Getting the Moral Argument Wrong — Again

Atheists are forever getting the moral argument wrong. A.C. Grayling, in The God Argument, says,

The argument that there can be no morality unless policed by a deity is refuted by the existence of good atheists. Arguably, non-theists count themselves among the most careful moral thinkers, because in the absence of an externally imposed morality they recognize the duty to examine their views, choices, and actions, and how they should behave towards others.

Begging a Question

There are multiple problems here. I'll note briefly that Grayling begs an important question. Atheists can indeed be very moral among other human beings, and I'm sure examples of this could be multiplied. But if there is a God, whom to love is the highest good, then there is no morally good atheist. This is the teaching of Scripture: see Romans 3, which also emphasizes that Christian theists' goodness is granted only by the grace of God.

“We're Right: Just Ask Us”

Second, there's something odd about appealing to the way atheists think about themselves in support of the idea that their thinking is right. It sounds oddly like, “we're right: just ask us!” And the reasoning he offers for it fails to rescue it from that silliness. His “because” clause fails completely, for theists (a) do not believe in an externally imposed morality (that's a straw man), (b) theists also recognize their duty to examine their views, choices, actions, and behavior toward others, and (c) theists do so in view of a standard that is pure love, holiness, justice, and goodness.

I recognize that Grayling tempered that statement with “arguably,” so I'll grant that he didn't stake everything on it. That's the counter-argument, or at least a brief beginning to it. It seems to me it undermines his “arguably” quite severely.

Getting the Whole Point Of It Wrong

But where I really want to focus is on his misunderstanding of the moral argument: “there can be no morality unless policed by a deity.” I wonder where he got that from. Theists (many of us) actually believe that without God there can be no objective morality — not because morality requires a police function, but because:

  • Without something in the fundamental nature of the universe to make actions and attitudes objectively right or wrong, there is nothing in the universe to make actions and attitudes objectively right or wrong. If right and wrong are not essential features of reality, then they are accidental and contingent at best: contingent on fickle human opinion, on most accounts.
  • As Mackie has perceptively pointed out, there is something strange (“queer,” he put it) about the nature of moral duties and values in a non-theistic universe.
  • Humans may have the ability to develop a form of morality, but only of a subjective nature: contingent and non-essential as already stated.

Further, no theist would say that the moral argument requires that theists be better than atheists in human-to-human or human-to-world moral attitudes and actions. That's just not what the argument is about. It's about whether the word “better” has objective meaning in moral contexts. Without an objective standard to compare them to, self-sacrificial love is no better than murder.

Finally, no theist would say that knowledge of such a standard depends on whether one believes in God as its source. That standard exists in God's character, and it is in his nature to follow his standard. When he created humans in his image he imparted knowledge of his standard. Though we are impaired in that knowledge through rebellion from God, we have not lost it altogether.

Therefore:

1) There is no force in Grayling's appeal to the way atheists think of their ethics.

2) The existence of “good” atheists is

a) Question-begging, in terms of goodness with respect to God, and

b) Other than that, fully predicted by theism

3) It is the objective reality of good and evil, right and wrong, that is in question, not whether one group is more able than another to approach the good and the right, which means that what Grayling calls a refutation doesn't even address the question.

Grayling got the argument wrong, and his refutation misses by a mile.

Of course I’ve only responded to one paragraph on this from his book. If you’re interested I’ll follow through with more. The rest of it yields the same ultimate outcome.

Comments

  1. Alex

    Although I have no idea whether it was what he intended, if Grayling means “morality” in a very loose layman’s sense synonymous with “avoiding and preventing harm to others” (in so far as this is one of the few elements common to almost all moral codes) then the first point seems fair (if obvious). The “towards others” at the end might be telling, I’m not sure.

    I would probably otherwise agree with you.

    Perhaps he has clarified in the book – but if not then I think this in itself is sloppy, perhaps a sign that his treatment of the topic is less than rigorous – given how nuanced and complex a topic like morality is.

  2. Andrew W

    My understanding of the moral argument is “Unless there is something greater than us (ie something that gives us a purpose, defines what humans are “for”), any definition of ‘good’ is purely subjective”.

    If so, Grayling completely begs the question (or, less charitably, just completely misses it). The question isn’t whether good atheists exist, but how you can evaluate it. The theist has a benchmark for goodness that is bigger than the theist’s own preferences. The best the atheist can point to is innate shared intuition, but that simply proves co-incidence, not virtue.

  3. Ray Ingles

    theists do so in view of a standard that is pure love, holiness, justice, and goodness.

    Well, they claim to, certainly.

    Without something in the fundamental nature of the universe to make actions and attitudes objectively right or wrong, there is nothing in the universe to make actions and attitudes objectively right or wrong.

    TFBW and I are still debating (I do intend to reply, but today I’m taking care of a sick wife) other possible frameworks.

    If you have a goal, and constraints, then strategies arise. Games offer a direct illustration – given (a) a goal to win the game, and (b) the rules of chess, then you shouldn’t sacrifice your queen in the opening moves of the game. That’s not a ‘law of nature’, but it’s hard to argue it’s not objectively true in some sense.

    Now, humans have goals, and the universe has laws and constraints. If there’s a sufficient commonality of human goals (and note that goals fall into a hierarchy; for example, “I’m going to get a washcloth, so I can clean up my kid’s vomit, so I can get them back to bed, so they can start getting better, so they can be healthy.”), and the laws really don’t change, then strategies would arise naturally. I’d contend that those strategies look a whole lot like the basic morals that human societies have worked out over the past hundred thousand years or so.

  4. BSquibs

    There is no objective morality in a game of chess. You are drawing false comparisons. It is conceivable that you might just want to sacrifice your queen in order to pull off a strategic coup-de-grace a few moves down the line. You seem to be confusing objective truth (which is not necessarily the same as objective morality, btw) with following the best strategy in a game. Expediency is not the same as objectivity.

    On a different note, the best objection to the notion of objective morality that I’ve encountered is simply to claim that God’s morality is itself subjective. Of course, the answer to this would be to state that God doesn’t choose morality (“Let me see – it’s Monday so today rape will be good!”). Rather, goodness is part of his immutable nature. Loads to unpack there but I doubt that such an answer, however comprehensively explored, would satisfy the atheist.

  5. Ray Ingles

    BSquibs –

    It is conceivable that you might just want to sacrifice your queen in order to pull off a strategic coup-de-grace a few moves down the line.

    Can you account for why I included the words “in the opening moves of the game” in my description?

    Expediency is not the same as objectivity.

    But sometimes what’s expedient can be objectively determined.

    For more than a combox worth – which addresses the objections you’ve noted so far – see here or here.

  6. BSquibs

    No, I can’t. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the open or closing moves of the game. Having a queen doesn’t guarantee success and you may have employed a strategy that calls for the loss of the piece. The queen is not essential to victory. Beside, victory is not necessarily the objective of chess. It could simply be a game that is an excuse for companionship or some such.

    I’ll check out those links later.

    P.S. small update to my previous comment.

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    Tom Gilson

    Sure.

    To advance my personal survival and well-being, and that of my family/group/tribe/nation. Whether that also includes advancing any other person’s/group’s/family’s/tribe’s survival or well-being depends on what I decide about it.

    And whether it would be good to do any of that depends on … ?

  8. BillT

    Exactly, Tom. But I knew that you knew. The question is whether Ray or A.C. Grayling know.

    Actually, Tom we know a lot more than that. We know the purpose for which we were created. That’s something A.C. or Ray don’t and can’t know. And, of course, since they don’t know the purpose for which we were created they really can’t tell us if any of the above is good or not.

  9. Alex

    How would you (or is it even possible to) define goodness without reference to God?

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    Tom Gilson

    Great question.

    My answer in #8 was what I take to be a minimal secular perspective on it. I agree with you, BillT, that there’s a lot more that could be said than that.

  11. Ray Ingles

    BillT – From one of the links you haven’t checked, We also have desires and goals as well. Some are very basic and inborn and apparently universal (air, water, food, sleep, shelter, etc.) and some are so common that only extremely rare individuals seem not to need them (e.g. the company of other people), and some are deeply personal and not common at all (a desire to write a novel, say).

    Note, though, that the range of human goals is not infinite, assuming it means something to call someone ‘human’. And game theory shows that some strategies apply to even a wide range of goals. So I’m afraid if you think that’s a knockout punch you’re going to have some further work to do.

  12. Ray Ingles

    Tom Gilson –

    To advance my personal survival and well-being, and that of my family/group/tribe/nation. Whether that also includes advancing any other person’s/group’s/family’s/tribe’s survival or well-being depends on what I decide about it.

    Or, just possibly, there can be some right and wrong answers about that. Remember what I said about the hierarchy of goals? Try, before going on to the next paragraph, to ask yourself why that might be relevant.

    What if, over the long haul, advancing the well-being of others advances your own well-being? In those other links I’ve remarked on how stagnant slave societies not only are, but must be. For a modern example, see the Soviet Union. A large chunk of the reason that society fell apart was that it simply could not compete with more liberated societies.

  13. BillT

    Sorry, Ray. Air, water, food, sleep, shelter, the company of other people, a desire to write a novel, don’t tell us anything about our real goals and our purpose here. Most are instincts or needs, others are preferences. We need to know why we are here if we are to determine what is good or bad for us.

    It seems only the existentialists were honest enough about their choice to accept its obvious manifestations. Without God we have no true purpose, there is no good or evil, no free will, and anything is permissible. Does the obvious nihilism bother you. Why should it? At least it’s honest.

  14. JAD

    The problem with game theory is that it doesn’t even begin to address the meta-ethical issues. In any game, for example, the rules are arbitrary. Why pick this set of rules over another set? Who gets to pick the rules? And why should they be the ones endowed with that kind of authority? Those are the questions IMO that need to be answered.

  15. Ray Ingles

    JAD – You can pick which physics you’re going to follow? I think you’re not quite clear on what are ‘rules’ and what are ‘strategies’ in the analogy.

  16. BillT

    Ray, if you can’t explain your point of view without depending on an article on an atheist blog to explain it for you there isn’t much I have to say.

    (However, my guess is that you are too embarrassed to actually put your name on the drivel that’s printed there and are trying to argue by proxy.)

  17. JAD

    Ray:

    You can pick which physics you’re going to follow?

    What does physics have to do with moral beliefs? Are you reducing morality to physics? Are we just machines? Not even Charles Darwin went that far. He at least stopped at biology as a foundation of his ethical theory.

  18. BillT

    I read it Ray. Basic gist. We can’t talk about the “purpose of life” unless we subjectify it to the point of meaninglessness. Like I said, I’d be embarrassed to put my name on it either (as I noticed the author didn’t).

  19. SteveK

    From Ray’s link

    To see why, we must ask how one supposedly finds meaning with God. I won’t, in fact, be arguing that one cannot. Rather, my contention is that any believer that seriously tries to answer this question will be forced to admit that the philosophical liberties and assumptions they make to reach their sense of meaning are no more or less justified than those they ridicule as insufficient or unjustified in non-believers. We are all inescapably in the same boat when it comes to meaning and purpose.

    How one supposedly finds meaning with God?

    The problem, once again, is this person’s inability to understand the actual argument. We are NOT in the same boat IF meaning and purpose are as real as the nose on your face.

    No amount of philosophy will change what the Bible already teaches about the IF portion of that statement. It’s been answered. Specifically, the Bible teaches that there is real, objective, unchanging, meaning and purpose to life (if you must ask, life’s meaning and purpose is to bring glory to God).

    We believers might be wrong, and that can be a separate discussion, but don’t try to change what has already been established with the existence of God. You might ask how we know this to be true, but don’t mistake that question for what necessarily follows from that truth if indeed it is true.

    It’s teachable logic and it goes something like this: If the God described in the Bible, then real objective, factual, unchanging meaning and purpose. We are not in the same boat.

  20. JAD

    It boils down to this, Ray. If God doesn’t exist there is no objective foundation for morals and meaning. Prove to us that God does not exist then that’s game, set, match– so to speak.

  21. Larry Tanner

    SteveK @ 22:

    If the God described in the Bible, then real objective, factual, unchanging meaning and purpose.

    That’s a loaded “if.”

    If you have the right Bible.

    If you have the right interpretation of the right Bible.

    If you have a reliable, repeatable, communicable method for demonstrating that you have the right interpretation of the right Bible.

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    Tom Gilson

    I mean, if your point is to undermine the epistemology and the hermeneutic by which we understand something of God’s character from the Bible, then for you and others who share your position it is redundant: you already reject it; for me and those who share my position it is unlikely: we are not insecure about it; for others it is a matter of investigation: for which your sniping is completely irrelevant.

    Your sniping is in fact irrelevant to all three groups.

  25. Ray Ingles

    JAD – I really don’t think you’ve read what I wrote. I’ll quote myself at length, ’cause BillT said I had to. 🙂

    Consider the game of chess. There are certain fundamental structures of chess that define it – the ‘rules of the game’. An 8×8 board, 8 pawns per side that move in certain ways, two rooks per side that move in other ways, castling, the initial configuration of the pieces, etc.

    Now, when playing chess, there is no rule that you can’t sacrifice your queen in the first few moves of the game. It’s illegal to move your king to a threatened square, but it’s perfectly acceptable by the rules to stick your queen in front of a pawn at the start of the game.

    However, if you want to win the game, you shouldn’t do that. There are almost no situations (at least, assuming evenly-matched opponents) where giving up your queen at the start will lead to your victory. Similarly, it’s rarely a good idea to move your king out to the center of the board. It’s usually a bad move.

    Note words like “shouldn’t” and “bad”. They are value judgements. They prescribe ‘oughts’. They are not part of the ‘rules’ of chess. From where do they come?

    They arise from the combinations of two things – first, the rules and structure of chess, and second, from the player’s desire to win the game. They are strategic rules. A player is free to disregard them, but they do so at their peril – it’s unlikely to further their goal.

    Hopefully the parallel to wider life is obvious. We have ‘rules of the game’ in life, too – the laws of physics, for example. We are not free to violate these strictures. (Well, technically, if we find a case where they are violated, we reformulate the laws and our theories to take into account the anomalous case.) Many of them are so well-established that it’s difficult to see how they could be wrong to a significant degree. (Unless you can produce a magic carpet, I think we can expect to have to obey the laws of gravity, for example.)

    We also have desires and goals as well… Might there be strategies that would arise from the combination of natural laws, and our own desires? What might they look like?

  26. Ray Ingles

    SteveK –

    Specifically, the Bible teaches that there is real, objective, unchanging, meaning and purpose to life

    Of course, you skipped right over this part of the essay:

    First, we need to examine “meaning” itself, and expose a mistake, a very basic mistake, in how many people think about it.

    To say that some event means something without at least some implicit understanding of who it means something to is to express an incomplete idea, no different than sentence fragments declaring that “Went to the bank” or “Exploded.” Without first specifying a particular subject and/or object, the very idea of meaning is incoherent.

    Yet too often people still try to think of meaning in a disconnected and abstract sense, ending up at bizarre and nonsensical conclusions. They ask questions like: What is the meaning of my life? What does it matter if I love my children when I and they and everyone that remembers us will one day not exist? But these are not simply deep questions without answers: they are incomplete questions, incoherent riddles missing key lines and clues. Whose life? Meaningful to whom? Matters to whom? Who are you talking about?

    Once those clarifying questions are asked and answered, the seeming impossibility of the original question evaporates, its flaws exposed. We are then left with many more manageable questions: What is the meaning of my/your/their life to myself/my parents/my children? These different questions may have different answers: your parents may see you as a disappointment for becoming a fireman instead of a doctor, and yet your children see you as a hero.

    But the one fact that becomes abundantly clear is that no one can ultimately judge the meaning of your own life other than yourself. Your parents can have purposes in mind for you: find meaning in, say, a dream that you will become the professional baseball star that your father could not. But these purposes are their purposes: they are not fundamentally your own: not inherently meaningful to you unless you decide to take them up yourself, or even just find meaning in understanding their hopes even if you cannot agree with them.

    I would contend that the concept of “objective meaning” is, as has been laid out above, incoherent. Things don’t just ‘signify’ something, meaning doesn’t just hang there unsupported. Things signify something to someone.

  27. Melissa

    Ray,

    I would contend that the concept of “objective meaning” is, as has been laid out above, incoherent. Things don’t just ‘signify’ something, meaning doesn’t just hang there unsupported. Things signify something to someone

    That would be true if materialism was true. We don’t think it is true. If there is no objective meaning then both moral and scientific realism are hard to justify

  28. SteveK

    But the one fact that becomes abundantly clear is that no one can ultimately judge the meaning of your own life other than yourself. Your parents can have purposes in mind for you: find meaning in, say, a dream that you will become the professional baseball star that your father could not. But these purposes are their purposes: they are not fundamentally your own: not inherently meaningful to you unless you decide to take them up yourself, or even just find meaning in understanding their hopes even if you cannot agree with them.

    The flawed analogy of parents giving purpose to their children is just that – flawed. God would be the ultimate judge if he existed so the author is wrong. Parents, nor you, would not be the ultimate judge. This again is by definition and what the Bible teaches. So you cannot just take these facts away from the argument and claim victory.

    If God, then he is the ultimate judge.
    If God, then your life has purpose and meaning.
    If God, parents don’t get to take on the role of God by proxy.

    The author speaks of a fundamental purpose. By definition a fundamental purpose endures and does not change. You either have one, or you do not. Call it a your natural purpose if you will – it’s what you were born with. You can build upon this natural purpose by creating purposes that are your own, but you cannot change the most fundamental purpose for your existence that preceded those you just built for yourself.

    Take for example the human heart. Naturalism says the heart was not created for any particular purpose because natural process do not form anything with purpose or intent in mind. So the heart has no fundamental purpose. It does have an obvious FUNCTION, which is to pump blood through the body. But its function isn’t fundamental to it’s existence. It’s function could very well change one day, and someone could even co-opt the heart for their own purposes and use it for something other than pumping blood. But no matter what, it’s fundamental purpose remains the same and will never change.

  29. Robert

    Ray, let’s play chess

    My first move: White Queen “d1” to Black King “e8”.
    I WIN.

