In this episode, Robert Gressis and I sit down for a casual chat about our worldviews, christian theism and naturalism. Among other things, we discuss:
- theories of truth
- theories of epistemology
- our heavy moral obligations
- the meaning of life
- the scientific worldview
- Ayn Rand
- philosophy as autobiography
- dissolving philosophical problems instead of solving them
- basic intuitions vs. heuristic intuitions
- at 55 minutes: psychologically, why did Robert become a Christian, and why did Luke become a naturalist?
- we aren’t rational truth-seekers
- at 1 hr, 16 minutes: the problem of theism and explanation
- perfect being theology
- is God a person?
- religion and double standards
- at 1 hr, 53 minutes: how can naturalism account for normativity?
- how should discussions about worldviews and disagreements be conducted on the web?
- Why did Luke seek to understand other perspectives when people condemned him for the Sexy Scientists post? Was it pride in his rationality, or a search for truth?
- Why has Luke changed his mind so many times? Is that a good thing?
Download CPBD episode 080 with Robert Gressis. Total time is 2:21:26.
Robert Gressis links:
- Robert Gressis at CSU Northridge
Links for things we discussed:
- The A Theory of Time
- Epistemic theories of truth
- Eric Steinhart interview
- Kant and Hume
- van Inwagen and Swinburne
- Peter Singer and Peter Unger
- The Dark Knight
- Milgram experiment
- Noam Chomsky and St. Francis of Assisi
- Rockstar Recovery
- Never Not Funny
- Quine’s naturalism
- Ayn Rand
- Reason and Responsibility
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
- Jules Coleman
- Robert Adams
- William Paley
- Richard Carrier
- Chomsky on libertarianism
- Moralistic therapeutic deism
- C.S. Lewis
- Judith Shklar
- Rosenberg, “The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality“
- Many worlds interpretation and modal realism
- Robin Hanson on why we are not truth-seekers
- Philpapers survey
- Gregory Dawes on Theism and Explanation
- A summary of some of Theism and Explanation
- Edward Feser
- Maitzen, “Anselmian Atheism“
- Minkowski spacetime
- Tim and Lydia McGrew
- John Hick
- Baha’i’ religion
- Dan Dennett, Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting
- Foot, “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives“
- Sexy Scientists
LUKE: There we are. We are recording.
ROBERT: We are recording? All right.
LUKE: Time is moving.
ROBERT: Oh. See? This proves the theory of time.
LUKE: Even though it’s not real, it’s moving.
ROBERT: Oh no.
LUKE: It’s just an illusion.
ROBERT: Now we have contradictions galore. It’s not real, and it moves.
LUKE: Hey, Robert.
ROBERT: Hey, Luke.
LUKE: Robert, we are sitting here in your office at CSU Northridge where you are an assistant professor of philosophy. And we’ve chatted before, and I’ve commented on your posts at Prosblogion.
ROBERT: That’s the proper pronunciation.
LUKE: It should be, like, a…what is it? A StarCraft unit or something. [laughter]
Send in the Prosblogion!
ROBERT: That would be a death fight.
LUKE: …agains the BattleCruisers.
LUKE: And you’ve commented on my posts at Common Sense Atheism. And you’re a religious believer and I’m a naturalist. And today we’re going to have a casual chat about world views. But first of all, welcome to the show.
ROBERT: Thank you, Luke. I’m happy to be here.
LUKE: Now, very important, let’s start things off right, with some cans of Rockstar Recovery. Here you go.
ROBERT: Thank you.
LUKE: Oh God, so good. [soda cans being opened]
ROBERT: I think I got some stuff on your recorder.
LUKE: [laughs] You did.
ROBERT: [laughs] That’s how powerful this stuff is.
LUKE: [makes zapping noises]
ROBERT: It just jumps out.
LUKE: Dead recorder.
ROBERT: Is it really dead?
ROBERT: Good. [sounds of drinking]
LUKE: It’s a beast. So what do you think?
ROBERT: I thought it’d be fizzier.
LUKE: No, it’s not fizzy. It’s just an energy drink.
ROBERT: I feel an urge to be honest here.
LUKE: Please do.
ROBERT: It tastes like lemonade. I’m going to grant that.
ROBERT: But there’s lots of other flavors that are not food flavors. They’re more like chemical flavors.
ROBERT: I think I can taste…
ROBERT: …the milk thistle.
LUKE: This part of the interview is over. We’re moving on. [laughter]
LUKE: Just for the record, Rockstar Recovery is the greatest thing ever. End of story.
If you don’t mind, I just want to jump right into the thick of it and have each of us explain our world view and what it means to us. So I’ll let you start. What are your beliefs about the world? What’s your way of seeking truth? What is your approach to morality? Where do you find meaning and purpose? Or maybe you don’t have great answers to those questions, but how do you think about all of that?
ROBERT: Right. So you carefully seeded my response by saying I might not have great answers to those questions. And I heartily endorse that. I’m going to say a couple things, as caveats. First of all, I’m not an expert in a lot of these things. Such that, I’m going to make mistakes, I’m sure, in my answers. I’m going to probably contradict myself.
That said, I also change the way I think about these things, quite a lot. I don’t have that much time anymore… now that I’m assistant professor. I don’t that much time to sit down and really try to make all the parts of my world be consistent with one another.
ROBERT: So it’s quite possible that I’m going to say stuff during this interview. And people in the comments are going to be saying, like, “Well, hold on now. You just said, ‘X’ but you also say, ‘not X’ here,” Probably, I’ll plead guilty, and try to figure out what to do about that. [Luke laughs]
ROBERT: That said, there’s also this other problem I have about epistemology. And about how to think about the nature of truth. I’m starting to think I might not be a realist about truth. I might not be a correspondence theorist. But maybe something like an epistemic theory of truth. You can find a Wikipedia article about that.
LUKE: Right, right.
ROBERT: In the links to this diablog. Wait, what is this? Diablog.
ROBERT: That we’re having. The conversation.
LUKE: There’s no video, so it’s not a diavlog.
ROBERT: No, it’s not a diablog. And it’s not a diavlog either, because this is…
ROBERT: Yeah, that’s what this is. [laughter]
LUKE: This is a podcast.
ROBERT: It’s a podcast. So part of that is because I’m a Kant scholar. And there’s a lot of people who think that Kant is also not a realist about truth.
LUKE: Mm-hm. Yeah.
ROBERT: And I think that the same thing could go for Hume, arguably, too. Sort of what you have, is you have these experiences. And you try to figure out the best way to understand these experiences. And there’s a whole lot of stuff you can bring in to do this, to understand them. Science helps you, but science is also part of your experiences in the sense that the experiments and the observations are also things that have to be interpreted.
And so there’s not a code book on how to do proper interpretation. We’re struggling through that as a species as time goes on. The reason I’m a little bit skeptical about realism is that realism, as I understand it, opens up this skeptical problem. Where the world might be radically unlike what you think the world is like. And I think in some sense that’s a possibility. But it’s a kind of odious possibility, where you really can’t do much about it if it is true.
I’m not sure how we would ever know if the way we understand the world is isomorphic to how it is in itself. So, this is kind of the Kantian in me talking, where it seems like we can’t really know things in themselves, we can only know things as they appear.
ROBERT: So I try to restrict my talk to how things appear to as many people as possible. So that’s this underlying epistemic view that’s going to be motivating my answers. But now, on to the actual questions. What sort of things do I think exist?
OK, that’s what actually made me give that caveat about that epistemology. Because part of me wants to say, “Well, I think God exists”, but I also feel a bit weird about that. You had an interview with a philosopher. I don’t remember who, but he quoted a passage from Van Inwagen , where Van Inwagen thinks: “what things do I think exist?” And he gives this Quinean answer…
ROBERT: …about what he’s ontologically committed to. And it’s “cabbages and deck chairs and God and candlesticks.” And God is just one object among many.
LUKE: It could have been Eric Steinhart.
ROBERT: Oh. Yeah, I think it is Eric Steinhart. I actually have his book over there in my bookshelf. Yeah, you can’t see it, probably.
ROBERT: No. It’s alphabetical order. [Luke laughing]
That said, it makes me think that what I want to say about God is not that he exists or doesn’t exist, but that I think that I might be committed to believing in him.
Which is odd, right? Because if you believe in something it seems to say that you think it exists. But this whole epistemic thing makes me worry again about, well, I have these experiences and I want to be truthful to my experiences. And this is the best way to talk about them.
ROBERT: But I’m right now at the point where I feel like this is something I really have to get into understanding better.
ROBERT: And if God is not just one being but many, but is sort of the ground among beings, then there might be something odd about saying God exists.
LUKE: But what do you mean by, you’re committed to believing in God, though? As apart from thinking for sure that he actually exists?
ROBERT: Right. So, that’s another Kantian thing. But Kant says there’s a distinction between theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge. And I’m probably going to butcher the distinction. Though I do my best to try to understand it. Where it seems like in order to… What? You look pained.
LUKE: No. I’m just going to say I wouldn’t worry about it because everybody can have a different interpretation of Kant and they’re all defensible. [laughs]
ROBERT: Yeah. That’s the sad part. That’s the sad part about it. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces keep changing.
And some of them are like oranges. So you just do what you can to fit them together…
…in the puzzle. That said, as I understand Kant, to theoretically know something you have to have this kind of sensory experience of it. Or it has to be connected to these sensory experiences. I’m not sure we can do that with God in the same way we can do that with, say, a tree, or this desk, or you.
But on the other hand, to practically know something means… Let’s say I do think that I have, for lack of a better word, moral knowledge. There are some things I know I ought to do. But I don’t have sensory experiences of that.
ROBERT: What am I doing when I morally know I ought to do? And I think knowledge of God might be something akin to that…
ROBERT: …where you have these experiences, and you can see them in this kind of religious sense, and you can see them not in that religious sense. Just like somebody can see one state of affairs and feel a powerful obligation to do something about it, and others might be left cold by it. I know we can talk about why this is the best way to think about that state of affairs. That you ought to see this having this meaning. So I think I’m committed partly based on moral reasons, for thinking that this is the best way to see certain kinds of states of affairs. As kind of God-endowed, or God is underlying them and sustaining them all. And part of the reason I might think that… I guess I do think that in some sense. God does play a role in my life. Or belief in God does.
But part of the reason I might think that is that I think there might be some deep connection between morality and belief in God. I know it’s not a popular view very much, anymore, but…
LUKE: It is among theists.
ROBERT: It is among theists, though a lot of theists are going to say moral truths are necessary truths. And so God didn’t create them, God is sort of a reporter of them. And sort of abides by them. So Van Inwagen takes that view. I’m pretty sure Swinburne takes that view. Whereas, I’m not sure exactly that I take the view that moral truths are necessary truths, like that. I’m not sure how to think about them either. That’s another part of my worldview that I’m still working out.
ROBERT: But the basic idea then is that I have this hunch that, given that I think my life is meaningful, and given that I think I have very demanding moral obligations, I think that God has to fit in there as well. In order to make sense of a lot of my attitudes towards these moral obligations and towards the meaningfulness of life. So, in that sense I think I’m committed to belief in God by my moral beliefs and by my beliefs about the meaningfulness of life.
LUKE: But it’s hard to work out exactly how that commitment comes in. It just kind of…
ROBERT: It feels right.
LUKE: That’s just kinda where you end up at.
ROBERT: So actually, I’m going to connect it to something else called, I guess, it’s the Problem of Theoretical Commitment or something like that. But probably not. Ignore that.
Here’s the thing. You have a bunch of Utilitarians and you have a bunch of Contentions and you have a bunch of Virtue Theorists in Ethics, and the thing about those dudes is that they all are aware of their big problems with their views. And yet, they might not have answers for these problems but they feel as though, basically, something in the ballpark is the correct moral view. And so they feel, well, “I’m going to hopefully work out these problems. Maybe I’m not going to, maybe somebody else who’s a great philosopher will do it or something like that. But, I think this is basically is the closest report of my moral experience that there is.”
And I feel that way about Kantianism. And I guess I feel about Christian theism, too. And so, I think that’s a lot of what motivates it.
But, if I were just talking to a normal person, right, a civilian, about what kinds of things I think exist I would say, oh, you know, God, people. The things science says exist.
The things my senses tell me exist, that kind of stuff.
LUKE: Yeah, yeah. Well, and by the way, I have to do that too. Because I don’t believe in contra-casual freewill. I don’t have the A-theory of time, flowing time view. But, I talk about them as if I do. Because I don’t want to have to explain [laughs] special relativity in every conversation I have. So it sounds like that is what you’re doing where you don’t really what to talk about naive correspondence realism idea of truth. But you talk that way in every day conversation anyway.
ROBERT: Yeah. It’s almost unavoidable. First of all, “naive” is often seen as pejorative. I don’t mean…
LUKE: You don’t mean pejorative. [overlapping discussion]
ROBERT: …as a pejorative. Right, right. Just a naive as in like the folk view. Just a straight forward, simple view that could very well be true.
ROBERT: I don’t think that I’m constantly…
LUKE: No, I take a naive correspondence theory.
ROBERT: Oh, OK.
LUKE: I’m not being pejorative about it.
ROBERT: Right, right. Yeah. So, I wouldn’t want to be. Because out here I am telling you, I probably have a really loopy theory of truth, right? Something closer to Rorty or logical positives or something like that. But, here I am saying, “I don’t know about it. And then Ha Ha correspondence theorists. What a bunch of dopes.” I wouldn’t want to do that.
ROBERT: I said something earlier about my moral views and my views on the meaningfulness of life. And I suspect that I’m working on an argument about how that might relate to theism. And I suspect one day I’ll have the guts to present to the world. But, in a nut shell, here’s how I feel about morality.
I feel as though we have very demanding moral obligations for reasons Peter Singer gives, reasons Peter Unger gives. I find it hard to look at those kinds of situations and say, “Oh well, there’s got to be some reason why I don’t have these strong obligations.”
LUKE: So to give us an example of the obligation you’re talking about.
ROBERT: Oh, yes.
LUKE: For example, we might be obligated instead of buying five meals at McDonald’s to save the life of a child in Africa…
ROBERT: Instead of going to see the social network, which I really want to see. But, it’s going to cost me and my wife about $25 to do it. Instead of doing that, why not just stay home, read a book or just talk to each other.
And then spend that money on Oxfam or some other charity. And I just feel good that I contributed to some other people missing necessities of life.
LUKE: Mosquito nets are very cheap.
ROBERT: Yeah. It’s only 32 million dollars to mosquito net the entire world.
LUKE: That’s pretty cheap.
ROBERT: Yeah. That’s really cheap. But, we’re not doing it for whatever reason.
LUKE: Yeah. We have movies to watch.
ROBERT: Well, that’s part of it. [laughter]
ROBERT: But the government doesn’t!
LUKE: Batman’s awesome. I definitely need to rent it for a third time.
ROBERT: The second, oh yeah. [laughter]
Best movie of the decade. [laughter]
That’s a strong statement but, I stand by it.
LUKE: All right.
