Sunday, May 04, 2008

Wrong Answer: Is this more Darwinist hyperbole?

L. Ron Brown at "The Frame Problem" responds to my recent pop quiz asking which comment was stupider, one by Ben Stein seemingly laying the blame for certain atrocities on "science" in the course of the chatter on Glen Beck's show or Richard Dawkins' carefully crafted comment that being raised Catholic might be as bad as being sexually abused by a priest.

Brown has picked Stein over Dawkins'. Yeah, I know. Big surprise.

Not only will I have to mark him wrong on the answer, but he wrote all these wild-eyed comments on the back of the test for which I will have to take away additional points. In my class, that's a big no no.

In one of these remarks, he makes the following statement:
There absolutely is good reason to suggest that raising a child Catholic (or of any other faith) can produce lasting negative consequences:

1. You are indoctrinating them into a belief system that after thousands of years still cannot be defended rationally. By indoctrinating them early on, one impedes their later ability to think honestly about the validity of the beliefs. [emphasis added]
Well, let's not be hasty here and conclude that a comment like this is not exactly evidence of a great deal of rational activity going on among critics of religion. Maybe we should first investigate exactly what he means here. Let's just put what I think he is saying in its baldest form:
Religious belief cannot be defended rationally.
Now what does he mean? Does he mean that in the last couple of thousands of years, there has never been a rational case made for religious belief? That, of course, is a historical claim that is demonstrably false. There have been plenty of arguments made for religious belief, and arguments, in case he didn't notice, are rational procedures. And then there is the fact that if the have been defended rationally, then, of course, they can be defended rationally.

Does he mean that the arguments made in favor of religious belief are not valid? Not a single, solitary one of them? There has never been an argument made in favor of religion over the last 2,000 years in which the conclusion followed as a valid deductive inference from the premises?

Maybe he would care to enlighten us on exactly what he means here. That might help dispel the impression that what we have on our hands here is more hyperbole from the Darwinists.

23 comments:

theframeproblem said...

My stance: A good argument for theism has NEVER been made. In all of these thousands of years it's been nothing but weak fall-at-the-reasoning-of-a-five-year-old argumentation that would leave any sensible person remarkably unsatisfied in any domain other than religion - a branch of consideration that our society has marked off as "special", not because there is a good reason to think it is, but because of the sheer popularity of intellectually vacuous religious dogmatism.

I have had a standing list of the pitfalls that every religious argument that I have ever heard has failed to pass successfully. Here is the link: http://theframeproblem.wordpress.com/2008/03/06/the-short-comings-of-every-theistic-argument-that-i-have-ever-heard-and-the-one-type-of-case-that-gives-me-some-pause/

Religious faith is faith for a reason: because there is no good reason to believe in the statements, so they must be taken on faith.

Lee said...

Mr. Frame: A simple question. Do you have moral standards? Apparently you do, because you pass moral judgments -- "sensible person", "intellectually vacuous". I'm presuming of course that you believe there is something morally objectionable to not being a sensible person, or being someone who is intellectually vacuous. If the presumption is wrong, please enlighten me.

But if you do have moral standards, please explain where they came from. Then, once you have done that, explain why they should apply to anyone but you -- that is, what makes them transcendant?

If you can do that, then one more thing: explain how morality that somehow transcends humanity could be a mere invention of humanity, which ultimately originated from the random collisions of particles.

Martin Cothran said...

Well, the first thing to note is that you have backtracked from your original assertion. You said before that a religion "cannot be defended rationally". That is a very different thing than saying that argument is not "good" (although I'm still not clear on what you mean by "good" in the context of argument). It is also different from saying that it defenses of a religion fall into pits.

Secondly, to say that every argument for religious belief is "nothing but weak fall-at-the-reasoning-of-a-five-year-old argumentation" looks itself suspiciously like weak reasoning. Are you seriously saying that Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, Pascal, Duns Scotus, G. K. Chesterton, or C. S. Lewis never made an argument more impressive than the reasoning of a five year old? I know of no serious atheist philosopher who would say this.

You say that you have this list of pitfalls that every religious argument you have ever seen (and how are we supposed to know how comprehensive your experience with religious arguments is?), one of which is "Arguments from personal religious experience."

And yet you say this in the very same post: "In my experience, though, I have had no experiences and have heard no arguments that seem to justify an intellectually honest and rational belief in God." But if we are not supposed to be impressed with arguments from personal religious experience (like the ones you criticize), then why should we be impressed by arguments from personal non-religious experience (like the one you used)?

Do you think that just waving your hand and saying that you haven't seen any arguments that intellectually satisfy you is something that others should find persuasive? I would suggest that if you are trying to convince other people that the arguments you criticize are intellectually unsophisticated, that is it probably not a good idea to use an intellectually unsophisticated argument as a means to do it.

Motheral said...

Does he mean that in the last couple of thousands of years, there has never been a rational case made for religious belief? That, of course, is a historical claim that is demonstrably false.

Really? So why don't you demonstrate it already? What specific arguments are you referring to?

There have been plenty of arguments made for religious belief, and arguments, in case he didn't notice, are rational procedures.

Not all arguments are rational. Falling back on such word-games as this makes you look really pathetic.

Lee said...

Same questions to you, motheral. Do you believe in a moral code that transcends humanity? If so, how did it become transcendent when it, like man himself, is the product of random particle collisions with no meaning and purpose?

If you don't, if morality is a mere conceit, then why the tone of moral indignation? There would be no such thing as an objective right and wrong. There are only things that motheral likes, and things that motheral dislikes, and there things that lee likes, and things that lee dislikes.

