Tag Archives: Human

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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Deriving “ought from is” scientifically?

Dr Richard Carrier

There has been a lot of debate recently about the role of science in deciding moral questions. And I am sure this will continue as scientific investigations reveal more about our morality.

One issue which keeps coming up, though, is the question of telling an “ought from an is.” Often this is presented dogmatically (“You can’t tell an ought from an is”) and justified as almost an ancient philosophical truism.

But this is now being challenged by some of the participants in this debate. recently I heard Richard Carrier, a philosopher and historian of science, on this. He rejects this specific dogma. In the interview Richard supplies a clear example:

“A surgeon ought to maintain high levels of hygiene in her work.”

Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it. And we can get there from two “is’s.”

  1. Unhygienic surrounding enable fatal infections, and
  2. A surgeon protects human life.

I thought it useful for him to divide the argument in this way. Too often we think only of the first is – the facts which have an immediate effect. Most people will acknowledge that science usually has a role in this area – and that is clear in our example. Science has established the role of hygiene in prevent fatal infections.

So there is wide acceptance that science can “inform” moral decisions such as these. But Many people, not just religious believers, will maintain that step 2 is not an “is.” One can’t prove logically or scientifically that “A surgeon protects human life” or the equivalent.

Well, I think in the case of surgeons it goes with the job, the definition of the profession., But the more general case would be the “is” that humans have such attributes. The claim that you can’t prove it is human to protect life, to desire the flourishing of human life, etc.

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Chauvinistic ethics?

Here’s a question I came across in my current reading. Is religion the basis for ethics, or ethics the basis for religion?

Well, I claim the later (partly) but keep getting told the former. In fact, I keep getting told that I owe my morals to one specific religion – the Christian religion.

So this cartoon struck a chord. Amazing how chauvinistic some humans can be when it comes to beliefs and ethics.

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The myth of the noble scientist

David Goodstein used this term to describe:

the long-discredited Baconian view of the scientist as disinterested seeker of truth who gathers facts with mind cleansed of prejudices and preconceptions. The ideal scientist, in this view, would be more honest than ordinary mortals, certainly immune to such common human failings as pride or personal ambition. When people find out, as they invariably do, that scientists are not at all like that, they may react with understandable anger or disappointment.

I think it is a useful term. But I don’t agree with Goodstein’s belief that scientists are guilty of promoting it. Certainly not in my experience.

Before Fermi Lab visit

I think of a scientist as very dedicated to his work. He is kind of crazy, talking always quickly. He constantly is getting new ideas. He is always asking questions and can be annoying. He listens to others’ ideas and questions them.

After Fermi Lab visit

I know scientists are just normal people with a not so normal job. . . . Scientists lead a normal life outside of being a scientist. They are interested in dancing, pottery, jogging and even racquetball. Being a scientist is just another job which can be much more exciting.

These are drawings and comments made by Amy, one of a group of US 7th Graders before and after their visit to the Fermi lab

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Is and ought

I have been watching some of the videos from the Edge seminar THE NEW SCIENCE OF MORALITY. There will eventually be about 10 hours of talks and discussions posted on the Edge site. From the few presentations I have seen so far this looks to have been a fascinating seminar.

Partly because the science is relatively new – but also because there has been a lot of progress made. However, there are of course areas which promote intense discussion. I get the impression, for example, that several of the participants wish to challenge to dogma that one can’t determine an ought from an is. It’s going to be interesting to see that debate played out.

WEIRD culture and reasoning

Jonathon Haidt

Jonathon Haidt was the first speaker and made some interesting points about the relevance of a science centred largely around specialists from advanced western countries. He is using the acronym WIERD for the orientation around cultures in the Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. This analysis comes from a recent paper The weirdest people in the world ? by J Henrich, SJ Heine and A Norenzayan. Those authors say “we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature, on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin and rather unusual slice of humanity.”

Haidt also discusses some fallacies about human reasoning. “The puzzle is, why are humans so amazingly bad at reasoning in some contexts, and so amazingly good in others?” Again he refers to a recent paper by Mercier and Sperber – Why do humans reason ? Arguments for an argumentative theory. This is an interesting paper discussing human problems like confirmation bias, the human problem of search for evidence to support an preconceived conclusion.

Obviously both these problems are very relevant to a seminar like this. Go to the Edge site for a video of Jonothan’s presentation or download and audio file (MP3 Audio Download — Jonathan Haidt Talk).

Sam Harris and a role for science

As Sam Harris was one of the participants the seminar will surely have also discussed his ideas on the role of science in determining right and wrong. He presented these ideas in two recent lectures and they resulted in a lot of discussion, and controversy, on a number of scientific blogs (see Can science answer moral questions? and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UrA-8rTxXf0).


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Distorting Darwin

Poor old Charles Darwin. In this year of celebration, when we mark the 200th year since his birth and the 150th year since the publication of his great work The Origin of Species, he is being subjected to a real deluge of misrepresentation. The ideological opponents of science, particularly evolutionary science, have been working overtime to quote him out of context, to cherry pick quotes, to “prove” he was a horrible person and that the “materialist” heart of science must be ripped out.

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