The Fallacies Of Atheism

Moral Enlightenment
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Playing off of my last post, I think one of the worst intellectual traps the atheist can fall into is the shallow argument. Pretty much everyone has a natural bias to arguments featuring conclusions they happen to agree with, whether or not those arguments are totally sound. And when you take an uncharitable view to people who challenge those arguments, it can be hard to effectively judge their point against your own. So you end up with two fairly common fallacies among ardent atheists:

1.) Failure to distinguish between different religious claims. This one is the less common one. After all, these things should be pretty obvious: Not everyone who calls herself a Christian thinks the Bible is the literal word of God. Not everyone reaching for eternal reward thinks that faith in his deity is the only way to get there. Hell, some religious don’t don’t even think that God is omniscient, or interacts with the physical world in any observable way. I imagine if I were one of those people, I would be pretty weary of being conflated with Creationists.

2.) Overreliance on the argument from empiricism. Let’s talk about this guy:

I love this man. He’s a comic genius, and it’s great that he’s also public about his atheism in a thoughtful, articulate, non-dickish manner. But in his recent column on why he’s an atheist — the one all of my atheist tweeps keep linking around — he makes the appeal for atheism from science. It’s a popular argument, but it’s also a bad one.

The problem with the argument is that it takes multiple arguments and collapses them into one, in a manner not unlike the first fallacy. It confuses empirical claims with metaphysical claims. Science, of course, is only interested in the former.

The difference between an empirical claim and a metaphysical claim is the difference between saying, “Egypt suffered a plague of locusts,” and, “Egypt suffered a plague of locusts because a divine intelligence was displeased with the pharaoh for keeping the tribe of Israel enslaved.” The first one is definitively true or false, and you can look at evidence in the real world to make a judgment one way or the other. That’s where science comes in. But as far as divine intelligences go, science has absolutely nothing to say. You can’t measure or quantify a mind. You might be able to track physical phenomenon that are correlated with what one might want to call a mind, but science can’t help us make that determination.

(Aside: This cuts both ways, of course. You might witness something you want to call a miracle, because you see no logical explanation for it. But the fact that there is no explanation that science can currently afford us does not mean you can make any definitive metaphysical claim about the event. As the analytic philosopher of logic A.J. Ayer would point out, the solitary fact that the Red Sea miraculously parted does not mean that God did it — not unless your definition of God is solely, “that which parted the Red Sea.”)

My point isn’t that these questions have no definitive answer. My point is that this reliance on science to explain everything is cheap and intellectually lazy. Any argument over the existence of God has to take metaphysics into account as a discipline entirely separate from empirical observation.

That means taking the other philosophical problems of a godless universe seriously as well. For example: If there is no God, do we have any reason to believe that there are actions or consequences that are good and bad independent of our feelings about them? What is good? Do we have any reasons to be good? What’s the point of doing anything, really?

These questions don’t have scientific answers, either.* And all we accomplish by pretending that the answers are easy or obvious is to make ourselves willing accomplices in our own ignorance. Instead, I find it more helpful to see these questions as a gift to atheists: the universe is far more ambiguous without a God to tell us right from wrong, but it’s also full of so much more mystery and wonder. We squander that gift when we dismiss challenges to our premises out of hand. Better to find out what clues believers can bring to the hunt.

*Of course, some prominent atheists, most notably Sam Harris (pictured), disagree. Sam Harris is wrong.

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48 Responses

  1. These last two posts have been really excellent, Ned.

  2. You say, “That means taking the other philosophical problems of a godless universe seriously as well. For example: If there is no God, do we have any reason to believe that there are actions or consequences that are good and bad independent of our feelings about them? What is good? Do we have any reasons to be good? What’s the point of doing anything, really?”

    I don’t need anything more than the empathy bred into me by hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of years of evolution. The survival of the race was facilitated by living in communities, and that in turn was facilitated by humans caring about each other and feeling for others as we do for our own selves. I don’t need a god or any other higher power for that, and I love my wife, my children, my friends, my students, and my neighbors near and far no less for that than any theist.

    • Never said you don’t. I’m an atheist too, remember?