I'm not going so far as to say objective truth could not exist, but objective morality certainly could not. Not even Darwinism can help us with that one. The Darwinian imperative is to survive, but even Darwin doesn't explain why any one species ought to survive.

I have met many atheists who claim to have a code of moral indignation, but I haven't met very many who live as if they believe their own dogma. The ones I have met tend to be good moral people. The mystery is, why bother?

theframeproblem said...

First, thanks to Motheral for understanding my message as intended.

I'll respond first to Lee:

Your argument is an argument from ignorance. You're hoping that I will not be able to provide definitive answers to your questions, and therefore you have successfully argued for God. In order to allow to understand what it is like for me to read what you just wrote, allow me to make a parallel:

Firstly, lets pretend that we live in a modern day African tribe that does not have access to modern science and that believe that their day-to-day fortune is determined or strongly influenced by spirits and demons that float around their village and reward and punish them for their good and bad moral deeds. This is a realistic scenario because such tribes do exist today in Africa.

Now, lets also say that you are one of the only skeptics in the village. You are completely unimpressed by the evidence you've seen for the reality of these spirits and demons.

Next, lets say that a bolt of lightening strikes a villager dead. The widespread interpretation of this event is that this villager was being punished by demons for moral transgressions. You, however, are incredulous and think to yourself "What is the evidence of that?". In answer to your doubts, a villager comes up to you and says "Well okay, smart guy, if it wasn't demons that did it, then what was it?". Would your inability to give this person a reasoned alternative (recall that you do not have access to scientific findings on this matter) be any argument at all for the reality of the demon theory? Of course not. Please appreciate this and how an argument from ignorance is not an argument at all for any claim that is not backed by positive evidence (i.e., evidence for God that is not simply an argument from ignorance or a criticism of a rival theory).

However, I actually can give some decent account regarding morality. Morality very much seems to be an evolved phenomenon. Rudiments of human morality has been found in animals. A few examples:

* Mice will forego food once they realize that by eating that food another mice that they have no relationship with is subjected to electric shock;
* If an animal is observing 2 other animals, one of which is receiving lots of wonderful food and the other is simply receiving scraps, if they observer has extra food, it will give it to the animal that had been receiving scraps.

There is also definitive evidence from animal research that many animals understand social relations and relevant social responsibilities. In one study on a pack of primates, a recording of an infant primate's cry was played. The variable of interest: what does the collection of mother primates do? The reaction was for the mothers who were not the mother of this particular primate to all look at the mother of the primate - presumably expecting it to act in response to hearing the cry of its infant. This is clear evidence of an understanding of social relations and relevant responsibilities.

Next, the cognitive neuroscience of morality. You will be very interested to learn about mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are neurons that fire not only when an individual engages in a particular action or intention, but also when another individual engages in that action/intention. Found in humans, primates and even songbirds, these mirror neurons are touted in cognitive science to be a key cognitive neurological substrate to empathy. They presumably play a key role in understanding the minds of others, feelings of morality, and social learning (e.g., language acquisition).

How does morality come from particles? This really is the question of how does mind come from matter. I have written on this before. I have entertained two schools of thought: emergentism and false dichotomy.

Emergentism suggests that the mental emerged from the physical once the physical took a particular type of configuration. This may sound like some sort of cheap intellectual cop-out, but it really isn't. Emergentism has been observed elsewhere. For instance, consider economics. The mere facts of individual self-interest within a closed system of finite resources leads to emergent patterned economic systems, whether or not the individual citizens are aware of it or not. Emergent society-wide economic systems from individuals only concerned about themselves and, at most, their close kin, is an example of emergence.

Conway's game of life, which you can look up on Google, is a simple computer example of how simple beginnings and a few simple rules (genetic algorithms) can give rise to complex emergent patterns.

And then, and this last one will probably not convince you as if it did we probably wouldn't be having this debate in the first place, is life from non-life. I won't get into this, though, because I've already given good examples and chances are you won't buy this and it will just create another debate which I suspect neither of us has the time to get into.

Emergentism is a perspective that's been around a while. The second, false dichotomy, is something that I developed myself - though I would be very very surprised if others hadn't also thought of it.

The false dichomoty position is this: our dichotomization of mind and matter is objectively false.

Arguments:

Firstly, mind and matter CANNOT be fully distinct from each other for the obvious reason that they interact with one another. If the two were completely distinct, they could not interact, but clearly they do. Mental states affect our physical behaviour (e.g., desires and beliefs leading to behaviours), and physical events affect our mental states (e.g., a ball hitting a person results in the mental state of pain). That the two interact means that they must share a plane upon which they both exist and can interact.

Secondly, humans hallucinate false dichotomies elsewhere. Consider the colour spectrum. We see qualitatively distinct colours - red, orange, blue, etc. We see categorical differences between them. The difference between blue and red or green is seen as more striking and categorical than the difference between lighter and darker shades of blue. We have colour categories. But are these colour categories real? Apparently not. These colours seem to exist along a continuum that we call the light spectrum. We hallucinate sharp discontinuities where there are none. If there is a 30 nanometre shifting of light within the red spectrum, the *perceived* difference will be considerably less than the perceived difference if the shift had occurred at a colour boundary. Our cognitive systems are creating categories where in reality its just a continuum of light.

