Morality proves God, take #197

I’ve written before about National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins’s claim that “the Moral Law”—that is, the instinctive feelings of right and wrong we experience when, say, we see a drowning child or a cheater—are evidence for God. For, claims Collins, there’s no way to explain such instinctive feelings by evolution or other naturalistic processes.  In this way Collins, an evangelical Christian, violates his own admonition to fellow believers to avoid god-of-the-gaps arguments.

The Argument for God from Morality is common, and, as I show in FvF, deeply flawed. Plato’s Euthyphro Argument kills dead any claim that morality derives from God. And even if it did, what do we do with the bullying, misogynistic, homophobic, rape-and-genocide-approving God of the Old Testament? Did He change his mind some time during the last 6000 years? In the end, we can see that religion can serve only as a sustainer or reinforcer of morality that comes from sources other than God. It can indeed serve this function for some people, but the observation that diverse religions promote drastically different (and often conflicting) moral codes puts paid to the notion that there is a universal religious morality.

My view is that morality is a combination of evolved feelings that were adaptive for our ancestors who lived in small social groups, overlain with a veneer of largely consequentialist morality that comes from our evolved reason. That is, we can figure out ways to behave that are good in our modern society, which explains why what is considered “moral” changes over time. (Religion can’t explain that without invoking secular reason.)

At any rate, a friend who will remain unnamed told me that I should pay attention to the website The Conversation, which, he said, published good and thoughtful stuff.  Well, it might, but he then pointed me to an article called “Morality requires a god, whether you’re religious or not,” by Gerald K. Harrison. My friend, who’s an atheist, thought the article deserved a look, but it was so dreadful, so ridden with holes, that it’s put me off the whole website. What kind of intelligent website would publish an argument that I’ll present briefly below, and argument that would be graded “F” by a first-year philosophy student? Moreover, its author, Gerald K. Harrison, works at a secular university, Massey University in New Zealand, and if he teaches this stuff to his students I’d be appalled.  It simply goes to show you that, contra Massimo Pigliucci, someone with real philosophy credentials (Harrison has a philosophy Ph.D. from Durham University) can be taken apart by a mere biologist, or by anyone who reads his website!

The argument proceeds via four assertions, each deeply flawed (the indented text is Harrison’s):

  1. Moral commands are commands.

Take moral commands. It is trivially true that a moral command is a command. A command is a command, right? It is also true that commands (real ones, rather than apparent or metaphorical ones) are always the commands of an agent, a mind with beliefs and desires. My chair cannot command me to sit in it. And commands cannot issue themselves. It follows that moral commands are the commands of an agent or agents.

They are not commands in the traditional sense, but feelings or opinions that guide your behavior. And, like the feelings of hunger or love, they need not be “issued by an agent”.  They can be evolved feelings and emotions, and then who is the “agent”? Natural selection? Or, they can be arrived at by reason, and reason is the result of cogitation involving experience, genes, and the influence of others.  The use of the word “agent” here is of course designed to make us think that there is a god behind it all. This is reinforced by his point #2.

2. Only agents can issue commands – so moral commands are the commands of an agent or agents. 

Many philosophers maintain that moral commands are commands of reason. They are right, I think. But the point still stands. Reason’s commands are commands. Therefore, reason’s commands are the commands of an agent or agents.

This is verging on lunacy.  We have feelings about all kinds of things, many instilled by natural selection. We feel love and kinship, for instance, and those aren’t different in substance (or origin, I think) from moral feelings. Is there an agent telling you to fall in love, or feel closer to your own children than to other peoples’? Is there an agent commanding you to solve a math problem using reason?

3. Moral commands have an external source – so moral commands are the commands of an external agent or agents. 

We are agents. Could moral commands be our commands? That does not seem plausible. For one thing, it would mean we could make anything morally right just by commanding ourselves to do it. That doesn’t appear to work – and we can test that easily enough. Command yourself to do something that has hitherto seemed obviously wrong to you – physically assaulting someone, say – and see if it suddenly starts to seem morally right to assault someone now.

But of course if moral feelings come from evolution, reason, and what we’re taught by others, then they derive from either natural selection promoting specific feelings or are the byproducts of reason and emotions that derive from natural selection. In other words, they’re coded in our neurons, which are built by our genes and our environments. Just because you can’t make yourself feel differently about what’s “right” (and I’m not sure you can’t, given the way people resolve cognitive dissonance), doesn’t mean that there are one or two people out there making you feel the way you do. If moral feelings are internalized, then of course they’ll be hard to dispel. But you see where Harrison’s going here: the external agent will be God. Harrison has already decided what he wants to show before he starts his argument, and hasn’t considered alternatives. This is one way that his piece differs not only from secular philosophy, but from good philosophy.

