“Divine commands” and personal conscience

Fifteen years ago I visited Israel and can vividly remember the sight of a rifle-carrying guard on a bus full of school children in the north-east. It brought home to me the reality of religious and political extremism which can drive the ideologically committed to brutal, anti-human acts like attacking kids on a school bus.

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School bus hit by Hamas rocket in southern Israel. Credit: 3Sigma Systems

My theologically inclined sparring mate, Matt Flannaghan at MandM, brought that memory back with his recent blog post Divine commands and psychopathic tendencies.” In the post he’s at his old tricks – going into a frenzy of mental gymnastics to justify divine command theory (DCT) – the idea that if his god commands something then the believer must carry it out – no matter how evil the act commanded. Matt is specifically arguing that DCT implies blowing up a bus full of children is right if that’s what God told you to do.”

Just that quoted phrase seems to encapsulate all that is wrong with the divine command morality of religious apologists.

Where are those “divine commands” coming from?

A non-believer like me has no problem with divine commands. I know a god couldn’t possibly tell me to blow up a bus. No god has ever made any command – good or bad – for a very simple reason that gods don’t exist. And, hopefully, when that day comes that I do hear a voice in my head telling me to do something that evil I will not be silly enough to think the voice is divine and must be obeyed.

Hopefully I would recognise that I had a problem and get some professional help.

Yes, some believers may well hear voices like this – or claim to have heard them when facing the consequences of their actions in a court of law. Usually that raises the prospect of a not guilty due to insanity verdict. Worth a try?

But it’s probably far more common that political and religious soldiers, rebels or terrorists, get such divine commands “passed on” to them by their Imams, Priests, and theological, political or national leaders. You know, the ones directly in touch with their god or the fount of racial, political or national wisdom. Come on!! Think about it. What other way could they possibly get a “divine command?” Why else does their god seem to have exactly the same prejudices and hatred as the messenger?

The soldier, rebel or terrorist may well believe in a god (or nation, or race) which is a divine, “omniscient, omnipotent, morally perfect person” (or race or nation). But that is irrelevant – they should really be looking at the messenger – the leader, priest, imam, politician, etc., who is claiming to speak for their god (race, state or nation). If they don’t they are just transferring these divine properties of their fictional god to the very real (and very human) “messenger.”

When can evil commands be morally “right?”

Matt argues that a divine command to blow up a bus full of schoolchildren is only hypothetical and therefore he has no qualms saying that if he did get such a command he would know it was morally “right.” He doesn’t believe it will happen because his god is a “morally perfect person.” But he is conceding that if his god commands such an act he will have to assume that the particular circumstances mean that in his case blowing up the bus of schoolchildren is not unloving, not unjust, not based on false information, and not irrational.”

Why? Because his god is an “omniscient, omnipotent, morally perfect person”

But doesn’t that argument create a huge moral minefield for him? As a believer and advocate of DCT he believes that his god is the source of “right” and “wrong.” That if his god commands something (even blowing up a school bus) then it must, by definition, be “good.” Be morally “right.” Who is he to question? Because if he does question the command (supposedly “divine” because the messenger, or the voices in his head, tells him it comes directly from his god), isn’t he attempting to use a different, human, non-divine source for his morality? Hasn’t he just shown his idea that moral truths of “right” and “wrong” come from his god to be a sham.

So someone who accepts divine command morality, either for religious reasons, or for racial, political or national reasons, must accept that, no matter how evil the command seems, it is morally “right.” It must be because it’s divine! So they must follow the “divine” orders.

“Double checking” those “divine commands”

Of course, Matt has managed to fit in another somersault to deal with that argument (after all, that’s what theology is for, isn’t it?). He has set up another moral authority to check the divine commands from his god – just in case! He is appealing to an “impartial, compassionate person (who) would knowingly, after a fully rational consideration of the facts, endorse the killings.” so when he does get commanded to blow up that bus he has another moral authority to double-check with.

Bloody hell, would this be his Priest, his Imam, his national or racial leader? Or would it be another of his gods (because this impartial compassionate person sounds pretty omniscient and impotent to me – after all he is a back-up to check Matt’s god). And come on, Matt, surely the philosopher in you must see that you have set an infinite regress trap for yourself – who is going to be the back-up for your “impartial, compassionate person?” And so on.

Or would Matt’s back-up be his own conscience? Is he going to double-check these “divine commands,” whether they come via voices in his head or the declarations of his religious authorities, by contemplating how he actually feels about them? Even applying a bit of philosophical logic to the situation and coming to a reasoned conclusion?

After all, that’s what the rest of us do. Rely on our intuitions and the feelings they generate about ethical situations. And also complementing our emotional reactions by reasoned discussion and deliberation with our mates and the rest of society.

Hasn’t the world learned from experience what “just following orders” results in?

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60 responses to ““Divine commands” and personal conscience

  1. If I got a command from God to kill someone, I’d be arguing long and hard with Him – despite my belief that I should obey promptly.

    My big problem would be that such a command contradicts what I’ve learned of how He wants me to behave. I would therefore have to doubt the identity of who I was ‘hearing’ from.

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  2. So you god insists – or at least the messenger does (or do you “hear” yoiu god in your head). Maybe even gets angry. After all, you will just provoke him by telling her how you think she wants you to behave.

    Then what? – do you just follow orders or do you follow your conscience?

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  3. Ken, this is a silly objection which can be made against all forms of normative ethics, not just DCT.

    DCT entails the conditional “if God commanded you to blow up a bus full of children, you are required to blow up a bus full of children” the same way virtue ethics entails the conditional “If it was virtuous to blow up a bus full of children, you are required to blow up a bus full of children” or how consequentialism entails “if blowing up a bus full of children increased the net eudaimonia of humanity, you are required to blow up a bus full of children”

    God commands flow necessarily out of His goodness. So if you can conceive that God could command to do something like that, you are most probably wrong, just like you would be to conceive that it is virtuous to do so or that net human flourishing would increase if you did so.

