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Of Facts and Values May 7, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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Over at Eric MacDonald’s blog Choice in Dying, there is a discussion about Sam Harris’ book the Moral Landscape (of which I published some early thoughts previously).

Now, I did have some issues with Harris’s book, but they are minor.  I feel like many people are not understanding what Harris’ point is.  Now, it is quite possible that I am reading my own thoughts in Harris’ words, but in any case I want to discuss some of my own thoughts about this issue, as I have been talking with Eric in the comments of the post linked to above.  Now, my thinking about this goes back long before Sam Harris’ book.  Upon finding Hilary Putnam’s book The Collapse of the Fact Value Dichotomy, I found an expression of thoughts I have had most of my philosophical life.  Thus, when I read Harris’ book, I felt at home, not challenged.  His starting points seemed to be my starting points in thinking about things like science, facts, values, and morality.  And so I want to take a first stab at articulating my own thoughts here.  Just remember that this will be a sort of public rough draft, and I will welcome any criticism and comments.  Also, at any point where I seem to be talking for Sam Harris, I recognize I may be at odds with his opinion.

Definitions

What is a fact? If I am to define what the relationships between facts and values are, I ought to make sure I define my terms.  I’ll give a bit of a nod to Wittgenstein when I say that a fact is something that is the case.  In other words, a fact is something that is  true about the state of real things.  The cat is on the chair is a fact, iff in the real world there is an observable feline upon a piece of furniture designed for sitting upon, which is similarly observable, and their orientation is consistent with the use of “on” with the cat being the subject and the chair being the object.  A fact is a real state of the world.

What is a value?  This is slightly more difficult because this word has many uses, including in math and color.  In this sense, I am using it to mean an ideal or principle accepted by an individual or group.  It can be a goal, but more often than not it is a motivation, a preference, or a purpose towards some goal.  When I asked Ginny what she thought, she came up with “what people should want.”  We’ll get back to that later.

What is morality? I’ll hold off on that, as I believe that this actually has little to do with the philosophical point at hand.

Ontology, philosophy of mind, and sets, oh my!

But what are values? I mean, what are they made of?  For that matter, what are facts made of?  I think that for many people, part of the sticking point for many people with Harris’ book is this issue and its relation to the philosophical point at hand.  I feel like Harris’ book addresses an ontological point that seems, at least from a metaphysical naturalistic perspective, trivial; the things we believe, value, and generally experience as conscious beings are actual states of our brains.  They are observable realities about the world.  The physical substance of my brain and the processes that occur there are (in some cases, but not all) my conscious experience.  Observing our brain-states through tools such as MRIs or whatever is just another (low resolution) way of experiencing our brains, which we do all the time by experiencing our own thoughts.

Our brains perceive and simulate, probably very imperfectly, the objective world outside of that process.  The facts about the world are removed from us (in the Kantian sense of noumenal and phenomenal) but our perception allows us to think about them.  Now whether the facts in our heads and the facts of the things themselves (of which Nietzsche was so skeptical about, probably rightfully*) are the same is not the point.  The point is that the facts in our heads are also verifiable and objective realities that can be quantified (at least in principle, even if our technology may be insufficient currently) by scientific analysis.

The things we value are conscious experiences as well.  They are actual brain-states that can, in principle, be observed and quantified in the same way as the fact that I’m typing right now.  Not only is a this fact an observable, quantifiable event in the universe, it is an experience I am currently having.  And in experiencing a value, it is similarly a real event that I have at that moment.  In this sense values are like facts, but are they the same things as facts?  Well, let’s think of facts as being like sets.  In the same way that the set of all cookies includes chocolate chips cookies and peanut butter cookies (and the set of all peanut butter cookies), values are comprised of facts (and sets of facts).    My value of honesty, if I were try and define the term and it’s importance to me, would be comprised of facts in relation to one-another.  And sets of facts can be facts themselves.  So in this trivial sense, values are facts.  They are real states of the world, even if they can be broken down into smaller real states of the world.  I hope this is uncontroversial.

Are values oughts?

I’m not quite sure that the philosophical issue at hand in asking about facts and values is the same as what Hume was addressing.  I think the question has changed in the few centuries between. But first I want to address a hair-splitting point; that of the distinction between the distinctions between is/ought and facts/values.

