Monday, 20 April 2009

Scott Pruett's 10 Questions for Atheists: Part 2

This is part 2 of Scott Pruett's 10 Questions for Atheists, following from part 1 yesterday.

4 Transcendent Principles
Logic and mathematics are abstract principles that have been discovered rather than invented.  We cannot do science, communicate, or navigate this world without them.  They appear to stand outside of nature to describe and measure it.  As Albert Einstein said, "The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible." What is the source of math and logic?  The existence of this remarkably fine-tuned universe aside, how is it that we have these "languages of reality" to so elegantly describe and interact with it?
These might "appear to stand outside of nature" but where is the evidence that this is actually so. Logic and mathematics are produced - whether discovered or invented - by naturally occurring entities - namely us (well maybe not Pruett :-) ) - and we are certainly part and parcel of the natural world - as far as we can tell to date.

Einstein generated many fine quotations but in this case, so what? He was not arguing for the intent that Pruett was, he certainly denied a creator personal god and never made any argument that such a god is responsible for logic and math. And for that matter what if he (or anyone else) did? He might have been one of the finest scientists of all time but he was not above making mistakes. However as a scientist he admitted to them - that is his thought over his invention of the cosmological constant - and even where he thought he was right he would put himself on the line and risked being proven wrong - as the Einsten-Podolsky-Rosen paradox has shown. And he certainly was not above being mistaken on topics outside his domain, see his thoughts on Soviet Communism. One should always be duboius of the use of the quote of a famous scientist for and against any position of this type, as Pruett uses him here.

Math and logic, for our purposes here, can be considered the science of patterns."A pattern is a set of objects in space and/or events in time that can be compared to and contrasted from other such sets" [Grey Walter - quote off the top of my head, I think I got the wording right]. We seek to understand the universe in terms of discerning significant patterns and so it should be no surprise that the science of patterns has turned out to be so useful in describing the patterns we seek in our world.

Now some mathematicians are fascinated in the relation of their field to the rest of nature, apart from how it has been successfully used, as just noted with respect to patterns. Philosophers of mathematics explore such origins of logic and mathematics. There is mathematical realisms such as platonism (one of the few areas his ontology is still popular), logicism, empiricism and formalism. Then there intuitionism, constructivism, fictionalism and embodied mind theories and there are other theories. 

Which is correct? Even as a (former) mathematical modeller, I am a layman when it comes to the philosophy of mathematics and I have no clear opinion on this. Still I am attracted to Lackoff's embodied mind approach which, as it happens, is entirely naturalistic. So that answer should suffice here.

I know Christian theists like to say their god created all this and I presume this is implicit in Pruett asking this question but this is hopelessly confused in many ways and so whatever my opinion above,  their solution is - yet again - is less likely than many of the theories suggested above. If this were so, how come their theology is so strewn with logic problems and they have go through so many logical contortions to claim their religion is logically consistent? The claim of logically consistency is easy to make for any decently structured religion - and there are many - but Christianity has more difficulty than most in this regard. How could the Bible be so strewn with logical contradiction if it were supposedly written (indirectly by Moses) by the great inventor of logic, God?  Of course, the claim of internal logical consistency is insufficient to select one religion over another anyway. 

Anyway in a list of candidate solutions to this question, to the degree it interests me, the Christian answer on the pain of coherence, consistency and parsimony is yet again near or at the bottom.

5 Morality
Another transcendent entity that is a problem for atheism is morality.  With no divine author or judge there is no reason to think that there should be any moral laws that we are obliged to recognize and keep, except for self-serving reasons.  And yet, morality aligns with our deepest intuitions: we expect others to recognize it; we urge our kids to exercise it; therapists get rich repairing the effects of its abuse; we judge criminals insane if they do not recognize it; and all cultures affirm it in common principle if not in individual application.
Since when is morality a transcendent entity? Socrates in his dialog with Euthyphro dealt this one a fatal blow nearly 2,500 years ago. Of course the Euthyphro argument has been misunderstood creating an illusion that Christian theologists think they have overcome it, but, as I will post shortly, they have not. In particular, Socrates with his "state of being carried" argument by analogy showed that the good is not the type of thing that could be an inherent attribute or property of anything, let alone a transcendent entity or being. Many similar arguments have been made since, most famously being Mackie's Argument from Queerness. In his terms, to think that good and bad are transcendent entities is an error (hence his approach being called Error Theory).

