Uncle Eric once again goes after scientism and New Atheism, touting “other ways of knowing.” II. Those other ways of knowing

Eric MacDonald, author of the Choice in Dying site, recently wrote two posts, How several misunderstandings led Megan Hodder to faith,” and “On not replacing one system of doctines [sic] with another”. As I pointed out in the first part of my critique, these pieces espoused three themes: the failures of New Atheism, especially its inability to replace what religion gives people; the dangers of scientism, which Eric apparently sees as a pervasive and destructive attitude; and the fact that there are Ways of Knowing other than science.  Yesterday I analyzed—and disagreed with—Eric’s claim that New Atheism is an abject failure because it a). criticizes simplistic caricatures of religion rather than serious theological thought, and b). tears down religion without replacing the essential human needs that religion meets. This morning I’ll address “other ways of knowing.”

Since yesterday Eric has posted “An explanatory note” arguing that I misunderstood him. He doesn’t see New Atheism as a failure, he says, and says this about “ways of knowing”:

I do not speak in terms of “ways of knowing.” That, I think, is the wrong way to frame this issue. There are different methodologies, but these do not constitute ways of knowing.

Well, I’m not going to get into a back-and-forth with Eric on that; I urge you to read his original two posts and his “explanatory note” and see if the second comports with the first. I stand by my critique, and add that yes, Eric does appear to see other realms of human endeavor as “ways of knowing”.  Here’s one excerpt that explicitly uses and accepts the idea of “claims to know”, and also singles out some areas that, says Eric, yield genuine knowledge that doesn’t come from science (my bolding below):

. . the assumption that lies behind the premises of scientism is that knowledge is accessible apart from all other aspects of human life, all other dimensions of human knowledge. Of course, I know that by putting it in this way that someone is going to say something like the following. There is only one “way” of knowing, and that is by means of the provision of empirical evidence, and anything that uses empirical evidence is scientific; therefore, science is the only “way” of knowing. If this is true, then all the arguments and knowledge claims included within the body of, say, Catholic theology, cannot constitute knowledge. It is merely a kind of elaborate hand waving, and may be simply dismissed as “woo” or “Sophisticated Theology™”, both terms implying empty verbiage. The problem here is complex. In the first place, the claim that science is the only way of knowing is not itself a proposition of science.

For the scientistic position also fails to account for other things we may justly claim to know. For example, Mozart was a greater composer than Hummel, even though some of Hummel’s compositions are quite charming. We cannot demonstrate this scientifically, but we can know it with a fair degree of assurance. History is also a field of knowledge in which scientific verification is largely irrelevant. Indeed, knowing, in Ranke’s sense, wie es eigentlich gewesen ist, that is, how things actually were (in the past), has only an indirect relationship with empirically verifiable states of affairs. The significance of a document for the understanding of past events is not something that can be determined empirically, even though the document itself, and its authenticity, may in part be determined by the use of scientific methods.

And perhaps more important for all of us is the question about the best way to live, and whether there are principles of morality (governing our relationships with others) or ethics (governing our own self-understanding and the construction of our “best” selves), that can be in any sense known.

There are other areas in which, Eric says, knowledge exists without having been derived from science:

I think we can have true beliefs which are not verifiable by the methods of science, and yet can be as objective as our scientific beliefs. I have already suggested over the last year or so a number of such beliefs, and no one has yet shown me both why they may not be taken to provide true beliefs, and how they can be shown to be so by the methods of science. I have mentioned aesthetic judgements, moral judgements, law, history and other disciplines within the Geisteswissenschaften, which are reasonably thought to encompass truths of their own outside the realm of science. I think the epistemological gap that people are ignoring is the one that lies between science and other fields of knowledge, all of which require evidence, but not all of which can be based upon the scientific method of theory construction and their verification by means of empirical testing and confirmation.

So here is a list of areas where Eric thinks “knowledge” or “truth” can be obtained without using “empirical testing and confirmation”:

  • Aesthetic judgments
  • Moral judgments
  • Law
  • History

I believe he’s also mentioned archaeology in other posts.  Let me first construe “science” broadly and confect a definition of science, for today’s discussion, that incorporates both my and Eric’s criteria. Science is a method rather than a body of results or a coterie of Ph.D.s who practice as card-carrying scientists.  That method involves “evidence”, as Eric says, but also the verification of that evidence “by empirical testing and confirmation”.  Evidence that cannot be tested and confirmed by others is not reliable evidence: it falls into the purview of things like religious revelations, which many theologians do see as “evidence.”  Construing science broadly, one can consider things like auto mechanics, plumbing, and so on, continuous with academic “science” in the sense that hypotheses about what is wrong with your car or your pipes derive from principles of mechanics, hydraulics, and so on. And when your mechanic or plumber tries to fix a problem, he does it by making hypotheses (“is it the wiring or the fuse?”) that can be tested and even confirmed by others.

In this sense, history and archaeology are also “ways of knowing” that use the methods of science.  We can, in principle, test hypotheses like “Julius Caesar was assassinated” or “there were humans in North America 10,000 years ago” using empirical observation and confirmation.  Those are, indeed, ways of knowing that overlap with science. Archaeologists and historians often act as scientists when trying to determine truth about the past. Indeed, that is the only way they can be credible.

I don’t see, however, that aesthetic or moral judgments (which feed into laws) are in this class of “knowledge” or “truth”.  If one accepts a certain set of criteria for what is “beautiful” and “moral”, then one can see whether a given judgment or decision meets those criteria.  But you have to set up the criteria in the first place, and those criteria are subjective.  There will always be people who think that Beethoven is better than Mozart, and how can you convince them otherwise? There are no objective criteria for such a decision.  And, as someone pointed out, there may be many who see Tuva throat-singing as better than Mozart, for that is their preference, conditioned by their culture and upbringing.

It is similar with morality.  Are there really “objective” moral truths, as Sam Harris seems to feel, or are there only dicta that conform to a subjective set of criteria about what is good? “Killing is wrong”, for instance, is not something I see as a “moral truth”, because in some circumstances it may be good for society (i.e., killing a terrorist about to kill others).  (Note: I am a moral consequentialist.) Even things that seem more obvious, like “don’t harm innocent children” are not accepted as truths by some people, like those odious members of the Taliban who think it’s okay—indeed, good for society—to throw acid on schoolgirls who seek an education. The point is that while many of us can agree on such things, there is no universal and objective standard to appeal to, in cases involving morality and aesthetics, where everyone can agree. (If, however, you think morality consists of actions that are “good for society,” then one can in principle test moral judgments empirically. But not everyone accepts that kind of consequentialism.) There is a subjectivity in morality that does not, for instance, apply when we’re trying to find out the molecular structure of water.

What about other things touted as “ways of knowing,” like philosophy, mathematics, or literature?  I think philosophy and mathematics are “ways of understanding”, and come close to science in that one can demonstrate truths within an accepted system of logic.  The Pythagorean Theorem, for example, is something that falls out of geometry and algebra, and is not immediately obvious from simple assumptions.  That’s a way of understanding, and indeed perhaps even a way of knowing, but it’s not a way of knowing about the external world.  There is no world in which the Pythagorean Theorem (under Euclidean geometry) could not be true.  It is an observation about what follows from assumptions about a logical system, not something that can be verified by observing nature. Ditto for the Euthyphro argument, one of the great contributions of philosophy. If you accept certain logical propositions, then you can show that morality cannot come from a God.  Again, as Sean Carroll has pointed out, these are not “scientific truths” in the sense that there is no world in which they could not be true.

Literature, I think, doesn’t tell us any external truths about the world unless it portrays things that can be checked by other means, in which case it’s a quasi-science.  James Woods told me that Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych was once used in medical schools to teach students what it is like to die.  Well, its value in that respect must come from doctors and others observing that the process of Ilych’s dying corresponds to reality—to what other people go through. If it didn’t it, would be useless as a teaching tool. Absent things like that, art and literature are ways of communicating feelings between people and stimulating the emotions. They may also stimulate thought, but they aren’t ways of knowing anything about our universe—at least nothing that can be verified by objective, independent observers.

What I argue, then, is that anything that is claimed to exist in our universe can be verified only with the methods of science, broadly construed. I don’t see that Eric has convincingly demonstrated that there are real and objective moral and aesthetic judgments that can be demonstrated by “evidence.”  How can you test your claim that Mozart is better than Hummel by checking it against the real world? All you can find out is that many people think that Mozart is better than Hummel. But others may dissent, and who can prove them wrong? How can you prove someone wrong who says that it’s immoral to abort babies after the first trimester?

Finally, although this isn’t Eric’s aim, much of the “other ways of knowing” palaver is used to advance the “truth claims” of religion. But I hardly need to add that I don’t think religion is a way of knowing anything about the real world. That’s simply a truism, for our understanding of any divinities, transcendent beings, or “moral truths” derived from faith alone has not advanced one iota since the ancient Greeks. Hell, after millennia of apologetics and “proofs” of God, we don’t even know whether there is a god, much less one god or many, or what said gods are like or want us to do.


  1. Posted June 7, 2013 at 6:39 am | Permalink

    Lots of interesting stuff here. I’ll just say something about the moral truths.

