Does philosophy have a future?

philosophy_dictionaryby Mark English

Anyone who claims that the writings of philosophers are pointless or unnecessary is immediately accused of philosophical naïveté. And so in order to avoid or counter the charge one has to do a bit of philosophy. Likewise, it’s difficult to articulate an anti-metaphysical stance without getting bogged down in something that looks a lot like metaphysics. In a sense, you’ve lost the battle before you’ve even begun.

However, what I wish to do here is not to prove or demonstrate anything but merely to articulate — tentatively and reflectively — some doubts and reservations I have about the nature and role of academic philosophy today.

Just to be clear: I accept that some of the questions which are seen as basic to philosophy and metaphysics are real and possibly important questions which can and should be thought about in serious ways. But I don’t know that this conviction necessarily entails a commitment to the institutional philosophical status quo.

There are, of course, different views regarding the scope and nature of philosophy and metaphysics and the relationship between the two. (The closeness of the relationship between metaphysics and physics is also a subject of dispute.) But traditionally metaphysics was seen, and is still seen by some, as a — or even the — core philosophical sub-discipline. I used to see it like this, in fact, but these remarks are not predicated on that assumption.

One of problems with philosophy is that — unlike in science — virtually nothing within the discipline is ever definitively resolved. Old approaches are routinely exposed as logically flawed or inadequate. But the usual pattern is that someone then comes along and finds that the original view can be salvaged with some small modifications and/or that the critique is also flawed.

Even something approaching Cartesian dualism has been resurrected from time to time. Karl Popper endorsed such a view, and he was not the last. As David Berlinski (whose PhD was in philosophy) put it in a discussion of consciousness: “Philosophers are confounded — by their irrelevance if nothing else. A few have been seen administering a number of discreet kicks to what appears to be the corpse of dualism: Get up, you fat fool, I need you.” [1]

The general belief within philosophy is that the process of collegial debate, discussion and review leads to a refinement or clarification of views and so to a progress of sorts. Refinement, yes. Clarification, I’m not so sure.

Often this process can all too plausibly be interpreted in one of two ways (or both — the ideas are not mutually exclusive): it can be seen as a cover for what is essentially an ideological battle; or merely as a competitive game, self-perpetuating and futile.

With respect to the former point, it is at one level extremely difficult to demonstrate that a particular philosopher’s arguments are influenced by his or her ideological or religious convictions; but on another level it is blindingly obvious that, say, Christians or hardline physicalists are motivated to find and defend arguments which accord with their beliefs. Likewise with social and political beliefs. But playing the philosophical game involves ignoring these issues (and so potential sources of bias) and any mention of them is considered irrelevant — just not philosophy. Such an approach reflects, I think, an outdated view of cognition and one that puts far too much faith in discursive reason.

The view that much philosophy is self-perpetuating and futile, a game of sorts which ends not when some kind of “truth” or resolution is finally arrived at but when people just get tired of that particular game and move on to another, has often been more or less acknowledged by philosophers.

Here is A.C. Grayling introducing a book comprised of some of his old papers on metaphysical themes. He writes:

“All the papers are of their time. Looking back at some of the earlier of them I am struck by how far the literature on each topic has accumulated, in some cases leaving the issues quite behind though they are by no means satisfactorily resolved. There are fashions and trends in philosophical interest, changes in which are frequently induced not by solutions and resolutions to problem areas, but by exhaustion of the resources and language for dealing with them.” [2]

Somewhat amusingly, he admits that his work on the realism-anti-realism question “will seem at first to strike this note” but that, as he didn’t agree with “the terms of the debate as it was then and still is commonly discussed” his contributions, at least, remain “direct and fresh.” (The thought occurs to me that his erstwhile antagonists may well see their own contributions in similar terms.)

More radical critiques of philosophical practice have, of course, been made. By Nietzsche, for example. Or Wittgenstein. Or Heidegger. Or Richard Rorty.

Rorty, for example, agreed with Pascal Engel’s characterization of the history of 20th-century analytic philosophy as “a sort of battlefield opposing various ‘realist’ and ‘anti-realist’ conceptions of truth,” but clearly tended to the view that “the battlefield has been trampled to a quagmire.” [3]

Another major 20th-century thinker who began his career in the analytic tradition and moved on into other areas was Isaiah Berlin. Others gave up philosophy for science.

In the end, I think a suitably perspectival view is called for: individuals decide for themselves which intellectual activities (if any) they wish to pursue and which they deem — from their own point of view at least — to be futile.

This kind of relativism — as distinct from the sort of relativism which puts mythical thinking on the same level as scientific and logical thinking, for example — is benign. It harms no one and also tends to discourage proselytizing.

My general position is that I look to the sciences for knowledge of how the world works and don’t really feel that professional philosophers can tell me anything I want to know. I know a bit of philosophy myself, and it’s possible I’m taking this knowledge for granted and undervaluing it. But I just don’t have the sense that it amounts to a coherent discipline.

Philosophy I have doubts about, but not (certain forms of) philosophizing. Philosophizing I see simply as a form of meta-thinking. Meta-thinking about mathematics and the scientific disciplines (and other disciplines, such as history) is done as a matter of course by practitioners of those disciplines when they reflect, for example, on their particular discipline’s scope and nature, or the meaning of its key concepts, or its relationship to cognate areas. And the value of this kind of thinking is self-evident.

But areas like metaphysics (when detached from the study of physics) or epistemology (when detached from relevant sciences) are in my view more problematic.

It’s clear also that areas relating to human values such as ethics pose problems. And though I see value in applying reason to ethical questions and dilemmas and even in seeing them within the context of various theoretical ethical frameworks, I resist the idea that normative ethics can operate as a rigorous intellectual discipline, if only because questions about the rightness or wrongness of certain actions or the relative importance of particular virtues or character traits are not purely intellectual questions.

Though there is educational value in the sorts of courses traditionally taught under the banner of philosophy, other subjects — like mathematics and the sciences and mastering one’s native language — are clearly (in my opinion) more important. Which leaves philosophy to compete with the likes of literature, foreign languages, music and history.

Part of the problem is that philosophy today lacks, as I suggested previously, coherence as a discipline. Arguably it had more coherence when it was perceived — as it was until the fall of German idealism about a century ago — to have a metaphysical core. Metaphysics thus conceived was important not only in itself but also as a source of and justification for ethical and political and aesthetic doctrines. And the metaphysics, as Whitehead famously asserted, often harked back to Plato.

I realize that this is just one strand (albeit a major one) of the Western philosophical tradition. But it was perhaps the only major strand that was never going to morph into a science or (like logic) a formal or technical discipline.

For so much of what was considered philosophy in past eras has become science, leaving the old discipline looking to many eyes rather sad and depleted. Psychology and related disciplines were seen as philosophical as recently as the early 20th century but of course no longer are. Even logic is claimed by mathematics. And argument and reasoning and debate — which are often put forward as essentially philosophical — have been taught at high school level for centuries as a component of the English (or other primary language) curriculum.

One other area of concern relates to the complex relationship which continues to exist between religion and philosophy.