4. All moral commands have a single source across all of us and all time.

Another basic truth about moral commands (and the commands of reason more generally) is that they have a single source across all of us. This can be demonstrated by the fact that “Tim is morally commanded to X” and “Tim is morally commanded not to X” are clearly contradictory statements. They cannot both be true.

Yet, there would be no necessary contradiction if moral commands could have different ultimate sources. And as those statements contradict each other whenever or wherever they are made, moral commands must have a single unifying source across all space and time.

Well, sadly, different people are “commanded” to do different things. In Saudi Arabia, people are “commanded” to kill apostates, gays, and infidels, and to stone adulterers. In the U.S., we are “commanded” (well, most of us) to leave such people alone, and to treat gays, women, and unbelievers as equals, or at least not kill them. That alone contradicts proposition #4, but maybe I am misunderstanding what Harrison is saying here. If there is a single unifying source of morality, that single source gives different people and different societies different commands, and moreover those commands also change over time (viz., compare the Old Testament versus now).

5. Ergo, God.  

We are heavily influenced by moral commands and other commands of reason. Thus, this single agency is immensely influential. Moral commands are, then, the commands of a unique, external, eternal agent who has colossal influence over virtually all of us.

It is no abuse of the term to describe this agency as a kind of god. Thus, the commands of morality (and the commands of reason more generally) require a god because they are, and can only be, the commands of one.

If that’s not philosophical weaseling (really? “kind of god”?), I don’t know what is. Harrison hasn’t even proven a single agent issuing “commands,” much less that moral feelings even are “issued commands” or that there is one external source of those commands across all time. (What happened to “agent or agents”? Why couldn’t the “commands,” if they exist, be issued by a committee of gods.)

Harrison then asks, “but what if there are no gods”? Good question! His argument falls apart completely if there is no god, for then we simply wouldn’t have moral feelings and we’d all be killing and looting in the streets. Fortunately, Harrison has a kicker here:

6. Reason requires a god, too.  (JAC’s words).  Harrison says this:

Well, if that is the case [if there are no gods] all moral and rational appearances constitute illusions and all our moral beliefs are false. Happily, however, there seems no rational way to reach this conclusion. If the commands of reason really do require a god, then that god exists beyond reasonable doubt.

For any argument that sought to show that a god does not exist would have to appeal to some commands of reason, and thus would have to presuppose the existence of the very thing it is denying. The same applies to any argument that seeks to show that the commands of reason do not exist in reality. All such arguments undermine themselves.

Thus, if the commands of reason are – and can only be – the commands of a god, then that god exists indubitably.

There are of course ways to determine if beliefs have the intended consequences, and to do that rationally. If we are consequentialists, and see morality as producing certain results in society, well, those moral “commands” can be tested.  And notice the segue he makes between “moral commands” and “commands of reason.” Those are not equivalent, nor has he shown them to be. He’s just slipped in another assumption here—that reason comes only from God. But of course reason can come from natural selection and experience as well, so there’s another alternative Harrison hasn’t considered.

I don’t want to go further; the argument above is a hash of false assumptions, seasoned with a failure to consider alternative explanations. The whole argument is simply confected a posteriori to arrive at Harrison’s preferred conclusions.  Anybody with two neurons to rub together can give alternative explanations for moral sentiments that have a purely secular basis.

If this is the rigor of Harrison’s thinking, I feel sorry for his students at Massey.

 

 

105 Comments

  1. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted May 30, 2015 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    He missed out the zeroth assumption:

    0) Assume there is a god interested in what people do, just like the one I’m thinking of.

  2. Adam Pack
    Posted May 30, 2015 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Point 4 seems to be even stupider than you say, since a person can feel morally ‘commanded’ to do two incompatible things. Hasn’t he ever been in a moral quandary? ‘We should free these people’ vs ‘we shouldn’t get into a big war’, or ‘it’s wrong to have an affair’ vs ‘if I dump this woman, she’ll top herself’? (The second is taken from fiction, of course; the first is taken from most things that have happened in the last couple of centuries).

  3. Lynn David
    Posted May 30, 2015 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Harrison’s ‘kind of god’ could just as well be our various mothers (and/or fathers).

  4. NewEnglandBob
    Posted May 30, 2015 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    If the commands of reason really do require a god, then that god exists beyond reasonable doubt.

    This is one of the dumbest ‘philosophy’ quotes I have ever read. He intentionally broke the Internet. -42

    This mis-reasoning would be poor for a 14 year old, let alone. Philosophy PhD. His degree must be from Walmart ( or Liberty?)

  5. GBJames
    Posted May 30, 2015 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    sub

  6. noncarborundum
    Posted May 30, 2015 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    There’s really nothing here that you couldn’t find (expressed perhaps a bit more gracefully) in the works of C. S. Lewis. Not that that’s a recommendation.

    • JJH
      Posted May 30, 2015 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

      I love Lewis.

      Lewis, why were you an atheist? Problem of evil.

