If anyone out there (doubtful!) has been following the comments regarding the issue of progressive Christian beliefs and whether or not they “clash” with science, certainly they’ve realized this has turned into a rather big dust-up as they say. Who knew, right? Anyway, in many ways it was a very positive exchange because I was made to review much of the relevant literature in those areas. In the Stanford link I relied much upon, (for information regarding this site see: http://plato.stanford.edu/about.html) there was a section regarding autonomous moral reflection which I found interesting and note the pertinent section here:
So far, we have focused on scientific projects that treat morality in the empirical sense as calling simply for causal explanation, as by appeal to evolutionary influences. This is unexceptionable with regard to the origins of the general human capacity for moral judgment: clearly some causal explanation is required, and an evolutionary explanation is plausible. But things are much more complicated when we consider the explanation of the actual content of moral judgment, feeling and behavior.
We have had a taste above of the way in which scientists might propose to explain our particular moral attitudes or judgments by appeal to specific evolutionary causes as filtered through cultural developments. For example, human beings have (and share with other primates) a strong, emotionally-laden sense of basic fairness, resentment of cheaters, and a desire that they be punished, all of which finds expression in both cultural norms and individual moral judgments. You might experience such feelings if you’ve been the victim of a scam, morally condemning the perpetrators, and this might seem a good candidate for causal explanation in terms of evolved psychological traits.
Caution is needed here, however. Our moral judgments and resulting behaviors cannot just be assumed to be mere causal upshots of some such biological and psychological forces, on a par with the cooperative activity of bees or the resentment felt by capuchin monkeys over unequal rewards for equal work. When a rational agent makes a judgment, whether in the sphere of morality or in such areas as science, mathematics or philosophy, the proper question is not in the first instance what caused that judgment to occur, but what reasons the person had for making it—for thinking it to be true. It is those reasons that typically constitute an explanation of the judgment. They explain by bringing out what the person took (rightly or wrongly) to be the justification for the belief in question—the considerations showing the belief likely to be true. All of this complicates the explanatory project in relation to the thoughts, feelings and actions of rational agents.
It is helpful to illustrate the general point first with other kinds of judgment, and then to return to morality. Consider some judgments in mathematics, philosophy and science:
M: There is at least one prime number between 5,000 and 10,000.
P: If identity claims such as ‘water = H2O’ are true, then they are necessary truths (i.e., true in all possible worlds).
S: There is no such thing as absolute simultaneity.
How do we explain someone’s believing something like M, P or S? We normally need to know her reasons for believing it to be true, which we can then go on to assess as good or bad reasons for such a belief. Either way, we typically take her reasons—and the reasoning associated with them—to explain her belief, which is why we engage seriously with her reasons as such in critical discussion, and go on to inquire into their merits. If, for example, we ask a person why she believes M, and she cites a proof she has found convincing, showing that for any natural number n> 1 there is at least one prime number between n and 2n, we normally take this as a sufficient explanation for why she believes M. What we do not normally do is to appeal directly to independent causes, such as evolutionary or other biological or psychological influences to explain people’s beliefs in these areas. Such independent explanations for beliefs can sometimes be correct, as in the case of someone given a post-hypnotic suggestion, in which case we may regard her judgment as merely caused and the reasons offered as mere rationalization. But this is not the norm.
The reason why we normally explain beliefs such as M, P or S by appeal to the reasons the person gives for them is that we normally assume that the person is capable of intelligent reflection and reasoning and has arrived at her belief for the reasons she gives as a result of that reflection (whether or not the belief is ultimately correct). We assume in general that people are capable of significant autonomy in their thinking, in the following sense:
Autonomy Assumption: people have, to greater or lesser degrees, a capacity for reasoning that follows autonomous standards appropriate to the subjects in question, rather than in slavish service to evolutionarily given instincts merely filtered through cultural forms or applied in novel environments. Such reflection, reasoning, judgment and resulting behavior seem to be autonomous in the sense that they involve exercises of thought that are not themselves significantly shaped by specific evolutionarily given tendencies, but instead follow independent norms appropriate to the pursuits in question (Nagel 1979).
This assumption seems hard to deny in the face of such abstract pursuits as algebraic topology, quantum field theory, population biology, modal metaphysics, or twelve-tone musical composition, all of which seem transparently to involve precisely such autonomous applications of human intelligence. Even if there are evolutionary influences behind our general tendency to engage in certain kinds of mental activity, or behind some of our motives in these pursuits (e.g., if a given musician or poet is motivated to compose music or poetry in order to impress a potential mate), this would not show that the activity is governed in its details by such influences. And again, this assumption of autonomy is borne out in our normal explanations of beliefs such as P above: we take a person at her word that what explains her believing P, for example, is that due to philosophical arguments she’s read and has found convincing she takes ‘water’ to work like a proper name and thinks that it follows from this that ‘water’ refers to whatever molecular compound it picks out in the actual world in all possible worlds in which the compound exists.
