Theism, Atheism, and the Genetic Fallacy

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 13, 2009 in Criticism of Atheists,General Atheism

moses

I argue that there is no reason to trust our moral feelings. Why? Because there is no reason to think we evolved a “conscience” that accurately “sees” moral values.

Mark Linville argues that because we have no reason to trust our moral feelings given atheism, therefore moral values don’t exist given atheism. But this commits the genetic fallacy.1 As I explained:

The origins of a belief are irrelevant to whether or not the belief is true. 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.

As both John Loftus and I noted, the charge of “genetic fallacy” cuts both ways. Atheists often want to say that Christianity is probably false because we know how it evolved: from ancient semitic polytheism to monolatry to anthropomorphized monotheism to Neoplatonic monotheism. We also have some plausible theories about how religious ideas evolved and originated in the human brain.2 But this argument, too, commits the genetic fallacy. The causes of religious belief may be unreliable, but it could still be the case that some religious beliefs are true, just as with the Bakuba child and his belief in finitely old stars.

But atheist philosopher Keith Parsons thinks the “genetic fallacy” charge does not apply to the atheistic argument against religious beliefs. He writes:

I might be “hardwired” to think that God exists, but, nevertheless, he might really exist, as arguments and evidence might show. As the saying goes, just because you are paranoid does not mean the people are not out to get you; likewise, just because you are wired to believe in God does not mean that God does not exist (Maybe, in fact, it was God who wired you to believe in him!).

However, the charge that atheists commit the genetic fallacy is both wrongheaded and disingenuous…

Wrongheaded?

First, why does Parsons think that charging the atheist with committing the genetic fallacy in this case is wrongheaded?

…there are times when the causal history of a belief is highly relevant to its epistemic merits… If a friend, known to be trustworthy, told us that he just saw Bill Clinton walking down the street, and we believed his cognitive and sensory functions were normal, we would probably accept that Bill Clinton was in the area. But if we knew that our friend suffered a peculiar psychological condition that made him prone to Bill Clinton-hallucinations, we would strongly discount the claim that Bill Clinton was in the vicinity. Likewise, if we identified in the human psyche a powerful mechanism that inclines people to believe in gods – whether or not gods actually exist – we should, absent strong reasons to the contrary, discount belief in gods.

But obviously, people hold lots of true beliefs for bad reasons: their witchdoctor or pastor told them so, or it “feels” right, or whatever. They are not justified in holding their belief, but nevertheless their belief may be true. This is what the charge of “genetic fallacy” tries to point out.

So what about Parsons’ counter-example?

Let’s call the Clinton-hallucinator “George,” and consider two different scenarios for George. In both scenarios, we know George has frequent hallucinations of Bill Clinton. In our first scenario, George has no special reason he would have seen Bill Clinton (in person) recently. In our second scenario, George is a journalist for The Washington Post. In the first scenario, we disbelieve George’s claims to have seen Bill Clinton recently. In the second scenario we might not disbelieve him so confidently. And yet the reliability of the mental faculty that caused his belief about seeing Bill Clinton is the same in both cases.

So it’s not the unreliability of the cause of George’s belief that makes us disbelieve him. As this example again shows, the cause of someone’s belief has nothing to do with whether or not it is true. Rather, it’s the absence of good reasons to think George’s belief is true that makes us disbelieve him in the first scenario. And so, the genetic fallacy remains a valid rebuttal to arguments such as:

(1) Because our moral intuitions are the products of biological and cultural evolution, therefore our moral intuitions are incorrect.

or

(2) Because our religious intuitions are the products of biological and cultural evolution, therefore our religious intuitions are incorrect.

Both arguments are invalid because they commit the genetic fallacy. However, the arguments below do not commit the genetic fallacy:

(1*) Because we have no good reasons to think our moral intuitions are correct, chances are they are probably wrong.

or

(2*) Because we have no good reasons to think our religious intuitions are correct, chances are they are probably wrong.

Of course, there will be much argument about whether “no good reasons” is true in either case. But I’m merely concerned with showing that the genetic fallacy still must be avoided, even though Linville and Parsons would like to deploy it in their pet arguments.

Disingenuous?

