suggests rephrasing this as "Evolution acts by selectively rewarding organisms that best conform to the Laws of Survival." Unfortunately, contrary to Ernie's expectations, I will not "allow" such a rephrasing.

First, saying that evolution rewards organisms is problematic, since evolution operates on populations of individuals sharing a common genetics. The survival of the genome is the important thing, not the survival of the individual. When a male of one of various species is eaten by the female after copulation, this promotes the survival of the genome but not the individual (male). Likewise, a man who sacrifices himself to ensure that others survive is not rewarded, but yet this behavior benefits his species.

Second, and more importantly, the idea of conformance to a "Law of Survival" is more-or-less meaningless, other than the requirement that a sufficient fraction of organisms (of a species) survive long enough to reproduce. To speak of a "Law of Survival" hints rather strongly (to me anyway) at a static set of requirements for what organisms must do to survive (either as individuals or as a species). But the variety of strategies that are employed by different kinds of creatures is really pretty astounding, and their relative success waxes and wanes according to changes in the environment, their competitors, their predators and their prey or other food sources.

While it may be possible to interpret "The Law of Survival" in such generic terms that is is not inaccurate (though not particularly helpful either), Ernie proceeds in a manner that involves something far more specific. For he says:

Let me go one step further and assert that evolution:

  1. Selects for cognitive systems that are capable [in principle] of apprehending Truth
  2. Selects for emotional systems that reward conformance with the Laws of Survival

Here again there is some ambiguity. Certainly such cognitive and emotional systems are sometimes selected for, but they are not necessarily or always selected for. As I mentioned before, these facilities come at a cost, and many species, indeed entire kingdoms, forego these costly complexities and take entirely different approaches. (Think bacteria or fungi.) The solution space in which evolution operates is huge with vastly different solutions possible. Only species that occupy particular regions of this space will have the necessary precursors to developing cognitive and emotional facilities such as described by Ernie, and even so not all of them will, depending on the cost/benefit ratio of those facilities in their environments.

So while humans do occupy such a region of evolutionary space and selective pressures have selected for those cognitive and emotional systems in humans, this is by no means the eventual state of every evolutionary lineage nor was it a necessary course of evolution applied to our ancestors. Neither do these systems guarantee the long term viability of species in possession of such facilities. Neanderthals, for instance, occupied a nearby branch of the "tree of life", presumably sharing some significant degree of our cognitive and emotional facilities, yet they died out.

So Ernie's assertions about selection of cognitive and emotional systems are not universally true, since they apply only within small regions of the overall solution space, and even within those small regions where they are accessible, they are not guarantees of reproductive success, neither for individuals (of course) nor for larger populations.

Ernie continues by suggesting that successful emotional systems imply that we are happy when we "achieve personal utility... fulfill antipathy towards those we perceive as threats... [and] manifest empathy towards those we identify with". And again I must respond by saying that these are only a set of possible outcomes, one set among many, and contingent on other characteristics of the species and its environments. The first is likely most common, the third the least. Ernie himself acknowledges this (partially) when he notes that these apply only to animals and that the third applies only to social animals. But he goes too far when he says these are essential for survival. Very little is essential for survival; these just happen to be strategies that have been acquired by humans and some other animals to various degrees.

None of this implies that these statements are not an accurate description of human evolution. Evolution has produced cognitive and emotional systems in humans (and to various degrees in other animals). Without the cognitive systems, we would not be having this conversation. Without the emotional systems, the basis of ethics in promotion of happiness and prevention of suffering would be gone or substantially altered. The fact that other possibilities exist does not imply that we cannot apply a metric like Universal Utilitarianism to the possibility that has been realized in man.

However, these other possibilities (realized in the vast majority of species, animal and otherwise) do undermine Ernie's assertion that the existence of such cognitive and emotional systems reflect an underlying "Law of Survival" in any way similar to the laws of physics, which are universal. (Let us ignore for a moment all of the ways that the laws of physics as we currently understand them may in fact not be truly universal. It is enough to know that the laws of physics apply equally to all creatures on Earth.) The foundation of Ernie's position is therefore unreliable.

