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The Materialist Mindset

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On another thread we have been discussing various issues related to materialism. Toward the end of the thread Origenes and I had a brief exchange on the question of whether morality can be grounded in the materialist worldview. kairosfocus highlighted part of our exchange here, which is worth reviewing and part of which I will quote below.

In this post I want to home in on a nuanced, but critical, disconnect between those arguing for grounded morality and some materialists. Specifically, why is the argument regarding an objective morality lost on some materialists?

Let me be very clear that I am not arguing against objective morality here. The case for such has been made by kairosfocus, Origenes and others in these pages, not to mention its long tradition of philosophical underpinnings.

Rather, this post examines the materialist mindset and explains why the argument for objective morality may be lost on many materialists.

There are essentially 4 categories of materialist:

1. Strong Materialists

These materialists assert a fully materialistic view of reality: everything, all reality, is just a confluence of matter and energy. Things are as they are – we are as we are – because of a long series of interactions and reactions of particles and energy over time. There is nothing more than the physical and the material.

These materialists are, typically, also determinists. Meaning, by Blackwell’s Dictionary of Social and Cultural Anthropology, that “human actions and natural events are determined by what preceded them.” Blackwell’s also notes that for true determinists “free will would be an illusion.”

This* is the view that would lead one of the most prominent historians of evolutionary biology and population genetics to proclaim “There are no gods, no purposive forces of any kind, no life after death . . . There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans” (the late William Provine, The Andrew H. and James S. Tisch Distinguished University Professor at Cornell University, Debate at Stanford University, April 30, 1994).

This strong materialistic view of reality logically undercuts itself, as many have noted over the years, thus becoming little more than incoherent self-contradiction. Whether the strong materialists actually believe their self-contradictory doctrine is an open question. But it appeals to a certain audience, sells a lot of books, and packs the lecture halls. Thus, the doctrine has definite practical utility – even if that utility remains unrelated to truth or reality.

Many debates over materialism and truth and morality often focus on this brand of strong materialism. Specifically, those arguing against materialism tend to assume that this is the brand of materialism that they need to counter. When encountering a materialist, they will naturally assume that they are dealing with a strong materialist. Thus, their arguments against materialism tend to cluster around the self-contradictory nature of the strong materialist position. They may also point to the lack of real-world application, noting the fact that essentially no strong materialist actually leads their life in accordance with their self-contradictory doctrine.

These arguments against strong materialism are sound and need to be made. They provide a valuable check against an absurd and corrosive doctrine that attempts to undermine the very basis of rational thought.

But these arguments do not adequately address the majority of materialists. Most materialists are of another stripe, which is why the well-made, knock-down, ever-so-carefully-crafted arguments against strong materialism don’t convince them. Despite the strong materialists’ high profile and the wealth and academic prestige they have accumulated peddling their self-contradictory nonsense at book signings and in lecture halls, they remain a small group.

There are two other groups of materialists that are much more numerous.

2. Weak Materialists

Unlike the few well-known strong materialists, weak materialists are legion.

Weak materialism holds that although the material and the physical is the most important part of reality – or at least the original source of reality – it is not all of reality. This leaves plenty of room for variation and opinion, with the result that weak materialists come in as many varieties as colors on your color wheel.

What they all share, however, is a general foundational premise. Like the strong materialists, they believe that reality began with only the physical and the material: In the beginning was not the Word, but in the beginning were the particles.

Yet the weak materialists differ from the strong materialists in that they believe at some point the purely physical and material gave way to that which is not purely physical and material. At some point the physical and material transcended itself. Many weak materialists recognize the range of human experience: love, altruism, consciousness, intelligence, morality, free will. Unlike the strong materialists who argue (but never consistently act thusly) that all of these things are but an illusion, many weak materialists acknowledge that these things are real, that they form an important part of the fabric of our existence.

For such an acknowledgment, the weak materialist should be commended.

The materialist opponent, however, will quickly object, pointing out that there is no explanation, under materialism, for how such things came about. After all, what is it about the starting point of particles and energy that can ever ground love or free will or morality? How can the purely physical and material transcend itself? What law of physics and chemistry, what kind of particle or interaction, could possibly explain such a state of affairs?

The answer? Nothing.

There is nothing in materialism that can rationally ground such non-materialistic concepts. Yet this does not deter the weak materialist. The weak materialist is quite happy to divorce in her mind the acknowledged existence of something from the source of its existence. This is not completely irrational at an early point in the analysis. After all, recognizing the existence of something is a separate question from explaining its existence.

And so the weak materialist, recognizing as she does the existence of, say, altruism or morality, is not convinced by arguments that assert the materialist position is inconsistent with such non-material concepts. Instead, she thinks to herself, “That isn’t right. That doesn’t describe my position. I do believe in love and consciousness and free will and morality.” She might even be forgiven for becoming annoyed by continued assertions that such things are inherently inconsistent with materialism.

And this is where the rubber meets the road:

They aren’t inherently inconsistent with her view of materialism. At least not (a) with the form of materialism she ascribes to, and (b) with the basic observation that such non-material concepts exist as opposed to the explanation of how they came to exist.

This is the logical underpinning of the weak materialist thought pattern. Now we get to the question of whether such a position can be fully grounded in the evidence, whether the materialism can provide an explanation for the observation.

—–

It is important to recognize that the materialist “explanation” for the existence of something like free will or morality is substantively no different than the materialist explanation for the existence of any other aspect of observed reality, such as the existence of living organisms, or the immune system, or DNA. In the past Characteristic X did not exist. Then at some point Characteristic X arose, or “emerged,” or “evolved.” No explanation. No details. No demonstrated causal connection from the particles to the outcome. It just did.

This is really no different from the materialistic creation story generally. At some point organisms did not exist. Then, through a happy coincidence of particle collisions, they did. At some point DNA did not exist. Then, through a happy coincidence of random chemical reactions, mistakes and errors, it did. Again, no explanation. No details. No demonstrated causal connection from the particles to the outcome. It just did.

The situation is perhaps somewhat worse, we might note, for the materialist philosopher than the materialist evolutionist. The evolutionist can at least point to the concrete existence of various molecules and atoms and imagine that they came together to form something like a living cell. True, the math and the physics and the chemistry and the engineering don’t add up. But at least there are particles, and organisms are made up, at least partly, of particles. So although incredibly naïve and spectacularly lacking in supportive detail, at least it is theoretically possible under some wildly-imaginative, cosmic-lottery-level scenario that such a thing might have . . . perhaps, possibly, hypothetically . . . occurred.

But the materialist philosopher doesn’t even have that much. There is no known, or even rationally-proposed, mechanism that will get you from particles to things like thought, intelligence, love, free will, morality.

So that difference in kind and degree is important to keep in mind.

Ultimately, however, the explanatory framework – the rhetorical stance and the approach taken by the materialist philosopher must be the same as that taken by the materialist evolutionist. The thinking is quite simple, it just assumes that things like morality somehow came about through material processes.

As I noted to Origenes on the other thread:

This may not seem very intellectually satisfactory to the objective observer, but the materialist is perfectly happy to argue that morality evolved as a result of [insert made-up reason here]. It isn’t fundamentally different than any other system or characteristic evolving. No details. No particular reason or direction. It just did.

So while I agree with your general point, and Rosenberg’s frank admission, the entire issue becomes lost on the committed materialist. After all, the entire view of history and creation and all that this entails, is just — as you aptly noted — nothing more than a long accidental sequence of particles bumping into each other.

And those particles, so the thinking does, don’t have to ground anything. Not design, not functional complexity, not information. Nothing. Just wait long enough for the particles to bump into each other enough times, and — Ta Da! — here we are. Whether we are talking about molecular machines or morality, it is all the same in the materialist creation story.

Remember, this is all right in line with the Great Evolutionary Explanation for all things:

Stuff Happens.

It is really no more substantive than that.

This is all rather frustrating for the opponent of materialism who is trying to carry on an objective debate with a weak materialist. He can make sound argument after sound argument about the lack of materialist explanation and the fact that matter and energy cannot ground morality.

But the argument will unfortunately have little sway on the weak materialist who acknowledges the existence of things like morality, but is satisfied with whatever vague or speculative explanation materialism can offer, or is happy to put the whole issue on the intellectual shelf, waiting with naïve hope for the distant day when the promissory note of materialism can hopefully be cashed.

3. Unsure Materialists

Then there are materialists who are unsure about all of this, primarily because they have never really thought about these issues and have never deeply considered what grounds their morality. You’ve met many such individuals: your roommate from your freshman year of college, your work colleague at the water cooler, your uncle at the family reunion.

Many of these individuals don’t oppose the idea of morality, even perhaps an objective one. They just cling to the materialist storyline because perhaps it is what they heard in school, perhaps they are under the misimpression that a material explanation for living organisms is at hand or soon to be forthcoming, perhaps it gives them an excuse to avoid looking in the mirror and closely examining their own morality or behavior, perhaps they enjoy the provocative nature of the materialistic position, or perhaps being a materialist makes them feel more “scientific” than those Bible-thumping rubes.

The good news is that at least some of these unsure materialists might be amenable to examining the issue in more detail and, perhaps, could even be convinced to examine their assumptions.

Many people fall into this category.

4. Grounded Materialists

Finally, grounded materialists are materialists who have carefully thought through the basis for their materialism, have discovered a causal connection from the purely physical and the material to the purposeful and the moral, and have offered a rational grounding for moral behavior – for what “ought” to be.

As far as is known, no materialist has ever fallen into this category.


Update:

* Based on good feedback from Bob O’H and goodusername, I have removed one sentence I originally had about Dawkins’ “selfish gene” concept, as it was distracting from the central point of the OP and was not necessary for the main discussion of materialism and morality.  It would be an interesting topic in its own right for another time, if I get a chance.  As I had said and repeat here, I don’t know if Dawkins would consider himself a strong materialist, though materialism certainly underlies his overall philosophy of origins.

82 Replies to “The Materialist Mindset

  1. 1
    Bob O'H says:

    Can you point me to the materialists who deny the existence of “love, altruism, consciousness, intelligence, rational thought [and] morality”? I’m not aware of any.

    I also don’t know why thew selfish gene is underpinned by determinism – the theory still works if the world is fundamentally stochastic (e.g. see the Price Equation). Can you explain?

  2. 2
    Eric Anderson says:

    Thanks, Bob O’H.

    I am willing to take out “rational thought” because strong materialists would of course argue they are being rational — even though they aren’t. I’ve updated, based on your feedback.

    Regarding the others, William Provine specifically rejects the notion of any foundation for ethics, free will or meaning. That certainly captures morality, which was the primary subject of our debate on the other thread, and would seem to also capture most of the other concepts I listed that tend to be subject to debate.

    There is a long history of attempts to show that things like love and altruism, for example, are really just attempts to selfishly further the organism. In other words, they aren’t really love or altruism and what we perceive as love or altruism is really an illusion — all in the service of the selfish organism.

    Furthermore, to the extent that determinism lines up with strong materialism, which it nearly always does, then by definition none of these things objectively exist — it is just matter and energy interacting.

  3. 3
    Heartlander says:

    Human consciousness and conscience cannot ultimately come from mindlessness. Mindlessness can only bestow the illusion of consciousness and conscience – the illusion of morality and ethics – the illusion beauty and love – the illusion of any design we believe to see in nature. If our existence were to ultimately come from mindlessness, than everything we believe about ourselves and what we see around us is false.

    Moreover, to know these falsehoods about oneself, one must be a sort of diviner or prophet. So what do these falsehood prophets say about our existence? To paraphrase :

    Dawkins – we are merely lumbering robots doing the bidding of selfish genes created by a blind watchmaker in a universe of blind pitiless indifference without good or evil.

    Rosenberg – we have an illusion that thoughts really are about stuff in the world – we live with the myths that we have purposes that give our actions and lives meaning – and that there is a person “in there” steering our body.

    Provine – no ultimate foundation for ethics exists – no ultimate meaning in life exists – and human free will is nonexistent.

    Pinker – brains are shaped for fitness, not for truth.

    Ruse – ethics is an illusion created by our genes to deceive us – morality is an adaptation.

    Dennett – Nobody is conscious – we are all zombies – Darwinism is like “a universal acid; it eats through just about every traditional concept and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view.

