Enter your email address to receive updates by email:

subscribe in a reader like my facebook page follow me on twitter Image Map
Podcast Message Line: 512-222-3389
Logos Catholic Bible Software

« Materialism and the moral argument Part 4 | Main | Materialism and the moral argument: comments & responses, part 2 »

October 27, 2007

Comments

Jason
I think you're confusing coherence with plausibility. A meaningless universe is at least as coherent a concept as a universe without God, just not one that most of us find plausible. Alternatively, it may be that if we ever hash out the metaphysics to a sufficient degree, the concept of a universe without God might turn out to be truly incoherent, but that's an argument even I don't have the wind to make.

I think the issue here was actually my sloppiness in choice of words. I failed to distinguish between the idea that there is no such thing as meaning in our lives and the idea that the universe has no intrinsic purpose. I think the latter claim - that the universe has no intrinsic purpose - is both coherent and true. It is the former claim that I find incoherent. What would it mean for our lives to be meaningless? This seems incoherent to me in the same way that, "Color is an illusion produced by our senses" seems incoherent. Color can't be an illusion because it is just a word to describe what a particular experience is like; the same with meaning.

Jason
Even the instinct for self-preservation is not absolute. The voice of conscience is. No materialist ethic I have ever encountered can account for this.

I think the issue ultimately raised by this critique is: Can materialism explain why we have a higher-order preference to regard ourselves as beings who act morally despite impulses that move us in other directions?

Why is it that I - recognizing the evolutionary origins of my moral sentiments - don't simply move beyond good and evil and act in the way that would maximize my personal satisfaction all things considered? A second question is, if someone else did do this, on what basis would I condemn them? I think these are two different, though related questions. For now, I'll try to sketch a response to the first question. This will lay the groundwork for answering the second.

When we act - when we make decisions - we draw on certain self-conceptions which are provisionally fixed. These conceptions tend to change slowly overtime although they can also change radically (as when Saul of Tarsus became Paul the Apostle). The consistency of these conceptions over time is what gives our lives purpose. When I act wrongly, I fail to live up to a certain conceptions I have of myself. Some self-conceptions which are so fundamental that they must be shared by everyone - for instance, we must regard ourselves as beings whose desires are a prima facie source of reasons that are binding on everyone. We cannot help but regard ourselves as such, because if we do not, then we will have no basis for acting (we literally could not choose to not regard ourselves in that way, because that choice would be self-contradictory, premised on a desire not make our desires normative).

On what basis are our self-conceptions determined? Not on a moral basis (this would render the above argument circular). I think we can see this in the example of Saul of Tarsus. He did not make a moral choice in becoming Paul the Apostle - it was hardly a choice at all; rather, his whole perception of the world shifted.

Thus, this higher order preference to act morally is based in a conception that we have of ourselves. We could try to affect such conceptions by choice, but we would be acting on reasons premised in other conceptions, and some of these conceptions - those that underlie the most fundamental moral claims - we could not choose to override because they are implicit in the very idea of reasoned action.

(This account is my interpretation of the ideas implicit - and sometimes explicit - in Korsgaard, Nagel, Scanlon, Rawls and Kant)

Jason

A typo in the last post that could cause confusion. I omitted the second "to" in the sentence: "We literally could not choose to not regard ourselves in that way, because that choice would be self-contradictory, premised on a desire to make our desires not normative."

Tim J.

"Color can't be an illusion because it is just a word to describe what a particular experience is like; the same with meaning."

Is "redness" just a private experience of mine, or can I reasonably infer (from their statements and behavior) that others experience it too? And if that is the case, is it terribly illogical to deduce that "redness" is an experience grounded in the perception of an external, objective reality?

You seem to be saying that "redness" is real, but that nothing is really red, which leads me to wonder if you routinely run traffic lights. I suspect not.

Nobody (not on LSD) goes around thinking "I am experiencing red". We see red and infer - know - a real red object. Again, the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that my (and others) perception of universal, transcendent morals corresponds to no objective external reality.