This is also observed in auditory phonetics (how we hear speech sounds). The phonemes (speech sounds) of /p/ and /b/ are next to each other on the phoneme spectrum. It has been found that one can shift the soundwaves within a phoneme category range and listeners will not hear a difference. But if soundwaves are altered by the same or even a smaller amount but the sound-shift occurs across a phoneme category border (from /p/ --> /b/, rather than within the /p/ or /b/ ranges, respectively), people will here a sharp difference.

It makes sense that humans hallucinate discontinuities, as we do not have infinite minds and so cannot possibly compute the infinite spectra of information we are constantly bombarded with. We have to cut the infinite into chunks which our finite brains can handle.

Thus far what has been established? Firstly, mind and matter MUST share a common plane on which to interact because they do interact. Secondly, humans hallucinate discontinuities in various branches of cognition. From this, one can reason that it is entirely possible that our dichotomy between the mental and the physical could simply be a misrepresentation of our imperfect cognitive systems.

theframeproblem said...

Lee:

I will also add that one does not need a God to tell them what is right and wrong in order for one to perceive certain things as being right or wrong, to be strongly motivated to defend their morality, to be disgusted by transgressions, and for there to be overlap among people with regard to moral sensibilities.

Few of us want to be hurt, want to be lied to, want to be betrayed. Few of us want to live in a society where these sorts of things are condoned. It would create anxiety in individuals and chaos in society. Thus, it becomes largely a winning solution for people to collaborate with each other to support their shared views on morality and social stability.

Further, the fact that we have a cognitive neurological basis for empathy allows us to literally feel the pain of others - particularly when they're close by. This ability for empathy is another source of motivation to act morally and defend morality as we experience it.

There is no objective evidence for a morality that transcends humanity. But this does not mean that we have no reason to act in ways that are pro-social.

Martin:

I never changed my position, we just had different understandings of what I was saying. My intention was always that good arguments have not been formed - not that arguments within the sphere of rational discourse that are not good could be formed.

Next, name-dropping is not an argument for your beliefs. You can rhyme off people like Aquinas, but that does not constitute a valid argument. It's just an argument from authority. How about making an argument?

Lastly, I do not rely on my lack of religious experience as my argument against God. I gave a wide array of arguments and the fact that you latched onto that one while completely ignoring the rest is highly suspect. My argument regarding personal experience, whether it be an actual experience or a lack of one as in my case (I should also note here that until age 19.5 I did to some degree or other believe in the Christian God, at some points quite seriously), is that such experience itself is not a compelling argument.

Lee said...

Frankly, frame, I don't understand what all that talk of natives and demon had to do with the questions I asked. I asked if believe in moral standards, and if so where they come from, and if not, why behave as if there are any?

And the question goes further than explaining how morality could have "evolved". That's fine, I get it. The real question is, why does such a morality hold any authority?

When the "evolved" morality, which does not transcend humans, it, like humans, is merely a product of pointless particle collisions. If it is, then it isn't any greater than I am, or you are, or Ted Bundy was. By what authority, then, ought one to instruct Mr. Bundy that he ought to forego the pleasure (or whatever sensation) he got from killing young women and do what is right?

Because not killing is "right"? Because it is "just"? Because of "emergentism"? What reason do you give him that he can find morally compelling?

I think the best argument you can come up with is, look, I don't like it when you kill women, and these other folks here agree with me, and if you do it, we'll kill you, and how do you like them apples?

But then, there is no such thing as a moral imperative, is there? There is only a world of competing preferences.

You say, "...one does not need a God to tell them what is right and wrong in order for one to perceive certain things as being right or wrong, to be strongly motivated to defend their morality, to be disgusted by transgressions, and for there to be overlap among people with regard to moral sensibilities." All very nice, if somewhat question-begging. (After all, if God exists, He is telling you what is right and wrong even if you aren't prone to listen.) But the real question is, what distinguishes such "moral sensibilities" in such a way that folks who are not inclined to pay attention to your ideas of morality are somehow obliged to listen?

You say, "Few of us want to be hurt, want to be lied to, want to be betrayed. Few of us want to live in a society where these sorts of things are condoned." Well, few of us want these things, granted. I think the one thing humanity tends to agree on is, "I am numero uno," and they don't want you doing those things *to* *them*. But that won't stop them from doing those same things to others when they find it convenient. If they can get away with it, then who's to say they aren't better off for it? What standard can you hold over them and say, "Look! Heed! You are morally obligated to do so!" What do we tell those who are not empathetic and have no desire to act in a "pro-social" manner? That they should? Why? If we can't point to a morality greater than they are, then why shouldn't they do exactly what they want, and simply work harder at getting away with it?

And by what standard do you judge them? Apart from, "I don't like what they're doing," I mean.

Lee said...

Sorry, I garbled this:

> "When the "evolved" morality, which does not transcend humans, it, like humans, is merely a product of pointless particle collisions."

Amend to: If morality "evolved" like humans, then it does not transcend humans, as it too is merely a product of pointless particle collisions.

That's not the only syntactical/grammatical error I made, it's just the one I can't leave unamended. :-) It's what I get for being a two-pass compiler but posting it after one pass.

theframeproblem said...

Lee:

Your points about the apparent need for a transcendent morality is what I have termed an "argument from convenience", and it really does not work. I call it an argument from convenience because it is basically arguing for God on the grounds that it would be convenient if not necessary for humans to have a morality greater than them in the interest of a stable society and one in which there were certain rules that were above mere human sensibilities. As nice as it would be to have some sort of transcendent ultimate code that had humankind's best interests in mind (and was based on ultimate wisdom), there is no evidence of us there being such a luxury.