Many of philosophy’s iconic figures were religious. Plato was heavily influenced by the Pythagoreans; Plato’s Socrates, still a model for many philosophers, not only believed that concepts have some kind of essential meaning, but also clearly had supernatural beliefs. (He was guided by his daimon, for example.) Even Aristotle’s thought is strongly influenced by what are generally (and I think rightly) seen as completely discredited teleological and other metaphysical notions. Descartes was a believing Catholic. Spinoza was a mystical thinker. Leibniz was religious. Kant’s writings are deeply marked by his Pietism. Hegel was a Christian. Wittgenstein was a Christian and a supernaturalist in the manner of Pascal or Dostoevsky.

The philosophical canon includes of course many skeptical as well as religious or Platonistic thinkers. But often they were only writing to counter essentially religious doctrines.

And even the very notion of a canon is suspect, suggesting a religion-substitute (like the progressive 19th-century idea promoted by Matthew Arnold of replacing the Christian scriptures with secular literary works).

Canons are also necessarily contingent and arbitrary. What do all these people we happen to call philosophers have in common that will allow us to meaningfully distinguish them from scientists or other kinds of intellectual?

Philosophy can be seen not only to have arisen from religion in a historical sense but also to be — as a modern, independent discipline — still strangely dependent on it. There are funding issues involved here and little doubt that academic philosophy is cleverly exploited by churches (and other ideological groupings for that matter) [4], but perhaps even more important than this is the extent to which the agenda of philosophy has been determined, directly or indirectly, by religious ideas.

Sure, sections of the philosophical community seek to undermine religious belief, but often the topics discussed (in popular forums and undergraduate contexts especially) relate in some way to religious ideas. Examples that come immediately to mind include Euthyphro-type arguments against a divine command view of ethics, classical arguments for the existence of God, and free will (the very term is taken from Western theology via the Late Latin liberum arbitrium). More sophisticated thinking in philosophy, of course, engages with science and advanced logic and mostly leaves the theological trappings behind, but the origins of many of the key problems still lie, I would suggest, in religious modes of thought.

Whether this means that there would be no philosophy or just a very different kind of philosophy in societies which had lost all meaningful connections with their deep cultural and religious roots I am not sure, but there are certainly many examples in Western history of philosophy thriving during periods when religion was also thriving (albeit often in a creative tension with religion). Both the Vienna Circle and the Polish logicians of the early-to-mid-20th century flourished in the context of broader cultures in which traditional religious beliefs and practices jostled with newer forms of spirituality and mysticism.

Likewise, the philosophical ferment in France in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th century was to a large extent precipitated by the rise of the so-called Modernist movement within the Catholic Church and the clash between Modernism and more traditional approaches to religious thinking. For example, Pierre Duhem — a French conventionalist whose views influenced the Vienna Circle as well as Quine — can only be properly understood when he is seen in the context of late 19th-century France.

It takes a while to get one’s bearings when one is studying eras other than one’s own, especially where (as is very often the case) religious commitments are implicit if not deliberately hidden or disguised. Duhem’s private correspondence, for instance, clearly shows that he was driven in his philosophical work by a passionate commitment to traditional religion. He saw himself primarily as an apologist, using the secular (philosophical) language of those seeking (as he saw it) to undermine traditional religion in order to counter those threats.

You could argue that there is no necessary connection between Duhem’s philosophical ideas and his motivations and religious affiliations. But it seems very clear that the idea that convention or convenience (convenance) plays a large role in determining the shape and nature of scientific theories can be used (as it often was) explicitly or implicitly to defend religious and other non-scientific outlooks or views of the world. Seen historically, French conventionalism — whatever its intrinsic merits as a general framework for discussing scientific and mathematical ideas — was devised by religious thinkers (such as Duhem and Édouard Le Roy) as a defense of religion or religion-like ideologies. (Le Roy’s views prefigured those of his friend and associate, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, by the way. Both men’s views were pretty wild and mystical.)

Not all conventionalist thinkers or those who drew on them took this line, of course. Quine and most Vienna Circle members certainly didn’t. But many associates of the Circle did take this approach, sometimes explicitly identifying with the French tradition. [5]

The case of conventionalism illustrates some of the ideological and religious complexities which can underlie philosophical activity, but my general claims about the relationship between philosophy and religion remain tentative and speculative.

I am definitely not claiming that philosophy is necessarily religiously oriented, only that it thrives in a broader environment that is. Why this may be I cannot say, but I am increasingly inclined to the view that the presence in a society of a critical mass of people who are committed to religious or mystical ideas tends to create a space for non-scientific but rationally-informed discourse about “the nature of things.”

Many other periods of Western intellectual history could be cited in support of this general view but the late-19th and early-20th century offer a particularly rich and fertile source of illustrative examples, especially, I would say, from amongst the ranks of the Vienna Circle thinkers, their precursors and associates. And it is certainly not implausible to suggest that all that marvelous creative intellectual activity was in some sense a response to various religious or otherwise supernaturalist movements which had built up considerable momentum over the course of the 19th century.

But though the idea that philosophy may be, as it were, parasitic upon religion challenges what has become the standard view of philosophy as a discrete, self-contained and entirely secular discipline, it does not entail a belief that the discipline is doomed. If it is indeed doomed, it is doomed for other reasons, because religion is certainly not going to disappear any time soon.

_____

Mark English has an interest in aspects of 20th-century European social and scientific thought and, more generally, in ideology, language, and the scope and nature of science. He holds a PhD in philosophy from Monash University, and blogs at Language, Life and Logic.

[1] The Advent of the Algorithm. San Diego, CA.: Harcourt/Harvest, 2001. p. 274.

[2] Truth, Meaning and Realism. London: Continuum, 2007. p. vii.

[3] Taken from a review by Richard Rorty of Pascal Engel’s book Truth.

[4] This is not a well-documented area, but here is something I posted last year which includes relevant excerpts from a piece by Nathan Schneider on the broader topic of the Templeton Foundation.

[5] For example, Louis Rougier, who was the only significant French thinker to have strong links with the Vienna Circle, had deep roots in conventionalism and was more sympathetic to religious modes of thought than most of his Austrian and German associates. Also the Polish philosopher-logicians Jan Lukasiewicz and Kazimierz Ajdukiewicz were both influenced by the French tradition, and both had strong mystical or religious convictions which colored their writings on epistemology and science.

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217 thoughts on “Does philosophy have a future?

  1. Coel, I suspect you are being sincere in this response, but I hope you won’t mind if I “describe” it as gobbledygook.

    “The whole notion that there is some prescription that can tell us what we “should” do is a complete red-herring.” Would you allow that this in itself sounds rather prescriptive? (I know you’ll contend that this is a descriptive statement, but I’ll suggest that it is evaluative; and things will get circular.) I think what you object to is perhaps the notion that is a single objective system of morality. But Aravis already addressed this point. Further, for those of us who have everyday interactions with others, the suggestion that such questions are a red-herring seems to me a red-herring. I have to admit that it is sometimes problematic to take what seems to be an implicit dogmatic position when arguing against what one perceives is another dogmatic position. But I don’t think

    “Science can answer any properly posed question about that subject.” And what follows, I suppose, is that science, and perhaps only science as opposed to any other discipline, will determine what is “any properly posed question.” Well, I get motion sickness, especially when going in circles. Part of the problem are statements such as “. . . feelings and opinions are not ‘mere’, indeed our subjective feelings are the most important things to us . . .” because it assumes a discourse regarding morality or ethics has no common aims or concerns but is rather “merely” relativistic or disparately self-serving. In the unlikely event that your take on this is correct, the only question I see science posing on this matter is one that is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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  2. Coel,
    I said: “what’s the right thing to do?‘ … This is not a question that science can answer.” You replied: “Yes science can answer it”

    Yes, and right after that I *gave* the answer: “The answer is that the question is ill-posed because it is referring to some objective standard of moral rightness, and there is no such standard.

