Friday, January 7, 2011

Science and Religion and the Science of Religion

Readers of this blog may be interested in some recent online essays pertaining to the scientific study of religion and its significance. The Guardian's online blog, Comment is Free, has launched a new series of essays on the question, "Is there a God instinct?", and the inaugural post in the series is by atheist psychologist Jesse Bering--who articulates a variant of the atheist argument (promulgated in different ways by Dawkins and Dennett) that belief in God can be explained away by the evolutionary adaptiveness of a propensity to believe in supernatural agency.

In an essay replying to Bering in the Guardian, evolutionary biologist Denis Alexander offers a concise response from the standpoint of his own discipline, while Arni Zachariassen, at I Think I Believe, provides a thoughtful theological response in which, among other things, he makes the following points:

(Bering) says that there are "simply no good scientific reason[s]" for theism. Well, of course there aren't! Science brackets out the question of God as a matter of principle and method, and so plainly and simply doesn't address the question, this way or the other...(T)he simple fact that we have evolved certain biases towards seeing reality as being a certain way does not necessarily mean that reality is not that way. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. Science will not settle that question for us. Bering's research, as interesting as it is (and it is! Very!), says something about human brains, not God's existence or the validity of religious truth claims.

Arni's response reminds me of my interest in writing a review of the bestseller by journalist Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Fingerprints of God: What Science Is Learning About the Brain and Spiritual Experience. Hagerty's book offers a wonderful catalogue of diverse religious and spiritual experiences, as well as an engaging lay person's summary of the range of scientific research being done on human spirituality (I leave assessments of the accuracy of her summaries to those more versed in the relevant disciplines). 

But what I like best about the book is its potential to help defuse the reflexive suspicion and animosity that religious believers so often direct towards the scientific study of religion (and science in general). It has this potential precisely because Hagerty embodies in her journalistic inquiry the same perspective that Arni so nicely articulates in his recent post. Whatever might be said about the defensibility of this perspective (and I know there are regular followers of this blog who are inclined to challenge it), I think that from a purely sociological standpoint it is a pragmatically fruitful one: It inculcates an openness among religious believers to taking science seriously rather than treating it as an enemy to be rejected.

While new atheists like Dawkins and Victor Stenger (author of God: The Failed Hypothesis) have gotten considerable personal mileage out of promulgating the message that (a) science and religion are essentially opposed and (b) so much the worse for religion, the social reality (as far as I can tell) is that this message has not substantially reduced the number of religious believers. Rather, it has succeeded mostly in reinforcing their belief in (a)--to which they then add, "So much the worse for science."

While my own view is that (a) is false, I know there are those who take it to be true. What I want to say to them at this point is this: At best, surely, (a) is a contentious philosophical position. And given its controversial character, it may be worth treating it with caution when it can have such damaging pragmatic effects for the advancement of science. By treating it with caution, I don't mean refusing to express (a) even if it happens to be your view. I don't mean refusing to share your reasons for this view, or what you find lacking in the arguments of those with a different position. Rather, I mean adopting the kind of fallibilism that is appropriate when the costs of being wrong are high.

Suppose you catch a glimpse from a passing car of someone who, at a quick glance from a distance, you take to be your friend Joe leaving an apartment building in which you know Mary lives. It is one thing to say without qualification, "I saw Joe leaving Mary's apartment yesterday afternoon," when gossiping with friends. It is something else again to say this on the witness stand when Joe has been accused of murdering Mary. High stakes call for humility, an awareness of our fallibility. And the stakes are pretty high when it comes to the idea that science and religion are essentially opposed.

Beliefs can be "innocent" or not, and whether they are innocent or not can be a matter of context. The less innocent a belief is, the more significant our epistemic duties become.

Let me be clear about something here. I don't think that scientists should pander to religious audiences or downplay the implications of their research when that research directly challenges specific beliefs held by religious communities--such as the belief in a "Young Earth" or the doctrine of special creation (the idea that diverse species were created individually rather than evolving from common ancestors). But if one treats the new atheists' controversial and polarizing philosophical view on science and religion as if it were a matter of certainty, then one will pre-emptively alienate the great mass of religious believers, so that when scientific research does challenge their specific beliefs you can be sure they won't be listening.


  1. Hi Eric

    The question of whether science and religion are opposed is clearly important, and as always depends a little upon how you define each. I think the old Non Overlapping Magistrata thing can work if science sticks to building predictive models of the physical world, and religion sticks to interpreting those models. This does however place significant constraints on each activity, which participants in both camps frequently become uncomfortable with.

    As an example, biologists don't get to call the world random or purposeless, as that's shipping a fair amount of narrative into the evolutionary model. It's hard to resist that urge though, as the narrative itself informs and motivates research.

    On the other hand, I don't think religious believers get to make claims about moral knowledge, as this is implying a mechanism by which such knowledge finds its way into the mechanical brain, and that becomes an empirical, scientific claim that needs to stand or fall by science's standards. But again, that's a mighty hard urge to resist.

    So, in principal we might be able to keep science and religion apart, in practice I'm not so sure. Managing the engagement in a way that is open and productive then becomes the real challenge.


  2. Hi Bernard: I don't get why religious people (or atheists for that matter) cannot properly speak about moral knowledge. Science can study the brain to be sure, and science can study how the brain processes stuff, maybe it can study which parts of the brain are firing when a person is considering moral issues, and maybe it can even study how a person's moral attitudes can change based on changes in the state of the brain. But people could properly talk about knowledge in general without any reference at all to neuroscience, in fact before we knew anything ABOUT neuroscience. So how is moral knowledge different from that?

  3. Hi Keith

    You're quite right, I've been unclear here. Of course, anybody is quite able to discuss and form opinions on moral issues and respond to them. This is part of the broader project of being human and there's nothing particularly scientific about it.

    What I had in mind is the claim one sometimes hears, that there exist universal moral values that one can somehow intuit, particularly through religious means. Perhaps if one meditates, or opens one's heart or whatever.

    Now that claim, that knowledge of what is right and wrong comes to us from some transcendent realm, is a scientific claim, insomuch as it makes a claim about how the knowledge gets into the brain. It hence runs up against the alternative hypothesis of evolutionary and cultural development. At the point where one makes a claim like this, about the workings of the material world, specifically the brain, one must, I think, pay due deference to science's methodologies.


  4. Hi Eric,

    I think the problem is not with science, but with the naturalistic interpretation of science. In my experience many people (theists and atheists alike) have trouble separating these two concepts, which are really enormously different. The former concept pertains to the order present in phenomena, the second to how the reality which produces these phenomena ultimately is.

  5. I think of religion as a way of providing an interpretive framework of the reality that science describes. Science and religion are not contradictory, but are instead focused on different things. Religion deals with myth and meaning and values, things that science is not aimed at.

    I think that this quote is especially interesting: "(T)he simple fact that we have evolved certain biases towards seeing reality as being a certain way does not necessarily mean that reality is not that way. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't." The mind has developed a way of interpreting space and time, for example (Immanuel Kant wrote about this, I believe), but that doesn't mean that space and time don't exist. The human mind has evolved in certain ways to form certain constructs, but that doesn't make them only illusionary mental constructs. Of course, maybe they are illusionary, but the fact that they exist in our mind doesn't a priori make them false.

  6. Many of the people I speak to equate knowledge w/science and believe that science has no scope/limits. Isn't one task of philosophy to outline the scope of science and other disciplines? For example,
    *Is it true that logic/math are presupposed by science, but are not scientific truths?
    *Is it true that knowledge of the external world and of my own consciousness is very strong knowledge, but not scientific knowledge?
    *Isn't it true that some propositions are impossible in principle (not just impossible), not matter how far science advances?
    It might be a bit basic, but aren't there substantive knowledge claims that are not scientific claims? That is, my knowledge is not JUST science and nonscientific interpretations, but my knowledge also consists of various forms of knowledge: Scientific, Introspective, Logical, Mathematical, etc???

  7. Hi Anonymous

    Such a good point you make. I have many kinds of knowledge:

    I have artistic knowledge (I know Leonard Cohen is a genius)
    I have moral knowledge (I know it's okay to charge interest on a loan)
    I have programmed knowledge (I know it's grammatically wrong to say 'fill water into the glass' even though for many years nobody could say why)
    I have logical knowledge (I know how to prove by contradiction that the square root of two is irrational)
    I have physical knowledge (I know the earth is roundish)
    I have personal knowledge (I know what it feels like for me to be in love).

    Here for me is the interesting part though. In the case of my moral and artistic examples, it is true that other people know entirely the opposite thing to be true (the interest rate case has a fascinating and at times explosive history). And, as we have no way of comparing the truth content of the two stances, we are required to pull our punches. I say, 'for me Leonard Cohen is a genius', but I don't claim the statement is universally applicable.

    The round earth hypothesis however, has more truth content than the flat earth alternative, not just for me but for everybody. Its many implications, be they trade winds or long long polar nights, hold for us all, not just those who embrace the model.

    In this sense we can ask legitimate questions about what sort of knowledge religious knowledge is. To me, it appears to be like artistic knowledge, and I make my claims about it with an according amount of personal investment and global agnosticism. Scientific knowledge, in this sense, is quite a different thing.


  8. Bernard,

    You've made that sort of claim before--particularly, iirc, with regard to things like religious experience--but I'm not altogether sure why they have to be seen as competing empirical hypotheses. If God is responsible for creating the natural order, and if God wants to work through natural intermediaries, it seems at least possible in principle that a natural scientific explanation and a teleological theological explanation could be perfectly compatible. Showing that they weren't would be a philosophical project, not a scientific one.

  9. Hi Dustin

    I agree, if there is a God working entirely through natural intermediaries then the evidence for this working will be entirely natural. What's more, if he works in a way that hides his methods and intentions, then the evidence will be equally compatible with a naturalistic explanation and we don't have competing testable hypotheses.

    However, this methodology seems, to me at least, to preclude certain types of intervention, (for example non random guided interventions) which is where this notion of competing hypotheses comes into play. This does seem to be the case with certain moral knowledge for instance. I can't see how this can be gifted to us via physical means in a way that is compatible with our current evolutionary evidence. You may however have a method for this in mind, which would be interesting to me.


  10. Hi Bernard:

    Some questions:

    1. If God is the author of the laws of physics, then how would his doing the kind of miracles via natural means conflict with the the kinds of miracles usually associated with a deity? Couldn't God just make the laws whatever they needed to be to make the miracle happen? And if God didn't choose to cooperate with scientists aiming to scientifically study the supposed miraculous then how would scientists study these miracles?

    2. Assuming our brain is necessary to process knowledge in general, why would there be any more problem with our obtaining moral knowledge than with any other knowledge?

  11. Well, I'm not really sure how empirical science could rule out, say, God interventionally causing a certain mutation to arise at a certain time, or a certain environmental condition obtaining that favored one organism over another. It might be more satisfying to our aesthetic sensibilities if God did this through some sort of natural indeterministic process--where the overall probabilities could be preserved--but whether God acts in accordance with our aesthetic sensibilities doesn't seem like a scientific question. Even if we somehow knew with certainty the entire causal history of the universe, that wouldn't preclude--scientifically--God's having arranged things just so so that our faculties could track moral truth. I wouldn't be altogether happy holding that position, but Leibniz wouldn't mind at all.

  12. Hello Keith and Dustin

    this overlaps with the other discussion we're having Keith. Yes, Dustin, I agree God could have done such a thing as intervene and hide all evidence, in exactly the same way I might really be a car bonnet undergoing a car bonnet hallucination that makes me think I am a thinking human being. All things are possible. And so we ask, which beliefs are warranted?

    Now, in respect to the physical world, the scientific method is unchallenged as the best generator of new understandings, and the scientific method doesn't allow equal standing to be given to untested or untestable hypotheses. My argument is that when it comes to explaining the physical world, at least, including the human brain, it is a good move to stick to the most successful method we have.

    The thing with moral knowledge, Keith, is problematic only when it becomes knowledge about what is absolutely right or wrong. We have at least a rough theory of how various ideas get into our heads, and even why we tend to believe some more than others. And we have the philosophy of science to examine how new ideas are generated with regard to physical relationships.

    What we don't have is any working knowledge of how certain moral knowledge would get in. Uncertain, speculative, negotiated moral knowledge of the type materialists talk about, is less of a problem.


  13. What's being proposed isn't a scientific hypothesis, though, it's a philosophical one--as is naturalism, as is any other philosophical conclusion you could draw from the data, as is the principle of induction, the belief that materialism rather than idealism or solipsism is true, and all sorts of other things (indeed, a parallel to the argument against moral norms can be used against epistemic norms--this is why the arch-naturalist Quine basically winds up denying that any given way of interpreting the world is any more rational than any other.)

    'Scientists sometimes deceive themselves into thinking that philosophical ideas are, at best, decorations or parasitic commentaries on the hard, objective triumphs of science, and that they themselves are immune to the confusions that philosophers devote their lives to dissolving. But there is no such thing as philosophy-free science, there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.'

    and all that.

  14. My point here is not that any two ways of interpreting the data will be equally reasonable--just that attempting to cut one out of discussion on methdological grounds as unscientific or whatever would wind up likewise cutting out all sorts of assumptions we use to function in our everyday lives, as well as all philosophical beliefs needed to conduct science itself.

  15. Hi Dustin

    Yeah, you're right I think, in that it's easy to too quickly dismiss alternative methodologies as in some sense not respectable, without looking at the assumptions beneath one's own preferred perspective.

    Sometimes I think it's better to think in terms of the best way to solve a specific problem (say are there moral absolutes, and how do we gain knowledge of them) rather than sticking to a particular approach on ideological grounds.

