Philosophers Agree: Existence of God and Nature of Morality are Two Different Questions
July 10, 2010

Well whaddya know. On the same day I argued that the existence of universal moral norms can’t possibly be contingent on the existence of God, the inestimable Massimo Pigliucci (the author of my favorite philosophy blog right now), wrote this:

Despite the fact that more and more people are comfortable “coming out” as atheists, the word is still very much associated with being immoral, or at the very least amoral. This, of course, despite the fact that there is neither logical nor empirical reason to draw that conclusion. Ever since Plato’sEuthyphro dialogue, philosophers have agreed that gods are simply irrelevant to morality, regardless of whether they exist or not. And of course modern sociological research shows that atheists are just as moral as religious believers. Still, the stigma persists.

It’s not uncommon to hear people—mostly critics—say of philosophy that it offers no answers, only further questions. And while that may be true in the sense that you can’t empirically verify a philosophical proposition (at least not since we stopped called science “natural philosophy” a few centuries back), there is such a thing as an overwhelming consensus among philosophers. In the case of folks like Governor Mitch Daniels, it may be impossible to prove or disprove his attacks on atheism, one way or another, but suffice to say that anyone who has made a serious study of philosophy understands that basic logic is not on his side.

By the way, the rest of Pigliucci’s post on the “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon is very much worth reading. I don’t have much to add to it except to say that I’ve been planning for a while on writing a post with more or less the exact same conclusions, except probably not as good.

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The Novel As Truth
June 19, 2010

The cover of the first edition of The Great Ga...
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I’m a big fan of the blog Rationally Speaking, but here I think Julia Galef misses the mark. Part of the reason, I suspect, is because she fails to sufficiently define the premise she’s arguing against, and that leads her into a chain of sound reasoning based on deeply faulty assumptions.

To be clear, if you interpret Bloom’s assertion that literature teaches us about “the way things are” to mean “literature provides empirical observations about the external world,” then yeah, you’re going to be disappointed. That isn’t to say literature can’t do that—I, Claudius contains some factual content about Ancient Rome—but if your intention is to communicate some factual information about a certain place or time, then you’re better served writing a work of straight history.

What literature does is tell us about “the way things are” not in the external world, but within ourselves. If you find the actions of a character in an extraordinary situation—say, Gregor Samsa’s reaction to be turned into a giant insect—to be completely plausible, it is only because you recognize something of your own experiences and though processes in the character.

I’ve written about this a little bit in the past, but if we’re going to talk about it in philosophical terms, I think what the novel does well is a form of a priori thought experiment about the nature of personhood. Of course, the best literature never wraps up in a neat moral or lesson, which was why I found Galef’s references to the “argument” of The Great Gatsby pretty wrongheaded. The point isn’t to instruct through presenting us with an argument, but to instruct by getting us to ask the right questions—about ourselves, our relationships, and our commonalities with others.

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