Are Moral Facts Not Natural Facts? Everything Wrong with the Shafer-Landau Thesis

An old timey looking photo of a block of stone on which is written 'Nothing is written in stone'.Is moral truth a priori and not a natural property of the universe? So says Dr. Russ Shafer-Landau (as articulated in Whatever Happened to Good and Evil in 2003; and Moral Realism: A Defence in 2005). Even though I’m sympathetic to his project, he’s just wrong. And not merely wrong, but too obviously wrong for this to still be a thing in 21st century philosophy. Here I’ll explain why I think that. And in the process you’ll get a feel for how to actually think about moral realism, and how to better understand what morality actually is and how a morality is determined to be true.

This connects with a recent and very relevant interview of me on this same issue by J.J. Chipchase at Naturalistic Philosophy, titled On Moral Theory and Truth with Richard Carrier – Part I. There I outline many aspects of my take on metaethics that inform the following.

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The Moral Truth Debate: Babinski & Shook

I’ve been sent two links of responses to my article last week, “What Exactly Is Objective Moral Truth?” Technically they are responses to Harris. But insofar as I am defending the same core thesis, and the links were sent to me, and both are by authors whose opinions I respect (even if I don’t always agree with them), they warrant a response here. These responses I think should be read by everyone, since they are common mistakes and misunderstandings, and my responses will clarify things you might need clarified…especially in the closing epilogue of this post.

First of the replies is Ed Babinski, who posted his own entry for the Harris contest on Facebook. Second is John Shook, who posted a reply on his blog at CFI.

In both cases, I must first reiterate the whole gist of my article:

One reason Harris is not the best one to use as your straw man in this debate is that doing that is lazy. It allows talking past each other far too easily. To avoid that I created a formal deductive proof of his core thesis (all the way back in 2011…and that was in development well before that, even before I read his book or even knew he was writing it–which means it is only a proof of “his thesis” in retrospect, since I had been developing the same thesis independently since 2004). What I asked people to do is find a logical invalidity or a non-demonstrable premise in my syllogism. Because that will prevent vagueries and misunderstandings and get right to the heart of who is correct. To do that, I told everyone to read my chapter “Moral Facts Naturally Exist” in The End of Christianity (indeed I said in last week’s article, quote, “the syllogisms you have to prove invalid or unsound are on pp. 359-64″). Hereafter I shall refer to that as TEC.

To keep avoiding this is to just lazily act like armchair problem solvers who can’t be bothered to actually look up the best version of the argument they are criticizing. Stop that. No more straw man fallacies. Address the best and most rigorous form of the argument. And do it correctly, i.e., actually identify an actual fallacy in those syllogisms or identify a premise in them that is false (or which you can prove we do not know is true).

Apart from simply not doing that (which is the biggest flaw in these replies, reducing them both to a classic straw man fallacy), here is also what’s wrong with the Babinski and Shook rebuttals… [Read more…]

What Exactly Is Objective Moral Truth?

Sam Harris has a contest on. “Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in 1,000 words or less.” The best essay (as judged by Harris opponent and atheist philosopher Russell Blackford) will win $2,000 (and be published on Harris’s personal website). “You must refute the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.” If any such essay actually changes Sam Harris’s mind, they will win not just $2,000 but $20,000 (and Harris will publicly recant his view).

Ophelia Benson has been critical of this contest (see A Losing Lottery Ticket, Sam Has to Presume a Great Big Ought, and a guest post from a commenter Why the Is/Ought Problem Matters). His own contest page (The Moral Landscape Challenge) has an important FAQ (a must read for any contenders). I actually am behind Harris’s program (I think his core thesis is correct, and I think Benson is wrong to say it is not), but I am not very impressed with Harris’s ability to defend or articulate it.

I had even greater problems with Michael Shermer’s attempt to defend the same core thesis Harris does, and I have commented before on how he was simply destroyed by his opponent, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, even though I think Pigliucci is ultimately wrong and Shermer ultimately right (see Shermer vs. Pigliucci on Moral Science). I expect Harris will get similarly pwned. And that’s sad. Because it hurts their cause. They just aren’t the best defenders of this idea. And they should admit that and stop trying to be lone wolfs and look for and work with expert collaborators. There are several real, even renowned, philosophers who have been defending the same core thesis for years. Harris did not come up with anything fundamentally new here, and they have far more skill and experience dealing with the rigorous philosophical requirements of this debate.

Below I will explain what is wrong with Harris’s contest so far (and why it is not what Benson is concerned about); why what Benson has been saying is incorrect (and misses the point of Harris’ actual core thesis); and how (again) science can actually take over moral philosophy the same way it has done the theory of life (in the science of biology) and the universe (in the sciences of physics, astrophysics, and cosmology) and man and society (in the sciences of anthropology and sociology) and of mind (in psychology, neurophysiology, and cognitive science). [Read more…]

Ten Years to the Robot Apocalypse

Counting down. Soon we shall all be doomed.

Okay, I wrote this on the plane to Alabama about a month ago. It’s been languishing in my queue until now. So step back in time. I’m presently five miles above the earth hurtling through space in a giant metal bullet at hundreds of miles an hour. Earlier I was reading Science News (an old issue from last year; I’m behind) while waiting on the tarmac for takeoff. Got to the article on Eureqa, the “robot scientist” that can discover the laws of nature all on its own, just from looking at and experimenting with data. I was reminded of an earlier article a few years ago on the Lipson-Zykov experiment (mentioned in a sidebar). Then I caught another just recently, about Spaun (yeah, I’ve been reading Science News out of order). Spaun is a neural-net computer program that makes decisions like a person: it thinks, memorizes, solves problems, gambles, etc. All these developments, in the span of just a couple of years. Had some thoughts… [Read more…]

Shermer vs. Pigliucci on Moral Science

Ophelia Benson summarized Michael Shermer’s latest foot-in-mouth in his row with Massimo Pigliucci over whether and to what degree moral philosophy should become a moral science instead. Reading their exchange, I find Shermer is more inclined toward ideological biases and superficial worldview declarations than actual, sound, self-critical, well-thought analyses in this matter.

As a result, Shermer is doing a really awful job of defending what I actually agree with: that it’s high time moral philosophy began to be folded into the sciences (the same way philosophy of mind became psychology and cognitive science, for example). And that’s annoying. It’s like when awful Jesus myth theorists make it harder for me to argue that Jesus might not have existed after all, by their constantly using terrible arguments that then get falsely imputed to me. My case then gets judged by their failures. I now worry the same will happen here. So let me try to nip that in the bud.

The General Point

Pigliucci already exposes Shermer’s lack of understanding in this latest matter generally, so I won’t rehash all that. [Read more…]

20 Questions

Are there “20 Questions Atheists Struggle to Answer” ? I was asked how I respond to Peter Saunders’ claim that there are, and how I would respond to those questions. According to God’s Advocate, Saunders thinks “there have not been any decent responses to [these twenty questions] in the past 40yrs,” but evidently he isn’t bothering to read any of the best answers available or even to find out what they are. The questions themselves are pretty much boiler plate, and consist mostly of fallacious loaded questions that ignore the established science behind nearly every one. I noticed that my work over the years has answered every one, except a few that are so lame I really can’t believe he thinks they need a better answer than science has already provided (at least with respect to whether atheism is true–I think science can always know or learn more about anything, but at a certain point you know enough to know God is not involved in whatever it is).

So here are my answers to his twenty questions… [Read more…]