Wright Is Wrong

“Compatibility” is something for which there’s always a market but which never produces a good product.  It’s the “can’t we all just get along” position for which would-be peacemakers constantly yearn.  And it’s almost always put forward by people who get neither of the sides they are attempting to reconcile correct.  Doing the math, you should notice that that means they get both sides wrong.  Thus, there is little chance of of the compatibilist getting anything right at all.  If there is some sort of substance to disagreements, and if you attempt to solve that problem by ignoring the substantial claims on both sides of the disagreement, then it is very hard for you to say anything of substance about the issue in question.  For that reason, I do not know of a single compatibilist argument that has ever worked.  Unsurprisingly, then, when Robert Wright decided to write his piece suggesting a compatibility in “[t]he ‘war’ between science and religion,” “A Grand Bargain Over Evolution,” (which is just a more concise version of his book, The Evolution of God) he got everything wrong.

In the blogosphere you need to move pretty quick if you do not want to be late to the ball.  Though Wright’s piece came out Saturday, there have already been substantial replies to it, the best, in my opinion, being from Jerry Coyne.  I strongly urge you read it.  Even so, since opinions are like…well, you know, I’ll go ahead and say something about just how wrong Wright is, especially since there are a couple of things not noted in other posts.

Only eight sentences into the op-ed piece, Wright, sounding eerily like the angel in Luke 2:10, claims “I bring good news!”  It turns out, according to Wright, that “militant” atheists and the “intensely” religious are both wrong when it comes to their lack of consensus.  Even more, “they’re wrong for the same reason.”  What is that reason?  “[A]n underestimation of natural selection’s creative power…”  It might strike someone as odd that Wright would suggest that those problematic “New Atheists,” again epitomized by Richard Dawkins, would so radically misunderstand the power of the primary mechanism of biological evolution.  This is especially odd since Dawkins, who is referenced specifically in Wright’s article, is well-known for talking at length about that very thing.  But the oddness does not stop there.

The core of Wright’s article revolves around his assertion that our moral sense is the result of evolutionary processes.  He takes it as a given that science has come up with some pretty good explanations for how the intuitions we all tend to share can be accounted.  In that case we have a purely materialistic explanation for the values we generally share.  This is unproblematic for those on the side of science in Wright’s “war,” though it certainly is an issue for the true believer in one of the big monotheistic religions.  The kicker, though, is that he moves an extra step and asks:

If evolution does tend to eventually “converge” on certain moral intuitions, does that mean there were moral rules “out there” from the beginning, before humans became aware of them — that natural selection didn’t “invent” human moral intuitions so much as “discover” them?

He suggests that the answer here is in the affirmative.  The idea that our moral intuitions reflect something external to us, indeed, external to all life itself, that natural selection “discovered,” has no basis in evolutionary theory, moral theory, or even in any commonly held theology.  And, here, Wright simply goes off the rails.  It is at this point that Wright wants to suggest that it is not contrary to science to suppose that there is some possibility that God set up either natural selection itself or the laws of physics themselves to produce moral animals like humans.  He writes, “But the point is just that these speculations are compatible with the standard scientific theory of human creation.”

There are a number of problems with this, and I want to highlight a few.  First, such a view is not “compatible with the standard scientific theory of human creation.”  In point of fact, there is no standard scientific theory of human “creation.”  In science, humans were not created.  There is a connotation to the word “create” that has no place in the standard scientific account of how our species came to be.  That connotation has to do with some notion of a creator.  For example, in general, we don’t talk about rocks being “created.”  That’s because, even though we think we understand the process by which rocks came into existence, no force maneuvered or managed things in such a way that the stones underfoot were the result of such guidance (presuming we mean stones that are not explicitly the result of human artifice).  Evolutionary theory does not have room for such guidance, either.  As such, “created” is not a word that has any place in the “standard scientific theory” of how humans came to be.

Next, the idea that there is some end toward which natural selection is pointed, that it has some goal in mind, is antithetical to the actual idea of natural selection as presented in evolutionary theory.  There is no “thing” out there to even have such a goal.  It just turns out that some things are better at sticking around than others, and those are the things that stick around.  That’s it.  If some environment exists in such a way that being taller would result in a greater likelihood of survival, and if the random events involved in mutation produce some individual that is taller than others, and if being taller does not have some sort of negative effect on other traits also good for survival, and if that individual does not die by some other means, then that individual will survive and pass on the genes responsible for its taller height to its offspring.  That’s it.  There’s no direction or purpose in there.  In fact, it is explicitly purposeless.  To attempt to place purpose in the process is to misunderstand what the mechanism actually is.

