First: Happy New Year! Now, let’s review the last several posts (not counting Friday Roundup) and conversations:
Objection 1. While God or some spiritual aspect to existence may exist, we could know nothing of either, or, if we could, it would require our knowledge of evolution or physics to be incorrect.
Response: That is incorrect. We could “know” something of either, unless one means by “know” empirically/scientifically, which most Christian theologian/philosophers do not mean. Since they do not, it has nothing to do with evolution or physics to begin with. We can “know” in the sense we all use when speaking of metaphysical claims, which is to believe, to conclude, and then to provide reasons for those beliefs and conclusions.
We have been told that Bernard and JP did not mean by “know” and “knowledge” only what could be gained or proven empirically/scientifically/mathematically—that they are not ruling out other ways of knowing or what constitutes knowledge. But what are those other “ways” or methods? The only way any of us have, including empiricists/philosophical naturalists/physicalists, which is holistic reasoning. In other words, those who are empiricists//philosophical naturalists/physicalists did not use those methods to become such, to inhabit those narratives of belief. They inhabit those narratives by faith, and then tease out the implications in every area of life through holistic reasoning. I offer nothing new here and nothing but what any of us, in fact, did to arrive at where we are philosophically as to any of these questions. It is not “my” method, but everyone’s. To try and refute this method, one would have to do the very thing he is disputing, so it would be self-defeating.
And “holistic” simply means that while we include reason, logic, science, and the best understandings of the empirical evidence, it also includes wisdom gained from philosophy and the humanities, our personal experiences, socio-economic background, education, intuition, relationships, and other such factors that make up what we bring, as a totality, to all these types of questions in reaching our conclusions. We all do this. There is no other method, whatever one’s beliefs or philosophical persuasions. None.
Objection 2. Okay, so no clash with science, and this method is what we all use, but even if we could know of God’s existence and morality by derivation, how it is that we come to believe contradictory things about God and morality?
Response: Because we inhabit different narratives. But the fact of disagreement doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist or that morality isn’t objective, just like it wouldn’t mean the opposite either. And the mere fact of disagreement is not a rational basis for agnosticism regarding the ontological nature of moral statements or God’s existence.
Objection 3. If we can all reason (holistically) and come to different conclusions regarding morality, how is this process “reliable” and how do we know we are not just guessing as to moral assertions.
Response: The word “reliable” makes no sense in this context. It also reveals an implicit empiricism. If one thinks “reliable” means our reasoning must bring everyone to the same conclusion regarding the ontological nature of morality, or God’s existence, or if any given moral assertion is mathematically “correct” 51% of the time, then he is using a word that doesn’t even make sense in this context. What philosopher of ethics, philosopher in general, or theologian talks about making “correct” moral statements or actions, in the sense of “more or less” or percentages, or “more-often-than-not”? Who? And who would ever claim some sort of “reliability” in the context of ethical decisions and actions. What does that even mean? Reliable how? If I choose to not lie, steal, be unfair, unjust, and refrain from violence when there is conflict—what is “reliable” about that? If I choose to do the opposite, what is “reliable” about that? If I choose to not have an opinion regarding whether or not morality is ontologically relative or objective, what is “reliable” about that? The term literally makes no sense in this context. We might as well substitute “mash potatoes” for “reliable” and it would make about as much sense. I am unaware of anywhere in the literature where ethics is discussed in terms of “reliability”.
At one point Bernard asserted this: “You offered a method by which one could come to make correct moral statements e.g reach the conclusion that torture is morally wrong in a universe where this is actually the case.”
Another clear example of disconnect (what an understatement). Nowhere, in all the posts related to this subject, nor in my subsequent comments, have I ever asserted any such thing, ever. What I have been talking about was never meant to be a calculus, an algorithm, or an equation, for making the “correct” moral statement or action, 51% of the time. I don’t even know how one would go about such a thing. And I have never proposed a “method” that purported to accomplish such a ridiculous goal. Who would even think of this topic in those terms?
