Is-Ought Addendum

Posted by Anti Citizen One on March 30th, 2010

Just some quick notes that I want to brain dump on the is-ought problem. The conclusion of the problem is that prescriptive statements cannot be derived from purely descriptive statements. One way to avoid this issue is to use prescriptive statements as axioms (e.g. you should be good). But this might allow us to posit a axiom “you should be bad” and we would have no a-priori way to prefer one over the other. We might also remember many cultures have the concept of evil spirits and they probably should not be obeyed. So having a divine nature does not necessarily imply human obedience.

A pragmatic approach might be that prescriptive statements are based on psychology and not on rational argument. This would probably be compatible with neuroscience which seems to suggest we confabulate justifications for almost any action. This would not be acceptable to mainstream theists since we need free will and choice to enable “sinners” to be enable them to be held accountable. I only recently heard that some groups believe in a judging God but without people having free will – I have dropped my expectations of them making any sense, naturally.

Anyway, have fun!

Anti Citizen One

Objective Morality and the Is-Ought Problem

Posted by Anti Citizen One on March 28th, 2010

I was discussing the is-ought problem with a friend and to sharpen my thinking I have written this. The writing style is a homage to Hume.

Philo: The so called “is-ought problem” divides propositions into prescriptive and descriptive statements. Prescriptive statements describe justified moral actions and are commonly stated as “what you should do”. Descriptive statements might succinctly be defined as non-prescriptive propositions and they include statements that describe observable reality, as well as non-moral metaphysical propositions. Writers on moral subjects often begin with first principles and descriptive statements that, after much discussion, conclude with the justification of prescriptive statements. In a close analysis of these moral treatise, we may inquire as to which was the first prescriptive statement in their argument and its respective justification. It seems “altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.” All attempts to bridge this gap by reason have so far failed, and as long as the is-ought problem holds, all moral statements cannot have a final logical basis. This puts laws that guide human actions within the sphere of knowledge but beyond the grasp of philosophers who persist in their attempts to find justification from first principles.

Cleanthes: How absurd to object to the justification of objective morality, as proceeds from the divine being! The justification is plain from what we understand by the only tenable moral system: moral realism. We agree that moral statements are propositions and it is clear that these statements can either be true or false. The truth or falsity exists independent of our opinions as they have existed for all time and are immutable and perfect due to their divine origin. How can you claim this does not satisfy your requirement for logical justification?

Philo: I will attempt to educe [to work out from given facts] this point and show the infirmity of such a justification. When asked, all men are able to provide justifications for their just actions. These justifications may be codified into general principles that illustrate what a man should do in any particular circumstance. And as admitted by all men of good sense, this standard of righteousness proceeds from the divine mind. Take a particular moral action, say “feeding the hungry” and you claim this action is justified by objective morality. But what are the grounds that may I use as the basis for this justification? Or in direct language, why should men follow the principles of objective morality?

Cleanthes: Isn’t this basis self evident and obvious? We agree that objective morality is universal, divine, timeless and perfect and are therefore the principles that a good man should use as a basis for actions. It proceeds from the definition and divine nature of objective morality that it describes what action should be taken by a man. To use your example of “feed the hungry”, God has created a system of laws which is objective and independent of opinion. One law, or part, of objective morality is the imperative to “feed the hungry”. This action is therefore universally justified, except when other divine laws are at stake and we may be satisfied by this justification. Your semantic objections to what is widely affirmed to be true would seem to me as utterly futile.

Demea: We are agreed on the infinite, good and perfect nature of God, Cleanthes, but I am wondering how man might have certain knowledge of the justification of objective moral law. Since this matter is considered by many to be obvious, while I believe it is not so, I will attempt to illustrate my view on the matter. Consider the most abstract conception of God and we may see that there are few or no properties that proceed automatically from the definition of such an entity a-priori. Since the divine nature is so far removed from our every day experiences, we may gain knowledge of God’s commandments, that is “descriptive objective law”, though what ever means are available to man but we cannot a-priori say that God’s privilege to dictate men’s actions. Although you may argue your case from your limited experience of the world, it is presumptuous to assert that this provides justification to any “prescriptive objective law”, since that would incorrectly apply concepts of human origin on the adorable mysteriousness of the divine nature. We can still ask what is the justification of man following God’s commandments, and it remains upon you, Cleanthes, to support your assertion that we can know that divine law is prescriptively justified.

Philo: It seems to me, that there is a distinction in our usage of the concept objective morality, Cleanthes. You have claimed men should follow divine law because it proceeds from God. I will attempt to clarify our definitions in the hopes of clarifying our thought. Your usage of the concept of objective morality implies the definition of “a system of right and wrong conduct which should be followed” which simply means “actions men should do”. Under this definition, objective morality is a prescriptive statement. When I asked you earlier what was the justification, you stated it is by definition justified by objective morality and by your definition, it clearly is. But can you see that if I ask “why should we feed the hungry” and you answer simply “it is objective morality”, which merely means “it is what men should do”, should you be surprised when this answer fails to satisfy? Your claim that the prescriptive justification of objective morality proceeds from the very definition of objective morality is simply an admission of your argument’s tautology!

