Monday, May 31, 2010

What is Constructivism in Metaethics? (Part 2)

This post is part of my series on Sharon Street's article "What is Constructivism in Ethics and Metaethics?". Constructivism is a claim about the nature of moral truth. According to constructivists, moral truth is made not found, created not discovered.

To be more precise, the constructivist thesis is the following: moral truth is simply what is entailed by the practical point of view. This basic thesis was covered in part one.

In this part, we follow Street in trying to carve out the unique place of constructivism in the metaethical literature. This requires us to contrast it with three other metaethical positions: (i) realism; (ii) naturalistic ideal observer theory; and (iii) expressivism.

1. Constructivism vs. Moral Realism
I have written about moral realism before. Roughly, moral realists hold that moral values are real mind-independent properties. Ontologically speaking, these properties are likely to be Platonic in form. Thus, they are not reducible to naturalistic properties.

In contrast to this, constructivism maintains that moral values are necessarily dependent on minds that are capable of doing the valuing. That is: values depend on minds that can take the practical point of view.

A secular version of the Euthyphro dilemma brings out this contrast between realism and constructivism. The dilemma asks us whether things are valuable because we happen to value them or whether we value things because they possess some independently constituted value.

The constructivist takes the first horn of the dilemma; the realist takes the second.

2. Constructivism vs. the Ideal Observer
Ideal observer theories are popular among naturalistic moral realists. This species of moral realist wants to reconcile moral truth with scientific/natural truth, but does not want to embrace the mind-dependence of constructivism in the process.

The best way to appreciate the distinction between the two approaches is to consider an analogy. Street chooses an analogy based upon baseball, which is unfortunate since I know next to nothing about that particular sport. Nonetheless, I shall persevere with her example.

Street asks: what does it mean to say that a player is safe in baseball? There are two possible responses: (i) his being safe is constituted by the judgement of an ideal and impartial umpire; and (ii) his being safe is constituted by a combination of non-normative facts (e.g. his position on the field) and the rules of baseball.

The first response is analogous to a naturalistic ideal observer theory; the second response is analogous to the constructivist position. Let's consider the strengths and weaknesses of both.

The ideal observer is attractive for epistemic and ontological reasons. Epistemically, it seems that having a properly constituted observer would give us access to the relevant truths, be they of baseball or morality. Ontologically, the ideal observer would be consistent with a naturalistic view of the world.

Despite these attractions, the theory has some obvious defects. First, it has a tendency to lapse into question-begging triviality. For example, we could spend a considerable amount of time arguing over what an ideal observer would be like and end up with the following description: "an ideal umpire is one who could accurately judge facts such as whether or not a player is safe". That would be entirely uninformative.

Second, it seems wrong to say that a player's being safe is constituted by the opinions of an ideal umpire. That would seem to confuse epistemic access with ontological reality.

The constructivist thesis is less attractive from an epistemic perspective. By suggesting that baseball facts are simply those that are entailed by the rules of baseball, the constructivist seems to create a realm of facts that is off-limits to naturalistic inquiry.

But despite this epistemic stumbling block, the constructivist position surpasses the ideal observer on ontological grounds. First, it says nothing that it not consistent with a naturalistic worldview. And second, it seems right to say that a player's being safe is constituted by a combination of non-normative facts and the rules of baseball.

Of course to complete the analogy between baseball and morality, we need to know what occupies the position of the "rules of baseball" in a constructivist metaethics. The answer is "the rules of practical reason" or "the rules of the valuing game". Indeed, the central task of constructivism is to give a formal descriptive analysis of these rules.

3. Constructivism vs. Expressivism
The final distinction that needs to be made is that between constructivists and expressivists. The standard account is that constructivism is cognitivist (i.e. thinks there can be moral truth/falsity) while expressivism is not. Street thinks that this is uninformative, so she develops an alternative.

The distinction takes the form of an intellectual ping-pong battle between the expressivists and the constructivists. We join the contest at a relatively late stage.

i. The Expressivist Challenge
Expressivists take it that the central task of metaethics is to explain the meaning or semantics of moral terms such as "good", "bad", "permissible" etc. This position is inspired by the catalyst for much modern metaethics: Moore's open question argument.

Expressivists take it that Moore's open question has shown a direct explanation of moral meaning to be impossible. In other words, it is impossible to say that "good = pleasure" because it will always be possible to ask the further (open) question "why is pleasure good?".

Instead, expressivists offer an indirect explanation of moral language. They claim that moral language is used to express motivational mental states, e.g. states of approval, acceptance, preference and so forth. The manner of this expression is such as to trick us into thinking that these states are capable of being true or false. But in thinking this we are mistaken. Moral expressions do not have any truth-value.

The expressivists criticise the constructivists for failing to offer an equivalent account of moral semantics. They argue that constructivists are really only advancing a claim that is within normative ethics, not about normative ethics.

The debate over the morality of torture provides an illustration of this difference. The constructivist would say that torture is impermissible if, and only if, that is what is entailed by the practical point of view. The expressivist would argue that this is itself a substantive claim (expression) about what is morally acceptable, and not a metaethical claim about moral semantics.

ii. The Constructivist Response
Street thinks that the constructivist can rise to meet the expressivist challenge in two ways. First, by giving some account of moral semantics. And second, by arguing that the expressivist preoccupation with moral semantics is misguided.

As regards a constructivist moral semantics, Street thinks that there are several plausible accounts.  I'll give just one of these.

A constructivist could argue that a full account of the practical point of view would provide us with an inferentialist moral semantics. Which is to say that moral predicates would derive their meaning from the role they play in the inferences made by practical reasoners.

For example, when I say that "unsaturated fat is good", what I really mean to say is that the consumption of unsaturated fat would help me to satisfy my goal of avoiding heart disease. So "good" derives its meaning from its role in practical inferences.

As regards the misguided nature of expressivism, Street argues that by focusing so much attention on the semantic issue, expressivists miss the key metaethical question: can moral values find a place in a naturalistic worldview?

This question forces us to consider whether values depend on minds or not. The constructivist insists that they do; the realist insists that they don't. Until this debate has been resolved, questions about the meaning of moral terms cannot really be answered.

This is where the expressivist goes wrong.

4. Conclusion
That brings us to the end of this article. Let's try to summarise Street's main points. The goal of her article was to set forth the key metaethical claims of constructivism. This required her to do two things: (i) give an account of the constructivist thesis and (ii) distinguish constructivism from other metaethical positions.

In part one, we looked at her account of constructivism. We learned that constructivists argue that normative truth consists in what is entailed from the practical point of view. This practical point of view is that of agent who value things. It follows from this that values are mind-dependent.

The central task of metaethical constructivism is to give a formal account of what it means to value something. This central task was merely identified in this article, not undertaken.

Constructivists differ from moral realists in thinking that values are mind-dependent. Realists are opposed to the idea, preferring to think that moral properties are like Platonic properties.

Constructivists differ from ideal observer theories in thinking it is a mistake to say that moral values are constituted by the judgements of a hypothetical observer. This would seem to be ontologically obtuse: how could the fact that my behaviour was bad depend on the opinion of someone else?

Finally, constructivists differ from expressivists in thinking that the task of metaethics is to reconcile moral value with a naturalistic worldview. In contrast, expressivists think the central task of metaethics is to offer an account of moral semantics. Constructivists think that this cannot be properly done until we have worked out the place of value in the natural world.

