Saturday, January 13, 2007

Axioms, Hypotheses and Facts, Oh My!

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief. It is a response to A Minimal Set of Shared Beliefs.


With perhaps one exception, which I will discuss momentarily, the statements you list as being a Minimal Set of Shared Beliefs (MSSB) are agreeable to me, though as I mentioned before, agreement on the first few is not that earthshaking. Let me repeat them here for easy reference:

  1. Happiness is better than Suffering
  2. Love is better than Hate
  3. Truth is better than Falsehood
  4. Truth is compatible with both Love and Happiness
  5. Love and Happiness are compatible with each other
  6. There are some good things about Christianity
  7. There are many things wrong with Christianity
  8. It is both necessary and possible to improve upon Christianity
  9. Reason and Empirical Observation are both key to improving upon Christianity
  10. The goal is maximize actual and potential Happiness while minimizing actual and potential Suffering

The one item that I need to qualify, surprisingly enough, is the last one. As you note, this reflects what I have described as the metric of Universal Utilitarianism, which I brought into this discussion as being very near to my own thinking on the nature of morality. Participating in this discussion has, quite naturally, led me to further reflection and study. I have, for instance, described universal utilitarianism (or at least my understanding of it) as being incomplete since it "does not reflect our intuitions about how to treat those who mistreat others."

For the past month or so, I have been reading the blog Atheist Ethicist. The author, Alonzo Fyfe, is a philosopher who advocates "Desire Utilitarianism". By this he does not mean simply that whatever you desire is good or right, or that we should do whatever anyone else desires of us. Instead, desires and actions are judged to be morally good or evil based on whether they promote or thwart the desires of others. According to Alonzo (and I tend to agree so far) this provides a better foundation for making moral judgements than happiness and suffering alone. For instance, he argues that sometimes we desire other things more than happiness, so that merely bringing about happiness would produce a morally inferior result.

I may write more about Desire Utilitarianism later after I have better digested how it all plays out. My purpose in bringing it up here is that statement (X) represents an ethical theory that reflected well my thoughts at the time I brought it up, but which may be superceded by a better theory (one with more explanatory power) later. For now, I remain happy to continue using it. As you said:

For purposes of this discussion, let us both stipulate that this moral imperative is at least "proximately true" -- that is, any ethical theory we propose has to either incorporate or address this truth to be considered valid.

However, there is another reason that this statement needs attention, a reason more directly relevent to your argument.

You suggest that the deistic hypothesis allows us to derive all of the statements in the MSSB as theorems, rather than stating them as axioms, and further that a theory that explains a set of facts is more powerful than the set of facts themselves. From this you conclude that your goalpost statement is supported.

I think there are several flaws in this argument, and the most important problem is that (X) is a very different statement from (I) through (IX). The first nine statements, possibly excluding (IV) and (V), are all statements about the value of various things: happiness, suffering, love, hate, truth, falsehood, Christianity, reason and empirical observation. Statement (X) is different because it establishes the grounds for valuing one thing above another.

I submit that (X) is sufficient as a theory of ethical value (subject to the caveat above) and further that by itself it is sufficient to support meaningful social inquiry. The remaining statements are not assumptions nor axioms. They are statements that can be evaluated logically and empirically. Statement (I) follows trivially from statement (X). Statements (II) through (V) can be supported on both theoretical and empirical grounds, once (X) establishes the basis of comparison. Likewise, statements (VI) through (VIII) can be evaluated on empirical grounds. Statement (IX) is a bit out-of-place: reason and empirical observation are part of the methodology we adopt in evaluating not just Christianity but other purported statements of fact. Still, we can use meta-reasoning and meta-observations to evaluate the usefulness of reason and empirical observation in improving Christianity (or other evaluations of value) and so place value on them directly.

In this view, we do not need "a set of assumptions comparable to the MSSB" in order to support meaningful social inquiry. We need only the single (perhaps axiomatic) definition of moral value provided by (X). The remaining statements are not assumptions or axioms; they are potentially testable truth claims given the definition of moral value. So I disagree with your statements A and B because I do not believe we need to treat (I) through (IX) as assumptions or axioms that could instead by derivable from a deistic hypothesis.

The discussion above also hints at another problem. While I agree that a discrete list of facts is less powerful than a theory which explains them, we do not have just these two alternatives. That is, it is possible that other theories could explain those same facts. In such cases, we must look for other facts over which the proposed theories differ or apply heuristics like Occam's Razor and prefer simpler theories to more complex ones. I would suggest that introducing a deity or other Benevolent Purpose to explain the value of love and truth in promoting happiness is unnecessary, and so should be discarded unless we have other compelling reasons for retaining such an element in our theories.

I hope that gives you something to work with.



Dr. Ernie said...

Hi Alan,
Thanks. It does indeed give me something to work with. Though, I'm confused why you appear to be deriving morality from an (X) you disagree with. :-) Also, I've never claimed that the "diestic hypothesis" was the only or optimal theory, just that it was comparable in ower to belief a "mathematical universe." Perhaps you can try to come up with a superior (X') while I work on my response...
- Ernie P.

Alan Lund said...

When I said that "I remain happy to continue using it", I meant simply for the purposes of this discussion. I am sorry if that was not clear.

The statement you are defending is 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." It is my contention that such a belief is not well-justified if an alternative exists, especially not when you say that the belief is essential. Also, if there exist alternatives with equal or greater explanatory power without positing otherwise unnecessary entities (like a deity or other source of transcendent moral purpose), then these alternatives are more justified than yours, all else being equal. Since we have no comparable, superior alternatives to a mathematically-describable universe, I do not think that the belief in the "deistic hypothesis" is as well-justified as belief in a "mathematical universe".

Another way of looking at this is, if I agreed that you have adequately defended your statement in the sense you are now suggesting, the statement would not have much persuasive weight (to me). On the other hand, that would let us move on to other things...