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    Tom Gilson

    There are multiple problems with the page you linked to, Ray. They may be worthy of a blog post at some time. In the short run, though, in order to keep this thread on track, here’s the quick answer: the author doesn’t understand the difference between a universe created by an intentional, purposeful, loving, eternal God and one that is not. And the author doesn’t understand the difference between belief in such a universe and the actuality of such a universe.

    Theism cannot make life any more purposeful or meaningful than atheism. But God can. If there is a God, and if this God is as described above, then meaning and purpose are features of being itself. They are in the tapestry of reality. Then it is up to humans to catch on to them through a relationship with God.

    The author of that article throws in a lot more of what I consider fluff about how do we know God is this way and it doesn’t explain anything anyway.

    The first is easy: if we are wrong, and if God is not this way, then we are wrong, and our sense of meaning and purpose is mistaken; we are in no better (or worse) condition than non-theists. If however we are right, then there is meaning for both theists and atheists, but atheists are missing out by denying it. So the question is not so much one of knowledge but of reality.

    As for explaining, it’s a category error here. If God is God as theists believe he is, then there is no need to explain meaning; there is only a need to embrace and connect with it.

  32. Larry Tanner

    Tom,

    You are free to ascribe tone and motives as your hermeneutic dictates. Sober readers I’m sure will view it differently.

    My observation was that many ifs (that is, conditions) are involved, many big ifs at that. In other words, there’s more behind a simple “if the Bible is true.”

    Now, as a follow on I will add that with all those ifs one cannot simply hypothesize that one’s personal idiosyncratic version of “God” is true. since anyone’s God, holy books, or hermeneutic may be the one true way–and no one seems to agree on the others–all the ifs have to be subject to rational inquiry and evidence. This is, of course, the realm if natural theology. And natural theology is incoherent, finally. This is not a snipe but a fact.

  33. JAD

    Ray @ #30

    Note words like “shouldn’t” and “bad”. They are value judgements. They prescribe ‘oughts’. They are not part of the ‘rules’ of chess. From where do they come?

    They arise from the combinations of two things – first, the rules and structure of chess, and second, from the player’s desire to win the game. They are strategic rules. A player is free to disregard them, but they do so at their peril – it’s unlikely to further their goal.

    My point, again, is that the rules of chess are quite arbitrary. As matter of fact they have been changed since chess was first introduced. I think it’s a very poor analogy.

    Overall, I find the game theory approach to morality to be quite disturbing. Morality is not about competing with your fellow man it’s about helping him.

  34. G. Rodrigues

    @JAD:

    Overall, I find the game theory approach to morality to be quite disturbing.

    And totally useless, completely irrelevant, but tacked to give a sheen of scientifick respectability.

  35. Ray Ingles

    Tom Gilson –

    If there is a God, and if this God is as described above, then meaning and purpose are features of being itself.

    Sorry, not following. How can something ‘mean something’ without meaning something to someone? Why would meaning something to God equal objective meaning?

    The classical example (Aristotle’s, even) is a statue. Its ‘material cause’, what it’s made of, might be brass. Its ‘formal cause’ is the form it takes – say, the shape of a fallen soldier. Its ‘efficient cause’ is who or what made it, the process that produced it – in this case, the artisan melting and casting some brass. Its ‘final cause’, ‘telos’, is the purpose for which it’s being made – to be a decorative memorial to that fallen soldier, perchance.

    But why should something have only one ‘telos’? Take a simple example. The White House is where the President of the United States lives when in office. Is that its ‘telos’? But wait – it’s also an office building; the center of the executive branch. Is that its telos? And, hey, wait a minute – I’ve taken a tour of the public areas. Is the telos of the White House to be a museum? And then there’s the fact that it was designed and architected specifically to impress visiting foreign dignitaries – is that its telos?

    The White House fulfills all the above purposes at once, and pretty well, too. Indeed, practically everything humans have designed has been fitted to more than one purpose. Even the most severely functional weapon is simultaneously a threat and a status display, even if it’s never used to inflict harm on an enemy. In theory, our arsenal of nuclear weapons were built so that they would never have to be used. What kind of ‘telos’ is that?

    Speaking of weapons, check out any random Jackie Chan movie. He makes anything – frying pans, bikes, ladders, ladles, garden hoses, anything – into a weapon. Exactly why is the ‘telos’ he gives those objects any less valid than the purposes they are marketed under? Hey, speaking of marketing – is the telos of, say, a frying pan ‘to cook food’? Not from the perspective of the people making it – they are making the frying pans for the ‘telos’ of selling them to other people!

    Even the case of the statue isn’t quite so clear-cut. A statue in a city square fulfills a purpose – decoration, memorial, whatever – but not only that purpose. It can serve as a landmark for navigating about the city. It can serve as a jungle gym for kids to climb on. It can serve as a perch for birds. It can serve as a blind from behind which to spy on someone. It can serve a fleeing pickpocket as an obstacle to slow pursuit. It can serve as a source of metal to melt down into cannons to defend the city. The number of different ’causes’ served by anything in the real world is probably at least equal to the number of agents that interact with it.

    But even the artisan who made the statue may have multiple purposes in constructing it. He may wish to commemorate a fallen soldier… while at the same time subtly castigating the generals who ordered the march the soldier died in. The artisan may also choose a particular artistic style in order to make a statement to some of his fellow artisans, and have chosen brass as the medium to help out his brother-in-law the metal merchant. Plus, the artisan no doubt intends to be be paid for the statue… to help keep his children fed.

    Nothing in the real world ever serves only one purpose, ever has only one meaning, ever has just one ‘objective’ it can or does serve. Any ‘telos’, any ‘final cause’, any ‘purpose’ is always relative to the agent that’s doing the intending.

    God’s purpose(s) for something might come chronologically first. They might be the purpose(s) of the most powerful agent. But I simply don’t follow how that makes those purposes objective.

  36. Ray Ingles

    Robert –

    My first move: White Queen “d1” to Black King “e8”. I WIN.

    And until you can choose your laws of physics as easily as you pick chess variations, your point will still be a wide miss.

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    Tom Gilson

    Ray, your comment 41 made a lot of sense until the last sentence. What do you mean by objective, if being at the core of reality isn’t objective?

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    Tom Gilson

    For the rest of your comment, I would suggest that on naturalism, humans’ sense of purpose cannot represent anything more real than humans’ sense of identity, consciousness, or free will. I think Coyne, Dennett, and others are right: naturalism renders all of those sensations illusory: they are fictions built into us by evolutionary processes.

    In fact I don’t know why this hasn’t received more attention from atheist thinkers. Skinner understood, more or less, which is why he wrote Beyond Freedom and Dignity. But few others have examined it or treated it seriously, even the ones who understand naturalism entails the obliteration of real free will, consciousness, or identity.

    Meanwhile everything you wrote in your comment about telos and purpose is right on the money. I agree with you on all that. It’s just that I think it directly contradicts naturalism. So that leaves naturalists with a choice: either to give up belief in purpose, or to give up naturalism, or else to live in a state of continuing contradiction.

  39. Ray Ingles

    JAD –

    My point, again, is that the rules of chess are quite arbitrary.

    And my point is that the laws of physics are not. You don’t get to change the ‘rules of the game’ in this universe. You’re stuck with a particular variation.

    G. Rodrigues is happy to claim that the results of mathematics are objective. But even there, we see multiple variations – in Euclidean geometry, a triangle has exactly 180 degrees. In Elliptical geometry, it has more than 180 degrees, and in Hyperbolic geometry, it has less.

    But those results are objective, it would seem. Given the axioms of, say, Hyperbolic geometry, then it’s objectively true that triangles have less than 180 degrees.

    Similarly, given the rules of chess, the results of chess theory are just as objective as the results of geometry. It’s objectively true that certain strategies are better than others in those conditions. You can change the conditions – there are plenty of chess variations, different boards, new pieces, etc. – but that doesn’t change the strategies that apply to FIDE chess.

    Now, it’s true that the results you get depends on the particular axioms that obtain. But the point is, we can’t change the axioms of our universe – the laws of physics are fixed for us. So, arguing that if things were different, then things would be different, misses the point completely.

  40. Ray Ingles

    Tom Gilson –

    What do you mean by objective, if being at the core of reality isn’t objective?

    What do you mean by ‘being at the core of reality’? What you said was:

    If there is a God, and if this God is as described above, then meaning and purpose are features of being itself.

    There are, um, a lot of steps missing between “if this God is as described above” and “then meaning and purpose are features of being itself”. You need to flesh that out considerably. I simply do not follow.

    Why is what I said wrong: “Any ‘telos’, any ‘final cause’, any ‘purpose’ is always relative to the agent that’s doing the intending.”

  41. Ray Ingles

    Tom Gilson –

    I would suggest that on naturalism, humans’ sense of purpose cannot represent anything more real than humans’ sense of identity, consciousness, or free will. I think Coyne, Dennett, and others are right: naturalism renders all of those sensations illusory: they are fictions built into us by evolutionary processes.

    I dunno about Coyne, haven’t read much of him. But I think you badly misunderstand Dennett. He understands identity, consciousness, and free will rather differently from you, but that doesn’t mean he thinks them illusions. (It’s kind of like a geocentrist accusing a heliocentrist of not believing in sunrises.)

  42. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    I haven’t studied Dennett on consciousness. I’ve read some of his book on it but not enough to come to any conclusions. I did read Freedom Evolves and I think it’s clear that although he’s not a strict determinist, he does not think there is such a thing as agent freedom.

    Alex Rosenberg and the Churchlands would have been better examples for me to name: they are strict believers that this is all illusion. Sam Harris is a more popular name: he believes in consciousness and considers it an utter mystery. He denies free will completely.

  43. Post
    Author
  44. SteveK

    @41,

    God’s purpose(s) for something might come chronologically first. They might be the purpose(s) of the most powerful agent. But I simply don’t follow how that makes those purposes objective.

    This doesn’t need to be so painstakingly difficult. I’m confident that I will get some of the details below wrong, so G. Rodrigues can correct me where I am.

    There is no conflict in having these additional purposes tacked onto the original purpose. In fact, many of these later purposes can compliment / highlight / fulfill the original purpose. Problems arise when any of these later purposes contradict the original purpose. Then we say that the later purpose must be false because it contradicts the original purpose – objectively, contradicts.

    Take for example a book. If the author intends to write a book about the Civil War, that original purpose will forever remain with the book even if it gets re-purposed to do other things (door stop, paper weight, frisbee), or if someone uses the book for their own purpose (to educate, help get to sleep faster). The original purpose is an objective purpose.

    I believe the later purposes such are also objective but in a different sense that is meaningful. Maybe G. Rodrigues can help clarify because this is a key point I think.

    If someone comes along later and says that the book’s purpose is NOT about the Civil War, they would be objectively wrong. The only way you could void the original purpose would be to destroy the book and make something else from it (confetti, paper airplane, another book). So now let’s look at life.

    In this argument, God exists so we won’t be arguing over that truth. God’s purpose for life is that it brings glory to him, the creator of all. There’s a lot of detail wrapped up in the term “glory”, but we don’t need to get into that here. That fact is that God’s original purpose is forever “attached” to life.

    Like the example of the book, you and I can use our life for our own purpose (to have fun, to BBQ, to work), but God’s purpose objectively remains. Your purpose will always be to bring glory to God – and the good news is you can do that at the same time you are living out your own life purpose. But what if you disagree?

    Well, if you disagree and say that life’s purpose is NOT to bring glory to God then you would be objectively wrong. Unlike a book, you and I cannot void God’s purpose by destroying life and creating something new. The reason is it’s impossible for us to destroy life in it’s entirely and remake something new.

    If God, then objective meaning and purpose for life exists.

  45. SteveK

    Your purpose will always be to bring glory to God – and the good news is you can do that at the same time you are living out your own life purpose.

    I wanted to highlight this point I made because I think non-believers need to hear this. It’s very good news.

  46. Ray Ingles

    SteveK –

    The original purpose is an objective purpose. I believe the later purposes such are also objective but in a different sense that is meaningful.

    Note that you don’t explicate what this “different sense” is.

    If someone comes along later and says that the book’s purpose is NOT about the Civil War, they would be objectively wrong.

    Sure… but that’s not analogous to anything I’ve said.

    You see, I could acknowledge that the author’s purpose for the book was to document the history of the Civil War. But I could also say that my purpose for the book is to prop up a broken table leg until I can fix it. Would I be objectively wrong?

    The issue, I think, is that you assume that there’s only one possible teleology. But I don’t see why that must be the case. As I laboriously described in #41, when you have multiple agents, you get multiple teleologies.

    Consider the concept of ‘value’, closely related to the concepts of ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’. The idea of ‘objective value’ runs into all kinds of problems. Consider – which is objectively better, the color blue or mozzarella cheese? And if God is greater than both, are we saying that the sky would be better if it were God-colored? That a pizza topped with pepperoni and God would taste better than a pizza which settled for pepperoni and cheese?

    Consider a wooden chair. What value does it have? It depends on the purpose you have for it. It might be something to sit on; it might be an heirloom; you might be using it to ward off a lion; you might be using it for kindling during a blizzard. It might be of only middling worth in the first case and literally worth your life in the last. Which purpose is the “real purpose” – and why?

    If I trade some gold away to keep a simple wooden chair, break the chair up and burn it to keep my child warm… have I erred in assessing the value of the gold, or the chair? (Or the child?) The guy who made the chair intended it for sitting on (well, actually, as I pointed out, he made it to sell to people, probably expecting them to sit on it) but was I wrong that it would make a warm fire?

    Even worse for the concept of ‘objective value’, different people will assign different values to the same things. A woodworker might trade you a chair for some of the corn you grew. Who came out better on the deal? You both did – you both have more value (by your personal estimates) than before. (Or else why did you trade at all?) Differential valuing is what makes economics possible. But think – if there’s some kind of ‘objective value’, then at least one of you is wrong. Either the chair was worth ‘objectively’ more than the corn, in which case you cheated the carpenter – or else the corn was ‘objectively’ worth more than the chair, in which case the carpenter cheated you. (Or else they are ‘objectively’ equal, in which case you’re both wrong about having more value than you did before.)

    Value and greatness are relative, personal measures. My wife is probably worth a lot more to me than she is to you, and me to her, and our kids are more important yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t find them quite so amazing as your own spouse and children, though.

    Well, if you disagree and say that life’s purpose is NOT to bring glory to God then you would be objectively wrong.

    Let’s rephrase that slightly: ‘If you disagree and say that God’s purpose for your life is NOT to bring glory to God then you would be objectively wrong.’ But I could say that my purpose for my life is something else, and be objectively correct, too.

    As I said in #41, “Any ‘telos’, any ‘final cause’, any ‘purpose’ is always relative to the agent that’s doing the intending.”

  47. SteveK

    But I could also say that my purpose for the book is to prop up a broken table leg until I can fix it. Would I be objectively wrong?

    I don’t think you would we objectively wrong, it’s just objective in a different sense (again G. Rodrigues, help!).

    You have not undone the the fundamental purpose of the book. However, as the *new owner* of the book, you are re-purposing / using it for something else. Which brings up a new question: can we ever become the new owner of our life if God exists? No. Therefore, you cannot re-purpose your life in any way that you want. You don’t have that right.

  48. Mr. X

    Ray @ 53:

    I think you’re a little bit confused here. For one thing, you seem to be thinking of final causes in terms of something we impose on an inherently purposeless and goal-less object — so, for example, a book about the civil war is only actually a book about the civil war if you use it for that purpose; otherwise it’s a prop for a table-leg, or a door-stop, or whatever. Needless to say, that’s not actually what final causality is. Basically you’re just begging the question by assuming a worldview in which final causality doesn’t exist, and then saying that, since there’s no such thing as final causality in your worldview, therefore final causality doesn’t exist.

    Also, I think you misunderstand the concept of “objective value”. For one thing, the term itself is a bit misleading, because “value” is usually used for something subjective and personal, i.e., the complete opposite of what an objective value would actually be like. Hence lots of philosophers who write on the subject prefer to talk in terms of “the good”. For another, it doesn’t mean that everybody has to have exactly the same tastes and interests. It’s perfectly coherent to maintain that (e.g.) worshipping God is objectively good, but preferring beer to wine is a matter of subjective preference. Also, believing in objective goodness doesn’t mean that you always have to choose one thing over another. This is true for some things, of course, in particular moral goods – so, for example, if you believe that gluttony is morally wrong and moderation is morally right, it follows that you should always eat what you need and never gorge yourself until you feel sick – but non-moral things, such as food and chairs, can be chosen depending on your needs at the moment.

  49. SteveK

    Re #54… just look at all those typos. I need to start wearing my glasses! 🙂

  50. SteveK

    I’d also add that if all purposes are the same (regardless of whether you label them subjective or objective), then the conclusion is that no purpose can ever wrong / incorrect. We are free to co-opt anything for our own purposes and shape reality any way that we want.

    But Ray won’t accept that as true, so he must believe there are some real differences such that some of our purposes agree with some transcendent truth, and some do not.

    This cuts to the morality question. If anyone can determine the purpose of any object, why do you, Ray, exclude the one case where I determine the purpose for your life? What overarching naturalistic principle makes this exception a fact? I’m aware of the Theistic principle that makes this a fact, so here again we see that we are not in the same boat.

  51. G. Rodrigues

    @Ray Ingles:

    And my point is that the laws of physics are not. You don’t get to change the ‘rules of the game’ in this universe. You’re stuck with a particular variation.

    No, we do not have such powers, but no ought follows from the *laws of physics*. Absolutely none whatsoever.

    G. Rodrigues is happy to claim that the results of mathematics are objective. But even there, we see multiple variations – in Euclidean geometry, a triangle has exactly 180 degrees. In Elliptical geometry, it has more than 180 degrees, and in Hyperbolic geometry, it has less.

    The way you write is as if I am making an outrageous claim. Do you think mathematical results are not objective?

    Also, I am not sure exactly what you mean by variations; probably the same as I do, but just for the sake of clarification, there are different mathematical objects as there are different species (in the metaphysical sense), with each theory, theory in the formal sense, formalizing in mathematical terms what the Scholastics called a real definition.