At this time something needs to be said about the problem of the naturalistic fallacy in this schema of reconciliation between science and religion.  Even if it turned out that there was some set of behaviors that worked best (“best” being remarkably loaded here), and that given enough time some intelligent species would inevitably adopt those behaviors, that would not make such behaviors moral.  As has been pointed out several times on this blog, you cannot deduce and ought from an is.  The move is simply illegitimate.  It will never be the case that just because some behaviors work well that those behaviors are moral “shoulds.”  For example, it might turn out that rape is a fantastic evolutionary strategy.  Indeed, there are species where forced sexual congress is the rule and not the exception.  But, even if some segment of the population took to rape as a means of ensuring that their genes were spread far and wide, and even if this worked out such that those individuals with those genes began to thrive and dominate within the population, that would not make rape a moral action.  And that’s the point! No action is moral merely because it helped some individual or population to survive.  Were that that case, all actions taken by all successful species, and that means all species that currently exist, would be moral actions as morality would just be that kind of activity that worked to ensure that population’s survival.  And, of course, that is just wrong.

The idea that we can discover morality by looking at what behaviors are common to our species, even by looking at what behaviors are considered moral across groups, is fundamentally flawed.  That just is not what morality is.  Now, this might have some uncomfortable consequences for those hoping to discover what is moral, or those with a variety of meta-ethical concerns, but none of that changes the issue.  This is where we are, and no amount of hand-waving or wishing is going to change it.

I want to point out that this kind of morality, the kind that is the result of natural selection, would be the kind that would apply to all species and not just our own.  If it is the case that there is some over-arching direction to make things moral built into the process of natural selection, then all organism on the planet have a share in that morality.  If that is where we are, then what actions are moral?  Certainly, any action that I could dub as “immoral” can be found to be the rule for some existing species.  But that suggests that there is no “moral law” whatsoever.  Now, it might be the case that Wright would want to engage in more hand-waving here and attempt to make some argument about the specialness of our species.  But there is nothing in evolutionary theory that suggests any such thing.  Certainly, we are special to us, but not in the grand scheme of things.  We are no more special than any other species that exists right now.  And if we want to make our behavior out to be something that is unique, something that is truly moral whereas the forced sex, killing of live, healthy young, and whatever other actions in other species that we would abhor in our own, then it is difficult to make the case that morality is something that is discovered by the process of natural selection, something toward which there is a definite and unalterable tendency.  Regardless of which way you cut it, Wright is just wrong in his suggestion that evolution can give us genuine morality.

It is only fair to point out here that, even if one could get morality in the manner envisioned by Wright, it would be nothing like what is wanted by most theists, especially Christians.  Christians believe in an interventionist god by definition.  They believe in a god that created the world for humans, and this is evidenced by Jesus Christ being sacrificed for the sins of humanity so that a genuine communion between God and human could be achieved.  What Wright is suggesting is, at best, some kind of deism, and that is nothing like what Christians say God is.  Indeed, it largely misses the point.  And the reason deism has lost popularity is not due to a failing in a belief in some god.  It is largely due to the recognition that a belief in a deistic god is just superfluous to what is needed to explain the facts of the world.  “Prime mover” arguments are simply unnecessary in contemporary physics.  The main people left to whom Wright can be speaking are believers in an interventionist god, and those people are not interested in hearing that morality might be salvaged if they give up the intervention part.  So, the question here is this:  whose religion is being salvaged here by supporting this supposed compatibility?  Almost no one’s that I can see.

In the end, it is just weird that anyone would think that this kind of compatibilism will be satisfactory for anyone interested in the substance of this debate.  The scientists are going to point out that Wright has screwed up the science, and the theists are going to point out that he has screwed up theology.  Like most of the compatibilisms before it, this one attempts to find a “common ground” on which both sides agree, and, in the process, comes up with that very thing:  they both agree that Wright is just wrong.

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16 Responses to “Wright Is Wrong”

  1. Robert Wright: Pirouetting on the fence « Why Evolution Is True Says:

    […] Wright Is Wrong « Apple Eaters on August 24, 2009 at 2:34 […]

  2. James Gray Says:

    I’m not sure what you want to prove with the idea that “you can’t get ought from is.” The fact that A is true does not imply that A is good or evil. That is simply the naturalistic fallacy.

    However, there might be ways to derive ought from is using certain assumptions or “auxiliary premises.” That’s part of the naturalistic moral realist debate and it has some credibility.

    Just in my last post, Geoffrey Sayre-McCord discusses the is-ought gap:

    Given the is-ought argument, there are no psychological facts in the same way:

    1. Psychological facts can’t be derived from non-psychological facts.
    2. We only observe non-psychological facts.
    3. So, we can’t derive psychological facts from observation (258).

  3. Jim Says:

    The analogy fails because it is not evident that we can’t observe psychological facts (mental states). If you’re a behaviorist, then behaviors are mental states, and behaviors are observable, hence mental states are observable. If you’re an identity theorist, then mental states just are brain states, and brain states are observable, hence mental states are observable. If you’re a functionalist, then mental states are instantiated by brain states, and brain states are observable, hence mental states are observable. Etc, etc. Only if you’re a dualist and mental states are non-physical are mental states not observable. As long as mental states are in some way physically instantiated, they’re perfectly observable. As such, attempting to use mental states, “psychological facts,” for the kind of analogy you’re suggesting fails. One has to buy into a particular kind of theory of mind, the least popular brand of theories amongst professionals who deal with the mind, in order for it to have any pull whatsoever.