  4. 4
    kairosfocus says:

    EA, interesting, as usual. The challenge is of course that evolutionary materialistic scientism is an institutionally backed faith, and so the implicit appeal to authority and confidence in progress of big-S Science backed up by disdain for other approaches to knowledge — a philosophical topic! — leads to the sort of ideological framing and even indoctrination that say many Marxists had. However, emergentism is only grounded in interactions of components in a system, and thus it is inherently reducible through causal breakdown. That is exactly what is utterly missing here, we have no credible account of the emergence, and we have many reasons to doubt it. I have emphasised the issue of the gap between GIGO-limited computation on a substrate and free, rational, responsible contemplation through insightful inferences. In fact the materialists cannot even credibly get to the computational substrates, but that does not usually faze them. The onward gap to rational computation then lands in the problem of compatibilism, which is a subtle undermining of freedom. I point out that from many angles, we end in grand delusion, and collapse of responsible, rational freedom. But the problem is that of course the sort of sustained analysis to see that is not usually a habit for most including otherwise highly educated and certificated people. Of course, injecting stochastic elements on top of mechanical necessity still does not get you to actual rational insight. KF

    PS: Reppert on reason:

    . . . let us suppose that brain state A, which is token identical to the thought that all men are mortal, and brain state B, which is token identical to the thought that Socrates is a man, together cause the belief that Socrates is mortal. It isn’t enough for rational inference that these events be those beliefs, it is also necessary that the causal transaction be in virtue of the content of those thoughts . . . [But] if naturalism is true, then the propositional content is irrelevant to the causal transaction that produces the conclusion, and [so] we do not have a case of rational inference. In rational inference, as Lewis puts it, one thought causes another thought not by being, but by being seen to be, the ground for it. But causal transactions in the brain occur in virtue of the brain’s being in a particular type of state that is relevant to physical causal transactions.

  5. 5
    kairosfocus says:

    BO’H:

    Try Sir Francis Crick, e.g. this from his The Astonishing hypothesis:

    . . . that “You”, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.” [–> presumably, exchanging electrochemical signals] This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people today that it can truly be called astonishing.

    Philip Johnson has replied that Sir Francis should have therefore been willing to preface his works thusly: “I, Francis Crick, my opinions and my science, and even the thoughts expressed in this book, consist of nothing more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” Johnson then acidly commented: “[t]he plausibility of materialistic determinism requires that an implicit exception be made for the theorist.” [Reason in the Balance, 1995.]

    In short, it is at least arguable that self-referential absurdity is the dagger pointing to the heart of evolutionary materialistic models of mind and its origin.

    KF

  6. 6
    Bob O'H says:

    Hm, so now neither strong or weak materialists say that these are illusion. So what’s the difference between them? When you write “There is no known, or even rationally-proposed, mechanism that will get you from particles to things like thought, intelligence, love, free will, morality.”, you seem to deny the existence of a lot of work on precisely this. The evolution of morality even has its own wikipedia page.

    Also, can you point to any “weak materialists”?

  7. 7
    Bob O'H says:

    kf – I’m afraid your prose makes it difficult to understand exactly what you’re trying to say. FWIW, even if we are nothing but a pack of neurons, I don’t see why we can’t have love, morals, etc. Just as the Mona Lisa is “just” some paint on canvas, but it is still much more. Or that a car is “just” metal, plastic, oil, water and few other things, but it can still do much more.

  8. 8
    goodusername says:

    EA,

    This is the view that underpins, for example, Dawkins’ “selfish gene” idea, whether or not he views himself as a strong materialist.

    What has “strong determinism” got to do with the argument that selection works at the level of the gene?

    There is a long history of attempts to show that things like love and altruism, for example, are really just attempts to selfishly further the organism. In other words, they aren’t really love or altruism and what we perceive as love or altruism is really an illusion — all in the service of the selfish organism.

    Even if we assume that the above does explain the origin of love or altruism – how would that imply that they don’t exist, or are an illusion? Love is a feeling – would the above mean that I don’t actually have the feeling? That I’m having an illusion of a feeling?

  9. 9
    Eric Anderson says:

    Bob O’H @6:

    Hm, so now neither strong or weak materialists say that these are illusion.

    Why would you say that? Provine specifically rejects any foundation for ethics and free will and meaning. If these things don’t exist, then, by definition, any perception we may have of them is an illusion.

    Also, can you point to any “weak materialists”?

    Many of the people on these pages. Anyone who thinks that materialism undergirds reality or is the ultimate source of reality, but that matter and energy is not all that there currently is or that matter and energy have somehow given way to something beyond themselves.

    You just pointed us to a page that attempts to show this very thing. Your initial comment @1 implied that the materialists you are acquainted with accept things like morality. You seem to yourself (assuming your view of existence begins with matter and energy as the source). Obviously there are many weak materialists — as your comments demonstrate. So I’m not sure why you would question the existence of weak materialists. They are everywhere.

    That is precisely much of my point with the OP. Many who argue against materialism are arguing against strong materialism. My point is that this doesn’t directly address the much more numerous weak materialists, because the latter don’t deny the existence of some of these non-material realities, including morality.

  10. 10
    mike1962 says:

    Bob: Can you point me to the materialists who deny the existence of “love, altruism, consciousness, intelligence, rational thought [and] morality”?

    I doubt anyone denies this if they are conscious, but don’t expect me to care about your complaints in I feel like killing you for my own gain. After all it’s all just molecules in motion. Your molecules vs mine.

  11. 11
    Eric Anderson says:

    kf @4:

    Thanks for your comments.

    That is exactly what is utterly missing here, we have no credible account of the emergence, and we have many reasons to doubt it.

    Agreed. The account of the emergence is missing under materialism. Both of physical biology and the non-physical aspects that provide meaning to existence.

    Of course, injecting stochastic elements on top of mechanical necessity still does not get you to actual rational insight.

    Quite true.

    Some materialists (Elizabeth Liddle comes to mind immediately from our long-past discussions of Avida) have attempted to argue that a stochastic outcome (as opposed to a 1:1 inevitable outcome) is somehow able to overcome the key problems of origin. This is a common misconception.

    What seems to be happening is that they are confusing the “might occur [or might not occur]” under the stochastic definition with the “might occur” in a realistic sense. Thus, they seem to think, calling something stochastic somehow makes it plausible, because it “might” occur.

    This is also the stage of the game when that most wondrous and magical concept of “natural selection” is supposed to step in and take all the stochastic “might-have-been’s” and turn them into what Is.

  12. 12
    Bob O'H says:

    Eric – I don’t read the Provine quotations as him saying that these things don’t exist (except perhaps free will). I suspect he’s arguing that they have no objective foundation, i.e. morals and meaning do exist, but they are social constructs.

    Depending on what you mean by “matter and energy have somehow given way to something beyond themselves”, I could be (almost) a strong or weak determinist. If the “something beyond themselves” can come from emergent behaviour, then I would suggest that all materialists are weak materialists. If it’s something else, then I’m not sure what what you mean.

  13. 13
    Bob O'H says:

    mike1962 @ 10 – should I read that as a threat? I’m afraid it comes across as one.

  14. 14
    kairosfocus says:

    BO’H: How do we measure love in mV potentials, and inference of reason in pico Amperes? Etc? KF

  15. 15
    Bob O'H says:

    kf – we don’t.

  16. 16
    kairosfocus says:

    BO’H: Hence the poof magic problem, where “emergence” or “evolution” is little more than today’s version of “abracadabra,” with just the right accent. And that is the direct import of Crick’s point. Soft form materialism, too often is little more than a way to not quite admit the stark consequences of what Crick et al point out. KF

  17. 17
    Eric Anderson says:

    Bob O’H @12:

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

    I guess we could try to parse Provine’s comments that way, but I’m not sure what kind of ethics or morality one could possibly propose if there is no free will. If there is no meaning in life and no free will, as Provine asserts, then ethics and morality are nonsensical — nothing but illusory words masking the fact that we are just witnessing the impersonal dance of matter and energy.

    heartlander @3 has summarized several other prominent materialists who also consider important aspects of our experience an illusion. kf’s quote @5 also hints at this, without using the word illusion.

    Depending on what you mean by “matter and energy have somehow given way to something beyond themselves”, I could be (almost) a strong or weak determinist. If the “something beyond themselves” can come from emergent behaviour, then I would suggest that all materialists are weak materialists. If it’s something else, then I’m not sure what what you mean.

    I hope you aren’t a strong materialist. 🙂 That position is, any logical person must confess, incoherent and self-refuting.

    What I’m trying to drive at with my description of weak materialism is largely what you seem to be describing of yourself and other examples you’ve provided.

    My description of the foundation for such a position is not clear because, frankly, there isn’t a clear description or explanation about how matter and energy could lead to free will or morality (for brevity I’ll just refer to “morality” from here on out, but the principle applies to similar concepts).

    But, in essence, there must be some mechanism, some confluence of matter and energy, that gives rise to morality.

    —–
    Now, a further nuance:

    You bring up a valuable point. Namely, that there are materialists who think morality exists by virtue of some social construct.

    Thus, I would suggest that we need to consider two subclasses of weak materialists: (a) those who think morality is real in some objective sense, and (b) those who think morality is real, but that it is just a social construct.

    In summary, we have three categories:

    1. Strong materialists who argue morality is an illusion. We are just witnessing the march of particles playing out on a stage. There is no free will, meaning or purpose.

    2.a. Weak materialists who believe morality is real, real in some objective sense. That there is meaning and purpose and morality, independent of our particular social order or current constructs. That we should strive toward that morality as we put together our social order and constructs.

    2.b. Weak materialists who believe morality is real, in the limited sense that it can be defined to exist. They don’t really believe there is meaning or purpose or morality outside of our particular social order or current constructs. Whatever we (who were ourselves constructed via a purely natural and material process) view as morality is just a reflection of our current order and has no inherent truth or meaning attached to it.

    Now I am quite aware that a particular individual might be tempted to switch back and forth between 2.a. and 2.b. with respect to particular concepts. She might, for example, believe that free will actually exists and has some inherent meaning, but that morality is a social construct.

    Whether such an approach is logically supportable is a separate question, but I can certainly imagine someone taking such an approach.

    —–

    Based on the above, I would say #1 is a small group of individuals. But they tend to be rather outspoken and are often the first ones people think of when they think of materialists or determinists.

    #2.a and 2.b are more of a mix. My impression is that many people try to switch back and forth between the two, depending upon what the issue is and what they are arguing for. Some might, for example, argue against objective morality (2.b) but then in another context assert that there are certain values we should strive for (2.a).

    Where do you think you would fall in these categories? Where would you see most of your materialist colleagues falling?

  18. 18
    Origenes says:

    Bob, Eric

    Bob O’H: Can you point me to the materialists who deny the existence of “love, altruism, consciousness, intelligence, rational thought [and] morality”? I’m not aware of any.

    Eric Anderson: I am willing to take out “rational thought” because strong materialists would of course argue they are being rational — even though they aren’t. I’ve updated, based on your feedback.