Parsons also says that charging argument (2) with committing the genetic fallacy is disingenuous. He writes:

Everyone disregards all sorts of ideas for no other reason than that we know how those ideas came about. Suppose that there are some fanatical J.R.R. Tolkien fans out there who think that Hobbits really exist and are even combatively aggressive in asserting such. Do we have a responsibility to take the Hobbit-believers’ claim seriously? Can you disprove the existence of Hobbits? I don’t think so. The reason why nobody, or hardly anybody, takes the actual existence of Hobbits seriously is that we all know where the idea of Hobbits came from. Tolkien just made them up. If Hobbit-believers accused us of committing the genetic fallacy, conflating the question of where the idea of Hobbits came from with the question of their actual existence, we would just laugh at them.

But again, I think Parsons has confused things. We all know that, for example, science fiction regularly becomes science fact. If I tell you about a videogame played with a joystick, you aren’t going to respond: “That’s nonsense. H.G. Wells invented that idea in 1903′s The Land Ironclads!” Or if I tell you about my robot lawn mower, you aren’t going to reply: “What a silly idea. That was made up by Clifford Simak in his 1944 short story City!”

So we do not disregard “all sorts of ideas for no other reason than that we know how those ideas came about.” Quite specifically, there is another reason, and it is more important than where the idea came from. The reason we disregard certain things is that we have no good reasons for thinking they are true.

The genetic fallacy remains a fallacy, whether deployed by theists against secular morality, or by atheists against religious beliefs.

  1. Actually, only one of Linville’s conclusions commits the genetic fallacy, though neither follows. Consider Linville’s first conclusion: that if our moral sense has evolved then there are no moral facts. This does commit the genetic fallacy. But his second conclusion – that if our moral sense has evolved then we cannot know moral facts – does not technically commit what is called the “genetic fallacy.” However, it still does not follow. Just because we cannot trust our evolved feelings about astronomy does not mean we can’t gain knowledge about astronomy through other means. Likewise, just because we cannot trust our evolved moral feelings does not mean we can’t gain moral knowledge through other means. []
  2. See Alper’s The God Part of the Brain, Guthrie’s Faces in the Clouds, Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral, Atran’s In Gods We Trust, Broom’s The Evolution of Morality and Religion, and Boyer’s Religion Explained. Also see this one-hour lecture by Jared Diamond. []

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{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Anselm April 13, 2009 at 6:06 pm

I can see how a good case can be made that Linville’s “strong” conclusion (that moral facts do not exist) may commit the genetic fallacy, but what about his “more modest” conclusion, which was:

“A more modest conclusion might be that we are not in a position to know whether there are such facts because our moral beliefs are undercut by the Darwinian story of their genesis… Thus, our moral beliefs are without warrant.”

When you refer to beliefs not being “justified” even if true in your post above, it seems you are agreeing with his more modest conclusion.  Or are you saying the modest conclusion also commits the genetic fallacy?

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FrodoSaves April 13, 2009 at 6:20 pm

Useful post. Glad to see that people are finally taking my beliefs regarding hobbits seriously.

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lukeprog April 13, 2009 at 6:40 pm

Sorry, FrodoSaves, but I have never been given a good reason to think that hobbits exist. Can you provide one? Perhaps you can argue that the universe began to exist, therefore the transcendent Ilúvatar must have created it, and we all know Ilúvatar created hobbits…

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Luke April 13, 2009 at 7:39 pm

Nice post, and I quite agree. But one thing that atheists can take away from the Darwinian story is that the argument from a belief in God (even ubiquitous belief in a God) is itself some kind of evidence for it’s truth. That’s a win, and it shouldn’t be undervalued.

BTW, Luke M, I just listened to your audiobook on ethics and really enjoyed it, especially since I have been tremendously impressed with the is-ought gap such that my outlook is non-cognitivist. It no longer looks like an open and shut case, and I look forward to testing my ideas about this further – thanks!

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Alden April 13, 2009 at 8:00 pm

Very nice post. I absolutely agree with your analysis of the genetic fallacy. However, when you say “The reason we disregard certain things is that we have no good reasons for thinking they are true,” aren’t you then in a back-handed way arguing from silence?  Having no good reasons says nothing more about the non-existence of Hobbits than knowledge of Tolkien. 

