Internet Goosing the Antithesis

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Is belief an ethical act?

I have debated the issue of god-belief for a long time but honestly it was mostly an intellectual exercise for me. I don't think the hoary chestnut of "does God exist" really deserves any debate any more.

The best proof of that is that no one really believes in God. How could you? It's impossible to even conceptualize the idea of God, and you can't believe in what you can't conceptualize. The person who says "I believe in God" believes in some image in his head which he believes is the image of God, but which cannot in any way have any relation to what God is actually supposed to be according to the theologians. They believe in a father in the sky, not an abstract absolute existing in Dimension X.

Alison really hit the nail on the head when she told me the real issue was that people actually believe in the act of belief itself. Indeed, the Christians have been positioning themselves as being part of the "belief-based" side and that they support religion against atheism, instead of their regular exclusivism. Because of this, a most vital debate that should be taking place right now, and which people like Dawkins and Harris are starting, is "is belief an ethical act?" (and by ethical we mean: as a social rule or judgment, group norm, etc, as opposed to personal judgments)

That is the real issue that should concern all of us, atheists and religious alike.

Post a Comment


At 1/30/2009 1:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous declaimed...

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At 2/02/2009 10:07 AM, Blogger Chris Jones declaimed...

BAH!!!!! Blog spamming (see above) is sure not an ethical act!!!

Good post. I wasn't going to write an "I agree with this article" remark, because it doesn't seem to serve much purpose anyway, but I just couldn't resist expressing my loathing for BLOG SPAMMERS. My own blog has been hit with this more than a few times.

At 2/07/2009 5:49 PM, Blogger Matthew declaimed...

The simple answer is "yes." Once you define ethical act as "a social rule or judgment, group norm, etc, as opposed to personal judgments" then I don't know that you'll meet much resistance post-Kant, Hegel Wittgenstein, Searle, et al. On a popular level it may often feel like belief is a personal judgment. But on a critical level, it seems to me this question is - as "Chris" said - the question seems simplistic.

I've always considered the argument that you can't conceptualize God or that you're never conceptualizing anything but your own thought of God to be something of a common parlor trick. Feuerbach did it best, I guess.

This is not an argument against the existence of God or even against anyone's believing in God. It is only an argument that God is not the same as human conception of God, which no one would really dispute. I know I'm not saying anything profound, and I respect your position. But similar objections could be lodged against your view, so where does that leave the conversation?

At 2/08/2009 6:58 PM, Blogger Francois Tremblay declaimed...

Matthew: I'm quite sure I have no idea what you're talking about.

At 2/11/2009 7:53 PM, Blogger breakerslion declaimed...

Franc, I think I know what he's trying to say. If you believe in moral relativism, then the fact that the majority's engagement in belief makes belief ipso facto ethical, under the "group norm" qualifier.

Where I disconnect from Matthew's opinion is here:

"This is not an argument against the existence of God or even against anyone's believing in God..."

If the god you believe in is necessarily your conceptualization of god, and if the super-natural and trans-dimensional alleged nature of god transcends any meaningful conceptualization, then the god you believe in is not god.

In short, to believe in the "unknowable" is a meaningless phrase. At best, what you are actually believing is that some other member(s) of your monkey tribe does have a handle on this concept, and you are believing in their god.

I find it interesting how much value is given word games such as these when they support the theistic position, and how quickly they are discredited when they don't.

At 2/16/2009 10:21 PM, Blogger Marshall declaimed...

Eh, I disagree Breakerslion. I think this is what Matthew is saying:

1. A thing exists that is super powerful.

2. We cannot conceptualize that thing, but it still exists.

Of course, WHY anyone would think that is beyond me...

At 3/01/2009 8:45 PM, Blogger breakerslion declaimed...

Marshall: So what you're saying Matthew is saying is, "I don't know what it is, but I know it exists?"

Ok, so you show a Bushman a Ferris Wheel, and that's a valid thing for him to say. Somebody gives you a whole bunch of anecdotal evidence, and basically admits that they don't know what they're talking about either... and you buy it. What are you actually beliving in?

At 3/25/2009 8:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous declaimed...


At 4/07/2009 8:20 PM, Blogger Sunny Skeptic declaimed...

Belief is certainly not an ethical act in and of itself. Just believing has nothing to do with morality or ethics.

At 4/08/2009 12:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous declaimed...


At 4/11/2009 11:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous declaimed...


At 4/14/2009 10:20 AM, Blogger  declaimed...

Debate, no.
A song, YES!
And here it is.....

At 5/14/2009 4:10 PM, Blogger Mirko declaimed...

why is it impossible to conceptualize?

At 6/08/2009 10:10 PM, Blogger asciiBud declaimed...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 6/09/2009 9:41 AM, Blogger asciiBud declaimed...

Francois, you are insisting that God be fully conceivable in order to exist. I argue that you can't even fully conceive of what it means for the ground to be beneath your feet--science class can begin to introduce the ambiguities and complexities involved--but you still rightly believe in the ground being there. Or consider the concept of love. Science can barely begin to address love, but you still rightly live your life with a sense that love is real and highly important. Just as the ground and love need not be fully conceived, nor does God need to be.

Similarly, breakerslion you are insisting that God be fully conceivable in order to be God. Would you insist then that the ground is not the ground or that love is not love?

Matthew is right when he shows Francois has not presented any argument against God's existence. If we insist everything be within purely verifiable domains, as Humanists would like to, then sure by self-imposed rule we are omitting the possibility of God, but also ultimately the possibility of anything that can't fit into the domain of mathematical proof. The question is then why should we insist everything be within purely verifiable domains? Our daily lives are not purely verifiable, and we don't need them to be--what we need is intelligence, humility, compassion and love. Returning to Matthew's question: Where does that leave the conversation?

Is belief an ethical act? It's essential for our daily living, so it's necessarily ethical. You can't walk to the corner store without believing in the ground being there. The question is not whether belief itself is ethical but whether specific beliefs encourage ethical living. Francois, your short-circuited reasoning leaves you no room to believe in even ethical acts. Please don't oppose belief but instead belief in things that promote bad living. What does "bad" mean? We must return to the need for intelligence, humility, compassion and love to continually explore. Sometimes the concept of God helps people do that exploration better, and sometimes not.

At 6/12/2009 5:39 PM, Blogger Marshall declaimed...

AsciiBud--you can't simply say that God is outside the realm of conceivability and expect any credibility. You just can't do that, because basically what you're saying is this: not only is there absolutely no evidence for what I think, it is impossible to think of what I think. But it still exists!

It is EXACTLY the same as me claiming that there's something which you cannot conceive which controls your shoelace. You can never observe it, there's no way to tell it exists, and you can't possibly conceive of what it might be. But it controls your shoelace, and yes--it exists!

At 6/12/2009 8:48 PM, Blogger asciiBud declaimed...

Marsall, you suggest that I say that God is entirely outside the realm of conceivability, but I don't say that. I only say that God is not FULLY conceivable. The difference is very important. Nothing outside of the domain of mathematical proofs is FULLY conceivable, not even the ground beneath your feet. Accordingly it makes no sense to require things to be fully conceivable. We should require things only to be sufficiently conceivable, and in fact you do exactly that when you maintain your sanity by believing in the ground each time you walk to the corner store.

Yes of course it's ridiculous to suggest something exists if there's "absolutely no evidence" for it, but I suggest there is actually evidence for God. It's a question of what we take as evidence and what we mean by "God." If by "God" I mean something very specific like a grey-bearded man in the sky, then no I have no evidence. However, if by "God" I mean the foundation of what we observe as our lives and world, then I can take my own conscious observation of my life and world as proof of God. Yes, in a way, my definition is self-serving and circular, but I mean it with sincere pragmatism. To me personally this view of God is a way to keep ourselves humble to all that we do not know and humble to all the things important beyond what science can (at least presently and in its mainstream conception) address. Science is a fantastic tool that we must support and improve, but it is woefully inadequate ON IT'S OWN in helping us view our lives and world wisely. We also need "touchy-feely" stuff like ethics, judgment, humility, compassion and love. I don't mind if you don't "believe in God" but I do mind arguments that say that because God doesn't exist that therefore tools, such as religion, that help us address the "touchy-feely" stuff are necessarily misguided. Sometimes religion is a very bad thing, but sometimes religion is a very good thing. Believe in God or don't, but please don't deny the need for such tools with arguments that require things to be FULLY conceivable.

Then, to move the discussion forward, Marshall and Francois and breakerslion, when you say God does not exist what further point are you are you trying to make? When you say belief is not an ethical act, what point are you trying to make?

At 6/26/2009 10:58 PM, Blogger Brian declaimed...

I basically agree with asciiBud as far as the "knowability" topic goes.

When we talk about "knowing" something or someone, we're always talking degree, from "I don't know anything" to "I know a lot about x." I don't see how we can have complete knowledge of God or anything or anyone else - but that's not a good argument against said knowable object's existence.

I know my wife - certainly not completely (I have the feeling I know her exactly how much she wants me to know - and no more!) There are some things about her that still remain a mystery to me.

She exists - and if you say otherwise to her face, you're itchin' for a fight!

Seriously, FT, there are more plausible arguments for atheism, if that's what you're going for.

At 7/14/2009 12:53 PM, Blogger Brucker declaimed...

Francois is right in much of what he's saying, but at the same time, so are many of the detractors here. No, you can't really believe in "God", because as a concept, He/She/It is not really fully knowable. On the other hand, it is quite possible to believe (in the sense of putting trust in a thing) in something that you don't fully comprehend, and as others have both alluded to and outright stated, that's not devoid of value.

Marshall's example of the shoelace (which nobody picked up on for some reason) is an excellent one. Indeed, while I know it largely has something to do with friction, I don't really understand what it is that allows my shoes to stay tied, nor why it is that some shoes seem to need to be retied every few hours, while the shoes I am currently wearing were tied by me months ago, and I've never had to retie them since. Having remained tied for so long, I have great confidence they will remain tied until they wear out and I throw them away.

For many people, faith in God is similar: At some point in their lives, they became convinced that--like tying your shoes in just the right knot holds them together--having a particular relationship with God (although they don't undestand fully what God is) holds their lives together.

Actually, the interesting thing about this metaphor is that just as most shoes inexplicably come untied after a time and yet we don't lose faith in shoe-tying, people who have faith in God usually don't lose that faith when their lives fall apart. They simply reexamine their relationship with God and renew it.

Anyway, while I like what Francois has to say, I think his logic is flawed. Surely even from a purely materialistic point of view, there are things that exist in the universe that science has not yet discovered, and thus, nobody believes in them. This doesn't make such things cease to exist, nor does it define the ethical value of my believing that such things are there somewhere, even though I don't even have the vaguest idea as to what they might be.

At 7/14/2009 1:11 PM, Blogger Brucker declaimed...

Interestingly, I like the idea that people "believe in the act of belief itself", and find much truth in that. It's really the heart of religion, isn't it? There are a lot of people who believe that God exists, yet don't belong to a particular faith tradition, because they don't think that that belief has practical purpose. Yeah, they say, God is probably out there, but who can really comprehend what "God" is?

Despite my own Christianity, I've often held the belief that agnosticism is the only rational response to the mystery that is God. To claim that you know what God is, including the atheistic belief that you know God simply doesn't exist, is an act of great hubris on many levels.

As to whether it is ethical to hold a particular belief about God, well, I suppose it depends on what you consider ethical. I've always felt that in an abstract sense, trying to force your beliefs on others is unethical, mostly because in the end it's impossible to really do so, so it's force with no effective end in view. However, it tends to be the case among religions that faith is defined as an ethical act in itself; this may be right (especially if the religion happens to be truth), but the problem with this is that it often involves a bit of circular logic, which is always suspect.

I think defining "ethical" in a way that all parties involved can agree on is difficult though, especially since many faith traditions claim that God defines ethics, and thus defining ethics without God will always fail. Unfortunately, I suspect this is a slightly less obvious bit of circular logic.

How do you define something as "ethical"?

At 7/15/2009 1:09 AM, Blogger Marshall declaimed...

To be honest, I'm not exactly sure why people are talking about "believing in belief." What exactly does this mean? Are we examining the concept of belief, and asking whether belief itself is a good thing?

Brucker, that's an interesting twist on my metaphor. What I was really pointing out was that people arbitrarily conjured up some made-up being called "God" that controls something things and not others (i.e. free will of humans) without evidence for it, and yet they posit it exists. Every time someone prods them to provide evidence, they retort back that there is no evidence, as nobody can detect God anywhere. Why do you think God exists in the first place? For the same reason that I don't think a magical being controls my shoelace, I also don't think a magical being controls the universe.

>> To claim that you know what God is, including the atheistic belief that you know God simply doesn't exist, is an act of great hubris on many levels.

I don't agree with this, because if you assert this statement, then you also assert that it's an act of great hubris to claim that there is no Flying Spaghetti Monster.

There is no question that belief was at one point a great evolutionary advantage. It probably helped people avoid dangerous locations and activities, and those who were more likely to believe myths that were often based on fact (i.e. there's a monster in the cave--when it actually was a lion) were more likely to survive. This day and age, I'm not so sure--the side effects of belief (i.e. that we don't need to help with global warming because the Rapture is coming, or that God claims condoms are bad, so let the millions in Africa die so we don't have to feel guilty) can be somewhat devastating. We're not hunter-gatherers anymore, and it's time to step out our baseless artificial system of beliefs and push towards a more progress-based society.

At 7/25/2009 5:26 PM, Blogger Brucker declaimed...

I'm not 100% sure of anyone else, but in my comment above, when I mentioned "believing in belief" I was talking about religion itself as a concept. Everyone believes something about God(s), but it's those who believe that nature of belief in itself is important are the ones we call "religious". It would strongly tend to be the fact that by such people's own standards, religion (if the right one, natch) is ethical by definition.

I liked the shoelace example simply because you said it, but this morning somebody shared with me something written by C.S. Lewis that was interesting. He said that long before people understood things like vitamins, they knew that one had to eat to be healthy. If you use eating as a metaphor for religion, then it follows that the fact that you as an individual may know nothing about calories and nutrients, yet you still need them. Not knowing intimately the nature of God is not necessary for proper devotion.

