“The Moral Argument” by Mark Linville (Part 1)

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 25, 2009 in Ethics,Reviews

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Earlier, I critiqued Mark Linville’s article “The Moral Poverty of Evolutionary Naturalism.” Today, I’ll critique his chapter in the totally awesome Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, which presents his moral argument for God’s existence (read it here).

His chapter is nearly 60 pages long, so I’ll need several posts to respond to it.

As with many arguments which claim that atheism entails moral nihilism, Linville’s article opens by quoting Nietzsche, who sneered at the ethical thought of the Enlightenment: “They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality.”1 By giving up Christianity, Nietzsche thought that “one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet.” 1

But this kind of reasoning only makes sense from a very narrow and ignorant Western view.

Imagine we could gather some native inhabitants of North America, South America, Siberia, Central Africa, Australia, China, and Polynesia, and ask them, “Why do you strive to be patient, compassionate, generous, and humble?” They would not think to mention Christianity in giving their answers. The morals of Christianity are the morals of many traditions. Christianity did not invent these values. To abandon Christianity is not to abandon morality. Morality existed before Christianity came along, and morality will exist long after Christianity is dead. (But this is not Linville’s problem, as Linville does not defend Nietzche’s genealogy of morals.)

I think the moral argument is much stronger than most atheists do. I don’t think theistic moral theories are at all plausible, but I think the same of all the moral theories defended by atheists (except one, which is never mentioned anyway). Basically, I think theistic critiques of these atheistic moral theories are correct. Theists are right when they say these atheistic moral theories fail, and I think atheists should start admitting it.

So let me turn to Linville’s two arguments. The first is a moral argument against naturalism. The second is an argument for God’s existence from human dignity.

Against Naturalism

walking_apeAs it happens, Linville’s article is the best summary I’ve found of all the reasons we should not trust the output of our evolved moral sense. I’ve argued that before, but Linville does a much better job of it here. It is mainly for this reason that I loved Linville’s article.

Here is Linville’s argument against what he calls “Evolutionary Naturalism,” meaning naturalism with the assumption that evolution is the only available naturalist explanation for human origins:2

(1) If Evolutionary Naturalism is true then the human moral sense is a by-product of natural selection.

(2) If the human moral sense is a by-product of natural selection, then there are no objective moral facts.

(3) There are objective moral facts.

(4) Therefore, Evolutionary Naturalism is false.

The argument is valid, so if the premises are true then the conclusion must be true. Anyone seeking to defeat the argument must show one or more of the premises to be false or implausible.

As you can see, Linville does not argue for the existence of God, but only for the falsity of evolutionary naturalism. If one wanted an argument for God’s existence, one would have to also argue that theism can account for objective moral facts (no small feat), and therefore that if objective moral facts exist then theism is preferable to evolutionary naturalism. But Linville doesn’t take up that challenge, so he (surprisingly) does not offer an argument for the existence of God.

Now, let us consider the premises.

The boldest premise here is (3), a notoriously difficult position to defend. So I was looking forward to seeing how Linville was going to argue for the existence of objective moral facts. To my disappointment, Linville’s only “argument” in defense of (3) is basically what William Lane Craig often says: “Objective moral values exist, and I think we all know it.”3 At a debate with Craig in Cambridge, Arif Ahmed responded: “Now that might pass for an argument at Talbot Theological Seminary, and it might pass for an argument in the White House, but this is Cambridge, and it will not pass for an argument here.” No, it will not pass for an argument here, either.

So premise (3) goes completely undefended against all the usual attacks (which I will not repeat here).

Now, what about premise (2)?

If the human moral sense is a by-product of natural selection, then there are no objective moral facts.

But clearly, this commits the genetic fallacy. The cause of a belief says nothing about whether the belief is true or false. Earlier, I gave this analogy:

Let’s say I was a Bakuba child in the 18th century, and I was taught by ignorant shamans that the stars are not infinitely old, because they were created when the white giant Mbombo got a stomach ache and vomited them into the sky. My belief in finitely old stars comes from an extremely unreliable source, but as it turns out this is a true belief, and we can know it is a true belief by other means – albeit means arriving much later: scientific evidence.

Linville’s premise (2) does the same thing as claiming that the Bakuba child is wrong about finitely old stars because his belief comes from an unreliable religious myth. Both arguments commit the genetic fallacy.

Against this charge, Linville writes that “some forms of genetic argument may be correct,” and summarizes an analogy by Elliot Sober:4

Consider Sober’s eccentric colleague, Ben, who believes that he has 73 students in his class because he drew the number 73 from an urn filled with slips of paper numbered from 1 to 100. Presumably, there are no esoteric connections between class attendance and such random drawings. Ben’s resulting belief is thus epistemically independent of its would-be truth-maker in that Ben would believe that this was his enrollment regardless of the actual number of students in the class. According to Sober, Ben’s belief is “probably false.”

Linville then argues that it’s unlikely that evolution would happen to result in true beliefs about morality, just as it’s unlikely that drawing a number from a hat would happen to land on the correct number of classmates.

But let us remind ourselves of premise (2): “If the human moral sense is a by-product of natural selection, then there are no objective moral facts.”

What exactly is Linville trying to defend, here? He needs to argue that “If our belief that moral facts exist is the by-product of evolution, then our belief that moral facts exist is probably false.” But in this case there are only two possible truths: either moral facts exist, or they do not! The analogy would be that our fictitious Ben is picking from an urn with only two numbers in it, one of which is correct. In this case, it wouldn’t surprise us at all if he gets the right one by pure chance!

Secondly, if Ben picked one of the two numbers from the urn, and then later found good, independent evidence for the truth of the number he picked, he would be justified in his belief. The earlier urn-picking would be irrelevant (as in fact it always had been).

