Friday, August 12, 2016

Friday Roundup

Only funny because it captures an existing mindset and way of thinking that can, without any irony or awareness whatsoever, actually claim such...Indeed...

If only some atheists knew how close they are to the truth...for what is this:

“...But here’s the other thing: Nothing can change the beauty in the moments that we decide to enrich each other’s lives. When the entire universe is completely cold, unimaginably vast, and silently empty trillions of years from now, nothing will change that in one part of it, however small, people felt the beauty of caring about each other. People mattered to each other because they decided to matter to each other...”

But this:

1 Cor 13:
If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing...
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

It goes from bad to worse...

Trump probably won’t even get the Mormon vote...

If you haven’t watched Stranger Things yet on Netflix, you are missing out—a true gem—we loved it.

A nice interview here with Dr. Paul Wallace; he is both an ordained minister and astrophysicist (if the fact he is both bothers you somehow, that might say more about you than it does him or anything else for that matter)...

Certitude indeed is a disaster waiting to happen, whether for the Christian or atheist...

Evolution as another sign pointing beyond itself, like all of creation...

Science as another sign pointing beyond itself, as is possible for all methods and areas of study...

Friday, August 5, 2016

Friday Roundup

A positive take on atheism here...

This looks like an interesting read and will go on my list...

Okay, this is scary...

A good review (also critical) I missed of David Hart’s wonderful book The Experience of God.  A good quote:

“Hart is an Eastern Orthodox Christian, but The Experience of God is, as the above suggests, wonderfully ecumenical: he draws with ease on the Upanishads, Sufi poetry, Islamic philosophy, and the Church Fathers to support his thesis that ‘naturalism—the doctrine that there is nothing apart from the physical order, and certainly nothing supernatural—is an incorrigibly incoherent concept, and one that is ultimately indistinguishable from pure magical thinking.’”

I couldn’t agree more.

I love the Onion...

And the Babylon Bee...

Friday, July 29, 2016

On Free Will

My last post generated some very interesting points, questions, and observations from the comment section.  The purpose of that post was not to prove or give a detailed argument for the free-will or libertarian perspective.  Rather, it was to point out the cognitive dissonance that seems to flow (along with other negative results) from the determinist position.  In response, rather than address that point, most wanted to counter or respond with, “But what about the problems with the libertarian perspective?”  Well, I never said there wasn’t any.  It might do people well to at least focus on what their own views entail, whether positive or negative, before they are too quick to worry about the “other” guy’s views.  The rush to “But, what about ‘your’ views...” becomes an easy way out—a way to always avoid any reflection or introspection regarding one’s own views and it does nothing to address the problems raised in the first place with one’s own views—it is diversionary.

Putting that aside, I have done some more thinking about the matter of “free-will”.  One thing I realized is that there is a theological conversation about free-will and a secular philosophical discussion, and at times they intersect and other times not.  And of course, this conversation goes back centuries.  It is not going to be settled here, that is for sure.

As to the philosophical conversation, I will note shortly several sources that attempt to address the issues raised by Bernard and JP as to the “randomness” or “luck” problem.  I doubt these papers will change any minds here, but along with the many other resources and people I noted previously, these sources also tell us the suggestion that libertarians ignore or do not address this “problem” is just false.  And if none of these attempts to address these issues can suffice in any fashion or fail to satisfy the determinist’s questions or points, there is not much I can do about that.  Anyway, a simple Google search will remove any imagined idea these issues are ignored or left unaddressed by libertarians.

The randomness problem is stated by JP thus:

“The question is rather: why would P choose differently in worlds A and B?

The worlds are absolutely identical and, in particular, P is exactly the same in both worlds, in beliefs, desires, mindset, anything you can imagine. Please note that I'm not assuming anything about physics and determinism.

Therefore the difference in choice cannot be explained by anything in the world or anything that is part of P's nature. Because, obviously, any explanation valid in world A would also, by necessity, be valid in world B.

One possibility is that some random event occurs - an event occurring without a cause and for which there is no reason. What else is there?

You say "P just chooses differently". But what does that mean? It's a choice that is based on nothing at all, a choice without any reason or cause. How is that different from a random choice?”

The assumption seems to be that if the prior criteria are identical leading up to a choice or act for two people, then these two must choose or act the same.  Otherwise, why the difference?  Why doesn’t identical prior sequence equal same outcome?  Why doesn’t cause and effect lead to the same choice or action (omission) each time?  Well, my first thought is because we are not machines.  Prior identical beliefs (or name any identical category) for two humans does not mean they will both make the same choice or decision every single time.  Why would it unless we already assumed determinism?  It begs the very question of whether or not we can do otherwise regardless what any prior category/chain of events is present or not.  Notice that JP tells us he is assuming nothing about determinism or physics but then proceeds to set up his identical worlds based entirely upon the premise that everything “before” “leading up to” “prior” “in the past” is identical.  Well, why would that even be important unless one already thought that everything prior must determine that which follows?  Isn’t that determinism?

O’Connor addresses the issue here:

“The ‘luck’ objection invites us to contemplate, not intra-world identical undetermined choice situations obtained via rollback (a metaphysically dubious notion, it should be said), but inter-world cases. We imagine Alice and a counterpart Alicia in an identical world up to the moment of choice, such that Alice tells the truth and Alicia lies, and again we tell the story in a manner consistent with the agent causal story. If the bravely truth-telling Alice is commended, and the deceiving Alicia goes on to be exposed and suffers a negative consequence, isn’t Alice just lucky? After all, there was nothing whatsoever about her right up to the moment of the choice that distinguished here from Alicia, and so nothing about her that made the difference. Each had the same propensity to lie and to tell the truth. The conclusion drawn is that neither agent controlled the way their respective cases unfolded in such a way that it was up to her that she told the truth (lied). (For a statement of this argument, see Haji 2004.)

The agent causationist contends that both these objections fail to take seriously the concept of agent causation [which is to beg the question--to assume determinism]. It is conceived as a primitive form of control over just such undetermined, single-case outcomes. The agent’s control is exercised not through the efficacy of prior states of the agent (as on causal theories of action), but in the action itself. Alice’s causing her intention to tell the truth is itself an exercise of control. And since, ex hypothesi, it is quite literally the agent herself generating the outcome, it is hard to see how the posited form of control could possibly be improved upon.   So wherein lies the luck? (For such a response, see Pereboom 2005, Clarke 2005, and O’Connor 2007)”

And we also see the supposed problem addressed here:

“(1) Suppose that at time t, an agent S makes a (directly) free decision to A.
(2)   If an agent S freely decides at time t to A, he could have freely performed some                        alternative act at t.
(3)   Hence, S could have freely performed some alternative act at t. (By 1 and 2)
(4)   If S could have freely performed some alternative act at t, then there is a possible                       world W which shares its laws of nature and its past up until (and not including) t with                        the real world, in which S freely acts otherwise at t. 
(5)   There is a possible world W which shares its laws of nature and its past up until (and not including) t with the real world, in which S freely acts otherwise at t. (By 3, 4)
(6)  The difference in S's behavior at t between the two worlds – that in the real world, S          decides at t to A, whereas in W, S acts otherwise at t – cannot be explained in terms of what happens in those worlds before t.

Mele calls this difference between the actual world and W, "the cross-world difference                between the two worlds with regard to how S acts at t". (Ibid: 54)

(7)   If the cross-world difference between W and the actual world with regard to how                        S acts at t cannot be explained in terms of what happens in both these worlds before t, then that difference is just a matter of luck.
(8)   The cross-world difference between W and the actual world with regard to the         decision S makes at t is just a matter of luck. (By 6, 7)
(9)   Luck entails lack of control.
(10)   S lacks control over the decision he makes at t in W, which means that in W, he does not act freely at t.
(11)   S could not have freely performed some alternative act at t. (By 4,10)
(12)   But the conjunction of (1) and (11) contradicts (2). Since we obtained a result that contradicts LF', the conclusion we are expected to draw from it is that LF' needs to be rejected.12/13”

What is the response?