    I think we need to be really precise about what we imply when we say that some proposition p is true, say, the proposition that murder is wrong. Here are two things we might imply:

    1. p is always true without exception.

    2. Everyone believes p, or everyone believes in the same criteria for deciding whether p is true.

    But I don’t think we have to imply either of those things.

    Re 1: Dogs have four legs. (What about dogs that have lost a leg in a collision with a car?) Earth is round. (Well, not really.) And so on. Normally, we think that it’s okay to approximate when we say that something is “true.”

    Re 2: People might disagree a lot about whether God exists and what the right criteria are for deciding whether God exists, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not either (a) true that He or (b) false that He does, right?

    Overall, then, I think that truth is just truth, and there’s nothing in-principle wrong with saying that moral claims are sometimes true and sometimes false. It’s often very difficult to figure out which they are, but that doesn’t say anything about whether they actually are true or false.

    If anyone wants a very clear, very straightforward, very persuasive defense of the idea of ethical truths, I cannot recommend Huemer’s Ethical Intuitionism enough.

    • Gary W
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 10:03 am | Permalink

      I think that truth is just truth, and there’s nothing in-principle wrong with saying that moral claims are sometimes true and sometimes false.

      “Truth is just truth” is worthless. *Why* do you think moral claims are true or false? Nowhere do you explain this.

      • Posted June 7, 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink

        Hi Gary W.,

        You’re right. My reasons for believing in moral truths are probably too complicated to explain and defend in the comments section of a non-blog.

        My position is more or less similar to Huemer’s in the aforementioned citation. (Very basically: No argument against moral truths has premises that are all as plausible as some moral claim that entails that there are moral truths.)

        See also Shafer-Landau’s Moral Realism: A Defence, Oddie’s Value, Reality, and Desire, and Cuneo’s The Normative Web: An Argument for Moral Realism.

        • Gary W
          Posted June 7, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

          We’ve been over this before. You always allude to these alleged more-plausible premises that allegedly support moral realism without ever actually stating them or explaining why you think they are more plausible.

          • Posted June 8, 2013 at 8:09 am | Permalink

            Hi Gary W.,

            Sorry you missed some of my examples in previous posts. I don’t blame you; there’s usually lots of comment traffic.

            Anyway, as noted elsewhere, a proposition is ‘objectively’ true just in case its truth does not vary based on who is believing it, on whether people believe it, on the background of the believer, or anything like that.

            Maybe this is an example: ‘It’s morally wrong to enslave people because of their skin color.’
            That seems obvious to me; indeed, it seems obvious that the proposition is objectively true.

            Many have tried, throughout the years, to offer arguments against ethical objectivism. Those would be arguments with conclusions that entail that it is false that: ‘It’s morally wrong to enslave people because of their skin color.’

            We probably agree that at the end of the day, we should believe the propositions that are overall most plausible. (Why would you believe anything else?)

            In turn, what I want is an argument against ethical objectivism such that all of its premises and all the premises of the arguments employed for those premises are overall more plausible than the claim: ‘It’s morally wrong to enslave people because of their skin color.’

            (No one has ever come close to giving anyone anything like that.)

    • gbjames
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 10:07 am | Permalink

      “I think that truth is just truth”

      And I think that deepities are just deepities.

      • Posted June 7, 2013 at 10:12 am | Permalink

        Hi gbjames,

        I’m not sure what you mean. But I am pretty sure that there’s only one kind of truth in the world. Truths are things that are true. I’m also pretty sure that it’s difficult or impossible to define ‘truth’ non-regressively.

        • gbjames
          Posted June 7, 2013 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

          What I mean is that saying “truth is just truth” sounds profound. It is literally true, like Dennett’s example “Love is a four letter word”. But it is devoid of any actual meaning. It is a statement that says nothing while masquerading as a profundity.

          • Posted June 8, 2013 at 7:52 am | Permalink

            Hi gbjames,

            Thanks for clarifying.

            That’s kind of my point: it’s not easy to give an illuminating definition of ‘truth.’ I think we all have an idea of what truth is, and most of us have pretty close to the same idea. It’s that sense of ‘true’ in which I think ‘murder is wrong’ is also true.

            • gbjames
              Posted June 8, 2013 at 11:22 am | Permalink

              I don’t think it is hard at all. Statements about things in the universe are true to the extent that they are accurate descriptions of what they are about. It isn’t that complicated.

              I am sure it is true that you think murder is wrong. Surprise… I think that murder is wrong, too. But I don’t think it is reasonable or necessary to say that the phrase “murder is wrong” is “true” without agreeing on a set of moral assumptions that allow us to agree that it is, in fact, true.

              That seems a bit different from truth as “an accurate correspondence to realty”. In this case one does not really need to agree on any significant common assumptions. (Ignoring “What if the universe is just a dream?” and similar profound questions I remember from sleep-overs with friends when I was 14).

              So, yes, definitions of “true” must be agreed. But I don’t think it that tough to come up with a useful one.

      • Diane G.
        Posted June 7, 2013 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

        You always crack me up, gb. 😉

    • Posted June 7, 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      Re: 1, there’s an exercise (which I encourage people to do) that Bunge recommends somewhere that goes something like: Use a theory of partial truth to criticize one motivation for subjectivism.

  2. Posted June 7, 2013 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    Richard Carrier, who is an actual historian, would probably vehemently disagree with Eric’s claim that history constitutes some “other way of knowing”.

    • Posted June 7, 2013 at 6:46 am | Permalink

      I would also like to add that AI researchers, who are solely focused on building thinking/learning machines (literally, they have to know how things are knowable in order to be successful), also think there is only one way of knowing. If there really are multiple ways of knowing, then I would think that AI research is doomed from the start.

      • papalinton
        Posted June 8, 2013 at 3:15 am | Permalink

        Yes. I think this is a fair and reasonable statement.

      • Pliny the in Between
        Posted June 8, 2013 at 9:39 am | Permalink

        I would generally agree with your statement (This field is actually my day job) but there are exceptions to even this rule. It depends somewhat on the intended role of the AI system. Analytics, diagnostics and the like, certainly depend upon hard evidence but other AI applications touch on rudimentary perception in practice. Systems like these are geared more toward initiating action. In a sense this is more like human thought (or an idealized view of it)- evidence-based assessments in areas where there is actual evidence, and perception-based assessments when there is not.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 7:04 am | Permalink

      Ha ha, I’ve chatted with Richard Carrier about scholarly standards in humanities and we totally agree.

  3. Sastra
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    Science is a search for consensus. To the extent that moral claims or aesthetic claims or historical claims seek to persuade those who don’t already agree by appealing to facts and reason which are ‘common ground’ — open to anyone — then they’re partaking in one of the foundational and defining elements of science. If there can be a consensus, then there must be an objective truth of the matter … and an unbiased means to get there.

    The whole argument concerning scientism and religion isn’t really about “ways of knowing.” I think that’s a distraction, a red herring. The real issue is how to categorize “religion.” Is religion really LIKE moral claims, aesthetic claims, or historical claims? Or is the existence of some form or version of supernatural reality so vital and necessary to defining religion AS religion that no, it’s an empirical claim.

    There seems to be an anti-reductionist prejudice against gnu atheism. We’re being accused of reducing religion to nothing but the supernatural foundation. But look, look, look what else there is in religion! You’re dismissing all that, and narrowing your focus to the irrelevant.

    No. We’re removing what is extraneous in order to analyze whether or not it’s true and whether or not it’s useful. Take the supernatural and mysticism out of religion and it’s not religion anymore … it’s turned into something else. Philosophy or ethics or art or community: we got that.

    As I mentioned in the other thread, everything valuable in religion is humanist because we are humanists deciding what is valuable. The form these values take is flexible because people are flexible about forms.

    • Alex Shuffell
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 7:07 am | Permalink

      Good point. Here MacDonald has tried to redefine and deny what religion needs to keep it’s ideologies. Creationism does the same thing to deny evolution and have a 6000 year old earth. It has to redefine and ignore, geology, physics, chemistry and the rest of biology on top to fit it’s ideologies.

  4. Posted June 7, 2013 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    Well, of course I have to comment on Eric’s comparison of Mozart and Hummel.

    Eric demonstrates rather a lot of naïveté here. “Greater” is too vague a term to do any real work in this comparison. The comparison needs to be broken down into “who is the more skilled composer” and “which composer do you personally prefer (or better yet, which individual piece offered for comparison, one by each composer, do you personally prefer)”.

    The answer to the first question can be objectively demonstrated, the same way we can objectively demonstrate who can more skillfully execute a given gymnastics maneuver.

    The second question has nothing to do with knowledge.

    If all his examples of “knowledge” arising from non-empirical means are like this…

    • Posted June 7, 2013 at 7:05 am | Permalink

      I do not read most of Eric’s blog, but I tend to agree the above, that comparing Mozart composition is a bit naive. Things like beauty are not ‘hard science’ and that is just because we do not yet clearly define them. A basic symmetry combined with some harmonic and fractal variations as in nature is mostly deemed as beautiful by us humans. There is definitely some tangible factors in these things, only that it is not very clear at the moment.