The analogy to moral philosophy is that many philosophers argue for moral realism not from our evolved moral senses but from (what is claimed to be) good, independent evidence.5 If we have good evidence that moral facts exist, it is irrelevant that our evolved moral sense is unreliable, since we can derive morality from the good evidence we have instead of from our evolved moral sense.

And so, the charge of “genetic fallacy” stands. Our moral sense cannot be trusted given naturalism, but that does not mean moral facts do not exist given naturalism.

Against Naturalism, Round 2

evolution_of_moralityLinville recognizes this problem, so he instead defends a less ambitious form of the argument:

(1) If Evolutionary Naturalism is true then the human moral sense is a by-product of natural selection.

(2*) If the human moral sense is a by-product of natural selection, then there is no moral knowledge.

(3*) There is moral knowledge.

(4) Therefore, Evolutionary Naturalism is false.

Thus modified, Linville’s argument “becomes an epistemological argument for moral skepticism.”

For premise (2*), Linville argues something like this: “If our beliefs about the moral value of particular actions in particular circumstances are the by-products of evolution, it is unlikely that many of them should correspond to objective moral facts about those values.” So, the analogy to Ben choosing randomly from an urn with hundreds of numbers is now appropriate.

Let me explain. Perhaps we got lucky and moral facts do exist, just as evolution programmed us to think. After all, we had a 50% chance of getting that right. But moral knowledge, that is another thing entirely. It is highly unlikely that the particular moral beliefs that evolution programmed into our brains happen to be correct, so we cannot have moral knowledge given evolutionary naturalism. That is Linville’s argument.

But this does not avoid the major objection I raised above. If we have good, independent reasons to think we have moral knowledge – reasons that make no reference to our evolved moral sense – then we are justified in claiming moral knowledge, and whatever our evolved moral sense tells us is irrelevant.

In the same way, we may have knowledge of quantum mechanics even though our evolved intuitions about physics are unreliable. Why? Because we have solid evidence about how the subatomic world works – good evidence that makes no reference to our evolved intuitions about physics. Indeed, our findings about quantum mechanics that come from good evidence often do violence to our evolved intuitions about physics. The same may be true about morality. Evidence about what is moral or immoral may end up contradicting our most deeply held (but unfounded) evolved moral intuitions.

Controversial Final Thoughts

So, I think Linville’s moral argument against evolutionary naturalism fails. (Of course, it is beyond the scope of this post to review the moral arguments for God’s existence offered by Kant,6 Newman,7 Adams,8 Zagzebski,9 Drabkin,10 Craig,11 Ward,12 Quinn,13 Trethowan,14 Idziak,15 and others.)

There are at least three lines of attack open to the atheist. First, the atheist may defend a theory of moral realism that does not depend on any “knowledge” from our evolved moral sense, and thereby defeat premise  (2*). Or, the atheist may argue against the existence of moral facts or moral knowledge and thereby build a case against premise (3*). Third, if Linville’s argument is taken to support the existence of God, the atheist may also attack the coherence and plausibility of theistic moral realism, which I think is easily done.

However, Linville’s main point seems to be that evolutionary naturalism provides no grounds for a moral theory that depends on output from our evolved moral sense of right and wrong, and with this I totally agree. Unfortunately, most moral philosophers do not agree. Linville sums up the moral process of most philosophers like this:

Which do we know more certainly: the belief, It is wrong to stomp on babies just to hear them squeak, or some true moral principle that entails the wrongness of baby-stomping? In moral reflection, do we begin with the principle, and only then, principle in hand, come to discover the wrongness of recreational baby-stomping as an inference from that principle? Or do we begin with the belief that baby-stomping is wrong and then arrive at the principle that seems implicated by such a belief? Pretty clearly, it is the latter… As philosopher Mary Midgley has put it, “An ethical theory which, when consistently followed through, has iniquitous consequences is a bad theory and must be changed.”

And this method is precisely what I called The Wrong Test for Ethical Theories. I lambast this method as strongly as Linville does, and for the exact same reasons.16

If moral facts exist, they have no necessary agreement with our evolved moral sense (which evolved to be adaptive, not to accurately perceive otherwise invisible moral properties). Let me say that again. If moral facts exist, they have no necessary agreement with our evolved moral sense. For example, it may turn out to be the case that even rape is a moral act, and our evolved moral sense has been dreadfully wrong all along. Indeed, if moral facts exist, it seems likely that our evolved moral sense is wrong about a great number of issues.

comforting_jesusI happen to think the evidence clearly shows that rape is morally wrong, but the moral calculus didn’t have to turn out that way. It’s this thought that will probably scare people into accepting Linville’s argument. Linville’s theory, like many religious theories, is compelling because it is so comforting. “Go ahead – you can trust your moral sense. God wrote his moral law on your heart, so what you feel to be right probably is. There, there – no need to worry.” Here, I may quote what Santayana said of Russell, and say it of Linville instead: Linville “thinks he triumphs when he feels that the prejudices of his readers will agree with his own.”17 Theistic morality tries to confirm our ignorant prejudices, which may explain why it is so attractive to so many people.

But I will go one step further. I think Linville’s argument against evolutionary naturalism should be compelling for those who are committed to the view that their moral sense gives them moral knowledge. (In other words, I think Linville’s argument should be compelling to practically everyone, because practically everyone thinks they can trust their moral sense.) If you dogmatically cling to the view that your moral sense gives you moral knowledge (the way many cling to the view that there is an objective “now” in time, or that libertarian free will exists), then you should probably reject evolutionary naturalism.

In fact, something very much like Linville’s argument is what caused Bertrand Russell to give up on moral realism. Once Russell realized that our moral sense had evolved with no particular aim toward the truth, he realized he had to give up any claim of moral knowledge. But then, Russell didn’t have access to a theory of moral realism that didn’t make reference to our evolved moral prejudices. In contrast, we do have access to such a theory.