    Not so fast Eric! Here is Alexander Rosenberg in his wonderful book ‘The Atheist’s Guide to Reality’

    FOR SOLID EVOLUTIONARY REASONS, WE’VE BEEN tricked into looking at life from the inside. Without scientism, we look at life from the inside, from the first-person POV (OMG, you don’t know what a POV is?—a “point of view”). The first person is the subject, the audience, the viewer of subjective experience, the self in the mind.
    Scientism shows that the first-person POV is an illusion. Even after scientism convinces us, we’ll continue to stick with the first person. But at least we’ll know that it’s another illusion of introspection and we’ll stop taking it seriously. We’ll give up all the answers to the persistent questions about free will, the self, the soul, and the meaning of life that the illusion generates.
    The physical facts fix all the facts. The mind is the brain. It has to be physical and it can’t be anything else, since thinking, feeling, and perceiving are physical process—in particular, input/output processes—going on in the brain. We can be sure of a great deal about how the brain works because the physical facts fix all the facts about the brain. The fact that the mind is the brain guarantees that there is no free will. It rules out any purposes or designs organizing our actions or our lives. It excludes the very possibility of enduring persons, selves, or souls that exist after death or for that matter while we live. Not that there was ever much doubt about mortality anyway.
    This chapter uses the science of Chapter 8 to provide scientism’s answers to the persistent questions about us and the mind. The fact that these answers are so different from what life’s illusions tell us from the inside of consciousness is just more reason not to take introspection seriously. [Chapter 9]

    Thinking about things can’t happen at all. The brain can’t have thoughts about Paris, or about France, or about capitals, or about anything else for that matter. When consciousness convinces you that you, or your mind, or your brain has thoughts about things, it is wrong. …

    What we need to get off the regress is some set of neurons that is about some stuff outside the brain without being interpreted—by anyone or anything else (including any other part of the brain)—as being about that stuff outside the brain. What we need is a clump of matter, in this case the Paris neurons, that by the very arrangement of its synapses points at, indicates, singles out, picks out, identifies (and here we just start piling up more and more synonyms for “being about”) another clump of matter outside the brain. But there is no such physical stuff.
    Physics has ruled out the existence of clumps of matter of the required sort. There are just fermions and bosons and combinations of them. None of that stuff is just, all by itself, about any other stuff. There is nothing in the whole universe—including, of course, all the neurons in your brain—that just by its nature or composition can do this job of being about some other clump of matter. So, when consciousness assures us that we have thoughts about stuff, it has to be wrong. The brain nonconsciously stores information in thoughts. But the thoughts are not about stuff. Therefore, consciousness cannot retrieve thoughts about stuff. There are none to retrieve. So it can’t have thoughts about stuff either. [Chapter 8]

  19. 19
    mike1962 says:

    Bob Oh: should I read that as a threat?

    No. See the “if” there? But you never know, I could change my mind.

    It’s just your molecules vs mine, after all.

  20. 20
    john_a_designer says:

    Bob O’H,

    Eric – I don’t read the Provine quotations as him saying that these things don’t exist (except perhaps free will). I suspect he’s arguing that they have no objective foundation, i.e. morals and meaning do exist, but they are social constructs.

    Indeed, the following is an exchange that Gail Provine, Dr. Provine’s widow, had with David Klinghoffer of the Discovery Institute.

    After some very kind remarks, Klinghoffer had written this in his September 3, 2015 obituary:

    If life really did arise through a brute, purposeless, undirected, unplanned, and purely material process, a series of accidents, that lends support to a nihilistic worldview. In Provine’s perspective, it positively demands it.

    https://www.evolutionnews.org/2015/09/william_provine/

    Gail responded:

    Kudos to you! You really got Will, and I think he would have agreed with everything you said except probably your use of the word “nihilistic” to describe his worldview. If you accept this definition of nihilist from the Merriam-Webster dictionary,

    a : a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless

    b : a doctrine that denies any objective ground of truth and especially of moral truths

    then I would say that Will’s worldview was in no way nihilistic. He did not believe in an ULTIMATE foundation for ethics (i.e. the Bible), but he certainly thought that as a society we must have a robust set of ethics and morals that we teach our children (and that we learn from our parents and community). In the same way, he did not believe in an ULTIMATE meaning in life (i.e. God’s plan), but he did believe in proximate meaning (i.e. relationships with people — friendship and especially LOVE…) So one’s existence is ultimately senseless and useless, but certainly not to those whose lives we touch here on earth.

    Anyway, I found your obit to be the most accurate portrayal of Will of those out there. Thank you again.

    Best wishes,

    Gail

    https://www.evolutionnews.org/2015/10/will_provine_wa/

    Klinghoffer apologized for not representing Dr. Provine’s views accurately.

    Nevertheless if, as Provine concedes, atheistic materialism provides no foundation for ethics and morality, from where do moral materialists get their morality? It appears they have to co-opt somebody else’s system of morality and ethics. That makes any form of materialism/naturalism a pretty destitute world view– doesn’t it?

  21. 21
    rvb8 says:

    So we would expect to see an abundance of God inspired subjective morality in the religious, and an equal?, lack of morality in people like me.

    I am logically incapable of being moral because I have no subjective foundation for that morality? I would argue simply that materialistic morality is based upon self interest, and is self explanatory; there, in one sentence I explained the materialst position, while EA takes a couple of thousand to explain nothing clearly.

    Why is it then that our prisons are full of the religious, and there is a conspicuous absence of evolutionary biologists? Do prisoners not understand subjective morality, what is right and what is wrong? There are an abundance of carpet bagger preachers, and yet an absence of physicists. Do these ‘holy’ men not understand their far greater moral superiority? Apparently they too work on evolutionary self interest. But their kind of self interest is exactly the kind that evolution weeds out, with prisons and social allienation.

    Wow, our morality even makes sense when actually examined closely, while yours appears to be pleasant word salid, and distraction.

    In fact the ‘grounded’ morality of the religious seems to indicate a future failure to uphold that morality, if we accept that the vast majority of ALL criminals in the world, have some religious grounded, subjective, morality.

    You see if we apply statistics to the question (you know, materialistic investigation, and experimentation), it would appear that the probability of a person being immoral exponentially increases if they also happen to be religious.

    One other point; I suggest a name change to the site, as it seems to be set in philosophical, untestable, musings; “The Philosophy of Uncommon Descent.”

    This would save a hell of a lot of confusion. So many words to so inconclusive a purpose, really does bare the hall marks of Philosophy, rather than science.

  22. 22
    HeKS says:

    @Eric Anderson

    Good OP. While I generally agree with your analysis, my experience would tend to lead me to a slightly different and perhaps more simplified categorization scheme.

    It seems to me that the two primary categories of materialists are Strong Materialists and Uninformed Materialists.

    Now, to a certain degree I’m being intentionally provocative with that second label, but to clarify it, I don’t mean to imply that the people in this second category are generally uninformed or unintelligent, but that they are specifically uninformed regarding the logically necessary implications of materialism.

    The Strong Materialists are typically the academic materialists, and particularly the academic materialist philosophers and some scientists with a bit of a philosophical leaning. Almost every one that I stumble across seems to be in lock-step with the rest in recognizing the implications of materialism. Where they are divided is in whether or not they want the general public to be aware of those implications. In watching innumerable debates and lectures involving these people, I have multiple times heard those defending the materialist position admit outright that many of their colleagues do not want the general public to be aware of the necessary implications of materialism because they are concerned that it would subsequently lead to the rejection of materialism.

    The rest of the materialists, whom you refer to as Weak Materialists, seem to be generally unaware of the positions advocated by these academic atheists and materialists. When they are presented with these views and informed that they are the logically necessary implications of materialism and that materialism is logically incompatible with the existence of things they accept, they often offer just the kind of response you mention, which is to say something like, “Clearly it’s not impossible to be a materialist and believe those things, because I’m a materialist and I believe those things.” The problem, of course, is that while materialism is logically incompatible with the other things they believe, nothing prevents humans from holding logically incompatible beliefs.

    The vast majority of materialists and atheists that I have talked to over the years have never seriously thought through the implications of their worldview. Most of them tend to believe that the only real difference between being a theist and an atheist/materialist is that the latter lacks a belief in God. They are under the impression that the atheist/materialist can rationally place himself in essentially the same kind of world as the theist, which is a world that is fairly reliably revealed to them by their senses, but with the atheist/materialist simply not accepting a bunch of additional hocus pocus added onto the “real” world by religious people. This could not be further from the truth. If the materialist followed his or her worldview to its logically necessary implications they would have to realize that they live in a world that is not remotely like the one they seem to think they are in, that they have no basis for trusting any of their senses, and they have no basis for believing in their own rationality or the rationality of anyone else, making it impossible to have a rational reason for accepting atheism or materialism. Rather than focusing on the need for a rational grounding for their worldview in order to account for the world they believe they live in, they instead accept the world as it appears to them in the present and think of a being like God as an unnecessary additional entity posited by religious people with no evidence and largely for the purpose of making themselves feel better about death.

    I think that when it comes to making headway with a Weak Materialist, the best way might be to help them realize that, rationally speaking, they have no choice but to be either a Strong Materialist or no Materialist at all. There is a reason that the number of Strong Materialists is relatively small, and those of them who don’t want the public to understand the full implications of materialism for fear that the public will turn around and reject it are, in my opinion, right to fear that outcome. Few people are prepared to dogmatically commit to such an utterly absurd position. Only within academia will you find such people clustering in significant numbers.

  23. 23
    HeKS says:

    And once again, rvb8 shows a complete and utter lack of understanding of the issue at hand.

  24. 24
    Origenes says:

    Eric, a few annotations:

    2. Weak Materialists
    Unlike the few well-known strong materialists, weak materialists are legion.
    Weak materialism holds that although the material and the physical is the most important part of reality – or at least the original source of reality – it is not all of reality.

    It’s hardly a rational position, is it? It sounds very much like those ‘unsure materialists’, who ‘never really thought about these issues.’ How much sense does it make to say: “Hello! I’m a materialist; I hold that not all of reality is material.”

    This leaves plenty of room for variation and opinion, with the result that weak materialists come in as many varieties as colors on your color wheel.

    I’m sure it does.

    What they all share, however, is a general foundational premise. Like the strong materialists, they believe that reality began with only the physical and the material: In the beginning was not the Word, but in the beginning were the particles.

    And the laws …

    … love, altruism, consciousness, intelligence, morality, free will. Unlike the strong materialists who argue (but never consistently act thusly) that all of these things are but an illusion, many weak materialists acknowledge that these things are real, that they form an important part of the fabric of our existence.
    For such an acknowledgment, the weak materialist should be commended.
    The materialist opponent, however, will quickly object, pointing out that there is no explanation, under materialism, for how such things came about. After all, what is it about the starting point of particles and energy that can ever ground love or free will or morality? How can the purely physical and material transcend itself? What law of physics and chemistry, what kind of particle or interaction, could possibly explain such a state of affairs?
    The answer? Nothing.
    There is nothing in materialism that can rationally ground such non-materialistic concepts.

    This is where the weak materialist should become an ‘unsure materialist.’

    Yet this does not deter the weak materialist. The weak materialist is quite happy to divorce in her mind the acknowledged existence of something from the source of its existence.

    You cannot do that and remain a materialist. Materialism is a claim about the source of any existence. To be a materialist is holding the belief that everything is material and/or has a material explanation. You cannot say: “Hello. I am a materialist. I am not sure that things have a material source.”

    This is not completely irrational at an early point in the analysis. After all, recognizing the existence of something is a separate question from explaining its existence.

    You are correct of course, however my point is that one cannot do so and claim to be a materialist at the same time.

    And so the weak materialist, recognizing as she does the existence of, say, altruism or morality, is not convinced by arguments that assert the materialist position is inconsistent with such non-material concepts.

    Well, that is the consequence of the erroneous idea that the materialist position was upheld while being open to a non-material source for altruism and/or morality.

    Instead, she thinks to herself, “That isn’t right. That doesn’t describe my position. I do believe in love and consciousness and free will and morality.” She might even be forgiven for becoming annoyed by continued assertions that such things are inherently inconsistent with materialism.
    And this is where the rubber meets the road:
    They aren’t inherently inconsistent with her view of materialism. At least not (a) with the form of materialism she ascribes to, and (b) with the basic observation that such non-material concepts exist as opposed to the explanation of how they came to exist.

    I have to protest! Her view of materialism doesn’t make any sense. It’s like this guy who claims to be a solipsist, but accepts the independent existence of other people and isn’t very worried about not being able to explain that fact and meanwhile claims to be a solipsist.

  25. 25
    DATCG says:

    Well presented Eric. I think your post is a fair assessment of each category.

    The exchange/answers by you with KF at #11 and to Bob at #17 further elucidate and expose the paradox of the materialist belief systems, weak and strong.

    Attempting to avoid the paradox their beliefs create leads to weak rejoinders by materialist.

    I think you outlined and highlighted succinctly the categories materialist fall into.

    Many weak materialist are unaware of the moving sands beneath their feet. And how easily sands shift during these discussions. This is often not caught by casual observers, nor weak materialist themselves.

    The ingredients of the cake they bake is not edible logically as a whole, nor does the cake stand under scrutiny. Rather like a souffle without appropriate preparation, the materialist position falls in upon itself.

  26. 26

    Actually, most atheists that I run into have never seriously considered atheism at all; they are atheists because (1) they found the idea of god they encountered or were subjected to ludicrous, and (2) they basically lumped all ideas of god into the Thor/Ra/Cthulhu/Spaghetti Monster waste bin, believing none were worth serious consideration … and so started calling themselves atheists by default.