      Even more, the idea that understanding / making judgement about history require special knowledge is more than a bit naive.

      Historical evidence may not be the same as plumber’s or carpenter’s but there is definitely clear guidelines for instance for historians to be sure that Julius Caesar exist and once a part of Roman leadership. Maybe we never be clear whether Julius had a lot of acne when he was juvenile (!), but does this really have any special meaning?

      We are all biased by our own life and past education.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted June 7, 2013 at 7:20 am | Permalink

        Yeah but we knew that Caligula was really hairy and went nuts if anyone said “goat” in his presence which gives us insight into his strange, nuts behaviour. 😀

    • Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:02 am | Permalink

      Also, the items in Eric’s list have been addressed, at this very blobsite! A number of times!

    • Barry Lyons
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 9:39 am | Permalink

      As it happens, Mozart IS better (greater) than Hummel. How do I “know” this? I don’t. But if we proceed in a world where the quality of music is perceived by listening to the “clash” of ideas and the utilization of varying contrasts and dynamics and so on, Mozart is the deeper and more communicative composer. True, this still leaves me with an aesthetic argument in subjective territory. I understand. But there is a continuum at work in some way here in which we place our aesthetic judgments. On one end you could bang on a C major chord incessantly (not that Terry Riley has done this exactly), and on the other end you could listen to a cat walk along the piano keys (sorry, Jerry, I don’t mean to impugn your felines). Sure, some “found” noises can be music (translation: some ideas can be developed from the cat walk), but this means intervening to make the “raw” noise interesting and compelling. Question: when does music become interesting and compelling? When 7ths and 9ths are added to conventional triads? We could go on forever in this vein. I don’t like Rachmnaninov but I like Scriabin. What are my reasons? I have some. I love Shostakovich’s string quartets but find some of the symphonies bloated and overwritten. These are “only” aesthetic judgments — but I want to believe that they are somehow true!

      I have lots more to say on this, but I’ll leave it for now. Oh, and I’m with Jerry: I think Beethoven is greater than Mozart. It’s unbelievable to me how Beethoven’s best works (which is 95% of what he wrote) still startle today. Absolutely incredible music. The second movement of the Seventh Symphony might be the most incredible thing he ever wrote. Of course, knowing me, I’ll change my mind and select something else as soon as I hit “Post Comment”.

      • Posted June 7, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

        I generally agree with what you e written here.

        Aesthetic judgments aren’t necessarily subjective. As I wrote, given a certain paradigm, you can speak objectively about which of two composers best fulfills the “rules” (god I hate that word – perhaps it would be better to say “best navigates the challenges of the constraints imposed by the paradigm”).

        Now, we perhaps can’t say much, or anything, objectively, about which paradigm or style is best. But my point was to refute Eric’s claim that determining the relative quality of two compositions is completely subjective and not amenable to objective evaluation via external criteria.

  5. Tim Harris
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    Mozart & Hummel… Well, to answer the question who is the greater composer, you might begin by learning something about music, specifically Western music, and about the history of music, and about what constitutes artistic originality and start from there instead of assuming that judgements of artistic merit are merely arbitrary. Or you might look at the arguments people have made as to why they think Mozart is a greater composer than Hummel, or Hummel a greater composer than Mozart, and see what virtues and faults these arguments have and test them against your own knowledge and experience of the music of Mozart and Hummel. Frankly, I’m not particularly interested in ranking artists – I love Mozart, don’t know Hummel well, but prefer Beethoven and Schubert to either, and love also the music of George Enescu, who few people seem to know of – but the fact is that reasons that are not foolish have been given for thinking that Mozart is a great composer and if someone is going to talk about this sort of thing then he or she should acquaint himself or herself with these reasons, and not dismiss it as though value judgements were simply arbitrary. I’m sorry, but what you are saying in this respect is not responsible.

    • Barry Lyons
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      Yes, I like Enescu as well. If you don’t already have it, do check out that Nonesuch CD that contains two of his works. Great stuff.

      • Posted June 7, 2013 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

        The Octet & Quintet one?


        • Tim Harris
          Posted June 8, 2013 at 6:31 am | Permalink

          Listen to the Chamber Symphony, opus 32, as I recall – probably the last piece he put to paper. It is extraordinary. Also the third piano sonata and the third violin sonata.

  6. Alex Shuffell
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    Everything MacDonald has put up as other ways of knowing can only be used as a way of knowing through collecting facts and experiment. In music, you first have to listen to the music and compare, this is testing. If you could tell which of any two unknown, unheard, pieces of music was superior then you may be on to something “other.” Since you have to follow the scientific method, mostly quite loosely,with these experiments (i.e listening or attempting to replicate on your own instrument), research into the songs (how/when/for who they were written, the instruments used, possibly the recording process involved), Some people call this musical appreciation, this knowledge of greater music is only known through science. For people like me doing science on music gives more pleasure then listening to it, most of the time.

    No theology, “religious truths,” or paranormal/supernatural claims would simply be dismissed by any honest person without first following the method.

    Music, art, history, etc. can only be “known” through science, which Jerry has very nicely described, Anything else “known” without experiment or research is just a product of egotism and arrogance, some people would rather call that “faith”.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 7:20 am | Permalink

      ‘Doing science on music gives more pleasure than listening to it’ And the man thinks he is in a position to talk sensibly about music, and goes on about the arrogance and egotism of other people. Diawl! (Welsh for ‘the devil!’)

      • gbjames
        Posted June 7, 2013 at 7:58 am | Permalink

        Sorry, Tim, but that sounds like a profoundly ignorant statement. By what authority does your judgment about what is more pleasurable trump anyone else’s? How does your opinion, no doubt made with zero history/understanding of what it means to do science on music, position you to make a judgement like that?

      • Alex Shuffell
        Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:10 am | Permalink

        I said that pleasure was for me, I do not wish it on anyone else. I find the pleasure in taking music apart because I have spent the last 8 years in schools, colleges, music venues etc. learning how to put music together in composing and performance, but mostly recording and mixing. To me there is just as much beauty in the timing, depth and combination of reverb on a voice, with the distortions or any other effects as there is beauty in a singer’s performance or lyrics. If you are referring to me as “the man” in that sentence, I would agree. Also Diawl is a cool word I have not heard before, cheers. x

        • Tim Harris
          Posted June 7, 2013 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

          Welsh for ‘the devil!’ Cheers, and thanks for the explanation. An acquaintance is Tim de Paravicini, so I have great respect for sound engineers. But I also have great respect for performers (I have lived with one for over forty years) and composers, and have grown to be rather fed up with the lazy assumption that judgements as to artistic worth are arbitrary: tell that to a good pianist and piano teacher – you couldn’t begin to teach a piece if you thought it didn’t matter how it was played. You might have noticed, gbjames, that on the other thread (on Eric’s blog) I recommended an excellent book on music by a scientist: Patel’s ‘Music, Language and the Brain’. One of things I like about the book is that he is not caught up in the Two Cultures dichotomy that some people never seem to have got over since C.P. Snow gave his lecture probably nearly seventy years ago.

  7. Robert Bray
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    To say that Mozart is ‘better’ than Hummel is to say that the former produces stronger emotional/cognitive reactions in the listener than the latter. And since that’s what music, along with the other arts, is ‘supposed’ to do, Mozart does it better and his music is, therefore, better. Neuroscience might be able to help ‘show’ this to be the case. What would the constraints on such an experiment? Subjects would need to be western, with adequate hearing and at least average intelligence and (maybe) some contextual background in classical music. Further, the listening would need to be ‘blind’–no front-loading of the experiment with ‘this one’s Mozart, by the way.’

    I’d be willing to bet that brain activity would demonstrate what most people’s intuition had already suggested: Mozart’s music is better. If I have that intuition, confirmed by the listening experience, and neuroscience agrees, I’m inclined to say to neuroscience ‘I told you so.’ And my fellow listeners, at least lots of them, told you so. Do we ‘know’ anything? Yes, but we hitherto had had only a ‘story’ (as Alex Rosenberg puts it)about knowing; we even know that we know; but we did not yet know how we knew. Neuroscience attests, then, that we are living as (universal) rational animals within (contingent) cultural constraints.

    • Sastra
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 7:18 am | Permalink

      I think the real problem with deciding which music is “better” is going to be missed when you compare Mozart to a contemporary like Hummel: try comparing Mozart to Miles Davis.

      Okay, who produces the stronger emotional/cognitive reactions in the listener? For me, it’s still Mozart. But I doubt very much if scientific methodology could be brought forth in order to persuade those who disagree with me to switch sides.

      • Posted June 7, 2013 at 7:53 am | Permalink


        Given two composers writing in the same style, we can talk about which of them best meets the musico-logical demands of that style.

        It’s an apples/apples apples/oranges thing.

        • Tim Harris
          Posted June 7, 2013 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

          Except that good composers don’t merely write in a style but create styles and extend them, and sometimes shatter previous styles (Beethoven).

          • Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

            Sometimes. Which is why I wrote: “Given two composers writing in the same style…” If they’re not writing in the same general style, then you can’t compare them. Apples to oranges, as I wrote.

