A brood comb

….philosophical and other notes….

The Vault of Values

Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas everyone!

We have nice discussion with Matt M and Richard in the comments of the post Why Should We Care?

It is really simple issue, so let me repeat it…

Given that I have atheistic/naturalistic outlook there doesn’t seem any reason why I should prefer pleasure over pain, that I should value rational agency, value my or others’ life goals, value helping people over killing them, etc…

Richard’s Response:
Richard answered that people in fact do have certain values and interests. So given that I have ones, acting according to those is rational.

But we know that people can have all kind of values and interests. And acting rationally in relation to those values and interests might make them fly airplanes into buildings, get countries into wars, take weapon and go into rampage at school, and so on. So, pointing to me, a random atheist, with random values and interests, that I in fact have some interests and values and that it is rational for me to act according to those, isn’t much of a help. Especially if one wants to argue that people shouldn’t fly airplanes into buildings, or kill other people.

On that Richard says that we should take in account interests of other people. But that kind of answer again negates the importance of our already having some values and interests. As this is one value (of caring of other people’s interests) that people might not happen to have. So, we haven’t move in relation to the original question.

Matt’s Response:
Matt, on another side agrees that the atheism/naturalism can’t provide reasons for us caring about those things. Either you have those in you, or not. They aren’t rationally defensible. Matt, however points that this problem is not related merely to atheism, but to any other stance towards the universe. Even if there is Flying Spaghetti Monster that created us, for example, with the purpose of creating pasta, it doesn’t follow from the very act of creation with a purpose that there is a reason that we should in fact do that.

But, I think for people that are not limited to naturalism, there are still some options available. Some time ago, I gave this short argument for objectivity of morality:
1. World is a rational place. (It makes sense)
2. What is rational can be in principle understood.
3. From 1 and 2 => the world can in principle be understood.
4.Moral judgment of a rational agent in specific situation depends on agent’s understanding of the world (including the understanding of the situation) 
5. From 4 and 3 => because the world in principle can be understood, in principle there is an ideal moral judgment (or… there
is objectively right way to act, connected to the full understanding of the world)

Now, given the naturalistic/atheistic premise, the full understanding of the world of an ideal rational agent (5) can’t fully determine its moral judgment,  as it appears that some basic values are required for the moral judgment which values don’t come from the understanding of the world, but from things like natural selection. That is what me and Matt agree on, and what Richard seems to disagree on.
The issue is however if (5) is problematic in any case. But it seems to me, that a theist can hope for (5), because he thinks that the world has different ground. The ground in the naturalistic case is inanimate matter without any inherent values, in which the sentient beings appear as mere contingency. But theism can hope that the world has some identity of rationality and love within its ground. In such case it does seem that that comprehending, or getting in “contact” (so to say) with this kind of ground will be enough to give ground to moral values too, without any contingency.

Anyway, thanks for the comments on that post, and helping me to get better view on those things.


15 Responses to “The Vault of Values”

  1. Aki said

    Interesting debate going on. I will give my opinion despite the fact I am more… agnostic than atheist, but anyway my world view is definitely naturalistic.
    My main objection will be directed towards this: “Matt, on another side agrees that the atheism/naturalism can’t provide reasons for us caring about those things. Either you have those in you, or not. They aren’t rationally defensible.”
    First, it seems that picture given is black and white, and very Aristotelian (in terms of logic). I think it is obvious that you can have some of reasons for caring, and yet not all of them, Richard gave perfect example, where religious people care for members of their community and not for others. Radical manifestations of this opinion are for example terrorist attacks, while usual manifestations are in moral systems, where completely ethical is member of religious community. So world is not black and white, it is not +/- thing, and it is obvious that religion does not effect your ability to care, but you decision for who do you care.
    Since I have no idea are we debating about methodological or ontological naturalism, I will try to answer objections from both points.
    Methodological naturalism (the one that uses scientific methods for explaining supernatural) is IMHO part of most religions today. New findings in science are very often used to prove existence of god, or even more often, failures of science are used to prove existence of god. So the whole idea of article that naturalism cant be connected to religions is IMHO wrong.
    Ontological naturalism (one that holds that no supernatural being exists) is probably what this article is about, so I will give more detailed argument for it. I don’t think it is that hard to give non-religious argument for caring, and one that is at the same time naturalistic. So here it goes (fanfares in the background):

