Tag Archives: philosophy

Christian ethics and Peter Singer

I am spending some time dealing with family business so I am reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days. These could be useful with Christmas coming up.

This book is a good read for anyone interested in ethical debates – particularly those between ethical philosopher Peter Sinclair and Christian spokespersons. Singer is usually heavily criticised for his secular ethics –  but this author provides a much more in-depth consideration of the differences – which are not as great as many Christians believe.


Book review: Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization by Charles C. Camosy

Price: US$25.75; Kindle US$16.80
Paperback: 286 pages
Publisher: Cambridge University Press (May 28, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0521149339
ISBN-13: 978-0521149334

We all “do” morality – its part of being human. We will debate ethical questions till the cows come home. And we will take sides on moral issues, often reacting emotionally, even violently, to those who disagree with us.

But here’s a strange thing. Very few of us could name an ethical philosopher. Perhaps because moral questions are of such practical and personal importance ethical discussions at the philosophical level seem to not interest us.

But, those who can produce a name might, in most cases, come up with Peter Singer. This probably supports Charles Carmosy’s suggestion that “Singer is probably the world’s most influential living philosopher.”

Singer won recognition for his work on animal rights – a topical issue  today. He has written and lectured extensively on secular morality. But his reputation must also come from the publicity he gets from his philosophical opponents. Particularly philosophers of religion who have demonised some of Singers ideas, and the man himself. It’s no accident that in debates with theists Singer’s ethical ideas are the most often quoted, by theists, as negative and inhuman examples of secular ethics.

Even bad-mouthing creates recognition so these religious critics may be responsible for making Singer’s name so recognisable. That negative propaganda may not stick when people make their own efforts to read Singer.

There’s no shortage of mudslinging across the ideological divides of religion. So it’s not surprising that there is plenty of hostility and misrepresentation in even the more academic religious critiques of Singer’s ideas (See for a local example Peter Singer on Human Dignity and Infanticide: Part One and Peter Singer on Human Dignity and Infanticide: Part Two).

But “truth will out” and Charles Camosy, a Catholic ethicist who is Assistant Professor of Theology at Fordham University, New York, sees “small cracks . . . starting to form in the intellectual wall separating Peter Singer and Christianity.” Camosy’s book, Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization is a significant contribution to widening these cracks.

That’s not just my judgement. Peter Singer himself recommends the book. He says:

“Philosophy makes progress through criticism that is based on a sound grasp of the position under scrutiny, acknowledging its strengths as well as seeking to expose its weaknesses. Charles Camosy does exactly that, which is why, despite the deep disagreements between us, I regard Peter Singer and Christian Ethics as a valuable contribution to philosophy in general, and to applied ethics in particular.”

Overlapping ethical positions

The book provides a detailed consideration of the ethical positions of the Catholic Church and of Peter Singer in 5 main areas (devoting a chapter to each):

  1. Abortion,
  2. Euthanasia and the end of life,
  3. Non-human animals,
  4. Duties to the poor, and
  5. Ethical theory.

Each chapter concludes with an assessment of how close, or how different, the two positions are. For example:

  1.  “the disagreement between the two approaches with regard to abortion is actually quite narrow.”
  2. “The overlap between Singer and the Church with regard to euthanasia and decision making at the end of life is considerable. . . . it does seem as if proponents of Singer’s position and those who support the Church could come together and support certain important public policies.”
  3. “there is significant and wide-ranging overlap between Singer and the Church on non-human animals. Such common ground opens the door for productive exchanges which can challenge both approaches in various ways.”
  4. “Both approaches react strongly against the violence and injustice that our consumerist and hyper-autonomous culture inflicts on the vulnerable poor. The enormity of what is common might also suggest yet another duty: taking advantage of the resources and loyalties proper to each approach and unleashing their combined power toward the mutual goal of ending absolute poverty and restoring broad social participation for the poor.”
  5. On ethical theory – “we have seen a dramatic overlap between Singer and the Church. Both approaches, for instance, value consequence-based reasoning while at the same time having an important place for moral rules. Both also believe that many of these rules can be overruled for a sufficiently serious reason.”

Camosy has  found large areas of agreement (by the way, he does not neglect the difference between the two positions). But I really like that he goes further and suggests this agreement provides ground for cooperation, discussion and common public platforms.

Readers might be surprised at the amount of agreement Camosy finds between Singers ethical ideas and those of the Catholic Church. However, the common ethical positions found by Camosy does not surprise me. Despite claims of revelation and infallibility the Catholic Church has had to deal with real world issues for a long time. It’s natural that much of the ethical positions they arrive at will basically be secular anyway -  even if presented with religious phrases and terms.

I think Camosy’s concept of ethical objectivity residing in human flourishing and happiness reinforces this. (Although, interesting he does take that further to the flourishing of the universe as a whole). I found refreshing Camosy’s references to objective morality without the annoying evangelical habit of seeing that as “divine,” without dragging in his god.

At least, most of the time. Towards the end of the book Camosy does seem to sneak his god into the discussion, as a grounding for objective ethics. But only in the last chapter.