      What made you change your mind and become a theist? Well, it started with, if there is omni-god I wouldn’t be able to understand good and evil in his mind.

      But, what really convinced you? We all have an innate sense of what constitutes good and evil that must come from god.

      Man, there should be a lack of self awareness award named after him.

  7. Scientifik
    Posted May 30, 2015 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    “I’ve written before about National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins’s claim that “the Moral Law”—that is, the instinctive feelings of right and wrong we experience when, say, we see a drowning child or a cheater—are evidence for God.”

    I can’t help but wonder if Prof. Collins realizes that we aren’t the only animals who experience “the instinctive feelings of right and wrong”…

    Two Monkeys Were Paid Unequally

    ^Clearly it must have been God who made the monkey in the video to behave the way it did. SMH…

    • Frank
      Posted May 30, 2015 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      Collins rose to fame on the basis of his work in the early development of genomics, and has received lots of praise regarding his professional expertise from non-biologists (like Hitchens), but I have never been impressed with his basic reasoning skills.

      When he claims that evolution “could not” have produced this or that (“instinctive feelings” of altruism), he is merely exposing his rather poor understanding of modern evolutionary biology. I regard him as a less extreme version of Ben Carson, who could have a career as a pediatric neurosurgeon but babbles nonsense when he considers evolution, or the age of the Earth, or other ordinary facts in science. Collins is the NIH director; Carson has some number of misinformed people hoping he will be President.

      • Michael Waterhouse
        Posted May 31, 2015 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

        I agree completely.
        He could try reading the ‘Moral Animal’. It doesn’t have to be completely right but at least it provides a way of understanding these things.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted May 30, 2015 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

      I can’t help but wonder if Prof. Collins realizes that we aren’t the only animals who experience “the instinctive feelings of right and wrong”…

      Sam Harris went to town on this back in 2009. Collins doesn’t seem to have learned anything since then.

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted May 30, 2015 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

        Completely awesome essay. Thank you for pointing it out!

  8. Mark R.
    Posted May 30, 2015 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    I’m a little hungover today, and Harrison just made it worse.

    And this pitiful statement would have given me a headache had I not over-indulged last night.

    We are heavily influenced by moral commands and other commands of reason. Thus, this single agency is immensely influential. Moral commands are, then, the commands of a unique, external, eternal agent who has colossal influence over virtually all of us.

  9. Posted May 30, 2015 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    The sad part about assumptions is that everyone assumes they are true. Why, that’s pretty much the definition of “assumption,” something any reasonable person would think is true, and they are reasonable people, no? Once someone has decided that, anyone who disagrees is unreasonable.

  10. Pliny the in Between
    Posted May 30, 2015 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    It would be a great service to the rest of us mere mortals if philosophers spent more time studying the difference between sound and valid logical arguments

    • Diane G.
      Posted May 31, 2015 at 3:16 am | Permalink

      Or sat on the tops of distant mountains, dispensing wisdom to those who chose to climb for it…

    • Michael Waterhouse
      Posted May 31, 2015 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

      I don’t know what is wrong with how he learned philosophy, but learning valid logical arguments should be and was the core of philosophy when I did it.

      Necessary and sufficient conditions, all the way down.

  11. Sastra
    Posted May 30, 2015 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    The first problem here which jumped out at me is the incredibly loose way he’s throwing around the term “command.”

    Wtf? It’s a deepity, with interpretations, meanings, and applications which run all over the place. “Duty commands respect.” “The officer commands his troops.” “The placement of one thing next to another thing commands that we designate the resulting set by the number ‘2.’” Or not.

    Why stop at the “commands” of morality? The colorful falling leaves tell us that winter is coming. OMG, leaves can talk! They’re telling us. Something is “telling” things, and that requires an agent behind it. Let’s reify our vocabulary and stand back in amazement at what we have now uncovered using nothing but words.

    So no, Harrison’s article doesn’t command attention, and does not seem to constitute much of a commanding presence at the Conversation website.

    • Roger
      Posted May 30, 2015 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

      They will know we are apologists by our equivocations by our equivocations. (Apologies to Peter R. Scholtes http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/They'll_Know_We_Are_Christians )

    • rickflick
      Posted May 30, 2015 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

      But look how many times he uses the term “command”. He must know what he’s talking about. If he’s willing to abuse the term so many times he must be right. Right? 😎

  12. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted May 30, 2015 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    This is about as deep as the lame old argument that goes something like:

    Jesus claimed to be the son of God.
    Jesus was very honest and would not lie.
    Therefore, J. was the S.o.G.

    • Posted May 30, 2015 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

      I’m not so sure about that. Yes, in the Gospels he refers to God many times as “my father”, but keep in mind he also taught a crowd a prayer that begins with “our father.”

      • noncarborundum
        Posted May 30, 2015 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

        Not only that, but even granting that Jesus was a historical person, we don’t know how much of what he’s quoted as saying in the Gospels actually came out of his mouth. We just know what was attributed to him by anonymous authors writing many decades after his death.