ROBERT: Anyway. So, we have these extreme moral obligations, we don’t live up to them. And, not only do we have these extreme obligations that we don’t live up to, and that a lot of us knowingly don’t live up to. So, what does that say about our character, the fact that we knowingly choose not to live up to them? And not only that, there’s also the Milgrim experiments experiments, too. And a lot of situationist psychology that says, “Hey, people don’t know themselves nearly as well as they think they do.”
And a lot of times, they’re going to do stuff that if they saw other people do it, they would call not just bad, but out and out evil. And, I think a lot of us are willing, we don’t know it, but we’re willing to do things that are out and out evil. So, this is part of what helps, what attracted me to Christianity, is that this strong sense of my sinfulness, right.
ROBERT: Not just of mine, but of everybody’s. And I think we all have this problem. And so, given that you have these extreme moral obligations, and given that you not only don’t live up to them, but you also don’t live up to some pretty basic ones, too, that wouldn’t seem to be that hard to live up to. It says to me that a lot of us are really bad people. But, I think a lot of us, we’re obligated to become good people. And the thing is that I think it’s extraordinarily difficult to become a good person such that almost nobody actually succeeds in doing it.
LUKE: Maybe Noam Chomsky, maybe. [laughter]
ROBERT: No comment.
LUKE: We won’t go into that one.
ROBERT: No comment. But actually, I do have one person in mind. But, he’s not famous. He was a professor of mine at the University of Dayton, where I went as an undergraduate.
LUKE: Saint Francis of Assisi.
ROBERT: Yeah. That’s probably closer. It was easier for him. Because he didn’t know about all the starving people. Well, actually, there were probably a lot around him. So, I take that back. [laughter]
The point is, is that we have these extreme moral obligations we don’t live up to. And then I think there’s this other problem. We also are supposed to be good people and we can’t really do that. And then, finally, I think that a lot of us feel our lives are meaningful. But, I do think that there’s this worry.
I have this kooky view about what a meaningful life is, so, I think about it like this. If I were on my deathbed and I were reflecting back on my life and I was telling my family what did I do with my life.
The answer to that question is going to determine whether or not I had a meaningful life. Now that’s odd. Because it’s something I might not know right now. And I might feel like my life is perfectly meaningful right now.
But in some moods I’m put there, I’ll feel like, “Holy crap! I didn’t do a lot of good things. I could have done so much more.”
And then, the next step for me is thinking, “What a waste of a life.”
LUKE: Yeah. Well, wait. That’s a really subjective view of meaning in life, though.
ROBERT: I think its objective.
LUKE: Wait. You could be on a different drug and that would completely change your answer to the question, in effect where you’re deriving your definition of the meaning of life from that’s almost whimsical.
ROBERT: Yeah. I wouldn’t want to say that just how you feel on that deathbed. It’s rather a thought experiment that’s trying to put you in the right mindset to understand how you’re supposed to think. If you’re on drugs, of course, you’re going to have lots of odd reactions to it.
LUKE: Wait. So, is this like if you’re in an ideal observer on your deathbed?
ROBERT: Yeah. I suppose it’s the ideal deathbed dier theory, right?
ROBERT: So, the ideal dying person…
LUKE: The ideal dying person.
ROBERT: Yeah. That’s the ideal dying person theory of meaning of life. What’s he or she going to say when they’re looking back on their life? And, I think there’s certain things they ought to say. It would be really odd to say on your deathbed, “I had a great life. The only thing I regret is that I didn’t spend more time on blogs responding to people who had crazy views. Even though lots of other people were already responding to them. And they were embarrassing themselves. But, I thought, you know what, no I better also add a little bit more fuel to the fire. I didn’t do that. That was terrible of me.”
That would be a really, really odd reaction. And, I think, on the other hand, if you thought to yourself,” I really should have helped the starving of the world. I should have done something to help microfinancing. I should have done more to make myself the kind of person who would resist evil and tyranny and that kind of stuff. But, I didn’t.
I just lived my own life away from other people. Didn’t think about them. And, here I am with now nothing to do about it. It’s too late to change. And, I’m going to die. What a waste of a life.
So, the way I think about this is that there are certain things you can do in your life that are meaning enhancing. And certain things you can do in your life that are meaning canceling.
And, doing awful things is meaning canceling. And refraining from doing things you are obligated to do is meaning canceling. Doing the obligatory things are meaning enhancing. And, I think that if you think you have a meaningful life, then unless this is all an illusion- and you might be happy to say that – but, unless you sense that the meaningfulness of life is an illusion, the only way in which you can be real, is if you actually got that kind of life where you’ve done a lot of meaning enhancing things.
And, the problem is, is that almost none of us do that.
ROBERT: And so, the only way, I think, to have a meaningful life is if there’s some kind of afterlife. And if there’s some kind of divine aid where God can help transform you into the kind of person who could be a good person in such that overall, over some long period of time, your life is, infact, meaning enhancing. And, this is a spin on Kant’s second and third postulate that’s in the Critique of Practical Reason. The second postulate of practical reason is that there is an afterlife. And the third postulate is that there is a God.
And he thinks knowledge of these things follows from knowledge of your moral obligations. So that this is a very, very yoked to the 18th century Kant view that I’m trying to forward here.
This is making me jittery, by the way.
LUKE: Is it?
ROBERT: That’s good.
LUKE: You can stop. I won’t be offended. One other guy, he doesn’t take energy drinks very well, but I said, this one’s really good, it’s different. [laughter] And so I gave it to him, and he got so much energy, that he threw up.
ROBERT: On one of your interviewees?
LUKE: No, no, no, this was, I was on a job.
ROBERT: So, an IT guy, I was working with. [laughter] I was like, holy.
I love it, I don’t know why everyone doesn’t love it. [laughter]
ROBERT: Yeah. But, most people, do you find most people enjoy it?
LUKE: I guess. Yeah, I think most people.
ROBERT: You’re like a proselytizer, you’re spreading the good news of Rockstar.
LUKE: I really, really want to get an endorsement deal, so they can send me a case every month or something. [laughter]
ROBERT: Well, yeah, maybe. Maybe. I think that’s a good idea, though, I know there’s a guy who’s got a much bigger podcast than you, his name is Jimmy Pardo.
ROBERT: He runs a podcast called “Never Not Funny”, gets, you know, I think 300, 000 listeners or something.
LUKE: Wow. Yeah.
ROBERT: And I think he endorses, he always says how much he loves Monster.
ROBERT: I don’t think he’s ever gotten anything from them.
LUKE: Yeah. No. I’m not holding my breath.
ROBERT: Don’t. You’ll die.
LUKE: I’ll die?
ROBERT: Yeah. If you wait for them to…
LUKE: For real? Or is it just…
ROBERT: Well, you’ll probably pass out.
LUKE: …a belief you’re committed to?
ROBERT: Oh. I see. For realsies, I guess.
LUKE: For realsies.
Yeah, how do I answer those questions? Well, for me, I think that everything that I believe about morality, or what exists, or time, or meaning, or purpose, or whatever… flows from what I think is the best way to go after truth about things, which is not surprising. And I think that we’re in a tough position because what we end up doing is almost necessarily something very close to what you described, where we just kind of try to feel our way towards what fits best to us…
ROBERT: Right. Right.
LUKE: …and what kind of makes the most sense when you put the pieces together, and it has the least gaping holes that are annoying. And that’s probably a not very reliable way to go at the truth at all, because it’s so fuzzy, and we have very incomplete information, but that’s all we can do. We have human brains, and that’s all human brains can do.
So, what I try to do is, we know that human brains have these deficiencies. And so, I try to separate myself from my homo sapiens primate brain as much as possible, and see if there’s some more reliable way to get at the truth.
And as far as I can tell, looking at history, if history is real and didn’t just appear in my brain five seconds ago, then it looks like we’ve figured out a much better way to get at the truth, than intuitions or trying to fit things together. And we call it science.
And some parts of science are more reliable than others. AParticle physics is much more successful than dietary science, but that’s because particle physics is working with much simpler items. So, what I do, basically, is OK, given that it’s the experience of the human species that science has by far the best track record, at least, as far as I can tell. What follows from that? What happens if we stick to science?
And it didn’t have to be that way. Like, it could have been that divine revelation is a really reliable mode of truth, and we would bridges that were designed from divine blueprints, and we would have satellites that were designed from divine revelation to certain prophets that then told us how to build satellites. We could have cured diseases, and built skyscrapers that stand up, and learned how to fly, all that could have been divine revelation. It wasn’t. It was science.
We could have discovered the rules of chemistry and how the solar system and all that works through intuition. But our intuitions were wrong. For thousands of years, all we had was intuition, and we were wrong about almost everything about the universe.
It could have been that ancient holy books were reliable sources of knowledge, but they just turn out not to be. And these are all contingent things, these are ways that the universe could have been, but as far as I can tell, it’s not that way, and it is the way that science, however flawed and socially constructed it really is, is our best mode of getting at the truth, at least in the sense of truth is what works.
So, I’m not really sure whether I want to defend a naive correspondence theory of truth, or pragmatist theory of truth. I’m suspicious that it’s going to end up being just a difference of semantics… I don’t know about that. But, so, what I mean is, truth is, when you apply it, it’s what works.
This was the position of some old Nayaya philosophers in India, where, “How do you know what truth is? Well, if you think that white powder is sugar, put some in your tea, if your tea’s sweeter, it was sugar. If it’s bitter, it was salt.” You know? [laughter]
So, if you think your understanding of relativity is correct, put a satellite in the sky and see if it works, using the equations from relativity. Well, it works, so, seems like relativity’s got something right about it.
Anyway. So, that’s my theory of truth, and so, what follows if you think that science is reliable and these other methods have not really proven that reliable, except for a priori type reasoning, where, we’re going from axioms, and things are true by definition. That’s fine, that’s great, that’s very productive, but it doesn’t tell you much about the real world.
What follows, for me, anyway, is that when we realize that our intuitions are extremely faulty, ancient texts are extremely faulty, intuiting things about the world, I mean, the world is very counterintuitive. Quantum mechanics is very counterintuitive to me. The truth about psychology and how we work as human beings is very counterintuitive to me.
But when we go with the methods that actually seem to work, which, to me, is scientific methods, especially when dealing with simpler things like physics and chemistry, then, I think we’re led to a very radically different world view than most people have held throughout history.
And we end up with very little reason to believe in things that you can’t really get at with something like scientific methods: things like gods, and ghosts, and intrinsic moral value, and a justification of grand metaphysical theories that go way beyond what we can say with science, or test, or measure, or predict, build models of prediction that work in experiments.
So, that’s kind of where I’m coming from, and that’s just sort of a basic Quinean naturalism, where we’ve got this science thing that works, and we know that lots of it are wrong, and when we figure that out, we’ll patch those parts of the ship with what’s right.
LUKE: But, in the meantime, science works. If something else comes along, and it shows that it works, like if divine revelation from a particular deity starts working really well, great! More knowledge for us! That’s good, I’m not going to complain about that. But so far it hasn’t worked out that way. So far, it looks like science is really the best methods that we’ve got. And so that’s really where I’m coming from. So, then, when it comes to the questions of philosophy, like meaning of life, moral value, aesthetic value, but I don’t really care about that yet. [laughter] I’ll tackle that later.
ROBERT: I think you do.
LUKE: I do, actually. I obsessively spent a couple of years writing, like, lists of the best albums and…
LUKE: …and things like that. But, I don’t really defend those, like, if somebody asked me to defend those, I’d be like, “Ehhh.” [laughter] Seems that way.
ROBERT: OK, yeah, I think aesthetic value’s a very interesting topic. I’m some kind of objectivist, to some degree, about aesthetic values, not in the Randian sense, but, like, just, I think, there might be some level of objectivity about value.
LUKE: He’s referring to Ayn Rand.
ROBERT: Oh, yeah.
LUKE: Objectivism, and just so everybody knows, real philosophers don’t take Ayn Rand seriously. [laughter]
ROBERT: I wouldn’t go that far.
LUKE: A little unfair, but…
ROBERT: But there are some seriously good philosophers who take her seriously.
ROBERT: Yeah, yeah. Rod Long.
LUKE: Can you name them?
ROBERT: Yeah, Rod Long at Auburn. There’s a professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan, who takes her very seriously.
LUKE: All right.
ROBERT: I can’t name him. I mean, I can, but I won’t.
LUKE: I take it back.
ROBERT: I’ll tell you later, after the podcast, if you want to know.
LUKE: I don’t take Ayn Rand very seriously.
ROBERT: I haven’t read enough to very seriously.
LUKE: Before I project that opinion on all philosophers.
ROBERT: You know, maybe this is a tangent, but…
LUKE: It definitely is.
ROBERT: It is, it is. I remember, I had this book that was assigned to my intro students, called “Reason and Responsibility”. And in that book, I’m pretty sure they had an essay by Ayn Rand, about lifeboat ethics, or something like that. And basically, she was saying, that there’s only two kinds of views out there. There’s egoism and altruism. And altruism says you have to subordinate yourself to everybody else.
ROBERT: And, egoism says, you can look out for yourself.
LUKE: Yeah. You ought to look out for yourself.
ROBERT: Yeah, you ought to look out for yourself. Yeah, that’s all you’ve got to look out for. And then she stated a few other things, like, she was trying to convince people to be egoists, and so, one of the ways she convinced them, said, “Hey, if everybody’s an egoist, everybody’ll be better off.” So, you ought to be an egoist, which is not, that’s not going to work, right? I mean, like, if that’s in fact what convinces people, that’s appealing to their altruistic sympathies, arguably. Or, maybe some egoists just like other people, for some reason, they don’t care, other people are giving them happiness.
Regardless, I think that the thing I was supposed to teach my students that this is a false dichotomy. There’s all sorts of views between altruism as she defines it egoism. But then, I started taking thinking about that Singer stuff, and it started to look a lot harder to avoid a kind of Singerian altruism, other than through taking a kind of Randian egoism. It didn’t seem as crazy as I was expecting it to read when I first read it, but I haven’t really followed up on it.
LUKE: Well, actually I think aesthetics is really interesting is the study of value, which is what I want to do with my career, basically. I just haven’t got around to it yet.
But anyway, when it comes to moral value, meaning, and stuff like that, how does a scientific-focused worldview deal with those things?
ROBERT: That was going to be my question to you.
LUKE: For me, it becomes very Wittgensteinian, in that what I try to do is… philosophers and metaphysicians have made almost no discernable progress on these for millennia. And lots of really interesting…I mean, Kant? Amazing mind. Progress in a sense, but we don’t really have an answer, you know? And, we’ve got answers about how to fly planes.
ROBERT: Well, what do you mean by we don’t have an answer? We have tons of answers.
ROBERT: We just don’t have an answer that commands unanimity or the vast majority of philosophers. What do you think is supposed to follow from that? Like, if it were a good answer it would convince everybody, but since it doesn’t, none of the answers are good? Because that answer is itself an answer, and that’s not going to command assent or unanimity from all philosophers or from all anybody. And so, you’re going to be like, “OK, I grant that that answer doesn’t command unanimity, but that one’s right, even though it doesn’t command unanimity.” That wouldn’t be a very cool thing to do.
LUKE: I’m going to say that I think it’s right, but it’s a philosophical answer to things, and so I’m not going to expect it to command unanimity. And that’s my problem with philosophy.
