Saturday, December 31, 2011

Science and religion, version umpteen

Science is the culmination of the Western religious tradition. 

A striking thing about Eastern religions is their humility. They recognize that they are addressing human needs, which many other paths can also address. They are philosophically shy. Buddhism may be right, but if not, then no big deal.. it is just an offered solution to human suffering, and an expression of spiritual values and emotions that can take other forms. Hinduism offers more gods than you can shake a stick at ... take your pick and be happy. Shintoism has no truth at all, other than a conviction that nature, in its spiritual guise of Kami, is worthy of veneration- an almost pure biophilia.

In contrast, Western religion, at least in the monotheistic tradition as it developed out of late Judaism, (with additions of Greek philosophy), is obsessed with truth. We are right, our model of invisible reality is right, or else we will kill you. This appalling combination of spiritual and philosophical malpractice has led to monumental amounts of suffering.

On the other hand, this same obsession with correctness, truth, belief, and ontological competitiveness had one silver lining, which is that it led to Western science. At some point, crypto-theologians like Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, and Charles Darwin, who were interested in truth perhaps a little more than tradition and theology, struck out to new intellectual territory, away from received explanations and ontologies, and lo and behold! Truth with a capital "T" emerged, far more powerful and durable than the mouldering not even half-truths of theology.

It is terribly ironic that Western religions, faced with (let us call it Darwinian) competition from its offspring- a truthmaking tradition vastly more effective than their own, are banding together in hopeless ecumenical projects and rear-guard actions like conservative political tantrums and denialism, after having spent centuries evolving a kaleidoscope of divergent and often violently antagonistic confessions, each with its own "truth". I guess this is how it ends ... with a whimper.

Nevertheless, religion as a whole is surely not dead. What is dead are its claims to "philosophy", "knowledge" and "truth". As the Eastern traditions understand, (as do those few Western traditions that confine themselves to spiritual emotions), the human need remains for ministering, for belonging, and above all for deeply felt appreciation of the wonder of existence, particularly human value. All that remains, once all the "truth" has been burned away one way or another, is love.


  • Populism- the empty vessel.
  • More commentary on the South.
  • Crony capitalism thrives when laws are enforced selectively, at the discretion of prosecutors and regulators.
  • Economics quote of the week, From Michael Moran, on declining US influence:
"Longer-term, however, this [Japan and China denominating their mutual trade in local currencies rather than dollars] is a part of the long game played by Beijing. Since American financial “creativity” nearly threw the world into Depression in 2008, China, Russia, Malaysia, South Africa and others have called for the creation of a new global reserve currency not beholden to the dysfunction of the US political scene."

38 comments:

  1. The horrors of liberalism are far more devastating than any religion, and has destroyed our societies.

    "Moderate means can eventually reach ends that are not at all moderate. Liberalism in fact tends toward a sort of totalitarianism in the name of an absolutized pluralism. It starts with religious freedom but leads to enforced nihilism because publicly to express the view that one purpose is better than another is to create an environment that is oppressive for those who disagree. It starts by dividing power but in the end demands comprehensive state administration of everything to ensure the equal empowerment of all individuals. The bureaucratic welfare state and the world market are rational formal arrangements for promoting the mutual accommodation and satisfaction of individual preferences. In the end, they are the only principles of social order liberalism can allow. Other principles, like religion, sex roles and particular cultural norms, must be suppressed as irrationally unequal and oppressive.

    Nihilism and the abstract purposes of atomic individuals do not seem to me a sufficient foundation for social order. If that’s right, then liberal governments are likely to lose both popular support and rationality, and consequently become increasingly unprincipled, ineffective, and ultimately despotic. - James Kalb: http://turnabout.ath.cx:8000/node/33

    Most of all, the denial of the past has destroyed architecture and our cities to empty dogmas, in fact modern Western cities are an expression of Hell far more hopeless than in any description of Dante: http://www.2blowhards.com/archives/000726.html

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  2. Burk,

    I say "Amen!" to that! While I may appreciate a communion with the past a bit more, as a "religious" person I recognize that they are all pathways, not endpoints. And if someone prefers secular language to more mythical language, if it accomplishes the same thing - excellent!

    That is, if we care more about the spirit than the letter.

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  3. Thanks, Steven.. this was inspired by a book on Shinto that my wife gave me. Hope all is well with you!

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  4. Hi, Oyvind-

    Is this on topic? I appreciate your thoughts, but they seem a bit nebulous. Next week, we may have more to talk about, when I touch on Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the ideals of freedom. Is freedom bad? Should we seek to live our lives under some feudal "order" established by whatever plunderers, usurpers, or charlatans gained power over our ancestors? That seems to be your preference.

    Anyhow, best wishes for the new year!

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  5. I really need to look into(e) Shinto!

    Happy New Year, Burk!

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  6. Burk,

    “All that remains, once all the "truth" has been burned away one way or another, is love.”

    But you are asserting a “truth” here. How did this one truth you assert escape the fire? Unfortunately, your philosophical naturalism is the very thing that “burns” away everything until there is no place for truths such as “love” in any objective sense outside of some “selfish” gene that reduces “love” to mere self-interest or the very opposite of what people normally associate with the word “love.” If you are using the word with an entirely new meaning, then fine. But if you are using the word in its normal sense, you negate the very thing you are asserting. Once all is burned away there is no “ought” there is only the “is.” Love also, then, becomes ash.