So, I think you should accept evolutionary naturalism and instead reject the view that your moral sense gives you moral knowledge. Some may see this as a high price, but it need be no higher than when we decided to follow the evidence regarding quantum mechanics rather than follow our intuitions about physics.

Your moral sense only gives you moral prejudices – some of which are true, some of which are false. Only patient research can tell us which are true and false.18

There is much left to say about the evidence for my atheistic moral theory, desire utilitarianism. There is also much to say about the lack of evidence for theistic moral theories – regardless of the truth of theism. But this is merely a rebuttal of Linville’s moral argument against evolutionary naturalism, and I have given it.

I will address Linville’s second argument, his Argument from Personal Dignity, in my next post for this series.

  1. Twilight of the Idols [] []
  2. This is a pretty safe assumption for now, but it’s certainly conceivable that we could later discover we have been intelligently designed by space aliens, a hypothesis that survives Occam’s razor far better than bizarre, ad-hoc theories of intelligent design by a timeless (??), all-powerful (??), all-knowing (??), perfectly good (??), unextended (??) non-physical mind (??). []
  3. Technically, Linville suggests that certain moral beliefs are “properly basic” and thus need no external justification, a common trick Christians use to avoid justifying their unjustifiable claims. []
  4. Sober’s full analogy is given in From a Biological Point of View, pages 93-113. []
  5. See: David Brink, Peter Railton, Michael Smith, Richard Boyd, etc. Alonzo Fyfe is another, and his desire utilitarianism is the theory of moral realism I currently defend. []
  6. The Critique of Pure Reason (1781), book II. []
  7. An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870), page 101. []
  8. The Virtue of Faith (1987), pages 144-163. []
  9. “Does ethics need God?”, Faith and Philosophy, 4: 294-303, 1987 []
  10. “A moral argument for undertaking theism”, American Philosophical Quarterly, 31: 169-175, 1994 []
  11. The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality, 1997. []
  12. Rational Theology and the Creativity of God (1982), page 179. []
  13. Divine Commandments and Moral Requirements (1978). []
  14. Absolute Value: A Study in Christian Theism (1970). []
  15. Divine Command Ethics” in A Companion to Philosophy of Religion (1999). []
  16. Linville only lambasts this method when assuming naturalism, though. Assuming theism is true, Linville thinks we have good reason to trust our moral sense. Why? Because Goddidit, of course! []
  17. I couldn’t resist; Linville quotes this same passage in “The Moral Argument.” The quote is from Santayana’s The Winds of Doctrine. []
  18. Or perhaps we will discover that all our moral prejudices are false, because the moral values to which they refer do not exist. []

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{ 55 comments… read them below or add one }

Josh May 25, 2009 at 11:28 am

Great post.

My only qualm is that I’m not sure that you can really assign moral realism and moral anti-realism equal probabilities—just because there are 2 possibilities doesn’t mean each is equally likely.

Although I guess you could justify it in a Bayesian sense.  A priori, with no other knowledge, the two must be equally likely.  Once any bit of knowledge comes in, however, I think the balance is swayed tremendously.

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lukeprog May 25, 2009 at 11:53 am

Josh,

I did not assign moral realism and moral anti-realism equal probabilities. Which part made it seem like I did?

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Shane May 25, 2009 at 12:29 pm

[Great blog - are you SURE you're only 23? ;-)]

A little substitution sometimes helps these things:
<I>(1) If Evolutionary Naturalism is true then the human sense of vision is a by-product of natural selection.
(2) If the human sense of vision is a by-product of natural selection, then there are no objective things to observe.
(3) There are objective things to observe.
(4) Therefore, Evolutionary Naturalism is false.</I>

I think this helps demonstrate that the argument is ABSURD. I know philosophers use the word “valid” in different ways from us humans, but very often spotting crooked thinking doesn’t require too much of that tricky brain stuff. :-) You’re right about the genetic fallacy here, but the stupid exists at several levels, all of ‘em milkable.

Essentially, the argument mixes up the existence of things with the perception/recognition of things. That being the case, there is no hope for this argument; it has rolled up the curtain and joined the choir invisible (like the ontological arguments that twits like Plantinga and Craig *still* get their panties in a twist over).

Keep it up, Luke!

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Lorkas May 25, 2009 at 12:45 pm

lukeprog: I did not assign moral realism and moral anti-realism equal probabilities. Which part made it seem like I did?

Maybe this part?

lukeprog: Let me explain. Perhaps we got lucky and moral facts do exist, just as evolution programmed us to think. After all, we had a 50% chance of getting that right.

I didn’t really come away with the impression that you meant that the probabilities are equal, but I can see how someone would raise this quibble. It might have had something to do with the whole drawing-two-numbers-out-of-an-urn part, too.

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Chuck May 25, 2009 at 2:16 pm

Another great post. You should write a book.

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Danny May 25, 2009 at 3:29 pm

The Evolutionary Naturalism argument is not deductively valid given that OMFs are independent of human beings’ capacity to recognize them.

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Josh May 25, 2009 at 4:30 pm

Lorkas got it right.

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TK May 25, 2009 at 4:51 pm

Great post, Luke–but I’m afraid I just have to disagree with you about “evolved moral senses”.

Your objection to them, if I’m correct, is that there’s no reason to think that an “evolved moral sense” would appear in such a way as to perceive invisible moral properties correctly. But I think it’s pretty obvious that these “invisible moral properties” are tied to our evolution pretty strongly. For example, if we were ant-people and had a hive mind, we would not care so much whether our individual rights were infringed upon. If we were hermaphrodites who were capable of reproducing with little or no energy cost to us, we would not have evolved to care so much about being raped.