There is no evidence of there being something greater than humanity that we do or should abide by. Further, how could there be evidence of this? How would we know an objective morality from a more humanistic morality?

On what grounds would you say that such an objective morality does actually exist? You can't point to human consensus for a few reasons. Firstly, there have been exceptions to the rule - e.g., serial killers. Secondly, even if there was a consensus, that wouldn't be strong evidence for something that transcends humanity, as it could just be evidence of a commonly held subjective experience shared by humans as a function of the fact that we have all evolved in a highly similar environment and we're all functioning now in a highly similar environment.

Regarding the natives, spirits and demons: The relevance was quite clear, I think. You asked me where our morals come from, presumably because I was supposed to not be able to come up with a good answer. However, even if I weren't able to offer you anything of value, that wouldn't make God any better of an option anymore than a native's inability to explain why lightening struck one of their fellows makes the idea that an angry demon caused it any more viable.

An argument from ignorance - e.g., pointing out something mysterious and saying that since we cannot thinking of any explanations God must have done it - is an intellectual cop-out and among the lowest of the low in religious apologetics, for they can be applied with equal felicity to an infinite range of mutually incompatible supernatural speculations.

Lee said...

Frame, before saying I am arguing from ignorance or from convenience, it might help if you wait until I have made an argument. So far, I have been trying to get your views on the nature of morality.

Because, you see, if ultimately you do not believe there is a transcendant morality, then it follows that some of your statements should not pack quite the punch you may have intended.

For example, what standard is it that insists that we only accept arguments that are, e.g., "sensible", not "intellectually vacuous"? Why the demand for "evidence" in the first place? Is it somehow morally derelict to make arguments without evidence? If not, then why does it trouble you when you perceive that it's being done? Why waste any time trying to convince others to see the errors of their way? Molecules clanged around in the cosmos for millions of years before you or I got here, right? And they'll clang around for millions more after we're gone, right? So what moral difference does it make to you or anyone, if morality is just something that is not transcendent?

> How would we know an objective morality from a more humanistic morality?

I would ask, why do people seem to crave justice? Whether or not it exists, I mean. There appears to be an appetite for it. It's hard to get away from it, even in the writings of atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens -- who, of all people, should know better than to moralize, given the humble origins of morality as the results of trillions pointless particle collisions.

What other appetites do we have for which nothing exists to sate them? We crave food, food exists. We crave water, water exists. We crave sex, sex exists. We crave companionship, companionship exists.

We crave justice, but justice does not exist?

Exactly how does that happen?

You say, "An argument from ignorance - e.g., pointing out something mysterious and saying that since we cannot thinking of any explanations God must have done it - is an intellectual cop-out and among the lowest of the low in religious apologetics, for they can be applied with equal felicity to an infinite range of mutually incompatible supernatural speculations."

"Lowest of the low?" By what standard? Does that follow from some sort of immutable moral truth? Or is it simply frame's personal preference? Why ought I pay any attention to your evaluation? And if I should, does that mean that every time I face a moral issue, I have to come back and ask you whay it is I should do? Or is there some independent standard higher than both of us?

You speak as if you do have moral standards, and as if they ought to apply not just to yourself, but to others around you. But if morals are simply preferences, you need to quit borrowing from my world view to lecture anyone about them. "Lower than low" has no meaning unless there is something higher than high. I believe there is such a thing as higher than high; you don't.

theframeproblem said...

Lee:

Firstly, morality is separate from truth claims. Whether or not there is an objective morality, and whether or not I can give you a compelling reason to be moral as I or anyone else would conceive of it, either you present rational evidentially-based arguments for your belief or you don't. My construal of rationality, by the way, is to have beliefs and confidence in one's beliefs that match the evidence. This is separate from the issue of whether I think people *should* be rational or whether I *should* encourage them to be so.

As for why be moral without some transcendent authority, well that's a good question because we're going to need to answer it because there is no evidence of such an authority. The only reason I can really give is because individuals and societies would hopefully want others to treat them the way that they would want to be treated, and to act in ways that are conducive of a society that acts in similar accordance with the golden rule.

I can't give you some transcendent reason as to why people *should* behave this way that they couldn't find a way out of - e.g., "why should I care about the feelings of others?" Any response I would give would be a moral claim, but not some claim that is bigger than me or bigger than humanity.

Next, as to the hunger for food, water, sex, and morality thing. What makes you think that morality needs to fit within this schema? On what grounds do you say that just because these other types of appetites are satisfied by something "out there", that morality need be? And who says we're hungry for morality? Maybe we're just hungry for a sense of security and safety for ourselves and others. Where's our morality when we are existing in a power relationship in which we have far greater power than another party? How many of us are starving for morality with respect to animals or to people in the third world or for the homeless guy on the street?

Next, have you even considered yet the cognitive evolutionary perspective? There are very reasonable theses as to the existence of what we call morality. Again, mirror neurons. Mirror neurons allow us to experience by way of internal simulation what we witness others experiencing/doing/intending. Because our brains are wired such that our emotional neural centres link up with the neural centres that encode for experiences/actions/intentions, we can feel emotion in response to the experiences of others that in part resemble the experiences that we ourselves feel. Greater emotional impact is experienced as we move closer to the victim and perceive the victim to be more like us.

As I mentioned above, rudiments of human morality have been observed in other species such as mice and primates.

