Saturday, April 28, 2007

Remonstration of Conversational Trajectory

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



  1. That G/NOD is a singular, well-defined entity covering all of humanity.
  2. That the moral rules governing G/NOD are *discovered* more than they are *invented*.
  3. That those rules are in principle discoverable by human beings in the right circumstances
  4. That there is such a thing as virtuous character, which is always better than vicious character.
  5. That it is always rational to do that which is virtuous.

Is it your position that these are true statements that must either be derived or assumed? If not, why are they important?

I disagree that DU must assume all of them. (1) through (3) may be assumptions but they are hardly earth-shattering; only (1) is at all difficult. (4) is derivable. (5) may be false, but I may be misunderstanding. Rationality has to do with using reason. This seems to be saying that, using reason, all people will always find that virtuous actions will best satisfy (the most and strongest of) their own desires. DU does not assume this, entail this, or require this. But maybe I am misunderstanding, since this interpretation requires importing some assumptions that may not be correct.

My larger complaint about this whole approach is that there are multiple tenuous connections chained together in series: the importance of Christianity to Western civilization, the role of ontological and ethical claims in that contribution, the admitted possibility that contra-factual beliefs play an important role in such contributions, the mere consistency of those claims with a barely characterized "benevolent purpose" when the claims do not otherwise require such an additional entity, ...

I spent a couple of hours last night trying to write a response to our chat. During the chat, I wanted to let you continue to see where things were going and we may not have gotten far enough to really see that, but so far, my perspective on this is not really any different from your previous attempts in our diablogue. After a lot of work, we'll have only a very weak, tenuous conclusion.

I'm not sure that's helpful.

I introduced UU and DU as ethical theories that require no external "benevolent purpose" or "deity", no mysterious metaphysical claims, in constrast to your claim that such additional elements were essential. DU particularly relies on only a small number of ontologically basic elements: desires, beliefs, intentions and intentional actions. Their existence does not seem controversial. DU does appear to solve a number of issues that plague other ethical theories. Alonzo recently summarized them in Evaluating Moral Theories. While I agree that there may be practical difficulties at this point that could benefit from further exploration, this is enough to satisfy me (at least for now, knowing what I know) that no additional entities are necessary. Demonstrating that the above statements are consistent with (and even derivable from) the existence of a benevolent purpose is unconvincing when the statements are also consistent with its non-existence (or when the statements are not demonstrably true, as (5)).

Can you offer some reason to expect that the direction we are taking will be more fruitful than what it appears to me?


Thursday, April 26, 2007

Chatalogue: Think Globally, Act Locally?

Ernie and I chatted again tonight. I'll have some more to say later, I hope, but for now I'll just add the transcription:

E: Hello!

A: Hi

A: So, where to start this week?

E: I see you've been doing some homework as well.

A: A bit. The Toynbee book I got was not exactly what I expected.

E: Anyway, i do think you captured the essence of his argument.


A: Was there anything you wanted to say about that, or are we jumping back into the G/NOD thing?

E: I think the key distinction might be what I'm calling "pseudo-factual" statements.

A: Explain?

E: Does that mean that the religious beliefs of the Balinese were true? No, it just means they had evolved successful rules and encoded those rules in religious stories and rituals. The beliefs were false, but they were helpful. On the other hand, while the rules may have been well-adapted to Balinese climate, they may not have worked well elsewhere or during periods of abnormal rainfall or other sus

E: In your example of the Balinese, their beliefs were not entirely "true", but they were "contextually accurate within a given domain."

A: But attempting to extrapolate further from those beliefs would have been difficult, yes?

E: Isn't it always?

E: In my epistemology, *all* knowledge is merely "contextually accurate within a given domain."

E: (some just span bigger domains than others)

A: But you have to be careful of the domain.

E: Sure -- but that is always true, yes?

A: I guess what I see you doing is saying that (for instance) Jesus/the Bible teaches certain things about love. Love seems to be a good thing. So, since Jesus/the Bible was accurate in that one instance, we can trust him/it about other things.

E: No, not at all.

A: So, how do you support the supernatural/theistic aspects of your beliefs?

E: That's too many steps to jump in one leap.

E: Let me start with a simpler set of statements, to see if we can identify where we part company.

E: 1. Successful moral systems must embody some number of valid truths about human nature.

E: 2. The ontological claims of those moral systems may or may not be counterfactual.

E: 3. Medieval Western Christianity (MWC) -- while far from perfect -- has proven to be the most fertile ground for succesful moral innovation of any system yet attempted.

A: How are you determining that?

E: Well, can we go back to the metric of "greatest good for the greatest number?"

E: If you buy Toynbee's characterization of "Western Christendom" as a civilization, it has produced more net happiness than any other civilization to date.

A: See, I don't see how you can make that determination so easily, nor can you easily tie that production to Christianity.