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snowdenn April 13, 2009 at 9:25 pm

i think youre confusing epistemological and ontological issues.

in this case at least, the genetic fallacy is largely epistemological: the origins of a claim have no logical bearing on its validity.

whereas the theist argument made against objective morals on an atheist system is ontological: given naturalism, objective morals cannot exist.

therefore, if naturalism is correct, moral statements are not true or false, but merely preferences.  you seem to concede the difficulty of epistemic access to morals if naturalism is true.  but you also seem to think that there is a truth of the matter regarding ethics–an impossibility if good and evil dont really exist ontologically, which is really the theists claim about the atheist system.

you may disagree that goodness can exist in a naturalistic system, but ive yet to see compelling reasons why this is so.

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lukeprog April 13, 2009 at 9:54 pm

Luke: one thing that atheists can take away from the Darwinian story is that the argument from a belief in God (even ubiquitous belief in a God) is itself some kind of evidence for it’s truth.

How? Was widespread belief in a flat earth “some kind of evidence” for the truth of flat earthism?

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Taranu April 13, 2009 at 9:56 pm

That was an interesting post. I am always fascinated with how the jews began to believe in Yahweh and how their beliefs changed over time.
I noticed in some of your posts you say that according to the  Bible Yahweh spoke the Universe into existence. I looked it up the Internet and I found a verse in Psalms that says:
” By the Word of the Lord were the heavens created, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth…. For HE SPAKE AND IT WAS DONE; HE COMMANDED AND IT STOOD FAST”. (Psalms 33:6-9)
But I also found:
14The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.  15John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ ” 16From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. 17For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known. (John 1:14-18 – New International Version)
So is the Word a metaphor for Jesus?
And are there other verses in the Bible related to this topic?

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lukeprog April 13, 2009 at 9:56 pm

Anselm: When you refer to beliefs not being “justified” even if true in your post above, it seems you are agreeing with his more modest conclusion. Or are you saying the modest conclusion also commits the genetic fallacy?

I cover this in more detail in my upcoming post on Linville’s fuller article, “The Moral Argument.” Both arguments commit the genetic fallacy.

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lukeprog April 13, 2009 at 10:01 pm

snowdenn: you may disagree that goodness can exist in a naturalistic system, but ive yet to see compelling reasons why this is so.

I wrote a whole <a href=”http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=772″>book</a> on the subject.

Linville has argued that <i>because</i> our moral intuitions are merely evolved (given atheism), therefore our moral intuitions are incorrect (given atheism). That commits the genetic fallacy, plain and simple, as I’ve repeatedly explained.

If you or Linville want to argue that objective moral facts can’t exist given naturalism, you’re going to have to present an argument to that effect that does <i>not</i> commit a fallacy. At least, try to disprove the positive argument that <i>I</i> have made for naturalistic moral facts, or perhaps pick on one of the many other theories of naturalistic moral facts advanced by a variety of living philosophers.

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lukeprog April 13, 2009 at 10:04 pm

Alden: However, when you say “The reason we disregard certain things is that we have no good reasons for thinking they are true,” aren’t you then in a back-handed way arguing from silence? Having no good reasons says nothing more about the non-existence of Hobbits than knowledge of Tolkien.

Yes, with that phrase I was taking a shortcut that I was hoping people would grant. :)

Any discussion of epistemic merit like this requires a developed theory of knowledge, which I have not taken the time to defend – and I’m not sure I could, at this point. What I’m suggesting is that when we “have no reasons to think X is true”, our doubt of X is epistemically justified. Obviously I do not mean to imply that X is therefore conclusively disproven.

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lukeprog April 13, 2009 at 10:07 pm

Taranu: So is the Word a metaphor for Jesus? And are there other verses in the Bible related to this topic?

Yeah, Christology is a big topic. Remember, the Bible is not one book, but an enormous library of documents collected from dozens of authors across a millennia of time from different nations and cultures and races. Obviously, these authors disagree with each other all over the place, and have a wide variety of perspectives on the gods/God.

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Luke April 14, 2009 at 3:15 am

lukeprog:
How? Was widespread belief in a flat earth “some kind of evidence” for the truth of flat earthism?