    OK, in that case let us, for the sake of argument, assume there are only subjective standards for moral rightness. We can rephrase the question as follows:

    What’s the right thing to do, subjectively speaking?

    In which case my question still stands, where are those peer reviewed, published science papers using scientific method to answer moral questions(against subjective standards, as you require)? Are they on ArXiv? Which journals do they publish in? Can you give me some links? I look forward to some bed time reading.

    By the way, that question was taken from the title of Michael Sandel’s book Justice, what’s the right thing to do, a most excellent book. What’s good enough for Sandel is good enough for me.

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  3. Not to mention that I would be interested in Coel’s take on sociopathic or narcissistic ideations (“subjective feelings are the most important things to us”) and, temporarily dispensing with prescriptive statements, get his views proscriptive ones. These needn’t be “only” subjective but are perhaps neither objective nor universal. It is not true to say that subjective feelings are the most important things to “us,” when you perhaps mean “me”. Who is “us”?

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  4. Hi Coel,

    Science can answer any properly posed question about that subject. However, many “moral questions” that people ask are ill-posed because they hanker after an objective standard, and the only answer is that there is no such standard.

    Like labnut, I would like to see an (explicitly cited) example of science answering one of these “properly posed questions”.

    As far as I can see you are enforcing ill-posed questions by imposing the word “morality” on a concept that few people would recognise as morality.

    It seems to me that you are saying that there is no such thing as morality, rather there are subjective feelings and opinions about what we like and what we don’t like and how we want the world to be and how we don’t want it to be.

    If that is the case then why doesn’t everybody just say so? It would make the discussion easier.

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  5. Coel,
    That makes a lot more sense. I obviously disagree with you on the existence of objective moral standards but was curious if you changed your position to science can prescribe morals, which is not something I think can be done.

    As for not have prescriptions, that has nothing to do with subjective or objective. You can make prescriptive statements to the effect of “if you value X, you ought to do Y” within a subjective system of morality. However, the reason why I said “just” subjective and “mere” opinion/feelings is that the prescriptions would not old the same weight if they were subjective in nature as opposed to objectively derived based on ethical reasoning. In that sense, subjective morality is inferior.

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  6. Hi Coel,

    Yes, and right after that I *gave* the answer: “The answer is that the question is ill-posed because it is referring to some objective standard of moral rightness, and there is no such standard.”

    This “answer” is provided by science?

    Then I would add to labnut’s request and ask for the peer reviewed scientific literature demonstrating that there is no objective standard of moral rightness.

    I am not necessarily disagreeing with the proposition that there is no objective moral standard of moral rightness, just with the contention that this is the answer that “science” has given.

    So it would be interesting to see which branch of science has determined it to be so and by what method it has been verified.

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  7. p.120 “If philosophy has an element of empirical investigation, should it not be judged by the standards of science?”

    But it is. Any time a philosopher, like anyone else, draws on or bumps up against the empirical facts then it is by the standards of science that those empirical facts are judged. The point is that philosophy as a discipline deals with different questions to science, questions that aren’t just a matter of empirical fact and so, yes, are judged by different standards and admittedly permitting of more ambiguity and less certainty, by the very nature of the questions.

    Your whole book just looks like one big philosophical treatise on why philosophy fails. So by what standards precisely are we to judge your hypothesis? It’s certainly not a scientific one. Which would make it what then???

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  8. Hi Mark,

    Even Aristotle’s thought is strongly influenced by what are generally (and I think rightly) seen as completely discredited teleological and other metaphysical notions.

    I have been doing a bit of re-reading of Aristotle in order to test this claim. Of course Aristotle was a man of his time, there is no point in judging the classical philosphers as though they were writing last week, but this seems to be what many people do.

    I find that, in general, teleological or metaphysical notions do not strongly influence his writing in, for example, logic and the natural world.

    I am going here by what he actually wrote because there is a lot of nonsense these days written about him.

    Don’t forget that Aristotle acknowledged Thales as the father of his discipline and it is generally recognised that Thales represented a break from religious explanations (and not a reaction against religion).

    Also, when he is discussing what is observed when bird eggs are dissected in various stages of development he is describing just what he observes.

    Moreover, a teleologically influence approach might lead him to suppose that knowledge about the world can be gained by using pure logic (as Democritus held), whereas he rejects this and establishes that knowledge about the world must begin with an inductive process on empirical data.

    Of course he was led to many wrong conclusions and people tend to focus on what he got wrong rather than seeing the overall approach that he was trying to develop.

    In general his approach was a step in the right direction and it would seem perverse to discount this on the basis that he held to some of the religious concepts of his time.

    As with your contentions about the Vienna Circle I feel that you are engaging in confirmation bias – ignoring the evidence that fails to confirm or disconfirms your thesis and highlighing things, however tenuous, that you feel supports your thesis.

    I don’t mind people criticising philosophy, I do it a lot myself, but I think you should leave Aristotle out of it since we have quite enough misinformation about him floating about.

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  9. Imzasirf asked me a couple of questions about my view of ethics. I agree that a basic knowledge of various possible ways of conceptualizing ethical and moral questions can help the individual to make explicit what was merely implicit and to become a more sophisticated thinker in this area. My personal experience, however, is that past a certain point it is difficult to make progress. And I think this is because basic ethical choices are not just intellectual. They involve emotions, and values and ways of seeing the world. I don’t see normative ethics as a researched-based area in the way that the sciences or mathematics or history are. Ultimately we all must make our own decisions about difficult issues and competing priorities, and there can be no definitive guidebook or safety-rail for this sort of decision-making. Religious people often seek moral advice from co-religionists whom they might perceive as learned or holy or devout. But for non-religious people the situation is very different. I don’t acknowledge ethical experts. In fact, I profoundly disagree with the views of many moral philosophers and ethicists. All too often they bring to the issues assumptions which I do not share (and in fact it is often these very beliefs and assumptions that led them to specialize in ethics in the first place).

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  10. The Trolling Test would not work since trolls behaviour is very close to what can be done with quite simple computer programs, ie it is repetive, monothematic and ignoring any attempt at engagement. I am pretty sure I could write a trollbot.

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  11. Actually I agree with you, Robin, that Aristotle’s approach was a step in the right direction, scientifically speaking. I like his Poetics too. His criticism of plays that rely too much on gimmicky tricks rather than plot and character-development could easily be applied to contemporary popular cinema. He was a very bright guy.

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  12. Robin, yes, that is true when we look at the simple, disruptive behaviour of the unsophisticated troll. I was thinking more of the sophisticated troll who brings insight of motivation and understanding of the argument to bear.

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  13. Thomas, to add to what you say about sociopathic or narcissistic ideations. Ethics is fundamentally other orientated. It is not just my feelings that matter, as Coel maintains. The whole point of ethics is that it is the feelings and the experience of the other person that matters. It is this other regarding aspect at the heart of ethics that elevates it beyond the merely subjective, because it deals with shared experiences. And it can be objective. An injustice to another person (for example violent assault) is an objective fact and not just a matter of my subjective feelings. Moreover, a widely shared consensus about values lends them a measure of objectivity, they are not just my subjective opinion.

