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. :-)



Dr. Ernie said...

Hi Alan,

I realize I may not have clarified anything, but I think we now have much higher-quality confusion. :-P The tricky bit is that I'm not sure whether you agree with Sam, so I can use his ideas as a proxy for yours. For example, do you support his proposal for a "research program" built on an NTOBM?

Alan Lund said...

Technically, Sam did not propose a research program per se. He did say that if psychophysical laws exist, they are potentially discoverable and worthwhile to discover. Regardless, a research program dedicated to searching for such laws would be reasonable, though I am perhaps not imaginative enough to guess what form such laws might take. Based on the complexity and variability of people and their interactions, I am a bit pessimistic about how far such laws could be taken. But as I said, that may just be my lack of imagination.

Does that help?