Monday, July 20, 2009

If ____, then…?

If Heaven is just an illusory way to assuage the fear of mortality, then is the assertion of nonexistence upon death a way to assuage the fear of eternal retribution?

* * *

If euthanasia is so good, why do we try talking people down from suicide?

* * *

If scientific theories do not simply "fall out" from natural sensation and perception, are they purely natural?

If medicine is intended to redress the errors of natural biology, and if medical equipment is an artificial appendage to natural organisms, then is everything even possible wholly natural?

If even one thing is artificial as distinct from natural, can everything be subsumed under nature?

If everything is lumped together ontologically as one whole "sheer Nature," then is it even coherent to make distinctions? (If everything is the same, then nothing is different, and therefore it makes no sense to ascribe common properties to different objects. If every thing, in other words, is everything, then no thing exists. If I say everything is water, with reference to what do I contrast 'this' and 'that' as exhibits of water? Insofar as all assertions presuppose distinctions, how we can assert ontological uniformity without presupposing ontological diversity? Is monism, of which naturalism is a type, even coherent?)


UnBeguiled said...

"If Heaven is just an illusory way to assuage the fear of mortality, then is the assertion of nonexistence upon death a way to assuage the fear of eternal retribution?"

Heaven is an illusory way to control people once you have manufactured a fear of Hell. It's a slick racket. The assertion of non-existence is an inference made by observing what happens when animals die.

Euthanasia is an act of love wherein the length of pointless suffering is shortened in a hopeless situation. Talking people out of suicide is an act of love (toward the patient and those that love her) in a non-hopeless situation. The misery of depression is transient.

(For the record, I don't think euthanasia is necessary given our current ability to treat pain.)

"If scientific theories do not simply "fall out" from natural sensation and perception, are they purely natural?"

Come again?

"If medicine is intended to redress the errors of natural biology, and if medical equipment is an artificial appendage to natural organisms, then is everything even possible wholly natural?"

People use "natural" in various ways. If an anthill is natural then so is a mobile home. Unless you decide that human made things are not natural, and things made by other animals are natural.

"If everything is lumped together ontologically as one whole "sheer Nature," then is it even coherent to make distinctions?"

I have a handful of coins. Some are pennies, some dimes etc. What's the problem here?

If they are all coins does it make sense to distinguish them? Yes.

Crude said...

And what about the universalists, who believe everyone is going to heaven? No doubt that's a slick racket orchestrated on telling people what they want to hear. Or atheism? Also a racket, suckering people who want to consider themselves more worldly and brave - or who need mental escape from ideas of values they find distasteful.

Anything can be called a racket. God exists, and he's running a racket!

And the misery of depression is transient? How do we know that? Do people who become depressed inevitably climb out of their depression, never to fall there again? What if the source of their depression is the belief that all that talk of God and purpose in the world is a racket?

As you say, people use "natural" in various ways. They apparently use a lot of words (love, racket, error, purpose) in various ways. But once we start defining just what we mean by each of those words, a lot of these explanations either don't square with a thorough naturalism or become empty.

UnBeguiled said...

Hello Crude,

It seems my view on things irritates you. Sorry about that.

"suckering people who want to consider themselves more worldly and brave - or who need mental escape from ideas of values they find distasteful."

An atheist, as the word is most commonly used by those who self-identify as atheists, is a person who answers a question a certain way. The question being "Do you believe in any gods?" The atheist answers "No".

You will know nothing else about such a person, be it her values, or bravery, or worldliness, or psychological propensity for escapism.

If the God described in the Bible exists, and fallen Man in need of salvation is true, then "racket" is appropriate. So we agree on that at least.

We know that depression will most likely be transient by something called inductive reasoning. Look into it. We will not know for sure. But we don't need certain knowledge in order to act.

Are people that don't believe that religious myths are true more likely to be depressed? I'm unaware, but that is an empirical claim. Got data?

Even so. Suppose that people who believe in Jesus and Heaven are less likely to suffer with depression. That does not mean that Jesus is God or that Heaven exists. Just as a drunk man may be happier than a sober one.

"just what we mean by each of those words, a lot of these explanations either don't square with a thorough naturalism or become empty."

Care to unpack that? I don't know what you mean.

Crude said...