    For me, I struggle to see how to make much progress on the issue of moral absolutes without taking a scientific approach. I don't see how one goes about moving from a tentative hypothesis to a well established theory for instance, or how one chooses between competing hypotheses. Because the context here is in part physical (the way information finds its way into and is expressed by the brain) and because such progress can and has been made using the scientific method, then philosophical loyalties aside, there is a strong pragmatic argument (for me at least) for giving this approach priority.

    This may be because I am ignorant of alternative methodologies in this area of course, and I am genuinely interested in what an alternative effective mode of enquiry might look like.


  16. Hi Bernard: I still don't see the problem with a physical brain and moral understanding. How is that different from regular understanding? Consider a juror listening to a trial. Sound waves and light waves travel toward his body, causing nerve impulses to go to his brain, causing the neurons in his brain to fire and produce certain patterns. Somehow this is related to him knowing what happened. Similarly when a mathematician does abstract math, and a similar process is related to him knowing that the square root of two cannot be expressed as a ratio of two natural numbers. Why couldn't a similar brain process be related to the person having real moral knowledge?

  17. Hi Keith

    I may have been imprecise in defining what I mean by moral knowledge. The type you allude to here, as analogous to a jury piecing together the evidence, is entirely consistent with our scientific knowledge of the brain. Essentially, here are we, shaped by biology (which appears over time to have developed in us a capacity for empathy) our culture and our personal stories, processing the information about us to construct a personal narrative which includes moral imperatives. We are able to say, right here, at this time and place, I believe this particular action is morally right or wrong.

    The claim that is incompatible with science, I think, is the claim that morality isn't like this. Rather, in some higher realm, there exists a final word definition of right and wrong. Some religious adherents will then claim either than we can gain access to this transcendent moral code, or more mildly, that we can gain knowledge that this moral code exists.

    Under both scenarios, such knowledge becomes manifest in the physical brain. My question becomes, by what process does this occur? And if our answer is 'we don't know' then the question shifts to 'by what style of evidence or reasoning should we believe it occurs at all?'

    Because we are dealing with a physical phenomenon, the brain, and because a workable alternative hypothesis exists, why not in answering this question yield to the methodology that we believe is best at leading us towards accurate answers?


  18. Hi Bernard: I have a couple of questions (as usual:-)

    1. What you seemed to say was inconsistent with science is the idea that there exist objective moral facts, as opposed to instincts to BELIEVE that such and such are moral facts, instincts produced by ordinary evolutionary processes. I would say science cannot STUDY the existence of objective moral facts but how does that make the idea INCONSISTENT with science?

    2. You also said something that I am interpreting as: even if objective moral facts DO exist, there is no plausible mechanism for those facts to get into the brain. So I would ask how that differs from abstract mathematical facts? We KNOW that there is no largest prime number, but this knowledge doesn't come from empirical observation since (a) you cannot observe abstract numbers and (b) you cannot observe something NOT existing. And yet I KNOW that math fact (I even understand why, I brag:-) and my knowledge came from thinking about it (listening to the argument my number theory teacher made and in my mind recognizing it was right). Had my brain been damaged I would possibly not have understood the argument and remained ignorant of the fact. So why could knowledge of objective moral facts (if they exist) not be similar?

  19. Thanks for these questions Keith. They help me clarify, and indeed modify, my views as we go. I'll do this as two posts, to keep them short(ish).

    On the first matter, I don't think the idea of independent moral truths is inconsistent with science. There may indeed be such things and it would be no threat to science if there were. My claim is really that here is an area where science is well equipped to advance our understanding. Given the claim is in part a physical one, it must be at least in principle possible to dig around to find some evidence of it occurring.

    Does such morality apply to all animals or just us, or maybe just us and rhesus monkeys? What are the characteristics of the human brain that bind us to these rules? At what stage of evolution did it apply? Were the neanderthals bound by these rules? How does knowledge of the rules get in? At what age do we become aware of and answerable to the rules? Why don't all people have knowledge of the rules or their existence? What types of addiction, brain damage or upbringing, if any would unbind us from the rules, etc.

    These are, at least in part, scientific questions. And as yet, no testable hypotheses have been formed. Now, given science is the best way of advancing our knowledge in this area, we follow the scientific lead and say, for now we have no good evidence for this hypothesis. Meanwhile the morality as artefact hypothesis continues to grow stronger in terms of its evidence (witness the effect brain damage has on our behaviour, the chap with a tumour who develops an interest in child pornography for instance).

    Isn't the rational response then is to go with the more firmly established hypothesis in this area? (An alternative may be to advance a pragmatic argument that the only way to maintain the artefact is to believe it has trascendental roots. It's not easy to establish this though.)


  20. Keith

    Now with prime numbers, I don't see the analogy between numbers and morality holding. Here's why:

    One way to look at number theory is as a set of processes that the human mind applies to the real world. We can apply counting numbers to the world by, well counting things. This process can then themselves be studied, examined for patterns, had logical rules applied to and so forth, in other words other established processes can be applied to it.

    To use your example, we have a process breaking groups of things into equal parts which we call factorisation, and we can identify, using numbers as our labels, groups that can not be broken into even parts, primes.

    We also have a process of proving relationships between processes we call proof by contradiction. We can show that if we assume we have found the largest number of things that can not be broken into even groups, we can reason our way to a contradiction, and you are aware of how we do this (or may be thinking of a different proof).

    This tells us that if we continue the process of counting things and breaking them into even groups, we will encounter a group bigger than any yet established, that still can not be broken into even groups.

    By this description, does the biggest prime not yet discovered actually exist? Rather than answer this (because I think it just comes down to definition), we can ask: what would we need to know about moral values for the analogy to be applicable?

    I suppose we would need to be able to define the broader group of abstract values (loyalty, love, confusion) unambiguously, in the way a number can be defined, and then be able to demonstrate some process by which a moral value can be unambiguously distinguished from other abstract concepts in the way a prime can be distinguished from other numbers. And finally we would need a process by which one could prove the existence of at least one such moral value.

    That strikes me as a difficult task, but I'm open to offers. So to be clear, I'm arguing that we know how knowledge of numbers gets in, it's via a set of intellectual processes we have learned to apply to the world around us. It does not seem that moral knowledge gets in by an equivalent method and so the analogy doesn't hold.


  21. Hi Keith,

    If I may add a few words here, I think much of this (obviously) revolves on what we mean by “true” and “knowledge”.

    If we say that the statement “fire burns paper” is true, we may interpret it strictly as predicting the results of experiments. Here's a fire, here's a piece of paper, we throw it in the fire, it burns. This is independent of location: we make the same experiment somewhere else with the same result. Does not depend on the colour of the paper either – and so on. These statements come with their own truth maker and their truth or falsehood is defined by it, not in some abstract manner,

    Likewise with prime numbers. Mathematical truth is defined by the existence of a formal proof.

    The moral truths you refer to are nothing like that. The knowledge you claim is of a different kind altogether. What is its elusive truth-maker? What determines what is true or not? Without this, I have no clue even what it means.

  22. Hi JP (also Bernard):

    It seems to me there are two issues here.

    1. Do objective moral facts actually exist? This seems to be what you are talking about.

    2. Assuming there are, how would knowledge of those facts get into the brain? This was the issue Bernard was talking about.

    Regarding your issue, I agree there is a difference between (a)empirical facts, (b) mathematical/logical facts and (c) the allegedly existing objective moral facts. But there are similarities between them. What makes a mathematical fact a fact? I would argue it's NOT the existence of a proof. It is a fact that the square root of two cannot be written as the ratio of two integers. This was a fact BEFORE anyone produced a proof for it. Of course you might argue that even before a proof was DISCOVERED, it existed in some sort of Platonic realm of ideas. In fact, I'd agree with this so maybe your definition of what it is that makes a mathematical statement true is right:-)

    But Actually I don't think so. I don't know enough fancy math to understand this, but the mathematician Kurt Godel produced a proof to the effect that in any axiom system there are statements that are true but cannot be PROVED true within the axiom system. I barely know what that means, so I could be misleading all of us here. But here is what I think is going on, more or less. A mathematical statement is either true or it is false. Godel showed that there must exists some mathematical statements that cannot be proved to be true, and cannot be proved to be false. Suppose you had one of those statements, suppose for the sake of discussion it were true. So you'd have a true mathematical statement for which there ISN'T a proof (because their cannot BE a proof). So what makes it true? I'd say what makes it true is that it corresponds to how abstract math things really are. I say the same thing applies for objective moral facts. What makes the statement "the Holocaust was immoral" true is that it should not have been done--the statement corresponds with how things really are, I claim. How do I KNOW it's really true? That question bleeds into Bernard's point, it seems to me.

  23. Hi Bernard (also JP): Tell me if I have your view about math pretty right. You seem to be saying that our mathematical knowledge boils down to pattern recognition and (I might be reading this into your view) pattern recognition would seem like the kind of thing that evolution might select for, because of the obvious survival advantage. That seems quite plausible. of course this tendency to see patterns sometimes leads us astray. We see Jesus in a piece of toast, a horsey in the clouds, and we see all [insert an ethnicity other than your own] as criminals because of some few members of that group committed some crime. But that's not the point I want to address now. My point is that IF the pattern we detect holds true for numbers that we haven't yet individually considered, then we have the ability to infer accurate patterns even for things we haven't yet thought about. For example, when I consider the set of even numbers I see that all the even numbers I've thought of are in between two odd numbers. Recognizing the pattern I can infer that this would apply to ALL even numbers. Even if I owe my ability to recognize patterns to a brain structure, this doesn't count against my conclusion about even numbers. Similarly, why couldn't it be that I owe my ability to recognize moral facts by my (properly function) brain, via what feels from the inside like my conscience?

  24. Bernard,

    I'm a little surprised to see you continuing to claim that moral objectivism is incompatible with science, since I thought we had just agreed that it was not incompatible with science as such, but with science paired with certain philosophical positions.

    In terms of methodologies, one approach would be to try to show that at least moral rules can be derived from reason alone. This is what Kantians try to do.

    Another would be to grant our initial intuitions prima facie plausibility--as we do with all our other intuitions--and then think critically about them, discuss them other people, etc. etc. until we reach some sort of reflective equilibrium. This might not give us absolute certainty, but I'm not sure why the method is any worse than that of Duhem's scientist falling back on "good sense."

    Now, we might then reasonably ask meta-ethical and epistemological questions about what these moral properties refer to. One approach would be to identify them with certain natural properties, and then tell a story about how we get moral knowledge about these things. This, I think, is what Dan Dennett wants to do about morality. This is also what Sam Harris tries to do in his new book, although as far as I can tell he basically does it by declaring that he is doing Science! rather than philosophy, pretending that his philosophical positions aren't philosophical since he doesn't give arguments for them, and then making the rather mundane point that science can help us figure out what the results of actions will be.

    You might also identify moral properties with non-natural properties of some sort. You then tell a story about how we know about them. This, I take it, is what your attack is aimed against, although you shouldn't be surprised to hear that the people who defend this view have thought of such objections and responded to them. Robert Adams is a proponent of a theistic version of ethical non-naturalism, while Russ Shafer-Landau is probably the most famous proponent of a non-theistic version.

    All of these views have learned proponents, and--as I've suggested--their defenders have tried to respond to objections of the sort you raise. Of course, you might not agree with them. And you might decide that you have better things to do with your time. But I find it a little strange that you speak so confidently about the flaws in your opponents' positions while seemingly being so unfamiliar with what they actually think or why they think it.

  25. I'm sorry if the end of my last comment came across as snarky. This really is, though, stuff you discuss in an undergraduate, introductory ethics class.

  26. Hi Dustin

    You're allowed to sound a little snarky. I don't mind, and sorry to frustrate you. Let's see if we can advance this a little.

    Yes, I accept there are learned views I am not entirely familiar with, and some of this is of course bluster on my part. I am looking to discover the weaknesses in my views, and people like yourself are most helpful. How else does one learn?

    And yes, in order for science to advance, certain assumptions must be made. It is however too easy, and even a little unfair, to then dismiss science as falling back on things like 'good sense.' As far as I can see it, science makes use of assumptions only in so far as these assumptions have, until now, been the most fertile. Not only is every model in science up for reappraisal, so too is every aspect of its methodology. And fertility here is easily defined in terms of predictive capacity. A model that makes good predictions is better than one that doesn't.

    This properly limits science to discussing matters in the physical world, as this is the realm within which measurements can be taken and agreed upon. When science exceeds this brief it should indeed be reined in, and I can understand why religious folk in particular can feel patronised and irked by some of these forays.

    But equally, and here I do want to keep my claim very specific, at times religious thinkers claim we have access to knowledge from some transcendent realm. That is, extra-physical knowledge somehow becomes physically manifest. At the point they make this claim, I think there is a need to accept that this is the very territory where science excels. Immediately the scientist wants to know, well how does it get in? It's a good question, to which, as far as I can see, no good answer has ever been provided. If I am wrong here, it will be most exciting.

    I accept that one can argue in return, we don't know how they get in, but we do know they're there. My problem here may be, as you hint, pure ignorance, but I can't see any line of reasoning that isn't comfortably met by the alternative hypothesis, that morality is a cultural and biological artefact. And if this is the case, then the great weight of evidence behind what is in essence an evolutionary case, sways me.

    Now, you can easily counter this in either of two ways. You can explain to me how the knowledge becomes physical. Philosophers I don't know of might be all over that already. Or, you can sketch a line of reasoning that dismisses the materialist explanation as logically faulty. It appears you are suggesting just such a line of reasoning exists, and I would be fascinated.

    Thanks for your perseverance.