Friday, May 28, 2010

What is Contructivism in Metaethics? (Part 1)

In a previous post, I sketched three different metaethical strategies: nihilism, constructivism and realism. The nihilist thinks there is no moral truth; the realist thinks moral truths a like scientific, mathematical or logical truths; and the constructivist thinks we make our own moral truth.

I have made gestures towards non-naturalistic realism in my posts on Wielenberg and Morriston. I now take up the constructivist baton. In doing so, I will rely on the writings of Sharon Street. As far as I can tell, she seems to have the most highly-developed arguments on the metaethical pretensions of constructivism. I will use the following article as my guide:
"What is Constructivism in Ethics and Metaethics?" (2009) Vol. 4 Philosophy Compass
Although I am beginning to appreciate the realist position, I still find constructivism to be the more plausible position (at least from a practical, everyday point of view) and Street does a good job explaining it.

In this post we will do three things: (i) cover a classic, but mistaken, characterisation of metaethical contructivism; (ii) consider Street's preferred characterisation of constructivism; and (iii) describe her taxonomy of constructivist positions.

1. The Proceduralist Characterisation
The mistaken, but influential, characterisation of constructivism comes from a famous article by Darwall, Gibbard and Railton reviewing 20th century metaethics. They suggested that constructivism was all about defining a procedure for creating moral truths.

The most famous account of this procedure comes from John Rawls's Theory of Justice. Rawls argued that if you take a set of inputs -- namely, the attitudes and preferences of rational actors -- and processed them in the appropriate way -- i.e. get the actors to bargain with each other from behind a veil of ignorance -- you would get a set of moral outputs -- in this case, principles of justice.

This is illustrated schematically below.

There are problems with this characterisation. First, there are competing accounts of the correct constructivist procedure. The fact that such a dispute arises, suggests that there are further metaethical questions to be asked.

Second, the proceduralist characterisation seems to equate constructivist with another metaethical position: ideal observer theory. Indeed, some think they are in fact the same thing. Street disagrees, and later in the article she explains why.

2. The Practical Standpoint Characterisation
Street favours an alternative characterisation of contructivism. She calls this the "practical standpoint"-chacterisation. The following is a quick sketch.

We begin in a pre-philosophical state, somewhat puzzled by the concept of value. In this state we don't know what it could mean for something to be morally valuable, but we do know what it means to value something. In other words, we know what it is to value food, security, friendship, education, sex and so on. But we are not sure whether it's worth it.

The ability to value certain things is the distinctive feature of the practical standpoint.

We also know what it is for some actions to be entailed by certain values. For instance, Ann may value the counting of blades of grass. We may think this an appalling waste of her talents but, granting her her idiosyncrasy, we can say that the purchase of a calculator would be a "good" thing.

This sense of entailment is, according to Street, non-normative in the sense that it says nothing about what we should or ought to believe (Steve Maitzen -- if he still reads this blog -- may raise an eyebrow or two at that claim).

In any event, the key constructivist claim is the following: normative truth consists in what is entailed from the practical standpoint.

3. A Taxonomy of Constructivisms
With that basic sketch in place we can proceed to a more fulsome taxonomy of constructivist philosophy. The major distinction to be wrought is that between restricted constructivism and metaethical constructivism.

Restricted constructivists take a set of presupposed normative claims and use these to limit what can be entailed from the practical point of view. Two prominent restricted constructivists are John Rawls and Thomas Scanlon.

Rawls, as mentioned, presupposes the moral virtue of impartiality; Scanlon presupposes the virtue of living with others on terms acceptable to all. Where these presuppositions come from, or what metaethical theory they rely on, is anyone's guess. That is to say: restricted constructivism is consistent with moral realism.

Metaethical constructivism tries to articulate a more complete moral theory. It does so by trying to offer a formal account of what it means to take the practical point of view. There are two classic versions of this.

According to Kantian constructivism, the endorsement of what we normally call "moral" precepts, is part and parcel of being a rational agent. So, a rational agent will always have reason to respect the dignity of others; to refrain from lying, cheating, stealing, killing; and so on.

According to Humean constructivism, we are endowed (by culture or evolution) with a set of natural and artificial evaluative attitudes. Morality is built (constructed) from these attitudes. If they had been different, morality would be different.

Note: Street uses the term "evaluative attitudes" and not "desires". She claims that there is an important distinction but does not say what this is. Instead, she points us to another article where she makes this distinction. I hope to cover that article eventually. For now, I'll accept it.

The taxonomy of constructivist positions is illustrated below.

That's it for this post. In the next part we will follow Street as she distinguishes metaethical constructivism from other metaethical positions.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

What Good is an Explanation? (Part 1)

Peter Lipton's death in 2007 was a great loss to the philosophy of science. He was probably the foremost explicator and defender of the explanatory method which I find most congenial: inference to best explanation.

In this brief series, I am going to take a look at one of his articles. The following one to be precise:
"What Good is an Explanation?" in Cornwell, J. (ed) Understanding Explanation (Oxford University Press, 2004)
It will no doubt come as a shock to learn that in this article Lipton attempts to answer a meta-question about the good of explanations. In other words, instead of asking "what makes for a good explanation?" he asks "why should we even bother explaining something?".

The answer to this meta-question is hardly earth-shattering. We explain things for instrumental reasons, i.e. to help us achieve some other goal, and also to achieve the intrinsic good of "understanding".

The majority of the article is taken up with trying to determine what this intrinsic good of understanding really consists in. Only at the end does Lipton return to the instrumental good of explanation.

In this post we will do two things. First, we will identify three key features of an explanation, features that must be accounted for in any formal definition of "understanding". Second, we will consider five possible definitions of understanding.

1. Three Key Features of an Explanation
Lipton begins his article by highlighting three uncontroversial and yet key features that are shared by most explanations. These features serve as diagnostic tests for any sound conception of understanding.

The first of these features is the distinction between knowing that something is true and understanding why it is true. Suppose you and I have just received our exam results. We both did badly. Staring askance at our grades, we are both inclined to ask the "why" question: why did I do so badly? In this scenario, we both already know that we did badly. We now want something more: we want to understand.

The second of these features is the benign nature of the why-regress. We all know the irritating manner in which every possible answer to a why-question can be followed up by another why question. As follows:

Why did I fail my exam?
Because you didn't study properly.
Why didn't I study properly?
Because you're easily distracted.
Why am I easily distracted?
etc. etc.

The important point here is that explanations are not worthless just because there is a potentially infinite regress of why-questions. Genuine understanding can be gained at each link in the question-and-answer chain.

The third feature of explanations is that they are sometimes self-evidencing. What this means is that the data they are intended to explain can, at least partially, justify us in accepting them. So for example, my lack of study can explain why I failed the exam; and my failing the exam can provide evidence for my lack of study. There is a kind of circularity here (H explains E; E justifies H), but it is not vicious.

With these three features in place, we can proceed to consider five possible conceptions of understanding. They are: (i) the reason conception; (ii) the familiarity conception; (iii) the unification conception; (iv) the necessity conception; and (v) the causal conception.