    Ergo, your issue is with normative ethics, not DCT.

    Stop misrepresenting Matt, it’s getting old.

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  4. No, it’s not, Hugh. Like most people I don’t adhere to a dogmatic moral code, whether justified by DCT or Virtue Ethics or whatever. I rely automatically on my feelings of right or wrong, as one must for immediate situations, or, when time allows, apply some rational consideration.

    Nowhere would these tell me it is “right” to bomb a school bus. And if the thought ever did occur o me I would certainly stop and seriously question it.

    Now, clearly despite people thinking their god is good, some people do get such commands (mostly from the Imam, priest or leaders – sometimes from a voice in their head). And because they think their god is good some people do end up blowing up school buses, shooting young girls who want an education, attacking doctors, etc., etc. Doing their god’s work.

    That is the reality of religious, racial and political terror and violence. So it’s drastically naive to think one can excuse this by claiming your god’s commands flow necessarily out of her goodness. One persons goodness is another person terror when one relies on DCT – it can be used to justify the worst forms of moral relativism.

    Yes, my issue is with dogmatic normative ethics, which includes DCT. Fortunately I don’t live by such dogmatic ethics, whether divine or secular. That is the reality with most autonomous people.

    As for this misrepresentation of Matt – well you don’t describe how and I have quoted him word for word. But I guess he is big enough and ugly enough to defend himself if it is an issue.

    Or has he sent one of his lackeys this time?

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  5. . One persons goodness is another person terror when one relies on DCT – it can be used to justify the worst forms of moral relativism.

    Interesting, earlier you said:

    I rely automatically on my feelings of right or wrong, as one must for immediate situations, or, when time allows, apply some rational consideration.

    So peoples “feelings” of right and wrong are infallible to being used to justify moral relativsm are they? I suppose when the feelings of a psychopath tell them it’s OK to blow up a bus full of children, it would be fine to do so?

    No of course not, because they would be crazy. You made the implication yourself.

    Nowhere would these tell me it is “right” to bomb a school bus. And if the thought ever did occur o me I would certainly stop and seriously question it.

    The question is why would you question your feelings? Because it is plainly wrong to murder children. But based on what exactly?

    Hint: Saying “rationality”, “reason” or “common sense” is a way of masking moral propositions which align to some form of normative ethics.

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  6. No, Hugh, one’s feelings of “right” and “wrong” are not “infallible” (whatever that means). Whoever suggested they were? But our feelings of “right” and “wrong” are so strong that to some people they even feel “objective.” They will invent explanations (like DCT) to make those feelings “infallible” – when they clearly are not.

    My point about moral relativism is that a dogmatic ethical system, like DCT, can be used to justify anything – even blowing up school buses, shooting young girls who want education, etc. Whereas an objectively based moral code relying on intuitions, feelings of “right” and “wrong” AND reasoned collective discussion and consideration, has more chance or arriving at a human morality – one based in the facts of our existence as a sentient, conscious, empathetic, social and intelligent species.

    Have you never questioned your feelings? Even when they are out of step with your surrounding culture?

    The problem with someone who relies on a dogmatic normative ethical system, rather than consideration of real objectively based human values and the real situations one encounters, is that they cannot envisage a moral autonomous person. They think everyone must adhere to a dogmatic moral code just like them.

    But that is, thank goodness, not the way most of us work. Consequently we are fallible (dogmatic moral codes only disguise the worst form of fallibility – “following orders”), but we are capable of learning, correcting our mistakes. As individuals and as societies and cultures.

    You really can’t genuinely expect anything better than that.

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  7. God commands flow necessarily out of His goodness.

    (Roll eyes)

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  8. Ken you seem to fail to grasp what morality is. Whatever “objective” moral system you invent (or that is arrived at by feelings and discussion) is going to have rights and wrongs, and you’d expect people to adhere to it., That’s the essence of morality. Right and wrong actions will be so for reasons X, Y, and Z. Now all I have to do to show that this moral system is at least as “dogmatic” as other normative ethical theories is substitute in the conditional.

    “If reasons X, Y and Z support blowing up a bus full of children, then you are morally required to blow up a bus full of children”

    To deny that you would be morally required to do so means that you just deny your moral system, which would mean you don’t really hold it. What you mean to do is show that X, Y and Z is, in virtually all cases, not compatible with blowing up a bus full of children.

    This is the same with all other theories of normative ethics. In virtually all scenarios, a good consequence would not come about from blowing up children (consequentialism) or it would virtuous to do so (virtue ethics) and an benelovent, omnipotent being would not command such a thing (DCT).

    So no, your vision of some ethical utopia created by feelings and discussion is not any kind of solution.

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  9. But Hugh, apparently, a “benevolent omnipotent being” is commanding people to launch rockets at school buses in Israel, attack school buses in Pakistan, murder girls who desire education in Afghanistan. You might deny that but the “experts” in the area, the Imams, Rabbi, etc., tell me otherwise. Shouldn’t I give them more credence than I give you?

    Yes I have concepts and ideas of “right” and “wrong” and they are important to me. But they are not derived from a dogmatic normative system, dictated to me by a supernatural being (ha, ha) or someone who claims to speak for this being. Or from a political, ideological or racial leader. And, importantly, I can consider them, even reject or change them, if reason indicates I should.

    Consequently I can come to moral decisions in each specific situation without relying on instructions from anyone else (or from voices in my head).

    I suspect, Hugh, that you also make your moral decisions in a similar way. Surely you don’t rely on lists of “right” and “wrong” provided by your ideological leader and claimed to be commanded by your god? A list which means you don’t have to think, just follow orders?