“However, an L-libertarian would object to this way of completing the argument against his position. He would point out that the joint assumption of (7) and (9) commits one to assuming a conceptual link between lack of explanation and lack of control; and as Mele offers no argument for this assumption, the L-libertarian would argue that he has no good reason to accept it.  Furthermore, there seem to be counterexamples to it. Consider a situation in which S is torn between his desire to steal an expensive necklace he sees in a jewelry store, and his desire, for moral reasons, to refrain from stealing it. Ultimately, S decides to steal the necklace, and steals it. Assume further that it was within S's power, in the L-libertarian sense, to refrain from the decision he made, that is, that there is a possible world W, indistinguishable from the actual world up until t, in which S decides not to steal the necklace at t. In this situation, there is a cross-world difference that lacks an explanation. And yet, intuitively it is not the case that S was lacking control over the decision he made. After all, the decision did not seem to him as something that occurred to him out of the blue. Rather, he experienced the decision as something he made, something he made deliberately, and made in the belief that it was within his power to decide otherwise. Mele, the L-libertarian might claim, has not given him a good reason to think that belief is false.”

What both papers are asserting is that lack of explanation doesn’t equate to lack of control.  Additionally, what each tells us is that, as to our decisions, actions, or omissions, prior states can only be one factor and not the “determining” one.  Why? Because “The agent’s control is exercised not through the efficacy of prior states of the agent (as on causal theories of action), but in the action itself. Alice’s causing her intention to tell the truth is itself an exercise of control.”

What the identical world’s hypothetical assumes is the efficacy of prior states.  Why else note it?  Why else would one set the supposed problem up this way?  It begs the very question as it only becomes a problem when one assumes the “efficacy of prior states”.  If the efficacy is, rather, in the action itself, regardless of prior states (although a factor), then we can see two people with identical prior states making different decisions or acting differently.

Now, I don’t believe for a second that the above responses to the luck/randomness “problem” will suffice for JP, Bernard, or Burk.  But, again, let’s get over this idea that this supposed problem is ignored or not addressed in the literature.  I’ve only noted two sources here for brevity, but there are many, many more.  Further, this supposed problem does not concern me in the least—at all.  I think it only exists or becomes a problem if one assumes the sole efficacy of prior states, which, it seems to me, is to just assume determinism.  It assumes there is no free agent that can act otherwise than what the prior states determine must happen.

Most importantly, this supposed problem pales in comparison to a view that leaves us without any true or real moral responsibility (only legal), is fatalistic, and clearly could have negative (to be generous!) consequences culturally if actually believed and acted upon.  To raise the randomness issue as a concern in comparison would be like a person who has just been arrested for burning a forest down, telling the arresting officer who is lighting a cigarette to be careful with those matches.  Seriously?  To be completely honest—I can’t even take this supposed “problem” seriously.  It is a speck compared to the log of problems associated with materialistic determinism.  Anyone might want to focus there first—just saying.

So, moving on—let’s look at this from another angle.

The more I thought about this issue of free-will the more I realized I needed to address the issue from the theological discussion or perspective.  The secular philosophical conversation seems to leave us with dead ends or the attempt to show how the supposed dead ends actually lead somewhere.  As a Christian, while I can evaluate and understand the issue from many different perspectives, at the end of the day, I have to try and unpack this from my own narrative/perspective—the one I think makes the most sense of us as humans and of this world.

To do so I will use perhaps an unlikely source and one not even meant to really address free-will per se other than in a derivative manner.  The paper I will use as a way to discuss my own perspective is here.  Many are probably not familiar with David B. Hart but he is an American Eastern Orthodox theologian/philosopher.  Whether one agrees or disagrees with anything Dr. Hart writes or says, he is a very formidable voice and quite brilliant.  I don’t think anyone disputes that description, regardless any other views they may hold of him.

So, are we “free” and what does it mean to be “free”?  Hart I think gives us a sketch of an answer here:

“In the end of all things is their beginning, and only from the perspective of the end can one know what they are, why they have been made, and who the God is who has called them forth from nothingness.”

To articulate any sort of understanding of free will, we must do so with a view toward our end (not the beginning), which is the creation completed or realized.  My view of free-will is shaped by the fact I view humans as created beings and not simply purely material accidents of existence.  Further, as created, they have a teleology—a purpose.  There is an end to which they were created, to which they are bent. 

“For, as the transcendent Good beyond all beings, he is the transcendental end of any action of any rational nature; and then, obviously, the end toward which God acts must be his own goodness: he who is the beginning and end of all things. And this eternal teleology, viewed from the vantage of history, is a cosmic eschatology. As an eternal act, creation’s term is the divine nature; within the orientation of time, its term is a “final judgment.” No matter how great the autonomy one grants the realm of secondary causes, two things are certain. First, as God’s act of creation is free, constrained by neither necessity nor ignorance, all contingent ends are intentionally enfolded within his decision. And, second, precisely because God in himself is absolute, “absolved” of every pathos of the contingent, his moral “venture” in creating is infinite. For all causes are logically reducible to their first cause; this is no more than a logical truism, and it does not matter whether one construes the relation between primary and secondary causality as one of total determinism or utter indeterminacy, for in either case all “consequents” are—either as actualities or merely as possibilities—contingent upon their primordial “antecedent,” apart from which [they] could not exist. Moreover, the rationale—the definition—of a first cause is the final cause that prompts it; and so if that first cause is an infinitely free act emerging from an infinite wisdom, all those consequents are intentionally entailed—again, either as actualities or as possibilities—within that first act; and so the final end to which that act tends is its whole moral truth.”

Now, the above does seem to me to be a sort of determinism, but it is one completely different than that of a purely material, law-like, mathematical, cause-and-effect determinism.  It is the idea that all creation tends toward its end and how could it tend otherwise, given its created nature?

Now, here is another aspect to free-will Hart brings up and it seems to go to JP’s point about randomness:

“It might not do, if one could construct a metaphysics or phenomenology of the will’s liberty that was purely voluntarist, purely spontaneous; though, even then, one would have to explain how an absolutely libertarian act, obedient to no ultimate prior rationale whatsoever, would be distinguishable from sheer chance, or a mindless organic or mechanical impulse, and so any more “free” than an earthquake or embolism.”

So here he addresses the objection of “sheer chance” and notes that a Christian view of free-will is not one of a “purely voluntarist” or “spontaneous” sort of freedom.  Rather, we should see free-will as:

“...a power inherently purposive, teleological, primordially oriented toward the good, and shaped by that transcendental appetite to the degree that a soul can recognize the good for what it is. No one can freely will the evil as evil; one can take the evil for the good, but that does not alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it. It makes no more sense to say that God allows creatures to damn themselves out of his love for them or of his respect for their freedom than to say a father might reasonably allow his deranged child to thrust her face into a fire out of a tender respect for her moral autonomy.”

One aspect we need to clarify is one of the gravity of choice or action.  Whether one is a determinist or libertarian, we are normally not concerned with trivial choices or actions.  Why did I turn right on this road, when I normally turn left?  Why did I decide to eat melon for breakfast instead of my usual oatmeal?  As to our trivial decisions, actions, and choices, both the determinist and libertarian, regardless their abstract beliefs about such matters, would probably respond: “I don’t know why I did that.  I just did.”  As noted in the second paper, lacking a reason doesn’t equal a lack of control.  Because I cannot give a reason for my actions doesn’t mean I can’t control my actions or choices.  My first person experience is such that I know I could have done otherwise, even if I can’t articulate a reason for my trivial choice or action.  Its very triviality, non-importance, lends itself to forgetting, to not even trying to formulate a reason.  In fact, to do so, would be odd.  Our minds and lives move too quickly for a reason to even present itself in such cases.  Again, does this mean I have no control?  Of course not.  One (no articulable reason) does not lead of necessity to the other (lack of control).  That simply does not logically follow.  

When it comes to choices and actions of some gravity however, most rational persons have reasons.  And I would agree with Hart that decisions and actions of any gravity are born out of this dynamic:

“No one can freely will the evil as evil; one can take the evil for the good, but that does not alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it.”

Or, as he puts it here:

“...For Maximus, the natural will is free because it tends inexorably towards God, and the gnomic will is free precisely to the degree that it comes into harmony with the natural will. And so on. Since, after all, all employments of the will are teleological–necessarily intentionally directed towards an end, either clearly or obscurely known by the intellect–and since the Good is the final cause of all movements of the will, no choice of evil can be free in a meaningful sense. For evil is not an end, and so can be chosen under the delusion that it is in some sense a good in respect of the soul (even if, in moral terms, one is aware that one is choosing what is conventionally regarded as ‘evil’); and no choice made in ignorance can be a free choice.”