The first two of these make understanding an epistemic matter; the last two make it an ontological matter; the middle one can go either way. This will make more sense once we have gone through them, which is what we are now going to do.

2. The Reason-Conception of Understanding
According to this conception, what we really want from an explanation of a particular fact is a reason to believe in that fact. So questions of the form "why P?" need to be restated in the form "why should we believe that P?". Bayesian evidentialists are fond of this idea.

There are two main attractions to this conception. First, it doesn't distinguish between reason-seeking why-questions and explanation-seeking why-questions. So it reduces the size of the set of epistemological questions we need to ask. Second, it does not rely on somewhat dubious metaphysical concepts, such as causation and necessity.

There is, however, one significant problem with it: it fails to account for any of the three features of explanation outlined above.

  • It does not account for the distinction between knowing and understanding because, for example, your doctor's expert opinion about the state of your health may give you a reason to believe that you are sick, but it would not help you to understand why you are sick.
  • It does not account for the benign nature of the why-regress because, according to one approach, in order to have a reason to believe that H explains E, we would also need a reason to believe H. This approach would have to fall foul of the why-regress.
  • It does not account for self-evidencing explanations because if E is reason to believe in H, H cannot be a reason to believe in E. This would be a vicious circle.

3. The Familiarity-Conception of Understanding
According to this conception, an explanation works when it reduces the unfamiliar to the familiar. So the goal of all explanations should be to build analogies (or other logical bridges) between the known and the unknown. For example, Charles Darwin explained the "design" exhibited in the natural world by building an analogy between the processes of artificial and natural selection.

This conception fits well with the typical context in which explanations are sought, namely: the context of epistemic surprise. In other words, we tend to seek explanations when something seems unfamiliar or surprising and this tendency is captured by this conception. Also, this conception does account for the gap between knowing and understanding: something is understood when it is rendered familiar; something is known when we have reasons to believe in it.

Despite these good points, the familiarity-conception does poorly when dealing with the other two features of explanations. 
  • It cannot deal with the why-regress because in order to be familiar, something must be understood, and so only what it already understood can count as an explanation. Thus, it is impossible to derive satisfaction from an explanation that is itself unexplained.
  • It cannot deal with the self-evidencing nature of some explanations for the following reason. If an explanations works only to the extent that it reduces unfamiliar facts (E) to a familiar hypothesis (H), it unclear how those same unfamiliar facts could give us reason to believe in the truth of H.

4. The Unification-Conception of Understanding
According to this conception, something is understood once we can see its place within a broader, more unified, conception of reality.

This unification-conception accounts for two of the key features of explanation outlined above. First, it accounts for the gap between knowledge and understanding: we can know that a fact is true without necessarily knowing where it fits in the broader conception of reality. 

Second, it accounts for the self-evidencing nature of explanation. Lipton uses an analogy to make this point: a single piece of a broader pattern can provide evidence for that broader pattern, while at the same time the broader pattern can help us to understand the role of function of the single piece.

It may also account for the why-regress, although Lipton thinks this is less clear. It would do so by showing how E is explained by the wider pattern of H, while leaving the place of H within a still wider pattern unclear.

5. The Necessity-Conception of Understanding
According to this conception, something is understood once it has been shown that it had to occur; that there was no other way things could have turned out. This brings us face-to-face with the principle of sufficient reason, a metaphysical concept beloved by theists and atheists, which is used to argue for the existence of a necessary being.

This necessity-conception can account for the gap between knowledge and understanding. After all, something can be known to be true without being known to be necessarily true. There would also appear to be no problem with self-evidencing necessary explanations.

Where the conception appears to fall down is with the why-regress. It would seem that in order for an explanation (H) to confer necessity on a set of facts (E), the explanation would itself need to be shown to be necessary. This would rule out the possibility of being satisfied with an explanation that was not itself shown to be necessary.

6. The Causal-Conception of Understanding
According to this conception, something is understood once we have information concerning its causes. This is the conception of understanding that Lipton himself prefers.

The causal-conception can easily account for the three key features of explanation that we have been discussing: 
  • Something can be known to occur, without knowing what caused it to occur (knowledge v. understanding); 
  • We can know that C was the cause of E without also needing to know what caused C (why regress); 
  • There is no reason why C cannot be the cause of E, while at the same time E can provide evidence for C (self-evidencing).
Despite these powerful attractions, there are, of course, challenges facing the causal conception. Lipton identifies three important ones.
  • There is no completely adequate concept of causation. (See section 2 of this post for some of the different approaches)
  • Some explanations, such as mathematical explanations, seem to be clearly non-causal.
  • Not all causes are explanatory. Even though there is a long chain of causes linking my present actions to the origin of the universe, it would be odd to explain my behaviour by referring to the Big Bang.
Acknowledging these challenges, Lipton's goal for the remainder the article is to offer a more detailed defence of the causal conception of understanding. I will outline that defence in part two.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Erik Wielenberg on Morality and Meaning (Index)

This post serves as an index for my recent series on one of Erik Wielenberg's articles. Since I may cover more of his work in the future, this index will grow.

1. In Defence of Non-Natural Non-Theistic Moral Realism

Dawes on Theism and Explanation (Index)

Since I have now done a number of posts on Gregory Dawes's book Theism and Explanation, I think it is worth having an index to give readers easy access to them. My posts cover chapters 5 and 7 of the book. I am unlikely to do more.

Chapter 5 - Potential Theistic Explanations

Chapter 7 - Successful Theistic Explanation

Successful Theistic Explanations (Part 4) - Informativeness

This post is part of my series on Chapter 7 of Gregory Dawes's book Theism and Explanation. In this chapter, Dawes considers the merits of theistic explanations in light of six explanatory virtues.

Part one introduced the topic and looked at the explanatory virtue of testability. Part two focused on the explanatory virtues of consistency with background knowledge and past explanatory success. And part three dealt with the virtues of simplicity and ontological economy.

In this final entry in the series, we will consider theism in light of the virtue of informativeness, and we will also summarise the conclusions reached in this chapter.

1. What is Informativeness?
In defining informativeness, Dawes relies on Peter Lipton's definition of a "lovely" explanation. This definition has two aspects to it. First, the explanation must specify some causal mechanism. Second, it must allow us to deduce precise effects that would arise from this mechanism.

Earlier in the book, Dawes argued that theistic explanations are unlikely to be able to specify a causal mechanism, but that this is not necessarily a fatal objection to them. Still, it is worth seeing how well theism does in terms of the second aspect of informativeness, i.e. our ability to deduce precise effects from it.

It will no doubt shock you to learn that theism is not very informative in this regard. Let's see why that is.

2. Quantifiable Predictions and Intentional Explanations
The first, somewhat spurious, objection to theism is that we cannot deduce precise quantifiable predictions from it. This is something that we can do in the case of the most successful scientific explanation: we can specify a causal mechanism and specify what the measurable effects of this mechanism would be (see my posts on neuroscientific explanations for more).

But the fact that theism fails in this regard is not a serious charge. Theistic explanations are a species of intentional explanation. As such they explain events and states of affairs in terms of the goals and intentions of an agent. We employ such explanations all the time, e.g. when trying to make sense of the behaviour of our family and friends.

None of these everyday intentional explanations yield precise quantifiable predictions, so we shouldn't expect theism to do so either.