    Where do you think the “rights” and “wrongs” of your normative supernatural system come from? And what is the mechanism by which you receive them? Do you hear voices?

    Now who is talking of an “ethical utopia?” Certainly not me. Who the hell suggested that the operations of our feelings and collective reasoned discussion amounts to a utopia?

    I have tried to give a brief explanation based on current understandings in moral science. I am not the one claiming infallibility or the existence of an objective morality – perfect because it is god ordained. Even if it involves killing children unnecessarily.

    No, my feet are firmly in the real world. That’s why I give credence to the scientific understanding of the issue.

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  10. God commands flow necessarily out of His goodness.

    Krazy babble.
    Right up there with Allah Ackbar.
    It’s just like Voltaire said..
    “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

    Because it is plainly wrong to murder children. But based on what exactly?

    No.
    We here on planet Earth understand that it’s wrong to murder children.
    It’s something that all reasonable people from cultures all over take for granted.
    It’s a starting position as opposed to something that’s undecided or confusing.
    Whatever the basis for that understanding is not the issue.
    It doesn’t matter if someone has never questioned why they find the idea of blowing up children instinctively revolting and don’t have a ready answer to hand.
    What’s important is that the idea revolts them.

    Yet people like you have voices in their heads.
    Those voices sometimes tell people to murder children.
    Those voices may come from magical, invisible people in the sky but…it does not mean that the rest of us are not revolted by such acts. Claiming that you magical invisible sky daddy commands you and that such commands flow necessarily out of his goodness (even with capital letters!) does not make the revulsion go away.

    Atheist Experience 795 Christian says children aren’t innocent so raping them isn’t…

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  11. “My point about moral relativism is that a dogmatic ethical system, like DCT, can be used to justify anything – even blowing up school buses, shooting young girls who want education, etc. Whereas an objectively based moral code relying on intuitions, feelings of “right” and “wrong” AND reasoned collective discussion and consideration, has more chance or arriving at a human morality – one based in the facts of our existence as a sentient, conscious, empathetic, social and intelligent species.”

    But you said intuitions and feelings aren’t infallible. That means its possible people could do bad acts because of their intuitions and feelings – oh wait, doesn’t that mean it can be used to justify anything? So Hugh’s pretty much on the mark.

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  12. No. 62: ARGUMENT FROM ABSOLUTE MORAL STANDARDS
    (1) If there are absolute moral standards, then God exists.
    (2) Atheists say that there are no absolute moral standards.
    (3) But that’s because they don’t want to admit to being sinners.
    (4) Therefore, there are absolute moral standards.
    (5) Therefore, God exists.

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  13. Yes David, of course we do bad things because of our evolved intuitions and feelings – that is obvious. But how do we know they are bad? Because we can also switch to the manual mode – reflect on ours and others actions and apply reasoned consideration. That’s quite different to using a dogmatic normative ethical system with rules developed to justify intuitions, both good and bad. Especially when we throw in a supernatural justification which by definition cannot allow a reasoned consideration considering evidence and human values.

    Why do some people continue to misrepresent me David. What about trying to justify your claim I said intuitions and feelings were infallible? – I didn’t..

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  14. Hey Cedric – you can count to 5. That better than WL Craig – he can usually only handle 3.

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  15. I should add, David, that in your description you expose a strange behaviour often used by the theological inclined – a belief that evidence “AND reason collective discussion and consideration” can be used to “justify anything!”

    That may be your experience – maybe because of the motivated “reasoning” common to theologians where they have the task of using an assumed conclusion and then manipulating logic to “prove” it.

    In the scientific fields we have a continuing relationship with reality. Conclusions are derived from evidence and require testing and validation. This helps expose and nullify the all too human tendency to motivated reasoning. We are after all a rationalising, rather than rational, species.

    What I am trying to present here is a scientific understanding of morality – not just another ideologically motivated one to counter religiously motivated divine command ethics.

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  16. But Hugh, apparently, a “benevolent omnipotent being” is commanding people to launch rockets at school buses in Israel, attack school buses in Pakistan, murder girls who desire education in Afghanistan. You might deny that but the “experts” in the area, the Imams, Rabbi, etc., tell me otherwise. Shouldn’t I give them more credence than I give you?

    Nope, that would be committing the fallacy of appealing to authority.

    You seem to be unable to distinguish between “if X, then Y” and “if I sincerely believe X, then Y”. I’m not sure how you can trust your reasoned evaluation of moral decisions if you cannot employ basic logic, Ken.

    Yes I have concepts and ideas of “right” and “wrong” and they are important to me. But they are not derived from a dogmatic normative system, dictated to me by a supernatural being (ha, ha) or someone who claims to speak for this being. Or from a political, ideological or racial leader. And, importantly, I can consider them, even reject or change them, if reason indicates I should.

    Consequently I can come to moral decisions in each specific situation without relying on instructions from anyone else (or from voices in my head).

    Once again Ken, you’re conflating the issue. It’s not about how you come to make moral decisions, it’s about what makes those moral decisions actually right or wrong. Why, in your view, is blowing up a bus full of children wrong?

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  17. No.
    We here on planet Earth understand that it’s wrong to murder children.
    It’s something that all reasonable people from cultures all over take for granted.
    It’s a starting position as opposed to something that’s undecided or confusing.
    Whatever the basis for that understanding is not the issue.
    It doesn’t matter if someone has never questioned why they find the idea of blowing up children instinctively revolting and don’t have a ready answer to hand.
    What’s important is that the idea revolts them.