No, but the belief that the Earth is flat is a fact to be explained like any other. Some theists argue that the only explanation for the appearance  of religious belief is if there is a God, and he is responsible for it – the typical kind of expression here is that ‘in his perfect goodness, God gifts us the knowledge of himself and the desire to seek him’.  Often this thought is accompanied by the claim that religious belief is almost too absurd, too removed from the normal activities of humans that it must have a grain of truth in it – minimally, a god.
Of course, to capitulate to this kind of argument is to commit what I know as ‘the only game in town fallacy’, taking an explanation as true simply without regard for quality simply because it’s the only one on offer; but it’s good to have an alternative story to put up against it which shows the contrast  in quality.
(Whoops: I seem to have misspoken in my earlier post: the atheist can take away a rebuttal to the argument from belief in a God. Sorry.)

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muddle April 14, 2009 at 4:55 am

Thanks for linking to my papers over there.  I’m afraid I’m not very adept at moderating.  What’s a “pingback,” for instance?  And I find that I have a tendency to obsess when I discover criticisms of my stuff, and, left unchecked, would spend all of my time blogging in attempts at answer!  I’m intentionally trying to stay away! 

But just a note on the charge of the genetic fallacy.  “Anselm,” here, pointed to the distinction that I make in both papers between arguing that the beliefs must be false given their origins, and arguing that they lack warrant

I devote a section to the genetic fallacy in the longer piece, and discuss it in connection with Elliot Sober’s discussion of the same in relation to the implications of evolution for our moral beliefs.

If I had attempted to conclude that our moral beliefs must be false given their origins, then I might well have been guilty as charged.  But the argument is that the Darwinian story poses the naturalist with an undercutting (rather than a rebutting) defeater.  I suppose we might say that an argument urging that the origins of a belief pose a rebutting defeater is likely guilty of the genetic fallacy.  (Unless, say, I was told something by a demon and I know independently that demons always lie.  Or I read it in the National Enquirer….)  Anyway, here’s a relevant passage from the Companion essay:

Bertrand Russell allegedly once observed, “Everything looks yellow to a person suffering from jaundice.” Actually, I believe the truth of the matter is that people suffering from jaundice look yellow. But suppose that both are right: jaundiced people both appear and are appeared-to yellowly. Jones enters Dr. Smith’s office, complaining of various and vague discomforts. Smith takes one look at Jones and exclaims, “Your skin has a very tawny appearance!” He diagnoses Jones with jaundice and prescribes accordingly. Later, it occurs to Smith that all of his patients have a yellowish tint, as do his charts, the floor tiles, once-white pills and the nurses’ uniforms. A simple blood test determines that he is suffering from jaundice. It dawns on the doctor that Jones would have appeared yellow to him regardless of Jones’ actual condition. Has Smith now a reason for supposing Jones is jaundiced is false in the way that, say, a negative blood test would provide such a reason? It seems not. Perhaps Jones is jaundiced. Smith simply lacks any reason for thinking that Jones’ appearance was caused by Jones’ condition, or that the belief that Jones was jaundiced is epistemically dependent upon any medical facts about Jones. And this is to suggest that facts about Dr. Smith’s own condition have now supplied him with an undercutting defeater for his belief regarding Jones’ condition.

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Anselm April 14, 2009 at 4:58 am

lukeprog: I cover this in more detail in my upcoming post on Linville’s fuller article, “The Moral Argument.” Both arguments commit the genetic fallacy.

I will be interested to read it, because it seems to me there is a profound difference between this statement:

“(1) Because our moral intuitions are the products of biological and cultural evolution, therefore our moral intuitions are incorrect”

and this statement:

“(1) Because our moral intuitions are the products of biological and cultural evolution, therefore our moral intuitions are without warrant

When it comes to warrant, the question of the origin of the belief becomes highly relevant.  You may want to take a look at this as you formulate your next post:  http://tinyurl.com/cfvu3a

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lukeprog April 14, 2009 at 6:41 am

Luke: Whoops: I seem to have misspoken in my earlier post: the atheist can take away a rebuttal to the argument from belief in a God. Sorry.

Lol! Well, yes, then I have no complaint… :)

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lukeprog April 14, 2009 at 6:49 am

muddle,

Perhaps I’ve mistaken your argument. I’ll look at it once more before publishing my review of “The Moral Argument.” I do respond to your defenses against the charge of “genetic fallacy” in my upcoming response to “The Moral Argument.”

Whether or not you commit the genetic fallacy, though, you seem to say that given naturalism, we have no warrant to trust our evolved moral intuitions. And I agree. But this does NOT mean that we cannot have any warrant for moral knowledge. For example, we might appeal to the methods of knowledge we trust in other fields – logic and evidence – and totally ignore what our moral feelings have to say. That is, in fact, exactly what I advocate.

