Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Can morality exist without God?

[NOTE: This essay is rough and incomplete, but it will be at least three days before I have another chance to work on it. Rather than keep my adoring fans waiting (both of you) I've decided to go ahead and post this draft and make updates later.]

Denis Prager and Joseph Talushkin sum the issue up nicely in their book, "The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism":

If there is no God, there are no rights and wrongs that transcend personal preference ... Moral judgements [are] purely subjective. It is self-evident and acknowledged by the foremost atheist philosophers that if a moral God does not exist, neither does a universal morality. Without God all we can have are opinions about morality...

And indeed they are correct. No less a secular luminary than Bertrand Russell wrote:

I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don't like it.

Prager and Talushkin wrote in 1986 (which is why their book is called what it is and not "The Judaism FAQ" :-) and Russell wrote in 1960. These dates turn out to be significant. The problem of how to define an objective morality without God was in fact solved in 1980 by a fellow named Robert Axelrod. As far as I'm concerned, Axelrod's name IMHO ought to be numbered alongside Darwin, Einstein and Newton as one of the greatest contributors to human knowledge of all time. Instead his work has gone virtually ignored by almost everyone, religious and secular alike. But as usual, I am getting ahead of myself.

It should be noted that defining morality with God is no slam-dunk. First you have to decide which God to follow because there are so many to choose from. Even the God of Abraham, who has pretty much cornered the market of modern theology, comes in three major versions (Jewish, Christian and Muslim) and countless minor ones. The putative Word of God includes such guidance as:

When you encounter the unbelievers, strike off their heads, until ye have made a great slaughter among them... (The Q'uran, sura 47:4)

and

Put away your sword, for those who live by the sword shall die by the sword. (Matthew 26:52)

So which is it? How can we decide which version of God's Word to follow without some standard that transcends God?

The question of whether God sets the moral standard or follows a moral standard was first raised by Socrates in 380BC. The dilemma can be summed up thusly: if God says what he says because He is moral then morality transcends God. On the other hand, if what is moral is defined by the Word of God, then in what sense can morality thus defined be considered "good"? Is it moral to kill unbelievers because Allah says so? What if God said it was OK to kill innocent children? Would that in fact make it moral? (And if your response is: God would never say that, then my response is: 1) he already has said it on a number of occasions, and 2) who are you, mere mortal, to say what God would and would not say?

Even putting aside the metaphysical question of the moral status of God, there are practical issues involved with how to interpret God's word. For example, Leviticus 24:16 says, "And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death..." Does that mean we should institute the death penalty for blasphemy? Or take the second commandment. This is commonly taken as a prohibition against idol worship (though the sight of Catholics bowing down before statues of saints really makes me wonder sometimes) but the actual text says, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters beneath the earth." Does that mean that photographs, statues, and portraits are immoral? Muslims think so. How do we decide? These kinds of conundrums are legion, and have kept theologians occupied for millennia.

To these questions I would add one more: why aren't all the atheists raping and pillaging? In Norway, for example, the overwhelming majority of the population is non-religious, and yet you do not see uncontrolled outbreaks of selfish behavior. To the contrary, Norway is socialist, and has one of the lowest violent crime rates in the world. Sweden and Japan are similar. By way of contrast, the United States, with one of the highest concentrations of avowed Christians in the world, has one of the highest rates of violent crime, and is notorious for its ever-increasing socio-economic disparities.

The mere fact that this observation appears to require explanation is also indicative of the answer: people have a moral intuition, a subconscious sense of right and wrong, a conscience. And although they differ in detail, there are remarkable consistencies in moral intuition across all the world's religions and cultures. For example, there is an overwhelming consensus that killing innocents without provocation is wrong. There is not a single culture in the world that does not consider killing, lying and stealing to be evil. Conversely, there is not a single culture in the world that does not consider justice (including punishment for transgressions), honesty and charity to be virtues. To be sure, moral intuition is not uniform. For example, some people's moral intuition tells them that abortion is evil, while others' do not. My point is not to say (at this point) that moral intuition is a reliable guide to morality, merely that moral intuition exists. This should be non-controversial except among the most extreme pedants.

