Thursday, July 24, 2014

Objective Moral Values - A Response to Neil Shenvi 3

Shenvi claims that "it is incredibly hard to envision a scenario in which it is genetically advantageous to... adopt and raise children of another race."  I disagree.

Children can be a source of cheap labor.  For a struggling farmer, adopting a child or two, no matter their race, can be advantageous to the farmer, his wife, the children themselves, and perhaps even their community - if the farmer can produce enough to sell at a good price to his neighbors.

Adopting children is not always advantageous, however, as in the times when they become too burdensome and not help out on the farm.  There are situations when adopting children would be beneficial, and when it would not.  But the fact that it would sometimes be beneficial, however, is enough for the human desire to adopt children to persist through time and not be "weeded out of the human population by natural selection eons ago" as Shenvi would expect.

If there are other behaviors that may not be explained evolutionarily, I'd like to know about them.

Keep in mind, I'm not arguing evolution can tell us what is moral.  Rather, I'm arguing there are better explanations for Shenvi's evidence.  I'm explaining Shenvi's evidence without invoking objective morality.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Objective Moral Values - A Response to Neil Shenvi 2

Let's grant the truth of the statement that I critiqued in my last post.  So, there exists the same basic standards of morality across cultures.  Let's call this proposition E.

According to Shenvi, E is likely due to the existence of objective moral values.  In other words, E is explained by, or consistent with, the existence of objective moral values.

And I agree -- this is aligns with his theory.  But that doesn't mean there's not a better explanation for E.

A better explanation is that humans generally have the same desires, and these desires resulted in E.

Take the desire not to be murdered, for example.  Ancient humans who desired not to be murdered were more likely to survive and have children with the same desire, while ancient humans without that desire were less likely to survive and have children because they were murdered more often.  Therefore, as this scenario played out over generations, most humans (and any species, for that matter) eventually had the desire not to be murdered.

The reason we find cultures with rules against murder is because cultures without those rules died out.

The same could be said for lots of the basic rules within the "standard morality" found across cultures -- those rules fulfill common human desires.  All cultures share the same basic desires.  Therefore, all cultures have the same basic rules.

To be fair, Shenvi mentions several moral actions that are more difficult to explain.  For example, he mentions throwing oneself onto a live grenade to save ones' platoon.  According to Shenvi, this is best explained by objective moral values.  However, Shenvi has not shown that this act is universally considered to be morally good.  Therefore, by Shenvi's criterion of objective morality being universal, it doesn't not count as evidence toward objective morality.  But even if it was universal, is there a better explanation for it?

I think a better explanation is that the desire for survival can be fulfilled in a variety of complex ways.

If there's a live grenade threatening ones' platoon, the most prudent option, given the various ways one can promote survival, might be to jump on the grenade.  For example, if the result of jumping on the grenade is that ones' platoon stays strong, wins the war, and ones' community to thrives (which all promote survival), then one might jump on the grenade.  Though the one individual would die, the survival and the thriving of ones' family and community would be more likely.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Objective Moral Values - A Response to Neil Shenvi

Neil Shenvi has a website where he argues for one interpretation of "good" and "bad," which is that these words describe something objective -- something that's true independent of the beliefs of humans.  He says that "moral facts" exist (in philosophy, this qualifies him as a "moral realist"), and he gives what he sees as evidence for their existence. (While Neil is a Christian, his evidence is not based in Christianity.  So,  I'll not need to respond to anything uniquely Christian, or even theistic.)

The first piece of evidence is that "Nearly universally across human cultures, there exist the same basic standards of morality."

My first response is to question how true this statement is.  Sure, there are certain morals that most cultures agree upon presently and even throughout history.  For example, killing somebody for no reason is, and may have always been, considered to be wrong.   However, there are other morals issues that cultures have disagreed upon.  For example, capital punishment is disagreed upon.  So, while killing is generally viewed as wrong, it's often disagreed upon regarding when killing may be permissible.  I think this could be said for pretty much all the popular moral issues, like lying, stealing, raping, etc.  While they are generally viewed as wrong, they are disagreed upon over when it may be OK to do these things.  So, I'm saying that while there is significant agreement over certain morals, there's also significant disagreement.