In both of these scenarios, the relevant moral facts–the so-called “invisible moral properties”–would not be the same as if we were hairless primates. They’d be different. In the latter example, for instance, it just doesn’t seem like rape would be a big deal. You could do it to someone for fun. And it seems pretty likely that, in either of these cases, evolution would have fashioned our “evolved moral sense” differently, too.

In other words, the relevant moral facts cannot be immutable; they are in some way tied to natural facts about what it means to be human. I honestly don’t see how anyone could disagree with that. If humans were different, there would be a different set of moral facts, and our moral senses would have evolved differently. There cannot simply be a group of set moral facts “floating around in the ether”, as you seem to imply; rather, moral facts and moral senses seem, prima facie (to me at least), to have a great deal to do with each other.

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Lorkas May 25, 2009 at 5:32 pm

TK: If we were hermaphrodites who were capable of reproducing with little or no energy cost to us, we would not have evolved to care so much about being raped.

What makes you think that a hermaphroditic species has a low cost of reproduction? Indeed, the cost of being a mother is so much higher than the cost of being a father (in general–there are exceptions to this rule) that some hermaphroditic species fight over who gets to be the father and who gets to be the mother (see penis fencing, and search Youtube or Google for videos).

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lukeprog May 25, 2009 at 6:23 pm

TK,

I agree with you that moral facts happen to be dependent on evolution, because evolution programmed our desires, and desires are the source of all moral value. But this is quite different from saying that our evolved moral feelings accurately reflect moral facts. There is no necessary connection between them. Linville goes into great detail explaining why this is, but I did not repeat it all in my review because we happen to agree on this point.

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lukeprog May 25, 2009 at 6:33 pm

Josh: Lorkas got it right.

Ah, I see. But I did not say that the chances for moral realism and moral anti-realism are 50-50, but rather that our chances of having evolved the correct belief about the existence of moral values is 50-50… something that is even more dubious and unfounded. :)

I suppose I’d prefer if my reader is generous and assumes I mean this in the Bayesian sense… before any information at all comes in. But really, I probably put down 50% because I have no idea how to calculate the intrinsic probability of having evolved the correct belief about the existence or non-existence moral values. If such a thing can be done, it’s beyond my skill.

Good eye, Josh.

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Teleprompter May 25, 2009 at 8:17 pm

I really enjoyed this post.  Please keep striving, Luke.

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Dace May 25, 2009 at 11:06 pm

Yes, really nice post, Luke.

But I have a comment, which Shane’s comment put in my mind, and I’d like a response to. It seems to me that, whatever the reliability of the evolved moral sense, it is responsible for our understanding of something as moral.  But if it is responsible for that, then whether or not something counts as moral cannot be considered independent of that primary source of understanding, but most be concieved in relation to it.
So, to illustrate the principle, take the example of vision: our understanding of what things look like is given primarily by this sense, and though we can imagine that what we see at any given moment differs from what the world really looks like, we still must imagine this world in terms of its visual character. Likewise, if our evolved moral sense is so-called because it is the primary source of what it is for something to be moral or immoral, then we can imagine that sometimes our moral sense misfires, but we must at least concieve of the actual moral state of affairs in terms of the data our moral sense delivers.
So it seems to me, contrary to the view that no necessary connection between morality and our evolved moral sense exists, that there is one. Perhaps this doesn’t ensure reliability, since reliability depends on the way the world is external to the moral sense that we have, but it does suggest that, we we are fully cognizant of the facts in a particular case, what is moral will be what our moral sense tells us, just as what an object actually looks like will be what it looks like from the point of view of an ideal observer.
Can I have your opinion on this, Luke? I don’t believe that the moral sense is a sense after all, but assuming it is, then the above considerations seem to apply.

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TK May 26, 2009 at 12:04 am

Lorkas: What makes you think that a hermaphroditic species has a low cost of reproduction?

Nothing! This is why I specified (but apparently didn’t make clear enough) that what I meant was a species which is both hermaphroditic -and- has little parental investment in offspring.

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TK May 26, 2009 at 1:31 am

lukeprog: TK,I agree with you that moral facts happen to be dependent on evolution, because evolution programmed our desires, and desires are the source of all moral value. But this is quite different from saying that our evolved moral feelings accurately reflect moral facts. There is no necessary connection between them. Linville goes into great detail explaining why this is, but I did not repeat it all in my review because we happen to agree on this point.

I’d take this a step further, though–it seems that it isn’t just our evolved moral sense that reflects our desires. If people had not evolved to desire certain things (and dislike other things), there would not be moral value associated with these things.

I wouldn’t make the claim that this means our moral sense is “necessarily” accurate, and the argument is somewhat confounded by the fact that moral senses, insofar as they’re heritable, are subject to a lot of environmental and pleiotropic effects. But insofar as there seems to be a relationship between “intrinsic” moral value and what people have evolved to desire and avoid, and insofar as there seems to be a relationship between what people have evolved to desire and avoid and what they instinctively “think” is moral or immoral, I think you’re discounting moral intuition too quickly.

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Lorkas May 26, 2009 at 5:26 am

TK: Nothing! This is why I specified (but apparently didn’t make clear enough) that what I meant was a species which is both hermaphroditic -and- has little parental investment in offspring.

In that case, whether or not the species is hermaphroditic is beside the point. Low cost-of-reproduction might have the effect you described regardless of whether the species is dioecious or monoecious.

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Reginald Selkirk May 26, 2009 at 6:47 am

Linville “thinks he triumphs when he feels that the prejudices of his readers will agree with his own.”

Nice quip. Perhaps I will use it when we get around to discussing the mathematical content of Craig’s Kalam argument.

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Reginald Selkirk May 26, 2009 at 6:55 am

Another avenue of attack:

(1) If Evolutionary Naturalism is true then the human moral sense is a by-product of natural selection.