We don't (unless that is our field of specialization) talk about red as a perceptual experience NEARLY as much as we talk about red corresponding to light of a particular wavelength. The whole point of our senses seems to be to allow us to have some knowledge of our environment - of "reality". Do you maintain that these perceptions can't be reliably used to infer any real, objective, external reality?

To say "color is JUST a perception" is a huge negative statement that flies in the face of our collective human experience (you need to prove that "JUST" bit). Do you believe collective (group) experience is possible? If so, how?

How do you explain how we know the difference between dreams and waking life? We experience "perceptions" in both cases, but understand that in one case (dreams) they correspond to no reality outside our own head, while in the other case they DO.

Finally - and please give attention to this if to nothing else above - isn't the word "illusion" itself "just a word to describe what a particular experience is like"?

How do you maintain that "color" or "meaning" can't be an illusion when "color", "meaning" and "illusion" are all just words that describe experiences?

Jason

Tim J.,

My analogy was perhaps somewhat unfortunate as it suggests a different argument than the one I was in fact making (which you duly develop).

I want to distinguish between: 1) Whether it makes sense to say that our experience of color per se is an illusion and 2) How this experience relates to objective features of the external world and how our experience relates to that of others.

I was only making a claim about 1) - that it is incoherent to say that our experience of color as a whole is simply an illusion. This claim would be meaningless. Likewise, I think it is incoherent to say that our experience of meaning in our lives is simply an illusion.

You take this analogy somewhat further than I intended to argue that our perception of color reflects external reality (a point with which I agree) in the same way that our perception of moral rules reflects external reality (a point I dispute).

I think this analogy is actually extremely instructive as to our differences and I'll elaborate on this point in a later post as it raises many issues I have not yet discussed.

I think your last point about the notion of an illusion is also closely related. It would not make sense to say that our experience of color is universally an illusion. It does make sense to say that particular experiences of color are illusions in the sense that they come about "in the wrong way" (being generated directly by our brain rather than our brain's response to the external world) - I think we agree about this point. It also would not make sense to say that our experience of meaning universally is an illusion. Now, could particular local experiences of meaning be illusions - could they "come about in the wrong way"? I'd say so, but I think coming about in the wrong way means something quite different here than it does in the case of colors. Unfortunately, I'll have to postpone the development of this idea for a future post.

Tim J.

Thanks for the response, Jason. I appreciate the way you have conducted yourself through these interesting exchanges.

I have more thoughts on how God relates to "good" and vice-versa (the most substantive of your objections, to me, being your assertion that saying "God is good, and good is 'whatever God does'" is circular and therefore carries no moral force) but I have things that Must Be Done. Perhaps later.

I think you're wrong, of course ;-).

Mary Kay

Jason,

You take this analogy somewhat further than I intended to argue that our perception of color reflects external reality (a point with which I agree) in the same way that our perception of moral rules reflects external reality (a point I dispute).

That's the discussion up to this point, isn't it?

I think your last point about the notion of an illusion is also closely related

Ack. If I had my druthers, the word illusion would never show up in this discussion because it allows for too much imprecise language. I gather that both of you have used the word illusion to mean "not real" but the examples you've both used have been amuck with imprecision. Fuzzy language, fuzzy thinking. The solution is to be precise about what you can be precise about and go from there.

SDG

I have more thoughts on how God relates to "good" and vice-versa (the most substantive of your objections, to me, being your assertion that saying "God is good, and good is 'whatever God does'" is circular and therefore carries no moral force)

I too. A post on this forthcoming.

Mary Kay

Using the classic start of definitions: illusion is briefly defined as producing a perception different than it is in reality. (I could go on about that, but will save that for later.)

Perception is defined as recognition or understanding by means of the senses.

Therein lies the crux of some of the difficulties. You're trying to use (age old method) examples that are experienced through the senses to understand that which is spirit, that which is not of the senses. That may seem obvious, but it's important enough to state.