(before I continue, I just want to note that even if his statement is true, and it may very well be, I'm not sure how this would be evidence for "objective good" and "objective evil", but more on that at a later time.)

Now, Neil could respond by saying that, while there is significant moral disagreement throughout cultures, there's also significant disagreement among scientists over the nature of the external universe, and that doesn't mean the external universe doesn't exist (objectively).  Further, Neil could say that even considering scientists' views on the external universe have changed over time (like cultures' views on morality have changed over time), that doesn't mean the external universe doesn't exist, and therefore, neither do objective morals not exist.  Well, to me, comparing the existence of objective moral values to the existence of the objective universe is not a good comparison.

Take a wooden chair, for example (which is part of the objective, external universe).  We can test the chair, examine it scientifically, compare it to other chairs, see how it reacts in different environments, repeat all of our tests and see how consistently we get the same results, and so forth.  The chair can be observed in many ways that do not rely on our opinions alone, thus showing that the chair most likely objectively exists.  (This is why scientists generally don't disagree over the existence of the external universe, only it's nature.)  However, we cannot perform these tests on "objective good".  It is not an object.  It has no material existence for us to test, and so it is not comparable to the external universe.

However, it could be argued that the objective, external universe does not consist solely of material objects, but also abstract objects, and, like morality, these abstract objects exist objectively.  For example, numbers are said (by some philosophers) to be abstract objects that exist objectively (i.e. independent of human opinion).  To that, I would respond with questioning the objective existence of numbers.

To what extent do numbers really exist objectively?  Sure, numbers can be used to refer to material objects  -- like, to describe things.  For example, there is "one" chair.  But to what extent does the number "one" exist without the chair?

Neil might agree, and say that "one" does not exist without the chair, just like "objective morality" wouldn't exist without that to which "objective morality" refers!  To that, I would ask, "to what does 'objective morality' refer?"  If it's something material, then we could compare it to the external universe -- and it would be something we could test.  But if it's something abstract, then I would question that thing's existence, as well.

On the other hand, Neil might disagree and say that "one" does exist without the chair.  For example, it exist in our minds.  However, but that's not objective, but rather subjective.  So, it seems that numbers, apart from the material things to which they refer, may not objectively exist.  (Now, I'm far from a philosopher or theoretical mathematician, or whoever would be an expert in these questions about the objective existence of numbers, but I'd be interested in knowing if I'm wrong about all this).

So, while there is significant agreement about morality throughout cultures, there's also significant disagreement.  And while there is disagreement among scientists about the nature of the external universe, and this disagreement doesn't threaten the objective existence of it, the existence of the external universe cannot be compared to the existence of objective morality.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A Response: An Argument from Inherent Value for God's Existence

My fellow seeker at Truthbomb recently made An Argument from Inherent Value for God's Existence.

The following is my response:

Against premise one: The defense of premise one seems to be presenting either 1. a false dilemma or 2. an argument from ignorance.  If self-consciousness and moral agency hasn't been explained by natural selection, or if it is not known how natural selection produces self-consciousness and moral agency, it doesn't necessarily mean God did it.  

Against premise two: The argument implies that every human is a self-conscious moral agent, but are babies? The mentally handicapped/disabled? The comatose? Psychopaths? The insane? No.

The argument makes two seemingly superstitious claims.
  1. Humans are self-aware and make moral decisions, therefore humans transcend the material universe.
  2. An eternal, ultimate person transcends the material universe and bestows self-consciousness and moral agency on human bodies.

    These seem superstitious for several reasons:
  1. The first claim is a non-sequitur (and vague)
  2. unfalsifiable
  3. Violate Ockham's Razor
  4. make no predictions
  5. lack objective, repeatable evidence
  6. incoherent – What is the causal connection? How does that ultimate person cause human bodies to have self-consciousness and moral agency? How does it “reach in” and bestow upon our human bodies, specifically? Just by magic?

I originally thought the argument made logically contradictory claims: Inherent value is value that does not come from something else, yet God gives inherent value to human bodies.  However, I misunderstood the claims - the former means "inherent value doesn't come from objects", and regarding the latter, inherent value comes from personhood, not God, and God did not choose for inherent value to come from personhood.