This appears to be a statement of panadaptationism, i.e. that every property of every organism is exclusively the result of natural selection. Most evolutionary biologists would reject that contention. Any philosopher using evolutionary arguments ought to educate themselves enough to understand this. If he had made a weaker statement, such as “the human moral sense is at least partly the product of natural selection,” then I might be able to agree. What are examples of things other than natural selection which might contribute? Neutral drift. Historical contingency. Byproduct of something else which is an adaptation.

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Reginald Selkirk May 26, 2009 at 7:03 am

Josh: Although I guess you could justify it in a Bayesian sense. A priori, with no other knowledge, the two must be equally likely.

I would prefer to see it phrased, “with no other knowlege, we should consider the two to be equally likely.”

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lukeprog May 26, 2009 at 7:27 am

Reginald,

You are technically correct about natural selection, but I don’t see why the other processes that go into evolution would due anything to give us a cognitive faculty for directly perceiving otherwise invisible moral properties.

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cartesian May 26, 2009 at 7:36 am

Luke,
>>So, I think you should accept evolutionary naturalism and instead reject the view that your moral sense gives you moral knowledge.>>

It’s ironic that a guy who doesn’t trust his moral sense writes a post so full of shoulds.

How did you reach this conclusion that I quoted? Here’s how: you considered some arguments and evidence, and then consulted your much-derided moral sense. “Hey moral sense, what’s the appropriate/correct/permissible thing to believe here? What’s the right thing to do? My rational faculties tell me that the evidence supports p. Should I follow the evidence where it leads? Would it be wrong to do otherwise?”

Your moral sense replied: “The right thing to do is follow the evidence where it leads.” So you did. Straight to the conclusion that you can’t trust your moral sense.

I hope you can see the self-defeating nature of your predicament.

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Josh May 26, 2009 at 9:30 am

Cartesian,

I don’t exactly see what’s self-defeating about Luke’s argument, besides maybe it being phrased in a poor way.

I don’t think he means “should” in the sense of “morally should”, but just in the sense of “If I accept that evidence and logic are worthwhile, there is a conclusion to be drawn here and the other conclusion is false.”  Of course, you can say “Well, your sense that evidence and logic are worthwhile is just another one of the things that you can’t trust.”  Of course, we can go on that loop infinitely, but I think that I think that the shirt I’m wearing right now is justification enough:

http://imgs.xkcd.com/store/imgs/science_square_0.png

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Reginald Selkirk May 26, 2009 at 9:31 am

lukeprog: You are technically correct about natural selection, but…

If his premise is not valid, his argument fails. It is his responsibility, not mine, to formulate a valid premise.

I also wanted to get this in because certain scientists have been accused of being philosophically shallow, and I wanted to show that criticism can cut both ways. If philosophers want to make scientific arguments, they need to put in some work to ensure that their understanding of science is sound.

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Lorkas May 26, 2009 at 9:44 am

Woohoo! XKCD reference!

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TK May 26, 2009 at 9:55 am

Lorkas: In that case, whether or not the species is hermaphroditic is beside the point. Low cost-of-reproduction might have the effect you described regardless of whether the species is dioecious or monoecious.

I only suggested hermaphroditism because then we get to avoid all the nasty little inequalities associated with sexual dimorphism, too. Otherwise, I agree.

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TK May 26, 2009 at 9:56 am

lukeprog: Reginald,You are technically correct about natural selection, but I don’t see why the other processes that go into evolution would due anything to give us a cognitive faculty for directly perceiving otherwise invisible moral properties.

That’s just the thing, though: Evolution (in whatever manner it actually acted) shaped the moral properties, too. It’s not at all the strain on the imagination you think it is to imagine that the properties themselves and our moral senses are related.

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cartesian May 26, 2009 at 10:25 am

Josh,
>>I don’t think he means “should” in the sense of “morally should”, but just in the sense of “If I accept that evidence and logic are worthwhile, there is a conclusion to be drawn here and the other conclusion is false.”>>

What is this other sense of “should” that you allude to? How does it not rely on our moral sense, which Luke derides?

>>Of course, you can say “Well, your sense that evidence and logic are worthwhile is just another one of the things that you can’t trust.”  Of course, we can go on that loop infinitely>>

Where’s the loop? What would your response be to the question “Why think we should believe what’s supported by the evidence?”

>>I think that I think that the shirt I’m wearing right now is justification enough>>

Justification enough for what? Science? I didn’t ask you to justify science. But I think it’s interesting that the justification you offer seems to rely on our moral sense. Science works. Well, works for what? For that which we judge to be valuable, using our moral sense. Science gets us beliefs that correspond to reality and we think that’s a good thing. Science gets us technologies that help us extend and enhance life, and we think that’s a good thing.

Notice how we just can’t escape from employing our moral sense. So it’s a bad idea to undermine it, as Luke consistently does. The result is paralysis.

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Lorkas May 26, 2009 at 10:35 am

cartesian, you’re right that those things require a value judgment, but what makes you call that the moral sense? I’m just asking, because it seems like you are using the term differently than I do.

I wonder if you could say a bit more about what you mean by “moral sense” too, Lukeprog.

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Reginald Selkirk May 26, 2009 at 10:46 am

In the interest of equal time, maybe next we should spend time discussing moral nonsense.

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Lorkas May 26, 2009 at 11:04 am

Then we would certainly have to give time to immoral sense and immoral nonsense as well. :(

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Josh May 26, 2009 at 11:08 am

Cartesian,

“What is this other sense of “should” that you allude to? How does it not rely on our moral sense, which Luke derides?”