If we accept that moral intuition exists two questions naturally arise. First, is moral intuition a reliable guide to morality? Even the most cursory examination reveals that it cannot be absolutely reliable because it is not absolutely uniform. Some people think abortion is acceptable, some people think it isn't. They can't both be right.

The second question, which I believe will shed some light on the first, is: where did this moral intuition come from? There are three possibilities. The first is that it came from God, that it is one aspect of being created in His image. This is an attractive possibility, but alas not supported by the Bible. According to the Bible, moral intuition arose when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good an evil. (To the contrary, the Bible is quite clear that man was not created with the capacity to tell good from evil, which has always led me to wonder how God expected Eve to know that she was supposed to obey God and not the serpent. But that is a matter for another time.)

The third possibility is that moral intuition evolved. This has always seemed intuitively improbable. After all, evolution is all about survival of the fittest, the ends justify the means, red in tooth and claw, and all that, while our moral intuitions tell us things like that we ought to take precious resources and give them to the poor and the weak, which would seem to be exactly the opposite of what Darwinian evolution would lead us to expect. But Darwin is subtle, and evolution produces a lot of things that one might not expect at first glance, like peacock's tails. The puzzle of how Darwinian evolution could lead to non-selfish behavior was solved by Robert Axelrod in 1980.

Axelrod explored a famous mathematical model of moral choices called the Prisoner's Dilemma (PD). PD is a game played with two players. Each player has only two possible moves: cooperate (C) or defect (D). Points are awarded according to the following schedule:

* If both players cooperate each one gets 3 points.

* If both players defect, each one gets 1 point.

* If one player cooperates and the other defects then the cooperating player gets 0 points and the defecting player gets 5 points.

(The Prisoner's Dilemma is called that because it is usually framed as a story about two prisoners who each have to decide whether to testify against the other. But the model applies to a wide variety of social interactions.)

The main thing to notice about the scoring system is that no matter what your opponent does you always do better for yourself by defecting than by cooperating. So on its face there should never be any reason to cooperate. Intuitively, the best Darwinian strategy is to always defect. And indeed, defection is the best strategy for a single round of PD. It is even the best strategy for multiple rounds of PD if the number of rounds is known in advance. (This is because defecting is the best strategy on the last round, so it must be the best strategy on the round before, etc.)

*HOWEVER* (and this quite possibly the single most under-appreciated insight in all of human history) if the number of rounds is not known in advance then it turns out that there is no one best strategy! Which strategy is best for you depends on which strategy your opponent is using.

For example, suppose that you opponent is using a TIT-FOR-TAT strategy (which in this context we may call an-eye-for-an-eye), where they cooperate on the first move and then respond on the next move with whatever you did on the previous move. In that case your best strategy is to alway cooperate. By way of contrast, if your opponent is using a strategy of ABSOLUTE ALTRUISM (always cooperate) then your best strategy (as in the non-iterated PD) is to always defect.

The Prisoner's Dilemma has been around for a long time, but only relatively recently has computing power become cheap enough to really allow an exploration into its dynamics. This is what Robert Axelrod did starting in 1980. And what he discovered is truly astonishing.

Axelrod performed a series of experiments pitting little computer programs to play PD against each other. I won't bore you with the details here. Instead I'll just cut to the chase. Here are the major results.

1. In nearly all circumstances, the "best" strategy (in the sense that it was the strategy that accumulated the most points when playing against a selection of other strategies) was TIT-FOR-TAT. This included tournaments among programs generated by humans as well as programs that were generated automatically and "evolved" according to Darwinian natural selection.

2. No human-generated program ever beat TIT-FOR-TAT. However, automatically generated programs did occasionally (about 25% of the time) evolve that were able to beat it. All of these program were very complex.

3. Nearly all of the programs that were able to "survive" for any length of time in the Darwinian simulations had a number of features in common. They were nice, which is to say, they were never the first to defect. They were easily provoked, that is, it didn't take very many defections before they defected. And they were forgiving, that is, once the opponent started to cooperate again they would quickly start to cooperate in return.

These results are proof that the naive intuition about Darwinian morality, that moral behavior cannot evolve, is wrong. Purely selfish behavior does not reproduce well. Neither does purely altruistic behavior. What reproduces best is a set of behaviors that very closely track the major features of human moral intuition: niceness, retribution, and forgiveness.