A pingback just notifies you that somebody has linked to that blog post.

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lukeprog April 14, 2009 at 7:01 am

muddle: “Anselm,” here, pointed to the distinction that I make in both papers between arguing that the beliefs must be false given their origins, and arguing that they lack warrant.

But after explaining how given  atheism our moral intuitions are merely evolved, you say: “This is to suggest that there are no objective moral facts, though we have been programmed to believe in them.”

That’s the genetic fallacy, right there, is it not?

You also try a more moderate claim, that if our moral intuitions have merely evolved then we can’t know moral facts. Perhaps this second conclusion does not commit the genetic fallacy, but it still does not follow from premise 1, that our moral intuitions have evolved. I do not trust my feelings about astronomy to tell me truths about astronomy, and nor do I trust my feelings about morality to tell me truths about morality. One need not depend on feelings to gain knowledge. In fact, one should not depend on feelings for that.

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Anselm April 14, 2009 at 7:36 am

lukeprog: But after explaining how given  atheism our moral intuitions are merely evolved, you say: “This is to suggest that there are no objective moral facts, though we have been programmed to believe in them.”That’s the genetic fallacy, right there, is it not?You also try a more moderate claim, that if our moral intuitions have merely evolved then we can’t know moral facts. Perhaps this second conclusion does not commit the genetic fallacy, but it still does not follow from premise 1, that our moral intuitions have evolved. I do not trust my feelings about astronomy to tell me truths about astronomy, and nor do I trust my feelings about morality to tell me truths about morality. One need not depend on feelings to gain knowledge. In fact, one should not depend on feelings for that.

I believe you are conflating two different concepts here:  “intuition” and “feelings.”    The definition of “intuition” is:

n.

The act or faculty of knowing or sensing without the use of rational processes; immediate cognition. See synonyms at reason.
Knowledge gained by the use of this faculty; a perceptive insight.

A sense of something not evident or deducible; an impression.
Indeed, it is shown as a synonym for “reason” as a means of attaining knowledge or truth.  You seem to make an arbitrary judgment that logic and evidence are the ONLY means for attaining knowledge, without explicitly saying so, or making an argument for it–since you also claim not to adhere to verificationism.  I can see how “muddle” is unclear on your position (or should I say he is “in a muddle” over your position :)

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lukeprog April 14, 2009 at 7:49 am

Anselm,

There seem to be at least two meanings of “reason,” too. It can mean just “thinking,” including thinking badly. It can also mean, “rational thought,” which is what I mean by “reason.” In the second sense, intuition is almost the opposite of reason, given that it is “sensing without the use of rational processes.”

And I do not assert that logic and evidence are the only ways to attain knowledge. I merely gave them as examples of how we might have moral knowledge besides trusting our moral feelings or intuitions – since those are two ways of gaining knowledge that are well-respected by atheists and theists alike. You keep saying that I only accept reason and evidence, which is false, and that my choice of reason and evidence as reliable means to knowledge is arbitrary, which is also false, as I keep trying to explain. Is your trust in reason and evidence (among other means) arbitrary?

Moving on… To me, intuitions are feelings, since I reject superstitious claims about “intuition” being a separate cognitive faculty that directly perceives facts about the universe independent or rational thought and consideration of evidence.

I did not mean to cause confusion, but none of this affects the passage you quoted from me above. Either way, Linville’s conclusions do not follow from the premise that given naturalism, we cannot trust our evolved moral sense. His first conclusion commits the genetic fallacy. His second conclusion ignores the fact that the evolved moral sense is not the only way we might attain moral knowledge.

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Anselm April 14, 2009 at 8:11 am

lukeprog: You keep saying that I only accept reason and evidence, which is false

Ok, could you please list other ways of attaining knowledge which you accept?

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lukeprog April 14, 2009 at 8:48 am

To me, it seems there is a hierarchy as to what methods of knowledge give us the most reliable results. Pure logic/math gives us perfect results, but this cannot give us any new information about the world because they are merely about the meaning of terms. Rigorously considered and repeated evidence (aka science) has given us stupendous results, but it is often faulty, and always must be improved upon. Historio-critical method is decent, but generally suffers from a poverty of information. Personal experience is somewhat reliable, but certainly not when it contradicts far more reliable methods like logic and science – as is the case with reports of UFOs, of a resurrected Elvis, of gods and figments of our very active imaginations. Things like “feelings” or “intuitions” appear to be wrong far more often than they are right, and thus should not be trusted much at all, and certainly never in contradiction to far more reliable methods.