Cleanthes: You both seem to argue the most abstract and absurd objections, when all reason, common sense and evidence points to God as being the creator and therefore sovereign in the world. This fact being well known and acknowledged even by yourselves. And you, Demea, claim on one hand that God is king of the world and on the other that we cannot know* God is the king of the world! As for you, Philo, who would not accept the plain and succinct answer to your question, I say: objective law should be followed as it is commanded by the creator and sovereign of the world. This answer is equivalent to my first justification, which you seem to fail to grasp, that is the origin and nature of objective law justifies our following it.

Philo: Which provides the justification for objective law? Its origin or its nature? I have already argued that the nature of objective law cannot, without tautology, be shown to be its own justification. And as for objective morality’s origin, the king of the world, you have shifted your justification to a new concept: the sovereignty of God. But your remark that this argument is equivalent to that which you stated at first, opens this point to the same objections. Why should we follow the commands of a sovereign? That God created the world and he is its lord is agreed, but from this descriptive statement of God, it does not logically follow that men should obey him. In reality, Cleanthes, you keep on the same treadmill of stating X is the justification of Y, where all we can of X is that it is defined as “the justification of Y” and we never reach satisfactory descriptive axioms. We can always ask for the logical justification of X and you are likely to posit W as the justification, and so on. You have so far justified “men should feed the hungry” by claiming “men should follow objective moral law” which is justified by “men should obey God’s sovereignty”. We again ask what is the justification of the latter? Without resorting to infinite regress, we may admit, as is acknowledged among the more discerning philosophers, the derivation of prescriptive statements has not yet been achieved from purely descriptive statements.

Pamphilus: “I cannot but think, that PHILO’s principles are more probable than DEMEA’s; but that those of CLEANTHES approach still nearer to the truth.”

by Anti Citizen PhilONE 🙂

PS “Murder is wrong” (or “Murder is illegal”) is also tautology. Hint: look up the definition of murder.
*Deliberate straw man here.

Stuff I’ve Been Doing

Posted by Anti Citizen One on March 26th, 2010

I was going to review Darwin’s Origin of Species, but there is little I can add to the popular perception of it. He does address most of the modern objections, so anyone who talks of “gaps in the fossil record” without bothering to read him are just lazy in not reading his actual point of view or are wilfully ignorant. Refreshingly, he does not pull punches against his own theory and states very clearly the types of evidence that would disprove his point of view – for example, fossils not in the appropriate geological order or a single species originating simultaneously in two distinct areas. Many science writings don’t put the case against their view at all, or at least not as strongly, and properly, as Darwin. He the man.

I was invited to a bible study group, which was interesting as an outsider. They were much less “chapter and verse” than I expected. We discussed “love thy neighbour as thyself” and I made the point that what is meant by “love” is sightly ambiguous – in an interesting way. If it is taken in the “love unconditionally” sense, then it also is a commandment to love thyself unconditionally (and that is a rather big “if”). This might have been a pre-emptive strike against the idea of “total depravity”, but that particular issue did not come up. I decided against expressing Nietzsche’s “be not considerate of thy neighbour! Man is something that must be surpassed” view – that would not have been well received!

I attended the Big Libel Gig, which was a awareness raising, comedy event. It featured a few science writers and several comedians who were critics of alternative medicines and superstition, including Simon Singh who is being sued because he criticised chiropractors. The issue is it costs a vast amount to defend a libel case, even if vindicated and is therefore a way of large organisations to silence their critics. I also saw Brian Cox (for the second time) and Ben Goldacre. The whole event was very “yay for empiricism, science and naturalism” and “boo for alternative medicine”. I was strongly reminded of that world view in a rap song by Baba Brinkman (and is based on a Jay Z song). The video editing is very slick. I don’t normally listen to rap but its a good summary of the main themes.

I have two books by Karl Popper on order. I am looking forward to that. I am bogged down in Capote’s short stories at the moment. I have also been trying to explain the is-ought problem to people but most people just don’t get it. What did I miss? 🙂

Anti Citizen One

PS Since we are on the topic of ultra-naturalism, and if you prefer folk to rap, you might like this: Creation Science 101

PPS The philosophical issues around evolution are more than adequately covered on talk origins.

Babe Ruth’s Wager

Posted by on March 25th, 2010

Whilst staring at the stars the other day I entered into a reflection about Pascal’s Wager.