Nothing I have offered was ever meant to be a means to an end. So, after all the other misunderstandings had been put aside, I’m told that, “even if” we could know these things, we couldn’t know them in a “reliable” way. What? I never claimed we could. It is an objection to nothing I’ve asserted. So, then I asked if by “reliable” it was meant empirically/scientifically. I was told “no” it just means 51% (or more likely than not) of the time. Let that sink in. Any bar like “more or less” “more- likely-than-not” are simply very loose ways of talking about percentages. It is an implicit empirical bar. It has no bearing whatsoever upon the ontological status of morality and our knowing such, when it has been made clear by “knowing” we do not mean empirically/mathematically. See response to number 1.
If Bernard or anyone thinks it is reasonable to be agnostic regarding the ontological nature of morality, and whether-or-not moral statements and actions reflect that status, because we can’t know either, percentage wise, to be “correct” or not doesn’t understand the word “reasonable”. Second, it is an obvious empirical bar or hurdle, and one completely irrelevant to the question or topic (unless one admits to empiricism as a presupposition, which is fine but admit it).
Here is another further objection to seeing “correctness” or being “right” in terms of “reliability” or “hitting the mark” as to specific moral statements (“Murder is evil”) or actions. The attempt here is to try and abstract out every single moral statement or action and ask how we can know it is the “correct” one and that such is actually the case (which by, I’m assuming “case” is meant objectively the case). Here is the problem however, one cannot abstract out any single moral statement or action from the narrative in which it arises. We are not addressing the matter of whether-or-not every single ethical utterance or action is the “correct” one, in a “reliable” sense. Again, that makes no sense whatsoever. More importantly, it is an objection to nothing I’ve asserted. It would be like me showing someone an airplane I built, and the person objecting, “But I see it is not reliable as a submarine.” Ummm, okay, yes, you are right. And…so…?
Here is the most I can assert: I inhabit the narrative of the Judeo-Christian story and the logical corollary an objective morality. Thus, when I do make moral statements and act upon them (or not), I believe they reflect or have an objective referent (God). Now, whether I act accordingly, whether-or-not I make all the right choices and acts, the ones I believe best align with that narrative, is entirely irrelevant to the question of whether-or-not that narrative is true in an ontological sense, true as in the way things actually are, objectively, regardless of what I or anyone else thinks about them. And I would never claim that when I acted in alignment with that narrative (not stealing for instance) that I was doing anything “reliable”. I would claim I was doing something that was in line with that narrative, that reflected the teachings, the history, and oral tradition of that narrative. Not only is that the most I can assert regarding morality, it is the most anyone can assert, regardless of what they believe about the ontological nature of morality or how “reliable” their moral statements may be.
So, if I believe I am doing something that is “correct” or right, or moral, or ethical, I am never saying anything about “reliability” or “hitting the mark”—I am saying something about the truthfulness of the narrative I inhabit and in some poor way trying to live faithfully to it. I may often fail at that. I may misunderstand what this narrative actually requires in any given instance. I may be acting out of ignorance many times. I may be absolutely wrong and this narrative may be false. But I am not claiming any sort of infallibility here to begin with. So, the moment we put this in context and perspective, we see that Bernard’s request for some statement regarding an empirical measure is simply not pertinent nor reasonable.
Now, as to “guessing”. If I or anyone, upon reflection, look back and realize they made the wrong ethical choice—that would hardly mean we were initially guessing. That does not follow at all. To think we were guessing, one would have to presuppose there was no way of knowing what the correct ethical choice was, even in theory. In other words, just because someone makes the wrong choice, or fails to act, doesn’t mean there isn’t a correct choice. But no ethical theory, no epistemology regarding ethics, asserts that it also contains the added benefit of, if adopted, guaranteeing a 51% “hit-rate”. How can one even read that and not laugh? Imagine with me: You are sitting in philosophy 101 and covering ethics. The professor has just gone through the various epistemological theories, touching on ontology, objectivity v. relativity, and general survey of the questions, disagreements, and so on in this area. He again notes the major ethical theories and asks how we might compare and contrast each one. Someone raises their hand and asks: What is the “hit-rate”, mathematically, for each one as to the correct ethical choice or action?” Yes, it boggles the mind.