A: It's not that I don't think there is some truth there, but I think there is too much contingency and dynamicism and complexity to make simple attributions like that.

E: Well, here's a simple test.

E: (I have this weird feeling of deja vu -- have we discussed this before?).

E: Compare the "quality of life" of someone in Western Christendom, and its ability to respond to external threats, with that of any other civilization.

A: At what point in time?

E: Pick a time.

A: And how do we know that Christianity itself was responsible for that?

E: The only exception I can think of is the Moorish empire.

E: I didn't say that "Christianity per se" was necessarily responsible.

E: I am saying that a culture which (at least initially) was based on MWC has proved to be extremely succesful.

E: It is a data point, not a proof.


E: So, moving on...

E: 4. Many of the ontological and ethical presuppositions of MWC (though far from all) are still a vital part of Contemporary Western Civilization (CWC).

E: go ahead

A: Wasn't sure if you were going on to (5) or not...

E: trying to

E: hard to phrase properly...

E: 5. Any system that presumes to improve on MWC needs to adequately account for those axioms that are in use by CWC, and ideally provide better explanatory and predictive power.

E: there

A: Let me think about that a second...

A: I guess the reason I have trouble with this line of argument is that whatever Christianity (or MWC) got right about ethics, many of its claims about reality go well beyond what are supported by those parts it got right.

E: Maybe, maybe not.

E: The question is, do you concede that your "improvement to Christianity" needs to get right at least as many things that Christianity did?

A: Yes and no.

A: I think the "improvement to Christianity" is wider than ethics. I also think that many of the improvements that MWC has made in the area of ethics have come about in contrast to the established views of Christians.

A: Not sure if that was very clear.

E: Sure, cast the net as wide as you wish.

E: But do you concede that, on the whole, your improvement to Christianity (as we know it) actually needs to be an overall improvement on areas that matter, not just superior in one tiny facet?

A: Yes.

E: Ok, good.

E: We can go back to G/NOD, unless you'd like to tackle something else.

A: That's fine.

E: Okay, well from this perspective I would claim that MWC implicitly made several very powerful assumptions about what we can interpret as G/NOD.

A: Which are?

E: I. That G/NOD is a singular, well-defined entity covering all of humanity.

E: II. That the moral rules governing G/NOD are *discovered* more than they are *invented*.

E: III. That those rules are in principle discoverable by human beings in the right circumstances

E: IV. That there is such a thing as virtuous character, which is always better than vicious character.

E: V. That it is always rational to do that which is virtuous.

E: Of course many of these were also inherited from the Greeks.

E: But MWC managed to develop an ontological scheme that accounted for everything they liked about the Greeks, and quite a bit more.

E: over to you...

A: And does this relate to Christianity specifically in any way?

A: Or theism generally?

E: At this level, not necessarily (except implicitly in III).

E: However, it does relate to my claims regarding the Deistic Hypothesis, and our first goalpost.

A: What part of the ontological scheme requires a deity?

A: Or transcendent morality?

E: Those terms aren't necessarily well-defined.

A: How does this relate to you deistic hypothesis then? Doesn't that imply a deity somewhere?

A: I just don't see where you make the leap.

E: From the MSSB, I define DH as "the various systems encompassing humanity are the result of a benevolent Purpose -- one sympathetic to human Reason, Virtue, and Happiness"

E: I am simply asserting that one can derive all five of those Principles from the DH.

A: I guess it doesn't appear to me that such a Purpose is necessary. Those principles (or similar) can be derived from a G/NOD without reference to external purpose.

E: And that Desire Utilitarianism requires those same assumptions (but ad hoc) "in order to support meaningful “social inquiry.”

E: "

E: No, they can be *asserted* for G/NOD.

E: But not derived in any meaningful sense.

E: still there?

A: Scrolling back up to look at the statements...

A: DU says that desires are real. Individuals have them. They can be aggregated.

A: There are relationships between desires, mediated by actions.

E: Sure.

E: But is there a global solution that maximizes then? Do we have sufficient information to make that determination?

A: There is at least one such solution, right? How can there not be at least one maximum? Unless it goes to positive infinity somewhere...

E: There can be multiple local maxima.

E: It could be flat (zero-sum) with multiple minima.

A: Yes. But at least one and possible multiple global maxima.

A: It's even possible that the maximum is "negative", I suppose, but it's still a maximum.

E: Well, okay. But is it reachable?

A: How is that relevant here?

E: More importantly, is virtuous behavior due to virtuous desire the optimal means to get closer to that maxima?

E: In order for DU to be actionable, it seems necessary to answer questions like that.

A: Virtuous behavior is behavior that promotes desires, so by definition, virtuous behavior move close to at least a local maxima.

A: "closer", not "close"

E: Right, but what if that local maxima takes one away from the global maxima?

A: Again, how is this relevant here? Yes, it seems possible.