      But read the link I posted about why Sam Harris is wrong. The fact that you evolved and were socialized to treat a certain set of norms as good doesn’t automatically mean we ought to think of them as good. For good to mean more than just personal preference, there needs to be another explanation. And if it is just personal preference, then there’s no way one can argue that our attitude towards our fellow human beings is substantially better than that of a serial killer’s.

      • To be honest, I have my issues with Harris as well on several issues as well. Still, I don’t see the “need” to be good as a metaphysical one. It’s like saying “if there is no god who put food on Earth for us to consume, why do we need to eat?” God or not, eating is imperative to survive.

        God or not, acting for the common good is imperative (though on a far more sophisticated level) for survival of the species as well.

      • But the biological imperative isn’t what makes kindness a good thing, is it? That presumes that human survival is good as well.

      • I’m not arguing for the existence of a platonic ideal of good. I don’t think there is one whether gods exist or not. I simply put forth that it isn’t the existence of gods that gives us our desire to perform and recognize actions which we generally acknowledge as good.

      • No disagreement there. But the notion of a universe where all the sentence “Murder is wrong” means is “I personally disapprove of murder” doesn’t bother you? Because it bothers me. And it seems like a philosophical problem we atheists should take very seriously.

      • It’d make life simpler to be able to look up the cheat codes (for lack of a better metaphor) for life and know that one can in all instances know what is right and wrong simply by knowing the correct formula, but, no, it doesn’t bother me overly much. I think of morality as a talent, and living a good live as an art form that employs that talent.

      • But that sidesteps the question. Because if morality is little more than personal preference, there’s no way to do it well. We’re talking as if moral reasoning is irrelevant.

      • I don’t think it is a personal preference. Our inclination to reason morally is what has been hardwired into us by natural selection, and thus it isn’t irrelevant.

      • But again, you’re ignoring the is/ought distinction. What does the fact that the vast majority of people feel some degree of empathy towards fellow human beings have to do with whether or a sociopath is right or wrong to feel no regard for other human lives?

      • A sociopath is by definition someone who acts in an extremely antisocial way or lacks a social conscience, so I would think the very term answers the question.

        Someone who kills for the simple fact that he derives some satisfaction from it, or a pedophile, or anyone else who acts out sociopathic tendencies is by his very nature not acting in the interests of society and thus is acting against the natural moral predilections of a species whose survival is facilitated by communal living.

        Damn, I am beginning to sound all Sam Harris-y aren’t I? :)

      • You’re arguing in circles though. What makes “the best interests of society” good besides the fact that you say so? You’re treating it like the answer is obvious, but it’s not.

      • No, I am not. If one accepts,

        1) humans survive and propagate better in communities,
        2) the proclivities that lead to healthy, thriving communities are beneficial.
        3) natural selection increased the empathic tendencies in humanity because those tendencies facilitate those communities.

        Then it is not a tremendous leap to infer that morality may be a result of our ability to empathize with others.

        This hypothesis does not claim a perfect morality. Evolution is not perfect. Anyone who’s had problems with their appendix can testify to that.

        I’m not claiming it’s obvious. I’m simply stating that this is as good an explanation of the origins of morality as any I’ve come across, and it’s much better than any religious one I’ve ever heard. If you’re looking for something more metaphysical than that, I can’t help you.

      • Well there’s your problem. Because to say that something is “good” or “bad” independent of your own personal preference is to make a metaphysical claim. Science may be able to tell us the origins of morality, but it has nothing to say about the nature of it.

      • Well, to cut to the chase, I’m a moral relativist, I guess. I cannot tell you an action is good or evil out of context of the situation that surrounds it, but generally speaking the moral choice is dictated by empathy that guided by objective fact. Empathy mainly becomes problematic when it is clouded by misconceptions (i.e., “We can save a people by torturing them into accepting Jesus/Muhammad.”) The more informed we are, the more moral the decision guided by empathy will be.

        I’m sure you can still find flaws in that. I’m sure I can too. Again, I don’t believe perfect ideals exist.

  3. I think you’re understating the degree to which mainstream religions make empirical claims: The power of prayer and intelligent design spring readily to mind. It’s good form to choose the strongest arguments and address them, but the reality is that the weaker forms still enjoy massive popularity.