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  7. Thanks, Darrell-

    Thanks for commenting!

    You are doubtless referring to evolutionary explanations of our emotions, which, as you are now pro-evolution, we can stipulate as being correct. Yet even so, that doesn't alter the significance love has for us subjectively, nor alter its significance for improving the world by combining philosophical rigor in questions of truth with social/subjective virtues of charity, love, etc..

    I think we agree that more cultivation in the latter direction is highly desirable, and the only question is whether it should be done via mythical narratives of extraordinarily confident & grandiose claims and rather dubious evidence, or perhaps via minimalist narratives with humble claims and far less need for evidence (Eastern religions), or even without narratives at all, via simple acceptance of our human needs & frailties, combined the rational prospect that greater general peace and happiness presents.

    It is a psychological question, presented in a setting of competing narratives / approaches to human betterment. If one narrative is literally inbelievable, how is that one going to work? The empirical evidence (in advanced secular countries) is that, odd as it seems, we don't necessarily need a snow job of theology, life-after-death, theo-guilt-trips, etc. to recommend policies of generosity and kindness.

    I would agree that pure secularism represents a loss of living myth- of people living out a strong common narrative with rituals, symbols, and meaning woven through. Not being religious, I can't properly guage the magnitude of that loss as an emotional matter. It seems a serious issue, but if the narrative is flagrantly untrue, other values come into conflict with this emotional experiential value, which is why philosophically (and militarily!) humbler religions are attractive in comparison.

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  8. Burk,

    “You are doubtless referring to evolutionary explanations of our emotion, which, as you are now pro-evolution, we can stipulate as being correct.”

    I don’t even know what it means to be “pro-evolution.” How funny. I believe the Nicene Creed. You are doubtless referring to philosophical naturalism as an explanation for things evolution could never be expected to explain, or, if attempted would mean one didn’t understand the meaning of the word love to begin with.

    “Yet even so, that doesn't alter the significance love has for us subjectively, nor alter its significance for improving the world by combining philosophical rigor in questions of truth with social/subjective virtues of charity, love, etc..”

    If love can be reduced to self-interest only or stimulated output of an electrical circuit in the brain, or a subjective assertion that could mean the opposite of love, then it does alter its significance. You assume things here your philosophy can’t underwrite: You assume there is something called “improvement” and questions of philosophical “truth.” You assume something called “charity” and “love.” All these require objective standards or they are meaningless. What would “improvement” mean without a standard of sorts? You said earlier that once “Truth” was burned away, all would be well. But you also decided you want some “Truth” or “love” to remain—as I pointed out. What you mean is you cannot live as if your philosophical naturalism is really true. Love is an “ought” and you assert a world that just “is.”

    “or even without narratives at all, via simple acceptance of our human needs & frailties, combined the rational prospect that greater general peace and happiness presents.”

    Impossible, as your philosophical naturalism/atheism/scientism is a narrative.

    “I would agree that pure secularism represents a loss of living myth…”

    No, it simply represents another myth.

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  9. Darrell-

    Could I ask your attitude towards clothes? Is it possible that people are naked underneath their clothes, yet don't "reduce" each other to that embarrassing state most of the time? And that we put clothes on and deal with each other as clothed beings, ignoring the origin and mechanism of the clothed state?

    In the same way, whatever the orgin and mechanism of love, we deal with each other as we are, with the given emotions. Whether we have true account of its origin is certainly of philosophical interest, and sometimes of practical interest to those who make an issue of it, but it doesn't have to be, and the feeling hardly depends on having a true account. Otherwise a lot of people would be in an enormous pickle, one way or another!

    So I accept that you don't agree with the naturalistic account of love, even though you seem to buy evolution on some level- which is rather strange, I have to say- but that doesn't really alter most of its properties which we surely agree are beneficial on individual and collective levels.

    Your argument amounts to a rather mechanical reversal of my own ... but if one believes one's model of reality, then one is not living a lie in any case, one is just philosophically mistaken, and taking for granted something that nature provides under a different mechanism than one imagines.

    So all these fraught arguments about love, nature, goodness morality, etc, being impossible in a secular world (or in a Christian world) are pointless and unnecessary, and indeed a little drama-queen-ish.

    Obviously, the "truth" I was referring to was the various explicit claims about philosophy made by religious traditions that can't all be true in any case, are all quite probably false en masse, and can't have any philosophical force anyhow without better evidence. I was not referring to the more humble this-world observations on the goodness of motherhood and apple pie, etc.. which are self-evident, at least to those with eyes to see, without need for theological clothing.

    And the narratives I refer to are also specifically religious ones.. the ones with big claims and no evidence- the ones that need to be narratives, or they are nothing. The true story doesn't need to be a narrative- it does just fine in text books and other dry-as-dust prose.

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  10. Burk,

    I clearly believe you are philosophically mistaken. But, further, I think you are unwilling to take your conclusions (that the material is all there is) to its logical conclusions. You will not look into the abyss. That is what I meant by wanting to hold on to the truth of “love.” Do we all fool ourselves in some way? Certainly. You are doing what we all do on some level.

    “So all these fraught arguments about love, nature, goodness morality, etc, being impossible in a secular world (or in a Christian world) are pointless and unnecessary, and indeed a little drama-queen-ish.”