    IOW, “Theism is obviously ridiculous, so atheism must be true.” Often, they were taught or became enamored of the false religion/science warfare thesis and latched onto materialism because they mistakenly thought science and materialism went hand in hand. Or, even more erroneously, thought science disproved theism or religion and proved materialism.

    The combination breeds a particularly self-satisfied, superficial troll who thinks they’re just oh so smart because they don’t believe that god nonsense and they make themselves feel superior by taunting and laughing at theists, inserting themselves over and over into discussion they have no means to even begin to understand. Philosophy? phhht. God is stupid. Necessary being? blah blah blah. Morality? Empathy! Convergence of fine tuning and fundamental principles? All possible by chance! Free will? How dare you call me a meat robot!

    The angels are clawing their eyes out.

  27. 27
    HeKS says:

    WJM #26,

    Heh, I see our experiences and assessments are very similar. I didn’t happen to mention in my comment at #22 most of the stuff you just did, but I was thinking all of it and have found precisely the same things. The 3rd paragraph particularly resonates with me. I don’t mind at all talking to people who haven’t spent tons of time thinking deeply on these issues. Most don’t see the importance. But what’s particularly annoying and induces uncontrollable eye-rolling is the people who smugly claim to be so much more intelligent and rational than theists but who do not have the first idea what they’re talking about on these issues or recognize the irony in praising their own rationality while adopting a position that they don’t realize utterly undermines rationality itself.

  28. 28

    I just registered to attend the Westminster Conference on Science and Faith in Pennsylvania. Anybody else going?

    Here’s the link:

    https://www.evolutionnews.org/2017/05/with-so-much-at-stake-in-science-and-culture-you-need-to-join-us-may-11-12-for-the-westminster-conference/

  29. 29
    Bob O'H says:

    Mike @ 19 – I see, I don’t have any doubt – that is a death threat.

  30. 30
    kairosfocus says:

    WJM & HeKS (also, EA):

    The cumulative descriptions are all too familiar, falling into “types” we can readily recognise.

    There are the aggressively trollish activists, who think that they can conflate a Thor with Jehovah and the Tooth Fairy (not to mention the Flying spaghetti Monster) and mock those ignorant, stupid, insane or wicked IDiot Fundy Christofascist Creationists.

    Ours is so philosophically ignorant and so polarised an era that people do not sense the many ways in which their schemes of evo mat scientism simply do not add up. And, it is oh so convenient to have an ad hominem laced IDiotic fundy creationist strawman to pummel and if necessary, set alight to create a toxic smoke cloud to cover a hasty retreat.

    The sad irony is, they become the mirror image of the strawman caricatures they project. (Much as the black shirts stalking Berkeley should be looking in the mirror to find the REAL fascists.)

    We cannot escape having a worldview, and if we swallow an ideology that sets up a warped yardstick as the standard of truth, right and being “brite” then the real truth and right will never pass the test. For, such are aligned to reality, not the warped yardstick of error.

    So, the next ideological move is to fend off plumb-line tests that would challenge one’s comfort zone. (As in, don’t you dare bring up philosophical issues, or counter-evidence and warranting challenges or self evident truth based test cases or I will fix you, you fundy dummy.)

    Thus, we see the polarised, closed-minded, hostile, selectively hyperskeptical evo mat scientism trollish activist patterns that are oh so familiar.

    But, there is another case, indeed.

    The more genteel enabler, who EA has aptly captured and who HeKS draws out from a slightly different angle.

    Ironically, Provine recognised this type too. Indeed his notorious 1997 U Tenn Darwin Day keynote targetted just this type:

    >Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly. 1) No gods worth having exist; 2) no life after death exists; 3) no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) no ultimate meaning in life exists; and 5) human free will is nonexistent . . . .

    The first 4 implications are so obvious to modern naturalistic evolutionists that I will spend little time defending them. Human free will, however, is another matter. Even evolutionists have trouble swallowing that implication. I will argue that humans are locally determined systems that make choices. They have, however, no free will [–> without responsible freedom, mind, reason and morality alike disintegrate into grand delusion, hence self-referential incoherence and self-refutation. But that does not make such fallacies any less effective in the hands of clever manipulators] . . . [1998 Darwin Day Keynote Address, U of Tenn — and yes, that is significant i/l/o the Scopes Trial, 1925]

    What happens here is, of course, that unless we have genuinely responsible, rational insight and freedom, reason collapses into grand delusion, and so does the integrity-driven, conscience guided moral government that holds lives, communities and institutions — including Science! — together. But that does not fit with the implications of the dominant evo mat ideology.

    So, what happens is a retreat into comfortable fuzziness that in effect picks and chooses based on what feels comfortable. This especially fits an ultra-modernist, “my truth” era.

    For instance an ambiguous adhering to “compatibilism” allows the feeling and projection of volition and responsible rationality, but this is actually little more than a fur-covered strawman. Underneath, the compatibilism allows using the hard dynamic-stochastic computational substrate view to fend off those who take the requisites of freedom seriously, while giving logic a swivel to fit in with the hard materialists on the faculty board or wherever. Often, we can see this with some Christian Darwinists, or with Atheists/ Agnostics who are a step or two closer to hard evo mat.

    A similar pattern holds for the notions that mind etc “emerged” at some point in “evolution” and that with enough looping complexity, an artificial intelligence will emerge. Asimov’s I Robot is a classic exposition of this. In effect, we are wetware evolved robots, and soon enough we will have robots that are like we are, save the hardware will be based on Si and Fe not C-Chemistry in Aqueous medium.

    And don’t you dare suggest that this is little more than saying “abracadabra,” poof, magic happens.

    All of this thrives on unexamined incoherences, and so is inherently unstable. It is in the end a politically negotiated view, not anything that could stand scrutiny on a level playing field. In short, we see soft form nihilism: manipulation backed up by power makes ‘truth,’ ‘right,’ rights’ etc.

    Soft nihilism, of course is on a crumbling cliff edge.

    We are in a lot more danger as a civilisation than we wish to openly admit.

    KF

  31. 31
    kairosfocus says:

    BO’H: it’s satire, but you are not facing the issue at stake. KF

  32. 32
    Origenes says:

    Bob O’H: … even if we are nothing but a pack of neurons, I don’t see why we can’t have love, morals, etc.

    Even if there is nothing but black, I don’t see why we can’t have red, green, blue, etc.

    Bob O’H: Just as the Mona Lisa is “just” some paint on canvas, but it is still much more.

    Absent conscious intelligent observers the Mona Lisa is just some paint on canvas — and nothing more. See? What you call ‘being much more’ is not an intrinsic part of the physical Mona Lisa. The ‘much more’ — the conveyed message — existentially depends on a receiver agent.

  33. 33
    kairosfocus says:

    RVB8, I quickly note that you — among others — were conspicuously absent when I recently hosted Dr Selensky. Your rhetoric invites the inference that you are of course fending off the plumb-line test of a comfortably crooked yardstick. And, on other recent gambits, you are also feeding polarisation. FYI, this thread addresses the imposed, institutionalised, indoctrinating a priori materialism that . . . as Lewontin inadvertently admitted . . . utterly rules the roost in key contexts. In further response, I point out that there was a reason why Newton called what he was doing Natural Philosophy, the border between “Science” and meta issues that bring up philosophical considerations is exceedingly fuzzy. Phil, plumb-line issues are focal for the moment, because your side has played some pretty questionable ideologically driven moves. Thanks for confirming to us that you fear serious worldviews analysis. KF

    PS: Lewontin:

    . . . to put a correct view of the universe into people’s heads [==> as in, “we” have cornered the market on truth, warrant and knowledge] we must first get an incorrect view out [–> as in, if you disagree with “us” of the secularist elite you are wrong, irrational and so dangerous you must be stopped, even at the price of manipulative indoctrination of hoi polloi] . . . the problem is to get them [= hoi polloi] to reject irrational and supernatural explanations of the world, the demons that exist only in their imaginations,

    [ –> as in, to think in terms of ethical theism is to be delusional, justifying “our” elitist and establishment-controlling interventions of power to “fix” the widespread mental disease]

    and to accept a social and intellectual apparatus, Science, as the only begetter of truth

    [–> NB: this is a knowledge claim about knowledge and its possible sources, i.e. it is a claim in philosophy not science; it is thus self-refuting]

    . . . . To Sagan, as to all but a few other scientists [–> “we” are the dominant elites], it is self-evident

    [–> actually, science and its knowledge claims are plainly not immediately and necessarily true on pain of absurdity, to one who understands them; this is another logical error, begging the question , confused for real self-evidence; whereby a claim shows itself not just true but true on pain of patent absurdity if one tries to deny it . . . and in fact it is evolutionary materialism that is readily shown to be self-refuting]

    that the practices of science provide the surest method of putting us in contact with physical reality [–> = all of reality to the evolutionary materialist], and that, in contrast, the demon-haunted world rests on a set of beliefs and behaviors that fail every reasonable test [–> i.e. an assertion that tellingly reveals a hostile mindset, not a warranted claim] . . . .

    It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us [= the evo-mat establishment] to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes [–> another major begging of the question . . . ] to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute [–> i.e. here we see the fallacious, indoctrinated, ideological, closed mind . . . ], for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door . . . [–> irreconcilable hostility to ethical theism, already caricatured as believing delusionally in imaginary demons]. [Lewontin, Billions and billions of Demons, NYRB Jan 1997,cf. here. And, if you imagine this is “quote-mined” I invite you to read the fuller annotated citation here.]

  34. 34
    kairosfocus says:

    RVB8, kindly closely observe:

    to put a correct view of the universe into people’s heads . . . [we must get them] to accept a social and intellectual apparatus, Science, as the only begetter of truth . . . . we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door . . .

    I trust you see the ideological impositions, assertions and underlying philosophical commitments that more than justify a philosophical, plumb-line test evaluation. Starting with the self-refuting error of Scientism tied to that of a priori evolutionary materialism. In effect, redefining science as applied materialistic, evolutionary atheism, and imposing this warped ideology as yardstick of truth and right etc. KF

  35. 35
    Bob O'H says:

    Eric @ 17 –

    I guess we could try to parse Provine’s comments that way, but I’m not sure what kind of ethics or morality one could possibly propose if there is no free will.

    Ones just like the ethics and morality we’d have if we had free will. Only there’s not much we could do about following them. 🙂

    More seriously, even if we don’t have free will, we all act as if we do. So in practice the issue is moot.

    If there is no meaning in life and no free will, as Provine asserts, then ethics and morality are nonsensical — nothing but illusory words masking the fact that we are just witnessing the impersonal dance of matter and energy.

    I don’t see why ethics and morality are nonsense in this case – we still have to get along with each other, regardless of whether there’s a reason for being here, or if we have free will. So having ethics and morals, as guides to how to get along, is still sensible.

    ….

    My description of the foundation for such a position is not clear because, frankly, there isn’t a clear description or explanation about how matter and energy could lead to free will or morality (for brevity I’ll just refer to “morality” from here on out, but the principle applies to similar concepts).

    But, in essence, there must be some mechanism, some confluence of matter and energy, that gives rise to morality.

    If you want a clear answer to how matter and energy lead to morality, you’d have to solve the consciousness problem first, I think (well, unless you consider ants to have morals, which I certainly think can be argued). Given that we haven’t solved that problem, I think the best we can do (as materialists) is make the assumption that there is a solution, and go from there. Which leads to the notion that morals are socially constructed.

    (as an aside, this approach means that we don’t have to be materialists, as we only need to start with humans as conscious agents living in a society, to develop the argument)

  36. 36
    Bob O'H says:

    On to the second part of Eric’s 17 –

    In summary, we have three categories:

    1. Strong materialists who argue morality is an illusion. …

    2.a. Weak materialists who believe morality is real, real in some objective sense.

    2.b. Weak materialists who believe morality is real, in the limited sense that it can be defined to exist. …

    —–

    Based on the above, I would say #1 is a small group of individuals. But they tend to be rather outspoken and are often the first ones people think of when they think of materialists or determinists.