    In other words, we should believe it is wrong “just because”, as if it is some kind of brute fact. The problem is that I’m guessing you’re an atheist/naturalist, which means you believe our physical existence as humans is wholly constituted by material processes. This means that ultimately the destruction of a bus full of children is reducible to atoms and molecules just going through changes is energy and structure, so I fail to see why under your view this is any more morally wrong than a volcanic eruption or an avalanche. Perhaps you’d like to explain to me what the difference there is. I’m sure your answer is more than “just because”.

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  18. Conclusions are derived from evidence and require testing and validation.

    Interesting. Can you provide me with a brief description of the scientific method that would be used to test and validate that murdering children is wrong?

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  19. Come off it Hugh, stop pretending to be a logician. WTF has the fallacy of appealing to authority got to do with this discussion (unless you mean the authority of a supernatural dictator). Or your ability to talk about x and y!

    Do you have trouble justifying our assertion that blowing up a bus full of children is “wrong”? Do you not feel that intuitively, emotionally. (Where all our practical ethical “decisions” are, must be, made? – Think about it if you were in a position to stop such a bomber would you have to stop and think about, consult your holy books or academic moral treatises?)

    It is just naive reductionism to declare “It’s not about how you come to make moral decisions, it’s about what makes those moral decisions actually right or wrong.” Our concepts of “right” and “wrong” must inevitably involve the mechanism we use to come to our decisions, or actions. You can’t mechanically separate such concepts and decisions from the behavioural and cognitive process and their evolution.

    You ask “Why [I think] blowing up a bus full of children wrong?” Well, in the practical situation I wouldn’t stop to think – my desire to prevent such an atrocity would be automatic, and if there was a possibility of preventing it I would. And that I think this is true of most people – that is how morality works for most people, and many non-human animals, in most situations – it doesn’t involve conscious thought processes (or asking “What would Jesus do?) – at least directly. Our intuitive moral reactions have an objective basis in our biological and social evolution. The moral foundations of care and harm arise directly from (what Damasio describes as) biological value itself.

    As for rehearsing the reasoned arguments against such atrocities – most people, I think, get offended by such questions – the answer seems so obvious, because it is so deeply ingrained in our brains, even if they have trouble articulating in detail. They will say “it’s just wrong!” And look at you in a way that implies you might be out of your tree for even asking. (And they might be right.)

    But the science of morality can give some detail. For example, Haidt ascribes such strong moral attitudes to moral foundations of care/harm in his moral foundation theory. I think one needs to go further, as do Damasio and Pat Churchland, and talk about biological value, the very need for living organisms to act to survive and reproduce (really must be seen as part of the nature of life). We can understand how this has started with a tropic mechanism but evolved to use neural pathways as brains evolved. With evolution of social animals these neural pathways developed to make us social and empathetic, as well as intelligent and sentient.

    Simply, we see blowing up children as “wrong” because of our nature as sentient, social, intelligent and empathetic animals. And we see it as wrong unconsciously, automatically (Haidt’s auto mode), as well as when where apply reason to the situation (Haidt’s manual mode).

    However, human “reasoning” can be distorted by ideology and belief. Hence religiously motivated people in Israel, Afghanistan and Pakistan can use motivated “reason” to justify blowing up those buses and shooting those girls. And I am sure you will find in the depths of their “reasoning” a supernatural “all loving” dictator – their god.

    By the way his can also happen with non-religious ideologies. I often make that clear – we don’t have to be religious to be evil. Just think about the so-called “Cultural Revolution” in Maoist China (although one can’t help seeing the religious dimensions here too – with Mao as the supernatural dictator).

    But just because some people can justify atrocities using belief and motivated “reasoning” does not mean that we can’t or shouldn’t apply reasoning to our own moral situations. That would be really throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

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  20. Hugh, let me reply on behalf of Ken:

    ["You misrepresented my view. Science is the true way to reality. I don't adhere to dogmatic ethical systems. I use my rationality along with my feelings. I know its wrong to kill children on a bus because it harms them, and harming is morally wrong"]

    Ken as long as you admit that the process of feeling intuition + rational deliberation is ‘fallible’ (no I never claimed you were advocating infallibility), then your ethical system is flawed for the same reasons as DCT.

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  21. Hugh to say “I fail to see why under your view this is any more morally wrong than a volcanic eruption” is surely an admission of ignorance on your part. (Not that ignorance is a bad thing – we are all ignorant about many things – but that usually means we have the good sense not to pontificate on those things).

    You seem to be suggesting that without belief in a supernatural dictator (your god) it is impossible to see kids as anything more an a collection of atoms and molecules.

    Well, look at the world. Look at the empirical evidence. Atheists don’t see kids like that – you are obviously wrong then. That’s the only conclusion one can draw (besides, I guess a childish attempt to verbally abuse someone).

    So my advice, Hugh, is to accept that you are ignorant on this specific question. Ask the questions in good faith and seriously consider the answers.

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  22. David, I think I am repeating myself – but here goes.

    Feelings and intuitions are unconscious and automatic. They are not a conscious, deliberated, system.

    Rational deliberation is of course not infallible – no one suggests otherwise. But, like science, it is the best we humans have. Just because some (a lot of) people use motivated “reasoning”, suffer from confirmation bias, or are determined to “prove” a predetermined “conclusion” does not mean that human reasoning should be abandoned.

    One thing a practicing scientist learns is that they are often wrong – it goes with the job. But the close relationship with reality enables us to actually realise that and work to correct mistakes. That is why scientific knowledge has been so effective – not for any reasons of infallibility.

    So I have no qualms about accepting that I may have made mistakes on ethical questions – I am sure I have. But I am not going to throw away my ability to reason and appeal to reality on moral issues because of that.

    And please, don’t feel the need to “reply on my behalf.” I am old enough and ugly enough to speak for myself – and I have thought about the issues and probably come to different conclusions to yours.