Not irritated at all. I simply disagree.

And no, we disagree - because, as I've pointed out, your use of the term "racket" here is at best flippant. You really can call anything and everything a racket with those loose standards. It's less about accurate description and more about, in this case, showmanship.

If we're going to get picky on words, then a "theist" is simply a person who believes in God or gods. You'll know nothing else about their values, etc, by that word alone. This is a nice, technical way to talk. But "as the word is most commonly used by those who self-identify"? I find the attributions (or lack of) squirrely at best, for both the atheist and the theist. (Anecdotal experience: I've seen many atheists insist on that definition of atheism, and then immediately whip around and talk about how atheists are free thinkers, or are moral people, etc.)

We know that a single episode of depression may be transient. That depression just goes away and never returns? That's not nearly as solid a claim. And why is it an act of love to talk a person out of suicide? Really, they're going to die anyway - what's the difference between now, and forty years from now? Particularly if their depression is considerable and long-standing? Why isn't suicide a "cure" in that case?

Again, you get into a "racket" kind of complaint, comparing belief in God with drunkenness. But I didn't say that a belief's positive side-effects meant it was true. On the contrary, I was pointing out a source of depression which, on your view of the world, isn't a fact that's going to change. I don't need to pull data on this, because I'm not making an argument about the prevalence of this issue - I'm giving it as a singular example. Are you arguing that no one has ever become depressed, or suicidal, owing to their view of the world?

As for unpacking, I'll give it a stab: A person walks into a physician's office. 18 years old, perfect physical health. They want to kill themselves. They don't view themselves as sick or in need of help - for whatever reason, they think the world is rotten, they're not interested in living anymore. They want their death quick and painless, and don't trust themselves to achieve this on their own. This is legal in their state.

Given thoroughgoing naturalism, what should/ought the physician do? To be more clear, I'm not asking what the physician CAN do, what naturalism allows him to do. I'm asking if, under naturalism, there's something, anything the physician SHOULD do. (Hell, I can ask if, under naturalism, "perfect physical health" makes sense. But for the hell of it, let's just give that one away from the outset.)

UnBeguiled said...

It's a miracle! An actual conversation.

"more about, in this case, showmanship."


I do think that the doctrine of Heaven is manufactured to "solve" the non-problem of Hell. I'm speculating. The true motivation or cause of these fairy tales is likely lost to history.

Concerning your anecdotal experiences, mine are the same. I prefer to self-identify as a Naturalist, as the word has more useful content. I eschew labels if I can though. Ask me what I think and why. I can usually give an answer.

So far, the most robust meta-ethical theory I have encountered is ideal observer theory. Let's apply it to your scenario.

With or without medical treatment, depression and suicidality are usually transient. With treatment, "usually" becomes "almost certainly". Also, interviews with folks who used to be suicidal indicate that they are thankful that they did not kill themselves.

The young person you describe meets the definition of clinical depression and needs treatment for this potentially fatal disease. Accumulated case histories inform us that such a person will likely recover with treatment, and also be thankful they were not allowed to kill themselves. The family will also be grateful.

The suffering of friends and family of suicide victims cannot be exaggerated. This is something I know something about.

(Ever run a brain death protocol on your ex-girlfriend? I hope you won't have to.)

Based on ideal observer theory, an ideal observer would conclude that providing treatment would result it a better outcome than allowing the suicide. This is not a certainty, but a statistical probability. That's good enough.


But I have just describes what is the case. Not what ought to be the case.

How do I get from an ought to an is? How does the physician get from an ought to an is?

With an 'if'.

If the physician wants the outcome to be a good one rather than a bad one, then he ought to provide treatment and prevent the suicide.

Anecdote: I'm a physician. I prefer good outcomes rather than bad ones for my patients. Therefore, I know what I ought to do.

If medical school boards, medical residency committees, and state medical licensing boards desire physicians who desire good outcomes, they ought to have methods to achieve their desire. They do.

Ideal observer theory is not perfect. In my experience, reasoning about moral choices this way leads to near universal agreement in most situations. Near universal agreement in most situations is pretty damn good.

It's better than theistic ethics, which is a disaster.