ROBERT: Right. So, here’s something I should have said right at the beginning. A philosopher at Yale named Jules Coleman once told me this. He thinks philosophy is autobiography. So, when you’re doing philosophy, you’re really working out your own problems.
ROBERT: And, to some extent, I think that’s pretty clearly true for most philosophers. But also, you might want to ask yourself, what is the point of doing philosophy? And I think you actually agree with what I’m about to say, which is, the point of doing philosophy is that you have these problems of understanding the world or trying to figure out how to live. And then you look to philosophy, because you can’t look to science about how to deal with these problems. You look for a range of answers, and then you try to pick the answer that makes the most sense to you…
You said something, a very vague word earlier that’s crucial to your approach to the world and how to think about how we know things, which is “we should accept those approaches that work.” And what does “work” mean? Well, that’s something you might want to devote your career to figuring out what it means when you say “things that work.” Because you’re going to find a lot of people who think prayer works, or accepting objective moral values works, or philosophy works to solve the problems that you specify in a correct way.
And this might surprise you, I have a lot of sympathy for your view in the sense that science is amazing and it’s gotten all these solutions, and boy, if only we could just get that much indisputable outcome with philosophy, that would maybe be a great thing. But given that we can’t, how should we look at philosophy, and I don’t think that means we should look at it as kind of scribble. I don’t think that you think that either, but that’s a kind of conclusion that might seem hard to resist.
LUKE: Yes. By works, it has to do with prediction, and I don’t really want to get into philosophy of science right now, but…
So, that’s all a very good point, and I think that probably is true that I’m wanting to work out these problems that I have about meaning and value and purpose and what exists and that kind of thing. And, I’ve had a number of crises where what I believed didn’t fit the data anymore and didn’t fit my experience anymore, and so I had to radically change what I believed. And so, that has really inspired me to consider these philosophical questions.
So the way that I approach those questions about meaning and value and morality and all that is to try to hand off as much as possible to the scientists, since I think they’ve gotten answers that actually work. And so, I try to – in a very Wittgensteinian way – try to just dissolve the problem. Just try to find a way to clarify the issue so that the problem just goes away, and we can just hand that piece over to science, and that piece over to science, and that piece over to science.
To give an example, my view about moral value is that it always depends on what you mean by “moral value” whether or not those terms refer to anything in the world that exists. So, so much of the argument about moral value is that people have different definitions for moral value, and they’re just talking past each other.
It’s like you and I were in an art museum, and we’re looking at a Monet painting. And I said, “Oh, I think this is a great painting” and you said, “No, I don’t really like this one. I like Haystacks better.”
And so I say, “No, you’re crazy. This is great art.” And you say, “No, I don’t think its great art.” What would probably happen there is that you and I would talk about it back and forth, and we would give necessary and sufficient conditions for what we mean by art, by what we mean by great art, and we’d find out that we don’t actually disagree about anything.
We’re just using different meanings for our words. And so, like for example, by “great art” I might mean something like “really influential on future artists” or something like that. And that’s a question that we can go out and measure, and it would happen to be true of this painting, let’s say. And by “great art”, you meant something like, “something that inspires great passion in you through its aesthetic effect” or whatever. And that’s something we can measure.
We’re both correct. We’re just using different meanings of the term, and I think it’s pretty easy for people to see that when they’re talking about art, is to dissolve the problems that way. But, when it comes to morality, people seem very unwilling to do that, and I think that’s because the whole point of moral language is to persuade other people to change their views and live in a certain way.
So, unconsciously or subconsciously we try to make the biggest effect by refusing to accept that it depends on the definitions of the words that you use. Because we’re trying to club other people with our moral values so that they’ll fall into line.
When I think about moral value, I think, is giving to charity morally good? Well, if your definition of “morally good” is “that which produces the greatest amount of happiness and the greatest number of beings,” that’s a question for science. A very difficult question, but that’s an empirical question. You hand that off to the scientists.
Or, you say, what’s “morally good” is “that which is commanded by a deity.” That’s, I think, a question that is kind of empirical. It gets really complicated there. And then, I would say that that turns out, the answer is no. Because God doesn’t exist, and there are no divine commands.
ROBERT: And you think that’s known by science?
LUKE: Well, that’s kind of a different question, about which I’m sure we’ll talk about later, which has to do… there’s no good reason to think, whether it’s scientific or quasi-scientific, there’s no good reason to think that God exists. Obviously, we disagree about that, but we’ll talk about that. Or, if you define moral value in terms of: is there intrinsic value in charity or something like that? And I would say, same thing with God, there’s no reason to think so. It might be the case, but there’s just no reason to think so through any reliable means.
ROBERT: Through science, right.
LUKE: If you make up new standards and you say, “Well, that’s not something that can be really tested, so we can’t apply the standards that work to it, so we’ll just make up new standards, and just apply those” – that’s just empty.
ROBERT: Empty. That’s a strong word. What you mean by “empty”? Like, nonsense? Like, you literally don’t know what you’re talking about?
LUKE: No. That’s probably very often the case. But no, I think you can know what you’re talking about. I think you can have a definition of God that works, or a definition of intrinsic value that’s comprehensible. I just think you’re not going to have good reasons to think that those things exist, and so the usual dialogue, the usual dialectic is: “well, we can’t test intrinsic value. We can’t test God. They’re things that just aren’t testable, so we can’t apply those criteria to them. We can’t make a model that renders specific predictions that are experimentally verified. We can’t apply these usual criteria, so those criteria just don’t apply.”
My reply is, “well, but those are the criteria that work. So, if you want to say that intrinsic value exists, or God exists according to some other criteria, or what works as a good explanation, or what exists, then fine. But explain to me why those criteria matter.”
And the problem is that our successful explanations have had certain virtues such as testability and prediction, and all this kind of thing, and so you can’t just make up new criteria and say, “Well this is the criteria by which I justify belief in intrinsic value or God.” I would say, “Yeah but why should I think that those criteria work?”
ROBERT: Right. And so, obviously, this once again goes back to what you mean by work and as you admit a philosophical question so this is already getting kind of muddy. But another thing is that I don’t think people just make up these things like you’re saying they do. I mean in some sense all of philosophy is made up but all of science is kind of made up. What we’re doing is we have these experiences of the world and we’re trying to come up with a language that best conveys how we experience the world and what we’re talking about. And then, I think… I don’t know where this language comes from and I don’t know what the naturalistic or scientific explanation is for why we talk this way, or if there is one, but we do.
And some kind of terms, like one thing I know that you didn’t mention. You said that you can tell that this brings out the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But the second most common moral theory is, Kantianism which says, well, treat people as ends in themselves and never as mere means.
ROBERT: Can you scientifically tell whether someone’s being treated as an end in themselves and not just as a mere means? It doesn’t seem very promising as an approach to take to determine that because we have to have some kind of philosophical sense of what it means to treat someone as an end in himself. But…
LUKE: Well, that’s what I’m saying though is that you’d always have to specify your definition.
LUKE: That’s the philosophy part.
LUKE: And then once you specify your definitions go off and do measuring and all that kind of stuff.
ROBERT: Oh, yeah. Well, I guess you’re not going to get to much argument from too many philosophers about that. Like, even with divine commands, take Robert Adams, whose the foremost theorist of divine command theory. He talks about, how do we know what God’s commands are? Well God is by nature an essentially loving being. So God wants what a loving being wants for us. Another thing though is that God is the source of all goodness. So when we know good things we kind of know God, right? And so then this is going to get into value theory and stuff like that. In so far as, you just sort of take a list of all the things that people think is good, right? And see what kinds of things they have in common.
Then you can do these kinds of scientific experiments. And if he’s right in his definition that God commands the good and God is good, the source of good, then you can sort of know what God’s commands are just by knowing what’s good.
But I don’t think Adams is a utilitarian where he is going to think God commands us to bring about the most good for the most number of people.
ROBERT: But he is, I’m pretty sure, a virtue theorist of some sort where’s he’s going to say, you ought to do what a virtuous agent should do in these circumstances.
ROBERT: There’s going to be some kind of scientific confirmation even for Adams’s theory, which is theological.
LUKE: I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s going to end up being scientific explanation for the existence of divine commands.
ROBERT: Well, if you define a divine command as that which brings about the most good or something like that.
Like, that’s how Paley defines divine commands. William Paley, in the nineteenth century.
LUKE: That’s fine. That’s just…then we get into the practical issue of… you could define things however you want but some definitions are going to end up being more confusing than helpful. Like if you define divine commands without reference to divinity or commands then that’s really confusing, [laughs] right?
ROBERT: Well, no, there is a reference to it obviously. He’s got a story as to why he thinks God commands the good. Paley does. But a pre Darwinian, unfortunately.
LUKE: Just real briefly, I do the same thing with meaning and purpose because we have these real vague senses of meaning and purpose and all this kind of thing. And I think eventually we’ll have a much better evolutionary neurobiological neurophysiological explanation for why we feel the way we do about these things. I think that will be a long time coming. But I think in the end what we need to do is: well, what do you mean by meaning? And you gave a definition, which is great. It wasn’t fully fleshed out but you only talked for five minutes about it. But I think it gets to be a lot of confusion because we aren’t clear what we mean by meaning or purpose. So…
ROBERT: Or works.
LUKE: Or works, no. And I have to spend time explaining what that means. But I think so if we are careful and do spend the time to define terms like works and like meaning and like purpose…
LUKE: …I think we can dissolve these traditional problems of philosophy into problems that we can hand over to scientists. And scientists may take centuries to answer them.
LUKE: Especially since most of them depend a lot – on my materialist view – on neuroscience, which is a very, very young science. Well cognitive neuroscience is. So that’s kind of my approach to everything. And at the center of it is what works. And…
ROBERT: Yeah, the big elephant. Or, as they say in South Park, the turd in the punch bowl. You have to scoop it out and try to get all the punch purified. But like, I mean, even your answer to how you imagine science handling normative questions about how we ought to live, it doesn’t seem to actually, it just seems to push the problem away. It just seems like, OK, science can tell us what we mean when we say these things and why we say them. We can look at our evolutionary history and what’s going on in the brain when it happened. But it doesn’t seem like it’s ever going to give us the answer to the question about whether we in fact ought to do these things.
LUKE: Right. And, actually, so I’m a reductionist or a supervenience theorist about ‘ought’. I think that in the end it’s going to turn out that the only kind of ought that we can actually justify with good methods, scientific-ish methods, is going to be the hypothetical imperative. So if you want to do this, if this is your end, then you ought to do that to achieve it. And that, basically, I think the hypothetical imperative supervenes on predictions. So if you do this, you will get this. So, therefore, if you want to do this, you should do that to get that. If you want to get from Los Angeles to San Diego you should go south. Why? Because, prediction: if you go south from Los Angeles, you will get to San Diego.
ROBERT: But you’re never going to answer the question, ‘Should you want that?’ Except for, you should want that because you want this other thing and that’s the way you get that other thing. You’re never going to justify ultimate ends.
LUKE: So ‘should you want that?’ is, again… I think we can make some progress if we we slap a definition on that. ‘Should you want that?’ The way that desirism, if we’re working in a desirist framework, which is the theory of ethics. I’m trying to elaborate with Alonzo Fyfe, is let’s say, just to stipulate a definition for what should you want, what should you desire. Let’s stipulate that that terminology means, “What there are the most reasons for action to promote”. So, I mean, I didn’t explain that at all very well and you can look it up elsewhere, but basically so, if we give a definition for what should you want, then that could be an empirical question. But you could give a different definition.
You could say, ‘What should you want?’, that question has to deal with, say, divine commands. But then it’s going to turn out that divine commands don’t exist. Or you could give a definition of what should you want in terms of categorical imperative. But I haven’t figured out any way to justify categorical imperatives. So that’s where I would come in.
ROBERT: Do you think logic gives you a categorical imperatives?
LUKE: I don’t.
ROBERT: So you don’t think you ought to do, you ought to follow modus ponens suggest if you want something, you’d ought to follow modus ponens.
LUKE: Yeah, yeah.
ROBERT: See, I guess that’s where you and I differ. I think we’re committed to logic whether we like it to be or not. We can’t help but be committed to logic. And I think, since I like the Kantian approach, that’s basically going to be the story of morality too. There are certain things that, if you think of yourself as a person, if you think of yourself as acting for reasons, you can’t help but to think…
ROBERT: …but to also be committed to..
ROBERT: Just through consistency’s sake.
ROBERT: And so everybody’s going to have the same commitment.
ROBERT: And so everybody’s going to have the same things, just by virtue of being persons. So it’s going to be a weird kind of hypothetical imperative. It’s going to be the kind of hypothetical imperative that runs, if you are a person, then you ought to want whatever.
LUKE: Yeah. Right.
ROBERT: And that’s what I mean by categorical imperatives.
ROBERT: And, since we’re all persons, I mean some broad sense of person, that the Buddhists wouldn’t accept any sense of, since we’re all persons, then, there’s all sorts of things we ought to want.
ROBERT: And then, of course, the problem is, you know, showing that there’s any such imperative where it follows from just being a person.
LUKE: And I wouldn’t even admit that. So, there is a difference between us.
LUKE: But I think at least on logic, I would bet that most philosophers would agree with you about that. And then…
ROBERT: Most of them are normativists, right?
ROBERT: They’re not ultimately going to say logic is just descriptive of one way of thinking, and that you know if you don’t want… I think Richard Carrier is a descriptivist about logic. I just made up that word.
LUKE: I don’t recall.
ROBERT: I think he got into a debate with Tim McGrew about that or something like that. It’s in …what is it, “Sense and Goodness without God”.
LUKE: Yeah, that’s his book.
ROBERT: I looked at it a bit. But don’t quote me on… well, too late, I’ve been quoted on it.
ROBERT: That said, I could very well be wrong about that.
LUKE: [laughs] I would love to justify a categorical imperative in logic, I just can’t justify it. If I can find a way to justify it I’ll believe in it.
ROBERT: Why is that what you think? In a sense, this is kind of a weird question maybe, but you can’t figure out how to justify it right now.
ROBERT: And therefore you say, “Since I can’t figure it out right now, even though it seems absolutely, to me anyway, the way to reason and think”. My hunch would not be, “well since I can’t justify it right now I’m going to conclude that there isn’t any such thing”. My hunch would be, “well I’m going to have to work on that some more”.
LUKE: Well, because I don’t take my…
ROBERT: Oh, that’s right.
LUKE: …my basic intuitions as even data. [laughs]
ROBERT: Even the most basic intuitions? You have this intuition there is actually a world out there, outside of your head. I don’t even see how you can justify that through some kind of argument. It just seems like it’s a starting point. That one… are you going to admit that’s an intuition or do you call that something else?
LUKE: Well, obviously I don’t even have a bachelor’s degree so I have a long ways to go on all these questions.
LUKE: But at the moment, we’re all speaking from at the moment, at the moment in my intellectual development I make a very broad distinction between basic intuitions and heuristic intuitions.
LUKE: So when a doctor has an intuition that a patient is suffering from a particular malady, presumably this is kind of a forming together from lots of different data about the experience he has had with other patients and the data he has got from his medical training, and that kind of thing.