As I said, I think Luke means it in the sense of something being true.  I don’t think he’s making a moral claim, or even a value judgment, just utilizing the deductive system:

1)If you believe in deductive logic + evidence, then conclusions that follow from deductive logic + evidence are true
2)The conclusion that our moral sense is unreliable follows from deductive logic and evidence
3)Hence, it is true that our moral sense is unreliable

The “should” just stands in for that formal argument.  Now, that argument may be flawed—I’m just using it as an example of what I think Luke meant. I could be completely wrong, too!  Luke could have completely meant it with moral force.

“Where’s the loop? What would your response be to the question “Why think we should believe what’s supported by the evidence?””

The only support I can give for this is that it works, hence the link to the shirt.  I’m not saying it works for that which we judge to be valuable, but that it actually works.  For instance, we fly on planes, not magic carpets.  We are communicating via computers, not telepathy.  Unless we want to get into a deeper debate about the nature of reality, I suggest we agree that we are doing something, and that our perception of what we are doing is at least reasonably accurate.  Hence, my evolved perceptions are completely unreliable when it comes to why computers work (for that, we need science, which acts as a check against our flawed intuition), but we can use our flawed perception to at least have some idea that we are using a computer.

Something like that.

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lukeprog May 26, 2009 at 11:49 am

cartesian: It’s ironic that a guy who doesn’t trust his moral sense writes a post so full of shoulds. How did you reach this conclusion that I quoted? Here’s how: you considered some arguments and evidence, and then consulted your much-derided moral sense. “Hey moral sense, what’s the appropriate/correct/permissible thing to believe here? What’s the right thing to do? My rational faculties tell me that the evidence supports p. Should I follow the evidence where it leads? Would it be wrong to do otherwise?”

No. I did not consult my moral sense. I made my best estimate of the effect of my desire for people to act on truth rather than on falsity, and determined that it would probably tend to fulfill more desires to encourage people to act on the basis of true theories rather than to act on false theories.

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lukeprog May 26, 2009 at 12:42 pm

TK,

What is a moral property such that it was shaped by evolution? How do you make sense of that metaphysically? Are you saying that since we evolved to be violent to those who might out-compete us for reproduction, thus it is moral to be violent toward those who might out-compete us for reproduction.

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Reginald Selkirk May 26, 2009 at 12:50 pm

Lorkas: Then we would certainly have to give time to immoral sense and immoral nonsense as well.

I’m a big fan of immoral nonsense, but I would prefer to pursue that desire elsewhere.

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lukeprog May 26, 2009 at 12:50 pm

Guys,

I actually DID mean “should” in a moral sense, but I guess you could interpret it into a ‘normative use of rationality’ sense, or something like that.

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Dace May 26, 2009 at 2:57 pm

So… no response then? 

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TK May 26, 2009 at 4:45 pm

lukeprog: TK,What is a moral property such that it was shaped by evolution? How do you make sense of that metaphysically? Are you saying that since we evolved to be violent to those who might out-compete us for reproduction, thus it is moral to be violent toward those who might out-compete us for reproduction.

In principle, any moral property has to be shaped by evolution insofar as it refers to beings which are themselves shaped by evolution. That’s what the hive-mind and low-reproductive-cost organism examples were intended to show. It just seems silly to claim that these beings would be subject to the same moral laws we are. It is permissible for some organisms to do certain things to each other and it is not permissible for other organisms to do them; it depends on the psychology of the organisms in question.

(This is all a big devil’s-advocate ploy by me, for reference–I’m a meta-ethical emotivist. :P)

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lukeprog May 26, 2009 at 8:05 pm

Sorry, Dace, I didn’t understand your comment at all.

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Dace May 26, 2009 at 11:47 pm

Oh. Ok, I’ll try again.

Suppose that my moral sense gives me a special feeling in certain situations, which I call good, and another feeling in other situations, which I call bad.  So, my pre-theoretical understanding of what good and bad are will be identical to those feelings – what is good and bad is simply having the relevant feeling in those situations, just like what is sweet and what is bitter is the having of sweet or bitter sensations.  Now, I become a bit more aware of what is present in my circumstances that causes these feelings – I note, for instance, that I feel bad when I am in the presence of a thief taking someone else’s belongings, or even if I just think about it. So naturally I come to identify good and bad with the features of my environment, and in this way, confer upon them an objectivity.

What comes with this attribution of good and bad to environmental features is that it allows for the possibility of good and bad in situations where I do not have the relevant feeling. Instead, the situations which are good and bad will be those situations where I would’ve had the relevant feeling, were I fully aware of all the environmental features. I may not know that a theft has taken place in some situations, but nevertheless, it would be bad according to my conception of bad, since this conception no longer requires my actually having the feeling.
In the same way, I consider an object red, even though I might not be currently viewing it. But of course, this division between red and the perception of red allows for the possibility of error.  Likewise, a division between bad and the perception of bad, good and the perception of good, allow the possibility of error.  And it is this division which you must be relying on if you are to say that the moral sense is not necessarily a reliable indicator of actual moral value.

But here is my point. If this story is right in outline, then the moral sense is the source of our understanding of moral terms – the qualitative character of the feeling is the basis of what we mean when we use such terms, just as the qualitative character of our perception of red is the basis of what we mean by red.  As such, in any situation where I get a feeling of bad, provided there is no aspect of the situation that I could be aware of which would change that feeling, then it will be the case that the situation is bad. The same goes for feelings of good. 

And so your claim that the moral sense is not likely to be reliable will only be true if we are systematically decieved about the nature of the objective world – that there will be features of the world of which we are unaware, and which, if we knew of them, would lead us to different moral judgments in a wide variety of cases. I don’t think we are systematically decieved in such a way. I don’t see how you could show that we are.