3. The Problem of Mysteriousness
There is, however, a problem with theistic explanations that is not shared by typical intentional explanations. In dealing with human behaviour and social interaction, we know what to expect.

For instance, we know the type of conduct to expect from someone if they are feeling hungry, or if they have just learned that their husband/wife are cheating on them, or if they have a desire to become a doctor and so on. In this sense, everyday intentional explanations are informative.

Theistic explanations are not. We are not able to generate similar expectations when applying mental or action predicates to God because the nature of his agency is "wholly other". The mental and actions predicates that are applied to human beings are tailored to their finite, temporal and physical properties. What would it mean to apply the same predicates to an infinite, eternal and non-physical being.

Theists have ways out of this problem. They can argue that there is a core meaning to the predicates that does depend on the properties of human beings. For example, they could argue that the action predicate "creates" has a core meaning of "uses imagination to bring into being". This core meaning does not rely on temporal, finite or physical properties.

This may be true. But in extracting the core meaning, we take away all the things that make these predicates informative (in the sense defined above). We do not really know what to expect from a creation that emanates from an infinite, eternal and non-physical being.

4. The Problem of Accommodation
This leads to a final problem for theistic explanations. Because they have a tendency to be uninformative, they also have a tendency for accommodationism. That is: they tend to make the evidence fit with the hypothesis, rather than predicting what the evidence should be given the hypothesis.

The example that Dawes uses to illustrate this point is quite interesting. He imagines a believer who has a powerful experience of confidence and joy when reading passages of scripture. The believer is told that he has experienced what is known as the "internal testimony of the Holy Spirit".

This explains his experience and also serves to corroborate religious claims concerning the authority of the scripture.

But there is a huge problem with this explanation of the experience. Since theism is uninformative, we have no idea what it would mean to receive testimony from an incorporeal being. And it is because theism is uninformative that it is all too easy for the believer to offer spurious explanations of this sort.

Dawes concludes by noting that uninformativeness is a serious problem for theists. Indeed, it is so serious that it means non-theistic, natural explanations that yield precise predictions will almost always be preferable.

5. Summary
In this series we have investigated the explanatory merits of theism in light of six explanatory virtues. The results of this investigation are summarised in the image below (click to embiggen).

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Successful Theistic Explanations (Part 3) - Simplicity and Ontological Economy

This post is part of my series on chapter 7 of Gregory Dawes's book Theism and Explanation. In this chapter, Dawes assesses the strength of theistic explanations against a list of six explanatory virtues.

Part one, provided an introduction to this topic and also considered the explanatory virtue of testability. Part two considered the explanatory virtues of consistency with background knowledge and past explanatory success. In neither case did theism fare well.

In this post we will look at theism in light of the explanatory virtues of simplicity and ontological economy.

1. What is Simplicity?
The simpler the hypothesis, the more inclined we are to accept it. But which is the simpler hypothesis? It is usually understood as being the hypothesis that posits the fewest number of distinct entities and properties. That, at least, is Richard Swinburne's approach to simplicity.

But this is not what Dawes means by simplicity. He defines simplicity in terms of falsifiability and auxiliary hypotheses. He takes this definition from the work of Karl Popper and Paul Thagard. According to this definition, a hypothesis is simple if it is readily falsifiable and relies on as few a number of auxiliary hypotheses as possible.

This might be a little opaque, so let's consider an example. Suppose you have recently developed a plant fertiliser. You are adamant that it will dramatically increase the rate at which my plants grow. I decide to put it to the test. I set up a rudimentary controlled experiment in which I give some plants your fertiliser, some plants a standard fertiliser and some plants nothing at all. I try to hold constant other relevant factors such as access to sunlight and water.

Much to my chagrin, after several weeks there is no discernible difference in growth rates. I come back to you with these disappointing results. You respond by saying that I wasn't using the fertiliser properly. It must be administered in the dark and at a temperature below 5 degrees celsius.

I take this new information on board and initiate a new test. After several weeks of the new regime there is still no discernible difference in growth rates. Feeling slightly aggrieved at having wasted so much time, I return to you once more with my results. You respond again by suggesting that I am not using it properly. I must also talk to my plants while administering the fertiliser and then play classical music to them when I am not around.

At each stage in this process, you are introducing auxiliary hypotheses that make it more and more difficult for your original hypothesis to be falsified. And so you are making your hypothesis less and less simple.

2. Is Theism Simple?
How well do theistic explanations fare in terms of simplicity? To answer this question, it will be instructive to consider a debate between Peter Van Inwagen and Paul Draper.

Back in 1989, Draper presented an argument suggesting that certain observations we have made concerning the biological utility of pain are more surprising on the hypothesis of theism than they are on the hypothesis of indifference. I will be covering this argument over at soon so I will not explain it here. All that needs to be said here is that Draper's argument is an evidentialist form of the problem of evil.

Van Inwagen responds to Draper's argument by introducing a series of auxiliary hypotheses that account for the presence of pain. These auxiliary hypotheses posit a set of possible reasons God might have for allowing pain to exist. These auxiliary hypotheses are usually called "theodicies". Van Inwagen doesn't claim that these are in fact true, he just thinks they could be true "for all we know". And this is enough to save the hypothesis of theism.

This is not a promising approach. If it is accepted, then theism will score low in terms of simplicity. To retain any explanatory merit, these auxiliary hypotheses will need to score highly in terms of the other explanatory virtues.

It is interesting to note that one reason why Van Inwagen does not find the idea of positing auxiliary hypotheses to be problematic is that he is not an evidentialist. He follows Plantinga in thinking that we know of God's existence in a properly basic manner. Because of this, evidence is to be treated in terms of damage control: what do we need to deny and what can be explained away?

Van Inwagen's approach might be shared by many theists. They will not typically believe in God because he happens to be the best explanation for a set of facts. They will believe for psychological and emotional reasons. So when challenged with events and states of affairs that seem to be inconsistent with their idea of God, they will be happy to invent a plethora auxiliary hypotheses.

The obvious question is the following: once you have added-on all these auxiliary hypotheses, are you left with something worth believing in?

3. Ontological Economy
So much for simplicity, now we have to consider the virtue of ontological economy. What Dawes means by this comes close to what Swinburne means by simplicity, but it is slightly different. What he means is that when explaining something we should not introduce new kinds (types) of ontological entity (or process) unless we have sufficient reason to do so.

Dawes cites two examples suggesting that this is an acceptable restriction to place on successful explanations. The first comes from the work of Charles Lyell, one of the founders of modern geology. Lyell argued that when we are explaining how the earth got to be the way it is, we should do so in terms of processes that we can still observe today.

We should be wary about suggesting that there were different ontological processes in the past because that would open the door to "the utmost license of conjecture in speculating on the causes of geological phenomena."

The second of Dawes's examples comes from the work of Thomas Aquinas. Dawes notes that in considering arguments for the existence of God, Aquinas accepted the virtue of ontological economy. So the point here is that we shouldn't be apologetic about using this explanatory virtue since it is something that theists can accept.

Now, it should be borne in mind that this virtue is not intended to be an explanatory straitjacket: we can posit new ontological entities and processes if there is sufficient reason to do so. "Sufficient reason" would mean satisfying the other explanatory virtues such as testability, simplicity, informativeness and so on.

