Saturday, 28 April 2012

Beginnings and beginnings

One of the most common and most persuasive arguments for the existence of God is the Kalam cosmological argument. William Lane Craig is perhaps its foremost proponent.

The argument has been formulated at a high level by Craig as follows (according to Wikipedia):
  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
He then goes on to argue why this cause must be God, an argument I find unconvincing but won't get into here.

This argument is usually attacked by tackling the first premise with quantum mechanics, where events do not necessarily have causes per se, however Craig counters this by insisting that the laws of quantum mechanics themselves serve as the cause.

Premise number two is often attacked also by raising the possibility that the universe, or at least time, has always existed. Craig responds with all the evidence for the big bang (which is not actually in dispute) and with some unconvincing arguments attempting to prove that an infinite series of past events is impossible.

I propose to attack the argument from another angle. Again, I attack premise two, but not by denying the big bang or the beginning of time, but by arguing that there are beginnings, and then there are beginnings.

Something from nothing

I read an interesting blog post by a fellow named Richard Carrier the other day. In it he discusses the common idea that the universe was created from nothing, and what that might mean.

After all, a common question is why should the universe exist at all? Why is there something rather than nothing? One explanation is that God must have created the universe. Another is that for some reason nothingness is somehow unstable and will always lead to something.

And, quite apart from this question, creation from nothing is a common religious theme. It is also commonly assumed by the non-religious that all matter, time and space were created in the big bang, essentially from nothing. As such, perhaps it's worth thinking about what might happen if we can imagine such a state of nothingness.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

And another thing!

Before leaving the subject of The Moral Landscape completely, I want to write a post specifically to defend Harris's idea against one particularly bad criticism.

I mentioned in a previous post that I was quite annoyed by a howler of an error made by William Lane Craig in a debate he had with Sam Harris on the topic of whether there could be an objective basis for morality without God.

What was even more annoying was that Dr. Craig was convinced that he had unambiguously proved his argument with this ridiculous misunderstanding. Unbelievably, Harris never bothered to challenge this, resolutely ignoring Dr. Craig and evidently concentrating on all the points he had scripted for himself well in advance of the debate.

After the jump, Dr. Craig's bogus argument and why it's so wrong.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The Moral Landscape: conclusions

For all the reasons I've outlined, I don't think it's correct to say that Sam Harris has justified his claim that science can in principle give us objective moral values.

However, that doesn't mean that moral values are completely subjective either. Moral systems can be inconsistent, and moral values can be effective or ineffective at achieving more profound moral goals. For those who agree that well-being is of primary concern, various moral decisions can be evaluated objectively with regard to how well they promote it.

Should we value a parent's right to corporally punish a child, or value the child's right to be spared deliberate physical pain? Well, if we wish to promote good character, then an objective decision should be possible given enough data. Unfortunately most of us make these decisions subjectively based on our own upbringing and capacity for empathy.

I suspect that Harris's true position is not that different from my own, and that perhaps our disagreement is more a matter of semantics than incompatible world views.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The conscious beneficiaries of morality

To whom do we have a moral duty? Sam Harris identifies "conscious beings" as the beneficiaries of our morality.

This is a very broad category, and perhaps Harris is correct. The momentum of history appears to be with him, in that our moral circle is ever-expanding. We first felt this duty only to our kin, then later to our nation, our race, our species.

In the present day, many are concerned with the well-being of members of other species. The future may bring yet more expansion of this moral circle, perhaps even bringing artificially intelligent constructs into the fold. 

Harris seems to include certain animals in his circle of morality, which will please animal rights advocates. On the other hand, pro-life campaigners will be disappointed that Harris seems to exclude human embryos. That some people may reasonably disagree with him calls the objectivity of his axiom into question, however this is the topic of an earlier post.

Let's assume Harris has correctly identified the correct description for moral beneficiaries. In this post, I discuss the problem of deciding objectively who fits it.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

The subjectivity of well-being

In keeping with the theme of attacking the objectivity of Harris's moral axiom, this post will address whether the concept of well-being itself has objective meaning.