But this all depends on taking the ‘moral sense’ seriously. I am presuming that the moral sense is something which delievers sensations, or kinds of experience which the other senses do not, and this is my reason for telling the story as I have. If, instead, moral experience is understood as a belief response to one’s environment, then I don’t think the argument applies. In that case, good and bad would be cognitive terms, and we could be mistaken about their definitions, whereas any terms which directly denote an experience (‘red’, ‘tangy’, ‘cold’) and not the type of terms whose content we can mistake. 
So the upshot is, I don’t think you should ever grant that morality is something sensed. Our so-called ‘moral sense’ is not reliable because it is not, first and foremost, a sense at all. 

Am I understood? I’m sorry it’s so long.

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Lorkas May 27, 2009 at 4:39 am

Dace: Our so-called ‘moral sense’ is not reliable because it is not, first and foremost, a sense at all.

Best point ever.

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Dace May 27, 2009 at 3:14 pm

Lorkas: Best point ever.

Yeah, I think it’s important. Plantinga’s arguments for the ‘sensus divinitatus’ seem to rest on analogy with the ‘moral sense’, so there’s another reason why we should reject this way of talking.

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Jeff H May 27, 2009 at 4:06 pm

If I may play devil’s advocate for a minute here, how do we know that the “moral sense” is not a sense? Dace’s analogy to vision could be considered quite apt – it gives us a reason to trust our moral faculties, but also to watch out for possible “moral illusions” that may occur. So what argumentation do you have that our moral faculties are not a “sense”? Or is it just that you don’t wish to believe it is?

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Lorkas May 27, 2009 at 6:16 pm

A “sense” detects properties of the universe. I don’t know of any evidence that suggests that a moral is a property of the universe (at least independent of human beings).

Morality is more like an algorithmic code that governs human interaction. In other words, morality is something that you calculate, through nontheoretical algorithms (that is, making a moral decision subconsciously without using some moral theory–we call this relying on the moral “sense”, but what I think this means is that we let the algorithms that evolution gave us determine our behavior) or an algorithmic ethical theory like desire utilitarianism, not something that you sense.

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lukeprog May 27, 2009 at 9:06 pm

Dace,

You seem to be saying that evolution programmed us to feel “yucky” about some things and “yay” about others, and so we have invented moral words to refer to these feelings we get about certain things. When I say that “rape is immoral” what I’m actually referring to are not intrinsic values or reasons for action or any such thing but my FEELING about it. “Rape is immoral” just MEANS “I feel yucky about rape”, and so of course my statement is objectively correct. Is that what you’re saying?

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Dace May 28, 2009 at 12:29 am

Jeff H: If I may play devil’s advocate for a minute here, how do we know that the “moral sense” is not a sense? Dace’s analogy to vision could be considered quite apt – it gives us a reason to trust our moral faculties, but also to watch out for possible “moral illusions” that may occur. So what argumentation do you have that our moral faculties are not a “sense”? Or is it just that you don’t wish to believe it is?

Yes, this is a fair point, and a difficult question. I’m not exactly sure how to make the distinction, but I think one good criterion for a sense is this: a sense is independent of other senses. By this I mean that a sense must be able to provide a subject with new information even if all the other senses the subject has are inoperative – so, because we have blind people who can hear, this is evidence for hearing as a sensory modality, whereas a ‘sense of colour’  isn’t a true sense because it requires vision to deliver any information at all. It’s not easy to test, of course, and the criterion really only works if we already have a set of accepted senses of which we are wondering whether to add to, but I think something like it is right. 

lukeprog: Dace,You seem to be saying that evolution programmed us to feel “yucky” about some things and “yay” about others, and so we have invented moral words to refer to these feelings we get about certain things. When I say that “rape is immoral” what I’m actually referring to are not intrinsic values or reasons for action or any such thing but my FEELING about it. “Rape is immoral”just MEANS “I feel yucky about rape”, and so of course my statement is objectively correct. Is that what you’re saying?

Not quite. To take up the example of ‘red’ again, I don’t think it is correct to say that our application of  ’red’ just means ‘I have an experience of a red kind’; it means something more like ‘this object has a property of red, which, if I am present and circumstances are favourable, will cause in me an experience of a red kind’. So we move from conception of ‘red’ as a subjective experience to a understanding ‘red’ as a dispositional property, which externally existing objects can possess.  The corresponding move if you take a moral sense seriously is from ‘I have an experience of a bad kind’, which is a subjective, to ‘this state of affairs has a property of bad, which, if I am present and circumstances are favourable, will cause in me an experience of a bad kind’.  So we now have an objective property which we can infer on the basis of experience and which, providing we are not systematically decieved, will usually be present when we have moral experience. Mutatis mutandis for ‘good’.
Therefore it’s not the feeling* we’re talking about anymore, it’s a property of the external environment** that we infer on the basis of that feeling, which is why the moral claims would be objective. So, the way I see it, if you want to endorse both the idea that we have a moral sense, and that it is unreliable, then you put yourself in the position of showing that we are systematically decieved.

* any person endorsing this view wouldn’t use the word ‘feeling’ in any case, since it suggests an analogy with emotion, rather than sensation.
** and no, these moral properties wouldn’t themselves be ‘reasons for action’, though it would be part of the phenomenology of apprehending them that one felt compelled to act in certain ways in response.

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Lorkas May 28, 2009 at 6:01 am

Dace: I don’t think it is correct to say that our application of ’red’ just means ‘I have an experience of a red kind’; it means something more like ‘this object has a property of red, which, if I am present and circumstances are favourable, will cause in me an experience of a red kind’

Really? I would think it means something like “This object reflects light of a wavelength from about 625 nm to about 740 nm, which my eyes can detect and which my brain interprets as the color I call red”

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Chuck May 28, 2009 at 8:39 am

lukeprog: Dace,You seem to be saying that evolution programmed us to feel “yucky” about some things and “yay” about others, and so we have invented moral words to refer to these feelings we get about certain things. When I say that “rape is immoral” what I’m actually referring to are not intrinsic values or reasons for action or any such thing but my FEELING about it. “Rape is immoral”just MEANS “I feel yucky about rape”, and so of course my statement is objectively correct.