Of course, it should not come as a surprise to learn that theism does not fare well on the ontological-economy-front.

Okay, that's it for this post. In the next part of this series we will consider theism in light of the final explanatory virtue: informativeness.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Successful Theistic Explanations (Part 2) - Background Knowledge and Past Success

This post is part of my series on Chapter 7 of Gregory Dawes's book Theism and Explanation. In this chapter, Dawes's assesses the merits of theistic explanations in light of a series of six explanatory virtues.

In part 1, I covered the general background to chapter 7 and looked at the first of the explanatory virtues (testability). In this part, I will cover the next two explanatory virtues: consistency with background knowledge and past explanatory success.

To better appreciate this discussion it is worth remembering two things. First, a potential explanation is one that fits into an abductive schema. Second, a potential theistic explanation is one that appeals to divine intentions. In other words, it is an explanation that attributes events and states of affairs in the world to the goals of a divine agent.

1. What is Background Knowledge?
The first question we need to ask is: what is background knowledge? The answer is straightforward: background knowledge is any fact or theory, excluding the fact(s) we are currently trying to explain, of which we already have knowledge.

All things being equal, consistency with background knowledge is an explanatory virtue. As we shall see in a moment, some argue that in the case of theism things are not equal. For now, let's assume that they are.

One good illustration of the virtue of consistency with background knowledge is Darwin's theory of natural selection. When Darwin proposed his theory we had no way of observing the process of natural selection in action. So Darwin illustrated how his theory was consistent with another well-known process, namely: artificial selection.

The fact that Darwin's theory was consistent with artificial selection counted in its favour.

2. Is Theism Consistent with Background Knowledge?
Now we need to ask whether theistic explanations are consistent with background knowledge. On the one hand, given that we employ intentional explanations all the time, there is reason to think they are consistent. On the other hand, the nature of the divine agent is so completely different to the intentional agents with which we normally deal that the consistency is more apparent than real.

The main problem is that God is a non-physical, eternal, omniscient agent. The idea that such an agent could will into existence the physical, non-eternal universe is completely alien from our background knowledge.

Note that this is true even if you embrace some form of dualism about the human mind. J.L. Mackie made this point well when he criticised Swinburne's cosmological argument. He said:
All our knowledge of intention-fulfillment is of embodied intentions being fulfilled indirectly by way of bodily changes and movements which are causally related to the intended result, and where the ability thus to fulfil intentions itself has a causal history, either of evolutionary development or of learning or of both. (From The Miracle of Theism, p. 100)
Mackie's statements are consistent with the idea of a non-physical human mind, and they signal how alien the divine mind really is.

3. Is Background Knowledge Relevant?
Given the inconsistency of theism with background knowledge, theists might be inclined to argue that this particular explanatory virtue is not relevant when considering the explanatory merits of theism. Indeed, this is precisely what Richard Swinburne does and his argument is worthy of our attention.

Swinburne thinks that consistency with background knowledge is usually a relevant consideration but that it becomes less and less relevant as the scope (or breadth) of the explanation increases. The reason for this is that as an explanation explains more and more facts, there is less and less independent background knowledge. And since some theistic explanations are extremely broad in scope, it follows that there is practically no background knowledge with which they can be consistent. The only exception is logical knowledge (and some theists think god explains that as well!).

At first glance this seems like a sound objection, but it falls apart on closer inspection. What Swinburne is saying here is that theistic explanations are so broad that they can explain all true propositions (P1, P2....Pn) about the world. But the reality is that no theist does, or even could, offer such a broad explanation.

This is best illustrated by taking a look at cosmological arguments. These are the potential theistic explanations with the broadest scope. But even then they only cover general propositions about the world and not the set of all true propositions (P1...Pn). They cover propositions like "there cannot be an infinite set of contingent entities", "there cannot be an infinite sequence of causes", "there cannot be an infinite sequence of temporal events" and so on. Each of these propositions is only part of the set of all true propositions.

So, it is always going to be possible to distinguish between what is being explained by theism, and background knowledge that is being taken for granted. And given that it is possible to do this, theism should be consistent with background knowledge (if it wants to be taken seriously as an explanatory hypothesis).

4. Past Explanatory Success
This brings us to the question of past explanatory success. In some ways this is similar to the question of consistency with background knowledge, but Dawes thinks it is significant enough to be considered a separate explanatory virtue.

Past explanatory success refers to the track record of a particular explanatory hypothesis. For example, the reason why so many people have found evolutionary theories of human psychology to be appealing is that evolutionary explanations have a good track record outside of human psychology. There may, of course, be other reasons to discount evolutionary psychology (lack or failure of testability for example).

The point can be generalised: the past explanatory success of naturalistic scientific explanations is a reason to favour them over supernatural explanations (such as theism). This is not simply an illegitimate attempt to stack the deck against theistic explanations. The successes of naturalism are numerous and real. We are aware of them every time we take an antibiotic or turn on a laptop.

Until theistic or supernatural explanations have had similarly productive explanatory successes, there will always be reason to be sceptical of them.

That's it for now. In the next part of this series we will look at the explanatory virtues of simplicity and ontological economy.

Successful Theistic Explanations (Part 1) - Testability

I previously covered chapter 5 of Gregory Dawes's book Theism and Explanation. I am now going to cover chapter 7 of the same book.

Before we get into the meat of this chapter, a quick summary of Dawes's basic thesis is in order. Dawes argues throughout his book that theism can be a genuine explanatory hypothesis. To be precise, it can be an abductive intentional explanation. This means that it will explain events and states of affairs by appealing to divine intentions. Any posited intentions will be constrained by the rationality and optimality principles. These were covered when discussing chapter 5.

Up to this point in the book, Dawes feels he has established the explanatory potential of theism. The final consideration is whether theism can be a successful explanation. This will require an assessment of a potential theistic explanation against a list of explanatory virtues.

In chapter 7, Dawes assesses potential theistic explanations against six explanatory virtues: (i) testability; (ii) consistency with background knowledge; (iii) past explanatory success; (iv) simplicity; (v) ontological economy and (vi) informativeness.

Some of these are more important than others. In this first post, we will deal with the testability of theistic explanations. There is quite a lot of ground to cover here so I hope you are sitting comfortably.

1. Testability and Corroboration
Testability is often singled out as the hallmark of scientific explanations. This may seem to make its application to theism questionable. We'll get to that in a moment.

The first thing to note is that an explanation is testable only if it makes predictions about facts other than those it purports to explain. Another way of putting this is to say that a testable explanation will be able to exclude at least one possible state of affairs. This avoids the "explains everything, therefore nothing" objection.

An example might be my claim that my car won't start because the engine is flooded. This explanation is testable because it predicts that if the engine were not flooded, the car would start. It thus excludes the "not flooded" state of affairs from its scope.

The second thing to note is that mere testability is not enough. An explanation must actually pass the test in order to merit our consideration. When an explanation passes a test we refer to it as being corroborated.

2. Are Theistic Explanations Testable?
The problem facing theistic explanations is that they tend to fall into the "explains everything, therefore nothing"-category. After all, theists tend to believe that everything is ultimately attributable to god (except, perhaps, the freely willed actions of humans), even if the road to that attribution is unclear.