The wager in brief posits that reason is insufficient to prove the existence of God and thus provides no rational justification for belief, but this is a problem about the limits of reason, and not a negation of God. In the absence of reason then Pascal suggests that living one’s life as though God exists is possibly infinetely more rewarding (if said God does turn out to exist) as opposed to infinite recriminations if one lived life as though God didn’t exist only to discover that one is wrong.

There is a plethora of criticism attached to Pascal’s Wager from almost every philosophical position regarding God.

I personally think the Wager is often misunderstood or misinterpreted for specific philosophical ends. However the Wager is by its simplicity open to such attacks.

What is the wager? Well it certainly isn’t an attempt to prove the existence of God. God is merely a probability.

It is however two other things (other than an exercise in probability); firstly it is a proto-existential work (and is increasingly identified as such) for it attacks certainty and celebrates choice, secondly it is an ethical proposition, for if we expand the idea of ‘living as though God exists’ then we are making statements about what type of life ‘God’ wants us to live.

The first element is frequently neglected by Pascal’s critics (more of which in a moment). The second element is the main focus of such criticism.

Without going into any great detail the ethical element of the Wager leaves different people (theist and atheist alike) with a bad taste in their mouths. For even though Pascal was rejecting certainty and the role of reason in proving the existence of God, and even though God was reduced to a conceptual possibility, the promise of reward and its inverse the threat of punishment (the main ethical theme of the wager) is de facto heavily loaded with Judaeo-Christian assumptions about the nature and intention of God. However in his rejection of reason there is no attempt to validate or justify these assumptions.

One attempt may be suggested, an ontomystical justification. i.e. revelation. One may say that the assumptions that one has about God are based on revealed messages either personally recieved or generally read in scripture. This justification however collapses under the weight of cultural relativism, why should one revelation (i.e. Judaeo-Christian) be any more valid or acceptable than another (i.e. Hindu)?

The answer of course is that other than through cultural conditioning, there is no reason why one set of revelations should be more relevant than another.

This reflects another criticism of the Wager, that religious belief is not explicitly a conscious choice.

Yet this does not seem to me to completely kill the wager off. All it does is reflect the limitations of it. It is if you like a closed wager, it only works and its conclusions are only valid if one accepts the various underlying assumptions contained within it and just as importantly if one aspires to achieve the most desirable end result.

This last bit, the desire to achieve the most desirable end result smells a lot like utilitarianism and the felicific calculus. (1.How strong is the pleasure? 2. How long will it last? 3. How likely or unlikely will it occur? 4. How soon? 5. How often? 6. Or not. 7. How many will benefit?)

Dawkins in the God Delusion posited an anti-Pascal wager, which goes as follows “Suppose we grant that there is indeed some small chance that God exists. Nevertheless, it could be said that you will lead a better, fuller life if you bet on his not existing, than if you bet on his existing and therefore squander your precious time on worshipping him, sacrificing to him, fighting and dying for him, etc.”

It does alas bore me, only because it says nothing that Pascal hadnt actually considered himself. Also the anti-wager again is a closed system, its conclusions work best when one accepts certain assumptions, and its most desirable end result (a better fuller life). Needless to say the latter, the most desirable end result relies upon the assumptions being acceptable in order to be desirable. In Dawkin’s case (without doing a deep analysis) one of the assumptive areas is that God-probability is minimal therefore maximal Godcentric-activity is a disproportionate use/waste of time.

I’m not however an enemy of the anti-wager. The anti-wager works just as well as the wager, as does any number of variations on the God-theme. In fact the wager can probably be rewritten and reformulated in any number of ways if one plays around with the necessary assumptions.

And this diversity is rather good. It reflects the existential character of it that is so often ignored.

It was the Utilitarian character of it that struck me most in my early reflections, or rather its Utilitarian and Hedonistic applications. If one rejects Pascal’s necessary assumptions his wager simply doesnt work (nor is it desirable). And it is quite possible a la Dawkins to formulate a different wager that is based upon a different set of ethical values and assumptions and desirable outcomes.

Whatever way it has no bearing upon the existence or non-existence of God (who remains in the wager game simply a probability). It does however belong to the field of ethics and existentialism and as such is probably worth a lot more attention than it gets.

I was originally going to call this post “Bentham’s Wager” to reflect the Hedonistic alternatives (life’s too short, live life to the full; eat, drink and be merry for tommorow we die; be prepared for you do not know when the hour will come, etc.) But I settled upon calling it Babe Ruth’s wager after the bachannalian and iconic Baseball player, who once when asked to expound upon his philosophy of life, and sport, declared:

“I swing big, with everything I’ve got. I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can.”

Kees van Deemter: The importance of being vague

Posted by Anti Citizen One on March 16th, 2010

Q: Is vagueness anathema to science?

KvD: Put a magnifying glass to many scientific concepts and you find vagueness.

New Scientist

Note to self: subjectivity does not necessarily mean knowledge is impossible…