The “rich tradition” of Christian ethics

While Camosy’s ability to find the large extent of ethical agreement he did is heartening to me, some problems do bring me down to earth. Camosy says, and I agree, that the Catholic Church has a very rich tradition of writings and pronouncements on ethical issues.  This must have been an immense help to Camosy as he searched for some commonality. However, sometimes I felt this very richness presents a problem. Which piece of contradictory evidence does one rely on? Which particular pronouncement is considered more “official” than the others. The richness itself provides difficulties of choice, and can make a certain amount of “cherry picking” inevitable.

So I sometimes found myself contrasting Camosy’s claims with the modern public positions commonly attributed to the Catholic Church, or at least Catholic spokespersons. For example – meat-eating, vegetarianism, abortion and euthenasia. Some Catholics might not agree with Camosy’s conclusion about the extent of commonality because they don’t completely recognise the Catholic ethics Camosy describes.

Perhaps that’s the common problem of differences between church office holders and lay parishioners. But I suggest that in some cases there a more basic disagreements at the level of the office holder or “official.”

On the other hand, as an individual with an easily accessible and definitive set of writings, it is much easer to establish Singer’s “official” ethical positions.  There is less scope for “cherry picking” and one can usually find suitable quotes to show Singer’s position on various ethical questions.

A problem with philosophical labels

In their criticisms of Singer religious apologists have a common habit  of inferring an ethical position (and not find a specific quote) from their own biased understanding of ethical labels.  Perhaps I have a thing about ideological and political labels, and I am sure Singer objects to their use less than I do. He does, after all, sometimes use descriptive ethical labels in his writings. However, I think some of the more extreme interpretations of Singer’s positions does not come from specific quotes or writings of Singer. Instead they come from the description of him as a proponent of “preference utilitarianism,” for example, and then inferring a specific ethical position – often relying on the commentators own hostile or simplistic understanding of the label’s meaning.

Fortunately Camosy  relies on quotes from Singer’s writing to describe his ethical positions. Well, at least most of the time. He does slip into use of the “preference utilitarianism” label to ground an inference a few times. And they stood out to me – especially as Camosy himself is arguing towards the end of the book that Singer’s ideas are shifting. That “Singer is in the process of fundamentally rethinking his preference utilitarianism.” Even more reason to avoid labels.

Conclusion

I believe this book will be very useful to anyone interested in Singer’s ethical philosophy, especially comparing it with that of the Church. Camosy relies mostly on direct quotations from Singer’s writings so the book provides a useful summary of his ideas, particularly in the 5 areas mentioned. In fact, there may be more disagreements among Catholics on Camosy’s description of Catholic ethical positions. A curse of the “rich tradition” perhaps.

It should help correct some of the misunderstandings that Christians have about Singer’s ideas – if only they are open-minded enough to read books like this. I hope their approach top a book by a Catholic ethicist is more sympathetic that their approach to the original writings of Singer.

Considering the ideological differences between singer and the Catholic Church I think Camosy has done his job well. I can excuse him the few lapses that my sensitivities have identified.

And I think Camosy’s identification of the possibilities of common action between supporters of Singer and the Catholic Church is very useful. Dare I hope that the church can be open to these possibilities in the future?

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The science of consciousness

TEDxCERN_headerHere’s a fascinating talk on the science of consciousness given at the TED talks in CERN.*

The talk on consciousness and the brain is by philosopher John Searle. He is  Slusser Professor of Philosophy at University of California, Berkeley, and the winner of the 2000 Jean Nicod Prize and the 2004 National Humanities Medal. His books include The Mystery of Consciousness and Mind, Language And Society: Philosophy In The Real World among others.

Consciousness & the Brain: John Searle at TEDxCERN

It’s a great video – he crams a lot in and it’s worth watching several times.

*Videos of the talks are up now at the TEDxCERN web site.

Thanks to and his Guardian blog Life and Physics.

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The limits of philosophy

Or should I say - “The trouble with philosophy?”

Whatever. The title certainly makes a change from those like “The Limits of science.” How many times have I seen such titles on articles written by religious apologists, philosophers of religion, or even straight non-religious philosophers. These articles usually annoy me because they often set up a straw man – a claim that science has no limits – which no scientists is making.

So it’s nice to turn the tables for a change.

Monty Python’s Football – Philosophers often play for different teams

I often get criticised by philosophers, theologians, philosophers of religion and students of philosophy for making philosophical mistakes – or so they claim. I’ve been told that I should not write about the science of morality if I haven’t read and studied a long list of ancient, and not so ancient, philosophers. Commonly I am admonished for trying to determine an “ought from an is” – a violation of “Humes Law.” And I have been told that scientists should leave questions like origins of life and the universe, or the question of existence of supernatural beings, to philosophers. Such questions, they tell me, are outside the limits of science.

Oh yes, about now I also get accused of “scientism!”

Very often my reply to such criticisms is that there is no such thing as an accepted unified philosophical dogma. That the claims thrown at me come not from philosophy in general, but from a particular school of philosophy. There is “philosophy” and then there is “philosophy.” My critics should be up front and advance their claims as representative of their own philosophy, or the particular school of philosophy they adhere to, not as representative of philosophy in general.