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Anselm April 14, 2009 at 9:06 am

lukeprog: To me, it seems there is a hierarchy as to what methods of knowledge give us the most reliable results. Pure logic/math gives us perfect results, but this cannot give us any new information about the world because they are merely about the meaning of terms. Rigorously considered and repeated evidence (aka science) has given us stupendous results, but it is often faulty, and always must be improved upon. Historio-critical method is decent, but generally suffers from a poverty of information. Personal experience is somewhat reliable, but certainly not when it contradicts far more reliable methods like logic and science – as is the case with reports of UFOs, of a resurrected Elvis, of gods and figments of our very active imaginations. Things like “feelings” or “intuitions” appear to be wrong far more often than they are right, and thus should not be trusted much at all, and certainly never in contradiction to far more reliable methods.

Your “hierarchy” appears to just be a muddled version of verficationism:  logic/math gives “perfect” results; science gives “stupendous” results, with “results” being evaluated according to “reliability” (which you earlier have defined as “what works”–but then “what works” falls back on the ability to make empirical predictions, etc.–what is verifiable).  And the “reliability” of all your other ways of knowing (historiography, personal experience, intuition) are evaluated according the methods approved by the “verifiability principle.”  As we know, the verifiability principle is notoriously arbitrary–so to use a muddled version of it to condemn moral intuition as not providing knowledge (such intuition, you say, “appears to be wrong far more often than right–by what criteria?  Verifiability?)  is very weak.

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Reginald Selkirk April 14, 2009 at 9:59 am

I consider “moral facts” to be a category error. Facts are about knowledge, and fall under epistemology. Morality (whether you consider it to be objective or relative) is about values, and thus belongs under aesthetics.

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Anselm April 14, 2009 at 11:38 am

Reginald Selkirk: I consider “moral facts” to be a category error. Facts are about knowledge, and fall under epistemology. Morality (whether you consider it to be objective or relative) is about values, and thus belongs under aesthetics.

Assuming atheism is correct, you are right and are being entirely consistent.  On atheism, we can have no knowledge of moral facts.  But I think Luke is very uncomfortable with the implications of that position and is search for an escape route consistent with atheism (which I don’t think exists).

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lukeprog April 14, 2009 at 4:09 pm

Anselm,

How many times do I have to explain that I’m not using an a priori principle of knowledge, verificationist or not? All I’m saying is that we tend to get reliable results when we use logic and evidence – and you damn well know it – and we get extremely UNreliable results when we trust our feelings or our inner psychic experiences – and you damn well know it. Don’t keep attacking this straw man of verificationism or a priori knowledge criteria. I have repeatedly denied both.

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lukeprog April 14, 2009 at 4:13 pm

Anselm,

No, I was quite comfortable with moral nihilism BEFORE I discovered desire utilitarianism. Is was the impressiveness of desire utilitarianism that led me to adopt the theory – for now. If desire utilitarianism is proven incorrect – which it very well could be – then I will be quite comfortable returning to moral nihilism. You’re psychologizing me again, and getting it wrong. :)

I even wrote a very short essay embracing nihilism, just before I discovered desire utilitarianism. It is here.

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Anselm April 14, 2009 at 4:23 pm

lukeprog: Anselm,How many times do I have to explain that I’m not using an a priori principle of knowledge, verificationist or not? All I’m saying is that we tend to get reliable results when we use logic and evidence – and you damn well know it – and we get extremely UNreliable results when we trust our feelings or our inner psychic experiences – and you damn well know it. Don’t keep attacking this straw man of verificationism or a priori knowledge criteria. I have repeatedly denied both.

“You damn well know it”?  That is supposed to be a persuasive argument? This indicates your dire need to develop your overall epistemological theory before you are able to pronounce on moral facts and how we know them.  You are putting the cart way before the horse.