        • Diane G.
          Posted May 31, 2015 at 3:18 am | Permalink

          Guys, your taking that too seriously! 😀

  13. EvolvedDutchie
    Posted May 30, 2015 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Reason requires a brain, not a god.

  14. Posted May 30, 2015 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    I think this response should suffice.

  15. Steve Gerrard
    Posted May 30, 2015 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    “Moral commands are, then, the commands of a unique, external, eternal agent who has colossal influence over virtually all of us.”

    Automatically eternal, I guess, and a who not a what, because all unique external agents are, don’t you know.

    I don’t get why a philosophy professor would even publish such a simple minded, trivial, shallow ditty on morality. Wouldn’t every philosophy student know that it is a bit more complicated than that?

    • M
      Posted May 31, 2015 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

      If he needs an external cause to account for reason or morals, shouldn’t the constraints of logic or physical reality have been candidates?

  16. E.A. Blair
    Posted May 30, 2015 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Here’s my version of the Euthyphro Argument: All of my cats have been good kitties. Are they my cats because they are god kitties, or are they good kitties because they’re my cats?

    • E.A. Blair
      Posted May 30, 2015 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      Typo apology: “…they are god kitties…” should have been “…they are good kitties…”.

      I would really like for this page to have the ability to edit one’s posts.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted May 30, 2015 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

        They are good because they are kitties! 🙂

      • Posted May 30, 2015 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

        I think God kitties is pretty darn close!

        • Reginald Selkirk
          Posted May 30, 2015 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

          Another up-vote for god kitties.

    • Pali
      Posted May 31, 2015 at 2:35 am | Permalink

      All kitties are gods in their own eyes. Ceiling Cat caused your fingers to type out the truth.

  17. Heather Hastie
    Posted May 30, 2015 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    This is just embarrassing. I am a product of the Massey University School of Humanities, and this is the second time this year I’ve had to call out one of their professors for expressing a load of illogical rubbish.

    The first was Dr Peter Linehan on my own website – he was defending blasphemy laws and thought NZ’s, rather than being abolished, should be extended to cover all religions, especially Islam. That was even worse because he taught me. I guess I’m at least an example that they don’t require their students to agree with them. I remember a history professor who gave me an A+ for an essay, then wrote a couple of pages disagreeing with my arguments.

    It seems to me that Christians take ownership of morality only when it’s good, or at least agrees with their own pov. They then use it backwards as in, “opposing marriage equality is moral because that’s what God says”. Other Christians say, “marriage equality is right because God is love”. Fundamentalist Islamists will throw you off a building for promoting marriage equality, then finish the job by stoning you to death.

    The point is no one actually knows what God thinks – you’ve got to prove he exists before you decide what he thinks, not after. The same God currently has a different set of morals depending on the religion of His representative, all convinced they’re correct. Society as a whole decides what’s moral through interaction with one another, and that changes given the fundamentals of our existence.

    In Medieval times, when most were struggling to survive, death seemed an appropriate punishment for even the most minor of thefts. These days, no one considers life for stealing moral. That’s not because we’re less religious, it’s because we’re wealthier.

    This has got a bit long. Sorry. I’ll stop.

    • Posted May 30, 2015 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      And besides, he left out what Ganesha thinks about morality. As you mentioned about some other god, I have no idea what Ganesha thinks about morality, but he’s my favorite god because he’s so cute. I assume that’s as good a reason to like a god as any other.

      • bobkillian
        Posted May 30, 2015 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

        I’ve seen lots of evidence that elephants behave morally. So I’ll go along with Ganesha. Much more cheerful than Jeebus.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted May 30, 2015 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

          I think you’ve both shown better reasoning than Harrison. 🙂

          • Posted May 30, 2015 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

            Are you damning us with faint praise? It is, after all, pretty easy to reason better than Harrison!:-)

    • M
      Posted May 31, 2015 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

      Re: Blasphemy laws.
      Any difference of religious belief is blasphemy if someone chooses to construe it that way. Saying you’re Jewish or Muslim is implicitly denying the divinity of Christ. There’s no room for freedom of thought or of religion if you can’t say or do anything that someone else might decide contradicts a truth worth killing for.

  18. Posted May 30, 2015 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    This guy has a PhD in philosophy? He writes as if he skipped the class on logic.

    • Michael Waterhouse
      Posted May 31, 2015 at 1:40 am | Permalink

      He does indeed, begging the question much?

  19. ploubere
    Posted May 30, 2015 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    All proof-of-god arguments are by necessity semantic, since no evidence can be presented, and depend on either manipulation of a word’s meaning, in this case, “command”, or a logical fallacy, in this case, that a “command” must be issued by a god, thus proving the god’s existence. This guy has used the whole bag of tricks.