Mackie also explained our capacity to commit these errors is a result of us objectifying these concepts (he called this Objectification Theory, in other areas this is called reification). Morality might align with our deepest intutions, but this does not make them right. As we well know our intuitions can be mistaken, not only in regard to what we think these intutions refer to and we need some independent means of checking these intuitions. The core Euthyphro Dilemma shows that his divine author of moral laws does not help with such checks, as the divine author, if it exists, is not immune to moral evaluation itself.
So on what basis does Pruett presume that "with a divine author or judge we have a reason to think there should be moral laws"? Hume noted the problems with a "divine author" and  "moral laws" in making the distinction between "is" and "ought". Just because a god says what is good or what a moral law is does not mean we should follow follow it. Christian theologians can answer this but only by assuming that we are all sociopaths and appeal to  prudence not morality, relying on people believing in the divine carrot and stick. If you don't follow the divine author's moral laws, you will recieve divine retribution and this why you ought to follow it (This itself is a morally repugnant concept - where the punishment is infinitely dis-proportional to the crime). So Pruett's complaint about self-serving reasons actually is a criticism, if he thinks it valid, of his own morality.

I have had to spend more time on Pruett's preamble to his question than previously as there seems to be a steady deterioration in his understanding of the problem at hand, presumably biased by his beliefs. Now on to the question itself. There are actually two, I answer them in reverse order here.
Skeptics often bring up the "problem of evil" as evidence against God, i.e., if there is a good and all-powerful God, then why is there evil in the world. The problem of evil objection only makes sense if such things as good and evil are objectively real, not just preference statements. Do you think that this is a valid objection?  If so, are you admitting that there is evil in the world?  What is "evil," and do you not admit its opposite: "good?"
I am not interested in arguments for or against the existence of God, I have no issue with Pruett nor anyone else beleiving in a God or not. I am interested in the ethical questions which Pruett is asking here, for which I am only concerned as to whether such beliefs can lead to harm to others. If no harm is caused, believe all you want. Of course, what "harm" is then becomes the issue at hand. Now "evil" is an idea that is used to capture the sense of extreme and deliberate harm, still it is not part of the world, independent of humanity. To expand on what I said above, there is no transcendent "good", "bad" or "evil". Similarly, there is no any inherent "evil" either. However this does not prevent the term "evil" being used to label phsyical, maerial effects in the natural world and so yes it could be used to evaluate the performance of a purported god who is supposedly all good. I explore this more in the next part of this answer.

Do you deny objective morality; that the difference between Mother Teresa and Hitler is not just a matter of preference, like chocolate vs. vanilla ice cream?  If not, then how do you ground morality; how do you explain where it came from and why we ought to be moral tomorrow?

Pruett is mistaken in thinking that if morality is a transcendent entity it is an objective morality. What Pruett beleives is actually version of subjective morality,  since such appreciation of transcendent moral values is entirely subjective and it is an error in thinking that it makes reference to anything outside his head. It is one thing to assert objective morality it is another thing to show that what you assert is the way it is. Pruett has not done so here.  So, as far as I can see, Pruett's position is self-defeating. 

Now some atheists reject Mackie's argument and accept a type of moral realism such as those that subscribe to moral intuitionism/ethical non-naturalism, some types of utilitarinism, prioritarinism, contractarianism, moral rationalism etc. - many theists might subscribe to one of these theories too - or any that follow - this is not a domain reserved only for atheists. Whilst I disagree with them, their philosophy is still less flawed than Pruett's, containing less problematical entities and so more likely to be true than Pruett's. 

However whilst I go further in denying those types of objective moral values, I still argue, as an ethical naturalist, that morality is objective in the sense that this is about extrinsic relational properties that exist and that these can be the subject of empirical inquiry. Now there are two types of this - reductive and non-reductive naturalism - and many variants of each. 

It is true that some people - atheists or not - deny any form of objective value and I think they are mistaken. Pruett does not seem to realise that only some theists think morality comes from god or transcendent entities. There is no necessary connection between god beliefs and morality beliefs.

So how do I ground morality? I ground it on facts, not, like Pruett, on fictions. Such facts being desires, states of the world and the relations between them. 

Where does morality comes from, it comes from reality not, as Pruett thinks, on fantasy. That is it comes from the same place we get medicine, astronomy and the products of any other emprical inquiry. 

Why ought we be moral,  only becuase if we are not, we face social approbation, disapproval, blame, condemnation and worse, which could take away the value from what we desire that brings about such responses. Still some can ignore it and suffer the consequences. Egregious excesses could suffer the threat of legal responses and ingoring that, to consequential legal action and the thwarting of the achieving their values. This is not only all there is but all that is needed.
Still this relies on such social and legal forces not being corrupted by the type of mistaken beliefs that Pruett appears to endorse, which can lead to incoherent and inconsistent social pressures and unjust laws and enforcements, where the just get punished and the unjust get rewarded. Pruett's assumptions and concerns that led him to ask this question make Pruett's own position more self-defeating. If these really are his concerns he should drop his fantasy of a belief in a divine author (whether it exists or not) of supposed moral laws. 

So yes there is a difference between Mother Teresa and Hitler - although she is a poor example as she is not the saint she is made out to be, still she certainly is no Hitler either. Hitler has done more to permanently thwart the desires of more people - to deny their values - than most others in the history of mankind. The emprical evaluation of his values is one of the most negative we have ever had.
The final part, Part 3 tomorrow.