Now, of course this does not prove that moral intuition evolved, but it does show pretty convincingly that it could have. The burden is no longer on the atheist to justify their belief in morality. They can now say: my morality comes from a moral intuition wired into my brain by evolution according to Axelrod's model. If a religious person wants to claim that God is necessary for morality the burden is now on them to show why this is not possible. And that would be a heavy burden indeed. It is indeed a shame that Bertrand Russell did not live to see Axelrod's results.

Now, of course this far from the last word on morality. Moral intuition doesn't speak with absolute clarity about what is right and wrong. It requires deliberation and interpretation, just like the Word of God. But (and this is the crucial point) it provides common ground for a discussion about morality between the religious and the secular. For the purposes of achieving a consensus on what moral behavior is it is not necessary to achieve consensus about what the source is. Some people will say God, some will say Allah, and some with say evolved moral intuition. As long as they arrive at the same conclusions that's good enough. If everyone agrees that it's wrong to kill, it doesn't matter that people disagree about the narrative that led them to that conclusion. Of course, it would be nice to get everyone to agree on the narrative also, but that doesn't seem likely to happen any time soon. So failing that, arriving at the same conclusions by different routes seems to me to be the next best thing.

There are three features of an evolved intuition as a basis for moral behavior that make it particularly attractive as an account of how human being ought to behave. First, it allows for a morality that changes over time. Religious people recoil at this because they are fond of believing that moral behavior is revealed by God and is unchanging. But this is not reflective of reality. There was a time when slavery and stoning people to death for blasphemy really was considered moral. Now it's not. Darwinian morality allows us to excuse our forbears on the grounds that their moral intuitions might have been different from ours, and may have even been more appropriate to their circumstances. (For example, early societies lived much closer to the edge of survival than modern ones. Dissent is a luxury they may not have been able to afford.)

A second attractive feature of evolved moral intuition that makes it attractive is that it actually embraces religion, or at least predicts its emergence. If moral behavior has survival value, then beliefs that enforce moral behavior also have survival value, and so we would expect those to evolve as well. Surprisingly perhaps, the answer to the question: "is morality possible without God?" turns out to be "no", but not because God is a prerequisite for morality, but rather a necessary consequence of the mechanism by which moral behavior is produced (at least in an environment that includes creatures with sufficiently large brains).

The third feature that makes evolved intuition attractive as a basis for morality is that it can account for behaviors that transcend the short-term needs of our bodies. We mostly think of evolutionary theory as applying to DNA, but evolutionary theory can be applied to any information-carrying entity that is capable of reproducing itself. In the case of humans, there are two different replicators in play: our DNA, and the thoughts and ideas resident in our brains (what Dawkins calls memes). These two replicators are symbionts. Ideas cannot (yet) reproduce without brains, and brains reproduce much better in the presence of ideas like agriculture and antibiotics. But sometimes the needs of these two replicators are in conflict. But a discussion of that will have to wait for a few more days.

13 comments:

quantamos said...

So in summary, people with different presuppositions arrive at standards that have some overlap? Obviously, an atheist is immoral with respect to the non-overlapping part of religious morality.

Ron said...

> So in summary, people with different presuppositions arrive at standards that have some overlap?

Not just "some". A lot. This is quite significant, and vastly different from the moral relativism that non-believers are typically tarred with.

> Obviously, an atheist is immoral with respect to the non-overlapping part of religious morality.

One could just as easily say that a religious person is immoral with respect to the non-overlapping part of moral intuition.

But this is not only not obvious, it is not even true. Not all actions are either moral or immoral. Some actions are neutral. For example, eating shellfish is probably neither moral not immoral (at least in the current evolutionary context. If shrimp became an endangered or invasive species that could change).

quantamos said...

So in summary, we could draw a Venn diagram with N circles, mostly overlapping.

Much of the Hebrew law had to do with cleanliness, where "morality" was explicitly attached to health, sanitation, and welfare of the community. Then, when a recalcitrant individual refuses to cooperate, you don't have to appeal to logic, you can appeal to authority. I don't know why shellfish were unclean.

The important question is how do you propose legislation dealing with moral issues for everybody? Is this where you're going? Tim Keller discusses how difficult this is at a Berkeley lecture. I think everybody agrees that this is difficult to do.

Ron said...