    #2.a and 2.b are more of a mix. My impression is that many people try to switch back and forth between the two, depending upon what the issue is and what they are arguing for. Some might, for example, argue against objective morality (2.b) but then in another context assert that there are certain values we should strive for (2.a).

    Where do you think you would fall in these categories? Where would you see most of your materialist colleagues falling?

    First, I think it would help if you didn’t conflate free will and morality. My guess is that there is nobody in category 1, because we all agree that morals exists (in one form or another), and people act (for whatever reason) according to moral principles. This is true even if free will is an illusion.

    I’d be curious to know of any examples you have of 2a. I’m not aware of any, but this is not something I’ve researched to any extent.

    I think I’m in (or very close to) 2b. I’m not going to comment on where anyone else will be – I wouldn’t want to mis-represent anyone else’s views (there’s enough of that already).

  37. 37
    kairosfocus says:

    BO’H: In order to be functionally rational we must be responsibly, volitionally, rationally free. The responsibilities towards truth, logic, fairness, diligence etc cannot be evaded without shipwreck. KF

  38. 38
    mike1962 says:

    Bob Oh: Mike @ 19 – I see, I don’t have any doubt – that is a death threat.

    You’re funny. And cluelessly missing the point.

  39. 39
    Marfin says:

    B0B`OH – Bob you are getting ahead of yourself in your conclusions, you have to take a step back and show how free will and morals can come and have a basis in a purely material world. You cannot start with we act like we have free will and morals so lets go from there it does not work that way.
    Please define morals and ethics , and then show how they can arise and have concrete foundations in a material world.
    If the reality is that an intelligent designer made us with free will and morals and that is a fact , you cannot argue after the fact that these things just happen to exist.The same would be the case if in reality these were a product of a material world but you cannot assume in either case.
    Just one more thing , please give a definition of moral,if everything is a product of evolution why is good, good and bad , bad apart from survival benefits.

  40. 40

    RVB8 makes an excellent example of an atheist that is utterly incapable of comprehending the issues, proudly spouting out talking point rhetoric that, while emotionally satisfying for those of his ilk, carries with it zero logical weight or value wrt the points under discussion.

    It’s like a college debate about whether or not an answer to a complex logic problem is correct, and RVB8 jumps in with “Well, most students who answered like you are in on athletic scholarships, so you must be wrong!”

    Bloody hell.

  41. 41

    Bob O’H said:

    First, I think it would help if you didn’t conflate free will and morality. My guess is that there is nobody in category 1, because we all agree that morals exists (in one form or another), and people act (for whatever reason) according to moral principles. This is true even if free will is an illusion.

    Wrong. If there is no free will, people do not act “according to moral principles”. They act “According to whatever chemical/biological causes dictate”. It is only if moral principles exist as such and humans can understand those principles and freely choose to behave in accordance with them regardless of physical causation otherwise that humans can act in accordance with moral principles.

    Otherwise, it’s all just nonsensical words crafted to make behavior appear to be something it cannot be.

  42. 42
    Eric Anderson says:

    goodusername @8:

    Even if we assume that the above does explain the origin of love or altruism – how would that imply that they don’t exist, or are an illusion? Love is a feeling – would the above mean that I don’t actually have the feeling? That I’m having an illusion of a feeling?

    Essentially, yes. That is what the strong materialist position says. Something abstract, something non-material, doesn’t really exist. Whether it is hard to define or pin down is immaterial (pun intended). Everything is just matter and energy, so that feeling you think you are feeling, indeed the thought you think you are having, is just an interplay of matter and energy — just a particular configuration of particles no different than a rock or a pile of sand.

  43. 43
    Eric Anderson says:

    Origenes @18:

    Thanks for the great quote. In the part you quoted he seems to be setting up the problem of consciousness and thought from the materialist perspective. Does he go on to offer any solution? I can’t quite tell from the cited portion. Or does he ultimately conclude that thought is also an illusion?

    In any event, the reason I was willing to remove that is because the particular sentence was about what the strong materialists generally deny, not what follow logically from their position. You are probably right that strong materialism means there is no rational thought, but the strong materialists think they are having thoughts. Presumably they also think they are having rational thoughts.

    That is of course the point at which their position becomes self-refuting and incoherent. But most of them don’t admit as much, never starting their book or their lecture with a disclaimer about the fact that no-one should take what they are about to say seriously.

    In any event, if we can find a couple more specific examples of strong materialists admitting that even their thoughts aren’t really thoughts or aren’t rational, maybe you can convince me to put it back in. 🙂

  44. 44
    Eric Anderson says:

    john_a_designer @20:

    Nevertheless if, as Provine concedes, atheistic materialism provides no foundation for ethics and morality, from where do moral materialists get their morality? It appears they have to co-opt somebody else’s system of morality and ethics. That makes any form of materialism/naturalism a pretty destitute world view– doesn’t it?

    I know you’re talking to Bob O’H, but perhaps I can respond briefly. It seems there are two primary possibilities under weak materialism, as I’ve outlined, either:

    – some configuration of matter and energy leads to non-material things like morality; or

    – some configuration of matter and energy leads to beings that happen to have free will and consciousness (IOW, to us), and then we create our morality via some social contract.

    I take it most weak materialists adhere to the latter view. However, it is difficult to view all morality purely as a social contract and, when pressed, most everyone will admit to a more foundational sense of morality — certainly they feel that way in their own life, whether or not they are willing to admit it in a public debate forum.

  45. 45
    Eric Anderson says:

    rvb8 @21:

    So we would expect to see an abundance of God inspired subjective morality in the religious, and an equal?, lack of morality in people like me. I am logically incapable of being moral because I have no subjective foundation for that morality?

    If you had read the OP carefully, you might have realized that I have not argued that materialists lack morality, nor have I argued that you are “logically incapable” of being moral.

    Furthermore, although not part of this OP, since your comment reflects a misunderstanding of the theistic position, I will correct your misunderstanding. Traditional theism, certainly the Judeo-Christian tradition, does not argue that theists have morality and materialists don’t. Quite the contrary. Indeed, it teaches that everyone has an inherent sense of morality as part of their being. Do people do bad things in the world? Sure. Is there an internal struggle within us to choose right from wrong? Absolutely. But nearly everyone has a basic sense of morality as part of what it means to be made in the “image of God.” You certainly don’t have to accept the theistic position, but you should at least understand it.

    So, no. No-one is arguing that you aren’t moral or can’t be moral. Indeed, a theist would argue that you have inherent morality. This despite materialism’s lack of grounding of that morality, not because of it. It’s not that you don’t have morality. It is a question of whether your doctrine can ground that morality.

    Why is it then that our prisons are full of the religious, and there is a conspicuous absence of evolutionary biologists? Do prisoners not understand subjective morality, what is right and what is wrong? There are an abundance of carpet bagger preachers, and yet an absence of physicists.

    . . . the vast majority of ALL criminals in the world, have some religious grounded, subjective, morality. . . .

    Thanks for the humor for the day!

    I presume you understand the concept of sampling bias? Your comment reminds me of the old joke about the evils of bread, based on the statistical fact that nearly everyone who had committed a crime had eaten bread in the week prior to their criminal activity.

    (By the way, statistics is most certainly not “materialistic”.)

    This would save a hell of a lot of confusion. So many words to so inconclusive a purpose . . .

    Yes, my analyses of issues, including in this case, tend to be more in depth and more fulsome than a simplistic comment like “morality is based on self interest”. I believe there is value in analyzing things in more detail, and have had some valuable exchanges already with Bob O’H and others on this thread. It does require some careful thought and introspection and intellectual effort. But I realize it isn’t for everyone.

  46. 46
    kurx78 says:

    You may base morality on social rules and agreements, but when you deal with a faction with more power, military and economic power. Your social constructs are destroyed and replaced with something else.
    We need a common ground for our moral principles, that’s where religion comes as a force that unifies different people in a single moral frame. Take that and you will eventually get chaos.

  47. 47
    Bob O'H says:

    However, it is difficult to view all morality purely as a social contract …

    Why so? Just because (as you go on to imply) the beliefs are deeply held, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not ultimately social. They are instilled from an early age, when we are impressionable, which may be enough to make them strongly held.

  48. 48
    kairosfocus says:

    BO’H: Do you realise where manipulation and might make ‘right,’ ‘truth,’ ‘rights,’ ‘law’ etc gets you? At best, soft nihilism. And that’s not news, it was recognised a long time ago by Plato in the aftermath of Athens’ collapse:

    Ath [in The Laws, Bk X 2,350+ ya]. . . .[The avant garde philosophers and poets, c. 360 BC] say that fire and water, and earth and air [i.e the classical “material” elements of the cosmos], all exist by nature and chance, and none of them by art . . . [such that] all that is in the heaven, as well as animals and all plants, and all the seasons come from these elements, not by the action of mind, as they say, or of any God, or from art, but as I was saying, by nature and chance only [ –> that is, evolutionary materialism is ancient and would trace all things to blind chance and mechanical necessity] . . . .

    [Thus, they hold] that the principles of justice have no existence at all in nature, but that mankind are always disputing about them and altering them; and that the alterations which are made by art and by law have no basis in nature, but are of authority for the moment and at the time at which they are made.-

    [ –> Relativism, too, is not new; complete with its radical amorality rooted in a worldview that has no foundational IS that can ground OUGHT, leading to an effectively arbitrary foundation only for morality, ethics and law: accident of personal preference, the ebbs and flows of power politics, accidents of history and and the shifting sands of manipulated community opinion driven by “winds and waves of doctrine and the cunning craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming . . . ” cf a video on Plato’s parable of the cave; from the perspective of pondering who set up the manipulative shadow-shows, why.]

    These, my friends, are the sayings of wise men, poets and prose writers, which find a way into the minds of youth. They are told by them that the highest right is might,

    [ –> Evolutionary materialism — having no IS that can properly ground OUGHT — leads to the promotion of amorality on which the only basis for “OUGHT” is seen to be might (and manipulation: might in “spin”) . . . ]

    and in this way the young fall into impieties, under the idea that the Gods are not such as the law bids them imagine; and hence arise factions [ –> Evolutionary materialism-motivated amorality “naturally” leads to continual contentions and power struggles influenced by that amorality at the hands of ruthless power hungry nihilistic agendas], these philosophers inviting them to lead a true life according to nature, that is,to live in real dominion over others [ –> such amoral and/or nihilistic factions, if they gain power, “naturally” tend towards ruthless abuse and arbitrariness . . . they have not learned the habits nor accepted the principles of mutual respect, justice, fairness and keeping the civil peace of justice, so they will want to deceive, manipulate and crush — as the consistent history of radical revolutions over the past 250 years so plainly shows again and again], and not in legal subjection to them [–> nihilistic will to power not the spirit of justice and lawfulness].

    At worst? See the history of the past 100 years.

    KF

  49. 49
    Eric Anderson says:

    Bob O’H @47:

    I am willing to grant that certain aspects of our conduct, perhaps even certain aspects of our ethics or morality are due to some “social contract.” But mostly at the edges.

    The social contract idea is seriously flawed if we are talking about the overall morality of a society.

    People have a sense of what ought to be, even before the so-called social contract is in place. If this were not so, then no-one would ever be petitioning for change or modifications to the social norm. People all the time, including people who buy into the social contract idea, are regularly seeking to influence the direction of society — presumably not by random accident, but by what they think ought to be the norm.

    We scarcely need look any further than the daily newspaper to see that calls for change are frequent and vociferous. Whether we are talking about calls for action on climate change, criminal justice, gay marriage, reproductive rights, addressing the needs of the poor, healthcare, or any of a dozen other issues — in all these cases the call for change in the current social status quo arises, by definition, not from what the societal norm already is, but by what such individuals think the societal norm ought to be.

    Surely we are not suggesting that we just wait around aimlessly and then once the social contract is in place (presumably put in place by the impersonal “them”), then we now know what our morality is, what we ought to do? Of course not.

    The idea that the foundational values of society derive from some social contract is like suggesting that two companies realize they should go into business after they have signed a contract. That is precisely backwards from how it works in reality.

    The flow of causation is from the morality to the agreement of how to implement that morality, not the other way around. We don’t agree how to behave and then realize that is how we should behave because we’ve agreed to it.

    So, yes, the social contract idea might have some limited merit in specific cases around minor areas at the edges. We could probably brainstorm and come up with a handful of decent cases. But for the most part it gets the reality completely backwards.