Few would deny the autonomy assumption altogether. To do so in the name of providing alternative evolutionary causal explanations of our beliefs would risk self-defeat: for if we lack the relevant intellectual autonomy across the board, then even the biologist’s beliefs about evolutionary biology and its implications would just be attributable to such biological causes, rather than to reasons that provide real warrant for such beliefs within a rational framework with truth-tracking integrity. The challenge to the autonomy assumption is therefore more likely to come in a selective form.”
Because this was too hard to post all in a comment section, I can address it here. One can see that this goes directly to Bernard’s argument regarding evolution and non-pragmatic knowledge and his ideas regarding premises or the reasoning process. As we can see, it is a self-defeating argument. Having access or being able to recognize any non-pragmatic knowledge is based upon our being autonomous rational agents able to process information and change our minds, regardless of evolutionary influence or history. To deny this is to deny the rationality of one’s reasons for not accepting the very idea. Bernard’s argument (which we should note is one “extreme”) is addressed further here:
“At one extreme, someone might deny that the autonomy assumption applies to the moral domain at all: we either lack these capacities in the domain of moral thought, or at least never exercise them. Such a claim seems to have little plausibility, however. Why should it be that human intelligence and innovation know virtually no bounds in other domains—as illustrated by feats of autonomous inquiry and creativity in quantum field theory, algebraic topology, modal metaphysics, or symphonic composition—and yet when it comes to moral thinking we remain stuck in ruts carved out for us by evolution, slavishly following patterns of thought prescribed for us by evolved, domain-specific mechanisms, with all of our cultural developments providing mere variations on those themes?
The very fact of human self-consciousness makes such a picture unlikely: for as soon as we are told that our thinking is constrained along evolutionarily given paths, our very awareness of those influences provides the opening to imagine and to pursue new possibilities. If you are told, for example, that you are evolutionarily conditioned to favor your group heavily over outsiders in your moral judgments, you are able, as a reflective agent, to take this very fact into account in your subsequent moral reflection, deciding that this favoring is unwarranted and thus coming to a new, more egalitarian moral view. Analogously, it may be true that we possess dedicated mechanisms for ‘reading’ faces as trustworthy or threatening, and often make split-second judgments on this basis; but this doesn’t preclude our ability to revise such judgments, as when we reflect on the behavior of someone with ‘trustworthy facial features’ and realize that he is actually a scoundrel.”
And then we come to this portion of the Stanford entry (Sec. 4.1):
“It is far from clear, however, why realists should accept such strong claims to begin with. As discussed in section 2, it seems doubtful that the scientific evidence itself supports such strong claims about the etiology of ‘our’ moral beliefs. Even if there is significant evolutionary influence on the content of many of our moral beliefs, it remains possible that many of our moral beliefs are arrived at partly (or in some cases wholly) through autonomous moral reflection and reasoning, just as with our mathematical, scientific and philosophical beliefs.
Consider how a moral realist will approach the above debunking argument. It is intended to show us that realism is untenable, which of course means that this conclusion cannot just be assumed from the start. Yet if we begin the argument allowing that there may be independent moral truths, then why should we accept the initial claim about the pervasive influence of evolutionary forces on the content of our moral thinking in the first place? If there are independent moral truths, then we may plausibly have grasped many of them through autonomous exercises of our capacities for moral reflection, whereby we have come to recognize good reasons for thinking certain moral propositions to be true, by correctly grasping that certain features of actions are wrong-making, say.
For example, your belief that human trafficking is wrong is plausibly best explained by citing your reasons for holding it: you believe it’s wrong for the reasons you give, such as the fact that it causes tremendous suffering and deprivation, violates the basic dignity and rights of its victims, and so on. From a realist perspective, these features you cite in giving your reasons for the belief are in fact wrong-making features of human trafficking, i.e., features that make trafficking wrong and therefore make true the moral proposition that human trafficking is wrong. On this picture, you therefore believe that trafficking is wrong because it is wrong and you’ve come to recognize the moral fact that it is wrong by recognizing the reasons why it is wrong.
Unless realism has already been rejected for other reasons, then, this picture is an open possibility at the start of the debate, which means that the realist is entitled to hold that many of our moral beliefs are in fact not merely caused by evolutionary and other ‘morally blind’ influences, but are instead well-grounded responses to moral reality. That is, the realist need never grant the debunker’s strong claims to the effect that our moral beliefs across the board are saturated with evolutionary influence (see section 2). Perhaps some are and some aren’t, and the proportions will depend on the extent to which we’ve successfully exercised autonomous reflection in arriving at our moral beliefs, which is a wide open question. If there are enough autonomous beliefs in the mix, and we can identify them, then the rest of the argument will not go through (FitzPatrick 2008a,b).