“What do Philosophers Believe?

So I am pleased to see the on-line publication of the paper What Do Philosophers Believe? by David Bourget and David J. Chalmers. This study confirms that philosophers are indeed divided on a number of issues – they hold a range of beliefs which can influence their philosophical thoughts and positions. These beliefs are influenced by a range of demographic and social factors. And philosophers themselves often have a false opinion of the degree to which different beliefs are common in their professional community.

Sean Carroll, at What Do Philosophers Believe?, and Jerry Coyne at The consensus of philosophers, have commented briefly on the paper. Have a look at those articles, or the paper itself (download here), for a full list of beliefs and their degree of support among philosophers. But here are a few which seem relevant to debates I have had here. (Sorry about the briefness of the terms – that’s related to the nature of the survey):

1. A priori knowledge: yes 71.1%; no 18.4%; other 10.5%.

5. Epistemic justification: externalism 42.7%; internalism 26.4%; other 30.8%.

6. External world: non-skeptical realism 81.6%; skepticism 4.8%; idealism 4.3%; other 9.2%.

8. God: atheism 72.8%; theism 14.6%; other 12.6%.

10. Knowledge: empiricism 35.0%; rationalism 27.8%; other 37.2%.

15. Metaphilosophy: naturalism 49.8%; non-naturalism 25.9%; other 24.3%.

16. Mind: physicalism 56.5%; non-physicalism 27.1%; other 16.4%.

18. Moral motivation: internalism 34.9%; externalism 29.8%; other 35.3%.

20. Normative ethics: deontology 25.9%; consequentialism 23.6%; virtue ethics 18.2%; other 32.3%.

25. Science: scientific realism 75.1%; scientific anti-realism 11.6%; other 13.3%.

So I feel vindicated in answering my critics by pointing out the lack of consensus among philosophers on many issues. What right has a philosopher of religion to assure me their arguments against my statements are “philosophical” (and not just representative of a school of religious philosophy)? Similarly, why should I simply take on trust assurances that “philosophy” has a particular position on scientific realism, moral motivations or the nature of ethical norms?

There is “philosophy” and there is “philosophy.” If you wish to lecture me about philosophical positions at least be open about the philosophical school you are representing or adhere to.

No suprise at differences

Frankly, I am unsurprised at the lack of consensus among philosophers. It contrasts sharply with the situation in science – which on most matters has a high degree of consensus. OK, there are debates at the edges – and these can be intense. Remember the scene in “The Big Bang Theory” where a romantic alliance between two physicists broke up because one was aString Theorist while the other adhered to Loop Gravity“.  Just imagine the problems they would have raising their children!

Ben Goren commented at Jerry’s website on the poor philosophical consensus compared with science :

“Survey a bunch of scientists on comparable topics, and you’ll find overwhelming consensus that, for example: Evolution is true; Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are basically right on (and anything that replaces either is going to have to reduce to both at suitable scales); that the Earth’s surface moves in manners described by Plate Tectonics; and so on.

Yet these jokers are doing good just to get a slim majority that don’t think that we’re all literally outside of our brains.”

But while we should be aware of the different levels of confidence in philosophical and scientific knowledge this  does not show differences in personal capabilities between the two professions. The difference is exactly what we should expect from the different nature of the two subjects.

Philosophy could be said to be an “armchair” subject. Philosophers reason and think. They apply logic to hypothetical situations. Often scenarios which have no possible reality but are at least “logical possibilities” will get a lot of attention. It’s also not surprising that demographic and social factors can influence philosophical reasoning. Humans are just not very rational and their reasoning often suffers from ideolgical and social motivations.

Science is usually a very much “hands on” subject. Ideas are tested against reality. Scientists are just as irrational (or human) as anyone else – they also easily fall into the trap of motivated reasoning. But the final arbiter of ideas for science is reality itself. Experiments can be performed or observations made to check predictions of hypotheses.

Of course philosophy and science does merge at the edges. There is actually a field of experimental philosophy and good philosophers do pay attention to scientific knowledge. On the other hand some science cannot always be tested in practice – at least with the current technological limits. Some scientists seem to work more like philosophers – and some philosophers work more like scientists.

But let’s get away from the idea that logic or philosophy is the final arbiter of knowledge. That is taking philosophy beyond its limits.

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A sensible Christian perspective on Peter Singer

Book review: Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization by Charles C. Camosy

Price: US$25.75; Kindle US$16.80
Paperback: 286 pages
Publisher: Cambridge University Press (May 28, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0521149339
ISBN-13: 978-0521149334

We all “do” morality – its part of being human. We will debate ethical questions till the cows come home. And we will take sides on moral issues, often reacting emotionally, even violently, to those who disagree with us.

But here’s a strange thing. Very few of us could name an ethical philosopher. Perhaps because moral questions are of such practical and personal importance ethical discussions at the philosophical level seem to not interest us.

But, those who can produce a name might, in most cases, come up with Peter Singer. This probably supports Charles Carmosy’s suggestion that “Singer is probably the world’s most influential living philosopher.”