But I'm not answering your questions, just rehashing old ones. I've responded to this question many times of "belief without evidence", otherwise known as "blind faith". My own view on the matter is that there is a difference between deities like Vishnu and Allah on the one hand and atheist favorites like invisible unicorns and the FSM on the other, and that difference is one of history. The latter are parodies of gods invented in the 20th century by people who do not believe in them, while the former are claimed by genuine believers to be real beings and have been for centuries. The God of the Abrahamic religions gave mankind a set of books by way of Moses, and Moses' contemporaries found these books to be credible because they had seen something in their lives, not just because Moses made it all up. Now, indeed, it's possible Moses did make it all up, but if so, he did something to fool these people beyond just pulling out a book and saying, "Guess what? God gave this to me!" It wasn't accepted with no evidence, and for those that came after, one of the big pieces of evidence is the book itself for various reasons.

Now, of course, there are various problems immediately evident, namely as hinted at above that there are many gods to choose from. Also, dependance on tradition (and history to a lesser extent) alone leaves God up to better comparisons, such as to Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. But people who say, "Believe in God, just because God says you should!" are indeed making a poor explanation for belief, partially because I do believe nobody has geniune faith with no basis.

I've recently been examining the question of whether religious belief offers evolutionary advantage, and frankly, I can't figure out what advantage that might be. If anything, it appears to be a disadvantage. Why is it good to believe that there's a monster in the cave if it's really a lion? Why not just believe in the lion?

You're right about progress, though, and it's something modern Christians (and others) have lost sight of. If your religious beliefs are failing to make the world a better place, then they must be flawed. I think Jesus himself repeatedly taught that.

At 8/04/2009 10:55 PM, Blogger asciiBud declaimed...

Marshall asks “Why do you think God exists in the first place?” For me, because my observations of my world profoundly suggest that it is wise to revere the foundations of whatever we are. Marshall says that “every time” people are prodded for evidence of God that they concede there is no evidence. However, I had already said I see evidence for God (6/12/2009). In pointing out that Moses thought he had though life observation genuine reason for believing in God, Brucker touches on the same point. That said, using the label “God” in the course of this reverence has advantages and disadvantages.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster is a brilliantly humorous and important critique of believing in baseless specifics of “God.” At the same time, the typical reference to the Flying Spaghetti Monster naively misses the wisdom of remaining humble to “God”, “God” in the sense of all of our nature including that which we know and that which we don’t. Blanket claims that God does not exists (like Marshall’s) sound like hubris to me too because they show no interest in how many people’s personal understandings of “God” can in fact be highly motivated by observation-based experience. That said, I don’t want to commit hubris myself, so accordingly I don’t want to insist on the use of the word “God.” Instead, what I want to do is invite everyone to look at what we can learn by paying attention the nature within us that invokes this whole subject. Please explain to me how finalistic universally-applied proclamations that “God does not exist” encourage better exploration.

I agree with Marshall that it’s time to step away from belief that we see now as baseless (see the important book With or Without God by Gretta Vosper). I agree with Francois Tremblay insofar as his original question “Is belief an ethical act?” suggests that it is unethical to not step away from these baseless beliefs. And, if you ask me, I also say it is naive to think that in stepping away we must necessarily not include the tool of religion or belief in “God.”

At 8/06/2009 9:45 PM, Blogger Brian declaimed...

"...Moses thought he had through life observation genuine reason for believing in God..."

This way of phrasing it is TOO funny.

Here are a few of Moses' "life observations" in no particular order:

Observation #1: Hmm...there is a bush on fire, but it just keeps burning without being consumed...curious.

Observation #2: There is a very powerful voice telling me to remove my sandals - something about the ground being holy.

Observation #3: I'm having regular conversations with this powerful sounding voice.

Observation #4: The voice tells me his name and identifies himself as the God of my ancestors.

Observation #5: I go up on a mountain, and when I come down, my face is glowing so brightly that my people are scared of me.

Observation #6: I raise my arms and pray to the God with whom I've been conversing, and this lake - which has pinned us in potentially allowing us to be slaughtered by a professional army - parts. We cross, and the lake closes back up, drowning our enemies.


It seems pretty simple to me. If these "life experiences" are accurate, then it is unethical to reject belief in God. If they simply didn't happen, then it is ethically REQUIRED to reject YAHWEH and any other "god" that makes false claims.

I know there are nuances and nuances of nuances, but doesn't it basically boil down to this:

Belief in God is ethical if and only if this God really exists.

Unbelief in God is ethical if and only if this God doesn't really exist.

At 8/06/2009 11:08 PM, Blogger asciiBud declaimed...

Brian, it's easy to argue against absurd Gods like how you present Moses' God because it's easy to argue for the absurdity of the particulars of those Gods. I'm not arguing for Moses or for God as Moses saw it. Please indulge me and go back and criticize the the particulars of the God which I'm suggesting is productive (6/12/2009).

At 8/07/2009 1:13 PM, Blogger Brucker declaimed...

Maybe I've taken him wrong, but I don't think Brian is arguing against God, but for God. After all, as both the Bible and theologians argue, the existence of certain miracles (if indeed genuine) essentially create a state of indebtedness to God. Why does the God of Israel insist He has the authority to give commandments to the people? Because "I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage."

In many ways, this cuts to the core of the issue in two ways: First, assuming God exists, and did the things that the Bible claims He did, it seems belief is ethical out of a certain sense of obligation. I have told people before that the reason I am a Christian is that, in believing the Bible to be true, it would be incredibly foul of me to reject the gift of God's grace.

However, there is that second point, which is whether it is a correct assumption that all of this is true. Sure, it's not a completely baseless assumption, but even in extraordinary situations, skepticism is certainly possible. The ancient Israelites saw the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, manna from heaven, etc., and they still said (essentially), "Leaving Egypt was a big mistake; God doesn't care about us."

For those of us who live in more boring times, skepticism is even easier. The miracles of the Bible are easily dismissed as fables (some of it may be), the wonder of creation is dismissed as a purely natural phenomenon (which it actually is after all), and personal experiences of the religious are dismissed as emotionalized self-delusion (which clearly at least some of it is).

So the difficult question (and really perhaps Francois' original one in essence) is whether it can ever be ethical to believe in something that is not true, or perhaps at least not precisely accurate.

Here's an interesting thought: If God exists in any form, is it unethical to be an atheist?

At 8/08/2009 2:53 PM, Blogger Brian declaimed...

Hi asciiBud,

Brucker did read me right in one way - I wasn't arguing against God in either your sense or the Hebraic sense. Sorry if the lightness of my characterizations communicated that I was making fun of those events recorded in the Bible and/or poking fun at your believing them (in the interest of full disclosure, I believe them myself, and I'm pretty sure you don't). That was not my intention. I did find the particular phrase "Moses thought he had though life observation genuine reason for believing in God" funny when applied to the recorded events of his life.

The point I was arguing that ethics - and in particular the ethics of belief or disbelief - depend on the truth or falsehood of the object of your belief. In general, your ethics depends on your metaphysics.

I did go back to the post you referenced and only found one thing that I thought approached a beginning of a description of God:

"the foundation of what we observe as our lives and world..."

you typed this from a later post:

"'God' in the sense of all of our nature including that which we know and that which we don’t."

The first reminds me of some philosophers' notion of God as "the ground of being." The second seems like you are looking inward and finding the Divine in human nature. I'm really not sure what you're saying God is, so there's no way I would make an attempt to criticize it or believe it.

At 8/08/2009 3:46 PM, Blogger Brian declaimed...

Hi Brucker,

Your last post was a good one with a lot of clarity. Thanks.

I do have a side question with regard that post, though. How do you reconcile your believing that the Bible is true to your believing that some of the Bible miracles may be fables and that creation is purely a natural phenomenon?

And seriously: I'm not trying to pick a fight. I just want to see where you are coming from. And I promise, if you respond to that question on the board, I won't answer it at all (whether I think your response is adequate or not) unless you specifically request me to do so.

Gosh, that hurt. I love to argue.

Anyway, you did read me at least partially right about my response to asciiBud - I wasn't arguing against God. I do believe the Bible myself, but that's not what I was going for with that whole thing.

As to your last, interesting question: I think it's a bit loaded to give a straight yes or no for two reasons.

First, I think that the particular "form" in which God exists matters. A theist would insist for reasons you've already stated that unbelief in God would be unethical. However, a pantheist can speak of "God" while being an atheist. This sort of problem could probably be rectified by more specific definitions and clarification of language.

Second (and I think more importantly), if "atheist" is used in the common, modern sense, I think the question loses intelligibility because of the nature of atheism. Here's the line of thought:

1) to speak of "ethical" requires an appropriate metaphysical foundation

2) atheism does not have the metaphysical "horses" to provide such an appropriate foundation


3) it doesn't make sense (from the perspective of atheism) to call being an atheist ethical or unethical - there is no appropriate "atheist ethics."

Statement 3) follows from 1) and 2), so if you disagree with 3), go ahead and critique 1) and/or 2.

I'd be interested in any responses.

At 8/09/2009 10:21 PM, Blogger Brucker declaimed...

How do you reconcile your believing that the Bible is true to your believing that some of the Bible miracles may be fables...

I only suggest it as a possibility. If you know the Bible well, you know there are some sections (the first portion of John 8 and the last portion of Mark 16, are most well known) that were edited in by later writers. What that means for both those sections and for the NT as a whole is up to the individual to decide for themselves. I'm personally willing to trust the Bible, but accept that there are other points-of-view that are reasonable.

...and that creation is purely a natural phenomenon?

What else would you call it? In my view, whatever cause the universe to come into existence was by definition the first natural phenomenon.

And seriously: I'm not trying to pick a fight. I just want to see where you are coming from.

Check out my other blogs. Really, this discussion probably doesn't belong here. Francois might get pissed.

This sort of problem could probably be rectified by more specific definitions and clarification of language.

Heh, isn't that always the case?

Second (and I think more importantly), if "atheist" is used in the common, modern sense, I think the question loses intelligibility because of the nature of atheism. Here's the line of thought:

I've heard the line of thought, and I don't buy it, both because I've met plenty of ethical atheists, and because there's something absurd about the conclusion.

At 8/10/2009 10:17 AM, Blogger Brian declaimed...

"I've heard the line of thought, and I don't buy it, both because...

Your objections:

1) "I've met plenty of ethical atheists..."

Me, too - and I like ethical atheists a whole lot more than un-ethical theists. But the behavior of atheists (or theists) is irrelevant to the truth status of the thesis at hand.

2) "...and because there's something absurd about the conclusion."

Nice cartoon - but could you clarify? It had more than one absurdity.

I'm thinking that the absurdity to which you are referring is the notion that things can't be good or bad without the presence of a God (or a parodied God-man, in this case). I don't think this notion is absurd (the portrayal of the God-man notwithstanding); I think it is inescapable.

I'll speak generally for the sake of space but am willing to go into more detail in future posts: a metaphysical position of atheism ultimately leads to some type of system of utilitarian ethics. In such a system, good and bad are determined by social agreement, not by any objective standard.

No objective standard, no satisfactory ethical system.

IMHO, ethical atheists are acting on borrowed ethical capital injected into a utilitarian system without a good foundation.

At 8/10/2009 11:34 AM, Blogger Brucker declaimed...

Well, sure, if you want, you can argue that atheistic ethics are by necessity flawed, but aside from the foundational morality provided by God (which an atheist of course cannot depend on) you're dealing with a matter of opinion. And that's the problem: since an atheist isn't going to accept your moral center as meaningful, then you're the one from their perspective who is on shaky ground.

Going back to the cartoon, do you really think that Billy's actions in panels 5-7 are morally acceptable since there is no God? If you do, I would take the position that your ethics are flawed.

As a Christian, I am of an opinion that is sometimes unpopular among my fellow Christians that there exist impersonal forces that are beyond God (whatever form deity may happen to take), such as logic. Best example: logically God either exists, or He doesn't. If God exists, no amount of "omnipotence" will allow God the power to not exist. It may be that there are some moral principles that likewise transcend the will of God. I'd like to think that murder is wrong whether God is watching over our actions or not; and someone would have to convince me otherwise, which you have not done.

At 8/10/2009 3:45 PM, Blogger asciibud declaimed...

Brian, well stated--I am very much "looking inward and finding the Divine in human nature." Accordingly, because I see God as within us all, God can't leave per se. The cartoon "Morality in a God-Man-Less Universe" shows that a concept of a God that can leave us is a silly and unhelpful concept of a God. Although God can't leave, we as humans are only ever partially in touch with the divinity within ourselves, so things can and do run amok.

Brian says "ethics depend on the truth or falsehood of the object of your belief." Nobody can prove God exists or doesn’t (your or my faith is not proof), so how is Brian’s "if and only if" logic is useful? I would suggest the ethics of an act should instead be answered by asking if the act promotes your values. Don't worry first about God or "metaphysical foundations" but instead about the every-day pragmatics of trying to live up to your values. Two of my core values are 1) Do your best to minimize harm, and 2) Respect life's diversity.

Brucker, you ask "If God exists in any form, is it unethical to be an atheist?" I have argued that it's useful to believe God exists, but I do NOT think atheism is necessarily unethical. I have atheist friends who meet my above two stated values, so to that extent I view them as ethical. More interesting to me, however, is exploring how my and their ACTIONS relate to my and their VALUES--and remaining open to the possibility of amending my values--in short, stay open minded and do lots of thinking about life and stuff. So, I would like to adjust Francois Tremblay's original question "Is belief an ethical act?" to "Do the specifics of what I believe help me act in accordance with my values?"

At 8/10/2009 5:58 PM, Blogger Brucker declaimed...

My point was not about atheists, but about atheism, as (assuming God exists) it would be a belief in a falsehood. It's perhaps more of an issue for the statements that Brian was making; it's certainly clear that it's possible to believe in something that's not true and still generally be ethical, and there exist both ethical atheists and theists.

"Do the specifics of what I believe help me act in accordance with my values?"

That's a very provoking question with regards to the God of the Bible. Think of Abraham: he probably decided to follow Jehovah because of the value system he saw inherent in Jehovah-worship, but later in his life, Jehovah asked him to sacrifice his son, an atypical request. Thus arguably Jehovah did not help Abraham to act in accordance with his values. Whether or not that was a bad thing depends on your theology.

At 8/10/2009 6:22 PM, Blogger asciibud declaimed...

Brucker, be it either about atheists or atheism, the question remains: how is it useful to define ethics in terms of whether something is true or not (God's existence) when it's not possible to ever determine if that something is true or not?

At 8/10/2009 6:46 PM, Blogger Brucker declaimed...

I don't know, that's a tough question. The thing that bothers me about it is that while we may not be able to prove it one way or the other, nonetheless either God exists or doesn't. Furthermore, there are people who fundamentally believe either way.