Bernard accepted the fact that, “…for sake of argument, …your sources believe otherwise…” (wow, that was an understatement!)- but felt the Stanford people (or myself) were not addressing his further questions and points such as:
“But you’ve not shown me how these sources get around the problem of grounding their moral reasoning in pre-existing truths.” -Bernard
I don’t even know what “moral” reasoning would be or why it’s pertinent. Reason is a value-laden concept and peculiar entirely to the question at hand, so again, I don’t know what this means or where the clash with science is in this. The question isn’t even about “grounding their moral (again, what does that even mean?) reasoning in pre-existing truths,” but rather does selection prevent us from ever recognizing an objective morality/pre-existing truths, if such existed. So, again, it appears Bernard may not even be addressing the issue here or engaging the Stanford quotes above.
“Thus, if we take evolution seriously, we must conclude that the human mind does not reliably track moral truths.” -Bernard
“So, I agree with the Stanford site when it says science will not settle whether moral truths exist. Science does, however, suggest we as humans have no access to these truths.” -Bernard
“Science” suggests no such thing. Certain philosophical narratives do such as philosophical naturalism/materialism/empiricism. No disagreement there. My response is that the above and the entire Stanford entry/essay/summation do address these questions and points. I challenge anyone out there (who cares) to read the entire Stanford entry and show otherwise. Simply quote, show how it is does not address these points and questions, and cite. Now, one might not agree with the Stanford people. That is another question. The question here is does the Stanford entry address each and every one of Bernard’s questions and points. I say it does. It would be very easy to prove me wrong. Or, one could show how I am reading the entry incorrectly or out of context. Either way, it would be easy to demonstrate and I await any attempts.
Bernard had further assertions here at the end:
“I claim that instinct is going to come into the equation at some point, and that evolutionary theory suggest that such instincts are grounded in pragmatic concerns (originally biological, and in time with cultural influence, to answer your time gap question).”
We need to note here that Bernard is assuming the influence is “cultural” only and not a possible response to true objective moral categories, so he begs the question as that is the very thing disputed. Regardless, the above (and the entire entry) addresses his point here as well. And how does this claim even make sense? The very point is that over time instinct is notgoing to come into play (in any sort of completely determinate way) and that is the very reason we can recognize non-pragmatic truths. The quote above directly contradicts Bernard’s claim. And on and on it goes.
So what started out as a supposed clash with science and evolution has now devolved into a philosophical disagreement, something I said it would devolve into at the very beginning of the conversation. I was a prophet. Pretty easy to see though (I’m not much of a prophet really).
The bottom line is that Bernard’s problem is not with my views. His problem is with a neutral, peer reviewed, academic source (one of the most respected universities in the world). He should feel free to take them on.
For further reference and quotes that explicitly or implicitly address Bernard’s points and questions see:
“The above sorts of questions, which are receiving growing attention in the sciences, all pertain to morality understood as a set of empirical phenomena to be explained: it is an empirical fact about human beings that we make moral judgments, have certain feelings and behave in certain ways, and it is natural for the sciences to seek causal explanations for such phenomena. At the same time, however, it is a very complex matter—and one often neglected outside of philosophy—how such empirical, explanatory projects are related to the very different sets of questions and projects pursued by philosophers when they inquire into the nature and source of morality.” (Sec 1)
“As we will see, though the two sets of issues are distinct, the scientific explanatory projects raise potential challenges for certain philosophical views, and at the same time attention to philosophical issues raises doubts about some of the explanatory claims made in the name of science, which often rely on controversial philosophical assumptions. Progress in this area will not be made either by doing moral philosophy in isolation from the sciences or by taking morality out of the hands of philosophers and looking to scientific inquiry in isolation.”
It is, for example, a matter of live debate in contemporary metaethics whether there are knowable moral truths—correct answers to at least some questions about what is morally good or bad, right or wrong. If there are, as many philosophers (and non-philosophers) believe, then this will likely make a difference to the explanation of at least some of our moral beliefs and behaviors. Our belief in equal human dignity, for example, along with derivative beliefs about the wrongness of slavery or rape, might be sufficiently explained by our having grasped the moral truth that human beings have such dignity and so should not be treated as “mere means” (see section 2.4). Similarly, the belief that we have moral obligations to mitigate suffering even among distant strangers might be explained at least in part by our having grasped the moral fact that pointless suffering is intrinsically bad and that this gives us good reason to mitigate it where we can.
