Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Public Displays of Atheism

I've been discussing public displays of atheism with Jean Kazez, and it's about time I've made my case in a bit more detail. Jean says some prominent atheists are presenting views that aren't appropriate for general consumption. Jean mentions two specific views: first, that atheism is incompatible with objective morality; second, that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. She says she's more confident about the first point, and that there is room for "reasonable" disagreement about the second one. I guess this means it would be unreasonable to even suggest that atheists should reject objective morality in public. That means I and a number of other atheists, including Russell Blackford, are unreasonable.

There is a whole lot of history here--not so much between me and Jean, but between her and several bloggers far more prominent than myself. I'm talking about Russell, Ophelia Benson, and Jerry Coyne, among others. There are difficult questions about who has been unfair or how we should best interpret some particular comment or other, and I'm in no position to answer them. I'm not involved in a significant sense, and that means maybe I should never have opened my mouth to begin with. But, for better or for worse, I've expressed some concerns over at Jean's blog, and she's been very willing to engage me. Now I'll do my best to continue the discussion and address the substantive issues without paying attention to any of the animosity or unfair play that's been going around.

As I said to Jean recently, I think the underlying concern is that she has a too-restrictive view of what is an acceptable public discussion of atheism. The problem isn't that she wants to silence atheists outright, or that she thinks atheism is publicly unacceptable. On the contrary, she's an atheist and she looks highly upon many strong public expressions of atheism, including some work by Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, among others. So she's not against atheism in public. She's just against atheists presenting some of the views which atheists are known to promote.

In her last comment to me, Jean says that she doesn't "owe" Jerry Coyne a new argument to support her position. That's fine. I'm in no position to say she owes anybody anything. But then she says, "Coyne never looks at the argument. He just makes fun of the conclusion." I don't think that's fair. Coyne wasn't just making fun of Jean's conclusion. He was making fun of her argument. He certainly wasn't nice about it, I admit, but I don't think he was just missing the point. More importantly, I don't think Jean has adequately addressed Coyne's underlying concern. And I happen to share that concern. So, even if Jean doesn't owe anyone a response, I think she should reconsider her argument.

Maybe Jean's right, and some common atheist positions are better left out of, say, USA Today. As true as that might be, it is a highly controversial claim and it is likely to offend a lot of atheists. It therefore stands in need of a strong argument. Jean's argument is very weak. On top of that, it is offensive. She's making an offensive argument for an offensive position, and it's getting her a lot of negative attention.

Atheists are one of the most maligned minorities in the world. We are verbally abused, misrepresented, disrespected, mistrusted, and otherwise alienated from the general public. Fortunately we have not been the target of violence the way other minority groups have been, so it is hard to complain too much. It could be much, much worse. But still, as Ophelia Benson has recently observed, the social pressure felt by atheists is significant.

Atheism--or, rather, public atheism--has a largely political dimension. It often entails political views about the role of religion in society. Public atheism is becoming more and more acceptable, and I'm optimistic that the situation will continue to improve. More and more efforts are being made at philosophical engagement, and in a wide variety of public venues. There's much room for improvement, of course. The effects are not always heartening, but at least efforts are being made. The biggest changes will come when public policies change, especially policies about education and the rights of religious institutions.

For atheists like me, there is one issue that matters most in all of this: the role of religious authority in society. I'm not saying atheists are concerned with this issue above all else. Not at all. They might be more concerned about global warming, say, or human rights violations in third-world countries. What I am saying is that, for many atheists, atheism is first and foremost about the rejection of religious authority. Public atheism is first and foremost about putting religious authority in its proper place. For us, to be a public atheist just is to deny that there is any objectively valid moral authority which religions could claim and to deny that religious authority is similar to, equal to, or in any methodological or philosophical sense compatible with scientific authority. If we cannot argue these points in public, then we cannot be public atheists in the way that is meaningful to us. If we followed Jean's advice, we would not be able to promote atheism the way we need to in order to address the relevant policy issues.

This doesn't mean Jean is wrong. It just means she's making a very strong claim which is understandably going to offend a lot of people.