I'm not 100% convinced that we can define "ethical" in a way that is both meaningful and unbiased. Francois says "as a social rule or judgment, group norm, etc", but I feel that is far too relative; unless I'm reading it wrong, it allows the actions of the 3rd Reich to be considered "ethical". Furthermore of course, there was time when belief in God was the group norm, and in other places and times, the group norm was atheism.

Ethics can be so darn complicated. Most people can agree that murder is wrong, but some people deduce that because murder is wrong, murderers should be put to death, while others see that conclusion as self-contradictory.

At 8/10/2009 7:36 PM, Blogger asciibud declaimed...

I agree ethics can be very complicated. One of my values as stated was to TRY to MINIMIZE harm...vague in order to allow for twisty complications. I think the only way to maximize our wisdom (and our connection with the Divine within us) is to avoid simplistic feel-good answers (and simplistic feel-good ethics) and forever put our thinking caps on and open our hearts and conscience. Both atheist and religious camps can fall into oversimplifications, often arrogantly so. I say if a question makes your head hurt then it's a good question to ask. I think Francois Tremblay's concern about "belief" as a "group norm" is that it promotes the simplistic answers and lets people feel OK about not asking the hard questions. I agree religion very frequently does that, but it's a problem with the details of specific religions practiced in specific ways and not a problem with belief itself. The athetists Dawkins and Harris have beliefs too!, beliefs that let them avoid hard questions--things don't seem nearly as complicated if you decide you know God doesn't exist. Francois Tremblay, I would love to hear what you think.

At 8/11/2009 9:05 PM, Blogger Brian declaimed...

Gosh - step away from the computer for a day and a half and you miss a lot!

I'll try to respond to one thing each from Brucker and asciiBud and then just see where we go from there.

First, Brucker's question to me:

"Going back to the cartoon, do you really think that Billy's actions in panels 5-7 are morally acceptable since there is no God?"

It's not whether those actions are morally acceptable or not (of course they're not, but only from my theistic perspective); atheism is inadequate to even develop the categories of "good" and "bad." There's no basis for determining a system of ethics other than personal or societal opinion. E.g. "human trafficking is wrong" reduces to something like "my neurons are firing in such a way as to make me feel revulsion when human trafficking in mentioned." In a world without God, there is no real, absolute norm to determine good or bad. Billy's actions just "are" - neither good nor bad, if atheism is true.

Pragmatically this boils down to societal ethics being determined by the most powerful. Nietzsche was brilliant and absolutely right in this respect.

Second, asciiBud's really good question:

" is it useful to define ethics in terms of whether something is true or not (God's existence) when it's not possible to ever determine if that something is true or not?"

Even if we can't prove conclusively that some things are true, I think we can prove that some things are false. For the reasons above (and some others), I think atheism simply kills ethics (I think it also kills rationality, and therefore science and other stuff, but that's for another board, I suppose). Basically, taking systems of thought, starting with their assumptions and drawing them out to their logical conclusions to see how internally consistent they are, is very useful in evaluating them. Then we can end up with at least some that are plausible, rejecting others that are not. I agree it is a difficult process, but I don't think we need to throw up our hands and give up.

OK - enough for now. As always, interested in your responses.

At 8/19/2009 3:55 PM, Blogger Marshall declaimed...

Brian--I disagree with you completely. I'm going to quote PZ Meyers here, who I think stated it rather nicely:

"Here is the difference between religious and secular morality written in boldfaced crayon. The religious claim to have an absolute, a god, who has dictated an unquestionable standard for what is good, and the role of the mere human individual is to be obedient to that standard, to follow the hierarchy of leaders who exist to translate and explain their deity's rules. I can see where this certainly has some advantages to a society — it's a tool to promote and enforce service to the state or church — but it's not morality. It's rationalized slavery.

We godless lack that certainty, and we know the world is a complex place that requires compromise and is not ruled by a moral force — virtue is subject to negotiation, and is found in working together with others to find mutually satisfactory solutions. Good is not absolute, it is an emergent property that arises from successful networks of individuals. It is also something that is measured by evidence: we look at the good that people do, not the promises that they make and never keep, or the lies that dovetail nicely into dogma. Competence is a virtue. Intent is meaningless without action.

We also know that goodness is not a state of being, but a process that requires constant effort and continuous assessment against its effects in the real world. Blind adherence to a presupposition without adjustment to fit the facts of execution is a formula for doing great harm."

God killed every single person on earth (save a handful) with a flood. He's murdered entire cities. He's divvied up conquered females amongst the people of his army.

Here's some moral hypocrisy by religious fanatics: Do you support freedom of belief? You shouldn't, because your God doesn't--he gives those who don't believe in him the worst possible punishment imaginable--torture for eternity. For a belief. And you expect me to think that he's a good moral compass? I think I'll stick to my own values.

At 8/20/2009 1:10 PM, Blogger Brucker declaimed...

I was going to pause to let Brian answer these questions (and indeed, I'm curious as to what his answers might be, coming from a more straightforwardly fundamentalist mindset than I) but I'm finding it difficult not to comment.

It seems to me that there are some difficult questions that arise philosophically in the interplay of theology and ethics. Can an atheist be ethical (since supposedly they lack a supernatural moral anchor of sorts, as seems to be the argument)? Can a theist be ethical (since they have such an anchor, but the nature of that anchor is questionable to the non-theist; see next question)? Can an omnipotent/omniscient/omniwhatever God be ethical?

In some ways, that's a central question, but not easy to answer. For some fundamentalist types (and Brian may be in this camp) the answer is that such a being is ethical by definition, as that being defines morality. For most of us, that's not a satisfactory answer, since, even if true, it's somehow too arbitrary, isn't it? One of two things seems to be needed: either we need an ethical standard independent of deity (something Brian and many others cannot accept) or we at least need consistency.

Now my view, while explained more fully elsewhere, leans heavily on consistency. Skeptics can point to many places in the Bible where God did things that would be considered morally reprehensible if a human being had done them; but I think they miss the simple fact that God is not a human being. Why is it a given that God should have the same ethical standards as mere human beings? Parents do not have the same rules as their children; police do not have the same rules as average citizens; politicians do not have the same rules as non-politicians. Sure, we're all bound in some sense to the same overall rules, but there are specific areas where our behavior is different because our roles in society are different.

The government has the right to levy fines against certain criminals, put others behind bars for varying lengths of time, and take away the lives of certain others. Why should God have the authority to do less? Granted, even this argument does not easily answer all questions of morality leveled at the God of the Bible, but I think it's a reasonable point of discussion.

At 8/25/2009 12:00 AM, Blogger Marshall declaimed...

So basically, what you're saying is that a God will get a free pass to perform what humans would consider morally reprehensible--because he's God. But if a human were to do any of that, it would be an atrocity.

Why do you consider it an atrocity? Let's take genocide for example--something God has no problem doing. My guess is that you consider it an atrocity because it means causing death to millions of people. Ask yourself why you find that a bad thing, when your God has no problem doing it? It's a bad thing to you because you have a natural authority--independent of the God who commits genocide--that tells you that genocide is bad.

At 8/25/2009 11:55 AM, Blogger Brucker declaimed...

I've written about it in greater detail here, and I'd love to hear anyone's thoughts on the matter, but to give a short answer, I don't see it as so bizarre to expect that a higher authority has a different moral standard to live by. Aside from what I said above about governments, we recognize that parents have the right to discipline their children, while siblings generally do not. School teachers have the right to speak in class without permission, while students do not. Uniformed soldiers are largely excused for killing during wartime, while civilians are not.

God doesn't "get a free pass", but I'll admit from our perspective, the difference is hard to tell, since his supposed level of authority is so far above us. Actually, there's a great parallel from current events: this morning on the news, there was talk about the CIA's torture of terrorism suspects. Most people would agree that if you or I were to do to our neighbor what the CIA did to these people, it would be morally wrong. However, since the CIA is part of the government and did what they did in order to secure the safety of the American people, it's much less clear-cut for them. (Yeah, for some people, the moral status of these actions is completely clear, but there are people on both sides of the divide who feel equally strongly about it.)

At 8/25/2009 12:21 PM, Blogger Brucker declaimed...

Aw heck, so long as I'm dropping links, here's something I forgot I wrote a long time ago on the nature of the interplay between God and morality: Moralists Anonymous

At 8/25/2009 9:56 PM, Blogger Brian declaimed...

OK, Marshall and whomever cares to read – here’s the response from the rabid “fundamentalist”:

Meyers states that, “Good is not absolute,” and then proceeds to tell us what it absolutely is. He also sits in judgment of broken promises and lies, implying that breaking promises and lying are not part of what is “good.” This is clearly self-contradictory.

“We godless lack that certainty” (yes, he’s saying it ironically and/or sarcastically), yet the whole tone of this quote exudes certainty of another type. Count the number of times he uses the words, “perhaps” or “maybe” or “possibly” or the like. I find his disdain for the certainty of the “godly” ironic in light of his certainty of his own assertions.

The context of the quote comes in criticism of some crazy stuff a Rabbi said about politics. Myers uses the guy’s statements to springboard to a criticism of “religion” in general. Not exactly fair, especially when most religious folks would probably disagree with the Rabbi, many for religious reasons.

OK – now to Marshall’s additions.
You (Marshall) seem to allude to some biblical passages, so I’ll assume you’re talking about Christianity (maybe Judaism?) Anyway, to characterize God’s punishment as torture for having a mistaken belief is simply a mis-characterization of biblical teaching. Jesus certainly condemned lots of people, but it was for what they did and didn’t do, which he also claimed was inextricably linked to internal motivation. Without going into details, reducing the profundity of his teaching to the problem of the choice of a belief is clearly a straw man.

As for supporting freedom of belief – there’s political freedom and “theological” freedom. I support the political right to be theologically wrong. I think it’s a really good compromise among believers and non-believers of various sorts who can’t see eye to eye. That way we can argue with each other on blogs like this, in the culture at large, and in the courts, instead of trying to subdue each other with the sword. The Christianity of New Testament times certainly didn’t argue for the establishment of a theocratic system where unbelief wouldn’t be tolerated. John the Baptist even made it a point to tell Christians (I guess at that historical point “pre-Christians”) in the Roman army not to get out, but to behave justly as they worked for (pagan) Caesar.

Finally – do you believe that there are certain moral/ethical standards that are absolute, that all people at all times in all cultures are obligated to follow? If not, then I think we should just agree to disagree and leave it at that (unless you can show me how moral relativism could even be logically plausible).

If you do believe in moral absolutes, I’d be interested in hearing what you think some of them are and why you think they are absolute. Then we might have some more fun stuff to talk about.

Again,interested in any responses or comments. Sorry for the length.

At 8/27/2009 4:48 PM, Blogger Marshall declaimed...

I don't believe in moral absolutes--Meyers doesn't either, and he wasn't listing things he considers absolutes. He was giving examples of things that he considers right and wrong--which is different from claiming they are "absolutes." The difference between moralities religious morality and morality from an evolutionary perspective is that, from the religious point of view, we do good because God will punish us otherwise. God's sense of morality is different from our own, and you will probably admit--he will kill nations and put people who don't believe that Jesus was his son in hell for eternity--that he's done things that, were a human to do them, that human would certainly be put to death or incarcerated.

From the evolutionary perspective, our sense of right and wrong derives from millions of years of certain things being better for society than others. I dislike the idea of killing someone else because I have a feeling of sympathy ingrained in my genes--it's bad because societies that didn't believe so were at a disadvantage than those who learned to work in harmony.

One thing you stated:
>> Anyway, to characterize God’s punishment as torture for having a mistaken belief is simply a mis-characterization of biblical teaching.

This is not a mis-characterization. The Bible tells us that we are all sinners, and that only those who accept Jesus as their lord and savior are wiped clean of their sins and can enter heaven. All the rest of us who don't hold this belief--e.g. me--will burn in hell for eternity. No matter what way you cut it, according to Christianity, I will receive the worst possible punish for a belief.

As for your final comment--I don't believe that there are absolute ethical standards. But I do think that there are certain basic moral principles that nearly all individuals possess due to our evolutionary history. They're necessarily arbitrary because they've been time-tested, and they work better than others. There is a reason for them--as opposed to the arbitrary word of some god.

At 8/27/2009 8:59 PM, Blogger Brian declaimed...

Thanks for your thoughts, Marshall.

I'll respond more thoroughly, but could you clarify something for me first? You said:

"They're [the basic moral principles shaped by evolution] necessarily arbitrary because they've been time-tested, and they work better than others."

Did you leave out a "not"? It seemed to me like you were asserting that moral principles derived from evolutionary history were NOT arbitrary (as opposed to arbitrary precepts from a god), but your sentence as is says that they are.

Am I right about the missing "not" or not? Let me know what's up, and then I'll post again.

At 8/28/2009 11:04 AM, Blogger Brucker declaimed...

I'm going to side with Brian here and say that you are mischaracterizing God when you talk about being punished for a belief or lack thereof. I linked to it before, but I'll link again, in hopes that someone will actually read it:

I'm answering, I'm answering!

At 8/30/2009 3:46 AM, Blogger Marshall declaimed...

Ok, I read through the article. How it reads to me is someone who, realizing the moral dilemma of giving an infinite punishment for a finite crime (why is belief a crime in the first place?), attempts to diminish the severity of hell as much as possible. The bible is pretty explicit as to what happens to non-believers--and, even ignoring that, it's very explicit in how much better the believers have it than the non-believers.

Yes, I did leave out a "not"--sorry about that. It's not arbitrary that we have a "killing is bad" rule ingrained in us, because it's counter-productive to society. Our set of morals don't all make logical sense from a cost-benefit analysis point of view, because the complex moral rules that we've developed are extended from a smaller set of natural principals.

At 9/02/2009 12:09 PM, Blogger Brian declaimed...

Thanks for the clarification - just wanted to make sure I understood you.

I'll stipulate to PZ's relativism, though he seems passionate like only an absolutist can be. For example, when he says, "Competence is a virtue", I expected some clarification as to when it is a virtue and when it isn't, or to whom it is a virtue and to whom it isn't. Anyway, I'll just assume he left it out for the sake of brevity or something.

I'll let you and Brucker continue the argument about the particulars of Christianity if you want. It doesn't seem productive to me to argue about whether a particular set of ethical absolutes are good or true when you believe any claim to ethical absolutes must necessarily be false.