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Anselm April 14, 2009 at 4:28 pm

lukeprog: Anselm,No, I was quite comfortable with moral nihilism BEFORE I discovered desire utilitarianism. Is was the impressiveness of desire utilitarianism that led me to adopt the theory – for now. If desire utilitarianism is proven incorrect – which it very well could be – then I will be quite comfortable returning to moral nihilism. You’re psychologizing me again, and getting it wrong. I even wrote a very short essay embracing nihilism, just before I discovered desire utilitarianism. It is here.

My “psychologizing” of you was based on your own words posted a few days ago:

“I didn’t feel that way. As a Christian, my entire ethical system was bound up in what I thought God had said was good. If God didn’t exist, that meant I had no idea what was right and wrong
In any case, I quickly felt the urgency of finding the correct ethical theory if there was one. I didn’t want to die leaving the world a worse place than if I’d never been born, just because I was unlucky enough to be raised in a barbaric ancient super-cult! I had to find an ethical theory that corresponded to what existed in the real universe, and fast.”
I interpreted this to mean that you were immediately uncomfortable with moral nihilism, and sought–fast–to find some other basis for objective moral values.  If I misinterpreted your words, I apologize.

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lukeprog April 14, 2009 at 6:09 pm

Anselm,

I’m not advancing ‘you damn well know it’ as an argument, I’m just quite befuddled if you can look at history and the human condition and come away thinking that, say, trusting one’s feelings is a more reliable source of truth than rigorously tested and logically filtered evidence. Do you really disagree with my hierarchy? If so, do you think personal experience is more reliable than science or reason? In that case, on what grounds do you dismiss the Hindus’ “properly basic” beliefs in their gods, or people’s deep personal experiences of quantum consciousness or revelation from the Brahma or visitation by aliens?

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lukeprog April 14, 2009 at 6:12 pm

Anselm,

Re: psychologizing. Yes, I can see how you would get that from what I wrote. I should clarify that this urgent search (I was uncomfortable with not knowing what was right or wrong, not with moral nihilism) led right into the very bad moral arguments that I decried in that post, and I eventually became comfortable with nihilism. Only later did I discover a theory of moral realism that made any sense: desire utilitarianism.

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Anselm April 15, 2009 at 5:05 am

lukeprog: Anselm,I’m not advancing ‘you damn well know it’ as an argument, I’m just quite befuddled if you can look at history and the human condition and come away thinking that, say, trusting one’s feelings is a more reliable source of truth than rigorously tested and logically filtered evidence. Do you really disagree with my hierarchy? If so, do you think personal experience is more reliable than science or reason? In that case, on what grounds do you dismiss the Hindus’ “properly basic” beliefs in their gods, or people’s deep personal experiences of quantum consciousness or revelation from the Brahma or visitation by aliens?

“Rigorously tested and logically filtered evidence” is an excellent way of attaining knowledge when investigating questions susceptible to scientific answers. But I am quite befuddled that you are so attached to that method of attaining knowledge that you seek to apply it to areas where it is irrelevant–e.g., the apprehension that other minds exist, the apprehension of objective moral values, etc.  Knowledge of this type cannot be gained from “rigorously tested and logically filtered evidence,” but neither is such knowledge based on mere “feelings.”  Science, logic, empirical testing, etc. are not the only ways of knowing–to believe so is to fall into “scientism.”  To borrow Stephen Gould’s concept, there are multiple ways of attaining knowledge and they are “non-overlapping magisteria.”

But Iam taking my cue from Rich’s comment to me over in the thread discussing the Craig-Hitchens debate; it is best that I end my participation in this blog at this point.  The idea of atheist-Christian dialogue sounds good, but unfortunately the worldviews are so incompatible that each side is happier in its own echo chamber and gets annoyed if the in-house discussion is disrupted by an outsider. There was a chance that this site would not devolve into an echo chamber like the “atheist experience” blog and others have, but perhaps there is no way to avoid that.  I hope it can be avoided, but I will pass the baton to Christian commenter “muddle” and others; perhaps they can make this experiment in dialogue succeeed.

P.S. (Of course, another consideration in my bowing out is that this blog has been quite addictive and has consumed more time than I can afford!  Thanks).

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faithlessgod April 15, 2009 at 9:37 am

I am extremely puzzled by the repeated claim made by various commentors such as  ”on atheism there are no objective moral values”.