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  14. “Your whole book just looks like one big philosophical treatise on why philosophy fails. So by what standards precisely are we to judge your hypothesis?”

    May I refer you to my reply to Question 2 (pg. 96) in my book’s FAQ? Thx

    “The point is that philosophy as a discipline deals with different questions to science, questions that aren’t just a matter of empirical fact and so, yes, are judged by different standards and admittedly permitting of more ambiguity and less certainty, by the very nature of the questions.”

    Agreed. I guess we differ in how remediable we think the vagueness and uncertainty is. I argue that it’s irremediable, because we can’t fix the general meaning of an expression by defining it, then defining the terms in the definition, and so on, ad infinitum.

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  15. Michael,
    I personally think Templeton is a colossal joke,
    Those are strong feelings, based on a whole bunch of vague hypotheticals.
    Has anyone actually demonstrated the damage you allege might just possibly have taken place?
    I know that Templeton are subjected to intense scrutiny by militant atheists who would love to trumpet to the skies any mistake they make. So there should be good evidence available if they are indeed guilty of such alleged misconduct.

    You are going a bit overboard here in my opinion.
    Calling the Templeton Foundation ‘a colossal joke‘ is a very good example of going completely overboard. Why don’t we just put all the hyperbole and metaphorical expletives on one side so that we can concentrate on a useful discussion?

    I am perfectly willing to admit that I am biased about all manner of things. Are you?
    Indeed. I would qualify that by saying that as reflective and honest people we try to avoid bias. But that this is sometimes difficult because we import so many unexamined assumptions into our thinking. Moreover we all appeal to values in our thinking so when does a value become a bias?

    Templeton doesn’t ask if science and religion are compatible, but why or how they are. It assumes the two are from the start
    I also don’t foresee any situation where Templeton would concede that science and Christianity aren’t compatible
    Templeton promotes Christianity and science compatibility
    they know the all of the answers before they start – science and religion are compatible,

    From your collated comments above it seems you show an astonishing amount of concern about the possibility that science and religions are compatible. You believe they are not compatible while Templeton and I believe they are. So let there be an investigation and let there be a debate. I think we have everything to gain by openly considering the matter in an objective way. Why would you want to oppose that process? Surely we both want to arrive at the truth?

    Templeton has every right to try to influence the discussion
    This is tendentious language because ‘influence‘ can be used in the favourable sense of directing research to interesting areas or in the unfavourable sense of influencing the outcomes.
    They do the former and not the latter but your language is deliberately vague enough to create the latter, unfavourable interpretation.

    but I have the right to object
    Yes, but I am surprised by the emotive nature of your objection.

    And please don’t throw out a meaningless term like politically correct
    It is far from meaningless. It describes a well known process.

    I am not quite sure how you think the process could be independent of their agenda.
    You repeatedly use this word ‘agenda’ in an unfavourable sense. This looks like more tendentious language. How about they have a legitimate interest in researching the interface between science and religion? Why cast this in unfavourable terms?

    the conclusions of the research they sponsor matches perfectly with their beliefs?
    Do they? Are you saying the researchers are dishonest? Have you looked at their research for evidence of this? You don’t think that perhaps you are making a rather extravagant claim?

    That their supposed scientists spend more of their time on apologetics than on science?
    Once again, do they? How do you know this? Why do you call them ‘supposed’ scientists? Have you good reasons for denigrating them?

    I have read their product extensively and found it wanting
    Then you should show us how it is wanting. That should be easy since you have read it extensively.

    I am puzzled that you have read it extensively. Why are you so very concerned?
    When I read your comments above I see a lot of emotion but not much backing for your emotion. You are obviously heavily invested in this issue. Why should that be so?

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  16. Hi Robin,

    I guess I agree with you that whether objective moral standards exist is not a scientific question, but in Coel’s defense moral anti-realism it is completely in accord with a scientistic viewpoint, which would regard any questions about objective truth which are not scientific as nonsense.

    So it’s not that science shows there is no objective moral standard, it’s that scientism would view the question as meaningless.

    Not that I endorse scientism.

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  17. Michael Fugate,
    Just don’t equate criticism with silencing.

    There is a difference and it is an important difference. I will illustrate it by reference to a four year old opinion piece in the NYTimes. The author was writing on this very subject, silencing. The author was a conservative academic who reported the difficulty of working in an overwhelmingly liberal academia. He noted that any expression of conservative opinions immediately attracted overwhelming criticism that was disparaging, mocking, derisive and scornful. He quickly realised that it was unwise to give any expression to his conservative opinions. He was silenced.(as an un-American I have no opinion on your strange tribal beliefs, so please don’t debate that with me)

    The difference lies in the manner, frequency and intensity of the criticism. It is this that silences. The difference also lies in presumptive and tendentious language that denies space for other beliefs. It is this that silences. An important aspect of silencing is that it attacks the right of reply or right of expression of its opponents. If opponents should reply they are attacked for replying(the tactic of double jeopardy). Silencing rests on an assumption that there is one good, true and valid viewpoint(the politically correct). And that therefore the others are false and bad, not deserving of space in the discourse. Silencing is an essentially intolerant tactic employed by those who claim to be the intelligentsia. After all why should the intelligentsia tolerate the uninformed opinions of the stupid? Silencing will use pressure tactics to shut down other voices and then defend their tactics by appealing to their own freedom of expression. If silencing is not opposed it leads to a monoculture that redefines freedom of speech to mean the freedom of their own approved speech. We all lose when silencing takes hold. Fascism by other means.

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  18. I should have mentioned the most delicious feature of silencing. If your opponent objects, you innocently reply that all you are doing is making a valid criticism, as is your right. Double jeopardy, bonus point for denialism.

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  19. Morning Everyone,

    Aravis,

    You don’t want to do philosophy? Don’t do it. You don’t like philosophy? Don’t like it.

    Oh but I *do* like philosophy. It is about interesting questions of concern to all humans. But, I don’t agree that such questions are the sole property of academic philosophers and can only be addressed from that angle. Question such as “what is morality?” are just as properly the concern of scientists.

    Further, I don’t agree with your suggestion that these questions are all so difficult that all we can do is endlessly rehash writings of past philosophers, rather than trying to decide which is right. The scientific attitude is to push forward and try to get at the truth of the matter. If that’s “breezy self-confidence”, then ok, guilty as charged m’lud, but I’m hardly the only one guilty of such.

    The headline to this blog says: “a webzine about science and philosophy”. It thus seems appropriate for me to approach “philosophical” questions from a scientific angle. What do you expect from a blog such as this? One surely wouldn’t expect long literature reviews as one would in a PhD thesis, so isn’t arguing for one’s position what a blog such as this is for? If you think that there is something in the philiosophical literature that refutes my stance then present it.

    Robin,

    So it would be interesting to see which branch of science has determined [that there is no objective moral standard of moral rightness] and by what method it has been verified.

    The branch of science is biology. We now understand what humans are, the process by which we came to be and the why we are like we are. That includes understanding the origins of our senses, our feelings, our social nature, etc. Moral feelings are programmed into us to do a job, just as aesthetic senses are, just as emotions such as fear and anger are.