Since you quoted PZ, let me quote Dawkins in a fairly recent interview:

(disclosure: I edited stuff out for the sake of brevity, but it doesn't change the contextual meaning)

Interviewer: What defines your morality?

Dawkins: Moral philosophic reasoning and a shifting "zeitgeistz."

Interviewer: As we speak of this shifting zeitgeist, how are we to determine who’s right? If we do not acknowledge some sort of external [standard], what is to prevent us from saying that the Muslim [extremists] aren’t right?

Dawkins: Yes, absolutely fascinating. What’s to prevent us from saying Hitler wasn’t right? I mean, that is a genuinely difficult question.

Dawkins admits his own moral relativism doesn't allow him to have a logical basis for making moral judgments.

I agree with him on this. How could you not?

To put it more crassly, to say that "The Christian concept of hell is morally despicable no matter how you try to dress it up" has exactly the same moral import as, "Broccoli is disgusting no matter how much cheese you try to smother it with", if you are an ethical relativist. An ethical absolutist can consistently distinguish the two.

At 9/14/2009 11:06 AM, Blogger Brian declaimed...

Was it something I said?

Do I have bad breath?

I usually get some interesting comments in reply before too long.

What's up?

At 9/14/2009 12:24 PM, Blogger Brucker declaimed...

Most likely, people have gotten tired of a discussion that, after 50 comments, has gotten nowhere of great significance. If you're in the mood for a good fight, you could find something offensive to you on one of my blogs and we could argue it ad infinitum, I'm usually game for it. I've got plenty of material to offend either side of the evolution/creation debate, for instance.

At 9/15/2009 1:26 PM, Blogger Brian declaimed...

Don't want to fight, just want to go further in this discussion. Right now, I'm hoping a moral relativist can explain how he/she can have a logical basis for making moral judgments.

Hope the discussion about this isn't over!

At 9/15/2009 8:03 PM, Blogger asciibud declaimed...

Consider an argument for moral absolutism: without absolutes we have no foundation, no philosophic underpinning, and anarchy! Now consider a criticism of that: absolute rules cannot have the sensitivity we need towards all of the globe's disparate cultures and socioeconomic realities and oppressions. Then consider a higher criticism of the resulting moral relativism: without a view to absolutes as an ultimate we won't have the needed guidance of a unifying view of a world that is ultimately one world. So, I suggest we can argue for a unifying absolutism but more as philosophical guidance and less as a global daily practice. Our earthly reality has a need for pragmatism before pure ideology, but preferably pragmatism in the light of a integrating ideology. Earlier in this blog I was talking about this same need for pragmatism.

Spirituality philosopher Ken Wilber's writings and his AQAL framework is the best I've seen so far for a model that aims for this pragmatic integration. Pastor Gretta Vosper in her book With or Without God argues, specifically within Catholicism, for similar evolution within pragmatism.

I agree with Marshall when he says morals are found from within ourselves, and from within the context of networks of action (ie. culture). Unlike Marshall, I see God as within myself, within all of us. Bucker, I agree we should attempt to lay down some moral standards in society but ultimately only as a pragmatic management strategy and not as moral absolutes. Ex. Killing is absolutely wrong...until you see lots of exceptions... I don't think I'm ultimately a moral relativist because I think we are all connected to the same God, and as we become more spiritually mature in a fully integrated way (ex. socially, emotionally, physically, rationally, religiously, ...) (which I can't see how any human can ever do fully) our understandings of what is better will slowly converge.

As for blog participation, I would like to see tie in to the original question and response from Francois Tremblay, or alternatively can someone suggest a new blog? Is belief an ethical act? As I suggested before, the question is not whether belief itself is ethical but whether specific beliefs encourage ethical living. I would now further that by suggesting ethical living should be measured by its pragmatism in furthering our individual, community, national and global growth towards compassion and love.

At 9/16/2009 11:47 AM, Blogger Brucker declaimed...

Well, I've already been hinting that I'd love to drum up more discussion on my own blog, but (1) I feel rather selfish to suggest something more direct, (2) the further this discussion goes, the less it seems to make sense, and (3) it seems that if I were to really actively suggest a move to my blog, I'd need a post specific to the topic, and I've been far too busy floundering in unemployment to actively blog for months now.

I still see this discussion having at root the problem of difficult-to-define terms. The only term that Francois defined was "ethical", and that was a definition that was neither clear nor sufficient for everyone here to agree upon. It seems to me that perhaps "ethical" refers to something relative to society and/or the situation, while "moral" refers to something of (supposed) absolute value, but I may be way off base, as the dictionary offers no great clarification.

Also, to further throw a wrench into the issue, I can't help but wonder if any given ethical/moral system suffers from a sort of Gödelian incompleteness? That is to say, if an ethical system has a rule for every possible moral issue, might it inherently be forced to have situations in which it self-contradicts? After all, supposedly ethical systems are logical axiomatic systems of a sort. (I once had a rather interesting discussion with a pastor/mathematician friend about the implications of Gödel's work on the concept of God's supposed omniscience.)

At 9/16/2009 4:28 PM, Blogger asciibud declaimed...

Typically, morality refers to our internal sense or intelligence of ethics, whereas ethics is the external system of rules and ideas. Brucker might ask if "moral" should refer to ABSOLUTE value because when we speak of specific people's morals, some people view their morals in absolute terms. However, cultural manifestation of morals (i.e. ethics) can certainly take absolute forms too (ex. fundamentalist religion), so I suggest if we want to talk about absolute morality, say "absolute morality," and likewise for ethics.

As for Godel's Incompleteness Theorems, Wikipedia says lots is written about how they really can't apply to real-world systems on the level with which we practically engage real-world systems, the gist being that this is because we don't engage real-world systems in a mathematically consistent way. Nevertheless, the legitimate philosophical question remains as to whether Godel's theorems say something about the ULTIMATE knowability of our realities. To me it seems that, as the same Wikipedia page touches on, while Godel's theorems may imply the impossibility of COMPLETE provability at one scope, you just need to increase your scope a notch to get complete provability of the smaller scope. Yes, this would imply an infinite need to keep reaching for larger scopes, and I would be interested to read about what is thought about that in regards to epistemology. However, here I hope to just establish that Godel's theorems are not of practical real-world concern.

Brucker, I think I can personally relate to your desire for philosophical rigor, for absoluteness. However, I think that a more rigorous philosophy should also incorporate how itself can be and is practically applied to the real world. That's a long winded way of me asking for pragmatism again. Ken Wilber's AQAL framework is very promising in this respect because it attempts to make room for the multi-faceted way human life and consciousness plays out, and it's introduced on Wikipedia here. See also Wilber's discussion of "the pre/trans" fallacy (thinly introduced here), which is what I was trying to show by just example in my previous post: as the scope of argument expands, you first SUPPORT moral absolutism (one example of Wilber's "pre"), then you DENY moral absolutism, then you again SUPPORT moral absolutism (Wilber's "post"), and Wilber says let's not get the "pre" and "post" confused just because they both ostensibly argue for the same thing (in my example, moral absolutism--they argue for it for VERY different reasons and mean VERY different things). I think Wilber is quite brilliant. He's written a bazillion books--the first one I read, Wilber's A Theory of Everything, I think is a good choice for a first. I also highly recommend his book Integral Spirituality which builds on the same ideas.


(typo in my previous entry: Gretta Vosper speaks about Christianity, not Catholicism specifically)

At 9/16/2009 4:50 PM, Blogger asciibud declaimed...

Sorry! Another typo. I meant trans, not post. Should have said: the scope of argument expands, you first SUPPORT moral absolutism (one example of Wilber's "pre"), then you DENY moral absolutism (Wilber's "post"), then you again SUPPORT moral absolutism (Wilber's "trans"), and Wilber says let's not get the "pre" and "trans" confused just because they both ostensibly argue for the same thing...

At 9/16/2009 7:53 PM, Blogger Brucker declaimed...

Hmm, an interesting philosophy, and I suspect I'm not getting nearly a good enough grasp on it from a short summary in a Wikipedia page. Still, there seems to be some value to what is being said there.

Actually, the pre/trans fallacy idea is very, very interesting, and reminds me of a number of things, including something I was writing earlier today. It seems the sort of thing that this is referring to is the tendency some have to point out that sometimes primitive people's understanding of the world can disagree with science up until a point, and then science eventually comes around to an understanding that lines up with the primitive, but this doesn't mean that primitive thought was better, it just coincidentally happened to be correct.

Whether or not I've got that anything near to being right, what I catch you as trying to say is that you believe there are moral absolutes, but their true nature can only be understood if one is willing to let go of the simpler absolutism of fundamentalist religion, more or less? If so, I think I might be inclined to agree, as a guest speaker at my church once said that morality should be based on truth, not the Bible (although hopefully the Bible happens to be true)!

Anyway, I was trying to write a post in my blog summing up this question, "Is belief an ethical act?", and realized although I have discussed the issues of the question here at length, it's rather disingenuous that I haven't bothered to actually attempt to answer it. As an amateur philosoher, I can get caught up in the complexities of it all, but as someone who still hopes to hold a tatter of "fundy" cred, I should have a straightforward Christian answer. So...

Yes, I think that belief is an ethical act. I have said, and will continue to say that the net practical effect of becoming a Christian in an individual's mortal life is generally negligible, it is the natural (or should I say supernatural?) Christian supposition that properly-applied faith will lead to a decrease of suffering in the afterlife for the individual Christian, and furthermore will lead to the further spread of Christianity, yielding an overall decrease in suffering of the general population as noted above.

That being said, interestingly enough, the Bible does not make the claim that belief is an ethical act. Many non-Christians (and frankly, Christians as well) mistake Christian salvation with morality. I perhaps should have answered Marshall above, but nonbelief is not a "crime" for which one is "punished", and if he missed that, then I don't think he read what I wrote closely enough. If I finish writing my blog entry, I'll make sure to work this all in.

At 10/20/2009 9:22 PM, Blogger Marshall declaimed...

Sorry I haven't chipped in in a while. I'm really busy with my impending qualifying exam and work, etc.

Brucker: I understand that non-belief is not a "crime" per se, but the results are pretty similar. The Bible is pretty explicit that, on the Day of Judgment, the Believers will be separated from the Unbelievers. The Believers will receive God's eternal love (i.e. go to heaven), and the Unbelievers will be cast away from his love (i.e. hell). However you want to dress this up, this means that those who believe in Jesus will be eternally rewarded, and those who don't believe in Jesus will be eternally punished. Whether it's called a crime or not, I don't really care--either way, by the Christian faith, I, a non-believer, will be eternally punished for a simple belief. How contrary is this philosophy to everything that Christians attempt to preach in this day and age, as our society tries to move towards acceptance of other cultures and beliefs? It's totally at odds with it.

I cite this as one example of a case where God's set of morals is at complete odds with our own. Namely, God's morals state that you can be punished for your belief. Our morals state that you should not. Where, then, did this sense of morality from within us come from? Surely not from God. It's an existence proof that morality can arise from something other than the higher power of the Christian Bible.

What I posit is that our set of morals is derived from rules of social interaction that have evolved based on what is beneficial to society. I feel a surge of goodness when I help someone else out; I feel shame when I commit a crime. Not because I was instructed by God, or even infused with his values--for lower species display similar sets of morals to varying degrees of complexity (the complexity of which is almost always proportional to the level of interaction among members of the group--which should tell you something right there).

I'm sorry if you've addressed this, and within the next few weeks I'll go back and read what you all have posted. But unless someone can convince me that Christianity doesn't say that the believers will be rewarded an the nonbelievers will not, then I don't see how one can claim absolution of God's morals.

At 10/22/2009 3:57 PM, Blogger Brian declaimed...

Hi Marshall - long time no hear from. Welcome back.

Three things:

1) To your point about being condemned for a "simple belief." The NT teaches that people inherently know there is a Creator and voluntarily suppress that knowledge, resulting in worshiping something in the creation rather than the Creator. The NT makes the accusation that unbelief is essentially high treason against the rightful ruler of the universe. The punishment fits the crime.

More specifically, "belief" or "unbelief" - again, according to the NT - is not just an intellectual exercise; it involves the depths of our psychological and emotional life. It is not a result of fairly innocent, disinterested contemplation, which seems to be more along the lines of how you are using "belief." I think your assessment of the Bible suggests that it teaches something like God punishes people for honest, intellectual mistakes (which really aren't mistakes at all) - which is certainly not what it perceives itself to be doing (if I may dabble in personification).

2)"It's an existence proof that morality can arise from something other than the higher power of the Christian Bible." Has anyone argued that they can't? I haven't. You're claiming that morality ONLY arises from things that are not absolute. Besides the difficulties involved in proving a universal negative, the claim involves both rational and pragmatic difficulties that are formidable. (E.g. pragmatic: how do we justify our outrage at an antisemitic culture? Or a caste system? Or the "cleansing" of genocide?) The rational objection follows.

Am I representing your perspective fairly? Please correct me on this if necessary.

3) From an evolutionary standpoint vis a vis someone like PZ, morality is relative to your circumstances, social support system, and evolutionary hard-wiring. It is adaptive and purposeless. This perspective (which I think you share with PZ), to be consistent, needs to be applied to REASON also. In other words, the development of reason is simply adaptive and purposeless. There is no absolute standard of reason that everyone should be bound to.

Subjectivism makes everything a matter of "taste."

At 10/22/2009 6:05 PM, Blogger Marshall declaimed...

I'd say that's pretty accurate about my viewpoint, although I'm not sure what you mean by "purposeless." If you mean that someone else (i.e. god) has already come up with a reason, then yes, I suppose it is purposeless. The there is always a reason behind something. For example, my hatred of anti-semitic lifestyles stems from the fact that I've been taught and agree with the claim that all people should be treated equally, despite whatever culture they're been raised in. I don't think adopting such a viewpoint is "purposeless," because, in this case, the purpose is to increase the well-being of others; something that I care about.

I would say that history shows fairly concretely that morality is based on circumstance. The Bible places men above women. Until recently, men were considered more entitled than women; now, due to circumstances, most peoples' views have changed. Our general moral code now, based on these changes, states that women and men should be given equal rights. It was not always so--and most definitely not so in the Bible. Once again, the word of god conflicts my own moral code.

