If you can't live with it, it just might be wrong 

The other day in a comment I wrote, "I consider the existential effect of a belief to be part of the relevant evidence concerning its truth. If you can't live it, it might just be wrong."

Well, that raised some real howls of protest. doctor(logic) wrote,

I dare say that everyone is motivated by their subjective taste for the conclusion of a philosophical argument, but doesn't the search for truth require that we at least aspire to leave our tastes at the door?

And Paul wrote,

I can't disagree more.

. . . I take Tom's intent was more like "If you can't live it, it has a greater chance of being wrong," and I can't disagree more. Whether you can live with something has *nothing* to do with whether it is factual, actual, correct, real, etc. Those qualities are only dependent on correspondance with reality, as best as we can check.

By adopting that principle, Tom, you call into question anything you claim to be true, including the biggie.

It ought to help if I point out I said "evidence," not "proof." What one person can live with may be different than another, and that is not proof that objective reality is therefore different for all. Yet there are "beliefs" no person can hold consistently. I can illustrate with a couple of extreme examples. One is the apparently true story of the woman who wrote a letter (or spoke up in a lecture, depending on the version of the story) to Bertrand Russell to say she was a solipsist, that solipsism was such a marvelously consistent philosophy, she was surprised more people were not solipsists. (If the irony there is not clear, follow the link to the definition.) The woman obviously liked solipsism from a mental or logical standpoint, but she did not for a moment give up her belief that other people exist.

Example two: the man who says nothing whatsoever has meaning, yet cares for his aging parents. He might explain it in terms of assuaging discomfort within, like guilt feelings, but if he ever slips and puts it in terms of what matters to other people, he's contradicting himself--he's saying there's meaning there. And if such a man makes an approving statement to another caring person, in terms of what matters to other people, he's committing the same inconsistency.

In both cases it's not just a matter of subjective dislike for the logical extension of a viewpoint. Rather it's that the person cannot hold the viewpoint without contradicting it at the same time. If I say 2+2=4 in a math class but make it equal 5 when I'm depositing money into my checking account, you could question whether I really believe it equals 4. Or you could conclude that I know the reality but I set it aside when it's convenient to do so--but reality is strong and will not be so easily ignored; and if I can't believe in the afternoon what I say I believe in the morning--if I go looking for other solipsists, or I say what I do has meaning in a meaningless world--maybe there's something contradictory within the belief itself.

The specific point on which this matter was raised in comments was whether there is any basis for ethics within materialism. We've actually gone through that discussion at great length in the past, beginning here, and I'm not eager to kick it off again even if there may be new participants. Maybe I have to now; but I'm not committing to as lengthy a dialogue this time. In that earlier exchange, Paul, who was taking a position similar to (doctor)logic, at the end was making an ethical claim that I don't think he can consistently live with: that child sacrifice and slavery were not wrong in their times and places. (One reason I think Paul can't hold that position consistently is because he didn't--follow the last link for more.)

doctor(logic) seems to view ethics in terms of who wins and loses, and what people like. That's it. (He also says it's a minor terminological issue!) He may object to that characterization, but I don't think there's another way to interpret this game-theory statement. And if he objects, it might be because he can't live with it. It just might be wrong.

This is just a minor terminological issue... I would not say that materialism has no sound basis for ethics because I think ethics is broadly like economics, i.e., a game theoretic study of different moralities and their consequences. Materialistic ethics is fine, but it cannot determine morality for you for the same reason that economics cannot objectively determine whether you should adopt communism or free markets. Economics can only tell you what the economic (and possibly the social) consequences of each policy will be. Economics cannot tell you whether you like those consequences.

By the way, doctor(logic), you missed the real question. If ethics is just a study of what consequences come from what "moralities," then what study do we turn to, to decide which of those consequences are preferable? 

Posted: Fri - March 31, 2006 at 07:24 AM           |

© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

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