  27. Hi Keith,

    So many interesting issues! I'd like to comment on the math questions (Gödel and all) but that would take out too far away – let's keep that for later. For now, I'd prefer to clarify the morality question. What I understand by moral facts existing in an absolute manner is that they exist independently of humans – or, for that matter, of any conscious animal anywhere. They are constant in time (more or less?) and would apply to any future intelligent species. If so, it means they are somehow embedded in the fabric of reality. Is that what you're talking about?

  28. Hi JP: Assuming objective moral facts exist (and I do assume that:-) the metaphysics might be tricky. In a sense they'd exist independent of any humans or sentient animals. But that might be misleading since (I claim) moral facts have to do with how sentient beings treat each other and so if no sentient beings existed there'd be nothing to apply moral categories to. I guess here's what I'd say. When I say that X is immoral, I claim that is a objective fact, true for all sentient beings for all time. But X has to be COMPLETELY described, the context in which X occurs is as important as the action itself. I couldn't simply say "it is wrong to take something that doesn't belong to you without permission" because there might be many contexts where such taking is not only morally permissible but morally required. This complicated the discussion I'd say because if we are discussing a POTENTIAL moral situation our description will be incomplete, leaving out some details, details that might be the relevant to the question what's the moral significance of X? But imagining we had a complete description, objective moral facts would imply a constant moral value over time.

  29. Bernard,

    I got an email saying you'd posted another comment, and with the text of that comment, but now I don't see it on the actual site...

  30. Hi Keith

    Under this description, is it possible that an objective moral fact exists and everybody is quite wrong about it? For example, is it possible that killing other people's babies for fun is morally right, even though humans in general find the thought appalling?

    If not, is the suggestion that we somehow have a way of getting hold of these moral truths? This, clearly, is the bit I'm interested in.


  31. Hi Dustin

    Yeah, the spam filter on blogger eats my comments sometimes, although usually they get restored later. So, if there's stuff in there you are able to help me with, I'd be grateful for your perspective.



  32. Is there not a difference between moral objectivism, moral realism, and moral absolutism? Some don't make the distinctions, some do. It seems useful to clarify this discussion.

  33. Hi Bernard: You ask such difficult questions! :-) You asked if it would be possible for everyone to be WRONG about an allegedly objective moral fact. More specifically you asked if the view I am defending implies that possibly killing other people's babies for fun is morally right in spite of the nearly universal human loathing of such a claim? Please indulge me while I think out loud about it. Here I go:

    1. Maybe yes, in what I've heard philosophers call the "broadly logical way". Let me use an analogy from math to explain what I mean. It turns out (as I have mentioned a so many times in this discussion that surely everyone is annoyed by now) that NO largest prime number exists--for any prime number there is always a bigger prime number down the line. But there was a time when nobody knew that because nobody had yet figured out the proof. But maybe some guy involved in a philosophical discussion felt in his gut that there's always a bigger prime. Imagine that you ask this guy if it was POSSIBLE he is wrong about prime numbers. He'd probably have to say "maybe yes" even though in fact he is right. Likewise, maybe I am wrong about my moral evaluation of baby murder. If I could be wrong about that then it seems possible that everyone could be wrong about it, the same as for anything else.

    2. On the other, hand, maybe not. My feeling is that objective morality is tied into love; love of neighbor,love of enemy, and (I believe) love of God. If so then it is NOT possible that it is morally right to kill babies for fun because that would be totally UNLOVING toward the babies.

  34. Hi Keith

    Thank you for such an honest answer.

    My interest lies here:

    If it is possible that we are all wrong about moral truths, all the time, then it becomes difficult for me to see the relevance of these truths. Imagine that the only two moral truths in the universe are: it is right to kill babies for fun, and one must never, ever, begin a journey with the left foot. And imagine nobody has any inkling these moral laws exist. What place then for moral law in our lives? We would be left to get on with the pragmatic business of negotiating sets of rules that please us best, relative to our cultures and biology.

    Now, if your second option holds, which in essence says there is an overarching moral truth called love, the question that fascinates me about this view is, how could one know this was the case? How could we distinguish this from the case where the human urge to live in love, developed over millions of years, through selection, and cultural transmission, sits as one of our bedrock artefacts?

    It seems to me that the process Dustin mentioned, of introspection, discussion, challenge and assimilation, is exactly the same whether moral truth is an objective fact of the world, or is a collectively constructed social asset. The difference would occur only if at some time somebody declared 'no, my intuition on this has sovereignty.' But which person to trust, at which time, and why?


  35. Hi Bernard: As usual, your questions provoke lots of thinking. You make a couple of points, so let me take a swing at them.

    1. You seem to say that IF it is possible we are wrong about the objective moral truth of some situation THEN it doesn't really matter if such objective moral truths exist. But wouldn't that apply to ANY truth claim at all? Delusional people exist; hypothetically it's possible for EVERYONE to be delusional; still that doesn't mean that truth doesn't matter. It's also possible that YOU are NOT delusional. Likewise it is possible that your moral intuition is accurate--and I'd say you have no choice but to trust it unless you have a good reason to think it is misleading you.

    2. IN response to my morality of love thing, you seem to be asking how we could tell from the inside the difference between objective morality BEING about love and human beings just having an evolved love urge? Well, conceptually those would be different. If the love urge was just something most people have because of evolution it wouldn't really make sense to say that a person who lacked the urge had something wrong with him--he'd just have different urges from the morm and perhaps his being unburdened by a conscience would free him to take advantage of all kinds of things that would help him personally. If morality is objective then the sociopath is morally broken--there is something morally wrong with him.

    Two totally different concepts, that produce opposite evaluations of sociopathy. So how can I tell which one is right? This seems to me to be same as so many other metaphysical questions we've talked about in other threads. Here's a different one: Last Thursdayism", that is, the idea the universe--including all your memories just popped into existence last Thursday. Observationally, your experience would be the same on Last Thursdayism as on ordinary realism. And yet, I claim, realism is right and last Thursdayism is wrong. I claim the same thing about MORAL realism.

  36. Hi Keith

    Yes, this is getting a little circular, but then so have conversations of this type since - well at least last Thursday - so we needn't feel bad.

    I don't buy last Thursdayism for the reasons I've been over before. Unlike the opposing hypothesis, that we've had almost 14 billion years, last Thursdayism yields no predictive value. Sure, we can make a claim that when the universe popped into existence last Thursday in such a way that it now appears everything is much older, but note this extra claim yields no further predictive capacity.

    Other claims for age have been hard earned, one test and prediction after the other (see how Lord Kelvin's calculations regarding heat were overturned for example).

    This remains, for me, the crucial thing with regard to scientific progress. We don't just accept any hypothesis with explanatory power, as this can always be done ad hoc (as with last Thursdayism). Instead we seek to expand our knowledge by insisting new theories bring knew information to the table, and bring with them new means of testing. And your tongue in cheek proposal fails this test.

    When there is no means of testing competing hypotheses, we are left to settle on that belief system that feels best to us. This is reasonable and indeed necessary. My only complaint is when people do this (the existence of moral truths just feels right to me dammit) and then claim this knowledge extends beyond their own personal preferences, that it is something more than art.

    Meanwhile, I'm not yet convinced we're in an untestable situation here. We are able to study closely how intuitions come about, how experience changes them, how they develop over the life cycle, what similarities they have with behavioural patterns in other species etc. The claim that our moral intuitions are a biological and cultural artefact can at least be investigated in a meaningful way. For me, and it is personal taste, testable enquiry trumps recreational speculation.


  37. Hi Bernard: I don't see how realism yields any predictions that Last Thursdayism wouldn't also yield. If we are talking about physics stuff, physics prediction work more or less like this: you extrapolate the future from present conditions, (and for things like radiometric dating etc. you extrapolate the past from present conditions. But all those extrapolations are based on what you PRESENTLY observe. If we were talking about the future, if we used the same laws of physics in both realism and last thursdayism yield the SAME predictions?

  38. Hi Keith

    Yes, but the convention, (accepted because of its fecundity) is that a new hypothesis on the block has got to bring with it a new set of predictions if it is to advance beyond the level of idle speculation. And Last Thursdayism hasn't done this. There is not a single instance of a belief in this recent universe in itself advancing our knowledge one iota, and so it fails to gain a scientific foothold.

    The established hypothesis wins not only by dint of having got there first, but also because in order to get there it had to pass exactly the same hurdle, generating both predictions and accumulating knowledge in geology, chemistry, cosmology, biology etc as it went.

    This is the marvellous thing about scientific methodology, it imposes a discipline upon our thinking by asking new theories to put up or shut up, and those that do put up generate tremendous progress.


  39. Hi Bernard: I do have a couple of issues, which I will number as is my custom being a math dude and all:-)

    1. You describe the "first theory wins unless the next theory can do more" as a CONVENTION, which is accepted because of how fruitful it is. Well, one thing I would say is that I personally root for the UNCONVENTIONAL, mild rebellion is a personality quirk of mine. Of course if a given convention is more fruitful than another, perhaps there is a pragmatic reason for accepting it. But if we are measuring the fruitfulness of a convention based on accurate predictions, then it seems to me if you have 2 theories that produce the exact same predictions, choosing either theory would be equally fruitful.

    2. If our goal is to understand reality, it seems to me that depending on convention is the wrong way to go about it. Reality is under no obligation to match our conventions, or so it seems to me.

    3. You suggested that the "first theory wins" is a good principle because that theory has successfully ran the gauntlet of generating predictions and such. Obviously Last Thursdayism hasn't ran such a gauntlet since it started so late in the game (Last Thursday, in fact:-). But here it seems like you are ASSUMING your conclusion that Realism is superior to Last Thursdayism. The Last Thursdayist would deny that your theory HAD successfully navigated the gauntlet--your memory that it had is part of what popped into existence last Thursday. The last Thursdayist would properly ask you "what else do you have?"

  40. Hi Keith

    You'll not be surprised to find I'm unmoved by this.

    As per the other thread, the convention is chosen not because of any attachment to convention, but because of what it has delivered. All you need to do for me to overthrow the convention is to produce an alternative with a better track record. If you know of a better way of producing increasingly accurate predictions of the world, then we'll all plump for that. Until then, we won't.

    I'm not making myself clear on the notion of prediction producing. Here we're talking not about individual theories, but the methodology of prediction building. An ad hoc theory can often be cobbled together to match existing data, but it is not itself a prediction generator (so with Last Thursday creation, the only way it can generate predictions in cosmology is to make use of the existing, ancient universe models. The extra, it all just happened recently, assumptions of themselves bring no new data/predictions to the table).

    Hence, for pragmatic reasons, if we followed a convention of accepting ad hoc theories like this as reasonable descriptions of the world, then our understanding would never progress (we'd simply chase our tails, thinking up ever more elaborate ways of explaining the known data, but never finding new methods/tests for uncovering new data).

    Finally, you would argue that science can't establish its own track record, because this too may be an illusion. This is I think of a type with the induction objection (maybe tomorrow all the rules will change, and science will have led us astray). Again the objection I would raise is purely pragmatic. The scientific method offers the best possibility we know of for advancing our predictive accuracy in the future. Give up on induction, or the fact that yesterday existed, and what are you left with? You don't have to show Last Thursday is a logically possible alternative, you have to show it's a better method of producing and testing new predictive models. Until then I wouldn't so much dismiss it as ignore it. It's what one wit once described as 'not even wrong'.


  41. Hi Keith,

    I'd like, if you will, to go back to the basics here. I'm trying hard to understand this question of absolute moral facts (AMF), existing independently of humans, so far with little success. I will try to explain briefly what I'm after and, hopefully, you'll be able to help me.

    First, at the abstract level, I can't make sense of AMF at all. Without some “ground” to anchor them, or at least some method of determining which they are (a truth-maker) the concept remains for me without substance. Outside of the very limited sentient bubble, there is certainly nothing in the physical universe AMF can relate to. This should be, I think, one of the basic problems of AMF-ism.

    Then, there is the question of interaction. If moral facts exist outside of us, they must be somehow imprinted on the physical brain (or made accessible). Our reaction at contemplating an immoral act is certainly largely physical. This means there is a pathway between the non-material moral facts and our physical brain/body. Given this, I would expect two things: (1) that there would a strong interest in investigating this pathway using all available methods (especially scientific); and (2) that this investigation would be seen, at least in principle, as able to assess the AMF hypothesis.

    You see, there are tons of questions that naturally follow for the AMF hypothesis. Many are philosophical, of course, but if AMF are part of reality (and interact with the physical world), we can also ask more concrete questions, that can be approached scientifically. That there is so little interest for this I find very puzzling.

  42. Hi JP:

    Back to basics it is! It seems to me you are saying that knowledge of "absolute moral facts" (AMF) would correspond to material patterns in the brain. Accepting as a given that we sentient human beings depend on our brain to process knowledge--leaving out questions abuot souls and the like--I'll agree. If I am reading you right this brings up a problem--what mechanism would make it so that the patterns associated with our BELIEVING some alleged moral fact F corresponds with the FACT of the matter wrt F? This would be something science could study, I take you to be saying, and in fact science might be able to shed light on the question of whether or not AMF's even exist.

    1. About science being able to study the process: as far as I know neuroscientists DO study things like what brain structures are associated with conscience. If you assumed that the conscience is the faculty by which a person knows some AMFs, then wouldn't that count as science taking an interest in the issue?

    2. I don't see how science could investigate the existence of AMF at all. AMFs are about how people SHOULD behave, science it seems to me could at most tell us how people DO behave, which on the assumption of AMF might often be different from how they should.