    The contract doesn’t provide the intent. It reflects it. That is the way contracts always work.

  50. 50
    Bob O'H says:

    kf @ 48 – Who’s talking about nihilism? (aside from you, obviously)

    Eric @ 49 –

    People have a sense of what ought to be, even before the so-called social contract is in place.

    Do you have evidence for this? Actually, I’m not sure what you mean – the social contract has been in place for millennia.

    If this were not so, then no-one would ever be petitioning for change or modifications to the social norm. People all the time, including people who buy into the social contract idea, are regularly seeking to influence the direction of society — presumably not by random accident, but by what they think ought to be the norm.

    Quite so. That is how morals and ethics are socially constructed, and it’s more easily explained by a model where they are socially constructed: societies are not homogeneous, so different parts of society can evolve different social rules. And because we are capable of thought, we are also capable of changing our individual and collective minds (homosexuality is one example where moral attitude in the US and western Europe have already changed a lot).

    I think this is a bigger problem for the objectivist account of morality: if there is an objective moral code, how come it changes? I suspect the best one can do is a hybrid model: some morals are objective, others are socially constructed. But then how do you tell the difference?

  51. 51

    Bob O’H asks:

    I think this is a bigger problem for the objectivist account of morality: if there is an objective moral code, how come it changes?

    If there is an objective physical world, how come our understanding of it changes over time, and how come different societies have had different models of it?

    That is how morals and ethics are socially constructed, and it’s more easily explained by a model where they are socially constructed: societies are not homogeneous, so different parts of society can evolve different social rules.

    Except that the “socially constructed” model of morality doesn’t explain the phenomena of people raised in a particular society with a certain social contract who advocate for changes in that social contract that contradict the popular or mainstream views. They will even disobey the social contract to the point of risking their own lives and the comforts and safety of their loved ones.

    If morality is socially constructed, what are they risking their comfort and lives for? Why should they? Why should anyone? Unless you believe that moral obligations are objective and carry serious consequences, why risk so much to disobey the current social contract?

  52. 52
    Bob O'H says:

    William @ 51 – I already answered your second point in 50.

  53. 53
    Bob O'H says:

    William @ 51 – on your first point, are you essentially suggesting a hybrid model? One where there are objective moral rules, but they are interpreted subjectively?

  54. 54

    Bob O’H @53

    That’s not a “hybrid” model. Everything about objective reality is interpreted subjectively.

    Your #50 doesn’t explain why individuals in a society with X morality will risk their own lives and the safety and comfort of their loved ones to defy the social contract and/or advocate for change from the current social contract.

  55. 55
    kairosfocus says:

    BO’H: For one (as noted), Plato as long ago as c 360 BC gives us a warning on both history and worldviews analysis that — on the history of the past 100 years — we would be soberly advised to heed. One of the great errors of relativism and subjectivism is to underestimate the issue that sound history was bought with blood and tears, so that those who refuse to heed its lessons doom themselves to pay the same coin over and over again. A point BTW, strangely enough, underscored by no less a personage than Karl Marx in his assessment of the two Napoleons. Namely that history repeats twice; first as tragedy then as farce. In this context, we need to face the issue that while we are clearly inescapably under moral government (as EA counsels, just look at the ‘papers), evolutionary materialist ideologies and other worldview schemes that have no IS that grounds OUGHT clearly are left to relativistic and amoral agendas boiling down to the soft nihilism of manipulation and might making spin and agit-prop driven politically correct ‘truth,’ ‘right,’ ‘rights’ etc. With the consequence of inducing Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence for the marginalised, often in the context of marches of ruinous folly. So, I refuse to be isolated and silenced, there is too much innocent blood soaking the ground and crying out to the heavens to stand by passively with an enabling silence. For, the ghosts of 100+ million victims of democides over the past 100 years and those of 800+ million victims of our ongoing war on the unborn, now mounting up at a million a week, rebuke us for our folly. On fair comment, the proper response to those facts and such manifest blood guilt soaked folly, is to turn back from the crumbling cliff’s edge, rather than trying to dismiss warnings. KF

  56. 56
    kairosfocus says:

    WJM (& attn BO’H i/l/o EA above), you are right. As we are conscious agents and subjects, everything we actively do goes through our subjectivity. The issue is to recognise that reality exists such that we are challenged by the ideal that absolute truth adequately and accurately describes relevant reality: the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Thus, we strive to find warrant that gives us well founded confidence that we have a sufficiently reliable grasp of the truth to act decisively when much is at stake. In the context of moral truth and moral certainty such that we would be ill advised to act otherwise than X, given Y, the big problem is that for centuries moral truth has been ideologically undermined with the same sort of radical relativism and implied amorality Plato warned against 2350+ years past being put up as a — grossly inadequate — substitute. Many do not even realise that if the social “consensus” determines ‘truth,’ ‘right,’ and ‘rights’ etc. one immediate consequence is that the dissident would-be reformer is automatically in the ‘wrong’ and is then a proper target for those tasked to enforce the consensus. Bringing us directly to the soft nihilism of manipulation, intimidation and naked might making ‘truth,’ ‘right,’ and ‘rights’ etc. Indeed, that is exactly what is now playing out through the bully-boy blackshirt censorship by riot and false accusation tactics at Berkeley and other so-called halls of higher education, undermining the integrity of the global university movement. And yet, something like, it is self-evidently evil to kidnap, torture, rape and murder an innocent child for one’s sick pleasure has long been on the table as a corrective yardstick case that allows us to instead recognise core moral truth, the moral government our consciences point to, and the recognition that we must live in a world where at world-root level, there is an IS that inherently grounds OUGHT. Responsible, rational freedom is governed morally, by a due balance of rights, freedoms and responsibilities, and points to a world root that adequately grounds that level of free, responsible, rational being. But we would have the fatter bone we see in the water, and we foolishly drop our own bone, splash; only to lose both. KF

  57. 57
    Bob O'H says:

    WJM @ 54 – you’re right. My post at 50 doesn’t explain that. It was not meant to be comprehensive.

  58. 58
    kairosfocus says:

    F/N: I challenge out relativists to advocate that the view that:

    it is self-evidently evil to kidnap, torture, rape and murder an innocent child for one’s sick pleasure

    . . . is a mere matter of socially conditioned preference and taboo.

    KF

  59. 59
    Eric Anderson says:

    Bob O’H @50:

    Sure there is evidence. I gave you several examples.

    I think you’re missing the cause-effect relationship and which way the causation flows.

    No-one runs around accidentally trying to make change and then realizing the change is morally good after it is made. They try purposely to make change, precisely because they think it is morally good and that a change is needed.

    I don’t dispute that people grow up in a certain environment, with a certain upbringing, with certain societal norms. There are some practical aspects of how society operates that can be viewed as an outgrowth of various tendencies and traditions and inertia.

    But the broad outlines of what is right and wrong, what is moral, are the cause of the contract, not the other way around.

    Quite so. That is how morals and ethics are socially constructed, and it’s more easily explained by a model where they are socially constructed: societies are not homogeneous, so different parts of society can evolve different social rules. And because we are capable of thought, we are also capable of changing our individual and collective minds (homosexuality is one example where moral attitude in the US and western Europe have already changed a lot).

    OK, so now we see where your disconnect is.

    You have provided what you think is an explanation for the social contract idea in a single word: “evolve”. What on earth does it mean that a society can “evolve different social rules”?

    Evolve how? Through random mutations? Of course not.

    The social rules get developed and changed over time through purposeful, intentional action. Why? Because someone has a sense that the existing social rules are unfair, inappropriate, need to change. So they talk and discuss and advocate and convince and seek to legislate, and then eventually over time we have a new societal norm.

    We can use a sloppy and vague term like “evolve” to describe the process, but like nearly every other situation in which that word is used, it just masks what is really going on, giving us a false impression that we have explained something when all we have done is apply a label while failing to carefully examine the underlying cause.

    The reason norms change in a society is because people think they ought to change. Not because they “evolve” in some impersonal way in a vacuum.

    The “ought” comes before the “is”. The “morality” comes before the “contract”.

  60. 60
    Eric Anderson says:

    WJM @51:

    Except that the “socially constructed” model of morality doesn’t explain the phenomena of people raised in a particular society with a certain social contract who advocate for changes in that social contract that contradict the popular or mainstream views. They will even disobey the social contract to the point of risking their own lives and the comforts and safety of their loved ones.

    Well said. Numerous examples of this throughout history.

  61. 61
    john_a_designer says:

    It would be one thing if the people, who rejected the idea of moral objective values and obligations, were simply trying to live privately according to their own made up moral values and beliefs. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. Recently, for example, “An art gallery in Toronto canceled a scheduled exhibit of a Canadian artist’s work after she was accused of committing “cultural genocide” against indigenous people with her paintings.”

    Read more at: http://www.nationalreview.com/.....de-toronto

    (Watch the young artist here and ask yourself of what exactly is she guilty? I honestly don’t see anything.)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HGFHrQsmQZ4&t=442s

    In other words, so called “cultural appropriation,” for some people is offensive to the point that they believe it is equivalent to racism and, therefore, it is their duty to censor people who dare to disagree with them.

    Before the fall of 2015, when there was a problem of culturally insensitive Halloween costumes at Yale University, I like no doubt a number of other Americans had never heard of “cultural appropriation,” (or maybe more correctly “cultural misappropriation.”) Who decided that any kind of so called cultural appropriation is morally wrong and why? Because they feel it is morally wrong that makes it morally wrong for everyone else? Who are they to impose their morality on everyone else?

    This is what happens when people start to abandon longstanding moral traditions. They start making up new moral mandates and new rights whole cloth, which they then try to impose as new absolutes on everyone else in society in the name of “social justice.”

    To paraphrase Aristotle, “Morality abhors a vacuum.”

  62. 62
    Seversky says:

    Two common usages of the word “truth” are that it either refers the actual state of affairs or nature of an objective reality that is presumed to be out there or that it refers to the extent to which our claims about that reality correspond to it. In other words, “truth” is about what is.

    Moral claims are not about the nature of objective reality. They do not describe objective phenomena such as gravity nor do they purport to offer explanations for them. Moral claims are prescriptive. In human terms, they recommend how people should behave towards one another in society. Since they are not descriptions or explanations of objective phenomena, moral claims cannot properly be described as either true or false.

    The absurdity of the objectivist claim becomes apparent when you ask yourself who or what is going to be concerned about how people behave towards one another – other than people? Is it going to matter to the Universe? Only if you are prepared to consider the Universe to be a conscious, intelligent agent. What then of a god? Such a being may be immeasurably greater than a human being but, when it comes right down to it, how would its moral intuitions or judgments – or those of a conscious cosmos – be any more objective or less opinions than those of a humble human being?

    As for so-called “self-evident” truths, I think the term is misleading. On my understanding, there is data which becomes evidence when it is adduced in support of an explanation. In other words, evidence only exists as such in an explanatory context. For something to be self-evident, there must be a pre-existing explanation in the mind of the observer who views the phenomenon as self-evident. That makes it subjective. For example, the Nazis regarded it as self-evident that the Jews were largely responsible for polluting and corrupting German culture. For others, it was self-evident that Jews had contributed much to the greatness of German culture in the arts, sciences and industry.

    As for self-evident moral truths, we can envisage a non-human alien race, that does not reproduce in the way we do, observing the abuse of a human child by a pedophile and not viewing it as self-evidently wrong. The vast majority of human beings regard it as self-evidently wrong because they are human beings who love their children and are appalled by the very idea of their coming to any harm. But shouldn’t a self-evident truth be evident to anyone who observes it not just those who are pre-disposed to see it as such?

  63. 63
    kairosfocus says:

    Sev, lesse:

    it is [not about “objective reality” = It’s not real that it is] self-evidently evil to kidnap, torture, rape and murder an innocent child for one’s pleasure

    So, If “I” have power to get away with it and have a taste for that sort of thing, I am free to go for it. And, if I have say the power of a Kim in North Korea, or a Hussein in Iraq, there is nothing to stop me. I am just as right or wrong as any other course of action.

    Do you not see the patent absurdity involved there?

    Might and manipulation make ‘right’ ‘truth’ ‘rights’ etc is inherently nihilistic and utterly absurd, thus self-refuting.