Still, we can proceed with some minimal alterations to Ernie's further statements and perhaps make some additional progress. Let me reduce the scope of Ernie's statements (A)-(C):

  1. Ethics are meaningful in the context of societies (human systems)
  2. Virtue is acting to promote the health and happiness of the society
  3. Virtue is rational when society supports my own health and happiness

So, without pretending that these must be true of any general system, are they true of human systems (societies)? I think we have more or less agreed to (A) already. (B) is a definition of virtue, and this definition is acceptable under the metric of UU. (C) is more interesting. What does it mean for virtue to be rational? The implication seems to be that if virtuous actions advance my self-interest then virtue is rational; if I must sacrifice my self-interest to act virtuously, then virtue would be irrational. Further, the presence of (C) seems to imply that virtue should be rational.

This formulation is troublesome for two reasons. First, some virtuous actions are not self-interested. A soldier falling on a grenade to protect those around him is acting virtuously (according to B!) but irrationally (according to C). If we require virtue to be rational in this sense, we have a problem.

The second problem is that (C) conflates rationality and self-interest needlessly. A rational choice is a choice based on reason, so virtue is rational when ethical decisions are amenable to reason, regardless of the degree of self-interest involved. Ethical decisions are amenable to reason when we have a well-defined basis for evaluating them, perhaps because we have a useful metric and a sufficient understanding of the likely consequences of our actions.

Previously Ernie has pointed out that in at least some ethical systems, virtue may not be self-interested and he has characterized this as a problem since it implies a motivation to cheat. He has also asserted that, with sufficient understanding, we would see that self-interest and other-interest are ultimately aligned and any appearances to the contrary are illusory. So I feel fairly comfortable concluding that the point of (C) is not so much whether virtue is rational, but under what circumstances a rational, self-interested person would choose to act virtuously. If self-interest and other-interest are not always aligned, a rational, virtuous person may make different choices than a rational, self-interested person. If self-interest and other-interest are always aligned (which I do not believe), then virtue and self-interest are equivalent.

Ernie continues by asking six questions and giving four answers. His answers are:

  1. There exists a meaningful higher-order System encompassing social, natural, and logical systems
  2. It is always Virtuous to act in accordance with this System
  3. Support for this System is entirely, necessarily, and always consistent with belief in Truth
  4. The most trustworthy and virtuous people are those who believe (1-3), and devote themselves to both understanding and supporting that System

He asserts that these answers represent the "simplest and most powerful way to answer" the six questions. Ernie's inclusion of social systems in the "higher-order System" was intended to be supported by the existence of the "Laws of Survival", but as I demonstrated above, the reasons Ernie offers in support of these laws fall short, and the actual vast variety of survival mechanisms actually tends to disconfirm the existence of a higher-order system of the type Ernie is describing. Since the existence of this system is foundational to (2), (3) and (4), Ernie's answers fail to convince. Still, as above, we can make some appropriate substitutions and get something less objectionable.

  1. There exist meaningful ethical metrics based upon the actual cognitive and emotional systems present in humans.
  2. By definition, it is virtuous to act in such a way as to increase the value of these metrics.
  3. Belief in truth is necessary (instrumental) for reliably making virtuous choices.

(I dropped (4) because I have not thought of an appropriate replacement that I can state with conviction, especially not in light of my waning clarity of thought. I'll update the post with an appropriate (4) if I figure one out.)

My three statements are nothing extraordinary and are certainly compatible with what I and many others have said before.

Ernie continues by arguing that believing his (1)-(4) is equivalent to believing:

5. The present System exists as the result of a benevolent Purpose

Oh dear. In direct parallel to a point I made previously, (1-4) describe a particular state of affairs: the nature of our universe. While a benevolent purpose (from some unknown source of purpose) is sufficient to explain such a nature, it is not necessary. That nature could still be a brute fact. So (5) is not equivalent to (1-4), and (1-4) were already insufficiently supported. So I do not agree that we can (yet) conclude there exists a moral purpose behind the universe and I therefore disagree that Ernie has satisfied his first goalpost.

Ernie does state that his is only "the simplest and most comprehensive explanation for everything above, and that to deny (5) leaves a complex welter of unjustified beliefs in its place." So far, (5) is also unjustified. Since I do not know which particular beliefs Ernie is referring to a being unjustified, I cannot respond to that.

Back to you, Ernie.