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July 13, 2007

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novakant, you're saying I can't disprove the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, where you can't point me to what you mean by the FSM. You say there are schmoralities, I say what's that? You say, well, it has something to do with schmeft. I say, what's that? You say, well, it has something to do with taking schmoperty. I point out that you don't even believe your own definition (omitting because it's obvious that sometimes taking schmoperty under the given standard isn't considered schmeft). Then I say, ok, point me to a supposed proof of schmoral claim, and I get crickets. Then I say, ok, here's what I think a schmorality is in vaguely mathlike terms (not for the first time on this blog, incidentally), and I point out an attendant absurdity, and I get crickets. I further note that if schmoralities are algorithms then a well-known mathematical result says they have properties which are absurd for your goal, and I get crickets. As far as I can tell, novakant, your side isn't even in the conversation here.

someotherdude: "Hilzoy wrote:"

May I most gently suggest that when quoting someone, people indicate the quoted text by use of either quote marks or blockquotes (blockquotes being better for longer quotes)?

Because when people don't do that, it's impossible to tell which part of their following text is a quote, and which is their own words (at least, absent spending time carefully checking against past comments, which is a result of the writer putting off the writer's own laziness onto readers). This is counter-productive.

I did write the

...

I must have wrote the thing wrong.

HEY, it worked that time!

Hilzoy,

One of the funnier things I've noticed since studying philosophy, is that everyone knows the answers to all philosophical questions except the people who study philosophy. It's kind of weird.

rilkefan,

you're saying I can't disprove the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

Can you?
Would you want to?

What if those whose respected and adored the all-powerful and all-loving Flying Spaghetti Monster ran your government and dominated your society?

It would probably be wise to know the culture of those who revere the Flying Spaghetti Monster, whether you believe in the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or not. Especially if they are dominant in the society you live in and seem to have an unhealthy amount of influence.

"What if those whose respected and adored the all-powerful and all-loving Flying Spaghetti Monster ran your government and dominated your society?"

Hopefully I'd say, "Eppure si muove".

OK, that was cute.

No, this is cute.

It's hard for me to focus on this, because the issue of moral conduct, and the problem of evil seem so distinct from the problem of theism or atheism to me.

People have committed great evil in the name of religion, and in the name of atheism {at least, I assume that the Soviet Gulag was evil}. It seems to me likely that the roots of human caused evil are more likely to lie in often adaptively useful qualities, like the willingness to believe in authority; the tendency to identify with an in-group and assume people who are not members of that group are subhuman; or good old fashioned motives like greed and revenge; than with belief or non-belief in a god or Gods. In support of this view I could cite studies like Stanley Milgram's, or the Stanford Prison experiment.

So my issue with both sides in the renewed theism/atheism debate is that it seems to be focused on the wrong thing.

To the extent that Hilzoy is pointing out that it would be better if the NYT would recognize that expertise in the area of moral philosophy exists and when they want they want to comment on moral philosophy hire someone who might know something about it, I'm inclined to agree with her. But that is not the biggest weakness of the NYT.

ok, maybe I'm a little slow today, and for some reason rilkefan doesn't want to talk to me - could anybody else explain what his point is?

I take some exception to your argument at its ontological turn; for my part, when it comes to supposedly "nonmaterial" existents, I'm for a blend of error theory, fictionalism and reductive materialism. But I take your overall point. ;-)

Sorry, I left that last one unsigned.

The 5:32 above is amusing.

I am going to read all of the comments when I have more time, but I think that one issue not addressed by Hilzoy (or Gerson) is the presumption that religion (or religious doctrine) equates to goodness. For those whose religion is the equivalent of the first four books of the NT, we are certainly primed to view religion as being tantamount to a code of reciprocal goodness, but we make a fairly profound logical error by then equating everything that our or other religions have demanded of us as being an imperative of something called goodness. It is not. There are too many examples, but this is in fact one "trick" of religions -- to bootstrap claims that are only tangentially related to questions of morality or goodness. The touchstone of religious belief is "belief" not that beliefs are good. "Believing" in transubstantiation, for instance, has nothing to do with goodness, and everything to do with faith. This is one reason why, for instance, the notion of Islamist terror makes our brains go haywire. We are too wrapped up in the idea that religion is the equivalent of a code of goodness.

Barbara, that I do agree with.

A belief (or faith) that faith in-and-of-itself is suposed to equal goodness seems "irrational."

When White Protestants were interested in preserving their culture against Black Protestants and Southern European Roman Catholics, faith certainly did not matter.