Mary Kay

Jason,

to argue that our perception of color reflects external reality (a point with which I agree) in the same way that our perception of moral rules reflects external reality (a point I dispute).

Part 1 of my question is what is it about Tim's statement, that perception of the senses can be extrapolated to moral rules and/or our perception of moral rules, do you dispute?

Let me begin to address what I meant by illusion as imprecise language in your paragraph:

It does make sense to say that particular experiences of color are illusions in the sense that they come about "in the wrong way" (being generated directly by our brain rather than our brain's response to the external world) - I think we agree about this point.

I'm unclear what you are saying. I know that color can be measured in terms of wavelength. If there is physical damage to a person's color detection equipment (rod and cone photoreceptors, optic nerve, occipital brain lobe), that affects that person's perception, but does not change the wavelength measurement.

How does "in the wrong way" relate to the above paragaph? That would put me on the same page. Thanks.

David B.

Jason,

C.S. Lewis covers your questions about God's goodness, etc., very well in the Problem of pain. You may have read it, though, so this might be a waste of internet space.

Jason

David B.,

I did actually read The Problem of Pain for a seminar I took about CS Lewis and Sigmund Freud. Of course, I don't recall every argument, so if you could refer me to the particular section you have in mind I could take another look (I know this is a running them throughout the book, but perhaps there is one particular section where it is directly addressed?).

Jason

David B.

Jason,

Yeah, I think Lewis dealt with arguments over God's existence in the earlier chapters, if i recall correctly. I read it as one who was already a Christian, but I was impressed by his observation that (i'm paraphrasing) "if a Good God doesn't exist, why then would man, seeing so much suffering and evil around him, invent such a Being? One who loves us, yet lets us suffer?" Of course, everyone reacts differently to the same thing.

A.Williams

I'm sorry this is off topic, but for those who love the Catholic Liturgy and priesthood, and I know there are many on this site... you won't want to miss this short video clip put out by the USCCB.

It is about the importance of the Catholic Priesthood, and is called "Fishers of Men".

..should leave you in tears!

http://ccc.usccb.org/video/fishers_of_men1.wmv.

God Bless!

A.Williams

If that link doesn't work, you can cut and paste this address to ZENIT at

http://www.zenit.org/article-20851?l=english

and then double click the link that they provide.

Sorry I don't have the know how to transfer the link direct to this site! : (

Again, it is really a surprisingly GREAT video!!

Mary Kay

Jason, my earlier comments were corollary to the adage "In order to get the answer, one must know the question." I was unclear if your question/viewpoint was the existence of God, morality in the absence of a theistic viewpoint or some third one that I didn't get.

SDG, your discussion made me look again at my definition of morality, which is probably the classic being in right relationship with God. That's not helpful to those coming from an atheistic viewpoint which seems to be the viewpoint of these past threads.

One thought is that there is a difference between those who are exploring and open to discussion, such as Jason and those who have decided against God, same root cide as in homicide, they've killed off the option, the possiblity of God, such as the atheists you cited.

I am convinced that if one followed logic and reason all the way through, being open to all options, one would arrive at God and ultimately Catholicism. Whoever sets reason and faith or science and religion at odds is missing something. I can understanding your addressing this if you've run into it, although personally, I don't see why anyone would give any credence to either Dawkins or Hitchens.

The process of thinking something through is useful in itself. I like to think something through, then look it up in the Catechism and am delighted to see when my thinking out has been confirmed. In psychology, Lawrence Kohlberg wrote about the stages of moral development and I imagine that much of your thinking out will be confirmed by it. I think the Wikipedia entry is "Kohlberg's stages of moral development" or something like that. The entry is fairly accurate. I don't think it actually forwards this discussion as it is descriptive, but it probably would confirm some of your thinking this through.

What I read of the discussion looked interesting. One difficulty I had with the discussion was its amorphousness, so many interrelated aspects that it was easy to drift without getting something specific nailed down. But that might just be me.