    I Argument – Why to care for myself

    1. Nature never acts against itself
    2. I am part of nature
    3. I should never act against myself

    II Argument – Why to care for others

    1. Nature never acts against itself
    2. Others are part of nature
    3. I should never act against others

    It is obvious that now atheist only need to figure out what is good for him, or what does it mean to care, and I don’t think you need god for that.
    I can already sense some objections, but reply is already too long so maybe next time…


  2. Aki said

    I forgot to wish you all Merry Christmas (and happy New Year)

  3. Hey Aki, thanks for the comment!

    I agree with almost everything from your comment up to the two arguments. Specifically you are right that I oversimplified the issue in that quote, and that it is much more complex issue than simple having or not having intuitive respect for certain value. I also agree that, at least in lot (most?) of the cases, religious people don’t base their ethical choices on religion, but that it only modifies somewhat (for better or worse) the intuitive values people already have.

    As for the issue of methodological vs. ontological naturalism, I was thinking about the second.

    So, to the problematic part :).

    Three objections:
    a) I1 (and II1 which is same), doesn’t seem true to me. But maybe I don’t understand what you mean by ‘nature’. If by nature we mean just any part of the nature, than there are cases where nature acts against itself. Specific lion acts against specific zebra when he catches it and eats it.
    b) Say that it happens so that I do harm myself or others. Would this now invalidate I1 and make ‘nature never acts against itself’ false? (This is not so of an objection, but probably more pointing that I don’t understand what is meant by I1)
    c) Even there is some meaning of ‘nature’ for which I1 is true, why would this mean that we should act in accordance with that?

  4. Aki said

    OK here we go :)
    a) To understand this I advise reading Kant’s for examples of duties, especially one about suicide. In this case nature is understood as whole. So lion eating zebra is not acting against nature, since lion is part of that nature and he is doing this to survive. Nature should be considered as a whole. I must note that IMHO this whole confusion is result of anthropocentrism (hope I spelled that correctly), but thats another topic.
    b) Man killing himself, or cutting off his own arm does not act according to nature. I never told one cannot act against nature, I just think that it is RATIONAL to act according to nature, and this is where whole good/bad distinction originated. Important thing to note is that I do not understand “nature” in psychological sense, and that I explain differences in moral values by difference in nature. It is obvious that Europeans think that walking naked is morally wrong (someone might also object this, Ernst Tugendhat thinks that this has nothing to do with morals, and I think he is terribly wrong, and I think I can easily prove it), while some African tribes consider it to be perfectly fine. I think you can understand why.
    c) Because we are that we are part of nature, it is obvious, contrary to the idea that we are created by God. You might argue against that idea, but humans are empirical beings. Once you put your fingers in flames you wont do that again (unless you are crazy or you are Moses). Now you are asking me why not, since I am just bunch of atoms I should not care what the hell happens to me. That idea is strange to me. What do you think about animals? Maybe same thing as Descartes? I think animals are best examples how moral originated. You learn the rules of nature, then you figure out by helping others to understand and practice those rules you are helping yourself. Add reason, and you just made yourself some morals. Of course this is a joke, but not far from truth.
    Hope that helps.

  5. Matt M said

    I’m not quite sure what theism adds to the situation.

    Why should we value rationality? Or goodness? Or value?

  6. Matt M said

    I think it is obvious that you can have some of reasons for caring, and yet not all of them, Richard gave perfect example, where religious people care for members of their community and not for others

    Just to make things clear: I believe that the root of value judgements are intuitive, but that reason plays a role in determining the shape of such judgements.