When Hume (supposedly), and others, say that there is a distinction between facts and values, what can they possibly mean?  This, as I understand it, is Harris’ point.  It seems to me that this distinction is a holdover from times when we thought of ideas not as physical realities, but somehow non-physical things.  This distinction between facts and values is an atavism of a view of mind as a non-physical thing (whatever that means), and criticism is using these obsolete concepts to insist that there still exists a distinction.  The distinction is a linguistic trick, one which is pervasive and resilient.

For the sake of context, here is the section of Hume that Eric MacDonald quoted in his post:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason shou’d be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. [Treatise of Human Nature, Book 3, Part 1, Sect. 1, paragraph 27]

But is this what Harris is doing? Is he identifying facts about the world and saying that because of these facts we should be doing this or that? No, what he is doing is more complex than that. To clarify, I want to make two points:

  • First, the concept of deriving an ought from an is, in a theological context, is not comparable to deriving a value from a fact in a naturalistic worldview.  In a theistic world (not the world of Harris not myself), the state of the world would be a result of the deity’s creation, and so in a sense we might be able to argue that because it is so it may be related to some intention of a god.  Here, Hume’s point is that where a theologian draws the ought from the is, he does not overtly explain how or why he has done so.  And even if he were to try, Hume (as well as I) cannot conceive how.  It is a fair point to make.  But in an atheistic universe, the state of our being, as conscious beings with various facts about ourselves, we cannot draw any ought because an ought necessitates the presence of an agent.   We, the agents, are not the cause of our various facts, but as Sartre said, we find ourselves thrown into the world with them.  At least within a theistic worldview it is possible to indicate some possible teleology, even if you can’t demonstrate its justification (as Hume points out). However, there is not even the possibility of drawing a logical connection between our actual state and what we should be doing within an atheistic worldview without creating, as agents, a goal for ourselves.   This leads to the next point.
  • Harris is saying that there are observable facts and values about us which are discoverable, and if we want to get somewhere (in his case, well being for people) then we need to use science as a means to figure out how to get there.  This would include determining what values we will hold in our lives as motivation and inspiration towards those ends.  The ought only comes into play upon accepting the goal, not as a direct consequence of the facts.  Hume’s observation is a good one, but it seems to me to be more of a commentary on theologians (and others) inability to make this link, not that it is necessarily impossible to do so given goals which may or may not be arbitrary.  Hume does not address, at least in that quote, any goals.  Hume addresses only an ought, which is a means towards some not-discussed goal.

What I keep hearing critics of Harris say is that while science can allow us to find facts about us, it cannot choose what to value.  And to that I can only slap my forehead, because I don’t think Harris is saying that, and I’m certainly not saying that.  Science cannot choose what to value because this is a category error; science does not choose anything because science is a method, not an agent.  So, in other words, science does not choose facts either; the method of science only allows us to recognize what is and is not a fact, and can give us information about its relation to and affects upon other facts.  Similarly, it can allow us to see what values are and how good those values might be at achieving various goals, whether they be well being, ennui, or whatever.  Hume is not talking about facts and goals, and Harris is only doing so insofar as to say that here as his goals, and if we want to reach them here is the best way to do it; science!

What our goals should be, and why that doesn’t matter in discussing facts and values

We are the choosers (Assuming free will is true, but that’s another tangent).   Science is a tool we use to determine the facts about the world, including the facts about ourselves.  One of the facts we can determine about ourselves is what our values are, what values are possible, and which of those values might be better at achieving some goal, which in Harris’ case is well being (which he admits is vague).  So, it seems to me that the critics are conflating the values with the goal (in this case, well being) and arguing that science cannot determine what our goals should be.  These criticisms miss the point completely, because for Harris it is axiomatic that ethics is about increasing well being among people.  His thesis is not to defend this premise, even if it is clear that he thinks this premise is true, but rather how to best find a way to reach it.  If you disagree with this starting point, then you are not addressing Harris’ book’s major thrust, but saying that its metaethical goals are wrong (which they may be), but that does not matter.