    • Posted May 30, 2015 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      Yes, it’s simplistic leveraging of the ambiguity of our language. The argument is no more sensible than “If the universe was created then who created it?” or “If the universe is governed by laws then who made these laws?”

  20. Posted May 30, 2015 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    #3 is (in common with all the other #’s!) complete nonsense. The practice of law gives it the lie. I am sure many people enter the profession believing they will help mankind but suddenly find that they are the most important members of mankind when they have to make a living with their education. Their “moral commands” must conveniently change under those circumstances! And don’t get me started on insurance executives!

    A real test would be if one person’s “moral code/commands” differs from another’s when each considers himself to be a moral person. Of course, such conflicts are easy to find, therefore no gods. QED!

    • Posted May 30, 2015 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

      Maybe god is a Republican/Libertarian? In that case, the moral command would amount to …what? “Whatever serves my needs/desires!”

  21. Roger
    Posted May 30, 2015 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Ergo Jesus. Ergo angels are for realz. Ergo Touched by an Angel was a reality TV series.

  22. Roger
    Posted May 30, 2015 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Maybe he’s just looking to score a “hit” on the “apologetics hit parade”. It sure seems like it…

  23. Loren Amacher
    Posted May 30, 2015 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    The recent volume, Moral Origins, makes hash of these juvenile postulates of Harrison. Sorry to have forgotten the author, but we’re in the throes of moving, and all my books are packed away! Am reading FvF right now, and can scarcely put it down. Kudos to you, Jerry.

  24. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted May 30, 2015 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    This can be demonstrated by the fact that “Tim is morally commanded to X” and “Tim is morally commanded not to X” are clearly contradictory statements. They cannot both be true.

    So it’s impossible that Tim was commanded to different moral behaviours at different times? Or that Tim received contradictory moral commands from different sources? It’s INCONCEIVABLE!

    • Tim Harris
      Posted May 30, 2015 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

      Well, I have been subjected to as many six contradictory moral commands before breakfast… Who is the philosopher’s Tim, anyway?

      I was very glad learn that, despite Paul’s epistles, my name is not necessarily Xtiian, but preceded Xtianity, and meant ‘respecting the gods’.

      An early reason for disliking the name was having a kindergarten teacher telling us in dulcet tones the meaning of our names. ‘Your name, Timmy, means God-fearing!!!’ Once outside the classroom with the other little boys it was, ‘You fear God! You’re God’s enemy!’ Smack! Smack! Kick! My religious sentiments never recovered from the shock.

      Anyway, what an extraordinary load of Godswallop for a supposedly intelligent man to perpetrate!

      • Michael Waterhouse
        Posted May 31, 2015 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

        That is really good.

      • Michael Waterhouse
        Posted May 31, 2015 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

        Ops, that first comment should be under the Adam Sandler clip.

        I am a Michael, supposedly pretty cool, meaning, ‘like god’, and being an archangel. I can live with that.

        Also I wonder, is that non philosopher your son?

        • Tim Harris
          Posted June 1, 2015 at 4:09 am | Permalink

          Well, if he is, he must be a very illegitimate one, in all sorts of ways….

    • Hans-Richard Grümm
      Posted May 31, 2015 at 5:00 am | Permalink

      Or that Tim gets his moral commands about stealing from Commander A, about killing from Commander B and about bearing false witness from Commander C ?

    • winewithcats
      Posted May 31, 2015 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      Well, that certainly destroys the whole “Satanic Verses” interpretation of certain infamous lines in the Quran. Ergo, Harrison is an Islamophobe!

  25. Derek Freyberg
    Posted May 30, 2015 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    My late father taught at Massey many years ago. He’d be turning over in his grave if he thought that Harrison was representative of the quality of reasoning employed by Massey faculty.
    “It is no abuse of the term to describe this agency as a kind of god.” (Harrison)
    “Therefore, there is something which is to all beings the cause of their being and of their goodness and of every one of their perfections, and this we call God.” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Part 1, Question 2, Article 3 – http://www.pitt.edu/~gmas/1080/Q2A1.htm)
    Harrison seems to fancy himself a new Thomas Aquinas. I doubt there will be many who agree.

    • Posted June 1, 2015 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

      Aquinas is a great example of a severely misinformed genius. This guy seems to be, well, the opposite – or would be if he actually paid attention to the past 800 years of scholarship.

      As soon as someone starts with assuming morality is in the form of commands, you know matters will be sloppy – as anyone who has done even a baby course in ethics knows. So I can only assume this is “motivated reasoning” – or worse.

  26. Derek Freyberg
    Posted May 30, 2015 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    “1. Moral commands are commands.
    “Take moral commands. It is trivially true that a moral command is a command. A command is a command, right?”

    1. 4-sided triangles are triangles
    Take 4-sided triangles. It is trivially true that a 4-sided triangle is a triangle. A triangle is a triangle, right?
    No-one would have a problem with this, surely.