Nonetheless, Dawes argues that theistic explanations could be testable if they were more specific. They would need to identify some divine goal and show how a particular state of affairs served as a means to that goal. They could then be corroborated by showing how this divine goal explains other states of affairs.

The example Dawes uses to make this point is the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. In the aftermath of this incident, at least some religious commentators attributed it to God's desire to stamp out sexual immorality. These commentators are making a specific claim about God's goals, and this claim can be tested. How? By seeing whether other natural disasters target regions known for breaching the sex code.

Of course, as Dawes notes, no reputable religious philosopher is willing to do this because the explanatory merit of the specific goals tend to unravel. For instance, Richard Swinburne has offered probably the most sophisticated defence of merits of theistic explanation. But in doing so he strategically avoids specifying what God's intentions are and how creating this world helps him to realise those intentions.

In sum, theistic explanations in their most sophisticated form tend to be untestable, and in their least sophisticated form they tend to be uncorroborated.

3. Predictions and Retrodictions
After critiquing Swinburne's lack of specificity, Dawes takes a more detailed look at how theistic explanations could make predictions.

The strict understanding of predictions comes from Karl Popper. He argued that in order to make a prediction, a scientific theory must predict wholly new events that can subsequently be verified (or, rather, falsified) by observation.

This Popperian view is unreasonable given the history of scientific practice. For example, one factor counting in favour of Einsteinian relativity over Newtonian mechanics was its ability to account for the long-known peculiarities in the orbit of Mercury. This was not a novel prediction, but it seemed reasonable to accept it as corroboration nonetheless.

But when rejecting the restrictiveness of Popper's view, we must be careful not fall prey to correlative vice of permissiveness. We do this, according to Dawes, by making sure we consider alternative explanations during the corroboration process.

This is referred to as the historical approach. Why? Because the alternative explanations are usually predecessors to the proposed explanation, as in the Einstein-Newton example given above. The new explanation is corroborated if it accounts for something that the old explanation does not account for (and should have been able to account for).

This could be an issue when looking at theistic explanations because there is often no competing explanation. For example, Richard Swinburne claims that God can explain the laws of nature. There is no predecessor theory that attempts to do the same. Does theism then win the explanatory battle because it is the only competitor?

To answer that question, we must take a detour into some of Elliot Sober's arguments against Swinburne.

4. The Solitary Explanatory Hypothesis
Sober objects to Swinburne's thesis on the grounds that it is an untestable, solitary explanatory hypothesis. Sober, like Swinburne, couches his arguments in terms of confirmation theory so his specific claim is that meaningful probabilities cannot be assigned to the solitary hypothesis.

We can see this if we consider Swinburne's argument more carefully. Swinburne is claiming that the probability of there being laws of nature (O) is high on the hypothesis of theism (T) and low in the absence of an explanation. This gives us the following:

  • Pr (O | T) > Pr (O)
Sober's point is that Swinburne has no right to assign a low probability to O and a high probability to O|T. And the main reason that he has no right to do so is that there is no competitor theory.

If Sober is right, then Swinburne's philosophical programme is severely damaged. But is he right? Dawes offers two reasons for rejecting Sober's argument.

First, it might be possible for the theistic explanation to be compared with a "null hypothesis". This is routinely done in scientific investigations. For example, when testing the effectiveness of a drug. The proponents of the drug predict that it will lead to measurable differences between two groups of experimental subjects (those who are given the drug and those who are not). The null hypothesis predicts that any differences between the groups will be attributable to chance.

Something similar could be done in Swinburne's case. In this instance, the null hypothesis would be that the laws of nature got to be the way they are by chance. This would involve defining the relevant probability space (i.e. the range of values or forms that the laws of nature could take). Something that could be difficult to do.

The second response to Sober is more interesting. Sober's argument is, surprisingly, being generous to Swinburne. It accepts the vague form of theism that Swinburne adopts. Dawes would argue that Swinburne should step up to the plate and posit a specific divine intention as the explanation for the laws of nature.

If Swinburne does this, then there will usually be some clear-cut implications that follow. In other words, additional facts that would be explained by that same intention. We could then go out and see whether those facts actually obtain. In this manner, the solitary hypothesis could become testable.

It is, perhaps, telling that Swinburne does not do this.

Okay, that's it for now. In the next part of this series we will consider how well theistic explanations fare when measured against the explanatory virtues of consistency with background knowledge and past explanatory success.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Wielenberg on Moral Realism and Theism (Part 3) - Mysterious Floating Values

This post is part of my series on Erik Wielenberg's article "In Defence of Non-Natural Non-Theistic Moral Realism" (or NNMR for short). Parts one and two are available here and here.

In this article, Wielenberg contends that moral facts exist; that they supervene on natural facts but are not reducible to natural facts; and that at least some of them are brute, which means that they do not require any explanation or ontological grounding. He then defends these contentions from theistic criticisms.

In this post I cover Wielenberg's responses to the criticisms of J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig.

1. Mysterious Floating Values
Craig and Moreland's tactic is to find novel ways of describing the jaw-dropping incredulity they experience when they think about Wielenberg's NNMR. Here is a representative example:
What does it mean to say, for example, that the moral value justice just exists?...It is clear what is meant when it is said that a person is just; but it is bewildering when it is said that in the absence of any people, justice itself exists...Atheistic moral realists seem to lack any adequate foundation in reality for moral values but just leave them floating in an unintelligible way. (From Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, p. 492)
We can distill two objections from this passage. First, there is the idea that values only make sense if they are the properties of a person. Second, there is the idea that it makes no sense to have free-floating, ontologically untethered moral values.

Is there any force to these objections? Wielenberg's answer, unsurprisingly, is "no". In elaborating on this answer he follows his, by now familiar, tactic of showing how the theist ultimately shoots themselves in the foot: they try to deny the existence of brute ethical facts but actually need them to sustain their own moral theories. 

Wielenberg makes this point by paying particularly close attention to the variety of moral realism embraced by William Lane Craig (sorry JP!).

2. Rights and Duties in Craig's World
Anyone who has listened to Craig's public debates will be familiar with his "just animals" line. He maintains that without God, humans are just accidental byproducts of evolution, just receptacles for improper animalistic instincts. And as such cannot be the bearers of moral rights and duties.

For example, he frequently claims that rape cannot be really wrong on the atheistic worldview. The best that can be said is that it is socially disadvantageous.

The standard atheistic response to this is that humans have certain capacities (e.g. to feel pain, and to reason about the world and their place within it) that are morally relevant. So rape is morally wrong because it causes harm, compromises autonomy, makes the victim feel subordinated and so on.

Craig has a well-rehearsed response to this as well. He argues that the atheist has no right to think that harm is morally wrong. The atheist is simply presupposing a morality and using this to reach desired conclusions. The presupposed morality does not rest on anything.

The theist, according to Craig, is on much firmer footing because his/her morality is grounded in the commands of a good God.