            Incidentally, you may be interested in this:

            It’s a blog entry I wrote addressing the image Beethoven usually enjoys as an iconoclast and revolutionary.

    • phil
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 7:40 am | Permalink

      To say that Mozart is ‘better’ than Hummel is to say that the former produces stronger emotional/cognitive reactions in the listener than the latter.

      Yeah? Says who? I think the greatness of a composer might be measured by the sales of recording of his/her compositions two centuries after their death. That would work well for a record producer looking at his monthly sales, and that is very accessible through application of scientific methods.

      I think a lot of difficulty in this debate has arisen from a paucity of mutually accepted definitions. I think some of us might be guilty of arguing about oranges when really the discussion is about roughly spherical objects.

      • Posted June 7, 2013 at 11:42 am | Permalink

        or even a pair of roughly spherical objects…

        • Tim Harris
          Posted June 8, 2013 at 6:48 am | Permalink

          Suggest reading Bourdieu on the arts, if you want a splendidly and admirably disenchanting view of things done by a great social scientist. I should also suggest that instead of proposing facile and ridiculous measures of composers’ worth by current sales of recordings of their music, you might look into the history of the recording industry, the objectives of that industry and the influence of these objectives on the music that is recorded by large companies, the impact of the Early Music revival on performance and recording, the difficulty many contemporary composers face in getting their music performed and recorded, and the present valuation by such as Richard Taruskin of the 16th/17th English composer William Byrd as a great composer after centuries during which his music was never played. You know, things are not quite so knock-down and pitifully simplistic as you would like them to be.

          • Posted June 8, 2013 at 7:44 am | Permalink

            To be fair, Michael wasn’t the one who suggested that metric.

            Even so, I think phil’s point was intended as a reductio, at least in part, to show the futility of demonstrating which composers one ought to prefer, which is what “better” implied in this case. Personal preference is personal.

            Which goes to my point, again, that if we want to perform any meaningful evaluations of examples of any kind of art, we have to ask much more specific questions than “which one is ‘better’?”.

          • Michael Fisher
            Posted June 8, 2013 at 11:22 am | Permalink

            You’re replying to the wrong guy, guy…

  8. Diana MacPherson
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    I have a couple of thoughts about this. One is that while I agree that a broad definition of science includes verifying historical events, archaeological records and so forth, we already have methods that cover those endeavours called critical thinking. Indeed, when I studied Classical Archaeology or History, I wasn’t taught the scientific method in order to be successful but was instead taught critical thinking. I accept the broad science definition but I think it is also confusing. Instead, I would see critical thinking as the over arching methodology with scientific method as a specific toolset within it. I’m only bringing this up because I find the trend in the general populace that sees science as the only truth and sees any other endeavour outside a scientific discipline as it’s all about feelings and anything goes with no applied scholarly standards and no evidence required for assertions.

    In this way, whether we use the words science or critical thinking with literature and art, I think it is possible to apply the same standards to those in scholarly circumstances. Indeed, this is why I found myself irritated in general art history courses; often the art was shown as a continuum and little historical significance was given.

    So, for example, if I were looking at my favourite Roman statuary – The Augustus of Prima Porta, I could blab on about its aesthetic, but it is more valuable (to me and to Classical scholars, and I’d argue to our culture) to understand that art in this period in Roman history was a way to communicate something and this case, that something is the legitimacy to rule. So, Augustus is in military garb (even though he sort of sucked as a soldier in real life) because military leadership was important to Romans and was required in the old Republic political system that Augustus had just quietly killed off. The iconography of Augustus’s hand to show he is addressing troops (iconography stolen later by Christians to show blessing but used by Romans to show “I’m talking”) is key because he is truly showing he is a military leader. The imagery of the little cherub like figure is an allusion to showing he is related to Venus who is related to Aeneas who founded Rome so Augustus hints at hyper legitimacy. I could go on (I love the Augustus of Prima Porta) but I think this shows that critical thinking can be applied to art and it has value beyond the aesthetic.

    I can say the same for literature….for example that All Quiet on the Western Front was burned in the Nuremburg book burnings because it spoke badly of war and this was not cool with the Nazis or that the word “logos” in the bible was a common mistranslation of Greek into “word” when it also means “order” and is a way to harken to Plato.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 7:27 am | Permalink

      Which is why I admire those scholars like Gombrich and Wittkower who were connected with the Warburg Institute. Their work breaks with the limited aestheticism that derived really from Kant.

    • phil
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 7:51 am | Permalink

      I think you missed an essential aspect about science; experiment. Critical thinking will get you so far but it is in checking your thoughts against the real world, repeatedly, that gives science its edge, and endears it to its followers.

      Of course experiment is not incompatible with critical, but I don’t see how it is necessary (or sufficient) for critical thought. The two go together quite well of course, but I think they are largely separate concepts.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:11 am | Permalink

        This is why I see the scientific method as a tool within the overall methodology of critical thinking.

        • phil
          Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:31 am | Permalink

          Ah, that’s where we disagree, I wouldn’t extend “critical thinking” to include it. Or, “critical thinking” is too limiting a term (IMO) to include it.

          Maybe it’s like “political economy” which (in my parochial view) doesn’t quite seem to be quite politics or economics, but something else that sometimes connects to two, but with a dash of both. Maybe it hasn’t been explained to me fully. But not tonight thanx, I mean this morning.

        • Leigh Jackson
          Posted June 10, 2013 at 3:35 am | Permalink

          My two-pence worth: Science tests different possible answers to questions – obtained by intuition, imagination, guessing, critical reason or whatever other mental means – by use of empirical methods.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted June 10, 2013 at 8:06 am | Permalink

            Do does critical thinking. Evidence is not restricted only to science or we’d have a very peculiar legal system.

  9. gbjames
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    To my mind Jerry’s argument makes perfect sense. But I don’t think it will settle matters. The folk who worry about “scientism” are unwilling to accept the idea that science-broadly-defined is a valid definition.

    To me the “scientism” accusation reeks of academic territory defense… people fearing that some discipline, usually in the humanities, is being encroached on by guys with white coats and microscopes.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 7:08 am | Permalink

      No, I’d say the opposite, that it may unwittingly encourage more misunderstanding of the Humanities as a bunch of people who sit around and right poetry and look at art and say, “oh isn’t that pretty”.

    • Posted June 7, 2013 at 7:10 am | Permalink

      Yes, fear of ‘scientism’ is more like academic defense mechanism, territorial defense. Nowadays science encroach all areas, this definitely create some tensions.

      Personally, I think we are not yet see The Big Scientific Breakthrough yet, amazing as it is I am sure that at present we are more like Kelvin’s era of end of 19th century. Things will change, fundamentally. Physics, medical sciences, electronics … in a decade or so.

      • phil
        Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:01 am | Permalink

        “Scientism” is a common defence mechanism of religious appologists too.

      • phil
        Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:18 am | Permalink

        And PS: electronics is my business. I can’t quite see how electronics will fundamentally change in the near future, only the way it is used, in the sense that circuit theory and semiconductor physics seem pretty much set. We will see changes in manufacturing of electronic products, so that electronics might appear in other parts of our lives.

        The only sense I can see electronics changing ‘fundamentally’ is in a move to optical devices instead of, ummm, electronic devices. Yeah I know some people don’t make that distinction (Yariv, Liao), but still …

        Maybe I’ve spent too long trying to explain basic electronics to physicists, or maybe it’s the rays from that strange machine in the basement.

        I could be wrong about all that, but really it is probably irrelevant to this discussion.

        • Posted June 7, 2013 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

          Electronic technology, computer science will change fundamentally in the next decade. Just what a computer is will change. Wearable? nano? massively paralel? AI? neurocomputing? alternative human-interface? micro-drones? automatic equipments, cars?

          Even if you constrained yourself to hardware only, non-silicon based? 3D layers? quantum?
          Quad-core, octo-core, unlim-cores?

          What we know about miniaturization so far is just like the days of VHS, it will soon seem so crude and coarse.

          .. then we have genetics .. then physics .. (no breakthrough from theology though ..)

  10. Tim Harris
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    And, ‘Musical Beef’, it was, as I recall, Artur Schnabel who said something along the lines of this: ‘Wagner is the greater composer, but I love Brahms.’ It is perfectly possible to separate to a degree one’s personal preferences and one’s judgements. I love the poetry of Edward Thomas and Thomas Campion, for example, but am happy to concede that in comparison with Shakespeare and Milton they are minor poets. What is the problem?

    • Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

      Indeed. Most people, in casual conversation, are talking about personal preference when they say some artist was “greater” or “better” than another.

      But there is another way to talk about “greatness”: skill, as I mentioned. Which is much more amenable to objective evaluation.

      Not to get too bogged down in musical discussion here at WEIT, but the Schnabel quote is interesting in that (and many apologies for the Fermat I’m about to perpetrate) in many ways, Brahms can be demonstrated to be the more skillful composer. Just trust me. I wonder if Schnabel was only falling prey to the desire many in the arts/humanities exhibit to utter something contrary or counter-intuitive, in an attempt to seem deep or witty.