LUKE: And so he has an intuition but it turns out it is kind of just a messy heuristic for a more abductive or deductive way of determining what the patient is suffering from. So that is one kind of intuition. I think that kind of intuition could work out, in a sense we are always doing that. If you spend 600 pages working out the logical strand on some kind of physics problem, somewhere in there you are still doing that kind of heuristic. We’re not computers.
Then there’s this other thing that I can basic intuition. It’s not a heuristic. It’s just, like I’ve heard people say “Rape is wrong in all possible worlds”. What would that be a heuristic for? I don’t think it is. I think it’s just a basic intuition, and I think that such people are happy to admit that. It’s just a basic intuition.
But on my naturalism I can’t think of any way to justify that. Because on naturalism my brain is evolved mostly for the purposes of survival and reproduction.
And along with some chance things that happened through random genetic population fluctuations and things that happened to coincide with other types of developments that provide for survival and reproduction. So why would I think that I have some kind of basic intuition powers? I can’t justify that at all.
ROBERT: What I want to say, is how did you get to this evolutionary story about how you developed? You got to it through trusting science. Why do you trust science? Because you think it works. What is work? You don’t really know, but you have some broad sense of know. Ultimately there is going to be some basic intuitions of a, I think, non heuristic kind that you can’t help but to have.
LUKE: I do have them.
ROBERT: …Sorry. You can’t help but to use and justifiably use. I don’t think there is going to be any way you are going to be able to kick the ladder of your intuitions ultimately. It’s a noble quest, but I don’t think it’s going to… Actually, I’m not sure it’s noble. [laughs] It’s a quest I find myself attracted to, to some degree, but I don’t think it’s going to be doable.
LUKE: Well, you are correct in that I cannot. I can’t go to work in the morning without just depending on a whole bunch of intuitions. I don’t have time to justify all of those things.
ROBERT: I don’t mean cannot in the physical sense.
ROBERT: I mean cannot in a rational sense.
LUKE: Yeah. I’m going to give it a try. We’ll see how it turns out.
ROBERT: OK, OK. [laughs]
LUKE: I don’t even need it for justifying the existence of, say, the external world because I am going to say that either I don’t in some kind of absolute sense know that the external world exists or I just know in the pragmatic sense.
ROBERT: Even if you do that, though, I think you’re going to have all sorts of principles, epistemic principles, that make those the only two options for you. Why do you consider those the only two options? That you don’t know in an absolute sense or that you do know in a pragmatic sense. It’s going to be really hard to even figure out to even figure out what your epistemic principles are.
ROBERT: But even once you figure that out, you are going to have to figure that out using other kinds of tools and reasoning and stuff. It just seems like if you are a reasoning being, which you obviously are, you have these starting points. These starting points are kind of…yeah, you maybe were evolved to have them but it’s also the case that there is so much that you couldn’t know that even you think you know.
ROBERT: …that without depending on them, and these aren’t going to be, for lack of a better word, they are going to be properly basic I think.
LUKE: Well, here, and I’m not a foundationalist so that’s not so much of a worry for me. But I think there are a couple things to say there. One is that some of the things that might be called basic intuitions are just the axioms that you start with for working in one system of language.
So when I say the words that something is all blue, that does logically entail that it’s not also red. So I’m using some basic axioms of logic there. That’s not because I have some basic intuition and I use that to justify those axioms. It’s just that’s what I mean when I’m saying “it’s all blue”. If it were possible for it to also be red at the same time, we would just be speaking different languages, that’s all.
LUKE: So this is just me trying to express myself, it comes along with these assumptions. It’s not that I know that the basics truths of logic are true, it’s just that’s how I speak because it’s communicative.
ROBERT: Yeah. I’m going to say that sounds like a categorical imperative. You can’t help but to accept them. Without them you can’t think at all.
LUKE: No, I think you could speak without those assumptions and some people do. I find it very difficult.
You have a stance about the world and you don’t particularly accept the laws of logic. You can do that, I just find it extremely difficult and so as a practical matter I chose to speak in a more common way and accept the basic axioms of logic for communicative purposes.
ROBERT: Right. I guess I’d want to know who you’re talking about who doesn’t accept these laws of logic.
LUKE: Perhaps Zen Buddhists, but I don’t know. Maybe they are not even serious about…
ROBERT: Yeah, it’s hard to know what to make of them. I know a Buddhist who claims that nothing exists.
ROBERT: And he means that very seriously. He’s probably a better philosopher than I am and I really wonder what’s going on there. Are we talking the same language?
LUKE: I think you’re not. That’s what I’m saying.
ROBERT: He’s been trained in analytic metaphysics. He knows metaphysics a lot better than I do. He knows how analytic philosophers talk. He tries to make it clear to me.
ROBERT: But it’s tough right now. And I don’t know what to make of these people.
ROBERT: Here’s the thing. We’re all these people.
LUKE: These people.
ROBERT: Yeah, you people. We’re all inconsistent.
ROBERT: Yeah, I guess maybe I’ll leave it there.
LUKE: I mean, we’re getting into pretty deep issues and it’s really hard to do in an off the cuff conversation instead of a paper that you’ve spent months slaving over.
ROBERT: Right, right.
LUKE: Well, let’s move on a bit. Let’s talk about why we have the world view that we do. And I’m actually asking more of psychological than a philosophical or epistemic question here. Just as a matter of curiosity and biography, why do you think it is that you are Christian? That you to some degree defend the Christian world view? Is it because of argument or experiences or intuition or powerful arguments all the other alternatives and Christianity is the only thing left? What do you think it is?
ROBERT: I don’t… so we are talking just psychologically. You are asking me how I actually got to this position.
ROBERT: Like what psychological factors? I don’t think it’s going to be very flattering to me, but I’ll tell you this story as far as I understand. I never had a powerful spiritual experience. There wasn’t a crisis of meaning that I had. This wasn’t the only alternative or anything like that. It’s pretty, probably silly.
ROBERT: It’s like this. So I was in high school, and I loved arguing and so did all my friends. We had all sorts of things we would argue about, and we fell into types.
LUKE: Best movie of the decade.
ROBERT: Yeah, sure, we would argue about that. But we loved arguing about politics and religion. And I was sort of I guess the libertarian, politically. Right wing libertarian, and another one of my friends was a liberal democrat. And we had a moderate, and all this different type of things. We had all these different we fell into types, you know Socialist and so forth. And I loved being able to categorize people. But I was also the guy who was still religious among my friends.
There is a friend I had, still have, who is Jewish. But then my other friends are either atheists or apatheists. And so, I sort of wanted to explore this type more. And so I went to church every week but I didn’t really care about it. I just like the arguments for and against the existence of god. That’s really what I liked. I was not theologically what you might call a Christian even though I went to a Catholic Church every week.
It was because like most Americans I was a moralistic therapeutic deist. Have you heard of that term?
LUKE: I have not but it’s a great term. I know a lot of – what is it? – morally therapeutic… [overlapping discussion]
ROBERT: Moralistic therapeutic theist. They’re like Oprah.
So, it was coined by a sociologist of religion named Christian Smith. And it’s basically the view that god exists. He doesn’t intervene. He makes good people’s lives go better, sort of, he answers their prayers and makes bad peoples’ lives go worse. Good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell. And it’s basically that’s about all there is to religion.
LUKE: Heaven and Hell?
ROBERT: Yeah. Yeah, basically heaven, I think most people believe in an afterlife. Most Americans.
LUKE: Oh, yeah, you’re probably right.
ROBERT: And I mean maybe not hell as an eternal damnation, but something bad until you learn.
LUKE: Satan with a pitchfork.
ROBERT: Yeah, maybe. Maybe even a dude in a red suit. But the point is that I think this is the civil religion that we have now a days. And that was my religion too. And then I read C.S. Lewis like so many people did at a young age. And I found him really breathtaking and captivating. And I started to think to myself. I like this. This resonates in me. This is what I want to be. Then I would argue with people in a different way and it was really sort of like I felt so cool. Here I had a world view, I had a world view finally. And I could plug things into the worldview and things would come out.
And I was also a Libertarian at this point too. So I had a political world view, I had a religious world view. And everything was very easy and to come to quick answers to. And that was really satisfying to my need for explanation.
Later on, I started to feel, like once I got to graduate school, I met people who were a lot smarter than me. Who could argue better and had different ways of looking at the world.
I mean my high school friends. Some of them were a little bit smarter than me, but we were all in high school we had terrible arguments I’m sure for everything. And then they went their separate ways most of them. And then in college I was sort of a big fish in a small pond kind of. And then when I got to graduate school, it was, you know, a lot of pain. Because I had sort of put my self esteem in how smart I was.
Such that the smarter I was, the happier I was with myself. And the less smart I thought I was, the worse I felt about myself. And this happened especially in graduate school: I would rank myself in relation with the other students. Like they’re were 37 of us and I would try to figure out who was one, two, three, you know this really kind of bad awful way of thinking. But that kind of stuff was really bad and I started…
ROBERT: Oh, yeah, pathological. Not in a kind of extreme sense where I need to be committed or anything. But it’s a kind of OCD’ish Asbergery kind of stuff that a lot of philosophers unfortunately suffer from. And then you know I felt really bad about that. I also I think started to look at Christianity in a different way. For a long time, not for a long time, but for the first couple years in graduate school I thought that in order for it to be defensible I had to have arguments that were better than other people’s. And convince them, if I didn’t convince them, then uh-oh, my argument doesn’t work.
And then you know, they were smarter than me. I probably didn’t want to give I my beliefs. I also liked being on the outside, having unpopular views, that’s another element of my psychology. I started looking at the religious, like all religious, philosophical and political panes bit differently. Where it’s no longer the case where it has to be knocked down convincing people and stuff.
Rather, I started to get into the, “They have to solve my own problems.” Though the kind of standard that you had to meet had lowered and finally last element was, there is this article by a philosopher named Judith Shklar, called the “Liberalism of Fear”. And the “Liberalism of Fear” says we ought to be liberal democrats, not in the American sense but in the liberal democracies.
We ought to endorse that form of government because all the other forms of government have failed so much and lead to so much suffering. This is a much harder case to make with Christianity because obviously Christianity has contributed to a lot of suffering and stuff like that. But I felt as though I would be a disenchanted naturalist in a kind of Alex Rosenberg sense if I weren’t a Christian theist or a Hindu theist or something like that so that was also another spurt as well. I thought you know if I were to give this up it would really change me. Now, I might be wrong about that. I don’t know anymore whether that’s still something I believe or not. But I suspect…
LUKE: You believe that you would be a nihilist of some sort? Where life would just have no meaning no objective morality…
ROBERT: Yeah, and it probably wouldn’t for a while and then I’d go through a crisis. And then probably come out of it happy and stuff like that. But I might not, I might certainly act differently, even if I didn’t. I might certainly change a lot of my behavior and stuff like that. But part of it is that I kind of like who I am. Even though I think I’m a really bad person, as it were, I’m also happy. But you know, I think everybody is a bad person. And so that’s…
LUKE: So you don’t rank poorly in that case, ‘cuz everybody’s bad.
ROBERT: Yeah, it’s funny you should say that because that’s part of what helps me be content with myself. Ranking myself to others. I still do it, dang it, I was hoping I’d escaped that. But yeah, there’s a lot of bad psychological reasons that probably explain my behavior.
Probably your commentators on this site will have a field day with what I just said. “He’s not really a Christian, right. He’s just doing it because he’s scared. You know, take the plunge Robert”, or something like that. But I actually think that’s true of almost everybody. I think most everybody has these dark demons that motivate them to believe what they believe.
I, you know, I have a theory about you, without much data. I bet you have this deep thirst for understanding things and for explaining things. Which is odd, because you should be perfectly happy to say, “Oh I don’t know the answer to that yet.” But there’s a kind of, nonetheless, despite that, I bet you really do want to know the answers to stuff and you’re not satisfied with other answers. And that too few of us are “knights for truth”, that are just completely unencumbered by dark psychological issues.
That said, it’s not just psychology. I do think I have the story about meaningfulness. I do have the story about morality. I do find original sin very plausible. And although I don’t think any of the natural theological arguments work much better than any other argument, I do think there is going to be one thing that science is never going to be able to explain. Which is somewhere along the lines of why is there something rather than nothing?
I think scientific explanations are always going to be given that there’s stuff that explains why there is all this stuff. OK, this stuff explains and it’s going to go on forever. And I don’t think there is ever going to be a time where it’s like OK. Science is done, we finished. Now let’s do something else for entertainment.
So I think science is always going to be incomplete. Always going to be striving, asymptotically toward this line. And I think that’s where there is always going to be a place for metaphysics and I think when it comes to ultimate explanations this kind of theistic explanation resonates with me better than, “Well there’s no explanation”. Or “Something just came from nothing”. Or, There’s just or “It’s necessarily true that nature has to exist”.
That as it turns out there is no modality. You know there’s just this one way things are and you’ve got this Everett interpretation so possibilities exist. Really, that’s the sense there’s possibilities.
I know the Everett interpretation, in case you listeners don’t know, as I understand it is the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics.
LUKE: Yeah, but where you said possible world’s exist. That’s more like modal realism, it’s not…
ROBERT: Sorry, what I meant by that, if indeed it is the case that the universe exists necessarily in the same way two plus two equals four. Than that means everything you and I do is just as necessarily done as two plus two equals four. But there is still a sense of which we could have done other things in the following sense that whenever there is a sort of splitting – whatever it is that splits in the Everett interpretation – there’s a real you who is actually doing something different. And that’s the sense, I mean that’s the closest we can come up to I could have acted differently because there is a real me. But I mean that’s a weird explanation.
LUKE: I mean you could also talk about good in terms of…
ROBERT: The hypothetical analysis?
LUKE: Yeah, or in terms of counterfactuals. But it’s going to be physically necessary that the counter factual couldn’t have happened, but you can still give the counterfactual.
ROBERT: Yeah, but it’s going to be weird though. It’s going to be kind of impossible not just counter factual. Because if the reason there’s something rather than nothing it’s because it’s necessarily true that there’s something rather than nothing.
LUKE: Right, oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
ROBERT: But you can still have counter possible reasoning which we engage in all the time, you know. If I were an egg, I would have been eaten by now. [laughter]
LUKE: [laughs] Yeah, right.
ROBERT: You asked me this question, right? What was the question … why am I a Christian?
LUKE: Psychology of why you’re a Christian.
ROBERT: I would ask you the question, but you’ve gone on at length about why you’re a naturalist. Right? Is there anything you want to add to your life story? Which people haven’t interrogated. I remember, there was one time commenter, who was telling you that you’re so good looking, and you’re doing it just for sex, or something like that.
LUKE: Yeah, yeah.
ROBERT: Yeah. That was pretty fun.
LUKE: I’ve also definitely received the line that I’m gay, and so…
ROBERT: Oh, that’s right!
LUKE: …I don’t fit with Christianity, and so I left. [laughs]
ROBERT: Yeah, yeah.
LUKE: So actually, I mean, this is all psychologizing, and we’re not supposed to psychologize each other. But I don’t really mind that much. I think we’re psychological beings. I think our choice of world views, or even of not really having a world view – having a world view is very comforting and convenient, because we can take that input, and it comes out with this output like you talked about. So that’s very convenient, and I enjoy worldviews, so I try to have a world view.