    That it’s better to prevent suffering than cause it in sentient beings is, as I see it, largely intuitive. The fact that I regard animals as sentient (and therefore don’t eat meat) is a rational consequence of that initial intuition.

  7. Matt,

    The idea is this…

    The question is: Given full (God-like) understanding of the world, would person a person be able to understand why he should value rationality, goodness, etc…?

    In case of naturalism I can’t see what difference any kind of new naturalistic knowledge (e.g. of fundamental physical laws, or of kinds of particles, or some changes of the details of how our brains function, the workings of evolution etc…) would make. Even in the case of God-like understanding, we wouldn’t be able to understand what should be valued. Still ,we would be dependent on there being intuitive values.

    But in the case of theism, the ground of the world is more perfect and more complex than everything. In the case of theism understanding more, wouldn’t be finding yet another contingent fact, but getting to something completely new. Given that, I can’t based on this understanding of the world I have now, pass the judgment about what would follow from the full understanding of the world.

    So, in order to save my self from hard arguments, let me just argue that I can’t see why the full understanding of the world WOULDN’T also mean understanding of the reasons why should one value rationality, pleasure over pain, etc… (Of course, it might be also that such understanding would mean that one understands that one should value irrationality and value pain over pleasure. :) )

    So, basically the difference IMHO, would be that in theism one can believe/hope that there is reason for valuing rationality, love, justice, and so on, even if one might accepts this kind of possibility only dogmatically given our epistemic limits.

    Hope this was somewhat clearer.

  8. Thanks for the explanation Aki!

    I wonder if I understood your argument. Let me try.

    From what you said in the point 3., “Once you put your fingers in flames you wont do that again (unless you are crazy or you are Moses). Now you are asking me why not, since I am just bunch of atoms I should not care what the hell happens to me. That idea is strange to me.”, it seems that you don’t intend to directly answer the question of why we should value this and that, but point that we are, in fact part of the nature which is in fact certain way, and that we are as conscious beings/animals also in fact certain way.

    Then the issues of morality need (let me avoid “should” :) ), to be considered not abstractly, but related to the origin of the phenomenon of morality in the nature, and ourselves in it.

    If this is what you are saying (and I somehow feel that it isn’t :) ), I don’t think that this kind of the “reframing the question”, really helps me as an atheist. The facts might be as they are, and even there might be facts about the phenomenon of morality, but that doesn’t really help me know why should I do something.

    That something was and is done, isn’t enough of a reason. As I agreed with Matt, even if we are created by God with intention for us to be e.g. moral creatures, that alone isn’t enough for there to be a reason why we should be moral creatures. (If I create conscious AI for the purpose of designing cars, there is no reason why that conscious AI should create cars. Given that the conscious AI gets to the same question as we, I can’t see why would it consider the facts about its origin as reasons for what it should do).

    Aki, as it is not likely that I will read anything from Kant soon, can you maybe in paragraph or too attempt to explain “Nature never acts against itself”. Just if it isn’t very problematic.

  9. Aki said

    It is hard to explain philosophy even in own language, and especially in foreign so I will try to simplify my idea. If your question is where the hell moral came from I would answer from nature, if your question is why the hell are we moral creatures I would say because we are part of that nature (so our “discovery” of moral principles would at the same time be “discovery” of our own nature – note that in this case word nature is taken in psychological sense too). If your question is how can we define word “good” I would answer only in practice towards society (society understood as group of any kind, but not as political entity) – so good man is one that benefits to society, good values are those that benefit to society. It is important to note that my idea differ from contractualism. I am too lazy to write why, but if you are interested I can…

    Interesting thing is that you mentioned robots (btw I doubt we will ever be able to produce AI simply because we have no idea about how to generate semantics, maybe our only chance is not in software-oriented development of AI but in hardware-oriented development – once again materialist in me is shouting to the world :) ). If we ever make those robots our best answer to them is that their purpose is to serve the society, this is why there were designed, to reflect our nature. In some weird sense we are robots too (or I am just feeling pressures of post-modern society). I hope this wont be misinterpreted, I am not saying that we are created or designed, but that we are programed by nature and by society, just like those robots. If I want to make this theory even more desperate I can say that in some sense we are “shaped” (physically) by nature, take for example that connections in our brain depend on how we interact with nature etc.