Singer won recognition for his work on animal rights – a topical issue  today. He has written and lectured extensively on secular morality. But his reputation must also come from the publicity he gets from his philosophical opponents. Particularly philosophers of religion who have demonised some of Singers ideas, and the man himself. It’s no accident that in debates with theists Singer’s ethical ideas are the most often quoted, by theists, as negative and inhuman examples of secular ethics.

Even bad-mouthing creates recognition so these religious critics may be responsible for making Singer’s name so recognisable. That negative propaganda may not stick when people make their own efforts to read Singer.

There’s no shortage of mudslinging across the ideological divides of religion. So it’s not surprising that there is plenty of hostility and misrepresentation in even the more academic religious critiques of Singer’s ideas (See for a local example Peter Singer on Human Dignity and Infanticide: Part One and Peter Singer on Human Dignity and Infanticide: Part Two).

But “truth will out” and Charles Camosy, a Catholic ethicist who is Assistant Professor of Theology at Fordham University, New York, sees “small cracks . . . starting to form in the intellectual wall separating Peter Singer and Christianity.” Camosy’s book, Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization is a significant contribution to widening these cracks.

That’s not just my judgement. Peter Singer himself recommends the book. He says:

“Philosophy makes progress through criticism that is based on a sound grasp of the position under scrutiny, acknowledging its strengths as well as seeking to expose its weaknesses. Charles Camosy does exactly that, which is why, despite the deep disagreements between us, I regard Peter Singer and Christian Ethics as a valuable contribution to philosophy in general, and to applied ethics in particular.”

Overlapping ethical positions

The book provides a detailed consideration of the ethical positions of the Catholic Church and of Peter Singer in 5 main areas (devoting a chapter to each):

  1. Abortion,
  2. Euthanasia and the end of life,
  3. Non-human animals,
  4. Duties to the poor, and
  5. Ethical theory.

Each chapter concludes with an assessment of how close, or how different, the two positions are. For example:

  1.  “the disagreement between the two approaches with regard to abortion is actually quite narrow.”
  2. “The overlap between Singer and the Church with regard to euthanasia and decision making at the end of life is considerable. . . . it does seem as if proponents of Singer’s position and those who support the Church could come together and support certain important public policies.”
  3. “there is significant and wide-ranging overlap between Singer and the Church on non-human animals. Such common ground opens the door for productive exchanges which can challenge both approaches in various ways.”
  4. “Both approaches react strongly against the violence and injustice that our consumerist and hyper-autonomous culture inflicts on the vulnerable poor. The enormity of what is common might also suggest yet another duty: taking advantage of the resources and loyalties proper to each approach and unleashing their combined power toward the mutual goal of ending absolute poverty and restoring broad social participation for the poor.”
  5. On ethical theory – “we have seen a dramatic overlap between Singer and the Church. Both approaches, for instance, value consequence-based reasoning while at the same time having an important place for moral rules. Both also believe that many of these rules can be overruled for a sufficiently serious reason.”

Camosy has  found large areas of agreement (by the way, he does not neglect the difference between the two positions). But I really like that he goes further and suggests this agreement provides ground for cooperation, discussion and common public platforms.

Readers might be surprised at the amount of agreement Camosy finds between Singers ethical ideas and those of the Catholic Church. However, the common ethical positions found by Camosy does not surprise me. Despite claims of revelation and infallibility the Catholic Church has had to deal with real world issues for a long time. It’s natural that much of the ethical positions they arrive at will basically be secular anyway -  even if presented with religious phrases and terms.

I think Camosy’s concept of ethical objectivity residing in human flourishing and happiness reinforces this. (Although, interesting he does take that further to the flourishing of the universe as a whole). I found refreshing Camosy’s references to objective morality without the annoying evangelical habit of seeing that as “divine,” without dragging in his god.

At least, most of the time. Towards the end of the book Camosy does seem to sneak his god into the discussion, as a grounding for objective ethics. But only in the last chapter.

The “rich tradition” of Christian ethics

While Camosy’s ability to find the large extent of ethical agreement he did is heartening to me, some problems do bring me down to earth. Camosy says, and I agree, that the Catholic Church has a very rich tradition of writings and pronouncements on ethical issues.  This must have been an immense help to Camosy as he searched for some commonality. However, sometimes I felt this very richness presents a problem. Which piece of contradictory evidence does one rely on? Which particular pronouncement is considered more “official” than the others. The richness itself provides difficulties of choice, and can make a certain amount of “cherry picking” inevitable.

So I sometimes found myself contrasting Camosy’s claims with the modern public positions commonly attributed to the Catholic Church, or at least Catholic spokespersons. For example – meat-eating, vegetarianism, abortion and euthenasia. Some Catholics might not agree with Camosy’s conclusion about the extent of commonality because they don’t completely recognise the Catholic ethics Camosy describes.

Perhaps that’s the common problem of differences between church office holders and lay parishioners. But I suggest that in some cases there a more basic disagreements at the level of the office holder or “official.”

On the other hand, as an individual with an easily accessible and definitive set of writings, it is much easer to establish Singer’s “official” ethical positions.  There is less scope for “cherry picking” and one can usually find suitable quotes to show Singer’s position on various ethical questions.