    I didn’t say they were impossible. I actually believe love, goodness, and beauty exist in objective ways because I believe in God. They are a testament to the falseness of the naturalist narrative. A narrative that has no place for such values (as to their existence) or tries to reduce or explain them away, clearly, doesn’t like it to be pointed out. They make sense in my worldview—they don’t in yours. That is my only point. Of course they exist and of course atheists can be kind loving people. Atheists just have to live with the cognitive dissonance.

    “And the narratives I refer to are also specifically religious ones.. the ones with big claims and no evidence- the ones that need to be narratives, or they are nothing. The true story doesn't need to be a narrative- it does just fine in text books and other dry-as-dust prose.”

    Oh, you mean big claims like God doesn’t exist and the material is all there is—with no evidence? Right, as long as the “true story” is your story you are happy to call everyone else’s a “narrative.” How convenient. You misunderstand what narratives mean in this context. There is a whole body of work out there, both secular and religious, that speaks of narratives in the sense I am using. Of course you are only speaking of those “other” narratives as you give yourself a pass.

    That “true” story you speak of, whether in a text book and no matter how dry or creative—is a narrative.

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  11. Let me ask about a line: "I actually believe love, goodness, and beauty exist in objective ways because I believe in God."

    This is unclear. Do you believe that your belief itself creates the objective love et al.? Or that God creates them and your belief is unnecessary to making them either manifest or usable? The implications would be quite different. Or does your belief relieve you of showing evidence for your philosophy of objective love-ness?

    "They are a testament to the falseness of the naturalist narrative. A narrative that has no place for such values (as to their existence) or tries to reduce or explain them away, clearly, doesn’t like it to be pointed out."

    Obviously, this indicates you didn't really understand my blog, my comments, or most of my other blogs. The evolutionary explanation would be that we feel love by way of our inborn biology for very understandable and practical reasons- nurturing young, belonging to a community, feeling significant in the world generally. Thus love exists, though it has subjective qualities and has the typically non-uniform distribution that many other biological capacities have. Which is to say that some people feel less of it than others, on average and left to their own devices.

    So love arises from our biology, which enables its expression and exchange in our relations. One wouldn't look for love per se through a telescope or a microscope, as you seem to imply with the label "objective". One wouldn't rely on imaginary beings to supply imaginary love when we know its real source- other people, and, in a pinch, pets!

    No abyss is needed here. As I noted, just because we can take our clothes off and know we can take them off doesn't mean that we have to keep them off all the time. Likewise, just because some people are pathologically non-empathic, (love negative, one might say), and love is at core biological, induced by somewhat known pathways, oxytocin, etc. and so forth, doesn't mean that it doesn't exist for me as a person and that I can't enjoy it- individually, socially, and politically.

    It is indeed objective in that sense, and perhaps we have a sort of ironic common ground there, but it isn't objective operationally in how I feel it. It is the definition of subjectivity, indeed.

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  12. Burk,

    “This is unclear. Do you believe that your belief itself creates the objective love et al.? Or that God creates them and your belief is unnecessary to making them either manifest or usable? The implications would be quite different. Or does your belief relieve you of showing evidence for your philosophy of objective love-ness?”

    I’ve explain this many times. According to Christian theology, God is love. My belief is completely irrelevant (as is your disbelief) as to love’s existence as it is completely bound up in God’s existence. It just is, whether I believe it or not. It is objective in the same way your belief in materialism (a process and reality outside your subjective opinion- for the sake of argument anyways) leads you to the logic of love as simply a subjective impulse created by electrical synapses in the brain. So, regardless of whether you believe God exists or whether I believe in philosophical naturalism—each belief are both objective—in the sense that neither one of us are the creators, out of our subjective imaginations, of either belief. Now, do you have to subjectively believe (make a personal decision) in philosophical naturalism? Of course. Do I have to subjectively believe in God? Of course. Does that mean that either belief’s telos is subjective? Of course not. They arise out of and find their summation in something objective—even if such is abstract. Natural Selection isn’t an object. It is a way of talking about something. That doesn’t mean believing it is true is your personal private subjective belief. I think you are confusing the entire matter of the objective/subjective interplay.

    However, you want your cake and eat it too. You want love to be a subjective impulse or something reducible to matter-in-motion, but you also want it to be a “TRUTH” that remains after all other truth is burned away. You want it to be a universal objective truth. You don’t want it to be just your personal subjective private opinion. If it “remains” after all else is gone, then it remains for all. You want to romanticize it. So you are stuck in a sort of philosophical bind here. Ironically, you use very similar language St. Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 13, where he writes: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” In context, he is basically saying “after everything else is gone…”

    When we think about “love” it falls into the same category as morality and other abstract ideas/qualities. It is a very disputed and unresolved matter as to whether or not Evolution can explain what most people mean when they speak of love, goodness, morality, and other such similar areas. It is disputed for the very reasons I raised. If it helps you to write as if it were a settled matter, then good for you. The rest of us though have to deal with the reality that it is a disputed matter. One only need substitute the word “love” for the word “morality” or “forgiveness” as it is used in these two short essays to see the problems with your view.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/dec/19/christian-morality-objectivity-ethics
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/aug/01/forgiveness-evolution?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487

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  13. Hi, Darrell-

    Thanks for an engaging comment. I confess to being confused by your presentation of the objective/subjective divide. I think we both agree that love is experienced subjectively. And you point out that both our models also reduce love to an object- either that it is chemicals and electricity in the brain, in communication with other brains, or conversely that it is specifically not biological, but some kind of ethereal non-human property of the universe which you equate with god. Personally, I think the latter is an animistic projection / pre-scientific explantion of the former, but that's another topic.