    That out of the way, it wouldn’t matter if mental states were in principle unobservables. That still wouldn’t work as analogy. Observation problems aren’t the source of the is/ought gap. The problem of the is/ought gap is the fallacious move from a description to a prescription. Observation has nothing to do with it. It is about descriptions (how things are) being different in kind from prescriptions (how things should be). Where do you get anything about observation from that?

    • James Gray Says:

      Of course you can bridge the is/thought gap with assumptions about what observable elements “count as thought.” I don’t think McCord would admit defeat just from hearing that response. I think he would say, Yes, you can bridge the is/thought gap using additional assumptions, as was already stated. Same with ethics. What observations “count as ethical” allows you to bridge the gap. Utilitarians bridge the gap by saying that desire satisfaction or pleasure/pain allows us to observe moral facts. To say that this is a fallacy is like saying what you just did is a fallacy: “You aren’t allowed to bridge the is/thought gap, it’s always a fallacy” would obviously be an inappropriate response. In the same way it’s inappropriate to be so dismissive towards those who explain how to bridge the is/ought gap.

      There is a lot of literature on the subject of moral realist naturalism and it isn’t full of idiots. Obviously they have a lot to say about all of this, and that’s mostly what my website is about. I can’t be expected to be the one to prove everything because I’m not an expert, but I can do my best.

      • Jim Says:

        Just to be clear, there is no “is/ought gap” in the question of mind. You’re still using that as an analogy, right? You’re not actually suggesting an “is/ought gap,” are you?
        And those aren’t “additional assumptions.” You need to rely on some theory of mind to have any understanding of what counts as “thought.” Talking about thought divorced from any conceptual framework leaves you with a signifier with no signified. And, if you’re using any framework that has the something physical instantiating the mind, then you can observe thoughts. No additional assumptions required.
        As to utilitarianism, no amount of observation would give you the moral law “promote utility.” Now, once you have that, then you might be able to go about empirically determining what actions fulfill that law (though, it turns out that cashing out “utility” becomes no easy task). But it isn’t observation that gets you the actual moral law, and that’s the point. No amount of observation can do that. It is never legitimate to move from a description to a prescription, and the reasons why have already been spelled out in the post. Which descriptions count as prescriptive? What rule are you using to say that (for the sake of argument) generosity is good, but rape is bad? It certainly is not from the mere observation that they both exist. So how? And that’s the point. There is no way to make that move. The foundation of your ethical system, the actual “moral law,” will never be found in a descriptive process. That move is fallacious.

        Also, for the record, nothing in Wright’s discussion suggested he was talking about a utilitarian system. Religious systems, at least the big ones, are deontological, and it looks like the one he’s talking about is as well. He talks about the moral law being “out there,” something external to us that would exist even if we didn’t. He said it’s the kind of thing that natural selection might be able to “discover.” That sounds awfully deontological to me.

        EDIT:
        I’m genuinely confused by what you wrote. Even if, for the sake of argument, I accepted the analogy you put forward, then it looks like I don’t know what to do with this:

        Utilitarians bridge the gap by saying that desire satisfaction or pleasure/pain allows us to observe moral facts.

        Aren’t desire, satisfaction, pleasure, and pain all mental states? If mental states are unobservable, how could anyone bridge an observable/unobservable gap by pointing to those kinds of things? That just leaves you with more unobservables. So, if someone did want to make the (from my position, wholly wrong-headed) argument that the problem with finding the moral law by referencing what is is that such things are unobservable, but we can bridge that by looking to things like feelings, and if it is that feelings are unobservable (as suggested in your earlier analogy), then it doesn’t look like you’ve pointed to anything observable, leaving you stuck with the problem. It looks like you’re saying, “Hey, this stuff might be a problem because it’s unobservable, but we can fix that by looking to this stuff over here that is also unobservable.” Even if the problem could be set up this way, how could this possibly solve it?

  4. anon Says:

    killing of live, healthy young, and whatever other actions in other species that we would abhor in our own

    Wow… just wow… veal? lamb?

  5. anon Says:

    woops… didn’t read closely enough… nevermind…

    You are implicitly draw a distinction between killing the healthy young of one’s own species versus those of another. Still imagine if cows or sheep were that other species – would we still abhor their actions?

    • Jim Says:

      Yes, I think we are creeped out when mothers eat their own young or when males come in and kill an entire litter because it was sired by another male. Maybe I wouldn’t use “abhor” there as we tend to not view other animals as actually participants in or moral community, and, as such, we hold them to very different standards. Even so, as those are the kinds of actions we find so awful in our own species, many people are often unhappy and even shocked when we see those actions carried out by other animals. So, yea, if we saw a cow stomp its newborn calf to death, I think many of us would be upset. Same goes for sheep.