    Why is what I said wrong: “Any ‘telos’, any ‘final cause’, any ‘purpose’ is always relative to the agent that’s doing the intending.”

    Value and greatness are relative, personal measures.

    It is wrong as a metaphysical claim, or so I would argue. It is wrong if it is meant as a description of AT metaphysics; if it is meant as an objection it has absolutely no force, because you misunderstand what is meant by telos. More modestly, it undermines your position. If purposes are always relative to the agent, then they are by definition subjective and with no normative force, and appealing to the *laws of physics* helps you not one iota. Which is what everybody else is saying by the way.

    The idea of ‘objective value’ runs into all kinds of problems. Consider – which is objectively better, the color blue or mozzarella cheese? And if God is greater than both, are we saying that the sky would be better if it were God-colored?

    Frankly, this is completely silly.

    @Alex:

    How do you determine the final cause of something?

    What do you mean by the “final cause of something”? It seems by it, you mean some kind of overarching purpose. There is a sense in which, if you mean this, that it exists, but the answer is not exactly interesting or relevant for the purposes of the present discussion.

    As far as the question, or what I take you to be asking, final causality cannot be understood divorced from the other types of causality (even though there is a reason why Aquinas called it the cause of causes, but leave that aside for now), and is determined in pretty much the same way as we determine those other types, and is subject to the same difficulties — meaning, no more no less.

  52. Stephen

    @tom OP

    “Without something in the fundamental nature of the universe to make actions and attitudes objectively right or wrong…Without an objective standard to compare them to…”

    Tom, you refer to an objective standard, but what is the standard you use to know when the standard has been properly met? Please take this seriously. How do you know when you have the “standard” “right”? How do you deal with differences with others who believe that they too have the objective standard in their head and are operating on it with complete integrity, yet they differ with you? How is that resolved without a standard for the standard? Do you see the infinite regress? Do you see the impossibility of our getting beyond human subjectivity to something objective as you propose?

  53. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Good question, Stephen.

    First let me point out that an objective standard is logically required if one act is morally better than another. We might get the standard wrong some or even most of the time, but if there is no objective standard, then it is impossible for one act actually to be morally better than another.

    So if you think that self-sacrificial love is truly, actually, better than torture and murder for fun, then you are logically committed to the existence of an objective standard. If you deny the existence of such a standard, then you cannot continue to hold that the one act is truly, really better than the other.

    That’s one side of the question, the ontological side of it, the one addressing whether a standard exists.

    The other side is the epistemological side, having to do with how we can know the standard. That’s the question you’re asking now. While I think skepticism is possible, on the other hand I think it is unnecessary. I think we all really know certain moral facts are true, like the difference between self-sacrificial love and torturous murder for fun. There’s never been any reason to doubt it.

    So in further answer to your question, I want to take it a step at a time. We may not know everything, but we know something. We know that the one act is morally better than the other. We know that this entails (logically requires) the existence of an objective standard.

    Granting that I haven’t answered your whole question, but since I don’t want to run ahead, would you agree with me so far?

  54. Ray Ingles

    G. Rodrigues –

    no ought follows from the *laws of physics*. Absolutely none whatsoever.

    You are ABSOLUTELY CORRECT! (I almost wish for a blink tag.)

    But you’re ignoring something. Remember the analogy (in both comment #3 and #30), which was “rules of chess” to “laws of physics”? No ‘oughts’ follow from the rules of chess either. “Absolutely none whatsoever”, to use your phrasing. But as I said in #3:

    If you have a goal, and constraints, then strategies arise. Games offer a direct illustration – given (a) a goal to win the game, and (b) the rules of chess, then you shouldn’t sacrifice your queen in the opening moves of the game. That’s not a ‘law of nature’, but it’s hard to argue it’s not objectively true in some sense.

    And from #30: Note words like “shouldn’t” and “bad”. They are value judgements. They prescribe ‘oughts’. They are not part of the ‘rules’ of chess. From where do they come? They arise from the combinations of two things – first, the rules and structure of chess, and second, from the player’s desire to win the game.

    The idea is that ‘rules of the game’ plus ‘a goal to win the game’ lead to strategies (which can be objectively ranked, see below). And in the exact same way ‘rules of the universe’ plus ‘human goals’ lead to the kinds of strategies we call ‘morals’.

    So, saying that “no ought follows from the laws of physics” is true, and woefully incomplete as an objection to what I’m saying.

    Do you think mathematical results are not objective?

    Of course not. I wasn’t saying you were making an outrageous claim – I was pointing out that I am not making an outrageous claim. To put it in syllogistic terms: (a) game theory is a branch of mathematics, (b) mathematical results are objective, therefore (c) the results of game theory are objective too.

    If purposes are always relative to the agent, then they are by definition subjective and with no normative force, and appealing to the *laws of physics* helps you not one iota.

    Hopefully now you can see why this objection is misguided as well.

    Goals themselves don’t have to be normative. They can be arbitrary. What’s normative are the strategies that arise when goals and constraints interact. I mean, if your goal is to win a chess game, then it is – per game theory – objectively contrary to that goal to sacrifice your queen in the opening moves of the game. The chances of that working to your benefit are Vanishingly small. (Already chatting with TFBW on odds, BTW.)

    Now, if you want to make a pertinent objection, you have a few avenues. The most common one I run into amounts to “what if people have incompatible goals”? You might want to read what I’ve written to TFBW on that thread first, though.

  55. Ray Ingles

    Mr. X. –

    For one thing, you seem to be thinking of final causes in terms of something we impose on an inherently purposeless and goal-less object

    Objects don’t have goals. They have tendencies, sure, but that’s not the same thing as goals. So far as I can see, only a subject could have goals or purposes.

    I mean, a baseball has certain properties and tendencies (size, hardness, etc.) that make it useful to subjects – baseball players – who want to play baseball. That doesn’t mean it wants to be used to play baseball. And it’s not that a baseball doesn’t want to be used as a soccer ball, it’s that its properties are such that it makes for a poor soccer ball.

    In “The Last Superstition”, when Edward Feser talks about how a match is ‘directed towards’ producing flame, he assumes too much with his terminology. ‘Having a tendency to produce flame’ is just not the same thing as ‘being directed (by a Director, say) to produce flame’, and it’s radically unlike ‘wanting to produce flame’.

    Hence lots of philosophers who write on the subject prefer to talk in terms of “the good”.

    And I understand ‘the good’ in terms of goals and strategies. And I think they tend to converge in practice and general outline to look like the basic morals common to most religions through history.

  56. Stephen

    @Tom #61. Well thought out and organized answer. I think it can be helpful to break the question out as you have.

    would you agree with me so far?

    No. Here’s why.

    I don’t think I’m only challenging the epistemology side of the question. I have questioned whether there IS such a standard. I believe it is difficult to disentangle these two “facets” of our thinking. When I question “how could you know”, I’m bringing into question “how could it be”. In that case statements like:

    First let me point out that an objective standard is logically required if one act is morally better than another…We know that this entails (logically requires) the existence of an objective standard.

    are just begging the question. I don’t think we need the objective standard to have an understanding of our moral intuitions. I think that the easy stuff like

    the difference between self-sacrificial love and torturous murder for fun.

    gets its simplest, yet adequate understanding from naturalism. We do have evolutionary explanations for some of these choices. And we also have social reasons. Because we find it easy to get near universal agreement about these sorts of easy cases, doesn’t mean it is logical to conclude that there must be an objective standard at work in the machinery. Simple as that. If you read something like Pinker’s “The Better Angels of our Nature”, you find that humans have changed greatly over the last 3000 years in terms of our moral intuitions, our abhorrence for things like torture. Is that because we are getting in touch with some objective standard? Or is it that humans and human societies have ways of creating change? The later is just a simpler explanation and easier to show how it works.

  57. Mr. X

    Ray @ 62:

    The problem with your morals-chess analogy is that it turns morality into a mere set of prudential advice rather than a binding code. Sure, it might generally benefit me to act justly, selflessly, etc., but what about the times when it won’t? Imagine I were to come across a woman who’s passed out from drinking too much and whom I could easily rape without her ever knowing about it. According to your theory, what reason would there be for me to refrain?

    @ 63:

    “In “The Last Superstition”, when Edward Feser talks about how a match is ‘directed towards’ producing flame, he assumes too much with his terminology. ‘Having a tendency to produce flame’ is just not the same thing as ‘being directed (by a Director, say) to produce flame’, and it’s radically unlike ‘wanting to produce flame’.”

    “Goals” in Aristotelian terms is often understood analogically rather than univocally. Aristotelian philosophers don’t imagine that a match actually wants to produce a flame, any more than scientists talking about the “laws of nature” imagine that there’s some kind of Parliament of Atoms somewhere which passes decrees about what different types of atoms can and cannot do.

    What they do mean is that things have certain natural ends and inherent tendencies to produce particular effects. In some cases, this might be because a thing was specifically designed to produce a certain effect – a match being designed to produce a flame, for example – whilst in others, it might just be that it naturally does a certain thing if it’s not interfered with – so fire produces heat, smoke and light.

    The mechanistic philosophy which arose in the 17th century, on the other hand, understood nature in terms of inherently property-less and goal-less (viz. tendency-less) particles, with any sense of things having properties being imposed on them by subjective observation. This is why the prominent early mechanists all believed in God (because, if you believe that things have no inherent tendencies, then some kind of external controlling force is pretty much essential to explain the regularity of nature). It’s also why later atheistic philosophers and scientists all either unconsciously assumed the existence of final causes or ended up with various Hume-esque difficulties about causality and induction.

    “And I understand ‘the good’ in terms of goals and strategies.”

    Then your understanding of “the good” is radically different to what most philosophers mean by the term.

    “And I think they tend to converge in practice and general outline to look like the basic morals common to most religions through history.”

    “Tend to”, maybe. But there are quite a few situations where self-interested pursuit of your particular goals would seem to clash with what “basic morals” tell us to do, and your theory gives no reason to choose to act morally in such circumstances.

  58. Mr. X

    Stephen @ 64:

    I don’t think you’ve quite understood. Tom was saying that, to say “behaviour x is morally better than behaviour y”, you need to have some third standard against which to measure the two behaviours, otherwise you’re just being illogical. Saying “most people prefer behaviour x” or “we have evolved to prefer behaviour x” is inadequate and runs straight into the is/ought problem.

  59. Stephen

    Mr. X @66
    I believe I understand Tom. See my #60. I’m challenging the idea that we can obtain the sort of standard he is referring to. Even in the OP we have this:

    That standard exists in God’s character, and it is in his nature to follow his standard. When he created humans in his image he imparted knowledge of his standard. Though we are impaired in that knowledge through rebellion from God, we have not lost it altogether.

    Note the loop hole, that “we are impaired in that knowledge”. Now what? This serves my point. When can we ever say for sure that our or another’s point of view is actually getting it right or is actually a product of our “impairment”. It’s an impossibility, he is in an infinite regress.

  60. Mr. X

    “Note the loop hole, that “we are impaired in that knowledge”. Now what? This serves my point. When can we ever say for sure that our or another’s point of view is actually getting it right or is actually a product of our “impairment”. It’s an impossibility, he is in an infinite regress.”

    Yeah, and we can never be sure that the rest of the world exists and we aren’t just a brain in a vat being manipulated by an alien. So what? Just because we can’t gain literal 100% certainty on something doesn’t mean that some conclusions aren’t vastly more likely than others.

    (And, yes, there are situations where it’s difficult to tell which is the right course of action, but most situations aren’t like that.)

    Also, your objection doesn’t actually counter Tom’s point. Say it turns out that we can never get any knowledge of what objective morality consists of, and hence cannot reliably judge any action to be right or wrong. It would still remain the case that to judge we would need to know what is objectively moral.

  61. Stephen

    Mr X @68

    doesn’t mean that some conclusions aren’t vastly more likely than others.

    Did you read my post? I’m claiming that we have vastly more likely conclusions than God instilled us with some a priori truth detector.

    It would still remain the case that to judge we would need to know what is objectively moral.

    And yet humans have thus far been carrying on without knowing what is objectively moral. You are just assuming that there must be ultimate foundations to our judgments, but there never have been. You can just decide that you don’t need to impose that “must”.

  62. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Stephen, how certain are you that your statement, “humans have thus far been carrying on without knowing what is objectively moral,” isn’t an assumption of your own? How certain are you that you are not just assuming there have never been ultimate foundations to our moral judgments? On what do you base that conviction?

    Or in alternate language,
    How certain are you that it is false to say that self-sacrifical love is really better than torturing people for fun? If you think it’s false, how certain are you that your position on that isn’t mere assumption on your part?

  63. Stephen

    @Tom

    Stephen, how certain are you that your statement, “humans have thus far been carrying on without knowing what is objectively moral,”

    I asked you to show me how it is so, how does it work. I posed the problem, I’m waiting for your response (this isn’t it). I’ll show you how it is not so: If humans had latched on to the this sort of objective standard, there would be total agreement, isn’t that the idea? Why has this never happened? The problem I posed in #60 is why. Clearly, we have never seen such a thing. We only see small groups of people fighting over their version of it. Explain the disconnect by thinking the other group is missing the objective standard. But then there is another group, the group that never found the answer and admit there is none, they see a futility in it, the futility I tried to expose above.

    it is false to say that self-sacrifical love is really better than torturing people for fun?

    It’s just the “really is” part I disagree with, of course I think it’s better.

  64. Stephen

    I Said

    Because we find it easy to get near universal agreement about these sorts of easy cases, doesn’t mean it is logical to conclude that there must be an objective standard at work in the machinery.

    This in addition to #60 is what I think needs a direct response. Why does our strong intuition about what is better in easy case morality lead to the necessary conclusionthat an objective standard is in the works?

  65. Mr. X

    “If humans had latched on to the this sort of objective standard, there would be total agreement, isn’t that the idea?”

    Erm, no. There are lots of questions which have an objective answer, but which we don’t seem likely to gain total agreement on. Whether or not we can get more economic growth by cutting government spending or by stimulus projects, for example, is a question which has an objective answer, but there is nevertheless a lot of disagreement over the issue.

    “Why does our strong intuition about what is better in easy case morality lead to the necessary conclusionthat an objective standard is in the works?”

    It doesn’t, and nobody as far as I can see has said otherwise. What people have been saying, however, is that saying “behaviour x is better than behaviour y” requires an objective third standard against which to measure both behaviours. Otherwise you’re just stating your own subjective preferences, and why should anybody else care about those?

  66. JAD

    Mr. X to Ray:

    The problem with your morals-chess analogy is that it turns morality into a mere set of prudential advice rather than a binding code. Sure, it might generally benefit me to act justly, selflessly, etc., but what about the times when it won’t?

    I said earlier that “I find the game theory approach to morality to be quite disturbing. Morality is not about competing with your fellow man it’s about helping him.”

    The object of a zero sum game like chess is to win. If you apply those kinds the strategies to real life moral or ethical situations you end up with strategies that are self-serving and self-centered.

    According to such an ethical theory the first thing the Good Samaritan would do when he saw a another human being lying on the side of the road stripped, beaten and left for dead, is ask himself: “What is in it for me?”

    There actually is an ethical system like that. It’s called egoism.

  67. Stephen

    @Mr X #73

    There are lots of questions which have an objective answer, but which we don’t seem likely to gain total agreement on

    Of course I meant where we have proposed objective standard to address a given question. Not all questions.

    see #61

    While I think skepticism is possible, on the other hand I think it is unnecessary. I think we all really know certain moral facts are true, like the difference between self-sacrificial love and torturous murder for fun. There’s never been any reason to doubt it.

    This is used as part of an argument for there being objective standards.

    What people have been saying, however, is that saying “behaviour x is better than behaviour y” requires an objective third standard against which to measure both behaviours.

    And #60 argues that this is impossible, because then we need an objective standard to settle difference over who is right about the objective standard.

    Otherwise you’re just stating your own subjective preferences, and why should anybody else care about those?

    Not everybody is stuck in the futile effort to agree on objective standards or to find a bottom to our reasoning. For those that have not only given up theology, but also metaphysics, we don’t expect an metaphysical objective standard, a metaphysical or theological Truth, no a priori, ahistorical, non-human anything that we humans are responsible to. We only feel the need to be responsible to each other, to other living things, to the planet, to future human life, and more as we see fit.

  68. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Stephen, just one question: Is it true or not that self-sacrificial love is morally better than committing torture and murder for fun?

    I have a reason for keeping it to a single question with the option of a yes-no answer. That doesn’t mean you have to give a yes-no answer, but I have phrased it that way for a reason, which will become clear after you answer.

    Thanks.

  69. Post
    Author
  70. Stephen

    Is it true or not that self-sacrificial love is morally better than committing torture and murder for fun?

    I’d really like you to address my question too. I’ll take no answer as yoiur admitting that your position is not as coherent as you thought.

    As for your question. I believe it to be so myself, but and I don’t believe anyone does so because of metaphysical objective standards. I can’t give you an unqualified yes or no answer because I believe the way you asked to question assumes transcendent Truth, and so begs the larger question at hand.

    And by the way, you haven’t given up metaphysics. You’ve just adopted a different metaphysic than theists have.

    Show me where and I’ll mend my ways. I do my best but I don’t have it down yet. It is a matter of awareness. Lots of metaphysics runs below the radar of awareness. But are you sure I’m making an appeal to something nonhuman, ahistorical, transcendent, etc. Even atheists can be confounded by platonic/Aristotelian notions of truth, essences”, etc, and feel that they need some nonhuman, ahistorical grounding for their moral stance. I have found myself and other atheists trying to get this metaphysical comfort from science. No, its not just theism I reject.

  71. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Stephen,

    When I say you haven’t given up metaphysics, what I mean is that you still don’t understand the meaning of the word. Your position concerning God, for example, is a metaphysical position. To say that there is no transcendent reality is to make a metaphysical statement.

    My question in #76 was in the course of answering your question in #72. If there’s another question I’ve missed answering, please let me know.

    I take it that your answer in #78 could be paraphrased, “Self-sacrificial love isn’t really morally better than committing torture and murder for fun.”

    Am I reading you correctly on that?