Now, it appears that whether a trivial decision (turning left here when 99% of the time I turn right) or one of gravity (telling the truth or not), he notes that “all employments of the will are teleological–necessarily intentionally directed towards an end...”  However, some of those decisions and the reasoning behind them are “clearly” known and some are “obscurely” known and I would add that some are not really known at all, or in any sort of way we can always articulate.  Thus, one could argue from this perspective that there is freedom (understood correctly) but no randomness or luck, because all such movements are, ultimately, teleological.

Is this a sort of determinism?  It depends upon what we think such entails.  Does it mean we are not free?  Well, again, we are free only in the sense we can see and understand the good.  The truth does indeed set us free.  An ignorant person, or a slave, is not truly free, even though their first person experience is such that they are, within the bounds of their ignorance and slavery.    We are free within the bounds of creation understood as a good creation brought into existence by a good creator, with a good end in mind.  A poor analogy might be a jet airliner.  We are free to get up and move around the jet, eat what we like, read, sleep, and choose a host of other actions, entirely as free agents, undetermined, but there are boundaries we cannot change or cross as to its trajectory or its very form or walls.  If we were to imagine existence this way, we might say we are indeed free within the bounds of time, but may not realize that freedom in its true form until temporal time is no more and we are in the eternal “now” so to speak (or eternity).  This is, of course, saying that all things will be redeemed eventually.  Within the Christian tradition, this is disputed, but I agree with Dr. Hart and other universalists in that regard.

And again, if this is a type of determinism, it is not the mindless, impersonal, accidental, without any meaning, purely random type of determinism believed to be the case by materialists/physicalists.  Rather, it is a determinism (for lack of a better word) of love; one that has a teleology.  How then are we free?  The best way I can see this is to give an example from one of the best known stories in the Gospels, the Prodigal Son.  In temporal time, in this life, we can reject this love but we always do so (like the prodigal) out of ignorance.  If not in this life, then in eternity, once all ignorance is removed, once we “see” and understand that which calls forth and “awakens” all desire, once we feel and understand a love incomprehensible, our will is then truly free and we will use that freedom as noted in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 15:

17 When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

The Judeo-Christian narrative is that creation is broken, but good.  All of creation is in the process of coming to its “senses”.  All of creation will one day get up and return to its father.  This can be the only result of a true freedom, wherein we know as we are known and we are no longer slaves to ourselves and any remaining brokenness.  Is this an “efficacy of prior states”?  I don’t think so.  Rather, it is an efficacy of the end of all things; it is efficacious only in the sense of eternity and only in the sense of coming to that which is our end.  That which is prior is only efficacious because of its end.  Before that end happens or we come to it, we are free in the same sense as the prodigal or even the son who remains at home who was also “free” to leave.  The son, who remained home, remained in ignorance and in the narrative did not “come to his senses”—but was resentful and bitter.  So who was free in the narrative?  We all are on a spectrum of being “free” in this sense, in the same sense as the two sons.

Now, I doubt my unpacking here will suffice for JP, Bernard, or Burk.  Perhaps even Ron may find areas of disagreement.  My thoughts here are tentative and not concrete.  If we take both the secular conversation and the religious, it would appear I am a weird sort of compatibilist; however, it is entirely unlike the secular version which assumes  a meaningless determinism (by faith) but can’t live with its consequences and simply has to try and make room for the 1st person experience.  I believe we are free agents, with real/true moral responsibility.  I also believe there is a trajectory to creation in which all things will be redeemed in eternity.  Perhaps these two beliefs contradict.  I don’t believe they do, but I could certainly be wrong.  I am thinking out loud here, but there you have it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016


I love the Babylon and here...

Friday, June 24, 2016

“But, I live as if it weren’t true...”

I think one of the most, if not the most, significant indicator that one’s world-view (narrative, story, faith, which includes philosophical naturalism, scientism, empiricism, etc.) is false, unhealthy, or extremely weak is if it ever leads one to say something along the lines of “I believe such-and-such is true, but I don’t, or can’t, live my life as if it were true.”  I can’t imagine a more powerful inducement to cognitive dissonance as such a statement or sentiment.  My first thought is: If something is true, accurate, the way the world is, but we have to live as if such isn’t really the case, then in many ways, we are living a lie.  This almost seems a type of philosophical schizophrenia.  Whatever it is that one believes, he should be able to say, “My life doesn’t always reflect my beliefs, but I try to live so that they do and I am aware of it when they don’t; and I desire my life to align or correspond with my beliefs, because I think what I believe is true.”

I just finished a series of posts on the justified use of violence and how we think about morality in general.  One could see the great reluctance, if not outright dismissal, of the idea that a moral skeptic’s views lead to a reduction to power/freedom.  Why?  My theory is because even if someone believes the skeptic’s views to be true or is sympathetic to them, they don’t want to think it would mean such (a reduction to power).  I think I made a fairly logical case that it does lead to such a reduction, but as the Stanford link made clear, what the moral skeptic believes metaphysically is actually the case, they for the most part do not live “as if” such were the case:

“...All that moral skeptics deny is that their (or anyone's) moral beliefs are justified. This meta-ethical position about the epistemic status of moral beliefs need not trickle down and infect anyone's substantive moral beliefs or actions.”-Stanford link (See previous post(s))

In other words, I may believe my moral beliefs are unjustifiable even to myself (just as an aside, in my view, if one cannot justify their moral actions or omissions to themselves or anyone else, then one is always acting out of pure power, but that’s just me...) on a metaphysical, epistemic level, but “substantively”, down here in my actual lived life, I don’t let what I think is actually true trickle down and “infect” my actual moral beliefs and actions.  Okay.  If such is really “true”, why not?  I find this to be a grave flaw in any world-view that would produce such an epistemic view of morality.

Many of the comments were quick to point out that, regardless the skeptic’s beliefs, if he still abhorred all the things that objectivists did and acted “morally”, what was the problem?  And, can we look at an actual moral issue or topic?  Well, no one said such was a problem to begin with (that wasn’t the point), and it is irrelevant to any single moral issue if the point is the skeptic, one, doesn’t believe morality exists by referent and, two, believes we can’t justify any of our moral beliefs, to ourselves or anyone else.  If we can’t justify any of our moral beliefs, then asking about any single example is irrelevant.  To then ask for a single moral example would be like asking a person who didn’t believe in witches, to please tell us which type he didn’t believe in.  Well, it wouldn’t matter—he doesn’t believe any of them exist!  Of course, this very basic problem was lost on all.  Anyway, more importantly for this post, it demonstrates the moral skeptic rarely, if ever, lives “as if” his views were actually the case, or true.

A perfect example of what I am talking about is summed up in this essay.  The title says it all: “There is no such thing as free will, but we are better off believing in it anyway” Again, wow.  So we know this to be true, proven by science (not), and yet let’s act as if it weren’t true.  I can imagine moral skeptics making a similar statement regarding morality.  We know it doesn’t exist ontologically (duh, science), but let’s act as if it does.  Basically we are being told that even though we all know goblins and fairies do not exist, let’s all act as if they do.  One should really question and wonder about any world-view that would have this philosophical undercurrent or this sense we should ignore the truth—pretend it doesn’t exist.  And this is no trivial or small matter.  We are talking about our very freedom to choose, which is intrinsically related to ethics—morality and responsibility.  It touches everything, both the smallest choices and those with greater import.

Now, the writer simply assumes that the current “science” has proved or is greatly inclined toward proving, or is close to proving, there is no free-will in the traditional sense.  I think his assumption is wrong.  The reality is that at the philosophy-of-science, academic level, and other areas of academic philosophy, these are all disputed areas and hardly settled as is easily seen simply from perusing the literature.  It may be settled in the minds of some neuroscientists out there working in a lab or on their computer, but once brought into the arena of the philosophy-of-science in academia, certainty, or the idea it has been “proved” all melts away.