> So in summary, we could draw a Venn diagram with N circles, mostly overlapping.

Yep. And changing over time too.

> The important question is how do you propose legislation dealing with moral issues for everybody? Is this where you're going?

Legislation? Good heavens, no! I'm a libertarian (with a lower-case l).

mar13 said...

Ron,

That’s some piece of work you had there. I am not as smart and I may not fully understand everything but I think you make a good theory. I even dare to think that if God was the source of morality, that doesn’t prevent our morality to continue to grow to more and more mature (ie. The church’s progression on issues like slavery).

I also would like to contribute a few more data points to feed your thinking:

1) In the Socrates morality definition “dilemma”: Is something good because God says it’s good, or is it good independent of God? Some would say that if goodness is a character of God, then there is no dilemma. Keller once gave a talk to lawyers where he said that our human’s law should continually approximate God’s justice. He cited Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham’s prison about the nature of “good”.

2) In your take on the story of “the knowledge of good and evil” (Morality exists because we ate the fruit): Many people (like Tim Keller in his sermon series on “The Gospel according to Genesis”, or Jay Goldingay at Fuller Seminary) see in the whole Bible that God’s aim is to help humanity to attain that knowledge, but not through the manner of disobedience as Adam and Eve had done.

The example Tim used was that there is two ways people can know cancer. Some could know by learning about it deeply in Med school and become doctor to cure it. Or some could also know it by having cancer too. God’s intention was the former, but our reality was the later.

3) On all cultures that detest killing the innocent: Check out the movie, “The End of The Spear”. There you will see a culture with homicide as a way of life.

You don’t need to respond to any of the stuff above – they are just additional data points for you.

I think your effort to “provides common ground for a discussion about morality between the religious and the secular” is a great endeavor. But assume that Evolved Moral Intuition works the way you described; different social groups may evolve at different rate and different trajectory, would we ever converge to a common ground, a common ground which can answer some practical questions like, “Is it immoral for me not to help the earthquake victims in China? Is it immoral for me to divorce? Is it immoral for me not to help David?”

If losing the game of the Prison Dilemma results in the prisoners getting shot, how will that affect the outcome of the game over the long run?

Thanks for your work, and sorry for the delay in commenting – We are replacing our phones with VoIP, so it’s hectic for me. Then we are moving our Data Center!

Ron said...

> if goodness is a character of God, then there is no dilemma

I almost hesitate to reply to this because my aim is not to dissuade you from your faith. But I'm afraid this does not resolve the dilemma, it just begs the question. If goodness is a character of God, is that because God conforms to some standard of goodness that is external to God, or is it because God defines the standard? (Feel free to treat that as a rhetorical question.)

> God’s aim is to help humanity to attain that knowledge, but not through the manner of disobedience as Adam and Eve had done.

How then? Try to put yourself in Adam and Eve's fig leaves. Here they are, newly created humans, the only ones in existence. They have had no education. They have never "grown up". They were fully formed as adults but without any experiences. There are no books, no teachers, just a disembodied voice telling them to be fruitful and multiply and don't eat the fruit of this tree. Then there's this talking snake telling them that they should eat the fruit. How are they supposed to know who to believe? They don't have a Bible or a Tim Keller that they can turn to for guidance. How are they supposed to know that God is good and the snake is not? After all, having knowledge of good and evil doesn't seem like such a bad thing on the face of it, and God hasn't (yet) offered any alternatives. It seems to me that God set up a sucker's game.

> 3) On all cultures that detest killing the innocent: Check out the movie, “The End of The Spear”. There you will see a culture with homicide as a way of life.

That seems improbable. I've not seen the film, but the Wikipedia says nothing about the Huaorani being particularly murderous. But if they are, then I would say it's no coincidence that there aren't very many of them.

> But assume that Evolved Moral Intuition works the way you described; different social groups may evolve at different rate and different trajectory, would we ever converge to a common ground...?

With a lot of hard work, soul-searching, and attempts at mutual respect and understanding. And, dare I say it, love.

mar13 said...

Hi there Ron,

Thanks for the reply. Rest assure that you are not dissuade me from my faith (because faith is not living without doubts, I think Keller had written a book about it). Also I don't think you would ever dissuade from your view either. So, just chalk this up as our effort in civility.