    The way I asked the question is designed not to beg the question concerning transcendent truth. If you don’t believe in transcendent truth, then you will probably (I think) choose to say no, it isn’t really better, because there is no such thing as really better.

    And yet you say, in response to my previous asking of the same question, “I believe it to be so myself.” And this is confusing. I mean that sincerely; I need your help figuring out what it could mean. I’ll explain what confuses me about it.

    You say that there is no such thing as really better in the moral sphere, and yet you say you believe there is at least one act that is morally better than at least one other act.

    It seems like you’re saying you believe something (there are acts that are morally better) that you simultaneously disbelieve (for you do not believe there is such a thing as morally better). How is it that you can believe and disbelieve the same thing at the same time?

  72. Stephen

    To say that there is no transcendent reality is to make a metaphysical statement.

    This is equivalent to saying that to deny metaphysics is to make a metaphysical statement. Well, only in the trivial sense that I used the word in my sentence.

  73. Stephen

    My question in #76 was in the course of answering your question in #72. If there’s another question I’ve missed answering, please let me know.

    And there is #60.

    But I don’t see how you #76 post addresses my question in #72 either.

    I take it that your answer in #78 could be paraphrased, “Self-sacrificial love isn’t really morally better than committing torture and murder for fun.”…The way I asked the question is designed not to beg the question concerning transcendent truth. If you don’t believe in transcendent truth, then you will probably (I think) choose to say no, it isn’t really better, because there is no such thing as really better.

    This is just what it’s like to not be out from under metaphysical assumptions on the question. Or to be able to imagine what it is like. The word “really” assumes that there is no saying its better without it being hooked to some nonhuman, timeless grounding. As you said somewhere above, you believe we get some a priori truth detector from God at creation. I just don’t feel I need to explain my sense of “better” that way.

  74. Stephen

    I said

    I just don’t feel I need to explain my sense of “better” that way.

    And I don’t think I can give a non-circular, finally grounded argument for WHY I think it is better. When I try to, I’m sure I’ll get into the trouble I pointed out in #60.

  75. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    I answered #60 in #61. My comment #76 was “in the course of” answering #72; I didn’t expect it to be completely clear how it answered #72 since it wasn’t complete. I’m getting there a step at a time.

    I think for the sake of your own reputation you might want to quit using the word “metaphysical” and use “transcendent” instead, for when you use “metaphysical,” “transcendent” is what you really mean. You still haven’t discovered the actual meaning of “metaphysical.”

    But I’ll let that be your choice, and I’ll try to refrain from bothering you about it in the future if you decide to say “metaphysical” when what you mean is “transcendent.”

    I’m hoping you’re in the process of answering my question at the end of #79. It will help clarify where we’re going with respect to both #72 and also what you wrote at the end of #81.

  76. Stephen

    Furthermore, I don’t feel bound to answer the demand for a finally grounded answer. The feeling of being bound to do that is part of what gets shed when you drop metaphysics. The question itselfis something that only makes sense to metaphysicians, and one needs to be a subscriber to that game in order to bother with it.

  77. Stephen

    @tom#83 How does #61 address the question ” How do you know when you have the “standard” “right”?” and How do you resolve differences over just what the standard IS without the need for ANOTHER standard about the standard. As an analogy, this is a question that can be turned toward some notion of the Bible as truth, or as having a CERTAIN meaning from God. By what objective standard do you resolve differences in interpretation? How do you know when someone has it right? If there were someone walking around who really got it in their head, just what original meaning God intended, how would know? How do you know it’s not the Christian that you know that you disagree with the most? Not having a good answer to those questions renders the whole idea of the Bible having a certain meaning from God, useless.

  78. Mr. X

    Stephen @ 75:

    “Of course I meant where we have proposed objective standard to address a given question. Not all questions.”

    And the example I used has an objective standard, namely, a nation’s GDP. So is that not an objective standard then? Or is it actually the case that answering some questions does involve an objective standard, but we nevertheless can’t come to an agreement on those questions?

    “And #60 argues that this is impossible, because then we need an objective standard to settle difference over who is right about the objective standard.”

    Eh? The objective standard is itself the objective standard. If your views conform to what the objective standard actually is, those views are correct; if not, they aren’t. What’s so difficult about that?

    “Not everybody is stuck in the futile effort to agree on objective standards or to find a bottom to our reasoning.”

    No, some people are content to just act and think in a completely incoherent, self-contradictory and indefensible manner. And, more often than not, these are the same sorts of people who accuse religious faith of being a cop-out.

    “For those that have not only given up theology, but also metaphysics,”

    Somebody once said that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who do metaphysics, and those who do metaphysics really badly because they don’t realise that they’re doing metaphysics. Don’t take this too badly, but I think you’ve illustrated this point quite well over the course of this thread.

  79. Stephen

    And the example I used has an objective standard, namely, a nation’s GDP.

    I try to clarify “metaphysical objective standards” of the sort on topic in the OP as what I’m talking about.

  80. Stephen

    Eh? The objective standard is itself the objective standard. If your views conform to what the objective standard actually is,

    “what the objective standard actually is” is begging the question. I know there is disagreement about just what the metaphysical objective standard “actually is” and that is all the point I need to make. Referring to an “objective standard” doesn’t do the work that is supposed in conjuring up the objective standard. It doesn’t resolve disagreements. Now what?

  81. Stephen

    At Mr X #86

    No, some people are content to just act and think in a completely incoherent, self-contradictory and indefensible manner

    I think this is just that you can’t see any way clear of your metaphysical assumptions. My position, I think is more coherent, of course, because it avoids the infinite regress, the circular, question begging arguments that have pointed out and that have yet to be properly handled. (don’t feel bad if you can’t, there hasn’t been a philosopher yet that has settled the problem).

  82. Stephen

    Mr X: “indefensible”, I agree, in the sense that I admit I don’t have any metaphysical entity to summon that will forever ground and convince everyone that hears it. But I don’t need to have that sort of defense or believe it is a fruitful endeavor.

  83. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Stephen,

    You say in #84, you don’t feel bound to answer the demand for a finally grounded answer. But I haven’t made that demand. I only asked (in #79), how is it possible for you to believe and disbelieve the same thing at the same time?

    If you have an answer to that question that isn’t “finally grounded” (whatever that may mean to you), I’ll be glad to accept it.

    If, however, you have no answer, then the only possible conclusion is that you are contradicting yourself, and therefore holding an irrational position.

    (I’ll be back in a moment to respond to other comments you’ve made recently.)

  84. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Stephen, the point of #61 was to stay on the subject rather than be led off on a rabbit trail.

    Here’s what I mean. The moral argument for theism, as I said in the OP, has to do with whether there is

    something in the fundamental nature of the universe to make actions and attitudes objectively right or wrong, [and] That’s just not what the argument is about. It’s about whether the word “better” has objective meaning in moral contexts. Without an objective standard to compare them to, self-sacrificial love is no better than murder.

    That’s an hypothesis about the fundamental nature of reality, which is to say it has to do with ontology, or being. It’s not about whether the word “better” has a known objective meaning, but whether it simply has an objective meaning, in moral contexts.

    Now I’ll grant that I did not spell this out in the OP. It is basic to the ongoing discussion around the moral argument for theism, however. I’ll point you to a long list of links at the end of this comment where you can trace that in previous conversations.

    You raised a question about knowing (epistemology). In #61 I made a point of distinguishing between ontology and epistemology.

    Let me draw that point out further now.

    1. If there is something in the fundamental nature (ontology) of the universe that makes at least one attitude or action objectively right or wrong, then there is such a thing as objective morality. This is true even if there is only one attitude or action that is objectively right or wrong. Every single moral attitude or belief could be subjective but one, and that one moral attitude or belief that was objective would be sufficient to make it true that there is objective morality.

    2. Suppose that minimal-case objective reality were true. Suppose also that no one knew which moral attitude or action was objectively right or wrong, but that still there was one such objectively right or wrong attitude or action. In that case, there would still be objective morality.

    3. In that case it would be true that there was objective morality while being false that anyone knew truly what it was.

    4. Therefore the ontological issue of objective morality is at least conceptually distinct from the epistemological issue. The are related questions, but not the same question.

    5. Your question in #60 was epistemological. The OP’s point was ontological. In #61 I was trying to steer us back on to the original point of ontology, on which the moral argument stands or falls.

    Links to prior discussions on this topic:

    https://www.thinkingchristian.net/posts/2007/12/can-you-become-a-better-person/
    https://www.thinkingchristian.net/posts/2008/09/grounding-for-morality-outside-of-theism/
    https://www.thinkingchristian.net/posts/2008/09/does-it-matter-if-morality-is-well-grounded/
    http://dangerousidea.blogspot.com/2009/01/on-queerness-of-morality.html
    https://www.thinkingchristian.net/posts/2009/11/the-basis-for-moral-realism/
    https://www.thinkingchristian.net/posts/2009/12/chocolate-and-caring-brussels-sprouts-and-murder/
    http://www.lewissociety.org/god.php
    http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/meta-eth.html
    http://firstthings.com/blogs/evangel/2010/09/the-problem-of-moral-revival/
    https://www.thinkingchristian.net/posts/2010/10/science-morality-and-the-right-answer/
    https://www.thinkingchristian.net/posts/2010/10/morality-without-god-would-i-care/
    https://www.thinkingchristian.net/posts/2011/12/naturalism-and-the-ultimate-good-that-isnt/
    https://www.thinkingchristian.net/posts/2012/02/deepest-feelings-or-right-and-wrong/
    https://www.thinkingchristian.net/posts/2012/09/good-without-god-whats-the-realit/

  85. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Now in continuation of my last comment, I want to add that moral epistemology is not trivial, it’s not irrelevant, and it’s certainly not wrong to ask the questions you’re asking. It’s only wrong if one mistakes the manner in which they relate to the current discussion.

    You asked how I know that the Bible’s ethics are correct. The answer to that is a very long, cumulative case argument by which I explain how I know the Bible can be trusted in general.

    So my thought was, if there’s another way to get to the ontological issue, rather than trying to prove Christianity in general (a tall task for a single blog thread!), I would rather go for a shorter and more direct approach. So I did…

    … but I’m going to publish this comment before I proceed, because I’m sure my last one would have left you unsatisfied about the epistemological side of the issue, and I want to let you know I didn’t drop it. I’ll be right back.

  86. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    As I have said, the moral argument for God hinges on the ontological issue: is there objective morality? If there is, then from that basis there is an argument to be made for theism (for which see the links in #92).

    But what good does it do to affirm that, if we can’t know whether there is any objective morality? That is where epistemology comes in. It’s not in, “how do we know if moral attitude or action x is good or bad,” but “can we know whether there is any moral attitude or action x that is objectively good or bad. If we knew that there was some moral attitude or action x that was good or bad, we would know that there was objective morality, even if we didn’t know what x was!

    Now, that’s unrealistic, even though it’s logically coherent. We could hardly come to a conclusion that there exists some x that is objectively, morally good or bad without having a good idea what x was.

    But I think that we do have an idea about some x. I think we do know that there are some moral facts. We know that there is some x, some moral ideal, that is approached more closely by self-sacrificial love than by torturing and murdering for fun — which is logically equivalent to saying that self-sacrificial love is objectively, morally better than torturing and murdering for fun.

    Now I think it’s interesting that you yourself said you believe this is true (#78). And yet you contradicted yourself, as I pointed out in #79.

    Your self-contradiction is confusing, and I’m still hoping you’ll think it through to the point where you realize that self-contradiction is irrational. You have said you do not feel a need to address this; what you’re saying is that you do not feel a need to resolve your own irrationality. I’d be surprised if you could remain comfortable in that position if you let yourself reflect on it long enough. How could anyone be comfortable recognizing that his beliefs contradict his beliefs?

  87. Stephen

    @tom#91

    I only asked (in #79), how is it possible for you to believe and disbelieve the same thing at the same time?

    To construe my position as “to believe and disbelieve the same thing at the same time” is simply the disconnect that occurs across the “clash”. You simply don’t accept a notion of “better” that isn’t tethered to a nonhuman anchor. And it isn’t that I haven’t answered the question, it’s just that my answers don’t make an appeal to some timeless truth, so it’s a bad answer.

    You say in #84, you don’t feel bound to answer the demand for a finally grounded answer. But I haven’t made that demand…

    Not explicitly, but you just reject any answer that isn’t so grounded or say I’m “believing and disbelieving at the same time” when I give an answer, or as Mr X has commented on my answers.

    What is the benefit or the aim of wanting to establish objective metaphysical standards (like we have a God given a priori truth detector) if it isn’t to satisfy that “demand”?

  88. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Stephen,

    Okay then. It’s time to deal with your objections about,

    You simply don’t accept a notion of “better” that isn’t tethered to a nonhuman anchor.

    That’s not what’s going on here. You said you believe that one moral action is better than another. You used the word “really” in that statement. Then you said it is impossible for it to be so. That’s contradictory, unless you were equivocating, using one or more words in a different sense in those two places.

    So which is it? Did you mean something different when you said “really better” in one place than in the other? If so would you explain what you meant in both places? Or are you contradicting yourself?

    Now before you answer, please notice that there is no place in anything I’ve written about this contradiction where I have insisted that you answer according to my worldview. Your accusation that I’ve quoted here is false. I’m very open to hearing you answer it according to yours. But I do request that you answer.

  89. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Oops. You didn’t use “really” in your answer. My mistake. But you did say, in response to my question, “Is it true or not that self-sacrificial love is morally better than committing torture and murder for fun?,” that ” I believe it to be so myself.”

    So I take it that you “believe it to be so” that “self-sacrificial love is morally better than committing torture and murder for fun.”

    And yet you believe it is not possible for any action to be morally better than any other.

    You say that’s not contradictory, and that there’s something about my insistence on transcendence that keeps me from seeing why it’s not contradictory. But here’s what you haven’t done (or if you have, I’ve missed it completely): you haven’t explained what it is about your own worldview that resolves the contradiction. Would you mind doing that, please? I don’t need to hear again that there’s something about my position that’s making me get it wrong; I need you to explain specifically how the contradiction can be resolved. For on the face of it, there certainly is a contradiction there. How do you deal with that so that it’s rationally sound?

  90. Stephen

    @tom#92

    Stephen, the point of #60 was to stay on the subject rather than be led off on a rabbit trail.

    #61 can’t be closer to the point in my mind. It strikes right at the heart of your “hypothesis”. If we get into the same incommensurability over the “standard” as we do with the moral question at hand, then the appeal to a “objective standard” hasn’t done the work you claim it will do – establish an incommensurable result to a question of what is “better”. There is no good answer to #61. It’s a bind you can’t get out of.

    something in the fundamental nature of the universe to make actions and attitudes objectively right or wrong, [and] That’s just not what the argument is about. It’s about whether the word “better” has objective meaning in moral contexts. Without an objective standard to compare them to, self-sacrificial love is no better than murder.

    If you aren’t sure what I mean by metaphysical assumptions, this is a good example of it. It satisfies, the “nonhuman”, the “ahistorical”.

    Suppose also that no one knew which moral attitude or action was objectively right or wrong, but that still there was one such objectively right or wrong attitude or action. In that case, there would still be objective morality.

    Do you see as you write this, what I’m going to say? Do you spot the appeal to some non-human standard? “Suppose also that no one knew…but still there was one such objectively right…” You are using the assumptions that I reject in your argument to try to convince. That must be the target of the debate for me and that is why #60 matters.

    Therefore the ontological issue of objective morality is at least conceptually distinct from the epistemological issue.

    I really don’t see how you reach your conclusion even if I suspend my denial of all of the assumptions and forget for a moment about the arguments question begging – because it assumes the very thing being questioned.

    Your question in #60 was epistemological. The OP’s point was ontological. In #61 I was trying to steer us back on to the original point of ontology, on which the moral argument stands or falls.

    I already responded to this in #64
    I said I don’t think I’m only challenging the epistemology side of the question. I have questioned whether there IS such a standard. I believe it is difficult to disentangle these two “facets” of our thinking. When I question “how could you know”, I’m bringing into question “how could it be”That is the basis for my claiming that you’re question begging.

    The distinction that two words (ontological and epistemological) are useful, but not descriptive of actualities. You seem to making them out to be descriptions of how the world (or ideas) is “cut at the joints”, making them ontological entities of a sort. As tools, and not descriptions of how the world is cut at the joints, they don’t serve the purpose of argument in the way you are using them.

    So I don’t consider that a response to 60, just a side-step.

  91. Stephen

    At tom#94

    Now I think it’s interesting that you yourself said you believe this is true (#78). And yet you contradicted yourself, as I pointed out in #79.

    #96

    You said you believe that one moral action is better than another. You used the word “really” in that statement.

    I said

    I believe it to be so myself, but and I don’t believe anyone does so because of metaphysical objective standards.

    We simply aren’t communicating if you see contradiction here. I can understand you saying you to don’t accept my non-absolute, non-groundable notion of “better”. But you talk like you actually don’t know what I mean.

  92. Stephen

    At Tom# 97

    Oops. You didn’t use “really” in your answer. My mistake. But you did say, in response to my question, “Is it true or not that self-sacrificial love is morally better than committing torture and murder for fun?,” that ” I believe it to be so myself.”

    So I take it that you “believe it to be so” that “self-sacrificial love is morally better than committing torture and murder for fun.”

    And yet you believe it is not possible for any action to be morally better than any other.

    Ok, some repair going on here but you still don’t want to accept, or apparently forget, that I do believe in saying one moral choice is “better” than another. I just don’t say that I think that belief is grounded in nonhuman, ahistorical, a priori sources. I feel I’ve said it now five times!

  93. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Stephen, you’re right, we’re not communicating.

    You say your #61 gets at the heart of the matter, but you haven’t exhibited any awareness of the difference between ontology and epistemology there. You responded with some point about “incommensurability,” without connecting that to anything that’s been said before; it’s the first time you’ve used the term. I have no idea what incommensurability you’re referring to, except that it relates to a “standard.” I can’t go anywhere with that lack of context.

    I gave that my best shot; you’ve ignored what I’ve written, or if you’ve responded, you’ve done so in language that doesn’t connect in any apparent way that I can decipher.