Religion is usually one of many signs tribes use to identify each other to determine solidarity and/or enemy.

Class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, are important signs as well.

Right, and although I have not read the Dawkins book, I have read and seen interviews with him, and his overarching objection to religion seems to be that it teaches and indeed requires people to "believe" that which cannot be proven. This is a serious question that all believers need to stop and think about. He probably seems much more reasonable in thoughtful interviews than when left to his own devices to beat up on those who make particularly outlandish claims -- it's one thing to believe in that which can't be seen, on the grounds of mystery and metaphysics, but to make one's religious claims hinge on disbelief in what has been more or less proven (evolution) is what, finally, I think, sent him over the edge.

about Dawkins and his outspoken "militancy", i will quote PZ Myers' daughter, Skatje:

    It’s moderate atheists’ job to speak nicely to theists and get them to hear the message, but it’s the militant atheists’ job to get the moderates out of the closet and active. Do they scare away some theists entirely? Probably, but those are most likely the most unchangeable anyway. And it still doesn’t outweigh the need for angry atheists and their “rudeness”.

Dawkins is pretty clear about this in TGD: he wants his readers to know its OK to be an atheist. you don't have to hide it, or apologize for it, because there's nothing wrong with it; so, he shouts it, loud and proud.

I agree it's OK to be an atheist--even though I'm not one--but there's much about the allegedly scientific approach to religion that annoys me.
For one thing, I've read several atheist arguments that dismiss religion as "just as set of memes" as though that invalidates religion. In point of fact, all ideas--special relativity, separation of powers, evolutionary theory--are memes, so that proves nothing. It's the same with the "religion is a virus" theory: Religious memes would be spread the same way as any other ideas, so it's no more a virus or a disease than democracy or baseball.
Likewise, some arguments about religion's evolutionary roots seem to ignore atheism altogether, as if atheists had made some tremendous rational leap that enabled them to escape the evolutionary impulses corralling all the other sheep.

As for Gerson, feh. Just a slightly revised version of the "atheists can't be moral" tripe the religious right's been handing out for years. As Bruce noted above, the frequent rationale for this ties into the believer's own dark side (assuming they mean what they say) as in "Well, if I didn't read the Bible, I wouldn't know it's wrong to run a child over in the streets or have sex with farm animals." Which makes them much scarier than the atheists I've known.

Well, Dawkins is a professor at Oxford, and from what I’ve heard, they have a pretty good Political Science and Sociology department. I would love to see what types of research those departments have done making similar claims concerning religion being the root of much disharmony in society.

I have heard of professors who believe their discipline is the only way to view reality; however evolutionary biology would still need some help deciphering philosophy, theology, political science and sociology.

I think that may be Dawkins point. He seems to push his “Atheist Identity Movement” with a bit of a wink and smirk. And his interviews display a man who is quite familiar with his subjects and I think its him being a little punk rock in the face of pushy theists who are trying to tell the biologist how to do his job, no doubt.

There is an old Irish joke, retold here by Richard Dawkins, about somebody in Northern Ireland who responded to a survey question about religious affiliation by declaring himself an atheist. ‘Would that be a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?’ came the insistent reply.

Dawkins is no doubt a Protestant Atheist. First, I can tell by the amount of Roman Catholic atheists who were pissed off at his work (the anti-Popery sentiment is a bit thick) and Second, Protestant Fundamentalists believe all attempts at knowledge, concerning scripture can only come from the Bible, so you either believe or you don’t…it is in their interest to keep the discourse as small and narrow as possible. And appeals to God’s goodness and great PR are futile. You either are a believing Christian or you are not.

Well, Dawkins is a professor at Oxford, and from what I’ve heard, they have a pretty good Political Science and Sociology department.

Just to be clear, that's a joke.

What is good starts out from basic human needs and desires. Unnecessary pain is bad, cruelty therefore is also bad, health, pleasant company, honesty and honest consideration are all good--and these are universals, observed even in the most primitive societies. There is also a consideration of long term vs short term; the drunk on the street corner would very much like you to buy him a 40 oz bottle of rye, but his pleasant buzz would likely descend rapidly into a deady case of alcohol poisoning. Finally, there is the requirement to really understand the needs of the other--when hungry, I might like a peanut butter sandwich, but this might kill someone else. From these simple principles, and the fact that we are social animals who live together and interact, we derive our moral systems.