One can believe he is doing the moral thing, not guessing, and, at the same time, note he could be wrong as well. I would hope Bernard isn’t refraining from killing the person who cut him off in traffic simply because it’s against the law. And, I would also hope he wouldn’t just be guessing as to whether it was moral or not if he did kill the person. In other words, when faced with significant moral questions, choices, and dilemmas I would grant to Bernard that he isn’t simply tossing a coin and guessing and I would hope he grants that same minimum level of respect to those he disagrees with.
Will we always act according to our beliefs? We will always make the right ethical choice, or do so more-often-than-not? Who knows? We would first have to know if one thought there was an objective “correct” choice to make—the relativist/moral skeptic does not. Whether we will or not has nothing to do (mathematically or otherwise) with whether-or-not morality is ontologically objective or relative, or if we can “know” (believe/conclude to be true) such. A moral skeptic may sometimes act more ethically than the moral realist and visa-versa. So what? The greater point is that Bernard’s question is completely and totally wrong as to anything I’ve asserted and is something I don’t think anyone would assert or think even relevant to what we are talking about.
Now, perhaps we are asking a purely practical question, like, if people believe morality to be either ontologically objective or relative, does it make a difference in how they act. I think it does, but that doesn’t mean it proves one or the other to be true. So even if that was Bernard’s point, it has no bearing or pertinence to anything I am arguing.
Objection 4. If people can use this process and come to different and even contradictory conclusions in these areas, how do we know who is right? How do we adjudicate?
Response: Since we cannot settle these questions empirically/scientifically, they are adjudicated by reasoned argument and experience. This means all one can ever have is consensus, not every single person in lock-step agreement as if the question were: Is the sun hot? This is what any reasonable person would expect if we are talking about non-empirical, non-physical objects or forces. Further, that we do this, move forward by consensus, is a fact. All views regarding morality, when they become the dominant view, (unless they were imposed by force) were achieved by consensus and then law. This is simply the way it works. No one claims we need murder to be illegal because of the findings of science or empiricism.
Finally, when a moral realist claims that morality is objective and universal, he is doing two things at once (watch carefully): He is making a claim that follows from his presuppositions and is what he subjectively, meaning personally, believes. However, he is not making a statement that morality is really (contrary to what he just told us) relative and subjective. He believes his statement is true and reflects what morality is ontologically—thus it is true objectively and universally. The same is true of the anti-realist (just reverse the above). They are both subjectivists and objectivists, always and already, at the same time. However, one of them is wrong. So what? Both should admit they could be wrong as should the agnostic.
So, my hope, at this point, is that we have now waded through all the straw-men, all the miss-readings, claims of clashes with science, claims of errors of logical fallacies, my own admitted poor communication skills, and any other hurdles that have come about from addressing this claim: Yes, God may exist (and morality as a derivative), but we could know nothing of either.
Well, we can, for all the reasons noted above, and the assertion in no way clashes with science, logic, or reason. It does clash with philosophical naturalism/empiricism/scientism however. I readily admit that. I also admit I could be wrong—but I am not guessing. We are all doing our best in that regard, I am sure.
So, my question still remains then. If Bernard and JP’s agnosticism relied upon the objections herein addressed, what now? If they did not, if there were totally different reasons, what are they? And I ask not to refute or argue about them. Frankly, I could care less. I am however genuinely curious, because I have a theory. I believe their reasons will reveal either an implicit or explicit commitment to empiricism/philosophical naturalism. Nothing wrong there, it is a reasonable and logical narrative to inhabit given the presuppositions. The greater question might be however, since it is a narrative inhabited by faith, a commitment not proved by the very methods it holds up as the ones others must meet, why choose it in that case? That seems to violate Bernard’s sensitivity to matters of “taste”. Further, many believe empiricism/philosophical naturalism/materialism to be ultimately nihilistic—does that give one pause as well—given there is nothing in science or some “fact” that would compel us to believe these narratives are empirically or scientifically proved, as in “facts”, to begin with—the very bar the empiricist requires others to meet. Any way, if they care to answer, I am honestly interested to hear their reasons.
P.S. If any comment simply re-states something already noted in one of the objections, I will simply respond: See response to objection such-and-such.