Can science determine our goals? Well, of course not.  Just like logic, science is a tool.  A tool can only help you on your journey towards a destination, assuming you have one.  If you don’t have a destination, then the tools are useless.  If you don’t have a goal, then you would not care how, let alone try, to find the best way to reach said goal.  Well being, as I understand Harris’ book,  is NOT the value; it is the vague, admittedly ill-defined concept that our values are being judged as being good at achieving (or not).  And if not well being, then what would be the goal of morality? And whatever that may be, we still would have to use science to determine which facts and values to use towards getting there.  This is why the criticisms about the definition of well being and of utilitarianism are missing the point so much.  It does not matter if the goal is wrong, the method still has to be science to get there.  That is what Harris’ book, as I understand it, is about.

Now, if Harris, or myself, were arguing that science can help us decide what we should think the goal should be (it can help define the parameters and factors, for sure), then I would be with the critics.  But all I (and, I think, Harris) are saying is that the ideals or principles we think are  important in trying to attain well being (or whatever goal we choose) are quantifiable, measurable things.  And no method can compare to science in determining what those values should be, thus a science of morality is possible even if the goal of that morality is up for grabs.

Eric MacDonald’s criticisms, as well as other criticisms about the poorly defined concept of well being, are problems that Harris admits to, and so do I.  We know that more research is necessary, and that implementing what we find will be a huge uphill climb to the peaks of Harris’ landscape.  Problems with utilitarianism and definitions of well being are only secondary to Harris’ thesis, which are about how our values, as facts, are real things that can be measured in terms of composition and effectiveness towards whatever goals we are trying to attain.   If you don’t know what well being is, or if your specific goal in being well differs from mine, that does not matter. Harris’ (and my) goal is well being, but that is a variable in the equation, not a coefficient.

Just as we can be wrong about facts, we can be wrong about valuing certain things.  Values are not objects outside the realm of analysis and criticism, they are brain states just like facts and equally subject to being wrong.  In other words, what you value may in fact be bad for you and whatever goals you have.  And if so, science is the best tool we have to describe how and why.

*”We believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things — metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities”

[edit: I want to add that the goals we may have are also facts in the same sense as values are here.  And the question of what goals to choose is indeed a philosophical one that science can help clarify.  But just as science cannot choose the goals, it cannot choose the values or facts either.  Again, that is a category error.]

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Gary Gutting on Atheism and agnosticism August 31, 2010

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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Gary Gutting is a professor at Notre Dame, in the department of philosophy.  About a month ago, he wrote this article for the New York Times.  I rather liked the article, as I remember.  But there was a small annoying catch that caught my attention.  It happens here:

In these popular debates about God’s existence, the winners are neither theists nor atheists, but agnostics — the neglected step-children of religious controversy, who rightly point out that neither side in the debate has made its case.   This is the position supported by the consensus of expert philosophical opinion.

*facepalm*

I have addressed this.  I even re-addressed this.

No, Dr. Gutting, this is not the consensus of expert philosophical opinion.  This is ignorance displayed as consensus by gobshites who are so far removed from the atheist community and feel the need to feel superior.  OK, maybe they just have not thought this through….

I was moved to respond.  And so I hopped on my keyboard and churned out a quick response, while including my link from one of my favorite posts about agnosticism.  You know, the one linked above.

I didn’t hear from him after a few days, and forgot about it.

Then, the other day, I happened to glance over at my left-hand panel on my gmail page and noticed that I had a draft email.

What could that be? I thought

For some reason, the email to Dr. Gutting had never sent.  It was just sitting there, unsent, all this time.  So, I decided to send it, finally.

He replied to me today:

Thanks for your thoughts.

Of course, you can use the terms the way you think best.  But your way of putting things ignores two importantly different ways of not believing that God exists. You might not believe in the sense that you withhold judgment as to whether God exists OR in the sense that you believe that God does not exist.  In ordinary usage, the first sense of not believing in God is called “agnosticism” and the second is called “atheism”.  It seems to me that this is a useful distinction, and I don’t see what you gain by eliminating it.
I also think you confuse the discussion by assuming that the agnostic claim “I don’t know whether or not God exists” must mean “I am not absolutely certain whether or not God exists”.  In most contexts, knowledge doesn’t imply absolute certainty; it’s consistent with at least a small degree of uncertainty.  So, if someone says he knows that Paris is the capital of France, but admits that there’s some small probability that a coup in the last few hours moved the French capital to Lyon, we don’t think he’s contradicting himself.  Of course, you can insist that anyone who allows the slightest bit of doubt about a claim is agnostic about it.  Then almost everyone becomes an agnostic about almost everything, and the term has little use.  But  that’s only because of the artificially strong sense you’ve given to “know”.  And, even if you use “know’ that way, there is still the highly useful understanding of agnosticism in terms of belief (not knowledge): There are still many important cases in which people are agnostic about a claim in the sense of neither believing that it’s true nor believing that it’s false.
Best,
Gary

Well, nice.  He responded quickly, if not tersely.  Of course I didn’t give him much to chew on, and I have no way to know if he ever read my post I linked him to.  I doubt he did.