To claim that materialism cannot lead to moral principles is horrifically naive. Ethics is first and foremost empirical, based upon our understanding of our own needs and the empathy that allows us to see that others have similar needs. But to understand what is right, you need to see the person in front of you, not be distracted by some distant imaginary sky god who echoes your own pre-existing, and often self-servingly convenient, notions of morality.

Mark F: "What is good starts out from basic human needs and desires."

This is not at all uncontroversial. It may be that what we are inclined, at first glance, to take to be good starts there, and has, somehow, a presumption in its favor, though even that would require argument; but there are lots of good things that go against basic needs. Any heroic death, for instance.

"To claim that materialism cannot lead to moral principles is horrifically naive."

Well, I think this claim is horrifically stupid, so we're even.

Are you defending claims that "materialism cannot lead to moral principles" as potentially valid?

Maybe the person meant that materialism can not lead to divine claims concerning morality?

It’s an indirect way of implying that “my moral rules are backed by a divine metaphysical foundation, while your ethics are built on a foundation of aesthetics and/or pragmatism. Therefore, mine has a stronger basis.”

Not that I agree with it (totally), but it seems to be the vibe I get.

'Are you defending claims that "materialism cannot lead to moral principles" as potentially valid?'

Cracks and shards, I nearly think I have been doing nothing else for two days.

I don't think there is any possibility of a non-trivial, non-arbitrary, well-defined morality consistent with physics and math. And there's been nothing in the above thread to make me any less certain.

I don't think there is any possibility of a non-trivial, non-arbitrary, well-defined morality consistent with physics and math. And there's been nothing in the above thread to make me any less certain.

How would we decide whether a morality was arbitrary or not?

How would we decide whether a morality was arbitrary or not?

Posted by: J Thomas | July 17, 2007 at 12:26 AM

Power?

"How would we decide whether a morality was arbitrary or not?"

I gave what strikes me as a relevant example here. I would obviously go on to ask "is it a chair if it is made out of frozen mice or thumbtacks or so unstable only a gymnast can stay on it for more than a second" questions by adding linear superpositions of arbitrariness.

The standard given in the above post is the Pythagorean Theorem, which is kind of not arbitrary [note of course it's just plain false in non-Euclidean geometry, so saying it exists is a bit funny], giving it some sort of claim to existence. If there's a morality with even that much of foundation, I'd be interested to see it. But (aside from the various things I've said above) as I've argued on the blog before, moralities appear to come with weighting functions (assessing an act over the set of its results, does one add up everything linearly? Does one allow long tails in the distribution?), and thus run into the same problems statisticians argue about (see Bayes vs frequentism). Well, ok, this is nearly gobbledy-gook but anyway I have some professional standing for my position.

While rilkefan's characteristic laconic style (an admirable trait, in my view) can make him seem a bit inscrutable at times, I think I get it now. A materialistic view entails a morality that can be defined mathematically. For instance, a morality could be defined as an objective function mapping human intentions (or acts) to "moral values" (the reals). To make this non-arbitrary, we'd like to find a "best" or at least "good" such function from among all the choices. But an optimization algorithm to do so would run afoul of the "no free lunch (NFL)" theorem, which says that no optimization algorithm would perform uniformly well on all possible objective functions (moralities).

Now, if I've got this right, I don't see any problem in principle with defining a morality mathematically, since this definition seems to be a good first cut. Making it non-trivial and non-arbitrary are more problematic. I'm not sure what non-trivial would mean in this case, or why we should care. But it certainly isn't clear that the NFL theorem is a problem in practice for the non-arbitrary part, since general-purpose, almost universal optimizers can theoretically exist. Perhaps evolution is one of those, and it is universal over the set of moralities that can actually exist in the world.

To amplify - see my distinction above between maps from intentions and finite generators of maps. The maps themselves are obviously arbitrary, so one needs to come up with some way of putting content into the generators - one needs a way to rank them somehow. But then one is in the same soup.

That is, one might say baseball exists - there's a rule book, and it's pretty clear what a good action is at any time (though Jeter still sac bunts in the first inning) - though of course a lot of the rules come down to, What the umpire says, goes. But those rules are arbitrary - if you saw a bunch of people playing a game with bats and a ball, you wouldn't be able to know what was going on outside that context. The case before us is even worse - observers have very different ideas about what a good action is (when they can even form an opinion [even setting aside the problem of ignorance]), and they believe their own judgments as their watches, despite a few thousand years of arguing about it.

"A materialistic view entails a morality that can be defined mathematically."

It does? What? Why?