    I think there is a good answer to #61, by the way, it’s just that it requires more work than I’m willing to insert into this discussion. I said that earlier. Now instead of saying “I think you’re wrong,” you’ve simply hand-waved it away.

    So that’s two strikes: you’ve ignored what I said about the ontology issue, and you hand-waved away another claim I’ve made. And you’ve said in absolute terms, I’m in a bind from which I cannot extract myself.

    How about if I just ignore some of what you write, hand-wave off the rest, and pronounce you in an unresolvable bind? That would be easy!

    And rationally illegitimate.

    And then you go on to complain:

    Do you see as you write this, what I’m going to say? Do you spot the appeal to some non-human standard?

    Actually, no. I made an appeal to the possibility of a non-human standard. I used the words, “suppose,” and “in that case.”That was in point two of an extended series of points, in which I also used the word “if”twice, and “in that case” one additional time. And at the end I drew a conclusion of what the implications of such a case would be.

    Now, if you consider it illegitimate for me to set forth the possibility of a non-human standard, in the course of examining the implications of such a thing, that’s equivalent to saying we cannot consider the possibility that your position is wrong.

    That’s rationally illegitimate.

    Note that it is not illegitimate — it is not circular reasoning — to set forth one’s own assumptions as hypotheticals (if-statements) and explore their rational implications (what-would-be-if statements). You’re calling foul on me for doing that; but you are wrong to do so.

    We simply aren’t communicating if you see contradiction here. I can understand you saying you to don’t accept my non-absolute, non-groundable notion of “better”. But you talk like you actually don’t know what I mean.

    Indeed. See #97.

    Ok, some repair going on here but you still don’t want to accept, or apparently forget, that I do believe in saying one moral choice is “better” than another. I just don’t say that I think that belief is grounded in nonhuman, ahistorical, a priori sources. I feel I’ve said it now five times!

    I’ve heard it now five times.

    And you still haven’t said how that resolves the contradiction. This is what I was trying very hard to explain at the end of #97. You have pointed at something that you think I should understand as being a contradiction-resolver: your disbelief in transcendent grounding.

    Fine. What do you believe, that makes it possible for you to believe that some action x is morally better than some action y, while it’s not possible for any action x to be better than any action y?

    Could I have explained my question any better than I did at the end of 97? Could I have been any more specific as to what I was asking for? Could I have offered any more ideas as to how I was confused by (what at least seems to be) your contradictions, and what it might take for me to gain clarity?

    But you ignored all that and came back with, “I’ve told you five times!”

    If there’s a communication problem, it’s because you’re ignoring what I write. Or you don’t understand.

    I’ll grant that I don’t understand you — no embarrassment on my part in admitting that. You seem on the other hand to think you understand me, and that I’m to blame for not getting what you’re saying — but you’re not addressing what I write, no matter how hard I try to clarify.

    And that’s relationally illegitimate.

  94. Stephen

    @tom#101

    You say your [#60] gets at the heart of the matter, but you haven’t exhibited any awareness of the difference between ontology and epistemology there

    You haven’t replied to this:
    “When I question “how could you know”, I’m bringing into question “how could it be”” This, unfortunately is impeded by the worldview class. In my mind to question of humans knowing about something is connected to the question of the reality of that thing. I requires metaphysics to say that our knowing is separate from the things we know. In otherwords, from my point of view, When I question “how could you know”, I’m bringing into question “how could it be”. I think this challenge escapes you because of the worldview gap.

  95. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    How do I know I’ve grasped that standard? I told you, in #93, that this would take too long to answer.

    What if I’m wrong? Then I’m wrong. What if you’re wrong?

    How do I deal with differences with others who believe they’ve grasped that objective standard? I recognize that one or both of us is wrong where we disagree, and I try to work that through.

    How is that resolved without a standard for the standard? But there is a standard: the truth.

    How do we approach that practically speaking? By the usual truth-seeking methods: examining evidences with as honest and as rigorous a logical approach as possible, considering the implications of various beliefs and presuppositions, and trying (for my part at least) to stick with whatever holds together most soundly.

    There is no infinite regress in the case of biblical theism. I could share more on that with you, if you like. Here’s the short answer: if God is God as Christians understand God to be, then God is capable of resolving the subjectivity problem.

    If you answer, “how do I know God is this way?” my response is, “see above.” If you answer, “You can’t define or assume God is this way, my answer is, “see above, and note the ‘if’ statement in there, in light of what I also wrote in #101 about the rational legitimacy of this approach.”

    Now back to you: apparently you don’t believe it’s really true that there is any moral action or attitude x that is really better than any other moral action or attitude y.

    And I say this: if I called you a pile of putrid, festering manure for holding that belief, you would say that’s wrong. Not just factually wrong, but morally wrong.

    I have not and will not call you that, for I most emphatically do not believe it.

    But if I did, it would be wrong.

    And I think you believe it would be wrong, as in truly wrong; wrong in the sense that under no circumstances could it possibly be right.

    And I think that is true, even though you have settled in your mind that the only way it could be true would be for your worldview to be more like that of theism.

    I think that is likely to provoke some dissonance in you.

    If it doesn’t, then I would call you morally ignorant for not knowing that such a statement directed at you would be morally wrong.

    And if the moral argument holds no purchase with the morally ignorant, then it’s their ignorance to blame, not the argument.

  96. Stephen

    At Tom#101

    That’s one side of the question, the ontological side of it, the one addressing whether a standard exists.

    See, I can’t separate knowing the standard exists for the standard existing. That is a feat for the metaphysician. So, again, it isn’t that I don’t show signs of understanding the difference between these terms, it’s that you don’t like the way I handle the issue. For you to make the argument you make in #61 is still begging the question to me. So it doesn’t go very far to convince me.

    You responded with some point about “incommensurability,” without connecting that to anything that’s been said before;

    I said:

    [#60] can’t be closer to the point in my mind. It strikes right at the heart of your “hypothesis”. If we get into the same incommensurability over the “standard” as we do with the moral question at hand, then the appeal to a “objective standard” hasn’t done the work you claim it will do – establish an incommensurable result to a question of what is “better”.

    How can this not be connected to what has been said before? I explicitly refer to my #60 (not #61) which raises this question. Is it not connected to your OP to discuss how an objective standard settles questions of what is “better” or “right” morally? And so if the standard doesn’t do that work, isn’t that an issue for your “hypothesis”.

  97. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Stephen, if you can’t separate the ontology from the epistemology, then this argument and this discussion are beyond your understanding. This is not because of your stance toward transcendence. Many, many people who deny transcendence can still make that conceptual distinction.

    It’s not that I don’t like it. It’s that I’m using terms that you don’t understand, and you don’t realize you don’t understand, even though I’ve tried very hard to show what they mean.

    I give up. I’ve tried. You don’t get it. You think I don’t get it because I don’t “like” your position. But I can at least understand the words you use, and I can ask you for clarification when I do not. For example:

    You responded with some point about “incommensurability,” without connecting that to anything that’s been said before; it’s the first time you’ve used the term. I have no idea what incommensurability you’re referring to, except that it relates to a “standard.” I can’t go anywhere with that lack of context.

    That was a specific question about what you meant. And your response? “How can this not be connected?” Which isn’t very helpful when I was asking how (in what manner) it was connected. I asked “what incommensurability you’re referring to.” You didn’t answer that, which meant you left me needing to guess which incommensurability you had in mind (there was more than one possibility). I still don’t understand, because when I asked a specific question, you didn’t answer.

    You, on the other hand, do not understand, and you do not understand that you do not understand.

    I’m sure you will disagree with me.

    I’m done trying to show it to you.

  98. Alex

    Seeing this talking at cross purposes while interesting is a bit painful. I hope you don’t find it rude if I interject.

    Maybe the constructive thing to address would be for Stephen to clarify what he means by rejecting metaphysics? Is there some name for the school of thought you hold, or are there philosophers/people with similar views? Or have you developed your set of ideas yourself? Of course its absolutely fine if its the latter case, I think you’ll just then need to do a lot more explicating for people to understand your position in order to have a useful dialogue.

  99. Stephen

    Stephen, if you can’t separate the ontology from the epistemology, then this argument and this discussion are beyond your understanding. This is not because of your stance toward transcendence. Many, many people who deny transcendence can still make that conceptual distinction.

    Well, either that or you don’t get my criticism of the distinction. Why can’t you respond to the problem of the objective standard not settling the question of “better” if two people can conceivable disagree about the nature of the objective standard? How does it settle anything?

  100. Stephen

    It’s not that I don’t like it. It’s that I’m using terms that you don’t understand, and you don’t realize you don’t understand, even though I’ve tried very hard to show what they mean.

    I just don’t accept the metaphysics of your answer, and you can’t imagine what it is like to not have to accept such metaphysics.

  101. Stephen

    I give up. I’ve tried. You don’t get it. You think I don’t get it because I don’t “like” your position. But I can at least understand the words you use, and I can ask you for clarification when I do not.

    I understand the words you use. You are just looking for a cheap way out of the killer question I posed.

  102. Stephen

    That was a specific question about what you meant. And your response? “How can this not be connected?” Which isn’t very helpful when I was asking how (in what manner) it was connected.

    Cheap. That was just my opening line. You really are running.

  103. Stephen

    I asked “what incommensurability you’re referring to.” You didn’t answer that

    I’ll try again. Is it not the point of a objective standard to settle questions of moral choice? Isn’t that your answer to the question of which choice is better? And if I’m pointing out that we disagree as much over these standards as we do over the topical point they are intended to settle, isn’t that “connected” to your OP?

  104. Stephen

    @Alex Thanks Alex. By rejecting metaphysics I mean to reject the suggestion that humans are responsible to something nonhuman, something ahistorical, something timeless, something outside of human endeavors and purposes. It is the point of view that we humans are responsible to ourselves, that what we do is work things out in community without appeal to such nonhuman entities. My appeal to how Tom’s Objective standard doesn’t do the work he suggests if people just disagree over the standards derives from a pragmatist point of view. Tom seems to think that the ontological status is as important or more important than the practical work it does. The philosophical background to such a rejection of metaphysics dates from Nietzsche through the 20th century in the American pragmatists like James, Dewey, Quine, Rorty and has similarly coverage in the post modernist movement.

  105. Alex

    Stephen:

    I appreciate you do have quite a clear idea of what rejecting metaphysics means to you – I would suggest that you probably don’t reject metaphysics in the typical modern usage of the term (apologies if this is a complete misjudgment!), and if so then describing your beliefs as such as unconducive to discussion – peruse the SEP article on metaphysics and see what you think.

    Perhaps you would still want to deny metaphysics (although I wouldn’t guess so from what you’ve said) – but I would then suggest considering section 5 in the above article very seriously – in short that such a position is incoherent.

    If you’re interested in further discussion let me know what you think of the above and I’ll see if I can rework how I think your ideas relate to the original discussion.

  106. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Stephen, I explained why I was pulling out of the discussion. Your claim that I’m “running,” looking for “a cheap way out,” is another illegitimate (not to mention discourteous) act on your part, unless you want to claim that I am a liar and that you are a mind-reader, able to discern what’s really going on in my head in spite of what I said to the contrary.

    I am pulling out because it has been a frustrating and unfruitful discussion; because you do not seem to understand that you do not understand what you do not understand; and because the parts that I have not understood, and for which I have requested clarification, you have not clarified. For further explanation, please see #101 again, and realize this time that “incommensurability” was not the only thing I spoke of there.

    Alex, I hope you have better success communicating with Stephen than I have had. I’m not saying I’m free of fault: I have freely admitted (and requested explanation) where I have had trouble following what he was saying. Maybe it will go better with you.

  107. Alex

    I’m not 100% up to scratch and I’m definitely an amateur, but I think most of the people you mention would describe some of their work as being on or about metaphysics. Pragmatism claims an emptiness to a priori ontological metaphysics in particular but I don’t think to metaphysics per se. Again if you could clarify your position (or correct my mistakes if you think that the case) then this would be appreciated!

  108. Alex

    Tom:

    We shall see how I fare! Hope I didn’t come across as criticising at all! Fruitful discussion is often about a lot more than simply argument and communicative skill – being in the right frame of mind, having the luck to being able to tune into another’s meaning – language is often quite an imperfect messenger of thought!

  109. Post
    Author
  110. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    You know, I realized overnight I went at this discussion the wrong way, and I need to apologize to you, Stephen. I was looking for error before I looked for understanding.

    For one example, when you used the word “incommensurability,” I could have said, “I’m not sure what you’re referring to there: we’ve had a lot of conversation on this thread, and there’s more than one thing that might apply to, and I want to make sure I know what you have in mind there.”

    Instead I complained about you not giving the word any context. It’s another way of stating what I wasn’t understanding, but the first way would have been a true call for clarification so I could understand, whereas what I did was to raise an alarm over what I thought was wrong there.

    I did the same kind of things at other points in the discussion. It wasn’t good.

    It’s been said many times that it’s not wise to criticize another’s position until you understand it. I was too eager to be the critic. For this I apologize.

  111. Stephen

    Tom, My apology for those two remarks. You are right that they were inappropriate. I understand you dropping out, I have done the same with some.

  112. Stephen

    Alex, I’m looking at that text and trying to fit my language to it. I’m an “amateur” as well and don’t get the distinction you are making here:

    Pragmatism claims an emptiness to a priori ontological metaphysics in particular but I don’t think to metaphysics per se.

    I don’t know what “metaphysics per se” is. I do know what “ontological metaphysics is. In fact I think of those two words rather synonomously. Rorty, in particular just flat out declares the end of “metaphysics” . I found this interview with Rorty that is very on topic, including comments on dropping metaphysics, but unfortunately the answers are very brief. But they give hint of legitimacy to my stance. You would have read more deeply if this isn’t satisfactory for our purposes. I recommend Rorty as I like the way he articulates the pragmatic stance.

    http://www.harvardphilosophy.com/issues/1995/Rorty.pdf

    I think to fit my wording to what you may be thinking in terms of metaphysics. Both Dewey and Rorty are influenced by Hegel’s Historicism. Hegel convinced thinkers like Dewey and Rorty, that we could not justify the changelessness in our metaphysical ideas, that these things are historically and culturally contingent. So my word “ahistorical” is taken from those discussions. Those “changeless” or absolute ideas are I think clearly “nonhuman”, “timeless”. What Hegel began to do was to make earthly, human, contingent, what was transcendent/eternal/fixed/absolute (nonhuman).
    I found this helpful summary:
    http://19thcenturygermantheory.wordpress.com/2011/09/22/hegel%E2%80%99s-historicism/

    Of course none of it is uncontroversial. I just like the way it addresses the issues/questions.

    I’ll read section 5 and comment.

  113. G. Rodrigues

    @Ray Ingles:

    First a correction to your post to Mr. X.

    In “The Last Superstition”, when Edward Feser talks about how a match is ‘directed towards’ producing flame, he assumes too much with his terminology. ‘Having a tendency to produce flame’ is just not the same thing as ‘being directed (by a Director, say) to produce flame’, and it’s radically unlike ‘wanting to produce flame’.

    You are conflating different arguments: the real, objective status of final causes (each agent, or its causal powers, are directed at producing an effect or specific range of effects, for otherwise it is unintelligible why a match produces flame instead of say, a billion dollars in unmarked notes) with the claim that from the passive orderliness of objects to their telos we can reason to a Director, which everyone calls God. The latter is also an argument, the Fifth Way; to defuse it, it does not suffice to conflate two different claims and then go on to say that “he assumes too much with his terminology”. Also, Feser is quite explicit in that the immanent teleology exhibited by natural substances is in no way “conscious”, a “desire” or a “wanting”, so it is hard to fathom how you managed to misrepresent him. Not surprising, since you misunderstand AT metaphysics as a matter of routine, just unfathomable; to me, at least. I mean, how hard can it be to understand it?

    On to your post.

    The idea is that ‘rules of the game’ plus ‘a goal to win the game’ lead to strategies (which can be objectively ranked, see below). And in the exact same way ‘rules of the universe’ plus ‘human goals’ lead to the kinds of strategies we call ‘morals’.

    You are very confused if you think morals can be conflated with a winning strategy in the Game of Life where the rules are dictated by the physical laws. Very confused. For one, because “physical laws” are not real existents, so nothing follows, or can follow, from them. To claim that they are real existents is a very substantial metaphysical thesis that very few are prepared to defend. I will deal with the other, more substantive reasons below.

    To put it in syllogistic terms: (a) game theory is a branch of mathematics, (b) mathematical results are objective, therefore (c) the results of game theory are objective too.

    I am not disputing that game-theoretic mathematical results are objective. But there is no logical path from the latter claim, to any claims relating to morality. What I am disputing, nay, I am flat out denying, is that game theory will help you in any way to make the sort of moral reasoning you want to do, objective and normative in any interesting sense, or even practically relevant, this or that artificially cooked “example” notwithstanding. It has not been done; it cannot be done, simply because moral reasoning, irrespectively of how you set it up, is not the sort of reasoning that deals with quantifiable realities.

    I understand the allurement to coat our more philosophick opinions with the sheen of mathematical and scientifick respectability, but really, it is just a case of misplaced envy.

    Goals themselves don’t have to be normative. They can be arbitrary. What’s normative are the strategies that arise when goals and constraints interact.

    First, a large part of moral reasoning just *is* the figuring out of what the Good is, that is, it is as much about ends as it is about means. To pick up your chess example, a Chess Master may want to win the game, but he may also delay the winning to achieve a more aesthetically satisfying victory. The rules may enable him to do so, but this is a rather trite and trivial observation. No amount of staring at the rules will explain in what exactly consists a more aesthetically satisfying victory, nor even make us see that there is such a thing as a more aesthetically satisfying victory, nor even that the Chess Master should or ought to purse such a type of victory. Computer brute force search has uncovered Chess endgame winning strategies (e.g. in queen and pawn against queen positions) that are so convoluted and contorted, that the probability that a human being ever stumbled on them unaided is vanishingly low because, at least in the present state of knowledge, the logic behind such strategies is unknown. They are winning strategies, but they are not the sort of strategies that human beings find intelligible, aesthetic or interesting, an important aspect to a game like Chess; they are more like some random mathematical fact which has no place in a more comprehensive and intelligible framework — think of some arithmetical truth like 46717234 * 725165426 = 33877722895151684, which is true for no deep reason other than the bare syntactical facts (assuming Ramanujan or his ghost cannot scold us and say that such a fact is significant because such and such), and furthermore, is not true in any significant interesting way, e.g. as in generating other significant, interesting truths.

    note: this is just meant to illustrate the flaws in the analogy, not in picking it for myself.