I don't think Jean means to challenge our ability to make the best case for atheism. Rather, she just has different ideas about what public atheism should look like. I've noticed this before. For example, I was critical of Obama's use of religious talk in his Tuscon Memorial speech. I thought it was inappropriate. A US civil servant should not use her office to promote religion unless doing so serves a secular purpose. Jean defended Obama on the grounds that it was a time for the President to console the public as best he could, and that included religious language. I found the disagreement odd, because it just seems obvious to me that Obama was using his office to promote religion, and not for any secular purpose, and that this just isn't something he should do, even if the general public wants it. So Jean and I disagree on some issues about the role of religion in society, and I suspect this relates to her views about what is and is not an acceptable public display of atheism.

I don't claim to have gotten at anything profoundly significant about Jean's views on atheism or religion. I'm just observing that her views are her own, and that she likely does not realize how directly she is challenging some other people's views of what it means to be an atheist. I'm trying to be charitable and I'm taking her at her word that she does not think people should be appalled by her views. Because, I think if she understood how a lot of people felt about atheism, she would understand exactly why we are appalled.

Again, none of this means Jean is wrong. To see why she is wrong, we have to look at her argument. As I noted, one of Jean's concerns is that Coyne (and others) are taking offense at her conclusion without properly considering her argument. I don't think that's true. Her argument is, first, that candor is not always appropriate. That's fine. Sometimes we shouldn't be too open or honest. That's an acceptable premise. But then she goes on to argue that certain topics related to atheism are too complicated and sophisticated for the average person to grasp, and that, because they are too difficult to grasp, a public discussion of them will do more harm than good. She doesn't think any of the ideas are harmful as such. She doesn't think atheists are worse off for having these ideas. She just thinks they're likely to be misunderstood by the general population. People will think atheists are saying one thing, when we are really saying something else. In other words, either people are too stupid to understand these ideas, or atheists are too inept at presenting them. Either way, it's offensive.

Okay, even if her argument is offensive, that doesn't make it invalid or senseless. But it is offensive, and this is a point Jean doesn't seem willing to accept.

All that aside, it's a very weak argument. First, there's the fact that Jean's lines are arbitrarily drawn. USA Today is not a good place for a discussion of the science/religion issue, but The New Republic is okay? It's okay to write books about error theory for a general audience, but we can't have reviews of them in popular newspapers? Second, there's the fact that atheism itself is a subject worthy of deep philosophical exploration. Jean hasn't shown that atheism is any less philosophically complex than the issues she is worried about. In fact, as I noted above, some people think atheism entails these other complex issues. You can't understand atheism without understanding the issues about religious authority. Jean's argument is not just that these other issues are more complex, but that it will be harmful if they are misunderstood. So, it's okay if atheism is misunderstood. It's just a problem when those other issues are misunderstood. But this doesn't work, because the same harm is done in both cases.

Let's look at the example of error theory, which Jean feels most confident about. While error theorists are perfectly willing to take stands on matters of public policy, they claim that moral claims are not true. So, "It is morally wrong to torture babies" is not true, according to moral error theorists. Noncognitivists too say it is not true; they say it is not the sort of statement that could be true or false. Yet, Jean is not willing to come down against noncognitivism in public . . . yet. For anti-realists of all stripes, these issues do not in any way pose a problem for discussions of public policy. We can still be for or against things like abortion and gay marriage without contradicting our metaethical principles. Yet, Jean says, the public won't understand that. They'll think that anti-realists are really tolerant of people who like to torture babies. She says that, if a prominent atheist and error theorist like Russell Blackford were to get way famous and start presenting his views to the general public (which he already has, by the way, even if he's not way famous), then atheism will be tarnished. It would hurt atheism in general. The public will think that atheists have no moral compass.

News flash: The public already thinks atheists have no moral compass. People just don't understand these issues, but they think they do. That's the real problem: people are ignorant of their own ignorance. The public needs exposure to what atheists actually think--not in an inaccessible, academic way, but in a clear, practical and relevant way. Right now, they're mostly relying on misinformation when they criticize atheists. Jean says that, if we try to correct them, we're going to do more harm than good. But the harm she says we're going to do is just to reaffirm what they already think, which is that atheists approve of torturing babies.

She is less explicit in what harm might come from discussing the science/religion issue, but it is hard to see how it could be more harmful than or different from the harm already done by the public's misunderstanding of atheism.