"The case before us is even worse - observers have very different ideas about what a good action is (when they can even form an opinion [even setting aside the problem of ignorance]), and they believe their own judgments as their watches, despite a few thousand years of arguing about it."

I assume this also leads to a belief that there are no real aesthetic differences, right? No such thing as a prettier landscape, a better piece of art, a better tasting meal, a more beautiful piece of music, etc.--people's aesthetic preferences vary, and you couldn't write a formula about them, so therefore all aesthetic judgments are arbitrary?

"A materialistic view entails a morality that can be defined mathematically."

It does? What? Why?


It wasn't my intention to make such an assertion, but rather to lay out my understanding of rilkefan's arguments that led him to conclude that

I don't think there is any possibility of a non-trivial, non-arbitrary, well-defined morality consistent with physics and math.

It seemed to me he was basing this view primarily on the no free lunch theorem, which I don't see as an insurmountable objection to the possible existence of a mathematical theory of morality. Should that be required, of course.

"so therefore all aesthetic judgments are arbitrary?"

Well, they're a function of our low-level perceptual machinery and historical accidents, so partly. That's why we say de gustibus.

Here's a poem I sort of discuss on my blog: "Bring Me The Sweat of Gabriella Sabatini". Do you think there's an objective way of determining its value?


If you ask why I don't say morals are partly based on stuff like low-level machinery, I think that that's a good way to end up with monstrous results, and I think morals are claimed to be deeper in some way than that.


And, oh yeah, I think I'm supposed to link to "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas", but here's William James instead.

Don SinFalta, I think I've got a variety of forks in the fondue dish - enough so that they get a bit tangled. I'm perfectly happy to toss out the TANSTAAFL stuff (though note I had more in mind problems with different moral landscapes). Give me for example a non-arbitrary ordering principle for map generators - something secure against small perturbations of the sort described above. Or a way to deal with the weighting function problem (which one might call the Omelas problem).

I am totally lost here. Is there something self-contradictory about moralities that would prevent mathematical description? Some moralities, sure, but some of them could be described.

It sounds like each morality should provide a way to compare actions and decide which is morally better. Presumably in most moralities there would be some pairs of actions that would be morally neutral. Like, if you put a penny in the bottom of your purse should it be heads up or heads down? Most of the time, in most moralities, that wouldn't matter. But in some circumstances it would be a signal -- it might be what determines whether you are recognised as a courier, it might be a vote, etc. If you knew that someone was going to steal your purse and use the penny's position to decide whether to commit suicide, then it would have moral import -- but only if you knew, right?

So different moralities will have different weights and different don't-care regions. And for a morality to not be arbitrary, I suppose you want to have a meta-morality to use to judge moralities by? Where does that end?

If you ask why I don't say morals are partly based on stuff like low-level machinery, I think that that's a good way to end up with monstrous results, and I think morals are claimed to be deeper in some way than that.

But don't morals typically end up with monstrous results when applied outside their usual domains? And how good is it to ignore low-level machinery? Though I'm not sure what you mean by low-level machinery.

I've met people who were appalled that guppies eat their own young. But then I had the chance to see some close guppy relatives in a north carolina pond. There were millions of them there. The young tended to stay in the very shallow water, where the adults were targets for larger predators. occasionally an adult would come zooming in fast and leave fst. She didn't have a lot of time to get a meal and get out. There was no possible way for her to notice which were her own babies and which were somebody else's. With millions of adults in the pond, the odds were a milion to one it wasn't hers.

Plus, considering the size of a guppy eye, I wasn't sure they could tell the difference between a baby guppy versus a mosquito larva, on an attack run. Except the mosquito larvae were easier to catch. Baby guppies would see them coming and slide sideways, out of the way. Smaller, slower, less momentum. More maneuverable. They only got caught when they faced too many strikes too quick and tired out. Mosquito larvae didn't move as fast and seemed more random. OK, they can tell the difference. But still their eyesight just isn't all that good, and their interpretation of compression waves through the water, and electrical signals and taste -- all handled by a brain the size of a pin head. Guppy morality has to be based on guppy mechanism.

Even the most fundamental tenets of morality must change with circumstance. I can't imagine anything more basic than the distinction between us and them. And yet, what do you do when your group tosses you out? Do you stay loyal to them anyway? Sometimes that's best. When you're alone and everything you want to survive beyond you is with them, why not? And yet....

One of the first moral principles people learn is not to tattle. When you tell on somebody else, everybody will stop telling you secrets, everybody will consider you an outsider. The authorities may use you as an informer but they won't respect you -- because they don't like tattlers either. Yet even this central principle should be broken sometimes, and the times to break it vary with subtle circumstance.