1) I think "If goodness is a character of God, then God defines the standard" - which of course create the horrific perception of a Monstrous God (which even some like the Armenian Christians have problem with). To that I would refer to your argument in the post of "who are you, mere mortal?". You would probably point to the problem of Calvinist's morality, and I would beg to differ. So let's agree to disagree on this one.

2) On the story of Adam and Eve (I am grateful that you are willing to entertain this as factual details, which mean a lot to me): God's not just a disembodied voice, but he often walked the garden with them in some physical form (I think this may even be the basis for the Christian's idea of "personal relationship with God" later on). Humanity knows what God want (from Eve's answer to the Serpent), we just chose to be God-like in the Serpent's way.

You asked the valid question: "How are they supposed to know that God is good and the snake is not?" If God defines goodness, then all we have to do is to stick with God. Now-a-day, things got complicated with all the gray-areas and multitude of moral position. But at Genesis 3, the "morally good choice" is reduced to just one thing about the tree: "Obey me about the tree..." (Keller p.220)

But once again, no need to really rehash this stuff since people have been doing that for years.

3) What we could hash out based on a "common ground" between religious morality and scientific morality is on some practical application. "The End of the Spear" might be a good test. Get the movies and do the research if you must, but I really want to know some opinion from you. Are we wrong to impose our own moral standard on that tribal culture? (I am assuming the Scientific Moralism could cite extinction as ground to intervene in such case, just like Christians cited God as the moral standard and intervened back then).

Once again, I am really appreciating the manner you go about dialogging like this.

Ron said...

> So let's agree to disagree on this one.

OK. :-)

> I am grateful that you are willing to entertain this as factual details, which mean a lot to me.

To be clear, I do not believe that this actually happened. But I'm certainly willing to entertain it as a hypothetical. To me, Genesis seems absurd on its face, so I always find it interesting how otherwise reasonable people take it in stride.

> he often walked the garden with them in some physical form

Yes, but not on that occasion.

> Humanity knows what God want[s]

Yes, obviously. The question is: how is man supposed to know, absent some external standard, that what God wants is the right thing to do? How is Eve supposed to know that God is the good guy and the snake is the villain and not the other way around?

For that matter, how are we supposed to know this today? How can we be sure that God is not the trickster?

Again, feel free to treat these as rhetorical questions. We won't resolve these issues here.

> "The End of the Spear" might be a good test.

I'll try to find some time to watch it.

> Once again, I am really appreciating the manner you go about dialogging like this.

Thanks. I'm glad someone does.

Luke said...

I'm curious; what do you make of the following, from Jacques Ellul's The Political Illusion:

>> But to pretend that justice and truth are given their due is only a raid and a form of hypocrisy. Those who claim to do justice by condemning a man to death deserve the same accusation of hypocrisy that Jesus leveled at the Pharisees. What we find here is an ideological construct that man builds to justify his acts: these acts are useful so that society can function and survive. Bruckerberger's argument was: If we pardon murderers, our society is done for. It is useful for the survival of a group to eliminate the nonconformists, the fools, the anarchists, the maladjusted, the criminals; and it is legitimate that the group should react in this fashion through its judges, its soldiers, its political men. It is the very role of politics to make this reaction more easily possible, for it is under such conditions that no one individual or group has to bear the responsibility. (90)

? That is, what resources would you use to undermine the current, societal conceptions of 'justice' and 'mercy'? What lever would you use, and what would be the fulcrum?

———

> 2) who are you, mere mortal, to say what God would and would not say?

Are you aware that the Bible bucks this trend, repeatedly? See Abraham questioning God about Sodom, Jacob wrestling with God, Moses arguing with God about being his representative and then again about God not destroying Israel and restarting with Moses, etc. Yoram Hazony deals with this issue extensively in The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture; for example:

>> The Bible is often said to advocate an ethics of obedience. But I suggest that this view involves a serious misreading of Hebrew Scripture. Nearly all the principal figures throughout the biblical corpus are esteemed for their dissent and disobedience—a trait the biblical authors associate with the free life of the shepherd, as opposed to the life of pious submission represented by the figure of the farmer. (23–4)

> By way of contrast, the United States, with one of the highest concentrations of avowed Christians in the world, has one of the highest rates of violent crime, and is notorious for its ever-increasing socio-economic disparities.