    Then you say that beliefs are always objective, whatever they are about.. naturalism or religion. Would scientology be objective as well? I guess so, though entirely false and made-up. It purports at least to deal with truths of some objective type, so takes an objective form.

    Then you say that I want love to be a truth, yet not one that "burns away" with all the narrative claims of religious truth. I can see that if you equate god with love, this would be a problem. Yet if we go back to the experiential subjectivity of love, it is not such a problem, since that remains after (or before) all the theories, religious or otherwise, have been elaborated and discarded. So it is quinessentially a subjective "truth", if you want to call it that. I would not call it a truth at all, but an emotion, quite unlike truths which have totally different philosophical natures and standards.

    Likewise, I would agree that morality is similar to love in being founded on emotions and essentially subjective. While moral reason relates to mechanisms and consequences, only emotion tells us what is "good". What most people mean by these ideas is that they feel "good" when things go as they "should", whether their ideas of "should" and "good" are spontaneously felt responses to the world, or programmed by a religous or other narrative / propagandistic tradition (which itself of course originated in someone else's feelings of "goodness" and "shouldness", however inspired).

    Even if you hold to a putatively objective tradition like Islam, where the prophet spelled out completely what is good and what everyone should do, based on direct deliverances from god via Gabriel, what we have in practice is the prophet's dictation of goods and shoulds, combined with the self-authored claim of divinity which no one can check up on, which has been claimed and ignored zillions of other times, which has no rational basis in anything we know reliably (other than mental illness), and whose fruits are contradictory if not uninterpretable, and morally impeachable, at least in our time, if not contemporaneously.

    So I guess my point is that scientific objectivity fits neatly and understandably with moral and other forms of subjectivity, and does not have to posit any supernatural magic. I know it seems magical that we would experience empathy and love, but vision and many other biological processes seemed that way too.

    Thanks for the links.. they seem to make the case for why we might want morals to be objective, but not actually for why and how they are. I understand that many people want a rock to hang on to, but wanting it is not the same as having it.

    "This is because God's moral law cannot be read off the page, in spite of what some might tell you, but can only be comprehended by those who have undergone a lengthy process of training and transformation."

    Ah- something to warm the heart of the priestly class, I am sure! The hoi polloi need not bother itself with making up moral rules.

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  14. Burk,

    "Thanks for the links.. they seem to make the case for why we might want morals to be objective, but not actually for why and how they are."

    He makes the "why" part fairly clear. As to the "how"-really? As if we could diagram it or show a mathmatical equation. Is that what you were looking for? Really? Sort of misses the point.

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  15. "Only an ethic not of our own making can truly call us to account; and further, only an ethic not of our own making can remake us and surprise us."

    Again, this may be why the writer wants objective morals, but it doesn't tell us why or even whether they exist. He presumes that his flavor of Christianity is true, (with, presumably, his favored morals- certainly not those of fundamentalists or other unpleasant sects), which, as a sentient reading of Hitchens would have told him, is very far from settled.

    "In truth, though, the moral work of our lives is done continually, collectively and over time. It emerges in the shape of our personality and temperament, habits and character."

    Well, on this at least we can agree. The idea that this connects with any serious way with the fables of Christianity is simple propaganda, spin, and self-aggrandisement. Best expressed by the central dictum:

    "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned."

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  16. Burk,

    "Only an ethic not of our own making can truly call us to account; and further, only an ethic not of our own making can remake us and surprise us."

    “Again, this may be why the writer wants objective morals, but it doesn't tell us why or even whether they exist.”

    It has nothing to do with what he might “want.” That is a presumption on your part. He is pointing out an obvious fact: If we can’t appeal to something outside out own mind and will, then we are stuck with Nietzsche’s “Will-to-Power” and we are left with might-makes-right. There is the obvious “why.” And other than abstract assertions on your part to the contrary, there isn’t a single example in history of where cultures were able to be moral without those objective narratives to “call” them to account. And course he is saying they exist. If you think their existence is the like that of a rock existing or a tree, then the fault is your own for making some interesting category mistakes.

    “He presumes that his flavor of Christianity is true…” Right, as you presume your flavor of materialism is true.

    "In truth, though, the moral work of our lives is done continually, collectively and over time. It emerges in the shape of our personality and temperament, habits and character."

    “Well, on this at least we can agree.”

    Well, yes and no. In context, he is saying this sort of “work” makes sense and fits with what it means to be human. It is something that can be cultivated and is expressed differently by individuals and even cultures. But, it is still objective and based in a transcendence completely and totally other. That is why the “work” makes sense.

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  17. Darrell-

    "He is pointing out an obvious fact: If we can’t appeal to something outside out own mind and will, then we are stuck with Nietzsche’s “Will-to-Power” and we are left with might-makes-right."

    Repeating the same argument won't help. Perhaps we are only left with might makes right.. history teaches plenty of that as well. The question is - what is really out there and objective, and what do we make up ourselves? What is the evidence either way? Fear of the unknown or unpalatable is no argument.

    Your argument resembles one that goes.. if only everyone believed that lemon pie is delicious, then the deliciousness of lemon pie would be objective. And that would be a better world than one in which we argue over the deliciousness of various pies, so therefore it is true.