3. Craig's Moral Shopping List
In all of this, Craig is simply assuming what he needs to prove: that morality needs a foundation external to itself. Indeed, he makes this point explicitly in a passage responding to some of his critics. This passage is worth quoting in full:
My experience with [non-theistic moral] theories is that they inevitably just assume gratuitously that on a naturalistic view of man, some feature of human existence, say, pleasure, is an intrinsic good, and then proceed from there. But the advocates of such theories are typically at a loss to justify their starting point. If their approach to meta-ethical theory is to be..."serious metaphysics" rather than just "a shopping list" approach, whereby one simply helps oneself to the supervenient moral properties needed to do the job, then some sort of explanation is required for why moral properties supervene on certain natural states. (From The Craig-Flew Debate, p. 171)

Craig's penchant for pugnacious rhetoric is on full display here. But the irony is twofold. First, he himself appeals to Robert M. Adams's moral theory, which as we saw presumes the existence of brute ethical facts. Second, he acknowledges the need for somewhat arbitrary moral starting points, he just thinks God is a less arbitrary starting point.

Interestingly, one of his justifications for this latter point is that God is, by definition, a being worthy of worship. But as Wielenberg points out, such a justification can only work on the presumption that "worthiness of worship" is a brute ethical fact. Something that is not grounded in God's will.

4. Conclusion
This brings us to Wielenberg's final point. Which is that both theistic and non-theistic moral realists begin with, to co-opt Craig's phrase, inexplicable ethical shopping lists. The theistic shopping list consists of things like:
  • There is a being that is worthy of worship; 
  • Whatever this being commands you to do, you have a moral obligation to do; 
  • The better the character of the commander, the more reason there is to obey his/her commands.
The non-theistic list consists of things like:
  • Pain is intrinsically bad;
  • Inflicting pain for fun is morally wrong;
  • It is just to give people what they deserve.
Neither party can provide any deeper explanation or ontological grounding for all the items contained on these shopping lists. 

And this is the whole point of Wielenberg's article: the idea of brute ethical facts is not problematic for the atheist, unless it is also problematic for the theist.

Wielenberg on Moral Realism and Theism (Part 2) - The Problem of Supervenience

This post is part of my series on Erik Wielenberg's article "In Defence of Non-Natural, Non-Theistic Moral Realism". Part one is here.

In this article Wielenberg defends his moral theory (which I abbreviate to "NNMR") from its theistic critics. We saw in part one that Wielenberg's theory appeals to the existence of brute non-natural moral facts. These are moral facts that do not need to be given any deeper explanation or ontological foundation.

This is, of course, disturbing to theists. They want moral facts to be grounded in God. In this post we will look at William Wainwright's attempt to show how God is needed for morality.

1. Supervenience
I have covered the topic of supervenience before so forgive me if I do not explain it again. For present purposes, the important point is that Wielenberg's moral realism implies that moral properties such as "rightness" or "wrongness" supervene on non-moral properties.

Although the idea of moral supervenience has been challenged in the past, Wainwright agrees with it. He just happens to think that it makes more sense in a theistic framework than it does in a naturalistic framework.

Why does he think this? Well, as mentioned previously, Wielenberg's thesis maintains that moral supervenience is simply a brute fact. Something that needs no deeper explanation or ontological foundation. This means that asking a question like "why is pain intrinsically bad?" is misguided.

Wainwright thinks this is weird. While we might be able to accept the existence of trivial brute facts such as "A is A" or "1+1=2", we cannot be satisfied with the existence of non-trivial brute facts such as moral facts. These need a deeper explanatory/ontological grounding.

2. But isn't God a Brute Fact?
Is Wainwright justified in thinking that brute moral facts are strange? Wielenberg thinks not since theists are themselves guilty of accepting one massively non-trivial brute fact, namely: God. Wainwright will need to show why we can accept God as a brute fact while not doing the same for moral facts.

Fortunately, this is a challenge that Wainwright is not willing to shirk. He offers two reasons for accepting the brute fact of God's existence, but not of moral facts.

First up, God is essentially causeless whereas moral facts are caused. The idea that God is essentially causeless seems acceptable, but is there any reason to think that moral facts are caused to be? Wainwright thinks there is because according to divine command theories (DCTs) at least some moral facts are caused to exist by the will of God.

The problem with this line of argument is that it assumes what it wants to prove, i.e. that God is necessary for morality. Wainwright has not done anything to show that a DCT provides a coherent foundation for morality. He seems to think that because DCTs are conceivable, they must also be metaphysically possible. This is an unattractive thesis since it is also conceivable that God does not exist. But despite this conceivability, theists usually contend that God must exist in every metaphysically possible world.

The second reason for embracing the brute fact of God's existence, but not of morality, is to appeal to God's self-explanatory nature. The idea is not obviously incoherent but it is pretty mysterious nonetheless.

Indeed, Wielenberg argues that the appeal to a self-explantory nature is simply an appeal to a new type of brute fact. If we can accept that, why not accept brute moral facts?

In the end then Wainwright gives us no good reasons to reject the idea of brute moral facts.

3. The Allure of Robert M. Adams
Despite this failure, are there any other reasons we might have for preferring to ground morality in God? Wainwright suggests that there is: if theism can actually explain why the moral supervenes on the non-moral, then that is a reason, all things being equal, to prefer it to NNMR.

Of course, this raises the obvious question: can theism really explain moral supervenience? At this point, Wainwright, like many of his theistic colleagues, appeals to the work of Robert M. Adams. It seems to be a generally agreed that Adams has provided the most sophisticated and coherent account of why God is good.

The account runs something like the following. God's nature is to be loving, just, merciful and so on. Other things are good to the extent that they share in or resemble this divine nature. And because God's nature is also necessary, the supervenience of the moral is a necessary fact of existence.

What are we to make of this? Wielenberg suggests that Adams's theory only works to the extent that it presumes the existence of brute ethical facts.

To see this, we begin by noting that Adams's "God = Good" identity-claim is inspired by the "Water = H20" identity-claim. What is interesting about both of these identity-claims is that they are not semantic, they are ontological. They propose an ontological equivalence between two independently defined entities.

So "water" is not semantically equivalent to "H20" and neither is "good" semantically equivalent to "God". Deeper claims are being made about the ontological nature of the Good and of water. These deeper claims are not explanatory in nature.

Think about it this way: H20 does not explain the existence of water, so neither does God explain or account for the existence of the Good. Both sides of these identity relations have to have a plausible antecedent metaphysical independence in order for the identity-claim to work.

So when Adams claims that God is Good he is, in effect, saying that there exists a brute ethical fact (Goodness) that happens to be embodied in God. This ethical fact is not created by God, it is just ontologically equivalent to God.

Once again, we have no reason to reject the existence of brute ethical facts. Indeed, we must accept them before we can accept Adams's theory.

4. Conclusion
To sum up, we began with Wielenberg's NNMR-thesis. This thesis implies the existence of brute ethical facts that supervene on non-moral facts. These facts do not depend on the existence of God.

This thesis was challenged by Wainwright on two main fronts. First, by arguing that we should not accept the existence of such non-trivial brute facts. And second, by arguing that God could explain moral supervenience.

Wielenberg responded to both arguments by pointing out how they themselves presupposed or shared the assumptions about brute facts that are built into his thesis.

In the next post we will cover Wielenberg's responses to William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland's criticisms of NNMR.

Wielenberg on Moral Realism and Theism (Part 1)

Erik Wielenberg has been trying to defend a type of non-natural moral realism from the ire of theists and other debunkers. In this series I will take a look at one of his articles on this topic:
"In Defence of Non-Natural Non-Theistic Moral Realism" (2009) 26 Faith and Philosophy 23-41
The article's title tells you pretty much all you need to know about its content. Wielenberg tries to defend a non-natural moral realism from theistic critics. For the sake of convenience, we will refer to this non-natural non-theistic moral realism with the initials "NNMR".