    And if we look at the sub text of your argument just above, it is intended to be corrective, i.e. it appeals, implicitly to the binding nature of actual obligation to the truth and the right. At least, on our part.

    In short, your argument is forced to rely on what it opposes.

    Which is exactly what happens when one goes up against self-evident first truths of reason, in this case, moral reason.

    KF

  64. 64

    seversky @62:

    You are confusing a “self-evident truth” with “something that appears to me to be true”. They are not the same thing at all. Your example indicates that you have no idea what you are talking about.

    An example of a self-evident truth is the law of identity. Once you understand it, you realize it is true and that to deny its truth-value is to render everything proceeding or related to it nonsensical. Go ahead and try to have a conversation or make any decision that doesn’t implicitly require that the LOI be true. You cannot do it.

    Personal opinions based on gathered facts or experience, theories constructed by interpretations of facts – these are not examples of “self-evident truths”.

  65. 65
    Seversky says:

    kairosfocus @ 63

    Might and manipulation make ‘right’ ‘truth’ ‘rights’ etc is inherently nihilistic and utterly absurd, thus self-refuting.

    The only “might” in an intersubjective agreement account of social morality is that of the majority. There is nothing in such an account that precludes the possibility of an absolute dictatorship such as we see in North Korea. But do you really think that if they were allowed a truly free vote on the issue that the population of that benighted country would actually choose such a system? You seem to have such a poor opinion of humanity that you think we are incapable of anything between dictatorship and nihilistic chaos.

    And if we look at the sub text of your argument just above, it is intended to be corrective, i.e. it appeals, implicitly to the binding nature of actual obligation to the truth and the right. At least, on our part.

    I think most people would accept an obligation to treat their fellows as they would like to be treated themselves and the rest follows. You seem to think we are incapable of working out for ourselves a moral code that would be acceptable to most if not all, that we are so hopeless that we need some supreme authority to decree these things for us. Given the plight of human societies around the world I grant you have some reason for your pessimism but I still don’t agree. I think we can do it even it’s a messy process and takes a lot more time than we’d like.

  66. 66
    kairosfocus says:

    Sev: The issue is why we understand we have a binding “obligation” to our fellow creatures, i.e. why we are under moral government, and especially why in a case like this we find ourselves constrained to agree (per, “majority”) that there is a duty there. The problem, of course, is that there are monsters who refuse and may have power to act on that refusal, and others find some way to disqualify/ dehumanise/ demonise targets. Often-times, that distortion presents itself as “consensus,” and the implication of the “consensus” determines right/wrong is that the would-be reformer is automatically wrong. For, s/he is rejecting the “consensus” just like the monster in my unfortunately real case. KF

  67. 67
    kairosfocus says:

    PS: Note the implication of an objective moral government accessible to all, on recognising mutuality and the sense of reasonable expectation on how one’s own self ought to be treated by others of like nature — “From which relation of equality between ourselves and them that are as ourselves, what several rules and canons natural reason hath drawn for direction of life no man is ignorant“:

    [2nd Treatise on Civil Gov’t, Ch 2 sec. 5:] . . . if I cannot but wish to receive good, even as much at every man’s hands, as any man can wish unto his own soul, how should I look to have any part of my desire herein satisfied, unless myself be careful to satisfy the like desire which is undoubtedly in other men . . . my desire, therefore, to be loved of my equals in Nature, as much as possible may be, imposeth upon me a natural duty of bearing to themward fully the like affection. From which relation of equality between ourselves and them that are as ourselves, what several rules and canons natural reason hath drawn for direction of life no man is ignorant . . . [This directly echoes St. Paul in Rom 2: “14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them . . . “ and 13: “9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law . . . “ Hooker then continues, citing Aristotle in The Nicomachean Ethics, Bk 8:] as namely, That because we would take no harm, we must therefore do none; That since we would not be in any thing extremely dealt with, we must ourselves avoid all extremity in our dealings; That from all violence and wrong we are utterly to abstain, with such-like . . . ] [Eccl. Polity ,preface, Bk I, “ch.” 8, p.80, cf. here. Emphasis added.] [Augmented citation, Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Ch 2 Sect. 5. ]

  68. 68
    kairosfocus says:

    F/N: Victor Reppert raises an interesting point at his Dangerous Idea blog:

    http://dangerousidea.blogspot......aused.html

    Sunday, April 30, 2017

    How are scientific beliefs caused?

    Assuming no God and setting aside any life on other planets that might have evolved prior to earth’s life, no agent-driven teleology has existed throughout virtually all of natural history.

    So, what is happening now? In order for the accounts we have to give a Darwin inferring natural selection from finch beaks, or physicists rejecting the ether theory as a result (among other things) of the Michelsen-Morley experiment, to make any sense, we have to describe them in teleological terms. The reasons, the evidence, have to be causally responsible for the beliefs these scientists came to hold. Otherwise, the presumed advantage of following science as opposed to superstition goes out the window.

    Yet naturalists insist that when minds arose, no new mode of causation was introduced. Matter functioned in the same way, it is just that evolution but it into forms of organization that made it seem as if it had purposes when it really didn’t, and this explains the very theorizing by which scientists like Dawkins and philosophers like Mackie reach the conclusion that God does not exist. In the last analysis, you didn’t accept atheism because of the evidence, you became and atheist because the configuration of atoms in your brain put you in a certain brain state, and C. S. Lewis became a Christian and a theist for exactly the same reason. If this is true, how can the atheist possibly claim superior rationality?

    Posted by Victor Reppert at 10:33 AM

    Food for thought, echoing C S Lewis and J B S Haldane.

    KF

  69. 69
    Eric Anderson says:

    Seversky @62:

    The absurdity of the objectivist claim becomes apparent when you ask yourself who or what is going to be concerned about how people behave towards one another – other than people? Is it going to matter to the Universe?

    I’m not sure what your point is here.

    Are you claiming that other truths, the law of gravity to use your example, matter to the Universe? What would that even mean?

    How can anything — an unconscious, unintelligent, impersonal conglomerate of matter and energy — possibly “be concerned about” truth?

    Truth matters only to conscious, intelligent beings, like people.

    The distinction you are trying to draw between moral truths that matter to people, and other truths that matter to . . . whom? . . . some impersonal amalgamation of matter and energy? . . . just doesn’t hold water.

  70. 70
    john_a_designer says:

    From the OP:

    3. Unsure Materialists

    Then there are materialists who are unsure about all of this, primarily because they have never really thought about these issues and have never deeply considered what grounds their morality…

    Many of these individuals don’t oppose the idea of morality, even perhaps an objective one. They just cling to the materialist storyline because perhaps it is what they heard in school, perhaps they are under the misimpression that a material explanation for living organisms is at hand or soon to be forthcoming, perhaps it gives them an excuse to avoid looking in the mirror and closely examining their own morality or behavior, perhaps they enjoy the provocative nature of the materialistic position, or perhaps being a materialist makes them feel more “scientific” than those Bible-thumping rubes.

    Actually, I doubt that the majority of these people would accept being labeled “materialists.” Maybe naturalism/ naturalist would be a more amenable label for those who are philosophically minded or educated. (Many of them would tell you that they don’t like labels or that their views are very nuanced etc.) However, I think most of them operate on a very naïve kind of “science says” kind of epistemology, even though they don’t have any idea what epistemology is or why a science-based epistemology, or “scientism,” is a fallacious starting point.

    When it comes to ethics this leads to a kind smug self-righteousness which in turn leads them to believe that because we as a society know more scientifically and technologically, that that makes their ideas morally superior to people living at earlier times in history– like the American founding fathers or ancient Greek, Roman or Christian moral philosophers. One of their favorite “arguments” is that people like them “are on the right side of history.” Of course, they don’t understand that’s not really an argument because they don’t understand what an argument is, nor do they know or understand history enough to make such a claim.

    If they are good at anything it is using high minded rhetoric to marginalize and demonize ideas that don’t fit their agenda and cheap talking points to promote ideas that do, whether or not there is any merit– factual justification– to such ideas.

    The good news is that at least some of these unsure materialists might be amenable to examining the issue in more detail and, perhaps, could even be convinced to examine their assumptions.

    I wouldn’t be so sure about that. At least with people like Provine and Ruse we are on the same page philosophically– they agree that materialism/ naturalism does not provide a foundation for meaning, ethics or morality etc. Furthermore, in debates both men had the reputation of treating their opponents civilly. Indeed, “off stage” both men were very friendly after a debate. Some like Will Provine actually became friends with some of his opponents. Phillip Johnson for example said that Provine had wanted to come visit him just before his death.

    https://www.evolutionnews.org/2015/09/remembering_wil/

    I don’t think that is true for the naïve naturalist who is more likely than not to vilify, demonize or marginalize his opponent by labeling his ideas sexist, racist or homophobic etc. Again, they know how to use slogans and rhetoric to shut down discussion and debate; they don’t know how to make persuasive arguments. If you don’t believe me take a look at what is happening on our college and university campuses. Students, who from what I can tell are naïve naturalists, are shutting down dialogue and debate whenever they can. How can you persuade anyone unless you are willing to engage with them in a civil and tolerant manner? People on my side are willing. They are not.

    The fact that it is happening on our college and university campuses– so called places of higher learning– is not a good or hopeful sign or good for the future of our society.

  71. 71
    Bob O'H says:

    Eric @ 59 –
    (sorry for the delay in replying!)

    I think you’re missing the cause-effect relationship and which way the causation flows.

    No-one runs around accidentally trying to make change and then realizing the change is morally good after it is made. They try purposely to make change, precisely because they think it is morally good and that a change is needed.

    Eh? That’s what I was suggesting too! Ah well, we’re in agreement on this point.

    I don’t dispute that people grow up in a certain environment, with a certain upbringing, with certain societal norms. There are some practical aspects of how society operates that can be viewed as an outgrowth of various tendencies and traditions and inertia.

    But the broad outlines of what is right and wrong, what is moral, are the cause of the contract, not the other way around.

    I agree too. The issue is how this broad outline comes about. I think it comes from how we are raised. If you like, we (as individuals) chose to enter the contract because our parents & local society have given us a broad outline of right & wrong.

    OK, so now we see where your disconnect is.

    You have provided what you think is an explanation for the social contract idea in a single word: “evolve”. What on earth does it mean that a society can “evolve different social rules”?

    Evolve how? Through random mutations? Of course not.

    No, of course not. Societal evolution is very different to organic evolution- it’s closer to Lamackian evolution.

    The social rules get developed and changed over time through purposeful, intentional action. Why? Because someone has a sense that the existing social rules are unfair, inappropriate, need to change. So they talk and discuss and advocate and convince and seek to legislate, and then eventually over time we have a new societal norm.

    Indeed. That’s what I was trying to describe.

    We can use a sloppy and vague term like “evolve” to describe the process, but like nearly every other situation in which that word is used, it just masks what is really going on, giving us a false impression that we have explained something when all we have done is apply a label while failing to carefully examine the underlying cause.

    I would agree that the term “evolve” was vague. That’s because I wasn’t trying to provide an exact explanation. I was tying to make a point about how there can be variation in social rules and thinking, which is what provides the variation in morals that leads to some becoming more prevalent than others. I’m sure the way this happens is much more complex, and I’m not a sociologist, so I wouldn’t want to try to provide a more complex explanation.

    The reason norms change in a society is because people think they ought to change. Not because they “evolve” in some impersonal way in a vacuum.

    I never suggested otherwise!

  72. 72
    Eric Anderson says:

    john_a_designer @70:

    You may be right. I’m inclined to be a little less pessimistic, as I’ve met a number of young people who have already developed a healthy skepticism about some of the “consensus” views they receive in school.

    The good thing about the unsure materialists (as opposed to the strong or weak) is that they have less personal and professional commitment to their position — less to lose, in other words, by questioning their current beliefs. I remain hopeful that at least some will, in their quiet moments outside of the spotlight, begin to question and slowly move toward the light.

  73. 73
    Eric Anderson says:

    Bob O’H @71:

    Thanks. It sounds like there is much we can agree on.