    The more easily dismissed brands of religion also have other discursive advantages: Clearly defined terms, a certain sort of uniformity (within relatively small groups), and numerous claims that can be refuted either logically or scientifically. Focusing on the more sophisticated forms is worthwhile and commendable, but it isn’t a fallacy to devote one’s energy to the beliefs that form the bulk of religious belief in the world.

    • I’d question whether or not intelligent design is an empirical claim. Besides, I’m not so interested in the arguments believers use — this is more about how we justify atheism to ourselves. If my atheism rests on the argument from empiricism, then this is a problem for me.

      • My atheism stems simply from the lack of evidence of gods…period. Morality in any form has nothing to do with it. If the argument is made that atheism doesn’t explain the nature of good and evil, my response is simply, “So what?”

        It’s like arguing against evolution because it doesn’t explain the origins of the universe (an argument I’ve heard several times). The theory of evolution isn’t intended to do that. Atheism may make one question other aspects of a person’s life like morality, but even if no answers to those questions arise, it doesn’t reflect on my lack of belief in something for which no concrete proof has ever been offered.

      • If the argument is made that atheism doesn’t explain the nature of good and evil, my response is simply, “So what?”

        You’re acting as if I brought that up as a strike against atheism. I didn’t. My point was that questions about the nature of good and evil are pretty damn important. Almost all religions build a conceptual framework for them. Too many atheists, on the other hand, behave as if the question is neither particularly important or particularly difficult.

      • No, I’m simply responding to your statement that we must analyze morality to “justify atheism to ourselves.”

        I agree that reflecting on morality is crucial for a healthy society, but claiming it in as part-and-parcel of atheism is incorrect. Atheism may incline one to examining the issue more objectively as it lacks the “because God said so” implications of religion, but one need not ever look at philosophical issues whatsoever to accurately label himself an atheist.

      • Dude, the comment you’re quoting had nothing to do with morality. Look at it again. I was talking about how the argument from empiricism so many atheists use is based on a category error.

      • Ah. You are correct here. My mistake and my apologies.

        Multitasking is not recommended when in the midst of a philosophical discussion.

  4. Dissenter warning!

    Harris only commits a category error if you think there is a divide between what science is about and what morality is about in the first place. Claiming there is a category error is just a repackaging of one’s first-order disagreement with Harris. It doesn’t contain the why.

    Yes, you did link to Massimo at the end, and that would be fine if the issue weren’t contentious, but being that it is contentious I think that’s a rather weak way of backing up your post’s fundamental premise.

    I’m not trying to be uncivil but I’m flabbergasted by this type of assertion-by-fiat argument, as if dogmatic repetition of the very position Harris is arguing against is sufficient to rebut him. It isn’t. The trick is to reply to Harris in a way that isn’t question begging.

    Resorting to empiricism to resolve questions may appear to you to be “cheap and intellectually lazy.” But someone from my side could just as well say that this viewpoint reflects a lack of imagination with respect to the explanatory scope of empiricism. And it surely wouldn’t be the first time- history is replete with confident declarations that X is outside the scope of science (e.g. Newton’s claim that there may from time to time be divine intervention to stabilize the orbit of the planets, the belief the human brain couldn’t be produced by natural selection or any other evolutionary mechanism, a belief that was argued for in respected circles in the 20th century).

    So we return to the question of whether Harris’ definition, or any other, captures all the different ways we use the word morality. If it can’t even be done in principle, well, that requires argument just like everything else. I argue in the affirmative, you argue in the negative, and we explain why. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough, but at least in the context of rebuttals to Sam Harris, all I see are assertions-by-fiat masquerading as arguments.

    Also, a recent PhilPapers Poll shows most analytic philosophers are moral realists. It can mean many different things, but one of its meanings is that moral issues can be decided by factual matters, which the Cornell Realists certain seem to have thought. So Harris’ view isn’t as completely out of the mainstream as is, I think, commonly believed.

    • Maybe I was being a little glib, but the post was running long and I thought Pigliucci’s response was a good one. I’ll respond to your concerns in more detail in an upcoming post.