    3. I hope I am not misunderstanding your concern about the coherence of AMF. I read you as saying that IF AMFs exist THEN they must exist independent from the existence of sentient beings, but if there were no sentient beings there'd be nothing for AMFs to apply to. And I'd agree with the latter part, but not with the former. Here's how I see it. Suppose no sentient people existed. It would still be a moral fact (I claim) that IF people existed THEN something like the Holocaust would be objectively evil. I'm not sure what you mean by a "ground" to anchor such facts.

  43. Hi Keith

    I think you're right, we couldn't use science to study the existence of AMVs. We can however use it to study the existence of knowledge of AMVs. It works like this:

    Hypothesis 1: Our moral knowledge is a biological and cultural artefact. If bears no relation to AMVs, should they exist. This is a claim that knowledge gets in to the human brain by exclusively physical processes, by the forming of neural pathways that are themselves guided by gene expression and response to environmental triggers (eg reading something or falling off a horse).

    Hypothesis 2: Our moral knowledge, at least in part, comes to us by way of some other process that links to the existence of AMVs.

    So, we go looking for supporting data, devise tests etc, in the conventional scientific manner (always being open to new more powerful conventions just as soon as you suggest them).

    Thus far, hypothesis 1 is doing rather well. For me, the field of developmental psychology, particularly with reference to gene expression, is one of the most exciting frontiers in modern science. We are learning a great deal about how genes plus environment affect behaviour, including the behaviour of belief formation. We have, through natural selection, an established theory of the way the physical environment in turn shaped gene distributions. We have studies on other animals, (read an interesting one on rhesus monkeys recently) showing the same evidence if similar gene/environment interactions affecting social mores. And of course we can study the way brain damage affects our moral knowledge. All good solid stuff.

    So, two physical theories about the way moral knowledge accumulates, adjudicated by the process that best extends the knowledge frontier in the physical field, and a clear winner, for now at least. At the point where evidence emerges of a process by which knowledge of AMVs makes its presence felt in the physical brain, I'll be the first to switch sides. I mean, how exciting would that be?


  44. Hi Bernard: I still owe you a response to your previous post. I'm pondering right now. But I do want address this one. You describe two hypotheses about human knowledge of absolute moral facts (AMF). BTW I am using JP's AMF rather than your AMV because I didn't notice you used something different. I have decided that AMF is the conventional term, but I mean the same thing as you do I believe:-)

    1. Our moral beliefs are physical products, they come to the brain by way of genetics or experiences that are by nature physical, that leave physical imprints on the brain. They are unrelated to any AMFs that exist (assuming such facts DO exist). We would consequently be BLIND to any such facts.

    2. By some means or another, our brains become imprinted with patterns that correspond to AMFs.

    You suggest that the evidence for (1) is pretty strong. I guess I think that there cannot BE any evidence for (1). Let me be clear about what I am saying. PART of (1) is the notion that the brain patterns that correspond to our moral beliefs "(bear) no relation to AMVs, should they exist". That claim seems totally untestable to me; to falsify it you would have to PROVE either (a) there's no such thing as an AMF, or (b) there are AMFs but that no person has a brain pattern that correlates in any way TO the AMF, nor is there any reasonable chance that they every will. I don't see how a scientific test could touch that.

    Now perhaps you'd say that there is no plausible naturalistic mechanism that would bring about a correlation between an AMF and a brain pattern. If so then I'd say that provides evidence of a sort against naturalism--I consider the existence of AMFs to be part of the data a valid theory must account for. More or less your argument would go FROM naturalism TO the non-existence of AMFs; mine would be the contrapositive of yours.

  45. Hi Keith & Bernard,

    I have only a few seconds now but option (2), implying an imprinting of sort or at least some kind of pathway between the physical brain and AMF, seems amenable to inquiry. It at least calls for an explanation of this imprinting. Certainly just saying that the imprinting (or whatever) just happens (and that’s it) is not good enough. Where does that happen? When? How? Can we intercept this? And so on…

  46. Keith

    I'm at a loss as to how to be clearer about scientific methodology.

    We do not in science prove things to be true, we rather progress from one set of theories to a better set (in terms of predictive capacity), and do this by insisting unestablished theories run the gauntlet of testability, which in and of itself extends the range of data available to us.

    So, the question is not whether hypothesis 1 is true, of course not. It's rather, is hypothesis 1 better established than hypothesis 2? Hypothesis 1 arises naturally from existing theories about human development within the evolutionary context, and pushes on by uncovering new data as aspects are tested: so I think it's Kings College that produced the DNA/behavioural work on a longitudinal study out of Dunedin for example, there's twin studies suggesting tendency towards strong or weak beliefs has a genetic component, there's a case the Churchlands report on regarding a brain tumour leading to a taste for child pornography... The list is very long and crucially, is growing. By this method our knowledge advances.

    Now against that, is hypothesis 2, which I am claiming has produced nothing testable yet. By scientific convention, hypothesis 1 wins. So, science supports the claim (for now) that human values are artefacts, and rejects the claim that they are not. Your choice becomes to overthrow the convention (which you hint at doing here by saying your hunch about AMFs is just so strong) or to produce some evidence in favour of 2.

    Now, if you choose to insist that your hunch about AMFs is the primary data, you have the problem of explaining how my contradictory hunch exists (I guess you say I'm just plain wrong). I would claim that at this point clinging to the hunch is not reasonable, in so much as it boils down to 'because I say so, so there.' And once we admit that principle, it becomes hard to know what discussions like this are really about.

    My preference, when we have contradictory hunches with no known way of resolving them, is to mark the issue down as unknowable (for now). Such is my pragmatic agnosticism.


  47. Hi Bernard: I need to make sure we are understanding each other. You wrote:

    We do not in science prove things to be true, we rather progress from one set of theories to a better set (in terms of predictive capacity), and do this by insisting unestablished theories run the gauntlet of testability, which in and of itself extends the range of data available to us.

    What did I say that conflicts with this? I think I understand reasonably well the scientific method. The scientific method doesn't PROVE theories to be true because such a proof would be logically invalid. The scientific method works more or less like this:

    1. A hypothesis is formed.

    2. The hypothesis being true implies certain results would be expected if certain experiments were done--scientists choose those experiments based on the implications of the hypothesis being true.

    3. The afformentioned experiments are carried out. If enough of the results are consistent with the hypothesis, the hypothesis becomes generally accepted. But as a matter of logic this doesn't PROVE the theory correct, and scientists don't claim it does.

    But I am pretty sure that most scientists believe their theories are more or less true. For example, biologists believe it really is the case that the various species we encounter today came about because of evolution by natural selection. They don't claim their account is perfect, but they think species formed more or less that way.

    Now I would dispute your claim that the evidence supports your hypothesis 1 because your hypothesis says too much. How could any evidence support the claim that brain states are unrelated to the truth value of any AMF?

    And I would dispute your claim that I need to explain your contrary hunch that AMF doesn't exist. Why would I need to explain that? Perhaps you are arguing that since I haven't established my hunches are better than yours the only proper stance is to at best consider them equally probable. I don't agree with that principle. I find that principle much less persuasive than I do the idea that Hitler's Holocaust was objectively evil.

    Now I do want to emphasize I am not in any way trying to play the Hitler card for emotional effect, and I am not in any way trying to equate your position as sympathetic to Hitler. You are an honorable man and a thought provoking thinker, and I am gaining more from your contributions than I am giving, that's for sure. But when I reflect on things like the Nazis, and the horrific way gays are treated in society, and even the way I sometimes ignore the plight of my neighbors in need, I am quite persuaded that those things are objectively wrong, that it's not just a genetically induced delusion or wishful thinking or social convention. I am much more convinced of that than I am of some abstract philosophical rule about what are the default positions of science.

  48. Hi Keith

    The key difference I think between your description of science and mine is just that the acceptance or rejection of a theory doesn't usually happen in isolation. It is rather a case of comparing hypotheses, often the incumbent with the new kid on the block. And very often the new hypothesis fails, although the very act of testing it may unearth new and valuable data.

    So, we say of any given theory, if it is accepted, that it is the best current explanation. There is much we don't yet understand about evolution, and who knows what major revolutions wait around the corner. But, in the meantime, it is better than any competing explanation.

    My claim, using this framework, is that the artefact explanation is our current best crack at explaining moral values in humans. It is consistent with our other scientific models, it is open to study and advancement, and some of the key things it predicts (that your values are affected by your upbringing, that your DNA affects your brain development, that changes to the physiology of the brain, through injury, illness or narcotics, affect your value judgements) look pretty solid.

    And yes, I was wrong to say unrelated, when I meant causally unrelated. There might by coincidence be a relationship between a person's beliefs and some theoretical AMF (assuming the notion is coherent, I'm unsure here).

    The alternative, which you promote, seems to suggest some additional process, by which knowledge leaks into the mind. Until we have some evidence of this process, it is a little like arguing that the common cold is caused by aliens, who mask their dirty work by manipulating the behaviour of fall guy viruses. It's impossible to prove this isn't the case, but because we have no positive evidence, because it adds no testable elements into the mix, science ignores it.

    At this point, you shrug and say 'so much the worse for science because I know I'm right and by implication I know you're wrong'. Okay, fair enough, I can't argue with that, clearly. Nevertheless, the lead up to this revelation helped me clarify much of my thinking, so thank you.


  49. HI Bernard:

    You wrote: The key difference I think between your description of science and mine is just that the acceptance or rejection of a theory doesn't usually happen in isolation. It is rather a case of comparing hypotheses, often the incumbent with the new kid on the block...

    I'm not sure this isn't consistent with the model of science I presented. My description had a hypothesis making predictions, followed by experiments to test the predictions. If enough predictions are successful, the hypothesis is accepted. If the hypothesis predicts a r4sult that fails to obtain, the hypothesis as stated cannot be correct--it either has to be tweaked or tossed away. I think this is where your point comes in. If there were a more successful counter hypothesis available, tossing the previous theory makes sense, otherwise scientists are likely to say there's SOMETHING more to the story but current theory seems to be the best explanation so far.

    I think our disagreement comes down to our differing beliefs about the existence of AMFs. You don't believe in them (I'm reading that right?) but would be open to the idea if I could provide evidence for them. Or maybe if I could produce a better theory for why we have moral beliefs, and if that theory included the existence of AMFs, then you'd be open to the idea. I on the other hand consider the existence of AMFs to BE part of the data that a theory needs to explain. How does knowledge of AMF get into the brain? My theory says "it's part of how God made us". IF AMFs actually exist, your theory cannot be right--mine can. So, if AMFs exist, it seems to me that the theistic theory fits the data better than yours, it seems to me yours was falsified. IF AMFs exist, that is. With our different intuitions on the matter, we come to different conclusions. BUt I am glad we come here as friends.

  50. Hi Keith,

    You write I am quite persuaded that those things are objectively wrong, that it's not just a genetically induced delusion [...].

    I wonder. Why would you call that a delusion? Suppose, for the sake of argument, that you mind were subtly changed so that you would cease to believe in the existence of AMF but were totally unchanged otherwise. Would your feeling towards the wrongs that you describe change? I don't think so. You would still oppose them with the same fervour. And none of that would be illusory.

    Many other things for which we feel strongly (love of one's children, for instance) cannot be explained by saying that they are “absolutely true”. It cannot be that one's children “objectively” deserve love more than others. But we do love them (much) more and this, also, is no delusion.

    My point, I guess, is this: whatever goes on “under the hood” to cause our moral feelings, although a fascinating subject in itself, remains largely insignificant in relation to how we act upon them.

    Concerning AMF, let's look once more at the question of their existence. Besides resorting to intuition (which differ too much on this matter), and looking at this as some kind of “research project”, how would you go about determining (or trying to determine) whether they exist or not?

  51. Hi JP:

    I like this question: supposing I changed my mind about the existence of AMFs, wouldn't my attitude about things like the Holocaust remain the same? Yes and No, I think. The yes part: I would still dislike them as much as I do now. But how could I think they were absolutely wrong? When considering what the Nazis did, how could I not think: well, I sure don't like Concentration Camps and all, but the Nazis apparently do, different people have different tastes. How could I legitimately believe an INJUSTICE was done? I there are all kinds of things that are not to my tastes that other people like. Now I am not saying this will change how I will ACT; I don't think it will. But it seems to me there IS a difference.

  52. Hi Keith

    Thanks. I suspect that were you and I to line our ethical intuitions up we'd find far more matches than disagreements, and in that context the disagreement over what these intuitions really represent is perhaps trivial. And I do very much appreciate your willingness to disagree with me in such a respectful and thoughtful manner.

    I am left pondering the same puzzle that brought me into this discussion. Eric noted in the post that we should accept science's right to challenge views that directly contradict its findings, like for example young earth creationism. And I agree.

    My suggestion was that this extends to the claim that we have knowledge of AMFs, and this discussion has, for me, been about following this hunch. It seems to me the creationist argument is that a particular translation of the bible is God's word, to be taken at face value. This becomes their primary data, the certainty that the word is true and literal. If science can not explain this primary data, then so much the worse for science.

    Your argument for knowledge of AMFs (not their existence, I'm agnostic on this, indeed I don't even know what they are) appears to have an identical logical form. You just know some stuff's bad, and that this badness is not a personal judgement but a truth, just as the creationist knows the bible is a literal truth.

    In both cases, science can not admit such convictions as data points because they are unable to be verified. Intuitions are vital as a starting point for investigation, but then need to be tested.

    And so the danger is the liberal theist may exclude the creationist from the rationalist table while employing exactly the same case building techniques themselves. Why is this? This is the puzzle I've not yet solved.


  53. Hi Keith,

    Thanks for your answer.

    I think you are right: although having a different belief concerning AMF would not change your feelings towards certain actions, it might in some cases hold you back, thinking perhaps wait a minute, maybe I'm wrong about this, maybe I should consider my actions a little more.