      • Diane G.
        Posted June 7, 2013 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

        . . . the desire many in the arts/humanities exhibit to utter something contrary or counter-intuitive, in an attempt to seem deep or witty.

        So perceptive! Or to seem fresh and worth funding in fields that have already been dissected, analyzed, debated, and argued to death.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted June 8, 2013 at 6:47 am | Permalink

      You probably haven’t read Shakespeare’s sonnets if you think he’s a good poet 😉

  11. Posted June 7, 2013 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    The vast majority of historical truths lack objectivity because of the biased point of view that the historian takes, when choosing sources to endorse and interpret past events.

    • phil
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 7:59 am | Permalink

      Until we have access to reliable time machines that allow us to go back in time that will probably always be the case. I think your complaint is really about the quality of the data. Historians will inevitably try to repair that as they see fit. Scientists are inclined to do that too, although they might also be more inclined to come unstuck when better data arrives.

      To say “The vast majority of historical truths lack objectivity” is not to say that that have absolutely no objectivity (although some may).

      • Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:44 am | Permalink

        You can definitively read about the same exact event, written by historians affected differently by the outcome of such events, and you end up reading completely different recounts of “history”.Same events, different interests, different stories.Only the provable data can remain the same.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted June 7, 2013 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

        It reminds me of The Doctor when he explained that he is a timelord so he points and laughs at archaeologists.

    • gbjames
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:06 am | Permalink

      The word “truths” does not really apply to those parts of history that lacks objectivity. If there is no objective evidence for a claim about the past then there is nothing to distinguish the claim from fiction.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:09 am | Permalink

        Yes and if your claim is shown to be manipulating sources and quote mining, your claim will be disputed and discarded.

        • Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:54 am | Permalink

          In an ideal world it should, but unfortunately it is not always the case. We are only human.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:55 am | Permalink

            Sure but the same can be said about traditional scientific disciplines as well or medical claims.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:57 am | Permalink

              Or anthropology – remember the whole “noble savage” fiasco that went on for decades? It even polluted Classical archaeology where the Minoan civilization was seen as gentle…um no. 😀

            • Posted June 11, 2013 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

              Yes,that is true.

  12. Posted June 7, 2013 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    Eric is confusing truth claims with opinions.

    • Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

      …or guesses (in the case of history/archeology).

      +1 for concision

  13. patrickgilmour
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    De gustibus non est disputandum

    Taste isn’t knowledge.

    The bizarre preference for cats over dogs in this site proves that.

    • Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:08 am | Permalink

      I’ll let this through, barely, but the rules are that you don’t diss the host’s taste.

      I have good reasons to prefer cats over dogs but I don’t think it’s an objective truth.

      And you, sir, are out of line.

      • patrickgilmour
        Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:25 am | Permalink

        Modus vivendi then.

        I agree with you entirely on Uncle Eric.

        And let literature demonstrate for the purposes of entertainment and science for those of knowledge.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:29 am | Permalink

      I’d translate that as taste is not derived from debate or you cannot argue taste…don’t use Latin for evil (joking) 😀

      • patrickgilmour
        Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:57 am | Permalink

        In using Latin for evil I am following in the footsteps of a very grand tradition.

        I will concede that cats are wiser than theologians. For historical, literary, archeological evidence of this, please see – wiki: Pangur Bán.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:59 am | Permalink

          It just occurred to me that “Don’t Use Latin for Evil” would be a cool motto….for what I’m not sure but it is an homage to Google’s “Don’t Be Evil”.

          • Posted June 7, 2013 at 10:21 am | Permalink

            I think most people would shorten that to a simple, “Don’t use Latin.” And George Orwell would likely agree. Orwell’s rule #5 of writing: Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

            And if you can’t trust Orwell, who can you trust?

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted June 7, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

              Northrop Frye would agree. But how will poor Pope talk 😉

            • Posted June 7, 2013 at 3:37 pm | Permalink



              • HaggisForBrains
                Posted June 8, 2013 at 2:12 am | Permalink


              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted June 8, 2013 at 6:25 am | Permalink


      • Diane G.
        Posted June 7, 2013 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

        Or as it usually is, “there’s no accounting for taste.”

        BTW, Google is demonstrably evil now.

  14. eric
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    So here is a list of areas where Eric thinks “knowledge” or “truth” can be obtained without using “empirical testing and confirmation”: Aesthetic judgments, Moral judgments, Law, History

    [Bullets removed for brevity]

    In that case, I don’t see how this subject has anything to do with religion or religious claims of knowledge.

    What theologians need to claim (whether they explicitly say so or not), is that religious sources like the bible are credible, that revelatory ways of knowing are possible. Aesthetics doesn’t help them.

    But you two aren’t really arguing about that. You both reject revelation (as you should). So, what we have here is a situation analogous to JAC saying “all forms of flying are a form of lift.” EM says “there are other ways of flying.” Theologians are saying “My magic antigravity device is a way of flying,” while both of you just look at them funny.

  15. Boris Molotov
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    Even if we were to accept the premise that there are truths to be had about said subjects outside the methods of science (I don’t), we still need a framework to discover those truths. Religion and faith provides no framework upon which such truths could in any way be discovered independent of the individual making the claim. So, “back at ‘cha”, I would say.

  16. docbill1351
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    To summarize, Other Ways of Knowing ™ boils down to one word: opinion

    Mozart better than Elvis? Opinion.
    Your morality vs My morality? Opinion.
    Significance of the Kat drawing I made when I was 5? Opinion.
    Catholic theology? Opinion.

    Who can more accurately measure the quantity of barium in seawater can be measured objectively,scientifically, you or me. Who makes the best pastrami sandwich, however, is opinion.

    BTW, on the sandwich front, that would be me. Just saying.

    Thanks for nothing, Eric Chopra.

    • patrickgilmour
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:46 am | Permalink

      Other ways of knowing = Opinion

      Perfect! So clear and obvious.

      I’ll be using it in the pub tonight on my religious apologist friends… over the best beer in the world – Orval!

      • gbjames
        Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

        Best beer in the world? I don’t think so. I have other ways of knowing.

        • docbill1351
          Posted June 7, 2013 at 10:54 am | Permalink

          Fuller’s London Pride in general – the best best.

          Young’s Winter Warmer, best in season.

          8 pints of Guinness in Dublin for a great tan.

          These are scientific facts. See the difference?

          • patrickgilmour
            Posted June 7, 2013 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

            I lived in Ireland for 20 years. I learnt many ways of knowing Guinness in my youth. I agree you are on to something.

            I lived in London for 7 years. I discovered many ways of knowing London Pride too. I agree again you are on to something.

            Youngs I will pass over as it deserves.

            However, I have also been to Belgium innumerable times for work and deep research.

            Let me state then after nigh on three decades of diligent research using “the scientific method” (8 pints? Chicken scratch to some of my controlled experiments) I have come to the irrefutable opinion that Orval is demonstrably the world’s greatest beer. You disagree? Had you been drinking when you came up with your “facts”?

            • gbjames
              Posted June 7, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

              I’ll need to do some more research and see if I can confirm your results.

            • docbill1351
              Posted June 8, 2013 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

              I will find this Orval of which you speak and we will meet again, yes, we will.

    • Diane G.
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 11:10 pm | Permalink


  17. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    Intuition may lead to good results more !*quickly*! than analytic reason, but it is also far more !*fallible*! than analytic reason, and therefore needs corroboration.

    Herein lies the value of the Tolstoy theory about Ivan Illych. Tolstoy may have had enough inbuilt insight to work out his portrait of dying in a way that is more dramatic and hits home more viscerally than scientific studies of the death-process, !*but*! one would not assign to medical students shallow inspirational stories slanted to dubious metaphysical perspectives.

  18. Kelton Barnsley
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    I’m disappointed to see that Dr. Coyne seems not to have grasped Dr. Harris’s argument from The Moral Landscape. Objective moral truths exist because there are better and worse ways, objectively, for conscious creatures to pursue their well-being (individually or collectively). Moral truths do not have to exist “out there”, independent of the minds of conscious creatures, to be objective. Moral truths are objective in the sense of being susceptible to rational discussion and the testing of empirical claims, even though they describe how the subjective experience of conscious creatures relates to the world at large.

    The fact that objective moral truths exist, despite the absence of a deity or free will, is a crucial hilltop in the culture war, and we secularists cede this ground to the religious and their apologists at our peril.

    • Barry Lyons
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      Very nicely said. I’d like to see Jerry’s response. I’m sure there’ll be one forthcoming.

      • Posted June 7, 2013 at 10:37 am | Permalink

        I’ve already published my take on Sam’s views (largely positive) on this site. Nevertheless, I don’t think there are objective moral truths UNLESS you say that anything that maximizes well being is a “moral truth.” But to do that you have to agree that maximizing well being is the criterion of morality, and many people disagree. And how do you weigh different peoples’ well being: that’s often a nonscientific, subjective criterion. Many people think, for example, that torturing someone to death to get information to save a thousand lives, given that there is a chance greater than 1 in a thousand that the person will tell the truth, is still wrong. Many people are not maximizers about morality, but deontologists.