  5. “Any argument over the existence of God has to take metaphysics into account as a discipline entirely separate from empirical observation.”

    Um…why? I’d argue that metaphysics is entirely dependent on and contained within the physical realm, since it can only deal with how we humans–evolved physical beings–understand the world. I am not obligated to take seriously any “metaphysical” claim that is based in mythology or that is empirically refutable (or even very empirically improbable). To me, saying that an atheist has to take metaphysics, separately from empiricism, into account to defend her atheism sounds like saying a neurosurgeon has to take phrenology into account to decide how to perform an operation.

    “The difference between an empirical claim and a metaphysical claim is the difference between saying, “Egypt suffered a plague of locusts,” and, “Egypt suffered a plague of locusts because a divine intelligence was displeased with the pharaoh for keeping the tribe of Israel enslaved.””

    See? I have no obligation whatsoever to take that “metaphysical” claim seriously.

    “But as far as divine intelligences go, science has absolutely nothing to say.”

    I’ma go with Hawking on this one; science can’t prove God doesn’t exist, but it can prove God to be unnecessary. And unlikely. Given that intelligence as we know it comes from a physical evolved brain (and, sadly, time may yet tell how adaptive our intelligence really is), it would take a lot of splainin’ to tell how intelligence arose in a…thing…that has no mass or energy…but somehow both made and inhabits the whole universe…ummm……yeah, the burden of proof is really on believers, here.

    “You can’t measure or quantify a mind. You might be able to track physical phenomenon that are correlated with what one might want to call a mind, but science can’t help us make that determination.”

    Sure it can. We need a few more decades of neurobiological research, but we’re on the way.

    So basically I’m skeptical of the degree to which you rely on categorial distinctions, including is/ought, which is the same reason I don’t buy your anti-Harris stuff.

    • To me, saying that an atheist has to take metaphysics, separately from empiricism, into account to defend her atheism sounds like saying a neurosurgeon has to take phrenology into account to decide how to perform an operation.

      Okay, so the way you account for metaphysical claims is by arguing that they’re either incoherent or nonexistent. And that’s a perfectly valid response! In fact, it’s pretty close to my own view (though not identical).

      Only problem is that if you’re rejecting metaphysical claims entirely, then you need to realize that you’re also rejecting “ought.” Any claim that appeals to a moral law is fundamentally a metaphysical claim, Harris’ flailing attempts to conflate them aside. “Mind” is a metaphysical claim as well — there’s no such thing as a “mind” in the physical world, so I’m afraid that rejecting metaphysics means becoming a mind skeptic.

      • Only problem is that if you’re rejecting metaphysical claims entirely, then you need to realize that you’re also rejecting “ought.”

        One isn’t necessarily rejecting ought, they are rejecting a metaphysical ought. They are still free to say that ought exists as a subset of is. And you need to do more to show they are wrong than assert that ought is different “by definition” because that would be question begging. (And you can say the burden is on them, which is fine.)

        I would find it acceptable if definitions you are trying to assert weren’t the very things in dispute in the first place. But that’s not the case here. This is what I mean by argument by fiat.

      • One isn’t necessarily rejecting ought, they are rejecting a metaphysical ought. They are still free to say that ought exists as a subset of is. And you need to do more to show they are wrong than assert that ought is different “by definition” because that would be question begging. (And you can say the burden is on them, which is fine.)

        What’s a non-metaphysical ought? Show me a tangible, observable ought. Or alternatively, show me when empirical study has ever successfully demonstrated the evidence of metaphysical phenomenon.

        The problem with definitions is that definitions are fiat. The meaning of words just is, and we have to accept that meaning or we can’t have a conversation. Or maybe alternatively you could tell me what non-empirical insights science can supposedly offer.

  6. It is? SWEET.

    But, wait, no. You’re doing the categorical-happy thing again. Mind is totally physical, or at least dependent on the physical. It’s not an object, but it’s a process. I’m ok with “metaphysical” in the sense of, say, talking about abstract concepts. I just reject it as being something entirely separate from physical reality. I believe in oughts, but I recognize that their scope is limited to what feels and/or works best for human beings in a society.