    But isn't this a good thing? The same kind of certainty that may give strength to your moral actions may also lead another to persecute gays without restraint because he “knows” as an AMF that persecuting gays is good? Aren't we better off if all take their moral values as uncertain to some degree? But then, one can't really ask this from others while insisting his own beliefs represent absolute truths.

  54. Hi Bernard: In my experience Creationists don't make the argument you suggest. I had an acquaintance who did make that argument. He said that if all we had was the scientific evidence, evolutionary theory looks to be right, but (he claimed) we have the Bible so we know more than just what science says. But from what I've seen, MOST creationists do not use the Bible as evidence against evolution, they argue that evolution ignores scientific facts too. The whole Institute for Creation Research publishes tons of material arguing against the science part. I am very unimpressed by what I've seen of their work that has to do with the stuff I know, and my biologist friends tell me the OTHER stuff they put out is malarkey as well.

    But what of the argument you mentioned? Comparing a theory A, based only on scientific data compared to a theory B, based on scientific data PLUS something? Here's how I see the creationist argument then. I do not consider the book of Genesis to be factual data about the creation of the universe, therefore it doesn't falsify evolutionary theory, and evolutionary theory looks really solid otherwise. If I were comparing YOUNG EARTH creationism to current astronomy, it's even more so. If I believed Genesis to be making the claim that the earth was less than 10000 years old, believing that Genesis was right about the age of the universe would require me to reject so many otherwise well established ideas in physics that there'd be a lot of reason to reconsider my interpretation of Genesis.

    The difference between this and the moral theory we are discussing is that (a) the idea of AMFs--without which the idea of justice is meaningless--seems more solid to me than the idea of Genesis being a science book , and (b) accepting AMFs doesn't require me to reject any science at all. The biology would look the same whether or not AMFs are true, the difference is in the metaphysics, I'd say.

  55. Hi JP:

    Actually, I think believing in AMFs makes me MORE cautious about moral matters, not less. If I thought my moral beliefs were really just about MY feelings, I might be more willing to take a chance when I am tempted to do something wrong or selfish or something. The reasoning would be like this: maybe it WON'T feel bad in the morning, maybe I'll feel great. You raise a good point when you bring up persecution of people who behave in ways a moralist thinks are immoral. But this potential is not inherent to believing in AMF--it depends on the specific beliefs. In my case, I believe that your moral behavior is between you and God, not my job to make you morally good. I have enough trouble taking care of myself and I'd be really crappy at making other people into saints even if I were smart enough to know exactly what they should be doing anyway. I try--sometimes i even try my best--to do what I think is right, to show love for my neighbor and my God. Now there are times when I feel like I have to step in to help protect someone who is getting clobbered by someone else, and my wife an I are sometimes politically active because of this. But even then, my goal isn't to condemn the other guys for being monsters (man do i fall down here BTW), my goal is just to help some people. I am sure that some people who believe in AMFs see things differently. On the other hand some people who DON'T believe in them are selfish jerks too.

  56. Hi Keith,

    I think your answer to Bernard has been lost and I don't believe he gets email updates. In it you make, in passing, two claims I'd like you to elaborate: (1) that, without AMFs, the idea of justice is meaningless; and (2) that our biology would look the same, with or without AMF. I understand the latter as meaning that there would be no observable differences between a reality with AMF and a reality without.

  57. Hi JP; Dang! And my answer to Bernard was so brilliant! :-) You asked me about two bold claims I made:

    1. I claimed that if AMFs don't exist then the idea of justice is meaningless. Let me flesh this claim out a bit. Suppose I claim that X is totally unjust (I would make just such a claim if X were equal to "the nazis' mass killing of the Jews and others during Hitlet's government"). Absent the existence of AMFs how could this claim mean anything? If moral beliefs reflect only social norms, killing Jews was well within the social norms of NAZI society, not unjust at all. It'd just that non-nazis don't LIKE the Holocaust, but objectively the Holocaust would just be a matter of taste. or so it seems to me. If moral beliefs are just genetics, then acts of sociopaths are no more unjust than the acts of Gandhi--they just have different genetically programmed beliefs about morality. It seems to me the very concept of JUSTICE implies that for any act X, there is a single answer to whether or not X is just. Even if we disagree on what that answer is.

    2. I also claimed that there'd be no biological difference between the brain whether or not AMFs exist. This DOES mean there would be no (scientifically) observable difference between a reality with or without AMFs. It seems to me this means science cannot settle the issue, it's a matter of metaphysics, not physics.

  58. Bernard,

    This is in response to your comment that got eaten by the spam filter. I've only skimmed the conversation that's gone on between now and then, but I don't think these points have been made.

    First of all, "good sense" is not my term, it's Pierre Duhem's, who was probably one of the most important philosophers of science of the twentieth century. He's well worth reading if you're interested in scientific epistemology--even my rabidly scientistic philosophy of science professor more or less agreed with him on this point, though I don't think he ever really appreciated the implications of agreeing with him.

    That said, I think there are two distinctions that need to be made.

    First, at times you seem to suggest that your target is any theory that involves the existence of objective moral truth, but you are actually (as you seem to realize) giving arguments against a very specific form of moral objectivism--intuitionist ethical non-naturalism that involves our standing in causal relations to non-natural ethical properties. Needless to say, refuting that alone would not serve to show that morality is "not universally applicable."

    Second, if seems (though I may be misunderstanding you) as if two different arguments can be read out of what you said. One is a sort of Ockhamistic argument--if we can explain our moral norms in terms of natural causes (I will grant, here, that we can do that) without making reference to their truth, what reason do we have to think they're reliable?

    There are two problems here. One is that the argument refutes itself and everything else you're trying to defend--there is nothing about our epistemic norms that can't likewise be "comfortably met by the alternative hypothesis, that [epistemology] is a cultural and biological artefact." So if we take it seriously, we either have to reject that we can give complete accounts in material terms of our epistemic norms, or else become Quinean skeptics and (if we are sensible) give up trying to convince one another of anything. The second is that the person whose religion teaches that God has given us moral knowledge *does* have a reason to think our moral knowledge is correct--they think their religion is largely true, and it says as much. So you would need to show their religion false on other grounds for this argument to work; but then, of course, it will not be a useful argument against any religion.

    The second, better argument would be that it might be hard to see how the processes that gave us our cognitive faculties could have tracked the truth, and so even if we *do* have correct moral beliefs, that would just be a coincidence. This argument could, in principle, work--it does seem like we shouldn't trust any faculties that don't track truth. But you have already admitted that God could have ensured that, or ensured that there was a high likelihood that, our cognitive faculties would track truth. So for this argument to work, you need to either show that theism is false, or else show that God would have used some other means of giving us the moral knowledge. The first, again, would make the argument pretty useless as a claim against theistic religions, and the second would be philosophical, not scientific.

  59. Hi Dustin

    Thank you.

    I tend to buy Popper's response to Duhem, and as such my argument is Popperian and doesn't rely upon Ockham's principal.

    The argument then is pragmatic. Scientific method is crafted about its results. If there is an alternative set of assumptions that can be shown to better produce increasingly accurate predictions of the physical world, then let's see it. This is not, you will note, an appeal to common sense.

    So, the argument is that there is no known testable alternative to the naturalistic explanation of morality (and yes, there may still be universal aspects to a biological model, DNA sees to that).

    There is nothing wrong with positing a non-scientific explanation, each to their own, but my puzzlement here is how one would then be able to exclude say young earth creationism, as it appears to be justified on the same grounds. So I was responding to Eric's suggestion that theories such as young earth creationism should be rejected on scientific grounds.


  60. Bernard,

    I buy Salmon's response to Popper, so perhaps we are at an impasse.

    Eric might want to argue that whether our cognitive faculties track truth is not a scientific question, but a philosophical one, whereas YECism is a scientific question--and one which science has pretty decisively answered. Of course, it would still be open to the YECer to reject the science and keep the YEC, and you would then need to engage them on philosophical grounds (perhaps giving them some philosophical reason why they shouldn't reject the science.)

  61. Hi Dustin

    A way around the impasse might be to examine the issues specifically, rather than name checking authorities. Why don't we try that:

    I am rejecting only the Duhem claim as you proposed it that science must fall back on 'common sense'. My counter claim is that science, in seeking to build the most accurate predictive models it can (and the stakes are high, think cancer research, climate change) embraces whatever methodology produces the best results (and Popper works to show why an insistence upon testability is the most likely path to progress).

    Now, if I understand the common sense claim correctly, it seems to imply that there are alternative assumptions that would do the job equally well, but that scientists reject these because they just 'don't feel right'. Let's take a concrete example, the efficacy of new chemotherapy drugs. Can you, in the spirit of Duhem, show how such a change in assumptions might work?

    My argument assumes you can't, and uses this to bolster the assertion that when it comes to modeling the physical world, science is the best method we have and there are significant intellectual risks in dismissing its findings.

    Now, the suggestion that the ability of our cognitive faculties to track truth is not a scientific one, I would claim is in one respect incorrect. If we accept our cognitive faculties are tightly related to brain function, then here is a claim that the physical brain is a machine capable of tracking extra-physical truths. So, how then does this processing power operate? As far as I know, we have no idea. No model, no suggestions, no tests, no evidence. Not only is the proposal scientific, but by the scientific method, must be rejected for now as being entirely unsupported. There is not a single testable prediction made by the hypothesis. In this way it is equivalent to young earth creationism.

    On your last point I agree entirely. One can maintain such religious beliefs just by flat out rejecting the science. I have no problem with this, because it is an honest approach. My trouble is when people argue a scientific stance unsupported by science is nevertheless consistent with science.


  62. PS

    Sorry Dustin, should have added for clarity, like you I don't buy Popper's claim to have solved the problem of induction. (I think this was Salmon's complaint?) I see it, as others have, as an independent logical assumption, chosen for purely pragmatic reasons. What else could we use?

    In this I think Kuhn's work is also very important, as we must judge science's progress in terms of what scientists actually do, rather than through idealised abstractions of their methodology. I found my time working in a science research centre helped me greatly in tis regard.


  63. Your "What else could we use?" is addressed by Salmon in his response to Popper, and is, I think, the most obvious problem with your sort of pragmatism. If we have no reason to think the principle of induction is *true*--if it is chosen for "purely pragmatic reasons"--then we could use anything else whatsoever--astrology, coin-flipping, euphony of theory names, an ostensibly oracular hedgehog which is offered food labeled with the different potential outcomes--and, as we have no reason to think the principle of induction is *true*, we have no reason whatsoever to think the principle of induction will be any more or less accurate or useful than any of these methods.

    If God created and sustains the world, and we are products of the world, there are presumably all sorts of ways God could have caused us to have generally reliable moral faculties.

  64. Hi Dustin

    I must be misinterpreting you here. I think you are offering the hedgehog as an alternative to inductive reasoning?

    But without inductive reasoning, the hedgehog is hopeless. Will stepping out on front of a car hurt? You ask the hedgehog, and it takes a bite of its bowl and you interpret, yes it is (phew). But, now you are in a bind, you can not reason inductively, so the hedgehog's answer held only in the instant it is given. We are unable to extend this to a causal relationship. So, whenever I want to step out in front of the car, I must check with the hedgehog, but the answer will never hold through time, meaning I never get to cross the road.

    So, if we do not hold induction to be true we can't actually use any of the alternative methods you offered. What can we use then, to make predictions about our world, if we can not assume that any of the predictions will hold good through time? I can't see this, but may be missing a simple point.

    (This, by the way, may explain how we came to reason inductively in the first place. Other animals do something similar, treating the world as if it has a certain regularity. A cat mauled by a dog becomes increasingly timid. It may be speculated that any creature that did otherwise did not leave a lot on the way of its genes.)


  65. Maybe the principle of induction holds only for predictions made by the hedgehog. Or maybe there is no lawlike generalization to be drawn at all, and the hedgehog will tell us the truth this time, but next time we will need to use some other method (reading tea leaves, say.) Or maybe or maybe or maybe. We can think of literally an infinite number of ways to do this, and if induction is itself utterly without justification, we have no way of knowing which will be most useful. These other ways might seem less convenient than using the principle of induction--but then, we can't really say whether they'll wind up being less convenient or not without using the principle of induction.

    And I don't doubt that a lack of some analogue to inductive reasoning would have been harmful to the survival of our ancestors. But we can't know whether this will continue to hold true without applying the principle of induction.

  66. Hi Bernard and Dustin:

    I hope I am not just covering old ground, but it seems to me that a hypothetical YECer commits no logical errors when he says (a) if all we had were the scientific data, the best fitting interpretation of that data would be a very old earth, but (b) since we have the biblical data from Genesis, the Old Earth interpretation is falsified by Genesis. So the relevant questions in deciding between YEC and Old Earth would be more or less these:

    1. Are the stories in Genesis to be taken as literal facts that conflict with the Old Earth interpretation?

    2. If Genesis IS properly read as making factual claims that conflict with the Old Earth interpretation, then are those claims true or are they just a bunch of fables.

    Now it seems to me that IF the earth is really only a few thousand years old, then there are a lot of ideas about physics that we'd have to jettison. So we either have to give up the idea that Genesis provides us with literal facts that show the world to be young, or we have to give up the all those ideas in physics--one or the other must go. If we consider it an open question as to which must go, then I see no problem with a Christian feeling like there is more cause to interpret Genesis more "liberally" than there is to give up so much physics. In fact, it seems to me a Christian might see it as no contest. The same is not the case for the existence of AMF. As far as I can see, accepting AMF wouldn't require us to reject any physics. The Christian could consistently differentiate between AMFism and YECism. So I guess I'd say the problem Bernard mentions isn't a problem.