To address the "belief" issue: the basic premise--that people inherently believe in a Creator and suppress this belief--has nothing to do with the truth. I personally believe that, throughout the history of mankind, the tendency for people to believe in a higher power was generally beneficial; it allowed societies to function in a better organizational manner when people could take commands from those whom they had no contact with. However, the fact that most people have a tendency to believe in a god has no bearing on whether or not a god exists. The Christian claim basically states that the search for truth is bad (this search, as it did in my case, can often lead to atheism), and that people should simply bury their head in the sand and believe. The church has obstructed truth-seeking for centuries, due to the fact that the truth often conflicts with statements made in a 2,000 year-old-book, and they don't want to deal with the reality that these 2,000 year-old-stories, which have been translated countless times and written by unknown, might be just those--stories.

And yes, I find it morally abhorring that you consider an eternal punishment acceptable for an "unbelief." This is not high treason; this is me, observing the fact that there is so much contradiction in the Bible, so many atrocities at the hand of god, and so much evidence indicating that the author was not a divine creature but men--a book which expresses views reflecting exactly those of the society present at the time it was written--that the far more likely Truth is that the Bible was simply written by common men passing down stories. To say that seeking Truth and interpreting the evidence against a god is not only evil but punishable by the worst fate imaginable--this is something I only find adds to the evidence that my path is the true one.

At 10/29/2009 10:49 PM, Blogger Brian declaimed...

Hi Marshall,

I'll respond more specifically and thoroughly to some of your claims in your last post, but before I do I think you should clarify what you mean by agreeing with this statement:

“…all people should be treated equally, despite whatever culture they're been raised in.”

You’ve embraced “equality” as a moral value that transcends culture, yet you say there are no morals that transcend culture:

“I would say that history shows fairly concretely that morality is based on circumstance.”

You can’t have it both ways. Which is it? Is "equality" a universal moral value or is it determined by circumstance?

At 11/05/2009 2:07 PM, Blogger Marshall declaimed...

Mr. Cheek: the second. Sure, my moral viewpoint is that all people should be treated equally. This has no always been so. The Bible doesn't treat women equally, for example: God tells his own soldiers to divvy up the females in conquered territories amongst themselves. This is a reflection of my current moralistic viewpoint, which is the result of the culture in which I was raised. Had I been born in the 1930s, I'd probably think women didn't deserve to vote. Had I been born in the 1700s, I'd probably think it was ok to own a slave. I know many, many Christians did during that time period. So yes, my view that all people should be treated equally is due to current moral trends in our society. I still believe them and I feel that these are correct, but they have undoubtedly been influenced by how I was raised, not by a universal truth.

At 11/05/2009 2:09 PM, Blogger Marshall declaimed...

My apologies: women's suffrage became codified in 1920 with the 19th amendment.

At 11/05/2009 7:59 PM, Blogger Brian declaimed...

Wow, Marshall. Thanks for your candor. I am astounded that you admit that your own morality is determined by circumstances and yet affirm that it is “correct.” Why are your views on equality (and presumably other moral values) correct? Because you “believe” them and “feel” that they are.

You have for all intents and purposes discarded rationality in the discussion of ethics and are asserting a view of morality that is blindly “faith-based.” How am I supposed to engage in logical discourse with you when you take such a position?

Oh - “Mr. Cheek” and “Brian” are the same person, and if you hadn’t typed “Mr. Cheek” in your recent post, I might not have caught it for a while longer. Apparently I messed with my google profile in such a way as to change my posted identity here. I’d rather be called “Brian” and will try to change my profile back to reflect that in future posts.

At 11/06/2009 1:59 PM, Blogger Marshall declaimed...

Hi Brian--I think you're looking at my sentence differently than I intended it to be read--a fault on my part. When I say "I feel these to be correct," I was basically saying the redundant fact that I follow my own moral values. In other words, I feel that it's right to treat all people equally--because that is one of the facets of my moral code. I think that this feeling that all people should be treated equally is something that's dependent on upbringing, however. There are plenty of cultures all over the world right now where that is not the case--look how women are treated in Afghanistan, for example.

So I'm not saying my morality is correct in a universal sense. I'm saying that, to me, it's correct. If it wasn't, it wouldn't be my moral code!

At 11/06/2009 2:50 PM, Blogger Marshall declaimed...

That being said, there are many common aspects of morality that show up across all cultures, which I believe to be evolutionarily-derived (see Phillipa Foot's famous Trolley problem). Some of these, such as "murdering is bad," and "don't steal" are pretty consistent across cultures (although they very a bit depending on context--for example, killing someone in war is considered acceptable, or in self-defense).

At 11/07/2009 9:33 AM, Blogger Brian declaimed...

Hi Marshall,

You're correct.

But, since I believe and feel my own morals are good and true and therefore follow them, then I am also correct. In fact, anyone who follows his/her morals is correct, no matter what the content of those morals is.

Awesome! We're both correct. Crap - so was Hitler. So are those woman-haters in Afghanistan. So are those whom we call terrorists who are blowing themselves up for martyrdom.

Oh - and why exactly are you disagreeing with me (or with any of them, for that matter)? Not for any reason that has to do with the rules of logic. But BECAUSE OF YOUR CIRCUMSTANCES.

I seem to recall you claiming that some particulars of my moral system had "nothing to do with truth" and that your analysis affirmed that you were on the "true" path with respect to morality. I believe you even capitalized the word "Truth" once.

Am I to understand your use of the word "true" in the same sense as I understand your use of the word "correct" - that what you are saying is not "true" in a universal sense? That TRUTH is determined by circumstances?

At 11/08/2009 3:15 PM, Blogger Marshall declaimed...

Truth surely exists--I've never claimed that it doesn't. If someone asks a question "how many grasshoppers are alive on earth right now?" a correct, truthful answer does exist, independent of culture, etc. I'm not exactly sure what this has to do with the discussion of morality. My quote you were referring to:

>> "To address the "belief" issue: the basic premise--that people inherently believe in a Creator and suppress this belief--has nothing to do with the truth."

I wasn't talking at all about the truth of one's moral code (I don't think such a thing exists). I was talking about a particular aspect of our species--namely, the tendency to believe in a higher power. I think this tendency exists, and I was saying that the fact that we have this tendency has no bearing on the truth of whether or not a higher power does actually exist. There is a truth--either god exists or he does not. We don't know what the truth is, but the fact still does exist.

At 11/08/2009 5:31 PM, Blogger Brian declaimed...

OK - good. Thanks for humoring me on the "truth" issue.

[As a lengthy aside, YOU linked moral judgment and truth:

"And yes, I find it morally abhorring that you consider an eternal punishment acceptable for an "unbelief." This is not high treason; this is me, observing the fact that there is so much contradiction in the Bible, so many atrocities at the hand of god, and so much evidence indicating that the author was not a divine creature but men--a book which expresses views reflecting exactly those of the society present at the time it was written--that the far more likely Truth is that the Bible was simply written by common men passing down stories."

You justified your moral revulsion in large part by making truth claims (most fairly easily demonstrated to be false when you get to the specifics, IMHO). Anyway, I agree that morality and truth are linked - I don't understand why you don't see that they are, especially when you've linked them. But I digress - my main objection follows.]

As to the "morality" issue - I still think you have a very sticky situation. If I understand you correctly, you have no rational reason for selecting a certain set of moral values over another.

What makes your system of morality superior to that of Hitler? Mother Theresa? Joe the Plumber?

To be more crass, you may say that you are horrified at Nazi atrocities, but you must admit (following your previous explanations) that the Nazi ethic is correct in the same way and to the same extent as yours.

At 11/08/2009 10:03 PM, Blogger Marshall declaimed...

Well, my main point is that no moral system is "correct," because it's all relative to circumstance. But our moral code has evolved for a reason: because it works. I stated before that I think killing is bad because I'm capable of feeling sympathy and empathy, and these are rules that have been evolutionarily advantageous.

At the same time, our moral code is flexible in different areas as well. Our psyche is complex, and people can easily be manipulated into thinking or doing things that others find morally abhorring, simply from another frame of reference. Take, for example, the Nazis. I think we will all agree that Hitler was a despicable person by our standards. Most would probably say the same of almost all the Nazis. But do you really think that, at one point in time in Germany, suddenly a huge horde of morally despicable human beings happened to arise simultaneously? Of course not; they were human like you and I, and they were taught and learned a set of moral values that led them to actions they considered justified, but we find despicable.

When I say the Nazis were "wrong" and I am right, I mean that, based on my moral code--which prohibits genocide--I think they were wrong to commit mass murder. But simply the fact that they exist points to evidence that people can have a set of different moral values.

At 11/09/2009 1:28 AM, Blogger asciiBud declaimed...

Marshall and Brian (Mr. Cheek), great topic! I would like to suggest a way to satisfy both Marshall's desire for pluralism (sensitivity to all cultures) and Brian's need for absolutes if we are to be able to have reason beyond just blind faith to call any particular morality "correct." Ken Wilber (who I discuss previously) proposes the following moral goal: "Protect and promote the greatest depth for the greatest span."

I suggest 1) this goal is independent of cultural specifics or circumstance (i.e. should not contradict Marshall's need for pluralism) and 2) this goal is one that is worthy of global acceptance (i.e. I think it should satisfy Brian's request for a moral absolute because I see a justification for it that is based on reason).

By "span" Wilber basically means evolutionary diversity. By "depth" Wilber basically means more levels of evolutionary hierarchy (more levels of holons). Evolution manifests variation (this is span), but distinct from variation it also manifests systems/life that building upon and integrate previously manifested systems/life (this is depth). For example, humans are the point of evolution that seems to have the most "depth" because our minds can reach a level (of holon) built upon more layers than anything else we presently see in the universe (built upon the physical, then the biological, then the social, then the spiritual). His span/depth moral goal does NOT mean that humans should be considered ultimately more important than things (like other animals or trees or even bacteria or dirt) because the goal is not just the greatest depth but instead also the greatest span. And there are two general reasons for this depth/span balance: 1) depth requires span, and 2) span itself is also good. In this sense, the Nazis were wrong because they lost touch with protecting and promoting human "span."

The devil is in the details of interpreting what specifics actually do "Protect and promote the greatest depth for the greatest span." I've mentioned previously Wilber's AQAL framework and he says this frameworks calls us to answer to and balance a variety of aspects and dimensions in the course of this act of interpreting. As well, people will be at various levels of ability and consciousness within the AQAL framework and will therefore interpret this moral goal in different ways. I was talking about this same dialectical nature of our world when I previously said "we can argue for a unifying absolutism but more as philosophical guidance and less as a global daily practice."

Furthermore, Wilber suggests that humans have a basic moral intuition (BMI) that grows towards this depth/span moral goal. I agree, and I suggest that the reason for this is the ultimately simple fact that evolution itself (be it an instrument of God or not) appears to be striving for the same goal. I suggest that to strive for this goal is to simply honour our nature (or if you will, our spiritual truth, or if you will, God).

What do you think? Can these ideas combine some of the various valuable elements we are each bringing to this discussion?

At 11/09/2009 5:43 PM, Blogger Marshall declaimed...

Hi ascii--those are definitely interesting points. However, I don't exactly see how they support the "absolutism" view at all--they seem to suggest that our evolutionary morality is "directed"--as in, moves towards a particular goal. I'm not sure if this is the case--I think that, as species cognitive capacities have evolved, and thus their ability to extrapolate and apply combinations of rules to more and more situations, morality has indeed expanded and itself become far more complex. The famous Trolley problem demonstrates just how complex our sense of morality is--even if it feels uncomplicated and can be made with a snap judgment. This is what I believe Wilber is referring to when he talks about "depth"--as we move down the evolutionary tree, the breadth of morality shrinks, probably in accordance with the species cognitive capacities as well as the level of social interaction that exists among members of the species. This makes perfect sense, because morality--a cognitive process--is governed by the interactions of members among species. Species with greater levels of interaction will probably (I think) have proportionally more complex rules associated with that interactive behavior.

I think "span" refers to the level of variation produced not necessarily by a single particular species, but by the fact that genetic (or maybe cultural--this would fit nicely with my point)--can produce variations of those basic moral rules that have been genetically ingrained in us since were were primitive species. We all know that evolution can only work with what it already has--developmental biology is the best testament to that than any other evidence. So it stands to reason that some of the basic moral laws (i.e. "respect your parents") are species- and culturally-independent. However, other rules--maybe involving different groups within the species (nationalism), or even seemingly less important rules (be polite) may vary over cultures.

At 11/09/2009 10:07 PM, Blogger breakerslion declaimed...

Good grief! Look what happens when I stop paying attention. I could write a book about the logical fallacies contained in this thread.

Example: "Marshall's example of the shoelace (which nobody picked up on for some reason) is an excellent one."

No, it isn't! Observable, measurable, repeatable phenomena have nothing to say about extraordinary claims of the supernatural, and the ability of humans to imagine and indulge in wishful thinking. These are false analogies of the Apologist kind. Nothing new here.

Similarly, one can dismiss the "results" argument for belief. It is irrelevant to the outcome of religious belief, hierarchy, and dogmatic structure on society whether the magic figurehead is real, or a sock puppet of the clergy. People will believe ANYTHING as long as it is internally consistent, and defensible with additional bullshit spoken with authority. If you don't believe this, explain John From, the Mormons, and the COS, to name a few.

Moral relativism can likewise be exploded. There are axioms of morality. It is wrong to murder because you are taking that which does not belong to you, and you are committing an act that you cannot undo. Self-defense is not murder. Soldiers are placed in a situation where they are forced to defend themselves. The leaders of the hierarchy that put them in this situation are immoral, the soldier is not. Morality often is not the deciding factor in social motivation, and the decision to commit an immoral act is sometimes the right decision. This does not make morality relative to present circumstances.

Belief in belief is the rabbit pulling itself out of the hat by its own ears.

"It's all bullshit, and it's bad for ya." - George Carlin

At 11/09/2009 10:43 PM, Blogger Marshall declaimed...

breaklierson: the so-called "axioms" of morality do not explode moral relativism as proposed by evolutionary explanations. Your views on murder come from the fact that "taking that which is not yours" is bad--because, evolutionarily, a sense of moral duty to not murder has arisen. That doesn't mean much of morality doesn't come from circumstance, only that some are more or less universal due to our evolutionary history--i.e. they exist across all cultures. That doesn't mean that it's an absolute truth, however--other species don't share these axioms. Humans do, because they are evolutionarily derived.

At 11/17/2009 6:03 PM, Blogger Brian declaimed...

OK – I’m finally back. Sorry to disappoint some of you :-)

Marshall – I think we’ve spent a lot of time talking past each other – I’ve been repeating some of the same points, and so have you, both of us presumably thinking that the other person just doesn’t get what we’re saying. I think this suggests that we have fundamentally different understandings of reality.