ROBERT: Yeah. I guess that’s why I psychologized you as wanting an answer to everything, because it seems to me you’re much more certain about your worldview than I am about mine. But I could be wrong about that.
LUKE: Yeah, I’m not sure. But I think my story is, there’s the flattering story, and there’s the unflattering story. The flattering story about how I came to naturalism is that, you know, I was raised a believer and believing. I had religious experiences, sounds like a lot more than you did, and experienced God, and prayed for certain impractical, improbable things, and they occurred. So, I believed, and witnessed miracles, and all this kind of thing. Then, I started studying things like the historical Jesus and philosophy of religion. And then found that the arguments didn’t work, and that the data didn’t fit with the Christian worldview. Then, I despairingly gave up my faith and had to follow the data where it was, and only later discovered that it wasn’t so bad. At first, I was a disenchanted naturalist, and then worked my way out of that.
So, that’s kind of a flattering view in that it makes it look like this was all rational decision making, and I was following the evidence despite all my emotions pulling the other way. I think there’s a little bit of truth from that, just by the accident of my biography. But I also think that, inevitably, I’m not, what did you call it? A knight for knowledge?
ROBERT: A knight of truth.
LUKE: Knight of truth, yeah. There’s an equation that I don’t fully understand, but apparently it’s convinced a lot of economists that we are not rational truth-seekers. Listeners can listen to the episode with Robin Hanson on this…. The basic idea is that if we were all rational truth-seekers, we would take each other’s opinions, if they’re similarly informed to us, we would take each other’s opinions almost as seriously as our own. But we don’t, and so we are not really truth-seekers in this kind of rational, objective sense. I think that’s definitely true. I’ve read a lot more psychology since my conversion from Christianity to naturalism, and I think that there were tons of psychological factors that had to be involved in all of this. I still don’t have the intellectual capacity to really examine these arguments and this evidence in some kind of amazing way, and certainly didn’t back then.
So, even if it felt like it was an intellectual journey, it was probably mostly an emotional journey of some kind, or certainly an intuitive journey. Definitely an intuitive journey.
You said that maybe commenters would comment about your story and say “Oh, he’s just a Christian because he’s afraid of not having a justification for morality, or whatever.” I don’t think that world view adoption is always because of what you call “dark psychological demons” or whatever. I don’t know why it has to be dark, but I think it’s always because of psychological reasons. I mean, almost always, we’re…
ROBERT: Like non-rational.
LUKE: Yeah. Non-rational or irrational, almost exclusively. And I think that just because that’s what the psychological data looks like. The psychological data could’ve turned out otherwise, but it didn’t. So I just, you know, take the cognitive science data for what it is right now, and that pretty much shows that we’re not rational truth-seekers, and that our intellectual journeys are really almost exclusively non-rational or irrational. So I think that’s what happened with me as well. So that’s not very flattering either, but at least everybody else is just as bad as I am.
LUKE: We both seem to appreciate that.
ROBERT: Yeah, well you know I haven’t listened to the Hanson episode but you know, it just sounds a bit odd to me on the face of it to think that if we were truly rational truth seekers, we would take other people’s words as seriously or as about as seriously as we take our own, since we don’t, we’re not, and there you go. Because you know we were just talking earlier about how much of this is making sense of your own experiences and how much of it is just trying to like trying to draw this vaguekind of meaning out of it and it seems like given that, you know, it’s not at all surprising that we are going to be pretty suspicious of other people’s, the way they draw meaning out of it, given how kind of vague and you know difficult to articulate this process is…
LUKE: But why should you think your interpretation of it is better than theirs? Like I mean they have different experiences…
ROBERT: Right. That’s part of the reason, they have different experiences. And also, so let’s say they have the same experiences, though, then they’re going to have different mechanisms they use to rely on to make sense of it or they’re going to care about different kind of sense.
ROBERT: And so if they have different goals for making sense of their experience or different ways of making sense of their experiences, or different experiences, then it’s not going to be that surprising that I’m not swayed by them.
LUKE: But why should your experiences give you more reliable information about the objective world that you share than their experiences? Or why should…
ROBERT: Why should, the meaning I put on it?
LUKE: No, not even the meaning, because you’re making quasi-objective claims about the universe and then you’re kind of, not a naive correspondence realist, but you would still talk in terms of existence and things like that.
ROBERT: Right, right.
LUKE: So we agree on the existence of this chair and can talk about that.
ROBERT: Right, yeah. So, so I mean, yah, maybe I’m going to have to take back what I just said. I mean, I want to say, on the one hand, you know, I’m pretty moved by worries about the success of philosophical argumentation in general and how much faith you should have in any philosophical argument.
ROBERT: And I also don’t want to be too confident in my own views. And I have to say as well, when I saw those philosophical papers survey by David Chalmers, that definitely, you know, lowered my confidence in various beliefs, the fact with, and then I thought about it more and it started not to. But if it were indeed the case that like, you know, 70 percent of atheisists say were consequentialists and 15 percent were say deontologists and only five percent were Kantians. That would make me worry and I think I’d be right to worry, so I guess I do, although I said, you know I’m skeptical of Hanson’s view that if people were really rational they would look at other people’s opinions and then conclude that, you know, “Oh, ” they would lose confidence in their own. I guess I do in fact do that with myself but…
LUKE: A little bit.
ROBERT: A little bit, yeah.
LUKE: We all do that a little bit I think.
ROBERT: Yeah, but at the same time I do think things get pretty complicated given all the ways in which people’s experiences can diverge and their goals for understanding their experiences and stuff like that such that you’d have to know that people really are after the same thing you are when comparing yourself, before we could say that you’re irrational for not changing your…lowering confidence in your say metaphysical beliefs. And that said, I do think a lot of people are probably irrational. A lot of people don’t care about truth in any sense or understanding the world in any sense.
LUKE: Well there was one thing that you said as well, you said that “Luke, you probably have this burning desire to understand and to have answers to these questions.” And that’s absolutely true, but I think that’s kind of just true of philosophers in general and even of people in general.
LUKE: And I think that even can go some way to explaining why we have religion and metaphysics and philosophy and science is because we really want to understand.
LUKE: We want the answer to these questions. And I think actually that’s part of the problem when it comes to what I would very simply call methods that don’t work.
LUKE: We can talk about that later, but methods like religion or metaphysics and say that the reason we do that is… you know you said that there were going to be some questions that science isn’t going to be able to answer and that’s why we need metaphysics. And I would say, “Well yeah, science can’t answer those questions but maybe that means that we can’t answer those questions.” That again comes back to this thing. Well if the methods that work can’t answer that kind of question, does that mean we just get to make up some other criteria so that we can answer that question and feel like we have an answer about these things that are unknowable?
I’m skeptical of being able to do that, especially without first demonstrating that your methods work.
ROBERT: Like most people in my circle want to know stuff. And to the extent they don’t, that’s almost a strike against them. Right? So…
LUKE: Wait. How?
ROBERT: I want to say that somebody is perfectly happy with not wanting to know the answer to things. That shows a lack of curiosity.
ROBERT: That might also be a mark of intellectual complacency too. And that can be worrying. Not necessarily but I was bringing this up as though it were something interesting about your psychology. As though it were something that was somehow culpable. But now that I think about it, it probably isn’t at all. And of course, as you’ve pointed out, if anything, I’m much more like that than you are because you say, “Well if science can’t answer it, then we should just not even try to answer it.”
LUKE: Well that’s really me resisting my psychology though, because I really want to do metaphysics. I really want answers to those questions. I just can’t find a way to justify them.
ROBERT: Yeah. I guess I’m more sanguine about some sense in which we’re justifying. We can talk about good and bad metaphysical approaches.
ROBERT: To some degree. But I do admit, at the end of the day in metaphysics, there was a big worry about where we get our data from. Why should we trust our intuitions about whether or not this is a series of atoms arranged deskwise or a desk.
LUKE: Yeah. My intuition is that this is solid.
LUKE: But it’s almost entirely empty space.
ROBERT: Well [laughter] . I wonder about that. I mean I know it’s empty space but I wonder if all we mean by solidity is… I mean do we necessarily mean this completely continuous thing with no holes?
ROBERT: I guess we probably do.
LUKE: That’s what my intuition is, but it’s also my intuition that solid means it will stop when you hit it. And that’s still true.
ROBERT: Yeah. I think we get the term solid from our tactile experiences, not our visual experiences. And that’s more fundamental to us, such that. Although it would be a strike against common sense. I’m sorry: it is a strike against common sense, the fact that this is mostly empty space.
ROBERT: There’s a sense of common sense where this is still perfectly consistent even though it is mostly empty space because it still resists your hand [thumping on desk] … Yeah.
LUKE: Resists your hand. Yeah. So let me ask you about some of the things that I don’t get [laughs] about Christian theists in the 21st century. Let’s start with the problem of explanation. This is one that I harp on a lot and then I’m mostly informed by a particular book by Greg Dawes
ROBERT: Yeah. Greg Dawes.
LUKE: Yeah Greg Doss. ‘Theism and Explanation’, really kind of opening up this problem and clarifying what the problem is.
LUKE: And the way I usually put it is that a lot of the reason that people give for believing in God is that God provides the best explanation for something.
LUKE: We can’t explain the existence of objective moral facts without God. We can’t explain why there is something rather than nothing without God. We can’t explain the fine tuning of the universe for intelligent life without positing on God. So I’m assuming this is a popular argument because it’s a scientific argument, at least in its structure. In that it’s an inference to the best explanation. This is what scientists do. They say, “We can’t explain this path appearing in the water unless we posit a proton with particular properties.”
LUKE: So that’s fine. But now the problem is, as far as I can tell, the way that the God explanation is usually put forward by theists is that it has none of the qualities we look for in a good explanation.
LUKE: And so why on Earth would we think that’s a good explanation? For example, our successful explanations are ones that work, I’m going to use that term again.
ROBERT: It’s unavoidable.
LUKE: Is that… I mean we could flesh it out more, but the ones that are really successful explanations are ones that are, for example, they unify data, like Newton was able to posit just one type of law that explains both apples falling and orbits of the planets.
LUKE: We really like unification in explanations and that’s a property of lots of successful explanations. Successful explanations are almost always, well I would say always, testable. So we can actually…That basically just means we can find out whether or not it’s true. It renders specific predictions. You can resist that later…
ROBERT: Yeah. I do resist the testable one.
LUKE: That’s fine. So, in general, the really successful explanations, for example, from physics and chemistry and biology and so on, are generally testable. There are specific models that give mathematical predictions and we can test whether or not those predictions come out to be true. Our successful explanations are quite economical. They don’t posit more things than are necessary to explain the data. Occam’s razor. Our successful explanations very often predict data that we didn’t already know. Famous examples are like from Einstein predicting certain things with relativity that we had never observed before and then, look, we try it and we observe it. We fly a clock around the world and we observer the time dilation which is amazing.
ROBERT: Right. Yeah.
LUKE: Just amazing. He just thought it up in his head and it turns out to be true when we fly atomic clocks around the world. So these are some of the properties we generally find to be true of successful explanations and then we also find that really bad explanations for things tend to lack those qualities. Like explanations of Zeus and Thor for lightening or whatever. Explanations from pseudo-science. Explanations of psychic powers. The reasons those explanations fail is because they lack those properties. And when I look at the God hypothesis that theists usually put forward, it looks a lot like explanations of Zeus or psychic powers or has a lot of these really bad qualities, or lacks the good qualities of a successful explanation. It doesn’t really look at all like our successful explanations.
So what I want to know is when the theist says that ‘God did it’ is a good explanations for fine tuning or the existence of something rather than nothing or the existence of objective moral values, : “good according to what criteria? How would you call that a good explanation if it has none of the qualities that we look for and a lot of the qualities that we find in pseudo-science and psychic powers, and Thor and Zeus and that kind of thing.”
LUKE: So that’s one of my major problems.
ROBERT: Yeah that is.
LUKE: It’s a theological problem. I think of it as a theological problem. It’s a problem with the explanation itself that’s being offered. So if theists could find a way to present a better theology of the God explanation I think then I would find it a lot more plausible as an explanation for certain things.
ROBERT: Yeah. So there are two ways I can go here. First of all, there’s one of class of explanations you haven’t mentioned. You mentioned scientific ones, which are great, and you mentioned, what you might call mythological or pseudo-science type of ones which are bad. But there’s a middle one, which is kind of good, kind of bad, which are psychological explanation.
ROBERT: Now this is going to be tricky because you are not a fan, probably given that you’re a little bit of materialist or lean toward that, but I think psychological explanations are pretty good. So if I ask you why you came here today, you will probably say something like, “Well I wanted to interview you.” Right? That to me seems like a perfectly fine explanation. You had a desire and you acted on the desire.
ROBERT: If I say, “Why did God create the universe?” Or sorry, you ask me that and I say “Because God wanted to.” That to me seems like a psychological explanation. He wanted to because he thought it was good. Now this is going to get tricky like I said, because a lot of contemporary philosophers are going to say at the end of the day, psychological explanations are their shorthand for scientific explanations, but they might not have been. First of all, I don’t think that they are going to be, as it turns out, but that’s a different issue.
There was as time, before neuroscience and stuff like that, but after science had sort of started where we had scientific explanations for some phenomena, but we also had psychological explanations for some phenomena and it didn’t seem clear that, and it’s still not clear to me, that these were going to align. It might have been the case, and it might still be the case, where we have two fundamental ways of explaining things.
ROBERT: Naturalistic or scientific explanations and psychological explanations.
LUKE: Two ways that work.
ROBERT: Yeah. Two ways that work. Now I’m going to grant that generally, the psychological explanation doesn’t work to the same degree as the scientific one. It’s going to be a lot harder to say at 6:01pm Luke is going to desire with X units of desire force to… you know that kind of stuff is not going to be available.
ROBERT: But that’s sort of the subject matter. We can only make it so precise and I think to some degree, God can fall into that. Now, it’s going to be tricky, though, because…
LUKE: First of all, let me jump in and reinforce what you’re saying.
LUKE: Because the model you’re working with, I think, is the belief-desire-intention theory, and so, you mentioned desires, but we should also mention beliefs.
LUKE: So, you explain my behavior, coming here to your office not just in terms of my desire to interview you, but also in terms of my beliefs that you would be here, willing to be interviewed at this time.
LUKE: And so, you match up a set of desires and a set of beliefs, and this produces an intention to produce intentional action.
LUKE: It doesn’t explain reflexes like a hand going away from a stove.
LUKE: That kind of thing, but it does explain intentional behavior.
LUKE: So, that’s the kind of explanation that we generally use, and that you think might not end up being reducible to scientific explanations about biology and psychology.
LUKE: And neuroscience.
ROBERT: I think, even if the mind just is the brain.
ROBERT: It might be that, it’s not reducible. I just have to say something, I’m about to say something that I have no right to say. But I’m going to say it anyway. I would bet that you’re not going to ever find really good bridge laws between physics explanations and chemistry explanations, between chemistry explanations and biology explanations, between biology explanations and psychology explanations, between psychology explanations and economics explanations, and so on. I bet that we’re going to have a variety of languages, I’m talking about a variety of objects, where it’s going to be no alternative but to use the languages.