    Thus, even if there were an “objective moral standard” (whatever that even means), it would bear no relation to our moral feelings since evolution would not care about that objective standard, it only cares (metaphorical “cares”) about facilitating survival and reproduction.

    From there science dismisses the idea of “objective moral standard” as totally unwarranted, and not supported by any evidence. The idea is thus disregarded (though of course science is always provisonal). Further, no-one has ever given a sensible conception of what “objective morals” would even *mean*.

    labnut,

    What’s the right thing to do, subjectively speaking?

    The problem with your questions is that they are worded weirdly (or, rather, they hanker after an objective moral standard). Do you mean, “What, in Fred Blog’s opinion, is the right thing to do?”, or “what do most people consider to be the right thing to do?”. If so, then the way to answer is to ask people! Trolley problems are an example of scientists teasing out people’s notions of morality by asking them about it. Yes, this is entirely *descriptive*, but you can only get something prescriptive by reference to some objective moral standard, of which there is none (as far as we know).

    Of course one can *set* *up* a standard, such as “human flourishing”, based on ones own *subjective* opinion of what we “should” aim for, and having subjectively set up a standard there then follow prescriptive statements about how to achieve it.

    imzasirf,

    You can make prescriptive statements to the effect of “if you value X, you ought to do Y” within a subjective system of morality.

    Isn’t that *descriptive*, about that moral system? The phrase “you ought to do Y” is indeed prescriptive, *given* the subjective standard of valuing X.

    prescriptions would not old the same weight if they were subjective in nature as opposed to objectively derived based on ethical reasoning. In that sense, subjective morality is inferior.

    So is that just your subjective opinion that subjective morality is “inferior” and carries less weight? I accept that a lot of people *subjectively* hold that opinion, and I submit that the idea that our moral ideas reflect an absolute standard is an illusion programmed into us to make our moral senses stronger and thus more effective.

    Robin,

    I would like to see an (explicitly cited) example of science answering one of these “properly posed questions”.

    Here’s the question: “Do people consider it moral to divert a trolley, saving the lives of 5 people, if the diverted trolley kills one person?”. Science answers this by asking people (polling is an entirely valid method in the social sciences). The answer is that some do, some don’t. For extensive details of this sort of stuff see (for example) Joshua Green’s book “moral tribes”.

    … you are saying that there is no such thing as morality, rather there are subjective feelings and opinions …

    No, I’m saying that there IS such a thing as morality, and that it IS our subjective feelings and opinions about how we treat each other. That might be saying that there is no such thing as *objective* morality, but not no such thing as morality. Our aesthetic senses don’t have to reflect an “absolute” standard to be “real” and nor do our moral senses.

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  20. Hi Thomas,
    Forgot to reply to you in my long comment above:

    Would you allow that this in itself sounds rather prescriptive?

    I would (as you suggest) see it as descriptive, and also evaluative. But, perhaps it is clearer if I rephrase by adding the term “supra-human”, vis:

    The whole notion that there is some *supra-human* prescription that can tell us what we “should” do is a complete red-herring; there are of course prescriptions that derive from human interests, feelings and opinions.

    … because it assumes a discourse regarding morality or ethics has no common aims or concerns but is rather “merely” relativistic or disparately self-serving.

    Not at all, I make no such assumption. First, people are similar worldwide with much the same human nature. Second, we are highly social animals spending much of our time interacting with others. Thus working out “common aims or concerns” is exactly what human morality is all about. My point, though, is that the ultimate grounding of all of this is in the feelings and opinions that we all have, and not in some supra-human “objective” standard of morality.

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  21. Hi DM,

    So it’s not that science shows there is no objective moral standard, it’s that scientism would view the question as meaningless.

    I don’t agree with you here. Science says there is no objective moral standard in the same way that it says there are no unicorns, namely there is no evidence for either, and accounts of the world make more sense without either, and further it is up to those proposing either to provide the evidence.

    From a scientism persective, the question is not “meaningless”, since science finds objective standards for all sorts of things (e.g. measures of mass and electric charge), it is just that no proposal of an “objective moral standard” has been made that is sensible and has evidence for it.

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  22. “Agreed. I guess we differ in how remediable we think the vagueness and uncertainty is. I argue that it’s irremediable, because we can’t fix the general meaning of an expression by defining it, then defining the terms in the definition, and so on, ad infinitum.”

    Isn’t this only a problem for those who believe that language can express Capital T, Truth? The thing is, in your hand waving about the objection to your own approach on p.96 of your book, you seem to have given plenty of room for philosophy as a valid, useful, and important exchange of ideas that doesn’t need to be semantically determinate, that nevertheless shapes and clarifies our understanding, is meaningful without encapsulating and exhausting all meaning. If you can succeed in your argument then why can’t other arguments succeed in a similar fashion? If these are irremediable then why is yours not?

    Are you sure you’re not really just taking aim at a particular narrow definition of philosophy, but one that might not be representative of philosophy as a whole?

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  23. “. . . science can in principle answer any properly posed question about morals. It’s just that people also ask questions hankering after an objective moral standard, and such questions have no answer since there is no such standard.” .

    “Morals are the feelings and opinions we humans have about how we treat each other. . . . Give me some examples of moral questions and I’ll explain how science can (in principle) answer them.”

    “. . . if you give me an actual moral question I will tell you how science would answer it.”

    “Thus there is only description plus human feelings and opinions.”

    “Your question “what’s the right thing to do?” is effectively asking: “Which action rates highest on the Absolute Shouldness Scale?”. My answer is that there is no such scale.”

    “The scientific attitude is to push forward and try to get at the truth of the matter.”

    Coel, the above quotes I take to be representative of your viewpoint and why it is troublesome to some of us. I don’t think many of us are denying that scientific studies can yield results that help to move the moral discourse along. It is rather your contention that science (biology) has rendered the discourse pointless: “Thus there is only description plus human feelings and opinions.”

    Note your orientation to this issue in the following:

    “Your question “what’s the right thing to do?” is effectively asking: “Which action rates highest on the Absolute Shouldness Scale?”. My answer is that there is no such scale.”

    No, that is not what Aravis or labnut or imzasirf are questioning, at least I don’t think so. In fact, what is puzzling is your insistence that there is no objective measurement or scale while at the same implying that science can supply one.

    Since you mentioned Greene in one of your comments, let me quote him:

    “One is the basic moral problem, and that’s the problem that our brains were designed to solve. Then you have this more complex modern problem, where it’s not about getting individuals to get along but about getting groups with different moralities, essentially, to get along with each other. That’s the first idea—that morality and moral problems are not one kind, they really come in two fundamentally different kinds, which we can think of as me versus us—individuals versus the group, and us versus them—our values versus their values; our interests versus their interests.”

    How is your conclusion–“Thus there is only description plus human feelings and opinions”–somehow encapsulated in Greene’s remarks? It seems rather more complex than saying “Because human feelings and opinions.”

    I think your summation is trivial and simply reduces the discourse on this generally acknowledged “problem” to the tautological.

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  24. labnut, religion is compatible with science – this is your assumption. I don’t know if this is true or false. I have never said that it couldn’t be or that it isn’t on a superficial level. Why should I be required to assume this is true? Why should anyone assume it is true without evidence? Why am I branded a militant atheist if I don’t think it is true?