Jason

Let me try to clarify my response to the claim that moral intuitions are perceptions of facts about the external world in the same way that colors are.

The main point I want to make is closely related to a point made by Mary Kay above:

Therein lies the crux of some of the difficulties. You're trying to use (age old method) examples that are experienced through the senses to understand that which is spirit, that which is not of the senses. That may seem obvious, but it's important enough to state.

Aside perhaps from the use of the term "spirit", I agree with this - I don't think perception is the right term to describe our awareness of moral principles. Moral principles are not discovered as we might discover a new continent by descrying it in the distance and than focusing in for a closer look. When we realize that a moral principle is binding on us in a particular situation, it is not because we have literally sensed the form of this principal lurking in some platonic realm - it is because we have recognized that consistency with principles that we already affirm requires us to act in a particular way.

I was going to write more, but I realize it may be more fruitful to wait and see how others respond to that before elaborating on this point.

Jason

I would also point out that I think the above account does a much better job of explaining the existing heterogeneity of moral claims and the fact that what is considered morally acceptable can change over time (although certain moral claims seem to remain fixed).

This series of posts has made much of the fact that there is underlying commonality in the views of different human societies about what is moral. That may be, but there is also disagreement about some matters that could hardly be described as peripheral (genital mutilation, whether woman should be allowed to hold political office and vote to name a few).

The notion that there is literally an external order of moral facts that we are perceiving would seem to have a hard time explaining why this heterogeneity should persist. The materialist theory I have outlined basically takes for granted that such heterogeneity will be present. There will be some agreement due to the fact that certain self-conceptions are presupposed by the very idea of concerted action (as I argued in one of my above posts), but this agreement will not necessarily be completely extensive.

It will also change over time as people work out more fully the set of ideas implicit in their underlying self-conceptions and as these conceptions change. On the external order of facts view, it is unclear why some moral claims will initially be seen as having little force but later accepted as indispensable.

Let me anticipate one objection: does this imply that I cannot judge the actions of other cultures or of past cultures? That depends - the question is whether those cultures have what I would call the "moral resources" to appreciate my critique (which ultimately depends upon the particular self-conceptions that have developed through the complex interplay of biological, cultural and social factors). I would argue in many cases - such as the two I raised above - that they do. The argument for the political equality of women is not premised in any peculiarly western self-conception (to show this, I would have to make that argument, which I won't do right now).


Jason

Let me try to respond to a few other points that SDG raises above (I also hope to write a post explaining more fully how the moral theory I proposed above connects with the evolutionary account of morality, but that will have to wait).

Maybe. But once we realize that rationally the child's death is an event of no greater cosmic significance than the drowning of a dog or a hedgehog, if we would not risk our life to save a drowning dog or hedgehog, why should we choose to listen to that feeling rather than getting on with enjoying our own lives?

I just don't see why the word "cosmic" is relevent here. If you deleted the word "cosmic", I would of course say that a child's death has more significance than that of a drowning dog. But why does it matter what the universe thinks about this? Perhaps the issue here is just the same as the issue above about whether moral claims must be rooted in an external order. What does rooting moral claims in an external order add?

Put it another way. Granted that you yourself would choose to save the child, suppose you met a man who cheerfully admitted that he allowed a child to drown rather than stepping in to rescue him because he decided to listen to his instinct for self-preservation rather than his altruism-instinct. Would you feel disgust or outrage? And if so, would this be any different from the flutter in your gorge if you saw him eating haggis (or whatever)?

I think part of the difficulty in addressing this issue is the strangeness of it - rarely in real life is one faced with a situation where someone is fully conscious of the fact that they are being insensitive to moral reasons - much more frequently, the wrong-doer disagrees about what moral action in the situation in question requires (often, their self-interest blinds them to the inconsistency that renders their action immoral).