Bottom line: you look only to the empirical world to explain all there is to explain about what is real (particularly through the lens of evolution); I think there are additional things that are true and real for which science doesn't have the appropriate tools.

Let me quote Arthur Strahler as a spokesmen who I think shares your view of reality (and puts it so much more succinctly than I can):


“In contrasting the Western religions with science, the most important criterion of distinction is that the supernatural or spiritual realm is unknowable…. Scientists in effect are saying:

‘You religious believers set up your postulates as truths, and we take you at your word. By definition, you render your beliefs unassailable and unavailable.’

This attitude is not one of surrender, but simply an expression of the logical impossibility of proving the existence of something about which nothing can possibly be known through scientific investigation.”


If you agree with Strahler that reality is unknowable apart from scientific investigation, then the conversation is over. You’ve taken a leap of faith that I could never take(such a position is fundamentally irrational), and our discussion about ethics is doomed from the start.

Of course, if didn’t get this right about you and Strahler, please correct me, and we’ll continue the conversation.

At 11/19/2009 3:42 AM, Blogger Marshall declaimed...

Hi Brian--I think that, if there were some way to detect whatever supernatural stuff occurs, there would be some scientific method that could do so as well. If people do indeed contact God through prayer, then there's no reason why one can't study the effects of prayer and make objective measurements. Similarly, if someone could teleport, use telepathy, or had some sort of telekinesis, we would be able to set up experiments that could generate hypotheses about it. And we'd most likely find a rational explanation behind it, and the "supernatural" would then become the "natural." If something is supernatural, then it exists within our reality, and therefore it's not supernatural. If it doesn't exist within our reality, then it might as well not exist at all, since it has no contact with us.

At 11/19/2009 4:33 PM, Blogger Brian declaimed...

Hi Marshall,

I understand the mission statement of this blog a lot more now: “We promote rational individualism, and are opposed to those who assert incoherent supernatural claims.”

I thought it meant that the author(s) opposed incoherent supernatural claims but would consider coherent supernatural claims. Now I understand that the position is that supernatural claims are NECESSARILY incoherent by virtue of their supernatural-ness.

It’s clear from your last post; you (1) defined “supernatural” out of existence and (2) assumed the concept of supernatural is in itself “irrational.”

(1) You implicitly defined “supernatural” in such a way that even in principle the “supernatural” can have no contact with the “natural” without becoming “naturalized.” The biblical writers often appeal to empirical things to support their contention that God interacted with their world. If you want to say that God by so doing ceases to be “supernatural” and becomes “natural”, that’s kind of weird, but OK. I guess you’ve established that the supernatural doesn’t exist (or is irrelevant), but allowed for the possibility of God existing. Kind of a strange use of language, but then again you’re one who defined “correct” to mean something like “I’m sincere” and “incorrect” as something like “morals that aren’t mine.”

(2) “And we’d most likely find a rational explanation behind it, and the ‘supernatural’ would become the ‘natural.’” Your clear bias: natural is rational, supernatural is irrational. Ever heard of theology?

One of the ironies I find in the evolutionary perspective is the accusation that other views are irrational while, at bottom, the evolutionary perspective itself is irrational. You’re willing to apply your evolutionary story-telling to the supposed history of morality, but what about applying it to the history of logic?

Consider the following excerpt from one of your recent posts:

“…the so-called ‘axioms’ of logic do not explode logical relativism as proposed by evolutionary explanations….That doesn't mean much of logic doesn't come from circumstance, only that some are more or less universal due to our evolutionary history--i.e. they exist across all cultures. That doesn't mean that it's an absolute truth, however--other species don't share these axioms. Humans do, because they are evolutionarily derived.”

OK, ok – that was a bit unfair – I made three replacements of “moral(s)” with “logic” or “logical.” But I did so with a point; evolutionary explanations that do not allow any knowledge apart from the scientific method ultimately implode into logical relativism. If our LOGIC is due to circumstances, what hope do we have of determining what is real? As the story goes, evolution has – so to speak – lied to us in the past because it has helped us survive. There is absolutely no reason to believe that evolution is not lying to us now.

Your viewpoint considers logic a survival adaptation, not as a means to find what is true.

That conforms to my definition of irrational.

Sorry for the length.

At 11/20/2009 12:39 AM, Blogger asciibud declaimed...

Firstly, Brian, what do you actually mean by "supernatural?" Is the supernatural unverifiable? If it is, then as Marshall asks, on what basis should we continue this blog? I maintain that mainstream science doesn't presently recognize its tools as useful for research into spirituality, but I also I also maintain that science CAN grow into something that can. Ken Wilber in his books is repeatedly adamant that nothing about the world as he proposes it is "hidden to experience or nestled safely away in a 'metaphysical' domain that cannot be checked cognitively with the appropriate tools." Wilber says the systems he proposes "follow all three strands of valid knowledge accumulation--injunction, apprehension, confirmation/refutation." (quotes from Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, second edition, pg 346) Wilber would disagree entirely with Arthur Strahler's view. And so would I.

But the picture does get twisty. Wilber says that even though the domain of spirituality is ultimately accessible to "valid knowledge accumulation", humans all have varying capability and see different degrees and aspects of reality. Although people who see smaller-scope worldviews will never agree until they find larger-scope worldviews, peer groups of people with larger-scope worldviews can mutually verify their understanding through "valid knowledge accumulation." Wilber discusses this at great length, and his take on developmental psychology is central.

Wilber isn't twisty for twistiness’ sake. Seeing human worldviews as developmental allows for a framework (in particular, Wilber’s AQAL framework) that can unify some otherwise seemingly disparate views. Brian's insight that evolution is "lying to us" is very important, and Wilber talks about this. Wilber's framework doesn't stop evolution from “lying” to us per se but it does give us a ladder to climb higher and watch “lying” going on. I think the additional things that are true and real" that Brian senses exist can fit with the larger-scope worldviews Wilber discusses. I think the evolutionarily-relative worldviews that Marshall senses can fit with the developmental psychology Wilber discusses. I think the observable, measurable, repeatable phenomena" that Breakerslion wants are met with Wilber's “injunction, apprehension, confirmation/refutation." I think this blog's mission "We promote rational individualism, and are opposed to those who assert incoherent supernatural claims" can be seen in a much larger-scope view when we come to understand that we can transcend (and also include and maintain!) "rationality."

When Wilber “believes” in “God” he means something entirely different than what most people would think he means from hearing those words. His books are longwinded, but there is a lot that needs to be said. He makes incredible sense.

At 11/20/2009 1:54 PM, Blogger Marshall declaimed...


Your replacement of the word "morality" with the word "logic" makes no sense. Logic involves reaching, with 100% confidence, a conclusion based on previous statements known to be either true or false. Logic is not something that varies from culture to culture, nor do its rules change, in the same way that the truth actually exists, regardless of what people think the answer is.

As for morality, yes, morality does vary across cultures and people. If you grow up in the mafia, you live by and believe the mafia's rules. If you were raised a Nazi, you'd think Jews were terrible human beings.

I don't understand how you can claim that the "evolutionary history" of logic is irrational. What history, other than discovery? How can discovery be irrational? Logic has no evolutionary history, in the same way that mathematics has no evolutionary history. I don't care how a species figures it out, if you add an orange to four oranges, you have five oranges.

At 11/22/2009 9:40 AM, Blogger Brian declaimed...

Hi Marshall,

It makes TOTAL sense. Your view of logic is untenable given your view of evolutionary origins.

Here's what I'm trying to say (quote from William Cooper, whom I believe shares your evolutionary views):


Logic is treated as though it were a central stillness....Logic is seen commonly as an immutable, universal, meta- scientific framework for the sciences as [it is] for personal knowledge. Biological evolution is acknowledged, but is accorded only an ancillary role as a sort of biospheric police force whose duty it is to enforce the logical law among the recalcitrant….

Comfortable as that mindset may…it has things backward…. [L]ogic is not the central stillness. The principles of reasoning are neither fixed, absolute, independent, nor elemental. If anything it is the evolutionary dynamic itself that is elemental. Evolution is not the law enforcer but the law giver - not so much a police force as a legislature. The laws of logic are not independent of biology but implicit in the very evolutionary processes that enforce them. The processes determine the laws.

…[L]ogical rules have no separate status of their own but are theoretical constructs of evolutionary biology….Logic is reducible to evolutionary theory….

The principles of pure Reason, however pure an impression they may give, are in the final analysis propositions about evolutionary processes. Rules of reason evolve out of evolutionary law and nothing else.”


He's right to apply evolutionary theory to logic as well as morals, something you are not willing to do. It naturally and logically follows, yet you resist.

Kudos to you for trying to hang onto logic as an absolute; but it's not compatible with evolutionary origins, and you're being inconsistent holding onto both.

Kudos to Cooper for being consistent. But then, if he's right, how do you argue for the truth of evolutionary theory? By using the logic of the scientific method, which is itself the product of evolution. The is circular and self-defeating.

Either view is clearly irrational.

At 11/22/2009 1:56 PM, Blogger asciibud declaimed...

Brian and Marshall, I think your disagreement stems from your different uses of the word "logic." I think Marshall means mathematical logic while Brian means interpretation of our real-life world.

Marshall, as soon as you go past purely mathematical examples (such as counting fruit) we find ourselves in the larger domain of real life where the interpretation and significance of premises is open to debate. What is an example using real-life complexity (i.e. not just counting things) where you can exhibit "100% confidence"? Marshall, you and I were discussing the same thing in June when I said "Nothing outside of the domain of mathematical proofs is FULLY conceivable." Rationality does not require mathematical just requires reason. Reason doesn't contradict mathematical logic per se, but in order to relate to our real-life world it out of necessity includes and transcends it.

Brian, in a sense, your substitution of the word "morality" with "logic" is reasonable--otherwise the word "logical" (a.k.a. sensible, rational) could only apply to mathematics and not the topics of this blog. However, the problem with the substitution is that it can be read to be denying the very broad spectrum of complexity between the domain of pure mathematics and the domain of real-life. In the course of applying the insights of pure mathematical logic to our real-life world, what we apply them TO is our humanly VIEWS of our real-life world, and in the sense that these views should always be subject to social debate "logic" is a poor substitute for "morality" or "reason."

Furthermore, I would disagree with William S. Cooper in his "The Evolution of Reason." I say there DOES EXIST pure logic (a.k.a. pure mathematics) that we can and should attempt to apply to our real life, and the ultimate validity of this pure logic is not relative to our particular evolutionary history. Instead, what is dependant on our evolutionary history is 1) which logic, which pure mathematics we have so far correctly discovered, 2) which humanly view of our world we try to apply this pure mathematics to, and 3) the characteristics of the application. Brian, you might object to #1 here saying that the only tools we have for determining which logic is "correctly discovered" are viewpoints from within evolutionarily manifested minds. However, we must grant ourselves A PRIORI knowledge of the correctness of some claims (eg, some mathematical tenets) in order to build any epistemology (upon which we build morality). The one review on Amazon of Cooper's book applies this same criticism to Cooper. Brian, if you don't allow yourself some a priori knowledge, then how can you establish anything YOU claim as non-circular? As for #2 and #3, I think I agree with Ken Wilber that the best tools we have for optimally discovering these is, again, "injunction, apprehension, confirmation/refutation."

An example of a very simple evolution-independent truth: the existence of reflexivity. Applying that to our real-life world we get the ethics of reciprocity, do unto others as you would do unto yourself. An example of a more complex evolution-independent truth would be: the universe is made of holons. Ken Wilber discusses many mathematical traits to holons (for example, holons are hierarchical) and in considerable detail uses these traits to substantiate his AQAL framework. In turn he uses his AQAL framework to substantiate his ethics and spirituality. Again, I highly recommend him.

At 11/22/2009 11:49 PM, Blogger Brian declaimed...

Hi asciibud,

I'll try to respond to the things directed to me.

[[Brian and Marshall, I think your disagreement stems from your different uses of the word "logic." I think Marshall means mathematical logic while Brian means interpretation of our real-life world.]]

I don't. I think we have a real disagreement. I mean the same set of deductive rules that most people mean - law of non-contradiction, modus ponens, modus tollens - all that jazz. The kind of stuff you'd find in a 1st-year logic class taught by a philosophy professor. I think Marshall means the same sort of thing, but he can speak for himself.

[[Brian, in a sense, your substitution of the word "morality" with "logic" is reasonable--otherwise the word "logical" (a.k.a. sensible, rational) could only apply to mathematics and not the topics of this blog. However, the problem with the substitution is that it can be read to be denying the very broad spectrum of complexity between the domain of pure mathematics and the domain of real-life. In the course of applying the insights of pure mathematical logic to our real-life world, what we apply them TO is our humanly VIEWS of our real-life world, and in the sense that these views should always be subject to social debate "logic" is a poor substitute for "morality" or "reason."]]

A couple of things:
(1)You are making a distinction between "logic" and "reason" that I didn't make (perhaps should have been more clear about this) in your analysis of my example and therefore doesn't really apply. I'm using the words "logic", "reason", and "rationality" interchangeably, all referring to the system of rules I mentioned above. E.g. "irrational" means "illogical" means "unreasonable."
(2) Still, you are giving mathematics a special, objective place that it doesn't deserve in the evolutionary framework. It is still subject to reduction to evolutionary theory just like morality is. I know you disagree with even the concept of this reduction as a matter of pragmatism; I address it briefly below.

[[Brian, you might object to #1 here saying that the only tools we have for determining which logic is "correctly discovered" are viewpoints from within evolutionarily manifested minds. However, we must grant ourselves A PRIORI knowledge of the correctness of some claims (eg, some mathematical tenets) in order to build any epistemology (upon which we build morality). The one review on Amazon of Cooper's book applies this same criticism to Cooper. Brian, if you don't allow yourself some a priori knowledge, then how can you establish anything YOU claim as non-circular?]]

Don't try to shift the burden of proof to me! It is your (and Marshall's) responsibility to SHOW how the rules of logic (or mathematics) are outside of evolutionary development or in some way consistent with it. Evolution relativizes everything - not just morality. It's a non-argument simply to assert that certain principles HAVE to be true in order to build your epistemology - my whole point is that you CAN'T use logic (or mathematics) to build an epistemology given evolutionary theory. I myself reject many parts of evolutionary theory, including those that give a materialist explanation of the origin of mind, so I'm not burdened with these particular sorts of logical problems as you are.