I don't have a lot to say about it other than to claim that it doesn't.

The possibility of other moral systems

In my last post, I discussed some potential problems with the axiom chosen by Sam Harris as the basis of his system of morality. I showed why I believed this axiom was not sufficient to explain our intuitive sense of morality, and I explained why I believe Harris would need to show that such a simple axiom is possible in order for his argument for the objective reality of morality to hold together.

In this post, I suggest that even if we did manage to patch the problems with Harris's axiom, it would be hard to accept it as an objective basis for morality because it may contradict moral views held by various significant subsets of the human population. If Harris derives his axiom from human moral intuition, as I believe he does, then it seems problematic to claim it as objective when such differences of opinion exist.

An unimpeachable moral foundation

Sam Harris claims that a science of morality may be considered objective because if it is founded on a premise that no reasonable person could disagree with. The premise or axiom proposed by Harris is that moral good is that which tends to improve the aggregate well-being of conscious creatures, while moral evil is the converse. He maintains that this is so obviously correct that were anybody to disagree, we would not take them seriously.

I do think Harris's choice of moral axiom is a good one, and may be among the best we can come up with. However it may not be sufficient to provide a basis for all of our common moral intuitions, indicating that perhaps this axiom is not a perfect basis for morality after all. Our moral intuitions are important, because these are the only justification that Harris can offer for this axiom in the first place. There can be no other reason to suppose that it is correct. 

In this post, I intend to argue that there are grounds to disagree with this axiom.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Objective conclusions, subjective premises

Continuing the discussion of Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape, I have a problem with the notion of claiming to derive an entirely objective system of morality from an arbitrary premise, no matter how reasonable that premise may appear to be.

While I find Harris's arguments to be compelling and interesting, I feel in some ways he overstates his point, opening him to criticism and distracting from the central message.

The subtitle of The Moral Landscape is How Science Can Determine Human Values, and I think this is a problem because I'm not convinced it can. The problem is that the axiom Harris has chosen as the basis of his morality is itself a value which is not determined by science. Harris states that this axiom is uncontroversial - anyone who sought to decrease well-being for all conscious creatures would surely be considered evil by any reasonable person, whereas anyone who sought to increase universal well-being would be considered good. I agree with this point, however, the reasonableness of Harris's grounding value is not the issue, the issue is that the very title of the book claims that science can determine values, whereas his basic foundational value is not derived from anything but what reasonable people will usually agree.

In one way, I don't think this is a big problem. I agree with a lot of Harris says, and I agree with his goal to base morality in science and reason rather than appeals to a higher power. As such, the claim that moral values can be truly objective is a red herring which distracts the reader from what I feel should be the central message of the book. It may well be true that given some foundational axioms we may be able to derive a number of higher-level values as conclusions with an objectively valid chain of logical reasoning. However I feel that Harris is wrong to claim that the resulting values are then objectively true.

Perhaps How Science Can Determine Human Values Given the Assumption That We Seek To Improve the Well-Being of Conscious Creatures just wasn't as catchy? Even How Science Can Help to Determine Human Values would be more accurate.

After the jump, Harris defends his reasoning using an analogy to health and medicine.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Harris's Moral Axiom

In The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris argues for the reality of moral truths and maintains that they can in principle be discovered by science. As such, Harris is a moral realist, however he cannot base the reality of his morality on the dictates of a God in whom he does not believe. Instead, he declares that we can choose another basis for a system of objective morality.

As Harris points out, any philosophical, scientific or mathematical pursuit must start out with some basic assumptions which we hold to be self-evident. In formal systems of logic, these are usually called axioms.

All logical systems must have foundational axioms. For the familiar Euclidean geometry, it turns out we need five axioms (other forms of geometry have been discovered by altering these axioms). Arithmetic depends on a set of axioms known as the Peano axioms, without which we cannot prove that 1 + 1 = 2.

But even informally, if we wish to engage in logic at all, we must value reason and consistency just as we must reject contradictions. For the pursuit of scientific research, we must assume the axiom that beliefs should be based on evidence and not guesswork and that the behaviour of objects in the universe is not random and unpredictable but governed by a system of laws waiting to be discovered.