That said, what would my reaction be if I met the man in the situation above? Let's presume that there was little actual danger in rescuing the child. My reaction would be a mix of puzzlement and disgust. I would be puzzled because I would struggle to understand how he could view himself in such a way that he could be insensitive to the child's cries for help. Answering this question would be quite important in rendering a moral judgment. Perhaps he recently had a fight with the child's parents and this was his way of exacting revenge. In that case, my judgment would be unequivocal outrage and condemnation. In that case, he surely has within himself the wherewithal to recognize that he has acted wrongly (i.e. he conceives of himself in certain ways that are inconsistent with this action). If he simply cheerfully let the child die, my reaction would be different because I would regard him as insane. Insanity is a topic of its own - but we can provisionally define it as having either no stable self-conception over time or a self-conception that conflicts with reality. It is only if this were the case that he could be so unresponsive to the claim that the child's cries makes on him. In that case, my attitude towards the man would be like my attitude towards a child who sets his house on fire and burns his family to death. These actions are horrible, but my impulse is not to pass judgment but to make sure that the child/psychopath is not in a position to do any more harm.

Jason

Mary,

I've actually been making two distinct arguments.

1) Regardless of whether the evolutionary account of morality undermines the force of moral claims, it can account for the phenomenology and nature of moral claims which means that the critique of the materialist view of morality is not an argument for God's existence, but a challenge to the view that moral claims as we ordinarily understand them are valid in the materialist worldview
2) Our ordinary moral claims maintain their force if God doesn't exist

In this thread, I've been focused on the second point although I do plan to return to the first at some point.

Mary

When we realize that a moral principle is binding on us in a particular situation, it is not because we have literally sensed the form of this principal lurking in some platonic realm - it is because we have recognized that consistency with principles that we already affirm requires us to act in a particular way.

Except that you can not have an infinite regression here. At some point, there must be an original principle.

Jason
Except that you can not have an infinite regression here. At some point, there must be an original principle.

That's right, although I wouldn't say there has to be one original principal. In the account stated above (especially in the second post to this thread), these principles ultimately come from our self-conceptions. Some of these conceptions are so deeply connected to the idea of reasoned action as to be inescapable; others are in part chosen by us or can change overtime, but this is not in itself a moral choice (although it will influence one's beliefs about what counts as moral) - the example of a change in one's self-conception which I gave above was when Saul of Tarsus became Paul the Apostle. Such transformations need not be religious - most great literature involves transformations of this kind.

Mary Kay

Just a quick note of clarification for Jason as I wasn't sure which "Mary" he was addressing. There are two people named Mary in addition to me being a Mary Kay (sometimes called Mary by some posters). Fortunately, most of the regulars have more unique names.

ELC

"I think a satisfactory response is simply, creating brains with this kind of feeling was the best way for evolution to actually get us to behave in this way."

Sorry to be blunt. Though I was following the argument keenly, I busted out laughing here and haven't looked at the rest of it.

How about that? Evolution has aims and desires and, apparently, strategies and tactics, too.

:-)

Sorry about that Mary Kay - I was addressing your request that I clarify the question I am trying to answer. I'll be sure to distinguish from now on.

ELC, of course, I do not literally think that there is a conscious force called evolution with aims and desires. I was speaking that way as a convenient shorthand (one often used by evolutionary biologists) - what I literally meant was: "Brains with this kind of feeling have a selective advantage over brains that lack this kind of feeling; if such brains were to arise through random mutation, their frequency in the population would tend to increase due to natural selection." I do not regard this as a complete scientific explanation (the evolution of such a sophisticated process would evolve a long chain of mutations which persisted for other reasons which would have to be explained); it may also be that such feelings arose as a byproduct of a system which evolved for a wholly different purpose. I'm only trying to suggest as a matter of principle how evolution might explain why we would think there were exceptionless moral rules. SDG and others object that this still doesn't explain why, recognizing their evolutionary origin, we do not simply reject these rules on reflection. The account I have articulated above attempts to explain this - I have not yet connected that account to an evolutionary explanation (doing so is difficult since it requires understanding the evolution of consciousness), but I will attempt to address this issue in a future post.