        I happen to agree with Sam in general, but I’m not sure he covers all cases, and at any rate the “well-being” criterion, while widely (but not universally) agreed on, cannot be the basis of every moral judgment, simply because it’s impossible to adjudicate.

        Remember, there is reasonable disagreement about whether “well being” is a criterion for objective morality. And whose well being: society’s as a whole?

        • Posted June 7, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

          “And whose well being?”


          As I said on the other “Eric” post, how big a group do you consider? My family, my tribe, &c. That can extend in time, too: Should we put a limit on our well being now to ensure the the well being of future generations is not diminished?


          • Leigh Jackson
            Posted June 8, 2013 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

            Funny you should say that. On his site Eric mentions Derek Parfit’s “On What Matters” as being influential for his belief in objective morals. Parfit ends his book by saying that what matters most is for us to make sacrifices now so as to protect the planet for the future. I agree, although I do not consider this to be an objective moral truth. I recognise that there is uncertainty about what exactly should be done given uncertain future outcomes due anthropogenic warming. The issue is not a black and white one. There are two groups who see it as such: extreme capitalists and extreme environmentalists. These two groups’ interest in climate science is purely a function of their deeply held personal philosophies, with their their morals being bound up in that too.


        • Kelton Barnsley
          Posted June 9, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

          First off, let me say to Dr. Coyne that I have greatly enjoyed your website and your book, and that I count you and Dr. Harris among my intellectual heroes.

          That said, I still think that you are misunderstanding Sam’s argument. You wrote:

          ‘Nevertheless, I don’t think there are objective moral truths UNLESS you say that anything that maximizes well being is a “moral truth.” But to do that you have to agree that maximizing well being is the criterion of morality, and many people disagree.’

          I don’t many people actually disagree that maximizing well-being is a criterion of morality. But many people are confused about how best to maximize their well-being. People who believe morality consists in obeying God’s law are really concerned about the well-being of themselves, either because they believe that obeying God’s law will bring happiness in this life, or because disobeying it will bring punishment in this or the next life. Psychopaths and others who act in ways that seem contrary to their own and everyone else’s well-being are impaired in some way that prevents them from realizing how happy and fulfilled they would be if they cared more about others. And the fact that there is disagreement over moral issues like how many lives must be at stake to justify torturing one person to death does not suggest that there are no answers in principle, only that the answers to some dilemmas may be very very difficult or even impossible to determine in practice. If we had a full account of what the consequences of torturing that one person to potentially save a thousand lives would be, we would know whether torture was justified in that instance. The details really matter here, and we are unlikely to ever have all of the details. The same is true in medicine and economics.

          As for who’s well-being we should consider: ideally, we should try to maximize everyone’s. Since we are social animals, our well-being tends to depend on the well-being of others, so the best solutions to any problem will be those in which everyone’s well-being is maximized. It may serve a hungry individual’s immediate needs to kill and eat their neighbor, but would this maximize everyone’s well-being? Would a world of cannibals really be worth living in, and aren’t much better schemes of organizing society possible? Couldn’t we imagine (and take steps toward creating) a society which does a better job of maximizing everyone’s well-being?

          • Leigh Jackson
            Posted June 10, 2013 at 4:36 am | Permalink

            What is the good of an objective moral truth that cannot be known? It is precisely the unknowability of what is ultimately going to create optimum well-being, if such a thing exists or even makes sense, which ensures the subjective nature of morality.

            Idealism is a luxury that many people abandon when the chips are down. There is a reason for that. It’s called survival of the fittest.

            • Kelton Barnsley
              Posted June 10, 2013 at 5:56 am | Permalink

              “Idealism is a luxury that many people abandon when the chips are down. There is a reason for that. It’s called survival of the fittest.”

              The fact that people often fail to behave as morally as they could (that is, they act in ways which do not maximize their well-being) does not suggest that there are no facts about how they could best maximize their well-being (i.e., facts about what they should do).

              • Leigh Jackson
                Posted June 11, 2013 at 8:47 am | Permalink

                Survival is maximising the well being of the individual. Therefore it is moral? No, it’s just nature’s design.

    • gbjames
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 10:01 am | Permalink


      • Kelton Barnsley
        Posted June 11, 2013 at 9:16 am | Permalink

        This is a response to Leigh Jackson’s comment above (for some reason it wouldn’t let me reply directly to that comment).

        Survival is not equivalent to maximizing one’s well-being. Survival is merely maximizing one’s chances for reproductive success. Evolution does not select for us to live happy, fulfilling lives. It only selects for us to produce and raise healthy children who will themselves produce and raise healthy children. The behavior of rape probably was selected for because it raised a man’s chances of having many offspring, but I doubt many rapists would claim to be deeply happy and fulfilled (even if they got away with it and were not languishing in prison).

        This is why it is so important that we acknowledge the possibility and necessity of speaking objectively about morality. Evolution has not designed us to be happy, or even to survive in a world of nuclear weapons and the internet. If we don’t figure out what’s good for us, we will be doomed to keep on seeking what is bad for us, for as long as we have left as a species.

    • Gary W
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 10:16 am | Permalink

      Objective moral truths exist because there are better and worse ways, objectively, for conscious creatures to pursue their well-being (individually or collectively).

      The fact that there are objectively better and worse ways for conscious creatures to pursue their well-being does not mean that it is objectively true that conscious creatures ought (or ought not) to pursue their well-being.

      You’re confusing physical effects, which are a matter of objective truth, with moral beliefs, which are a matter of preference.

      • Kelton Barnsley
        Posted June 7, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

        “The fact that there are objectively better and worse ways for conscious creatures to pursue their well-being does not mean that it is objectively true that conscious creatures ought (or ought not) to pursue their well-being.”

        This objection could equally apply to medicine:

        The fact that there are objectively better and worse ways for conscious creatures to promote their physical health and vigor does not mean that it is objectively true that conscious creatures ought (or ought not) to promote their physical health and vigor.

        Or any science:

        The fact that there are objectively better and worse ways to interpret the data of an experiment does not mean it is objectively true that scientists ought (or ought not) to base their conclusions on empirical data.

        • Gary W
          Posted June 7, 2013 at 10:33 am | Permalink

          Yes. So what?

          • Kelton Barnsley
            Posted June 9, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

            So if this lack of an a priori justification for doing medicine or physics is not the death knell of these disciplines, why would it be for a science of morality?

      • Florian
        Posted June 7, 2013 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

        I’d like to correct what I’ve written here:

        No less do we know that many other beliefs are wrong, two of which are “Throwing acid in girls’ faces is an acceptable course of action” and “Females shouldn’t learn how to read”.

        Here, I mistakenly gave examples NOT of false (basic) beliefs (about the world) but of an ethical attitude based on another attitude which then (in the end) is based on false beliefs. THOSE BELIEFS is what I should have given as examples.

        The attitude that girls shouldn’t HAVE THE RIGHT to an education doesn’t work without e.g. the belief that females (by nature) ARE INFERIOR to males. Inferior measured in terms of… what? Intelligence? THAT would finally be a basic claim that can be scientifically discussed. A claim that we can claim to KNOW to be wrong.
        It should be needless to say that this claim not only has never been proven right but also is stupid on its face. But as long as some people believe it, in spite of what science says, it is NOT needless to point out what science says. It should be considered the duty of scientists (and all rational people) to say out loud that the claim is wrong. And that related claims are also wrong, e.g. a claim that treating parts of society as if they were inferior does NOT reduce their well-being, and in turn the well-being of the whole society). And that THEREFORE all ethical opinions based on these claims are wrong, too.

        Hope I’ve made a little clearer what I mean. 🙂

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted June 8, 2013 at 9:45 am | Permalink

      there are better and worse ways, objectively, for conscious creatures to pursue their well-being (individually or collectively).
      Better and worse for whom? And what are the SI units in which you measure better and worse?
      Much bs has been talked about moral relativism, but even Einsteinian special relativism would refute your claim (or Sam’s, if it’s his). If each conscious* creature* acted optimally* for its own well-being*… well, it’d never happen in an evolved world, even if those (*) terms could be pinned down as having precise meanings. I deny that there is any objectivity there, because morally relevant circumstances cannot be replicated. But perhaps, when pushed, the claim reduces to “there is a science of behavioural ecology”.

    • Leigh Jackson
      Posted June 8, 2013 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      “The fact that objective moral truths exist, despite the absence of a deity or free will, is a crucial hilltop in the culture war, and we secularists cede this ground to the religious and their apologists at our peril.”

      For me what is important is whether or not there are objective moral truths, whether or not there is a God etc. I don’t believe either exist. There is a serious challenge for atheists to face up to if objective moral truths do not exist. I think Sam’s foray into the marsh are dismal.

    • Leigh Jackson
      Posted June 8, 2013 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

      “Objective moral truths exist because there are better and worse ways, objectively, for conscious creatures to pursue their well-being (individually or collectively).”