  6. James Gray Says:

    Jim,

    Let me consider some of your points:

    You: “Just to be clear, there is no “is/ought gap” in the question of mind. You’re still using that as an analogy, right? You’re not actually suggesting an “is/ought gap,” are you?

    I don’t understand this question. You mean there is no is/thought gap in the question of mind? There are certain gaps between all kinds of things: Chemistry is not reducible to physics, biology is not reducible to chemistry, and so on. These parts of science have a real gap, but we can bridge the gap using certain auxiliary premises or theories.”

    Me: Yes, there is an is/thought gap, but a theory can help us connect the two. Same with the is/ought gap.

    You: “And those aren’t “additional assumptions.” You need to rely on some theory of mind to have any understanding of what counts as “thought.” Talking about thought divorced from any conceptual framework leaves you with a signifier with no signified. And, if you’re using any framework that has the something physical instantiating the mind, then you can observe thoughts. No additional assumptions required.”

    Me: You are just debating semantics. I said “auxiliary premises or assumptions.” Some kind of theory or auxiliary premises are required. A theory can bridge the gap between is/ought, just like is/thought.

    You: “As to utilitarianism, no amount of observation would give you the moral law “promote utility.” Now, once you have that, then you might be able to go about empirically determining what actions fulfill that law (though, it turns out that cashing out “utility” becomes no easy task). But it isn’t observation that gets you the actual moral law, and that’s the point. No amount of observation can do that.”

    How do you know? You are just making an assertion. Utilitarians think they can do it. This is exactly what many naturalist moral realists have suggested you can do it.

    The denial that the is/ought gap can be bridged sounds to me like nothing more than armchair philosophy, similar to the following argument: You could argue that you can’t know anything from perception because it’s just a bunch of sounds and colors. Any significance attributed to perception is merely from our beliefs about perception and not from perception itself.

    The reason why this is armchair philosophy is because it is merely looking at the abstract ideas of philosophy without looking at the actual practice of science and observation. Observation is theory-laden. We can observe moral facts because of moral theories.

    We can’t observe prescriptive facts in the same sense that we can’t observe all the facts of a moral theory in itself. You also can’t observe all the facts of psychological theories in a god-like view.

    In the same way you argue that you can’t observe moral facts I could argue that we can never observe psychological facts from observation. We usually know about thoughts from an inner experience, and we can never see an inner experience when looking at things. (This is false because we can use induction and test hypotheses involving “observing psychological facts.”)

    In the same way we can observe moral facts using induction and by testing hypotheses. Some of morality involves psychological facts as well, which a naturalist moral realist will admit is possible.

    You: “It is never legitimate to move from a description to a prescription, and the reasons why have already been spelled out in the post. Which descriptions count as prescriptive? What rule are you using to say that (for the sake of argument) generosity is good, but rape is bad? It certainly is not from the mere observation that they both exist. So how? And that’s the point. There is no way to make that move. The foundation of your ethical system, the actual “moral law,” will never be found in a descriptive process. That move is fallacious.”

    What’s the point? That you didn’t answer a bunch of questions on your own? You never provided an argument. You are just asserting your own belief over and over.

    Seeing animal cruelty is an observation of a moral fact. What makes it moral has to do with the psychological states of the people doing it (for sadistic reasons, for example) and facts about the pain inflicted. The moral theory involved would be something like, “Pain is bad and we shouldn’t cause pain for sadistic reasons.”

    See “moral explanations” by Nicholas L Sturgeon or “Moral Theory and Explanatory Impotence” by Geoffrey Sayre-McCord for ore information. I discuss both of these articles on my website.

    You: “Also, for the record, nothing in Wright’s discussion suggested he was talking about a utilitarian system. Religious systems, at least the big ones, are deontological, and it looks like the one he’s talking about is as well. He talks about the moral law being “out there,” something external to us that would exist even if we didn’t. He said it’s the kind of thing that natural selection might be able to “discover.” That sounds awfully deontological to me.”

    Me: Wright is writing for people that know nothing about philosophy. Therefore, he might be using sloppy language. However, that is simply irrelevant. I never said I was defending him. My whole point in my initial response was merely to discuss the is/ought gap because you mentioned it in your post and what you said might be false.

    You: “I’m genuinely confused by what you wrote. Even if, for the sake of argument, I accepted the analogy you put forward, then it looks like I don’t know what to do with this:

    Utilitarians bridge the gap by saying that desire satisfaction or pleasure/pain allows us to observe moral facts.

    Aren’t desire, satisfaction, pleasure, and pain all mental states? If mental states are unobservable, how could anyone bridge an observable/unobservable gap by pointing to those kinds of things? That just leaves you with more unobservables. So, if someone did want to make the (from my position, wholly wrong-headed) argument that the problem with finding the moral law by referencing what is is that such things are unobservable, but we can bridge that by looking to things like feelings, and if it is that feelings are unobservable (as suggested in your earlier analogy), then it doesn’t look like you’ve pointed to anything observable, leaving you stuck with the problem. It looks like you’re saying, “Hey, this stuff might be a problem because it’s unobservable, but we can fix that by looking to this stuff over here that is also unobservable.” Even if the problem could be set up this way, how could this possibly solve it?”