A problem with philosophical labels

In their criticisms of Singer religious apologists have a common habit  of inferring an ethical position (and not find a specific quote) from their own biased understanding of ethical labels.  Perhaps I have a thing about ideological and political labels, and I am sure Singer objects to their use less than I do. He does, after all, sometimes use descriptive ethical labels in his writings. However, I think some of the more extreme interpretations of Singer’s positions does not come from specific quotes or writings of Singer. Instead they come from the description of him as a proponent of “preference utilitarianism,” for example, and then inferring a specific ethical position – often relying on the commentators own hostile or simplistic understanding of the label’s meaning.

Fortunately Camosy  relies on quotes from Singer’s writing to describe his ethical positions. Well, at least most of the time. He does slip into use of the “preference utilitarianism” label to ground an inference a few times. And they stood out to me – especially as Camosy himself is arguing towards the end of the book that Singer’s ideas are shifting. That “Singer is in the process of fudnamentally rethinking his preference utilitarianism.” Even more reason to avoid labels.

Conclusion

I believe this book will be very useful to anyone interested in Singer’s ethical philosophy, especially comparing it with that of the Church. Camosy relies mostly on direct quotations from Singer’s writings so the book provides a useful summary of his ideas, particularly in the 5 areas mentioned. In fact, there may be more disagreements among Catholics on Camosy’s description of Catholic ethical positions. A curse of the “rich tradition” perhaps.

It should help correct some of the misunderstandings that Christians have about Singer’s ideas – if only they are open-minded enough to read books like this. I hope their approach top a book by a Catholic ethicist is more sympathetic that their approach to the original writings of Singer.

Considering the ideological differences between singer and the Catholic Church I think Camosy has done his job well. I can excuse him the few lapses that my sensitivities have identified.

And I think Camosy’s identification of the possibilities of common action between supporters of Singer and the Catholic Church is very useful. Dare I hope that the church can be open to these possibilities in the future?

Scientists and philosophers discuss morality and meaning

I am working my way through the videos of the discussions at the Moving Naturalism Forward Workshop (see At last – Moving Naturalism Forward videos). I really appreciate these philosophical and scientific discussions because they aren’t weighed down, or diverted, by  theistic and supernaturalist philosophy.

As Daniel Dennett said in the introductions, what he really like about the workshop was not only the people participating, but also that certain philosophers were not participating.

Here’s the discussion on morality. I don’t think they covered everything they could have but what they did cover was interesting. It’s also a pity that Patricia Churchland had to withdraw from the Workshop – her contribution to this discussion would have been very helpful. I would have also like contribution from a good evolutionary psychologist.

Morality

The next discussion on meaning was also very wide-ranging and often insightful. I liked Owen Flanagan‘s description of Aristotle’s approach. When asked how he could prepare a suitably complete obituary for someone who had just died he said that one could gather all the information available but it would still not be enough. To really pass judgement on a person’s life you have to wait to see how the grandchildren turn out.

Meaning

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Death – part 2 of a series

Here’s the second episode in the series Sex, Death and the Meaning of life – fronted by “everyone’s favourite Strident Atheist.” See Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life – Sin for Part 1

It’s another laid back, non-threatening presentation of an important issue. A chance to consider different religious/philosophical approaches and to also learn some science.

Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life Episode 2.

For such an evil atheist Dawkins seems to spend a lot of time in cemeteries and churches. Seems quite at home there.

The 3rd and final episode on The Meaning of Life screens in the UK next week.

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Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life – Sin

Sex, Death and The Meaning of Life is a new series of TV documentaries fronted by Richard Dawkins. I welcome this – partly because Dawkins is an excellent communicator. But also because it’s about time some of the current ideas in the science of morality and ethics were more widely known.

The first programme in the series, SIN,  was screened last Monday, on Channel 4 in the UK. I have embedded it below. It’s very informative.

There’s even a bit of humour – look out for the David Attenborough moment where Dawkins gives a description of evolution social customs around animal mating while watching humans performing on a dance floor

Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life Episode 1.

There are at least two other programmes in the series. LIFE AFTER DEATH and MEANING OF LIFE.

See Death – part 2 of a series for the second episode.

See also:
Clear Story – Sex, death and the Meaning of Life
Channel 4 – SIN
Channel 4 – LIFE AFTER DEATH
Channel 4 – THE MEANING OF LIFE
British Atheist Richard Dawkins Explores Sin and Morality in New TV Series

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Moving Naturalism Forward

Click to enlarge. Credit: XKCD

If you are interested in the philosophy of science here’s something to look forward to. At the end of next week, October 25 – 29 a workshop – Moving Naturalism Forward – will occur in  Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

What’s more, for us so far away, the workshop will be videoed and videos will be on-line as soon as possible after the workshop finishes. They are bound to be fascinating as the questions covered will possibly include:

  • Free will. If people are collections of atoms obeying the laws of physics, is it sensible to say that they make choices?
  • Morality. What is the origin of right and wrong? Are there objective standards?
  • Meaning. Why live? Is there a rational justification for finding meaning in human existence?
  • Purpose. Do teleological concepts play a useful role in our description of natural phenomena?
  • Epistemology. Is science unique as a method for discovering true knowledge?
  • Emergence. Does reductionism provide the best path to understanding complex systems, or do different levels of description have autonomous existence?
  • Consciousness. How do the phenomena of consciousness arise from the collective behavior of inanimate matter?
  • Evolution. Can the ideas of natural selection be usefully extended to areas outside of biology, or can evolution be subsumed within a more general theory of complex systems?
  • Determinism. To what extent is the future determined given quantum uncertainty and chaos theory, and does it matter?