    As for the current attempt you guys seem to be making of “going nuclear” – tarring non-religious moral systems with the same brush as DCT – have you not considered the difference. DCT incorporates blindly “following orders” of a supernatural dictator (really their human messenger) – which hardly gives intelligent reason, even motivated reason, a chance. That is a real difference.

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  23. Amongst all the debris I find this strange question from Hugh:

    “Can you provide me with a brief description of the scientific method that would be used to test and validate that murdering children is wrong?”

    Is he seriously suggesting one should set up an experiment, get results, submit to peer review and scientific replication of the experiment before one intervened to stop an atrocity!!?

    That would be a silly as stopping to read through a holy book or scripture. Or consulting your legal Imam, Priest, theologian or moral philosopher.

    Surely he doesn’t seriously suggest that moral decisions should be left only to scientists applying physical chemical methods!! No one else is seriously suggesting this.

    Science can be incredibly helpful in enabling us to understand human and animal morality but it can’t make moral decisions for us. Because these desicions involve human values as well as objective facts.

    Where are you coming from Hugh?

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  24. WTF has the fallacy of appealing to authority got to do with this discussion (unless you mean the authority of a supernatural dictator).

    Ken, suggesting that someone’s beliefs about God’s commands have more credence than mine just because they are a religious leader, which you did, is a fallacious appeal to authority.

    Do you have trouble justifying our assertion that blowing up a bus full of children is “wrong”? Do you not feel that intuitively, emotionally (where all our practical ethical “decisions” are, must be, made? – Think about it if you were in a position to stop such a bomber would you have to stop and think about, consult your holy books or academic moral treatises?)

    I don’t have much trouble but clearly you do, as you cannot answer the question of why it is wrong and instead dodge it. I’m guessing if my intuitions and emotions told me that it was OK to blow up children you would suggest my intuitions and emotions were wrong and I am in fact a psychopath, which means there is some external principle which you feel validates your feelings as correct and mine as erroneous. Let me guess, you’re going to say something along the lines of “evidence and rational, reasoned discussion”, the problem is the same applies. If a group of people have a reasoned discussion and decide it is OK to blow up a bus full of children you will call them all psychopathic, so that answer get you nowhere. Let me ask you again, why, in your view, is it wrong to blow up a bus full of children?

    It is just naive reductionism to declare “It’s not about how you come to make moral decisions, it’s about what makes those moral decisions actually right or wrong.” our concepts of “right” and “wrong” must inevitably involve the mechanism we use to come to our decisions, or actions. You can’t mechanically separate such concepts and decisions from the behavioural and cognitive process and their evolution.

    It’s not naive reductionism, it’s actually one of the most basic formal distinctions in moral philosophy, i.e. moral epistemology vs moral ontology. If X constitutes moral facts then it doesn’t matter if a person has no knowledge of (or doesn’t believe in/agree with) X and just acts according to his/her own conscience, their actions will still align (or disalign) with X and still be factually right (or wrong). Now you can substitute X for God’s commands, what is virtuous, consequences, or what Ken and his group of emotional intuitive rational reasonable discussion committee decide, the same applies. It pays to understand the issues at hand instead of just discrediting them.

    Well, in the practical situation I wouldn’t stop to think – my desire to prevent such an atrocity would be automatic, and if there was a possibility of preventing it I would. And that I think is true of most people – that is how morality works for most people, and many non-human animals, – it doesn’t involve conscious thought processes – at least directly. Our intuitive moral reactions have an objective basis in our biological and social evolution.

    Again you dodge the question. I didn’t ask what you would do in a practical situation, nor what most people or animals would do, or whether or not it is a matter of conscious thought. I simply asked why it is wrong. It’s helpful to answer questions actually asked in a discussion instead of making up your own ones and answering them.

    I’m glad you finally brought up the issue of biological value, survival, reproduction and harm/care. Because now we’re getting somewhere. Are you prepared to say then that what constitutes moral facts is what objectively promotes survival and reproduction of the species?
    Of course then I will ask you “if blowing up a bus full of children promoted the survival/reproduction of our species, is it right to blow up a bus full of children?” I’m interested to hear your response to this.

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  25. You seem to be suggesting that without belief in a supernatural dictator (your god) it is impossible to see kids as anything more an a collection of atoms and molecules.

    Actually no, What I effectively said was that if naturalism is true, then we as humans are reducible to atoms and molecules. It is possible to see your kids as anything you want, that’s a matter of psychology, and doesn’t change that they are ultimately composed of atoms and molecules if the natural world is all that there is.

    So let me ask the question again. Assuming Cedric, that you are an atheist and naturalist, which means you believe the natural world is all that exists, which also means you are committed to the belief that kids are reducible to atoms and molecules, why is it a brute fact that when the atoms and molecules which are the kids on a bus rearrange themselves in an explosion, it is morally worse than the atoms and molecules which are a volcano erupting?

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  26. Is he seriously suggesting one should set up an experiment, get results, submit to peer review and scientific replication of the experiment before one intervened to stop an atrocity!!?

    That would be a silly as stopping to read through a holy book or scripture. Or consulting your legal Imam, Priest, theologian or moral philosopher.

    Surely he doesn’t seriously suggest that moral decisions should be left only to scientists applying physical chemical methods!! No one else is seriously suggesting this.

    Science can be incredibly helpful in enabling us to understand human and animal morality but it can’t make moral decisions for us. Because these desicions involve human values as well as objective facts

    Ken, YOU are the one who said that you are trying to present a “What I am trying to present here is a scientific understanding of morality” and that conclusions from science are “derived from evidence and require testing and validation”. Why on earth are you acting so surprised at my request? Again you are dodging the question. Can you provide an example of a scientific method for that shows that the truth of the moral conclusion that murdering children is wrong? No where did I say that we need to rely on this method, but if morals can be understood scientifically, as you suggest, then this shouldn’t be an issue.