    We have probably covered the bases pretty well, but perhaps to wrap up I would just reiterate that freedom of thought, free will (which someone like Provine denies), consciousness, intelligence and morality cannot be fully explained by the social contract idea. Whatever upbringing or society we have, there is ample evidence that people, regularly, choose to deviate from that upbringing. Thus, the most that can be said for the social contract is that it provides an initial framework, a basic set of expectations that the individuals may choose to adhere to.

    Also, it is worth tracking back in time under the materialist theory to see what kind of underpinnings it might have. In that case we aren’t starting with a current modern society or even a primitive group of wandering tribes. We have to go back to an ape-like ancestor, and before that to the proverbial fish or reptile. At some point along, so the story must go, a “social contract” came into place. But it certainly didn’t exist originally and even if some kind of “contract” did exist among such beings, it was radically different than what we have today. So how did our social contract come about?

    There are essentially two possibilities, either by:

    1. Purposeful, thoughtful exercise of free will and morality; or

    2. A random trial-and-error process that somehow was passed on for mere survival’s sake (assuming the error wasn’t catastrophic) until here we are.

    The former is what we see so regularly in our society as we look back at important social changes over the past several hundred years. Well documented and historically confirmed.

    The latter is little more than an assertion seriously lacking in detail, similar to the rest of the evolutionary story and not much more substantive than Stuff Happens.

    Between the two, the former serves as a more satisfying and better supported explanation.

    —–

    Even if we were to agree that these are not mutually exclusive — that there is some purposeful intentional action and some trial-and-error — the mere presence of the former in any degree eviscerates the strong materialist position and seriously limits the weak materialist position.

  74. 74
    Seversky says:

    Eric Anderson @ 69

    Seversky @62:

    The absurdity of the objectivist claim becomes apparent when you ask yourself who or what is going to be concerned about how people behave towards one another – other than people? Is it going to matter to the Universe?

    I’m not sure what your point is here

    Okay, let me try again.

    In my view, truth is the actual nature of objective reality, that which exists whether we are aware of it or not. I know there are those who hold that consciousness precedes and in some way creates reality but I don’t. To be conscious is to be conscious of something even if only one’s physical self.

    Our models, descriptions, theories or apprehensions of that reality are true to the extent they can be observed to correspond to that reality. Claims about something other than that objective reality, which include moral prescriptions, are neither true nor false by that understanding. There are no moral truths.

    Whatever their origin, the observed function of moral codes is to regulate the way humans behave towards one another in society. For the person marooned alone on a desert island, prohibitions against theft, rape or murder are simply irrelevant. There is nothing to steal and no one else to rape or kill. In society, of course, such behaviors matter a great deal to those who might fall victim to them, which means just about everyone. They would prefer they didn’t happen so they agree on rules of behavior to try and prevent them.

    On this understanding, morals exist only in the minds of those intelligent beings who conceived them and hold themselves bound by them for the benefit of all others in that society. If those beings cease to exist then so do the morals. If humans were wiped off the face of the Earth our moral codes would disappear with us.

    I grant that it’s conceivable that some benevolent alien intelligence – a category which could be stretched to include gods – might have opinions on how human beings should behave towards each other and, by extension, towards other sentient creatures. But they would still be just another opinion, no more objective then ours.

  75. 75
    Eric Anderson says:

    Seversky, thanks for your thougtful comments and good discussion.

    In my view, truth is the actual nature of objective reality, that which exists whether we are aware of it or not.

    I think a lot of people, probably most, would largely agree with that assessment. Things are as they are, and our assessment or awareness or knowledge of things as they really are is what we call truth. Further, whether or not we happen to currently grasp the truth has little, if any, bearing on the objective reality and how things really are. Our task is to try to seek truth — to continually approximate our understanding to the way things really are.

    Claims about something other than that objective reality, which include moral prescriptions, are neither true nor false by that understanding. There are no moral truths.

    Here I fear you’ve skipped a step and jumped to an unwarranted conclusion. Part of the very question on the table is whether there is something about objective reality that includes morality. We can’t just define the issue away by stating that morality is “something other than that objective reality.” You seem to be falling back to the materialist default tendency of defining everything, including “objective reality,” as consisting of only the physical and the material. If something exists other than the physical and the material, it is part of “objective reality” just as much as the physical and the material.

    For the person marooned alone on a desert island, prohibitions against theft, rape or murder are simply irrelevant.

    Is behavior equal to morality, or does if flow from it? It would seem that we could still have a moral sense about something, even if the particular situation we happen to be in does not require us to exercise that moral sense? Whether there happens to be a legal prohibition against something in a particular location doesn’t mean the individual can’t have a moral sense about it.

    I grant that it’s conceivable that some benevolent alien intelligence – a category which could be stretched to include gods – might have opinions on how human beings should behave towards each other and, by extension, towards other sentient creatures. But they would still be just another opinion, no more objective then ours.

    But, according to your definition of truth, that Being’s views would be more objective than ours, assuming that Being has a greater grasp of objective reality (i.e., knows more truth) than we do. That Being might even be aware of an objective reality that makes our behaviors relevant; an awareness beyond our current limited understanding of objective reality. Perhaps even a desire to help us grow into and increase our understanding and sense of morality, so that we are prepared for such objective reality.

  76. 76
    john_a_designer says:

    Eric @ 72,

    You may be right. I’m inclined to be a little less pessimistic, as I’ve met a number of young people who have already developed a healthy skepticism about some of the “consensus” views they receive in school.

    I actually think most naive naturalists are guided by commonsense, basic goodwill and respect for traditional human rights. Unfortunately these people haven’t really thought through their worldview so they confuse their “good intentions” with sound reasoning. In other words, they don’t really understand basis for their good intentions. To further complicate this situation those naïve naturalists who are outspoken (the activists) are equally shallow in their thinking but do share the same respect for traditional human rights. They are convinced they are right and that anyone who disagrees with them is wrong and they are unwilling to have their views challenged through open minded discussion and debate. These are the people shutting down free speech on college campuses by getting controversial speakers boycotted, disinvited etc. (The etc. includes the use of violent protests to shut down an event.)

    Unfortunately, intimidation works and recently it has been working well. What can be done? I am not really sure.

    Furthermore, this false secular progressive thinking, which at its roots entirely naturalistic, is not limited to college and university campuses. It dominates the main stream media as well as the entertainment industry which in turn dominates our culture. Again, what can we do?

  77. 77
    kairosfocus says:

    JAD, great points. On what can be done in the face of intimidation, shaming games, mob riots and trollish conduct in service to cultural marxist agit-prop including deceitful media shadow shows, my answer goes all the way back to Sunday School, age 5, sitting on a then already ancient folding wood bench and seeing one of those old SS lesson pictures: Goliath toppling over, rock to forehead and David standing by, having just fired the first of his five stones. In later years, I remember V T Williams’ gravelly old Pentecostal Preacher’s voice pointing out why the four in reserve: Goliath had four brothers and the Devil never keeps his bargain. David did his homework and was prepared for contingencies when he stood on his strengths to move from lions and bears for breakfast to giants for lunch. Also, when the NIV came out, I saw how as David ran up to Goliath, he had the sling IN his hand, i.e. it was not readily visible until deployed, drop swish, zip, thwack, creak, THUD, game over. Goliath’s own sword took off his head. We need to stand on our own platforms, base ourselves on sound insight, fire the well-aimed toppling shots to the nerve centres of today’s Goliaths, and have reserve to take out those who try to surprise us by ambush while we deal with the giant in front. BTW, in later years, David wielded Goliath’s sword, a champion’s sword. Changing exemplars, when Paul turned at bay in Athens before the Mars Hill Council, he hit the rotten foundation of the system in his opening remarks: champions of learning forced to build a monument to ignorance of the world-root. Yes, they laughed him out of court, but at kairos, he seized the future through those few followers who dared to walk away from folly as usual. KF

  78. 78
    hammaspeikko says:

    I don’t think it helps anything to label materialists and naturalists as being somehow inferior to the rest of us with respect to world view, logic, reasoning, morality and so on. In my mind, doing so weakens our side, not theirs.

  79. 79
    john_a_designer says:

    Earlier @ #20 I asked, if it’s true, “as Provine concedes, atheistic materialism provides no foundation for ethics and morality, from where do moral materialists get their morality? It appears they have to co-opt somebody else’s system of morality and ethics. That makes any form of materialism/naturalism a pretty destitute world view– doesn’t it?”

    https://uncommondescent.com/atheism/the-materialist-mindset/#comment-630825

    It appears that Provine, and morally well intentioned atheists like him, get their morality from “society.” But what is the morality of a multicultural and religiously diverse society like the American society? Well there is no such thing as an American morality. While it is true that historically Judeo-Christian moral philosophy has had the most influence in shaping American values and moral thinking, over the last fifty years an aggressive form of secular-progressivism has been competing for cultural dominance. However, the problem with secular-progressivism is that metaphysically it is naturalistic or materialistic. But as Provine and others, like Michael Ruse. have admitted naturalism/materialism provides no foundation for interpersonal moral values or obligations. What good is morality without real binding moral obligations?

    The problem with the naive naturalists is they don’t recognize this. They think that somehow their ungrounded moral beliefs are binding on everyone. So for example if you don’t agree with so-called transgender rights, as the progressives do, you are labeled transphobic and/or a bigot or even evil (something many of them deny really exists!) But how, when and by whom did “transgender rights” become not only rights but universal human rights that everyone is now obligated to recognize? Because someone has a personal opinion that a certain thing is a right does that make it a right? What happens when two or more people can’t agree on what is a right? Whose rights are right?

  80. 80
    kurx78 says:

    Sam Harris make a good point arguing that morality takes its basic ground from empathy, “don’t do to others what you don’t want to be done to yourself”
    And yes, Jesus makes the same point on the Bible ironically.
    However the question remains
    Is plain and simple empathy enough to form an objective, valid and durable ground for morality?
    Without religion and spirituality it’s possible for the human race to find a new sense of morality? Hint: History says basically no

  81. 81
    Eric Anderson says:

    hammaspeikko:

    I don’t think it helps anything to label materialists and naturalists as being somehow inferior to the rest of us with respect to world view, logic, reasoning, morality and so on. In my mind, doing so weakens our side, not theirs.

    I’m not sure if you’re responding to the OP or a particular comment in the thread, but thought I would weigh in briefly.

    I would agree that one has to be careful not to assert one’s own moral superiority over another group of people across the board. There is no question that a materialist might be more moral in their actions than someone who claims to be following, say, a Christian tradition. If we are talking about a particular person, we need to be specific as to their situation and not generalize.

    However, there are two issues to be aware of.

    1. Many people, in practice, fall short of their moral ideals. This is probably true of most people. It is certainly true, for example, for all Christians. Thus, it is important to distinguish between the moral basis for a person’s actions and their failure to fully live up to those values.

    On the flip side, some people actually live better than their proclaimed values. This is true of essentially all strong materialists, and many weak ones. Take Provine. His doctrine is that there is no free will, no ultimate foundation for ethics, etc. Yet he lived better than that. I forget whether it was in reference to Provine or Gould, but one writer commented after their passing, in essence, that “he was a better man than his doctrine.”

    2. Worldview, logic and reasoning are important and have implications for how we live, how we interact, what kinds of laws we pass, and so on. It would be naive to say that every worldview or every person’s approach to reasoning is equally valid and that we should be equally accepting of all viewpoints. It is perfectly reasonable to point out when someone’s position is not rational or logical.

    There is merit in questioning, even strongly opposing, worldviews or doctrines that are unsupported by logic or that we otherwise view as irrational or, in extreme cases, even dangerous. I would have no compunction in calling someone on the carpet for espousing such a worldview.

    —–

    Most of the time, however, these debates and challenges can be done in a way that is respectful and thoughtful, even if the challenge is forcefully and clearly made.

    At the end of the day are some worldviews inferior to others? Undoubtedly. Yet hopefully we can challenge them in a rational and meaningful way, with a reasonable amount of due respect to the individual (if not to the worldview).

  82. 82
    mike1962 says:

    Without religion and spirituality it’s possible for the human race to find a new sense of morality? Hint: History says basically no

    Exactly right.

    While should I curb my wants and needs if I want to eat you? Or loot your purse?

    Fresh meat.

    Yum.

    Numnutz materialists need to talk lions into letting the gazelles go free… instead of the lions eating them alive. Then I might consider their viewpoint.

    In the mean time…

    Yum

    Fresh gazelle

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