C'mon: correlation ⇏ causation. Let's not forget the genetic and cultural basis for the bulk of America's inhabitants: those who didn't fit in society or wanted something better. Not only this, but you have incredible diversity of culture, which is very different in comparison to e.g. Europe. Without taking these conditions into account, correlations with religious belief are 100% useless.

> According to the Bible, moral intuition arose when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good an evil.

This is not at all clearly the case. There is a tremendous diversity on this issue, and that diversity can be traced to very different ways of looking at morality, personhood, sinfulness, etc. As a preview: there can a difference between "knowledge of good and evil" and "knowledge of good and not-as-it-ought-to-be". One can invite attempts at destruction, while the other can invite attempts at healing/reconciliation. Can you imagine how this difference might be enormous?

Luke said...

> *HOWEVER* (and this quite possibly the single most under-appreciated insight in all of human history) if the number of rounds is not known in advance then it turns out that there is no one best strategy!

How does the threat of murder play into this? I recall a debate between Shelly Kagan and William Lane Craig, where Kagan utterly ignored what the ability to murder others does to morality. For, the other person no longer has a claim on you once you murder them. This would appear to spawn an arms race for finding ever-subtler ways to murder or otherwise deprive the other person of power. Don't we see this happening in our world, today? Importantly, murder is no longer required: there are many ways to psychologically manipulate, and ways to simply make a person no longer relevant without murdering him/her.

> They were easily provoked

Very interesting: YWHW is frequently described as "slow to anger". That offers a very interesting difference between what game theory suggests as good morality and what the Bible suggests as good morality. Thoughts?

> But (and this is the crucial point) it provides common ground for a discussion about morality between the religious and the secular.

Is this true? From UCSD law prof Steven D. Smith's The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse:

>> No one expects that anything called "reason" will dispel such pluralism by leading people to converge on a unified truth—certainly not about ultimate or cosmic matters such as "the nature of the universe" or "the end and the object of life." Indeed, unity on such matters could be achieved only by state coercion: Rawls calls this the "fact of oppression."[36] So a central function of "public reason" today is precisely to keep such matters out of public deliberation (subject to various qualifications and exceptions that Rawls conceded as his thinking developed). And citizens practice Rawlsian public reason when they refrain from invoking or acting on their "comprehensive doctrines"—that is, their deepest convictions about what is really true—and consent to work only with a scaled-down set of beliefs or methods that claim the support of an ostensible "overlapping consensus".[Political Liberalism, 133-172, 223-227] (14–15)

I could also talk about Alasdair MacIntyre's Whose Justice? Which Rationality?.

> For the purposes of achieving a consensus on what moral behavior is it is not necessary to achieve consensus about what the source is.

In other words, we only need a phenomenological account and not an ontological account? I would possibly agree with that, but maybe only if the phenomenological account is increasingly "reaching toward" an ontological account. Such "reaching toward" seems quite similar to what our relationship with an infinite-in-description (if he can be described by a formal system, its axioms cannot be effectively generated) person could be like. You get to know a person more and more by uncovering more and more layers to how he/she operates, perhaps by "drawing out of the unarticulated background". I am being increasingly drawn to a growing block universe account of reality and persons.

Luke said...

> So failing that, arriving at the same conclusions by different routes seems to me to be the next best thing.

Is this possible for extended periods of time? This reminds me of Massimo Pigliucci's Essays on emergence, part I, in which he talks about the observation that various different micro-structures can produce virtually the same phase changes in statistical mechanics. The question I would ask, is whether "virtually the same" stays "virtually the same". Or, could there be a kind of slow, hard-to-detect drift? And could such a drift go largely undetected until catastrophic fracture of unity?

There is a passage from the Sermon on the Mount which has be quite intrigued:

>> “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” (Mt 7:24–27)

What if it is a common telos which holds together the particles of sand, making it a rock? What happens if the disintegration of the rock (into sand) is a catastrophic process, resulting from hard-to-detect increasing variations in individual teloi, which all stay 'bound' by the overarching telos, but in an increasingly unstable manner?