There is very good evolutionary reasoning regarding factors that could encourage the propagation of cognitive factors that increase our sense of empathy. Our ancestors travelled in familial packs. If one feels empathy for and an interest in the well-being of others in one's pack they increase the likelihood of the social relations within the pack being stable and they increase their likelihood of engaging in altruism, which though destructive to the individual, can be very beneficial to the passing along of its genes as many of its genes are also possessed by other pack-members.

As for lower than low with respect to arguments from ignorance, I made the claim not on a moral scale, but on an intellectual scale. Arguments from ignorance are extremely weak when it comes to defending a truth claim.

As to why I have moral standards that I apply to others, I would attribute this to being the result of an interaction of my cognitive nature (e.g., the cognitive architecture underlying social cognition) and to my cultural upbringing.

Now, lets have you give some real evidence for your or any God/moral authority.

theframeproblem said...

Brief addition:

Regarding my comments on safety and stability:

* When I said safety and stability for ourselves and others, the others I was referring to is not simply *everybody equally*. We surely care more about some people than others. This desire can be based on selfishness (wanting ourselves and those who are in our lives to be safe for our own sakes) and based on empathy (being able to empathically experience pain and not wishing it upon others and wishing that no one should have to go through it - a compassionate wish).

* It's true that we do strongly strongly STRONGLY desire to have and expect safety and stability in our lives. We go to great lengths in pursuit of such security and feel terrible anxiety when it is threatened. But what assurance do we have that such security is available in a way that can be counted on? As history has shown, at any given moment a person's safety, stability and security (or lack there of) can be radically flipped - e.g., a natural disaster, political event, the death of the family breadwinner, the winning of a lottery, a runaway bride, etc.

Our sense of dependable safety, stability and security is something that we struggle over or are persistently at a moment's notice of struggling over every moment of our lives, and it is anything but assured to us by our physical or social environment.

Lee said...

Yes, frame, I agree that truth claims are different than morality. But you do more than claim truth, or so I judge. You cannot seem to resist casting stones of opprobrium at someone when they disagree with you. Assuming that what I am detecting is real, that can only come from someone who feels as if he is grabbing the high moral ground. A computer can tell you it's right or wrong, and that's just what you get. But computers don't say things like:

"...it's nothing but weak fall-at-the-reasoning-of-a-five-year-old argumentation..."

"...the lowest of the low..."

Also, computers don't attack what is (for you) the scourge of theism. You seem to devote a lot of time correcting the canaille about the nature of truth. Why do you do that? Is it recreational? Or do you think you're serving some higher, i.e., moral purpose? And now we're back to square one. Why do you waste the effort?

In the cosmos according to frame, I think we can intuit the following moral principle:

"It is good to be correct."
"It is good to be intellectually sound."

Computers don't sneer at opposing arguments; they just correct them.

So, if I'm correct about the morality of frame, what I'm looking for is some sort of transcendent set of values by which the frame morality is the true standard.

In history, even some atheists, by the way, agree with what I'm saying now, that nihilism follows from atheism. They believe we're no more than chemical reactions, and therefore (I'm indebted to Doug Wilson for many things, but especially this) to say we're arguing is to say that a fizzing can of Coke is arguing with a fizzing can of Dr. Pepper.

> "My construal of rationality, by the way, is to have beliefs and confidence in one's beliefs that match the evidence."

I am asking, what is it about matching the evidence that makes it a good thing to do?

> "As for why be moral without some transcendent authority, well that's a good question because we're going to need to answer it because there is no evidence of such an authority."

Why is there a need to answer a question that has no meaning? If there is no evidence of an authority, how can we take an pretensions of morality seriously? Of course, we can pose as moral arbiters as a method of getting the canaille to do what we prefer, but the pose would be hollow, would it not?

As for posing a proof that absolute moral authority exists, aside from my modest question, still posed, "How can there be an appetite for something when there exists nothing to sate it?" I really have offered nothing, granted (which was why I was surprised when you kept accusing me of making 'arguments from ignorance'). So far, I think the more interesting phenomenon is to ask you, why do you subscribe to some sense of moral authority if ultimately you don't believe one really exists?

As for as your arguments of morality from evolution and particle dynamics are concerned, all very fascinating. They may explain why morality exists. They cannot explain why we ought to invest it with any authority.

I'm not saying that all atheists, or most atheists, are sociopaths. I'm only making the far more modest claim that to be a sociopath follows from their premises. If no moral authority can legitimately command someone, there is no right or wrong. There is only what I can get away with, and what I can't; what I like, and what I don't like.

I think you believe in a moral standard, a set of higher truths, if you will. You don't need me to prove you're wrong. Pardon my boldness, but you need to figure out why you bother with it.

Martin Cothran said...

Motheral,

Any argument is a rational case. You may question whether the logic is valid or the premises are true, but is "rational" in the broad sense nonetheless. It is a rational claim. Any of the classical arguments for the existence of God would fit in that category.

I was simply trying to clarify what frame's claim was.

You also asserted that "Not all arguments are rational." That depends on what you mean by "rational". Do you mean valid? Do you mean sound? Or do you mean rational as opposed to interrogative or something else.

I'm sorry if you consider the attempt to actually understand what someone else is saying as "pathetic". Maybe if you tried to understand what other people were saying occasionally, you wouldn't feel the need to insult people all the time.

But I think that will come with maturity.

theframeproblem said...

Lee:

Firstly, it's not about people disagreeing with me that leads me to cast stones. It's people stubbornly holding beliefs without good reason and nevertheless demanding respect for their unsubstantiated beliefs and whining about persecution when they don't get this undeserved intellectual respect.