    Me: Exactly. Geoffrey Sayre-McCord never said it’s impossible to bridge the is/thought gap. The whole point is that we can bridge the is/ought gap, just like the is/thought gap. It might be necessary to bridge the is/thought gap before we can bridge the is/ought gap.

    He mentions the analogy because there is an is/thought gap, but we don’t find it to be a problem for psychological realism. In the same we there is an is/ought gap, but we don’t find it to be a problem for moral realism.

    • Jim Says:

      About the “is/ought gap”: If I’m following what you mean, then you need to find another term for this. I don’t know what you want to use, but there is not an actual “is/ought gap” in any theory of mind. There is no “here is what is, and here is what ought to be. As I maintain that the analogy you’re trying to use fails completely, you need a neutral term to discuss this further. Every time you use that term you’re taking for granted something I explicitly reject with good reason. Continuing to use this term would be circular as it would assume what is at issue.
      I don’t know where you’re getting “Chemistry is not reducible to physics, biology is not reducible to chemistry, and so on.” I disagree completely. I absolutely think that biology reduces to chemistry which reduces to physics. What level of description you choose is a pragmatic decision based on what level is the easiest with which to deal.
      I’m not debating semantics when I say that a theory of mind is necessary to know what a mental state is. I mean just that. That theory cannot be anything like an “additional assumption” as, without a theory, the concept of a mental state is wholly without content. Something necessary for a concept to even be such is in no way “additional.”
      I have read no Utilitarian who suggests anything like that they can discover the principle of utility, that to be moral is to increase utility, from mere observation. Any such position would require substantial argument as it is anything but clear that such is possible. I’ve already stated a number of reasons why this won’t work, so there’s no reason to go through it again.
      There’s nothing “armchair” about what I said. On the contrary, that’s your side. I’ve been explicit about my position. Descriptions are different in kind from prescriptions. If you have some reason to think otherwise, then give it. I have as yet to hear you explain how descriptions become prescriptions or how such a position would go about saying which descriptions out of the countless available are the ones to be considered prescriptive. First, account for how any such move is made, then explain how it is that rape, as it can be described, can be considered immoral.
      I never claimed that perception wasn’t theory-laden (“observation” here can be tricky as it might mean sensation, which is non-conceptual, and, hence, not theory-laden). That has nothing to do with justifying a meta-ethical position that would allow for descriptions to serve as prescriptions.

      In the same way you argue that you can’t observe moral facts I could argue that we can never observe psychological facts from observation. We usually know about thoughts from an inner experience, and we can never see an inner experience when looking at things. (This is false because we can use induction and test hypotheses involving “observing psychological facts.”)

      I never said we couldn’t observe moral facts. That was all you. On the contrary, I was explicit that observation has nothing to do with the issue at hand, hence why the attempted analogy with “psychological facts” fails. As such, this entire line of criticism has nothing to do with anything I said.
      I don’t know what you mean by “In the same way we can observe moral facts using induction and by testing hypotheses.” How would you tell if one theory was better than another? What are the criteria for such a designation? Are those criteria themselves theoretical? If so, what justifies them?
      “What’s the point? That you didn’t answer a bunch of questions on your own?”
      No, I’m saying they’re unanswerable. If they are, you should get to it.
      “You never provided an argument. You are just asserting your own belief over and over.”
      On the contrary, I have been explicit in my argument. You, however, have provided no argument for your position. So far as I can tell, all you’ve given are responses to things I didn’t say and poor claims of authority. You’ve offered no explanation at all for how one can move from a description to a prescription, nor, if such is possible, how one can determine which descriptions are prescriptive. If you have one, give it.
      “The moral theory involved would be something like, ‘Pain is bad and we shouldn’t cause pain for sadistic reasons.'”
      You’ve missed the point. What is it that gives you warrant to say that “pain is bad” and “we shouldn’t not cause pain for sadistic reasons” (those being two different things)? What is the justification for those claims? THAT’S the moral law. The observation that something is being caused pain for sadistic reasons tells you nothing, in and of itself, about the morality of that situation. One needs the “oughts” of moral law for that observation to be interpreted as having moral content, and THAT is what I’m claiming you can’t get from observation. The justification for the claim that pain is bad, etc, is what you need to provide.

      You missed the point of my last part, but it’s not that important, so I see no need to go there unless we get the rest of this resolved to some mutual level of satisfaction.

      • James Gray Says:

        “About the “is/ought gap”: If I’m following what you mean, then you need to find another term for this. I don’t know what you want to use, but there is not an actual “is/ought gap” in any theory of mind. There is no “here is what is, and here is what ought to be. As I maintain that the analogy you’re trying to use fails completely, you need a neutral term to discuss this further. Every time you use that term you’re taking for granted something I explicitly reject with good reason. Continuing to use this term would be circular as it would assume what is at issue.”