    As one of the commentators said “sophistry is alive and well.”

  27. Derek Freyberg
    Posted May 30, 2015 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    @23 Loren Amacher:
    Since I’m in front of my computer, a check for the book you’re wondering about finds “Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame” by Christopher Boehm.

  28. Mark Joseph
    Posted May 30, 2015 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if Harrison will read FvF, or at least the OP here. If so, I wonder if he will respond.

    • Derek Freyberg
      Posted May 30, 2015 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

      Someone referred him to this site, but he dismissed it in a couple of words. It’s somewhere well down the comments. But then almost all of his responses have been dismissive – the man seriously seems to think he has created a logical argument for the existence of god.

  29. Posted May 30, 2015 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    Holy crap, that is some blatant equivocation on “command”.

    • Posted May 30, 2015 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

      (And once again I’m appalled and depressed that someone who produces thought like this was able to earn a PhD and find employment as a professor. I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.)

      • Diane G.
        Posted May 31, 2015 at 3:25 am | Permalink

        If life were fair…

        • Posted June 1, 2015 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

          “Wouldn’t it be much worse if life were fair and all the terrible things that happen to us, come because actually deserve them? So now I take comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the Universe”

          • E.A. Blair
            Posted June 1, 2015 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

            That’s one of the better quotes from Babylon 5, which had a number of relatively profound bits of dialogue. This particular one was from Marcus Cole, played by Jason Carter.

  30. Posted May 30, 2015 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    If moral “commands” necessarily come from one external source, ie, god, what would the good professor make of the fact that many of these “commands” contradict each other? Members of the WBC follow the command to hate homosexuals, but members of the ELCA follow the command to be inclusive.

    • Posted May 30, 2015 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

      Ah. Hadn’t gotten to 4 yet.

      • Posted May 30, 2015 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

        (But I’ll be damned if I know how that second paragraph resolves the issue.)

  31. Scote
    Posted May 30, 2015 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    “Moral commands are command”

    1. State a tautology.

    2. Equivocate.

    3. Declare victory.

    The ol’ proof by tautological equivocation…

    • Diane G.
      Posted May 31, 2015 at 3:26 am | Permalink

      Excellent.

  32. Vaal
    Posted May 31, 2015 at 12:22 am | Permalink

    Dammit, Harrison’s conclusion has thrown me into a quandary!

    I’d already accepted previous arguments, that if there are “Laws” of Nature there must be a “Law-Giver.” Which is bloody obvious to anyone!

    But this similar reasoning by Harris tells me there’s a “Commander” as well, for the realm of reason.

    Dang, I can’t decide with one to believe in, the Law Giver or the Command Giver!
    Are there two transcendent entities battling battling it out?

    Well, theology is reasonable, so let me think about this. I presume the Natural Law Giver employs reason when giving Laws. If that’s the case then the existence of the Law Giver alone can’t explain everything as reason demands an external Command Giver.
    So this means the Law Giver, insofar as He reasons, is subservient to the power of the Command Giver!

    Command Giver > Law Giver.

    Whew, glad I figured that out. Theology ain’t that hard after all.

    • Roger
      Posted May 31, 2015 at 1:47 am | Permalink

      Also natural selection needs someone to do the selecting haha. Scientists never thought of that because they are so dumb.

      • Diane G.
        Posted May 31, 2015 at 3:29 am | Permalink

        Good one!

    • Posted May 31, 2015 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      We’ll put it to the Question Asker. Or maybe the Answer Giver. (No, damnit, that would be a scientist.)

  33. keith cook or less
    Posted May 31, 2015 at 12:38 am | Permalink

    . “My chair cannot command me to sit in it.” but said chair can be ‘inviting’ you too, I strongly suggest he take up the offer, standing up is making him dizzy.

  34. Michael Waterhouse
    Posted May 31, 2015 at 2:17 am | Permalink

    “The whole argument is simply confected a posteriori to arrive at Harrison’s preferred conclusions. Anybody with two neurons to rub together can give alternative explanations for moral sentiments that have a purely secular basis.”

    Perfectly summed up.

    As a fan of philosophy I am distressed that this kind of tripe can be presented.

    While in reality I probably can’t remember first year philosophy, I like think I can, and do believe that my philosphy lecturers would not have have passed that as an essay, at all.

    One of my favorite philosophy teachers was the first I ever heard use the the phrase ‘any body with two neurones to rub together’ and he would not have let that nonsense escape the first listening.

    We had then one of the best philosophy departments outside North America at the time and this begging the question, assumption laden garbage would not have passed muster.

    One year we had a Scottish philospher come who was a fan of natural philosophy in support of god. He was quite charsmatic and was persuading some of the students and the chair of the deparment made it his business to sit in on a couple of tutes, and knocked this guy off point by point.

    The department, lilke so many, was ruined by corpratisation and economic rationalism.