The history on moral philosophy the last 300 or 400 years from Hobbes to the present day largely ignores god as irrelevant and early theories (such as Hobbes and Hutchinson) can and have been easily be restated without reference to god at all – god was noether necessary nor sufficient even when mentioned in those early days. (No need to speculate on what they would have believed or argued for if the political climate with respect to atherism were different then…). Still for a very long time there are many moral  theories that work with different types of objective moral values all of which are absent god.

For example objective utilitarian theories –  act and rule, total and aggregate; world consequentialism; virtue consequentialism; moral realisms; desire-based reductive ethical naturalism, non-reductive ethical naturalism, moral intuition/ethical non-naturalism, objective list theories, version of contractualism  and error theory/objectification as well as desire utilitarianism. The last two (and desire-based theories) specifically reject a type of objective moral value “intrinsic prescriptivity”  but do not deny that one can be objective about moral values as relational not intrinsic properties of the real world. (Of course I have only mentioned theories that do argue in one way or another for “objective moral values” there are quite a few other theories that do not).

To make such a claim as ”on atheism there are no objective moral values” is to display a deep ignorance of the topic of ethics. Even those moral philsophers who deny “objective moral values” <i>of any form</i> do not deny it becuase of atheism and would equally deny it – and often do -on theism. Indeed theistic based morality might claim it is objective but there is no evidence to support this claim and, indeed, in ethics it is regarded as a subjective theory.

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lukeprog April 15, 2009 at 1:21 pm

Anselm,

1. I think you misunderstand Gould’s NOMA. Gould said that religion and science need not overlap if we understand that science concerns the domain of what exists and how it all works, while religion provides notions of ultimate meaning and moral values. So if you think in terms of Gould’s NOMA, you have to stop making non-scientific claims of fact about what exists and how it works.

2. If our good methods of truth-finding cannot work in some areas of knowledge-seeking, that doesn’t mean we should just accept the results of really, really bad methods like inner mental experience or feelings or authority. And of course I think logic and evidence are quite relevant to discerning the truth about moral values and the existence of other minds.

I’m sorry to hear you are leaving the blog. We’ve had many productive discussions and that need not end just because a commenter upset you. If you ever want to jump in again, please do!

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toweltowel April 15, 2009 at 3:18 pm

Reginald Selkirk: I consider “moral facts” to be a category error. Facts are about knowledge, and fall under epistemology. Morality (whether you consider it to be objective or relative) is about values, and thus belongs under aesthetics.

Facts are facts regardless of whether anyone knows them, so I don’t think facts are about knowledge. Though I think it’s true that knowledge is always of facts (after all, you can’t know something unless it’s a fact).

I’d say ethics and aesthetics and epistemology are all about value: ethics is about goodness, rightness, etc. and aesthetics is about beauty, etc. and epistemology is about justification, reasonableness, warrant, etc. All involve evaluating things as better or worse. All would fall under the broad category of value theory, except epistemology usually gets put with metaphysics and phil language.

In any case, assuming that there are no moral facts is simply begging the question against moral realism.

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lukeprog April 15, 2009 at 3:31 pm

toweltowel,

I don’t think Reginald is “begging the question” against moral realism, he’s merely saying that he has come to the conclusion that moral realism is false.

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Reginald Selkirk April 16, 2009 at 6:19 am

In any case, assuming that there are no moral facts is simply begging the question against moral realism.

I don’t think Reginald is “begging the question” against moral realism, he’s merely saying that he has come to the conclusion that moral realism is false.

Actually, I meant pretty much what I said; it is a matter of terminology. I consider questions of morality to be “values,” not “knowledge.” Knowledge is about what is true, not what is good. Therefore, regardless of whether you consider moral values to be objective and absolute or not, they are still a matter of values; i.e. axiology.

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doggy_hound October 27, 2009 at 5:53 am

Great post !
I think it is necessary to make the distinction here between three beliefs : theism (God exists), atheism (god does not exist) and agnosticism (I don’t know if God exist or not).

I believe that having a possible debunking explanation for something clearly takes away the justification for this belief (say, that God exist), but it does not by itself proves that this belief is false, simply that we have no warrant for it.

Take for example the belief in unicorns: I know positively that there are no unicorn on the earth (which we will define as horned horses with some kind of special powers) not only because I know how they were fabricated in mythologies, but also because we should have detected either them or their bones for a lot of times if they really existed on earth. However, I am agnostic about their existence somewhere in the universe. The cosmos is indeed extremely big, and there could well be a planet on which they may have evolved.

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