Jean's argument ultimately rests on the claim that people cannot learn what many atheists want them to learn, and that, at best, our efforts at education will be fruitless. This is what Coyne seems to be bothered about. It's not just Jean's conclusion. It is her argument that is so upsetting. Atheists like me are less willing to settle for the status quo. We are far less satisfied with the public's current perceptions of atheism. Furthermore, we would rather give the public the benefit of the doubt. We are optimistic that the public can learn a whole lot more than Jean seems to think. Of course, atheists will continue to be misunderstood and misrepresented for a long time to come. But the discourse might move forward nonetheless. It certainly won't help if we stop trying.

P.S. I should mention that, regarding the point about science/religion incompatibility, Jean's view is that we should focus on limited incompatibilities, such as differing views about the age of the earth, and not on sweeping incompatibilities, such as the claim that religion and science are methodologically or fundamentally at odds. For atheists like me, this is akin to treating gunshot wounds with band-aids. Band-aids can do some good, but not nearly enough.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Why I'm a Moral Noncognitivist

Slightly modified on 24 Feb 2011.

Moral noncognitivism is the view that moral statements (e.g., "X is morally wrong" and "Y is morally obligated to Z") have no truth conditions. They do not express propositions, and therefore cannot be said to express beliefs, where beliefs are defined as propositional attitudes. All this means is that moral statements do not denote facts about the world. Phrases like "morally wrong" and "morally obligated" do not cash out in factual terms. These phrases do not predict, explain, or otherwise refer to any properties, behaviors, or laws.

When we look at the grammar, moral statements don't seem different from other sorts of expressions. We can add "I believe that" or "It is true that" at the beginning of moral claims. This might seem to count as a mark against noncognitivism, but I don't think it does.

First, to clarify, the noncognitivist does not deny that such statements make sense. The point is only that they lack factual content. In the moral idiom, the phrase "it is true" functions differently than it does in other idioms. The challenge for noncognitivism is to account for the widespread belief that moral statements do express beliefs which could be true or false.

One strategy is to claim that there are moral beliefs, but that these are not propositional attitudes, and that moral statements can be true or false, just not in a factual sense. This is a way of respecting common sense without conceding any metaethical ground. The idea is that words like "true" and "belief" have different meanings when they are used in the moral idiom. The noncognitivist still has to account for this difference.

At this point, I want to shift gears and argue that such an account is worth looking for. To do this, I will explain why I reject cognitivism. (It's often easier to reject theories than it is to argue for them.) The basic premise of cognitivism is that there are facts about the world which make moral statements true or false. Moral realists, moral relativists, and error theorists all accept this premise.

Moral relativists believe that moral facts are subjective, and that moral statements are therefore true or false relative to particular individuals or cultures. When we say "X is wrong," we are saying it is wrong according to some set of values. This view seems to be supported by the fact that different people and cultures seem to value different things and that their moral discourse reflects these differences. The problem is that, when people make moral judgments, they are not deferring to some established set of standards or values. Instead, they are promoting a standard. The difference is between saying "X is wrong" and "X is wrong according to the principles of Y." The latter statement is a report about some set of principles, and not a moral judgment about X.

Furthermore, when people say "X is wrong," they are not saying it is wrong only for themselves, or only for people who share their values. They are rather saying that X is wrong for anybody in a given situation. Moral statements apply to any properly situated person regardless of what that person happens to want. If "X is wrong" just meant "X is not permitted by our shared values," one could object that our shared values are morally suspect. For the moral statement to have moral force, we would have to add, "and we are morally obligated to respect these shared values." This reading of moral statements is absurd, since "we are morally obligated to respect our values" would have to mean "our values do not permit us to disrespect our values." We might still wonder whether we should respect our own values. In any case, is such a statement really implied by every moral statement? I don't think this is an accurate description of moral statements. So much for moral relativism.

According to error theorists and moral realists, what makes moral statements true or false is the existence of some fact which objectively defines right and wrong. The difference between them is that moral realists believe that some moral statements are true and some are false, while error theorists believe that they are all false. The moral realist seems to have the upper hand here, since it is rather bold to claim that, while moral statements could in principle be true, they all just happen to be false. Couldn't some of them just happen to be true? How could we know?