Here’s a list of the participants, together with field. Have a look art the list of participants for more information on affiliation, books and websites.

It’s an impressive list and  I know there are some differences – so look forward to lively debates.

It’s about time somebody sensible discussed what is meant by “naturalism” and how it relates to science.

(No. Alvin Plantinga hasn’t been invited).

Sean Carroll, Physics
Hilary Bok, Philosophy
Patricia Churchland, Neuroscience/Philosophy
Jerry Coyne, Biology
Richard Dawkins, Biology
Terrence Deacon, Anthropology
Simon DeDeo, Complex Systems
Daniel Dennett, Philosophy
Owen Flanagan, Philosophy
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Philosophy/Literature
Janna Levin, Physics/Literature
Massimo Pigliucci, Philosophy
David Poeppel, Neuroscience
Lisa Randall, Physics
Alex Rosenberg, Philosophy
Don Ross, Economics
Steven Weinberg, Physics

Objective or subjective laws and lawgivers

Zach Weinersmith and Sean Carroll recently blogged about subjective and objective morality (see Pankration Ethics and Morality and Basketball). Their ideas are interesting but I found their comparison of physical laws and moral laws with the rules of basketball and pankration confusing – both games are rather foreign to me. So I am taking the opportunity to clarify my own ideas about physical laws and moral laws. And whether such laws are objective or subjective.

Today I’ll just present my understanding of laws of nature, and whether they need a “divine lawmaker” or arise automatically from reality itself. I’ll get on to “moral laws” later in the week.

Laws of nature and moral law

Weinersmith thinks that the religious apologist argument that moral laws require a god “makes at least a certain amount of sense” – “it only makes sense to posit objective laws if there is a lawgiver.” I’ll come back to that. However, he thinks “laws of nature” are different.  “I’m willing to believe that a law like “like charge repels like” could be a random member of any number of functional sets of simple physical laws, and therefore might not require a lawgiver.”

On the other hand, most religious apologists argue that the “laws of physics,” etc., need a lawmaker, their god, just as much as moral laws. After all, they argue, the fact that nature behaves in a rational, logical way is evidence of a god who has somehow injected that order into the natural world.

I think there is a conceptual problem arising from at least partly confusing a completely human-made law – a rule which society decides and enforces, with a physical law or law of nature – some relationship of matter and energy which humanity has recognised through observation. Sure, the “laws of nature” are also human constructs but they do describe observations. They attempt to describe objective reality. In no way do humans instruct nature how to behave. Nor does any other being have to lay down such instruction to natural bodies and phenomena – they arise from the very nature of those bodies and phenomena.

The laws of nature are descriptive – not prescriptive.  They arise autonomously out of the way nature is, not the way we, or a divine “lawmaker” want it to be. We call them “laws” or “theories” because we have enough confidence of their general applicability that we can use them – even in new situations and places. Sometimes during their use we find they are faulty or incomplete. They might not describe reality properly or completely in new situations. Then we change the law or theory – usually by amendment or improvement. Sometimes, but rarely, by abandonment and formulation of a new theory.

In contrast, philosophers of religion see their god as a lawgiver who prescribes physical laws. But modern science has made a lot of progress since abandoning that medieval idea. In fact, the scientific revolution and subsequent progress required ignoring such constraints which had no evidential support. Today we make no such assumption. Effectively we see the rational nature of reality arising simply from the objective existence of matter and it’s ability to interact. (Here I am using the word “matter” in its most abstract philosophical sense – not in a naive mechanical sense of substance). The interactions of matter/energy inevitably produces order of some sort or another. When we recognise elements of that order we often describe them in a scientific theory or physical “law.” These are human constructs reflecting the current level of knowledge, which is inevitably provisional. Open to improvement and refinement as we learn more.

Realism, non-realism and instrumentalism.

Most working scientist are  probably philosophical realists. They imagine or assume that there is an objective reality that we can comprehend imperfectly. So they see the theories and laws they formulate as imperfect reflections of that reality. All theories and laws are inevitably incomplete – although over time we can improve them.

But we don’t have to rely on a realist world-view. We can simply adopt and use theories and laws because they work. In effect we can be philosophical instrumentalists. While some philosophers seem to automatically classify instrumentalism as a form of non-realism I think this is too restrictive. Realists or not we all use the laws, theories and formulae because they work. Sometimes we have no picture of the underlying reality, or conflicting pictures (think quantum mechanics and its interpretations).