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  27. Strange, Hugh, you accuse me of dodging the question – which made me think you had not read my full comment – and then you say you are glad I talked about biological value and harm/care as a moral foundation. So why talk about dodging?

    Actually, to be fair, what about you having a go at answering the same specific question. You might then appreciate the need to not jump to conclusions. And we could compare the results – you never know we might find we agree. And it might reduce your temptation to treat one aspect, like instinctive reaction, as my full answer.

    I don’t know what you even mean by “what constitutes moral facts is what objectively promotes survival and reproduction of the species?” so you will have to express that more carefully.

    However, what I talked about was as scientific understanding of the origins of human values, starting from the very nature of life itself which includes biological value, and evolving biologically and socially so that we are a sentient, conscious, intelligent, social and empathetic species. Consequently we have values which help us decide not to kill a bus full of children – and no those values are no longer as simple as the biological value displayed by the original living cells. But they are objectively based, nevertheless.

    I won’t respond to the other content in your comment – it seems basically self justification and a silly attempt at claiming my avoidance or lack of understanding. I’ll just comment though that I think a very basic philosophical principle is that things should be studied in their interaction and development. (That’s something I learned from my own study of the philosophy of science). Consequently to tell me that you can find a “formal distinction” between “moral epistemology vs moral ontology” is trivial. My question is can you understanding these “formally distinct” subjects in their isolation from each other? The effects of the sun, albedo, greenhouse gases and particulates on the earth’s climate are formally distinct but you cannot understand the earth’s climate without considering them together and in their change.

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  28. Hugh, you have taken two comments made in different places:

    1: my reference to a scientific understanding of morality and
    2: my contrasting of scientific method to theological method

    And combined them in a clumsy way.

    Nowhere have I said that the scientific investigation of morality reduces to scientists deciding for us what is “right” and “wrong.”

    You are making some basic mistakes here, Hugh. I can only assume you are reading my comments with a preconceived or motivated agenda which leads you to read them wrong.

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  29. So Ken is saying he doesn’t believe in science?

    Isn’t that irrational in this day and age, Ken?

    Perhaps everybody is disagreeing with you because they believe in science and you don’t.

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  30. Hugh my response to your claim “What I effectively said was that if naturalism is true, then we as humans are reducible to atoms and molecules”.

    If you are going to use a loose term like “naturalism” you had better define it. I personally find such terms motivated, unnecessary and inevitable obscuring true understanding because they act as motivated labels and are misrepresentative. Especially here, where I think it is you rather than Cedric who has used the term to describe Cedric’s presumed (by you) thinking.

    I have often written about that here – it’s not a term scientists generally use and I find it less than useful in philosophy.

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  31. I’ll bite, Barbie, although it is a silly comment.

    No, I don’t “believe in science.” I accept it because I know it’s based in evidence and reason and part of a great social endeavour.

    But in my career as a research scientist I would set out to prove existing knowledge wrong or incomplete. We all did.

    If I just “believed” I could never had made any progress.

    One learns very quickly in science that “beliefs” are unreliable.

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  32. Strange, Hugh, you accuse me of dodging the question – which made me think you had not read my full comment – and then you say you are glad I talked about biological value and harm/care as a moral foundation. So why talk about dodging?

    Because you did! You didn’t answer my question at all, you just made some vague references to what some scientific literature has to say about the subject and I had to jump at the first instance of some relevance.

    I don’t know what you even mean by “what constitutes moral facts is what objectively promotes survival and reproduction of the species?” so you will have to express that more carefully.

    In spite of you not understanding this you did answer it (kind of) here:

    Consequently we have values which help us decide not to kill a bus full of children – and no those values are no longer as simple as the biological value displayed by the original living cells. But they are objectively based, nevertheless.

    Now Ken, we get to the crux of the issue. What are these said values??

    My question is can you understanding these “formally distinct” subjects in their isolation from each other?

    Yes, Ken. Yes you can. Perhaps not fully, but you can certainly address questions of ontology separately from question of epistemology.

    Your analogy just proves my point. Of course you cannot understand earth’s climate as a whole without each of those. I don’t claim that you can understand morality as a whole without both ont. and epis. but thats trivial. The mere fact that there are separate areas of understanding which together describe earth’s climate means that they can be addressed separately and there is potential for conflation.

    Nowhere have I said that the scientific investigation of morality reduces to scientists deciding for us what is “right” and “wrong.”

    Neither have I, in fact in my comment, that you didn’t respond to (which probably means you didn’t read) I said that No where did I say that we need to rely on this method. But if you insist that morality is a matter of science and that conclusions in science are derived from evidence which is testable and verifiable then you ought to be able to do that for moral conclusions. Clearly you can’t.

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  33. If you are going to use a loose term like “naturalism” you had better define it.

    I did. I said: “ which means you believe the natural world is all that exists

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  34. Hugh – what do you mean by natural world? Important question.

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  35. Matter and energy.

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  36. Hugh – I never said, let alone insist that morality is a matter of science” and have specifically rejected the idea that we should rely on a scientist to tell us what is “right” and “wrong.” To be complete I should add that we should not rely on an Imam, Priest, Monk, philosopher or moral philosopher either. As I have pointed out before in this day and age most of us wish to preserve those decisions for ourselves – we have seen what a mess those great bastions of morality can create.

    Because “right” and “wrong” are such intense emotions I think most people want to make these decisions for themselves, thank you.

    There is a huge difference between psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and cognitive scientists investigating how human morality evolved and how it operates on the one hand – and these people making moral decisions for us.