    First we need to define religion, science and compatible – something I have never seen done in the arguments from either science or religious organizations. We are told that religion is a “way of knowing” but never told how religion knows. We get repeated diversions into how science knows, but we must take the truth of religious knowing on faith. Religion is so amorphous as to mean everything and nothing. Theologians define gods or God as ranging from an idea in someone’s brain, a transcendent experience, an act of generosity – to a human-like being with a physical body capable of eating, drinking and the like. How do we know where the truth lies? How do you study gods? Every tribe has had a religion – most forgotten – every religion today has sect after sect. Every individual has a singular understanding of both their God and their religion. How do we have a clue who knows what is true? We see ex-scientists become priests/ theologians who try to ram religion into a scientific framework – Polkinghorne or Barbour come to mind – and it doesn’t fit.

    Perhaps you could explain why you believe the two are compatible and why this is something important. I understand that many people are religious and religion can, in some cases, but certainly not in all cases, inhibit their engagement with science. It takes an understanding of how people learn to help overcome these inhibitions. Many religious people think that preventing loss of faith is more important than gaining scientific understanding (perhaps this is true?). They would rather people remain religious than accept the evidence for evolution, say. Other religious people see no conflict here and attempt to tell others how they do it. They would seem to be scientifically correct, but are they theologically correct? This is what I don’t know nor do I know how one does know. If the AAAS claims that one can be a Christian and an evolutionist – why should I trust that declaration? If someone asks, “if I accept the evidence for evolution, will I still go to heaven?” – can anyone answer that question with any certainty? If you can, on what basis could you do so? I see Templeton spent $5M to study life after death, perhaps that will give us the answer….

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  25. Hi Thomas,

    It is rather your contention that science (biology) has rendered the discourse pointless: “Thus there is only description plus human feelings and opinions.”

    Understanding our feelings and opinions, and understanding ways in which we interact with each other, is anything but “pointless”. Indeed few things have more importance to us.

    What I’m saying is that this task is immensely clarified if we abandon the illusion that morals have some sort of objective standing.

    In fact, what is puzzling is your insistence that there is no objective measurement or scale while at the same implying that science can supply one.

    I’m obviously very bad at explaining** if you think that I think that science can supply an objective scale on which to measure morals. It can’t, not the slightest hope, since the whole idea of objective morals is illusory.

    What science can do is the *description* of ourselves and our morals. But it is us, with our feelings and opinions, who set goals and desired outcomes.

    How is your conclusion–”Thus there is only description plus human feelings and opinions”–somehow encapsulated in Greene’s remarks?

    Greene is indeed correct. Our morals are about several interrelated things: how we interact with friends, how we interact with family, how small groups interact with each other, how larger groups interact, now nations interact, et cetera. I’m not really clear what question you are asking me.

    **Or perhaps the illusion of objective morals is so strong that people simply don’t understand a conception of morals that doesn’t hold them as objective, however directly and clearly this is stated.

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  26. Coel,
    The problem with your questions is that they are worded weirdly
    After repeated attempts to get you to answer this question you take refuge in labelling this question as weird? What is the right thing to do?

    You might be surprised to know that every day ordinary people ask themselves that very question – what is the right thing to do? Far from being weird, it is a sensible, normal question that people ask themselves all the time(at least morally aware people do). Michael Sandel asks that question 14 times in his book, so obviously he did not think it was weird.

    Your answer, finally, after much prodding:
    the way to answer is to ask people!
    All this time you have been steadfastly maintaining that science answers the question but then you turn around and say we must ask people. I can understand why you reversed your position, for the obvious reason that science does not answer moral questions. But your new position is equally strange. Has morality become an election? Is morality nothing more than a big PEW or Gallup survey? Does the majority view rule? What about dissenting views? Do you require a two thirds majority for the election of a new moral law or do we only need a simple majority? What about a constitution for moral laws? But then we need a Moral Supreme Court. No this is too much, my head is spinning at the thought of all this weirdness.

    To bring this nearer home. People in certain states in the US would certainly tell you that abortion is wrong while other states would tell you that abortion is right. Now what do you do? Who is right?

    Let’s go back in time to the French revolution. The French people decided that it was right to cut off the heads of the nobility(and kept the tumbrels busy). Did murder without a trial or any kind of due process suddenly become the moral thing to do? After all that is what the French people wanted.

    Now lets fast forward to an even more horrific killing a few years ago when 800,000 Tutsis were murdered by the majority Hutu population in Ruanda. The Hutus voted with their pangas and stuffed the ballot box with Tutsi skulls. That is what the Hutus wanted. Did that make it moral?

    You may reply that my words are a parody of your position and that is quite true. They are a deliberate parody to demonstrate in simple terms the absurd consequences of consulting people to determine morality.

    But I am happy to see that you have abandoned your position that science can answer moral questions. After all, there was no evidence for it.

    I urge you to read Michael Sandel’s book Justice, what is the right thing to do. What you will appreciate from his book is the subtlety and complexity of rival moral theories. From this you should appreciate the impossibility of getting science to answer these questions and the nonsense of simply conducting opinion polls.

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  27. Hi Michael,
    thanks for your reply. It has been very useful to me in that I better understand some of the conceptions of religion that you have. Given those conceptions your conclusions are perhaps inevitable.

    Perhaps you could explain why you believe the two are compatible and why this is something important.

    I will reply tomorrow morning(bed time for me right now) at the end of the comments stream.

    I think I can understand your objections because I had to work through them at the time of my conversion from atheism to Catholicism. I remember sitting through Mass, intently listening to the strange phraseology, parsing it and asking what does it really mean. In the same way I watched the rituals, searching for their meaning.

    Now it makes good sense to me and seems eminently logical. I will happily share it with you though I dread some of our other, er well known, bystanders coming into the conversation so that they deliver a few ill conceived and gratuitous kicks. They remind me of the bullies I had to endure in boarding school, always pushing, shoving, punching and elbowing for the pleasure of exercising manipulative power.

    I had some reservations about launching into what will be a lengthy digression but it might be an interesting example of why philosophy has a future and so is relevant to the OP.

    That is up to Massimo and at some point, or even now, he might curtail the discussion because irrelevancy, boredom or comment fatigue.

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  28. Hi labnut,

    It is clear that you have not even begun to understand what I am advocating. Perhaps you are not understanding because you cannot even conceive of a moral system that is not moral-realist?

    You might be surprised to know that every day ordinary people ask themselves that very question – what is the right thing to do?

    I am not in the least surprised. Yes, lots of people ask that, and by asking that many people mean “which action would rank higher on the Absolute Shouldness Scale”. And the correct answer is, as I’ve said, that there is no such scale.

    Other people might mean, by that question, “If I mull over it, what conclusion would *I* come to about what is best, based on *my* judgement”.

    Your answer, finally, after much prodding: the way to answer is to ask people!

    Nope, that was an answer to a *different* question, namely the question “what do people judge to be the right thing to do?”. Is that what you actually meant by your question? If not, what did you mean by it?

    I can understand why you reversed your position, for the obvious reason that science does not answer moral questions.

    I have not reversed my position, and science does answer questions about morality. It is true that science cannot tell you which actions rank highest on the Absolute Shouldness Scale, and that is because there is no such scale.

    Has morality become an election?

    What are you actually asking? Are you asking: “Does which action ranks highest on the Absolute Shouldness Scale depend on what people think about it?”? If so, the answer is, there is no such scale. Are you asking: “Does what people think about morality depend on what people think about morality?”? If so the answer is “yes”.