And, although we might be sure of that ontologically, it all reduces down to physics. Explanatorily, we might never be able to just say, “Whenever you have this, you have that.”
LUKE: Wait, though, you even mentioned physics and chemistry, which seems like the bridge, that bridge is already complete.
ROBERT: Yeah. So, that’s why I said, I probably have no right to say this, because I don’t really know science that well. That said, there’s a book I read, by a philosopher named Ed Feser, you’ve probably heard of Ed Feser. And, he…
LUKE: Yeah. I have a particular expression on that base that you’re not allowed to share on audio.
ROBERT: No. I’m just going to say it’s joyful. It’s a big smile.
ROBERT: An expression of love.
But in his book, “The Last Superstition”.
LUKE: An expression of deep admiration Ed Feser.
ROBERT: Yeah. I think so. Well, now I’m sure. Set your, oh no, it is Feser ["Phaser"]. It’s Feser.
LUKE: Ed Feser?
ROBERT: Yes. It’s set your Feser to fun. That’s one of the phrases my professor used to read, I think. So, it’s Feser, sorry. Ed Feser. He had this book on my shelf, called “The Last Superstition”.
ROBERT: And in that book, “The Last Superstition”, Feser refers to a book talking about what really does attempt to make these bridge laws between a variety of stuff, like physics and chemistry. And from what I gather, the book’s conclusion was that it’s hard even for physics and chemistry, such that we have only a few bridge laws between subphenomena. That said, it could be that the book was really old. For all I know, it was 1950. And even if it was 1990 or 2005, that’s the sort of thing that could definitely change in the future. That said, even if we get bridge laws, among biology and physics.
ROBERT: I wouldn’t be shocked if we never get bridge laws between psychological explanations and mechanistic explanations, such that, although you might be convinced that the mind just is the brain, we can never figure out any better way of talking about it, in, like, mechanical terms that gets across intentions and desires and beliefs.
ROBERT: Without just being shorthand. Like, you might say, “Oh, he has a C fiber firing” and that just means he’s a pain or whatever, and you might prefer some active location of the brain, “Oh, the Broca’s area is working, that’s why he’s saying these things.”
And I’m pretty optimistic. And so that’s one difference between us.
ROBERT: Yeah. That’s going to be one difference between us. So, even if, ultimately, psychological phenomena are just a kind of physical phenomena, it might be the case that we can never figure out a better way of talking about psychological phenomena than through psychological laws. So, it might be that we cannot help but to have two kinds of explanations.
ROBERT: And if that’s true, then talking about how God explains something could be like this. We find some, what looks to be an artifact on a planet. We know that whatever built it is of a higher intelligence than us, because, you know, it’s got all these parts interlocking, it produces, like, maybe it shoots this laser beam, or whatever, that can, like, make food or something like that.
ROBERT: And so we don’t know why they left it. But we can come up with theories. We can come up with what they were thinking when they made it, why, you know, if it makes food, probably, they wanted to use it to solve… they probably ate, right?
ROBERT: And so, we can do these kinds of inferences. And, to some extent, inferring to what God wants, can be like that, although probably not, as good even as that, because God would be a non-physical being who wouldn’t have the same kind of wants.
ROBERT: But then, you know, that’s when you have to rely on, like, Biblical stuff, like, revelation of God’s desires, and so, that’s going to be tricky if you’re skeptical, deeply skeptical about ancient texts or deeply skeptical about religious experiences, or the idea that somebody could have an interaction with God, such that they can communicate in propositional form what that means. I’m probably not as skeptical, well, I’m not, I’m sure I’m not as skeptical as you are that that’s possible. But that’s one way you could go.
ROBERT: The other way you could go, is the Thomistic route. Where the Thomistic route has this very florid metaphysics.
ROBERT: Act and potency. And you know, form and matter, these kinds of things. So the Thomists don’t, I think they’re going to be a little bit loathe to say that we invoke God as an explanation of phenomena. Rather that, they’re going to say something like this: “Look, given the output in metaphysics, there has to be something that’s pure act, otherwise, nothing would be happening.” That there would be nothing in existence.
ROBERT: And so, we know there’s a being of pure act, we know there’s a being that’s utterly simple, we know all these things, because this is the only way there could be anything else. And so, if you say, “Well, how does that explain things?” Well, you can say, it explains things in the sense that, the fact that you’re made out of particles explains why you’re here. But, you know, that’s a constitutive explanation.
LUKE: I think that is a different explanation, because the first one is inference to the best explanation, even though it’s psychological, personal, intentional, explanations instead of scientific explanation, but this one is almost just a deductive route.
ROBERT: Yeah, I think so. And so, if, and I have to say, like I’m a Catholic, but, you know, I’m not as up on like, the Fourth Council, or whatever, as I should be. That said, one of the things, going back to psychology, I’ve always had this sense, that if there is a God, God’s very different from us. And, part of me really, not part of me, all of me really finds myself attracted to the Catholic, or the tomistic conception of God, as divine and simple, as impassable, as immutable, as, you know, very very different from us. As timeless, as well.
So, that really resonates with me, the tomistic thing. Now, I said before that I’m not, like, a naive correspondence theorist, so it’s going to be a different kind of Thomistic explanation. It’s going to be like, I think we’re morally obligated to believe that there are other people, I think, in order to believe.
LUKE: Tomistic Kantian in Christianity.
ROBERT: Yeah, that’s sort of what I’m trying to affect in my scholarly career one day, but actually, apparently, you have to publish stuff to affect anything. So, I’m going to have to work on that.
LUKE: Yeah. Yeah, a lot of work.
ROBERT: Yeah. So, anyway, the nice thing about a Thomistic one, is that you can say, “Yeah, if we just infer to God, you know, “the reason things are fine tuned is ’cause God caused them.” It’s a perfectly legitimate question to ask, “Well, why did God cause it?” And if you can’t answer that, then you can say, “Well, you know, you’ve gotten some explanatory gain.” By now, we’ve explained why the laws of fine tuning, but there’s still something we don’t understand that’s perfectly legitimate object of trying to figure out.
LUKE: Well, but, if you’re just concerned with giving a justification for belief in God, you don’t need the arguments. You don’t need the natural theological arguments in terms of best explanation.
ROBERT: Yeah. You don’t need them at all.
LUKE: Because you’ve justified God by way of deduction.
ROBERT: Yeah, and you know, arguably, Berkeley has something similar to this, too. Well, Berkeley’s kind of different. You know, Berkeley has this theory of perception, according to which, basically, there’s just sense data. And so, he thinks that all we know are perceptions, but there also have to be perceivers. But he thinks that there has to be, there’s some explanation for why our perceptions align, and that would be God, right?
And so, God is, I guess, is that inference to the best explanation? I suppose, I don’t know what to think of that as. But, it’s a different way of getting to God, it’s not an argument, like, we need God to explain this phenomenon. It’s rather, here’s the way that the world works, right, and you’re committed to believing in God as the way of, you know, it sort of like, falls out of here, their general picture of the world, rather than having a direct argument for it.
ROBERT: I kind of prefer those approaches better, myself.
LUKE: Yeah, there’s so much to respond to there, in terms of why, I’m even willing to grant personal explanations into, not so much like our basic ontology, but our way of talking about the world?
ROBERT: Mm hm.
LUKE: If they can be reduced, it’s going to be a long fricking time. So, in the meantime, it’s very useful to talk in terms of intentional explanations. But even then, I have some major problems with positing God as an intentional explanation.
But then the other way you talked about in terms of Thomistic or Berkeleyian way to God through more like deduction. There’s some interesting work by Steve Maitzen on how those concepts of God, especially like an Anselmian concept of God – kind of extreme, perfect being theology – are really so radically mystical that they’re going to be basically atheistic in that God is going to be so profoundly different from anything that we can even grapple with or grasp onto that it’s basically not even theism in terms of you know, personal being theology, God communicating and interacting with the world and stuff like that.
And also there’s stuff like, you know, this goes back to another problem we talked about, where if the world, if the universe turns out to be necessarily this way, even if it’s branching endlessly like Everett proposed, then everything, the way it is now, what we’re doing now is all necessary.
Well if God necessarily has his properties and existence, everything else that exists flows from him except maybe numbers and moral truths then everything is necessary that way too and God is just kind of like a, just a replacement for the equation that explains everything. So is it even worth calling that God? You know, that kind of question.
It seems like basically atheism to me. I don’t know why you would talk about that in terms of a God who like intervenes and invents religions on the planet and stuff like that, that’s kind of very strange.
ROBERT: Yeah, this is odd because I kind of have no idea what you’re talking about in the sense that I’d have to read Steve Maitzen’s work on this, I guess, but yeah it’s different from us and I suppose it looks different from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
LUKE: Oh yeah.
LUKE: Or even the God of, well I would say, the God of Jesus…
LUKE: … but you’d probably disagree but.
ROBERT: Well I mean I can see why you say it looks different.
ROBERT: Because that kind of God, they all look like…
LUKE: I mean Jesus wasn’t a perfect being theologian. I can’t imagine you would think so.
ROBERT: Well he wasn’t a theologian. I mean he didn’t give us a treatise on metaphysics or anything like that.
LUKE: That wasn’t his theology.
ROBERT: You mean, well what do you mean by that? What was His theology?
ROBERT: Oh, well I see what you’re saying. Well…
LUKE: He was not a perfect being…
ROBERT: I don’t know that that’s true in the sense that if Jesus really was God, right, and this really is the correct theology…
ROBERT: …then He would have to be a perfect being theologian.
LUKE: But then that just contradicts all of the historical writing that we have.
ROBERT: From Jesus?
ROBERT: He didn’t write anything.
LUKE: No, even if you accept the, but you’ve got to accept some truth in the Gospels in order to have some data, right? And so…
ROBERT: Some data about what?
ROBERT: Yeah, sure.
LUKE: So, but if you do that, there’s no data in there that would work with Jesus being a perfect being theologian…
ROBERT: Is there data that’s contradictory with it or that conflicts with it?
LUKE: Well, as far as I can tell. Jesus, if we accept the data, which I’m very reluctant to do, would be … you know He talks about God choosing and intervening in very specific ways and, you know, raising people from the dead. And having certain limitations in terms of what He can do depending on the presence of different demons or the presence of faith.
LUKE: I mean just very non-perfect being types of concepts, in my mind anyway. Now I…
ROBERT: I don’t see the contradiction, yet.
LUKE: I know the perfect being theologians of course believe that they’re consistent but I don’t see it.
LUKE: I’m having a hard time with that.
ROBERT: I don’t know what, I mean you haven’t yet presented a contradiction, but that said, I think your idea of a contradiction might go like this.
In perfect being theology or Thomistic theology, which I think Thomas would be happy with accepting Anselm’s Perfect Being Theology. If God is simple and immutable and impassable et cetera. Then he can’t act in time. Why can’t he act in time? Well, because to act in time you have to do a lot of very specific things at specific moments. Now if God is this perfect being he does one thing. That God is pure act. And in fact God is one act. So God only ever acts once. And that’s identical with his power, his knowledge and everything like that.
And so therefore if God only ever acts once he can’t say this and then say that and then say that. And they’re all three different things. So, I don’t think that that necessarily is contradictory with the idea that God only acts once. Because you can have what you call one big act.
So imagine it’s like this. And this is going to be hard to convey just through my mouth, as opposed to writing stuff down on a board. But it’s basically like this. Imagine the Universe is like a soft putty. OK. So he stamps the putty once but that stamp has all sorts of different parts.
And here’s the thing this putty is the Universe over time. Especially if you think that time is just one big block, right? So God acts once. He does the one stamping but it has lots of little tentacles that go in at various moments in time.
Now that seems to me that that’s perfectly compatible with God saying something at this time and then this time and then this time et cetera. So I don’t see a contradiction there between God’s being simple. But since you’re agreeing with me that probably wasn’t the contradiction you were thinking of.
LUKE: Right. So all I’m raising here is all very standard theological problems that theologians have been aware of and written responses to. Not ones that I particularly find persuasive. Expect that one is not hard for me to think of because, I mean, not for those reasons. Because I think Augustine would be very happy with Minkowski’s Space-Time. Basically.
ROBERT: Right. I think a lot of Catholics will be happy with that.
LUKE: Yeah. And so that make sense in terms of the time issue. I still have problems with, for example here’s one big problem I have that I don’t think is answered. Do you think that God is a person?
ROBERT: OK. I’m not sure, it depends what you mean by a person.
LUKE: Yeah. If you were to say that God is a person. What would you mean by “God is a person?”
ROBERT: Well, here’s the thing. [laughs] I’ve been reading some of the exchanges between your favorite philosopher Ed Feser. And some people who disagree with him like the McGrews, right? The McGrew are very critical of simplicity. Well, I shouldn’t say simplicity and I shouldn’t speak for them because they are very nuanced. But that said I think that they are much more happy with the kind of personal God. And Ed is very happy to say that God is not personal. So I don’t know what they’re arguing about. I know Feser is very happy to say that God is not personal.
And that’s a kind of a modern . . . I don’t think he goes so far to say heresy but a modern innovation. That is taking us further from the truth of things. Now by person you mean somebody who has. . .
LUKE: I think it’s just continuing Perfect Being Theology, honestly in a more consistent way.
ROBERT: That God is not a person?
ROBERT: Yeah. I guess I’m kind of OK saying God’s not a person. In that if God’s a person, God’s a very, very, very different kind of person than you and I. Because God sees all time at once. God has no discursive knowledge but it’s all intuitive. Right? God doesn’t have to use concepts. Time does not pass for God. There’s only one sort of eternal apprehension. I’m not even sure that God would apprehend things in the same way we do. Well, there’s not much you can say about God that’s univocal with us. It’s mostly analogical. You have to make these stories.
LUKE: Yeah, yeah.
ROBERT: So yeah. If that’s enough for God not to be a person, then OK. God’s not a person. But God still has a thought. Right? God still has a desire or a one thing that God wants. So these are important traits to me. And it doesn’t seem to me to take me far from the Biblical God. Like I’m also certainly not a Literalist. And I might not be an Inerrantist, where I think that scripture might get some things wrong. One view of the Old Testament that I’m attracted to, is that part of the reason why it’s there, is to show us how badly people can misinterpret what God wants for us.
ROBERT: A lot of people thought that God wanted these genocides, which is hopefully not what God wanted. So I’m OK to depart from the Bible to some extent. But I don’t think Perfect Being Theology is atheism. I certainly don’t think that.
Funnily enough, it might be something atheists could accept, though. You might be OK with thinking, “Hey, you know, that’s what the basic of reality is that that kind of being, for lack of a better word, undergirds everything.” But just that, that being certainly didn’t intervene in history. That being certainly didn’t have an only-begotten son. And if that being is simple, how could it be triune? That’s a problem I have a real difficult time with.
And, I will admit, I have not yet heard a very good answer to that. If God only does one thing ever, could He have done another thing? And, if he could have done another thing, does that mean two acts are not the same as each other, but are the same as God’s power and knowledge and forgiveness? That’s a problem I worry about, and that leads to the necessitarianism that you were mentioning earlier.