    To explain Kant in two paragraphs… thats radical optimism :)
    I will copy-paste first example from “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals” by Kant:
    “1. A man reduced to despair by a series of misfortunes feels wearied of life, but is still so far in possession of his reason that he can ask himself whether it would not be contrary to his duty to himself to take his own life. Now he inquires whether the maxim of his action could become a universal law of nature. His maxim is: From self-love I adopt it as a principle to shorten my life when its longer duration is likely to bring more evil than satisfaction.” It is asked then simply whether this principle founded on self-love can become a universal law of nature. Now we see at once that a systemof nature of which it should be a law to destroy life by means of the very feeling whose special nature it is to impel to the improvement of life would contradict itself and, therefore, could not exist as a system of nature; hence that maxim cannot possibly exist as a universal law of nature and, consequently, would be wholly inconsistent with the supreme principle of all duty.”

    Now… to explain Kant’s idea in couple of paragraphs… thats radical optimism.

  10. Aki said

    a double line up there. never mind. you should add “edit” option :)

  11. I’m testing a new psyedit option, where you just wish for the edit, and it happens.

  12. Aki said

    I have strange feeling it wont work for monists :))

  13. For monists it works only during Crimbo. :) I’m one of those BTW :)

    Thank you for the explanation. I feel I understand your position better now, but I don’t think it is clear enough for me to in fact agree or disagree.

    As for a conscious AI, I’m skeptical too, both of the software and of hardware type AI. That is, apart from the case where we e.g. maybe can create a brain from cultured neurons cells. I’m agnostic about that case.

  14. Matt M said

    So, basically the difference IMHO, would be that in theism one can believe/hope that there is reason for valuing rationality, love, justice, and so on, even if one might accepts this kind of possibility only dogmatically given our epistemic limits.

    Ah, I see.

    But I’m not so sure that you can make the distinction so easily: A naturalistic account doesn’t (can’t) rule out the possibility of some as-yet-undiscovered fundamental aspect of reality in which we could ground value judgements in a non-intuitive way.

    You could argue that a theist would have more reason to suspect that such an aspect exists, but they’d have to ask themselves why – in a universe created by a being who cared about us – such an important, potentially life-saving thing is so hidden away. Sure if a creator wanted us to ground value judgements in reason it’d be far easier to do so?

    Besides, I think any attempt to provide non-intuitive ways of justifying value judgements has to come up with a non-circular argument for why we should value value. Which would be tricky, to say the least.

  15. Hi Matt,

    I think this raises interesting question… What kind of discoveries are acceptable in the naturalistic account. I mean, if transcendent intelligence is discovered in reality and we find a way to communicate with it, would this be counted as ‘naturalistic phenomenon’? It seems to me that only certain kind of facts are acceptable in naturalism, and that having this limit, those facts can’t be such that they would ground value judgments.

    In fact probably we should distinguish theism and naturalism here on base of what kind of entities or phenomena they think there are. Naturalism puts some limits there, theism less so.

    I guess I’m more inclined to believe in the possibility of non-naturalistic phenomena, believing that the entities are not created bottom-up, but top-down. So, instead of patterns of behavior of configurations of parts, I believe that there are levels in reality, but each higher level not reducible to the lower one, but more actual and richer than the lower one, and the lower one grounded in this higher-level. I wonder if this kind of (Hegelian holistic) view is compatible with (ontological) naturalism. I must admit I don’t know much about where the limits of naturalism are.

    Anyway, believing in such hierarchy, I believe that phenomena on the lower level are present in higher level as integrated in one single more complex idea, and comprehending that level, makes one see the necessities of the lower level. It is that possibility, where I can believe that understanding of some such level, one will see (or intuit, but in the sense of directly intuiting a truth) how and why one should act in specific ways.

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