(I have been on an ethics committee at my hospital for 8 years. We have a few standard medical-ethics axioms we use, and use an ideal observer method of reasoning. It seems to work. Better than looking in the Bible or praying for guidance anyway. Those methods never lead to a consensus.)

I suspect you desire an ethical theory that is more objective. Good luck finding one. Let me know how it goes.

Crude said...

You say the person I describe "meets the definition of clinical depression". Great - but I asked you about how to justify these things under naturalism. You're giving me replies from medical textbooks, likely from AMA and APA proceedings, etc. But my question remains, and will just end up being directed at those organizations and teachings.

Let me state that I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that someone can declare "This is the way things should be, and that's that!" and work from there. Or that someone can develop an ethical system filled with rules saying "do this" and "avoid that". But I'm still going to ask just what this all means, what the justification is, etc. Anyone can make up any rule - it's easy. Game developers do it all the time, and produce rather consistent rules.

You talk about ideal observer theory - wonderful. Who decides what the standards are for a better or worse outcome? There are environmental extremists, wingnutty sorts I think we'd both agree, who think a "better outcome" would be the vast reduction of or even elimination of the human species. Then there are eugenicists, who would view attempting to treat your friend with the "definition of clinical depression" as a fine way to pollute our gene pool, and throwing a wrench into an otherwise good opportunity (The man himself wants to die. Why talk him out of it?) There are those who would argue the misery caused to the family is their own fault, or indicative of a flaw in their being which needs to be corrected. Upset that your child committed suicide, Mrs Jones? We have pills and treatment for that kind of mental illness.

The best you can say here is "Well, a lot of people seem to agree with the view I'm taking" and implying that there's less agreement with 'theistic' ethics. I find that laughable, but I don't even have to take issue with it: You're appealing to pragmatism in your view, you're appealing to personal satisfaction, you're appealing to popularity.

But you're not appealing to naturalism - and I think it's clear that this is because naturalism provides no answer to my question. It doesn't even open the door to an answer the way non-naturalistic views do (and I don't mean exclusively theism here, though I'm a theist.) Naturalism's answer is there is no answer. Go ahead, kill him. Or don't. Talk him out of it and THEN kill him. Cripple him and then keep him alive and miserable. By naturalism, the objective moral difference between these options is nil.

By the way, you say that you suspect I desire an ethical theory that is more objective. But that's a mistake: What you've described, by naturalism, is not "more objective" than anything. It's not objective at all insofar as promoting objective goods and progress is concerned, because those don't really exist on naturalism. It is, at absolute best, a subjective useful fiction. It can be popular. You can personally like it. It can be subjectively pragmatic. But you can't be "more objective" or even a little objective. That sort of talk is for theists, deists, taoists, buddhists, and the rest.

UnBeguiled said...

For sake of the discussion, let's agree that objective morality exists.

Faced with the situation of the young person who is suicidal, how could we (me and you) objectively acquire the moral knowledge that tells us how we ought to behave?

Crude said...

I'm sorry, but the sake of what discussion? It can't be the one we're having - I haven't been offering arguments here in favor of objective morality. I haven't even argued the necessity of theism for making sense of objective morality (I think one inevitably ends up there, but I explicitly drew the line between naturalism and non-naturalism).

I'm not against changing the subject, but I'd at least like my criticisms to either be addressed or admitted as valid. Commitment to a thoroughgoing naturalism excludes the existence of objective morality - and the ramifications are that there's no "more objective" basis for morality in this or that system, and there's no objective "ought" in any is/if situation. At best there are subjective and ultimately arbitrary standards. They can be subjectively pragmatic. They can be popular. They can be personally admired. And that's about it.

Am I right?

UnBeguiled said...

OK sorry. Dealing with Dr Feser, got distracted.

On naturalism, I think that "objective" morality in a strict sense is unintelligible.

But . . . a robust secular ethic can be constructed. We can figure out how best to behave. We can figure out what we ought to do.

But I don't think theism has anything better to offer. I think it's much worse.

My argument will be that even if objective morality exists, we have no objective method of acquiring moral knowledge.

What I have to offer is inter-subjective moral knowledge.

Crude said...

Okay - so "objective morality" in a strict sense (in what other possible sense, then? By means of calling subjective objective?) is unintelligible on naturalism. What you "have to offer" is inter-subjective moral knowledge.

