Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Physics, chemistry and morality

A commenter (not particularly noted for his perspicacity) trots out the old theist trope: how can morality result from physics and chemistry? This is a stupid argument on a number of levels, combining an argument from incredulity, the fallacy of composition, and affirmation of the consequent.

But honestly, whatever issues there might be with a materialistic account of morality, in what way is it better to imagine, presuppose or hypothesize an invisible sky-fairy tossing out arbitrary rules to illiterate goat-herders, magically interpreted and re-interpreted to conform precisely to one's own subjective preferences, prejudices and fears, not to mention the interests of the ruling class du jour?

I mean, seriously?


  1. Socrates, Jr.6/2/09, 7:12 AM

    You seem to have a somewhat limited familiarity with how theistic philosophers actually discuss ethics. Have you read anything by Alasdair MacIntyre?

  2. Joseph Scaliger6/2/09, 7:20 AM

    It seems like somewhat bad form to dodge the question introduced by the commenter's question. After all, ridiculing his beliefs does nothing to defend your own position. Wouldn't an eloquent answer to this "old theist trope" be more informative for your readers?

  3. Junior: I have quite a bit of familiarity with how theistic philosophers discuss ethics, and yes, I have indeed read MacIntyre.

    Joseph: It's philosophy 101 stuff; ground I personally went over almost a decade ago. Depending on how it's constructed, the argument requires at least one the three fallacies noted; some constructions combine two or all three. The demonstration is left as an exercise for the reader.

  4. I don't have the time, energy or inclination to address every good question I get in comments, much less the stupid ones.

    If Junior can proffer an actual argument for some position, I am much more likely to respond substantively, at least to point out its errors and fallacies.

  5. Joseph Scaliger6/2/09, 9:08 AM

    "Junior: I have quite a bit of familiarity with how theistic philosophers discuss ethics, and yes, I have indeed read MacIntyre."

    What's your opinion of After Virtue?

  6. I read After Virtue about 7 years ago. As I recall, I was fairly impressed by MacIntyre's command of the philosophology of virtue; I was much less impressed by his own contributions and analysis, which I found bland.

  7. I know little about philosophers, theistic or otherwise. But I do know a more about the so called morals that the big three religions try and push upon us.
    Religious morality causes many to kill innocents, including family and friends. It allows a small minority of manipulative individuals to convince their following to commit these and other atrocious acts in the name of their god.
    Well you can keep it.
    I on the other hand will do the best I can to be a responsible adult committing, as far as I and most sensible people are concerned, no immoral act.

  8. Just as a curiosity, I am commenting over at Mark Shea blog (Atheists are thieves) and Junior just entered the fray. I doubt the discussion will advance since they are down to the same ol' same ol'. They love to argue by linking to the old venerable Catholic tomes. They love to bring up rapes and torture. I would love a decent argument. My skills need a lot of honing, but this gets boring.

  9. Well said. Everytime that stupid argument is trotted out it makes me cringe.

  10. tossing out arbitrary rules to illiterate goat-herders, magically interpreted and re-interpreted to conform precisely to one's own subjective preferences, prejudices and fears, not to mention the interests of the ruling class du jour?

    a) What makes them "arbitrary"? Whether you agree with them or not, they seem to hold together logically.
    b) What makes you think that the Jews were illiterate? Or that they were goat-herders?
    c) What makes you think that they were interpreted to conform to preferences or...
    d) ...to the interests of the ruling classes. Historically, it seems as if folks high and low were as often as not discomfited by these things. Their preferences seem to have been often for golden calves or other men's wives.

  11. a) arbitrary

    b) Obviously, as they have a written history, the ancient Jews were not completely illiterate. It is entirely uncontroversial, however, that all ancient people were generally illiterate.

    c) Why should I believe they weren't?

    d) Bullshit

  12. a) No, I'm serious. An arbitrary set of rules would lack coherence. The Christians seem to have developed a fairly coherent set based on a a few fundamental propositions. It is one thing to say you don't agree with them, but whether they are arbitrary or not would seem to be an objective question.

    b) I am glad to see that you do not think that all Jews were illiterate goat herders.

    c) and d) The reason I asked was that there are a number of stories and traditions in the Jewish and Christian scriptures that ran against the preferences of the people or against the interests of the ruling class, and I've always preferred to stay within the bounds of empirical evidence. Our practice of "speaking truth to power" can be traced in the history of thought back through Aquinas to the prophet Nathan upbraiding the King because he had arranged for one of his soldiers to be killed in order to snag the widow for his harem.

  13. An arbitrary set of rules would lack coherence.

    Did you look up the word in the dictionary? "arbitrary: subject to individual will or judgment without restriction; contingent solely upon one's discretion." I don't know about you, but my individual will and judgment do not lack coherence.

    You're just wasting my time. Basic familiarity with a dictionary — a skill typically mastered in grade school — is a necessary prerequisite for philosophical discussion.

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