E: My point is that if "morally good" is defined relative to G/NOD -- and that's what we care about -- then mere local statements and decisions about what is "functionally good" don't tell us anything about genuine morality.

E: We need some additional assumptions about how maximizing the local Network of Desires (L/NOD) impacts the G/NOD.

E: I'm trying to decide whether DU (as you understand it) implicitly makes those assumptions, or denies their relevance.

A: Ooh, I think we are talking about different sense of the word "global".

A: I am imagining a multi-dimensional landscape where the "altitude" at any point is the total amount of desire fulfillment.

E: okay...

A: A local maxima does not refer to maximizing desires locally (socially speaking) but maximizing desires in the neighborhood of the current position on the landscape.

A: So, the dimensions correspond to the strenghts of various desires.

E: I'm not sure I see the difference.

A: Well, what do you mean by the L/NOD?

E: At any rate, if we don't have a unimodal landscape, it seems you have the same issues.

E: L/NOD = the local set of entities and their desires

A: Local geographically (as in social connections)?

E: hold on

E: okay, I'm back.

A: Let's say there are only two desires that people have, A and B. So there is a two dimensional landscape (with hills).

E: Let us assume that -- at least in principle -- I can observe the entities that I have personal awareness of, and make a plausible assessment of their desires.

E: (which itself is a big assumption, but I can live with it).

A: The hills are the total amount of desire fulfillment in the entire population when that population has desires a in domain and b in domain

E: [feel free to continue your example while I work on mine]

A: Ooops. that was domain ( A ) and domain ( B ) that cleverly got converted to pictures...

E: I was wondering... Beer and angels made a nice contrast

A: So, there may be a local maximum of total desire fullfillment at a=a1 and b=b1 but a global maximum at a=a2 and b=b2. But in both cases, the desire fulfillment of the entire population is being measured.

E: If P is the people whose desires I can observe or infer, then L/NOD is simply D , the aggregate of all their desires.

A: he he

E: D[P]

E: Anyway, I'm concerned with the epistemic problem.

A: How can we find the solution? How do we know when we've found it?

E: Exactly.

E: How indeed?

E: I am asserting that there needs to be some sort of paradigm.

E: And more, that there needs to be a widespread moral consensus about the validity of that paradigm.

A: I don't think I follow.

A: For instance, consider this alternative: each individual promotes in others desires that will tend to satisfy his own desires.

E: Sure.

E: I call that manipulation.

A: At the same time, of course, he is acted on by others in the same way.

A: Do we want to get side-tracked on manipulation?

A: It doesn't have to be dishonest or "tricky".

E: I'm just labeling your definition.

E: Feel free to keep going...

A: Grrr... trying agin.

A: again

A: My point is just that progress can be made by individuals acting as individuals without the widespread consensus you mentioned.

A: It might go faster with consensus, but not necessary.

E: I disagree, at least under the terms you defined above.

E: I would assert that influencing other people's desires requires either a) power, or b) moral authority to succeed.

A: What is moral authority? If not power?

E: And that if influencing you to act according to my desires is not perceived by you as in your best interest, it will interpreted as unhealthy and illegitimate manipulation.

E: If you like you can define moral authority as a form of "soft power" to distinguish it from "hard power."

A: Praising somebody for something they did is a way to manipulate them and others to do similar things again. If the praise is sincere, is it unhealthy?

E: Define "sincere" and "unhealthy".

A: Sincere simply means here that I gave praise because I actually approved of what I am praising.

E: I would define "sincere praise" as "valuing something as truly good", not merely as "beneficial to me."

A: Are you asserting the existence of intrinsic goodness apart from anybody's desires?

E: At least part from the "local" desire, yes.

E: For example...

A: It does not have to be beneficial to me to be praiseworthy.

A: I can praise somebody for helping somebody else, knowing that similar actions could be helpful to me in the future.

E: If a kid in high school who wanted my approval stole the answers to the physics exam, I could easily praise her for her ingenuity and courage.

E: And I would be fully sincere.

E: But it would be manipulative and immoral in the larger scheme, no?

E: Sure, *some* praise is healthy; but that doesn't mean it all is.

A: Oh, definitely.

E: Okay, so let us define 'healthy praise' as this which encourages behavior that tends to maximize the G/NOD, whether or not it maximizes the L/NOD.

A: I'm sorry if I implied that sincerity was the *only* criteria by which the praise should be judged.

E: Or do you have a criteria for "healthy" that doesn't reference the G/NOD?

A: No.

E: So, we're running out of time.

A: I was just going to say...

E: I'm not in a hurry, but we should probably try to wrap up..

A: Yep.

A: I guess we'll leave it there... maybe I'll blog about it before next week.

E: My position is that it is possible to make meaningful statements about how to maximize L/NOD with fairly weak assumptions about reality, but that to make meaningful statements about the G/NOD requires fairly *strong* assumptions about reality (comparable to I-V) above.