Alright. You say theism has nothing "better" to offer, and that in fact it's "much worse". But again, what's this "better"? What's this "worse"? You can only mean that in a subjective sense.

If my criticisms are correct, theism is neither better nor worse in any real, objective sense on your view. It can't be. "Popular, pragmatic, personal" - that's all you have, and all you can hope to have. And when you talk about offering "inter-subjective moral knowledge", you don't mean any kind of objective knowledge or truth - just subjective views one may accept or reject, with no chance of being actually "wrong" or "right" in their acceptance/rejection.

Let me be clear here: I'm not dumping on your standards for the sake of bravado. I'm pointing out what they really mean, and what they have to mean given your commitments.

Again, as harsh as it is when I put it this way (and I'm trying to walk a line between honest and civil here), am I right?

UnBeguiled said...

Yes you are right.

It is better to eat ice cream than it is to drop a brick on your foot.

That is subjective.

But if you and I can agree on it, then it is inter-subjective, and a starting point for building a meta-ethic.

So when are you going to give me something better than the inter-subjective meta-ethical system I have offered?

I think I will be able to demonstrate inter-subjectively that a theistic system is worse.
(or at least no better, we shall see)

UnBeguiled said...

And by the way, you have not revealed to me any deep truth. I'm aware of the inherent problems with secular ethics.

Crude said...

You want me to give you something "better"? But we've established that by your standards, "better" and "worse" aren't objective, real measures that can be appealed to. They're subjective at best (hell, if the Churchlands are right, you don't even have that necessarily - but again, let's give you that "best".)

You don't need my agreement to build a meta-ethic. Hell, you don't need other people at all. You don't even need to make it consistent. Just build it, declare yourself done when it pleases you, and you've succeeded, or at least as close as you can get to "success" in naturalism. You'll have made a meta-ethical system that's just as objectively "good" as any other system proposed. Not bad for what could be five minutes' work.

So what you're asking me here isn't to give you something "better" in an objective sense. Insofar as you embrace naturalism, you rule that out to begin with. You can't be asking me to get you to renounce naturalism - that would be a completely different ballgame than discussing ethics. What you can be asking me to do is persuade you about subjective standards using subjective criteria. But why in the world would I want to? Under naturalism, you may as well be asking me to persuade you that vanilla tastes better than chocolate.

It's like a solipsist betting me fifty dollars that I can't convince him that Jupiter "really" exists. I wouldn't take that bet. Would you?

(And, I'm not trying to make you aware of any novel truth. I'm just pointing out the obvious. Mundane, but worth doing for a coherent conversation.)

UnBeguiled said...


Any attempt at theistic ethics will suffer from the same problem of subjectivity.

Suppose an objective standard of morality does exist. How can we objectively discover what that standard is?

We can't.

Crude said...

Once again, I haven't attempted to advance theism here. In fact, I haven't talked about theism particularly at all - I even went out of my way to point out how not every system which rejects naturalism is necessarily theistic.

But no, non-naturalistic theories of ethics/morals do not "suffer from the same problem of subjectivity". Under naturalism, objective morality, ethics, standards, etc are not possible. The commitments of naturalism rule these things out from the start. Under non-naturalistic views, objective values are possible (again, speaking broad here - taoism, theism, etc), but you're arguing that that introduces a problem of "objectively discovering" them.

Notice the difference. In non-naturalistic views, you can argue that how to discover objective morals/values is a difficulty. Under naturalism, it's not a difficulty - the question simply will not come up. It's similar to the problem of other minds. The realist and the solipsist do not have "the same problem". The realist has the problem of "objectively discovering" other minds. For the solipsist, this problem doesn't come up - he's decided there are no other minds, and so there's no point to looking for other minds.

UnBeguiled said...


I have acknowledged that on naturalism, "objective" standards as you define objective cannot exist. So I agree with you. Repeating it over and over is not a way to have a conversation.

So I'm asking a favor. Please sir:

How can we learn what is moral?

Crude said...

I wouldn't keep repeating myself, UnBeguiled, but you keep on repeating yourself in turn. Every time you talk about "better" or "worse", or "good" or "bad", I'm going to point out what that has to mean for you. When you argue that naturalism and non-naturalism (even if you insist on "theism") are in the same boat, I'm going to point out why that's not true. If you're expecting me to just get used to your language and let it slide, it won't happen. I'm pedantic when I think distinctions are important.