    Philosophy should be, and is, better than that, but it is up to other philosophers to vet it. But unless it goes to a journal it probably won’t be.

    The guys at Very bad Wizards have some interesting things to say on this occasionally.
    And it would be interesting to see what Massimo thought.

    I would like to try and really break that weak excuse for an argument down, but this too long already and Jerry and the other commenters have done well.

  35. Michael Waterhouse
    Posted May 31, 2015 at 2:32 am | Permalink

    I might as well name drop a bit, Peter Singer had left the philosphy department by the time I got there but I am pretty sure he would have a copletley different take on ‘moral commands’.

  36. kelskye
    Posted May 31, 2015 at 3:22 am | Permalink

    “Take moral commands. It is trivially true that a moral command is a command.”
    If morality is nothing but commands, then morality doesn’t exist.

    I always find it strange when theists concoct a nonsense view of morality then take it as a truism that such a view of morality requires divine intervention. Well, yesh! But the problem is that it’s not really anything to do with morality as it is practised.

    If we take the notion that stealing is wrong (phrased as a commandment as “do not steal!”) then what makes it right or wrong is not the notion itself, for that would be arbitrary. Rather it’s going to be how the action affects the individuals involved. If someone commanded “Do not hop on one foot” we would find such a commandment not terribly relevant because the act of hopping doesn’t have a component that affects other people.

    Any notion of moral commandments, therefore, only make sense as heuristics that are guided by moral sentiments. The commandment doesn’t make it moral, the commandment is the way we interpret what’s moral.

    • Posted May 31, 2015 at 7:40 am | Permalink

      Good point.

      The idea that the command itself is right or wrong is further shown to be nonsense by applying it in different contexts. “Thou shalt not kill.” Sure, most of the time, but what about in self-defense, or in defense of your child?

      • kelskye
        Posted May 31, 2015 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

        Exactly. I think that highlights why particular commandments fall down – all heuristics have a limit to how well they can apply. It’s easy to think of non-contrived scenarios where we would gladly violate the rules because they are in conflict with other moral sentiments.

        Thinking of morality in commands is a childish way of thinking about morality. It’s surprising that anyone can last into adulthood thinking there are literal rules, let alone someone with a Ph.D in philosophy.

      • M
        Posted May 31, 2015 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

        The people who can’t tell relativity from relativism sneer at situational ethics, and I’m like, ‘Dude all ethics is situational, the whole point is figuring out what’s ethical in a given situation.’

  37. Diane G.
    Posted May 31, 2015 at 3:39 am | Permalink

    “…moral commands are commands.”

    Morality is often situational. Commands are like obligate jail sentences for certain crimes, regardless of the circumstances. Ergo, beware the commander. (S/he probably has much in common with the “decider.” Who was commanded to wage catastrophic war.)

  38. John Scanlon, FCD
    Posted May 31, 2015 at 4:46 am | Permalink

    The Conversation isn’t such a bad site generally. It very often has pieces by biologists and other real scientists, like this one about shark evolution a couple of days ago.

    Moreover, since there is no difference in validity between good and bad religious apologetics, it’s probably a good policy – less confusing all round – to present the most easily refuted attempts. Believers won’t know the difference and will be happy to continue to support the website (which has been seeking donations lately), and disbelievers shouldn’t be too bothered.

    • Diane G.
      Posted May 31, 2015 at 5:54 am | Permalink

      Are you kidding? I should think most disbelievers would be infuriated.

      • Titus peratus
        Posted June 9, 2015 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

        I am infuriated because of the teleological design of the argument, the poor argumentation and the bellicose and sneering nature of his defence. That I’m a disbeliever doesn’t inform this infuriation (although he does a nice line in accusing opponents as disbelievers, as if that renders the dissent invalid somehow).

        The comments descended into ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ and he never addresses the question begging nature of his first premise.

        It’s shocking that this dude lectures in philosophy – what are students to think of his discourtesy and poor wielding of logic?

  39. Posted May 31, 2015 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    This is a very bizarre use of the word command. I have another “proof” of gods. We are commanded by gravity to stay on the ground. This is common across all cultures. Therefore an agent commanded us to do this and we who take flight in technological machines are defying the commands of God.

    • Derek Freyberg
      Posted May 31, 2015 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      Well, we know what happened to Icarus, though his “technological machine” was probably a bit less techy than you had in mind.

      • Adam Pack
        Posted May 31, 2015 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

        I can’t remember who said it, but someone said ‘the moral of the story of Icarus isn’t that you shouldn’t defy the gods; it’s that wax and feathers aren’t suitable materials for manned flight’.

      • Posted May 31, 2015 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

        Yes, we do know what happened to Icarus, in the same sense of the word as when we say a bodily assumption into heaven happened to the Virgin Mary. This is yet another proof of God…for there to be an assumption, there must be an assumer, which, as it turns out, is a fitting description for Harrison as well as any theologian.