  67. Bernard and Dustin, RE: hedgehog prediction:

    Bernard suggests that Hedgehog prediction isn't an alternative to induction because it depends ON induction. Otherwise, argues Bernard, the hedgehog's prediction would only be good at the instant it was made. It seems to me we can fix this problem by adding the rule "the Hedgehog's prediction is good for [insert some period of time]. In that case, why choose induction over hedgehog-plus? It seems to me the only proper reason would be because induction yields truth more frequently, which we cannot prove without circularity to be the case.

  68. Keith,

    If Bernard's story about science is the right one about science, and it's all purely pragmatic, it seems to me that the YECer wouldn't really even need to care at all whether his beliefs contradicted science. He could just say, "Yes, they are inconsistent with science; so what? Science is just a tool, it doesn't us anything about how things really are; my religion is what tells me how things really are. There's no conflict." Or else, "Yes, they are inconsistent; so what? The goal of our investigations is pragmatic usefulness, not truth; why should I care if my beliefs are inconsistent. Sure, that means they can't all be true (unless the law of non-contradiction is just another practical postulate?) but truth was never the point." It seems like we couldn't give him any reason not to say either of those things.

  69. Hi Dustin: The YECer could do just as you say, I think. But I took Bernard's objection to be directed at more "liberal" Christians, who Bernard seemed to be accusing (in the nicest way:-) of an inconsistency for seeing YECism as being falsified by science and yet accepting the existence of AMFs. At the risk of repeating myself, I think the liberal Christian sees more reason to reject a YEC interpretation of Genesis than to reject large parts of science. There is no similar conflict between the existence of AMFs and science. I think the liberal Christian sees science as more than just a pragmatic machine to produce predictions. And I think most working scientists see it the same. Or something like that.

  70. Hi Keith,

    I tend to agree with you that YEC and AMF are different. To accept YEC (while knowing the relevant facts) one must assume, perhaps, that all the contrary evidence has been mischievously put there to fool us and, therefore, that all science is suspect if not altogether invalid.

    The problem with AMF is that it's not saying enough to be evaluated. In fact, I'm still at a loss to figure out what the concept means. To become a real explanation, to become a meaningful theory, much more must be said than simply stating their existence. For one, how can we explain differences in moral intuitions? How can we determine what AMF are? What can we predict and test? And so on. Without any of this, AMFism remains undistinguishable from the expression of personal preferences.

  71. hi JP:

    1. How would one define AMFs as a concept? I am assuming the IDEA of moral right and wrong is well understood when we reflect on it, the only question being what it means for a moral claim to be ABSOLUTE. I am suggesting this: for any particular act X, the statement "X is right" is either universally true or universally false. In this definition, X is not a general category of acts (such as "killing a person for threatening his family") but rather a specific instance (such as "killing Bill at time T for threatening MY family").

    2. About the problem of conflicting opinions about right and wrong: how does that count against the EXISTENCE of AMFs? It seems to me there are lots of matters of fact that people disagree about--even things where the disagreement cannot be objectively settled. For example, this statement is either true or it is false: Harry Truman bit his tongue while eating on the 135 day of his Presidency. I seriously doubt their is any evidence one way or the other, and yet it is a matter of fact.

    3. If having differening intuitions about a subject calls into question the factuality of the thing, then the premises of philosophical discussions ought not be seen as absolutely true or absolutely false either. You and I seem to have differing intuitions about the implication of having differing intuitions. Doesn't your principle thus call itself into question?

  72. Hi Dustin

    You're making me think very hard here, possibly to the point where I am out of my depth. Thanks for your patience.

    We appear to agree that until now science has provided us with our best method of improving the predictive capacity of our physical models of the world. The point of contention appears to be whether our confidence in this methodology requires a leap of faith, an appeal to common sense for instance. You are, I think, claiming that believing the method that worked best today will still work best tomorrow, all things being equal, is an example of this, whereas I'd say it is a forced move, arrived at pragmatically rather than conventionally.

    I think there may be a problem with your hedgehog response to the 'there is no alternative' pitch. Take a young child presenting with cancer. According to the hedgehog line, the oncologist can either apply an inductive principle, and use all his/her past knowledge (including intuition honed over a career) in deciding upon a chemotherapy protocol, or they can say 'well, actually the world tomorrow may be different in infinite ways, so although my intuition tells me to think inductively, it is possible to rationally ignore this intuition if I choose to and go for something a little more speculative, like hitting you over the head with a mallet. Who knows, in tomorrow's world this might be just the thing.'

    Although convention and belief dictate the doctor does no such thing, is the move forced? It may be. There are infinite alternative approaches available if we cease using the past as our guide. And, to truly abandon induction, we must choose between them randomly (defining a non-random choice as being based upon some rule and hence being inductive). But, is it possible to choose randomly from an infinite selection? I'm proposing it isn't, meaning we are stuck with induction and hence it is ultimately pragmatic, a forced move.


  73. Hi Keith and JP

    Now I am disagreeing with both of you, so I may have strayed a little far from the pack on this one. Let me attempt to show why dismissing Young Earth Creationism on the grounds that it contradicts the scientific evidence may cause a problem.

    Let the Young Earth argument be that God made the world in such a way that it would appear much older. He did this to ensure we approach Him in hope and faith, so promoting a more perfect union (in the way that our knowledge a lover is not forced to stay with us makes the relationship more precious).

    So, the Young Earth stance is entirely consistent with the scientific evidence, indeed that's exactly what it expected. All that science is missing is a key piece of data (the literal truth of the Word). If science accepts this data as valid, then it will, by its own methodology, admit its current models have a problem.

    So, I would argue, if we choose to dismiss this line of thought as being inconsistent with science, we must do so by saying science does not allow passionately held belief as data, on the grounds that it can not be tested.

    But, if this is the reason for rejecting Young Earth Creationism, and I think it is, then doesn't any theory proposing knowledge of the extra-physical world run into the same problem? The data we are asking to be admitted is in fact just a passionate, unverifiable belief, the match with current data is purely ad hoc, and the proposal generates no testable claims of its own.

    Such knowledge then, can certainly count as personal 'I hold this to be true' knowledge, but it can't count as scientific knowledge.

    To embrace the notion of transcendent knowledge, one must, I think, dismiss not only the alternative scientific hypothesis, but also the methodology that gives this hypothesis its status as current best explanation.

    Keith, this is not to argue there can be no AMFs, only that any claimed knowledge of them runs up against science's current best models.


  74. Hi Bernard: I substantially agree with your point that the stylized Creationist you posit has a decent argument for his view. Of course this might not really BE your point :-)--but I'm not trying to cheat though, so please grant me this latitude. The Creationist says "I'm not arguing against the laws of physics, I am saying that God has deliberately deceived us by creating rocks, light waves and such fully formed and most of the way traveled and such so that when we extrapolate the time line of the universe's development we drastically overstate things. God deceives us for benevolent reasons, of course. So says the stylized Creationist.

    I call this guy stylized because I don't know any creationists quite like that. They argue with scientists about the SCIENCE. Actually existing creationists are I think well worthy of criticism.

    So what's wrong with this hypothetical YECer? He's not demanding we give up physics, although he is demanding that we give up astrophysics--he demands this because according to him astro-physics fails to fit the biblical facts. You'd say his problem is he is proposing a set of facts that cannot be verified by science AS factual. It doesn't come from any kind of scientific measurement or proof that everyone can see is true. On the other hand, I'd say his problem is: it's more likely that he's wrong about the alleged Biblical facts about creation than it is that God is a deceiver. Of course my evaluation depends on my own intuitions about God, the Bible and science. But given that I believe these intuitions are pretty good, I am not inconsistent when I reject YECism but accept AMFs. Given my own intuitions, it would be totally irrational of me to reject the existence of AMFs because of some arbitrary rule about what I am allowed to consider when I try to figure out the world.

  75. Hi Bernard: I have a question here. You wrote:
    There are infinite alternative approaches available if we cease using the past as our guide. And, to truly abandon induction, we must choose between them randomly (defining a non-random choice as being based upon some rule and hence being inductive). But, is it possible to choose randomly from an infinite selection? I'm proposing it isn't, meaning we are stuck with induction and hence it is ultimately pragmatic, a forced move.

    But is that right? Is induction JUST the use of any particular epistemological rule? In that case, why wouldn't Dustin's hedgehog (where the deliverance of the hedgehog is taken to be valid for a fixed period of time to avoid the problem you mentioned earlier) BE an example of induction?

    What am I missing?

  76. Hi Keith

    Thank you, that's a clear and honest response. You just don't think the Young Earther's intuitions are as good as yours. Personally I think you're being a little rough on them, and this is exactly why I choose not to trust unverified intuitions, but each to their own.

    Note though that the scientific methodology I'm proposing is in no way arbitrary. It is the methodology that has, up until now, best delivered an effective predictive model of our world.

    And so, to wind way way back to my original point, it does indeed appear that science and religion clash on this point. And when they do, you say you'll trust your intuitions over science any day, thank you very much.

    Good on you, I've no argument with that. I was just troubled initially with the claim that your intuitions were consistent with the science.


  77. Hi Keith

    In terms of induction, the point I'd like to make is this. For us to trust science as the best provider of accurate predictive knowledge, we can look to the past and see it outperforms its rivals. And we can begin the difficult task of looking for the features of its methodology that give it this edge.

    Next, we apply this methodology to new questions, confident this is the best we've got (while always being open to revising this in the light of more effective methods as they arise). I claim this is an entirely pragmatic approach, and we know of no assumptions within it that could be replaced without reducing the power of the method.

    Now, if I have him right, Dustin is saying - well just because science has worked best in the past, we aren't logically forced to assume this will be so in the future, maybe the world will change and falsified hypotheses will start to outperform non-falsified ones for example - If so, this specific inductive step of assuming science's rules will continue to hold is based upon convention rather than pragmatism.

    My counter claim is that we can not make a prediction about the future without basing it in some sense upon the knowledge at hand, that this form of induction is forced upon us, and hence is pragmatic.

    So, either we assume stability in the rules through time, or we choose an alternative set of rules, like the hedgehog. But, I claim, there is no way of randomly choosing hedgehog over any of the infinite other alternatives. And I am further claiming that a non-random choice is inductive, in that it draws its expectations about the future state of the world from the current state of the world (namely the physical state of the brain making the choice).

    Hence, we are able to claim that the belief that tomorrow's rules will look like today's is a forced one. I'm unsure about this, just putting it out there. I think some have made the point that if we give up induction, we have to give up deduction too, at which point we can say induction is the only reasonable option. I'm just shaking the hedgehog a little to see what comes out.


  78. HI Bernard: Your argument seems to be that because induction has been so successful at producing accurate predictions in the past we can justifiably use it in the future. But doesn't that reasoning DEPEND on induction? Induction boils down to assuming that the things we haven't observed will turn out to be relevantly similar to the things we already observed--if you don't assume induction is valid from the start you cannot assume that the future will BE relevantly like the past, which would mean you could not infer the future usefulness of induction based on past success. On the other hand, to accept induction pragmatically means you accept it because it's results are useful. But without assuming induction already, then how do you conclude that it IS useful (as opposed to being useful in the past? It seems to me that until you establish the VALIDITY of induction you cannot establish the utility of induction. But if it's just a matter of common sense...

  79. Hi Keith

    What I'm arguing, possibly tortuously, is that we do not need to accept inductive reasoning is truthful in order to conclude that it is useful. One way forward is to argue that we have no choice but to reason inductively, it's a forced move. If this could be established, then it would still be pragmatically sound to assume consistency into the future, even if we have no true reason for doing so (and I don't think we do). Our pragmatic reason would be, we have no choice. Which is where the hedgehog comes into it.

    So, consider again our oncologist. Option 1 is to behave as if consistency applies, and go with what is current best practice. Option 2 is to choose between infinite changed-world scenarios, the great majority of which can not even be contemplated. And here a number of pragmatic problems do seem to arise:

    The chance of successfully picking the right changed-world scenario appears vanishingly small, as good as zero (the mallett approach will almost certainly not save the patient) even if we don't assume consistency through time. Is there a way of framing this so that this almost zero probability of success is still higher than the probability that consistency applies? The probability of the rules changing now needs to be extremely extremely high for this stab in the dark to be worth a shot. How can one establish that?

    Another problem is, how does one choose the treatment if not through assuming consistency? There appear to be no grounds for picking any particular treatment, and yet the choice is going to be heavily skewed towards those we can imagine. What's more, there appear to be infinite ways of making the pick between infinite choices, once we are cast free from the 'pick the one that worked best in the past' rule. And we can not choose randomly if it is impossible to make a random selection from an infinite list (I'm not the mathematician, so insight appreciated). So we must settle upon a method. But these themselves may be grounded in inductive reasoning, given the past has honed our instincts.

    And finally (although there will be more) one can not even assume reasoning itself will be able to jump the changing world gap. Nor could we use language, if we dropped inductive reasoning, as we would never be able to assume the meanings of words or the rules of grammar held from one moment to the next. In fact we would have no grounds for trusting anything we had ever learned.

    So, the upshot is this, as I see it. If the world does not exhibit consistency at any point in the future, we are all lost whatever we do. Hence the pragmatic choice is to prepare for the only world we can prepare for, the world of consistency. Give the kid the chemo in other words, not for reasons of convention, but because it really is, practically speaking, the best available treatment.


  80. Hi Bernard & Keith,

    As far as YEC requires a the Great Trickster to explain away contrary evidence, it is similar to AMFism in that both introduce untestable hypothesis. But there are also differences. While one may adopt AMF as a personal belief without trashing science, it's impossible to adopt YEC without throwing away whole chapters. But this is a side issue and I'd like to go back to what is, for me, the important question.