So there are some problems for perfect being theology, just like there are problems for any position. But I have a feeling that there have been extremely distinguished philosophers who have given something that might at least take away some of my discomfort with those problems if I were to get around to reading them.
LUKE: Well, there are a million issues we could talk about there, but I’m going to skip all of them, mostly because they’re theological. [laughter]
LUKE: Let me bring up another problem. It really looks to me like there’s a double standard going on. And what I mean by that is, maybe you don’t do this, but it looks like a lot of Christian believers and Hindu believers and Muslim believers are willing to have a double standard about religious experience, about scripture, about argument; where they’ll say that, “My religious experience here is veridical. And the Muslims’ equally powerful, life-changing, amazing, obvious experience of Allah is just not veridical.” And they have no way to justify that. They just say it.
Shortly after I admitted to my parents that I just couldn’t believe in God anymore, my parents were talking about, “No, you have to believe because of this, and don’t you remember this miracle, and this kind of thing. At one point, I said, “But, Muslims experience all that same stuff. Do you think you’re smarter than a billion-and-a-half Muslims? How do you know that your experiences are veridical and theirs are not?” And my mom said, “Luke, I know that I know that I know.” And that was it; that’s about what it seems to come down to. So what are your thoughts on that?
ROBERT: My thoughts on that are two.
Number one, if you believe that all the other religions have insuperable philosophical problems, that could be part of the reason that you’re entitled to say their religious experience are, at least to some degree, non-veridical. It couldn’t be the case that they have an experience of “no self” because there is a self. So you can’t experience something that isn’t true. That’s one way you can take it.
The other thing you can do, and I’m sort of inclined to do this, is to reason that, yeah, people have religious experiences of God all the time in different cultures, but they might interpret them differently. Maybe their interpretations are wrong, maybe mine are wrong. That definitely gives me pause. I think it’s a non-starter to say that everybody’s religious experiences in other cultures are devils, our Christian experiences are God. I think it could be very well that…
LUKE: That was actually a later defense given by my parents, as well.
ROBERT: Well, here’s another thing: it could be of angels that are misinterpreted, if you want to take that view. It could be of God that’s misinterpreted.
I certainly think people do use double standards. I hope I don’t use a double standard.
Here’s the other thing: Remember, I gave the first explanation, is this religion had insuperable difficulties or not? I kind of think Buddhism might; but others, like Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity I’m less sure that there are insuperable difficulties there. So given that, then you want to ask, “What kinds of lives are the people leading who really take those religions seriously, and how admirable do you find those lives?” That, I think, is another kind of evidence for the message of those faiths.
Now, what if you look at all of those faiths and you see a lot of these faith produce equally admirable people? In that case, I’m willing to bite the bullet and say that, “They might all be valid ways to getting to truth.” It could, nonetheless, be the case that Christianity is still true.
Because it might be the case that, in the afterlife, let’s say if there is an afterlife, those people might realize that they had been following Jesus all along, like C.S. Lewis says. Or, they had the opportunity to follow Jesus more consciously. I’m even willing to consider the possibility that maybe Jesus isn’t the only way; maybe there is indeed a way to reach salvation without just being a Christian. I’ve always been sort of attracted to John Hick who is…
LUKE: And to C.S. Lewis as well, who you said had a big impact on you.
ROBERT: That’s right. I mean, C.S. Lewis is going to be a lot more skeptical than I am about the ability for somebody to follow, say, Hinduism; actually, Hinduism is a bad example, because he almost became a Hindu. Hinduism was his second choice. But he’s going to be more skeptical of somebody, say, following Islam and ending up, turns out that they were actually following Christianity all along. I’m not a Christian exclusivist; I’m either an inclusivist or a pluralist.
LUKE: Let’s back up a second.
LUKE: We were talking about double standards, and you said that maybe we can look at the lives of the adherents of the religion to determine which one might be true. The first question there is, if somebody put a gun to my head and I had to bet on if we did the research, which religion has produced the most reliably moral lives, in terms of the morality that most people would agree on, I would have to bet that maybe Jainism might win the day, not very sure. But the more worrying issue is, why on earth would you think that what you consider to be moral behavior is correlated with metaphysical truth?
For example, let’s say that it was a case that, there was a demon that ruled the universe and told all of his followers to slaughter everyone. These would be the most morally despicable people on the earth, but they would actually have the true religion. So I don’t see why moral behavior should be correlated with metaphysical truth.
ROBERT: It wouldn’t have to be, of course. What you said is a possibility. But what I was thinking of is something that I’ve always been troubled by. If God exists and is all-loving and all-powerful, God wouldn’t want it to be the case that just one segment of the population got everything right and everybody else was horribly wrong. And, of course, as a Christian, you can take the William Lane Craig “middle knowledge” thing, which I have trouble finding a logical problem with that; I just find it implausible that it just so happens that all these people, they never accepted Jesus because they wouldn’t have no matter how many times you gave them the option.
So, I tend to think that, if ultimate reality at the end of the day is in some sense an all-loving being, then people who have a real experience of that being would be transformed. And they’d be transformed into a way that shows that they are devoting themselves to this kind of all-loving reality. If that’s the case, that it would be those people that would be more likely to have gotten things right. That would be more evidence they have actually encountered this reality, as opposed to other people who just go about their day, and like I talked about earlier, who don’t give money to the poor, and they’d be perfectly willing to shock people to death if a doctor in a lab coat told them to, that kind of stuff.
So, those kinds of people that, I wonder which religion most reliably produces those kinds of people. But I’ve sort of biased things already, because I’ve talked about an all-loving reality, an all-loving being. And that’s the problem that I’m going to…
LUKE: You presuppose what you were trying to demonstrate by way of moral behavior.
ROBERT: Yeah, you could argue that the God of Christianity is not all-loving. You could argue that, maybe only the Jainist God is the closest to that ideal. Do Jains even believe in God?
LUKE: Depends on what kind of Jain you are, just like Buddhism. Not really, certainly not in an absolute God. The ancient Jains probably believed in different kinds of deities.
ROBERT: Oh, yeah. These are the people who wear surgical masks because they don’t want to breathe in any bacteria, and they don’t want to step on bugs, that kind of stuff?
LUKE: Yeah, but I don’t know how many of the radicals there are. ‘Ahimsa’ is this nonviolence principle that’s at the heart of Buddhism and Hinduism and Jainism and all those Indian religions. And that’s most central to Jainism as compared to all the others. So they’re the most concerned with not bringing harm to life. They even believe that life is in dust particles, maybe prescient of microorganisms. But anyways so that’s…
ROBERT: Well, maybe I should be a Baha’i, not a Christian. I don’t know.
LUKE: A Baha’i or a Jain?
ROBERT: A Baha’i.
LUKE: Baha’i? OK.
ROBERT: Because they believe, like John Hicks does, that all religions can be a path to truth. Now I’m not going to be a kind of naive Hickians and say, well if it’s a major religion then I am sure it’s basically right. I’m perfectly open to the possibility that some minor religions have it far closer to right than any major religion.
LUKE: Scientology. Definitely Xenu is very plausible.
ROBERT: Yeah, that’s a good question about… I mean I am pretty skeptical of Scientology but that’s that also because I know how it started. And with Mormonism, I guess there’s some similar stuff going on there.
ROBERT: With Christianity, I think nobody can be 100 percent sure of how it started. So that might be my ignorance which is saving me. Who knows?
ROBERT: It could be the case though that, just like it is odd to say: well there are socialists, Democrats, Republicans; they can’t all be wrong, right? “They are probably all right in their own way.” That would be kind of an odd view because those guys are at such at odds with each other about how to run society. Similarly, you can say the same thing about Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism. There has got to be some sense in which it’s… I’d be surprised if they all took you to salvation equally well. So my hunch is that, although it’s possible to achieve salvation through any of these religions, it could be that some are pretty clearly better than others.
LUKE: Well, and they even have very different notions of what salvation is. I mean a lot of…
ROBERT: Buddhism has enlightenment, right? Not salvation.
LUKE: Well, and a lot of variations of Hinduism, enlightenment is also what salvation is. It’s becoming aware of the fact that you’re an immortal being and not really tied to the physical body, this kind of kind of thing. And then you don’t have to be reborn and you can escape the cycle of suffering. Very different view of salvation than Christianity or Islam.
ROBERT: Yeah. And if you had a religion that said the key to salvation was looking out for number one, like really become a convinced egoist.
ROBERT: Are there such religions? I remember hearing a Satanist talking about Satanism and it sounded like that’s what Satanism was. But then I said it in class, my Philosophy of Religion class, one of my students said, “That’s not Satanism” which led me to think that maybe this guy had dabbled in it. So I thought, OK, I better keep my mouth shut about whatever Satanism is.
ROBERT: But if Satanism was this kind of egoistic point of view, my guess would be that that would probably be a non starter for achieving salvation or enlightenment. And that’s… Yeah, anyway.
LUKE: Robert, I’m starting to think that we aren’t going to solve all these problems in this interview here.
ROBERT: No, no, I’ve got a feeling something is going to happen in the next five minutes. [laughter]
ROBERT: My biggest problem with naturalism is normativity.
ROBERT: And what naturalism is I don’t really know. All I know that it is the denial of [laughs] substance dualism and theism. But it’s more than that clearly. There’s some allegiance to some scientific explanations but you are willing to admit that you don’t know what scientific explanations are going to look like in the future. So there’s that problem. But really the main problem is the normative problem, for me. I just don’t see how they get… if everything is restricted to naturalistic explanations, whatever those are, and everything is restricted to a naturalistic ontology, whatever that is, then it seems hard for me to figure out how we can get normativity in there.
LUKE: Well, and a lot of naturalists share the same concern. Like you said, there’s major problems for any system of thought.
So, what you’re talking about when you say that naturalism would be the rejection of substance dualism and theism, that’s the metaphysical hypothesis, of course. When I identify as a naturalist that’s more closely tied to the epistemological naturalism about just going with what turns out to be the most reliable methods of truth-seeking in the world that we find ourselves in, which is science so far. And then from that, I think at the moment, metaphysical naturalism looks pretty plausible.
But, so then, given that how do I account for normativity in a metaphysically naturalist point of view? It’s like I said, my ontology of negativity is very sparse, so much that you might even be justified in saying I’m an eliminativist about normativity.
Because I think that the only kind of normatively in the world that exists, that I can justify anyway, is the hypothetical imperative. And the only reason I think that can be justified is because I think it can be reduced to a prediction about the natural world.
If you want to say that that just means there’s no normatively, then that’s fine with me. But I think it does mean that there is a justification for ooughts.
ROBERT: And I think that’s what normatively is. And so, I think I can justify saying that if you want to get from Los Angeles to San Diego, you ought to go South, I think I can justify that just with the prediction that if you do go South from Los Angeles you’ll end up at San Diego and end up satisfying your desire.
So, I’m going to do something like, you know, Dan Dennett wrote this book “Elbow Room” on, I think the subtitle was “On the varieties of freewill worth wanting”. And his point in that book was that no, we don’t have unmoved mover powers. We aren’t little gods with souls apart from the physical world that get to intervene in an uncaused way and cause things in the natural world.
But that’s OK because we don’t really need that kind of free will in order for us to be able to make some sense out of being agents in a world or even moral practice in society. And so, he gives the example of a digger wasp. The digger wasp, it just has actions that seemed to be programmed into it. So, it will gather food by dragging its prey by its antennae and it will drag it to the nest and just kind of blindly does all this stuff.
And if it’s dragging its prey to the nest and you clip off the body of its prey from the antennae, it will just stupidly keep following its programming and pulling these antennas, that are useless to it, into the nest and then it will go out again. So, it apparently has no capacity to reflect on its situation, reflect on what it values, and make decisions to try to go after what it values.
Whereas we have a higher level, and some other primates and maybe some dolphins and elephants and whales and lots of different animals, have an ability to step back and reflect on what we value and make decisions based on that. That’s a kind of free will, even though it doesn’t mean that we have unmoved mover powers.
It’s still the case that, given the same laws of physics and the same prior state of the universe, we had to do what we did. But maybe we don’t need unmoved mover powers, maybe humanity really can be OK without unmoved mover powers. Maybe the kind of free will that we do have, where we get to reflect on our values, is all we need to get by in life.
And I want to say the same thing about the hypothetical imperative. Maybe all we need for normativity is the hypothetical imperative. I think its fine for logic if we’re just using the hypothetical imperative. I suspect it’s going to turn out to be fine for aesthetic judgment that we only have the hypothetical imperative there.
If you want to talk about what makes you feel good and have pleasurable experiences of sound or visuals or whatever, then, you know, we can talk about aesthetics in those terms.
And then we talk about moral value we can make a similar move. We can say, if by moral value you mean this set of hypotheticals then here are your answers there.
If let’s say by morality you mean a global consideration of all the reasons for action that exist. And it so happens that desires are the only reasons for action that exist. You can talk about those! Those are all hypothetical imperatives, it’s just the kind of universal consideration of all the hypothetical imperatives that exists. That’s not that far from some moral views: just to consider all the reasons for all the action that exist, for all the desires that exist.
I think that’s probably worth calling morality if you feel like it, as long as you’re careful to stipulate what you’re talking about. And that’s entirely based on a system of hypothetical imperatives as Philippa Foot proposed in some article… and then recanted of her heresy! But I’m not recanting. You know, I would love to eventually write a dissertation or something on the varieties of normatively worth wanting, yeah. And I’ll say “Well, as it turns out the hypothetical imperative is the only one we can justify. Let’s see what we can do with that.”
ROBERT: Yeah, and I think your comment is deeper than that because the last sentence you said is what really drove it home for me. Remember, we’re not just talking about moral normativity, as you are aware. We’re talking about all normativity: epistemic normatively, logical normatively, everything like that. And if you say the hypothetical imperative is the only one we can justify, right? That means justify according to the aesthetic epistemic principals we’ve adopted.
ROBERT: And then you’re going to keep on having to try to go back farther and farther and farther. But it just seems to me that it’s going to be unavoidable that you have these basic epistemic principals by which you make, you know, according to which you make judgment. Because these are your standards, these are your basic standards by which you assess things and assess what works and stuff like that.
LUKE: But I’ve already accepted this because I’m not a foundationalist so I don’t think we can justify our epistemic or our logical principles or our moral principles or whatever back to some set of axioms that are just incorrigibly true or something like that. I already don’t think that that is a very promising project.
ROBERT: Right. Well, I guess then that your task is to investigate the criticisms of coherentism or whatever non-foundationalist epistemology you would doubt and also, of course, really see whether or not you can, even if you are coherentist, get on without a fundamental epistemic normativity that isn’t a hypothetical imperative.
What could possibly happen is that you go to graduate school. You do a dissertation with some really great epistemologist at NYU or Rutgers. And then they are like, “Dude, this great. Great dissertation.” Then you get a job as a research professor at some top 20 school.
LUKE: Pretty optimistic about my career.
ROBERT: This is the best case scenario.
LUKE: All right.
ROBERT: Worst case scenario you die poor in a gutter.