E: Is that much at least clear?

A: Clear as lemonade, at least.

E: I'll settle for translucent. Hopefully we can start with that next week, unless we manage to resolve it before then.

A: OK, "talk" to you then.

E: Bye!

A: bye

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Civilized Inference

I wanted to write down a few thoughts I had as a bit of follow-up to my first chat with Ernie and as preparation for our next one.

Ernie brought up Arnold Toynbee and his 22 identified civilizations. I have only the most passing familiarity with Toynbee's work. I picked up one of his books about the history of Christianity at the library today, and I've read through a only couple of articles on Wikipedia about him and his work. So I cannot speak in any detail about his ideas, but I would like to address Ernie's reference to his work.

Basically, Ernie's claim was that the success of Christianity in contributing to so-called Western civilization, one of only twenty-two identified successful civilizations (according to Toynbee) is evidence that Christianity is "onto something" and further, that a "truer belief" must be better than the "false belief" it replaces.

There appear to me to be several difficulties with drawing any strong conclusions from these statements. First, most of the other civilizations Toynbee identified were not based on Christianity or even monotheistic belief systems. Some of these other civilizations continue today. Second, that the lists of "aborted" and "arrested" civilizations includes several based on Christianity suggests that Christianity was not sufficient to guarantee success. Both of these difficulties reflect a more generic problem: we are talking about complex systems of complex elements in dynamic environments, and teasing out causes and effects is going to be difficult. As I understand it, Toynbee advocated explanations based on "creative minorities" and challenges that were neither to difficult to overcome nor too simple to allow stagnation. Whether or not that is true (or partly true), the diversity of beliefs represented in these civilizations suggests that the truth content of the beliefs may not be a critical factor.

Can false beliefs be helpful? Yes, I think they can. Beliefs are important contributors to intentions (and therefore to intentional actions). False beliefs can lead to beneficial actions. They have important limitations and potential for other problems, but they can still be helpful.

For example, in Bali there are water temples whose priests control the distribution of water to farmers through a system of offerings to various deities. In the late 1970's or early '80's, this system was disrupted when the government attempted to modernize agriculture with new fertilizers, new pesticides and new types of rice. After a brief increase in productivity, things fell apart. Later computer simulations showed that the water temple system was far more effective than the newer technology in the Bali climate.

Does that mean that the religious beliefs of the Balinese were true? No, it just means they had evolved successful rules and encoded those rules in religious stories and rituals. The beliefs were false, but they were helpful. On the other hand, while the rules may have been well-adapted to Balinese climate, they may not have worked well elsewhere or during periods of abnormal rainfall or other sustained environmental changes. While the technology that was introduced turned out to be a step backwards for them (based on other presumably "scientific" but false beliefs), science still provides a more reliable platform for learning and eventually predicting and controlling the behavior of the ecological system, especially in the face of changing climate.

I came across a similar example a couple of months ago regarding the ecology of Central or South American rain forests, but I cannot find a reference to it now. The basic idea was that the religion of the native people contained beliefs about the kinds of spirits that inhabited different kinds of trees and/or animals with corresponding rules about the circumstances in which the trees could be cut down or the animals killed. Those rules, again encoded in the guise of religious beliefs and rituals, were found to promote the health of the forest ecology.

Because of these and other considerations, I think we have to be pretty cautious about inferring too much about the truth of Christian doctrines based on the continued existence of Western (Christian?) civilization. Even according to Toynbee, that success is partly dependent on historical contingencies in the form of challenges faced (not too strong, not too weak, but just right).

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Chatalogue: True Good

Ernie and I have exchanged a few emails in addition to our recent posts, trying to figure out a better way to proceed that is less prone to the difficulties that we seem to have been experiencing. We decided we needed to shorten the feedback loop so that we can clarify things more quickly when something is not making sense to either one of us. On pretty short notice (about three hours) we decided to have weekly IM chats and we just finished the first one. Ernie whipped up a little program to convert the transcripts of these sessions for inclusion on his blog, so you can read our first conversation in Chatalogue: True Good. I think we did pretty well for an hour of typing, even if the transcript is occasionally hard to follow when we were typing simultaneously. Just ignore my typos.

Update: I can hardly let Ernie be the only one with a cool translation program to make posting chats easy, so I wrote one too. Here is our first chat, with some typos corrected:

A: I'm here!

E: G'day

E: Did you see my transcribed version?

A: Yes, I did. Nice work.

E: Are you okay with me blogging the transcript like that?

A: We'll see. I guess a chat has a bit different flavor than normal written stuff. It just seems a bit weird to know that everything I am saying is being transcribed for posterity.

A: But, onward!

E: So, shall we start with a bit of meta-discussion, to see if we can get onto the same page?

A: Sure

E: My hope is that, rather than trying to prove each other wrong, we can focus more on trying to build a common understanding.