        Me: Perhaps. The is/ought gap is being rejected to some extent because some philosophers believe we can get ought from is. However, I am discussing the issue based on the articles I have read within the metaethical discussion of the is/ought gap.

        “I don’t know where you’re getting “Chemistry is not reducible to physics, biology is not reducible to chemistry, and so on.” I disagree completely. I absolutely think that biology reduces to chemistry which reduces to physics. What level of description you choose is a pragmatic decision based on what level is the easiest with which to deal.”

        I know a philosopher who used to be a chemist who has good reason to believe chemistry is not reducible to physics. It might be that there is some emergence involved. I don’t know all of the details. I think the idea of psychology not being reducible to physics is also a good example.

        “I’m not debating semantics when I say that a theory of mind is necessary to know what a mental state is. I mean just that. That theory cannot be anything like an “additional assumption” as, without a theory, the concept of a mental state is wholly without content. Something necessary for a concept to even be such is in no way “additional.””

        Me: Not sure what you mean.

        “I have read no Utilitarian who suggests anything like that they can discover the principle of utility, that to be moral is to increase utility, from mere observation. Any such position would require substantial argument as it is anything but clear that such is possible. I’ve already stated a number of reasons why this won’t work, so there’s no reason to go through it again.”

        I don’t know that it can be discovered from mere observation. Where did I say that?

        On the other hand observation can be confirmed by a theory and a theory can be confirmed by the observation.

        “There’s nothing “armchair” about what I said. On the contrary, that’s your side. I’ve been explicit about my position. Descriptions are different in kind from prescriptions.”

        Epistemologically or ontologically? It might be that prescriptions are ontologically natural just like descriptions. The fact that you are explicit about your position doesn’t mean you provided an argument for the truth of your position.

        “If you have some reason to think otherwise, then give it. I have as yet to hear you explain how descriptions become prescriptions or how such a position would go about saying which descriptions out of the countless available are the ones to be considered prescriptive.”

        I did. I gave an example of people torturing an animal. If you want more information you can read the articles I mentioned. I shouldn’t have to explain a huge series of arguments that I have already explained on my website. Do you want me to copy/paste the articles?

        “I never said we couldn’t observe moral facts. That was all you. On the contrary, I was explicit that observation has nothing to do with the issue at hand, hence why the attempted analogy with “psychological facts” fails. As such, this entire line of criticism has nothing to do with anything I said.”

        We know what “is” from observation. We might not know what ought to be directly from observation, but we can get it from what is.

        “I don’t know what you mean by “In the same way we can observe moral facts using induction and by testing hypotheses.” How would you tell if one theory was better than another? What are the criteria for such a designation? Are those criteria themselves theoretical? If so, what justifies them?”

        Me: If we observe what we would expect considering a moral theory, then that is a confirmation. The opposite would be a disconfirmation. A coherence theory of ethics can help us decide on which theory is best. (Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics by David Brink)

        “On the contrary, I have been explicit in my argument. You, however, have provided no argument for your position. So far as I can tell, all you’ve given are responses to things I didn’t say and poor claims of authority. You’ve offered no explanation at all for how one can move from a description to a prescription, nor, if such is possible, how one can determine which descriptions are prescriptive. If you have one, give it.”

        Me: Your argument is that the is/ought gap can’t be closed “because prescription and description are both totally different?” That can’t be your argument. Can you tell me exactly what your premises are and what your conclusion is?

        “You’ve missed the point. What is it that gives you warrant to say that “pain is bad” and “we shouldn’t not cause pain for sadistic reasons” (those being two different things)? What is the justification for those claims? THAT’S the moral law. The observation that something is being caused pain for sadistic reasons tells you nothing, in and of itself, about the morality of that situation. One needs the “oughts” of moral law for that observation to be interpreted as having moral content, and THAT is what I’m claiming you can’t get from observation. The justification for the claim that pain is bad, etc, is what you need to provide.”

        Me: Saying pain is bad is part of moral theory, just like saying a thought is some state of affairs in the brain is part of a theory. How do we KNOW that the state of affairs in the brain is a thought? We know it by testing our hypothesis. We could be wrong, but it’s an attempt to know the truth.

        • Jim Says:

          “I know a philosopher who used to be a chemist who has good reason to believe chemistry is not reducible to physics. It might be that there is some emergence involved. I don’t know all of the details. I think the idea of psychology not being reducible to physics is also a good example.”
          I think mental states are instantiated in the brain, that they are brain states. I think brain states are physical. I think physics is the base level description of the physical. As such, I think that psychology is reducible to physics, so this example doesn’t work for me.

          “I don’t know that it can be discovered from mere observation. Where did I say that?”
          My whole point has been that descriptions don’t give you prescriptions, that describing observations will not help you discover any moral law. You have repeatedly disagreed with this.

          “On the other hand observation can be confirmed by a theory…”
          I have no idea what this means.