For any mode of reasoning, thinking or philosophy, there must be some foundational assumptions. These axioms are not derived from anything, they are simple statements which usually appear to be intuitively obvious and upon which we can base our reasoning.

After the jump, Harris attempts to found an objective system of morality upon a simple axiom.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Amoral relativism

Moral relativism is an attitude that seems to be relatively prominent in liberal circles, and it is an attitude that both Sam Harris and I find to be distasteful.

Moral relativism appears to have a few different meanings, but here I refer to the position that no particular moral system can be said to be superior to any other. Different cultures or people will have different values, and nobody can say that anyone else is right or wrong with respect to a given moral viewpoint. We ought to understand that our own values are not special and so tolerate behaviour in others (and especially in other societies) that we might privately consider to be immoral.

After the jump, why I disagree with this point of view.

The implications of religious morality

In continuing the discussion of morality, let's have a look at the claim made by many that morality has an objective existence emanating from God or gods.

As this is leading up to a discussion of the morality of Sam Harris, I think it's relevant to post a link to a video of a debate in which Harris and William Lane Craig debate the proposition that there can be no objective basis for morality without God. Many of the arguments I will touch on come up. Surprisingly, I think on balance I agree with Craig, however he makes at least one major logical blunder which I hope to address in a later post. For those of you without the time to watch the video, there is a transcript here.

The religious view of morality, held by the majority throughout history and today, is that morality was handed down from God(s), and as such it can be viewed as a type of moral realism. Good is simply that which is approved of or mandated by God. Evil is that which is prohibited. Disagreements among believers about what is moral arise only from uncertainty about the will of God.

In this view, for example, one must acknowledge that religious terrorists are motivated by morality, however mistaken they may be in their interpretation of God's will.

After the jump, some questions raised by using religion as a basis for morality.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Is there an objective basis for morality?

I've been following Sam Harris for a while and have recently read The Moral Landscape in which he attempts to answer this question. As an atheist, my own view is that there can be no objective basis to morality and so morality must be a function of culture and convention only, however Harris valiantly argues against this popular point of view in his book.

Reading Sam Harris has been illuminating - while I still don't really believe in the fundamental objectivity of morality, his arguments help to explain how one might apply science, logic and reason to compare alternative moral values and determine which are to be preferred.

Before delving into Harris's view of morality, and my own, I'll be taking a look at some alternative views of morality, starting with the basic question of whether morality has any independent existence at all.

Welcome to Disagreeable Me

Welcome to my new blog!

I've chosen this title for the blog because people who know me always complain that I'm always predisposed to disagree with any proposition put to me. I'm a contrarian who loves a good argument, even occasionally arguing against viewpoints I hold myself.

Rather than trying to get along with people a little better, I enjoy being who I am and believe that this annoying tendency to disagree is more than an irritating character quirk. For me, it is the essence of skepticism, which I think is the best approach we can take to forming rational conclusions about the world. I try to subject my own attitudes and beliefs to the same skeptical analysis as I do those of others.

Unfortunately debunking nonsense such as creationism and homeopathy is already being dealt with on a great number of other blogs and websites, so I may not have much to add on these subjects. Instead, let's get the discussion going on controversial points of view within the rational community.

As such, one theme I intend to explore in this blog is arguing against prominent atheists, philosophers and scientists who I admire and generally agree with on most topics. I intend to write posts disagreeing with such wonderful thinkers and writers as Sam Harris, Stephen Hawking and Dan Dennett.

To start with, I'm going to concentrate on disagreeing with Sam Harris's views on morality as published in The Moral Landscape. Over the next few posts, I'm going to write about my thoughts on the subject of morality, specifically whether there is any such thing as objective morality as well as the moral implications of atheism and the free will debate.

In future I'd also like to tackle topics such as the anthropic principle, whether we could in principle be living inside a simulated universe (matrix-style) and what would that mean, and how the universe could have come into existence without a creator.

Hope it provides food for thought and look forward to hearing from you!