Next, statements like the "fall to the reasoning of a 5 year old" and "lowest of the low" were not moral derisions, but intellectual derisions. They're both stating that the line of argumentation was excessively weak - moral or not. "Lowest of the low" could easily be substituted with "weakest of the weak".

As for your question of what makes rationality a good thing, that was not the issue for me. People are claiming that ID is a valid, rational perspective and are demanding intellectual respect for it, so I'm challenging them on this on rational grounds. (Note: I'm not misunderstanding or attempting to avoid your issue that I view certain things as being morally good - I'm gonna get to that below).

Next, you seem to think that morality has no meaning without a moral absolute. Do you have any sense of compassion? Do you need someone to tell you that it is objectively wrong to stab a 4 year old in order for you to not feel repulsed by this potential act? Is empathy not good enough for you? Is the desire to do your part in helping to maintain a safe and stable society not good enough for you?

Next, nihilism does not necessarily follow from atheism. Do you think that people are so inept as to not be able to establish their own meaning in life, that they need to have it offered to them by an external agent? Do you think that people are so morally bereft that unless some God is there, there is no other reason for them to not want to go on killing and raping sprees and not want to do things that would make society a dangerous place?

Brief interlude: Thank you for clarifying your position extra clearly this time. I have no more fully differentiated it from being an argument for God. I see now more clearly that really it's about why morality in any sense should be followed as if it were authoritative, and why I bother with things. Continuing...

One more set of comments relating to nihilism/sociopathy/moral-indifference stemming from lack of an objective moral authority. Look, when it comes right down to it, I truly cannot say that there is some objective reason for you to not come and stab me for no good reason (other than perhaps that I have annoyed you in this argument - or perhaps just for the fun of it). I can't give you some incontrovertible objective transcendent reason. As I have argued, I don't think you or anyone else can, either. One of the naive assumptions that comes with theism is that this universe was made with us in mind. That our most important needs (including the need for an objective undeniable moral standard) will necessarily be here for us. I argue that there is no evidence for this.

So why be good? The only answers I can give are empathy and institutionalized empathy and social prudence (which really boils down to might=right). Ideally, everyone would have a high sense of empathy and be very mindful and thoughtful, and would make the strongest efforts to do onto others as they'd have done onto themselves, and would feel genuinely regretful and make efforts at amends to others when they failed to do this. This ideal world is not real, though.

We also have social laws which emerge from negotiation among people of values that overlap only incompletely. These social laws will tend to cover such things as "don't kill" and so forth, but really, they're a matter of might=right, whether the might be a matter of democratic popularity or militarist power. As just mentioned, in an ideal world, we have the type of person I mentioned above and these would be the people who would make the laws - though, if we had a population of idealistic people, these laws wouldn't even be necessary as people would automatically abide by them anyway.

So, as to "why be good?", all I can offer - and I argue, all any of us can honestly and reasonably offer - is the genuine sense of consideration for the well-being of others that comes from the empathic position entailed by the golden rule. It's a tough world full of mystery, hardships, struggles, and happinesses and successes. We all have to deal with it. Ideally, a high level of empathy and mindfulness would be the case.

As to why I bother with the things I bother with: they matter to me. Rationality, intellectual honesty, having a stable society in which people can negotiate with openness and honesty and without the biases brought on by attachment (e.g., to beliefs, possessions, status, etc.) and so on matter to me. Why do they matter to me? Who knows. I have always valued intelligence - my mother and grandmother always nurtured it in me - which led me to hang out with others who did, too, to go to university and get very involved in the intellectual culture, and to hold myself to the highest standards with regard to intellectual honesty, rationality and intellectual fairness (e.g., the respect given to beliefs corresponding to the evidence supporting the beliefs). I view it as being a matter of dishonesty and political might triumphing over honesty and rationality when I see dogmatism taking a front seat to intellectual honesty. I place a high value on honesty and reason, and dogmatism (religious or otherwise) is in conflict with these values.

Why be honest and reasonable? How else can we trust each other? How else can we live in a stable and safe society? How else can we expect to be able to successfully negotiate with our words rather than our guns? If ever there were core ingredients to an ethical, stable and safe society, they would have to include first and foremost a genuine respect for the well-being of others (a la the golden rule), honesty and reason.
What is, in a way, transcendent about these qualities is that they prioritize the whole of humanity and, when fully applied, the whole of all consciousness (including animals') over one's own personal interests. In the interests of empathy/compassion/fairness, honesty, and reason, one will sometimes have to put what would be most gratifying to them self secondary to considerations of the greater good - i.e., an ethical society that one can trust and be trusted within.

Martin Cothran said...

Frame,

You start your last post admitting that no objective or absolute universal standards of morality exist and then you end it appealing to universal moral standards. Lee keeps asking you how you can justify doing it and your only response is to keep doing it.

This is just the kind of reasoning that Nietzsche, a consistent atheist, despised, and he despised it precisely because he thought it was intellectually dishonest. He sarcastically called people who did this "Englishmen," because this is exactly what the English Victorians were doing: eradicating the foundation of morality and pretending it didn't matter.

It is rather ironic that you would be keeping philosophical company with the Victorians, isn't it?

You keep attacking moral systems that are examples of what Nietzsche called "weak morality", and then turning right around and creating your own. At least people like Nietzsche and Jean Paul Sartre were consistent in their atheism--they knew you either accepted religion and morality or rejected both.

The further irony here is that in the very same breath as you refuse to take your own beliefs to their logical conclusion, you accuse others of being intellectually dishonest.

theframeproblem said...