    • I’m not talking about magic. I’m talking about non-physical categories of things, and we both seem to agree that “mind” and “ought” are non-physical entities. Can we then also agree that a discipline wholly dedicated to describing physical interactions can’t describe these things?

  7. No, no we can’t. Josef put it very well above–I think “ought exists as a subset of is” is what I’m getting at. Empiricism can certainly deal with “non-physical” categories of things. Happiness is a non-physical concept, but studies can be done asking people in different countries to rate their subjective levels of happiness; brain scans can be run on people who are experiencing happiness; I can empirically determine for myself that sitting around on my computer makes me less happy than working on a creative project. My happiness is tied to my environment and my brain state, in varying combinations, both of which are physical things. If I argue that something is immoral, I’m arguing that it negatively affects a living person, and there are ways to determine, in or out of a lab, why that effect is negative (be it loss of life or hurt feelings). There are also ways to infer the reasons I would have those moral intuitions, which are related both to evolved impulses of altruism and social reinforcement of that norm. Equally, if my moral intuition led me to beat up a gay person, there are ways to determine whether or not that caused harm, and there are ways to infer the reasons for my moral intuitions, which have something to do with evolved impulses towards purity/sanctity and suspicion of difference, as well as social reinforcement, all of which can be empirically studied and theorized about. When we talk about what’s “right” and “wrong,” we are always starting from an intuition, which may be more or less sound given the world we live in and want to live in, but deciding how sound it is doesn’t require an appeal to metaphysics. Unless, say, we consider metaphysics an act of interpretation–but acts of interpretation are inseparable from empirical research as conducted by humans, so the category difference between physics and metaphysics wouldn’t really be that important.

    • Except, again, your happiness isn’t a fact about the world. You can say that it is a conscious state of yours, but if I’m to accept “Emily’s happiness” as a fact — as opposed to just noting heightened endorphin levels and a pleasant demeanor, say — then it is as a fact about your mind, a metaphysical entity. Again, what you call your “happiness” is correlated with physical phenomena, but a scientific study can provide an account of the phenomena that doesn’t once mention that you’re “happy.”

      Equally, if my moral intuition led me to beat up a gay person, there are ways to determine whether or not that caused harm, and there are ways to infer the reasons for my moral intuitions, which have something to do with evolved impulses towards purity/sanctity and suspicion of difference, as well as social reinforcement, all of which can be empirically studied and theorized about.

      So? What can those studies provide in the way of moral judgment? I’m pretty sure a study that concluded in moral judgment would never see publication.

      • well opera mouse gestures can go fuck themselves; I just lost a large comment.

      • Josef–Aww, I want to hear what you were gonna say!

        Ned–I’m offended that you would be so dismissive of my happiness! ;) Just because a study doesn’t HAVE to use the word “happy” doesn’t mean it CAN’T. And plenty do. And while a study might not conclude with a moral judgment as such, it can conclude with something very close. A detailed assessment of harm can and should inform our moral decisions about something.

        I still don’t get why you insist on calling a mind a metaphysical entity. Are you suggesting that destroying your brain wouldn’t be an effective way to stop your mind from functioning?

        “The meaning of words just is.” C’mon, dude. Are not new terms constantly being defined and old terms constantly being redefined? Are definitions of words never called into question and debated over? If meanings of words just were, would you ever have to define your terms before arguing something? The definition of the word “metaphysical” in particular can be thorny and hard to pin down, and “ought” has more than one shade of meaning.

      • This is getting absurd. What is “something very close” to happiness? “Something very close” to morality? We’re supposed to be talking about the things themselves, not whatever it is in the ballpark science can actually hit. True, heightened endorphin production is “something very close” to happiness, but they’re not the same thing.

        A detailed assessment of harm can and should inform our moral decisions about something.

        Of course it should! I have never once said anything different. What no one has failed to establish — because they can’t, because any attempt to do so involves committing a category error — is that you can derive moral principles solely from empirical observation.

        Are you suggesting that destroying your brain wouldn’t be an effective way to stop your mind from functioning?

        No, what I’m saying is that “mind” is a metaphysical invention we use to explain our own conscious experiences. It’s not a fact about the world because, as you already pointed out, there are no metaphysical facts.