ROBERT: But, best case scenario this is what happens. And then you make that is convincing to yourself but very few people believe you. Probably what is going to happen, I’m guessing, most people are going to accept some epistemic normativity that doesn’t reduce to hypothetical imperatives. That’s my guess.
ROBERT: And what does that mean if that’s true?
LUKE: Here’s what it means for me. I’m going to guess that history is going to be very kind to me because it’s going to turn out that all of these astonishing properties of the universe that everyone else is calling upon to justify their normative views are going to turn out to not have any referent. Mine is the only one that is going to have a reference. I’m going to look pretty good in history. [laughter]
ROBERT: I hope you’re wrong. [laughter]
LUKE: Robert, let’s wrap things up with this. How do you think that discussions and debates about world views and the things we are talking about, how do you think that they should be conducted? Whether practically, morally, or whatever. But how do you think they should be conducted… online is a big new field for this. What are your thoughts on that?
ROBERT: This is another thing I am working on right now, a paper called ‘Civility in the Blogasphere’ where I am trying to figure out why we ought to be civil to one another, in one circumstances we ought to be civil to one another, and what being civil to one another means. Here’s the thing, I want to say we should be civil to one another. That’s an easy thing to say, but it’s actually a lot harder to justify than you might think. Maybe not you because you run a blog so you know the problems this brings up. There are some uncivil people out there, and they can derail discussion. They can ignore what people say to one another. It’s not entirely clear why we ought to be civil back to them if they’re not going to be civil to us. That seems to me to be a problem.
My own approach is just to stop talking to them, because online nobody knows you’re a dog so you don’t have to stay there. You can just “OK, thank you. We don’t need to talk about this anymore”. If you’re interested in actually advancing…
ROBERT: If you’re interested in actually persuading people, I think the kind of people who are going to be persuaded by pure rancor are not, at the end of the day, going to have super stable views or are not going to have the kind of views with the kind of nuance that are going to make them ultimately attractive. There’s a lot more to say about why that might be, but I have feeling that if you endorse a view because you think the alternative is silly, probably what is going to happen is that you might be more susceptible to kind of peer pressure to kind of group think because “Oh, well, I can’t really take that seriously, it’s just too silly”. I think that’s a worrisome thing.
I think the way these online debates and discussions in general about naturalism and non-naturalism ought to be discussed as… try to think it’s possible that you could be writing about that. I think try to be calm. Try to listen to them. Try to actually understand it. But also ask yourself, “Why do you care about this?” “What do you hope to get out of this discussion?” “Why do you want to know the answer to this question?”
I think kind of question is important, because it can tell you what’s at stake. When things are too civil you can sort of forget what’s at state. I always have this problem. I think she would be civil even to the Neo-Nazi or the clan member, but sometimes when you are civil to those people you show a lack of respect to their targets. Maybe the proper response is you ought to be aggressive towards them in order to show your disapproval of the kinds of views they have.
LUKE: Right, right.
ROBERT: I worry about that, though, because I think I’m more worried about group think than I am about protecting people’s feelings. Another worry is that if you take those views seriously at all you risk being corrupted by taking them seriously.
ROBERT: So it’s a fraught enterprise.
ROBERT: All this discussion. Nonetheless, I think the only thing I’m going to say that’s of any interest to people about this question is that asking yourself why you care about this, what’s at stake, asking yourself why you are continuing to have this discussion and always remembering what the hook is. Why do you want to know the answer to this? Is it just a game? That can be fun. Are you actually going to live like this? Is it going to have any impact on your life? Can you live like it? These are important things too.
How about you, do you have any thoughts on that? Or do you want to just… You don’t know. Look at that look on your face.
LUKE: I have no idea. [laughs]
ROBERT: Yeah. You just do it.
LUKE: I’ve been blogging, and I have no idea.
ROBERT: Yeah. Well that actually helps to explain why you might not have an idea, though you were just in the middle of a firestorm not so long ago about hosting arguably lascivious pictures of ladies online.
ROBERT: And that was a really weird experience for me watching you from the sidelines.
ROBERT: Because I think there is a lot of stuff going on with you underneath the surface that you probably were aware of or maybe not were aware of. There is, if I may be so bold, more going on with a lot of your interlocutors than with you. It definitely made me wonder. You are talking to these people, and you were saying “teach me how to see things from your perspective”.
ROBERT: I sort of wondered why you were approaching them for that information. I don’t think it worked that great. I mean, you did learn some things, but I’m not sure I even agreed with what you learned or your reasons for it either. So I guess I want to know why you did that. Did you get anything out of it? Would you do it again, go to the online community and ask them to teach you how to think about things?
LUKE: Well, just by writing my blog I do. That’s actually one of the benefits to me in writing my blog. I write an article on fine tuning and people who know a lot more about the math and physics of fine tuning post comments and say, “oh, actually you got that wrong” or “actually this interpretation works better” and I learn a lot from that. The same can happen when we’re having a dialog about value or about morality.
LUKE: The thing that was really frustrating to me about… Like you said, I did go to everybody who was criticizing me for posting the pictures of these females scientists that I found attractive.
LUKE: I said, “OK, why are you condemning me? What is it that was wrong about that post? Help me to understand your view.” A huge number of them said “I’m not even going to bother to explain my view, I just want to condemn you.”
LUKE: And, in fact, “I don’t have reasons to condemn you. I’m just going to condemn you.” I guess maybe they were not realists about morality then.
ROBERT: Oh, no. That’s the weird thing. They were and they weren’t. I’m sure if you had asked them “is morality objective” they’d say “of course not”. Then when you bring up an actual moral issue, but when you actually talk about it, it certainly seems objective all the time.
LUKE: Yeah, it certainly seems objective. The problem was that when I tried to understand the reasons why they were condemning me, they weren’t very good reasons, at least as far as I could tell. I had to leave that behind and go to reading some literature, some feminist literature by philosophers, in particular one article by Martha Nussbaum on objectification. But I didn’t think her reasons were very good either. One, because she is working from a Kantian normative theory which I can’t find plausible. The other reason was even if you accepted the Kantian principle it still didn’t work. I’ll let people read the article I wrote on that.
So, why did I go to the online community? I guess because I have learned so much from the online community in the past, I was hoping they would be instructive there. It turned not really to be because this was a very emotional issue. The more emotional an issue is the worse the reasons are going to be. [laughs]
ROBERT: Well, yeah. I’ve got a lot to say, I feel like, now that you’ve spoken out you reminded me of some things. First of all, imagine you were torturing somebody to death and were live blogging this. Showing pictures.
ROBERT: And you said, “Hey guys, what do you think? Am I doing the right thing?”
ROBERT: It wouldn’t shock me if people responded with a lot of rancor and said, “If you can’t see that what you are doing is wrong, is really is pointless to talk with you”.
LUKE: That is what a lot of people said.
ROBERT: Yeah. And that, I don’t think, is a terrible reason. I mean, sometimes if someone is even trying to find the reasons for this can be kind of, for a lot of people, undermining their own confidence. That might not be a good thing. That’s another problem of civility in discussion. Sometimes some discussions, I’m willing to think, some discussions shouldn’t exactly be had in public. Imagine if… A lot of scientists are saying that free will is an illusion. Then you find these studies that said that people who believe free will is an illusion are more likely to cheat. Right?
ROBERT: And that’s worrisome, right? It could be the case then, that we have to be very careful about how we discuss things, because, it could be the case that really there is no good reason for or against it. It really depends on what your starting point is. And if you start with, like, say, external world realism, then you can’t really be argued out of it. But if you start with solipsism, you also can’t be argued out of it. But it could be that, if that’s true, for say, morality, then that might be a very bad thing. If we start insisting that people have arguments for, you know, explaining why they’re permitted to have the moral possessions they do.
LUKE: Wait, though. Could you localize that principle to a singular person? And what I mean by that is, I have a history of changing my moral views about a lot of things.
LUKE: And people who have been reading my blog for a while will know that because I’ve changed my moral views rather massively even since writing the blog. So, I, at least, appear to be occasionally persuaded by arguments concerning morality.
ROBERT: Yeah. I’d have to look at which direction you got persuaded. I mean, I can definitely imagine people getting more and more skeptical about morality. No, you’re interesting because you actually were a skeptic and then you became a realist of some sort.
LUKE: Yeah. Not even just skeptical vs. realist, but actually towards different conclusions in applied ethics.
LUKE: Very tentative conclusions, because I don’t even like to think about applied ethics very much. It’s too hard.
ROBERT: Yeah, I mean, so here’s the other thing I was going to tell you. But this is more derogatory, toward you.
ROBERT: You change your mind a lot, and publicly.
ROBERT: I can’t help but think you’ve got to be almost a little proud of your own persuadability. And so, I can’t help but to think there’s some, like, look at how rational I am. I’m going to go up to you guys and ask you to educate me. I bet you people picked up on that, to some degree, and are like, you’re actually not as open minded as you think you are. You’re just a callow youth. And you’re just trying to build up your own self esteem by going out there and doing that. So, that’s part of why I ask you, what were you really doing, when you were doing that. I know you said you like to go to the online community. But, how much of it is building, supporting your own mind, for your own virtues?
And I think, I mean, that’s a worry you, I have that worry all the time, too, about, “Why am I really doing this. Is there a really good reason for this other than some selfish reason, at the end of the day?”
But, I don’t know, you know? That’s another thing people should think about while they’re on these online debates. “Are we disagreeing with each other so we can score points and show how smart we are?” “Are we doing it because we really want to know the answer?” You know, that sort of thing. But anyway, that’s another issue. For you, yeah, I mean, I don’t know what to think.
Maybe you’re too persuadable. Maybe you’re too willing to change your mind to endorse like absurd conclusion. Maybe eliminative materialism is just silly. And maybe it is about as silly as believing there is no moon, or something like that.
And the fact that you can do that is not something to be pleased by. It’s something to be worried by. So, yeah, it’s tough. I do agree that how we talk to people should be person dependent. You have to be pastoral, as they say in your former community.
We have to learn how to talk to people where their needs are. And, so, that’s why online talks can be kind of dangerous, because, you’re so honest. You don’t really know what’s going on with people.
And you can really have a bad effect. You can also have a really good effect. But, I don’t want to discourage you from blogging. I like your blog. And you do a public service. But there’s worry.
LUKE: Well, let me ask you what you think about this. I think unavoidably, a big reason why I do pursue those kinds of conversations like I did, is because of pride. And because I am proud of the fact that I have been able to change my mind on some major issues. And, it’s worse than that. I’m also proud of the fact that I haven’t changed my mind on other issues. And the story that I’m telling to myself is that I’m changing my mind where the data actually is.
And I’m not changing my mind where the arguments aren’t there.
LUKE: And including in the case of talking about posting. Whether or not posting the sexy scientist list was moral or not.
LUKE: And, so, for example, I examined several of these arguments, even from a leading philosopher like Martha Nussbaum, and found them wanting, and said that’s not a good reason to think that the sexy scientists post was wrong. And then I came, finally, I heard an argument that I thought was good, and I did change my mind. And I wrote an apology post, but not because of the bad arguments. Presumably because of good arguments. That’s the very flattering story that I tell about myself, and I like to have some pride in that.
But the other thing is that I really am motivated, because I’m so curious to find out what’s true, what’s real. The thing is, I’ve been just, I think now, incredibly wrong about some things before.
I mean, I remember when I discovered that I just couldn’t be a libertarian anymore. I was a libertarian for maybe a year, year and a half or something like that? And I’d answered for myself the basic questions about who builds the roads, and whatever.
But I came across, I wasn’t looking to deconvert from libertarianism. But I came across one video from Noam Chomsky on YouTube, where he said that libertarianism is actually the most extreme totalitarianism because it leads into some kind of government totalitarianism. People have some kind of voice or response that they can give to oppression.
And when it comes to a multi-national corporation, you don’t have voting rights on a corporation. And so, what libertarianism would lead to is just, the ultra wealthy have all the more power to increase their own wealth, and continue oppressing the poor. That video made complete sense to me. And I just dropped libertarianism right then.
And that kind of thing has happened to me many times, about free will, about the nature of time, about the existence of God, about the existence of moral values. A lot of different times. And it’s because I’ve been interacting with other people, who suddenly hit me with something that seemed plausible to me. Intuitively, shall we say.
ROBERT: Right. Right.
LUKE: And so, I do seek that out. Because even if it’s really hard at first, I really value that later. Because I really value at least not being wrong in that way. Maybe I’m still wrong, but at least I’m not wrong anymore about libertarianism.
ROBERT: Yeah. Part of me wants to say, you’ve done your epistemic duty. What more can you do? Look for the data, try to figure out the truth to it, or try to put your beliefs to it, and, you know, hopefully you’re right. The only thing that worries me about the flattering version of your story, is how quickly you change your mind on these things.
ROBERT: One video from Noam Chomsky, and as you describe it, there’s a million things I can think of to say in response to that, as not a good argument from Noam Chomsky.
LUKE: Right. Well, that was by far the quickest.
ROBERT: Right, but I mean, you’ve changed your mind about the objectivism pretty quickly, too. I mean, over the course of what, a week?
LUKE: A week.
ROBERT: Yeah. Think how ubiquitous sexy pictures of women are in our society. They cover Maxim magazine every week, not to mention hardcore pornography and softcore pornography, but also, any TV show, practically. Lots of commercials. Obviously to be against that, that could be a perfectly good moral view. My hunch is that it probably is, but it would be a huge change in society, right? Probably for the better, maybe not. So that actually is, you’re changing your mind about a lot.
LUKE: Yeah. Very quickly. Yeah.
ROBERT: Very quickly. And so, for me, maybe this is my advice. I don’t go changing my mind very quickly at all. I really did look hard into compatibilism for a while, and I found myself getting close to it, sometimes, and going away sometimes. And now I have the view that I’m pretty sure I’m not a compatibilist, but I can see why somebody would be one. And I think the real task is to really be confident about the way you change your mind, is finding where the basic intuitive differences are. Finding one where you can think, oh I can see how somebody would have that one.
And I just don’t have that one. Now, you’re not going to like that, because of your views on intuitions. Because, you’re trying to…
LUKE: Well, I think that is what happens.
LUKE: I think that is what happens.
ROBERT: When you do make these changes, you do find the difference of intuitions, and then you say, “OK. I see now why somebody would accept it, reasonably. But why I don’t accept it.”
LUKE: That’s why I change my view, but that’s not, I wish that wasn’t how it worked. [laughs] I try to better that afterwards. Part of the reason, maybe, I’m able to change my views so quickly on some things is because, number one, my views are extremely tentative anyway. So, I’m not committing myself to, “Oh, absolutely no. I know it was definitely wrong to post the sexy scientist thing”, or anything like that. No, not at all. And the other thing is, in particular on the sexy scientist post, I definitely still don’t think it was nearly as wrong as probably any of my critics.
And the details of that are in that post, but that’s part of the reason, maybe, why…
ROBERT: All I have to say about that is, I think it’s really hard to find what these basic intuitions are. And I’d be shocked if you could find it even for an issue that specific over the course of a week. But, hey, you got to live life. You got to go to the movies. You got to not help the poor. These are things we have to do.
LUKE: [laughs] Robert, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you, as always.
ROBERT: Likewise, Luke.