    What I am trying to get at is that there is no shame in knowing that we make up morals ourselves.. we can do it and have done it throughout history, as you point to empircally. Naturalism is quite compatible with humans coming up with whatever progressive moral system we put out minds to, as long as it is consistent with human nature ... or with what we can make of human nature through education, cultivation, etc.

    We are not stuck with might-makes right at all. At any rate, it helps to know where we are coming from so that we don't delude ourselves with whatever "objective" plan the latest charlatan comes up with.

    I understand the attractions of making up morals by way of fables like "I just got these rules from the creator of the universe and found them under a rock, so you all have to obey me now." (Or via mystical discernment, astrological signs, ... the list is endless.) It certainly simplifies the propaganda war, and if successful, cultural coherence. But it is hardly a rigorous argument.

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  18. Burk,

    The only one here repeating their argument, or more accurately, not making one- is you. Basically, you agree that at the end of the day, might does indeed make right. You note there is no shame in making up our morality, but no culture you can point to thought they were just “making” their morality up—except for perhaps the failed Soviet Union.

    What I pointed to empirically is that historically, cultures do not appeal to their own will or power to build ethical systems—they appeal to objective transcendent sources. What you have consistently failed to show us is a culture that, without shame, just made up their morality and admitted as much.

    Historically those groups and states that just made up their own morality we classified as rogue, corrupt, dictatorial, or criminal.

    The only known instance we have of a state or culture purposely building their ethical system on naturalism is the failed Soviet Union. The result turned their country into a grave-yard.

    Your only response to the two links I gave you was to accuse the writer of “wanting” things to be a certain way, without actually addressing anything of substance. A rigorous argument is not one that simply states, “Everyone else is delusional and I know that we are really just making up our morality, regardless our appeals to transcendent sources.”

    History, the present, and both the educated and the street disagree with you.

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  19. Darrell-

    Appeals do ring out through history. Does anyone answer? Does anyone even expect an answer? Don't we find it incredibly noteworthy when an answer arrives, at least in terms of some fable developed to the point that it is writting down ... god told us what to do out of a burning bush ... ?

    Don't we regularly hear that answers come from praying- i.e. from thinking internally and calming one's mind? Doesn't this look an awful lot like ... thinking internally and calming one's mind? Has there ever been evidence for anything supernatural going in this setting? Answer... no.

    Sorry to say, but scientists (and philosophers generally) often look beneath the propaganda and spin to what is really going on. Perhaps that is overly analytical for you.

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  20. Burk,

    I would love some analysis, but you refuse to provide any. Again, you seem to be saying that everyone is delusional to believe morality is objective and you know the "true" story. That's a bit over the top, even for you. You sound like the fundamentalist who claims a personal revelation from God. Good grief, any Peter Singer has come around to the importance of an objective morality.

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  21. Whoops, I meant to write "even" Peter Singer...

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  22. Darrell-

    The burden is hardly on me here. I can show that plenty of instances of putative objective morals are nothing of the kind. Communism was objective, not to mention scientific. Where did that get them? Mormonism is objectively correct as well- what good is that? Islamists follow objective morals as well- are they right? No, they express the clearest will-to-power one can see in the world today, delightfully blended with patriarchal oppression. That is as objective as it gets, really.

    If morals were objective and accurately perceived, everyone would agree on them. But they don't. So either they aren't objective, or they aren't accurately perceived. If people can reach such astonishingly different conclusions about the same thing, our perceptions are truly atrocious, at least, or morals are not objective at all.

    How can we get around bad perceptions of this putatively objective fact? I have no idea, since I don't believe in it anyhow. Do you have any ideas? I mean rigorous ones, not ones where you make a choice of which Koolaide to drink, on faith? I didn't think so.

    Really, all we have to go on is our consciences, where is where I start off anyway- our subjective sentiments.

    I guess I left out the case of morals being objective, being correctly perceived, and then being perversely disobeyed. But this hardly makes sense.. if the perception were so accurate, it would also be persuasive and compelling to action. But it is not, because we can so easily generate our own morals, tailored to our own interests, and then call them "objective"!

    And no one can say they aren't, because no one really knows what objective morals are, or how to demonstrate that they are objective.

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  23. Burk,

    You make three clear errors of logic. First, because two people do not agree upon an objective standard or follow it—such hardly makes the standard non objective. People disagree about and disobey objective laws every day. Second, one can have an objective standard that turns out to be wrong. Again, that wouldn’t mean the standard was not objective. Third, morals are objective but not in the sense that a tree or rock is, so clearly you are making a philosophical category error to go along with the illogic. Did you think we could look through a telescope and “see” the moral of honesty circling the earth like a satellite? Seriously.

    Clearly, you are focusing on these easily pointed out errors because you don’t want to defend a view of ethics that amounts to might-makes-right, or the same ethical system followed by pirates and criminal gangs.

    You should perhaps reflect more on Singer and his changing views.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/may/25/peter-singer-utilitarianism-climate-change

    http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2011/06/18/3247495.htm
    “When Parfit does come to the question of "what matters," his answer might seem surprisingly obvious. He tells us, for example, that what matters most now is that ‘we rich people give up some of our luxuries, ceasing to overheat the Earth's atmosphere, and taking care of this planet in other ways, so that it continues to support intelligent life.’

    “Many of us had already reached that conclusion. What we gain from Parfit's work is the possibility of defending these and other moral claims as objective truths.”

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  24. Darrell-

    I certainly don't claim that disagreements about the objects of your objective moral theory disqualify it, only that they are consistent with either of two facts- it isn't objective, or we can't perceive the objects clearly enough to figure out what they are, which amounts to the same thing in practice.