    Second, you are equivocating, because the objective, normative sense you are attaching to the strategies that allegedly drop out from a consideration of means and ends (granting the cogency of this particular claim for the sake of argument, which I do not), is not normative in the same sense that the OP talks about such and such behavior being morally normative. How best to achieve a certain goal, fixing it arbitrarily (your words) and taking into account the proper, human limitations, is not necessarily what is moral. Third, what I stated still stands: “If purposes are always relative to the agent, then they are by definition subjective and with no normative force, and appealing to the *laws of physics* helps you not one iota. Which is what everybody else is saying by the way.” Saying that the goals are arbitrary but the strategies to achieve them are not, even granting the cogency of the latter, leaves you exactly with nothing.

  114. Stephen

    Alex, note in that link to the Rorty interview, that both the interviewer and Rorty are comfortable with interchanging “transcendental” with “metaphysical”

  115. Stephen

    Alex#113 re the link you provide.
    Section five discusses the incoherence of attempts to show metaphysical claims meaningless. The pragmatist avoids this charge by abandoning the traditional questions of metaphysical philosophy not because they have proved them false or meaningless. As Rorty says:
    “Conforming to my own precepts, I am not going to offer arguments against the vocabulary I want to replace[traditional metaphysics]. Instead, I am going to try to make the vocabulary I favor look attractive by showing how it may be used to describe a variety of topics” Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity
    And
    “try to ignore the apparently futile traditional questions by substituting the following new and possibly interesting questions”. C.I.S.

    And only the metaphysician can claim foul play by not providing an adequate (to the metaphysician) response to these questions, but so what, there is nothing (except the metaphysican) saying these questions were ever necessary intellectual pursuits. The sense of foul play is just more of our highly ingrained metaphysical intuitions in our thinking – just what Rorty suggests abandoning. There is nothing “incoherent” in simply ceasing to ask traditional questions or to stop abiding by highly ingrained metaphysical intuitions and urges. And this probably explains why you don’t find the pragmatist position addressed in the article, because the pragmatists have just refuses to play that game, it doesn’t deny it in the terms of the metaphysician, that would be self-contradictory, rather it presents a paradigm shift.
    The author of this article makes a good argument in favor of the metaphysical tradition, but it is just an argument, not a proof, he hasn’t settled anything, as is the case with Rorty.

  116. Stephen

    Alex.
    This article on Dewey
    http://www.iep.utm.edu/dewey/#H3

    opens with:

    John Dewey was a leading proponent of the American school of thought known as pragmatism, a view that rejected the dualistic epistemology and metaphysics of modern philosophy [my emphasis] in favor of a naturalistic approach that viewed knowledge as arising from an active adaptation of the human organism to its environment.

    However, Dewey seems to preserve the term by setting forth a “naturalistic metaphysics” or an “emperical metaphysics”. Whatever it is about the word “metaphysics” that allows such a concoction is probably what you are getting at with your splitting out “ontological metaphysics” from “metaphysics per se”. Nonetheless, these philosophers are comfortable with using the term “metaphysics” to mean (in your words) ontological metaphysics, e.g. the Rorty article on a “post-metaphysical Culture”

  117. G. Rodrigues

    @Stephen:

    There is nothing “incoherent” in simply ceasing to ask traditional questions or to stop abiding by highly ingrained metaphysical intuitions and urges.

    As there is nothing incoherent in asserting that your claims are ipso facto uninteresting and therefore not worthy of discussion, would you kindly take your claptrap elsewhere? By your own admission you are not interested in the OP, so you have nothing of interest to contribute except to say that in your own historically and culturally contingent opinion, maybe we should be asking different questions. How will you pretend to rationally answer those other questions if you eschew metaphysics, is beyond me, but hey, whatever rocks your boat. I cannot speak for anybody else, but I refuse to play *your* game, so there you have it, end of discussion. And if you even dare to utter “foul play” that is just you abiding by your ingrained intuitions and urges.

  118. SteveK

    Agreed. Any value or any preference, moral or otherwise, that Stephen argues for / against is nothing but rhetoric in action. It’s not very interesting to talk about who’s rhetoric is more interesting or emotionally satisfying. #Navel gazing.

  119. Ray Ingles

    JAD –

    The object of a zero sum game like chess is to win.

    To quote the links you still haven’t read: I think we can agree that, overall, our lives are ‘non zero-sum’.

  120. Ray Ingles

    G. Rodrigues –

    The latter is also an argument, the Fifth Way; to defuse it, it does not suffice to conflate two different claims and then go on to say that “he assumes too much with his terminology”

    Don’t have TLS in front of me, so I can’t quote exact page numbers or words, but he does indeed muddle them. He notes that an acorn doesn’t really ‘want’ to produce an oak tree, but it does tend to do so. And then he says that, in some sense, the oak tree must exist in some sense to ‘draw the acorn to it’. He asks how it could exist, and he compares it to how, say, the goal of a house exists in the intellect of an architect’s mind. From there, he concludes that the oak tree must exist in some intellect, and since it’s not the acorns, it must be God.

    Except that I don’t see how the oak tree ‘must exist in some sense’ just because an acorn tends to produce one. I certainly don’t see how the oak tree can have any causal effect on the acorn – rather it’s entirely the other way around!

    For one, because “physical laws” are not real existents, so nothing follows, or can follow, from them.

    Do the regularities that we describe with the terms ‘physical law’ obtain or not?

    What I am disputing, nay, I am flat out denying, is that game theory will help you in any way to make the sort of moral reasoning you want to do

    You are, indeed, asserting that. However:

    First, a large part of moral reasoning just *is* the figuring out of what the Good is, that is, it is as much about ends as it is about means.

    Way back in comment #3, I wrote, …note that goals fall into a hierarchy; for example, “I’m going to get a washcloth, so I can clean up my kid’s vomit, so I can get them back to bed, so they can start getting better, so they can be healthy. Can you see how that might be relevant?

    Some goals are more fundamental than others. I love my children, so want them to be healthy. So when one throws up, I clean up the vomit so it won’t get anyone else sick. A whole lot of morality in practice is sorting through goals and means, identifying which goals are more fundamental, and which means don’t contradict fundamental goals.

    For example, gluttony is a short-term pleasure but a long-term problem. So’s sloth. Both, in a way, are particular variants of greed – which is misdirected or out-of-control desire, which ultimately thwarts fundamental goals.

    Saying that the goals are arbitrary but the strategies to achieve them are not, even granting the cogency of the latter, leaves you exactly with nothing.

    Ah, but as I said back in #12, Note, though, that the range of human goals is not infinite, assuming it means something to call someone ‘human’.

    If there is a human nature, then there might be a commonality of goals, particularly the fundamental ones. Not absolute unanimity – tastes do differ – but common enough for common strategies to obtain. Now, other species might have different goals and such… but I’m already talking about that with TFBW too.

  121. Stephen

    The claim is this: humans need an objective standard in order to know right from wrong, they can’t rely on subjective faculties.

    If humans didn’t disagree, in the first place, just got it right, we wouldn’t need to talk about it. But we do disagree. So it is the disagreement that brings us to the need for a solution.

    The solution is said to be an objective standard. But as we can see throughout this blog and given the fragmentation of belief systems, that the objective standard is just as contentious as the original moral questions. Subjective faculties still get involved. Can we really avoid that? The objective standard just isn’t doing the said work of solving the problem, it just changes the debate from the moral question to the “nature” of the standard.

  122. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Stephen, you say “The claim is this: humans need an objective standard in order to know right from wrong, they can’t rely on subjective faculties.”

    That’s actually not the claim. Please see the OP, under “Getting the Whole Point of It Wrong.”

  123. G. Rodrigues

    @Stephen:

    The claim is this: humans need an objective standard in order to know right from wrong, they can’t rely on subjective faculties.

    No, that is not the claim.

    The solution is said to be an objective standard. But as we can see throughout this blog and given the fragmentation of belief systems, that the objective standard is just as contentious as the original moral questions. Subjective faculties still get involved. Can we really avoid that? The objective standard just isn’t doing the said work of solving the problem, it just changes the debate from the moral question to the “nature” of the standard.

    Let us leave aside the utter confused mess you are making, and try to give a charitable rendering of your “argument”.

    (1) The solution to answer moral questions is X.

    (2) But people disagree on the answers to moral questions.

    (3) So the solution to answer moral questions cannot be X.

    There are still some flaws in this formulation (it is no mean feat to make sense of what you say), but I will cut to chase and go after what I presume you are getting at. First, the argument is invalid as (3) does not follow from (1) and (2). The fact that people disagree on the moral answers says nothing of whether there is in fact a way to answer them (e.g. an objective moral standard). But it is not only invalid, it is self-refuting. For suppose that you were correct; in addition, suppose also you are correct in that we should be asking other questions. But those other questions *also* have conflicting answers, so by your ilogic they cannot be answered as there is no solution, or standard we can appeal to, to answer them. So again, by your ilogic, we should be asking different questions from the ones *you* make. And so on, ad infinitum.

    The question is not what is exactly the objective standard, but that there is an objective standard or principle in the first place, that allows us to actually answer the moral questions. For if there is no such standard, there is no way to answer moral questions, and in fact, following Rorty and the philosophers you mentioned, there is no way to answer any question at all and all *your* “arguments” are no more meaningful and interesting than the muuu a cow makes.

    I do not mean to be insulting, but really, do you even listen to yourself? How virtually every single statement you make is riddled with logical fallacies and incoherences? The thread is already clocking at an impressive 130 comments (impressive, but not that uncommon for this blog) and you still misunderstand the nature of the argument directed against you. Maybe you should read a book on elementary logic? Maybe take the modus operandi of Rorty more to heart? He styled himself a liberal ironist, with emphasis on the ironist. Rorty, for all his incoherence (and that is exactly into what devolves say, his critique of metaphysics and the correspondence theory of truth), at least had enough self-awareness to know that his own opinions was just that, contingent and tied to the historical and cultural moment, that no argument formulated in his own vocabulary can be final or dissolve his *own* doubts and rebuttals, let alone meet those of the opponent, and finally empty himself into an “intellectual gadfly”. Emphasis on the gadfly. If you want to leave logic and coherence at the front door, that is your choice, but please do not presume to enter into the Great House of Public Debate.

  124. Stephen

    @130 Tom, it is from the section you refer to that I derive my comment:

    Without something in the fundamental nature of the universe to make actions and attitudes objectively right or wrong, there is nothing in the universe to make actions and attitudes objectively right or wrong.

    [my emphasis]
    and

    Humans may have the ability to develop a form of morality, but only of a subjective nature: contingent and non-essential as already stated.

    I interpret this to mean that it is inadaquate for it to be of a “subjective nature”, thus we need an object standard.

    Isn’t the importance of the debate about what humans do? How they decide and how they get it right or wrong “to make actions and attitudes objectively right or wrong”?

  125. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Stephen, you have confused ontology with epistemology again. See #61 again. Your key error is in your use of the word “know.”

  126. Stephen

    @113 Tom, I’ll go down your path and see if I understand it. You merely want to claim that there exists a non-contingent objective standard, period? So “to make actions and attitudes objectively right or wrong” is to make them right or wrong outside of human evaluating: The assessment is one that is made by a nonhuman, or does the assessment not require an evaluating being?

  127. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Thanks, Stephen.

    I want to claim that there is a non-contingent objective standard, yes, that makes actions and attitudes right or wrong regardless of human opinion. This does require a moral agent, an evaluating being, as you put it.

  128. Melissa

    Ray,

    Don’t have TLS in front of me, so I can’t quote exact page numbers or words, but he does indeed muddle them.

    Even if you had TLS in front of you I doubt it would help you, you’ve demonstrated often enough that you have no intention of understanding the arguments. Feser is not muddling them, you are. Feser first offers an argument for the reality of formal and final causation. Given that he believes final causes he exists he then argues from that to God (The fifth way which is the section you are referring to above). Your objection assumes that your view of causation is correct without addressing any of the arguments for the reality of final causes offered in the first section of the book.

    For example, gluttony is a short-term pleasure but a long-term problem. So’s sloth. Both, in a way, are particular variants of greed – which is misdirected or out-of-control desire, which ultimately thwarts fundamental goals.

    But some would argue that their short term pleasure is more fundamentally important to them than long term health and who are you to tell them otherwise. What you are missing from your description of morality is whether the goals are good. Even the term mis-directed desire assumes that there is some thing(s) that our desires should be directed towards and some they shouldn’t.

  129. Stephen

    @Tom#135 So is it fair or even accurate to say that this means that atheists are “getting the argument wrong” when this is denied by atheists from the get go, in the same way that you (I believe) deny that morality is entirely subjective? There simply isn’t enough commonality to begin a “debate” from this standpoint. Atheists want to talk about the practical aspects of deciding or otherwise bringing into our psychology – taboos, etc, how we should live together, what works and doesn’t work, without reference to such a nonhuman standard. So, isn’t it better to describe this disconnect as a demonstration of the “worldview clash”?

  130. Stephen

    @tom#135 Continuing alone your line of the debate: So how does this matter to humans given that “Humans may have the ability to develop a form of morality, but only of a subjective nature”?

  131. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Stephen, when I say atheists are getting the argument wrong, what I mean is that they are frequently misstating it. We present an argument that A, B, and C imply D, which they answer by saying, no, you’re wrong, because E, F, and G most certainly do not imply D; where E, F, and G are premises that we would either deny outright, or that we would not consider to be compelling steps toward an argument for M.

    So when Grayling says, “The argument that there can be no morality unless policed by a deity… etc.,” and rebuts that argument, he’s rebutting an argument (E, F and G, therefore D) that theists don’t make. It’s a version of a straw man argument.

    And yes, there really is common ground for an argument there. What you disagree with in #135 is the conclusion, “D” according the example here. Most (not all, but most) persons believe in moral realism: that certain actions and/or attitudes are really wrong in themselves. That’s the point of commonality If you don’t agree, then this argument will have no purchase on you. For those who do, that premise leads to a conclusion like I stated in #135.

  132. Stephen

    @141

    Where is that given?

    Do you mean this: “Humans may have the ability to develop a form of morality, but only of a subjective nature”?
    This is a quote from the OP.

    “What makes is a relevant question”?

    I’m assuming that your writing this and hosting this forum intends to influence humans to change in some way? So I”m asking you to follow through with the significance to humans that there is the objective standard that you refer to.

    “Why do we have to limit morality to what humans can form?”

    I wasn’t saying anything about limiting. I’m asking how does believing that to be true make a difference to humans? What sort of difference?

  133. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    I’m sorry. I didn’t recognize it out of context.

    If there is no transcendence, then the only morality possible (as far as I can see) is that which humans can form, which is subjective at best. (I have another argument that says that even that isn’t what it appears to be, but I’ll save that for another day.) So for those who think that there are some actions or attitudes that can actually be morally better than others, this is a problem. Subjective morality can’t make murder worse than sacrificial love, it can only make it less preferred by whomever is judging it to be so.

  134. Stephen

    @143

    Subjective morality can’t make murder worse than sacrificial love,

    But anyone that would hold such a view wouldn’t get invited to many parties.
    Seriously, as I have claimed in various spots in your forum, while morality is subjective on an individual basis, morality is forged in the public realm, which gives it a sort of objectivity (still a human one) – we can no longer say it is a purely individual-subjective thing. Societies take care of the cases like this by ostracizing and imprisoning individuals with extreme views. There is a “judge” of our subjective morality, just not a transcendent one. And sometimes a society (like the Nazis’) is judged by other societies, just like individuals are judged by societies. We banish them. History is in part a picture of how human societies have changed morally (see Pinker’s “The better angels of our nature” for an agruement that it has advanced). We also look back on the justice system of the middle ages with horror. But that was just where the west was at at the time, and we’ve moved on to something most of us view as much “better”.

  135. BillT

    But anyone that would hold such a view wouldn’t get invited to many parties.”

    Is this really true? There are places in the world today where you can kill your wife and daughters in an “honor” killing as we saw this week in Egypt. Where you can leave your newborn daughter outside to die because she isn’t a son. Where women are chattel and must walk three steps behind their husbands. And we in this country say it’s ok to murder your unborn child to preserve the rights of the mother. (And yes, this is the argument made by the pro-choice side) When you leave morality up to the individual or the collective, most anything is permissible.

  136. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    In other words, “you wouldn’t get invited to many parties” is not only a pathetically weak response (which was my impression when I first saw it here), it’s not even reliably true.

  137. Stephen

    Anyone care to take on my actual point?

    I was obviously having some fun, but the idea behind it is still my point, that societies forge morality in part by ostracizing.

  138. BillT

    That was a take on you actual point. When individuals or societies are left to determine their own morality you end up with: legalized murder in varying forms, second class citizenship and and a number of other unfortunate results, if those weren’t enough. And none of the perpetrators of the things I described are ostracized or imprisoned.

    In fact, in the Islamic world we are seeing an increase in those things and we here in America certainly aren’t backtracking from the murder of the unborn. In China, murder of the unborn is essentially mandated by the state. There is a growing euthanasia movement across the Western nations where it’s legal in some places already. Your ideas about what societies do when they form their own morality doesn’t reconcile itself to the facts.

  139. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Stephen, you write,

    And sometimes a society (like the Nazis’) is judged by other societies, just like individuals are judged by societies. We banish them.

    So there’s a whole lotta judgin’ goin’ on. Agreed. What gives one society the right to judge another? You nudged at an answer to that:

    History is in part a picture of how human societies have changed morally (see Pinker’s “The better angels of our nature” for an agruement that it has advanced). We also look back on the justice system of the middle ages with horror. But that was just where the west was at at the time, and we’ve moved on to something most of us view as much “better”.

    People in the West view it as better. So what?