          “Epistemologically or ontologically? It might be that prescriptions are ontologically natural just like descriptions.”
          Ontologically.

          “The fact that you are explicit about your position doesn’t mean you provided an argument for the truth of your position.”
          Sure. My point was that there is nothing “armchair” about my position. I have given an argument for my position. But, of course, the mere fact that I have given an explicit argument does not guarantee the truth of that position. I mean, duh.

          “I did. I gave an example of people torturing an animal. If you want more information you can read the articles I mentioned. I shouldn’t have to explain a huge series of arguments that I have already explained on my website. Do you want me to copy/paste the articles?”
          I don’t care what you do, but, if you post entire articles, it is unlikely that I’ll respond, and I will likely just delete the comment as I will take it to be you being contrary. There is nothing about your argument of people torturing animals that addresses the criticism you quoted. Saying, “Pain is bad and we shouldn’t cause pain for sadistic reasons” does not tell me “how descriptions become prescriptions or how such a position would go about saying which descriptions out of the countless available are the ones to be considered prescriptive.”

          “We know what ‘is’ from observation. We might not know what ought to be directly from observation, but we can get it from what is.”
          How do we get it from the is? I have asked this over and over and over, but you have not answered this question.

          “If we observe what we would expect considering a moral theory, then that is a confirmation. The opposite would be a disconfirmation. A coherence theory of ethics can help us decide on which theory is best.”
          I don’t know what you mean by “what we would expect.” So, let’s say lying is immoral, even if no one knows about it. How could be confirm that by observation?

          “Your argument is that the is/ought gap can’t be closed ‘because prescription and description are both totally different?’ That can’t be your argument. Can you tell me exactly what your premises are and what your conclusion is?”
          You’ve pretty much nailed it. Pretending like you don’t know my position, the one that’s been around since Hume, is silly.

          “Saying pain is bad is part of moral theory, just like saying a thought is some state of affairs in the brain is part of a theory. How do we KNOW that the state of affairs in the brain is a thought? We know it by testing our hypothesis. We could be wrong, but it’s an attempt to know the truth.”
          I don’t see how those things are anything alike. We have certain facts about minds that need to be explained. We generate a theory to explain those facts. We then look for predictions of that theory. We see if those predictions are the case. If they are, we have corroborated the theory. I don’t see how ethics can work like that. If you do, please explain. Again, how can I confirm that killing innocents is (or isn’t) immoral? What sort of description would get me that?

  7. katy Says:

    wow jim, awesome post!!! i really learned a lot from this.

  8. James Gray Says:

    Jim,

    You have many good questions and I will try to answer them the best I can without spending too much time on it. My point was merely that fully answering your questions might require me to rewrite a book, which is why pointing to what others have been working on seems like a good idea.

    “I think mental states are instantiated in the brain, that they are brain states. I think brain states are physical. I think physics is the base level description of the physical. As such, I think that psychology is reducible to physics, so this example doesn’t work for me.”

    Me: The is/ought gap is probably considered by certain philosophers to be more about epistemology than metaphysics. There is a gap in how we know about ethics given physical and mental descriptions. In the same way there is a gap in how we know about thoughts given a physical description.

    We can discover metaphysical truths, such as an identity. I suppose there might also be a disanalogy in the sense that a moral realist might think thoughts and brain states are metaphysically identical, but nonmoral states aren’t identical with moral properties.

    This is a complected issue and I don’t know much about it. Moral properties could be physical or “natural” without being metaphysically identical to a nonmoral physical/mental description. There could be different kinds of physical description. Not everything has to be reducible to physics because physics might leave out certain physical properties and states. Some of these might be emergent properties.

    “My whole point has been that descriptions don’t give you prescriptions, that describing observations will not help you discover any moral law. You have repeatedly disagreed with this.”

    Me: I don’t know that nonmoral physical descriptions can give you moral ones in isolation. The is/ought gap as described by some philosophers is one that only exists in isolation. Once we consider certain theories we might be able to bridge the gap.

    In the same we we can’t know that our inner experience of pain is the same thing as a brain state in isolation, but a theory can help bridge the gap between the inner state/qualia description and the non-qualia description.

    I said, “On the other hand observation can be confirmed by a theory.”

    The theory of gravity was confirmed by experiments, but the theory also confirms the observation because observation is theory-laden. There might be other ways to interpret the perceptual data.

    For example, we might observe “an electron caused x to happen.” The theory is then confirmed that electrons exist. The observation is in part that the electron exists, but it is also theory-laden in the sense that the observation couldn’t be made without the theory of electrons.

    “Ontologically.”

    I don’t know much about how the ontological gap is supposed to work. I either need information about that from a source or you can spell it out. What is the ontological distinction between is and ought? How do we know about it?

    “I don’t care what you do, but, if you post entire articles, it is unlikely that I’ll respond, and I will likely just delete the comment as I will take it to be you being contrary. There is nothing about your argument of people torturing animals that addresses the criticism you quoted. Saying, “Pain is bad and we shouldn’t cause pain for sadistic reasons” does not tell me “how descriptions become prescriptions or how such a position would go about saying which descriptions out of the countless available are the ones to be considered prescriptive.””