As a philosophical realist I still consider I am being an instrumentalist in using the formulae, theory and laws – because I recognise them as imperfect reflections of reality that still work in most situations. Think about it – we are probably all instrumentalists in much of what we do. Why does a student attend lectures and study hard? Because they wish to get a qualification and eventually a job. In the process they may develop an appreciation of how the world is according to their subject. But many students are probably not really concerned about that reality

Confusing objective and subjective

Talk of objective laws or objective truths relating to our scientific or moral knowledge can be very confusing. After all, can we describe our physical laws of nature as objective when they have actually been formulated by humans. Granted, they reflect objectively existing reality. But only imperfectly. That reality has been filtered through our perceptual and mental (and possibly social) mechanics to produce the law or theory.

Perhaps it might be more exact to describe our scientific laws of nature as “objectively based” (in recognition of their incompleteness, imperfection and provisional nature). The laws and theories don’t exist independently of our consciousness (and culture). It is the matter/energy and their interconnections which have objective existence. Of course the objective laws and theories we have formulated are based on, derived from, objective reality but do contain elements of subjectivity (influences of our culture, etc). Science works hard to reduce such elements of subjectivity from its theories and laws.

I think we need to understand what we really mean when we describe the scientific laws and theories of nature as objective.

On the other had – what about the situation favoured by philosophers of religion who insist on a “divine lawmaker” which imposes its (his, her) laws on nature. Laws which are prescriptive and not descriptive, as they are meant to be a dictation to  inert matter and energy on how they should behave. Surely description of such prescriptive laws as objective is completely wrong. Rather than arising out of objective reality they are imposed on reality by some sort of intelligence. From the perspective of that intelligence these laws must be subjective – derived from its own whims and fancies. From our perspective they should also be seen as subjective, although we have played no role in those whims and fancies.

Physical relativism or “miracles”

The “scientific laws” of the philosopher of relgion, who see them as products of a divine lawmaker, must be completely subjective. In fact, even though we are talking of scientific physical laws and not moral laws, let’s bring in the bogey man of relativism. Given that in their scenario the physical laws can be at the mercy, the whims and fancies, of their divine lawmaker they must see these scientific laws a relative as well as subjective. Aren’t they actually being relativist when they claim that their “miracles” are real? That they are caused by something “supernatural” – suspension of the laws of nature. Their god, in her wisdom, has demanded that these laws of nature are suspended or changed for a time. Isn’t that relativism?

While the subjective understanding of laws of nature enable such “miracles,” scientific understanding of laws of nature having an objective basis enables a non-relativist understanding. “Miracles” and “supernatural” phenomena which seem to defy the laws of nature simply show our imperfect understanding of reality. If the observations are valid they give an opportunity to improve our theories, to develop a better understanding of reality.

Mind you, these days most claims of “miracles” and “supernatural” phenomena seem to derive more from credibility, falsehoods and poor observation than from any problems with the laws of nature.

In my next post I will discuss the nature of moral laws – see Subjective morality – not what it seems?

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Reasonable truth?

The Reason Rally in Washington DC over the weekend caused a bit of internet debate. A lot of it pretty silly – even hysterical. At times I wonder if dogmatic religionists are getting rattled. This rally was really all about the non-religious “coming out”, standing up, being counted and doing a bit of congressional lobbying in the side. Also there were great speakers and excellent entertainment. But it seems there are some people who wish the non-religious would STFU. Hide in fear.

Some militant Christian groups angrily claimed that these horrible atheists were acting as if they owned, or were capturing, even kidnapping,  the word “reason.” One group retaliated by cobbling together a selection of already published apologist articles entitled “True Reason.” Perhaps we should complain that they were claiming ownership of the word Truth!

Never mind. As Russell Blackford says about choice of words over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club:

“it’s silly and literal-minded – and sounds carping – to complain about this sort of thing. It’s like people who complain about book titles, which are of course chosen to be memorable and attractive, not to be accurate in a way that’s defensible to all people.”

Reminds me of the local theologian who painstakingly did  in-depth theological analyses of the local Atheist billboards. You know those with simple slogan like “Good Without God;” “In the Beginning Man Created God” and “We are all Atheists About Most Gods.” I suppose theology can be used to reach any desirable outcome, no matter how silly the starting material. And there are plenty of other billboards he could now use his theological skills on.

The philosophical issues

Putting aside the nice alliteration of the “Reason Rally” slogan the debate does raise the question of what we mean by words like “reason” and “truth.” These are questions that philosophers love to debate – but I often find some their discussions sterile. They seem divorced from reality. More interested in playing philosophical games related to definition than considering how things actually work out in practice.

The problem is some philosophers are happy to actually ignore reality, to be unconcerned with practice. Or perhaps this is really only true of philosophers of religion and theologians.

On the other hand scientists are far more concerned with reality and practice than with high faluting philosophic debates. I just wish those philosophers were more amenable to catching up with what science has discover about the process of human cognition. And the way that science approaches the question of knowledge. If for no other reason than science is well known to be incredibly successful in helping humanity to understand, and interact with, reality. Scientific knowledge is important.