    Pinker thinks we’ve advanced; but then, he thinks the wholesale slaughter of innocent young life — by the millions!! — is just fine. The Middle Ages would look on Pinker’s preferences with horror beyond words. So do I. We’ve advanced by some measures of morality, but who’s to say it’s better, really? What does “better” mean?

    Societal morality is no less subjective and contingent than individual.

  140. Stephen

    At Tome #149

    Pinker thinks we’ve advanced; but then, he thinks the wholesale slaughter of innocent young life — by the millions!! — is just fine.

    Good point, Pinker is not looking a abortion statististics in his analysis. He is using homicide as an measure and doesn’t include it.

    We’ve advanced by some measures of morality, but who’s to say it’s better, really? What does “better” mean?

    This is talk from the other side of the clash. Remember, on this side of the clash we don’t need timeless nonhuman fixed foundations for these measurements, they are nothing more than human evaluations. It means most of us would prefer to live in today’s western democracies than in the middle ages based on all that we know about life then. This is something that can be determined by polling. But I propose that to be the case.

    Societal morality is no less subjective and contingent than individual.

    Societies develop morals and build mechanisms to enforce them, codifying them in taboos and laws which act to constrain individual behavior beyond an individuals personal sense of right and wrong. This is something that falls outside of your subjective-objective split. Yes, it is contingent, not fixed, not absolute. Its human.

  141. Stephen

    @Bill

    When individuals or societies are left to determine their own morality you end up with: legalized murder in varying forms, second class citizenship and and a number of other unfortunate results, if those weren’t enough.

    Is it your thought that there is a way to get beyond having disagreements about what our moral code should look like?

  142. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    No, this is not talk from the other side of the clash. If you say you don’t need a definition for better, then I’m free to interpret it as I wish. How about “smells more like fish”?

    I would be unsurprised to find out that persons from the Middle Ages would find our technocratic isolation, fragmented families, loneliness, option-overload, and spiritual deadness would make this a much less desirable world to live in than theirs. Our world isn’t any better. It’s just more like our world.

    And no, societal morality is not outside an objective-subjective split. Not unless you re-define “subjective” to include only individual subjectivism — which is a neat way of making sure you’re right and anyone who disagrees with you is wrong.

    So please, would you define “subjective” as you think it should be understood?

  143. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    By the way, if you think I’m wrong about the Middle Ages comparison, I invite you to prove it.

    I don’t think I’m wrong; but I’m not the one who has to make the case. You’re basing your argument on what you seem to think is a self-evident truth: that most people would find the modern world preferable to that of the Middle Ages. But your sample is skewed: you can poll those who live in the modern world and who have a particular view of the Middle Ages; you can’t reverse the poll and find out what they would have thought of our world.

    Which means you have no support for your assertion in evidence; you can only make the bare claim that just anybody would think today’s world is better. That’s question-begging. You have no valid evidence for it at all.

  144. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    If I may poke in on your conversation with Bill, my answer to #151 is yes: There is a moral standard, there is a moral standard-giver, and we will all give an account to him. That will take us beyond human disagreement, once and for all.

    In the meantime, we would do well to give him our attention.

  145. Mr. X

    Stephen @ 150:

    “This is talk from the other side of the clash.”

    You keep saying that, Stephen, but as far as I can see it’s trivial and largely irrelevant. Yes, moral objectivists and subjectivists have different world-views. So what? Given that it’s entirely possible for people — even large numbers of people — to hold world-views that are arbitrary and inconsistent, just pointing out that you’ve got a different worldview to Tom doesn’t go any way to rebutting any of his points.

    “Societies develop morals and build mechanisms to enforce them, codifying them in taboos and laws which act to constrain individual behavior beyond an individuals personal sense of right and wrong. This is something that falls outside of your subjective-objective split.”

    No it doesn’t. Just because the majority of people in a society hold to a subjective opinion, doesn’t make it any less subjective. Nor does being able to enforce those opinions on others.

  146. BillT

    “Is it your thought that there is a way to get beyond having disagreements about what our moral code should look like?”

    Are you conceding my point and are we now on to “Ok, subjective morality doesn’t work, how can we make objective morality the societal norm.”

    To start with it would help if there were a lot more people like you that have realized the subjective moral norms, whether individual or societal, aren’t norms at all. They are just opinions and follow whoever has the power to implement them.

  147. SteveK

    Stephen,
    How do you measure societies morals? Where do you look, who are the relevant people to poll, how often do you need to update the results, what questions do you ask, how do you resolve conflicting answers where one society says X is immoral but another says it is moral, and how do you assemble the responses into a hierarchy of human morality when you don’t even ask about hierarchy?

    For example: is taking candy from a baby ever considered to be morally good? Where do I go to find the answer for the particular situation that I am in?

  148. Stephen

    Tom:

    If I may poke in on your conversation with Bill, my answer to #151 is yes: There is a moral standard, there is a moral standard-giver, and we will all give an account to him. That will take us beyond human disagreement, once and for all.

    Are you saying that we have to wait until judgment day or when we see the face of God that we will all agree, or do you think there is a path to agreement in this life?

  149. Post
    Author
  150. Stephen

    SteveK

    how do you resolve conflicting answers where one society says X is immoral but another says it is moral,

    We don’t come to agreement any easier than we come to agreement over the objective standards that are thought to provide an end to disagreement. All we can do is what we have been doing, try to convince others to take up our values.

  151. Tom Gilson

    For no rational reason whatever.

    That’s ethical imperialism, and I find it despicable. You’re so convinced you have everybody’s right answer you’re going to push it on them, even while admitting there is no right answer. It’s your preference. It’s your ethnocentrusm. It’s your egocentrism.

    And people complain about religious proselytizing. At least Christians have something other than our own self-satisfied belief in our personal moral superiority to offer.

  152. SteveK

    @160,
    With objective standards, it’s possible for there to be something we can all reason toward and ultimately have common knowledge of – that something is the common object called “the standard”.

    In your world, the process of convincing others to take up our values lacks this common object. There is nothing for two people to reason toward, nothing to have common knowledge of except the knowledge of the thoughts, preferences and desires of the two individuals. But that common knowledge convinces nobody of anything and settles nothing. In other words, there’s no truth that does the work of convincing. There’s no trying either because there’s nothing to obtain.

  153. Stephen

    Tom

    You’re so convinced you have everybody’s right answer you’re going to push it on them

    Settle down now. Who is pushing the “right” answer here? I’m pushing the way I prefer, you’ve been reading my posts. “push it on them”? really? by having a conversation? By doing what I can to influence the outcome of that public working through a way to live together? I’m not the absolutist here who thinks of the world in terms like “right” and “wrong” and I don’t believe that by now that is not clear to you.

  154. Stephen

    SteveK

    There is nothing for two people to reason toward, nothing to have common knowledge of except the knowledge of the thoughts, preferences and desires of the two individuals. But that common knowledge convinces nobody of anything and settles nothing. In other words, there’s no truth that does the work of convincing

    Are you saying that you know of a reliable way to settle disagreements? How does it work? I just need something “true”? I’d like to hear about the history of this at work in the world. Please be specific.

  155. SteveK

    If you’re trying to convince someone, Stephen, you’re trying to do what? There’s no convincing me of anything when all you are doing is “pushing the way you prefer”. You say it, and it’s obvious to anyone within earshot that you prefer it. There’s obviously more to it than that.

  156. SteveK

    Are you saying that you know of a reliable way to settle disagreements?

    No.

  157. Stephen

    Tom

    And people complain about religious proselytizing. At least Christians have something other than our own self-satisfied belief in our personal moral superiority to offer.

    I’m not the one pushing an ideology. I’m saying we’d live together better if we softened our ideologies – and that begins with dropping our absolutism, our belief that we are in touch with some eternal anchor for our beliefs and reasoning, the divine or divine truth.

  158. SteveK

    I’m saying we’d live together better if we softened our ideologies – and that begins with dropping our absolutism,

    You first.

  159. Stephen

    SteveK
    Are you saying that you know of a reliable way to settle disagreements? How does it work? I just need something “true”? I’d like to hear about the history of this at work in the world. Please be specific.

  160. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Stephen, you’re pushing, and you’re pushing what you know cannot be right. Maybe it feels to you like you’re pushing it gently, but you’re pushing it nonetheless. And it is, most definitely, without any possible doubt, an ideology. It’s an ideology of cultural preferences being pressed upon other cultures. In the microsphere, like here on this forum, it’s an individual preference being pushed on other individuals.

    Absolutism is not the cause of war or discord. Disagreement without love is. So is the quest for power and prestige for their own sake. So is the self-centered pursuit of land and money and stuff in general. So is the revenge motive. So is fear. And so on.

    Would you explain in some depth, please, how your ideology addresses and solves these ubiquitous human flaws? Then we’ll talk about how we can live together better.

    In the meantime, if you want our answer, I suggest you look in our founding documents, particularly Matthew chapters 5 through 7, and at our founder’s example.

  161. G. Rodrigues

    @Stephen:

    I’m not the absolutist here who thinks of the world in terms like “right” and “wrong” and I don’t believe that by now that is not clear to you.

    Well, if you are not absolutist then why are you inveighing against absolutists? If there is no “right” nor “wrong”, it is neither “right” nor “wrong” to be an absolutist, but here you are chiding absolutists and “pushing” them to drop their absolutism.

    I’m saying we’d live together better if we softened our ideologies – and that begins with dropping our absolutism, our belief that we are in touch with some eternal anchor for our beliefs and reasoning, the divine or divine truth.

    Live “better”? What is that? You just said there was neither “right” nor “wrong”, now you invoke the word “better”? Better for whom? What are you appealing to to decide what is “better”? And how do you know that by dropping absolutism we would live “better”, whatever the latter means? Some infallible oracle informed you? Where is the proof that that is true?

    And for the record, I say we would live better if were all absolutists, which just means being rational people. Or as SteveK put it so aptly (and yet, you managed to miss his point), first *you* drop your intolerant-absolutism-masquerading-as-tolerant-relativism.

  162. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    I’m imagining a world in which all people were absolutely committed to an ideology of mutual love, other-centeredness, forgiveness, grace, encouragement, building one another up to each other’s greatest human potential. I’m imagining this being based on a thought system that recognized that these ways of living were truly tied to the total truth underlying all of reality, and thus they were based on an absolutely true ideology.

    And I’m thinking that thought experiment demonstrates “absolutism” is not the problem. The problem is that we’re not that kind of people. Does that make sense, Stephen?

    And I’m also thinking this might be because we don’t know the truth about the way the world is; we don’t know the True One who made it that way; we have twisted it to be another way entirely. That’s the Christians’ explanation for it.

    Do you want to know where to find a solution, a way to live together better? There isn’t one (as SteveK already acknowledged) that will work for everyone. But there is one that’s available to anyone who will accept it, and it will bring you into a genuine connection with a genuinely better way.

  163. SteveK

    Stephen,

    Are you saying that you know of a reliable way to settle disagreements?

    You posed a question AS IF there is a true answer to it. How should I begin to answer if there isn’t a true answer? Please be specific.

  164. Stephen

    SteveK, I asked this question because it was inferred from your comment. You can always explain how I misunderstood or you can follow up on your thought. And that thought may include how there is no true answer, etc, that is up to you.

  165. SteveK

    Stephen,
    Your question “Are you saying that you know of a reliable way to settle disagreements?” implied that there was indeed a true answer to it. If so, then your question in #169 is answered as “yes” without me providing any response. If not, then you are wasting my time with this question – so stop asking. Pick one of these options and run with it.

  166. Stephen

    @Tom, Pushing it in conversation. So? While I can’t avoid an ideology, it is the case that I’m most of what I’m doing here is trying to break confidence in your ideology. It has more to do with saying we don’t necessarily HAVE to think that way, but also comes with an alternative by way of example. But there are other examples that I think are good alternatives too.

    The point I made about how objective standards are not themselves uncontroversial, which means they cannot serve as a way out of the subjectivity problem, remains an addressed problem in this conversation and I hope that means some doubt is creeping in.

  167. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    So? you ask?

    I can’t believe you’d put it so bluntly and insensitively. So?

    Here’s “so” for you: you’re trying to break my confidence in my moral beliefs, even though you acknowledge yours are not true.

    You don’t have truth, you don’t believe in truth (at least moral truth), but you sure want to go around telling other people they’re wrong and they ought to agree with you anyway. That’s proselytizing in its most despicable form.

    You’re a parody of what so many people claim is wrong with Christians seeking converts. Not the real thing, though, because the real thing is tied to some vision of reality, no matter how interpersonally sensitive or insensitive it might be. No, just a parody.

  168. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Obviously we don’t HAVE to think Christianity is true, or that its moral precepts are. We can think whatever we want.

    But we do HAVE to accept whatever consequences may come from the decisions we make.

    Those are not mine to decide or to deliver. They’re embedded in the structure of reality. In the end they will be in your face-to-face meeting with God.

    In the meantime you can think whatever you like, but if you rebel against reality, reality will win every time.

  169. SteveK

    While I can’t avoid an ideology

    You can avoid the one you are holding on to in favor of one that is more consistent with your experiences and one that isn’t self-refuting. That would be progress.

  170. Stephen

    SteveK

    You can avoid the one you are holding on to in favor of one that is more consistent with your experiences and one that isn’t self-refuting. That would be progress.

    But that is the point of these discussions is to try to SHOW that to be the case. You can start to show how your belief system is coherent by answering the question you’ve been avoiding.

  171. Stephen

    Tom

    you’re trying to break my confidence in my moral beliefs, even though you acknowledge yours are not true.

    Here you are just seeing what I say through your presuppositions (the clash). I don’t hold my beliefs to be eternally grounded, final, and absolute, if that is what you mean by “true”. My notion of “true” gives up on that idea, it recognizes the impossibility of escaping contingency thus far in human experience. The said exceptions to that, are just exceptions by fiat. “true”, as William James put it is a complement we make of sentences that “pay their way”. And I like coherence notions of truth, as sentences that fit with all of the other sentences we also call true (for the time being). It acknowledges the inability to escape our bodies, escape time and history and culture and ground our sentences in an eternal, nonhuman form. Being able to do that has yet to be demonstrated, and a belief system that holds to that, cannot be justifiably called “in touch with reality”.

  172. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Stephen,

    What I see happening here is an attempt to pin SteveK down to a certain position, rather than an attempt to understand his position. I wonder if you might get further faster by asking him the question in a different manner.

    BTW: feel free to tell me if you ever think I’m making the same error toward you. At this point I think I’m reading your position accurately. From that point I’m drawing some implications that follow from it, or so it seems to me. If I’ve misunderstood your basic position, though, then I need to go back and try to get it right. I’m very willing to do that.

  173. SteveK

    But that is the point of these discussions is to try to SHOW that to be the case.

    We’ve done that multiple times. Your ideology is self-refuting.

  174. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    RE: #182,

    You keep blaming my reading of your position on the worldview clash. You’re disavowing all responsibility for the word “true.” Your coherence theory is no help, since you deny any coherent system has been devised.

    You’re missing my point. What I’m saying is that if there is no definite content to “true,” then you have no business trying to convince someone else they’re wrong. That’s the worldview clash in action yes, but it’s a statement that I can make from your side of the clash. If I assume as you do that there is no truth, then I have no basis in fact for any of my moral opinions. And if I have no basis in fact, then any attempt I make to influence someone else’s moral opinion must be based in something else. Whatever that something else is, that someone else has every right to say, “Back off, bud — you’re pushing me around for no good reason and I resent it.”

    And to that, I have no answer to offer. I would be pushing people around for no good reason.

    And that’s the analysis from your side of the clash. Just denying that you accept an absolute form of truth or of morality won’t deliver you from, “back off, bud — you’re pushing me around for no good reason, and I resent it.!

  175. Stephen

    Tom, continuing, that is just to say that what I am after isn’t to change your mind about specific topics (moral beliefs), but about your notion of “true” (Truth). So from that point of view, your comment, to me, is circular.

  176. Mr. X

    “Tom, continuing, that is just to say that what I am after isn’t to change your mind about specific topics (moral beliefs), but about your notion of “true” (Truth).”

    So wait, you’re denying the possibility of us accessing, not just objective moral truth, but objective truth full stop? That’s… even more incoherent than what I thought you were saying.

  177. SteveK

    I don’t hold my beliefs to be eternally grounded, final, and absolute, if that is what you mean by “true”. My notion of “true” gives up on that idea…

    (a) If it’s *possible* for that last statement to be final and absolutely true then you’ve just adopted the very idea you claim to have given up.

    (b) If it’s *impossible” for that statement to be true in that same sense then it’s impossible for it to be impossible in a final or absolute sense – which means it’s possible, and you’ve just adopted the very idea you claim to have given up.

    See the problem yet?

  178. Stephen

    SteveK

    We’ve done that multiple times.

    Please, for me, do it one more time using #164

  179. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Stephen, it’s not circular. It’s a reducto ad absurdum. It’s taking your concept of truth, not mine; and it’s exploring the implications of your conception. It’s thinking through what it means if your view is the more accurate one.

    What you need to do in response, it seems to me, is to quit throwing names at my arguments (“worldview clash,” “circular”) and explain just it is that you are not performing some really despicable form of proselytization for a morality that you cannot regard as true. What rescues you from that charge? What keeps you from culpability for moral imperialism? What gives you the right to tell me that I’m wrong?

    It’s time for you to quit throwing word-bombs at us and answer for yourself instead. Granted, word-bombs are easier. But they don’t have substance, especially when they miss the mark like “circular” did.

    (I wouldn’t mind if you would throw in an answer to the question I asked in the third paragraph of #170 while you were at it.)

  180. Stephen

    What I see happening here is an attempt to pin SteveK down to a certain position, rather than an attempt to understand his position. I wonder if you might get further faster by asking him the question in a different manner.

    I asked SteveK to explain how he has not actually inferred that he has a means to settle disagreements (he argued that my way is ineffective to that end, for example), or to explain that to me, what it is and how we have seen that in action. I don’t call that “pinning [him] down”.

    I think you have tried to steer clear of this problem (by your separating out an ontological feature and focusing on that ) in a way that many people do not. I think a lot of people (not just Christians), including many posting on your site, think they can expect such a grounding to their beliefs. I’m asking for that to be fleshed out.