    Given the claim of the existence of AMF, the question that should follow, in my view, is: How do we know this? What are the reasons to believe the claim?

    As, in this case, we cannot test the claim directly (a far as I can see), we can, and should, examine the alleged source of knowledge, intuition. Here, the intuition is about a realm about which we have no other source of information. So, we can look, for example, at past intuitions about things that were otherwise unknown and see how well they did. And so on. This is only a sketch but I believe this is the most reasonable way to go about assessing the AMF claim.

  81. Hi Bernard,

    I have an intuition (!) that in order to make sense of the induction question it might be useful to look at it in evolutionary terms. When we argue about it only from our current standpoint it seems we almost always run in circles, a kind of chicken-egg problem (cep).

    I'm not sure at all where I'm going with this but the evolutionary point of view would consider together the evolution of our belief in induction, its efficiency in acquiring knowledge, our knowledge of the process and so on, each aspect reinforcing each other in complex feedback loops. The same way this approach solves the cep, it might help understand the induction question.

    I have this image of belief in induction “bootstrapping” itself, perhaps similar with a computer starting up. The latter presents a similar problem, of sort. When we start up a computer, it executes a piece of code (that will eventually load the OS) written using a working computer – this at first sight presents a cep: how can we write this code if it needs a computer that needs the same code to boot? The solution, of course it that it was not always like this and, in the past, there was no such circularity.

    It's all very vague and I'm not sure I'm making sense. Perhaps you can help me on this one.

  82. Hi Bernard:

    You wrote:
    The chance of successfully picking the right changed-world scenario appears vanishingly small, as good as zero... Is there a way of framing this so that [the] probability of success is still higher than the probability that consistency applies? The probability of the rules changing now needs to be extremely extremely high for this stab in the dark to be worth a shot...

    This seems to presuppose that induction is more likely to produce truth than any of the changed-world scenarios, otherwise you have no reason to be OPPOSED to using something other than induction. Sure, the chance of guessing the correct method would approach zero, but the chance of induction being the correct method would be the same.

    Unless you are arguing this way: but I'm already proned to accept induction and there is no reason for me to resist because I won't be able to find anything better. But that argument would seem to allow people to trust certain kinds of their intuitions, particularly when those intuitions are about things that science cannot touch.

  83. Hi JP:

    I performed the test you suggested: I looked at my past record of intuitions to see how accurate they seemed to be. Not really; I neglected to document my life:-) But I am not so sure my intuition is that faulty. Most of the time I DON'T have hunches about whether or not something exists. Fairies, ghosts, life on other planets? I got nothing. But I do often have mathematical intuitions, and they somewhat often prove to be correct. I also sometimes have hunches about what the people around me are feeling about things, and it's not particularly uncommon for them to prove to be right too. So given that, why shouldn't I trust my intuitions about things that cannot even be proved one way or the other?

  84. Hi Keith and JP

    Yes, I may be overthinking this one.

    Popper's approach as I understand it, was to attempt to do away with induction altogether. It says, we have very limited data points through space time, and if we wish to form some sort of a picture of the world, we can use these data points to produce a guess at reality.

    His key claim is that a non-falsified theory is a better guess than a falsified one, and if this holds, then we get to the accompanying endorsement of any methodology that allows us to falsify theories, and allows us to expand our set of data points (hence science's insistence upon testability). This becomes the method most likely to produce increasingly accurate guesses.

    So is it true that a non-falsified theory is always a better guess than a falsified one? Imagine reality consisted of only three data points and we knew two of them. Theory A gets one of the two right (it's falsified) and theory B gets both right (non-falsified). Now, either data point 3 conforms to theory A, to B or neither, and we are forced to say each has an equal probability as we are not assuming induction ad so can infer nothing about it.

    Under two of these scenarios, Theory A is the better description of reality, under the other it is a tie. Hence we conclude, without using induction at all, that the non-falsified theory is a better guess. You're the mathematician, so you can show me if this still holds as we change the number of data points. My initial guess is that it does, but I'm open to a counter-example or proof to the contrary.

    If this outline is correct, then Popper is right to say induction is a red herring (at least to those of us who are happy with the pragmatic line, that all we ever have is guesses).

    Interested in how you see this one.


  85. PS

    Ungracious of me not to have noted that this means Dustin is quite right, basing our predictions on past experience is just a convention (and I'd say one honed by evolution). We are free to make guesses quite inconsistent with the past if we choose, but most of us choose not to. I was quite wrong on this.

    Science however, need not appeal to induction for its status as the best approximation of reality that we have. So I'll stick to my guns in claiming science, as framed, does not rely upon common sense assumptions.



  86. Hi Bernard: The difference between a falsified theory and a non-falsified theory is that the falsified theory CANNOT be true. That seems like a pretty good reason to choose between the two. And since applying the scientific method allows us to eliminate more and more false theories, that seems like a pretty good reason to employ the scientific method. But the point you made doesn't explain what we should do when comparing two theories when neither have been falsified. If there is no reason to think unfalsified-1 is more likely to be true than unfalsified-2, then why should we choose one over the other? And if a given theory cannot be scientifically falsified, why should we reject that theory since it is not less likely to be true than one that CAN be scientifically falsified?

  87. Hi Keith

    Good question. It depends. Science seems to do exactly what you say, reserving judgement until the data comes in. Competition between theories provides the motivation to imagine, develop and carry out new tests and so discover new data. And that in the end is what science is about, pushing out the knowledge frontier. (String theory, or quantum interpretations are examples, but science is in fact full of disagreement at the frontier).

    Sometimes explanations emerge, however, that are by their nature curiosity stoppers. Essentially a theory that can be twisted to fit any data set, and makes no unique predictions of its own. Because these are unfalsifiable, they contribute nothing to scientific progress, and we can say they are unsupported by science. The creationist theory I outlined is an example, or the belief that fairies whisper our dreams to us, or that aliens once came to earth and played marbles but nobody saw them. I'm not sure we reject these, so much as treat them with disinterest.

    Also, we might have beliefs that appear plausible, but nobody can agree upon what exactly they mean, and again this leads to them being untestable and science is forced to simply ignore them, leaving the philosophers to work out whether or not they can be in principle falsified. Free will might be an example, (and I'm not yet sure what AMFs actually are, but this might just be me).

    The theory that biology and culture shape our sense of right and wrong can be broken into many smaller parts that can be tested, so extending the knowledge frontier. Indeed it's happening as we speak.

    The alternative theory, that Keith's intuition provides a guide to AMFs, seems to require at the very least a unique definition of AMFs - everything you say about them seems to apply equally to moral relativity. And it probably needs a way of showing that this intuition is different from our purely biological intuitive capacity - our ability to sense dishonesty by reading facial signs in ways we can't articulate (but can test), for example.


  88. Hi Keith,

    Thanks for your answer. But why stop here?

    Consider the following case: A and B both have very strong, but opposite, intuitions about some proposition P. C comes along, rather undecided about P, and looks at the situation. Other than their difference concerning P, A & B seems equally reasonable and generally reliable. Moreover, using the newly invented hunch-o-meter (TM), C determines that A and B are equally strongly convinced by their intuition, right at the top of the scale.

    Besides the obvious fact that at most one of A or B is right, C can't conclude nothing at all about P, having no way to decide between the conflicting intuitions. But now, if this argument is sound, it should also apply to A and B and lead them to scale down their belief to a cautious “I think so but I'm not so sure anymore”. On what ground could they dismiss C's argument?

  89. Hi Bernard,

    All things being equal, a non-falsified theory is better than the alternative. But, I think, this depends on the circumstances. Newton's theory has been falsified (if I understand the term correctly) but can still be better than a non-falsified one that makes only a few predictions – or none at all.

    I'm not sure your example works. As far as the third data point is concerned, under your hypotheses, theories A and B are equally likely to predict the correct value (1/3 probability in both cases). Overall, of course, theory B will fare better (whatever the unknown point is) but it's no better as a predictor. Moreover if we introduce a time factor, saying that at time T1 theory B has got the two points right, what about a later time T2? Without some assumed regularity it might well be that the data points will change and that, then, A will win. Induction in some form seems always to creep in but I must confess I find this very confusing and I have to think more about induction-less science à la Popper.

    Again, maybe we have to look for a justification of induction in our biology. This may be philosophically hopeless but, nevertheless, it seems to me that the real justification of induction lies in this direction.

    Simply put, isn't the simple fact that we (most animals with a nervous system) have a working memory an indication that reality displays the kind of predictability sufficient to justify induction? Without this, memories are useless and, presumably, would not have evolved in the first place.

  90. Hi JP

    As I understand it, if we have a non-falsified alternative to Newton, then it accounts for all the data Newtonian mechanics accounts for, so if it's not predictive, then the Newtonian prediction, when tested, will falsify this alternative.

    I fear the evolutionary approach to induction gets us stuck. At best it can show there was uniformity in the world in the past. This is how we developed as inductive reasoners. But if everything changes tomorrow, evolution will have led us astray.

    We can say we have an animal instinct for induction, and that if we don't use induction, we can not live (so there is a pragmatic justification) but we can't say we have a reason to expect this to be how the world is really is.

    So as per my data points example, Popper's theory that science leads us to the truth does not imply science is the best bet for the future. That leap appears to require an animal instinct.

    The theist leap then seems to be, well if we admit this animal instinct, why not others?


  91. Hi Bernard: About my proposed epistemplogy (consult keith and he'll tell you what his hunches are), I'd rather that principle be applied to what TV shows are spared from the network chopping block than to more metaphysical matters:-)

    But really I am not suggesting that other people depend on my intuition--y'all have your own to contend with, I'd say. All I'm saying is that I have a strong sense that stuff like justice exists, and that justice as a concept depends on the existence of objective moral facts or values, things that a properly functioning conscience would lead a person to see as right or wrong. I am not claiming that my conscience always functions properly, so I am not insisting that MY evaluations are right, but I have no choice but assume an evaluation is right unless I havwe a good reason to assume otherwise. You have said that "no choice" is a good pragmatic reason for proceding. I agree with that. As far as i can see, this is a different notion from the scientifically investigatable hypothesis about whether people can detect dishonesty in the faces of other people. Detecting dishonesty doesn't have anything to do with whether or not it's generally morally wrong to lie.

  92. Hi JP: I like your hunch-o-meter, although I'd like it better if the meter would allow me to tell what's at the center of the mixed chocolates, so I could more easily avoid the ones with yucky stuff inside:-).
    Let me see if I am understand your point. You seem to supposing that A and B have conflicting intuitions. C has no reason to think either intuition is more reliable, so he concludes they are equally like to be wrong (or right). But (you seem to argue) the same thing applies to A and B--neither of THEM has a reason to think his own intuition is more reliable, so neither of them should place much trust in their own intuitions.

    Is that about it?

  93. Hi Keith

    I may be getting you wrong here. I think you are saying there is no reason for others to rely upon your intuition, it's just your way of making sense of the world. If so, I agree entirely. We all create personal narratives to interpret the world we encounter.

    Next, if I have you right, you say you have a personal intuition that there exists AMFs. Against this, I have no such personal intuition. Now, if you endorse my strategy of not relying upon your intuition here, does your statement:

    'I believe there are AMFs'

    equate to

    'I have a strong intuition that there are AMFs, although there is no good reason for others to share this point of view.'

    I'm not sure if this is what you mean or not.

    I still think there is a more interesting strategy available, which is to remain agnostic until we can first, define more clearly what we mean by AMFs, and secondly, explain more clearly what we mean by intuition. I would propose, for instance, that our intuition is itself a biological/cultural artefact, and there are a number of predictions this claim makes that we could test, so teasing out the way intuition functions. (Which is happening in a number of fields).So, rather than just trusting one's intuition, why not consider instead trying to discover what intuition actually is?


  94. Hi Bernard: Assuming that those other people you were talking about don't have the same intuition as I do about AMFs, then I'd say you summed things up nicely.

  95. HI Bernard:

    In my last (short) post I endorsed your summation of my position: to say that "I believe in AMFs" means "I have a strong intuition that AMFs exist". But you said more and I want to comment on it.

    1. An AMF (absolute moral fact, as JP called it) means this (or at least this is what I mean when I say that). Let A be any particular potential act or event or situation or something. I take it for granted that there might well exist at least one person who finds himself saying "A is unjust!". This person is saying more than "I really don't like A"--he's saying "and neither SHOULD anyone else". To say that AMFs exist is to say that there exist things that are really like what that person says. It's to sayt there really ARE things that are unjust, that people ought not like, that people ought not do.

    2. By intuition I might mean nothing more than that feeling that comes when you believe something to be true. If the feeling is strong you find yourself very convinced, if it is weaker you find yourself less convinced. Now I claim that there is nothing you KNOW to be true that doesn't come with your belief that it is true. I also claim it is impossible for you to DISBELIEVE something when you have that feeling of belief. Therefore, from the inside there is no way to separate the things you know to be true from the false things you mistakenly believe are true. Supposedly science is supposed to help remedy this alleged problem, But I claim science cannot accomplish this task! . Science can do a whole lot, I'd say, but it cannot do the impossible. It CAN show you something so that after being shown you no longer believe what you previously believed. And it can show you something so that something you previously had no belief about you now DO believe. But it is not possible for you to decide to remain agnostic about something you believe to be true, not even if it hasn't been verified by science. If "there is no alternative" is a valid pragmatic approach to truth seeking, then I'd say trusting your intuition is pragmatically valid.

  96. Hi Keith

    I agree with what you say here. I also like the idea of exploring the implications of this stance a little.