A: My difficulty is, while I agree in principle, I am not sure what it means to build a common understanding about something that we (may) have fairly fundamental disagreements.

E: Well, ideally we could at least figure out *where* we disagree!

A: I mean, we can agree about things at some meta-level, but I am not sure that will be very satisfying.

E: The funny thing is, we actually seem to agree on the vast majority of facts.

A: Vast majority? Not sure how to count that. Some, many?

E: We both believe in the scientific method, a generally Western set of ethics, a historical critique of the Bible. etc.

E: I have a hard time finding a "point of fact" where we've had serious disagreement.

A: That's still a pretty big tent.

E: From where I sit, it is mostly a matter of "interpretation" and conclusion where our communication breaks down.

E: I also think that, at least in theory, we respect the same rules of logic (even if we sometimes fall short in practice).

A: Sure

E: For example, I presume you agreed with the bulk of logical tools employed by Alonzo in "A Better Place"

A: Yes. Although I had intended to re-read it before we discussed it, and I haven't yet. (Thanks for reminding me.)

E: Of course, that begs the question: if we have so much in common, why do we seem to miss each other's meaning so often?

E: Is it intellectual, emotional, semantic, or purely a communication gap?

A: I am not sure how to classify it. Sometimes it just seems like things that you think are important to critical issues (trilemma, anger, etc.) just don't seem that "helpful" to me.

E: Yeah, I realize that.

E: It is entirely possible that our differences are (at least in part) a matter of priority.

E: I see theism as solving a host of formal and practical problems that you may not consider important and relevant.

A: Hold on a second.

E: ok

A: I get that impression from what you right, but usually it seems to me more like a "if theism were true, it would solve this problem this way", but it doesn't really provide reasons to believe that theism is true.

A: what you *write*, not right

E: Right, which brings us back to the epistemic issues.

A: How is what you are saying not an argument from consequences?

E: It is more an operational definition.

E: I'm still not even sure what you mean by 'true' in this context.

A: I'm speaking a bit loosely, of course. Because we're chatting.

E: Or if you're still thinking of "truth" as a boolean yes/no.

A: vs. a probabalistic sense of truth?

E: Um, not exactly.

E: More like a fuzzy logic sense of truth values.

A: okay

E: The way we can say "Newtonian mechanics is true, but less true than Quantum Mechanics"

A: right

E: From my point of view, Christian theism is a succesful "theory" which explains certain facts very well, but also has many facts which (as currently formulated) it doesn't explain.

A: But from what I have seen, some of the "facts" that you say it explains are not really "facts" at all.

E: Okay, then we get to definition of "facts" :-)

A: For instance, the statement about Christianity being responsible the success of Western civilization.

E: That was a terminology problem, I later realized (after reading another post of yours).

E: I was using Toynbee's classification, and referring to Western Christendom as founded by Charlemagne.

E: My bad -- I should've been more precise.

A: So, Christianity was responsible for Western Christendom? How is that helpful?

E: It is really hard to build a civilization. There's only 22 or so that Toynbee was able to catalogue.

E: There's great diversity, of course, but the "creative minority" who developed those civilization had to find beliefs powerful enough to grow and maintain society.

E: Christianity is hardly unique in this fashion, but it implies they were onto "something."

A: Some people have referred to that sort of thing as "belief in belief".

E: Sure -- but not every belief in belief works.

A: Sure. But the beliefs do not have to be true to work either.

E: Not absolutely true, but at least relatively true.

E: And a "truer belief" must work better than the "false belief" it replaces, no?

A: I've been reading a book by the anthropologist Scott Atran. He goes so far as to say that no society has survived without certain kinds of shared beliefs and rituals, but that they all contain counter-factual, quasi-propositional elements.

E: Sure.

E: So does science.

A: In fact, the "cost" of believing falsehoods is part of what makes them work.

E: Newtonian physics was dead-wrong about action at a distance.

E: Quantum physics has random infinities we just ignore.

E: We know it can't explain gravity.

E: I'm not sure I understand or buy the "cost" part, though...

A: I am not sure I can describe it well enough, quickly enough, but the basic idea is that people tend to trust people who have demonstrated a willingness to participate in expensive behaviors on behalf of their society.

E: Sure.

A: But he develops it much better than that.

A: I have been meaning to blog about it. He has a number of very interesting quotes that relate to various parts of our conversation.

E: Well, then that raises another question: do believe that virtue is rational, and that truth *always* ultimately supports virtue?

E: Like Alonzo tries to prove.

A: I guess I wouldn't word it like that, but yes, more or less.

E: So, I'm confused. Are you saying:

E: a) It is always better to believe the truth.

E: or

E: b) Ethical behavior is contingent on believing a shared group falsehood

A: That's a very interesting question, isn't it?

E: Which is true, or which you're saying? :-)

A: I lean toward ( a ), but I have to admit the possibility that successful societies have been based on ( b ).