However, I don’t particularly care about that.  I am much more interested in the idea that we should live contrary to what we think is true about ourselves and the universe in general.  Here is where I give the nihilist respect.  He disagrees we should live contrary to the truth.  Truth is too important to the nihilist.  However, what about those who in principle agree with much, if not most, of the nihilist’s world-view on a metaphysical, epistemic level?  Well, it appears they have a problem facing up to their own beliefs when it comes to life in the trenches.  At the last, as their brothers and sisters get set to charge the barricades, they blink and fall back into the trenches.  It all sounds great in the abstract—it just doesn’t seem to work in real life.

Now, for those who have come to a place of philosophical naturalism or similar world-view/narrative, and understand well the choice they have made, I would say the great majority are college graduates, have been raised in fairly stable families, with mid-to higher middle-class type incomes and life-styles.  They were probably raised also with middle-class values, a tepid blend of American fairness and pragmatism, good manners, politeness, and a nod to a moderate to progressive Judeo-Christian sense of morality (whether consciously or whether imbibed thoughtlessly from the surrounding culture).  And I would also tend to think most of this cultural influence to still be present and active, even if after a later acquired metaphysical and epistemic belief system has in the abstract completely undercut it.

But what happens when these metaphysical and epistemic beliefs trickle down to those not so advantaged?  As I have posited many times, since none of us can prove, or found, our world-views in any sort of final scientific manner, in any empirical manner, since we all believe what we do (over-arching narrative wise) by faith, how can we know if one world-view is healthier, truer, or perhaps a less false way of viewing ourselves and the world than another?  Well, we can ask questions.  Questions like, “Under this narrative, can I live as if what I believe is true or not?”  Or, “Is what I believe something that an entire culture or civilization could also believe and understand, or is what I believe only accessible to the higher educated or those with resources and the other advantages of my culture?”  Or, “What does what I believe lead to when an entire culture has adopted it, in the area of morality or any area of life?”

Well, here in the noted essay, we can ask one of those questions.  As noted here:

“In 2002, two psychologists had a simple but brilliant idea: Instead of speculating about what might happen if people lost belief in their capacity to choose, they could run an experiment to find out.”

Here is what they found:

“When asked to take a math test, with cheating made easy, the group primed to see free will as illusory proved more likely to take an illicit peek at the answers. When given an opportunity to steal—to take more money than they were due from an envelope of $1 coins—those whose belief in free will had been undermined pilfered more. On a range of measures, Vohs told me, she and Schooler found that ‘people who are induced to believe less in free will are more likely to behave immorally.’

It seems that when people stop believing they are free agents, they stop seeing themselves as blameworthy for their actions. Consequently, they act less responsibly and give in to their baser instincts.”

But wait, there is more:

“Another pioneer of research into the psychology of free will, Roy Baumeister of Florida State University, has extended these findings. For example, he and colleagues found that students with a weaker belief in free will were less likely to volunteer their time to help a classmate than were those whose belief in free will was stronger. Likewise, those primed to hold a deterministic view by reading statements like ‘Science has demonstrated that free will is an illusion’ were less likely to give money to a homeless person or lend someone a cellphone.

Further studies by Baumeister and colleagues have linked a diminished belief in free will to stress, unhappiness, and a lesser commitment to relationships. They found that when subjects were induced to believe that ‘all human actions follow from prior events and ultimately can be understood in terms of the movement of molecules,’ those subjects came away with a lower sense of life’s meaningfulness. Early this year, other researchers published a study showing that a weaker belief in free will correlates with poor academic performance.

The list goes on: Believing that free will is an illusion has been shown to make people less creative, more likely to conform, less willing to learn from their mistakes, and less grateful toward one another. In every regard, it seems, when we embrace determinism, we indulge our dark side.”

Wow.  So think about that.  If I have this world-view, and if a subsidiary part of it is determinism, this is what it can produce in people.  Given my world-view is not proved by science, is not certain, is possibly false, given I believe it by faith, why in the world would I choose to believe this?  Because it is “true” and proved by science?  Well, that is disputed.  It is not a settled matter.  None of us can say that.  It is not “science” to believe such, but rather a philosophical commitment.  So, given this, why would I believe it?  Why would I choose to believe something that is harmful in this way?

I think a significant reason philosophical naturalism is false, is because if we believe it and actually try and live as if it were true, it can cause or lead to these negative results in people.  I can’t imagine many people would want a world populated with a significant portion of people who have been led by a world-view (or just told its “science”) to “indulge [their] dark side.”

So what does one philosopher propose we do in light of these bad outcomes to the supposed “truth” of determinism?

“Saul Smilansky, a philosophy professor at the University of Haifa, in Israel, has wrestled with this dilemma throughout his career and come to a painful conclusion: “We cannot afford for people to internalize the truth” about free will.”

Wow, imagine a world-view we cannot afford people to internalize, even though it’s the “truth”.  A core truth of the Christian narrative is that the “truth shall set you free.”  Here, with the world-view of philosophical naturalism and the subsidiary determinism, we see the exact opposite.  Here, the “truth” will harm you and potentially make you a worse person.

Dr. Smilasky goes on:

“Smilansky is convinced that free will does not exist in the traditional sense—and that it would be very bad if most people realized this... Smilansky advocates a view he calls illusionism—the belief that free will is indeed an illusion, but one that society must defend. The idea of determinism, and the facts supporting it, must be kept confined within the ivory tower. Only the initiated, behind those walls, should dare to, as he put it to me, “look the dark truth in the face.” Smilansky says he realizes that there is something drastic, even terrible, about this idea—but if the choice is between the true and the good, then for the sake of society, the true must go.”

Do I really need to say anymore?  It seems to me such a world-view is deeply flawed.  Imagine a world-view that leads us to assert: “...the true most go.”  In my view, this should lead us to see that any world-view/narrative, or a derivative part, that would have us conclude “the truth must go” is a false world-view/narrative.

But some are not happy with this response such as Sam Harris.

“The big problem, in Harris’s view, is that people often confuse determinism with fatalism. Determinism is the belief that our decisions are part of an unbreakable chain of cause and effect. Fatalism, on the other hand, is the belief that our decisions don’t really matter, because whatever is destined to happen will happen—like Oedipus’s marriage to his mother, despite his efforts to avoid that fate.  When people hear there is no free will, they wrongly become fatalistic; they think their efforts will make no difference. But this is a mistake. People are not moving toward an inevitable destiny; given a different stimulus (like a different idea about free will), they will behave differently and so have different lives. If people better understood these fine distinctions, Harris believes, the consequences of losing faith in free will would be much less negative than Vohs’s and Baumeister’s experiments suggest.”

What?  So let me get this straight: Determinism is true, which is the idea that “our decisions are part of an unbreakable chain of cause and effect.”  However, we shouldn’t be “fatalistic” about that because there might be a “different stimulus”, like “a different idea about free will” and we can behave differently.  What?  That might be the most incoherent chain of thought I’ve read in some time.  Is the “different” stimulus or “idea” the idea or stimulus that determinism is false?  Or is it a stimulus or idea that leaves determinism still true?  Because that would be a flat-out contradiction as if an “unbreakable chain of cause and effect” can be reconciled with a “different stimulus” which would “break” the “unbreakable” chain.  Nonsense.

And finally there is the view of Bruce Waller:

“Some scholars argue that we should think about freedom of choice in terms of our very real and sophisticated abilities to map out multiple potential responses to a particular situation. One of these is Bruce Waller, a philosophy professor at Youngstown State University. In his new book, Restorative Free Will, he writes that we should focus on our ability, in any given setting, to generate a wide range of options for ourselves, and to decide among them without external constraint.

For Waller, it simply doesn’t matter that these processes are underpinned by a causal chain of firing neurons. In his view, free will and determinism are not the opposites they are often taken to be; they simply describe our behavior at different levels.

Waller believes his account fits with a scientific understanding of how we evolved: Foraging animals—humans, but also mice, or bears, or crows—need to be able to generate options for themselves and make decisions in a complex and changing environment. Humans, with our massive brains, are much better at thinking up and weighing options than other animals are. Our range of options is much wider, and we are, in a meaningful way, freer as a result.