I'm just not clear what you want. Sure, there are likely ways to describe moralities clearly, in mathematical language. It kind of sounds like you're looking for a way to prove that one moral system is always best, according to some sort of criterion that everybody would agree with. Is that it? I guess that might be possible. I'd hate to make a proof that it could never happen. But whyever would anybody expect it?

Anyway, why would a nonmaterial morality be less mathematically describable?

Well, it depends on what you mean by "objective" and "subjective". If "objective" means that there is some mathematically certain way of proving the results--of showing that one person's tastes are wrong and another's are right; and "subjective" means that there isn't, then I agree that aesthetic judgments are subjective. If "subjective" means that they are completely arbitrary preferences, and "objective" means that they aren't, then I don't agree that they're subjective. Not entirely, anyway.

Most people see no contradiction between a realization that tastes vary, and believing that aesthetic differences are real.

Now, I assume that say, Kantians, consider moral laws to be more universal than aesthetic judgments. And I do too--for one thing, at the extremes moral questions get into matters of basic survival of ourselves in our children. You'd be hard pressed to convince someone that it's moral to kill, torture, or enslave him or his child.

If there's a First Principle, it's the Golden Rule, right? "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," because other people are as human as you are and you should treat them as you wish them to treat you.

I'm not sure it really works as an algorithm--the mathematical part of this discussion is over my head, and I am sure you can come up with examples where I want one thing from my neighbor but he actually doesn't want the same from me because our preferences about our own lives are simply different. Still, if you're looking for one to test out, or to show us what you mean about moral statements being either abritrary or trivial, that seems like a good place to start.

p.s.: for the sake of consistency, how can you make arguments that certain bases for morality "lead to monstrous results"? If you think all moral claims are arbitrary or trivial, on what basis do you evaluate whether results are "monstrous"?

Katherine, the Golden Rule is an algorithm for getting treated the way you want. Since people tend often to respond to others the same way they're treated themselves, if you treat them the way you want to treat you they're likely to respond -- whether it's what they want or not.

So if you tell people the truth and it offends them, they're likely to look for opportunities to offend you by telling you the truth back. They might not like it, and they might not realise that you prefer the truth, but they'll respond anyway.

It doesn't always work. Given sufficient incentive people may not respond well. You can give 10% of your wealth to a rich person, and he's unlikely to respond by giving you 10% of his wealth. He may not even give you back as much as you gave him.

And if you throw a rock at a christian he won't do what you want and throw rocks back at you -- he'll forgive you.

So it isn't reliable, but it works a whole lot of the time. I don't see it as a moral precept, but as a way to get what you want.

'p.s.: for the sake of consistency, how can you make arguments that certain bases for morality "lead to monstrous results"?'

Short-hand for "by conventional standards". I suspect that stance has lead naturally to the belief that it's natural and good for the lesser races to be enslaved by the greater, it's natural to be homophobic, it's right for husbands to beat their wives. I have opinions about these beliefs even if I don't think those opinions have some abstract grounding - they're the result of my programming.

As for the Golden Rule, I don't know if there's enough there to go on - can I punish a prisoner, can I send a duly-convicted man to jail if I think he's actually innocent, can I close the bulkhead of the sinking submarine with people on the other side if I wouldn't want to be closed out, what if I find myself in a libertarian dog-eat-dog world, is tit-for-tat ideal or should it be tit-for-two-tats, ...

"But don't morals typically end up with monstrous results when applied outside their usual domains?"

Well, that's in fact part of my argument. One ends up saying moral M applies only to society S, then one asks, what about society S[delta_t]?

"Though I'm not sure what you mean by low-level machinery."

I meant that part of our reaction to art depends on features of visual processing units, to music on how the ear and brain organize sound, etc. But if greed is natural, that doesn't make it good.


Presumably my viewpoint isn't anything new - I wish some informed person would have pointed to the relevant literature.

A lot of motivations for atheists to be good have been mentioned here. Don't forget the human impulse to avoid the blame and scorn of others. I am an atheist, and it turns out to be a big reason I'm not more of jerk.

I know this post is two years old, but I just found it, and I have to reply to the first footnote: there was also (10-15 years ago?) a Skittles ad campaign which by my best recollection consisted of a creepy voice saying, "Real... real... what is real?" only to immediately be answered, "Real is Skittles fruit candies with real fruit juice in every bite."

Centuries of scholarship made obsolete!

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