If this is so, then scientists will be overreaching if they claim that “causal explanations of brain activity and evolution…already cover most known facts about behavior we term ‘moral’” (Wilson 1998, 54). Instead, a significant amount of moral judgment and behavior may be the result of gaining moral knowledge, rather than just reflecting the causal conditioning of evolution. This might apply even to universally held moral beliefs or distinctions, which are often cited as evidence of an evolved “universal moral grammar” (Mikhail 2011). For example, people everywhere and from a very young age distinguish between violations of merely conventional norms and violations of norms involving harm, and they are strongly disposed to respond to suffering with concern (Nichols 2004). But even if this partly reflects evolved psychological mechanisms or ‘modules’ governing social sentiments and responses, much of it may also be the result of human intelligence grasping (under varying cultural conditions) genuine morally relevant distinctions or facts—such as the difference between the normative force that attends harm and that which attends mere violations of convention.
We will look in more detail later at this and other possibilities for explaining moral judgment and behavior. The point so far is just that there are plausible philosophical accounts of at least some moral judgment and behavior that appeal to independent exercises of judgment—perhaps in grasping moral truths, or perhaps just in forming reflective commitments—rather than to causal conditioning by evolutionary factors. There is a danger, then, of begging central questions if we draw general conclusions about “the” explanation of “our” moral thought and behavior based on scientific considerations—as is common in discussions of scientific work in this area. We may instead need a plurality of explanatory models. The best explanation for deeply reflective moral judgments may look quite different from the explanation for unreflective psychological dispositions we share with other primates, and there may be mixed explanations for much that lies in between.” (Sec. 1.1)
“Many moral beliefs—for example, concerning the moral irrelevance of sexual preference, the moral equality of persons of all races and nationalities, or moral obligations even to future generations in far away countries—are much more plausible candidates for being upshots of autonomous moral reflection and reasoning. Indeed, many philosophers take them to be plausible candidates for moral truths, grasped through reflection that reveals good reasons for believing them, which is therefore what explains our moral beliefs and behavior in these cases.” (Sec. 2.5)
“On the face of it, the mere fact that natural selection would not have ‘designed’ our moral faculties to track moral truths accurately (as it plausibly designed our perceptual faculties to track facts about medium sized objects in typical human environments) is not obviously problematic. There are, after all, lots of cases where we seem to be able to grasp genuine truths even though those truths play no role in the story of how our basic mental capacities evolved. We are able to grasp truths of quantum field theory or higher dimensional topology or, for that matter, philosophy (or so we are assuming in even engaging in this debate) even though those truths had nothing to do with why the basic mental capacities underlying these abilities evolved in Pleistocene hominins. Those capacities evolved in response to selection pressures in ancestral hunter-gatherer environments, and we have simply learned how to develop, train and exercise them in cultural contexts to discover truths that go far beyond any that were relevant to the evolution of those underlying capacities. Philosophers who endorse some form of moral realism have typically believed that we’ve done the same thing in grasping moral truths (see sections 2.4–2.5).”
“In general, the worry about Joyce’s debunking argument is similar to the worry about Street’s: unless we start out already assuming (against the realist) that there are no knowable moral truths, it is hard to see why we should accept Joyce’s premise that we possess a complete non-moral geneaology of moral judgment, and hence that it is explanatorily superfluous to posit moral truths. Whether or not the non-moral geneaology is complete is precisely what is in question in ongoing metaethical debates: realists, who posit knowable moral truths, can reasonably hold that the correct explanation for at least many of our moral beliefs does appeal to moral truths or facts that we have grasped, while anti-realists, who deny the existence of such truths, claim that the correct explanation for all of our moral beliefs involves no such appeal. The issue remains controversial. So unless one has independently settled that issue against realism, one is unlikely to accept the premise that there is a complete non-moral genealogy of our moral beliefs: there may well be a partial non-moral genealogy, for the sorts of reasons Joyce gives, but it will be complete only if none of our moral beliefs are the result of our having grasped moral truths; and this negative claim will be very unlikely if there are in fact knowable moral truths (since we would plausibly have grasped some of them, and they would thus figure into the explanation of some of our moral beliefs). We should therefore feel compelled to grant Joyce’s premise that there is such a complete non-moral genealogy only if we have already given up on the idea of knowable moral truths. But that makes it hard to see how the argument as a whole can be used to persuade anyone who doesn’t already accept its conclusion.”
“Thus, although the evolutionary story fits naturally with a merely non-cognitivist metaethical view, it may fit equally well with a cognitivist view. If one rejects the existence of moral truths, the latter would then lead to an error theory (Mackie 1977). But as discussed in section 4.1, it is far from clear how much support evolutionary biology itself lends to moral anti-realism or irrealism. It is consistent with plausible evolutionary stories that although our capacities for normative guidance originally evolved for reasons that had nothing to do with moral truths as such, we now regularly employ them to deliberate about and to communicate moral truths. So all three metaethical views discussed here—expressivism, error theory and moral realism—remain on the table.”
Again, I think any fair, rational, and reasonable person will see that even if we disagree with all these quotes, they do indeed address every one of Bernard’s objections and points. The real problem is that he just doesn’t like the answers.