Waller’s definition of free will is in keeping with how a lot of ordinary people see it. One 2010 study found that people mostly thought of free will in terms of following their desires, free of coercion (such as someone holding a gun to your head). As long as we continue to believe in this kind of practical free will, that should be enough to preserve the sorts of ideals and ethical standards examined by Vohs and Baumeister.”

Notice he is really side-stepping the problem.  He is basically saying that because our brains are powerful, and can generate choices, that this alone somehow provides a way out of the free-will conundrum.  But how?—it doesn’t address the determinist’s point.  If cause-and-effect is an unbreakable chain, then it is whether one’s brain is more highly evolved and powerful or whether it is the brain of an ape or dog.  Physics doesn’t care about either.  For him to say that on one level, there is determinism, but on another there is not, is to misunderstand what is being asserted by the determinist.  The determinist would say that physics works the same at any level we care to name.

To say there is “practical” free-will but not metaphysical or actual, traditional free-will is to simply assert that regardless of what we think physics tells us about the cause-and-effect chain of brain events and actions, people seem to understand and experience their choices and actions as an actual freedom.  The first part is question-begging and the second just descriptive.  Further, it completely discounts the possibility we could be describing an actual freedom of will (since that is what it seems people experience) and not an illusionary one.

So, even here, I don’t see a view of free-will that reflects a healthy or attractive narrative/world-view.  I think it reflects poorly on that narrative.  I think it another reason to then think such a narrative to be false.

Throughout this essay two problems underlie the narrative.  One is we want people to be and feel responsible for their actions.  The second is we want to recognize that “no man is an island” and in many ways we are responsible for each other and not totally responsible for ourselves.  I do appreciate Waller’s efforts to balance these two very important aspects to any discussion regarding what it means to be “free” or to have “free” will.  I view it sort of like this:  At a certain age (varies for each individual and probably culture), we become free to make decisions, to choose other than what we want or desire or even feel compelled to do.  However, there are many aspects to life where we had no choice in what happens to us, but we can choose how we will react and respond to what happens to us or to the cards life has dealt us.  None of us chose which family, which ethnicity, or culture we would be born into.  None of us chose what geographic location we would be born.  None of us chose what religion or lack thereof we would be born into by way of whatever our parents believed or didn’t believe.  None of us chose to be born into either poverty or wealth.  There is so much we had no power over that determines so much of who we are and what options and choices were open to us as we grew up and perhaps are even now.  Still, even in that knowledge, we are free to choose and do otherwise. Are we always strong enough to?  Of course not.  So what?  That is another issue.  But we know that sometimes we were/are strong enough.  We know we have chosen otherwise sometimes and many times, we are not even sure why we did—but we did.  I think the Christian narrative and other such narratives allow for both of these aspects to free-will to be present and not opposed to each other.  Clearly, given Waller’s attempts here, whatever narrative he is operating from, does not allow this and he has to try and reconcile the two.

As noted in the essay, I too especially liked President Obama’s comments where he reminded us that “You didn’t build that” meaning- you did not do that by yourself.  The idea of the “self-made man” is a myth really.  Even if there are the rare exceptions, people who literally for generations came from nothing but excelled enough in some area to rise above their past and circumstances and were “successful”.  Even then, for the Christian, we would say this person still didn’t do such by themselves but through the gracious gifts of a creator God, but they also still needed human help at some point.  Our lives are part of a great web of others and all these intersections along with the serendipity of life, of luck, of simply being in the right place at the right time, but also of hard work, vision, good choices, and will—all combine to create a great confluence of myriad factors bringing each of us to the moment we find ourselves.  It is, frankly, a great mystery.  A wonderful, beautiful, and even frightening mystery.  But we need not make this mystery into an opposition.

However, I do believe what Waller is after here is a cake-and-eating-it-too (as suggested in the essay) attempt to hold onto two ideas that end up contradicting or undercutting the other as a matter of logic.  If we are going to assert that our world is deterministic in a cause-and-effect machine like, mathematical fashion (pure physics; of course only from a Newtonian or Laplacean understanding of physics), if we are going to believe by faith the universe is causally closed, then free-will as traditionally understood is a myth.  If so, then people are not fundamentally any more responsible for their actions than a hurricane could be said to be responsible (See Harris’s comments).  There is no way to then say (logically anyway), well, yes, but as a practical matter, since people seem to believe they are free and responsible, since they seem to act that way, since they have big brains, we can just let the fact they are not really free go and just try to emphasize the communal aspect to mitigate the damage possible if we were to go with what we know is the actual case.

Well, why not consider the better and more reasonable alternative?  It could be that even though none of us are an island, we are still free in the traditional sense.  We are the product of much we had no freedom to choose, but we are also, even knowing such, free to choose how we will respond to what we couldn’t choose.  As is often heard, “It is not what happens to me that matters—I have no control over such, but how I choose to respond to what happens to me, which I do have control over, is what matters.”  That is the essence of free-will.  If we are created souls, if we are spirit, living in a one-story holistic existence, then there is no reason to oppose the two ideas that we are both the result of much that is beyond our control and still free in that knowledge to choose otherwise as our souls transcend a pure cause-and-effect universe, which would also mean the universe is causally open; in fact, the entire question rests on whether one believes the universe is casually closed or open—and neither “science” or physics proves either view.  However, one view, that the universe is causally open does seem to be consistent with and corresponds to our lived and felt experience of being free persons.

Given that, since it is not a question of what the science or physics proves or doesn’t prove, why not choose the story that most corresponds to our own lived experience of being free, that we feel and act, live, as if we are free and that we can choose otherwise—and doesn’t contain the conundrum of believing physics tells us something we have to then try and live as if it weren’t true, even though we know it is?  And what if we have confused “physics” with philosophical naturalism/empiricism/scientism?  What if “science” or “physics” tells us no such thing, but rather we are hearing a philosophical counter-story, another faith-based narrative?  If so, why not believe the story that doesn’t require such cognitive dissonance or discounting one’s lived every-day experience and is still compatible with everything we know from science and physics once we remove the philosophical naturalism/empiricism/scientism looking glass?

PS- Although it is not a discussion of free-will in a metaphysical sense, here is an interesting essay on how something we all experience plays into the practical aspects of free-will.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Friday Roundup

For all those who believe neuroscience is on the brink of telling us all there is to know about the brain/consciousness...ummm...there’s been a slight set-back...

On not being duped.  Here indeed (make sure you watch the “best” man’s speech) is the fundamentalist sensibility, an odd literalism, a wooden, surface view of everything.  It is a mile wide and only an inch deep.  It’s a weird preoccupation with a peripheral surface aspect of a subject but only in a way that completely misses the point of that subject.

From the link:

“In New Atheism we witness something similar going on with regards to peoples religion. The New Atheist prides himself on not being duped by silly religious fantasies. But for this very reason he misunderstands what is happening in religion. He is like a person who hears a grandparent say, “my grandchild is the most beautiful kid in the world,” and laughingly responds, “of course she isn’t, that is an utterly ridiculous thing to say.” The individual is right, and for this very reason they make a fundamental error. The grandparent has let herself be duped, but this means that she is successfully inscribed into the symbolic world and is able to navigate it.

The Enlightened New Atheist sits back and laughs at those unenlightened na├»ve believers who say things like, “my religion is the most beautiful religion in the world.” Yet he does not realise that it is precisely in them not being a fool that they become utterly foolish.

Of course fundamentalism is also a type of structural psychosis in which the individual claims to inhabit a non-symbolic space. They are like the grandparent who literally means her grandchild is the most beautiful kid in the world.

The response is not for the besotted grandparent to say, “my child is average looking,” – the equivalent of a non-committal agnosticism – but to fully affirm the claim that her grandchild is the most beautiful child in the world without needing some ground for the claim.”

A much more complex reading of the Enlightenment here.  The consensus in certain quarters has it as the enemy or counter to religion.

“The consensus is powerful but mistaken. The real Enlightenment was as religious as anything that came before it - a time of spiritual awakening as well as criticism and doubt. Indeed, faith and doubt were two sides of the same coin.”

Is there a problem for divine action or intervention in the world according to “science”?  Only for those who hold a philosophical faith-based view of causal closure, which is not “science”.  See here (two parts)

“What we should think of special divine action, therefore, doesn’t depend on current science. The sensible religious believer is not obliged to trim her sails to the current scientific breeze on this topic, revising her belief on the topic every time science changes its mind. But where Christian or theistic belief and current science can fit nicely together, so much the better. Who knows what the future will bring? But we can say at least the following: at this point, given this evidence, this is how things look. And that's as much as can be said for any scientific theory.