So, what about his response? I thought he was still missing the point, so I sat and started typing, and eventually replied with the following:

*sigh*

I think you have misunderstood my perspective, and would like to try and be more clear, if I can.  I’m mot saying that I am reserving judgment NOR am I saying that I believe that god does not exist.  Neither of those positions are those of the atheist who has considered the philosophical implications of the question at hand.   That’s what you are missing, I think.  The position of the vast majority of atheists I know from the atheist community is that we are not convinced that a god exists.  Our judgment (again, not a reserved one) is that the claim has not been sufficiently demonstrated towards rational belief, while recognizing that we cannot say with absolute or high certainty that the proposed being cannot or does not exist.

This goes to your second point; I am not using the term “know” in this absolute sense either, but rather it’s more fluid common usage accepted by philosophers of many stripes.  I’m an agnostic because I recognize that there is information I do not have, perspectives I have not considered, and because it is not logically impossible for many concepts of god to exist.  Thus some god might exist beyond my current level of knowledge (or not exist beyond my current state of knowledge, depending, of course, on whether I actually believe in such a being currently) but this is not the point.  Again, this is not a epistemologically absolutist position, but rather one of relative strength in the vein of scientific knowledge; overwhelming evidence is sufficient for using the term “know.”

You said:

And, even if you use “know’ that way, there is still the highly useful understanding of agnosticism in terms of belief (not knowledge): There are still many important cases in which people are agnostic about a claim in the sense of neither believing that it’s true nor believing that it’s false.

This does not touch my use of the term agnostic at all.  In fact, it coheres with it, somewhat ironically.  Allow me to explain;

The first clause I will not grant aside from the trivial point that any word could be used in any way a person chooses to use it.  But if we are striving for philosophical precision, we must try to maintain a consistency of terms insofar as they do not stray too far from usefulness in distinguishing concepts in context to the discussion at hand.  ‘Agnostic’ is derived from the Greek word for ‘knowledge’, and in the context of the question of god’s existence this term plays the role of the question of knowledge, rather than belief, because these are epistemologically different concepts (knowledge and belief) and thus need to be distinguished in being precise.  By allowing ‘agnosticism’ to bleed into the question of belief, one fails to recognize that this distinction is relevant.

And if you think that knowledge and belief are not that easily distinct, then you need to demonstrate why and how this impacts the question at hand.  I do not believe you have done so thus far.  However, I do think that this issue might be a point of our misunderstanding of one-another.  I’ll leave that aside for the moment.

In terms of your second clause from above,

There are still many important cases in which people are agnostic about a claim in the sense of neither believing that it’s true nor believing that it’s false.,

this is possibly trivially true, but again you miss the point.  You are creating the wrong dichotomy to understand how I’m using the term ‘atheist.’  I’ll try and pry apart the relevant issues.

I accept, from the start, that there is no rational way to demonstrate that there are no gods of any kind.  I cannot prove a negative, nor am I trying to.  The problem here is that the antecedent ‘dis-‘ in ‘disbelieve’ is ambiguous in that it can mean both “opposite of” or “absence of,” and the logical distinction between these meanings is the very heart of this misunderstanding.  It’s precisely why I use the terminology of “lacking” belief, so as to get rid of this ambiguity.  The term “lack” implies that I’m not saying “there is no god” or “I believe that there is no god” but rather that “the evidence is insufficient to believe, and so I don’t believe.”

The implication of this is that I will go about my day as if said being does not exist even if I know, when pressed, that I cannot logically believe that it does not exist.  The further implication is that the position of “believing that it’s false” is off the table; it is not a position under consideration.  (At least for me.  There are some that try to move in this direction, especially about specific concepts of gods, but this is beyond atheism and into another topic, perhaps anti-theism or some other term that may be more appropriate.  But I digress….).