        “The meaning of words just is.” C’mon, dude. Are not new terms constantly being defined and old terms constantly being redefined? Are definitions of words never called into question and debated over? If meanings of words just were, would you ever have to define your terms before arguing something? The definition of the word “metaphysical” in particular can be thorny and hard to pin down, and “ought” has more than one shade of meaning.

        C’mon, dude. I realize that words don’t have immutable, unchanging meanings. I also realize that we’re not going to be able to have a conversation about these things unless we agree what they do mean. So once more with feeling: science is a process that seeks to derive laws and principles from empirical observation and experimentation. Metaphysical facts — if they do exist, which you seem to go back and forth on depending on which facts we’re discussing — are facts that lie outside the material world. In the is/ought problem, “ought” refers to an innate moral imperative. Are we all clear now?

      • Oh, also, who’s to say that conscious states can’t count as “facts about the world”? A single conscious creature is a very very tiny part of the world, but part of it nonetheless, and conscious states are facts about that conscious creature. And just because knowing about that state might not yield a general principle about how nature works, doesn’t mean it can’t tell us something in combination with other facts, or isn’t worth knowing in its own right.

  8. C’mon, dude. I realize that words don’t have immutable, unchanging meanings.

    I am sure that you realize that. I just don’t think you’ve been writing as if you do. If the definition of a word is in question, it does nobody any good to pretend that it’s fixed. But thanks for defining your terms.

    No, what I’m saying is that “mind” is a metaphysical invention we use to explain our own conscious experiences. It’s not a fact about the world because, as you already pointed out, there are no metaphysical facts.

    I don’t think anything that is said to “lie outside the material world” exists, so as you define it, no I don’t think there are metaphysical facts. I also don’t think the mind is metaphysical, so I disagree that its facts can be discounted on that basis. The abstractions we think of and the very concept of “mind” itself may feel non-material, but they’re really not. They arise as a direct result of material processes in the brain and can’t exist independently of them. I think of the actions of “the mind” as a verb where “the brain” is a noun, like “running” is a verb where “feet” are a noun, but both nouns and verbs belong to “grammar,” and both “the mind” and “running” are actions that take place in a fundamentally material space.

    I don’t see much meaningful difference between “our own conscious experiences,” as you say above, and “mind.” The very act of conceiving the concept of mind, and acting in accordance with that conception, is a real mental process (and the mental is at root physical).

    You say ought is an “innate moral imperative.” Innate how? Why does it have to be innate? Our concepts of what we “ought” to do can change due to changing circumstances.

    True, heightened endorphin production is “something very close” to happiness, but they’re not the same thing.

    Aren’t they? Well, heightened endorphin production and whatever other complex network of mental processes and environmental influences lead to the subjective state we choose to call “happiness.” Having an abstract term for something doesn’t separate it from reality or the physical world. Just as it doesn’t remove it from the reach of empiricism.

    As for morality, it, too, emerges from a subjective state. And it, too, can be learned about empirically.

    What no one has failed to establish — because they can’t, because any attempt to do so involves committing a category error — is that you can derive moral principles solely from empirical observation.

    But you admit that empirical observation can strongly inform and shape our moral principles. So aren’t we deriving something from it? If empiricism can have such an effect, why categorically discount it from having anything meaningful to say about morality?

    • This conversation is just getting more muddled. If you think that “mind” is physical, then surely you should be able to point out where it is to me. But when you attempt to do that, all you can show me a lump of meat inside a skull being shot through with electric impulses. To think of “mind” as a verb is to just blithely ignore what we’ve understood the word to mean for centuries — a brain doesn’t “mind,” a brain has electric impulses that you declare to be evidence of a mind without being able to show me where the leap is.

      But you admit that empirical observation can strongly inform and shape our moral principles. So aren’t we deriving something from it? If empiricism can have such an effect, why categorically discount it from having anything meaningful to say about morality?

      That’s misstating my objection. I do think science has meaningful things to say about morality. I think it can describe why we form moral intuitions, and help us sharpen our moral intuitions. There’s a difference between doing that and deriving moral principles solely from empirical observation. Science may help us see what is good and what isn’t, but it can’t tell us what capital-G Good is because that’s not a scientific question.