A: Note that "successful" is not the same as "ethical"!

E: Isn't it?

E: I thought that this was how Alonzo defined "ethics", and fulfilling societally contructed desires.

E: as fulfilling.

A: A successful society is one that continues. That does not imply that all members of that society have their desires met.

E: Sure, but most definitions of society assume that the individuals see their survival as tied to that of their society.

A: Again, survival is not their only desire.

E: Sure, but in the absence of survival, what other desires can be met?

E: Isn't it at least a prerequisite?

A: It may be the strongest desire, but not the only one. So, yes, it is a prerequisite, but not sufficient.

E: Sure.

E: Let me try to summarize.

E: At least, as best i understand Alonzo.

E: 1) "Good behavior" is that which maximizes desire fulfillment within a society

E: 2) One of the baseline desires of a society is for its own survival

E: 3) Therefore, a set of behaviors "X" that improves a societies chance of survival is, by definition, better than a comparable set "Y" that decreases those chances.

E: Are those all true statements?

A: Sorry... first try didn't work.

A: I think we need to be careful not to conflate the desires of individuals with desires of a "society"

E: Is not a "society" merely the aggregate of its individual desires?

A: If we define it that way, but I think we have to be careful of equivocation.

E: I would love to see a formal definition, as I don't recall one from "A Better Place" (ABP)

A: For instance, when we talk about the survival of a society, are we talking about just the survival of the aggregate of the individuals' desires?

A: When I hear "survival of a society" I think of survival of the various structural elements. Take the example of a country ruled by a despotic line of rulers.

A: The individuals in that country may not be having their desires met, but perhaps the structure persists.

E: That's an excellent point. What exactly does "ethical behavior" mean when the lawgivers are corrupt?

A: That is "surviving" but not ethical.

E: Is murdering the kings tax collectors an ethical behavior?

E: I thought ABP defined ethics relative to the society's institutions and cultural norms.

A: I would say that the society's institutions and cultural norms affect people's desires, so they are reflected in ethics in that sense.

E: I think this is one of those areas where my understanding of Alonzo is murky.

E: Morality is defined relative to a "network of desires", right?

A: Yes.

E: Okay, *which* network? My local community? My society? My progeny?

A: I agree that he is not entirely clear about that.

A: But, I think it is partly the extent to which are actions affect others' desires.

A: What is the "reach" in the network?

E: But, can't one pretty much get almost answer you want simply by choosing the appropriate network?

E: almost any answer

A: As an individual, I am not a member of any possible network.

A: I am a member of a particular network.

A: (with fuzzy boundaries, perhaps)

E: Multiple fuzzy boundaries, with unbounded scope, no?

E: The Carbon you emit could change whether a Chinese power plant gets built, no?

A: Sure. So in that case, the appropriate network is a global one.

E: So, in the general case, is morality defined relative to the global network of all humans who are currently living?

A: Yes.

E: (even if the coupling of certain actions is quite weak)

E: And might live in the future?

E: Or only to the extent some of us alive today happen to care about our progeny?

A: We get into difficulties here because there are practical problems in "evaluating the metric".

E: Um, yeah.

E: That's the problem I have with Alonzo's whole approach.

E: It seems to work fine as a *descriptive* model of what we mean, but it seems to fall apart into uncountable sums as soon as you try to use *prescriptively*.

A: I think there are some difficult cases, and some cases that are not so difficult.

E: But the "easy" cases all seem to rely on ad hoc assumptions.

E: I agree it "might" be true -- in fact, at some level I think DU is true -- but without knowing its boundary conditions, it seems impossible to make any sort of valid claims.

A: I understand where you are coming from there.

E: Thank you.

A: I can imagine setting up a network of desires and "solving" it.

A: But the complete problem appears intractable.

E: Well, not necessarily.

E: Let us define "NOD" as a the global network of desires.

E: The goal is optimize the "most and strongest" of the desires in NOD, right?

A: Right.

A: But remember, that we are dealing with *mutable* desires.

E: The question is, is there some structure in NOD which allows us to reduce the N! weightings to a calculable heuristic.

A: (That is, some of the desires are mutable.)

E: Right. I believe one of the assumptions we need to make is that desires exist with some well-defined distribution.

E: That is, the *important* desires are not fully mutable, but need to fall within some well-defined range.

E: (at least in principle, even if we don't know what that range is)

A: Right. We can take a "statistical mechanics" like approach to the problem without pretending to solve for every individual variable.

E: Exactly.

E: But, that requires us to assume that:

E: a) there are meaningful aggregate metrics that we can discern

E: b) it is possible, in principle, to maximize them

E: c) it is worth the effort to attempt to discover them

E: If the problem is underconstrained, then we get a nice relative world where we can pretty much construct our own morality.

E: If it is overconstrained, then we (or some group) is screwed. :-(

E: Make sense?

