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L&FP, 48j: Dallas Willard’s (partial) list of reasons for the unwarranted disappearance of moral knowledge


As we continue to explore the issue of the marginalisation of moral knowledge, let us highlight from 48b, Willard’s (incomplete) list of key causes:

(2). How did this disappearance [of moral knowledge] come to be the case?

Not through a discovery of some kind: e.g. that there was no such knowledge.

But through a lengthy historical process of idea change. Some components:

(A). The dismissal of theology from the domain of knowledge [i.e. the study and systematic knowledge of God, cf Rom 1:28 – 32], and the failure to find a secular basis for ethics [–> how can evolutionary materialism found ethics?].
(B). Disappearance of the human self and knowledge of the self from “respectable” knowledge. (The “soul” from Plato on.) [–> the self-moved, rational, responsible, conscience guided significantly free agent]

(C). All cultures come to be regarded as “equal.” None are morally inferior [–> diversity and radical tolerance]. Just “different.” Then there is no moral truth of the matter across cultures. [–> the denial of warranted, generally knowable objective truth on duty to right conduct, virtue etc; which is itself a claimed objective truth regarding duty to right conduct etc; it is thus a claimed objective moral truth that denies the possibility of such. It is self referentially incoherent, so false. (This will of course be hotly denied, but the logic is clear.)]
(D). Moral distinctions and standards viewed as power plays. (Nietzsche, Marx, Freud) [–> might makes right]
(E). Fear or resentment of knowledge itself as oppressive. Colonialism. [–> linked disappearing of logic and truth backed by warrant so of knowledge]
(F). Growth of the idea that it is always wrong to make moral judgments: that only bad or disgusting people do that. [–> the test case of a kidnapped, sexually tortured, murdered child] Pushes moral judgments out of the public domain. [–> marginalisation]
(G). The failure in Philosophy to recover moral knowledge. [–> institutional failure, the mutiny on the good ship civilisation issue]

Let us highlight A, by noting from the Author’s preface to Richard Swinburne’s influential The Existence of God, 2nd edn, Oxford 2004 (revised from 1979 and 1991):

By the nineteenth century . . . philosophical theology began to
feel the powerful sceptical influence of Hume and Kant. These
philosophers produced principles designed to show that reason
could never reach justified conclusions about matters much beyond the range of immediate experience, and above all that reason could never reach a justified conclusion about the existence of God. In recent years many others have argued in the same spirit, so that, both among professional philosophers and outside their narrow circle, there is today deep scepticism about the power of reason to reach a justified conclusion about the existence of God.

As I construct my positive arguments, I shall briefly give my
grounds for thinking that the principles of Hume and Kant are mistaken and that reason can reach justified conclusions outside the narrow boundaries drawn by those philosophers. Those who believe in the ability of modern science to reach justified (and exciting) conclusions about things far beyond immediate experience, such as subatomic particles and nuclear forces, the ‘Big Bang’ and cosmic evolution, ought to be highly sympathetic to my enterprise; Hume and Kant would not, on their own principles, have had a very sympathetic attitude to the claims of modern physical science.

Swinburne continues:

I shall, however, argue that, although reason can reach a fairly well-justified conclusion about the existence of God, it can reach only a probable conclusion, not an indubitable one.

I would of course adjust to “warranted” (post-Gettier) and would prefer plausibility rather than probability, as scaling becomes an issue. What is being put forth is that this major issue is being addressed in effect on inference to the best explanation, which — as does much of modern physical science — involves entities and states of affairs that are not directly observable by us.

He develops a summary on Confirmation Theory:

It will be useful to introduce at this stage the symbols of confirm-
ation theory that I shall use from time to time in subsequent chap-
ters. I represent by lower-case letters such as e, h, p, and q
propositions. P(p | q) represents the probability of p given q. [–> technically, a conditional probability] Thus p might represent the proposition: ‘The next toss of this coin will land heads’, and q might represent the proposition: ‘505 of the last 1,000 tosses of this coin have landed heads’. Then P(p | q) represents the probability that the next toss of the coin will land heads, given that 505 of the last 1,000 tosses have landed heads. (The value of P(p| q) would then generally be supposed to be 0.505.) However, the relation between p and q may be of a much more complex kind; and clearly we normally assess the probability of claims on evidence other than or additional to that of relative frequencies. p may be some scientific hypothesis—say, Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity—and q may be the conjunction of all the reports of the evidence of observation and experiment that scientists have collected relevant to the theory. Then P(p | q) represents the inductive probability of Einstein’s General Theory given all the reports of relevant observations and experiments. Inductive probability is thus to be distinguished from statistical probability, which is a property of classes of things (for example, inhabitants of a certain town, say Tunbridge Wells) and is a measure of the proportion of things in the class that have some other property . . . .