Martin:

I can't believe I have to explain this again - and this, by the way - will be my very last post on your dishonestly run blog. I admit there is no evidence for an objective morality quite clearly. I admit that there is objective undeniable standard which one can refer to and say "you shouldn't do X because". I admit all of this.

In my position, I explain why humans experience moral sentiments - cognitive evolution, mirror neurons.

I admit that all I can hope for is that people will apply the golden rule out of a genuine concern for the well-being of others and society. The transcendent aspect is that morality refers to one giving honest consideration to their own feelings and those of others and society and this often means having to put the interests of the person and with consideration for the wellbeing of others - individuals, groups and society as a whole - over one's own. I have not said that this is transcendent in a bigger-than-human sense. I think I was pretty clear in saying that it is transcendent in that it involves considering not just one's own interests, but those of others and all of humanity.

I can make no appeals to ultimate authority. I can only appeal to compassion.

I've done nothing dishonest.

Nihilism may perhaps be justifiable by atheism in the sense that if one is so emotionally cold that they don't care about the feelings of others, there would be nothing else but fear or lack of interest stopping them from doing terrible things. But atheism does not in anyway require this sort of stance. Atheism can absolutely be combined with compassion.

Now feel free to not address my points, to inexcusably misrepresent what I've just said, to quote a particular sentence I've said in one of your future posts if it fits the image of "Darwinists" (a dishonest term) that you would like to help perpetuate, and to refer to me pejoratively in your responses. In other words, continue to act in a very unChristian manner as you've been doing throughout.

theframeproblem said...

Correction: I meant to say in the first paragraph that I admit that there is no evidence for an objective undeniable moral standard.

Lee: As I mentioned in a comment in another thread, I have decided to no longer comment in this blog because the host has shown a systematic lack of integrity and honesty. He has continued to misrepresent my positions, to ignore my arguments which refute his while continuing to make more posts toting the same arguments as if he had never been refuted (and even quoting me from the same comment in which I refuted him, but quoting a different part of the post), and further has shown no shame in nor any sense of duty to be honest and ethical in his writing. I have no interest in engaging a person who does not want to be honest.

What's amazing is that he's the Christian and in many ways, I'm acting far more Christian-like than him by at least being honest and considerate to those whom I'm discussing with by acknowledging their arguments, responding to them, and representing them appropriately.

The exception being when I represented your questions regarding my reasons for morality and action as an argument for the existence of God - which is what I had honestly interpreted your underlying intention to be.

Lee said...

Frame,

You wrote, "Firstly, it's not about people disagreeing with me that leads me to cast stones. It's people stubbornly holding beliefs without good reason and nevertheless demanding respect for their unsubstantiated beliefs and whining about persecution when they don't get this undeserved intellectual respect."

Well, now I think at least we're getting to the heart of the matter. We all seem to hold stubbornly to unsubstantiated beliefs. You, too. Else, why ought someone, as you implore, have empathy for another being just because one may feel emotionally justified in doing so? You apparently believe that to be a good thing, yet it is not something you can substantiate. Someone may or may not behave in the compassionate manner that you approve of; all I'm asking is that you come up with a reason, not a sentiment, why he ought to do so.

> "Next, you seem to think that morality has no meaning without a moral absolute."

If morality doesn't transcend humanity, how can it claim authority? If it's the product of random particle collisions like us, it is on our level. In fact, if anything, it is below us, since it is our invention.

> "Do you have any sense of compassion?"

I think I do, in various amounts and under certain conditions, probably much like you. But that's beside the point, I think. We're looking for a morality that is not an "unsubstantiated belief", aren't we? How much compassion I happen to *feel* isn't relevant if I only need to believe in those things I can prove. Or am I supposed to believe in more than just what I can prove?

> "Do you need someone to tell you that it is objectively wrong to stab a 4 year old in order for you to not feel repulsed by this potential act?"

Some people do. In fact, some people enjoy doing unspeakable things to young children, to judge at least from the newspaper accounts. What do you tell such people? That they ought to have compassion? Why ought they? Can you give them a reason that is substantiated?

> "Do you think that people are so morally bereft that unless some God is there, there is no other reason for them to not want to go on killing and raping sprees and not want to do things that would make society a dangerous place?"

Some people are wired just like that. What reason do you give them not to do it?

> "Is empathy not good enough for you?"

Should it be?

> "Is the desire to do your part in helping to maintain a safe and stable society not good enough for you?"

You're preaching to the choir. What do you tell those who think it's their job to tear society apart? A lot of people, for example, suffered in Cambodia, but for every person who was murdered, there was someone who enjoyed being a murderer. Sociopaths exist. If you explain the concept of "compassion", they'll either laugh or tell you why it doesn't apply against running dog capitalists, or Jews, or Hutus, or whomever.

> "Next, nihilism does not necessarily follow from atheism."

I think it does, yes, and I think I have explained why: because purposeless particle clanging does not beget transcendent morality. And I have been asking you for reasons why it doesn't. But I haven't received a reason, yet, just talk about empathy and compassion. I'm not scoffing at empathy and compassion, mind you, I'm only asking what reason do we have to pay any attention to it? Perhaps it's just a weakness. That's what Stalin thought, after all. I think Stalin understood the world in exactly the terms I've been talking about. Life under Stalin wasn't much fun for millions of folks, but Stalin had a pretty good time of it, I think. How would you convince him that his atheism led him in the wrong direction? Go ahead. Address Stalin. Tell one of history's richest, most powerful leaders, whose slightest whim was a sacred order to an entire nation, why he was wrong to behave as he did, and explain it from the perspective that morality crawled out of a primordial mud puddle.