A: Yep.

E: So, here's the funny thing.

E: DU only seems to be well-defined and useful if all these other assumptions are true.

E: Otherwise, it is just a post hoc rationalization of what we (or society) have already decided is true based on other considerations.

E: (at least if we're talking about "good" in the moral sense, not merely "good for a particular purpose)

A: I'm not sure that's true.

E: Can you give a counter-example?

A: Let me think a second... still trying to decide.

E: Actually, it is almost 6 pm.

E: Do you want to take that as homework? :-)

A: We can pick up there next week.

E: Okay.

E: So, shall I post this?

A: That's fine. I'll probably post a link to it after you've done that.

E: Fair enough.

E: If I have time, I'll try to clean up the argument.

E: At any rate, I think this was *way* better than our previous exchanges. :-)

A: Yes, definitely.

E: Thanks for suggesting direct conversation.

E: Have a good week.

A: Same time next week? Or coordinate later?

E: Same time, same place.

A: OK. Thanks, Ernie.

E: Thank you!

E: Bye.

A: bye

Saturday, April 14, 2007

What Now?

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 My Bad.

Ernie's Ashes to Ashes and my response, Dust to Dust pretty clearly showed that our conversation had gotten to a point where we were frustrated with each other. After some down time, Ernie responded with My Bad. We have exchanged a couple of emails since then, since, while I appreciated his response, it left me a bit confused, particularly about what he meant by scare-quoting "repent", what were his mistaken assumptions, and what he meant by his unqualified "I concede."

Other readers may have been similarly confused. However, my intention here is not to explain that in detail. I will just summarize by saying that we agree that if we are going to continue our discussion, we need to adjust our approach to be less contentious and more cooperative. But how will we make that work? I am not sure I have a good answer.

Let me shift now to addressing Ernie more directly...


You asked [via email] about my thoughts on why our diablogue has had difficulty converging on a mutual understanding. I have already acknowledged in prior posts as well as emails to you that imperfect communication skills are one factor. In re-reading old posts, I am aware that, while my meaning was perfectly clear to me, it would not have been so to others, particularly those operating under different assumptions. As an important example, I failed to provide an early, clear explanation of the relationship between ethical paradigms, ethical systems and metrics, and even when I recognized that you had a different relationship in mind, my attempt at clarification was insufficient.

That problem is sometimes compounded by another. Sometimes we need to slow down. We need to reformulate things less often and take longer to develop ideas from a single perspective. This, I fear, is one area where I have been frustrated by you trying to "drive" the conversation. My impression of our conversation is often that you propose looking at an issue from some perspective, I respond to that perspective, and then you propose another perspective. While in some sense, the new perspective is a response, it tends to jerk things around a bit too much. It doesn't really feel like a response. Rather than continually trying new ways of looking at things, can we just take a little bit longer to develop some depth?

I've sat here for awhile trying to develop some other ideas, writing and deleting. What they come down to, I guess, is mutual respect. This is a dialog, perhaps sometimes a debate, but not an interrogation or an interview. It is not a Socratic dialog, not a dialog between teacher and pupil or between doctor and patient. There needs to be symmetry, at least on the larger scale. If we are not both ready to learn, we should not continue.

Having said that, I vacillate between curiousity and disinterest. Disinterest may not be exactly the right word, but I sometimes wonder if this dialog has been or will be worth the effort. Has it helped you in any way? It has helped me by driving me to clarify certain ideas, and probably to be more aware of the diversity of Christian beliefs. It has not yet given me reasons to think those beliefs might be correct.


Friday, April 06, 2007

Loose Canons

There is, I think, I fairly common view among Christians (and especially conservative Christians) that the Bible with all of its various books and authors, is describing a single overall truth. Sure, the Old Testament may appear to have a different sort of theology than the New Testament, but that (in this interpretation) reflects the ongoing work of God and his plan for humanity. Sure, there may appear to be conflicts among various New Testament writers, or even among various writings by the same author. These are taken to be indications that the underlying truth may be subtle, and that further study will resolve these apparent difficulties by uncovering a unified underlying framework. This kind of outlook is particularly likely, I think, among those that believe the Bible is the inspired, infallible word of God.

I will not pretend to know exactly how common this type of view is, but I can say that it would have described my own views on the subject for most of my life. However, as I began to re-evaluate my beliefs, I encountered compelling reasons to discard this view in favor of another. In this alternative view, the various books of the Bible reflect the understandings and goals of their authors, understandings and goals which change over time and which are not mutually consistent. Under this view, it is particularly important to identify the context in which the authors wrote, and even who they were (or were not).