These questions are not hypothetical; I surmise that an analysis at least somewhat like the above could be done of pre-invasion Iraq, looking at the binding power Saddam Hussein and co provided to Iraq, and how it is spiraling out of control with that binding power gone. We could also look at Syria, Egypt, Ukraine, Libya, etc. How does one properly model these systems?

As may be evident, the above is meant to be possibly connectable to physical systems and how they disintegrate, how cracks propagate, etc. I bet it's still quite a stretch, but I have very strong intuitions that there are some possible connections here, if only we will take teleology quite seriously. We might even need to treat people and groups of people as superpositions of teloi: 'measure' them, and you might get one or the other, with no sure way to predict beforehand. One way to 'measure' is to introduce a "polarizing event". I'm even amused that the natural language matches up with the choice of how to measure. :-p

Ron said...

> How does the threat of murder play into this?

You have to be a little careful about extrapolating the results of simple PD simulations to the real world. The real world is vastly more complicated. The only thing that the PD simulations show is that it is *possible* for moral systems to evolve, and when they do they exhibit many of the same qualitative characteristics as real moral systems. So God is not *necessary* for morality.

Have you read Euthyphro?

> Don't we see this happening in our world, today?

Yes.

> YWHW is frequently described as "slow to anger".

I guess that depends on what you consider "slow". But it is entirely possible that this is evidence of an advance over tit-for-tat.

> No one expects that anything called "reason" will dispel such pluralism by leading people to converge on a unified truth—certainly not about ultimate or cosmic matters such as "the nature of the universe" or "the end and the object of life."

I don't know if reason *will* "dispel such pluralism" but I certainly think that it *could* if it were given a chance. It's certainly an experiment worth conducting, I think.

> In other words, we only need a phenomenological account and not an ontological account?

Right.

> maybe only if the phenomenological account is increasingly "reaching toward" an ontological account

Why? What difference does it make? If we agree on what is moral, why does it matter that we tell different stories about how we reached out conclusions?

> Is this possible for extended periods of time?

I don't know. That's an empirical question.

> I bet it's still quite a stretch

I bet you're right :-)

Luke said...

> You have to be a little careful about extrapolating the results of simple PD simulations to the real world. The real world is vastly more complicated.

Ahh, but the extent to which the best theoretical constructions don't helpfully inform reality is the extent to which they solve nothing interesting. :-p

> Have you read Euthyphro?

Yeah; I don't find it compelling. If God created physical reality and physical law ⇒ moral law, then it seems to utterly evaporate as a problem. And, given Hilary Putnam's The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy, I'm seeing less and less problem with the proposition "physical law ⇒ moral law". The more I investigate, the more this impenetrable barrier between the 'objective' and 'subjective' is hogwash. There is fuzziness, but I expect that: it's required for true, meaningful freedom. :-D

> I guess that depends on what you consider "slow". But it is entirely possible that this is evidence of an advance over tit-for-tat.

God does have an advantage: infinite resources. I don't think we need to propose that he cannot be hurt (some forms of divine impassibility appear to imply this). I've long wondered what 'advantage' Christians necessarily have; being hooked up to an infinite resource would qualify. But what is the nature of this 'infinite resource'? That is a question I cannot exhaustively answer. What I can say is that there are ways to not be a pussy about pain, in contrast to, e.g. Blackford and Schuklenk's 50 Great Myths About Atheism:

>> Unlike Christianity, atheist views of the world do not see that there is much redemptive value in human suffering. (69)

> I don't know if reason *will* "dispel such pluralism" but I certainly think that it *could* if it were given a chance. It's certainly an experiment worth conducting, I think.

It sounds like I need to march forward in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? and see if there really is one 'reason'. You seem confident that there is.

> Why? What difference does it make? If we agree on what is moral, why does it matter that we tell different stories about how we reached out conclusions?

Well, for one, the question is how our brains deal with "what is moral". Do they only function in a phenomenological way, or do they actually "reach toward" ontological grounding, even if that "reaching" always terminates in an unarticulated background? Then we'd have a mismatch in how we try to make morality work in the public, secular world, and how it actually works in the mind.

It could be that having truly different "comprehensive doctrines" about reality ultimately lead to irreconcilable differences. Maybe those differences don't fracture unity immediately, but perhaps they do, ultimately. Who says that purely phenomenological account is a stable system? It's worth exploring, I say!