    No this is too much, my head is spinning at the thought of all this weirdness.

    The reason this does not make sense to you is that you have not thought through what a “moral question” actually is, you are hankering after a non-existent Absolute Shouldness Scale, and you are trying to map *my* system onto that scale. That won’t work, since there is no such scale.

    Who is right?

    What do you mean by that question? Are you asking, “which person’s opinion ranks highest on the Absolute Shouldness Scale?”? If so the answer is that there is no such scale.

    But I am happy to see that you have abandoned your position that science can answer moral questions.

    I have not abandoned that position, I stand by it.

    I urge you to read Michael Sandel’s book … From this you should appreciate the impossibility of getting science to answer these questions …

    And I urge you to try hard to think about what morality actually *is*, to try to conceive of a non-moral-realist conception of morals, and to actually try to at least understand my replies.

    It is clear that you have no understanding at all of what I’m trying to say (it may be that I’m very bad at explaining it). You are misunderstanding my system because you are trying to map my system onto the Absolute Shouldness Scale that determines what is “right” and “moral”. But there is no such scale.

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  29. labnut, given that I have many relatives and friends who are both practicing Catholics and Protestants (not to mention other religions), have spent countless hours in churches, and hung out with priests and pastors, I look forward to your response. You seem to believe me to be much more unfriendly to religious individuals that I could possibly be.

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  30. What’s with all the scary quotes, Coel? You appear to be fixated on a point that many of us haven’t disputed: A straw man related to assertions of an other than a human basis for human discourse regarding human morality and ethics. Each time you comment you add another piece of bling to what most appreciate as more complicated than your original minimalist position of morality as a “description of human feelings and opinions.” What point are you now trying to make with “*supra-human”? Why do you now add “understanding” to human feelings and opinions? And, no, sorry, you haven’t done a good “at explaining**” and that is largely because you haven’t explained anything. You’ve simply made a rather gross, over-simplified assertion which, by your measure, we can attribute to your “human feelings and opinions.”

    You are not Don Quixote, and we are not taking up arms against windmills.

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  31. Coel also seems to not know what the word “objective” means. Even if morals are entirely constructed out of human attitudes, there is nothing that prevents them from being objective. Social facts are, after all, objective, although contextually relative. The American economy exists “objectively.” The American government exists “objectively.”

    Contracts exist “objectively.” (Try breaking one and see what happens.) And there are any number of ethicists out there who would want to argue that morals are grounded in social contracts.

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  32. Hi Thomas,

    than your original minimalist position of morality as a “description of human feelings and opinions.”

    No, morality is our feelings and opinions about how we treat each other, not “the description” of that. The description of such feelings and opinion is a *description* *of* morality.

    What point are you now trying to make with “*supra-human”?

    If something were “objectively wrong” then it would be wrong regardless of what humans thought of that fact. Therefore its wrongness would relate to some supra-human standard of wrongness. That’s the point I was trying to make.

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  33. Hi Aravis,

    Coel also seems to not know what the word “objective” means.

    Oh yes I do. Oxford dictionaries: Subjective: “Based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions”. Objective: “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions …”.

    Consider the statement “Tom likes ice cream”. Tom’s liking for ice cream is subjective. The statement that “Tom likes ice cream” is objective. It is an objective fact about Tom’s subjective feelings.

    Morals are subjective; moral judgements derive from human feelings and opinions (just as aesthetic judgements such as liking ice cream do — in fact it’s fairly clear that evolution co-opted an existing “aesthetic system” to adapt and produce a “moral system”). One can then make objective statements about that subjective system.

    Even if morals are entirely constructed out of human attitudes, there is nothing that prevents them from being objective.

    That is a confused sentence. If morals are constructed out of human attitude, then one can indeed make objective statements *about* those morals. Just as “Tom likes ice cream” is an objective statement, so is “Jane feels that adultery is wrong”.

    However, both Tom’s aesthetic judgment and Jane’s moral judgment are still subjective. The statements that “Ice cream is nice” and “Adultery is wrong” are not objective, they need someone to opine them, and thus they are subjective.

    The fact that one can make objective statements about subjective opinions is exactly what I’ve been saying all along and exactly why the domain of morals is within the compass of science, because science can study our subjective feelings and opinions (= study our morals) and make objective statements about them. This is what psychologists do with trolley problems.

    By the way, do you have any actual arguments against emotivism (in amongst all this meta-arguing)?

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  34. Sorry, Coel, I cannot even make sense of your last paragraph. As for why some have problems with emotivism, I’m sure you can google the topic. However, I’m not sure your position can be described as only such because you include “opinions” in addition to feelings. We’ll just agree to disagree. One source (which you won’t like because it is philosophically oriented rather than scientifically oriented) is this: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/introduction/emotivism_1.shtml

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  35. Your use of “objective” and “subjective” is at odds with how these terms are used in philosophy. Dictionaries are documents that describe common usage. They do not include all the theoretical uses to which terms are use, and these terms have a distinctively theoretical use in philosophy.

    For Descartes or Locke, Tom liking ice cream is actually a *subjective* state.

    Social facts, like the ones I described, are objective. It is an objective, not a subjective fact that the US has a bicameral legislature, despite the fact that the whole governmental structure exists, only because of human attitudes, beliefs, and practices. The English constitution exists objectively, even though it isn’t written down! The social contract, if true, describes an objective–though constructed–fact about our tacit agreements. And if morals are grounded in social contracts–as theorists from Hobbes to Rawls have thought–then they are objective, as well—though constructed. This is not the *only* account on which morals are objective–theories like Aristotle’s construe virtues as objective, though contextually relative.

    Part of the problem with your analysis on this subject is that it conflates “subjective” and “relative.”

    As for arguments against Emotivism, they are legion. It’s biggest problem, of course, is that it cannot account for the normativity of moral imperatives. I know, I know…you’re simply going to say that there’s no such thing as normativity, but there it is.

    It is curious, however, that you are so insistent on hearing arguments against Emotivism, when all you’ve done is assert over and over again that all other ethical theories that treat morals as objective are false. Your own statements consisting almost entirely of bald assertions, it’s a little weird to demand arguments from everyone else.

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  36. Hi Thomas,

    As for why some have problems with emotivism, I’m sure you can google the topic.

    Which I have done of course. And the only arguments against emotivism seem to be along the lines of “well it doesn’t accord with my intuition, which tells me that morals are more than that”. Which is a pretty weak argument to start with.

    And to it I reply, why would one expect your intuition to be reliable on that point? Moral sentiments are programmed into us by evolution to do a job, namely to facilitate social cooperation. Evolution is totally pragmatic, and if it can use a short-cut “cheap trick” to making the moral system more effective then it will use it. Making people *think* that their moral judgements are more important than just their opinion is an obvious “cheap trick”, strengthening the effect of our moral systems.

    Therefore the fact that we have an intuitive bias to moral realism is thus fully in accord with my stance. Indeed, I’d go further and claim it as a positive feature of my stance, since it *explains* why human intuition is towards moral realism (whereas moral realism does not).

    Further, there is empirical evidence of this. Psychologists tell us that the moral claim “I want” is very similar to the moral claim “God wants”, with people tending to extrapolate from the former to the latter, exactly in line with my stance.