We noted that many theologians, philosophers and scientists object to the thought that God acts specially in the world. At least some of their objections have to do with science: special divine action, they say, goes contrary, somehow, to science. As we’ve seen, however, none of these objections is even remotely cogent; there is nothing in current or classical science inconsistent with special divine action in the world.

Therefore, we have found no conflict between Christian or theistic belief and current science.”

This looks like a good book.

From the editorial reviews:

"Atheists often cite religious opposition to evolution as a reason for their unbelief. This wonderful collection of essays by Bible-believing Christians demonstrates how unnecessary it is to oppose evolution in the name of faith. What is striking about the authors in this volume is the sheer range and diversity of their own spiritual journeys in coming to terms with science. It is my prayer that evolution might cease to be seen as a threat to faith on the part of some Christians rather than as an integral aspect of God's created order for which the Christian can rightly give praise." (Denis R. Alexander, emeritus director, The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

When is Violence Justified? What is Justice?

Thrasymachus famously asserted that, “Justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger.”  However ancient, it sounds all too modern and western in at least a tacit manner, if not outright admission.  “Justice” may be only a word that communicates “‘Just’ is what I think or say it is and I have a bigger gun and more resources than you” rather than a word that is a referent to something other than what I emote, have the power to enforce, or happen to will- a word that tries to communicate or capture an abstract, objective, principle, person, or sensibility.  Is it just a stand-in, a code word for what I will or personally desire to be fair?  Or is it a word that points beyond itself, beyond me, to something objective and universal?  If it is just a code word, a gloss, a stand-in, then it is for everyone including ISIS, North Korea, or the west.  If so, then Thrasymachus was right.  If so, then justice = power.

This will be my last post in this series on the use of violence and its justification.  When we use violence, in every other area except self-defense, the key question is: Are we justified in doing so?  We assume it has to be justified in some fashion.  And that question is intrinsically bound up in the idea or concept of “justice”.  Is our violence just?  Whether it is or not depends upon the reasons we provide, and further, what those reasons are based upon.  If we take any reasons and conduct a metaphysical regress, what are our justifications ultimately based upon?  When we can go back no further in our reasoning, what do we finally get to?  My sense is we will finally get to my or our “power” (Thrasymachus) to name, or choose, and thus enforce, what “justice” “is” or we will get to an objective referent of some type.  I don’t see any other possibilities here.

Most people believe “justice” is something based upon some objective referent, even if only an abstract principle of some type.  And most people believe it to be a universal, absolute principle, even if we might not understand it absolutely and agree we can get it “wrong” or have a “false” view of justice.  Most people however believe that if something is “just” it is so regardless of culture, geography, majority agreement, power, law, or historical time-frame.  On the other hand, if “justice” is whatever the powerful say it is, then only the weak’s understanding of justice is “wrong” or “false” (How convenient).  We like to think that justice is something that gives the strong or more powerful, no advantage over the weaker.  Justice, we hope, is something that tells us it is possible for the weaker to prevail over the stronger or more powerful, because of what “justice” is and demands.  We also make the distinction that such is the case, not simply because the weaker are being protected by a more powerful entity than the one directly opposed to them at the moment.  In that case, power is still the operable factor and not “justice”.  In that case, “justice” was simply a cover for us to impose our will and power, even if for what most might find agreeable and even noble reasons.

Justice is often pictured as a blind-folded woman holding scales upon which she weighs a conflict or two parties and their claims.  Is justice really blind?  If justice is as Thrasymachus tells us, justice indeed “sees” but it only sees what the strong desire and will to see.  It is only blind to the weaker; the weak it cannot see.  We talk about justice being metaphorically blind because we are trying to communicate the idea that justice does not see the stronger party, or the weaker.  Justice, we like to think, sees something else, something beyond each party.  Is it only the law that it sees?  No.  Because that would mean we only need read or note the law and we would be dispensing “justice”.  Such would assume that every law was just. 

And when it comes to using violence, what is just?  As to violence in the extreme, how do we ascertain if one death is different than another?  Is it just a question of legality?  Is it just a question of emotion?  Is it just a question of what the most powerful party asserts is different or not different?  Unless we are just reporting facts, unless we are just describing in purely matter-of-fact physical terms, how is one death from violence different than another violent death metaphysically/ontologically?  Or is there no such difference (and there can’t be a difference for those who think the “is” of being to be pure nature)?  Imagine we are shown two pictures, one of a pile of Jewish bodies in a Nazi death camp, and another of a hanged Nazi after being convicted at Nuremberg.  We are asked if these deaths are the same.  Would we reply, “Yes” they are because they are all dead?  Or, “No, there are more dead bodies in this picture and only one in the other.”  I guess we might if we were ten years old, or obtuse, or shallow, or callous, or just dumb.  Or using the same example we’ve been using, a court of law and a criminal gang dispensing lethal violence.  If we were to lay the two dead people side by side, could we note any difference between the two other than both are dead—anything beyond mere facts—anything beyond mere reporting, mere description?  What would it mean to say one death was just and one was unjust, unless we are just reporting our personal opinion?  What are the criteria for that judgment or the judgment that they are, indeed, the same metaphysically/ontologically (We don’t care if one sees it differently personally or just “because” they do)?  We are asking a philosophical question, a metaphysical question, not a private opinion question.  Unless, of course, one is a moral skeptic and believes such is what indeed it is—a private opinion.

Now, in light of these questions, let us consider our relativist.  As noted many times now, he falls under the general genus of metaphysical moral relativism (MMR) as opposed to descriptive moral relativism (DMM) (see prior posts).  Under that general genus (MMR), the species of relativist I am addressing specifically, and no other, is the moral skeptic (which is also connected to nihilism; anti-realism, etc.).  The MMR type, and the further descriptive terms skeptic, and nihilist are often used interchangeably in the literature, and many times the distinctions are without significant difference—especially when it comes to speaking of what morality is ontologically (being), as noted: “...Moral skeptics conclude that there is no way to rule out moral nihilism [emphasis added].”-Stanford (link below)

Further still, for any who still think moral nihilism to be invented by me or that I paint an unfair picture:

“...opponents of moral skepticism need to say why moral nihilism is irrelevant. It seems relevant, for the simple reason that it is directly contrary to the moral belief that is supposed to be justified. Moreover, real people believe and give reasons to believe in moral nihilism. Some people are led to moral nihilism by the absence of any defensible theory of morality. If consequentialism is absurd or incoherent, as some critics argue, and if deontological restrictions and permissions are mysterious and unfounded, as their opponents argue, then some people might believe moral nihilism for reasons similar to those that led scientists to reject phlogiston. Another basis for moral nihilism cites science. If all of our moral beliefs can be explained by sociobiology and/or other social sciences without assuming that any moral belief is true, then some might accept moral nihilism for reasons similar to those that lead many people to reject witches or elves [see our New York Times essayist]. The point is not that such reasons for moral nihilism are adequate. The point here is only that there is enough prima facie reason to believe moral nihilism that it cannot be dismissed as irrelevant on this basis. If moral nihilism is relevant, and if closure holds for all or at least relevant alternatives, and if moral nihilism cannot be ruled out in any way, then moral skepticism seems to follow.”

Notice too that here again skepticism and nihilism are linked as logical connections.  This is noted and agreed upon in most, if not all, the academic literature.  I’ve invented nothing and I’ve not painted their views unfairly; rather, it would appear that many are simply unfamiliar with their views and speak out of turn.

Still, for our purposes, I will narrow down our species of MMR to the descriptions noted here.  (The previous and all further quotes are from this link—please read the entire essay)

One quick point though as to our moral skeptic.  He is no psychopath.  I actually have a great deal of respect for our skeptic/nihilist.  It takes great courage, great sobriety, and great resolve to hold to such a view.  It is not a common sense view, but one that must be maintained, almost willed constantly.  It is a view that refuses to look away.  It is a view that refuses to “sugar coat” anything.  It is a view that actually takes its beliefs/premises seriously and logically.  It does not chicken-out at the last and grab onto some objective, universal principle, or imagined instinct, force, or god.  It looks into the abyss and refuses to blink.  However, it is certainly not the view of a madman.  As noted:

“...people do take moral nihilism seriously and even argue for it (Mackie 1977, Joyce 2001), moral nihilism cannot be dismissed as readily as Descartes's deceiving demon...”