That last question is worth repeating: How could we know whether or not a moral statement was factually true or false? If there is no way of knowing, then why should we think they could be?

This suggests a bigger problem with cognitivism: There does not appear to be any sense in saying that a moral statement is factually true or false. Clearly moral statements have meaning. Noncognitivists don't deny that. What we deny is that this meaning cashes out in factual terms. Since we have no grasp of what it means for a moral statement to be factually true or false, we cannot assume that the meaning of such statements entails factual truth or falsity. Yes, we all know what we mean when we say that "X is wrong" is true or false; yet, nobody has any idea what sort of fact this could indicate. The obvious approach, I think, is to suppose that we aren't talking about facts at all.

Like the moral relativist, I think that moral statements do relate to values and norms. However, unlike the moral relativist, I don't think moral statements can be judged by appealing to values and norms. Rather, I think they are constructive, creative acts which help produce norms. When we say they are true or false, we are promoting or voting for a norm. Votes make sense, but there is no sense in saying they are true or false.

Moral realists appeal to some natural (or supernatural) fact which is supposed to make moral statements right or wrong. They ask us to suppose that there is some natural (or supernatural) phenomenon rightly called "the good" which all moral statements are about. A moral statement is true or false depending on whether or not it properly denotes the good. But what makes the good good? Is it good because people value it? Or do people value it because it is good?

If it is good just because people value it, then we cannot tell people they should value it. So, if somebody disagreed with us about what was good, we would have no basis for saying they were morally wrong.

If people value it because it is good, however, then we have to wonder what makes it good. It must be good independently of any values. But this doesn't make sense. The term "good" is an evaluation--it is based on values. The idea of "good in itself" is incoherent. This goes for talk about God as well as talk about neurological states which could somehow ground our moral discourse. What makes a particular neurological state good? It cannot be good in itself.

Some error theorists recognize that the search for a ground of the good is hopeless in principle. They conclude that all moral statements are false. What they have not realized is that, if there is nothing in principle which could make moral statements factually true, then there is nothing which could make them false. They have no truth conditions.

The door to moral noncognitivism is wide open. Moral statements are meaningful, but not factual. They don't cash out in non-moral terms. They are normative, creative acts in which we produce standards of human dignity. There isn't a factually correct answer to the question of whether or not a person deserves their dignity, but we want dignity all the same.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Ryle on Medicine and Psychology

Here's a nice quote which is relevant to some recent discussions on health and morality:

Much as 'Medicine' is the name of a somewhat arbitrary consortium of more or less loosely connected inquiries and techniques, a consortium which neither has, nor needs, a logically trim statement of programme, so 'psychology' can quite conveniently be used to denote a partly fortuitous federation of inquiries and techniques.

--Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind, 1949, p. 323

Ryle on Science and Descartes

I once again find myself having to defend Ryle against confused interpretations of his work. In this instance, the false allegations are that Ryle hated science, that Ryle didn't understand science, and that Ryle denied that human behavior has internal causes. These claims were made during a discussion at PhilPapers by Jonathan C. W. Edwards (Jo, as he prefers to be called), who apparently is a retired university faculty member in the field of biomedical sciences, and who is now a graduate student in philosophy. Jo started the discussion to talk about Descartes' attitude towards science and physicalism. One of Jo's more bizarre claims is that Descartes' mind/body distinction is a scientific and metaphysical precursor to the contemporary boson-fermion distinction in particle physics. I challenged him directly on that point, but I won't go into the details here. I'm more interested in defending Ryle.

Jo is interested in Ryle primarily because of Ryle's well-known objection to what he calls "Descartes' Myth": the notion that human bodies are controlled by some kind of "ghost in the machine" (Ryle, The Concept Of Mind, 1949, Chapter 1). This "double life legend" has it that the lives of our bodies are paralleled or complemented by an inner life--the life of our minds--and that this inner life has unique causal properties all its own. The mind is not "in space" the way our bodies are in space. It does not move about according to the laws of motion. On the contrary, it acts according to some other laws or principles.