> "Do you think that people are so inept as to not be able to establish their own meaning in life, that they need to have it offered to them by an external agent?"

Somewhat question-begging. If God exists, of course, that is precisely true: life's true meaning is provided by Him. If He doesn't, then, well, maybe for some people, being compassionate and empathetic has meaning, and for others, cruelty and avarice has meaning, and we're just the result of a giant particle milkshake anyway, and who's to say which one is right?

> "So why be good? The only answers I can give are empathy and institutionalized empathy and social prudence (which really boils down to might=right)."

Yep. And sometimes might says it's okay to murder an entire race of people. And sometimes might says it's okay to enslave an entire continent full of people. In fact, it's required. What do you tell them? Give them a reason to be good. Especially, try giving them a reason to be good when you've shot down any possibility that "good" is something higher than they are.

> "I place a high value on honesty and reason, and dogmatism (religious or otherwise) is in conflict with these values."

Can you substantiate their existence? Or is it an emotional attachment? Why ought such things command our respect?

You think people ought to be good even when you admit you can't provide any reason that's better than empathy or compassion (sentiment) or might = right (when all we really know is might = might). Frame, with all the respect I can muster, I ask, who's the dogmatist?

Don't get me wrong. I like dogma, or rather, certain types of it. I cheerfully admit I have faith and belief in things unseen. Apparently, you do, too, if you think honesty and reason are somehow greater than us. In a materialist universe, they crawled out of the mud too, just like us.

Lee said...

> The exception being when I represented your questions regarding my reasons for morality and action as an argument for the existence of God - which is what I had honestly interpreted your underlying intention to be.

Absolutely not a problem, frame. That was indeed where I was heading -- I just hadn't gotten to the point where I had actually put forth an argument, at least I thought not.

I have no complaints about how you have treated me in our exchange. You seem like a reasonable person, and your posts were remarkably free of the rancor and condescension I usually see whenever atheists address Christians. Points for that.

I think Intelligent Design Theory is trying to construct such an argument. To me, it seems like a study in probability more than biology. There can only be three explanations for something happening: necessity, accident, or design. If we rule out the necessity of life, that leaves accident or design. Then if the calculated odds of something complicated (like life) seem small, then at what point may we infer design, the only alternative left? Honestly, I don't think we understand the odds well enough to say one way or the other, but I don't see why to ask the question is somehow impertinent, or (in the words of Derbyshire), a "blood libel" against Western Civilization.

There are lots of scientific fields in which we are permitted to draw inferences based on things that cannot directly be measured. Criminology is a good example; there are others. All criminology is, is examining the data for elements of design. So-and-so was found dead; it looks like an accident at first glance, but there are some questions about the circumstances, and it appears Mrs. So-and-so has a motive. You can't repeat the actual death and observe it. You need to draw inferences about it. In fact, we may never actually prove the Mrs. did it, but it's possible to produce a case (depending on the circumstances) that will prove a murder (i.e., design) beyond a reasonable doubt.

If one type of science can set up a case like this, why not another?

In fact, Dawkins does this all the time, and nobody calls him on it. I read an essay where he noted the behavior of parasitic wasps and the horrible fate of the spiders they prey upon, and then asked the serious question, "How could a loving God design such a monstrous mechanism?" I admit, it is a serious question. Problem is, he is doing exactly what he says ID folks should not be doing, namely, drawing inferences about the supernatural from the natural. If Dawkins can do it, why not Dembski?

But I am not a scientist, nor am I a philosopher, but I am more comfortable with philosophical arguments (perhaps without good reason, but hey, I do the best I can). It does seem to me that we have an actual yearning, a hunger, for justice. But if we rule out the existence of a higher justice, a transcendent morality if you will, then what we have is a hunger for which nothing really exists to satisfy. The way we are built, we don't seem to have very many hungers for which nothing exists to sate. I can't think of another one.

The naturalist explanation is, of course, that the desire for justice must have been a development of evolution, since we have presumed God right out of the picture. But as Hume points out, there is a difference between "is" and "ought". Evolution may plausibly explain why morality exists, but it cannot explain why it ought to be accorded respect and observed and loved. Human decision-making seems to favor the self first (or second), the loved ones second (or first), the friends, buddies, associates, fellow Americans, etc. in varying degrees after that. Making decisions for the benefit of the entire human race, therefore, has lots of competition from more immediate desires amd impulses. The fact of the matter is that sentiment alone is the only reason why anyone would adhere to a common sense of morality when it is a demonstrated fact that morality is, like humans, simply the result of purposeless collisions of particles. Anyone who can overcome that sentiment may be a sociopath, but he is at least acting rationally within the premises of a Godless universe.

If you shouldn't believe in anything you can't prove the existence of, then what exactly exempts our illusions of morality?

Anonymous said...

A couple questions, Martin:

1) You say that there are good arguments for theism, and you list those who you think made good arguments. For the sake of those of us who haven't read these people, why don't you give us what you see as the strongest argument for theism.

2) I see you saying that if there is no transcendent morality, there is no morality at all. This is a conditional statement which says nothing about the truth of there actually being an objective morality, just that unpleasant consequences would seem to follow. What is the positive argument for the existence of an objective morality?

Martin Cothran said...

Anonymous,

I answered your first question on my post today. I'll try to answer the other this weekend.