  40. Posted May 31, 2015 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    There are moral commands?

    /@

    • Diane G.
      Posted June 1, 2015 at 1:44 am | Permalink

      Yeah, I got stuck on that, too. Why accede to his proclamation?

  41. Posted May 31, 2015 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Harrison’s thesis: “Free will and luck” [PDF]

    Abstract
    The problem of free will is a problem about control and luck. If causal determinism is true, then everything we do is ultimately a matter of luck, as it is if causal determinism is false. Either way we seem to lack free will of the kind needed for moral responsibility. In this thesis a case is built for a certain type of modest incompatibilist view on free will. It is argued that it makes no difference in terms of control whether determinism or indeterminism obtains. What matters is that we have a certain kind of ownership over what we do. Causal determinism rules this out, but indeterminism does not. This has the upshot that not only does free will turn out to be compatible with luck, exposure to a certain kind of luck is actually required, for unless we are exposed to this kind of luck our actions will not be truly ours. By providing luck with a positive role this thesis invites a re-evaluation of the reasons causal determinism destroys free will, and a re-evaluation of our attitudes towards luck. In short this thesis challenges the anti-luckism that lies behind the problem of free will.

    Will Maru enter the box?

    /@

    • Michael Waterhouse
      Posted May 31, 2015 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

      I am not sure exactly what he means by luck, and I probably won’t find out but it is obvious that luck plays a role in ‘life, the universe and everything’, the dinosaurs were unlucky, lets say.
      If we do have some kind of choice mechanism (we seem to, but we may not) there may be an important notion of luck involved in which choices are presented to us and which state our choice mechanism might be in at any given time.

      I am still trying to get a good coherent idea of determinism and moral agency.

      Harrison deeded to put a better foot forward than that, to provoke further interest in him though.

  42. Gerald
    Posted June 1, 2015 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    Dear Richard Coyne,

    Thanks for taking the time to address my argument. Here is my response, if you’re at all interested.

    First, you point out that a student would probably grade my essay an ‘F’. Well, possibly. But that’s why in philosophy we insist that the academics do the marking, not the students.

    You mention God. I didn’t. It wasn’t an argument for God. For the record: I don’t believe God exists. It was an argument for ‘a god’.

    Next you mention the Euthyphro dilemma, a problem you think “kills dead” all divine command analyses of morality. Well, I don’t think it does. Perhaps I’m wrong about that, but if I am then your view is in just as much trouble.

    Here’s the standard dilemma: is an act right because the god commands it? Or does the god command it because it is right? If the DCT gives the second answer he has simply abandoned DCT, whereas if he gives the latter he appears to have made morality arbitrary. I assume you’d agree this is a fair representation of the supposed dilemma.

    You insist that morality is just a collection of “opinions” and “feelings” . Okay, so is an act right because it is your opinion it is right? Or is it your opinion it is right because it is right? Same dilemma. So, I don’t think your position is a consistent one.

    You then move on to try and address my argument directly. But you fail properly to engage with it. Rather than saying providing any reason to doubt any of my premises you confine yourself to talking about moral opinions and feelings.

    Moral opinions are ‘about’ morality, they do not compose it. Morality is the object of moral beliefs and intuitions, but it is not composed of them. To think otherwise is akin to thinking the past is composed of memories.

    • Posted June 2, 2015 at 6:06 am | Permalink

      At least Prof. Coyne knows who you are!

      /@

    • Posted June 2, 2015 at 7:44 am | Permalink

      Hi Gerald

      (it’s Jerry Coyne, incidentally, not Richard)

      One or two questions on your piece:

      I note that you don’t believe in God, but in ‘a god’. You describe the agency required for morality as ‘a kind of god’ and then switch to ‘a god’. Do you think ‘a kind of god’ and ‘a god’ are synonymous?

      If such a god existed why should his commands oblige us in any way?

      Not believing in God, the benevolence of your god doesn’t seem to matter on your argument; presumably it could be evil?

  43. Titus peratus
    Posted June 3, 2015 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

    Harrison is just babbling,

    1. Moral thoughts require moral commands. (i.e. for Is’s to become oughts there must be oughts)
    2. Moral commands require external agents.(oughts require an oughter (a moral authority)
    3. Therefore, God. QED. (only a god will do)

    waiiiiit a minute…

    1. Moral thoughts do not require the existence of moral commands any more than is’s require ought’s. Moral thoughts are just psychological phenomena without necessary for extra ontological properties. If you want to create oughts than, well that’s a new thing that you have created but is not logically entailed by x. Unless you need moral commands to have moral thoughts -… oh dear, welcome to the world of circularity…

    2. Fair enough.

    3. Euthyphro. Sorry can’t get past that. Gods or morals are arbitrary, take your pick.
    If morals are arbitrary we don’t have Moral Commands. If gods are arbitrary they can only issue arbitrary commands, which removes necessity for god.


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