Friday, August 10, 2012


As I've gone through the process of deconverting from my previous faith-based religious views, I've often wondered what in the world I'm supposed to do with my life.  If I'm not going to serve God and devote my life fully to His will, then what am I going to do? How is one supposed to live after going through life thinking I'm a child of God, chosen by Him to accomplish His purposes on this earth?

At times I would think I'd devote myself to my job.  I'd do the best I could, learn the IT industry inside and out, learn to code, try to help a lot of people, make lots of money, give lots away, and live life for my work.  I've also thought about just living for what makes me happy.  To explore, go out, go on adventures, travel, eat, drink, and be merry.  I've thought about just living normally, having a few hobbies, getting three square meals a day, 8 hours of sleep per night, flossing at least once a day.  But, as the days go by, I continue to have the desire to do something big.  Something similar, in a sense, to what I used to do.

I used to live life as a child of God as best as I could.  I read the Bible a ton, studied religious books, prayed as much as I could handle, learned and taught Hebrew, moved across the country several times, traveled to places across the globe - all for my devotion to serving God as best as I could.  Now that I don't consider myself a child of God anymore, I do not live this way.  But I still have the desire to live that way for something.  And I think I have realized (again) what that something is.

The truth.

When I was living for the Lord, I was doing it because I really believed it was true.  As I learned and changed my mind both as a believer and then as a non-believer, I did so because I thought I learned more truth.  And so, as I find myself again contemplating my life's direction, I realize that I need to continue on the path that I've always attempted to travel: the path toward truth.

I need to get psyched up again about living as best as I can for the truth, about reading a ton, not the Bible and religious texts, but my new "bibles": logic books, science books, philosophy books, epistemology books, etc.  I need to be willing to move across the country again, to travel the globe, to take risks and live my life to the fullest - all for the sake of seeking the truth. 

So, in a sense, I should travel the the same path, and still serve my "god", just not see things exactly the same as I did before.  And that the whole point: to find out what is true and what is not true - and then change my life accordingly.  But what should never change is the goal: to seek and know and do what is true.

So, I hereby rededicate my life to the truth.  Let's get 'er done.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Properties of the First Cause: Part 2

(Continued from Part 1)

In the book Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology William Lane Craig and James D. Sinclair attempt to defend the claim that the cause of the universe "is plausibly taken to be personal." They give three reasons for this, the second of which is the following:
"Second, the personhood of the First Cause is already powerfully suggested by the properties which have been deduced by means of our conceptual analysis. For there appear to be only two candidates which can be described as immaterial, beginningless, uncaused, timeless, and spaceless beings: either abstract objects or an unembodied mind. Abstract objects such as numbers, sets, propositions, and properties are very typically construed by philosophers who include such things in their ontology as being precisely the sort of entities which exist necessarily, timelessly, and spacelessly. Similarly, philosophers who hold to the possibility of disembodied mind would describe such mental substances as immaterial and spaceless, and there seems no reason to think that a Cosmic Mind might not also be beginningless and uncaused. No other candidates which could be suitably described as immaterial, beginningless, uncaused, timeless, and spaceless beings come to mind. Nor has anyone else, to our knowledge, suggested any other such candidates."
I can appreciate the authors' line of reasoning here, as it seems logical to look for a potential cause among the things that have the characteristics deduced thus far, but I see some problems with it. First of all, I think abstract objects exist due to the universe. They are made possible because of the properties of space, time, energy, matter, etc. So, if there was no universe abstract objects wouldn't exist. Therefore, I don't think an abstract object is a good choice for the cause of the universe. However, Craig and Sinclair don't think it is either, so while we seem to disagree on the nature of abstract objects, we agree that they are not good candidates for the cause of the universe.  Secondly, the existence of disembodied minds seems to be related to the mind-body problem, and as previously mentioned, I've heard there's a growing scientific consensus against the dualist viewpoint, i.e. the mind is separate from the brain and exists independently of the brain. Therefore, I don't think disembodied minds exist. (I don't have any supporting sources to cite at the moment, but neither did Craig or Sinclair cite sources supporting the existence of disembodied minds.) However, the cause of the universe came from without or "outside" the universe. So, although I do not think disembodied minds exist within this universe, do I think disembodied minds exist "outside" the universe? I have no idea. We would need evidence for that, but what would evidence for something outside the universe look like? How would evidence within this universe point to something outside of this universe? I don't know of any evidence for anything whatsoever existing outside of the universe, let alone a disembodied mind, except for the unknown cause of the universe that I have granted in this discussion.