    And let me stress it is actually dishonest to attempt to confuse the two.

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  37. You exclude the Higg’s field then?

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  38. I believe the Higgs field is under the umbrella of the term energy. Is this yet another attempt of yours to derail the conversation?

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  39. Hugh, your belief actually isn’t the fact – which I guess just highlights the importance of defining terms.

    But no, I am not going on to mention all the things that are not included (directly) in the single concept of matter/energy.

    Perhaps its best for you to explain what you think “naturalism” excludes. What are these and what are their properties which lead “naturalists” to exclude them?

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  40. Hugh, you ask “What are these said values?” I think we have already discussed foundational values related to harm and care. And we could expand on empathy and reflection. We could also talk about the special care of children in a species which has a very long period of reliance on adult care in raising young. I don’t think there are any problems for a normal human to list values involved in this judgement.

    But what about you having a go answering the question you put – as you say: “Let me ask you again, why, in your view, is it wrong to blow up a bus full of children?”

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  41. Ken, you made it clear you don’t care about evidential and rational support for morality when you dismissed the idea of scientific support for morality.

    I don’t think you can be taken seriously if you believe that. It invalidates your position.

    “Is he seriously suggesting one should set up an experiment, get results, submit to peer review and scientific replication of the experiment before one intervened to stop an atrocity!!?

    That would be a silly as stopping to read through a holy book or scripture. Or consulting your legal Imam, Priest, theologian or moral philosopher.”

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  42. Barbie, again a very confused comment. But here’s a question for youi:

    You see a situation where a terrorist is about to detonate a bomb which will kill a bus full of children. What do you do.

    1: Consult your holy book. priest, Imam, moral philosopher, etc.,
    2: Conduct an experiment, wasting time on getting ethics committee approval (you won’t) carefully measure the bits and pieces left after the explosion, getting peer review and submitting for publication, or
    3: Step in and take the required action, without thinking but reacting emotionally instinctively because of the underlying values you have relating to care and harm?

    I ahve not dismissed any scientific understanding of morality and it is silly to claim that.

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  43. Alright Ken, out of interest, may you please point me to the source which talks about the Higgs field as being separate to matter and energy because basically every source I’m finding has the term energy in the first sentence.

    But it is clear that you are trying to derail the conversation, as per usual. For practical purposes, lets say whatever excludes spirits, deities, non-spatiotemporal substances and platonic entities. Do you or do you not agree that humans are reducible to atoms, molecules and related forces?

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  44. I think we have already discussed foundational values related to harm and care. And we could expand on empathy and reflection

    Discussion is not the same as vague mentions.

    But now that we’ve gotten this far – and it’s taken long enough – is it fair to say that, in your view, what is morally right is caring/empathetic/not harmful, and what is morally wrong is uncaring/unempathetic/harmful?

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  45. But what about you having a go answering the question you put – as you say: “Let me ask you again, why, in your view, is it wrong to blow up a bus full of children?”

    If you don’t know the answer to this then you don’t understand DCT.

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  46. Hugh, all my reading indicates that CERN has created a few “Higgs particles” by putting energy into a Higgs field. That is, once energy is applied the field can be manifested (for an extremely short time) as a particle.

    But, yes that is a diversion, because I can see now you are separating reality into two worlds – one which you call matter and energy, or natural, and one which you say includes “spirits, deities, non-spatiotemporal substances and platonic entities.”

    But these are just so ill defined, and generally in the past they have described things we haven’t understood, that such a division is useless. Why should we decide beforehand to divide reality up in this way? – what possible functional use could that have? To be honest, wouldn’t it be just dividing the world into that which which understand and that which we don’t, or that which we know exists and that which we don’t know? Or that which is reasonable and that which is magic?

    Whatever, no scientists I know ever does that. They don’t ask – is this natural or supernatural before investigating a phenomenon. If anything, there first question is – is it real? Once they can confirm the phenomenon exists they set about investigating it, if they can.

    What use is that?

    I agree, some politicians for science organisations use the term naturalism or methodological materialism. But that is not how scientists work and it is very misleading. Its a political sop to religion.

    Reality exists – there’s no honest point in dividing it into “natural” and “supernatural.”

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  47. Again, a massive stray from the point. Let’s grant that for arguments sake, Ken. Supernatural entities are just things we don’t understand, have no functional use and don’t exist.

    Given this, do you deny that we as humans are reducible to atoms, molecules and related forces?

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  48. Re: Higgs Field

    From what I’ve read, the energy inserted to produce the boson particle was in the form of photons travelling very quickly (i.e light & kinetic), which doesn’t mean that the field had no energy to begin with, it had potential energy. Wikipedia says this about it

    “The Standard Model shows how the energy of the Higgs field and vacuum can manifest, in the right conditions, as the property we call ‘mass’. But the Higgs field is not actually “creating” mass miraculously out of nothing (which would violate the law of conservation of energy). In Higgs-based theories, mass is a manifestation of potential energy transferred to the particle during interactions (“coupling”) with the Higgs field, which had contained that mass in the form of energy”

    from the source Max Jammer, Concepts of Mass in Contemporary Physics and Philosophy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000) pp.162-163,

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  49. Continuing with this diversion is a bit pointless. However, just a correction. At the LHC the Higgs particle was observed after colliding protons (not photons) travelling at extremely high speeds (>0.99999 times the speed of light). A field is just values in space/time – it need not contain any energy. The energy came from the protons (or more directly from the Geneva electric power grid).

    However, my only point in raising the Higgs as an exception to your definition is to stress that, especially philosophically, we should not assume that we know all of reality, or all types of things that are real. One should not say things like there is only mass/energy – science will inevitably and eventually prove you wrong. That’s why no practicing research scientist is going to seriously make such claims about reality beforehand. Only politician-scientists or philosophers trying to appease,or create a space for, religion.