    We agree we can have false beliefs, and that evidence can sometimes push us from a false belief to one that is at least better. This is the scientific project, in essence. Thus, if we are interested in moving towards ever more accurate pictures of our world, we should be interested in opening our intuitions up to daylight whenever possible.

    So, if I see a chap about to step off the top of a tall building, and he tells me he has an unshakable belief he is superman, so all will be well, it would be a kind gesture I think to invite him down to the top of my garden shed, where he can test his intuition more safely. Experience, properly reflected upon, enhances intuition.

    Further, I propose,we can break our intuitions into categories. Those that can be in principle falsified, so they make testable predictions (as in superman's case), and those that can not, they describe but do not predict (So if I had a belief aliens play marbles in my garden but can not be observed).

    For testable intuitions, if you find another person has a very strong intuition that works against your own, it is at the very least a generous act to attempt to find a test by which you can decide between them.

    For intuitions that are non-falsifiable, I like the idea that we label these as narratives, rather than facts. A fact is our best non-falsified model (the world is round), a narrative is an internally generated and personal view on the world (It is wrong to eat meat). We all rely on both.

    Our difference may be that I claim there are many facts regarding the formation of moral knowledge, and if we turn our attention to how our moral intuitions are formed (the role of genes, physical/chemical environment, culture, developmental experience etc) we can test various claims and so refine them. To pull back from this process and say 'no, I just know such knowledge can get in, I'm not interested in looking for ways to test this', is for me anti-scientific, which remains my main point in this discussion.


  97. Hi Keith

    My last post was lost. In brief, that we must trust our intuition is not the issue for me, I agree with you on this. But, if we are able to enhance our intuition, by way of exposing it to pertinent evidence, shouldn't we try to do that?


  98. Hi Bernard: Except for my quibble (I claim that intuition is at the bottom of every epistemic event including the interpretation of scientific evidence) I agree we should get as much information as we can.

  99. Keith

    Indeed, so here's a thought. If all our intuitions are indeed grounded in experience, and if all our interpretations of experience are indeed dependent upon intuition, then there may be much to be said for always being open to testing one against the other.

    The gaining of new knowledge might be that process by which the two are better made to fit together. I think of the young child, for example, with their programmed intuitions about the physical world, and the way experience affirms some, and modifies others.

    A problem might occur then, whenever either aspect is given such such prominence that it in effects exempts itself from the checking process. I'm thinking of the scientist who asserts the infallibility of a particular experimental result, without being prepared to check the assumptions that underpin the model, or the theist who claims there is more to moral knowledge than our evolved predispositions, without being prepared to examine the cultural and biological influences on this intuition.

    For me, saying that there exists transcendental knowledge, without being prepared to propose a mechanism by which this knowledge is made available to the brain, feels like an attempt to sidestep the need to check our intuition against the available data. There is a difference between arguing that leaps of faith are inevitable, and arguing that all leaps of faith are therefore reasonable.


  100. Hi Bernard:

    Here's how I see the issue: I see the question of whether or not AMFs exist is a metaphysical question, not one that is scientifically testable at all, and recognizing such doesn't count as sidestepping. Now one COULD study which parts of the brain are activated when people think about moral things, and one could study what effects damage to those parts of the brain have on the beliefs about morality people report. And one could probably do sociological studies on how culture affects the things people report as right or wrong. But none of this has to do with whether or not the moral beliefs actually correspond to a non-physical moral reality.

    Now I personally believe in such a reality. And if we assume there there is no plausible physical or social explanation as to how a person's moral beliefs would correspond to that reality, then it would follow logically any such correspondence would be due to some transcendent thing. I believe it has to do with God somehow. I know that's not scientifically testable; Like I said, metaphysics.

  101. Hi Keith

    I should be clear that I am much more interested in whether we can gain knowledge of AMFs. The issue of whether there are AMFs is beyond me, in the same way that whether there is free will is beyond me. I don't clearly enough understand what people mean by the term. I do at least understand that they mean something that is non-physical and non-testable, and in this respect you are absolutely right I think, here we have a non-scientific question.

    But, I think you are also claiming that there is some process of intuition by which we can be led to understand something of this moral truth. You seem to believe that some of your moral hunches are true, or at least likely to be true. I think you would claim that if there are AMFs, our repugnance of genocide fits them.

    This second part of your thesis seems to be open to scientific investigation. My claim is that any intuition about a physical process can be enhanced by studying that process more closely. Your hunch is that somehow God causes your brain to be in certain states, corresponding to at least partial understandings of these AMFs.

    As one example, our moral hunches about the rights of women, appear to be extremely culturally malleable. We can see that by surveying the last century, or indeed the world today.

    This anthropological observation then raises interesting questions. If God leads us in our moral hunches, when were we being misled, throughout most of human history, or just recently? Why would God want to mislead us in this way? Or, alternatively, does this give us reason to say that the treatment of women (let's be specific here, the definition of rape for example) is not this kind of moral fact? Can AMFs only apply to those values that are not culturally flexible?

    Studying culture, and I think also genetic influences on moral reasoning, can at the very least refine our definition of AMFs. If we find strong genetic influences, and these influences also exist in fellow primates, would this lead us to conclude that primates have this kind of knowledge of AMFs? for example.

    I think science and religion can work very closely together here, just so long as neither attempts to deny the other its natural territory.


  102. Hi Keith,

    Sorry to be so late in coming back to you – I've been rather busy.

    You write that intuition [is] nothing more than that feeling that comes when you believe something to be true. We may have a different understanding of the term. I can certainly imagine a strong intuition accompanied by non-belief. Using your math examples, I might have a strong intuition that a particular conjecture is true but, at the same time, suspend my judgment until a proof or counter-example comes along. In this case, we have a strong intuition without the triggering of the “truth” belief.

    Let me go back to my example with A & B having opposite intuitions. We may suppose, to make things more precise, that both are equally competent mathematicians and have completely opposing intuitions concerning the truth of a particular conjecture. An outside observer C (without a previous opinion) looking at the situation could not reasonably choose one side or the other if the only significant difference is the intuition. My claim is that what goes for C should also apply to A and B.

    More than that. Suppose that X comes long with a string intuition of his own concerning another subject altogether. Now, C, observing the fact, must wonder whether there is a Y with an opposing intuition – perhaps there is one and he is simply unknown to C; or maybe not, but C does not know. Given his experience with A and B, I think it would be reasonable for C to suspend his judgment about X's hunch and wait for more information.

  103. Hi Bernard:

    To make sure I understand you. I am claiming that a person's moral intuition can reflect the truth about an AMF. You seem to me to be saying that this question (whether or not a person's intuition can accomplish this) can be studied by science. What that it?

  104. Hi JP: I've been busy too so it's all good. I have a couple of comments on your comments.

    1. I think we might not be as far apart on the definition of intuition as you think. I claimed that intuition = that feeling you have when you believe something . You point out that you might well have a strong intuition that such and such math conjecture is true but you'd suspend judgment until a proof was presented. Definitely. But it seems to me that when you have a strong intuition about such conjectures you are saying something about what you THINK is the likelihood of the something being true. When you have an intuition that X is true, it seems to me you are at least saying that which respect to belief you are leaning in X's direction. To say you BELIEVE X might demand a stronger sense of certainty, but the difference between belief and the weaker intuition regarding X is a matter of degree, it seems to me.

    2. On the substance of your objection. A and B, both eaually competent math dudes, have opposing intuitions about X. Neither A nor B has a reason to believe their own intuitions are better than the other, so the fact that the other intuitions exist means both A and B OUGHT to distrust their own intuitions about X. This raises a few questions for me, I am asking this one question right now: can you prove this epistemic principle is right? I ask this because without a proof it seems to me you are USING an intuition about epistemology justify your principle. Not that there's anything wrong with that (in fact i think there's no getting around intuition) but applying your principle woul dseem to me to require ignoring the principle until it were proved.

  105. Hi Keith

    Not exactly, no. I'm arguing that by scientific consideration can advance considerably our understanding of the question (perhaps just by helping us to define our intuitions more clearly).

    I've tried to offer an example or two to show how this might be achieved.

    My point is this: no intuition stands alone from reason or experience. The more we expose our intuition to reason and experience, the better our intuition becomes. At the point where we say 'I believe X just because I do' we are, I think, putting a full stop on this process of enquiry.


  106. Hi Keith,

    Concerning your second point, what is in question here is the validity of a specific brand of intuitions, specifically intuitions about the transcendent (including AMF). In line with the general spirit of Eric's post, I think it's proper to investigate these intuitions with all the tools at our disposal. Now, whether this is a scientific question or not may depend of what, precisely, we mean by “science” (I tend to take a rather wide view). But this is a technical point. What I think we can do (among other things) is to approach the question in a scientific spirit and see what we can find out this way.

    The general question is “what can we do to assess the reliability of these intuitions?” And I think we can do much, from looking up what we know about the psychology of intuition to the track record of past intuitions of similar kind to the (no doubt very difficult) study of the manner in which the brain obtains information from this realm (for example, the imprinting of AMFs). And so on. There is no shortage of ideas here.

    What I was trying to do with the example involving our alphabetical friends is to suggest that, in such a symmetrical situation, this fact should be equally recognized by everybody. To do differently requires giving a strong reason to prefer one side to the other – in other words, to break the symmetry.

    We're at the level of informal discussion here, trying to find common ground if we may and at least explain more clearly where we stand and why. You're asking for proofs but, strictly speaking, nothing like that can be proven, by logic or otherwise. It would be great to be able to achieve mathematical clarity but I fear we must satisfy ourselves with more modest goals - until the truth-o-matic device comes along, that is, but we may have to wait a while for that.

  107. Hi JP: To make sure I get what you are saying, tell me if this is right.

    You claimed as a principle the following: if two people have competing intuitions and there is no reason to suppose that either person's intuitions are better, both people should refrain from trusting their respective intuitions and wait for proof . You now seem to be saying this principle only applies to certain KINDS of intuitions, specifically ones about supposed transcendent reality. If that's what you are saying, then I don't see why other intuitions (like ones about epistemological principles) SHOULD be exempt, and it seems to me the principle defeats itself if we apply it more broadly.

    BTW we don't have to be using the word proof to mean mathematical proof, not if we aren't talking about mathematical ideas. The ABC example you cited was about mathematical intuition so I assume that in THAT example math proof is what you were getting at.

  108. Hi Bernard: I am always on board for more information as opposed to less. I agree there's lots of footholds for the scientific studt of belief formation and such and I have no problem with scientists studying things like that. I am confident that such study can help us gain important insights as you suggest.

    Where I balk, though, is when (if?) science demands that a person accept metaphysical presuppositions that conflict with his intuitions, when those presuppositions cannot be tested by science. The issue of AMF existance and whether or not a person's moral intuitions can be expected to match them is one example, how the world came to be is another. Theists typically believe that God brought the world into existence by an act of divine creative will. Science cannot test the claim, and science creates a creator-less scientific model of the evolution of the world from Big Bang to right now. But if some science minded person insists that rationality requires theists to give up the idea of God's hand being involved because "we have no need of that hypothesis", well I think their reasoning is flawed.

  109. Hi Keith

    I agree, when it comes to the metaphysical, part of the decision is one of personal fit, and what feels right.

    My personal predisposition is towards agnosticism o the existence on any non-testable truth, partly because I don't cope well with the idea of claiming truth for something that quite clearly I've just made up, or like the feel of; not when others like the feel of something quite opposite. The claim feels disrespectful to me. Also, I think I just have a devil of a time making sense of metaphysical statements. I still have no idea what you mean by the claim that a person's moral intuitions might be expected to match AMFs. It feels like it should make sense at the surface, but when I dig at it I can't get my hands on anything, so to speak.

    For example, are you saying God guides us towards moral understanding? If so, is He using the mechanisms of culture and evolution, or is the knowledge planted there by other means? If culture, why are different cultures guided towards such different conclusions? If evolution, does this imply that those things we have strong evolutionary predispositions to feel are in some sense guides of moral goodness? (I hope not). And if some other mechanism, does this mean that those aspects sensitive to genetic or cultural influence are not themselves core moral values at all? Because I can't even guess at what the answers to these questions might be, the AMF thesis remains somewhat mysterious to me.


  110. Hi Bernard: As usual you raise lots of good points/questions/ideas/challenges. That's one of the best things I am getting from this conversation. Also while I think of it, I was reading stuff from Eric's archive and I discovered a comment about a novelist named...Bernard Beckett. I have to tell you I plan on using the fact that I am now pals with a novelist to my personal advantage:-) Anyway, the points you made:

    1. I DO have certain metaphysical commitments, a leaning toward some metaphysical claims, things I lean toward even though I cannot provide evidence for them and even though other people might disagree. I really hope the other people don't feel disrespected by that (I hope YOU don't). Disrespect is that last thing I want to show. I recognize my own fallibility (and people who know me would surely agree with me about that:-), and I respect people who think differently from me (I have trouble with conservative Republicans, but I am trying:-). But it seems to me that I have no choice but to consider all the things I know and make the best judgment I can.

    2. About moral intuitions, I'd put it like this: I think our moral intuition is ANALOGOUS to our vision, but with the added problem that being sinful we sometimes (often?) rationalize things so we can be immorally selfish with a clear conscience. Being analogous to eyesight, there are things we can see clearly (assuming we aren't hiding this from ourselves) and things that are more "distant" that are harder to see clearly. What's right and wrong is IMO tied up in the idea of loving one's neighbor as one's self, and loving what's good and beautiful with all we've got (this last thing is what it means to love God, I'd say. If you don't buy all the supernatural stuff, still you can love the truth and good and the like, and if God exists then he's alright with that IMO.