    So, the argument against emotivism from mere intuition is pretty weak, and actually supports my stance better than it supports moral-realism. That’s why I’m asking whether there are any *good* arguments against emotivism.

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  37. Hi Aravis,

    You declare that my usage of “objective” and “subjective” is not in accord with the philosophical usage, but then give a series of statements that seem to me entirely in line with how I used them.

    Tom liking ice cream is actually a *subjective* state.

    Yes, Tom liking ice cream is a subjective state. The statement “Tom likes ice cream” is an objective statement about that subjective state.

    The social contract, if true, describes an objective–though constructed–fact about our tacit agreements.

    I agree entirely. The existence of those social contracts is objectively real.

    And if morals are grounded in social contracts–as theorists from Hobbes to Rawls have thought–then they are objective, as well—though constructed.

    The existence of the morals, of the social contracts, is objective. The moral judgements themselves that led to those social contracts are subjective.

    It’s biggest problem, of course, is that it cannot account for the normativity of moral imperatives.

    You are right about how I am going to reply: First demonstrate that there *is* a normativity about morals that goes beyond someone’s opinion.

    If your only way of doing that is to appeal to human intuition then that is a very weak argument.

    And, also, as in my reply to Thomas that I’ve just written, the fact that humans intuit moral realism is actually *better* explained by my stance of emotivism than by moral-realism.

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  38. Hi Thomas,

    Citation for my point in my last comment (for which I seem to have screwed up an end-blockquote, oops).

    “Believers’ estimates of God’s beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people’s beliefs.”

    “… people’s own beliefs on important social and ethical issues were consistently correlated more strongly with estimates of God’s beliefs than with estimates of other people’s beliefs (Studies 1-4). Manipulating people’s beliefs similarly influenced estimates of God’s beliefs but did not as consistently influence estimates of other people’s beliefs (Studies 5 and 6). A final neuroimaging study demonstrated a clear convergence in neural activity when reasoning about one’s own beliefs and God’s beliefs, but clear divergences when reasoning about another person’s beliefs (Study 7). In particular, reasoning about God’s beliefs activated areas associated with self-referential thinking more so than did reasoning about another person’s beliefs.”

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19955414

    In other words, people are taking their own personal moral beliefs and then projecting them into “objective” morals, by (in the above study) projecting their beliefs onto “God”.

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  39. Hi Aravis, Coel,

    If I might interject…

    For Descartes or Locke, Tom liking ice cream is actually a *subjective* state.

    It seems quite clear to me that Coel understands this.

    Is it an objective fact that Tom claims to like ice cream and behaves as though he likes ice cream? If we could use a cerebroscope, might we find evidence that he actually does like ice cream by reading his mind? It should be obvious that this is the sense in which “Tom likes ice cream” is objective.

    I’m basically on Coel’s side on morality although perhaps I might express things a little differently.

    I think there is no objectively right way to think about morality, and that morality is quite similar to aesthetics. Different people find different things to be moral, but there is still a certain amount of agreement on many questions.

    So I don’t believe there is any one objectively correct morality, but I have my own subjective morality which I feel just as passionately about as anybody. I don’t need to pretend that equal rights are an objectively correct standard to be motivated to do what I can to promote equal rights.

    There are certainly objective facts about which courses of action will be widely regarded as moral, and which courses of actions will be correct given certain moral assumptions (e.g. certain formulations of utilitarianism, virtue ethics or deontology), but there is no way of justifying the view that any particular moral assumptions are objectively correct.

    To me, “X is wrong” is essentially equivalent to the statement “I feel that X is wrong” or perhaps “Given our common moral assumptions, you should agree with me that X is wrong”. I think that the interpretation “Anyone who disagrees with me about X being wrong is mistaken” is quite common and I think unjustifiable.

    My reasons for holding this view is simply the lack of any compelling reason to regard morality as objective, especially since I don’t think there is any supernatural entity which could ground morality (Euthyphro notwithstanding). It seems to be an extraordinary claim lacking extraordinary evidence.

    There have been various attempts to define morality objectively, (e.g. Harris, Carrier, definitions of morality in relation to our evolved instincts, divine command theory) but they all fail because there is no compelling reason to identify the term “morality” with such definitions or to give me a reason why I ought to do what those frameworks suggest I should.

    The objective world is about the “is” while the moral world is about the “ought”. Hume’s argument seems to me to be enough to dismiss the idea of objective morality.

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  40. Once again, it only works one way in your opinion. Liberals and atheists silence conservatives and theists, but never the reverse. You do know, that in many parts of the US atheists are still prohibited from running for public office. You do know, that conservatives are the majority in the US and could take over academia if they weren’t so damn greedy. Why would you believe that NY Times article to be true – given that you have no experience in US universities?

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  41. I am just as concerned about liberals silencing conservatives and I am about the opposite. The growing trend of not allowing people to speak is chilling. Why couldn’t Condoleezza Rice speak at Rutgers? She is a very accomplished individual and I am sure has intelligent things to say. What are people afraid of? Many individuals seem to think that unless everyone thinks like he or she does, then it invalidates his or her view. Are we really that insecure? Recent polling in the US shows that the population is becoming more socially and economically liberal, but it is also becoming more polarized. We should allow individuals to make arguments, we should not privilege one view over another, we should not try to dismiss arguments with buzzwords. I see this coming from both sides in an increasing echo chamber.

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  42. Michael,
    Once again, it only works one way in your opinion
    you should know by now how dangerous assumptions are.

    Let me make it clear to you. I have been a life long liberal in a country where it really was dangerous to be a liberal. I took real risks for my principles. I am not one of your anodyne American liberals. But my political affiliations have nothing to do with my arguments and I should not have to declare my political affiliations.

    I reject the notion that good people are liberals and bad people are conservatives(or vice versa depending on where you are coming from). There are good people who see things differently, that is all. Demonizing people for their political beliefs has to be a really dangerous thing to do.

    The final thing I want to make clear is that religious beliefs are orthogonal to the rather simple minded political dimension of left to right. Our concerns are for justice, mercy, charity and love for the poor, the suffering and the downtrodden, not for political gamesmanship.

    You probably don’t know that the real leaders in the fight against Apartheid were Archbishop Dennis Hurley(Catholic Church), Archbishop Desmond Tutu(Anglican Church), Rev. Beyers Naude(Dutch Reformed Church) and the Rev Alan Boesak(Dutch Reformed Church).

    You will see that they were all churchmen. Work it out for yourself.

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  43. Coel,
    I said: “But I am happy to see that you have abandoned your position that science can answer moral questions..

    You replied: “I have not abandoned that position, I stand by it.

    Then you should provide the evidence for your assertion.
    This is a very simple matter. You make a claim, now please produce the evidence.

    Science works by publishing its findings. There is no hidden evidence, so, if your claims were true, we would find abundant evidence for them in published, peer reviewed science papers.

    Now please produce the evidence.

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  44. Coel,
    there is a delicious irony in this.
    In your other comments over a period of time you have generally argued for a strictly materialistic view of the world, founded on empirical evidence.

    Yet you show a surprising readiness to embrace a belief that has no evidence whatsoever. Do you not see the stark contradiction here? Should not an empiricist readily admit he has no evidence when there is none?

    Why do you, as an empiricist, embrace a belief that has no supporting evidence?
    Are you abandoning your empiricist principles?

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