    That’s why definitions are so important – and why I always ask what people mean by these terms.

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  50. Hugh, I think it’s obvious that “what is morally right is caring/empathetic/not harmful, and what is morally wrong is uncaring/unempathetic/harmful”. It seems so obvious that the question must raise eyebrows. Do you not see the same?

    But the very fact that you have to ask the question makes me suspicious about your avoidance of answering me – “why, in your view, is it wrong to blow up a bus full of children?”

    And it is avoidance to say “If you don’t know the answer to this then you don’t understand DCT.” are you afraid your moral system is going to look tacky, or immoral, alongside mine?

    I am obviously quite happy to acknowledge my understanding of DCT, or the DCT you apparently adhere to, is incorrect – wouldn’t be the first mistake I have made in my life. Can hardly do that though if you are so precious about the subject you are not prepared to reveal why you might think it wrong to blow up a school bus.

    And this is your opportunity to correct any misunderstandings I might have about your ethical system.

    But no skin off my nose if you are unwilling. I’ll draw my own conclusions.

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  51. Hugh, why would I say “humans are reducible to atoms, molecules and related forces?” After all, we currently are aware that definition covers only 4% of the matter/energy in the universe.

    One should never assume that current knowledge describes all there is. Apart from anything else it would put us out of a job.

    On the other hand it is silly to claim the existence of components or things for which one has no reason or evidence. We make enough mistakes in science by dealing with real things – why start on fanciful inventions without a reason?

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  52. Ken, your moral position is mystifying.

    You speak of doing a “required action”, while rejecting the idea that one must know what the required action is.

    Are you saying that we ought to do something we don’t know about?

    Or are you suggesting we follow our instincts/DCT and ignore science?

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  53. Barbie, can’t you imagine the required action – kick the terrorist in the goolies, pull ot the wires, kick the phome out of her hand, etc. Your holy book is of no help here you have to do what is possible at the time. “Think on your feet.”

    Have you ever considered that my position may not be mystifying. Rather you yourself may be mystified because you are continuing to present me in such a ridiculous way.

    Perhaps I should say your position is mystifying – because, after all, you refuse to answer a simple question.

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  54. I’m a naturalist and an atheist. I don’t need holy books.

    Now tell me how you know this action is “required”, and what makes it a required action.

    Are you calling it a “required action” because of your religious commitments? Prove it without appealing to your religion.

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  55. Barbie – just do what you feel necessary. Stop being silly about the “required action” – it has no significance.

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  56. How do they know when their god commands them to blow up the bus.

    Is it a voice in their head?
    Tea leaves in the bottom of the cup?
    The colour of chicken entrails?
    A man in a frock passes the message on?

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  57. In other words,…

    No. Don’t be a dick.
    Just read what I wrote.

    …we should believe it…

    Nope, this is you being a dick right here. I’m not making that claim.
    Ninth Commandment-you’re breaking it.

    The problem is that I’m guessing you’re an atheist/naturalist, which means you believe our physical existence as humans is wholly constituted by material processes.

    No, you’re being a dick again.
    Don’t guess. Just read what I wrote. Blowing smoke about physical existences or whatever will not help you at all.

    …so I fail to see why…

    I’m sure you fail a lot.
    Try to focus.
    We here on planet Earth understand that it’s wrong to murder children.
    It’s something that all reasonable people from cultures all over take for granted.
    It’s a starting position as opposed to something that’s undecided or confusing.
    Whatever the basis for that understanding is not the issue.

    Even if someone cannot give you a nice, pat sound-bite as to the “why” part of their revulsion on murdering children it does not poof your magical man into existence.
    You cannot shift the burden of proof.

    For example…
    “A: Why do you think it’s wrong to murder children?
    B: No idea. I just do.
    A: Ok, so…you’re wrong. Therefore magicmandunnit.”

    Doesn’t work. You don’t win by default. No matter how bad the other guy’s answer it. Your claims about your magical sky daddy and morality flowing from his goodiness must stand or fall on their own merits.

    Can you provide me with a brief description of the scientific method that would be used to test and validate that murdering children is wrong?

    Deep fried stupid. Plus more than a little creepy. Who goes around asking for a test to validate the moral idea that murdering children is wrong? I certainly don’t. None of my friends do. Most people on planet Earth certainly wouldn’t.

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  58. So Ken is saying he doesn’t believe in science?

    Or maybe he’s not saying that?

    Isn’t that irrational in this day and age, Ken?

    Or maybe you’re being stupid to suggest such a thing?

    Perhaps everybody is disagreeing with you because they believe in science and you don’t.

    Or maybe…not?

    Ken, you made it clear…

    Imagine how much clearer it would be if you just quoted him?

    I don’t think you can…

    Why should anyone care what you think? Thanks for sharing and all but…
    (shrug)

    Ken, your moral position is mystifying.

    Well, perhaps to you. Or you are pretending to be all “mystified”.

    Are you saying that we ought to do something we don’t know about?

    Or maybe he’s not saying that?

    Or are you suggesting we follow our instincts/DCT and ignore science?

    Or (again) maybe not?
    Life for you seems to be an endless series of derp questions and faux mystery.

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  59. Chris Kyle Link

    Ken I am watching this doco about the water contamination due to fracking by FileMaker Josh Fox Being able to light your water isn’t good Glycol ether in their water isn’t either

    Dick Cheney of Hallaburton got congress to modify the Clean Air Act in 2005 to allow his company to frack

    EPA is in the pocket of these gas companies It is such compelling viewing Have you seen it ? Aust has its own drama about digging up farming land for coal – court case with Eddie Obeid – will send link Google it Love the climate skeptics. Background info too

    Chris

    > >

    Like

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