There’s a really nice article over at LessWrong that talks about this.

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TK May 28, 2009 at 10:37 am

Lorkas: Really? I would think it means something like “This object reflects light of a wavelength from about 625 nm to about 740 nm, which my eyes can detect and which my brain interprets as the color I call red”

If you were an octopus or an insect, you’d realize the folly of this statement.

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Lorkas May 28, 2009 at 12:17 pm

TK: If you were an octopus or an insect, you’d realize the folly of this statement.

No I wouldn’t, because I wouldn’t be able to read English.

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Dace May 28, 2009 at 2:27 pm

Lorkas: Really? I would think it means something like “This object reflects light of a wavelength from about 625 nm to about 740 nm, which my eyes can detect and which my brain interprets as the color I call red”

Sure, if you’re a scientist, that might be how you understand ‘red’. But you at least understand it in the sense I describe, whatever other facts we can discover about it. It is still understood as a dispositional property of objects – for instance, scientists still talk of ‘red stars’, rather than ‘stars causally responsible for red light’.  Light with a certain wavelength is just added to the set of such things as are red.

(We could really get silly here: my experiencing something ‘red’ is not causally dependent on light after all, but is something I can hallucinate. Should we therefore say that light isn’t red at all, but that only brain states are?)

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Lorkas May 29, 2009 at 5:16 am

Dace: Should we therefore say that light isn’t red at all, but that only brain states are?

Of course. I don’t think that this is silly at all. This is why I said “which my brain interprets as the color I call red”.

Colors aren’t things that you can define independent from an interpreting brain, except as the wavelength of an EM wave. If we did that, we could just as reasonably talk about two different radio stations being a different color (light waves and radio waves are both EM waves, they just differ in wavelength/frequency).

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Dace May 29, 2009 at 3:15 pm

Lorkas: Of course. I don’t think that this is silly at all. This is why I said “which my brain interprets as the color I call red”. Colors aren’t things that you can define independent from an interpreting brain, except as the wavelength of an EM wave. If we did that, we could just as reasonably talk about two different radio stations being a different color (light waves and radio waves are both EM waves, they just differ in wavelength/frequency).

I don’t think it’s silly that brain states count as ‘red’, but that only brain states count as ‘red.

Lorkas:Colors aren’t things that you can define independent from an interpreting brain, except as the wavelength of an EM wave. If we did that, we could just as reasonably talk about two different radio stations being a different color (light waves and radio waves are both EM waves, they just differ in wavelength/frequency).

Well, sure you can. If you couldn’t, then it would be impossible to talk about things which go unobserved, and we do this all the time. What is right about stressing the role of the subject in assessing meaning is that what a subject means to refer to by a term can only be identified by taking into account the capacities that subject has for knowing about the world. But this is a constraint on what objects in our conception of the world we identify her words with, rather than a straightjacket on what her words mean. This is why we can add to our knowledge of words like ‘red’, rather than creating new words in their place.
Turning to your example, I don’t see it as problematic. The reason why ‘colours’ is not a term which encompasses electromagnetic waves into the ultraviolet and infrared is because that is not the way we use the term. Whenever we can be construed as referring to these extra-visual waves we use different terms  to describe what they are. This is a matter of contingent fact, and could’ve been otherwise – scientists may have pressed ‘colour’ into service for describing electromagnetic waves – but it is what it is, and the meaning derives from how we actually use the term.

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Lorkas May 29, 2009 at 3:45 pm

Nothing that you have said shows that “redness” is a quality independent of the human brain, except as I defined above. Matter just reflects or absorbs EM waves based on their wavelength. It is our brains that arbitrarily paint a specific range of wavelengths as the color we call red.

If you doubt what I claim here, try to prove that what you call red is the same color as what I call red. It isn’t possible, because “redness” is not a property that an object has, but a property that our brains assign to a specific range of wavelengths of EM waves.

Also, I think we’ve spent way too much time arguing about what red means. I think that means that you and I are nerds :)

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Dace May 30, 2009 at 2:39 pm

Lorkas:  It is our brains that arbitrarily paint a specific range of wavelengths as the color we call red.

I wouldn’t call it ‘arbitrary’, if it is a causal process.

Lorkas: If you doubt what I claim here, try to prove that what you call red is the same color as what I call red. It isn’t possible, because “redness” is not a property that an object has, but a property that our brains assign to a specific range of wavelengths of EM waves.

I think we can prove it eventually, assuming materialism is true. But aren’t you a little inconsistent there, saying both that it cannot be proved that ‘red’ points to the same experience in different idiolects, and that there is some specific range of wavelengths that all our brains denote as ‘red’?

Lorkas: Also, I think we’ve spent way too much time arguing about what red means. I think that means that you and I are nerds

:) Guilty. Let’s be done, then.

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Lorkas May 30, 2009 at 6:33 pm

Dace: But aren’t you a little inconsistent there, saying both that it cannot be proved that ‘red’ points to the same experience in different idiolects, and that there is some specific range of wavelengths that all our brains denote as ‘red’?

No. Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough–we do have good evidence that are referring to the same range of wavelengths when they say “red”, because people can all agree that a red object is red.

What we don’t have good evidence of is that the color that your brain calls “red” isn’t the same as my “green”. This is also what I mean by “arbitrary”. It is useful for our brains to distinguish light of different wavelengths, but there’s nothing particularly useful about using what we think of as “red” for things that reflect a certain wavelength range. Our rainbow spectrum could have developed differently, with the entire spectrum reversed, and it wouldn’t make a difference to us.

The adaptive value is in being able to distinguish the different “colors”, not in having particular “colors” representing particular wavelength ranges.

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