    Me: How do we know which theory in philosophy of the mind is true when there are many to choose from? There are many methods to determine which one is “best.” Determining the best moral theory is just like that. It might be that we aren’t ready to say there is one best theory, but that isn’t a reason to deny that there is any credibility to metaethical naturalism. There are also times when we can’t determine which scientific theory is best.

    “How do we get it from the is? I have asked this over and over and over, but you have not answered this question.”

    Me: I did answer the question. You use a theory. Theories can be tested. The theory that desire-satisfaction should be maximized is one such theory. Desire-satisfaction has a non-moral description, but it might also involve moral properties.

    “I don’t know what you mean by “what we would expect.” So, let’s say lying is immoral, even if no one knows about it. How could be confirm that by observation?”

    Me: If lying always causes problems to desire-satisfaction, then a utilitarian would say we have empirical confirmation about it being immoral.

    We already have moral observations. We observe when someone lies in certain circumstances that he or she is doing something immoral. If you are asking for a foundationalist moral epistemology that can prove a moral theory is correct, then I can’t do it. Naturalistic moral epistemology is not foundational. It starts with our current observations about ethics and then we see which theory can make the most sense out of it. A coherence theory of epistemology could be the best epistemology for ethics and science alike.

    Naturalists don’t have a foundationalist epistemology for the philosophy of mind either. We already have observations dealing with pain and thoughts, and then we try to make the best sense out of those observations possible.

    A foundationalist epistemology might at least partially satisfy our want of a god-like view I discussed earlier, and the lack of a fundationalist epistemology explains how we lack direct access to knowledge of the universe.

    Your argument:

    the is/ought gap can’t be closed because prescription and description are both totally different

    This is a tautological argument. Saying prescription and description are totally different is the same thing as saying the is/ought gap can’t be closed.

    Many people don’t believe in the gap at all. We need reasons to believe that prescription and description are different. An argument that they are ontologically different in particular would be something I would expect to be difficult to pull off.

    “I don’t see how those things are anything alike. We have certain facts about minds that need to be explained. We generate a theory to explain those facts. We then look for predictions of that theory. We see if those predictions are the case. If they are, we have corroborated the theory. I don’t see how ethics can work like that. If you do, please explain. Again, how can I confirm that killing innocents is (or isn’t) immoral? What sort of description would get me that?”

    Me: I think I answered this question above. We think we already have moral facts that need to be explained. We have certain moral observations, such as something morally wrong happening when an animal is tortured.

    • Jim Says:

      Not that I want to avoid the issues, and I would be happy to get back to them later, but I think we should put aside the mind stuff for now as it seems to be getting in the way of the initial concern.
      From the initial blog post:

      As has been pointed out several times on this blog, you cannot deduce and ought from an is. The move is simply illegitimate. It will never be the case that just because some behaviors work well that those behaviors are moral “shoulds.”

      My contention has been that descriptions can’t give you prescriptions. I’ve never said that once you have prescriptions that you can’t utilize descriptions, observations about the world, to determine what actions are relevant to that prescription. So, when you write, “If lying always causes problems to desire-satisfaction, then a utilitarian would say we have empirical confirmation about it being immoral,” I’m still wondering from where the prescription to maximize desire-satisfaction came came. That’s the prescription, the “ought,” and that is what description, the “is,” will never give you. Of course, once you have the prescription that you should maximize utility, then you can use observation to determine the best way to do that. But no observation will ever give you that moral ought. But you can’t get the principle of utility itself from observation.
      That was my whole point about Wright. No evolutionary strategy stumbled upon by some species by way of evolutionary processes can produce moral prescriptions (the moral law). Were some small fact arrived at by happenstance changed, what would serve as an appropriate evolutionary strategy would also change. It seems absurd to suggest that moral prescriptions can be altered by accidents of history. And by moral prescriptions, I mean the genuine moral laws, e.g. the principle of utility. The moral law is toward what Wright says evolution tends, and that is the fallacious move.
      If I follow you, the kind of system you’re supporting presumes the moral law is already in place and doesn’t offer a foundation for that. Though I could take issue with that, it would take us away from the concern that’s been addressed here. At any rate, that’s not at all about what I was writing.

      I think you just misunderstood my initial point. Wright’s ambition was to supply a foundation for the moral law in the function of natural selection, which he suggests has some sort of teleological aim toward such a law that exists independent of of humans. He says we can ground that law in our biology (or even the mechanism of natural selection itself). In short, he says we can find the foundation for the moral law in our biology, that we can read the moral law off the descriptions provided by science. That’s the naturalistic fallacy, and that’s what I said was wrong. I don’t know anyone who says that, once the moral law is in place, observation, the “is,” has no place in determining what relevant action adhere to that law. If that’s what you’re arguing against, then you have no quarrel with me.


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