    Likewise, string theory in physics may either be wrong entirely, or it just can't empirically verify what it is talking about. Either way, it is not yet considered true, but at best speculative and provisional. And if something is not known to be true, its object which the truth is about is not secure either.

    As mentioned, objective morals engage just as much as subjective ones in might-makes-right. This theme of yours is simply a dodge- a way to not talk about the evidence for or against objectivity in morals.

    Thanks for the Singer link and Parfit discussion ... "Just as we can grasp the truth that 1 + 1 = 2, so we can see that I have a reason to avoid suffering agony at some future time, regardless of whether I now care about, or have desires about, whether I will suffer agony at that time."

    Firstly, if this is sufficient for an objective account of morals, we hardly need the god apparatus, interpreters, discernment, and the rest. The whole point of making objective morals an item in the religious agenda evaporates if objectivity is found in such a simple, secular argument. What need have we of gods at all if our wants and needs not only form our morals directly, but do so objectively?

    Secondly, this argument drains the word "subjective" of any meaning. Suffering is bad solely because of how it makes me feel, not because it decreases the national GDP or delays the space program or whatever else, adn whoever subjectively cares about those things. The criterion is the most subjective on earth.

    Turning this baldly into an "objective" criterion seems a disservice to philosophy. But if the professionals all agree that the way I feel is actually an objecgtive reason for one moral system or choice over another, then I stand corrected and all my blathering about subjective morals is henceforth retracted.

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  25. Burk,

    “Firstly, if this is sufficient for an objective account of morals, we hardly need the god apparatus, interpreters, discernment, and the rest.”

    The matter of what we can or should ground an objective morality upon is another question. I don’t think what Parfit suggests is sufficient, but again, that is another question.

    The point of course was to show that it is completely reasonable to assert (even in a secular way) an objective moral universe—one that is objective in a way completely and totally outside our mind and will. It is not something we create it is something we encounter and recognize.

    Such an encounter leads to the subjective part. For example, as I encounter and experience the movie “Apocalypse Now”, I am encountering something objective but I must subjectively determine how I feel about this movie experience and what it will “mean” to me subjectively. Each one takes something different away from this objective experience. Now, of course, when the maker of the movie hears what I thought the movie meant and then listens to what the other person thought it meant, he might say one hit on what he was trying to communicate and not the other, or he might say both were way off. The point is we can’t oppose the two—the subjective and objective. I must subjectively experience objective reality. So, I have no idea why you want to keep collapsing the two or think somehow this “drains” subjectivity of any meaning. Clearly they go hand-in-hand.

    Putting all that aside. What is clear from Singer, Parfit, and a host of others is that on objective morality is absolutely necessary if we want a civilized culture where the weak and nature is valued and where the bottom line is not might-makes-right which is the very ethos that has allowed American corporations, banks, and the military industrial complex to run roughshod over everyone.

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  26. Darrell-

    This is fascinating. Here I thought people understood the difference between objective and subjective, but apparently not.

    "The point is we can’t oppose the two—the subjective and objective. I must subjectively experience objective reality. So, I have no idea why you want to keep collapsing the two or think somehow this “drains” subjectivity of any meaning. Clearly they go hand-in-hand."

    You are opposing the two yourself here. The filmmaker has some palette of feelings and messages he feels strongly about and wants to express, and creates and objective expression of them that we can take in as you say. There is surely an interplay and they go hand in hand, but they are also very different things.

    The point is that morality originates ultimately in how we feel about things, as Parfit et al. say- suffering, utilitarianism with regard to suffering, empathy, etc.. This is all undeniably subjective in its origin, even if we express it in objective laws, songs, systems, and whatever else.

    And crucially, this is why we can never agree, because as similar as we all are by nature, we are not the same and have various feelings about fairness, purity, hierarchy, charity, and all those social touchstones, which leads to the endless political tug-of-war among us.

    Labelling all this as objective is terribly misleading in that it promotes the notion that there is a "correct" answer, and if we all just obeyed what ____ (fill in the blank) knows that answer to be, we would find ourselves in some utopia. It is a mode of thought that is so extremely dangerous, as you know.

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  27. Burk,

    “The point is that morality originates ultimately in how we feel about things, as Parfit et al. say- suffering, utilitarianism with regard to suffering, empathy, etc.. This is all undeniably subjective in its origin, even if we express it in objective laws, songs, systems, and whatever else.”

    So, then you disagree with Parfit and Singer? Why do you think they feel morality needs to be grounded in something objective?

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  28. Yes, I do disagree with them. I think I was explicit about that. I think there is something sentimentally attractive about the notion of an objective basis to morals, as well as operationally attractive. But that doesn't make it so, or justify people calling black white just for the sake of that argument.

    There is a long history of people thinking that if our rules are not objective in some fundamental way, chaos ensues ... all is permitted. But then we go right back to arguing about every aspect of our rules and engaging in all kinds of sentimental and utilitarian arguments about them ... and that is exactly how it should be- a continuous negotiation among subjectively driven agents united in a society.

    ... And without anyone pulling rank by saying they have a secret tablet in their pocket (or dialectical theory, for that matter) that tells them what the super-father wants the rules to be, so we should all obey.

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  29. Burk,

    “I think there is something sentimentally attractive about the notion of an objective basis to morals, as well as operationally attractive.”