Ryle argues that this approach to understanding the mind and human behavior is a mistake. However, he does not thereby argue that minds actually do act according to the laws of physics or any other science. Rather, he says that minds aren't the sort of thing that can be said to act at all. Ryle replaces the double-life legend with a different view of the mind: the mind is not a special place or sort of thing with causal properties at all. Minds don't exist in that sense. Rather, the language we use to attribute and talk about minds has a different logic--it circulates as a different sort of currency. Minds are better thought of as complex sets of dispositions exhibited by complex organisms, says Ryle, and not as things or systems, or even processes, which act in the world.

Ryle is a physicalist. He does not suppose that human dispositions entail some non-physical components. Everything that happens is governed by the laws of physics, he says, and he accepts the possibility of discovering all of the physical causes of human behavior. He certainly wouldn't deny that brains (or any other internal organs) are of the utmost significance on that front. Yet, he argues that once we start talking about persons--once we adopt the mental idiom, attributing intelligence, decisions, judgments, and thoughts, for example--we are no longer in the sphere of physics, chemistry, or physiology.

Ryle makes the point repeatedly. For example, on page 78, he writes: "there is no contradiction in saying that one and the same process . . . is in accordance with two principles of completely different types and such that neither is 'reducible' to the other, though one of them presupposes the other." The logic of psychological explanations is not reducible to the logic of physical explanations, even though the subject matter--human behavior--is subject to both types of account, and even though a psychological account presupposes a physical one. No aspects of human behavior are outside the province of physics; yet, the logic of psychological explanations is not reducible to the logic of physics. The terms we employ in psychological accounts cannot simply be absorbed by physics. If we were to describe human behavior in the language of physics, we would not find any terms which would be equivalent to "mind" or "thought." We'd rather just have found a way around those concepts. So, for example, questions like "What are the physical, chemical, or physiological properties of a decision?" are nonsensical, the result of a category error, and are likely to mislead our attempts to understand human behavior.

Jo's initial objection to Ryle was this: Ryle says that Descartes claims that bodies and not minds exist "in space," whereas Descartes does not suppose that anything, not even bodies, exist "in space." The point is that Descartes denied that there was empty space which was just lying around waiting for stuff to move about in it. Yet, Descartes does have bodies "occupying space," and he differentiates minds and bodies on that basis. For Descartes, bodies are by definition extended, which means they occupy space; minds are not extended, but are "thinking things." The notion of spatial extension is fundamental to Descartes' mind/body distinction. So, while Jo might have a point that the phrase "in space" can potentially cause confusion in a discussion of Descartes' physics, this does not count as a substantive point against Ryle. Ryle is critiquing Descartes' mind/body distinction, and that critique does not depend on his using the phrase "in space" instead of "occupying space."

To defend Descartes against Ryle, we need to look closer at what Ryle says. Jo unfortunately hasn't come through on his end of the discussion. He instead seems bent on dismissing Ryle as an anti-scientific incompetent. Jo tried to use Ryle's non-reducibility argument (from page 78, mentioned above) as evidence that Ryle denies that science can account for human behavior. That is just absurd. Then, to support his claim that Ryle hated science, Jo relies heavily on a piece by Dennett from the 1970s in which Dennett states (without any argumentative or textual support) that Ryle had an anti-scientific bias. I don't see a good reason to give Dennett the benefit of the doubt here, since he is in direct conflict with what Ryle says on the subject. (We should not appeal to the fact that Dennett was one of Ryle's students. Even very intelligent students can misunderstand their teachers some of the time, and Dennett is on record as being confounded by Ryle's indirect teaching methods.) Furthermore, after I explained that Ryle's argument was about the difference between mental and physical idioms, and not about the causes of human behavior, Jo claimed I was making Ryle out to be more complex and sophisticated than he really is. Jo says that if I'm right, then Ryle does not clearly state the purpose of The Concept of Mind. Yet, I don't think Ryle could have been clearer. He explicitly and repeatedly states that he is talking about idioms, that he is concerned with the logic of the language we use to talk about human behavior.

Perhaps I shouldn't be so concerned when Ryle gets this kind of treatment from a grad student. The problem is that it also happens by professionals in published papers. There is still work to be done towards recovering Ryle's insights and arguments.