“Others see moral skepticism as so absurd that any moral theory can be refuted merely by showing that it leads to moral skepticism. Don't you know, they ask, that slavery is morally wrong? Or terrorism? Or child abuse? Skeptics who deny that we have reason to believe or obey these moral judgments are seen as misguided and dangerous. The stridency and ease of these charges suggests mutual misunderstanding, so we need to be more charitable and more precise... Opponents often accuse moral skepticism of leading to immorality. However, skeptics about justified moral belief can act well and be nice people. They need not be any less motivated to be moral, nor need they have (or believe in) any less reason to be moral than non-skeptics have (or believe in). Moral skeptics can hold substantive moral beliefs just as strongly as non-skeptics. Their substantive moral beliefs can be common and plausible ones. Moral skeptics can even believe that their moral beliefs are true by virtue of corresponding to an independent moral reality. All that moral skeptics deny is that their (or anyone's) moral beliefs are justified. This meta-ethical position about the epistemic status of moral beliefs need not trickle down and infect anyone's substantive moral beliefs or actions.”

Lest anyone think I’m asserting moral skeptics and nihilists to be bad people or immoral people- please keep the above in mind.  I could care less what moral skeptics/nihilists do or think as to ethics.  I’m sure many of them are good people and I’m sure many of them are assholes.  Welcome to every group on the planet.  Whether they are or not has absolutely nothing to do with my argument.  I make no judgments in that regard.  Putting that aside, here is the view I am addressing, that of the dogmatic moral skeptic:

“...dogmatic moral skeptics make definite claims about the epistemic status of moral beliefs:

Dogmatic skepticism about moral knowledge is the claim that nobody ever knows that any substantive moral belief is true (cf. Butchvarov 1989, 2).

Some moral skeptics add this related claim: Dogmatic skepticism about justified moral belief is the claim that nobody is ever justified in holding any substantive moral belief.   

Skepticism about moral truth is the claim that no substantive moral belief is true.

This claim is usually based on one of three more specific claims:

Skepticism about moral truth-aptness is the claim that no substantive moral belief is the kind of thing that could be either true or false.
Skepticism about moral truth-value is the claim that no substantive moral belief is either true or false (although some moral beliefs are the kind of thing that could be true or false).

Skepticism with moral falsehood is the claim that every substantive moral belief is false.

These last three kinds of moral skepticism are not epistemological, for they are not directly about knowledge or justification. Instead, they are about truth, so they are usually based on views of moral language or metaphysics.”

Skepticism about moral reality is the claim that no moral facts or properties exist.”

So if we put these last three together we get a good picture of how this type of moral skeptic is different from other types, as noted:

“...skeptics about moral truth-aptness disagree about the content of moral assertions, but they still agree that no substantive moral claim or belief is true, so they are both skeptics about moral truth. None of these skeptical theses is implied by either skepticism about moral knowledge or skepticism about justified moral belief. Some moral claims might be true, even if we cannot know or have justified beliefs about which ones are true. However, a converse implication seems to hold: If knowledge implies truth, and if moral claims are never true, then there is no knowledge of what is moral or immoral (assuming that skeptics deny the same kind of truth that knowledge requires). Nonetheless, since the implication holds in only one direction, skepticism about moral truth is still distinct from all kinds of epistemological moral skepticism.”

So we are not considering the skeptic who might believe that “Some moral claims might be true, even if we cannot know or have justified beliefs about which ones are true.”  We are considering the one as noted above the one “distinct from all kinds of epistemological moral skepticism.”  If anyone out there finds themselves agreeing with the type relativist I am addressing, I am speaking to you too.  If you don’t, then I am not and there is no need to become defensive or defend a position you don’t even hold (or understand).  Feel free to do so however.  What that might tell us about you, we will leave for any reader to determine.

Now, again, let’s consider our relativist as noted.  He might say that he does see a difference in our two pictures of dead people, but it is only a difference to him and one he cannot justify.  Another person may see any difference differently or not see one at all.  Who is right?  No one the relativist tells us.  Each is right from their relative perspective, even the Nazi or criminal gang member is “right” in this sense.  Each is “wrong” from the other person’s perspective.  Thus, metaphysically, we have an even plane; they cancel each other out, because the skeptic believes there is no metaphysical aspect to violent death (because he believes there is nothing platonic/transcendental, no God, no spiritual), there is only what we each subjectively wish to believe about each death.  Objectively, outside of each person viewing the pictures, these deaths are not different.  They are each dead.  It is only inside each person, in their head, if they see a difference or not and no one is right or wrong in any objective sense, we merely have different opinions.  In other words, the relativist tells us, imagine we are looking at these photographs and in an instance every living person, disappears from the earth.  The two pictures fall and just lay upon the earth.  There is no human to view them.  In such a case, these deaths are the same.  There is no human to project “just” or “unjust” onto these pictures.  Unless we do that, unless, we name them just or unjust, there is nothing to say regarding these deaths in the mind of our relativist.  The universe would then be silent as to these deaths, caring not one way or the other.

The above, obviously, is not the view of the objectivist.  He believes someone is either right or wrong here and he believes the deaths would still be different, even if no human on earth were present to view the photographs (because he believes something exists that is transcendental—something present regardless of whether we are or not).  He believes there is a metaphysical aspect to the violent death of anyone.  He believes when we comment regarding whether or not it was just, we are not merely expressing our opinion(s), but referring to some objective bar outside our own emotions, will, and desires.  Thus, there is an obvious and significant difference between the two.  What do we make of this difference?  Again, we don’t care who is right or wrong here.  We are not taking a side here.  We are simply addressing this difference.

So, if we take the view of the relativist, I believe we find a reduction to power that has, as least, two aspects.

First, it is a power to name what is “just” or “unjust”, moral or immoral; a power not open or available to the objectivist for obvious reasons.  If asked his reasons for naming one death just and another not, the relativist, once we peel back every surface reason, like appeals to law, culture, family, personality, nature, his personal views on justice, etc., once we establish he believes morality doesn’t exist by objective referent (he is a skeptic/nihilist), our regress will get to a pure desire and will to name something thus, to name it “this” and not “that”.  Since there is nothing outside his will and desire he need appeal to (and how could he as in his mind, no such thing exists), since he has an unhindered metaphysical freedom, since he is only bound by the freedom and will of others, this is a reduction.  Since he believes we cannot justify our assertions regarding morality, or justice, then by fiat, by sheer will, he announces it so.  This is a pure reduction to power.

This aspect is noted here from another angle:

“Whatever you call it, skepticism about moral truth-aptness runs into several problems. If moral assertions have no truth-value, then it is hard to see how they can fit into truth-functional contexts, such as negation, disjunction, and conditionals. Such contexts are also unassertive, so they do not express the same emotions or prescriptions as when moral claims are asserted.”

Here very clearly we see the difference between what a relativist means when he says something is unjust and an objectivist, or, frankly, most people in general.  When he says something is “unjust” or immoral, he doesn’t mean it in a truth-functional way or in a way that negates the exact opposite.  He only means it is unjust in his mind, in his opinion, and he is not suggesting that the exact opposite view is wrong or false.  He is not prescribing, or asserting an “ought” nor is he suggesting we ought to “feel” a certain way about his view or the opposite view.  He is naming something “just” or “unjust”, because until he does so it being just or unjust doesn’t exist.  Like a god, he makes it so by naming it so.  This is pure power.  The objectivist, and most people in general, rather, think when they say something is just or unjust, that they are agreeing, not naming, that which was already named by objective referent.  There is a clear and absolute difference in how each looks at what they are doing when asserting something is just or unjust, moral or immoral.