Thus the dichotomy that you, and many others, draw between [edit*] belief in and the belief of absence (“in the sense of neither believing that it’s true nor believing that it’s false.”) is not the same one that I draw.  You are drawing a distinction between two beliefs, while I am drawing a distinction between believing and not believing.  Again, this is a judgment, just not in favor of any belief.  My judgment is that the evidence and reasons proposed for the existence of any gods fail to demonstrate what they seek to demonstrate towards rational belief, and thus I lack belief. I disbelieve. I am an atheist.  I am without belief.  I do not ‘believe that their is a lack of gods’, I ‘lack belief in any gods.’  I hope you understand the distinction now.

So those that can fall under “neither believing that it’s true nor believing that it’s false” do not make the point I think you wish to make.  Why?  Your formulation of the statement fits the definition of ‘agnostic’ in the same way that a ‘carpenter’ could be defined as a person who either believes in fairies or that the proposition of fairies is false; the term has nothing to do with the dichotomy at all.  That was my point; whether one is a theist (believes), an anti-theist (believes a god does not exist), or an atheist (simply lacks belief) any of them could be an agnostic because agnosticism deals with what one knows, not with what one believes.  The term ‘agnostic’ has nothing to do with “neither believing that it’s true nor believing that it’s false” except in the trivial sense in which the formulation and the term are not mutually exclusive.  They do not touch each-other at all.

You make the claim that “there is still the highly useful understanding of agnosticism in terms of belief (not knowledge)” but do not support this.  I tried to show here why your subsequent clause did not wed agnosticism to belief in any way but a trivial one of non-exclusivity.  In other words, I have not seen sufficient evidence (or reasoning) for your claim, thus don’t believe it.  It may still be true, but that’s for you to demonstrate.  The burden of proof still resides with you.  See the analogy?

I’ll state my position again, and hope you’ll understand this time.  I’m an agnostic; I don’t know if any gods exist.  This is a given because nobody knows, either absolutely or by use of the term ‘know’ in a less absolutist sense.  The term is thus redundant and thus useless; I toss the word to the side because it does not clarify my position in any way, except in the semi-trivial sense of being clear about my use of the term.  Anyone who says that they know there is a god (or that they know there is not one) has the burden of proof, and I shall await their proof or overwhelming evidence.

I have not been convinced either way. The theist has not convinced me, and neither has the one claiming that there are no gods. I have judged both of their arguments to be insufficient to demonstrate their propositions.

Since I have not been convinced by the proposition (again, either one), even in light of attempts to demonstrate said being(s) existence (or against it’s existence), I lack belief in the proposed being (and the proposed lack of being), and lack belief.

Atheists are not going around trying to show why god does not exist (except in rarer cases, who are the extreme exception.  These people are atheists, in that they lack belief, but are trying to take a further step in presenting an argument that gods do not exist, which goes beyond the definition of ‘atheism’ when we are being precise).

No, atheists are going around talking and writing about why they don’t believe in gods.  They are presenting their arguments as to why the arguments proposed for gods fail to be rationally, empirically, or emotionally compelling.  They are reacting to theology, not doing some bizzaro-world anti-theology (again, except for rare exceptions).

Don’t get caught up in the strong language of people saying “there is no god” because they are saying this in the same non-absolute sense that you objected to using “know” in your response above; They are not saying “there absolutely is no god” but rather “there is no reason, as far as I can see, to believe in one.  Thus, I go about my days as if there is no god.”

(more…)

Perspectives on Nietzsche, Part I May 6, 2009

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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Man, rising to Titanic stature, gains culture by his own efforts and forces the gods to enter into an alliance with him because in his very own wisdom he holds their existence and their limitations in his hands.

Friedrich Nietzsche, from The Birth of Tragedy

I love reading Nietzsche. I think he is one of the most influential and yet misunderstood thinkers in recent philosophical history. This is just a bit of his earlier work that I find interesting. In the near future, I wold like to share some of my favorite quotes of Nietzsche and talk about them.

Today, however, I am trying to finish the rough draft of my manuscript for my book I’m writing, so I just wanted to give you a morsel to chew on. So, until later, I’ll leave you with another small chunk.

“What thinking person still needs the hypothesis of a God?”

(Human, all to Human, #28)

Discuss…