Perhaps the most important reasons derive from the development of the New Testament canon. (Perhaps I should say canons, since there are several, but I will focus just on those 27 books that constitute the canon with which most Catholic and Protestant Christians are familiar.) There were many other Christian writings that were not accepted into the canon. How did we get the collection that we have today? Why should we give them particular trust and exclude the others? A common answer given by Christian apologists is that three factors were critical: apostolic authority, doctrinal correctness and widespread use. Apostolic authority means that the books were written by apostles, or by close associates of the apostles in the cases of Mark and Luke. Doctrinal correctness and widespread use seem like fairly obvious criteria, but I will return to them in a minute.

We know of a great many early Christian writings that claimed to have been written by apostles. The Gospel of Judas was in the news last year about this time, having been recently found and translated, but there were many others that claimed Paul, Peter, Thomas, James, Barnabas, Mary Magdelene and even Jesus as authors. All are agreed by modern scholars to be pseudonymous; that is, they were not written by the people that they claim as authors. So, based on the criteria suggested above, they were correctly excluded from the canon, at least the canon accepted by the Catholic church and inherited by Protestants.

However, scholars in the last several hundred years have developed strong cases against apostolic authorship for many of the writings that were included in the canon, including all of the gospels and as many as seven of the epistles normally attributed to Paul, and several others. Some of the cases are stronger than others.

For example, the pastorals (I and II Timothy and Titus) are among those attributed to Paul that are almost certainly forgeries. Evidence for this derives from writing style, vocabulary, doctrine and historical context. Over one third of the words used in the pastorals are not found in any of the other Pauline epistles, but they are common among second century Christian writings. As an example of doctrinal differences, in the uncontested Pauline epistles there is nothing like the misogynistic doctrines described in I Timothy 2:9-15. (I Corinthians 14:34-35 contains similar language, but this appears to be a later scribal insertion, based both on the content of our earliest manuscripts and the lack of continuity with the surrounding verses.) Regarding historical context, the pastorals concern churches with well-developed hierarchical structures, structures which had not yet developed in Paul's time, but consistent with early second century authorship.

Without going into any more detail here, let me just list the books whose apostolic authorship is seriously questioned by modern scholarship: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Ephesians, Colossians, II Thessalonians, Hebrews, James, I and II Timothy, Titus, I and II Peter, Jude, and Revelation. As I said, some of these are more certain the others to be pseudo-epigraphical, but that is more than half of the New Testament books. And these conclusions were not reached by scholars out to destroy Christianity, but generally by Christian scholars seeking to understand the documents that lie at the foundation of their beliefs.

Doctrinal correctness is another interesting issue. The development of the canon was triggered by competition between various doctrinal positions. The first canons were developed in the second century by Gnostic Christians, with "orthodox" Christians responding with their own canons, eventually leading to the canon accepted today. I put the scare quotes around "orthodox" because the question of what is orthodox and what is not is an important question here. While historically one position "won" and came to be called orthodox (which means "right doctrine"), does that really mean those doctrines are correct? Or were they just more popular? How do we know what are the correct doctrines? We cannot appeal to scripture, not when the decisions about what to consider scripture were based on doctrinal correctness to begin with!

If we fall back on apostolic authority we encounter trouble quickly enough due to the questions of what was really said by the apostles. If we fall back on inspiration by God apart from apostleship, who is to say what was inspired by God and what was not? The heretics (as judged by what became the orthodoxy) also claimed inspiration. We cannot even rely on mutual consistency because, whether or not there is some as yet unknown unifying underlying theme, some apparent inconsistencies are as yet unresolved.

Are we left then simply with widespread use? From what we can tell today, the apocryphal Gospel of Peter was more widely used than the Gospel of Mark. It was discarded due to passages that could be used to support the Docetic "heresy". As another example, The Shepherd of Hermas was also widely read but eventually excluded from the canon. As far as I know, this was due to explicitly non-apostolic authorship. So, widespread use alone is insufficient.

So, while perhaps well-intentioned, the criteria of apostolic authorship fell victim to forgeries. The forgeries were probably intended to lend apparent apostolic authority to competing doctrinal positions. For doctrinal correctness to be useful as a criteria, an external mechanism for determining doctrinal correctness would be required. Since apostolic authority was already undermined by undetected forgeries (at the time), apostolic authority could not have really been that mechanism. Widespread use was clearly viewed as insufficient, since that criteria was trumped by lack of apostolic authority and by doctrinal issues. (One might make the case that widespread use could have been sufficient for inclusion in the canon, but in any case, it would be insufficient grounds for judging the texts even probably true.)

Where does this lead? I think it causes grave problems for anyone who grounds their beliefs on the authority of scripture, particularly if their view of scripture includes the entire New Testament. As I said at the beginning of this post, that describes some Christians, but not all. That is, some Christians hold different views about the role of the Bible in forming and supporting their beliefs. By itself, these considerations do not imply that now-orthodox Christian doctrines are false or that New Testament accounts of Jesus and the early church are incorrect. They do highlight some of the reasons that these doctrines invite critical examination and that the supposedly historical accounts should be viewed suspiciously.