    Does Christianity have such a tool? When we look at Christianity today across the globe in all of its many variations, does that suggest that the Bible serves as a source of objective truth that humans can look to to settle disagreement? Then what does and where do we see it at work?

  181. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    As for settling disagreement, Stephen, I’ve answered that already. See #154 and #159.

    It’s impolite in disagreements like this to re-ask a question without acknowledging that someone has already addressed it. If you think their answer is inadequate, it would behoove you to say what’s missing in it. Otherwise it just sounds boorish of you to ask again.

  182. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    The moral argument, which was the subject of the OP, is an ontological matter, which is why I refuse to steer clear of it. If others do not often go there, then all that means is they do not often consider the moral argument according to its proper terms and definitions. But if they do consider it properly, then they must consider it ontologically.

  183. Robert

    @Stephen,

    Are you saying, “there IS no truth” or “that we can never KNOW what is true”? i.e. we can only observe what (at this point in time, space etc) appears to comport with present reality…..

  184. Stephen

    Tom, 154 doesn’t give the sort of answer I asked for – the history of this mechanism at work. And 159 just agrees with me that it doesn’t produce agreement. So you think so, but not all in this forum think so.

  185. Stephen

    @Robert

    Are you saying, “there IS no truth” or “that we can never KNOW what is true”? i.e. we can only observe what (at this point in time, space etc) appears to comport with present reality…..

    If you mean “Truth”, some metaphysical entity that serves as a standard that will settle disagreements, I’m saying we don’t benefit from continuing to ask those questions. They are questions for the theologian and the metaphysician and we don’t have to be either. We can stop thinking that the urge to find a final grounding for our beliefs is one we need to respect: it itself is man made and culturally given and not beyond controversy.

  186. Stephen

    Tom, the question that is still outstanding is not one you would want to take, it was SteveK that let on to the idea that objective standards (and only object standards) resolve disagreements (or he can point out how I’ve misunderstood him). But I don’t think that SteveK is the only one that holds this belief or has taken that stand in your forum.

  187. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Translation of #197:

    Robert: Are you saying there is no truth, or that we can never know what is true?

    Stephen: Pipe down and quit worrying.

  188. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    And translating some of Stephen’s earlier remarks:

    It’s my total intention here to try to get you to drop your morality and accept mine. Why? Pipe down and quit worrying.

  189. Robert

    @ Stephen

    in other words ANY belief is only REAL in that it is accepted by the individual who believes it; there are no OBJECTIVE standards, just various choices and we can all pick what we want for ourselves, so we should stop sweating if someone has picked something different from ourselves?

    Forget the where or how of grounding; is there ONE or MANY realities?

  190. SteveK

    Stephen,

    it was SteveK that let on to the idea that objective standards (and only object standards) resolve disagreements (or he can point out how I’ve misunderstood him).

    The objective standard does not make disagreement impossible, it makes propositional statements about the standard objectively true or false.

    Apparently, your standard consists of various man-made cultural standards. You deny that these are objective standards in the sense that any propositional statement about the standard cannot be said to be objectively true or false, better or worse, right or wrong.

    However, it seems you’ve spent weeks trying to convince us otherwise. You’ve told us we are wrong (note the clear contradiction) when we have accused you of that.

    Okay, I give in. You can stop repeating yourself because we get it – at least I do. I get that you have certain preferences that you prefer but none of them are true, false, better, worse, right or wrong in any objective sense. As I said before, you don’t need to convince me or anyone that you prefer what you say you prefer. That’s rather obvious isn’t it? Stop beating this dead horse. Seriously.

  191. Stephen

    @ Robert 201. I don’t really see it has so individualistic. I am more convinced that we can’t really separate the individual from culture. Learning and belief formation do not occur in a isolated self, they involve an interaction with the public. Culture exerts its pressures to constrain and guide belief and knowledge.This is a Deweyian way of understanding belief and knowledge. Take science, the peer review, as an example. So individuals are responsible to community for what and why they believe, but not to a timeless, nonhuman entity. Some here have been dismissive of this third component that sits outside the subjective/objective split as it is discussed here. This, to me is at least what we can mean by the word “objective”.

  192. Stephen

    @SteveK

    The objective standard does not make disagreement impossible, it makes propositional statements about the standard objectively true or false.

    I see circularity in this response: that the objective standard makes propositional statements about the standard true or false. Beyond that problem, if the objective standard does not settle the disagreement, then something else must step in, in the end and establish what the truth of the matter is, thereby settling the disagreement, but what then is that, and what disagreement are we going to have over that. The only resolution to this I have sensed, is that, in the end an authority made to appear like a genie from a bottle, will step in and declare by fiat what the truth is.

    Okay, I give in. You can stop repeating yourself because we get it – at least I do. I get that you have certain preferences that you prefer but none of them are true, false, better, worse, right or wrong in any objective sense.

    Actually, this tells me you don’t get it yet. You seem to be attributing a preconceived notion of relativity at me that I don’t accept. You don’t seem to know that the word “true” doesn’t have to carry all of the weight you give it. So, for you, if the word isn’t used the way you conceive of it, then I must be saying there is no truth. It takes much more work than reading my comments in this forum.

  193. Stephen

    @Tom says I’m saying

    It’s my total intention here to try to get you to drop your morality and accept mine.

    Yet I said in #186

    Tom, that is just to say that what I am after isn’t to change your mind about specific topics (moral beliefs), but about your notion of “true” (Truth). So from that point of view, your comment, to me, is circular.

    I don’t see how either side of these debates can claim they are not interested in trying to change minds. Isn’t that the point of your website? As for the tone of that remark, I can only point to Freudian transference to explain that.

  194. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Well, of course I’m here to change minds. I’m trying to help people know the true one, Jesus Christ, and his goodness and love. I have a reason to try to change minds. You have imperialism.

  195. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Stephen, this is not circularity as you claim:

    that the objective standard makes propositional statements about the standard true or false.

    It’s just something that’s true; it’s a descriptive statement. If there is an objective standard, then propositions relating to that standard will be true or false with respect to the standard.

    Worse, though, you say,

    The only resolution to this I have sensed, is that, in the end an authority made to appear like a genie from a bottle, will step in and declare by fiat what the truth is.

    I think you could imagine better than that. Let me ask you if you would consider that there is another possible resolution:

    In the end — the end of our individual lives, or the end of history — the One who is from the beginning will appear, by his own decision. When he does we will know that reality has always reflected his nature, so that this is not some strange invasion like a genie from a bottle, but the truth being revealed for what it has always been.

    Will you grant that this is not an impossible resolution to the question you’ve been asking?

  196. SteveK

    I see circularity in this response: that the objective standard makes propositional statements about the standard true or false.

    It’s not circular at all. What makes the following propositional statement objectively true: “The red pen is on that desk”? What makes that proposition objectively true is if the red pen is actually on that desk. No genies necessary.

  197. Stephen

    Tom

    Will you grant that this is not an impossible resolution to the question you’ve been asking?

    Of course its “possible”. But, is it probable?

  198. Stephen

    SteveK: There is quite a difference between positing pens on desks, that we can see, and positing objective metaphysical standards that ground our beliefs. And the difference is exactly why I have used the word “metaphysical” in this discussion. Besides that your example with the pen is not a circular example.

    What makes your first statement circular is that you are using the thing in question to determine the truth of the thing.

  199. SteveK

    There is quite a difference between positing pens on desks, that we can see, and positing objective standards that ground our beliefs.

    This is a proposition. Explain how this belief is objectively true. If it’s not objectively true, then I’m free to believe it to be false without being wrong (or right).

  200. Robert

    @ Stephen #203

    So you’re basically saying “reality by collective opinion”.

    The scary part is you also state: “…so individuals are responsible to community for what and why they believe…”

    Never! I may have some responsibility of civil behaviour in a society but…

  201. SteveK

    Stephen

    What makes your first statement circular is that you are using the thing in question to determine the truth of the thing.

    Maybe my wording wasn’t entirely clear. Here’s what I said:

    The objective standard does not make disagreement impossible, it makes propositional statements about the standard objectively true or false.

    To further explain…I’m saying that a proposition about the objective standard either describes that standard in a way that is either accurate (true) or inaccurate (false). If there is no objective standard to describe, then my description isn’t describing anything in particular and cannot be said to be either accurate or inaccurate. Make sense?

    The objective standard for “red pen” is the extra-mental object itself. The proposition involves the metaphysical universal concepts of ‘red’ and ‘pen’ and the relationship between the two. Those universal concepts, put into a propositional statement, refer to the object.

    So what about moral propositions like “Kindness is a virtue”? The same criteria applies. If the universal concepts of ‘kindness’ and ‘virtue’ don’t refer to any extra-mental reality (doesn’t have to be physical) then my proposition isn’t referring to (or describing) anything extra-mental.

    Deny that universal moral concepts refer to any extra-mental reality and you will be unable to say that propositions using those concepts are objectively accurate or inaccurate (true or false). There’s no object. Everything about that proposition can only point back to the mind.

  202. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Stephen @209:

    Define “probable” in this context. Probable with respect to what space of possible options? That is, suppose the probability is 1/x. What kinds of possible realities would be included in x?

    Are you asking, “Is it probable that God would do this, if there is a God?” or are you asking, “Given what we know about nature, is it probable that there is a God behind it all?” They’re different questions with different answers.

    And they are tough questions. There’s actually a way to deal with this through Bayes’ theorem, though. Given my knowledge of the way the world is, and using Bayes’ equation, I would say yes, it is highly probable that God might do this.

  203. SteveK

    But, is it probable?

    I find the more relevant question to be, “am I justified in concluding it is actual?” Statistical answers aren’t good at answering non-statistical questions.

  204. SteveK

    As I understand him, Stephen’s argument is that metaphysical concepts like “evil” used in moral propositional statements refer to realities that mankind deemed to be “the standard”. There are obvious problems with that in my mind. See if you agree with any of this.

    The biggest problem I see involves the necessary extra-mental reality of the moral “ought” that is part of all moral systems. Any moral system that doesn’t include some form of “thou shalt not” is a system of suggestions, not requirements. Morality is about what ought to be, not what’s suggested to be. So far, so good?

    Why must the “ought” be an extra-mental reality? Because if the moral concept in your mind doesn’t refer to something beyond the concept itself, then what is the proposition “murder is evil” attempting to say or describe? What is the point of the term “is” in that statement? There would be no point to it.

    The proposition would be incoherent and/or self-refuting in my view. You’d be saying “murder IS this weird concept that I totally made up out of thin air, but can somehow be used in a proposition to accurately describe what murder IS”. That doesn’t work.

    Without that extra-mental reality, there is a disconnect between what the proposition is attempting to describe and the man-made “objective standard” that was created in his mind.

    But let’s consider the alternative for now. Suppose moral concepts in your mind refer to some extra-mental reality that man somehow created. There’s no such thing as an extra-mental “ought” in Stephen’s worldview. Where is it Stephen?

  205. Stephen

    @Robert So you’re basically saying “reality by collective opinion”.Reality? Are you referring now specifically to my example of science and peer review?

    so individuals are responsible to community for what and why they believe. Never!

    Certainly, if you believe in a God and that you are responsible to that God, then you would disagree. The idea of being responsible to society seems inadequate. The question keeps returning to the fundamental question of whether their actually IS something like that to be responsible to.

  206. Stephen

    @SteveK #211 I think you caught my post in between edits. Look at it again, I changed it, to clarify “and positing objective metaphysical standards”

  207. Stephen

    @Tom I think we need to begin with this

    “Given what we know about nature, is it probable that there is a God behind it all?”

    And we may want to put it this way. Given the way things go in the world, not just with humans, does it suggest that an all powerful, loving father is behind it all? Only if we hold to a double standard about our meaning for “loving father”.

  208. Stephen

    @Robert Looks like my quotes were incorrect in my last post to you. Should be:

    So you’re basically saying “reality by collective opinion”

    Reality? Are you referring now specifically to my example of science and peer review?

  209. Post
    Author
  210. Stephen

    @SteveK

    I find the more relevant question to be, “am I justified in concluding it is actual?” Statistical answers aren’t good at answering non-statistical questions.

    All scientific knowledge is inferential and therefore probabilistic in nature.

    I like the word “justified” but it doesn’t equate to certainty or proof. It just means you have reasons that generate at least a good deal of agreement with other human beings.

  211. Stephen

    @Steve #216

    Morality is about what ought to be, not what’s suggested to be. So far, so good?

    Are you saying that I think of morality as suggestions, not oughts? Can you point to the entry that misled you in this way? In lieu of that, let me just say that I don’t think that, I do believe that we can, as a society, say something is wrong. I just don’t think we need to ground that statement in some nonhuman, ahistorical, timeless entity (how many times do I have to explain that!). This idea just seems to fall outside of conceptual schemes and so I become the target of projection.

    What is the point of the term “is” in that statement? There would be no point to it.

    This is good question. If you read “general semantics”, you will find discussion about how the “is” of “identity” has been most troublesome to human conceptions. It is the language that conditions us to reify inordinately.

    There’s no such thing as an extra-mental “ought” in Stephen’s worldview.

    I’m not sure with extra-mental means. Do you mean something outside of nature that is there before humans arrived in the universe and would continue to be there after they vanish? If so, then yes, I deny that our moral frameworks rely on such entities.

  212. Stephen

    @tom I think you mean 217, not 218? Yes, it seems like everything proceeds from the answer to that question, so why do anything else? But that is also why I keep hammering away at it. I do consider a discussion of “objective moral standards” to be getting at the same fundamental, just different language.

  213. Melissa

    Steve K,

    Actually we can make is statements about things that don’t exist extra-mentally. These statements rely on shared concepts in the community, and I think this is what Stephen has in mind for his sense of morality.

    For example if I drew a drawing of a unicorn with two horns and five legs, someone could say that is not a unicorn. It would be a true statement based on a shared definition of what a unicorn is, and yet the unicorn has no extra-mental reality. The problem is that if we disagree on what a unicorn is we have no extra-mental data to fall back on to work out which definition is correct, whereas if I drew a cat with ten legs, you could, by reference to real cats, correctly state that my cat is defective because cats should have four legs.

    In the same way, given theism we can correctly state that humans should behave in certain ways, the extent to which they don’t tells us whether they are a good specimen of human being or not, of course it is much more difficult to determine correct behaviour as opposed to answering the question as to whether a cat should have ten legs but it is the same principle.

    Stephen on the other hand maintains that morality is more like the definition of a unicorn. In that case if we disagree, contrary to his contention throughout this thread, we have absolutely no basis on which to resolve the disagreement, ie. shared definitions without any extra-mental reality to them only help to resolve disagreements if all parties agree to the definitions. My question to Stephen would be to what are you appealing when you argue that your position is more accurate or better or however else you want to describe it.

  214. SteveK

    Hi Melissa,

    For example if I drew a drawing of a unicorn with two horns and five legs, someone could say that is not a unicorn. It would be a true statement based on a shared definition of what a unicorn is, and yet the unicorn has no extra-mental reality.

    I don’t think this counter example really is a counter example.

    I think you pointed this out in your comment, but I’ll summarize it again. Propositions involving shared definitions can only true or false with respect to the shared definition, not with respect to the imaginary concept. Your example about unicorns not having 5 legs isn’t a true proposition about imaginary unicorns (how could it be, they don’t exist!). It’s a true proposition about the *shared definition*. Not worth arguing over really.

    From what I can tell, Stephen is going beyond true propositions about shared definitions when it comes to morality. He’s attempting to connect his imaginary concepts to the lives of real people like you and I. I think you picked up on that with your question here.

    My question to Stephen would be to what are you appealing when you argue that your position is more accurate or better or however else you want to describe it.

    When Stephen uses words like these he is attempting to argue that some agreed-upon imaginary concepts are more correct or more accurate than other agreed-upon imaginary concepts. It’s kind of like arguing that “this unicorn is stronger than that bigfoot”.

    This agreed-upon make-believe stuff is all fun and games, except Stephen doesn’t think so. He thinks these agreed-upon imaginary concepts somehow apply to our very real lives. That is a key difference!

    Stephen is trying to convince others that it’s in their best interest to alter their life because everyone agreed that unicorns (morality) have an impact on your life. Humanity as a whole has agreed that societies that follow the unicorn thrive and are generally better off.

  215. SteveK

    Stephen,

    I’m not sure with extra-mental means

    It refers to something that is outside, or beyond, the mind.

  216. Melissa

    SteveK,

    I think you know that we are generally in agreement with respect to morality, my intent was just to acknowledge in what way we can make is statements about imaginary concepts (and to point out how that is inadequate with respect to moral disagreements.)

  217. Post
    Author
  218. SteveK

    Ahh, okay Melissa very good. Your comment gave me the opportunity to expand on what I already said so I do appreciate that.

  219. SteveK

    @223

    Are you saying that I think of morality as suggestions, not oughts?

    I’m not saying that about you so I wasn’t misreading you. I was just making a point about morality.

  220. SteveK

    @223

    Stephen,

    I do believe that we can, as a society, say something is wrong. I just don’t think we need to ground that statement in some nonhuman, ahistorical, timeless entity (how many times do I have to explain that!).

    I know you believe this. You don’t need to repeat it. I think I accurately summarized your idea in #226. I’ll summarize it again below in bullet point, with a question at the end.

    – You’re busy arguing over which shared definition of a concept that exists only in our mind is most accurate.

    – Since none of those shared definitions refer to an extra-mental reality, can any of them really be wrong? No.

    – Can being “wrong” have implications for your life? Again, no.

    – By analogy, you’re arguing that it’s really wrong to think unicorns have 5 legs instead of 4 legs because that incorrect “truth” will negatively impact your life.

    I’d like to understand how that negatively impacts your life. Can you explain that?

  221. G. Rodrigues

    @Stephen:

    All scientific knowledge is inferential and therefore probabilistic in nature.

    Wrong.

  222. SteveK

    @233,
    Wouldn’t Stephen’s statement imply that true knowledge is a matter of statistics — i.e. “Looking at all of our knowledge of evolution, 63% of it is true, 37% of it is not true”?

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