And I'm going to have to do it again. "We", meaning me and you, can't learn what's moral. You're a naturalist by your own admission, so to get anywhere I'd have to get you to reject naturalism first. We're back to the solipsist example - I can talk about astronomy, cosmology, the Hubble telescope and the rest until I'm blue in the face. All fine offerings in the service of proving that Jupiter exists. All utterly useless when it comes to a solipsist.

So, do you really want to have a chance at learning objective moral truths? There's the crucial and unavoidable step: Reject naturalism. You don't have to embrace theism, or even non-naturalism - you can get by with a certain kind of agnosticism. But if you want to have any chance at all, you need objective morality to be a live possibility. That's not happening for the committed naturalist.

(And it should go without saying that, no, I don't have some magical knockdown combination of words that will compel you to admit or believe objective morality exists. Just like I can't compel the solipsist to admit or believe that other minds exist. I can't even guarantee getting someone to admit and believe that 2 + 2 = 4, or that there was a history before last thursday.)

UnBeguiled said...


As I said above:

"For sake of the discussion, let's agree that objective morality exists."

All I can do here is to tell you that I shall do my best to pretend that naturalism is false. If the necessary pre-condition for this conversation is that I "really believe" that naturalism is false, I am afraid you are asking for something I am unable to provide.

I am acting in good faith. I will really really try to assume the perspective of a non-naturalist.

I cannot just switch my beliefs on and off like a light switch. Can you?

As I frequently plead to Elliot here, I really want to understand.

So, I am officially pretending that I believe naturalism is false. OK, go.

The Cogitator said...


Many thanks for carrying on a civil and focused discussion at, of all places, my blog!

It should come as no surprise that, for the most part, I side with Crude's position, agreeing that unBe's simultaneous denial of "THE best thing to do" (objective morality) and insistence that there is no "BEST thing to do" is basically incoherent. Or, drawing on Lonergan and Meynell, as I like to describe such cases, performatively incoherent, or retorsively self-destructive.

unBe, it is not actually a matter of imaginatively suspending your belief in naturalism. Rather, you need to drop that belief altogether. And you need to do this for two reasons. First, consider the incoherence of monism itself. Second, you need to face the Sisyphusean performative absurdity of this debate as long as you push for naturalism.

In the first case, I take monism to be incoherent simply because it removes the tools we need to mount a defense of it, namely, actual distinctions. If EVERYTHING really is water, then how could we (being water ourselves) possibly grab two distinct 'pieces' of water and compare them against a distinct non-watery background in order to assert that these two distinct pieces of _____ are water, while, e.g., the space between them as we observe them is not, we ourselves as observers are not, the background against which we view them is not, etc? You try to blunt the force of this critique by imagining a handful of coins and saying the different kinds of coins are all still JUST COINS, and therefore the different kinds of objects in nature are all still JUST NATURE. But notice what you've done: you asked ME (not a heap of coins) to consider a HANDful of coins in your HAND (not a heap of coins) with enough space (not more coins) between them to distinguish them. IOW, you've inadvertently (and illegitimately) used a pluralistic ontology to establish a monist ontology. The only way we can specify this or that patch of spacetime as "a handful of coins" is by acknowledging that not every patch is "a handful of coins." Are you a handful of coins as you ponder your handful of coins? Does your handful of coins regard itself? And if so, against what background? An infinite sea of handfuls of coins? Notice, further, that you can't even say anything about the contents of the handful of coins–– pennies, nickels, dimes–– without once more pluralizing its ontology.

The upshot is this: Only because nature is radically and actually distinct from God is there any metaphysical grounds for distinguishing the myriad contents of nature. As Maritain puts it in his masterwork, The Degrees of Knowledge (Fr. Distinguir pour unir), "Every attempt at metaphysical synthesis, especially when it deals with the complex riches of knowledge and of the mind, must distinguish in order to unite" (p. ix).
… … …

The Cogitator said...