A hypothesis up for investigation is often represented by h. Then
P(h | e & k) represents the probability of a hypothesis h given evidence (e & k). It is often useful to divide the evidence available to an observer into two parts—new evidence and background evidence; if this is done, the former is often represented by e and the latter by k. Background evidence (or background knowledge, as it is sometimes called) is the knowledge that we take for granted before new evidence turns up.

Thus, suppose that detectives are investigating a murder. h could represent the hypothesis that Jones did the murder; e could represent the proposition that reports all the new evidence that detectives discover—for example, that Jones’s fingerprints were found on the weapon, that he was near the scene of the murder at the time it was committed, etc., etc. k could represent the proposition reporting the detectives’ general knowledge about how the world works—for example, that each person has a unique set of finger-prints, that people who touch metal and wood with bare hands usually leave their fingerprints on them, etc., etc. Then P(h | e & k) represents the probability that Jones did the murder, given detectives’ total evidence.

For all propositions p and q P(p | q) = 1 if (and only if) q makes p certain—for example, if q entails p (that is, there is a deductively valid argument from q to p); and P(p | q) = 0 if (and only if) q makes ~ p certain—for example, if q entails ~ p. P(p | q) + P( ~ p | q) = 1. So if P(p | q) > 1/2, then P(p | q) > P(~ p | q) and it is on q more probable that p than that ~p. So (for background knowledge k) an argument from e to h will be a correct C-inductive argument if (and only if) P(h | e & k) > P(h j k), and a correct P-inductive argument if (and only if) P(h | e & k) > 1/2. [See here for my discussion of likelihoods in my always linked.]

The division between new evidence and background evidence can be made where you like—often it is convenient to include all evidence derived from experience in e and to regard k as being what is called in confirmation theory mere ‘tautological evidence’, that is, in effect all our other irrelevant knowledge.

He points to the issue of cumulative evidence:

A similar situation normally arises with any far-reaching scientific
or historical theory. Each separate piece of evidence does not make the theory very probable, and indeed taken on its own makes some narrower theory much more probable. But the cumulative force of the evidence taken together gives great probability to the wide theory. Thus each of the various pieces of evidence that are cited as evidence in favour of the General Theory of Relativity do not by themselves make it very probable, but together they do give it quite a degree of probability.

He further notes, on a fallacious objection:

Note that it is no objection to a P-inductive or C-inductive argument from e to h that some contrary hypothesis h*
is also compatible with e, as some writers on the philosophy of religion seem to think. They seem to think that if, for example, the order in the universe is compatible with ‘God does not exist’, then there is no good argument from it to ‘God exists’. But one has only to think about the matter to realize that this is not so. In any non-deductive argument from e to h, not-h will be compatible with e; and yet some non-deductive arguments are good arguments.

These observations allow us to evaluate relative degree of support for hypotheses and competing hypotheses. The upshot is, it is quite reasonable, on evidence and reasoning similar to that used to compare scientific or forensic or historical alternatives etc, to conclude that there is good warrant for concluding that God exists. But in the nature of such a case, it cannot deliver utter certainty. Which, is common for many cases we hold such results to be reliable knowledge. Thus, there was no good reason to institutionally and culturally marginalise the study of God and knowledge about him.

Applying this framework to evaluation of duty to right conduct etc, if we are willing we can readily see that, first (cf. 48a), the reductio that establishes that there undeniably are knowable, warranted, objective moral truths is certain.

Going beyond, on cases such as the gruesome kidnapping, sexual torture and murder of a child for fun, we find that those who would object or deflect or evade simply show themselves defective in moral thinking. Such extends to notorious cases such as the Nazi holocaust and similar mass murders such as those by Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot etc. From which yardstick cases of moral knowledge, we may readily draw out responsible frameworks of moral knowledge regarding justice, rights, duty to neighbour, prudence, warrant, duty to right reason and duty to truth. (Yes, those are the Ciceronian first duties and first law.)

That is, as was drawn out in 48g we have a viable framework for objective moral knowledge, which can be extended to the framing of responsible political and social order (cf 48h). In turn, such is plausibly a framework of valid knowledge, conferring “the right and perhaps the responsibility to act, direct action, formulate policy and supervise its implementation, and teach.” (Cf 48i.)

There is no good reason to resort to relativistic despair of objective moral knowledge, the blind men and the elephant notwithstanding (cf 48d). Plato, 2360 years ago, was right (48e). So was Orwell, when he warned on the corruption of language in support of corrupt state order (48f).

Of Lemmings, marches of folly and cliffs of self-falsifying absurdity . . .

Let us now return to moral sanity as a civilisation, before it is fatally too late. END

PS, as a reminder, here is Orwell speaking in the voice of Winston Smith:

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself—that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word—doublethink—involved the use of doublethink.

–> discussion remains open at 48a