Reason: Rationalising rather than rational

The scientific fact is that objective rational reasoning does not come easy to humans. We are in fact a rationalising species rather than a rational one. Reasoning involves emotional brain circuits as well as straightforward cognitive ones. Apparently people who have suffered damage to their emotional brain circuits find decision-making extremely difficult. Emotional influence of reasoning is inevitable. Whatever our ideology we are all tempted to, and usually guilty of, selecting evidence to support a dearly held belief rather than being objective.

I am not suggesting that we give up all hope of objective reasoning and throw the towel in. As individuals we can attempt to overcome emotional prejudices and preconceived ideas. Of course this works more successfully when we do this together with others, especially when a wide variety of opinions are present. And even better when we do this using empirical evidence

That is why scientists, who despite their inevitable preconceived ideas and emotional preferences, can still work to understand the world as it really is. They rely on evidence to formulate their hypotheses, and they test or validate them against reality, using empirical evidence. And they do this socially, under the sceptical interest of their colleagues and the inevitable harsh scrutiny of the findings and conclusions by their peers.

This objective testing and validation against reality is vital. Relying on other members of one’s peer groups alone can actually reinforce mistaken ideas and beliefs rather than test them. We sometimes call this “group thinking.”

So no one owns “reason.” Neither does anyone own “rationalisation” or “confirmation bias.” We all do it. But some people are just better at reasoning objectively than are others. And it seems to me that the theologians and philosophers of religion whose articles are in the book “True Reason” may excel at the mental gymnastics and theological pretzel twisting required in their profession. But as they completely omit that important step of validating ideas against reality the “ownership” claim they make on reason is somewhat suspect. For example, at least one of the authors is well-known for his “reasoned” justification of biblical genocide, ethnic cleansing and infanticide! (And, no, I don’t think these are the only people who mistake their rationalisation for reason -  it’s a human problem).

Truth: relative knowledge vs unsupported conviction

Religions often act as if they have captured the sole ownership of “truth.” And not only any old truth but Truth with a capital T. So, I find it rather incongruous when these very same theologians and philosophers of religion rip into those horrible atheists, using philosophical arguments to “show” that their (the atheists) reasoning is incapable of finding truth. In the last week or so I have seen several blog posts and opinion pieces making the argument. Along the lines that one needs some epistemic criteria to judge  if the epistemic criteria you are using is producing the truth. This leaves one in a constant regression of different epistemic criteria or alternatively a circular argument using your favourite criteria. (See Defending Science: An Exchange, by Michael P. Lynch and Alan Sokal for contrasting views and How can we justify science?: Sokal and Lynch debate epistemology by Jerry Coyne for an insightful summary of that debate).

Stephen Law calls this philosophical sawing through the branch you are sitting on “Going Nuclear” (see Protecting yourself against bullshit). How can these people claim any access to truth for themselves when they deny its very possibility (for their discussion opponents)? Mixing metaphors, they think they have blown their ideological opponents out of the water, and then they realise that they themselves are sinking.

These people are caught on the own petard. They have a basic problem:

  1. On the one had they decline to use empirical knowledge, testing and validating against reality, to supplement their reasoning.
  2. Secondly they insist on “absolute truth” requiring a proof by deductive logic. They ignore the fact that we gain real knowledge by accepting something less than absolute.

But what about scientific knowledge? Isn’t that considered “truth?” And how does science justify this knowledge?

Scientists rarely talk about “truth,” more about knowledge. (Yes I know that sometimes words like “true” and “fact” may be used in book titles and newspaper articles – but here they are using the colloquially accepted language). And they never consider their knowledge absolute, complete. In a sense, scientific knowledge is always relative.  And as scientific knowledge is really the best knowledge we have I should think that we should see all knowledge as relative. Open to improvement, revision, or even outright replacement, as new information comes in.

“Other ways of knowing?”

OK, the militant theist may not think this is good enough – they claim that surely it would not be that hard to aim higher.” Strangely, of course, they never explain how they can get a more accurate form of knowledge. As Jerry Coyne says (see Stymied, Michael Ruse criticizes me for liking boots and cats) – when these theologians talk about “other ways of knowing” they really mean “other ways of making it up!”

We can understand that scientific knowledge, despite its relative and temporary nature, is generally accepted as the most reliable for of knowledge. And scientific method as they most effective way of understanding reality. The relative nature of scientific knowledge is one reason it is so effective. It is just silly to claim you have a higher or absolute form of knowledge by claiming it is somehow “revealed”, or “sacred”  and never allowing it to be tested against reality.

Why should we be so concerned with absolutes anyway? What do we need our knowledge for? To improve our lives, to solve problems we face, etc. So its understandable that in a sense we “get by” with our relative, incomplete, knowledge – we effectively have an “instrumentalist” approach. If it works – we use it and don’t worry too much about the complete reality behind it. And in this sense we break out of the epistemic circular and regressive  bind by adopting the great epistemic approach - “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

We shouldn’t separate our knowledge from the process of obtaining it, or from the reality we interact with. The very process of adopting an almost instrumentalist approach, of using our incomplete, relative knowledge in practice, leads to our becoming more aware of its incompleteness, of our need to review and improve our knowledge.

Scientific knowledge is really just an imperfect reflection of reality. But a constantly improving reflection.

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