So let's hear it! You tell me your non-evolutionary source of logic, and I'll tell you mine.

Sheesh! I thought this was blog was driven by "unbelief." I now see that faith in certain things (e.g. logic, mathematics) - even in the face of self-contradiction - is acceptable, while faith in other things (faith itself, historic Christian notions of God) is right out.

At 11/23/2009 1:06 AM, Blogger asciibud declaimed...

Brian, I gave some substantiation as to why I think we should be making a distinction between "logic" and "reason." I don't see your substantiation as to why we shouldn't. Please, what is it?

What is my "non-evolutionary source of logic"? I already gave you two examples: reflexivity and holons. I'm not saying those two examples "have to be" true. Instead, I am suggesting they will A) hold up under "injunction, apprehension, confirmation/refutation" as true, and B) through the process of A we will not see any way that their truth is dependent on evolution. You say "evolution relativizes everything." How does evolution relativize my two examples???

So, now it's your turn. What is your non-evolutionary source of logic? And why is it justified? You say "you CAN'T use logic to build an epistemology given evolutionary theory." Then, what do you use? And what is your justification?

As well, Brian, my question was fair: If you don't allow yourself some a priori knowledge, then how can you establish anything YOU claim as non-circular?

At 11/24/2009 9:37 AM, Blogger RevRon's Rants declaimed...

I think it noteworthy that one of the world's most brilliant skeptics, Carl Sagan, felt the need to leave the door open to things which we couldn't conceive, based upon our current technology and experiential base. He argued that our search for extraterrestrial life was greatly hindered by our inherent "carbon bias," which precludes the possibility that anything not resembling life as we know it could actually be "alive," much less sentient.

In his book "Contact," a particularly skeptical character, who denied the existence of anything improvable by scientific method, was asked if her father, to whom she was very close, loved her. She answered with a definitive yes. The questioner then challenged her to "prove it." Her response was a very telling silence...

At 11/25/2009 1:14 AM, Blogger Marshall declaimed...

RevRon: her inability to communicate the reason doesn't indicate that the reason is intangible--rather, it points to the limitations of our language, or ability to manifest ideas into language. In this case, she has plenty of evidence that she could use to offer her case--namely, all of the adoration, selfless giving, and investment that her father lent her throughout her entire life--that all indicate her father loves her.

As per the other arguments, I simply don't understand the other side at all. People here are claiming that logic is evolution-derived. In other words, if natural selection happened to push our species towards walking on four legs, then perhaps 1+1 != 2. I fail to see the reason as to why evolution explains this.

asciibud claims that there's two versions of logic: mathematical logic, which he considers universal, and "natural" logic, which is evolutionary. This evolutionary logic takes certain facts for granted. It doesn't. The logical rules of mathematics are perfectly extensible and can be applied to every situation. These rules allow us to give certainty various claims.

The fact that you don't think evolution accounts for a "mind" is directly related to your lack of education in the field of neuroscience, which, as young and immature as it is, does a rather amazing job at showing that the concept of a "mind" is entirely dependent on the physical matter beneath it.

At 11/25/2009 9:46 AM, Blogger RevRon's Rants declaimed...

Marshall - Condescension - as well as the apparent need for its use - noted. There are those who feel that the mind's processes are quantified within the function of the brain but not limited to those functions; in short, a function of "something more," which religion in turn attempts unsuccessfully to quantify.

It is a commonly-accepted and well-documented fact that the need to dismiss even the possibility of the existence of that "something more" - a topic for lengthy debate in its own right - is fundamentally based in the fear of losing control. The honest seeker of knowledge rejoices in what has already been learned, yet is humbled by the awareness that there is much more, beyond the limits of human understanding and fear.

The argument for (or against) the existence of some divine force cannot be logically debated according to the criteria upon which scientific method is founded, as it ultimately boils down to the need to be able to prove a negative. What remains is each individual's choice as to what to believe and where to place the limitations of one's understanding. For either "side" to deny the validity of the "other" is nothing short of a proclamation of one's own limitations and of one's intolerance for divergent interpretations and worldviews.

Sadly, some in the self-proclaimed "critical thinking" crowd are as guilty of this as are the worst of religious fanatics. Fortunately, the extreme element on both "sides" represents a minuscule minority, whose importance is overblown by their tendency to either scream the loudest or exhibit physically destructive behaviors. Of course, these extreme elements prefer to characterize themselves as somehow more "enlightened" than the unwashed masses. Thus does the self-described "intellectual" or "shaman" attempt to compensate for their own perceived shortcomings, thereby reinforcing and perpetuating their alienation from society as a whole. A sad, wasted effort.

At 11/26/2009 10:45 AM, Blogger RevRon's Rants declaimed...

Sunny Skeptic - I agree wholeheartedly. Belief represents only a potential, whereas ethics involve the implementation of those beliefs. It is worthy of noting, however, that one person's ethics (as an accurate manifestation of their belief system) may actually be unethical according to another's belief system. The sociopath, for example, might function well within the bounds of his/her ethics, yet engage in activities which others - most people, in fact - would deem unethical.

While it's tempting (unavoidable?) to judge others' behaviors against our own structure of morays, it is essential that we at least attempt to evaluate our own standards objectively, lest we unfairly condemn another, simply for stepping on our own personal "issues."

At 11/26/2009 11:44 AM, Blogger breakerslion declaimed...

I apologize in advance for the lack of development and support for the following arguments and observations, but I have my reasons for attempting to be brief.

I think my objection to the evolutionary arguments stem from my holding a slightly different perspective and should in no way be interpreted as disputing the mechanics of how the human race arrived in our present intellectual state. If a tree falls in the wood with no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? No, but it makes the exact same energy wave that it would if there was someone around with ears to interpret it. Likewise 1+1=2, whether or not this is an observed phenomenon. The laws of entropy were in operation before our ability to define (or misinterpret) them. Therein lies the crux of at least some of these matters.

Humans are the animal who lies. No discussion of the progression of morality or metaphysics is complete without factoring that in. Additionally, our organic computers have a built-in virus exploit for liars called "the benefit of the doubt". Then too, we constantly lie to ourselves in various ways, one being to believe we know more than we actually do in order to serve our esteem needs.

The conclusions reached by the application of logic are only as sound as the premises. Garbage in, garbage out. Sometimes the garbage is deliberate, like the racist tar brush used by the Nazis and countless other social groups to define the sensibilities of their tribe. Sensibilities do not define morality, however they can pervert morality, and that's your moral relativism in a nutshell. Sometimes the flawed premises are the result of incomplete understanding. Aristotle's "Humors" for example.

Humans are also the animal capable of abstract thinking. The proof for the existence of the super-natural is dependent upon what one includes. If one includes abstract concepts like "justice", "honor", "allegiance", and "revenge", then there is proof. If one says that the human origins of abstract concepts make them "natural", then one has created a middle tier of existence for abstractions. Maybe the alleged existence of spirits and other magical beings make these concepts seem easier to grasp without question. One can certainly debate the ethics of belief in these concepts as easily as belief in the Holy Ghost.

"... For either "side" to deny the validity of the "other" is nothing short of a proclamation of one's own limitations and of one's intolerance for divergent interpretations and worldviews."

I disagree in part. One should acknowledge one's own limitations, however my argument is with the validity of the premises and the conclusions put forth in "divergent world views". I tolerate them, I just dispute them. As Matt and Trey, the philosophers of South Park point out, tolerance != acceptance.

At 11/29/2009 7:52 PM, Blogger Brian declaimed...

OK - I'll try to be as brief as possible without sacrificing clarity.

RevRon and breakerslion - thanks for the injection of something different to the conversation(s).

Marshall - you don't understand how the concept of "logic" is evolution-derived? You have the answer right in your own post - in a way similar that you claim the concept of "mind" is derived. The same physical processes that "lie" to us about the existence of a mind independent of the body "lie" to us the concept of logical relationships independent of physical processes. Both "logic" and "mind" are in your head - literally (not that I share most of your assumptions about reality, just following yours to their logical conclusion)

Asciibud - (1) I was just explaining how I used "logic", "reason", etc., not justifying it. If you want to use these words differently, then fine. I was objecting to your misunderstanding of my definition of logic (which might have been because I wasn't clear enough)

(2)As far as the evolutionary stuff wrt Wilber - if you are a metaphysical naturalist (often expressed by many current proponents of biological evolution), then it is impossible to get "objectivity." Even the "injunction, apprehension, confirmation/refutation" (if I understand it correctly) would have its origins in non-rational, physical processes, according to an evolutionary view of the world. However, Wilber certainly doesn't seem like a metaphysical naturalist to me, so this objection probably wouldn't apply to his thinking. I don't understand him well enough to see how biological evolution is consistent or inconsistent with his teaching at certain points, and he seems kind of ambivalent at times as to whether he buys evolution and differs on its interpretation or simply isn't buying what the evolutionists are selling.

(3) Since you insisted - I think that knowledge is derived from God's self-revelation (and by "God" I basically mean that which is claimed to be "God" in the OT and NT Scriptures). It's a non-circular claim. I suppose it's also "pre-rational."

Well, I'll let the reader judge as to whether my goals of brevity and clarity were met.

At 11/30/2009 12:40 AM, Blogger asciibud declaimed...

How do messages as revealed by a God according to Brian survive human interpretation and comprehension and remain unaffected by evolution? I would suggest that if we should consider even logic to be "lying" to us because of humans' constantly changing perspective on reality due to our evolution, then why shouldn't our understanding of God's messages also be lying to us in the same way? After all, the Old Testament and New Testament are at best human interpretation of divine inspiration, yes?

Like Brian, I too consider logic to include "law of non-contradiction, modus ponens, modus tollens." So, how is the validity of, for example, modus ponens (if A then B; A thus B) at all evolutionarily dependant beyond just claiming that the validity of everything is evolutionarily dependanat?

Like Marshall, my intuition too is that "mathematics are perfectly extensible and can be applied to every situation,"...but only in theory because we humans have yet to discover so much math (and application of math) that will be required to explain things like love, compassion, free will, consciousness, etc. So, although we can empower our reasoning with logic, at least for the time being we have to go beyond (transcend but include) logic, yes?

As Marshall points out, neuroscience suggests that mind is entirely dependant on the physical to manifest. However, neuroscience is in no way showing that mind can be reduced to the physical explanation--because there are many many emergent properties that show up between the physical and mind (Wilber calls them a heirarchy of holons). The interesting thing to look at, I say, is the nature of those emergent properties and where they lead. Physics and neuroscience, although essential research, are woefully inadequate on their own and need to be transcended but included in other types of research (like psychology, sociology, ethics...and spirituality). Brian, in this sense that physics and neuroscience are inadequate, I am not (and I think nor is Wilber) a metaphysical naturalist, but to the extent that I am not a dualist (and I think neither is Wilber) my views are compatible with metaphysical naturalism.

Brian, with respect, I would need you to explain with some specifics how your use of the term "reason" does differ from mine in order for our conversation to advance. Although "reason" as I use the word isn't inconsistent per se with logic, it necessarily goes beyond (transcends but includes) logic when we apply logic to real life, as I've already touched on. I think Breakerslion's most recent post describes well this need for (and the follies of) application. Marshall, in this sense I am OK with calling reason "evolutionary logic," and in this sense "evolutionary logic" does take certain facts for granted in that pure logic is in the end insufficient for proving real-life logical premises.

RevRon, when you criticize "extreme" viewpoints aren't you "denying the validity" of those viewpoints and thus contradicting your own goals? The world view that is afraid to ultimately criticize is what Ken Wilber calls the "green meme". Is your contradiction not a "performative contradiction" (as per mentioned at that link)? Breakerslion, Wilber would agree with South Park in this respect. Wilber says the very important gift of the Green Meme is the sensitivity to diversity it brings to our world view. However, when you go beyond (transcend and include) the Green Meme are you able to co-evaluate multiple viewpoints and see meta-trends that speak to some viewpoints being better than others. Yes? No?

At 11/30/2009 12:52 AM, Blogger asciibud declaimed...

Sorry, typo, not "are you". When you go beyond (transcend and include) the Green Meme YOU ARE THEN able to co-evaluate multiple viewpoints and see meta-trends that speak to some viewpoints being better than others. What do you think?

At 11/30/2009 1:23 PM, Blogger Brian declaimed...

Hi asciibud - I'll try to respond again to the portions of your last post directed to me.

"How do messages as revealed by a God according to Brian survive human interpretation and comprehension and remain unaffected by evolution?"

The question assumes that evolution is true. I don't share this assumption. However, even if I did, I suppose God could reveal himself adequately to human beings, understanding our tendencies to interpret things in varying ways. He can get his intentions across just fine.

I'm a teacher, and one of the most challenging things is to communicate things in a way that students will only interpret in the way I intend. It's not impossible, but it's difficult!

"After all, the Old Testament and New Testament are at best human interpretation of divine inspiration, yes?"

No. They ARE divine revelation, as if the contents had been dropped straight out of God's lap (yes, I know, they weren't - at least most of it). That's my view, anyway. That's the documents' own view also.

As far as the definition of "logic" and "reason", I must be missing something. I understand we were using the terms differently. I'm not married to my use of it, but I was just insisting on being understood that I used the terms "logic", "reason", "rationality", etc. in the narrow sense (modus ponens et. al.) in my argument that evolution is "irrational." That's all.

When I'm trying to understand your use of "reason", I try to understand it in your own terms, not mine. And I must be missing something, because I don't know what the big deal about this is. I'll keep trying to "get it."

" is the validity of, for example, modus ponens (if A then B; A thus B) at all evolutionarily dependant beyond just claiming that the validity of everything is evolutionarily dependanat?"

See Cooper, pp. 98ff.

A crude hypothetical example (mine, not Cooper's): the worms come out when it rains. It is a selective advantage for a bird to "believe" modus ponens: (1) If it just rained, the worms are readily available at the surface, (2) it just rained, therefore (3) get to the worm buffet now! Those who don't "believe" (3) given (1) & (2) are selected out.

Evolution: increased brain capacity, abstraction, etc. - poof! Modus ponens derived from natural selection.

At 11/30/2009 8:24 PM, Blogger Tony declaimed...

Atheists frequently insist that morality can be developed philosophically apart from religion and does not require the existence of God. However, this is really a moot point because the real issue for atheists is not morals, but rather moral authority. In other words, the problem is not whether or not someone believes certain actions to be good or bad / right or wrong, but rather the problem is when someone else tries to tell them what is right or wrong and attempts to restrict their absolute freedom in behaving in certain ways. But even in this regard atheists are demonstrably inconsistent because when their sense of right and wrong comes into conflict with someone else’s they would choose to have the other person’s freedom curtailed rather than give up their own.