      Sometimes it apppears quite clear to us what would increase our well being; sometimes it is not at all clear and we often struggle with our consciences about how to act, finally plumping one way or the other alomost randomly. This is because many choices are such that we know that we can’t be sure what choice is for the best. Sometimes we make different choices at different times in our live – and not necessarily better choices when we are older and supposedly wiser. In short, our moral lives can be horribly messy. I just don’t believe these majestic objective moral truths arise miraculously out of this miasma of uncertainty and conflicting desires and interests.

  19. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Ooh, well done!

    MacDonald’s claim,

    the claim that science is the only way of knowing is not itself a proposition of science.

    is a serious misunderstanding of what science is. Science doesn’t make “propositions”, it is a method that uncovers what “propositions” nature does. Je n’avais pas besoin de cette proposition-là.

    Never once having made an assumption that can’t in principle be tested as a constraint later, and then always is, science has observed that its empiricism is, writ large to include technology et cetera, what uniquely has worked to uncover knowledge.

    Scientism in this sense is a well supported observation, not a throw away assumption that may or may not be true.

    Scientism in the other oft used sense, as physicalism or that everything is physics, is also a well supported observation with the advent of the inflationary standard model of cosmology. It was never an apriori “proposition” (assumption) that the whole universe could be understood as a physical system. But observation and testing found it could and it is.

    Of course one may suspect that one sense is related to another. What success could empiricism see, if nature wasn’t dominated by physical objects and their interactions?

    Still, the question isn’t physicalism, which is expected out of parsimony once you get the ball rolling in science and find no show stoppers. The remaining question is that empiricism is so powerful (no show stoppers).* Who ordered that?

    Which of course leads up to this nugget on axiomatic (propositional) systems:

    It is an observation about what follows from assumptions about a logical system, not something that can be verified by observing nature.

    * Maybe one should suspect the relation goes the other way as well. If physics is so powerful that entire universes arise as spontaneous products of simple laws, maybe simple methods are equally powerful to understand universes with finite resources.

    I am just curious which specific constraints make empiricism so successful on the large scale. As Jerry says, the small scale is a no-brainer (evolution).

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      entire universes arise as spontaneous products of simple laws

      OT, but I have thought about the problem of “understanding the infinite with finite resources” for so long and just now I realized why that is. Prompted by viewing Susskind’s youtubes on cosmology, he describes how vacuum energy/inflation:

      a) Is responsible for our universe having an event horizon, a spacetime volume with a finite spatial scale, because it sets up exponential expansion (during inflation and at late times) moving objects beyond our observable universe.

      b) Is responsible for our universe having a largely erased early history (something that Planck results are argued over – all gone or some information left with other fields), but a dominantly new history of structure formation from primordial field fluctuations.

      So of course, a universe we would find livable, mostly flat so large enough and long lived enough, but with structure, is also a universe with a finite outcome.* I have looked at its possibly infinite extent and its certifiably infinite future, but the finite “holographic” event horizon scheme of recent cosmology has much to recommend here. (Whether it is an actual fact or a mere possibility.)

      So I have to move over empirical schemes on all scales to the evolutionary expectation of “it works, bitches”.

      *Not only are we then darwinian “pond scum”, we are temporary by our very nature.

      Another Sagan-ian retreat.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted June 7, 2013 at 11:20 am | Permalink

        “early history” – earlier history.

      • Diane G.
        Posted June 7, 2013 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

        And I find that oddly comforting.

  20. Jonathan Houser
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    I think Jerry’s reasoning is circular. Science is the only way of knowing because if you don’t know it empirically (scientifically) then you don’t really know it.

    In order to arrive at Jerry’s conclusion, one must broaden the definition of “science” to include getting a clog out of a drain, and narrow “knowledge” to mean only things that you can personally verify empirically. Which, as I mentioned in the outset is just a way of creating a circular definition and then declaring oneself correct.

    As much as I respect Jerry intellectually, I think he’s just being stubborn on this topic. And I think that stubborness is out of a desire to not accidentally give ground to theology. As if by admitting that one can have knowledge without science, then theology is suddenly respectable (it isn’t.) And so he throws the baby out with the bathwater. It is ok so say that math provides knowledge without having to epistemic shuffle to say that it provides “understanding” but not “knowledge.”

    It is perfectly ok to say that we can have “knowledge” about abstract systems without in turn tipping one’s hat to theology. Theology is stupid not because it claims to have knowledge without science, but because it claims to have scientific knowledge without science, and then tries to get around that by saying that it isn’t really scientific knowledge because it is beyond science. It is perfectly possible to say that there exists “ways of knowing” outside of science without giving any credence to theology.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think Jerry (or Eric) is saying this at all. Science is a means to knowledge. I don’t see the circle. It goes I wonder what that means/is > let’s apply science > now I know….

      I only quibble in that I think art can be “knowable” in a larger historical sense not just aesthetic and I think literature can teach us knowable larger things.

      Yes there is a broader definition of science applied here for discussion (and I quibble for larger reasons as I’ve noted) but that doesn’t make the argument circular.

    • couchloc
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      This is right and I think Houser is right about the motivations here too. It seems that Jerry’s way of approaching the epistemological question of the nature of knowledge (“ways of knowing”) is not to look independently into the various types of claims to knowledge that are made and consider the various possible standards that exist, weighing their merits, and such. But to try to construct an account of knowledge that he believes is needed to do battle with religion. One gets something of the same impression from his discussions of free will. (“Well, the folk believe free will is necessary for religion, so one of the best ways to attack religion is to attack the existence of free will. So that is what I will do!”). This way of approaching the subject seems a wee-bit ideologically driven and leads one into all sorts of difficulties that Houser is hinting at. Better to allow that math and the other areas count as forms of knowledge and do battle with religion in terms of the specific claims it makes.

    • Gary W
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      Jonathan Houser,

      Definition of terms:

      “knowledge” = justified true belief.

      “reason” = rational inquiry; logic

      “science” = the acquisition of knowledge through the application of reason to the results of empirical observation and experiment. This includes not just formal scientific knowledge, but everyday knowledge about people, places and things.

      If you think there is a “way of knowing” other than science and reason, then tell us what it is, and give us some examples of knowledge that you think it has produced.

      • Tim Harris
        Posted June 7, 2013 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

        If you are going to define knowledge Platonically as ‘justified true belief’, it makes things very easy and simple. But the verb ‘to know’ and the noun ‘knowledge’ have been used for centuries to talk about things like knowing a language, knowing how to do something (to play Hummel’s piano concerto, say, or to add and substract), knowing ‘Macbeth’,knowing a person, a baby’s knowing instinctively how to suckle. Are these usages wrong?

        • Gary W
          Posted June 7, 2013 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

          “Justified true belief” is the standard definition in epistemology regarding propositional knowledge (i.e., knowing that a proposition is true). And it seems fairly accurate in terms of how the word is actually used, in both formal and informal contexts. If you don’t like it, what superior alternative definition do you propose?

      • Posted June 8, 2013 at 5:37 am | Permalink

        The question is: Can you empirically justify all true beliefs that can be justified? If you can’t, then there must be another way of knowing than science, since it relies on empirical observation. And it turns out that you can’t justify the claim that all true beliefs that can be justified must be justified empirically using empirically observation and experiment without making a circular argument (trying to justify empirical methods with empirical methods). So, then, either you wouldn’t know that claim — and so wouldn’t be justified in thinking it true — or else you know it through non-empirical means … which then implies that we have another way of knowing than science.

        • marvol19
          Posted June 8, 2013 at 6:28 am | Permalink

          There’s no need for science to prove that *all* true beliefs can be empirically justified (a priori or in principle). I believe Jerry has mentioned this a few times here, too.

          All science needs to do is empirically prove the true belief claim in front of it. Science has been doing that for quite a few empirically justifiable claims throughout its history.

          Any definition of knowledge that excludes the necessity of independence of observer, reproducibility, leading to verifiable predictions, and suchlike, is not worth its salt. You night then as well define it as “knowledge is shit my dad says”.

          Unfortunately every single “other way of knowing” so far has been found to be missing these essential ingredients (divine revelation, psychic phenomena, mind-reading). Until this problem is solved, science and similar (related) processes are indeed the only way of knowing.

  21. Andrew
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful that Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape has been mentioned! I am now reading it attentitvely and, based on a lot of supposedly informed criticism I had read previously, I now realise that Sam anticipated most of the criticism that seem to come up again and again, one of ehich was answered at 10:2AM and totally missed or ignored by 10:33 AM, for example.

    I think Sam answers the questions raised by Jerry:
    “But to do that you have to agree that maximizing well being is the criterion of morality, and many people disagree. And how do you weigh different peoples’ well being: that’s often a nonscientific, subjective criterion. ”

    with the analogy of well-being to health. just as we are selective in practise about the ways in which we define “healthy”, e.g., blood pressure values, absence of disease X or Y, BMI, ectc., it seems like special pleqading to require more precision for “well-being”, which could be the absene fo symptoms of depression or anxiety, scores on self-report questionnaires or possibly particular fMRI image data parameters.