    So to the person who would assert that it is intrinsically objectively evil to torture a child or that the Holocaust was, again, intrinsically objectively evil, regardless of whether the torturers “subjectively” felt otherwise, you would respond: “Oh, you are just being sentimental.”

    I suppose, then logically, that the subjective feelings of the tortures are no better nor worse than those opposed to torture, it is simply a matter of power as to whose “subjective” feelings on the matter will “win” the day. Again, logically, if the Nazis win and the world and culture is then brought up to see the torture of those considered sub-human or inferior as “normal” then you, if we could make you an objective observer for a moment, someone outside—looking in, while you may not agree—logically and based upon your philosophy—you could not criticize beyond saying something like, “it’s not for me, but to each his own—their “subjective” feelings are as valid, normal, and true as my own.”

    Interesting. I am at a loss for words as to what it would take, rationally, emotionally, or in any other fashion for one to give such a response to the evils of this world.

    Gee, I wonder why the weight of recorded history, philosophy, theology, sociology, and any other rational pursuit, including the lived experience of the vast majority of people currently and in the past are against you here.

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  30. Darrell-

    You are making something of a caricature of the position. Firstly, there is the subjective position of the person being tortured. Most of us care about that, empathically, and are willing to combat the desires of the few who don't, take advantage of the powerless, etc. The victim's position has a substantial value in any societal calculus in principle as well, if we have a position of fairness generally, as we do, for good reasons.

    I can criticize such perpetrators perfectly well, from my own subjective resources.. it is horrifying. Even if the entire society thinks it is great, (i.e. bull fights, Roman circuses, etc.), I can make the same judgement, ineffectual as it is. Being interdependent social beings, there is no way we can simply say.. to each his own.

    So, the logic you mention is partly correct, in that everyone's subjective feelings are what sum up to make the societal system as a whole. That is the empirical fact. It is also a fact that such feelings are prone to influence, cultivation, and development, as we have also seen through history. The end result (hopefully) is a state where we are, as a society, on the whole, happier than before- that is the rationale and mechanism of moral progress.

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  31. Burk,

    Rather than a caricature, I think I am using logic a little more precise than you are perhaps use to. Have you ever wondered why no rational person ever responds to the assertion that evil is real and not a subjective matter (the Holocaust) that the one making the assertion is just being sentimental? Ever?

    “The victim's position has a substantial value in any societal calculus in principle as well, if we have a position of fairness generally, as we do, for good reasons.”

    Right, and presently and historically the “position” and the very notion of being a “victim” and the “calculus” and the idea of “fairness” and what are considered “good” reasons have always been determines by objective criteria. I know you think you know the “real” story and that everyone has been fooling themselves, but that argument is about as good as the people who claim they really know the date the world is going to end.

    “It is also a fact that such feelings are prone to influence, cultivation, and development, as we have also seen through history. The end result (hopefully) is a state where we are, as a society, on the whole, happier than before- that is the rationale and mechanism of moral progress.”

    Right, and the “influence”, “cultivation”, “development” and the standard for what should make us “happy” and what makes for “moral progress” have all been objective criteria.

    Give me one (just one) example in history where all those words were used to describe a culture or state, wherein there was no objective narrative appealed to, but the leaders and people just asserted: “This is right just because this is how we subjectively feel about it, and if the culture and state down the road subjectively feel differently, then good for them—no problem.”

    Don’t you think it a problem that you can only appeal to an abstract ideal based upon your faith position that the material is all there is for your argument, while history and the lived experience of humanity completely goes against you?

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  32. Darrell-

    My point is that I am using language that actually has meaning, rather than language whose referent is imaginary. My language refers to us as people, with known capacities and tendencies.

    My language does not engage in propaganda and empty suppositions. In propositions that require "faith" prior to having any meaning whatsoever.

    But onwards to an example.. the declaration of independence is a shining example. It is full of spelled out grievances, and how the colonists felt about them.. not very good.

    Note the "opinions of mankind", "patient sufferance", "by Authority of the good People of these Colonies," and truths that are self-evident. How do truths become self-evident? Because everyone agrees with them. They weren't doing mathematics here, they were doing emotional calculus.

    Now, they certainly call on the deity for implicit affirmation, but they don't exactly wait for an answer, do they? Everything is justified by raw sentiment.

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  33. Burk,

    The fact you think certain things imaginary is irrelevant. You are clearly not using language in the way most people do. Most people, when they use the word “evil” or “moral” mean something beyond their own subjective opinion. When was the last time you heard someone say, “Well, I’m against torture—but that’s just my own personal opinion.”? You are using language in very disingenuous way. People actually believe the word “moral” means something beyond an assertion like “I like the color blue.” You are emptying words like “evil” and “moral” of any meaning.

    “Now, they certainly call on the deity for implicit affirmation, but they don't exactly wait for an answer, do they? Everything is justified by raw sentiment.”

    Seriously? You are going to use this example? One of the clearest as far as people obviously appealing to an objective standard outside themselves? Really? They are clearly not just appealing to raw sentiment. Are you joking? Case closed. You have no argument—only assertion completely lacking any historical example or other justification. Yours is a completely abstract a-historical view lacking any experiential evidence on the part of the way people have actually expressed themselves and acted. According to you, the whole world and history is made up of liars.

    By the way, the fact they didn’t wait for an answer is irrelevant and misses the point to boot. They weren’t praying. They already had the justification to act in their recognition of an objective standard.