Apart from moral authority, the concept of morality itself seems to logically and philosophically require something other than evolution as its basis and means of development. If evolution were responsible for the development of morals it would seem that there should be enough uniform agreement throughout humanity that there should neither be internal conflict of conscience nor external conflict between individuals. Also, if morality can be explained in terms of evolution, it would seem that the concept of morals would make sense not only with reference to humans, but throughout the animal kingdom. However, we seem to intuitively know and agree that when one animal kills another for food – even one of its own species – the killing should not be called murder and the eating should not be condemned as immoral cannibalism. Neither does any form a sexual activity among animals have moral implications associated with it. Morality also tends to have some form of responsibility tied to it, but if an animal abandons its young for whatever reason, it is not considered a moral issue. As humans, we might try to superimpose our sense of morality or justice upon certain animal behavior, but it would certainly not be recognized as such by the animals themselves.

At 12/01/2009 2:58 PM, Blogger Tony declaimed...

Hey Y’All!

Can a worldview without God explain objective morality and obligation at all? Why should a person be moral if a naturalistic understanding of the universe is true –in other words, if the world is wholly without God and nothing exists beyond what we can see? It seems that naturalistic theories of ethics fail to offer a sufficient response to the following questions: Why should we assume that human beings have intrinsic value or dignity? Why should we think that the moral instructs we have inherited are right? How do we know whether we should comply with our moral instincts or resist them? Why should we act morally when it seriously conflicts with our self-interest? How do we mediate between conflicting moral beliefs in a pluralistic society? If God does not exist, then why should we sacrifice our lives for others? Why should powerful dictators behave morally if they can get away with oppressing or murdering others?

Theism provides adequate answers to the questions just raised. We ought to be moral because we have been made as moral beings in the likeness of God, to whom we are also personally responsible as his creatures. Furthermore, knowing this God personally is the highest end of humans. When we are in right relationship with God, all other goods – which have also been created by God – find their proper place.
When we carry out our moral duties we approximate the character of the Creator, the ultimate Good, and function according to God’s design for us. We carry out the purposes for which we were made. We find self-sacrifice praiseworthy because it fits these purposes and assumes the intrinsic dignity of others. We experience guilt not simply because we have violated laws of society or the universe but because we have violated the ultimate Source of moral values – a personal God. And just as human relationships serve as a motivation and basis for loyalty and obligation, so our having been created by God-and our relationship with him-serves as the source of ultimate obligation and the one real basis for a moral understanding of human relationships.

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At 1/01/2010 9:13 PM, Blogger breakerslion declaimed...

RevRon said, "It is a commonly-accepted and well-documented fact that the need to dismiss even the possibility of the existence of that "something more" - a topic for lengthy debate in its own right - is fundamentally based in the fear of losing control."

Wrong again, Watson. I've never felt in control of anything much beyond my bowels and bladder. In control of what, for that matter? I think those control freaks you're seeing are in that shiny mirror over there.

asciibud asks, "However, when you go beyond (transcend and include) the Green Meme are you able to co-evaluate multiple viewpoints and see meta-trends that speak to some viewpoints being better than others. Yes? No?"

No. More psychoemotionally or logically persuasive/attractive perhaps, but one cannot therefore judge it to be better. Example: If my generation had known that we would be listening to the same "top 40" songs forty years later, many of us would not have liked that hit song so much when we first heard it. "Joy to the World" by Three Dog Night won Song of the Year over American Pie in the year they were both nominated.

Tony said, "Atheists frequently insist that morality can be developed philosophically apart from religion and does not require the existence of God. However, this is really a moot point because the real issue for atheists is not morals, but rather moral authority. In other words, the problem is not whether or not someone believes certain actions to be good or bad / right or wrong, but rather the problem is when someone else tries to tell them what is right or wrong and attempts to restrict their absolute freedom in behaving in certain ways."

No. Moral authority is not our problem. There are laws, and social mechanisms for enforcing them and modifying them.
The problem is when different groups have differing opinions of what's right and wrong. The problem is aggravated when argument fails, and one side or other attempts to resort to coercion by use of force to impose their view.

Since you are not an atheist, you are unqualified to have an opinion as to what our problem(s) might be unless you can cite specific statements by atheists, statistical studies, or atheist friends who told you so.

Happy New Year Franc and Alison, wherever you are.

At 1/05/2010 12:25 AM, Blogger asciibud declaimed...

Brian, I think your example of the early birds shows what you aren't connecting with re the difference I'm emphasizing between "logic" and "reason". Again, reason requires APPLICATION OF logic. Your early birds example is not modus ponens per se but is an APPLICATION OF modus ponens. Yes the ability to apply modus ponens is made possible by minds manifested through evolution, but modus ponens itself is an abstract that is and was true independent of evolution and independent of the manifestation of those minds.

Brian, if you "don't share the assumption" that evolution is true, then what is your point by emphasizing through the past many blog entries that all human knowledge is evolutionarily derived???

Brian, what is the evidence that the Old and New Testaments are divine revelation? Is it that the books themselves say so? I could write a book that says so too, but that doesn't make it true. Also, to what degree are they pure divine revelation? Entirely, word for word? If not, how do we tell what aspects are otherwise?

Tony, you ask fantastic questions about morality if there is no God. For example "Why should we think that the moral instructs we have inherited are right?" My answer is: To our best efforts, we each ask our own conscience. After all, in choosing to follow the religion that you do, don't you rely on ultimately only your own conscience to examine whether your religion is the right one for you? Yes your theism might answer your questions re morality, but I'd love to know how it answers that question I ask. (Many people choose religions other than yours and I have heard no reason from you that they don't ALSO give for proclaiming THEIR choice of religion as right.)

Ken Wilber calls human conscience our BMI (Basic Moral Instinct). In his book The Pocket Ken Wilber, he summarizes that the human BMI is "Protect and promote the greatest depth for the greatest span." (Earlier in this blog I've tried to introduce what Wilber means by depth and span.) This definition I think should work very effectively as "good" moral guidance and it doesn't explicitly require a God.

Breakerslion, I don't think your "top 40" counter-example speaks to transcending Wilber's Green Meme. If we take a deep and broad view trying to serve our BMI (aka moral conscience), I think we can see that some actions definitely serve Wilber's BMI to different degrees. Auschwitz maybe/might have served depth, but it certainly didn't serve greatest span.

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At 5/11/2010 8:03 PM, Blogger Brian declaimed...

Oh, what the heck - I'll reply to asciibud's interactions with my post(s) after months and see what happens.

So, the early bird is able to apply the abstraction of modus ponens? That's a pretty smart bird.

I think you missed the point of the story, which is that the bird doesn't need to believe an abstraction in order to "apply" modus ponens. You simply assert that modus ponens is an abstract "truth" when the actual practice - in birds or in humans - is explainable in terms of evolution without appealing to an abstraction.

To say that "modus ponens itself is an abstract that is and was true independent of evolution and independent of the manifestation of those minds" is an assertion that needs to be backed up. I gave an example that makes it plausible that modus ponens is simply the result of behavioral adaptation for survival.

As far as my not believing evolution - sorry for the confusion. It's an experiment in "reductio ad absurdum." In other words, I think that if evolution is true that it knocks out not only the idea of absolute morality but also of absolute truth. The bird example is as good as any. Evolution has a plausible explanation of modus ponens in which the notion of "truth" is completely superfluous.

I really believe that modus ponens is true (for other reasons). But someone who believes in evolution is faced with a perfectly good evolutionary explanation of modus ponens apart from an appeal to "truth" or to "the abstract."

Simply put, evolution and truth are incompatible. Or maybe something more like evolution makes truth unnecessary.

"Brian, what is the evidence that the Old and New Testaments are divine revelation?"

To me it all hinges on who Jesus was/is. I trust him absolutely, he believed they were divine revelation, so therefore so do I. There are some attributes of the text that might make me lean that direction, but Jesus is the clincher.

At 5/13/2010 7:19 PM, Blogger asciiBud declaimed...

Brian, I didn't mean to suggest that the bird understand modus ponens as an abstraction per se, LOL, but just that a bird can conceive of ideas that basically fit the form "if A then B" (essentially, consequences and causation) WHEN it comes to basic bird-world things like rain and worms.

Brian, you say "I really believe that modus ponens is true (for other reasons)." Do you mean you believe it’s mathematically valid? Or do you mean you believe it’s broadly valid to use it as a model of how things work in our real world? Mathematical abstractions are human-created stories that speak directly only about their own world of math, and accordingly the only senses in which we should believe or not believe in abstractions is per the two questions I just asked you.

I do now actually agree with you that with divine revelation aside I don’t think we ultimately have a way of establishing DIRECT knowledge of our real-world. Descartes made this point with his cave metaphor, and achieving "cartesian doubt" is realizing that the only thing I can be certain about is that I exist (and not certain about even what form I exist in—the movie The Matrix plays on that idea). An extension from Descartes is called Idealism, and I suspect you’d find it on the mark if we lived in a world where we could not receive divine revelation…and you’d find it disturbing (ie. no direct access to "absolute morality" or "absolute truth"). Wikipedia says "Epistemological idealists (such as Kant) claim that the only things which can be directly known for certain are just ideas (abstraction)."

Growing evidence dramatically contests the Bible’s version of who Jesus was. Jesus was probably a very good spiritual leader, somewhat of a humanist anthropologists suggest, but there is no reasonable evidence he was the source of the word of God. Furthermore, Jesus didn’t write the Bible…a myriad of disciples, translators and biased parties did (some benevolent, some self-interested). So, I’m surprised it “all hinges on who Jesus was” for you. Why Jesus? Why not one of the many other spiritual leaders through the ages?

I am not an Epistemological Idealist in the sense of thinking that only thoughts are real (ie. the physical world is not real) but instead in the sense that the only access we have to reality is through thought (a.k.a consciousness). Thus, other than mathematical abstractions, we have no direct access to ultimate truth, and thus no direct access to ultimate morality. And that being disturbing doesn’t reduce the chances of it not being true. So, I say let’s face it head on and become at one with having to do the best we can with our own minds. I view God as within us, however, because we are creations of God (whatever God is I do not know, thus I do NOT mean "creation" in any limited sense like we use it in our daily human lives). If God is within us then it makes sense to me that we could discover the world, at least partially, through a dialectic interaction with our universe (for instance, see Georg Hegel’s thoughts on history exhibiting this dialectic). Ken Wilber has the best ideas I’ve read yet on finding at least indirect access to a possible concept of universal truth and morality (his idea of a Basic Moral Intuition, BMI, is central).

The evidence in support of the main ideas of evolution is extremely strong. Your argument that “evolution and truth are incompatible” is not valid because, at least, the world fits with Epistemological Idealism.


At 5/14/2010 10:27 PM, Blogger Brian declaimed...

AsciiBud, just a quick response to one of your paragraphs.

"Growing evidence dramatically contests the Bible’s version of who Jesus was."

I don't know how familiar you are with the field, but most of what I've seen doesn't deserve to be called research or evidence. Point me to a source or two and I'd be glad to look it over, but I have to admit I'd come at it harshly and critically. I've read my fill and am losing patience in my middle-aged-ness.

"Jesus was probably a very good spiritual leader, somewhat of a humanist anthropologists suggest, but there is no reasonable evidence he was the source of the word of God."

Most anthropologists simply rule out consideration of Jesus' claims to be such and the biblical writers' claims of various miracles. If you do that, you end up with a decent humanist.

The bias of many anthropologists is clear; here's something I came across from Richard Lewontin - I read a few of his books and articles while taking an anthropology class in college:

"It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door."

Ruling supernatural claims out before even starting the investigation is hardly fair; at least it shouldn't be counted as "evidence."

"Furthermore, Jesus didn’t write the Bible…a myriad of disciples, translators and biased parties did (some benevolent, some self-interested)."

Forgive me, but this sounds like the typical "scholarly" hogwash that I heard in some of my religion classes, popularized by such works as the "DaVinci Code." I suppose the apostle Paul (who wrote more of the NT than any other individual) was biased because he believed what he was writing? Most of the authors you are talking about (including Paul) were killed because of preaching what they were writing. If they were really writing out of self-interest, then they were a lot dumber than that bird we've been talking about.

"So, I’m surprised it “all hinges on who Jesus was” for you. Why Jesus? Why not one of the many other spiritual leaders through the ages?"

There's something different about this guy. He rings true. I certainly haven't read many of the other spiritual leaders, but I've read several, and Jesus is unique and compelling in ways none of the others is. I can give you some specifics if you want to discuss it, but I'm afraid I've already gone on too long.

That'll teach you to end another of your posts with, "Thoughts?" !!!

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At 6/05/2010 8:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous declaimed...

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At 8/18/2010 9:41 PM, Blogger 士文婷文婷松 declaimed...

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At 8/23/2010 10:41 AM, Blogger 江仁趙雲虹昆 declaimed...

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At 8/24/2010 10:02 AM, Blogger Unknown declaimed...

This is kind of delicate issues to talk about.
I love to hear other one's opinion, but I also like to be respected by people no matter what I believe in or not.
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Thanks a lot for respecting my comment

At 9/30/2010 10:40 PM, Blogger breakerslion declaimed...

"Auschwitz maybe/might have served depth, but it certainly didn't serve greatest span."

Smeg. All abstract models fail. Don't take my word for it. If you keep learning, you will find out for yourself. Sorry, I don't have time to build a logical argument.

Be here now.

Kirk: If you don't want your beliefs to be ridiculed, stop believing in such ridiculous shit. Which is a flip way of saying that I can respect you, but it will have to be for something other than beliefs for which I have no respect. A scam, is a scam, is a scam. If you need that to live an upright life, I can respect the upright life you live, but never the motive.

...And speaking of, I just scrolled through this entire comment page without ever seeing your name except for the last comment. Who are you?

As for the comment above about murder taboo being moral relativism, certainly those justifications are put forward. Transcending that programming, one finds that aversion to being murdered is sufficient to postulate that fellow humans might feel the same way. Life, liberty, etc. In that order.

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An excellent video series on non-cognitivism.

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Good question Francois!

Where belief is not an act it is not subject to ethics.

When it becomes an act - a series of repeated acts - then it is.

Thanks for the non-cognitivism video Justin!

[came here from when Cows and Kids Collide by Melissa].

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