    And while people may claim thet there are other criteria for assessing the morality of certain actions than well-being, not ONE critic that I have read has either 1) shown that all other criteria don’t ultimately mask the well-being of some conscious creature [WBoCC] ( natural or supernatural) in this life of the next20 or that their criterion is not as absurd as considering morbid obesity or a preference for for blue rather than green shirts as criteria for “health” in a medical sense.

    in his book, Sam correctly observes that attacks against the difficulty of adjudicating specific moral problems –such as the ethics of coercion, deception, or even mind control in fighting crime or terrorism– as deal-breakers for his use of WBoCC is as valid as arguing to ditch the study of oncoloy because physicians might argue over whether a particular case would be bweter treated by different applications of surgery, radiation or chemotherapy.

    • Gary W
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

      with the analogy of well-being to health. just as we are selective in practise about the ways in which we define “healthy”, e.g., blood pressure values, absence of disease X or Y, BMI, ectc., it seems like special pleqading to require more precision for “well-being”, which could be the absene fo symptoms of depression or anxiety, scores on self-report questionnaires or possibly particular fMRI image data parameters.

      This observation does not answer the problem with defining morality in terms of promoting “well-being.” You’re merely pointing out that the same problem would apply to defining morality in terms of promoting health.

      And not only are there different and conflicting definitions of “well-being,” but you offer no argument as to why “we OUGHT to promote well-being” is a true proposition, period.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

      Hi Andrew

      I have no idea what the para below means. Brain ache. Can you break it down for me?


      What does “…mask the well being of…” mean?

      Where’s point 2] or is that the part that starts “…or that their criterion is…”? If so what does point 2] mean?

      And while people may claim thet there are other criteria for assessing the morality of certain actions than well-being, not ONE critic that I have read has either 1) shown that all other criteria don’t ultimately mask the well-being of some conscious creature [WBoCC] ( natural or supernatural) in this life of the next20 or that their criterion is not as absurd as considering morbid obesity or a preference for for blue rather than green shirts as criteria for “health” in a medical sense.

      Sorry. It’s all gobbledegook to me.

  22. Posted June 7, 2013 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    So, per UE, his opinion is the unalterable truth be cause he “knows” that he’s right. Not surprising that someone who seems to want to claim that magical fairies exist would want to claim that baseless claims are twue! twue!

    • Diane G.
      Posted June 7, 2013 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

      Only he’s not a fairy-ist, is he?

      • Posted June 8, 2013 at 9:33 am | Permalink

        In my opinion believing that one’s baseless opinion is the truth is nothing more than believing in one’s own fairies being real. He has decided that his version of reality is true, nothing different from a theist deciding that his version of his religion is the only true one. The deity/fairy never exists in either case.

        • Diane G.
          Posted June 8, 2013 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

          I understand. And that’s hard to disagree with.

  23. Zack Edwards
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne is a moral absolutist without realizing it. He claims that it is better to adhere to the truth, even when uncomfortable, than to reject the truth in favor of one’s prejudices, even when comfortable. Better to accept the objective facts about evolution, even if uncomfortable, than to lazily reaffirm one’s own prejudices. Better to abandon the claims of religion, because they are not true, than to go on comforting oneself with illusions.

    What’s the common thread in these injunctions? Truth surpasses falsehood. In this sense, Dr. Coyne is not only a moral absolutist, he’s positively medieval. That’s a compliment.

    It won’t do to invoke consequentialism either, as C. S. Lewis notes:

    …As if the maxim “Thou shalt promote the good of the community” were anything more than a polysyllabic variant of ‘Do as you would be done by’ which has itself no other basis than the old universal value judgment that he claims to be rejecting. (Poison of Subjectivism)

  24. marvol19
    Posted June 8, 2013 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    I’m glad you mention this, because it is precisely my sentiment, too:

    “How can you test your claim that Mozart is better than Hummel by checking it against the real world? All you can find out is that many people think that Mozart is better than Hummel. But others may dissent, and who can prove them wrong?”

    It’s indeed merely a matter of numbers of people stating their “belief that X”.

    One problem is, for instance, that two of the great three composers as we now view them – JS Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart – were somewhere between obscure and forgotten during or shortly after their lifetimes. How’s that? Were they not great then? Did our definition of greatness change? Similarly there have been very famous composers during their lifetimes that are now (almost) forgotten.

    A second problem is that of sliding scales. Yes, maybe, Mozart and Hummel are far apart and most (but not all!) people will agree on this. But the space between them can be filled by a multitude of composers with increasing debate over who is greater compared to another. In the end you have to conclude there is nothing objective about it.

    I think the causative problem is that this a matter of linguistics, not a ‘way of knowing’ like science is, and ‘greatness’ is not defined precisely.

  25. Andrew
    Posted June 8, 2013 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    Sorry for the delay in replying: real life intruded very insistently on my posting time yesterday.
    I’ll respond in order:

    Gary W:
    The issue is this, as I (and I think Sam Harris) see it. We both realize that in a purely abstract philosophical sense, that any “purpose” for morality is somewhat arbitrary, just as the “metarationale” (if I can coin a clumsy term) for science as “trying to understand the physical world” is arbitrary.
    We could just as well assert that the purpose of science is to justify our most cherished intuitions and be as justified. However, no one involved in science takes this rationale seriously, just as no one who practices medicine would admit that their justification was to have the opportunity to legally inflict as much pain on others as possible, since it runs counter the generally accepted rationales which tend to orbit around notions of reducing pain, preventing premature death, etc.
    So in responding to your objection that Harris’ “well-being” criterion is, to an extent, arbitrary when asserted on its own, I think it becomes less so in the absence of a better reason for a moral code. Clearly morality serves some evolutionary purpose since we can see increasing analogous examples of moral transactions as we move closer to humans in the phylogenetic tree. Our closest relatives such as dogs, baboons, gorillas, chimps and bonobos show increasingly sophisticated moral behaviours. Most of these have apparent social utility, reflect concerns for their fellows and seem to illustrate characteristics we might call empathy, concern for fairness etc, which fall into the general category of concern with one and one’s fellows’ well-being.
    And while there is no a priori reason why one OUGHT not to consider the alternate rationales for practising medicine or doing science I suggested above as valid, they don’t seem to be framed in such a way as to reflect the values that inform the practice of these things and it seems that these goals may not be best achieved by their associated activities. As a result, we don’t consider creationists as practising science, nor do we consider Joseph Mengele as a model practitioner of medicine. So clearly a priori rationales are not as arbitrary in practice as they might seem in an academic philosophy discussion group.
    How is morality any different, and what criterion would be superior to WBoCC as a “measure’ of the moral rightness of an action?

    Michael Fisher: Sorry for the typos and the telegraphic style. I’m not as articulate as I would like and in this sort of discussion am often walking a tightrope between essay and incomprehensibility. What I was trying to get at is similar to what I was saying in my response to Gary W. How do Harris, and now me —since I agree with his assertion of WBoCC as the purpose and measure of moral progress— justify that this OUGHT ought to be? When people say “but making WBoCC the litmus test of moral progress is just arbitrary, it’s your opinion” how can that be answered? Many of them don’t suggest alternatives. They can be dismissed outright because the only alternative to suggesting that morality serves some purpose, is that it doesn’t. As I alluded to above, moral behaviours are present throughout the literature on animal behaviour. There is even a neat little paper on altruism in slime molds, although I think that sort of altruism can probably be safely considered “pre-moral”. Clearly behaviour choices that we would call moral have survival value so they serve a purpose. Every tribe of humans has developed a moral code and they (almost) all punish similar behaviours and reward others. If we use the “Golden Rule” as an example of a moral rule that is explicitly present in the moral admonitions of human cultures in many times and locations. Day to day experience tells us that people are always putting large and small moral judgements into action: apologising, holding doors, allowing other divers to cut in, honking at pedestrians crossing against the light, etc. So, morality has some purpose and it is important to the vast majority of us. What is this purpose? Sam Harris has an answer. If his is arbitrary, then propose another and show how it is equally good since, just like the Golden Rule, it is hard to come up with a moral rule that does not have the WBoCC as its ultimate motivation. So my point 1: rules of purity, propriety, ritual have at their root, propitiation of a good or safeguarding the well-being of people by propitiating a good, thus critics need to come up with a least one moral that CANNOT have the well-being of SOME conscious creature as a goal. Typos made the next part hard to follow and should read “…in this life or the next, 2) or that their…
    In 2) I was continuing the analogy of morality to health. The purpose is not to say that morality affects health, but rather that we all feel secure in general when we talk about things being “healthy” or “unhealthy”, and the philosophical pedants don’t all rush in and say, “but you’re only saying that average health in Sweden is better than in Sierra Leone because of your arbitrary definition of what is ‘healthy’ ”. And further, I am arguing that if and I consider it a big IF, someone can come up with a moral rule not based on the WBoCC , the it would be as relevant to our lives as the shirt colour preference is to one’s health in point 2). In other words, not at all. At this point I think it is useful to re-consider Sam Harris’ suggestion to consider what Morality would mean for a universe without life, consisting only of rocks.

  26. Andrew
    Posted June 8, 2013 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    sorry “propitiation of a god”

  27. Genghis
    Posted June 9, 2013 at 3:00 am | Permalink

    Pushing ID is like pushing on a string.

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