    Oh, wait. Perhaps you meant the French Revolution, where objective standards were thrown out the window and the result was a blood bath followed by dictatorship.

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  34. Darrell-

    I think we have reached an end. But I have to ask.. "Most people, when they use the word “evil” or “moral” mean something beyond their own subjective opinion."

    Do they, really? We routinely see the same things denounced as evil by one, and defended as apple pie by another. Venture capitalism, company "restructuting" and the like is one example. The language is directly expressive of sentiment.


    1 a : morally reprehensible : sinful, wicked 'an evil impulse'
    b : arising from actual or imputed bad character or conduct 'a person of evil reputation'
    2 a : archaic : inferior
    b : causing discomfort or repulsion : offensive 'an evil odor'
    c : disagreeable 'woke late and in an evil temper'
    3 a : causing harm : pernicious 'the evil institution of slavery'
    b : marked by misfortune : unlucky


    I could hardly have come up with a more subjectively laden set of words here.. repulsion indeed! evil odor, indeed! So I think your constant clothing youself in majority sentiment is both bad policy and factually incorrect.

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  35. Burk,

    So it is all in their head? Everyone is schizophrenic? None of those definitions go to objective real things happening or of what they are experiencing? Are you joking again?

    Yes, really, people do mean those things when they speak of good and evil. Here is a simple test: Go ask someone, anyone, if they think torture is objectively wrong for everyone or just a personal preference.

    Beyond that, you miss the point (subjective/objective) and clearly you would not rather respond to my last point—nice switch of the gears—but completely understandable. You have no examples from history because they don't exist.

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  36. Burk,

    I agree we are done here. But one more point simply because you keep making the same mistake of logic over and over.

    “Do they, really? We routinely see the same things denounced as evil by one, and defended as apple pie by another. Venture capitalism, company "restructuting" and the like is one example. The language is directly expressive of sentiment.”

    Again, the fact that people disagree as to what is bad or good is entirely irrelevant as to whether or not objective moral standards exist. Why you keep bringing up a point so easily shown to have nothing to do with the key assertions here is beyond me. Further, the very fact that people disagree is a testament to objectivity. If I, being subjectively partial to BMW’s, learn that my neighbor hates them, I am hardly bothered. Why? Because these are subjective personal opinions. On the other hand, if I learn my neighbor likes to torture animals, I have come up against something that I cannot just accept as a difference of subjective private personal opinion and such is entirely related to the idea that I believe there is something objectively evil going on, which means it is wrong for anyone—regardless their subjective feeling such that they like to torture animals. Thus, the very reason we have disagreements that move us to act—that moved a man like Martin Luther King Jr. to act. People do not risk the lives, fortunes, or reputations over personal subjective opinions. This is such an obvious truth that it boggles the mind to even have to point it out.

    I leave you with this: Any philosophical view that cannot state, unequivocally, that torturing a child or an event like the Holocaust is objectively and intrinsically evil, even if a substantive (say 51%) group subjectively felt otherwise is simply rationally, ethically, and in every other fashion- quite dysfunctional, morbid, unfit, stunted, and entirely out of bounds.

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  37. Darrell-

    Painful though it is, I'll respond. People argue about wine all the time. Subjective properties, especially when they affect other people, as morals and the like do, are obviously going to be argued about. You seem to think that subjectivity only applies to unimportant things, and when it comes to important things, nothing is subjective any more.

    An example is war. Do I hate, say, Iran enough to go to war with them? It is a subjective question. Did they do something mean to us? Do I fear their future policies? Would war help or hinder our future? Would I feel happier after a successful war? There is reason and calculation involved, but in the end the motivations are subjective.

    For things claimed to be objective, yes, there can be great dispute, but only if the objective thing is not very well-characterized. I bring up all these disagreements because it clarifies that even if morals were objective, no one knows what they are talking about with regard to them, (more than the next person). So while fundamental disagreements don't by themselves demonstrate non-objectivity, they consitute some evidence against it, and also indicate that the property of objectivity isn't useful .. since no one has a clear view of it anyhow.

    The experience of Jury service is instructive on this score. It is literally the man on the street that we trust with these most basic and important decisions, because no expertise has been shown to avail- the putatively "objective" morals are no one's special property or verifiable insight, as would be the case if morals were objective and some had better discernment about them than others. The people that most people agree with are termed "moral", and that is that, in any society, whether the customs include slaughtering and eating animals, cannibalism, destroying the biosphere, etc.

    As to all the grandstanding about declaring holocausts and the like objectively evil, you give the game away, since you are not demonstrating anything other than your own emotionality, expressed through the use of "objective" as a linguistic intensifier.. "really, really ..." instead of as a meaningful term, which would not require resort to such extreme examples- i.e. Godwin's law. Objectivity needs to be shown.

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  38. Burk,

    “As to all the grandstanding about declaring holocausts and the like objectively evil, you give the game away, since you are not demonstrating anything other than your own emotionality…”

    I would much rather be accused of grandstanding and making a big deal about the torture of a child and the horror of the Holocaust than to give this response to those who raise the horrors of such events, which is clearly yours:

    “Now, now, you are just being sentimental and emotional. Get over it.”

    You are very right about the emotion, but it’s an emotion I hope most of us would have in the face of such things. I am demonstrating that because I believe such things are objectively evil, I am touched deeply and moved.

    What are you demonstrating with a response that claims people are just being sentimental and emotional in the face of such horrors?

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