In this part, I will simply sketch the broad outline of Wielenberg's realism this sketch will be defended from the theistic critics in subsequent posts. Wielenberg's general strategy is to argue that anyone who wants to affirm moral truths must be a realist. To this end, he undermines theistic critiques by highlighting their hidden realist presumptions.

The Ontological Building-Blocks
To firmly grasp the nettle that is Wielenberg's thesis, we need to begin by reviewing some of the more obscure aspects of philosophical ontology.

The universe is made up of stuff. The goal of ontology is to figure out what kind of stuff there is. Ontologists like to devise, define and discriminate between distinct types of ontological entity, e.g. properties, particulars, universals, events and so on.

One type of ontological entity is known as a state of affairs. If you follow that link to the Stanford Encylcopedia of Philosophy you will see that this concept is, unsurprisingly, controversial. It is pretty clear from Wielenberg's article that he understands states of affairs to be abstract entities, somewhat akin to mathematical truths but not exactly.

The qualifier "not exactly" is needed because there are several important distinctions to be made between different types of states of affairs.

An example will help to illustrate these distinctions. We can begin by saying that "living under democratic government" is a state of affairs. This is a state of affairs that actually obtains (at least in my home country) and so we call it a fact.

Facts can be contingent or necessary. This is defined in terms of existence in possible worlds, not causal dependence. So mathematical facts are necessary because they are true in all possible worlds. Democratic governance is contingent because it does not exist in all possible worlds. Indeed, there are parts of this world that pay testament to this.

Furthermore, some facts depend on others for their existence. This is a reference to causal dependence. So, again, democratic governance is causally dependent on a whole set of other facts, cultural, historical, psychological, for its existence.

Facts that do not depend on others for their existence are brute facts. The most important property of brute facts is that they do not need to be explained in terms of other facts. Theists argue that God is the ultimate ontological brute fact. Non-theists are either sceptical about ultimate brute facts or are willing to embrace some ultimate brute fact that is non-personal in nature, e.g. Spinozism.

These concepts - states of affairs, contingent facts, necessary facts and brute facts - are all we need to understand Wielenberg's basic moral philosophy.

Moral Realism
Wielenberg's moral realism embraces the following propositions. First, some of the states of affairs that actually obtain in the world have moral properties. That is to say, it is meaningful to refer to them as being "good" or "bad".

Second, these moral properties are non-reducible. That is to say, it is not possible to restate them in strictly naturalistic terms: moral properties supervene on natural facts.

Third, some moral states of affairs are necessary, others are contingent. Wielenberg gives the example of the wrongness of torturing an innocent person as a necessarily true moral state of affairs. However, suppose that the means of torturing such a person was to press some button. In this case button-pressing would be a contingent moral wrong.

Fourth, at least some of these necessary moral facts are brute. To ask of such facts "where do they come from?" or "on what foundations do they rest?" is misguided. An example of a brute moral fact might be the intrinsic badness of pain.

That's it for now. In the next post we will consider the theistic critiques of this position.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Metaethical Strategies - Nihilism, Constructivism and Realism

I finally have a window open for a blog post or two. Something short and sweet.

Some background first. I have recently been reading Russ Shafer Landau's book Moral Realism: A Defence. I must say, even if you don't like the idea of non-naturalistic moral realism, you have to admire RSL's ability to communicate complex ideas in a fluid, almost lyrical style. It's certainly one of the most readable and serious works of philosophy I have come across.

As someone who does not have a grounding in metaethics (I have plenty of familiarity with normative and applied ethics however), I particularly liked his nihilist/constructivist/realist breakdown of theories in Chapter 1. It helped me clarify some of my own thinking on the matter. And so I want to share that breakdown in this post.

This will set things up nicely for a series on Erik Wielenberg's non-theistic non-natural realism that I am planning for next week.

Those who are familiar with metaethics will probably be aware of the standard cognitivist/non-cognitivist breakdown. Everything said here is consistent with that approach.

1. Sense and Reference
We must begin with some comments about the sense and reference of propositions. We have a fondness for uttering propositions, things like "There is a tree outside my window", "Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father", "Murder is bad" and so on.

All of these propositions have a sense or meaning or connotation. I don't suppose anybody was discombobulated when they read them, as they might have been if I had said something like "Gargle shrumps in the slingerwood".

But do these propositions refer to anything deeper? Are they capable of being true or false? This is the question at the heart of metaethics and it is a question to which Shafer-Landau thinks there are three possible replies.

2. Nihilism
The first reply denies that the propositions are capable of being true or false. We can imagine Star Wars fans thrashing out the minutiae of the Skywalker family's internal problems, but at the end of the day, that entire discussion is incapable of referring to anything real.

Moral nihilists think that the conversations between moralists are a lot like those between Star Wars fans: erudite, passionate, littered with jargon, occasionally witty, but ultimately signifying nothing.

3. Constructivism
The constructivists think there is genuine truth and falsehood but it is of an interesting kind. Imagine you have bought a plot of land and bring me out to take a look at it. As we stand gazing at an empty field, you proclaim "There is a house over there". I am somewhat agog. You must have lost your mind.

But suppose I return a few months later. In the interim you have hired a contractor and he has built you a house. Now, when you proclaim "there is a house over there" I think nothing of it. You statement obviously has truth-value.

Well perhaps morality is a little like that. It is something that we construct through social convention or agreement. But once it has been constructed, it becomes perfectly acceptable to speak about people being morally right and wrong.

But just as you can hire a dodgy builder and end up with a dodgy house, so too can you end up with a dodgy morality. Moral philosophers will envision a morality constructing process that starts with a set of inputs (rational preferences, egalitarian preferences or somesuch) and ends up with a set of moral prescriptions.

Various candidates for this morality constructing process have been identified. There is, for instance, the classic social contract for mutual self-interest from Thomas Hobbes; the egalitarian contract negotiated behind a veil of ignorance from John Rawls; and the ideal rational observer from Roderick Firth.

Whether any of these can be used to build a secure morality is another question.

4. Realism
Finally, there is the realist position. Most of us are default realists when it comes to scientific and perceptual propositions. For example, when I say that the table is made of atoms or that there is a tree outside my window, it is assumed that I am referring to an independent realm of facts. One that does not rely on me for its existence.

Moral realists, unsurprisingly, think there is a mind-independent realm of moral facts. So that when we say "murder is wrong" and "charity is good" we are not simply mouthing absurdities or talking about cultural conventions, we are talking about a set of facts that are deeply woven into the ontological fabric of reality.

The big issue is what type of facts they are. Naturalistic realism holds that moral facts are just a special kind of natural scientific facts. Non-naturalistic realism holds that moral facts are sui generis.

Non-naturalistic realism is metaphysically disturbing to some, so its defenders often build analogies with other non-natural facts that seem less disturbing. A classic example would be mathematical and logical facts such as "1+1=2" or "A is A". Neither of these seem to be natural and yet they are widely embraced. Indeed, they even seem to have some normative force.

So there you have it: three potential approaches to moral truth.