      • By the way: it’s worth noting that the impossibility of empirically observing “minds” is where the philosophical zombie problem comes from.

      • I guess I’m skeptical of the existence of capital-G Good, then.

        I think you’re wrong about the mind thing but I need to think some more about how to articulate why.

      • So you’re not a moral realist? In that case, we agree that Harris is wrong.

  9. Am I not a moral realist?…*googles, ponders*…I’m not sure, I guess not? But I’m not sure Harris is either. I think his thesis is more or less what you wrote above–“Science may help us see what is good and what isn’t.” Which is significant enough on its own. I don’t see Harris talking about any capital-G Good; it’s more that some things are clearly more right than others, and while there are many ways to be right, we can use what we know to try to eliminate what’s really wrong, and to better understand which right is right for us. Which is where I stand. I think you can declare something good or bad as a *general principle*, and use empiricism to help you do so, without having to make a metaphysical capital letter out of it.

    • For the record, I do see some problems with Harris, but not related to category errors. He uses strawmen a fair bit in talking about others’ moral relativism, and I think the divide between those who value more individual and more collective good in particular is reeeeally hard to resolve, because both have their strengths and drawbacks. But I like where he’s starting from in general.

    • That doesn’t really follow. Is there such a thing as objective, mind-independent good or isn’t there? Sam Harris says there is, which is perfectly reasonable. But then he insists that this good can be divined using purely empirical methods. The idea that it exists as a “general principle” but not a metaphysical property is self-contradictory. By definition, it isn’t a physical entity. So what else would it be?

      • He doesn’t say good is mind-independent or objective, does he? Can you point me to where he does? His whole point is that good is mind-DEPENDENT, ultimately–that morality only exists because conscious creatures do, and so harm to conscious creatures is the only metric that matters, and we can measure such harm. And it’s only objective to a point; there isn’t one single truth. So I don’t think your question is as binary as you imply.

        OK, again with the “by definition” stuff. Can we have abstractions without insisting that they be entities unto themselves?

        Didn’t you say you more or less don’t believe in metaphysical truth? How do you resolve this?

      • His whole point is that good is mind-DEPENDENT, ultimately–that morality only exists because conscious creatures do, and so harm to conscious creatures is the only metric that matters, and we can measure such harm.

        Okay, but that’s not really what mind-independent and -dependent mean. What I’m saying is that Sam Harris is a moral realist and an anti-moral relativist — if he thought that morality was subjective and mind-dependent (which is to say something invented, which we can change simply be changing our minds) then he wouldn’t chastise moral-relativists and fans of the Humean is/ought distinction. And he certainly wouldn’t write a book setting forth scientific observation as the best way to conduct any sort of moral inquiry whatsoever.

        Can we have abstractions without insisting that they be entities unto themselves?

        What does that mean? What do non-entity abstractions look like? Are they facts or aren’t they? The central question is whether or not moral fact exists, and what it looks like. “Abstract non-entity” doesn’t mean anything at all, as far as I can tell.

        Didn’t you say you more or less don’t believe in metaphysical truth?

        I did, in fact! And that’s exactly why I’m not a moral realist.

      • I was reminded of this thread and the fact that I dropped the argument by your recent post. Your post subsequent to this one about “Why Even Atheists Need Myths” makes things a little clearer to me.

        So to back up a bit and try again, I’d say abstraction isn’t really relevant to Harris’s arguments. Mind-dependent or -independent good isn’t really the right question to be asking (I think. My understanding of those concepts is still imperfect). When you wrote in the other post about there being no metaphysical facts, since facts are verifiable statements about the world–I agree with you. I also don’t see metaphysical facts as terribly relevant to Harris’s arguments. He says the well-being of conscious creatures is a fact that can be empirically measurable. What we call morality is, crudely, a system of decisions and judgments that conscious creatures make for the purpose of maximizing the well-being of other conscious creatures. If X will negatively impact Y’s well-being, and negatively impacting Y’s well-being will be judged immoral by a conscious creature, then X will be judged immoral by a conscious creature, or? All Harris is saying is that science has something to say about morality. That empirical reasoning can significantly aid moral reasoning.

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