Second, it is a reduction to power in the sense, as noted by Thrasymachus, that justice is “only” the advantage of the stronger.  Here “stronger” we can take as power in its more literal and common usage.  Power here is strength, whether physical, intelligence, economic, material resources, political, military, majoritarian rule, etc.   If justice is the advantage of the stronger, then violence is being used, not truly for justice, which doesn’t exist anyway (no truth-value), but rather to enforce my will, my desire, my power to name.  The word “just” is then just a covering for my will and desire.  We can see this simply by listing what the relativist believes—the rest follows logically:

Our dogmatic moral skeptic believes one or more of the following:

Skepticism about moral truth is the claim that no substantive moral belief is true.
Skepticism with moral falsehood is the claim that every substantive moral belief is false.
Skepticism about moral reality is the claim that no moral facts or properties exist. (Stanford Link)

If no substantive moral belief is true, or if every substantive moral belief is false, or if no moral facts or properties exist, then using the terms “moral” “immoral” “ethical” “unethical” “good” “evil” only refer to mental and subjective announcements of one’s personal and emotional desires or will, whether one is a Nazi or a girl scout.

Therefore, inherent in this process is a pure and absolute power to name what is “moral” which is not limited in any metaphysical fashion; consequently, the only limitation is that of other people who also are completely free to name what is “moral” and thus the only way to overcome the one limitation is through power, as we cannot justify why our view is “moral” and do not recognize the justifications of others for their own views.  Thus, to enforce our version of “moral” amounts to the exercise of power and not reason, so a pure reduction to power exists from the naming to the enforcing.

In other words, if there is no moral reality, facts, or properties (objective referents) and if every substantive moral belief is false, then all we are really saying when we talk about such things, is “This is what I want, will, or desire or what I don’t want, will, or desire”.  At the same time, we believe our objectivist friends to be mistaken, wrong, about these objective referents and thus, in fact, they are “really” saying (here is the “you too” response) the same thing when they talk about morality.  Thus, violence is about getting what I (we) want; it is not really about these stand-ins, covering terms which are a gloss at best.  We are in the habit of using them because they historically have meant such things actually existed.  But this is a habit of custom, and frankly just politeness at this point, the relativist might tell us.  One could actually envision a day when leaders, the powerful, will simply assert: Because I say so and I’m stronger than you (Trump anyone?).

Now, if someone believes the opposite, these differences (what I am calling a reduction) do not happen—they do not logically follow.  Just like it would not logically follow to assert that both atheists and Christians, given their beliefs about the after-life, look at funerals the very same way in that both simply believe people are dead now.  Well, we know that is not true and does not respect the view of either.  One cannot assert that believing the opposite of the relativist as to morality, justice, and the use of violence leads us to see the difference as a reduction too—it is a logical impossibility.

So there we have it.  I claim these two reductions are the logical implications of the moral skeptic’s prior metaphysical beliefs about the nature of existence (physical nature is all that exists—which creates the difference in outlook from the objectivist).  For whatever other objections or faults we can find regarding the objectivist position, I don’t think we can logically claim the identical or similar sorts of reductions to power, metaphysically.  Of course we know descriptively that violence and power are used by both the objectivist and relativist, but we also know such is entirely irrelevant to the discussion unless we are simply taking the relativist position, which would be question begging (We would then have to say there is no difference between the pictures of dead bodies).  Now, the difference between our relativist and the objectivist exists.  I have chosen to describe that difference as a reduction to power.  That is my opinion.  You may disagree with me.  You may assert there is another way to look at this difference.  I absolutely agree.  But what is it?  No one has yet told us anything about this difference, except to wonder if it even exists (Ummm, it does—that is undisputed in the literature).  The only topic of discussion here is this difference and how we describe or talk about it—that is all I’m interested in—nothing else.

Finally, I believe if we take the moral skeptic’s view that morality, like witches, do not exist and that we cannot justify what we decide to call “moral” or “just”—that it is a pure assertion by fiat (only moral or justifiable in that sense and only to ourselves personally), then the use of violence can never be justified although one is free to use violence.  Violence just “is”.  All violence then, no matter who is committing it, no matter the reason (they are false reasons to our skeptic), no matter whether it is ISIS or the West, criminal gang, law enforcement, white supremacist, girl scout, it is all neither just nor unjust—it just “is” it just happens.  The powerful, whomever walks away unscathed or is still living, then gets to “name” or proclaim that by their very victory, by their having the last word, their side was “just” and their use of violence “justified”.

As I’ve pointed out many times, neither view can be proven in any sort of empirical or scientific sense.  Both views are assumed by faith, whether the moral skeptic or objectivist.  We know the moral skeptic believes “science” supports only their view but we also know such is scientism and not science.  Both views tell a story about morality, violence, justice, and how those terms/ideas should be understood.  As in the movie “Life of Pi” I would ask” Which story would you rather believe?  Do you want to believe that violence just “is”—that there is no metaphysical ontological difference between the deaths of those in the Nazi death camps and those who were hung for their actions at Nuremberg?  Do you want to believe that “justice” is whatever the powerful say it is?  Or, would you rather believe the story that tells us “justice” is something neither the powerful nor the weak get to “name” but is something already named and something both the powerful and weak need to observe as a matter of fairness, a matter of “justice.”?   

A critical point here is one can only make the “you too” argument if he agrees with our relativist and thinks the relativist’s beliefs, as noted, are true.  If we are not trying to prove anything or are worried about who is right or wrong, we can at least see these significant differences between the two views.  If we take neither side and simply analyze, one cannot make the “you too” response as it would be asserting the objectivist is wrong and the relativist right.  Remember, the “you too” response is the relativist response to any objectivist.  However, it is the very thing disputed; it is question-begging. 

Also, if we say both views lead to the reductions just noted, we clearly don’t understand the difference then.  We cannot say this difference exists (and all know it does, including the relativist and objectivist), but both lead to these reductions.  Such an assertion is to show a complete lack of respect for either view.  These options are simply not open to us, in any logical manner at least.  If anyone out there doesn’t see this difference or doesn’t believe it exists, then please do not comment.  A conversation is only possible if we see and recognize the difference.

We may not see or want to call this difference a reduction to power on one side (relativist) and a limitation of power on the other (objectivist), as I have chosen to label it such, but we should be able to speak to these differences and where they may lead in other realms of discourse, regardless of how I have labeled them.  If anyone would like to address this difference, these questions, and the post in general (in context with the other posts and comments) and can do so without simply saying one side is correct and the other false, or that both lead to the same reductions metaphysically (I’m not going to waste time speaking to the logically impossible), please do.

Another quick thing to note.  In the Stanford link regarding moral skepticism, nowhere does he single out fundamentalists or even address that sensibility, whether religious or otherwise.  Why?  Because it is totally irrelevant to anything being discussed.  Nor does positing what the moral skeptic believes amount to a tautology as if the only thing the Stanford writer was pointing out was that the moral skeptic doesn’t believe in objective referents (Thank you Captain Obvious!).  That would be a silly, let alone completely obtuse, conclusion to draw from everything he writes regarding moral skepticism and it would be for what I write as well—there is nothing in this post or this series that is trying to “prove” a premise or assumption.  We are simply accepting the premises and assumptions of the moral skeptic for sake of argument to see where it might lead.  When the Stanford writer notes the problems with moral skepticism (he is drawing conclusions) he is not simply pointing back to the premises of the skeptic but noting the very problems that flow from those premises.  Conversely, just because anyone doesn’t like where I think moral skepticism leads, doesn’t make what I write a tautology (Do I even need to point this out?).  I will not address any such further absolutely ridiculous and completely off the mark types of objections.  They are a total waste of time and a poor reflection upon any who would bring them up.  To voice such an objection is either intellectual laziness/ignorance or a ruse to avoid addressing the substance of these posts, the use of violence and the nature of justice.

Finally, if any comment or objection is already addressed in the post I will simply respond: “See post”.  I’m not going to repeat in the comment section, the same thing I just wrote in the post or those prior.  Please read carefully.  I will also not address any comment not accompanied by a quote of what they are specifically responding to in the post.  It is unfortunate that I have to do this, but otherwise people seem to get the idea that it is their blog, their agenda, and their forum.  It is not.  I’m not interested in some other conversation, some other relativist, or some other point (although there may be many!).  I am interested in what I have written- this conversation, this relativist, and these points.  If you are too, then feel free to engage; otherwise, one is always welcome to post on their blog or create one for that purpose.  Cheers.