Jason

Sorry, that last post was mine - switched to a different computer and forgot to enter my handle.

Esau

We are always morally bound to do the right thing (and avoid the wrong thing)

SDG,

This is where I disagree with you --

It has been shown that persons who suffer damage to a certain region of their brain actually lose any 'conscience' that they had formally and commit heinous acts due to restrictors that were in place prior to the damage to that region of their brain.

Thus, you have problems with your argument here.

Esau

That should have read:

...due to the lost of certain restrictors that were in place prior to the damage to that region of their brain.

Esau

Alternatively, it may be that if we ever hash out the metaphysics to a sufficient degree, the concept of a universe without God might turn out to be truly incoherent

Does a discussion concerning metaphysics need to involve religion?

Mary Kay

Jason, thanks for clarifying your questions.

Your second question first. Our ordinary moral claims maintain their force if God doesn't exist.

So you're setting up a null hypothesis that moral claims are independent of God's existence. Is that correct?

If so, then I'm back to definitions. The dictionary has several definitions of morals, all of which mention "right conduct." The discussion would then focus on who or what determines "right conduct." Is that on target?

I have to admit that in your first question, the phrase "evolutionary account of morality" was unfamiliar but reading further, it looks like you're saying that principles (aka right conduct) come from "self-conceptions." I just want to make sure that's what you're saying. I just want to make sure that I'm on the same page as you.

the critique of the materialist view of morality is ... a challenge to the view that moral claims ... are valid in the materialist worldview
This seems to go back to your null hypothesis that moral claims are independent of God's existence.

Mind you, I don't agree with what you've said. I just want to make sure I understand what you're saying.

Jason
So you're setting up a null hypothesis that moral claims are independent of God's existence. Is that correct?

I think you're right here, but just to be clear. I am saying that we can explain the existence of moral claims without recourse to God (argument 1). And also, we can explain why we would reflectively endorse these claims as valid under the null hypothesis that God does not exist (argument 2).

If so, then I'm back to definitions. The dictionary has several definitions of morals, all of which mention "right conduct." The discussion would then focus on who or what determines "right conduct." Is that on target?

"Right conduct" is of course itself ambiguous, but I think this ambiguity will just have to be resolved as our discussion proceeds. By morality, I was referring to all normative claims - all claims about what we "should" or "ought" to do.

I have to admit that in your first question, the phrase "evolutionary account of morality" was unfamiliar but reading further, it looks like you're saying that principles (aka right conduct) come from "self-conceptions." I just want to make sure that's what you're saying. I just want to make sure that I'm on the same page as you.

Actually, the evolutionary account of morality issue relates back to some posts I made in response to the first post in this series by SDG - by that phrase, I mean the theory that our moral principles are the result of evolution by natural selection.


Mary Kay

Jason, I took great pains to lay aside what is familiar and repeatedly experienced in order to see this through your eyes. Your post did give me a glimpse into the view of someone who sees the world without God. I hope you reciprocate the effort to go beyond the familar to see another's view.

I think you're right here
This response really puzzled me. I asked if I heard you correctly and you didn't clearly say yes or not. Rather you left it to me to do the work to figure out why it was not a clear "yes." As I looked at it again, I guessed that even "independent of God's existence" was problematic for you and so you phrased it in a way that left out any possibility of God.

as valid under the null hypothesis that God does not exist
I don't know what you mean by the phrase null hypothesis, but it's what it says it is - an hypothesis, something untested. Since it it untested, you can't use "God does not exist" as an independent variable.

Then there is the interesting comment that "of course" the dictionary defintion of morals (right conduct) is ambiguous. So much for the lexicographers of Random House or American Heritage Dictionary. What do they know?

What that suggested to me is that you have no outside, objective standard by which to measure your thoughts and opinions.

It is simply because of your emphasis on science that I'm being such a stickler on scientific method.

The comments to this entry are closed.

January 2012

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
8 9 10 11 12 13 14
15 16 17 18 19 20 21
22 23 24 25 26 27 28
29 30 31