That brings me to another point against a disembodied mind as cause of the universe. If one is going to propose a cause that comes from outside of the universe, then Occam's Razor seems to nearly eliminate the plausibility of a disembodied mind due to the extreme complexity of minds and the lack of justification for the proposal.  In my opinion, to propose a disembodied mind is to introduce a huge amount of theoretical complexity far beyond necessity, and to be unable to think of any other possible causes does not justify it. Therefore, I do not think a disembodied mind is a good hypothesis.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Properties of the First Cause

In the book Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology William Lane Craig and James D. Sinclair present and defend the Kalam Cosmological Argument.
1.0. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
2.0. The universe began to exist.
3.0. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
In this post, I will grant that there was a first cause of the universe.

The authors attempt to defend the claim that the cause of the universe "is plausibly taken to be personal."  They give three reasons for this, the first of which is the following.
First, as Richard Swinburne (1991, pp. 32–48) points out, there are two types of causal explanation: scientific explanations in terms of laws and initial conditions and personal explanations in terms of agents and their volitions. For example, in answer to the question, “Why is the kettle boiling?” we might be told, “The heat of the flame is being conducted via the copper bottom of the kettle to the water, increasing the kinetic energy of the water molecules, such that they vibrate so violently that they break the surface tension of the water and are thrown off in the form of steam.” Or alternatively, we might be told, “I put it on to make a cup of tea. Would you like some?” The first provides a scientific explanation, the second a personal explanation. Each is a perfectly legitimate form of explanation; indeed, in certain contexts it would be wholly inappropriate to give one rather than the other. Now a first state of the universe cannot have a scientific explanation, since there is nothing before it, and therefore, it cannot be accounted for in terms of laws operating on initial conditions. It can only be accounted for in terms of an agent and his volitions, a personal explanation.
I'm not convinced that these two types of causal explanations are actually different.  Rather, both seem to be scientific.  To wit, the personal decision to have a cup of tea is caused by one's desires, and one's desires are caused by our brain chemistry, genetics, environmental forces, etc.  These latter causes are all caused, in turn, by evolutionary forces, the sun, etc.  So, our desires can be traced back to scientific causes; they are caused by the materials in and around us.

The first cause, however, (if I grant that it originated from outside the universe) is not necessarily a scientific cause.  Originating outside of the universe, it originated outside the realm of cause-effect relationships, the laws of physics, and virtually everything we know about science.  So, all effects can be traced back to a first cause that isn't necessarily scientific.  This does not mean, however, that the cause is personal.

The idea of a personal cause as opposed to a scientific cause seems to be related to questions of free will and the mind-body problem.  If the case for free will is weak, then the case for personal causes is weak.  Likewise, if our physical brains cause our minds (rather than our minds existing separately and non-materially) then the case for personal causes is weaker still.  I don't have any sources at the moment, but I've heard there's a growing scientific and philosophical consensus against the existence of (contra-causal) free will, as well as support for the materialist, i.e. monist (as opposed to dualist), approach to the mind-body problem. While searching for evidence of free will, I found some quotes from a famous Jewish physicist:

Albert Einstein:  I do not believe in free will. Schopenhauer's words: 'Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills,' accompany me in all situations throughout my life and reconcile me with the actions of others, even if they are rather painful to me. This awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my temper.”  From "My Credo

And: "I agree with your remark about loving your enemy as far as actions are concerned. But for me the cognitive basis is the trust in an unrestricted causality. 'I cannot hate him, because he must do what he does.' That means for me more Spinoza than the prophets." From a letter to Michele Besso quoted here.

And: "Human beings, in their thinking, feeling and acting are not free agents but are as causally bound as the stars in their motion."  From his address to the Spinoza Society in 1932.