… … …

Crude has already addressed the second reason you should drop naturalism, namely, that you are seeking a standard for moral discourse while at the same time renouncing the supremacy of standards over human interactions themselves. Is courtesy, for example, really a natural norm that must (or perhaps just ought) govern every intersubjective discourse? Says who? Your little discourse over there? Is parsimony really a natural standard by which we must (or ought) judge all intersubjective claims? Who says so? That little discourse-clique over yonder? And so on.

Lastly, I would suggest that the objective-subjective distinction (ach, zat vord again!) is highly… ambiguous in trinitarian Christian orthodoxy (TCO), precisely because TCO posits intersubjective communion as the eternally objective basis for all things! Objective morality just means the intersubjective concerns that "umbrella" the common, fundamental experience of human beings. TCO actually results in an apophatic morality, since every moral "system" must be relativized against the transcendent, objective "backdrop" of God Himself. There is, thus, not only room for a kind of pluralist ethics in TCO, but also a basis for pluralistic ethics. No moral "system" is 'perfect' since only God is perfect. But insofar as our moral aims are aimed at God in His self-revelation in Christ, our moral systems are perfected. This is but the act-potency distinction (!) applied to ethics. It is also why God is not properly called a "moral being," but is instead perfectly free being-in-communion. Perhaps I can scratch up a post about this at greater length.


The Cogitator said...

A further consideration:

unBe's repeated claim that even if there is some objective moral standard, we cannot know it works just as well against (his much beloved) science as it does against any truth claims. What unBe is to morality, antirealists are to the objectivity of science. Even if there is an independently existent world of theoretical entities, we could never know it. Science is purely a pragmatic intersubjective discourse, one of man's many finite (or infinite) games. unBe seems to be looking for some meta-standard by which we could assess objective moral claims, but doing so not only begs the question against moral claims qua that very standard, but also confuses "objective" with "ultimate". In a realist philosophy, morality is objective in the same way science is: both seek to *discover*, engage, and be-informed-by genuine fixtures of the world. This does mean grasping objective scientific knowledge is *ultimate* scientific knowledge, since, obviously, new data can disconfirm a current theory and a better theory can 'sublimate' a lesser one. The truth of the lesser model remains objectively intact, but *only as far as* reality shows it extends.

In the same way religion is accused of confirmation bias (i.e., religionists are predisposed to remember "when faith works" but downplay or block out when it fails), much of science merits the same criticism. If you compare the hours and hours and hours of effort put into science with the minute, incremental gains it makes (compared to the countless failed experiments and totally erroneous hypotheses), it becomes evident that science itself is vaunted only for when it works. As for the rejoinder, "Yeah, but when science works, it REALLY works," or "it works over and over again in many people's lives," this is no more compelling than saying "when miracles happen, they REALLY happen," or "faith works in people's lives over and over again in countless situations." Using a microwave is a humdrum benefit of science, but then again, finding the strength to forgive our enemies, love our spouses better, etc., are also daily, humdrum benefits of religious faith.


The Cogitator said...

unBe said: "On naturalism, I think that "objective" morality in a strict sense is unintelligible.

But . . . a robust secular ethic can be constructed. We can figure out how best to behave. We can figure out what we ought to do."

On what grounds 'ought' we, rather than simply *do* we, as a matter of custom and conditioning, construct an ethical system at all, much a robust one? Naturalistic evolution can account for why we have certain moral impulses and aversions, but it cannot assess whether we *ought* have them and, ultimately, what we *ought* do with them; it can only sketch what we have done and might do with them.


UnBeguiled said...

"but then again, finding the strength to forgive our enemies, love our spouses better, etc., are also daily, humdrum benefits of religious faith."

. . . or the daily humdrum benefits of being a secular humanist.

If suddenly you lost your faith, would you instantly become a jackass? Of course not.

I will tell you how I get from an "is" to an "ought".

With an "if".

If my colleagues and I desire an effective means of addressing ethical issues that arise in our hospital, then we ought to develop an ethical system.

We do. So we did.

You believe you were created by God for certain ends. Why ought you seek those ends?

I predict that whatever answer you give, then I can ask another "why" question.

Any jackass can do that. :)

UnBeguiled said...

Am I a monist and didn't know it?

"But insofar as our moral aims are aimed at God in His self-revelation in Christ, our moral systems are perfected."

Ideal observer theory by any other name is just as neat.

Quit borrowing from my worldview! Get your own.